Trump attacks knowledge

The Environmental Protection Agency, under its new head, climate change denier Scott Pruitt, has explained that it  wants “to take as inclusive an approach to regulation as possible.”

To make this happen, they have dismissed five academic scientists from a major scientific review board and will replace them with representatives from the industries whose pollution the E.P.A. is supposed to regulate.

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Pruitt, Trump, and Coal Miners – life is good

According to the Failing New York Times,

President Trump has directed Mr. Pruitt to radically remake the E.P.A., pushing for deep cuts in its budget — including a 40 percent reduction for its main scientific branch — and instructing him to roll back major Obama-era regulations on climate change and clean water protection. In recent weeks, the agency has removed some scientific data on climate change from its websites, and Mr. Pruitt has publicly questioned the established science of human-caused climate change.

Ken Kimmell, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “This is completely part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda.”

Just a quick reminder to you all: we’re only about 6% through the first four years of this nightmare clown-show.

In other news, former president Barack Obama accepted a “Profiles in Courage” award at the J.F.K. Library in Boston on Sunday.

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He has chosen to refuse the many requests he’s had to directly confront Trump on his agenda of reversing every initiative of the Obama administration, most importantly the recent idiotic “Repeal and Replace” effort now underway to deny tens of millions of Americans access to healthcare, so that the very rich can be just a little richer.

He explained that “To weigh in would be a violation of his duty as a past president to let his successor operate without hindrance from him.” If only his successor would grant him the same consideration!

In accepting the Profiles in Courage Award, which has also been given to George H.W. Bush, John McCain, and Gerald Ford, among others, Obama did say,

“It takes little courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential, but it takes great courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm.”

Courage and knowledge vs. cowardice and ignorance? Dignity and composure vs. dishonor and vulgarity? Competence vs. ineptitude?

The American people have made their choices.

Science, shmience

Why would you “believe” in facts when fantasies are so much easier and so much more fun? Especially if those fantasies play into your made-up narrative of grievance and victimhood?  Well, if you’re part of the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis, you wouldn’t.

Yesterday’s Rapidly Failing New York Times had a piece about the largest measles outbreak in 30 years now under way in Minneapolis. The Somali community there, which, before 2008, had a higher vaccination rate that the general population, is now grappling with a completely preventable disease that had been eradicated in the U.S. by 2000.

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Day 4 Measles rash

There have been 44 confirmed cases so far, and at least 7000 people have been exposed to the virus, which has an incubation period of 21 days. It’s a highly contagious disease, spread through the air, that has very serious complications in 30% of cases, including blindness, brain inflammation, and pneumonia. It causes the most vaccine-preventable deaths of any disease.

According to the article, the Somali community in Minneapolis was “targeted” by anti-vax activists, including Andrew Wakefield, who met one-on-one with members of the community starting in 2008, and who provided them with bogus statistics about how the autism rate in their community was higher than elsewhere.

Wakefield is the guy whose bogus “research” created the whole “vaccination=autism” myth in the first place, and who is now banned from practicing medicine in his native Britain. He says he doesn’t feel responsible at all for what’s happening now.

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Wakefield, dangerous, self-promoting fraud

Wakefield’s research has been found to be an “elaborate fraud” , but in the internet age, that doesn’t really matter now. The lie was repeated often enough by others, including lots of “celebrities”, who now have a big stake in keeping it going and who have made the anti-vax movement a part of our political landscape.

And it’s not just the usual suspects on the right. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president and someone who you would think would know better, supports the anti-vaxxers.

Our President is an anti-vaxxer, and, let us not forget, he appoints the Surgeon General who advises us all on health matters. Here’s a piece that speculates that, under Trump, the anti-vaxxers might “win”.

So you might be thinking that since you’ve had the MMR (measles, mumps rubella) vaccine, you’ll be OK even if all the idiots around you get measles. Not so fast.

First of all, the vaccine is very effective, but not 100% effective. Of the 44 now infected in Minneapolis, 42 were not vaccinated, but the remaining two were. In 2014, there was a measles outbreak in Disneyland where 51 people were infected, including six who had been vaccinated.

