Sunday, July 4, 2010

America

Patriotism is more than just love of America. America itself is more than a place or a collection of people. America is an idea, an idea born of the enlightenment with its roots in Athens, Rome and Alexandria. To be a patriot is to be loyal to the ideas that America is meant to embody. Liberty, democracy, rule of law, reason, justice, opportunity, egalitarianism. The tension between our ideals and our reality is what has driven our history, sometimes down tortured paths. America is the greatest idea that human civilization has yet created, and ideas cannot be destroyed.

Holidays like independence day always prompt me to think. Over the past few days, I have perused some books that have influenced my thoughts on patriotism and what it means to be an American.

Without question, one of the most influential books I've ever read was Howard Zinn's Declarations of Independence. I was in my last semester at Middlessex Community College and Zinn's book was one of the required text for American Government. I viewed it at first with suspicion. I didn't know who Howard Zinn was and the premise of "cross-examining American ideology" gave me pause. Once I started reading I couldn't put the book down and consumed it over a single weekend. Much of what I thought I understood and believed in was challenged by Declarations but the book also opened my eyes and my mind. America, I discovered, was, well...complicated and two people with honesty and good intentions could see an event from completely different perspectives. America, I came to understand, is a place driven by the tension between what we say we stand for, and what the reality of life is for many Americans. I did not unquestioningly consume everything Howard Zinn said, but his books, and those of Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader and Cornell West have challenged me and kept me honest in my patriotism.

The True Patriot is a terrific book that I think should be read by every high school student in America (I think every PERSON in America should read it). The book attacks head on the myth that progressives (the "left") aren't or cannot be patriotic. Written in a classic form inspired by revolutionary pamphlets of the 18th century, the book lays out in compelling language the case for patriotic values that few people, regardless of their politics, could take issue with. True Patriot is the perfect, pocket size companion to Naomi Wolf's Give Me Liberty . The book is a sequel to her wildly successful End of America, that warned of the dangers of creeping neo-fascism in American politics. Give Me Liberty was a breath of fresh air for me. Instead of the tired refrains of "America is bad, America is a force for evil, blah blah blah" Naomi Wolf takes a long-overdue look at the radical and progressive ideals that the "founding fathers" embraced and fought for when throwing off British tyranny and forging a new, unique nation. Wolf is honest and pointed in her praise of the founders as imperfect men who crafted a perfect vision. She is equally honest in her criticism of the American left for abandoning Americas radical roots and revolutionary founders. The political and cultural upheaval of the 1960's were a squandered opportunity for the left. The biggest blunder of radicals in the 60's, she argues, was marching under banners with images of Ho Chi Min and Mao when protesters should have carried pictures of Thomas Paine and John Adams. Anyone who thinks the left is out of touch with American values would be well served by reading the first 200 pages of Give Me Liberty.

We have come to a point in American history that finds our nation divided along ideological lines. We have been here before. Sadly, we are poorly equipped as citizens today to cross these lines, or seek common ground with our fellow Americans. Civics, the pre-partisan discipline of how to be an American citizen, has been cast aside. As Richard Dryfuss points out, "We don't teach our children what we do not want them to know. Democrats don't want to send their kids to civics class because they are afraid they will come back as Republicans. Republicans won't to their kids to civics class because they are afraid they will come back as Democrats". In an age of Kieth Oberman and Glenn Beck we have lost our way and are in danger of loosing our country.

America is an imperfect place in search of an perfect ideal. For all our faults, for all our mistakes, for all our shortcomings, we are still America. We are the exception to the rule. For most of human history, with a few notable but short lived exceptions, mankind has lived a brutal unjust existence under the heal of tyranny. We were the first viable democracy to put the enlightenment into practice and we are still learning. America, warts and all, is the greatest of great nations. Founded by flawed men under dire circumstance, we are still working towards that elusive ideal. If we fail to recognize our greatness and the responsibilities that come with greatness, we will become just another place, not worth protecting.

Today, while we drink and eat, while we go to the beach and go camping, while we watch fireworks or watch baseball, take just a moment to ponder what it means to be an American, to be a patriot. Take a moment and be grateful to be here, to be a citizen, or hope to become one. Regardless or your politics, or who you voted for, take a moment and ask yourself, "would I really want to be anywhere else?".

Friday, December 11, 2009

Climate-gate: Don't believe the hype.

