Curiosity-Driven / Science

“The type of science that I do is sometimes known as”curiosity-driven science”—this means that my work will never result in a marketable product, a useful machine, a prescribable pill, a formidable weapon, or any direct material gain—or if it does indirectly lead to one of those things, this would be figured out at some much later date by someone who is not me. As such, my research is a rather low priority for our national budget. There is just one significant source of monetary support for the kind of research that I do: the National Science Foundation, or NSF.

“The NSF is a US government agency, and the money that it provides for scientific research comes from tax dollars. In 2013, the budget of the NSF was $7.3 billion.* … Remember that this figure must support all curiosity-driven science—not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well.”
—Hope Jahrens, from Lab Girl**

This is the sort of thing scientists stuggle with every day—continuing their work in the face of competition for shrinking budgets.

On my way to have dinner with a friend recently, I heard on the radio that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have donated $3 billion (billion!) to science—with a stated goal to cure all diseases by the end of this century.

Mark Zuckerber and Pricilla Chan Photo credited to the AP by Business Insider

Mark Zuckerber and Pricilla Chan
Photo credited to the AP by Business Insider

And at the time I thought, well, that is a worthy goal … but how many other worthy goals are there? I was thinking of Lab Girl.

Then I read this article about it in Business Insider:

It’s ambitious framing for what is in fact a more straightforward and concrete goal. The donation, administered through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), essentially exists to shake up many funding schemes and career paths that dominate the field of modern medical research (along with most other fields of science).

In short, CZI plans to make it possible for large groups of scientists to focus on riskier projects that won’t necessarily yield results for years or even decades. That is, they want to give medical scientists the opportunity to work like coders in an ambitious Silicon Valley startup.

“That means we can look at projects that can pay off in 20 years, and 50 years,” Zuckerberg said.

So THANK YOU, Mark and Pricilla. I still think the eradication of global poverty and stopping global warming (because it is manmade) are more important. But I’m not the one with the $3 billion.*** 🙂

* And given the recent election, my guess it will be less in the coming years.
** Transcribed by me from pages 122 and 123 of my hardback copy of Lab Girl, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
*** And there’s always Bill and Melinda Gates—or other billionaires, some of whom participate in the Giving Pledge.

“Eschew Ignorance. Pursue Truth.” Be a Good Citizen.

When I was much younger than I am now, I worked at a medium-sized newspaper for a few years. I knew the journalists, the editors, I watched them work. I asked questions of them. About that time I was also taking classes in what was then called “mass communication” at the local university. I learned about the importance of a free press (something I also learned, of course, in history), and the role journalism—good journalism, that is, the real-thing sort of professional journalism of accurate information and dispassionate judgment that answers to the ideals of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and a code of ethics—plays in informing the public. I’d been writing—journals, stories, humor—for years, and I was considering journalism as something I might be good at.

Twenty years later I was a divorced mom with a Mac and an AOL email account in the early days of the user-friendly Internet. I loved email—I could type long letters faster than writing them out, and I was quite the letter-writer in those days—but one of its banes was those stupid, stupid, seriously stupid emails that people with apparently nothing better to do with their precious lives passed around. (Remember the $250 cookie recipe?) Usually these emails came to me from people who wanted to spread some sort of outrage, rarely personal; usually they were addressed to twenty or more people. They were often astonishing stories I had trouble believing, and sometimes they disturbed me enough that I would research the story to learn whether or not it was true. In the days before Snopes.com, this was no mean feat. But you could, with a little effort, get at the truth, even then.

One of them—this would have been about fifteen years ago—concerned a contingent of Gold Star mothers who were reportedly turned away from the office of Senator Hillary Clinton. It is not, of course, true. (The simple story is that the women arrived without an appointment on a day Senator Clinton was not in the office. It has been strongly refuted by the national Gold Star Mothers organization. Here’s the whole story.)

