Thursday, February 4, 2016

The very real faces behind the supporters of opposing views

Looking at FB posts for the past several years, I'm struck by the overwhelming contempt for others that I see, for the most part.  Anyone who holds a different view from a person posting a comment often is subjected to insults and invective.  Wildly unsubstantiated statements are made about what is supposed to be "typical" for those supporting a view contrary to the one making the comment.   Distressingly, at least a portion of the time, such nasty comments are not directed at the viewpoints, per se, but directly at the person expressing the viewpoint - they're ad hominem insults, not elements of a rational discussion.  If a generalization is made without intending to do so, at least be sensitive to the fact that what you might think to be typical is not necessarily applicable to everyone.  I try to remind myself of that - sometimes others do it for me, even though they may also be guilty of the very same thing.

These harsh and angry statements often generate a salvo of personal insults in reprise and the thread of the discussion then is totally lost in a hostile back-and-forth.  Whatever happened to a civil discussion of issues?  I wrote a blog about the topic of what constitutes a civil discourse, but of course my blog has no power to change the course of our society or the posts offered on social media.  I've seen examples where people make their strongly-held opinions known and then proceed to deny virtually anyone with a different viewpoint the capability to make a meaningful comment in response through the tactic of defining who is "qualified" to comment in such a way that only the person posting the statement (or those who completely agree with it) is qualified to respond.  This is not a basis for a discussion.  It's simply a "club" where like-minded folks can pat one another on the back and agree that theirs is the only legitimate opinion.  You might as well have a discussion with slogans printed on a political banner nailed to a wall for all the good it will accomplish!  If we unilaterally exclude opposing viewpoints, or drive those who differ with us away from the discussion, then the entire exercise becomes utterly pointless.  It's simply "preaching to the choir" rather than testing your ideas in the intellectual marketplace.  Of course, some may feel they are so certainly correct, they need no discussion at all - that is, their minds are closed with regard to that topic!

Now, shift gears to politics and we see that our government mirrors this tendency in our society to demonize and discredit those with whom we disagree.  The gridlock we have experienced so often for the past several years of the Obama administration in our Federal government has come about by a stubborn unwillingness to compromise in order that the legitimate needs of the people can be served.  In fact, of course, there are vastly different viewpoints in the political parties about what the people need, so the ugly, disrespectful clash of ideologies is directly related to the inability to serve the people.   You might think there should be many points where surely everyone would agree that a particular need is present that should be served, but if you think so, you're going to be frustrated in today's world where even the most basic human needs have become a point of departure, not a source of agreement.  Many on both sides see the "other" side as wrong-minded fools being duped by the opposing politicians to do harm to our society rather than to do good things for everyone.  And the politicians have observed that this works in their favor, although it's far from what this nation needs.

In fact, our political "leaders" have been complicit in this process, using the divisions in our society as a means by which to serve their personal political ends, rather that serving the interests of the people.  And many people have become blindly loyal to one side or the other of these divisions, despite the best interests of the very people who vote these politicians into office.  The demonization of the "other side" has become a pandemic.  I feel the frustration and perhaps sometimes am led by my emotions to participate in it to some extent, even though I prefer not to wallow in the political quagmire of insult and counter-insult.  I try to remember that the people who are saying things with which I disagree strongly have a right to think what they wish and may indeed have an opinion that contains elements of substance.  If we allow ourselves the luxury of insulting and de-valuing the opinions of anyone with whom we disagree, we forfeit the opportunity for a potentially useful discourse.  It is via the reconciliation of conflicting viewpoints through compromise that our nation was built, and the current situation is heading in a very different direction than intended by our national founders.

