Archive for January 2012

Over There

January 30, 2012

While I have so recently been reminded by our friends in the 101st Chairborne that I’m some arugula-chomping, word-chopping, bubble-bound faux-American, it happens that even folks from my particular corner of Alinskystan talk to people whose daily life is as real as it gets.

Which is to say that one of my friends most often in my thoughts is an infantryman to the bone, decades in uniform, absolutely dedicated to the idea of service and his men.  He’s an enlisted man, on his third tour in the Iraq/Afghanistan long war — and you can take this to the bank:  if you or your child had to hump up some hill where folks sought to do him ill, you’d want my friend there too.  He’s one of nature’s sergeants, I’m trying to say, the kind of guy who knows what he’s doing to some very deep level, and takes the use of that knowledge as an obligation he owes anyone under gaze.

In December, I wrote him a quick note — just a “happy holidays – hope you’re OK” kind of thing.  When I got his reply, I asked for permission to post it here — which I’ve just received.

My friend speaks for himself. I’m not going to gloss it further except to say this:  I’m past tolerating being told by comfortable American Exceptionalists about the necessity of the next war, or the war after that.  My friend and his friends carry the load for all such  Dulce et Decorum posturing.

So.  Notes from Over There:

I am still in Afghanistan in [Deleted] province at an altitude of [Deleted] feet. We have no heat in our bee huts (plywood shacks that sleep six), the temperature at night is in the low teens. They tell us they are working on getting a heater.

It is a tough tour.  We lost six men to an IED three days before Christmas, [not his unit] we worked closely together and I knew them well. We have lost twenty Americans since I arrived. Today I was on an air mission we flew high into the mountains in a heavily Taliban controlled area, luckily we had no trouble. War is a strange thing, going out on missions almost everyday and not knowing if it will be your last day on earth.

We work with the provincial governors and sub governors to build roads, bridges, schools, and give out humanitarian aid, but the leaders steal most of the money and little gets down to the people. I am out in the boonies, we fire artillery all day and night and they rocket us. Soldiersare killed and wounded almost weekly, the call goes out over the loud speaker all this type or that type of blood report to the aid station. I have carried wounded on to helicopters in the field and carried others off the helicopters back at base. It always makes my eyes water and heart hurt to see their broken bodies. It is surreal. I will finish my tour in [Deleted], I had a short leave home in [Deleted]. It is interesting; we raid villages at night and capture terrorist responsible for the bombings, we caught the ones who killed the Polish the night before last.

I am fine. I am an old soldier, and still tough, I plan missions and lead them and so far, thank God, I have not lost one of my men. The fighting in Ramadi Iraq was more bloody, but this place is no joke either. I will never understand why nations go to war, I know the politics, countries do bad things, but it is so ugly. I now have a collection of faces of men that I knew who have been killed in action that live in my head. I am sorry to write like this but I guess I was feeling philosophical.

I hope you join me in sending every good wish and hope to my friend.  That is all.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Old Soldier, undated — first half of the seventeenth century.

The Evil That Men Do

January 28, 2012

Charles Murray is pimping a new book, alas. TBogg and Roy have already taken a couple of whacks at the most risible bits of his latest attempt to promote the natural order of things.

It’s hard to see this one making much of a splash, outside the usual quarters.  In it, Murray looks specifically at pale America, and he argues that white folks here divide along class lines. That’s a phenomenon he sees separating the effete, smart, rich folks living in enclaves unclear on the concept of real Amerigeist (See! Ha! You knew I was one of those, didn’t you!), and the Nascar loving, not-so-smart, Applebee eating (truly — see the two posts linked above), meth sucking (I made that up) folks who don’t have passports that let them into Prospect Park or SoMa.

Leaving aside that David Brooks already botched this one, albeit in more facile prose, Murray’s key move is to declare that whatever else may construct class in America, it ain’t income, or more precisely, income inequality.

Which is of course what this always outcome-oriented writer needs to say.

His public-intellectual career, vapid though it may seem anywhere actual rigor is demanded,* turns on finding some kind of essentialist reason to preserve current social hierarchies and racial privilege. Here, abandoning a genetic tack, he can be seen to perform one of David Brooks patented’ double backflips, to land on what he claims are deeply rooted differences in culture.

The cleverness there is that such arguments evoke the kinds of responses most likely to be palatable to his and our overlords.  Or, in the words of one reviewer — a more famous man than Murray, yet equally certain of assumptions not in evidence — the authoritative prescription for the Republic runs like this:

What the country needs is not an even larger federal government but a kind of civic Great Awakening–a return to the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.

