My Angry Posts

Yes, my tweets/posts recently have had less overall humor and a bit more anger. Sorry — that’s just me reacting to recent events.

I don’t suffer fools and the venal very easily — especially when they are fools who should know better.

Take vaccines. History shows that the single greatest killer of people is disease. Smallpox, TB, polio, diarrheal diseases of children, typhus, malaria, plague…. Measles also makes that list. We have some effective tools to limit…or even eradicate… some of those diseases, as we did with smallpox. Instead, as a species we have people who reject decades of experience and scientific study, who are letting some of these diseases persist. Polio is one horrific example, where semi-isolated groups are using religion and politics to prevent children from getting the vaccine. We are so close to eliminating that terrible scourge and there is evidence the disease is making a comeback.

Measles is still endemic in much of the world, killing many every year. It and smallpox were two highly contagious and deadly diseases that swept through new populations of indigenous peoples when introduced, often killing more than half of the population, and sickening the rest. (See this for some historical context.)  We were able to eliminate smallpox completely.  With will, we should be able to do the same with measles.

Why is it a concern?  Measles is not simply a rash. In a percentage of people it is crippling…or deadly.  I had a relative who went completely deaf before she was 10 because of measles; she was born before the vaccine was widely available. One of her friends died from the disease.  Those are terrible — and not rare —  outcomes. It’s worse when you consider that those who refuse to vaccinate also endanger the lives of children and adults in whom the vaccine did not gen up full immunity, or who cannot be vaccinated because of underlying medical conditions.  I had measles as a child and I still remember how terribly sick I was.  I would not wish that, nor the horrible potential side-effects, on anyone I cared about.

Someone sent me an article that had statistics showing that (effectively) early vaccinations were not understood as requiring a booster, and maybe not as effective for life-long immunity as having the disease.  He was implying that this was somehow “proof” of something…that the vaccine shouldn’t be used, perhaps?  That was the implication.  Instead, it is simple statistics and medicine that can be understood with minimal effort, and understanding that correlation does not prove causation.  However, to a paranoid, everything is proof of a conspiracy, and everyone who disagrees is part of the conspiracy.  Facts are simply attempts to fool the naive into believing there is no conspiracy.

Conspiracy?  To do what?  Protect people from a potentially crippling and deadly disease?  Yeah, right, that’s evil.  I can see hundreds of thousands of people signing on to actively promote that as a conspiracy.   Some no-nothings said the same kinds of things about the smallpox vaccine, and the polio vaccine.  It’s easy for them to switch to measles now because they haven’t seen the widespread devastation those diseases caused.  They never knew people — friends and family — who had to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung, or who died from measles-caused encephalitis, or died gasping for breath as a result of pertussis.

Think about it: someone refusing vaccination for their children is basically saying “I’m going to gamble with their health and physical safety, and that of everyone they encounter, because I believe that vaccination causes … well, something.”  The link with autism has been thoroughly debunked, as has every other myth I’ve heard about.  It’s a terribly selfish and anti-social attitude with no foundation.  Tens of millions of people have received the vaccine over the last 50 years, and there has been no correlation found with anything…other than being less likely to get measles.  And here’s what someone with autism has to say about all this.

One of my favorite high school teachers had a withered arm from polio.  I worked with someone who had a useless arm caused by polio because his parents didn’t get him vaccinated.  They both managed okay with only one good arm, and they were thankful that they hadn’t died, but it was a life-long loss.  My aunt became a recluse because of her loss of hearing.  And to think of all the heartbroken parents who lost children to a preventable disease….  The human loss (and potential for loss) is heartrending.

As a parent, I am deeply concerned about my child, even thought she is now an adult.  What angers me is that people are willing to endanger others — including her and the rest of my family — because of paranoia and willful stupidity.  If it was only them, natural selection would help take care of the problem, but they pose a danger to me and my family, too by rejecting standard vaccination: our immunity may not be sure, and will likely degrade with time; there are also succeeding generations who may be at risk.

Of course, most of them have been vaccinated against measles and they are only willing to make the choice to endanger the next generation…they are safe, and hypocritical. They should eschew all medicines for themselves, including antibiotics, flu shots, and tetanus inoculations, too.  Those things have “chemicals” in them and are advocated by the “medical conspiracy.” Expose them to rabies and TB and cholera and malaria while we’re at it. Let’s speed up that natural selection a little…it’s the closest we can (legally) come to getting a little chlorine in the gene pool.

It isn’t only the stance on vaccines that make me angry these days.  The sanctimonious pinheads who are elected to office (and the no-nothings, bigots, and lazy who vote for them, or who don’t vote at all) also add to my anger level.   These are the people who blame the sick, the elderly, and the poor for their bad luck and disadvantaged environments.  Despite too many of the rich having way more of everything (except compassion) than they will ever need (and those same people claiming to follow a religious figure who instructed his followers to give everything to the poor), the hypocrits continue to pursue policies that further disadvantage and hurt the most impoverished among us.   These same jerks seek to exclude and injure others because of their skin color or heritage, although they use indirect terms to pursue that goal.  They seek to deny happiness to people who are born with different sexual orientations, and they treat women as less than even second-class citizens through oppressive health and employment regulations.  So many of them claim to follow religions that command they love one another, yet they pay no attention to people dying in other countries …and often they are eager to send our military to kill even more.  These are the people who, in the interests of making yet more money for the uber-rich, refuse to take actions that will help address climate change and reduce the pollution in our world.  These are the people who seek to destroy knowledge and spread falsehoods because they know the facts do not support their world view (I’ve blogged about this here, before).

