Sunday, December 11, 2016

Student loans, universities, and big business

Some recent FB posts have stimulated this blog.  From where I sit, student loan programs have evolved from marginally affordable low-interest loans into predatory loans.  After only four years of college, student loans now saddle graduates with massive debt in exchange for what amounts to declining potential for that satisfying job with good pay and benefits. It takes many years to pay off those loans, and in some cases, it's become well nigh impossible ever to be free of that student loan debt.  A college degree never was a guarantee of satisfactory employment. The only thing guaranteed is that if you don't have that diploma, you won't even be permitted to apply for many good jobs.

Thus, of late, the universities are running a loan sharking system that forces many students into deep debt and yet can promise them absolutely nothing in return, even if they graduate with distinction. Many large state universities have become businesses, not centers of learning.  Such universities now actively  discourage faculty from failing students because that can terminate the gravy train prematurely.  These corporations masquerading as institutions of learning now siphon massive wealth from the middle and lower classes into the universities, and badger their alumni into supporting the university. Their governing bodies are now often dominated by wealthy local business leaders, not people committed to and experienced in education.  The inherently progressive notion of helping students become contributing members of society for the benefit of all has been replaced with something resembling the dark vision of education embodied in Pink Floyd's The Wall, with students on a treadmill ending in a sausage grinder.

When I was in college and grad school, I didn't need any loans, so I entered the workforce basically debt-free.  My parents (middle class) were able to afford supporting my undergraduate education and I contributed some by working in the summers.  When I entered graduate school, my research assistantships paid me enough to be able to avoid student loans.  I was also the beneficiary, after my military "sabbatical," of G.I. Bill benefits.  Well-paid, satisfying employment wasn't guaranteed but those good jobs were available.  I entered the workforce in 1976 with my doctorate, and have enjoyed 40 years of very satisfying work as a severe storms meteorologist. Sadly, the opportunities I had are more or less no longer available.
Times have changed since those halcyon days, and definitely not for the better.  University tuition and in-residence education are decreasingly affordable.  Many scientific research institutions are now being run on what amounts to a business model and permanent secure employment is disappearing.  The way much research is done now demands short-term projects (3 years or less) with a list of deliverables, mostly "low hanging fruit" rather than risky long-term efforts with high potential value but without the luxury of guaranteed results. Increasingly, employees must find soft money for themselves even to have a job at all.  Workers hired to soft-money projects can be out of a job by the end of the funded project; last hired = first fired. Predatory capitalism is running literally out of control in our big-time universities and even in our research institutions,  forcing everyone - students , faculty, and scientists - into the business line.
Given the way things are going now in this nation, anti-intellectualism and anti-science attitudes are on the rise within the swelling ranks of the educationally-deprived.  This is not an environment that portends a growth of support for scientists and other intellectuals.  In fact, as it stands, they're labeled "elitists" and their findings called into question by the scientifically ignorant.  People seem to have forgotten the important role science and technology have played in the superpower status of the USA.  Investing in, and encouraging educational growth in science and technology is the "capital" that has made the nation strong and a world power.  Business people are too tightly focused on P&L sheets to appreciate the notion of investing in our youth for the long-term health of our nation.  They see only the profits from their predation and have no reason to curb their greed based on income from the middle and lower classes.  They're contributing little or nothing to our long-term stability and success.  They have no concern for the future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

PhDs as a ticket for admin?

Vickie and I were discussing this topic on our western trip and it triggered a lot of memories about my experiences with the educational system.  I mentioned some of this in my guide to grad students, but this includes some new thoughts since I wrote that "book."

First off, the way the education system works (at least as I've observed it) at the doctoral level is that the the primary emphasis is on demonstrating one's ability to do meaningful original research in your chosen field.  Often, a student's dissertation research is their first example of original work (i.e., not dished up as a project by one's major professor).  If the topic is assigned by their advisor, then the student will graduate as a "cripple" - having not yet shown themselves they can do research without assistance from their advisor.  A key element is that the idea for the project must be entirely their own.  From where I've sat, I've seen a lot of cases where this important requirement is not met, leaving the graduate to have to learn how to do this on the job!  This can have a bad outcome for everyone.