I've tried to have discussions with some of my acquaintances from the "other side" that have failed utterly to get past the "talking points".  They refuse to see the value of my views and getting any sort of a compromise has proven to be futile.  At this stage, I'm reluctantly declining further "discourse" with those whose viewpoints include a complete contempt for my viewpoint.  I'm pretty certain I've done nothing to merit that disrespect, but of course, opinions on that might vary.  I make no claim to be a saint, but I'm pretty sure I've not resorted to ad hominem insults.  If I have and I'm deluding myself in that regard, then I apologize.  To those with whom I can engage in civil discourse despite our disagreements, I thank you for your spirit of cooperation in trying to work out our differences and at least understand why we disagree so strongly.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

US Building construction practices, revisited

In 1999, after the 03 May tornado outbreak of that year, I wrote a web essay on home construction practices and how that affects wind damage.  The recent December tornado events have re-awakened this topic, and it seems appropriate to offer some additional remarks after 16 years have passed with virtually no comprehensive change in construction practices.

The damage surveys I (and others) have done since then have continued to reveal not only the inadequacy of existing building codes, but also just how widespread violations of existing building codes are.  The existing codes remain, for the most part, pegged to a 90 mph standard for resistance to structural damage from winds.  The operational EF-scale puts 90 mph winds (a 3-second gust) at the low end of EF-1 tornadic winds (86-110 mph).  According to this standard, an EF-1 tornado (or anything stronger) is considered to be capable of initiating structural damage.  This isn't a very good standard for most of the United States east of the continental divide.  If a home is poorly anchored to its foundation (which is, unfortunately, all too often what is observed in American frame homes, despite such practices being below code standards), an 80 mph wind might well be able to slide it off the foundation, resulting in total loss of the home.

The reason for the widespread occurrence of code violations (in all buildings, including schools, not just homes) is simple.  Although structural enhancements can be added to new construction for about $1000 or so, the real issue is the time it takes to add those clips and strapping (see Fig. 1) to the frame and roof.  The added cost to the homeowner (passed on by the builder), amortized over a 3-year mortgage, is trivial.  For homebuilders and contractors, the key to profit is speed of construction.  In far too many cases, this means "shortcuts" are taken by the builders.  For instance, the code standard for attaching the wall plate to the foundation is the use of "J-bolts" embedded in the concrete, with washers and nuts tightened onto the threaded end of the J-bolt (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1.  An example of strapping used to attach a wall stud to the wall plate and the use of a washer and nut to attach the wall's bottom plate to the concrete foundation via a J-bolt.  Toe-nailing the stud to the bottom plate is poor practice (but acceptable by most current building codes) because it offers little resistance to forces acting to lift the wall.  The strapping uses nails (or screws) that are at right angles to lift forces, thereby creating much more resistance to those forces. 
Image courtesy of Tim Marshall. 

Surveys after tornadoes reveal too many examples where builders have installed the J-bolts, but failed to attach the washer and nut to the end!  That makes the J-bolt completely useless but of course it saves time!  Another common practice is for builders to be granted an "exemption" (by local governments) from codes requiring the use of J-bolts, allowing builders to use powder-driven cut nails for attaching the wall bottom plate to the concrete foundation.  This results in an extremely weak attachment (Fig. 2) when lift forces are applied to that attachment, as they are in tornadoes.

Figure 2.  A powder-driven cut nail left behind in the foundation after the wall bottom plate was torn away.  Note the damage to the concrete caused by the process of driving the nail through the board into the concrete.  Sometimes this shatters enough of the concrete to utterly negate the attachment of the nail but it would not be visible to the builder.  Image courtesy of Tim Marshall.

In my surveys, I've seen that shoddy, sometimes appallingly weak construction practices are widespread.  Buying an expensive home is no guarantee of high quality construction.  We see about as many code violations in expensive homes after tornadoes hit as we see in low-cost tract homes.  We also have seen that in many (not all) cases, the homes rebuilt after tornadoes are no better constructed than the destroyed homes they replaced.  The lessons learned from previous tornado event evidently are not being used widely to change construction practices.