That’s from Niall Ferguson, whose review captures the bad faith that runs through Murray’s enterprise — really, one of the original that runs through the whole right-wing culturedammerung.Usefully, Ferguson’s gloss on Murray’s prose strips it down to the essential poverty of its argument.

That is: it may gratify our Galtian masters to be told that just a bit more church and keeping one’s privates in their proper place is all that is needed to render the US governable by the governing class.  But no one committed to actually studying society as it lives on the ground of contemporary America could argue that “community” for example is simply a unitary value to be trotted out at as needed.  The word is as vulnerable as are the real people involved to such realities as 8+% unemployment, gutted town and school budgets and so on — the actual material framework of community in which families, you know, live.  I’ll grant you lots of factors at play, but cash is definitely a huge one, despite Ferguson’s ritual endorsement of Murray’s claim:

Murray is dismissive of the standard liberal prescription of higher taxes on the rich and higher spending on the poor.

Sorry, folks.  It’s simply hard to construct community when you can’t keep street lights on.**

Yet more egregiously, see what’s missing in Ferguson’s deft opposition:  the middle class, for whom as much as for the poor it kind of matters to be able to drive to work on streets without sinkholes, depend on cops on the beat, find a book or two in the library and so on.

More deeply, if I took Ferguson seriously as a public writer at this point in the diminishment of his intellectual career (as opposed to the upper-middle-brow blockblusterer role he’s embraced with equal gusto and skill), I’d go into a bit more detail about the shocking ahistoricity on display.

Just to give the merest hint of what’s missing — only one, small example out of a universe of them — a historian actually interested in the practice of the craft might stop to think about what happens to community when the average radius of daily travel changes by orders of magnitude in the time lapsed from when John Adams strode his Quincy farm.  Or what the change in the cost and capacity of medicine to intervene in illness and dying from that day to this might do to the way families act, or how we parse the roles of government vs. individual autonomy and responsibility.

To restate the point my father spent a professional life thinking about:  it’s not just what is said that matters, the bare words someone might utter about liberty, for example, or about the exceptionalism of the American experiment.   The “when” is key, the particular context of thought and historical moment.  You have to ask to what other ideas, emotions, social facts those words speak each time you hear them.  The concept of American exceptionalism in 1783 had a specific sharp tang: George Washington was to be our President, not our king.

Now?  The meaning and feeling of that same language has shifted enormously.

And so it is with Murray’s and Ferguson’s constructed nostalgia.  I’ve learned not to psychoanalyze at a distance, so I won’t speculate on what it is about the pleasures of contrarianism that seems not just to capture clever young folks like Ferguson (and his Oxford undergraduate friend, Andrew Sullivan) — but to freeze them for a very long time.  As John Rogers pointed out long ago, some escape such youthful folly, and some don’t.

But none of this is what truly gets my goat here.  Rather,  it’s this:

Quite unjustly, that book [The Bell Curve] was anathematized as “racist” because it pointed out that, on average, African-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans.

I understand  on a technical level why Ferguson might feel compelled to write this.  The Bell Curve is Murray’s claim to authority as an observer of America.  If it falls, the residue of Murray’s intellectual capital evaporates as well.  Unfortunately, The Bell Curve is one of the most thoroughly eviscerated books in recent memory. (See Cosma Shalizi’s take down of the whole race-IQ-outcomes for just one, very sharp example.)

In that context, Ferguson does what he has to do in quite cleverly sliding by what Murray and his co-author Richard J. Herrnstein were actually on about.  The root claim in their book wasn’t a statement about the raw results of certain tests; rather, it was what such scores mean — their claim that the numbers they selected revealed something both real and relevant to social outcomes.

This is what anathematized the book.  Not that it said that African-Americans scored as they did on a particular test, but that it claimed, in the teeth of much evidence, that such data captures an essential quality of African-American mental capacity that has real world consequences.  There are facts and there are interpretations, and while there were problems with both in the Murray/Herrnstein account, this assertion of meaning was what mattered.

Which meas that you don’t have to go to all the finer grained methodological critique of Murray and Herrnstein — their use of what are essentially achievement tests as proxies for IQ tests, for just one of many available examples — to see how Ferguson is playing an old trick here.  If you can’t deal with the argument your antagonists actually made, then…What the hell! Run up a straw man, something the other guys didn’t say…and put both boots in.

The hollowness thus implied would be sad — tragic, really — if what Ferguson actually wrote weren’t so bloody corrosive. It’s 2012, goddamn it.  Someday soon — as in many yesterdays ago — we’ve got to get past these quasi-scientific glosses on what is the same damn justification slave-owners offered for holding some people as property: that those slaves were in irreducibly essential ways less than their white masters.

Ferguson here sets that day back once more.

For shame.

