Quarantine Protocols and Civil Liberties

When mandatory isolation reeks of benevolent dictatorship.

As technology and globalized markets reach further into previously inaccessible regions, our world veritably shrinks and we risk exposure to exotic diseases. Sometimes, as is the case in recent years, the diseases of old return for an encore performance. I’m sure we all remember the recrudescence of Ebola in West Africa in 2014 and the concomitant fearmongering by public health officials here in the United States; Thomas Frieden, then-director of the CDC, compared the Ebola outbreak to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. Yes! He seriously said that.

Foolish comments notwithstanding, let’s not be mistaken. Ebola—otherwise known as Ebola virus disease (EVD)—is extraordinarily deadly with, according to the World Health Organization, an average fatality rate of 50%. And Ebola isn’t the only wee-beastie out there. Indeed, many health agencies worldwide acknowledge a category of communicable diseases that don’t receive their due attention and thrive in tropical and subtropical climes—appropriately named neglected tropical diseases (NTDs)—causing considerable hardship to more than a billion people. That’s quite frightening, but as I adamantly maintain: fear is the one true contagion.

Many admirable healthcare workers and volunteers returned from relief efforts in West Africa only to be imprisoned in their homes for twenty-one days, the incubation period for EVD. This is a scandal.

I don’t know as many of my rights as I ought to and I suspect this is true for a lot of people, not just Americans. We are all familiar with legal buzzwords like “freedom of speech,” “human rights,” “due process,” “informed consent,” and “probable cause.” Law & Order—and recent publicized encounters by police with people of color—have been rather instructive. Nonetheless, our civic and legal ignorance can leave us in rather precarious situations which perpetuate negative attitudes towards the justice system, and the government generally.

Would we, when stopped by airport security or customs agents, know whether our rights were being violated? Whether we could be detained based on a list of ambiguous symptoms?

Continue reading “Quarantine Protocols and Civil Liberties”

The Language of Evidence

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Who needs evidence? What is evidence, anyway? What is it good for?

Let’s take it from the top.

What is Evidence?

We all know what evidence is. It’s that thing President Trump lacked when he claimed voter fraud cost him the popular vote. Or when he claimed China fabricated climate change.

Evidence, the noun, can be defined in the following ways:

As an aside, I find it rather unfortunate that I have to pay for use of the Oxford English Dictionary—a dictionary (and so much more) distinct from the Oxford Dictionaries. Fie on them for charging for such a treasure trove of English!

Who Needs Evidence?

Everyone!

Why is Evidence Important?

Before I begin: no. The previous section is not suspiciously terse. Everyone needs evidence whether they like it or not.

Human civilization depends on evidence for quite a number of things including philosophy, law, science, and technology. Without it, where would we be? Without evidence, we could expect defendants in a court of law to be convicted based on caprice or whimsy rather than by establishing guilt through facts, information, and argument. Many medical practices and treatments are wholly dependent on well-designed experiments and empirical data validating their efficacy; this field is known as evidence-based medicine. How apropos! The whole scientific enterprise is grounded in claims that can be verified or falsified through measurement, observation, experimentation, and the replicability of such experiments.

Continue reading “The Language of Evidence”

Science and Politics

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

In recent weeks, science and politics have intersected in some very dreadful ways. A growing number of government and political figures have shamelessly tried to thwart, distort, and undermine science. Alas, this is nothing new. Politicians have typically looked askance at scientific endeavors, often regarding space travel, evolution, vaccinations, climate science, and renewable energy resources with contempt. The Trump administration has brazenly—backdropped with deafening silence among Republicans—committed themselves to the despoliation of the environment and the extirpation of climate science from governmental websites, proving themselves inimical to scientific interests and concerns. And we can be sure more executive orders against science are forthcoming.

This is a fucking scandal.

It seems that the rift between politicians and the scientific community, especially in the aforementioned regard, has grown sufficiently large such that any attempt to bridge the divide appears impossible.

Or is it?

Science is grossly underrepresented in government, rather ironic in a country with various institutions dedicated to scientific and medical research. Although not completely absent from the political arena, the list of U.S. Senators with any kind of scientific competency—let alone anything resembling proper STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education—is so appallingly small that it’s worth listing them here. Behold:

  • John Boozman (R-Arkansas) – Doctor of Optometry
  • David Perdue  (R-Georgia) – Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering
  • Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) – Doctor of Medicine
  • Steve Daines (R-Montana) – Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
  • Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) – Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
  • John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) – Doctor of Medicine

Four doctors and three engineers.

With the exception of Rand Paul, I’m sure a majority of these names are foreign to us. The most prevalent degree among the other senators is a Juris Doctor. No surprise there. But it should be concerning, especially as the Trump administration makes aggressive moves to sabotage climate science. I admit I didn’t look at the House of Representatives; luckily, The Atlantic did a bit of that for me. There was a particle physicist elected to the House in 2014; at the time, “even with a very generous definition of scientists… roughly 4 percent [of Congress had] technical backgrounds.”

It’s a start, I guess.