But more importantly, you’re not going to like your life if you’re the only healthy person in a sick population.  And you shouldn’t.

So what’s the solution here? Dunno.

There are a lot of unintended consequences to be dealt with in the age of universal connectivity and instantaneous communication. The devaluing of “truth” is one we’ve seen already, and the demotion of science to “belief” is another. The return of measles, polio, and, for all I know, the Black Death, may be in the mix as well.

Earth Day, 2017

Of all the seismic changes in our culture that were either wrought by or illuminated by Trump’s ascendancy, the most disheartening to me is the demotion of science and the scientific method to the status of “belief system”.

It never occurred to me until recently that not only was there no universal agreement on the ability of science to clarify details of how the natural world worked, for example, or to settle what used to be called “old wives tales” once and for all, but that those who trusted science to perform these functions might actually be in the minority among their neighbors.

It was always simple to me. If someone asserted that their grandmother taught them that you could bring cold water to a boil faster than hot water, and that their grandmother was a very wise person, rarely wrong in anything she said, and a fabulous cook as well, there was no reason to “believe” it or “disbelieve” it. It wasn’t something that you had to take on faith, as it could be easily settled by science. In your own kitchen. In ten minutes. And without casting aspersions on the grandmother or her abilities as a cook.

It was either true or it wasn’t. Demonstrate it and learn the truth – the actual truth.

There’s a really cool and yet extremely depressing site called Yale Climate Opinion Maps that will provide a nice way for you to spend a few minutes on Earth Day. It allows you to display where people live who believe that climate change is a real thing, or think it’s caused by humans, or whether they think it will affect them directly, and so on. You can display the information by state, county, congressional district (the doorway to madness!), etc. You can mouse-over the results for more detail in each case. Fun.

Here’s a sample, showing where people live, by county, who think global warming is happening (sorry, you have to go to the site itself for the cool mouse-over info and more).

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Here’s one showing, by congressional district, the percentage of adults who think CO2 emissions should be regulated.

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And here’s one, by state, showing where people trust scientists on this subject.

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Another reason to be happy to live in Massachusetts, except that the climate is actually horrible here.

It would be really great if you could somehow convince the people who don’t “believe in” climate change that when virtually every real scientist in the world tells you climate change is real and human-influenced, then that’s all you need to know about it. You don’t need to inject your grandmother’s ideas about it into the mix (unless she’s a climate scientist, that is, in which case we already know what she thinks).

They can also tell you whether cold water boils faster than hot if you’re curious (spoiler alert: cold water takes longer to boil than hot, of course).

Anyway, from all of us here at GOML, we wish you and yours a Happy Earth Day, and we hope there are many, many more. Or, to be more realistic, at least a few more.

Giordano Bruno

The Campo de’ Fiori is a lovely little square in the oldest part of Rome. A lively market for fruits, vegetables, flowers and more still flourishes there every day, just a couple of steps from the spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. At night it’s filled with diners, strollers, and tourists soaking in the beauty and atmosphere, and exploring the boutiques and restaurants on the adjacent side streets.

Click anywhere on the picture below to see a live cam of what’s going on there right now.

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A couple of days ago, there was a small crowd gathered on this spot and a few speeches were given to remember what happened there on February 17, 1600. On that day, Giordano Bruno was led to the square on a mule, stripped naked, had his tongue bound, and was burned alive.

That’s a statue of Bruno, erected in 1889, in the center of the picture.

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What crime had he committed? Heresy, of course. The Roman Inquisition found him to be a Pantheist. The Inquisition accused him of denying some basic Catholic tenets like the divinity of Jesus, the idea of eternal damnation, the virginity of Mary, and so on.

Bruno was a philosopher, mathematician and poet. He theorized about the cosmos, coming up with the ideas that the universe might be infinite and have no “center”, and that the stars were other suns perhaps with their own planets like ours, some possibly even supporting life. He figured all this out decades before Galileo, and, over the centuries, he has come to be regarded as a martyr for science.

Here is a nice little aggregation of reviews of the 2008 book, “Giordano Bruno – Philosopher, Heretic” by Ingrid D. Rowland, that provides some more insight about him.