*I.e., not The Daily Dish

**Old story, I know, but still a good one.

Images:  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Two Acrobats, 1932-33.

Titian, Charles V With Dog, 1532-33.

January 25, 2012

A bit more self-aggrandizement, for which I apologize, but I thought (hoped) y’all might want to know about the conversation I’m going to have with Alan Lightman this afternoon.

It will be on the occasion of the publication (yesterday!) of Alan’s latest book, Mr. g: A Novel About The Creation.  This is my monthly Virtually Speaking Science web/Second-Life cast, and you can listen hereHere’s where to go in Second Life for a “live audience” view.

Alan, as many of you know, is both a theoretical physicist and an essayist and novelist of great accomplishment.  He’s best known for his marvelous fiction-of-ideas, Einstein’s Dreams, but I’d also point you to his non-fiction, especially his recent, The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science, Including the Original Papers.  That’s a work of both great depth and great fun, even if I’ve argued with Alan about his omission of Wegener’s continental drift paper.

But back to the matter at hand:  Mr. g is a novel in the spirit of Einstein’s Dreams, deeply engaged in ideas, specifically, (at least as I read it), what is the maximum amount of God you can get in a universe that obeys the physical laws we now recognize.  To tackle this there are familiar figures:  Mr. g himself, and his questioner (the interlocutor from Job, much more than the fallen angel of Paradise Lost).  And there are some not-so usual folks, specifically Mr. g’s uncle and aunt.  And then there is, after a bit, space and time, universes and the Universe, and an account of what feels to me to be the tragic nature of any possible conception of a deity.

We’ll be talking about that, about what makes a work a novel, about the science-religion argument as it plays out in popular culture, and maybe even about what it takes to convey something of scientific lives and thinking to broad audiences, all in more or less an hour.  If you’re interested, come on down (or download the podcast once it becomes available–within hours or the day).

Image: Michealangelo, The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, c. 1511.  Inevitable — a cliché, I know.  But what are you going to do?

Well Yes. Nancy Pelosi Is Indeed The Bees Knees…

January 17, 2012

…for being able to uncork lines like these:

“This crowd that they have there, it’s not exactly what you would call the first string of the Republican Party,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said during an interview hosted by Politico. “I think that they can do better than that.” (h/t GOS)

Testify!

The once and future Speaker called the current field the “third tier,” which sounds about right, if perhaps a little generous.  (I’m not sure they make it past low-A ball, myself, and for some, the ceiling might be the Cape Cod League.)

But what I really like is the way she can speak instantly recognizable truth whose sharp edges do or should twirl the intestines of our GOPster friends like spaghetti on Pavarotti’s tines:

“If the far right thought that Romney could win, they might be more enthusiastic about him,” she said. “But they question what he stands for, and they don’t think he’s going to win, so what’s the sell?”

Heh.

I do love me some fine Nancy Smash.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, Baseball Players Practicing, 1875.

The Uses of the Past: Science/Science Writing Talk

January 17, 2012

I’ve always found that the best way to tackle a complicated story – in science or anything else, for that matter – is to think historically.  But even if I’m right in seeing a historical approach as an essential tool for writers, that’s not obviously true, however well (or not) it may work for me.  Science news is or ought to be new; science itself, some argue, is devoted to the task of relentlessly replacing older, less complete, sometimes simply wrong results with present-tense, more comprehensive, and right (or right-er) findings.

Thinking about this, I put together a panel on the Uses of the Past that was held at last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.  The panelists – Deborah Blum, Jo Marchant, Reto Schneider and Holly Tucker led a  discussion that was lively and very supportive of the history-is-useful position (not to mention valuable in itself).  But the conversation was far from complete.

So we’re going to do it again, this time at Science Online 2012. (You can follow all the fun by tracking what will be in a few days a tsunami on Twitter, tagged as #scio12).  This is an “unconference,” which means that I and my co-moderator, Eric Michael Johnson, will each present what amounts to a prompt – really a goad – for the audience/participants to run away with.  As Eric and I have discussed this session, one thing has stood out:  where I’ve thought of the term “uses of the past” as a challenge to writers about science for the public, an opening into approaches that will make their work better, Eric has been thinking about the importance of historical thinking to the practice of science itself – what working scientists could gain from deeper engagement not just with the anecdotes of history, but with a historian’s habits of mind.  So just to get everyone’s juices flowing, Eric and I thought we’d try to exchange some views.  Think of this as a bloggy approach to that old form, the epistolary novel, in which we try to think about the ways in which engagement with the past may matter across fields right on the leading edge of the here and now.

So.  Here goes…

____________________________________________________________

Dear Eric,

I have to confess; I’ve never needed convincing about history; I’m a historian’s son, and all my writing, just about, has had a grounding in the search for where ideas and events come from.