If the standard for wind resistance to structural failure were raised in the tornado-prone parts of the US (everything east of the continental divide) to 120 mph (in the middle of EF-2 tornado winds - 111-135 mph), this would result in a substantial reduction in tornado damage.  Structural damage would primarily be associated with EF-3+ tornado events.  Flying debris in tornadoes from structural failures initiates considerable additional damage and increases the casualty risk to anyone caught in the tornado (Fig. 3).  Enhanced construction codes would thereby reduce tornado damage considerably and also lower the casualty risks.

Figure 3.  Damage from the 03 May 1999 tornado in Oklahoma City/Moore, OK.  Note the prevalence of broken 2X4 timbers within the debris - these are structural frame elements that may have been carried considerable distance by the winds.  FEMA image taken by C. Doswell.

Note also that even in the strongest tornadoes (EF-5), only a tiny fraction of the damage path experiences the strongest winds (at most only a few percent of the total damage area).  And EF-3+ tornadoes represent only about 10% (or less) of all tornadoes.  Limiting damage to parts of a tornado track with EF-3+ winds would represent a significant reduction in the amount of structural damage, and reduce casualties, as well.

At the very least, there's a need for more rigorous enforcement of building codes.  It would be an important advance if all buildings actually were built according to the existing building codes, to say nothing of additional benefits from enhanced code requirements.  We as a nation need to be benefiting  from our experiences with tornadoes, not ignoring the lessons they've provided.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Just who is responsible for your safety in tornadoes?

Media coverage of the late fall/early winter tornadoes that have been occurring this year includes their entirely too common efforts to seek out and give voice to those victims who say "the tornado struck without warning", despite the facts almost always showing precisely the opposite.  In most examples, timely forecasts and warnings were issued in advance of the event, sometimes literally days in advance!  I've seen this happen almost without fail every time we have major tornado impacts - over the course of my 40-year career, this has been an element in media coverage virtually in every example.

I consider this to be irresponsible reporting.  According to their clearly biased view of things, if people actually received a warning, that's not news.  It's only newsworthy when the perception is that the meteorologists dropped the ball and failed in their responsibilities.  The media should be ashamed for perpetuating the public misconceptions about the weather information meteorologists are providing for them.  So how does this false perception arise so frequently and consistently?  Why can such interview subjects be so readily found?

I've not done the surveys and research, but it seems pretty clear to me that when people interviewed by the media make the counterfactual "it struck without warning" statement, what they mean is that no one contacted them personally and told them that they needed to take shelter.   Sometimes they say that they didn't hear any tornado sirens, as if that's the only medium by which warning information can be conveyed.  Sirens can reach people who are outside in the vicinity of a siren - they're not the best and most important mechanism for disseminating tornado warning information!

What this mostly indicates to me is that some people - often those whose story is featured by the media - are simply not accepting any responsibility for their own personal safety.  In many cases, there's information about tornado threats that's available many hours, and even days, in advance of the storms.  The main point of providing this information is simply to let people know that there's a heightened tornado threat and that they need to maintain situation awareness during the time before storms develop and approach them.  Although such forecasts are not inevitably followed by major tornado events, they're sufficiently accurate to serve their intended purpose of helping people be prepared should the need arise.  Even in a major tornado outbreak, most people are not affected.  It's only the unlucky few who find themselves in a tornado's path.  But everyone should be responsible enough to keep up with the developing weather situation in cases of an enhanced threat level.

Once storms develop, the warnings are issued - in most cases, at least 15 minutes or so before the impact of the approaching tornado.  The warnings are not perfect and many of them turn out to be false alarms.  As noted, even when tornadoes do occur, the vast majority of people are not struck.  The state of the science simply won't permit perfectly accurate, extremely precise warnings and the number of perceived false alarms can only be reduced slightly by applying the best knowledge science has to offer.  The cases with the types of storms that produce the powerful tornadoes responsible for most fatalities are already handled pretty well by the forecast/warning meteorologists.  The primary problem with reducing false alarms is that it increases the likelihood of failing to warn for a tornado.  So what do people want?  Relatively frequent false alarms, or relatively frequent failures to issue a warning for an actual tornado?  Those are the only options.

