Monday, January 20, 2020

Poor kids going hungry

Ah, Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Utah. A day for Republican lawmakers state and federal to tweet a few "safe" quotes from King, and applaud his "message of unity."

King wasn't a unity guy. He was a radical fighting injustice. Some crossover there, but a lot of daylight too. The only "unity" he spend his final months talking about was the intersection of racism, inequality, war, and power. There are some great reads out there I wish everyone would spend time with. King's own words, of course. But also the history of the times he lived and worked in. Learning about the times he lived and worked in, and the very human and flawed person he was made his words even more meaningful for me. The books and docs are out there and easy to find and please do.

King is most inspirational as a person when broadly understood but his words have the impact when applied specifically, immediately. In 1967 King wrote:“We aren’t merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now. We’re struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter.”

Utah lawmakers, Governor Herbert, during the work of the tax task force last year you, all of us, heard from a teacher keeping a make-shift food pantry for students in her classroom closet. You closed out the task force debate and passage of tax "reform" patting yourselves on the back with a WSJ op-ed by a Club for Growth hack based on an ALEC state ranking.

Spare us the MLK Jr memes.






Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Oh Peggy

In all the excitement of a potential war with Iran with President Hamberder at the helm, I missed this new year Noonan nugget:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi made herself look ridiculous this year when she backed lowering the voting age to 16. This is an idiotic and destructive idea, an epic and hackish pander, and is offensive to the baseline reality that the adults of a great nation have the right to govern its affairs. It will go nowhere, but the coming decade may see some pushback against the 18-year-old vote, passed in 1971. A lot has changed since then. We know the brains of 18-year-olds are not fully developed and haven’t fully knitted. Young people are educated more poorly, and the screens that surround them and through which they learn encourage sensation, not thought. Their experience of the world is limited; most are financially and emotionally supported by others. All this as the questions we face grow more complex. We should raise the voting age, not lower it.
Reminded me of a tweet I wish I'd saved for sharing and crediting the author that went something like: "A good friend invites you over to watch Twilight. Not your thing, but you go, for a friend. Halfway through, he gets up, grabs his car keys, and just leaves. Anyway, my point is, old people shouldn't be allowed to vote."

To Noonan's "point" about dependency, real world education, and cognitive abilities: Um. Not going to waste your time pretending she has a relevant idea what's on The Kids' screens, so just the other three. According to the National Center on Caregiving, 85% of adults age 65+ are dependent on a family member for care or housing. Education? The most avid Fox News viewer is likely 55-65. Cognitive decline begins at 45, really hitting it's stride at 65 (Noonan is 69).

If we're weighing these justifications for restricting the right to vote, we need to have a talk about The Olds, Peg.


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Transparency in Utah

A legislative staffer friend long ago suggested I write something about my experience as a transparency activist in Utah. It's a cool story. Every time I try to tell it I'm reminded it isn't about me or any I have skills I bring to the table. My skills -- professionally and politically -- are limited shouting words and making confident guesses, just like lawmakers, but with a better track record on guessing right. Ba dum tss!

It's a story about getting involved and in good faith, as mush as possible. At the start of this decade I waded into transparency activism via a grant from the Sunlight Foundation. They were writing $2500 checks for citizen organizations to build transparency reporting tools at the state level. Some very cool things were done with that money, all of which were eventually rendered obsolete by advances in technology and (this is important) transparency policies and legislative allies in Utah. My approach was cynical. If Democrats weren't going to get serious about making elections competitive outside of Salt Lake County, maybe we could at least make sure the Republicans are being honest with us. After the 2011 bill-that-shall-not-be-named I was invited to be a part of Governor Herbert's GRAMA work group, alongside bill-that-shall-not-be-named sponsor John Dougall, several lawmakers, members of the media and legal experts, state archivists. I felt like an imposter and infiltrator. It was great. What was most surprising to me was how dedicated and sincere the majority of that work group was to open and transparent government. What can easily be interpreted as a penchant for secrecy is, in my experience, a lack of understanding. What is achieved by activists shouting "what do you have to hide?!' pales in contrast with what happened when we were all forced to talk and learn from each other.