(Note: This is the full version of an editorial that will appear in this Sunday's edition of the Eagle Tribune and includes links to resources)

This week, negotiators from around the world are meeting in Copenhagen in an attempt for forge an agreement to deal decisively with the existential threat of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW). While the world’s leaders are largely in agreement on the need for such an agreement, the world is, yet again, held hostage to American domestic politics. Without American political, scientific and economic leadership, the world will be unable to face this growing threat.

At home we have been bombarded with news of the so-called “climategate scandal” and powerful groups with radical ideologies have worked to undermine the public confidence in the scientific consensus that has emerged on AGW. It is ironic that many of the same scientists, lawyers, lobbyists and media figures leading the AGW denial campaign learned their craft of disinformation while defending the tobacco industry, all the while claiming that cigarettes were not addictive or harmful to human health. While the threat is larger and the stage global, the play-book is the same – stress the uncertainty that is present in any scientific endeavor and smear the credibility of scientists. Despite being told by their own scientists as early as 1995, that “the impact of human industrial activity on the climate is undeniable”, the petroleum industry launched an organized campaign to undermine the scientific research and spread confusion, shaking the confidence of the public. In light of the long established, well funded and ongoing war against science, the theft and posting of private emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University could not have been timed better.

But what do these emails say? Do they “nail the coffin shut” on AGW or are they a tempest in a teacup? According to the contrarians (including the Eagle Tribune editorial board) the scientists at CRU were falsifying data, manipulating research to “hide the decline” in global temperatures, destroying evidence to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests, blocking publication of research that contradicted their claims and forcing editors of journals who disagreed with them from their jobs and worst of all, knew that the earth was cooling, not warming and couldn't explain it. If you doubt all this global warming stuff, or at least don’t want the inconvenience of fluorescent light bulbs forced on you and read some of these emails without knowing their context, you will see just what you want to; a conspiracy to cook the books and hide the truth. However, if you place all of these emails in their context, with other emails and the studies and events the researchers are talking privately about, a much different picture emerges.

The most abused phrase in this saga is “hide the decline”. People who haven’t done any research beyond reading conservative blogs claim that scientists were “hiding the decline” in global temperatures to convince people that the planet was still warming when it was really cooling. There are two problems with this. First, the planet is clearly warming; 2005 tied 1998 as the warmest year in the instrument record, 2009 was globally the 5th warmest on record and 11 of the 15 hottest years have occurred since 1995. More importantly, the researchers weren’t talking about temperature decline; they were talking about the decline in tree ring proxy data that shows a false decline after 1960. Since there are no reliable instrument data prior to the 1800’s researchers need to use “proxies” like tree rings, lake and ocean floor sediments, ice cores, boreholes, even corals and stalagmites in caves to estimate what the past climate was like. For reasons scientists can’t agree on, tree rings simply aren’t good proxies after the 1950’s. The “trick” is to plot the actual instrument readings onto the graph to illustrate the actual temperature trend instead of giving a false impression that the earth is rapidly cooling.

Now some have seized on the word “trick” and claim that scientists would never use such a colloquialism and that it must be referring to a deception. Scientists counter that “trick” is commonly used in science and if one searches Goggle Scholar for the keyword “trick” over 200 journal articles can be found with the word “trick” in the title and hundreds more use the word in their abstract. Clearly, “trick” is a common term in science that often refers to a clever solution to a problem.

In open, democratic societies the expectation of transparency is everywhere and when people or organizations we are supposed to trust are less than forthcoming with information we ask for it can raise suspicion. Attempts by some scientists to withhold data or not comply with Freedom Of Information Act requests appear ominous but again, the context is important. What isn’t being brought to the public’s attention is the fact that many researchers purchase instrument datasets from the government weather services of many countries. Often, the information is provided with a requirement that the data not be disseminated to third parties. The data, in short, belongs to the organization that gathered it, not the researchers and as such cannot legally be given even when requested under FOIA. Also missing from the public discussion is the fact that over 95% of the raw data is available for anyone who looks for it. NASA and NOAA for example have vast amounts of data available online and researchers have been posting links to their raw data on realclimate.org. Ironically, this false claim of secrecy has prompted greater openness in the climate research community. It also has to be noted that despite scientists talking about deleting data, none of the raw data at CRU has been destroyed, deleted or “lost”.

The moist egregious assault from this “scandal” is the attack on peer review. Peer review is a necessary, but not always sufficient mechanism that ensures that research is valid, comports to standard practices and passes rigorous scrutiny before being published in prestigious journals. Sometimes however, poorly written articles or flawed studies survive peer review. Such was the case when an article was published in the journal Climate Research that the climate research community, and many scientists from other fields, found to be so poorly written and flawed it became clear that the peer review process at that publication had broken down. In protest, three of the editors of that journal resigned in protest. The publisher of Climate Research later admitted that he should have requested a number of changes in the article prior to publication. Despite the clear desire to exclude this poorly written anti-AGW piece from the IPCC assessment report, it was, in fact, included in that reports review of published literature.