I have spent much of my life trying to provide education to those who want it, to help them succeed and make the world a better place.  I have family and friends, including many who will long outlive me.  I want them to have a world where human life and dignity are valued — for everyone.  Where they do not need to fear preventable disease.  Where they are allowed to worship — or not — as they see fit, and to not be subject to physical harm because they do not share someone else’s beliefs.  Where they can love who they want, without criticism because of skin color, or body shape, or background. A world where if they fall ill, or a natural disaster befalls them, they do not need to make a choice among food, shelter, or health care, because they cannot afford more than one and they have no other options.  I hope for a world where knowledge is valued above myth and superstition.  I want those who follow after to have heroes based on something they can aspire to other than fame for a big butt or speed on a sports field.  And I want them to live in a world where their leaders are actually concerned about their welfare, rather than the interests of the monied few.

Recent news has not done much to make me believe that world is within reach, and each day is one less I will have to see a change.  It brings despair that my efforts have been for naught, and concern for the future they will inherit.  So yes, I am angry.  You should be too.

The Growing Tide of Anti-Intellectualism

There is an undeniable, politically-supported growth of denial — and even hatred — of learning, facts, and the educated. Greed (and, most likely, fear of minorities) feeds demagoguery. Demagoguery can lead to harmful policies and thereafter to mob actions.

I’ve written on this topic here before. I also have cited an excellent essay from Scientific American about how the rising tide of anti-intellectualism threatens our democracy and future (you should read it).

What prompts this post is a recent article about a thinly-veiled political probe of the National Science Foundation, combined with the pending national election in the US. (Some of these issues apply elsewhere in the world, but this is a US-centric post.)

This view is also reinforced by my current experience — I am on a combined speaking tour and family vacation in Poland. I recently visited a memorial to the Katyn massacre, remembering when Soviet NKVD killed 22,000 captured Poles, many of whom were included because they were educated “intelligentsia.” Later today, I am visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, where intellectuals were taken as well as Jews, Romani, the handicapped, and other undesirables, over a million of whom were subsequently executed. The Cambodian killing fields were filled with the bodies of educators, scientists, and doctors — even simply people who wore glasses — and their families, because they were viewed as enemies of the ruling belief system who could point out inconvenient facts and fallacies in the pronouncements of the leaders. History is filled with examples of shuttering of universities, burning of books, banning of lectures, and mass executions of the educated. The death sentence on Socrates is a canonical example of the problem.

I will admit to my own partisan (in the US) leaning here — which is steadily increasing as I observe prior cutbacks to NASA, NSF and basic science (e.g., here), claiming made-up medical evidence to attack women’s health choice issues (e.g., this and this), denial of climate change (e.g., here), denial of evolution, attacks against the EPA in favor of big-money polluters, promoting incorrect history books in for secondary school education, rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education, perpetuating predatory student loan rates and other examples.

There is a clear and growing bias against education and even basic facts, primarily promoted by the GOP. Worse, they are finding widespread social support for these biases. Hiding behind claims of saving taxpayer money (so it can be spent on the military) and promoting religious freedoms (but in practice, only a select set of religions) has become their standard practice; those involved who don’t promote it either tolerate it or attempt to justify it. by picking a few counter-examples or cases of ignorance by other political entities.

For instance, if you read the above examples and were mentally making a list of “That citation is biased” or “All politicians are equally bad” or “But what about when that Democrat said….” then you are almost certainly part of the problem — denying the bigger picture by cherry-picking counterexamples. I won’t debate individual items, because that is to ignore the very clear overall pattern.

Socially, we are seeing the impact — for example, the popularity of Fox “News” stories that continue to present false information, candidates who are lying publicly despite being called out on it because the electorate doesn’t respond (Colbert’s “Truthiness” was a brilliant way of labeling this), the rise of one-issue deniers….

The recent scare-mongering and reactions to the spread of Ebola shows a combination ignorance of science, a political motivation (the GOP claims to want an “Ebola Czar” to make it look like they are doing something, but has been blocking the appointment of a Surgeon General and cutting funds to NIH for years), and even a racial component (1 death and 2 infections in the US is a crisis; thousands dying every week in West Africa merits not a mention).

Another case of malleable facts for political ends? Arguments for voter ID laws are specious and even evil (a veteran GOP US judge called it), but are being justified by made up facts so as to help keep voters disenfranchised who might threaten GOP candidates. (Look at the history of such laws — they are always proposed and passed in GOP-led state legislatures).

I don’t mean to condemn everyone who leans towards the Republicans, nor am I absolving any Democrats of their many peccadillos and faults. Politics tends to breed a certain level of corruption, and people with nuanced views are often unelectable.

However, I am deeply concerned with the direction in which we are headed, spearheaded by one political party, where dumb is considered “statesmanlike,” facts are inconvenient, religious mythology trumps science, and any observation of this is treated as if all views are equally valid. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson is alleged to have responded when creationists demanded equal time to present their view after the airing of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey on TV: “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers. Science is not there for you to cherry pick.”

Beliefs may be equal, but science and history are not “beliefs.” You can choose your beliefs, but you cannot choose facts.