But all the same, it’s simply a fact that the professional scientific literature from which so many stories for the public derive seems, on first glance, to be as present-tense as it is possible to be.   As I write this, I’m looking at the table of contents of <a href=”http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6064.toc”>my latest (January 6) digital issue of <em>Science</em></a>. In the “Reports” section – where current findings are deployed — there is nothing but the now and the near future under discussion.  Just to pull up a few of pieces at whim:  we can learn of the fabrication of wires on the nano-scale that obey Ohm’s law (an accomplishment its makers claim will support advances in both classical and quantum computing to come).  We can read of a new measurement of the ratio of isotopes of tungsten (performed by some of my MIT colleagues in concert with researchers at the University of Colorado) that suggests (at least as a preliminary conclusion) that the terranes that make up the earth’s continents have remained resistant to destruction over most of the earth’s history. And then there is a report from researchers into that living genetics/evolution textbook, <em>C. elegans</em>, that adds yet one more telling detail within a broader understanding of the intertwined behavior of genetic and environmental processes.

All of these – and all the rest of what you can find in this issue of that journal, and so many others – tell you today’s news.  Each of these could form the subject of a perfectly fine popular story.  Yet none of these do or necessarily would as popular stories engage the history that lies behind the results.

That is: you could tell a story of a small step taken towards the goal of building a useful quantum computer without diving into either the nineteenth century’s investigation into the properties of electrical phenomena or the twentieth century’s discovery of the critical role of scale on the nature of physical law.  You can talk about the stability of continents without recognizing the significance of that research in the context of the discovery of the intensely dynamic behavior of the earth’s surface.  You certainly may write about mutation rates and stress without diving into that old fracas, the nature-nurture argument that goes back to Darwin’s day and before.  This is just as true for the researcher as the writer, of course.  Either may choose to ignore the past without impairing their ability to perform the immediate task at hand:  the next measurement, the next story.

You could, that is, but, at least In My Humble Opinion, you shouldn’t.  From the point of view of this science writer, history of science isn’t a luxury or an easy source of ledes; rather, it is essential for both the making of a better (competent) science writer, and in the production of science writing that communicates the fullest, most useful, and most persuasive account of our subject to the broad audiences we seek to engage.

In briefest form, I argue (and teach my students) that diving into the history of the science one cover trains the writer’s nose, her or his ability to discern when a result actually implies a story (two quite different things). It refines a crucial writer’s tool, the reporter’s bullshit detector. At the same time, explicitly embedding historical understanding in the finished text of even the most present-and-future focused story is, I think, more or less invaluable if one’s goal is not simply to inform, but to enlist one’s readers in gerunds of science:  doing it, thinking in the forms of scientific inquiry, gaining a sense of the emotional pleasures of the trade.  I’ll talk more about both of these claims when my turn comes around…but at this point, I think I should stop and let you get a word in edgewise.  Here’s a question for you:  while I can see the uses of the past for writers seeking to extract from science stories that compel a public audience – do working scientists need to care that much about their own archives.  What does someone pounding on <em>C. elegans</em> stress responses, say really need to know about the antecedents of that work?

Best,

Tom

____________________________________________________________

Dear Tom,

The British novelist, and friend of Aldous Huxley, L.P. Hartley began his 1953 novel <em>The Go-Between</em> with a line that, I suspect, many working scientists can relate to, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The process of science, much like the process of art, is to dredge through what has been achieved in the past in order to generate something altogether new. That is perhaps the only thing that the two fields of creative endeavor have in common; the past must be understood only so that you can be released from it. However, much like you, I’ve never needed convincing about history either. While I agree that the past can be a foreign country at times, I’ve always enjoyed traveling.

I came to history through my work in science, but I found that understanding the historical context for why scientists in the past came to the conclusions they did helped inform the questions I was asking. I’ve always believed that the scientific method was the best way of eliminating our own personal biases when seeking answers about the natural world, but that unexamined assumptions can still slip through the scientific filter. By examining how these flawed assumptions made it through I hoped it would help me in my own work. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to briefly discuss how an early brush with history encouraged me into the research direction I ultimately pursued in graduate school. The book was <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Natures-Body-Londa-Schiebinger/dp/080708901X”>Nature’s Body</a></em> by the Stanford historian of science Londa Schiebinger that I found in a used bookstore during my senior year as an undergraduate in anthropology and biology. In one chapter of her book she discussed the early history of primate research and how the prevailing assumptions about gender influenced the hypotheses and, as a result, the conclusions about those species most similar to ourselves. One of the earliest descriptions of great apes in the West, after <a href=”http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=415874″>Andrew Battell’s exaggerated stories about “ape monsters,”</a> was by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, probably the most widely recognized figure in the history of science that almost no one has ever heard of.