So there you have it. No faked data, no conspiracy, no cover up. No emails were deleted, not a single piece of data lost or destroyed, no suppression of science. There is something unscrupulous going on however and that’s the well organized, well funded effort to attack science and confuse the public to protect the profits of a small number of multinational corporations and promote a quasi-religious ideology of radical libertarianism. What’s at stake isn’t whether we get to use incandescent light bulbs or drive hummers, it’s whether the human race can sustain itself and prosper on this small, and increasingly fragile world. We all, today, literally hold the future of the human race in our hands. Do we have the courage to do what is right today, for the generations that will follow?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sobering perspective on Climate Change

With all of the hoopla over "Climategate" and the stolen emails from East Anglia University's Climate Research Unit (CRU)some important and basic points that have been well established are being overlooked. This isn't surprising as the "CRU hack" provided just enough out of context fodder for the denialist to launch a partially effective attack on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and the scientific community. A salvo in this attack was launched locally by the Eagle-Tribune in a poorly written, ill informed editorial that appeared in this past Sunday's paper. Missing from the Merrimack Valley's daily paper of record was objective coverage of the CRU emails as not a single story appeared in the paper prior to the editorial being published. That's a shame because the E-T missed an opportunity to fully inform the public instead of piling on talking points. The potential fallout from this theft is so great that it prompted a strongly worded editorial from the journal Nature, one of the most respected scientific journals in the world.

As with many stories like this, context means everything and is usually left out. CRU's Phil Jones now joins an illustrious list of people from Charles Darwin to Sonia Sotomyor who have been misquoted and attacked by statements taken to far out of context that they have almost no real meaning. I won't go into detail about the specific emails and their context as our friends at Real Climate have done an excellent job of that already. AGW deniers will look at these emails and see exactly what they want to see, and even then will make shit up. One of the biggest offenders is serial denier George Will (who really should stick to baseball and politics). As Media Matters pointed out, Will has gone completely over the edge.

What is being lost in this debate is that even if the 2 or 3 studies referred to in the stolen CRU emails were to be invalidated it would mean nothing. I say that, not because I'm so convinced that AGW is real that I refuse to consider other evidence to the contrary, but because there are multiple lines of inquiry and robust evidence that supports AGW. Deniers would have you believe that there are 4 or 5 studies that all AGW theory rests on or that CRU was the nerve center of all climate research. In fact there are researchers from the Hadley Center, NASA's GISS, NOAA, Woods Hole, Scripps Oceanographic Institute the EPA, Universities all over the world including locally; MIT, UNH, College of the Atlantic, Lesley, Tufts and hundreds of scientists not connected with any of the major research centers all producing published research. Despite claims to the contrary, the majority of the raw data produced by this research is available as well as the computer code used for modeling and analysis. NASAs raw data and code have been in the internet for years and researchers are coming out of the woodwork, posting links to their research on realclimate. If anything is unraveling, its the false claims of the conspiracy nuts.

Also specious are claims that climatologists are suppressing the work of contrarians who oppose the AGW orthodoxy. Claims of scientific fascism have been made form the floor of the US House of Representative (few things anger me more than words like communist and fascist being tossed around so loosely). Not only is it untrue, but consider the claims of the few contrarians against the mountain of research suporting AGW:
The current thinking of scientists on climate change is based on thousands of studies (Google Scholar gives 19,000 scientific articles for the full search phrase “global climate change”). Any new study will be one small grain of evidence that adds to this big pile, and it will shift the thinking of scientists slightly. Science proceeds like this in a slow, incremental way. It is extremely unlikely that any new study will immediately overthrow all the past knowledge. So even if the conclusions of the Shaviv and Veizer (2003) study discussed earlier, for instance, had been correct, this would be one small piece of evidence pitted against hundreds of others which contradict it. Scientists would find the apparent contradiction interesting and worthy of further investigation, and would devote further study to isolating the source of the contradiction. They would not suddenly throw out all previous results. Yet, one often gets the impression that scientific progress consists of a series of revolutions where scientists discard all their past thinking each time a new result gets published. This is often because only a small handful of high-profile studies in a given field are known by the wider public and media, and thus unrealistic weight is attached to those studies. New results are often over-emphasised (sometimes by the authors, sometimes by lobby groups) to make them sound important enough to have news value. Thus “bombshells” usually end up being duds.