If you have read this far, you are likely educated and capable of thought. You should be concerned about the trends, too. Don’t buy in to “All political parties are the same” because some research into this issue will reveal they are not, at least on this topic. Don’t excuse anti-intellectualism as simply “ conflict of competing belief systems.” Understand it for what is is. Speak out about it. If you are a fan of the GOP’s views on smaller government, immigration, or defense — fine, speak out in GOP forums on issues of science and truth, and make those a priority in your decision-making.

Perhaps more importantly, vote. Urge others to vote. Support candidates of any party who do not deny science, do not belittle education, do not make up their own version of the facts. Get others to vote, and educate them about the candidates. We want the smartest, best-educated people leading the world — not the dumbest, most biased, and most dishonest. Don’t vote solely by political party, although I encourage you to think about the above pattern if you don’t have any other information at hand.

Pastor Martin Niemoller is credited with the famous saying “First they came for the Sociaists, and I did not speak out….Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” Let us not be the ones left, for whom there is no one left to speak. Let us seek to ensure that our descendants live in a world where knowledge is valued, truth — even difficult truth — is sought, and idiots are not given public acclaim.

And don’t forget to vote!

(Update: a few hours after I originally posted this, Borowitz came up with an appropriate news parody article in the New Yorker.)

Another kind of attack on science

A few months ago, I wrote about some of my concerns with anti-science behaviors and beliefs. I received several responses I did not approve for posting, from people who displayed the same ignorant biases I wrote about. I received only a few items in support. That may be a reflection of my readership, or it could be further evidence of the problem.

In the months since then we have had a number of things pop up that have reinforced my concerns. One example was the amendment  introduced by Senator Coburn to the Federal budget that curtailed some of the funding for the NSF in social sciences. Another is the recent indication that Representative Smith is trying to change the fundamental mechanisms of funding for NSF to exclude science he (or his political cronies) don’t understand or don’t like. Many other bloggers have written about the attacks on science, such as this one in Slate.

There is now news of a much more insidious attack, and one that represents both the increasing cultural hostility towards inquisitiveness and extreme paranoia about “terrorism.” See this article and this article for an overview of the details. In summary, a young woman tried an ad hoc chemistry experiment, based on something she viewed online. An older version of this would have been putting baking soda into vinegar; this version was some toilet cleanser and aluminum foil. It basically popped the container it was in. Some school administrator saw this and called the police. She was charged with felonies similar to what one might use against a terrorist, and expelled from school — all for something that most of us have done as children.

There is a petition open at change.org on this issue. I have signed it. I encourage you to consider also signing.

However, I went a step further and sent email to three of the decision makers in the process: the school principal (Ronald Pritchard), the school superintendent (John Stewart), and the Polk County Sheriff (Grady Judd). My letter is enclosed. You might wish to send your own letters. Or not.

[Update: the email address for Grady Judd does not appear to work any more.]

My letter:

To: Ronald.Pritchard@polk-fl.net, pio@polksheriff.org, john.stewart@polk-fl.net
From: Eugene H. Spafford <spaf@purdue.edu>
Date: May 2, 2013
Subject: What a terrible message you are sending….

Gentlemen, I am a senior faculty member at Purdue University. I hold patents and international awards for my research. I have been an advisor to the President of the US and testified before Congress.

As a child I was interested in science, particularly in chemistry. I conducted ad hoc experiments in my yard, and via my school. Those activities encouraged me to ask “why” and investigate further, leading to a career of science-based activities.

What you have shown, with your blind application of law and regulations to Mr. Kiera Wilmot, is not only a significant lack of common sense, but a lack of appreciation for curiosity and initiative. This was not a case of someone with a handgun shooting up the school, or creating an explosive device out of a pressure cooker. It was a young girl trying (perhaps unwisely) an experiment she found online. This is barely different from experimenting with combining baking soda and vinegar in a pill bottle — something you yourself may have done as children.

Ms. Wilmot’s curiosity suggests potential for a future in a STEM discipline — and our country (and the world) need more experts in these fields. Ms. Wilmot, as a minority female, is especially rare among my colleagues in the sciences. Your actions not only may quash her interests, but serve as a severe inhibitor of curiosity by any other young people in your area. Rather than being educators and promoting your community, you are serving to stamp out curiosity, ambition, and learning.

Your proper course of action would have been to explain to Ms.Wilmot the dangers of trying such experiments without permission (and presumably, without safety considerations, such as goggles), and then used the incident as a teaching opportunity for her and her peers. Not only would you have deflected other such ad hoc activities, but you would have been directly addressing your mission of education…if indeed that is the mission you see for Polk schools.

Simply stated, you have overreacted in the extreme and made yourselves the butt of pointed comments around the world. You have also hurt that young woman and her future, and initiated a ripple of damage to your community. Shame on you.

You still have an opportunity to make things right: rescind the expulsion order, drop all legal charges, and make an effort to encourage Ms. Wilmot’s interest in science, rather than to punish her for curiosity.

Sincerely,
Eugene H. Spafford, Ph.D., Sc.D
Professor and Executive Director
Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, ISC^2, ISSA
http://about.me/spaf

Disclaimer: Purdue University is listed for identification purposes only. My opinions do not necessarily represent any official or public position of the university or any of its personnel other than myself.

Paranoia or Pattern Recognition?