It's not now possible, nor is it ever likely to be possible, to issue tornado warnings only for people who eventually will be struck by a tornado.  That's an ideal very far from the reality of what we meteorologists can do.  Even given that, however, it's evident that tornado forecasts and warnings have been saving lives here in the US since they began in 1952.  That means many thousands of fatalities have been prevented by a system that isn't even close to perfect!  While the forecasts and warnings can be improved with improved science, the existing products are not "broken"!

There's an asymmetry in the penalty function for tornado warnings.  There are ZERO tornado fatalities in a false alarm!  However, failing to issue a tornado warning for a fatality-producing tornado has a much higher penalty.  The result is a tendency to over-warn.  Tornado warnings are biased toward overforecasting tornadoes because meteorologists have a binary decision to make:  a warning forecaster either warns or s/he doesn't warn.  It's possible to reduce the bias for overwarning by issuing warnings with graded threat levels - in effect, a probabilistic threat forecast - rather than a yes/no forecast.  But such a system has yet to be implemented operationally, in part because of public demand for a virtually nonexistent certainty regarding what will happen in the weather.

In today's world, most people have many different options by which they can receive tornado forecasts and warnings.  Almost all of them require the user to make the decision to become situation aware.  People cannot simply assume zero responsibility for their own safety without running the risk of suddenly finding themselves in mortal danger.  Information about tornado hazards is readily available but people must make the effort to seek out that information without having to be told to do so.  They must plan for tornado hazards well in advance and take it on themselves to seek out information about what they can do to reduce the threat to their lives (and even their property).

The media need to become responsible for telling an accurate version of tornado events, rather than continuing to reprise the counterfactual scripted version of events that reinforces the myth of "it struck without warning".  The media have some responsibility here and to my mind, many of them are failing to carry out that responsibility.  The men and women who dedicate their lives to providing the public with the most accurate and timely weather information they can muster deserve our respect and admiration for their selfless efforts to inform.  They do not deserve to be portrayed as failing in their duties when the facts are clearly contrary to the media script.  Their failure to achieve perfection is far from being entirely their fault.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How do we defeat the terrorists?

I could probably expend a fair amount of effort discussing why the tactics we've been using to "defeat" terrorism won't work.  In essence, killing terrorists only serves to recruit more terrorists.  Vengeance is a bad strategy, as violence only calls forth more violence in return, in an endless cycle of futility and death.  It's the tool the terrorists employ, and if we employ it, we cede the advantage to them.  They're better at it than we, and that's something I'm pleased about.  I see no particular reason for pride in being better at violence than anyone else.

Today, I saw a FaceBook post about someone here in the US who did a random act of kindness to a muslim at a Starbucks, by paying the tab as a gesture of support for muslims.  It was an act of personal defiance to the Trump-ish fear-mongering against muslim Americans and muslims seeking refuge here.  It dawns on me that kindness and love for our fellow human beings is the only way we defeat terrorism.  The whole machismo thing about "kill 'em all!" and hostility toward muslims isn't working and never will, so the way to defeat them is to make it so clear that the west is not at war against islam, that the terrorists become utterly repugnant to most practicing muslims.  Without a support base, terrorist groups whither and die.  After all, islamic terrorism is aimed at both creating fear (and many of us have allowed that to be a successful tactic) and convincing muslims that the christian west is their enemy.  Our vengeance tactics will never eliminate the threat.

Is it not the christian way to love your "enemies"?  Is the parable of the "good Samaritan" not a cornerstone of christianity?  Has our jingoistic machismo simply forgotten the admonition to "turn the other cheek"?  Is hatred and xenophobia the christian path?  What I know about christianity is that hatred is not the important message of christianity.  In earlier times, christians sought to proselytize at swordpoint, as we now seek to export democracy at gunpoint.  It simply doesn't work that way.  Moderate christians long ago gave up the mentality that drove the Crusades.  Unfortunately, some muslims have yet to learn that lesson.  Certainly not all muslims, though.

