Friday, March 11, 2011

A different sort of tsunami?

Today, when the power of the Earth has been demonstrated dramatically and tragically by the devastating earthquake near Japan and its powerful tsunami, another sort of tsunami is looming on the horizon here in the USA. We're a deeply divided nation in the midst of a number of economic and societal crises, in this case largely of our own making.

We're reaping the harvest of the policies planted by the GWB administration -- allowed to flourish and ripen by the ineffectual Obama administration. In GWB's haste to deregulate our financial system (which cashed in on the housing boom and then bailed out of the resulting disaster), to maintain the lavish luxury of the elite few who sit atop the oil and financial industries, and to exploit bigotry and ignorance for political gain, we're now seeing signs of an impending societal tsunami. As the haves distance themselves ever farther from the have-nots, the stampede to push the corporate agenda on the American public has reached new levels of aggression.

The Wisconsin GOP governor has used a legislative loophole to push through the policy he wanted that limits severely the collective bargaining rights of public employees, including teachers in public schools. In the process, he demonized public school teachers as the sort of bloodsucking "fat cats" that he himself is representing so well! Democrats have been rendered irrelevant by such tactics and they can only stand powerless and amazed at this affront to the legislative process. The Michigan GOP governor has declared "financial martial law," replacing elected local officials with his own appointed minions. These are tactics familiar to those who would become dictators (Hitler and Stalin come immediately to mind, of course). When the elected representatives are able to block your agenda, simply sweep them aside in favor of your own followers and push through whatever you want. Who cares what the "other side" supports? They're irrelevant!

The true nature of the conservative right wing (as represented by the Christian Nationalist Party -- CNP, aka the GOP) in this nation is becoming ever more clear. Despite wrapping themselves in the flag and claiming the right to be the standard-bearer of American democracy (as well as legislating our national morality), they now are showing themselves to be crypto-fascists, quite willing to do anything to have their way, despite whatever opposition might come from roughly half the population of this nation. Why compromise when you simply run roughshod over your opposition? The sad part of this is that many politically conservative working people are being victimized by the very politicians they've voted into office. The CNP somehow has convinced their supporters that they are the champions of the working class, but the policies they impose on the body politic (by any means necessary, it seems) only favor the corporations and their fabulously wealthy executives.

How can anyone be so naive as to believe that public school teachers are to bear the lion's share of the blame for bankrupting the states? Apparently, someone even less well off than teachers, with less education and less marketable skills. Did schoolteachers cause the credit default swap disaster that has bankrupted so many and resulted in massive numbers of foreclosures? Did schoolteachers cause the failure of energy companies like Enron, with all the financial reverberations of those failures? Was it the schoolteachers who engaged our nation once again in pointless, unwinnable, expensive foreign wars? Did schoolteachers outsource vast numbers of American jobs in favor of cheap labor in other countries? Was it schoolteachers who mismanaged state and federal funds, resulting in massive debts? If the CNP is doing this to teachers, the CNP's working class supporters remain in the crosshairs of the very crypto-fascists for whom they're voting. When the teachers have been tarred and feathered, who's next? Evidently, not the corporations and their executives!

The left wing ("liberals") in this country have shown themselves to be astonishingly incompetent and impotent in the face of this tsunami of lies, distortions, and high-handed actions that are eroding the very system that the crypto-fascists claim for their own banners. Like political liberals in the eras before the ascendancy of fascism and communism, they're being swept into the dustbin of history, standing open-mouthed and paralyzed by the shock and awe attacks from the CNP. In the face of opponents who are willing to do virtually anything to have their way (including trampling on the rights of the minorities), they wilt -- because to oppose the radicals with similar tactics is to surrender the moral high ground. The problem is that the crypto-fascists don't have the same morals! They do whatever it takes to win the day and don't care about the rules of representative democracy.

When revolution becomes the only way for the oppressed people of a nation to have any hope, then revolution will follow. Remove the hope for incremental change and respect for the rights of minorities, and eventually those people have nothing left to lose. We're seeing that demonstrated dramatically right now in the Middle East -- Egypt, Tunisia, Libya -- with other revolutions only simmering just beneath the surface in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere. Revolutions naturally tend to follow a course toward radicalization, and the outcome of a revolution need not be good for the people who began it. Revolutionaries tend to become more radical with time. In many cases, revolutions install a new boss who's practically the same as the old boss, rendering the revolution pointless in the end. Since no one knows how revolutions will turn out, if you've lost any hope for incremental change, why not foment a revolution?