Last year, I wrote this post about the increasing danger posed by fundamentalism in the U.S.A. — not Islamic fundamentalism, but so-called Christian fundamentalism, and its threat to science. (And here are some supporting thoughts published via Scientific American and the UK Guardian.)

This morning, as I finished my second gallon of coffee :-), this post set me off: Blind, severely disabled boy forced to take standardized test. That was on top of the news from yesterday that Senator Coburn had finally succeeded in getting one of his attacks against NSF included in a funding bill.

I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of things aren’t continuing salvos in a deeper agenda — one that not all of itds supporters may have even thought about. Then again, maybe I’m feeling especially paranoid and caffinated today, but….

First, think about the ideological attacks on public school teachers as moochers and incompetent (think: Wisconsin as a glaring example, and here’s a good explanation of the phenomenon). The thrust of these efforts is to drive their pay and benefits so low that the profession is completely unattractive to anyone with competence (let alone, excellence). Coupled with this are passage of laws that threaten their pensions and prevent them from using unions to resist.

More or less concurrently, the laws have been set up to penalize schools based on testing — forcing every student to take tests that they are set up to fail, thus depressing the scores to provide “proof” that public schools are “failing.” (As an aside, if only we had similar evaluation of the legislators passing these laws based on scores rather than financed, partisan elections…..)

Another step is to open up voucher programs and make them easy to get for parents who want to opt out of public schools. This further erodes the resources for public schooling. It also boosts the attendance at schools that teach crap creationist “science” and revisionist history (think: the fairy tales that Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin spout). The adults educated as children in these schools will almost certainly tend to vote for the know-nothings who are engineering the destruction of real education, and will want their own children to attend these New World madrassas rather than be exposed to reality.

So goes the spiral as secular, scientific, reason-based education circles the drain.

Couple this with the mantra of “must eliminate the debt and big government” that are used as excuses to cut research (Senator Coburn’s vendetta against NSF is one example, and shuttering NASA programs another), cut early education and child support, continually reduce higher education support and scholarships, and block appointment of any Federal judges many of whom show evidence of understanding separation of church and state,… hmmm, what else? Concentrate the wealth and thus much of the political power in the hands of an elite that are largely separated from average people. Mix in the advocacy of increased military spending. Paint Islam and China as looming threats. Extrapolate from those data points, and many more you can add in.

Let’s see. Cut away at good secular education, deny advanced education for any but the dogmatic, undercut chances at economic freedom, the privileged are “more equal than others because they work harder,” promote an agenda of extreme ideals, and beat the drum for “vigilance” against heretical foes. What comes to mind? Orwell’s 1984, Nazi Germany, the early Soviet Union, North Korea… and the USA of 25-35 years from now? Foster ignorance, economic stagnation, and rabid ideology, and it is simple to move to totalitarian control.

All this is coming from one end of the US political spectrum, and one political party. Is it surprising to anyone if they might have delusions of the US as a sectarian military power dominating the world with their ideals? If not, ask yourself — what threatens that vision? What is “under attack” according to their rhetoric? How could they change the U.S. to be more suitable to their view of domination? And is that inconsistent with what has been happening?

Am I getting all that from 1 report of insane rules overapplied to a child in Florida? Nope. But I’ve seen so much of this in the last few years, and especially this week (the Coburn move against NSF being the most irritating) that, coupled with too much coffee, here’s my rant.

I can guess at some of the people who will read this far and who will denigrate everything about it. Sadly, those people are almost certainly aligned with the ones helping perpetrate the decline, perhaps even without thinking about where it all might lead. The most dogmatic are the ones who are most easily misled and who most quickly rise to their defense.

If we care, we need to push back. Push back against Senator Coburn, and Governor Scott Walker, and Reps. Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann, and all the other demagogues who would happily push us into the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Even if I’m not paranoid it doesn’t mean that the know-nothings aren’t out to destroy all teaching of science and history they don’t like (which the rest of us can call “reality” for short). It doesn’t mean they won’t try to push their religious views on us. And it doesn’t mean they won’t seek to hobble — economically and politically — everyone who doesn’t agree with them.

All it takes for those ideals to win out is for the rest of us to allow those demagogues to keep getting elected and spouting their nonsense on radio and TV without correction (e.g., that “reality” stuff). Does it matter to you, or are @lolcats, “The Batchelor” and “Jersey Shore” all you really care about? Based on response from three different classes this week, less than 10% of even the best educated are bothering to keep up with the news — they didn’t know about the cyberattacks in South Korea, that the President was in Israel, that China had elected a new premier, the financial crisis in Cyprus…. but wow, several of them certainly knew about who was on “Dancing with the Stars” and which teams were in the NCAA basketball tournament. I’m beginning to wonder if the forces of ignorance have not already won. 😦

The Road to a New Dark Age in the US

This rant was triggered by a news article. I posted a link to it in my Twitter feed. I received several fatuous, smug responses. The combination prompted me to write what follows. We’ll get to the article eventually.


Consider that the US led the world in science and technology for decades. We created atomic power, put humans on the moon and in the deepest ocean trenches, we discovered the most fundamental subatomic particles, and have imaged the most distant galaxies. We have constructed immense skyscrapers, we communicate with light, and we can predict (usually) the weather. We can put almost the entire sum of recorded human knowledge on charged bits of silicon, and calculate with numbers larger than the number of atoms in the universe. We can take apart cells and put them together again to form new ones, and we have extended our average lifespan by decades through improved medicine. Working with others around the world, we have eradicated terrible scourges (smallpox) and nearly eliminated others (polio, the Guinea Worm). We have done amazing things, and there is more yet to be done than we have barely imagined.