It's no secret that I'm not a christian, but an atheist - an atheist born and raised in a predominantly christian world.  As an atheist, it appears to me that many Americans, in their politically-encouraged virulent hatred of muslims (or other ethnic groups, including jews and minority races), have completely forsaken the peaceful christian message of love for our fellow human beings.  They prefer violent suppression of the legitimate desires of minorities and vengeance visited on our 'enemies' as the answer to differences.  Yes, I suppose the terrorists laugh in derision at any sort of proposed peaceful response to their evil deeds.  But did not Ghandi preach of the sacrifices along the path of nonviolent opposition to oppression and evil?  Was his approach not ultimately successful?  Did not Martin Luther King preach the same message of nonviolent opposition to injustice?  Were his efforts a dismal failure?  Surely history vindicates optimism concerning the path of nonviolence.

Tribalism is an 'instinctive' evolutionary characteristic of humans that has become a major impediment to human progress.  Imagine the colossal waste of our world resources in wars! How much of value has been destroyed, including human lives?  Although loyalty to one's tribe can lead to many good things that benefit one's tribe, the concomitant distrust and hatred for those in other tribes has become a liability in an increasingly connected world where we're more and more dependent on each other.  We humans have to overcome our evolutionary tendency for distrust of those who differ from us in some superficial way or another.  Race and religion are foci for tribalism and yet both are increasingly irrelevant in the modern world.

I think the path to a world where terrorism is no longer a viable threat starts with the very christian ideals that so many christians seem to have discarded in favor of vengeance and violence.  If we show, not by our words, but by our deeds, that we're willing to accommodate other races, other religions, other 'tribes', then the terrorist message can be repudiated in the most powerful way possible.  If we respond to hatred with love, we can demonstrate to the muslim world that the terrorist message is a false one.  We can show by our actions that the principles we claim to live by are not mere empty words but a powerful plan for mutual accommodation.  Live and let live.  We can, in fact, revel in the diversity of our different cultures without the need for one culture to claim superiority over all others.  We have no message we need to export at gunpoint.  The only thing that truly matters is that we're all human beings, trying to cope with what life offers to us as best we can, while enjoying the simple pleasures we all share:  good food, good friends, family support, and a joy in being alive.

Give peace a chance.  Repudiate violence.  Resist the temptation of the terrorists to respond in kind.  Love one another.  In the end, love can conquer hatred.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

More on freedom of speech

Followers of this blog already know that I am a big supporter of freedom of speech (see here and here and here).  Free speech is a complex topic and I think all of us struggle with it from time to time.  It isn't so easy to define its limits.

The primary principle of free speech is that the freedom must be granted to everyone, especially those who say things with which we disagree.  Detestable groups like neo-Nazis and religious crypto-fascist fanatics must be allowed to express their opinions if the freedom of speech principle is to have any real meaning.  If we only grant that right to those with whom we agree, then we have transformed the principle into its exact opposite.  The principle is based on the assumption that in a free nation, the people don't need protection from ideas with which they disagree - we can choose for ourselves to accept or reject what others say.  Those of us living under laws protecting free speech can even tolerate groups we know would abrogate the principle of free speech were they to gain power, because we're confident that our way is the better way and most Americans will remain unconvinced that denying rights to others is what we're all about.

That said, however, there are limits to free speech.  One cannot legally incite violence, or threaten people's lives and freedoms with words.  The limit is that anyone's free speech is bounded by that territory in which speech is harmful to others in a physical way.  When speech infringes on someone else's rights and welfare, that speech must be considered unlawful.  Just because what we say offends or angers someone doesn't mean they need "protection" from that speech, but when the line is crossed into physical harm resulting from that speech, then it has gone too far.