And the idea that people were passing around this information as truth really bothered me. (Remember, I was raised by the Original American Patriot. Truth and justice are the American Way, yeah? We didn’t tell lies in our house. We just didn’t.) So I researched the story and I wrote an email explaining the truth, including links to valid information, and I replied to all of the recipients of the email. I ended by saying,

Regardless of our political persuasion, it’s incumbent upon us as good citizens to not tell lies or pass around the lies of others. How would you feel if someone fabricated a story like this about you?

Well, it really annoyed my friend. (To be honest, the friendship’s never been the same and I couldn’t care less. I have a low tolerance for that sort of behavior.) But I learned something from it, to wit:

1 Adults really don’t like to be told they’re wrong or to have it implied that they have misbehaved (even when they know it’s true).

2 Some people would rather believe a lie when it comes to politics. For them, the “win” is the most important thing, the only thing.

3 Many people prefer to have their prejudices and opinions confirmed, even if it’s only by an apocryphal story. Facts don’t really matter to these people.

Flash forward a few more years. Now I’m an editor of books. I’ve been an editor for twelve years. I work on both fiction and nonfiction, and in the case of the latter, I have spent years honing my skills on fact-checking and tracking down original source material—because you wouldn’t believe the sorts of websites some folks want to cite as a source. For example, those awful, awful quotes sites like ThinkExist and Brainyquote? They are not good sources. (I’ve written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are closed to virtually all information that does not fit neatly within the narrow confines of their belief system, you end up with all sorts of bat-shit crazy stuff (like the Gold Star Mothers canard) and when you add to that people who are so [determined? angry? misguided?] that they will do anything—including lie—to support their world view, well, we’ve got a big problem. We’ve got people who are promoting an agenda by lying about the other side of the story, and we’ve got people who cannot see the difference between lies and truth.

I often get work from a publisher who publishes current event–type books, often those that espouse viewpoints from the opposite side of the political fence from me. And that’s precisely why I get the work: the managing editor knows me well, knows my political leanings. She also knows that I take my work very seriously. She hires me, she’s told me, to keep her authors “honest,” to make sure they’re not just spouting hot air but are backing up their claims with facts and research from good, unbiased sources. (I wouldn’t allow, for example, citations from WorldNetDaily or NewsMax, because they are so obviously slanted they are more opinion than fact. I could go on and on with the list of biased or propaganda websites.)

But a lot of folks don’t care about separating truth from opinion or propaganda, it seems. They seem to have no ability to think critically. To question. Now we’re involved in an insane political cycle in which one candidate seems incapable of telling the truth. For months, my husband and I have scratched our heads, wondering if this guy is gaslighting us. As Time magazine’s recent cover story noted, “political debate has become unhinged from reality.”

Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, has spent years regularly encouraging his followers to doubt much of what is known to be true: that the earth is warming, that Obama was born in the U.S., that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton follows prosecutorial precedent. … One of the first casualties of this worldview is the very ability to have a national debate with a common set of facts.

Why is that?

I check everything before I believe it. I research before I buy a car. I look into the science of weight loss when I want to shed some pounds. And when I hear of a story that’s, well, out there, I check into that too. What makes me do this—and not my brother, say, who not only supports a congenital liar but hates the “other side” so much he will post to his Facebook page the most egregious (and easily refuted) lies about them? What does he think other people make of this … this ugliness that he says right out loud?*

I think what I think about political matters, but I try to be respectful of others’ opinions, even when I adamantly disagree with them. I believe that America needs, and has always needed, a reliable and logical conservative voice in American politics—just as it needs a liberal and progressive voice. There’s room for all of us at the table. But … when I see people I once had great respect for continue to post the most heinous statements about people like me, calling me things like libtard (really?) … well, it’s gone beyond a difference of opinion. It’s hurtful. It’s hateful. It’s un-American, frankly.

