Saturday, March 18, 2006

Bush's Battle with Science

"Present policies are set to damage a whole generation of young research workers, and the negative impact on recruitment of the next generation of scientists will be seen for years to come."

This is the last line out the "A Reporter At Large" piece in the March 13th New Yorker, by Michael Specter and entitled "Political Science: The Bush Administration's War on the Laboratory." This statement I quoted from the New Yorker piece is actually from a commentary by Paul Nurse (Nobel laureate and president of Rockefeller University) that appeared in a recent issue of the journal Cell. He was referring to the Bush administration's policies and their affects on American science.

This administration has consistently shown again and again that it is driven by ideology, and not by empirical data (i.e, reality). This same article also quotes the former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: "But you have to weigh the facts, and this Administration doesn't seem to take that approach. One thing that I have learned is that belief doesn't change reality." However, that is precisely the guiding principal of this administration - belief/ideology makes reality.

On March 11, 2004, a commentary piece I wrote along these lines appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune, and I have included it below. I specifically looked at the administration's ignorance and distortion of anthropology and history to further its own agenda in the Middle East.

COMMENTARY: Democracy's Dark Side

Terrorism can breed in free states, Mr. President. If you took a deeper look at history and anthropology, you'd know that.

By Marcel Harmon

President Bush's blatant disregard and lack of respect for the sciences also afflicts his foreign policy.

On Feb. 18, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report accusing the Bush administration of systematically distorting scientific research to further its own political agendas.

This report focuses primarily on the physical and biological sciences, but it appears to me the administration is also guilty of ignoring and distorting anthropology and history.

Vice President Dick Cheney recently demonstrated this in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

"Nurturing democracy, especially in the Middle East, is essential to halting terrorism. Democracies do not breed the anger and the radicalism that drag down whole societies or export violence. Terrorists do not find fertile recruiting grounds in societies where young people have the right to guide their own destinies and to choose their own leaders." He cited Turkey as prime example of democracy in the Muslim world.

Eloquent words, but they seem overly idealistic and ignore reality. Take, for instance, the November 2003 attacks in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s this Muslim democracy was subject to attacks from domestic Kurdish, Islamic and Marxists terrorists, some of which assisted in recent attacks.
Apparently, democratic Turkey is fertile enough ground for these homegrown terrorists. As is the United States, easily the world's prime pillar of democracy. Remember Timothy McVeigh? Surely you haven't forgotten the Unabomber or the attacks against Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics.

Democracy in and of itself, even if it covers the entire planet like a warm blanket, will never eliminate the catalysts of terrorism. Why? A major reason is that evolution has shaped humanity to interact in groups that range in size from nuclear families to nations. Such groups are defined by ethnicity, religion, age and politics.

They often compete, sometimes violently, leading to sharp distinctions of "us" versus "them." The larger the group, the greater the chance for internal subgroups to develop "rifts" via the generation of new ideas, religions and philosophies. These disassociate themselves from the "us" and sometimes take drastic actions. Anti-abortion extremists are a perfect example, motivated by a homegrown morality rooted in the Christian right, fighting to save unborn children and acting against their fellow citizens and the law by blowing up abortion clinics.

Why don't Bush and Cheney make the obvious connection? Perhaps because they are not seeking any scientific input. Searching Web sites, I was only able to find one relatively high-ranking U.S. government individual at either the White House or the State Department with any higher-level education in anthropology.

Second, the science doesn't fit the picture this administration wants to paint - to gain public support - of an idealized Middle East full of perfectly functioning democracies that "do not breed anger and radicalism." It was necessary to ignore, twist and oversimplify elements of history and anthropology to push Bush's policies in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq.

Learning about other groups and cultures, and thereby gaining an understanding of the "other" - as individual people going about their day-to-day lives - allows one to focus more on our similarities rather than our differences. In this country, it should also cause us to think about how we affect other nations - like the amount of resources we consume relative to other parts of the world.