Here in the USA, we had one successful revolution that threw off British colonial rule and installed our existing constitutional democracy, an amazing outcome, even in hindsight. Another revolution here in the USA became The Civil War, wherein Americans slaughtered each other for four years before the rebellion finally was defeated militarily. The South still smolders with resentment over that defeat nearly 150 years ago, despite now waving the American flag in CNP-dominated state governments -- the very political party that was responsible for their defeat in the Civil War! The liberal, pro-human rights agenda of the 19th-century GOP has been revised by the crypto-fascists and now embraces ignorance and bigotry as the means for making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Are we setting the table for another home-grown revolution? The CNP seems determined to make it happen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Being involved with Earth science

I've been deeply committed to "Earth Science" for more than 50 years, now. I can't explain the origins of my fascination with various aspects of this world, except to say that I've found the world in which I live to be a source of constant wonder. I understand an interest in such extraterrestrial topics as astronomy, but largely because I find it amazing to contemplate how we here on Earth have come to be here -- the debris of stellar supernovae come to self-awareness and a need to understand our roots in the physical universe. Extraterrestrial concepts are interesting to me in large part because of their comparison and contrast with what is going on here on Earth!

Anyway, the science of the Earth has been near and dear to me since I was a small boy. Not only is it a puzzle of monumental complexity that's quite capable of challenging the strongest intellects of our world, but the ramifications of Earth sciences have a clear relevance to everyone on the planet, whether they realize it or not! It pains me to see how aggressively ignorant so many humans are, willing to discard rationality in favor of cherished superstition or political agendas and unwilling to spend any time trying seriously to understand the grandeur of the physical processes upon which our very existence depends! Being ignorant is not a particularly good strategy for survival, but it seems to be quite popular these days. We ignore the contributions of Earth science at our peril.

Being a scientist necessarily involves the possibility of being wrong. As I've emphasized many times, being wrong is implicit in being a scientist. Fortunately for us, science is mostly self-correcting, including the occasional ethical transgressions of those whose ambitions exceed their commitment to the inherently honest work of science. Bad science is typically found out sooner or later, to the detriment of those who may have committed ethical transgressions in the process. If an idea is advanced that ultimately is inconsistent with the evidence, this will be noted and corrected eventually. Science is not a discovery of absolute truth, but an exploration of ideas created by fallible humans -- ideas in constant need of reconsideration in light of new evidence. We're often wrong in science, but we trust the process to correct our misunderstandings eventually.

Recently, I've seen some examples where some of my colleagues seem to be trapped inside the confines of what they've been taught. We're taught our science via the application of traditionally-accepted methods, that have been successful in the past. Those methods have been developed to deal with the particular challenges of our science, but it's disappointing to me when some of my colleagues feel that those methods define the processes. If science is to make progress, we need to avoid being trapped by traditional modes of thought that have worked in the past. We all should be prepared to be willing to embrace new ideas, even as we remain skeptical of all of them. It's a difficult road to walk, as it follows a narrow line between being blinded by old methods and being too willing to accept new methods.

Those seeking absolute truth must look to something other than science. Science simply does not deal in absolute truths! Skepticism about ideas that question the consensus is fine, but we must be able to recognize which of these new ideas is worth pursuing versus those that clearly are not. If we consider a hypothesis that goes against scientific consensus that involves, say, supernatural influences, this is simply not a meaningful path for the science to follow. If we wish to overthrow the consensus about something, it seems reasonable to ask for extraordinarily compelling evidence. An idea challenging the consensus that cannot provide compelling evidence is not acceptable, even if that idea ultimately turns out to be correct! The classic example of this is continental drift (proposed by Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist), the compelling evidence for which was lacking when Wegener proposed it, but was found many decades later. Science eventually came to embrace this notion, despite rejecting it when it first was proposed. This is a wonderful example of how science really works, but is misunderstood by most people.

Science is a marketplace of ideas. Good ideas eventually survive and bad ideas are discarded. Being a part of this is a lot of fun!