I still believe strongly in the truth, and that actual truth is ascertainable. I still believe in the power of critical thinking. I still believe that one’s character matters, and that a good citizen searches for the facts—no matter how much or little those facts ultimately support his opinion. I would urge you to become a more responsible citizen; I would urge you to check your facts. I would urge you to use discernment** as you do so. We have the technology.

* There have been a variety of scientific theories about this phenomenon. Here’s one. Here is another. As a friend of mine notes, fear + ignorance is a potent cocktail, and it’s easy to manipulate those under its influence with memes and slogans.

** Here’s how to be discerning online:
1) Watch for obvious bias; if the article uses pejoratives like libtards, it’s slanted. Look for multiple sources, too; if an article has only one source, beware.
2) Go back to the article’s original sources; are those articles being cited fairly and accurately or has the writer cherry-picked statements out of context? Does the material even support the writer’s point?
3) Research the writer and the contributors to the article. Are they experts in the field?

Holding Two Opposing Thoughts in My Head: It’s Self-Evident, Y’all

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Crack-Up,” an essay published in Esquire magazine in 1936

I was raised by an American patriot (my daddy), a man pledged to give his life for this country for the twenty-three years he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. He raised us all to show respect for the flag, and I do. I do. I can even tear up, as he always did.

And yet, as an American, I also support the right of the football players who’ve chosen to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, as a protest for the many things they see wrong in our society. I see those wrongs too.

I can hold these two opposing thoughts in my head—my love and respect for the country of my birth while I note that not everything is perfect here, that there are deep wrongs we need to right. But there is a certain ilk of people in this country who cannot (actually, will not) do that, hold the conflicting thoughts. They condemn this peaceful protest.

I wonder what they would think if they read this book? By historian/professor Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America shows us an America most people don’t want to believe exists. And I’m not talking about the connotation you may get when you read the title. No, I’m talking about our revered Founding Fathers. This book made me think differently about them.

The Founding Fathers. You know: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others. Those guys to whom this ilk—the folks who can’t stand it when a football player quietly takes a knee during the national anthem—rush to ascribe all sorts of signs and wonders. I did, too, honestly, until I read this well-researched book. The thing is, those guys were really just very privileged white English assholes who brought their class superiority with them when they left England. They talked a good game—all men (though not women) created equal, being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights indeed—but they really didn’t walk the walk. Those blessings of liberty were really only intended for, you know, white men of the monied class.

And yet, and yet. That Constitution. And that Declaration of Independence. They’re things of beauty. We’ve been clinging to them for 240 years. So there’s two opposing thoughts for you, yes? I can hold them both in my head. I can love and respect the dream manifest in the words We hold these truths to be self-evidentself-evident, y’all!—and hate the fact that the writers of those words brought both black and white* slaves to this land to do (ahem) the hard work. The work that well-bred, well-off white men shouldn’t have to do, they thought.

These are perilous times we live in, friends. Hate speech—particularly toward people of color—abounds. My husband and I were just having this discussion at breakfast. “You can change your accent and your address,” he said, “but you can’t change the color of your skin.” I look around at my fellow Americans and I’m appalled and ashamed by their behavior, not by the behavior of the peaceful protesters. I’m shocked that some Americans presume to judge others for a quiet, peaceful protest, something granted to all citizens of this country. Peaceful protest. Free speech too.

Two opposing thoughts.

As humans, we’re capable of that.

In the 5 September 2016 issue of Time magazine, there was a ten-question interview with legal scholar/professor Akhil Amar of Yale University. His ethnic heritage is Indian, his parents having immigrated to the United States from India before he was born. The last question in the interview was this one:

Q: When you emptied your pockets so we could take your picture, you pulled out three copies of the Constitution. One wasn’t enough?

A: People died for these words, so we should have the words literally close to our hearts. You should have more than one copy because if someone asks you a question about the Constitution, I think it’s wonderful and democratic if you can give them a copy and you can read it together.

This made me tear up when I read it.

This is patriotism, y’all. Loudly demanding that someone stand during the national anthem because your small-minded idea of what America is can’t survive without a faked-up show of respect,** because you are incapable of holding two opposing thoughts in your tiny little head is not patriotism.