OK, I don't want to belabor that point here, but it's important to understand that a dissertation is often the first chance a student gets to show what they can do entirely on their own (as it would be in many research jobs they might have).  Doctoral education emphasizes research over classroom learning - or it should!  Sadly, many new PhDs go out into the world unprepared for the reality of the workplace and so often "disappear" into other situations.  As I was completing my doctoral dissertation, I recognized the absence of any experiences during my academic program that would have helped me overcome the hurdle of being able to dream up projects that are both solvable and worth solving.  There are lots of worthwhile projects that are essentially unsolvable, and lots of solvable problems that aren't worth the effort.  I think this is a teachable skill, but virtually no one teaches it.  For someone dedicating a career to scientific research, it seems to me that a course or two that offered a chance to begin to develop experience at formulating research topics would have been helpful.  My advisor wisely gave me no personal advice on how to do this, so I was forced to learn it entirely on my own.  Which I did, fortunately.  As did most of his students.

Now, however, we come to the primary issue of this blog post:  in many places of professional employment, it's becoming common at high levels of administration to require that applicants have a doctoral degree.  My concern focuses on the value of a standard doctoral program with its emphasis on scientific research when employed in a high level of administration.  I believe most PhD programs do virtually nothing to prepare a student for an eventual administrative position.  Of course, there are some people with research backgrounds who seem "instinctively" able (i.e., untrained) to be great managers.  A lot of being a good administrator is tied to having excellent "people skills" in order to support the working-level researchers (who can be quite idiosyncratic!). There also are "business" skills associated with finding and allocating resources for a research team.  Teamwork skills (as both a leader and a follower) are very important, as are communication skills (both verbal and written).  It's important for every administrator to understand that s/he can't be a success if the staff worker-bees aren't successful at their research (or whatever).  Administration is not productive work on its own, but it can be a big factor for those who actually perform the productive work for the organization (e.g., scientific research).

All too often, I see people promoted from the ranks of working-level science into admin positions for which they are grotesquely unsuited.  This usually breeds discontent among the working scientists and can be disastrous for morale.  Often, the only way to rid the staff of such incompetent managers is to promote them (and they are already well beyond their level of incompetence).  In my case, I resisted the temptation to "climb the ladder" because it would have necessitated my having little or no time to do the research I love.  Why give up something I enjoy to do something for which I have virtually no training and no desire to do?  It made no sense to me, just as having a PhD be a qualification for an administrative position makes little sense.  The primary benefit to having a former researcher in charge of a team is that they should be able to relate to the workers - but all too often, researchers promoted from the ranks become terrible managers or, at least mediocre in their position because they lack the necessary skills.

If someone aims at becoming an administrator in a scientific or technical field, there should be courses and seminars at the doctoral level that offer them some content they'll clearly need in such a position.  If a doctoral program has no such supplementary material (i.e.  in addition to the research experiences), then that diploma should not be viewed as suitable to apply for an administrative position.  Alternatively, some intensive training program for a management position could be offered - provided it's not just a "feel good" exercise that everyone passes.

Although I never had any ambition to be a manager, I've seen for myself the havoc that a bad manager can wreak within a professional program.  I may not be qualified for, or interested in having a management position, but I think I can recognize both good and bad management.  In science, my experience is that good ones are relatively few and far between.  If you find a good one, stick with him/her!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The will of the majority

A discussion on Facebook has stimulated this blog - the discussion ensued after I posted this old George Carlin video.  It seems pretty prescient concerning the current election situation, as the Trump "campaign" is encountering more and more manifestations of Trump's sleazy behavior, massive mendacity, and bizzare public claims.  It's difficult to know just what he does believe and what is just empty rhetoric.  Carlin's premise is that the public (or at least the majority of voters - that caveat will be unspoken but implicit in subsequent references to "the public") is responsible for the politicians.  If we don't like the politicians, it seems the public is responsible for the politicians we have.  Ergo, we have the voting members of the GOP to thank/blame for Trump.

