The first thought that crossed my mind, reading about the embarrassing leak of emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia--a leak that revealed their efforts to suppress inconvenient or complicating data and discredit anyone who questioned their data or results--was that they must not have gotten the memo about discretion in email writing. The one about never putting anything in an email that you don't want to see on a Times Square billboard.
But beyond that, the incident raises some interesting questions about the impact of divisive political debate on its participants--even those tasked with getting us the data that's supposed to lie at the calm center, or eye, of whatever storms are swirling around it.
Climate scientists have faced a more complicated challenge than many of their fellow scientists, from the get-go. Discover a new quasar, and everyone says "cool!" Discover something changing on our own planet ... especially something that appears to be caused or heightened by human activity, and you're likely to find yourself--and your data--in the middle of a political firestorm.
In the 1990s, I wrote a book on what we'd learned about the universe and Earth from NASA's scientific satellites. And in the course of my research, scientist after scientist in the "Earth Science" field, as NASA was then calling it, told of feeling like a political football, with pressures, abrupt budget boosts and cuts, and accusations of incorrect data and conclusions coming at them from both sides of the political spectrum.
"In a sense," I wrote, "support for funding any NASA project is affected by national priorities. But the Earth Science research results themselves were more likely to be used as a basis for regulation or legislation than space science results and therefore, as the scientists relate, were more often attacked by both sides of any related policy debate, particularly with regard to environmental issues. This link to legislation or regulation gave Earth Science projects an additional element of complexity that Space Science project typically did not have."
Frustration among the researchers was growing, even in the mid-1990s. And in recent years, incidents like the highly publicized attempts by a young political appointee to censor the work and public comments of Jim Hansen, NASA's chief climate scientist, have only aggravated that situation.
At the time, Hansen argued that it was essential for him to be able to speak freely and publicly about his research because, as a New York Times article quoted him as saying, "public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic."
None of which excuses the behavior--the massaging or limiting access to data, or nasty attempts to dismiss or discredit anyone who questioned that data--that the East Anglia emails revealed. Not only did the scientists lose sight of what was supposed to be their highest calling--a search not for data to support any given conclusion, but a search for the truth, whatever it might be--they also did grievous damage to the very cause they were trying to defend. Now all the scientific data is likely to have less credibility in the public sphere--especially among moderate skeptics--and it will be even more difficult for scientists to have their words believed, or to regain that lost stature and trust.
But in a column in the Science Times earlier this week, John Tierney characterized the roots of the scientists' behavior as "smug groupthink." Maybe. But I can't help but wonder if the roots might lie not in smugness, but in an embattled bunker mentality developed over too many years of attacks on their data and its import.
In an earlier piece on this site, I wrote about the tendency of people to hold tight to opinions even in the face of contradictory evidence--a phenomenon known as "motivated reasoning." And perhaps there was a bit of that going on, as well. But I also know--both from observation and through personal experience--that humans who feel cornered or overly embattled become almost irrationally defensive. Wild animals do, too, I suppose, so that shouldn't surprise anybody.
But if someone is pushed by an opponent to a point where they feel as if a concession on a single point will create an "aha!" breach in the fortress wall that will lead almost immediately to the annihilation of their whole argument--legitimately or through misrepresentation, oversimplification or sheer volume--they're likely to rigidly deny any critique, question, or possibility of ambiguity, even if it's reasonable. Consider, for example, the rigid lines held by both sides of the abortion debate about where, exactly, "life" begins.
Perhaps later, in a less contentious environment, individuals might acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties of whatever issue is at stake. But not while under attack--or, unfortunately, while trying to advocate for action or policy change. Forceful advocacy, after all, is much tougher to accomplish--especially in a sound bite world--if you acknowledge complexity.
Some people, of course, aren't all that concerned about complexity or truth, as long as they get what they want. But it's also true that the more entrenched one side gets, the less likely it is that anyone on the other side will concede even legitimate points of complexity or middle ground. And the less likely it is that any real progress will be made toward understanding, truth, or a reasonable solution.