* They were referred to as “trash people”—because the wealthy landowners literally intended to work them to death, then throw them away like trash. Nice.

** How many times in years past have you tuned in a televised football game and watched as the camera panned down the line of athletes waiting to play? There was a time in my life when I spent every Sunday during football season doing this. I remember: some sang, some put hands over hearts, some did neither of those things, some swayed, lifted legs, bounced (staying loose), or grimaced (already in their game faces), some might have even been finishing off a quick exchange of words with the guy next to them, trying to be discreet. Think about it. You’ve seen it, don’t deny it. So tell me again why you’re so outraged now?

Working on a Detox

Four years ago, in early November, I drove out to my brother’s house to chat about family Thanksgiving plans, as I do every year. (Our parents are deceased; our sister lives far from here.) When I got there and walked into the living room, my brother was angry—at me, sort of.

(I should stop here and say I am the oldest child; my brother is the youngest, four years younger than me. He is a farmer, a kind and gentle man who loves animals, has stayed married to the same woman for forty-two years, raised a great kid. He served four years in the Marines. I’ve never heard him raise his voice to man or beast. He is a Republican, just like our father was. We agree to disagree on that last bit. My life philosophy was formed in the ’60s, and though many decades have passed, I am still that woman. I have not changed.)

But my brother was hopping mad … about the recent reelection of the American president, Barack Obama. He lit into me—a convenient liberal voter he felt safe blaming—with the litany of complaints that had been making the rounds: the country was going to go into a massive depression, in fact it was going to go broke, since there were “more takers than makers”; Obama was going to take away legally owned guns; and on and on. When I tried to speak (though not to argue with him), he shouted me down: “Just you wait! You’ll see!” (Collectively, this reaction has been called in the press the Great Right-Wing Freakout of 2012.)

It scared me. I stood up and said, “Maybe I should leave. We can talk about Thanksgiving another time.” And immediately all his anger drained away. “No, no, sit down, don’t go.” And we did talk a little (his wife sat silently by), but eventually his anger level rose again, and I left, shaking and disturbed. When I got home, I called my ex-husband.

(Here I’ll say that my ex-husband and I are on good terms; I like his second wife and his second set of kids, and we do a lot of holidays together. When I married him—the little girl with flowers woven in her hair—he was a long-haired hippie himself, threatening to run away to Canada if the draft didn’t go his way. I am not sure what happened to that guy, but his politics align with my brother’s now; they are buddies, in fact. I don’t discuss politics with either of them, and generally we just don’t anyway—we talk culture, not politics. Luis always tries to make nice; he knows I don’t like to argue.)

So I called Luis, since he and his family would be sitting at my dining room table on Thanksgiving too. I was shaken and upset, and as I started to tell him what happened, I began to sob uncontrollably, something I never do, certainly not to my ex-husband. “Please help me; please don’t bring up the election or politics,” I said. He agreed to “not go there,” and Thanksgiving plans proceeded.

On the night, my brother and his wife were running late. Something locally newsworthy had happened that day, and Luis turned on the television while we waited. But he turned automatically to Fox, which I consider to be … well, not news. Bill O’Reilly et al annoy and offend me. I waited—nervously; what if my brother got here?—until we had the update on the event, then quietly, calmly, asked Luis to turn the TV off or switch the channel. He rose up from the couch and moved into the kitchen in seconds, screaming, until he was face to face with me. “Don’t tell ME what to do! I’ll watch television if I WANT to!” (Should I remind you that this was in my house?) It was like he’d gone insane. Had a psychotic break.

I put my hands up around my face, because I actually thought he might hit me. When I did that, he stopped, and all the anger seemed to leave him. He turned around, lifted the foil covering the turkey. And nothing was ever said again, about any of it.

I have often wondered what happened on those two occasions.