We have accomplished all this through engineering, technology and especially science: the process of forming hypotheses, conducting experiments to verify or refute them, and then refining those same hypotheses. All of science is theoretical, in the sense that all theories are open to refinement when we obtain new data. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was simply a theory with lots of confirmation of the usual case, which was refined when Einstein came along. The atomic model of matter is a theory, and it is refined and retested with each new means to break apart atoms to find constituent parts. The “Luminiferous Aether” was a theory for light propagation until Michelson and Morley’s experiment showed it to be false. The “four humors” was a theory of medicine before we began to understand biology.

Science is based on theories. Theories with massive bodies of repeated experiment and confirmation are often labeled “laws” but are still theories. The Law of Gravity is actually a theory. So is the Theory of Evolution. Both have undergone repeated trials by independent experiment, with the results very critically analyzed by others. Those theories have been confirmed again and again by the vast majority of trained observers. That is how science advances. We construct experiments to test our theories, and each successful experiment confirms its associated theory a little more, while each unsuccessful experiment drives us to ask “why?” and seek further refinement. If there is something that cannot be tested by experiment, then it is not something that can be known to science — it is not a verifiable fact, and can only be supported by belief.

Human advancement stumbles when ideology trumps knowledge. We refer to a period in the past in Europe as “the Dark Ages” as a time when inquiry was constrained by religious dogma; it is no accident that what followed was called the Enlightenment, a word we also use for gaining knowledge. During those dark ages, learning was treated with suspicion, and those who accomplished what the common person did not understand were sometimes killed as witches or tortured by religious authorities, seeking to make them “repent.” Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union crippled agricultural development and biological research for decades, as well as resulted in the death of many leading scientists in prisons, and their work destroyed. Whether it was the destruction of the House of Wisdom by the Mongols, the Nazis burning books that did not support their ideology, the Catholic Church’s censoring knowledge with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or any of hundreds of other major acts of suppression of knowledge — including extremes such as the mass genocide of the educated in Cambodia’s killing fields by the Khmer Rouge — darkness is brought about by those who would suppress knowledge, education, and inquiry.

It is no surprise that many of our nation’s leaders are focusing on increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) research and education, both to keep our economy competitive, but as a matter of national security. The US has been losing ground in these fields, as has been pointed out time and again in major studies (two of which are the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and its successor). Our ability to compete as a nation, to meet future economic challenges, to improve our health care, and to maintain our national defense all depend on our ability to innovate, and that requires education and scientific advances based on inquiry unfettered by superstition and myth.

So, given the proven history of scientific advancement (and the grim negative examples), and the obvious needs for foundational aspects of that advancement in education and infrastructure, it should be clear that it should be a national priority, right?

Well, no. We have seen a rising political movement over the last few decades, and it is destructive, yet not often mentioned by those in positions of leadership. After all, angering religious fanatics who are sure they have the blessings of heaven and who are unswayed by logic or reason is not without its vexations. Yet, to be silent is to let the darkness increase.

What darkness?

The darkness of ignorance and the unbending dogma of those who are united in their belief: science is wrong, facts are not to be believed, religion is the overriding (or only) truth. This is a growing problem that we have seen get worse over the last few decades. It has been obviously manifest in the last few national elections, and only becomes more pressing.

We have increasing numbers of the population denying evolution, refusing to acknowledge climate change, avoiding immunizations (and thereby endangering the rest of the population as the “herd immunity” is lost), and similar while being openly contemptuous of scholarship and scholars. Denial of foundational science in biology, physics, and geology is frequently made. And it has probably had a side-effect on our public, a significant fraction of whom don’t know (for example) that New Mexico is part of the US, cannot name a single Supreme Court justice, don’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq (and don’t even begin to ask about Sunni vs. Shia), have no idea how to figure a 17% tip, and many of whom think the Sun orbits the Earth! After all, when some facts are hotly denied, why bother learning any? (Although, to be fair, this great public ignorance may well be the cause of an increasingly dogmatic population, and not the effect.) It will cripple future generations if they are prevented from learning things known to be true, especially in the sciences. That was Bill Nye’s message, too, that has caused some controversy by those who fail — or refuse — to understand it.

From a public policy perspective, this trend is leading to (directly and indirectly) cutting funds for research, cutting funding for public universities, cutting back on student aid, vilifying teachers, and even threatening Big Bird (PBS). The adherents clamor for vouchers and home schooling so they can perpetuate their ignorance and superstition. (To be fair, some vouchers and home schooling is intended to provide a quality alternative to underfunded public schools; this is a feedback loop.) It is an anti-intellectual movement that has been encouraged by some demagogues, primarily in one political party, because they have sought to use the votes for influence, but it has further emboldened the fringe elements. Heck, even an official with the campaign staff for their candidate for President said that facts don’t matter, and one state’s party convention adopted a position against critical thinking! This all evidences actual contempt for knowledge. (There are many more examples, including many with our 43rd President, but this post is already too long.)

Want more evidence? Take a look at this news article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yes, this is the one that started me off on this. 🙂

This guy is running for reelection, unopposed in a district that includes a major university — the University of Georgia (as a Georgia Tech alumnus, I will forego some obvious comments), so this is even more disheartening.