In 1632 Tulp commissioned the artist Rembrandt to paint his anatomy lesson, which ended up being one of the Dutch master’s most famous works (if anyone today recognizes Tulp’s name, it’s most likely from the title of this painting). Nearly a decade after he posed for this portrait Tulp published his Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations) in which he described the anatomy of a female ape he’d received on a ship bound from Angola. He was immediately struck by the similarities with humans and the drawing he published, identified as Homo sylvestris, demonstrated a striking example of cultural bias. Made to look the way he assumed this female would appear while alive, Tulp emphasized his own culture’s gender stereotypes. The female sat with her hands in her lap, framing what appeared to be a pregnant belly, and her head was glancing downwards in a distinctly demure pose.

By itself this depiction wouldn’t have been particularly revealing; it was just one individual allowing their own social biases to influence his science. What was remarkable, however, is the way Schiebinger showed how Tulp’s depiction would appear time and time again in the subsequent centuries when describing female primates, not just in appearance but also in behavior. More than two hundred years later, when Darwin described the differences between males and females in his theory of sexual selection, he had the same unmistakable gender bias that influenced his thinking. I had never taken a women’s studies course in my life, but this insight was an enormous wake up call for me. I realized there had been a common set of assumptions that endured for centuries, what the historian Arthur Lovejoy called “the spirit of the age,” and had gone unexamined until relatively recently when a new generation of primatologists–such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal–began studying the female half of the equation that had been largely ignored as an important area of study. Knowing this history pushed me to ask different questions and focus on a topic that I discovered hadn’t been addressed before: why female bonobos had such high levels of cooperation despite the fact that they had a low coefficient of genetic relatedness (violating the central premise of <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/05/punishing_cheaters.php”>Hamilton’s theory of kin selection</a>). Different scientific topics have their own entrenched assumptions that otherwise critical researchers may not have considered; that is, until they see the broad patterns that a historical analysis can reveal.

Cheers,

Eric

____________________________________________________________

Dear Eric,

I love your story, partly because the original painting is so extraordinary and it’s good to have any excuse to revisit it.  But I value it more for your argument that engaging with the thought and thinking (not quite the same thing) of scientists past fosters insight into present problems.  That goes just as much for science writers – that is to say, those seeking to communicate to a broad public both knowledge derived from science and the approaches, the habits of thought that generate those results.

Rembrandt’s painting itself gives some hints along this line.  There’s a marvelous and strange discussion of the work in another novel written in English, W. G. Sebald’s <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Rings-Saturn-W-G-Sebald/dp/0811214133/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326733737&sr=1-1″>The Rings of Saturn</a></em>.  There, Sebald points to the fact that none of the anatomists are actually looking at the corpse under the knife. Tulp himself stares out into the middle distance, whilst other members of his guild peer instead at an anatomical atlas open at the foot of the table. As Sebald studies the one of the often-discussed details of the painting, he argues that what appears to be simply an error in the depiction of the <a href=”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17225789″>dissection of the left</a> hand reveals an artist seeking to see past the formal abstraction of the lesson, drawing attention instead to the actual body on the table, the physical reality of a single dead man.

Not wishing to push too hard on that (unproven, unprovable) interpretation, Sebald still points out something that rewards the attention of science writers.  Rembrandt depicts both facts — the body, the tendons of the exposed hand – and ideas, at a crucial moment of change in the way natural philosophers sought verifiable knowledge.

We see, amidst the reverence for the book, the authority of prior learning, an event actually occurring on the canvas:  the effort to extract understanding from the direct testimony of nature. Amidst all else that can be read there, Rembrandt’s painting reminds the viewer of the time – not really all that long ago – when a fundamental idea was being framed with its first answer:  yes, it is possible to understand biological forms as machines, and to investigate their workings directly.

So, to take the long road home to the question of why bother with history when covering the news of today and tomorrow, here are two thoughts (of the three with which I will hope to provoke our fellow unconferees on Thursday).  First: as you argue for scientists, understanding of the past can lead writers to stories they may not have known were there.

To give an example, I’ll have to leave anatomy behind (about whose history I sadly know very little). I recently had an occasionto look back at <a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=KniUvcxFtOwC&pg=PA281&lpg=PA281&dq=michelson+sixth+decimal+place+ryerson+physical+laboratory&source=bl&ots=0oDZa8vpy3&sig=6_BQaDfvsUE-G_nLWBmNF8l4boM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=91oUT_3mAeXq0gHvuI22Aw&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=michelson%20sixth%20decimal%20place%20ryerson%20physical%20laboratory&f=false”>A. A. Michelson’s infamous remark</a> from 1894 when he asserted that physics was done except for that which could be discovered in the sixth decimal places of measurements.

