Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Inequality and Stupid Presidents

The Republican Party had been on track to spit up something like Trump for quite some time. Inevitable without a course correction that never came. One party shitting the bed with their nominee usually means a brutal loss. 

I know, I know. Electoral college luck. Clinton Mehs. Clinton team too comfy.Two counties in Wisconsin that decided what the hell lets see what happens. Angry white dudes. Crazy white evangelicals. Etc. But we shouldn't ignore this because didn't help.

High inequality has also political effects. The rich have more political power and they use that political power to promote own interests and to entrench their relative position in the society. This means that all the negative effects due to exclusion and lack of equality of opportunity are reinforced and made permanent (at least, until a big social earthquake destroys them). In order to fight off the advent of such an earthquake, the rich must make themselves safe and unassailable from “conquest”. This leads to adversarial politics and destroys social cohesion. Ironically, social instability which then results discourages investments of the rich, that is it undermines the very action that was at the beginning  adduced as the key reason why high wealth and inequality may be  socially desirable.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Art of the Deal

Others have said hilarious and insightful things about this already. I'm posting it for ease of reference. If you haven't seen it, you should. The White House put out a statement about a "constructive conversation" shortly after this and I can't do a thing but laugh. Democrats, ignore the "tone" police. This is perfect.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Communicating Science: Politics

While everyone was out Black Friday shopping this dropped.

The holiday weekend timing of this report surely wasn't accidental. There are great takes out there already on that, and the fact that it's 13 federal agencies agreeing climate change has 1) already wreaked havoc and 2) will have cast economic impact while President Deals shakes his head and "just doesn't trust it." FiveThirtyEight upped a conversation between their own editors' today on the experience on the press call Friday morning and exploring the role of science in a debate (world?) ruled by politics.

It reminded me that the day of my own presentation to USU researchers and staff on communicating science in a social media world -- two days after the release of the IPCC climate change report -- administrators had emailed a warning to staff reminding them of rules on lobbying and encouraging the avoidance of staking out political ground. Since, someone slipped me one of those emails and I was surprised to read this sentence:

"Talk about and promote your research. Let the science speak for itself. The politics of the day don't matter. Your work does."

In my presentation I challenged this very strategy without knowing everyone in the audience had received this email. Afterward I had a chance to discuss the concerns researchers had. Many expressed "walking a fine line" between defending or discussing research that by it's very nature could be construed as choosing a political side. I wasn't sure how to respond then.

From the FiveThirtyEight discussion today:

I think it’s obvious to most people, at this point, that the politics are important. At least as important as the scientific findings. Because we already know the science — “we” being the public, I mean. There’s not a lot in the assessment that is really going to surprise anybody who knows the basics of climate change. What matters most at this point is what we do with the findings. And if the political reality is that we’re ignoring it …
This is a very urgent and legitimate question researchers and entire academic institutions are going to have to grapple with. I get the need for rules on staff and lobbying for policy on the university dime or reputation. But USU also has the Koch funded "Center for Growth and Opportunity" out lobbying, literally, in op-ed pages and elsewhere using university's rep and even official seal advocating for aviation regulation changes. They want an Uber, but for airplanes something. Could this not also be construed as staking out a political policy position? Hell yes it could.

But aviation regs haven't been quite as politicized as climate science. The Republican Party and a vast majority of conservative enablers have reduced climate science to a partisan chew toy so successfully that scientists at Utah State University are afraid to say "Oh, bullshit" when Utah House Rep David Lifferth points and a snowflake and says something ignorant.

At Friday's press conference, NOAA reps were fielding reasonable and predictable questions from the few journalists not off for the holiday like political campaign hacks. Not by their choice, to be sure. But it was clear the science itself wasn't speaking. I'm not sure I agree with the FIveThirtyEight editor consensus that the public already knows all the basics. Not here in my neck of the woods.

But I get what they're getting at. The science has been secondary to the politics for a while now and that isn't going to change. Researchers and schools of science staff are going to be silenced by institutional guidelines seeking an apolitical position. They only way this is going to be achieved is if Universities and their researchers sit it out. But they can't. Rock and a hard place?