Note especially that Rep Broun is on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. So is Todd Akin, the fellow in Missouri who made the incredibly inane comments about women not getting pregnant from “legitimate rape.” These are only two of many such people that our fellow citizens somehow think are qualified to represent them, but are overtly nescient. They are among the leadership and oversight, making decisions on our national programs of science and technology. Is it any wonder that, the rest of the world is gaining on us as a nation? There are many more like these folks running for office in national, state and local races, too.

Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S., nor to only one religion, nor only at this time. We have seen instances of the Taliban destroying buildings, burning schools and books, and killing others who do not share their beliefs. We see news of Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel pushing restrictions on those who do not share their beliefs. We see stories of clashes with some militant Hindu nationalists. All of the holy wars and crusades, the Inquisition, and the destruction of many civilizations because the populations were “heathen” are indicia of the tradition of suppression of any knowledge but their own. Despite this history, there are almost no places in the world where so many people actively seek to degrade and deny science and science education as in the U.S. now; in many places, such as China, Korea and Russia, they are doing everything they can to promote education, and it shows in their growing capabilities.

Actually, the parallels are really quite obvious if you look for them. We have many religions where fundamentalist adherents believe their holy writ is direct from above, their particular religion is the only “correct” one, their holy book and leaders are infallible and unquestionable, they send their children to religious schools to ensure they are brainwashed educated without exposure to open inquiry and secular thought — or perhaps to be schooled only in their religious texts — and they believe there is no question that the government’s laws should support their point of view — after all, theirs are the views of heaven! Our U.S. fundamentalists are ideologic twins of those in the Muslim world who want to roll their countries back to the 13th century caliphate, with the major difference being that those in the US are not believers in Islam. Yet, make these comparisons and you will get strong pushback (from both sides)– after all, the adherents of that other religion (whatever it is) are damned for believing the wrong thing; only we are the enlightened ones…exactly like every other religion, past, present, and future. No irony there.

Does all that mean that faith and science cannot coexist? Not at all! There is a clear distinction between the two, but not an opposition. Science is based on the body of theories that can be proved or disproved by anyone repeating a defined experimental procedure. They are subject to repeated and new experiments, and theories may be replaced. Faith is the remainder of belief: it is those things that can never be proved or disproved, but are merely believed (or not) by each person. Many, many, many people are able to abide their faith yet be open to the processes of doubt, inquiry and learning. They understand that anything of this world is precisely that — of this world — and divinity is to be experienced through one’s acts, not the pages of a book or through the self-serving pronouncements of a hierophant. They reject dogma and think for themselves. Those people view the process of inquiry as expanding their knowledge of the world in which they function and believe — rather than as a challenge to their beliefs. After all, no religion has a deity so weak and questionable that true faith can be shaken by honest questions and discoveries in the world of that deity’s making, does it?

The 14th Dalai Lama put it very nicely for Buddhism; it can (and should) be applied in other religions:

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

There are many axes along which one may organize one’s life. Encouraging ignorance, stifling open inquiry, crippling dreams, hindering education, embracing dogma, and advocating against science are the traits of darkness, even if committed with selfless intent. We condemn those acts when we see them practiced in other countries and other times. We need to condemn them when we see them here and now. And we need to stop electing people who are agents of neo-Lysenkoism before they steer us all into a new Dark Age.

U.S. elections are November 6th. Be an agent of enlightenment when you vote. (And if you need some guidance, there’s my previous blog post.)

Change is Not Always Good in Higher Ed

Update: As of this morning, Mitch Daniels has been appointed as the 12th president of Purdue University. (Press release here.)


Not too long ago, the University of Florida was in the news over budget-driven plans to cut CS. That plan was partially beaten back, but animosity lingers, and many faculty have their C.V.s in circulation, looking for more stable positions.

The University of California system has had an on-going budget crunch that is making many people unhappy.

Students in Quebec have had long-running demonstrations (the government labels them as riots) to protest tuition hikes. (That is not to imply that Quebec is a U.S. state, but to show the problems aren’t limited to the U.S.)

Other states also report woes with budgets being slashed for years (often decades), while the same legislatures trimming the budgets prohibited tuition raises that fully covered the difference. This almost always resulted in salary freezes and failure to fund long-term renovation and growth. That is how a powerful institution begins to decay.

In the last few days we have seen growing uproar over the ouster of the University of Virginia’s president, allegedly because she was unwilling to consider taking the University private and was not simpatico with the business moguls on the board. One of the most prominent CS faculty members and scientists in the nation, Bill Wulf, has resigned his post at UVa in disgust and protest over this.

What are common as threads in these incidents (and more) are that public universities are stressed by reductions in state budgets, and that many decision-makers believe those with great financial success in business are somehow imbued with expertise to be applied — nay, admired — in other venues. (It isn’t only academia; think Herman Cain and Mitt Romney as examples. Their success in business has somehow suggested to many they have acumen appropriate for national, political office.) Cutting benefit costs, hostile takeovers, leveraged buy-outs, and the like don’t fit well in academia (or government). This is a great essay in Slate about this theme that is well worth reading.

Next up may well be some dissent at Purdue University about its next president. It hasn’t been formally announced yet, but all the various news outlets portray it as a done deal that Mitch Daniels will be the next President of Purdue University.