Back in 2011, China—President Trump’s favorite country after Mexico—had an array of government officials with substantial scientific tutelage. (I’m sure Trump would be bigly disappointed at this fact and I speculate this may be why Trump has made foolish statements about climate change and China.) In 2012, approximately 30 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have science, medical, or technical backgrounds. The current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has a doctoral degree in quantum chemistry. The President of Singapore, Tony Tan, has a doctoral degree in Applied Mathematics, and his Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science. Scientist-politicians indeed exist and we need more of them.

Science makes the world go round. We need science, technology, and medicine for pretty much everything. Therefore, we need more government officials who are scientifically literate should we hope to have any future whatsoever. Thankfully, 314 Action is a non-profit organization that aspires to rectify this shortage of the scientifically enlightened in the political sphere. Their mission:

  • Strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials;
  • Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy;
  • Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.

I’m all for this. We desperately need scientist-politicians to defend and endorse scientific pursuits and legislation. I daresay it’s the only way to guarantee future prosperity, whether socially, culturally, and economically. It will take more than open letters, opinion articles, and marches to combat this anti-scientific administration. Science has the evidence, now it just needs political will to make that evidence heard. This is the next step in science communication.

 

When all is Polluted

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”

I awake each morning to a veritable cannonade of news updates. I find we aren’t approaching an Orwellian nightmare, but rather a tawdry simulacrum of such a nightmare, headed by a modern-day Caligula; I reckon this latter reality is far worse than Orwell’s fictional world. The scariest part, I think, is that I cannot discern whether the commander-in-chief is morally corrupt or that he’s truly enjoying the systematic destruction of a great country—or both.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised to learn President Trump had selected a known climate change denier, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Neither am I surprised by the Pruitt’s blatant casuistry in the National Review, where he hopes to continue urging a “healthy debate” about global warming—in his favor, of course; even the title of the article, “The Climate Change Gang,” should signal bullshit is afoot. No, I’m more aghast that media coverage surrounding this unbelievably egregious appointment was so scant.

Where were the placards? Where were the protests?

Alas, nowhere.

Let’s get into a very brief lesson. Around the middle of the twentieth century, it dawned on society that our mortal ventures and pursuits could augment the planet with noteworthy consequences for its inhabitants, namely us. Prior to this exigent concern, industrial eructations coated our skies and toxic waste was callously dumped away from populated areas. Established in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency has generally acted as the proactive bulwark against environmental pollutants that would otherwise lead to our untimely demise as a species. They are principally responsible for enforcing laws like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and various forms of hazardous waste disposal, among other things. Check out their mission. It’s kind of important.

I have written about the Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums and how just one important piece of EPA legislation—the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, more affectionately known as the Superfund Act—superintended the cleanup of two toxic dumping grounds and held the perpetrating goons accountable.

Yet, the EPA isn’t an infallible or perfect institution.

Despite all its faults, alleged negligence, and various lawsuits threatening its existence, we need the EPA. Hell, I think the EPA could be doing a better job; I think much of its initiatives and actions are reactive, acting belatedly to environmental health disasters. Just look at the spillage of waste at the Gold King Mine in Colorado or the lead-rich waters of Flint, Michigan or the new water finance program. My criticisms and misgivings notwithstanding, we require an agency which advocates for the preservation of the natural world, for it has become distressingly clear the Trump administration endeavors to achieve the contrary.

When Books Burn

Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.

With the emergence of the reprehensible term “alternative facts”—we can thank Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, for this affront to truth—I couldn’t help but recall my reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It would seem I was not alone. I implore those who haven’t read the book to pick up a copy and compare the fictional work to our current reality under the Trump administration.

What a time to be alive.

With each passing day, we find ourselves in a world that more closely approximates the society in which Winston Smith lived, where Newspeak and doublethink are distressingly palpable. For example, the vetting of EPA information. The Trump administration ordered all information released to the public by the Environmental Protection Agency be reviewed. By whom, you ask? By bias politicians with little to no background or understanding of science, of course. It’s possible that the administration instituted this totalitarian edict only for the duration of their transition into power. Or perhaps this is an attempt by Big Brother and his cult to quash information against their interests, rewriting facts and history to fit their agendas.

I tend to think the latter is more likely. Get a load of this:

The only references to rising temperatures on the new Trump White House site are a commitment to eliminate “harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan”.

On top of the review process imposed on the EPA, the Trump administration would peruse all EPA webpages—especially those with information and data related to climate change—to remove anything unsightly. Can’t wait for Trump to hold a press conference where he declares, “no one does science better than me.”

I’m a member of the American Public Health Association and I subscribe to all their newsletters and emails. I awoke this morning to an explosion of cellphone notifications as my Gmail inbox was overcome by a deluge of exigent business. The emails contained various factsheets, links, and documents regarding climate change and its health implications, intended to create an offsite repository of crucial information lest it be extirpated by the current administration.

Did I wake up in the Oceania? What the fuck is happening?