There is a lot wrong in that claim, but if you look more closely at what he said, you can find something less obvious in Michelson’s claim – and that can lead to insight into what goes into the making of all kinds of very modern physics, from (possibly true) observations of faster than light neutrinos to the ways in which cosmologists are extracting knowledge from high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (and much else besides, of course).

So there’s a story-engine chugging away inside history, which is there to be harnessed by any writer – facts, material, from which to craft story.  There’s also a story-telling tool, a method that derives directly from historical understanding.  A core task for science writing is the transformation of technically complicated material into a narrative available to broad audiences – which must be done without doing violence to the underlying ideas.  If the writer remembers that every modern problem has a long past, then she or he can prospect through that history when the problems and results in that sequence are intelligible to any audience.  For just one last, very quick example:  general relativity is a hard concept to explain, but framing the issue that it helped to resolve in the context of what Newton’s (seemingly) simpler account of gravity couldn’t handle – that spooky action at a distance that permits the gravitational attraction of the sun to shape the earth’s orbit – and you’re in with a chance.

Best,

Tom

____________________________________________________________

Dear Tom,

I think you touched on something very important with regard to the idea that science writing is a transformation that takes the technical language of science (primarily mathematics and statistics–that is, if it’s done correctly) and interprets it into the communication of everyday experience. Science writing is a process of translation. The history of science as a discipline is precisely the same thing, though historians typically engage in a different level of linguistic analysis by looking at language meaning and the way that science provides insight into the process of historical change. But it seems that there is no better way to think about how the history of science can be useful to science journalists than to consider what we do as essentially a process of translation. Art is involved in any translation work and there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the original and what it eventually becomes. We must be true to our source material but also evoke the same overall meaning. To put this more simply: why are the findings being reported important to scientists in a given field and how can that same importance be conveyed to a readership with a very different set of experiences? It seems to me that there are two primary ways of doing this: engaging with the history of <em>why</em> this question matters or tapping into contemporary <em>attitudes</em> that evoke connections with the findings reported (where the latter approach <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/10/grand_evolutionary_dramas_abou.php”>goes wrong</a> happens to be one of my <a href=”http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/02/male-chauvinist-chimps/”>favorite</a&gt; topics of critique, one that is <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-michael-johnson/intelligent-design-creati_b_636200.html”>unfortunately</a&gt; an extremely rich resource to draw from).

However, there is one other reason why the history of science is important for science journalists that we haven’t quite touched on yet. A journalist who knows their history is better protected from false claims and the distraction of denialism. The scientific press release is a unique cultural invention and all too often seeks to manipulate journalists into framing a given story so as to exaggerate that study’s actual impact. The historically minded journalist is less likely to get bamboozled. In a similar way, the <em>he said-she said</em> model of reporting is a persistent and irritating rash for almost every professional journalist I’ve interacted with. But the temptation to scratch is always present, even though the false equivalency reported is rarely satisfying over the long term. The history of science can be the journalistic topical ointment. Those who know the background of anti-vaccine paranoia, or who recognize the wedge strategy of creationist rhetoric, can satisfy their need to report on a story that captures the public’s attention while also providing useful information to place that issue within it’s proper context. History matters.

Your friend,

Eric


Eric Michael Johnson
Department of History
University of British Columbia

http://www.history.ubc.ca/people/eric-michael-johnson

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/

Images:  Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letterbetw. 1665 and 1666.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

Nicholaes Tulp,  “Homo sylvestris” Observationes Medicae, Book III, 56th Observation, 1641

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

Required Reading, MLK Day edition

January 16, 2012

I’m ashamed to say, that until Charlie Pierce in his own, powerful essay on MLK day pointed me to it, I had never actually read Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Congress urging — almost ordering — the legislators before him to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s a sample:

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society.

But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.

It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.

A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.

The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.

For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future.

This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.

Pierce calls this “the greatest speech an American president has delivered in my lifetime.”

Mine too.

Read it.

One last thought: One strand I draw from Johnson’s speech is that it is possible to have a politics that transcends the mere purchase and sale of interest; one in which words have both power and integrity.

I want that politics back.

Image:  Lyndon Baines Johnson with Martin Luther King on August 6, 1965, at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

Just In Case Anyone Was Worried About A Sudden Shortage…

January 13, 2012

…one more thought on Truth-Vigilante-gate.

I certainly agree with what seems like every front pager at my other bloggy home  Balloon Juice (some more than once!)* feels about the ludicrousness of anyone even having to ask whether or not it might make sense to call out lies in print.  But it still seems to me that for all the fun at the expense of the Grey Lady, one key element in the story has been underplayed.