The founders of our nation were very much aware of the potential tyranny of the majority.  If most of the people wanted to persecute a minority (say, Muslims), or establish a state religion (say, Christianity), they are prevented from doing so through the safeguards of the Bill of Rights.  Other aspects of the USA's Constitution limit the potential for abuses of the majority, including the electoral college and the balance of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Although supportive of representative democracy, the founders feared what the USA could become if the majority will was completely unfettered.  What has been happening since the Constitution was adopted is a gradual drift toward frustration with those safeguards.  People want their government to grant them what they want, even though what they seek may be bad for the nation, or will inflict harm on minorities.  This is an inevitable conflict in representative democracies.  The best path, it seems, is to remain in a state of approximate balance between the public's will and a government that declines to follow the will of the majority at all.  The secret to a successful democracy is not majority rule, but rather the protection of minority rights and doing what works best for nation as a whole (not pandering to special interests!).  As time has passed, the majority of our voters seem unable to bring themselves to vote against the very people who are ravaging the public, slowly undermining the bill of rights, pushing religion into government, and creating massive income inequality through welfare for the rich.

In other words, the majority seems determined to vote against their own best interests. This is where the people's will has taken us since the late 18th century, with anti-politics joining with a growing mood of anti-science/anti-intellectualism and a commitment to willful ignorance. This is what has become "representative" and has given rise to Trump as the human embodiment of a form of populism that involves narcissistic bigotry and a drift toward fascism in the USA. Trump has ridden the vote of the majority of GOP members to the nomination despite the GOP leadership's opposition, and is now at the very brink of the Presidency. 
The rise of Trump to the GOP nomination has been an amazing journey for America.  His popularity is widely attributed to the fact that he "speaks his mind" (including a large number of outright lies and many completely bizarre bigoted statements) and is not a career politician.  His supporters seem not to care at all about his actual words.  Instead, he's mostly just a symbol for their frustration with a system that seems unresponsive to their perceived needs.  They're unswayed by his gaffes and outrageous claims.

The current election has given us candidates from the two major parties that are widely despised by majorities within their counterpart segments of the population.  Of course, the choice between them presumably will be made by the American voting public.  Anyone choosing not to vote will avoid any responsibility for the election of either candidate, but will have chosen not to exercise a responsibility to the nation to have a role in its governance.  Some will vote for alternative party candidates that, at the present time in our history, have little chance of winning any national elections.  Such votes are not "wasted" - the value of voting is not determined by the outcome of the election - they can affect the outcome, as history has shown us.  Nevertheless, the majority of the public has adopted the 2-party system and evidently isn't inclined to depart from that choice in significant numbers, no matter how bad the candidates might be.

Hatred for politicians by the public is intense, which ironically is a sort of self-hate (a concept George Carlin was using in his comedy piece), because it's by the will of the voting public that those politicians remain in office!  Politician approval ratings are at rock bottom, but we keep electing the same people to office over and over.  The rise of Trump can be seen as a sort of "populism" - defines populism this way:  "populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite."  [The nation's founders were not all populists!]  Another populist candidate was Bernie Sanders, but he and Trump are very far apart on the political spectrum.  Bernie has since endorsed Hillary Clinton, whereas most mainline GOP politicians are now scurrying to disavow Trump.  Trump is what he's always been, but he created massive angst for the GOP faithful prior to the Republican National Convention and they're now regretting their attempts to close ranks behind him after he won the nomination.  I guess they hoped they could "control" him and winning the election was the crucial thing - history suggests that demagogues are not easy to control.  That nomination was decided against the wishes of the GOP insiders, for the simple reason that in Republican primaries, the will of the majority was to support Trump.  Well, the GOP majority got what they wanted.  Time will tell what they decide about the wisdom of their support for Trump.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Thoughts on "reverse racism"

NOTE  These comments are from two postings I made on Facebook.  I'm combining them here as a single blog, with a few minor modifications.