Perhaps the scientists had become so attached to their models and conclusions that being unquestionably and completely right trumped their interest in delving deeper into the mysteries of the planet. It happens, sometimes. But it's also possible that if they'd felt they had a safer, saner middle ground in which to hold considered, open discussion on a complex issue, more honest...and more productive...results would have ensued.
As it’s moved beyond the George R.R. Martin novels, the series has evolved both for better and for worse.
Well, that was more like it. Sunday night’s Game of Thrones finale, “The Winds of Winter,” was the best episode of the season—the best, perhaps, in a few seasons. It was packed full of major developments—bye, bye, Baelor; hello, Dany’s fleet—but still found the time for some quieter moments, such as Tyrion’s touching acceptance of the role of Hand of the Queen. I was out of town last week and thus unable to take my usual seat at our Game of Thrones roundtable. But I did have some closing thoughts about what the episode—and season six in general—told us about how the show has evolved.
Last season, viewers got a limited taste—principally in the storylines in the North—of how the show would be different once showrunners Benioff and Weiss ran out of material from George R.R. Martin’s novels and had to set out on their own. But it was this season in which that exception truly became the norm. Though Martin long ago supplied Benioff and Weiss with a general narrative blueprint of the major arcs of the story, they can no longer rely on the books scene by scene. Game of Thrones is truly their show now. And thanks to changes in pacing, character development, and plot streamlining, it’s also a markedly different show from the one we watched in seasons one through four—for the worse and, to some degree, for the better.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
Readers share their own experiences in an ongoing series.
Prompted by Emma Green’s note on the Supreme Court case Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, for which a group of lawyers filed a document openly describing their abortions, readers share their own stories in an ongoing collection edited by Chris Bodenner. We are posting a wide range of experiences—from pro-choice and pro-life readers, women and men alike—so if you have an experience not represented so far, please send us a note: email@example.com.
The star Daily Show correspondent is moving on to make her own scripted comedy, and her gain is the show’s huge loss.
When Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show last year, many fans lobbied for Jessica Williams to replace him, pushing one of the show’s standout performers into a limelight she deemed herself not quite ready for. “Thank you, but I am extremely under-qualified for the job!” Williams tweeted. Comedy Central eventually picked Trevor Noah for the gig, and in the following months, Williams’s star has only risen higher. It’s no huge surprise, then, that on Wednesday she told Entertainment Weekly she was moving on from The Daily Show to develop her own scripted series for Comedy Central. It’s great news for Williams, but a huge loss for the show she’s leaving behind.
The discussion over Williams becoming The Daily Show host in 2015 turned into a minor political maelstrom. Williams publicly pushed back against the idea that she had “impostor syndrome,” as suggested by one writer, for calling herself “under-qualified” and pointing to her young age (25 at the time) as a reason for her disinterest in the position. Indeed, there are a thousand reasons to not want the daily grind of a TV hosting gig, and the heightened scrutiny and criticism Noah has received in his year on the job is among them. But as Williams’s popularity and talents have grown, and as The Daily Show has struggled to retain its critical cachet after Stewart’s departure, it’s been hard not to mourn a different outcome in which Williams took the host job and steered the series in a fresher, more relevant direction.
People in Great Britain felt their leaders weren’t treating them fairly. Politicians in the U.S. should take note.
Britain’s Brexit vote has shocked the political elites of both the U.S. and Europe. The vote wasn’t just about the EU; in fact, polls before the referendum consistently showed that Europe wasn’t top on voters’ lists of concerns. But on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, large numbers of people feel that the fundamental contracts of capitalism and democracy have been broken. In a capitalist economy, citizens tolerate rich people if they share in the wealth, and in a democracy, they give their consent to be governed if those governing do so in their interest. The Brexit vote was an opportunity for people to tell elites that both promises have been broken. The most effective line of the Leave campaign was “take back control.” It is also Donald Trump’s line.