In the end, no major changes to GRAMA were recommended by our work group. It's worth noting no recommendations were made to address the original issue then state rep John Dougall was trying to solve with the bill-that-shall-not-be-named. For those of us who didn't have it coming in, a better understanding of that problem was achieved. For lawmakers who didn't understand the reason for the backlash coming in, the work group changed that. In the end the recommendations made were a collective shrug because, honestly, there wasn't and still isn't a good solution to how time consuming (and often abused) public information policy is. And the trade off for restricting the process is unacceptable. Someone asked me then what I thought was achieved and I wasn't sure. My answer now would be the major achievement of the Governor's work group was reflected in legislative votes cast by work group members since, and relationships developed that in a ping-pong fashion lead to  some major achievements in open government and open data in Utah. A lot was achieved, without even getting into the work of the Utah Transparency Advisory Board, well before my time on it and during.

That's what makes writing this difficult. I forget details, dates, and names, and am only noteworthy in all of this because my involvement proves citizen involvement can still go places in Utah. Never underestimate the power of shouting words and guessing.  He'd probably list some really boring bill that only a CPA would like, but one of the most underrated and lasting legacies state senator and eventual Senate President Wayne Niederhauser left behind was his commitment to transparency and making time for advocates. There were many others. Senator Deidre Henderson, who is brave beyond comparison. She's willing to fight necessary fights others have shied away from. Representative Craig Hall, expert at navigating skittish House committees. Former Senate Chief of Staff (now with the AG) Ric Cantrell and his sixth sense for getting the right folks talking and/or diffusing potential communication breakdowns. Auditor John Dougall, in his frugality, is dedicated to holding government accountable and was always a regular at our board meetings. He's also really funny. Now retired State Archives director and Person Who Knows Everything About GRAMA Ever Patricia Smith-Mansfield. There are more who deserve credit.

Not Dan Liljenquist. He knows exactly why. I'd never be crass enough to gossip about it except to say the idea that retirement services administrative salaries and expenses reporting would politicize URS is silly and anyone who'd show up at an 8 am committee hearing to make that argument without even returning the phone call of of the board member who called for your thoughts, accidentally tipping you off is a dirty...

Anyway, eventually I find myself presenting on the concept of open data standards (also courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation) as a way to further digitize and make accessible the mountains of public data Utah smartly makes public, then a member of the transparency board. Building on the financial transparency work of the previous board iteration, we spent the last few years studying open data standards for state agencies which could eventually be implemented in every county and city. We recommended and the legislature signed off on the creation of a data coordinator position within DTS. If you haven't followed the work of Chief Data Officer Drew Mingl on OpenDate.Utah.gov, you're missing out. I can't wait until some creative data/developer nerd does something unexpectedly amazing with some set Drew has collected for the catalog. It'll happen. Always does. The board recommended and gets regular reports from State Archives on the further development of online portals and tracking dashboard options for public information requests (something that may eventually, somewhat alleviate the issue 2011's bill-that-shall-not-be-named was trying to).

In 2019 the board paused a bit. A bill passed moving the board from legislative to administrative oversight gave us an opportunity, prompted by new board member John Dougall to talk about what the board is or should be. In the last year, a request from Utah Interactive to archive data after five years in search databases (something I oppose as a board member) to improve site performance raised legitimate questions about the board's power. Should a request of that significance be decided by a limited member board or go before a full legislative debate? What do the board rules say? With the board, now in it's fourth or fifth iteration, and with all the statute required to purpose the board strategically over the years jumbled upon itself in the books, that was difficult to answer. So we elected a new chair and, lucky her, gave her the job of reviewing the governing code. Stay tuned for more on that.

I hope I've stressed enough how not complete this hasty recap of the last decade is. I hope it conveys enough of how steadily the process has moved forward in Utah, and how easy it is to get involved. As for the next ten years? There are some real challenges coming when it comes to technology, how we interact with our own government, and making public data not only easily accessible but also useful and relevant to more than just real estate developers. I'd like to see even rural cities and counties stepping up more. I'd like to see a lot of city attorneys stop holding them back. I'd like to see more coordination between government entities and agencies and citizen developers to visualize and utilize public data.

But for at least the time it took to write this, I'm just appreciative of the opportunity to be involved, and excited by how much progress was made on so many fronts and by so many people and organizations in the last 10 years.




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.

And...

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.