Let There Be Light

There are three main reasons that the Scopes Trial didn’t really settle the issue of whether the Theory of Evolution should be taught in schools, and why we’re still arguing about “Creationism” almost a century later.

The first is that (really stupid) people thought Darwin was saying something like “your grandmother was a monkey”, and they knew that to be a priori false.

The second is that very religious people thought that it contradicted the Bible, which taught that God created Adam and Eve, etc., and that therefore Darwin’s theory was untrue and also heresy.

The third is that various politicians saw that what mattered in all this was not the science, but rather the votes of the really stupid people, so there was no real margin in going against the grain on this.

Isn’t that always the way.

In reality, Darwin doesn’t contradict the Bible at all, if you just think a little bit about the word “day”.  If I said, “Back in my day,  music was really music”, most people would understand that “my day” meant “my youth” or “my era” or “my time”, and not some particular 24-hour period.

From Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

OK, we have light and darkness on the first day. But it isn’t until the fourth day that we have the sun and the moon. Just a few verses later, Genesis says:

16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

So the question is, how long was the first “day” if the sun didn’t exist? Well it wasn’t 24 hours long, that much is clear. It was an “era” long, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s a million years or something else. It’s all a blink of an eye to God. Or maybe He hadn’t invented “time” yet.

My point is that you can stick to a literal translation of the Bible and still understand that evolution was merely the tool that God used to create things in the first “days”, and Darwin was not a heretic. If you’re not really stupid, that is.

I’m thinking about this today because on this day, February 13, in 1633, Galileo Galilei arrived in Rome to face charges of heresy. His mathematical and astronomical observations had led him to support the Copernican idea that the earth revolved around the sun, and the Roman Inquisition was pissed about it. It was heresy and that made Galileo an enemy of the state.

Trial of Galileo Galilei before the Inquisition, 1633.

Trial of Galileo

It was heresy because it contradicted various biblical passages which “proved” the earth was the center of the universe. For example,  1 Chronicles 16:30 says:

30     tremble before him, all the earth.
    The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.

Of course, the translated word “moved” here could be taken in other ways.  You could have taken it in the sense of “changed”, and this would have avoided a lot of trouble, and (intelligent) people may have seen there was no conflict here between scripture and science.

Galileo pleaded guilty to the charge in exchange for a reduced sentence and lived out the remainder of his life under house arrest. In 1992, only 359 years later, the Vatican acknowledged its mistake. So much for infallibility.

One thing to understand here is that, as with creationism, the politicians had something at stake here beyond what was true. And by “politicians”, I mean Popes and Cardinals. The Catholic church was the “state” and the wealthy and influential had the highest offices in the church.

It was vitally important to them that their “constituents” believed that they were the agents of God, or else their authority and influence would be undermined. Science and truth were secondary.

Isn’t that always the way.

A couple of other things to think about as long as we’re thinking about whether science can help explain things or solve problems, and whether politicians will be speeding up the process or slowing it down:

The Larsen C Ice Shelf is cracking in Antarctica. Ice shelf A and B already cracked in the last few years.

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New Zealand has just experienced its largest whale stranding in decades.

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch now covers 8.1% of the Pacific Ocean. There will be more plastic than fish  in the ocean by 2050.

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Ronald McNair

Thirty-one years ago today, Ronald McNair died.

He was only 36 years old and had already accomplished more than most do in a full lifetime.

In an NPR interview a couple of years ago, his brother, Carl, said  Ron saw possibilities where others only saw closed doors. Carl told this story about the nine-year-old Ron:

Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library. The library was public, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959 in South Carolina. As he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him — because they were white folk only — and they were looking at him and saying, you know, ‘Who is this Negro?’

So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books. Well, this old librarian, she says, ‘This library is not for coloreds.’ He said, ‘Well, I would like to check out these books.’ She says, ‘Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.’

So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, ‘I’ll wait.’ 

The librarian called the police — and McNair’s mother, Pearl. When the police got to the library, two burly guys come in and say, ‘Well, where’s the disturbance?’ And she pointed to the little 9-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. And the policeman says, ‘Ma’am, what’s the problem?’