Nah. It's just time Universities recognize what the New York Times still hasn't: Kissing the asses of these right wing lunatics gets you no where. You're going to be accused of bias unless you start producing results they agree with. I'm not talking about scientists locked arm in arm blocking the office doors at state legislatures in protest (though I'm not opposed to that and we might get there anyway). I'm talking about universities giving their researchers free-enough reign and backup to communicate, effectively, their research into the public policy environments at the state legislative level.

That's going to be perceived as political because they've politicized the science. There's no putting that back in the tube.

There isn't an alternative.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Communicating Science: "Benefits of change"

Presentation was received well. Video of it should be available somewhere soon.

Literally, though, the day of my presentation to a decent sized group of researchers, scientists, and PR flacks for the respective schools invited, someone much more experienced than I wrote this. I'm even more proud of my presentation, feeling validated I reached similar conclusions and tried for the same message.

Focus shift from "avoiding catastrophe" to "benefits of change." Less focus on changing public opinion or engaging in good faith arguments with bad faith actors.

By focusing so intensively on public opinion, we have yet to even evaluate the relevant factors that influence elite-level decisions on these valuable yet below the radar bills where bi-partisan cooperation has been proven to be possible.  
 A place to start is to do the hard qualitative work of spending time talking to and listening to dozens of Congressional staffers from both parties, noting the assumptions and priorities that they and their bosses bring to energy innovation policies, the sources of information they rely on, who they judge trustworthy or authoritative on the topics, how they communicate their positions, and the conditions under which agreement might be reached.
More influencing of decision maker minds at the state local level in place of engaging on broad scales or via public campaigns/events, the option with the most immediate potential -- something I stressed in my own presentation at USU.

Dr. Nisbet isn't arguing for an end to engaging and entertaining dissent. The opposite, he says, is most productive. His argument rests on the idea that the value of debate, public opinion, and exposure to scientific fact isn't enough. Researchers must campaign. And city, county, and state legislative leaders may prove more valuable for their time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Communicating Science: "It's Peer Reviewed"

"Why Science Works" panel, SLC FanX, Sept 2018
Interesting Why Science Works panel at the SL Comicon, er, FanX... whatever, Nerdfest. Before I could ask a question the conversation veered organically into communicating science, denials, and politicization.

Moderator and Weber State University professor Eric Swedin steered the panel through some great topics, from the value (for others) in engaging and climate deniers to the wave-like nature of anti-science sentiments.

Directly, the topic of scientists communicating science to the public was broached in the context of fighting anti-science pols and a better educated electorate. One of the male panelists (I was looking for an outlet) sort of shrugged, almost as if the question was already answered.

"Credible science is peer reviewed, and the public has access to that," he said.

The panel ended and I was halfway into my next when the weight of that answer really set in. I mean, the panelist isn't wrong. But the question was about fighting back against misinformation and bad faith "debate me" trolls or pols. Is this how researchers and scientists think about this question?

If it is, do they have a responsibility to rethink it? Do they have a responsibility (or opportunity?) to be a bit more engaged than that in our current situation? I know universities put a lot of effort into press releasing or even spotlighting important research with campus or community events, but is that enough?

I keep thinking about Princeton historian Kevin M Kruse 's willingness to engage uber-troll and not-so-bright-person Dinesh D'Souza on twitter and that exchange making it's way into publications with a broad audience. Kruse fed the troll and anyone exposed to the exchange was better informed (also, it was hilarious). That seems valuable. Maybe more valuable than a press release to local media when researchers and scientists have something important, useful, and urgent to convey?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Communicating Science: Narratives

Exploring some of the more complex arenas of science communication and public engagement. Beside concern of formats, engagement tools, framing and breaking out of information silos, there are also legitimate questions about passive vs. formal engagement, and with who and when? Would scientists at a public university accomplish more working with local city, county, and state governments to inject in or even create conversations tied to local issues? Where passive (traditional PR/press release) styles fail, would formal and direct engagement succeed?

What is the value of a sparsely attended panel event in contrast with a noted researcher getting down in the Twitter mud to challenge a poorly informed elected official? What crashes gates and what reinforces tribal political walls? Because part of the problem here is ignoring the politics of science talk. It may not originate in or because of political circles but that is most definitely where it's being heard and discussed most.