Interesting ... I just had an extended Facebook argument about the existence of "reverse racism". I assert that racism is NOT limited to prejudice against black people. Thus, I think so-called "reverse racism" [prejudice against whites] surely exists. My definition of racism is prejudging people on the basis of race (race is a fictional concept not recognized by modern science - see here).  A strict reading of my definition precludes any meaning for the phrase reverse racism - there is only racism, regardless of the races involved.

Whites have been in the majority in the USA for a long time, and that has allowed the development of an "institutionalized" prejudice against blacks now called "white privilege". White privilege is rooted in racism, therefore, which is in turn rooted in instinctual tribalism. I can understand the reasons that might lead to some blacks becoming deeply prejudiced against whites. Unfortunately, that is basically sanctioning what I call racism. What we need to eliminate ultimately is prejudice based on human instincts embedded in our genes - it will not be easy. But it does no good to NOT have conversations with others who may have different viewpoints. Understanding someone requires an effort to see things from their perspective. Not making that effort only perpetuates prejudice.

This single phrase "reverse racism" can have multiple definitions. Your opinions about the phrase depend heavily on what meaning you assign to it. There may be others, in addition to the three I've offered below.

1. a negative pre-judgment by blacks against all whites - black against white prejudice being the "reverse" of white against black prejudice

There clearly are those who fall under #1. It can't be denied that such people exist and there may or may not be valid reasons for it.  Returning tit for tat is quite understandable if you've experienced race-based injustice.  However, this clearly simple racism, if you define it as I've done.

2. institutionalized favoritism for blacks

This might include such things as so-called "affirmative action" programs, which seem to anger many whites, especially conservatives. At the superficial level, this sort of thing can be characterized as reverse racism. However, the motivation for it is to be to address a long, continuing period of discrimination against blacks as a result of white privilege. It's not really so much of an attack on whites as it is an attack on white privilege. Black people deserve the opportunity to prove themselves to be competent, and if they're given some benefit of the doubt, then perhaps this is the start down a path to eventual elimination of white privilege, whereby all are always given strictly equal opportunity. It's a small price to pay for centuries of discrimination against blacks and serves many positive ends. The whole "competency" argument often thrown up against affirmative action falls apart when you realize that many white people who have been given the benefit of white privilege have proven to be incompetent! Whiteness doesn't equate with competence, just as blackness doesn't equate to incompetence. The examples (counterexamples to racial stereotypes) are all around us!!

3. opposition to institutionalized white privilege

The idea that someone opposed to white privilege is automatically exhibiting "reverse racism" is obviously fallacious. Yes, blacks prejudiced against all whites (i.e., black against white racists) certainly would be likely supporters of doing away with white privilege. Nevertheless, that doesn't apply equally to all those fighting this battle for equal justice and opportunity. Many of those seeking an end to white privilege are not at all black. Frankly, it's a position I think should be the choice of all rational people.  I came to understand that the racism I encountered as a boy was not consistent with my experiences as an adult - racial stereotypes were demonstrably false - you can't claim to know anything about a particular human being solely on the basis of race.  If you must judge people, do so on the basis of what they say and, more importantly, on what they do!

I observe that racism is a form of tribalism.  We evolved as creatures who depend on social interactions for our survival.  Those in our "tribe" were much more important to us than those from other tribes.  Other tribes represented competition for resources and survival.  Other tribes had different cultures, different ideas, different religions, and in some cases, had a different physical appearance. Tribalism is deeply embedded in our genetic heritage - it was an important survival trait.  To be different is to be a threat.