Of late, the political rhetoric from hate-mongers like Donald Trump and his ilk has become increasingly inflammatory.  Talk of "cleansing" the land of those with whom they disagree, erecting walls, carrying out deportations, etc. has been increasingly divisive and is right on the border (pun intended) of stepping into the territory of illegal speech.  The USA has always prided itself in its principles even though many Americans have trouble with granting those principles to those coming from different cultures and different "racial" stock - bigotry and xenophobia have been with us since the beginning.  And one reason they're thriving of late is the rhetoric of self-serving politicians (or would-be politicians).  There has always been an undercurrent of bigotry and xenophobia in this nation, directed at African-Americans, Latinos, gays, Jews, Muslims, etc.  This disgraceful tendency's star rises and falls over time - like the membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan - and it seems of late that the national mood is increasingly bigoted and xenophobic. This seems to be in response to politicians inflaming such thoughts in their efforts to find enough votes to come to (or stay in) power.  Muslims and Latinos have been targeted for exclusion and even proposed deportation.  In some circles, even vigilante violence is being considered as a remedy for the perceived pernicious influence of racial and cultural minorities.  This is wrong and yet such ideas find fertile ground in some circles within the USA.

This inflammatory, hateful rhetoric is mostly within the bounds of what is protected speech, although some is perilously close to being illegal incitement.  Even when such rants stay within legal bounds, it must be accepted that there are consequences that flow from those words.  As we have seen, individuals have been so "inspired" by divisive speech from politicians that they have taken it upon themselves to commit violent acts, up to and including murder, against the targets of their anger.  The explanation of these incidents as isolated "nut cases" just doesn't wash.  The politicians want to be allowed to say what they want, but they simultaneously want to deny any responsibility for the consequences of their words.  This is unacceptable.

In today's America, I see an increasing polarization and inequality.  It's a formula for disaster: the terrible possibility of civil war looms.  Just because our nation survived one civil war doesn't immunize us from another, as world history shows us.  We simply can't stand by passively when the political rhetoric incites people to violence.  We must speak out against it.  Count me among those doing so.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Can the problem of mass shootings ever be "solved"?

Lately, the issue of gun control has again become topical on social media in the wake of recent mass shooting deaths.  It seems likely that very few people have changed their stance in response to the current spate of incidents.  And it seems likely that social media posts for and against increasing gun control will continue to be posted after events happen - and the US continues to experience a high frequency of mass killings with firearms.  Evidently the highest in the world, along with a large per capita percentage of gun owners.

I won't be rehashing all the old arguments for and against enhancements to existing gun regulation.  It seems pretty clear that existing gun regulations have been notably ineffective at preventing mass shootings.  There are three fundamentally different motives for mass shooting incidents:

1.  Violent acts aimed at promoting some political or religious objective
2.  Violent acts committed by individuals who feel they have been done some wrong
3.  Violent act committed by people engaged in criminal activities

I'm not including herein any discussion of mass suicides using firearms.  The incidents under #1 could be considered to be terrorist acts.  The perpetrators often (not always) are willing to die in carrying out their violence, owing to a deep commitment to their cause, which can make it difficult to stop.   Terrorism promotes the causes of governments or religious sects by instilling fear in their target population.  Killing innocents is not only acceptable, but is often precisely the aim of the terrorists.  Those engaging in terrorism see no meaningful distinction between innocent bystanders and military forces, insofar as they have little or no concern for anyone opposing their cause.  A violent response to terrorism only aids the terrorists in recruitment of new terrorists to their ranks.  Yes, self-defense is a reasonable response if one becomes involved in a terrorist attack, but it does nothing to prevent more terrorist attacks.  Violence only begets more violence, in a perpetual circle of pointless vengeance.