Furthermore, people with lower numeracy are more likely to rely on these heuristics when engaging in complex judgments and decisions such as those that involve science, and especially scientific uncertainty (Peters et al., 2006Sinayev and Peters, 2015). They also rely more on narratives and the way information is presented in particular lights (discussed below) instead of applying the probabilities and other numbers critical to understanding science (Peters, 2012a). Of course, highly numerate individuals also sometimes misunderstand numeric information and use heuristic processing, but to a lesser degree (Chapman and Liu, 2009Peters et al., 2007). Careful attention to how scientific uncertainty and other numbers are presented can reduce the use of heuristics and increase understanding and use of provided numbers, especially among the less numerate (Institute of Medicine, 2014).
...what is the narrative? Is it too often an apolitical "You might find this interesting"? If you (like journalists) are going to be perceived through a partisan and tribal lens in the end, could you more effectively communicate scientific ideas and foster deeper understanding among traditionally marginalized or non-engaged groups by, if not owning, at least ignoring that?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Communicating Science

In October, I'll be speaking to USU Quinney College of Natural Resources and the College of Science graduate students and faculty on communicating science to "the media" as part of their Climate Adaptation Science project.

It's a topic I've developed a personal interest in previously, so I'm excited and have thoughts. Scientists sit out too many city and state level policy debates. Universities have too many "gatekeepers," even in USU's decentralized PR model. Three pages press releases. Why?

In prep I've been delving into recent science related public policy debates from Florida to Arizona, looking at the quality and quantity of coverage. Some obvious questions arise frequently. What's the real value in filling valuable newspaper real estate or evening news minutes with "man on the street" reactions or, worse, statements from elected partisans? Am I missing something? They aren't informative or even interesting, yet they make up a good 30% of the reporting on, for example, the 2017 debate in Florida over a bill dealing with science curriculum and school texts.

"Scientists say the textbook in question presents an accurate and comprehensive look at the relevant science, and educators defend the curriculum as an important engagement opportunity with students. But Bob, retired electrician and television owner says it's all bulls**t written by Latte Libruls and a left-wing conspiracy to make the President look stupid.  Congressman [X] says it's important we give both sides an opportunity to be heard in this important debate."
I'm barely exaggerating the average local story. Who is benefiting from this kind of coverage?

Anyway, here are some previous presentations from the same communicating science series. I don't see how I can leave politics out of my own, but we'll see.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Bruce Sterling ruins my day

One of my least favorite science fiction writers wrote a thing on "smart cities."

Sterling seems like a smart man, despite being a boring writer. But I've spent several years now working voluntarily with coalitions and cities in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming on transparency standards and "smart city" ideas to engage and understand residents. So, a little defensive at his dismissive tone as I read.

But he's right, the bastard.

If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. It’s the process of the new big-money, post-internet crowd, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft et al., disrupting your uncle’s industrial computer companies, the old-school machinery guys who ran the city infrastructures, Honeywell, IBM, General Electric. It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
If smart cities don't exist -at least not in the "ground up" and "citizen driven" way they're talked about in transparency, open gov, and city planning circles- what happens to all this energy and increasing interest in being "smart" sprouting in small to mid-size cities of the west?
The GAFAM crowd isn’t all that well suited to the urban task at hand, either. Running cities is not a good business fit for them because they always give up too easily. America’s already littered with the remnants of abandoned Google Moonshots. Amazon kills towns by crushing retail streets and moving all the clerks backstage into blind big-box shipping centers. The idea of these post-internet majors muscling up for some 30-year urban megaproject—a subway system, aqueducts, the sewers—seems goofy.  
These Big Tech players have certainly got enough cash to build a new, utopian town from scratch, entirely on their own software principles—a one-company Detroit for the Digital Initiative. But they won’t do that because they’re American. The United States hasn’t incorporated a major new city in almost 70 years.
Sterling barely touches on the philosophy or ideology of "smart city" agendas except to brush them off, but he's right about the futility and cynicism of "ground up" mythology built around such agendas. If "smart cities" are to actually be grassroots oriented and citizen driven it has to be, paradoxically, somewhat severed from "tech." Not technology itself, but the world of "tech" as most of us understand it via GAFAM.