We tend to be a little more restrained in this part of the country, so the protests and uproar cited above are unlikely. But the choice of Mr. Daniels (and I emphasize Mr. as his highest degree is a J.D., roughly equivalent to an MS degree) is far from a “dream come true” for all the faculty and students. His career in business and government has been characterized by cost-cutting and privatization moves that are not suited for an institution of higher education. He has not shown particular understanding or accommodation for the value of academia beyond what it can do to pump up the state economy during his term as governor, either. His strong partisan political ties also can have a negative impact on the university, as he has been more associated with those who wish to force their superstitions and biases on others rather than be open to choice and reason.

Mr. Daniels would be a puzzling choice. No experience working in academia. No advanced degree. No history of great vision on education or advanced research. He’s 63, and Purdue regulations require administrators to step down in the year they turn 65, so it would be a limited term unless the Trustees make a special exception 2 years from now. And he’s still the sitting governor, so he’d have to either step down or delay his taking the position for several months.

It also raises some significant conflict of interest issues that should be extremely troubling — Mr. Daniels has appointed 7 of the current 10 trustees, and reappointed three others to their current positions. Thus, all of those trustees owe their current positions to Mr. Daniels’ actions. Considering that over the last few years the Purdue faculty have gotten increasing hassle and red tape about our consulting and professional service outside the university, the Board of Trustees are certainly not setting a good example if they do this.

Note that I am not in any way suggesting that Mr. Daniels has exerted undue influence or is incompetent. He has served well in many business and elected roles, and been reasonably successful. He has seemed to be very honest and forthright. He has also seemed open to bucking political pressure from even his own party. In general, he also seems like a reasonably nice guy. My point is that these qualities are not sufficient to make one qualified for the role of president at a Tier I research university.

Many of us have been following the search for a new president, although it has all been done in secret. Rumor has it that there were at least two highly qualified candidates, but the Board was unwilling to pay the expenses to hire them and close out their current obligations. Without the specifics that is difficult to confirm, but also troubling to consider. Universities always seem to have money to buy out coaches’ salaries or erect new buildings named after alumni, but not to hire a highly qualified president? Clearly, if true, there is a problem of priorities present.

There is an underlying, common theme nationally to all of this — the population, influenced by vast lobbying wealth from monied interests, has shifted to admire those who manage money from those who make discoveries and educate the public. Service, except in the name of $$, is no longer held in esteem. Doubt it? Consider all the people and rhetoric naming public school teachers and fire fighters as “thugs and leeches” because they seek pay raises to match inflation, and to keep their pensions. Consider the disparity of massive bailouts to huge investment banks driven into near ruin by greed, while families of deployed military personnel many times have to resort to food stamps. Consider the salaries and adulation heaped on sports figures and pop culture icons; news outlets will publish opinions of these “stars” on world affairs and scientific issues such as climate change, which they treat equal to (or give greater weight to) than those of scholars who have spent decades studying the issues. It is little wonder that politicians are passing laws banning use of the term “climate change” because it is not “business friendly,” and the average U.S. citizen believes the world was created by some mystical being rather than well-documented scientific processes. If Fox News started airing segments about the “Theory” of Gravity, those same people would develop a fear of spontaneously floating off into space! It sometimes appears we are entering a new dark age where reason is trumped by the self-interests of the robber barons and hierophants.

The changes in Higher Education outlined above do not do anything to help stem the rising tide of ignorance, nor do they help put the U.S. on track to reinvigorate our economy with scientific advancement and an educated workforce. They are uninformed, tactical responses to more fundamental problems, and exacerbate those same problems. We need more education, and more respect for fact, with less pursuit of goals driven by religious superstition and greed. (Interestingly, the dominant religions involved, which many of the players profess to hold dear, preach about helping the poor, treating others as equal, living peacefully, and eschewing great wealth. Apparently, these people are immune to irony.)

The appointment of Mr. Daniels as President of Purdue is not official until tomorrow, and the Board of Trustees may surprise everyone by voting to appoint someone else. However, no matter what happens at Purdue, including if Mr. Daniels turns out to be a passable president, the fact that this is even being talked about as possible, coupled with the news from Florida and Virginia, should really cause people to be more generally concerned about what is happening to higher education in the U.S. These are not moves that strengthen higher education or the basic research enterprise in the long term. Other countries elect scientists and engineers to run their countries, while we continue to marginalize ours. The longer-term consequences cannot be to our liking.

(Speaking for myself, only, of course.)

Remembering Spaf

With a birthday coming up, and several friends having recently passed on (e.g., been dereferenced), I thought maybe I should write up my obituary for future use. After all, I know my story better than anyone else! So, feel free to use this when the need arises.

And if you have any missing bits to fill in, send them to me — I’ll update this in place.

This is not quite to this level of awesome or to this or to this but I may have a few weeks yet to get there.

Original post 3/14/12; Last update 2016-08-28.


Eugene H. Spafford, noted curmudgeon, died on <date>. If Spafford’s last wishes were honored the medical examiner will officially list the cause of death as “Jello, while interacting with Bambi and Trixie, two performers with Cirque de Soleil, and their pet llama, Julio” — not because it bears even a remote resemblance to the truth, but because it will provide more lulz on Wikipedia.

Although many people believed he was an alien being (after all, the definition of “human” can only stretch so far), Spafford was born in western New York State to poor but proud parents. His birth changed their lives: they continued to be poor, but were never proud again. Two years later, his sister was born, thereafter affectionately referred to by their parents as “our only child.”