Incidents under #2 are especially troubling because we aren't mind readers and have no capability for precognition (as in the movie Minority Report).  Most gun owners have no criminal record and are not certifiably insane.  By far the majority of them can experience personal setbacks (like divorce and being fired) without "going postal" - and they'll have little or no trouble passing a background check to obtain firearms and ammunition legally.  A small fraction of them suddenly lose control and lash out with violence, many times with substantial firepower (e.g., assault rifles with large-capacity magazines, thereby enhancing their ability to kill many people).  Many of them are not very concerned about being killed in the process of their vengeance, which (again) makes them difficult to stop.

Criminals, of course, recognize no particular obligation to obey any laws, and are more than willing to obtain firearms illegally.  These days, it seems that despite stiff penalties for crimes committed while armed, most criminals carry firearms.  They use them to ward off any efforts at self-defense by their victims, and to engage in "warfare" against their competitors in the crime business.  Most are not very concerned about casualties among bystanders.  Many firearms in the hands of criminals are obtained from non-criminal gun owners, often by those breaking in and entering homes (and businesses) to commit robbery.  The "war" by police on criminals can result in racial profiling (leading to excessive police violence) and "collateral damage" to innocent bystanders.  Most of them are not willing to die and, in fact, carry firearms as a self-defense measure (!) during their criminal activities.

Yes, it's a truism that guns are but a tool, and they don't kill without being in the hands of a human (except for firearm accidents).  Nevertheless, the rampant proliferation of guns in American society has many impacts that lead directly or indirectly to mass shootings.  It's easier to obtain a firearm than it is to become a legal motor vehicle operator (which includes penalties for irresponsible behavior, including forfeiture of the driving privilege).  Contrary to a popular slogan, an armed society is not a polite society - it's a violent society!

It seems impossible to have a dialog on the issue of controlling firearms with the aim of reducing firearm violence.  The topic is a deeply divisive one, with advocates on both sides adamantly resisting one another, challenging positions with the same old talking points without ever changing anyone's mind.  The NRA has been such an effective lobby that any hint of enhanced gun control cannot make it through Congress, so national enhancements to gun contral seem out of the question.  There's considerable variability among states regarding gun control, and at least superficially, there doesn't seem to be any consistent result associated with different levels of gun control.  It's a complicated topic!

What we need is research into the topic of mass shootings, but in fact, legislation to prevent such research by the Centers for Disease Control has been pushed through Congress and signed into law.  The issue of mass shootings is a challenge that has resisted any simple-minded "solutions" proposed and implemented.  Spewing the same old talking points back and forth is pointless but we seem unable to get beyond the talking points and slogans on both sides.

We owe it to ourselves and our children and grandchildren to stop the pointless arguments and come together for a real dialog.  Let most ideas at least be on the table, and let's think scientifically about what might work (or not).  If after due consideration and on the basis of credible evidence, some notion is unworkable or ineffective, put it aside and move on.  It's not worth repeating that this or that solution will not end all gun violence.  Real solutions don't have to be 100% effective to offer real progress on reducing the frequency of mass shootings.  It's not realistic to think that we can ever reduce the frequency to zero, so let's put that aside and start putting our efforts into finding methods to cut down on the massive number of mass shootings we have every year, without any requirement that it be 100% effective. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The evil of white privilege

Some recent news has revealed that some police have been planting drugs as evidence in prosecuting young black men and, as we have seen on numerous occasions, have been all too willing to use deadly force (or excessive force) preferentially on blacks and latinos.  Yes, of course, this sort of racist behavior is not typical of all (or even most) police officers.  And yes, of course, being a cop is dangerous and involves having to make split-second decisions.  But the widespread existence of tolerance for this behavior when it occurs is simply shameful.