Any social or cultural grouping can be considered a tribe, so there can be tribes within tribes (hunters, gatherers, scientists, clergy, carpenters, plumbers, etc.).  Minor differences in skin coloration, eye and nose shapes, etc. have stimulated tribalistic reactions whereby those who look slightly different are seen as an "inferior race".  Culturally assigned roles may have no valid basis in abilities.  This sort of thinking is in opposition to the facts as we know them from science.  Science tells us that all humans evolved from our beginnings in Africa - we all contain some of that original DNA and so all of us are "black" in that sense.  Race has become the cultural equivalent of the appendix - it no longer has any functionality and at times can be very harmful to us.  We need to discard the refuse of tribalism/racism and strive to work together for the common good.  Races are mythical - there is only one race:  the human race!  It will not be easy to overcome our tendency for tribalism/racism, but we need to do so as soon as possible.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Noah's Ark story - Is it history?

Let me be perfectly clear:  I consider the biblical story of Noah's Ark (like many biblical narratives) to be, at most, a human creation with essentially no connection to history, science, evidence, and logic.  The idea that some people choose to accept it as literal fact is both astonishing to me and an apparent tribute to their gullibility.

Let's ignore the fact that the putative supreme being, creator of the inconceivably vast universe, who is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, has decided that his creations (we humans, made in his image) have turned out to be a mistake because we don't behave the way he wants, so he's going to impose nearly total genocide on those of us extant at the time, using a world-wide flood to wipe the slate clean.  If this divine being pretty much screwed up the job of creating humans on his first try (Adam and Eve, remember?), then he's not omnipotent and omniscient - such a being should never make a mistake!  And killing all but a tiny remnant of the entire human species seems pretty much the opposite of benevolent!

Putting those issues aside, then, let's consider the impossibilities and issues within this yarn.  Quick summary:  the only way the biblical account can be considered historical is through continuous magical intervention by a divine being, who must have the capability to break the laws of nature and logic at will in order to overcome the host of impossibilities through a massive set of supernatural miracles.

1.  There's just no known way to produce a rainfall that would cover the entire surface of the Earth.  That requirement is the only way to be sure of drowning all humans save for the chosen few and it must be global, not regional.  That would be roughly 29,000+ feet (about 5.5 miles - to cover the top of Mt. Everest) of rainfall in 40 days - about 30 feet of rain per hour for 40 days - at every point on the surface of the Earth.  It's physically impossible.

2.  What would be the effect on a boat that was continuously experiencing rainfall of 30 feet per hour (6 inches per minute)?  It probably would be pretty top-heavy from that continuous rain, and it might easily be swamped, especially if there were wind that produced heavy seas.  Further, the massive load of animals and food would have to be kept continuously in balance, requiring a lot of effort by a large crew (see #8).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, keep the Ark afloat during this impossible deluge.

3.  Fitting mated pairs of all living land creatures on the Ark is a physical impossibility.  To this day, we have only incomplete knowledge of all the diverse species, but back in biblical times, their knowledge of that was nearly negligible.  Hence, it would be essentially impossible today, to say nothing of the late Bronze Age.

4.  Predators would have to eat the prey animals to live, so winding up with all of them saved is impossible unless lots of extra prey animals beyond one mated pair for each species are brought on board.  That adds to the food and water needs of all those animals ...

5.  The amount of food and water necessary to keep all the animals alive for 40 days would fill the Ark completely.  It would be impossible to bring along enough food and water for all the animals on a 40-day boat ride.  Of course, the 30 feet per hour rainfall rate could alleviate any water shortage!

6.  Going to the far corners of the Earth in order to obtain mated pairs of all Earthly creatures (plus extra prey animals) would require pretty fast transportation and transport capacity for Noah.  This job would be quite a challenge even today, but such a task for a semi-civilized man in biblical times would be physically impossible.