That would be that covering politics today is actually a genuinely different and more difficult task than it was back when folks like me (folks I knew) first got into the business at places like the Times.

The problem is really simple.  The current Republican elite simply has no problem lying.

In this short post I’m not going to retail even a tithe of the examples available, instead outsourcing just a taste of the tsunami of bullshit that constitutes GOPster public argument to Steve Benen, who himself confines his review to the bullshit spewed by the current frontrunner, that 3-dimensional caricture of Eliot’s trope, one Willard Mitt Romney.

He/they lie all the time.  About anything.  But — and this is the key — for all the “politics ain’t beanbag” and “they all do it” reflexes, this really is a new (ish) phenomenon.

Now, I’m not saying that American politics hasn’t included a lot of lying for a very long time.  But the difference now is that it’s not just the agents — John Adams’ rumoristas or the Swift Boat scum — but the principals themselves who are now willing to retail and repeat direct falsehoods into microphone after microphone.

That’s hard to confront, even for experienced hacks:**  most of us don’t think people will flat out lie to our faces — especially when the lie is easily checked.  When I got started as a reporter, I was certainly trained to expect sources to spin, dissemble, shape their accounts.  But the idea that they would default to flat out lying, as opposed to retreating to it when pressed — that really wasn’t the expectation.

The goal was to write a story in which the spin was unwound.  If you could do that — demonstrate through the totality of your reporting how, say, jobs lost to downsizing were either corporate raiding at its worst or the best outcome for what would otherwise be a bankrupt business — then you’d done your job.

So, yes:  to the question of whether the Times or any journalistic operation should become  “truth vigilantes,” the answer is, obviously, yes.  Still, it’s important to remember that the Times  and its reporters face this problem specifically because the Mitt and his merry men have made the gap between what they say and what actually is so deep and so wide.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone here.  But it is important to condemn the greater sin as well as the lesser. It is genuinely difficult for the individual journalists tasked with the job of covering the election this year to do that job well  because a forty+ year campaign to derange our politics has come to full flower in the Romney campaign.  (Not to mention in GOP politicking and governance across the country.  Think Scott, Daniels, Kasich, Walker, Perry, and all the rest.)

Root causes matter.

*Plus, it seems, all those others on ‘branes in the bloggy multiverse.  I’m not even going to bother to link; throw a rock in this quarter of Blogistan and you’ll hit something relevant on every bounce.
**I’m using the word here in its Fleet St. sense, with love.
Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In the Cafe, 1898

Tell Me Baby…*

January 11, 2012

…but is it only me or does it seem that every time Mitt Romney manages to (a) move into a statistically meaningless “lead” over President Obama in head to head surveys and/or (b) manages to persuade the Villagers that he’s actually a reasonable human being, he blurts out stuff like this (via TPM):

When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you have opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.

I’ll leave aside the incoherent “wave of approach” — lapses like this are best taken as the inevitable byproduct of the exhaustion and sheer addling tedium of the campaign trail.  (I assume Romney meant “wave of reproach” or simply “approach.”)

But for the love of pasta, in Romneyland pointing out the competing interests of plutocrats vs. the rest of us cats is a religious sin! There are sins aplenty in the religion of money…

…but I don’t think we can locate them in the tack taken by President Obama.

There’s something so tone-deaf about this, the claim that one can’t argue over, say, trickle-down vs. broad based tax policy, because that would violate God’s plan for a unitary (theocratic?) state. Even folks inside the Village can’t be comfortable with what amounts to the statement that it is impossible in politics to argue about, you know, politics!

In fact, so egregious was Romney’s obtuseness here that even Romney’s interviewer committed an act of journalism, following up this first statement with what most people would think of as a second softball across the middle of the plate:

QUESTIONER: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?

You’d think someone running for President for the second time, someone who knows his major vulnerability is his wealth and the way he acquired it, would have figure out by now some soft answer to turneth away our wrath.  You know, something like “the issue isn’t any individual’s wealth — it’s the jobs we need to create…” or some such.

But no.  Not the RomneyBot.  Here’s what he actually said:

ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like.

Quiet rooms? Don’ trouble your pretty little heads, Americans.  Me and the boys will straighten all this out in private.  We’ll have “discussions about tax policy” that will lead to tax hikes on the bottom (based on current tax policy), and yet more cash delivered to my Malibu mansion by the bucket load.

Which, of course, is why Romney went on to complain that

…the president has made it part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street.

Well, yeah.  Back room deals haven’t worked out so well, and the President is willing to say so…which is why the last thought out of W. Mitt’s mouth is better read as a pious hope than as reasoned expectation:

It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail.