Now, of course, we’re in the middle of an unbelievable, ugly election (again). My brother joined Facebook about a year ago, and he’s posted a lot of nasty right-wing memes. My husband says, “Just ignore him,” but it bothers me. He’s my brother, but I don’t recognize this person. He and my ex-husband share these ugly things back and forth. Demands to repeal “Obamacare” the minute the GOP retakes the country (even though my brother’s wife uses the government’s low-income subsidies to the Affordable Care Act to get health insurance*), and support for closing our borders and not letting immigrants in (even though both of my husbands have been immigrants**; even though my sister’s daughter married a Mexican immigrant, a lovely man). I don’t recognize them anymore, this bit of my family.

It’s not just them, of course. I live in a red state. But … the anger. The hatred! Sometimes I leave a comment for my brother—“Actually, that’s not true”—with a link to good information, but he responds with a repetition of talking points (propaganda), not actual facts. In fact, a lot of people on that side of the fence do the same in public forums, and it has the effect of shutting down conversation. It is a losing battle. The amount of bad, untruthful, twisted information being slung around here is disheartening. Where is this coming from? I’ve tried to remain calm, I’ve tried to educate myself—but it has done nothing but upset and unsettle me and keep me from sleep.

Until I found this: The Brainwashing of My Dad. It’s a documentary. The New York Times says it is “Jen Senko’s documentary about how right-wing news programs, talk shows and Internet sites turned her once reasonable father into a raging embodiment of intolerance and suspicion.”

As I watched, I found Senko’s story sounding more and more familiar:

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, I remember that my parents were really nice to everybody. They had a good time with lots of other grown-up friends and relatives; they were always laughing and joking. They didn’t even gossip, whereas I remember other friends’ parents doing so quite a bit. And later, with the dawn of the hippies and the new mores, I remember feeling proud of them—they already were open-minded and accepting. … My father was huge on education. He had his master’s degree in engineering, so it was his idea for us to read an hour before bed each night. … There were times he showed extraordinary acts of kindness. I recount this one story in the film: Since we lived close to New York in New Jersey, my parents would often take us into the city to go to a museum or Radio City Music Hall. Once, when we got out of Port Authority, an African-American homeless man asked my dad for some money. My dad called him “Sir!” and gave him some money. That memory is indelible for me. He treated everyone around him with respect at a time when that was not always the norm.

This sounds similar to my childhood, the one my brother was raised in too. Then Senko notes that her family moved and her father’s commute changed. Instead of carpooling, he was driving alone, and he was driving farther. He started listening to talk radio. First he listened to Bob Grant. Then he started listening to Rush Limbaugh. Later he began watching Fox [Not] News. Senko says:

And that’s when my Dad became angry all the time, argumentative, and hateful of particular groups of people. Of all things, he began lashing out against gay people. … He railed against “liberal universities.” He railed against illegal immigrants and Mexicans, and literally started telling my mother she should wait on him because he was the man of the house. … In time, it became obvious to me that the same mantras were being trotted out on various right-wing platforms. And I could see this in the few friends I had that “turned.” They would form identical arguments, repeating the exact same talking points and phrases around the same time as my Dad. One read The Drudge Report, while my Dad listened to Limbaugh.

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, and others of that ilk fabricate and distort routinely; they are entertainers, not journalists, and certainly not academic experts. They are looking to drive up viewership ratings (which drive up advertising rates). But in terms of actual facts, these outlets are more like the National Enquirer than they are like USA Today. Senko discovered that a lot of those nasty right-wing emails (which have become shared Facebook posts or memes in the era of social media) with stories from “regular folks” who just wanted the recipient “to know” what liberals are up to were “written by a bunch of guys sitting in a room at some right-wing think tank, made to sound as if an ‘average Joe’ wrote them.”

Gosh, it all sounded so familiar. Senko described it as a nightmare for the family; it was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Senkos no longer recognized ther dad.