I grew up in a lily-white Chicago suburb, with virtually no blacks or latinos and only a few Jews.  Hence, I had almost no experience with racial/cultural diversity.  My first real contact with a diverse sample of Americans came when I was inducted into the Army.  This turned out to be an unexpected benefit of my military service!  In that experience, I actually got to know and become friends with a quite diverse group of people.  The stereotypes I had heard as a boy were shattered by the reality of the experiences I had, and the main lesson I learned was that race is a meaningless notion.  Knowing that someone is within a particular ethnic group is to provide no meaningful information about that person.  You can only make meaningful judgments about someone after you get to know them personally and see by their actions just who they truly are.  Most evolutionary biologists recognize that race has little or no substantive scientific value - apart from superficial physical characteristics and cultural differences, you simply can't assume you know anything useful about a person when you recognize their racial background.  Default assumptions are often faulty.

As a white heterosexual male, I've experienced virtually nothing of the subtle and continuous discrimination that racial and gender stereotypes enable.  No opportunities closed to me.  No unjustified assumptions about my intentions and abilities.  No barriers to the chance to pursue my dreams.  It's only recently that I've begun to understand and appreciate the impact of the pernicious and pervasive treatment that many people experience on a daily basis as a result of white heterosexual male privilege (or "white privilege" for short).  Imagine, if you can, my white heterosexual male friends, the effect of being stereotyped on a daily basis, by police, by employers, by strangers, and many others while simply going about the business of living.  Imagine being seen by many as likely to be a drug dealer, a gang-banger, a vicious criminal, an ignorant laborer, an incompetent, a thief, a lazy welfare cheat - all by people who actually know nothing of who you are and what you truly represent as a human being.  All they see are stereotypes.

When someone speaks up to defend themselves from this sort of treatment, they're often labeled a racist (an ironic twist) and a dangerous trouble-maker!  The victims of this contempt and even hatred from certain segments of American society have to explain to their children why they're being subjected to ill treatment, having done nothing to deserve it.  They have to train their children in how to deal with police who should be protecting their rights, not violating them.  They have to take special care in how they dress, how they talk, and how they carry themselves in public to avoid the unwarranted default assumptions tied to racial and gender stereotypes that can lead to violence being visited upon them.

This is mostly invisible to most white, heterosexual males.  It's apparently not happening to us, so it's convenient and comforting to assume that white privilege doesn't really exist; to conclude that it's just some "politically correct" notion being foisted upon us.  We don't feel "privileged" because our privileged status is so pervasive, it's simply a constant background note.  Only if we could spend time in someone else's place might we come to understand and appreciate what white privilege does for us on a daily basis.  If we can picture what white privilege does for us by recognizing the impact of its absence, then we might be more willing to denounce the practice wherever and whenever it occurs.  The police tend to line up in a "blue wall of silence" when they see it happening - no doubt by a misplaced loyalty to their biased colleagues and by the threat of being ostracized by those colleagues who engage in discriminatory practices.  The majority of good cops should welcome the effort to cleanse bad cops from their midst.  As the old saying goes ... evil is perpetuated when good persons stand by and say or do nothing to prevent evil.

If we become close to someone with a different racial/gender background, we can learn from them just what their actual experiences have been.  It's not quite the same as experiencing it for oneself, but when hearing about what your friends actually have to deal with, anyone can begin to recognize white privilege for what it is - simple prejudice without any real justification.  Stereotypes and default assumptions about someone are not a justifiable basis for genuine human interaction.  For my white heterosexual male friends:  get to know your diverse acquaintances.  Among them you'll find people you want to have as friends, and some you don't want as friends - in the identical way your white heterosexual male acquaintances include people you like as well as those you don't like.  Pre-judgment on the superficial basis of race or gender is simply not consistent with reality.  Put such notions aside, if you can, and reach out to find friends among all your acquaintances.  You can learn much from their experiences, if you're willing to listen and try to understand.

A footnote:  if someone makes the default assumption that I fit some stereotype of a white heterosexual male (i.e, a "redneck"), without actually taking the time to know me as a person, that would also be a form of prejudicial discrimination.  Hence, there are some people who are not white heterosexual males, who actually are racists.  Sadly, such prejudices can be found within any group of humans.