Spafford had a largely unremarkable childhood, frequently spending time as the neighbors’ imaginary friend. His parents took him and his sister to many notable and historic places around the country, but unwary strangers would invariably untie him and he would find his way home. In later years he was known to recount some of the happiest moments of his childhood such as having other children finally talk to him (5th grade), and first being allowed to play in the yard without his leash (7th grade).

By the time he had reached high school, he had shown unusual talent for math, science, composition, and getting beaten up for having unusual talent for math, science, and composition. Nonetheless, he was named as “school mascot” by acclamation for several years running — until the other students found that despite this status, they could not get him thrown on the bonfire at other schools before football games. It was in high school that he got the nickname “Spaf,” in part because no one bothered to learn his first name.

It was in high school that Spaf discovered girls. Actually, he had known about them for some time, but it was at this time that he first discovered that the majority of them did not actually have cooties. His attempts to be noticed by the women around him usually succeeded, but only accompanied by finger-pointing and derisive laughter…a pattern that continued through the rest of his life. He fell in love at least twice, but the objects of his interest generally did not return his affections because they had taste and standards and nearly normal vision…another long-standing pattern.

Upon graduation from high school, Spafford took a few years off school to work to support his family. At least, that is what he always claimed, and the court records are sealed.

Then, Spafford returned to school and completed his undergraduate degrees at SUNY Brockport in 3 years of classes, probably because the faculty voted to resign if he stayed for 4. He awoke in another state after his graduation party, with a note from his family pinned to his clothing, written in crayon, wishing him luck in Atlanta, where they had arranged for him to be admitted. Much to their dismay, “The Ramblin Wreck” was a university and not a psychiatric hospital (although, frankly, that wasn’t always obvious). Thus, he attended grad school at Georgia Tech, where he again showed an unusual talent for math and science, as well as amazingly poor luck with females of any species, living or dead. After outlasting a department head, dean, two presidents of the university, and several roommates, a clerical error resulted in him getting a Ph.D. despite no faculty member actually serving as his advisor (NB. almost true!).

As a condition of his immediate and permanent departure, local officials used a rumor of a large trust fund and vast quantities of tequila to introduce a young woman to Spaf, despite her reluctance to date outside her species. After a period of deception, and prolonged hypnotherapy, they were married.  (This artifice lasted for nearly 3 decades, but the hypnotherapy finally wore off, she discovered there was no trust fund, and they divorced. Their union did result in one outstanding child; his wife insisted there would be no more, however, because she did not want to endure the trauma and the shame a second time.  She, of course, was referring not to childbirth, but to the conception.)

After a short post doc while his thesis committee waited to ensure that the checks cleared, Spafford moved out of state and was hired by Purdue University in 1987 before the stories (and authorities) caught up with him. He spent the remainder of his career there, trying (in vain) to get people to behave nicely online, be kind to each other, and to adopt wearing of bow ties. When informed of his passing, his Purdue colleagues (those who didn’t respond “Who?”) began to chuckle — no doubt from fond and amusing memories, although the mutterings of “At last!” did seem a little fervent.

Noted for his work in security (primarily as a risk), Spafford was frequently asked to travel long distances to speak — usually requested by whomever was in his near vicinity at the time. A talented programmer as well as researcher, he wrote many large software systems that, (perhaps) regrettably, are in languages for which no compiler or manual exists. This matched his propensity for giving presentations that were in languages unfamiliar to his audiences…and humans, in general. He helped scores of students get their Ph.Ds. — usually by serving as an example of what not to do. He received several “lifetime achievement” awards from professional societies in not so subtle attempts to get him to retire immediately and go away.

It was often observed that Spafford didn’t pay attention to boundaries and frequently crossed them…this was usually noted by others when talking about the fine line between genius and insanity, although it was usually vague on which side he was being placed.

In later years, he had medical issues that interfered with his work. Doctors, when not performing unsanctioned experiments on him, conjectured that it was all side-effects of the frequent alien abductions (performed on him, not by him). Consulting veterinarians were similarly puzzled, both by etiology and his species. The diagnoses were all different, but the recommended treatment was always the same: lobotomy. This was never done, because the insurance company refused to cover it, despite the frequent and generous offers of family and colleagues to take up a collection.

Spafford had a near encyclopedic knowledge of useless trivia, bad jokes, and stupid movie plot lines that he often shared spontaneously — this led to him spending a great deal of “alone time.” Besides his hobbies online, he enjoyed gardening, good whiskey, and target shooting — which might explain many missing neighborhood pets and the vigorous growth of the tulips in the back yard. As a lover, he was known to make women swoon…or would have been known, had any of them overcome the nausea at the thought so as to assent. And, he is memorialized in several dictionaries: the words “athlete” and “Spafford” are found together… usually in a sentence under “cognitive dissonance.”

In his final years, Spafford spent a lot of time reminiscing about his childhood as an imaginary friend, and wondering what his life would have been like had be been born human.

In accordance with his wishes, his remains have been freeze-dried, adorned with a bow tie, and mailed to a random address as one last bad joke. He is survived by a daughter, sister, niece, nephews, the contents of several petri dishes with biohazard labels on board some UFOs, and basically everyone who is reading this. I mean, you can’t read this if you didn’t survive, right?

Donations can be made … oh, who are we fooling? Just go blow the money on chocolate and a good whisky.

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