By then, the boys’ mother was on her way.  She comes down there praying the whole way there: ‘Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail.’ And my mother asks the librarian, ‘What’s the problem?’  “He wanted to check out the books and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here,” the librarian said.

And the police officer said, ‘You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?’ And my mother said, ‘He’ll take good care of them.’ So, the librarian reluctantly handed over the books. And then, Carl says, “my mother said, ‘What do you say?’ 

And Ron answered, “Thank you, ma’am.”

Ron ultimately earned a PhD. in Physics from M.I.T.  He was an accomplished saxophonist and a black belt in karate.

In 1978, he was selected as one of thirty-five from a pool of 10,000 for the astronaut program at NASA. He was a mission specialist on the Challenger in 1984, only the second African-American to fly in space, and the first of the Bahá’i faith.

He had composed a piece of music, to be played on his second Challenger mission, STS-51-L, which lifted off January 28, 1986. It would have been the first piece of original music recorded in space.

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Lysenko echoes

Trofim Lysenko was a geneticist (of sorts) who rose to become the head  of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which was the broad network of plant and cattle breeders, academicians, and research facilities operating in the Soviet Union from 1929-1992. Lysenko and his ideas, now known as “Lysenkoism”, dominated the organization for 30 years, and led to the formal ban on teaching “Mendelist” genetics (i.e. real genetics) in the Soviet Union, which lasted until the 1960s.

According to Lysenko, acquired traits could be inherited. In other words, if you grafted a branch of a plant of one species onto a plant of another, you’d be creating a new hybrid plant whose characteristics would be passed on to its descendants. Or if you plucked the leafs off a plant, its descendants would be leafless. In other words, Lysenko was not a scientist at all.

Lysenkoism was very attractive to the Soviets because it was “politically correct”, a term invented by Lenin, meaning that it was consistent with the underlying Marxist view that heredity played a limited role in behavior, and that a new “breed” of citizen, a selfless Soviet Man, would be created as generations lived under socialism.  Lysenkoism also held promise for addressing the famines created by the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. And Lysenko himself had risen from the peasantry and developed his theories “practically”, i.e. without scientific experimentation. All good, right?

The control of politics over science got to the point where Stalin personally “corrected” Lysenko’s draft of his 1948 opening address to the Academy,  “On the Situation in Biological Science”.

Looking back from our advanced and enlightened 2017 perspective, we can see the absurdity of it all, and appreciate the harm it all did, not just to science and “truth”, but to the millions who might have been properly fed without it.

And we can easily see that the real problem was the  cult of personality around Stalin. That one individual had the power to say what was science and what wasn’t, and that lives could be destroyed by such a pronouncement, is the ultimate indictment of the totalitarian model. And when you add in the personal limitations of that individual – paranoia, insecurity, superstition, the willingness to embrace nonsense as fact – you know it will end in catastrophe.

Lucky for us we live in a democracy with checks and balances, where one man cannot determine what science is, and one man cannot silence dissenters with the stroke of a pen. We live in an open society where the scientific method is understood, even with the occasional Inconvenient Truth it reveals. Right?

Wrong, suckers!

Your new president has banned expressions from within any part of the federal government of thoughts on climate change that conflict with his own nutty mindset. And just to remind you what exactly that mindset is, here’s what he said in 2012:

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Tweets from Badlands National Park with actual facts have now been deleted by Man-baby-fiat. Of course nothing is ever actually gone from the internet once it gets there, so, for the curious, here they are:

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The Interior Department had its Twitter account shut down as well after two re-tweets regarded as unsympathetic to Trump during the inauguration. They’re back now, for the moment anyway.

Web pages about climate change, LGBT rights, civil rights and health care have disappeared from whitehouse.org. Archived Obama-era pages here.

Did we think this was possible? Could Obama or anyone else in the past have gotten away with this? Where’s Congress? Where’s the outrage? Who will say “no” to this guy? It hasn’t been a week and free speech has been happily thrown out the window.

We’ve seen the climate change denial among Republicans for years. Here’s a 2013  opinion piece from Forbes  on Lysenkoism and climate change. But it took the election of the man-baby to make all their dreams come true.

Screw facts, truth, science and the liberal elite horse they rode in on.