Well, it’s not bibliocide in the classical sense, but a conflagration has started. The Trump administration is making big moves, some proving to be inimical to health and science—this much should be painfully obvious. With broad swipes, funding for important reproductive health services has been cut and the canker of fossil fuels can now spread unabated. And now, they want to get rid of climate change science altogether.

Although the Trump administration has abruptly halted its “book-burning” enterprise, we can only wonder for how long. As the Terminator warned us: “Judgment day is inevitable.” This is only the beginning. We would do well to remember that “it is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people.”

The Bituminous Future

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

We all remember departing 2016 remarking it as having been the worst year in existence, mewling and grieving and bitching and moaning. Somehow, I suppose we all knew—with the election of Donald Trump—such a sentiment could not have been true. Indeed, we may have jinxed ourselves, for each passing day we bitterly regret our premature Facebook lamentations.

I stand by my previous remarks about the loathsome pseudo-intellectual and incumbent Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson. Especially after reading such masochistic comments like the following:

“I would not have chosen him because of his lack of experience and his often troubling public statements over the last three years,” Brown said. “But despite my reservations and my disagreements with some of his positions, I’ll give Dr. Carson the benefit of the doubt.”

Why?

Drivel of this sort is the seedbed for the kind of ignorance and complacency that would see civil liberties erode, education crumble, and democracy falter. Perhaps I was too kind to the doctor; so, too, were the Republicans who posed rather weak questions during Carson’s confirmation hearing. In true political cowardice, Carson failed to answer a number of questions directly and wholly demonstrated that his experience as a neurosurgeon will translate poorly to his new position.

Speaking of crumbling education, Betsy DeVos—Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education—is another unsavory mortal whose intelligence is inversely proportional to her wealth. Need proof? Please watch this lengthy and sordid Senate confirmation hearing to learn that schools in Wyoming need firearms “to protect from potential grizzlies.”

It is difficult not to succumb to further pessimism as President Trump signs executive actions committing the United States to the unabating despoliation of the environment and sacred sites. What is to be expected from a man who believes global warming is a Chinese fabrication. And Trump’s potential picks for science advisor don’t bode well for the environment either, let alone humanity. The first is a physicist from Princeton who believes more carbon dioxide emissions “will be good for the world.” The second is a computer scientist from Yale who thinks Trump is “not just sharp; he’s thoughtful.” I wonder whether the president will select the jester or sycophant.

Alas, I’m sure Trump’s signatures have TransCanada and Energy Transfer Partners celebrating while environmentalists are incensed. Everyone should be incensed. Gloom approaches again, threatening to cloak our sun in ashen clouds and blanket our waters in inky expiry. This is unacceptable.

 

The Pseudo-Intellectuals Among Us

How pundits, quacks, sciolists, and charlatans subvert erudition and wisdom

I love books. Well… I’m obsessed, as I’ve unabashedly stated. I delight in learning new words—oftentimes in multiple languages—and I get strangely excited about their etymologies. But I also have a tendency to gorge myself in random—and arguably useless—snippets of information regarding all sorts of things. This is often guided by a mild case of self-diagnosed attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder; I’ll proffer an example for adjudication to demonstrate how far off the beaten track I can wander.

A few days ago, I was reading a book when I suddenly encountered a new word. I reached for my cellphone and opened my Merriam-Webster app. Before I my search could begin, I was distracted by the app’s Word of the Day: crepuscular. I clicked on the word knowing that I would be provided with an etymology of the word. I wasn’t disappointed. But I learned Latin had two words describing twilight, one which had kinship with the word lucid. This naturally led me to Lucifer (and his descent), then to luciferin, followed by bioluminescence, marine wildlife, and finally whales.

Braggadocio to Lucifer to bioluminescence to whales. And I was only interrupted by a phone call. My massive digression could have landed me in the darker recesses of the internet, from which few return.

I still don’t know how this happens.

So, I am acquainted with a panoply of ostensibly useless trivia. Jack of all trades, master of none. If we could stroll through the labyrinthine scriptoria of my mind, it would look as if an earthquake had struck the Library of Alexandria moments before the infamous conflagration. Bedlam. Chaos. Madness. Nevertheless, I’ve been assured I could possibly find limited success as a contestant on Jeopardy. Meh… who knows?

The loss of focus and seemingly haphazard detours are not without their triumphs. I am reasonably well-informed about current events—foreign and domestic—and can participate in all sorts of learned and quasi-learned conversations; I typically have much to say in all cases. Yet, I never claim to be an expert, even in areas which I have been formally educated—or which I fervently research. Indeed, I often wonder whether these superficial glimpses of knowledge make me a dilettante.

Unfortunately, we are familiar with those charlatans who claim to “know for a fact,” or have profound knowledge and wisdom we mere plebeians could never possess. (Or one could take the President-elect’s position: “nobody really knows.”) Few appreciate a know-it-all. Yet, fewer still wish to be considered uninformed or unlearned. I think it is this fear which spawns pseudo-intellectuals.

Continue reading “The Pseudo-Intellectuals Among Us”