“Lord what fools these mortals be”
Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, 1595
For the moment, I sit on the Science Advisory Board (SAB) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By Congressional mandate, our group is charged to evaluate the science behind federal regulations to protect the environment and human health. Just recently, the Board received word that the EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, would not be seeking our evaluation of emissions standards for the oil and gas industry and of several other pending issues. Apparently, the Administrator feels comfortable moving forth on his own. It’s not that he disagrees with the SAB evaluation, because he doesn’t seem to want to know what the evaluation might be.
Put on the blinders; this horse is sure that he knows his way.
So too is the recent directive by the Department of Interior to halt a study by the National Academy of Sciences on the health effects of mountain-top-removal coal mining. Faced with high incidence of lung cancer and birth defects, the citizens of West Virginia wanted to know about the safety of these mines. Now, they will remain in the dark, save for the alternative facts of the coal industry.
All is good; the President loves clean, beautiful coal.
I don’t mean to say that scientists can provide the basic truth about everything. But, from observation and experiment, scientists can evaluate what is now known, especially as it pertains to many issues facing policy makers. The miracles of modern medicine and the prevention of toxic exposures have all derived from the pursuit of facts by scientists. Better experiments may change our understanding, but at any moment, scientists can deliver the best understanding of what we know—what we once called facts—to people who want to listen.
Nightly, President Trump plays with his “mobile,” Tweeting vociferously on issues large and small. The microchips in the device are certainly the product of basic scientific research. So, are the guidance systems on cruise missiles and the weather forecasts for tracking hurricanes. The President wants to cut funding for medical research, but if he falls ill, you can certainly bet that he will want the best treatment that medical science can provide.
Unfortunately, the President ignores the role of science in developing these products. He is comfortable pursuing alternative facts— not based on science, but “facts” that are convenient to his current agenda. It is telling that the post of Science Advisor to the President remains unfilled.
The assault on basic knowledge and its discovery is not only likely to leave our nation behind in the competitive international arena, but to leave a mark in history when a group of individuals could no longer be classified as Homo sapiens, having evolved into the new species of Homo aggrandisis. Of course, this would presume that we have accepted the process of evolution.
Aneja, V.P., P. R. Pillai, A. Isherwood, P. Morgan and S.P. Aneja. 2017. Particulate matter pollution in the coal-producing regions of the Appalachian Mountains: Integrated ground-based measurements and satellite analysis. Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association 67: 421-430.
Aneja, V.P., A. Isherwood and P. Morgan. 2012. Characterization of particulate matter (PM10) related to surface coal mining operations in Appalachia. Atmospheric Environment 54: 496-501.
Palmer, M.A., E.S. Bernhardt, W.H. Schlesinger, K.N. Eshleman, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, M.S. Hendryx, A.D. Lemly, G.E. Likens, O.L. Loucks, M.E. Power, P.S. White, and P.R. Wilcock. 2010. Mountaintop mining consequences. Science 327:148-149.
Schlesinger, W.H. 2017. http://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/when-science-informed-policy/
3 thoughts on “Only ostriches do it better.”
Thanks for the essay, but can I make one critique? Can we stop alluding to the “miracles” of modern medicine? They are not miracles, they are technologies born of lots of hard-nosed scientific research, much of which was basic research with no immediately obvious payoff. We don’t call a smartphone a miracle; we shouldn’t call an MRI, statin, or antibiotic one, either.
Agree absolutely. What medicine has brought us has been discovered by modern science.
I have been thinking about your question on incivility for a couple of months, and have some ideas that you might find interesting.
First, when posed with the question of incivility, my alt-right friends pointed to the Internet and electronic communication. Although they didn’t have a clue of why, I think they were right, The curtain of anonymity is well known, however, I don’t think the lack of English language skills has been addressed. Over the course of my academic career, there was a yearly decline in the use of language. To counteract this, I made it a requirement of my research elective to watch a Preston Sturges Movie and read a novel written prior to 1940. The point is, folks aren’t reading books that increase their active vocabularies. A 140 character tweet or text message is usually not an example of a well written communication.
Secondly, because of TV and movies, folks communicate emotionally, and not verbally. You can see this in facial expressions of the alt-right when they acknowledge and affirm mimes.
Third, much of the incivility is directed toward those who are not members of their group. This may well be an example of tribalism or territoriality
contributing to hate..
Fourth, I believe the local Alt-Right (and its hate) has its cultural roots in the Black Legion ( and Klan). I presented this notion to Tom Stanton (Terror in the City of Champions) at his lecture, much to the agitation of the audience. The coarseness (lack of civility) may simply reflect their cultural status and economic insecurity.
Fifth, incivility may just be the way poorly educated Alt-Righters talk. One can get a feel for this coarseness in Hillbilly Eulogy. Trump has given them a voice, and acceptability.
In summary, they may be defending their territory, have poor language skills, communicate emotionally, and get their information (facts) from Facebook et al.
Finally, I am beginning to think incivility has always been around, but has become more noticeable in light of the decline in language skills.
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