Really smart cities won't be built around Silicon Valleys or Slopes, tech hubs, innovation corridors or Amazon warehouses, but, as Sterling is trying to say in too many words, very few "smart" cities are making the distinction. The danger for cities now is becoming yet another data funnel rather than savvy data consumer, the declared goal of a "smart city."

[Another take on the matter via the Guardian. Interesting, but always read Poole skeptically.]

Monday, August 20, 2018

Trump, fascism and action for action's sake


Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes. Add to the Italian fascism a radical anti-capitalism (which never much fascinated Mussolini) and you have Ezra Pound. Add a cult of Celtic mythology and the Grail mysticism (completely alien to official fascism) and you have one of the most respected fascist gurus, Julius Evola. 
But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
For most people questions of definition don't arise all that often. Maybe it's an instinctual "Ick" or a more thoughtful "this is bad," upon recognition. But not many people are watching the news and pondering the label or definition of what they're seeing and hearing. Thoughtful or emotional responses are limited (in time, not influence) to "I like" or "I dislike," with an occasional "WTF? Oh hell no." Once in a while, we're prodded, poked, guilted, or accidentally stumble upon a ballot and cast a vote and if asked at the polls, well, of course we're against fascism (and racism and tyranny and authoritarianism). But fascism, authoritarianism, tyranny, and to a large extent even racism are understood as a negative to be avoided, but not understood enough to recognized in subtle form. Throughout history fascists, authoritarians, racists, idiots, cynics, douches, and that one loud contrarian guy who reads CATO have their most crazy ideas and opinions elevated by this lack of depth to understanding. "Fascists" are things from history books and impoverished countries. "Real Racists" predate the 1960s. Dictators and authoritarians only rise to power in Central America and Africa. There will never be another Nazi rise or Hitler. Don't believe me? Ask around your workplace or bus ride home. Sure Trump is scary and crazy, but the next election is coming soon and the majority of Americans are wealthy enough, and comfy. 
This isn't an elitist criticism of those with better things to do than immerse themselves in politics, history, or theory. Just an observation. Nor is this some extreme warning we're on the doorstep of Nazi Germany. We ain't. So far. Still, Eco's writing of the Ur-fascist and fascism's constant elements amid it's variations seems important to understanding what's happening today and, most specifically, what the morons still cheering this president on are embracing and responding to in their excitement. His proposed definition offers a chance to really ruin your own afternoon spotting hints and elements of Ur-Fascism in the halls of state houses, Congress, and the words of President Stable Genius.
Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
Know anyone thinking this way? Of course you do. We all do. 
I recommend reading Eco's entire article. His distillation of fascism to a cult of tradition embedded in a rejection of modernism, embracing irrationalism as action for action's sake, and feeding on misplaced (or benefiting from misplacing) social frustrations and fear rooted in social identity will make it even more fun to read the news each day.
You're welcome.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"The kids know how to look out for it"

Appalling must-read from a columnist touring Louisiana's poorest industrialized communities.

Can't shake these paragraphs:
But the most tragic story involves the schools. Not only are Reserve children being poisoned with a known carcinogen but, “they’re not teaching our black boys anything except sports,” says Taylor. “They’ve taken out shop, they’ve taken out home economics, they’ve taken out music!” Remember, Wilma Subra had said, “the industries in these community become partners in education and have total control over the topics that are taught. If you have a student who wants to do a project about plant emissions, they get told, ‘No.’ And the school board members need money to run for election, and where do you think their money comes from…?” 
Louisiana is intentionally raising a generation devoid of the knowledge necessary to comprehend their own toxic situation. Not only is the state poisoning its people, but it is taking away their means of being able to understand that they are being poisoned. And it doesn’t stop there. Louisiana State University and many reputable institutions across America receive large sums of money from the petrochemical industry, so who, Subra asks, is going to do the research that actually critiques these corporations?
A lot of legitimate panic now over the Trump administration's deregulation without thought, but this political cancer is rooted in decades (centuries?) of federal, state, county and city policies in the name of industry, infrastructure, blind capitalism and the cruel convenience of ignoring those most effected by the consequences.