Political policies should take such issues into account, and this is certainly something anthropologists can help us do - if our leaders let them. As the leader of the free world, Bush should adapt political policy to new scientific findings, as well as to existing, accepted scientific knowledge. He should not "dumb down" our government's scientific capacity in order to fit his personal world view or preconceived political agenda.

The Un-Educators

Our illustrious Kansas State Board of Education is at it again - that is, the socially conservative, ideologically driven majority members. On Wednesday (3/15/06), the majority approved a requirement that schools would need to obtain parental permission before receiving any sex education. The general process is termed "opt-in," where forms must be sent home to parents who must then fill them out and send them back. This contrasts with the less cumbersome "opt-out" procedures that require forms to be turned in specifically if you do not want your kids to participate.

The social conservatives tout this as a means for "empowering parents" with regards to control over their own students' education. This seems a bit ludicrous and disingenuous to me, though.

If fixing a perceived power imbalance between schools and parents was really their goal, then it makes more sense to push some form of "opt-out" procedure as opposed to "opt-in." The former creates far less of a burden on our already overworked and underpaid educators, in just paperwork alone.

But this "power imbalance" doesn't really exist. School boards, administrators, and teachers are generally receptive to community/parent concerns (and note here that I do say generally as there are certainly exceptions); probably more so than ever before, if for no other reason than to simply protect themselves from litigation or other forms of community wrath.

And by the way, most schools already implement some type of formal or informal "opt-out" procedure as a means to accommodate individual parent/family concerns/beliefs, whether its sex-ed, holiday celebrations, or the like. It just requires that parents pay attention to their kids' lives and be proactive to a degree.

So to me this appears more as a ploy for the social conservatives to push their own ideological agenda as opposed to "empowering parents" or acting in the best interest of Kansas' students. Maybe these particular board members should worry more about stopping the continued decline of US student performance relative to the rest of the world than trying to keep them ignorant of what a condom is.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Severe Weather Welcoming Wagon

I knew the welcome would come, but it was still a heart pounding surprise nonetheless. After moving back to Kansas three months ago (after an absence of about 13 years), I was awaiting with some trepidation the greeting I would receive from the midwest's/great plain's spring/summer severe weather season.

Well, yesterday it came a little early and for some reason decided against bringing flowers as a welcoming gesture. Heck, there wasn't even a welcome wagon - more like a freight train that tore through Lawrence, rumbling and shaking my own house for 30 seconds or so. And it was gone before I got myself to the house's central bathroom. So I count my blessings, both in terms of the minimal damage my rental house received and the fact that no one in Lawrence was seriously hurt (but the damage is extensive). Tragically, though, others in Missouri were not so fortunate.

Now the official word is that tornados weren't actually part of the welcoming committee (at least here in Lawrence) - just extremely strong straight winds and microbursts. But there were many unofficial accounts of people spotting a tornado or two. Whatever the case, mother nature officially welcomed me back to the state. And the adrenaline rush overlying a tinge of fear brought back memories of growing up in a state where severe weather is simply a part of what must be faced on any given day during the spring and summer.

The trepidation I mentioned earlier really wasn't for myself, or even my wife who also grew up here. I've got two small kids now, one old enough to realize the danger and he'll have to come to terms with it. I think that's the basis of my real fear - having to help get him past the initial shock and fear of living in a place where whirling winds of terror could potentially pluck you from the ground and hurl you to points unknown; to get past that to the point of simply accepting it as a normal part of life.

And since he, his sister, and my wife were visiting my inlaws over the weekend, he missed his first real experience with severe weather. So this "initiation" is yet to come. But he'll get through it. One of the basic coping mechanisms of our species is adapting to our surrounding environments, no matter the conditions. From living in a war torn environment, to the supposed constant threat of terrorism - we tend to find ways to get by (albeit sometimes in ways that do long term damage to our psychies).

And speaking of living under the constant threat of terrorism, I would recommend today's Unger report (, where he makes a humorous yet pointed comparison between living under the threat of tornadoes vs. the threat of terrorism.