In the documentary, Senko goes on to explain the historical reasons for the rise of propaganda in politics (it really got a leg up in Nixon’s presidential campaign) and how the players of that game manipulate the talking points you hear across the board from Limbaugh to Fox to Breitbart and on and on. It’s a concerted effort to mislead; that “vast right-wing conspiracy” really is a thing. When Ronald Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it opened the floodgate of poison that the moneyed right-wing spews. (And make no mistake, money is always the issue.)

Senko explains this history in detail, interviewing several experts, including including Noam Chomsky, CNN’s Reese Schonfeld, progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann, media critic Jeff Cohen, Media Matters founder David Brock, and Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. The Daily Beast notes,

It’s also a densely packed, sometimes overstuffed examination of how shrewd strategists engineered a long-term takeover of the media on behalf of the GOP, arguing that right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups, and media outlets together achieved what the left has always refused, or been unable, to do: manipulate the minds of America.

With decades of ground to cover, Senko nails some choice sound bites from her interviewees. Luntz, the spin doctor who helped Newt Gingrich twist estate tax into “death tax” and the Bush administration turn global warming into “climate change,” unabashedly reveals how he polls plebes for keywords that frighten them the most and points out how Fox News anchors use hand gestures to subliminally connect with their viewers.

Senko also explains the neurology of brainwashing in general and of the negative talking points phenomenon specifically: alarm is addictive, and repetition of the same messages transform the hearer’s brain.

The whole thing was shocking. I was raised to be fair, tell the truth, to treat others the way I would want to be treated (with kindness and respect, among other things). I was raised to be competitive, to go after the things I wanted, but that winning in and of itself was not the goal. “Winning at all costs” is not the sort of human being I was raised to be.

Nor was my brother. And yet …

Watching this documentary gave me some peace of mind and allowed me to sleep for the first time in days. I like research. I like logic and facts. And here, at last, was a reason that my once friendly, gentle, kind brother has turned into an angry repeater of lies. Senko reports that hundreds of people have gotten in touch with her with their own stories. I could be one of them.

Instead, I’m writing about it. I finally decided that if I don’t get this out of my system, it will poison me. I have been journaling, writing, blogging my whole life, trying to make sense of life, so this is nothing new. As I’ve said before about this blog, it’s a lot about travel, but really it’s about my good life, my fortunate life. This is a part of it. Watching this video helped me, and if you are worried and upset about these issues, it might help you too.

(I’ll note here that I no longer engage with my brother; I no longer try to direct him to factual information. You’ve heard that old Robert Heinlein quote, yes? “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” That’s where I’m at.)

* Note: A previous version of this essay indicated both were insured by the ACA, but only my brother’s wife is.

** My husband Gerry’s frail eighty-six-year-old mother is worried that if Trump wins, Gerry will be deported to Ireland. She shouldn’t have to worry about things like this and we’re surprised this level of detail has made it across the Atlantic, but such is the state of affairs right now.

Masterpiece Monitor

At my other blog a while back, we were talking about online research, and the astonishing things that are available online. And it seems Tristram Hunt’s position on the subject got more than one person’s dander up.

Writing in the New York Times, journalist James Gleick mentions Hunt’s snit, and says, “It’s a mistake to deprecate digital images just because they are suddenly everywhere, reproduced so effortlessly. We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them.”

A discussion of that statement is a whole other blog post, but for now you can read what Gleick thinks here. He says the old relics—like this copy of Magna Carta—are only talismans: “The real Magna Carta, the great charter of human rights and liberty, is available free online, where it is safely preserved. It cannot be lost or destroyed.” (To which I would add, sir, the real Magna Carta exists not on paper or online, but in our hearts.)

One of 4 known surviving 1215 exemplars of Magna Carta. (From Wikipedia; provided by the British Library.)

One of 4 known surviving 1215 exemplars of Magna Carta. (From Wikipedia; provided by the British Library.)

Want to know about some of the beautiful things you can see up close these days? Check these out:

I’m sure there’s more—so do let me know in the comments.