Snark aside.  Does anyone outside the Romneyverse think that suggesting that Wall St.’s wise men figure out what to do with the money is not exactly a winning message?  All I can say is that I hope this is the candidate we get for the next ten months.  It’s going to be a brutal campaign, and I, for one, will take every own goal I can get.

(PS:  I note that as I was writing this, Steve Benen got in there first with much the same thought, only more so — not to mention video of the exchange.)

*With apologies for putting such a fine song to so base a use.

Image:  Hans Holbein the Younger, Danse Macabre. XXVIII. The Miser, before 1543.

 

 

In Praise of Footnotes (Polar Bear Cub/Anything But The Republicans Dept.)

January 11, 2012

Because more or less anything is better than contemplating ten more months of Romney’s self-congratulatory predation of the electorate, I thought I’d try to counter (in some minor way, a jot or a tittle)  the quadrennial sense of despair that comes with the mention of Dixville Notch.

My antidote?

The treasures to be found in those pre-digitized lodes of easter eggs, footnotes in books written by generous minds.

In today’s case, that would be what I found as I finally got my crack at a book I had given my wife this Chanukah, Verdi’s Shakespeare, by one of our national treasures, Garry Wills.  There, in the first chapter, Wills made mention of Winter’s Tale, and its alpha and omega of stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

That’s one of those bits of theatrical trivia that I can’t remember learning. I think my father was the first person I heard say it, misquoting to “exit hurridly,” whenever he wanted to be gone from something dull — or to get his wild and wired son to bed.  And like most folks (I guess) I always assumed (at least from the time I realized it had something to do with a play, and not a playacting dad) that any action on stage would have been between an actor and some guy in a bear suit.

But no, Wills tells me — laconically, first, in the body of his text, writing that “when it [Shakespeare's troupe] had a  young polar bear on hand, he wrote a scene stopper…”

That was curious enough.  A polar bear?  In London.  In 1610?

Dive into the footnotes, and it gets better:

It used to be thought that the “bear’ was a man in costume.  But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610-1611 theatrical season….Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and were relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their  young state.”

Well, that explains that.  But Wills is a kind and giving writer…and so there’s more:

Since polar bears are such good swimmers, the king even turned them loose in the Thames to have aquatic bear baitings.*

Oh, joy! So much out of so little — and what a reward for the virtuous act of actually looking at the endnotes!**  There’s threads of all kinds of historical ideas to pull there — everything from thoughts about the extended pre- or early history of globalizing media to the power of spectacle as social glue, then as now — and much more, of course.  But what pleased me more, I think, as I retold this factoid to the unwary all day, is simply the images that Wills evoked, playing across my mind’s eye.

Which is to say that nothing here has much to do with the price of eggs. But my brain and my world are enriched, just a little, by the thought of a shambling cub, coat too big for its limbs, rising up on its hind legs to glare at the squealing, hooting, transfixed and terrified audience clamoring just beyond the edge of the stage.

Just thought I’d share…

*Wills directs those with yet more interest in the performing beast of Winter’s Tale to Barbara Ravelhofer, “‘Beasts of Recreacion’ Henslowe’s White Bears,” ELR 32 (2202), pp. 287-323 and Teresa Grant, “Polar Performances, The King’s Bear Cubs on the Jacobean Stage,” Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 2002.

**To declare what is, I hope, obvious:  I’m no fan of bear baiting.  Torturing animals for sport is not my idea of a good time or a good act.  But I dearly love gaining glimpses into the past, and it is always important to remember:  that’s a different country, and they do things differently there.

Image:  Albert Bierstadt, Bears in the Wilderness, c. 1870.

Popcorn For Everyone

January 9, 2012

I’m “working” on a couple of more substantive posts (look for them sometime in the next Mayan long calendar) and I’m at least trying to work on what they actually pay me for, so blogging is a notional activity right now…

But by every pasta tendril undulating off the blessed FSM, how in the name of strozzapretti can one pass up this (via TPM):

“You have to ask the question, is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and then walk off with the money?”

Damn good question, actually, and even better when asked by one Newton Leroy Gingrich of the current GOP frontrunner-by-default, the Hon. (sic!) Willard Mitt Romney.

Combine that with the “documentary” Newt’s people are putting out there (well, a  Super PAC that, of course, has no actual contact with the Gingrich campaign, but sure as hell knows what to do), and  Rick Perry’s quotable quote from the campaign trail South Carolina — and what you have is our friends across the aisle working on their own damn circular firing squad for once.

Popcorn, aged tequila, and Republicans going all “we are the 99%” on each other.  What more could this city boy desire?

Image: Nicolas Colombel Christ Expelling the Money-Changers From the Temple, 1682.


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