This month, world leaders will gather for the climate change summit in Copenhagen. It is unlikely that any serious agreement will be produced and that's nothing for anyone to cheer about. As a recent report issued points out, the indicators of climate change are far stronger than anyone expected based on the last IPCC assessment. Despite the current temporary cooling (caused by exceptionally low solar output), global warming hasn't stopped and the need for action has never been clearer or more urgent.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My video @ Repower America

While waiting in line for the Al Gore book signing in Cambridge 2 weeks ago, I got the chance to record a short video for RePower America.



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIyS2vTBVRU
video

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Michael Graham = Coward

This week WTKK radio personality Michael Graham had another fit of climate change denial. Not surprisingly, Graham (along with fellow WTKK personality Jay Severin) have latched onto the non-scandal stemming from the hacking of the servers at Brittan's Climate Research Unit (CRU). This criminal act of breaking into secured computers at a government research facility resulted in the release of about 3,000 private emails without the consent of the researchers who wrote them. Also released was a file full of computer code (some of it proprietary) used to analyze data. A few dozen e-mails raise eyebrows with phrases like "trick", "MAGIC math" and "Hide" as well as a umber of references to fighting efforts to force the release of raw data used by some researchers. These e-mails were presented without context and were private communications. People see what they want to see in them; denialists and Glenn Beck style whack-jobs see "lies" conspiracies and "proof" that global warming is a hoax while others see collaboration, debate, efforts to present data that give an accurate representation of the truth as well as efforts to keep proprietary work confidential.

One thing that is clear is that there is no smoking gun and no hoax. Two excellent discussions of the CRU hack are found here and here. Despite this, Michael Graham continues to make people dumber. His latest posting is partially a rehash of earlier bad arguments that I've dealt with non-specific references to the CRU hack and some news stories about the recent (relative) cooling being "proof" that Greenhouse Gases don't warm the planet. My beef with Michael Graham isn't that he's making people stupid (he is) but that he is such a coward about it. When I tried to engage Graham in an on-air conversation about Hybrid cars and carbon footprints he mocked me, cut me off and hung up. When I tried to respond to comments on his most recent blog I found the following message:
"The site has blocked you from posting new comments.". Apparently I have been "banned" from posting to Graham's blog

Now, Michael Graham is free to moderate his blog in any way he pleases; nobody is entitled to post anything they want on anothers blog but he is a public figure, one who has access to the public airwaves, whose blog is very popular and apparently wants people to take him seriously when he comments on political and social issues. I think it's telling that anyone who offers a strong argument or challenges the mindless bullshit Graham is pushing gets mocked, cut off and prevented from presenting opposing views.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Keith

My nephew Keith died yesterday. He was 26 years old. When Keith was young he suffered from a bacterial infection that damaged his heart. A few weeks ago, that damage caught up with him. Stricken with cardiomyopathy, Keith was facing a life changing illness. I know the limitations that this placed in him were hard to deal with but Keith was young and otherwise healthy and strong. There was always hope; treatment, transplant, some new therapy. We all still believed Keith had a long life ahead of him. Despite the heroic efforts of Keith's parents and EMTs, that life was cut short. Keith was much too young.

My nephew was one of those people who enjoyed life. He was gregarious, friendly, full of energy. He was liked by everyone who met him and loved by everyone who knew him. Ever since I chaperoned a field trip for Keith's class at the General Donovan school to the Museum of Science, Keith had a very special place in my heart. I don't know how his parents Sandy and Al are coping with this loss, but Michelle and I know in a much smaller way, the grief they feel. For my children, who literally grew up with Keith and his sisters, this is like loosing an older brother.

Keith grew into a wonderful young man. He was the type of man you liked being around. Like all of us, Keith had known heartache and loss, like all of us, he had been wronged by others yet in the 22 years I've known him, I never saw Keith lash out or speak an unkind word about anyone, even when he perhaps should have. He had grown into a good, decent, kind person who I will miss deeply. Worst of all, I will never get to know the good man, the loving husband and attentive father I know Keith would have become.

Life is hard, sometimes cruel. Bad things happen to good people and the most devastating news arrives without warning over your cell phone at 5:04 on a Friday afternoon. There is no sense to be found in this loss. Nothing but time will stop the tears, fill the empty space in our hearts, or ease the pain. If there is a lesson in this, it is that we should all live our lives more thoughtfully, be kind to each other, and never let the people we care about doubt how we feel about them.

Rest in peace Keith.