Questions about the presumptive Republican nominee dominated a press conference of North America’s top leaders, culminating in a rant by President Obama.
NEWS BRIEF Wednesday’s energy summit in Ottawa began awkwardly enough when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rather clumsily tried to finagle a three-way handshake with United States President Barack Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. It only got more awkward when reporters began peppering the North American leaders with questions about Donald Trump.
All three men have harshly criticized the presumptive Republican nominee over the last several months in their home countries. Peña Nieto has compared him to Hitler and Mussolini, Trudeau has said he practices the politics of fear and division, and Obama has denounced his rhetoric on immigration, national security, and just about everything else over the course of the presidential campaign.
Their degrees may help them secure entry-level jobs, but to advance in their careers, they’ll need much more than technical skills.
American undergraduates are flocking to business programs, and finding plenty of entry-level opportunities. But when businesses go hunting for CEOs or managers, “they will say, a couple of decades out, that I’m looking for a liberal arts grad,” said Judy Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program.
That presents a growing challenge to colleges and universities. Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt, and contribute as citizens—and to build successful careers. And it’s why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need—a rigorous liberal-arts education.
As explained back in item #18 of this series, I’m using “the Resistance” and “Vichy Republicans” as useful shorthands for, respectively, the GOP figures who are fighting the hostile takeover of their territory, versus those who have acquiesced to a conquering force — which no doubt they’ll criticize once someone else has dealt with it. (And to make this clear every time, of course the analogy does not extend to likening this era’s conqueror, Donald Trump, to the historically unique Hitler.)
A psychology professor sketches a debate that captivates many in his field.
Asked what propositions are worthy of wider debate, Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, wondered how humans arrive at their personalities.
I am a personality and life-span developmental psychologist. Thus, my main activities are teaching, writing, and research. In my field, there are many ideas that are widely and vigorously debated. But it is not clear to me that the public at large is aware of these debates. Actually, “debate” is not quite the right word, because it suggests two diametrically opposed sides who take each other on. A better way to characterize it would be “conversations” among psychological scientists of different persuasions and inclinations, all of whom study the phenomenon of human personality. We may think of personality as the distinctive set of psychological characteristics that distinguish one person from the next. The back-and-forth among psychologists regarding the nature of human personality draws mainly from scientific research and theory, but it is also informed by ideology, culture, and personal experience.
A central question in the field of personality psychology today is this: To what extent is our personality given to us, and to what extent do we make it ourselves?
This is not the same thing as the old “nature versus nurture” debate. It is not so much about genes and environments as it is about the role of human will in the formation of personality. It seems pretty clear that certain foundational features of human personality – such as our basic dispositional traits – feel as if they are given to us. For example, as people move through life, from one situation to the next, they do not typically choose to be, say, “extraverted” or “anxious” or “especially kind and considerate.” “This is just how I am,” an especially extraverted person might say, regarding her tendency to be outgoing and socially dominant. “I can’t help it, I am just a very nervous person,” an individual with high levels of the trait neuroticism might conclude.
People tend to feel that their dispositional traits are given to them – by genes, past experiences, luck, whatever. (And research supports the claim.)
At the same time, there are other features of human personality that feel chosen or made, such as one’s life goals and values and, especially, the story that a person has constructed about life. Life stories – or what psychologists call narrative identities – are a very hot topic today in the psychological sciences.
A person’s life story is an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that reconstructs the past and imagines the future in such a way as to provide life with some sense of meaning and purpose. The story provides a subjective account, told to others and to the self, of how I came to be the person I am becoming. With respect to human personality, people’s stories about their lives (their narrative identities) layer over their dispositional traits. To understand a person well, even if that person is the self, one must understand the basic traits that inform everyday social behavior and the inner story that gives meaning to the person’s life.
The traits are given, it seems; but the stories seem to be made. Human beings, therefore, are simultaneously social actors whose behavior is shaped by given traits and autobiographical authors who make meaning out of their lives through narratives.