7.  Even if Noah somehow accomplished the miracle of gathering up mated pairs (plus extra prey animals) of all the world's animals with the help of his supernatural pal, how would all those animals get back to their own parts of the world after the flood waters receded?  [Where did they come from and where did they go?]  Even if they survived and bred along their way back to their homes on all the continents, why is there no evidence of this literally incredible migration from where the Ark landed on Mount Ararat?  Would there be food to eat along the way?  How do they know which way to go?  And how hospitable would their native lands be after a mega-flood?  Such a journey is impossible since it involves different continents and would require more supernatural intervention.
8.  Sanitary conditions on the Ark would not be very good unless there were even more crew members swabbing the interior decks constantly to get rid of the urine and feces from all those animals.  The external deck might be kept clear of urine and feces by the 30 feet of rain per hour, but not the interior.  Such a large crew would add to the requirements for food and water (and living space) on the Ark.  This is another impossible task.

9.  It's not clear what the atmospheric conditions were like during this voyage.  If it was typical of conditions in the Middle East (disregarding any impact from the mega-torrential rainfall), it might not be very healthy for animals from other regions.  Some creatures might not be able to survive the voyage despite being rescued from drowning.

10.  What about microorganisms?  How would they be gathered and maintained?  This would have to include the host of pathogenic microorganisms who survive by being parasites on their hosts.  Wouldn't this have represented a challenge for late Bronze Age barbarians to even know of the existence of such living creatures?  Some might already be on board living in the mated pairs (and extra prey), but it would be impossible to select two infected individuals from each species so as to include all microorganism in the aggregate.  And those infections would be hazardous to the survival of all the large animal species during the voyage.  In fact, they could become an epidemic easily in the crowded conditions.  Another need for divine supernatural intervention.

11.  How did the land plants of the world fare during a time of being submerged for days?  How did they recover from that?  Would there be enough food available for returning herbivore mated pairs?  After 40 days of being underwater, if the sun comes out, things just don't instantly spring up again.

12.  How does a planet-wide flood kill creatures of the sea?  Or were they just left to their own devices?  What would be the effect of a gigantic deposition of fresh water (29, 000 feet of rain - a lot of distilled water) on the world's oceans?  Might be kinda tough conditions for sea animals adapted to salt water.  The story mentions no aquaria on the Ark!

13.  Depending on a single mated pair of each animal to repopulate the planet is now recognized to being a threat to the existence of each species, owing to a lack of genetic diversity.  Of course, a late Bronze Age man would have known nothing of such obstacles to the Ark story's successful outcome.

I could go on, but it's only piling more impossibilities and issues on top of these.  [I might add more later.]  The clear conclusion I draw from all of this is that the Ark legend obviously is not history.  Finding evidence for a regional flood in biblical times isn't even close to providing support for the Ark myth.  To believe so indicates tremendous gullibility and/or confirmation bias seeking to save the appearances.  This yarn is precisely the sort of mythical story that a late Bronze Age, semi-civilized man would make up as religious parable seeking to impose obedience on the faithful, in complete ignorance of the vast amount of science we've accumulated since this myth was created.  The more we learn about how the natural world operates, the less credible the Ark parable becomes.  Hoping to find evidence for the Ark narrative in the bible is similar to cherry-picking data to find evidence denying climate change, or being paranoid about "chemtrails", or believing in a flat Earth.

You can interpret the biblical Ark myth in many diverse ways, but it just can't be literal history unless you're willing to accept the requirement for supernatural intervention throughout the whole process, making the impossible possible.  It's always a logical possibility that compelling evidence to support the preposterous Ark story might be found somewhere, but in the absence of that compelling evidence, I'm of a mind to see the Noah's Ark hypothesis as a totally human fictional creation, not historical fact.  And the story's plot line was stolen from other, earlier religions, to boot.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Right or Wrong? - Colin Kaepernick not standing for the anthem

Well, that exploded quickly into a shitstorm, didn't it?  Many, if not most, comments I've seen in social media have interpreted CK's sitting down during the playing of the national anthem at a football game as disrespect for the nation and especially for those who have sacrificed so much for American freedoms.  The ones who wear their patriotism on their sleeves are all incensed about this form of personal protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities in this nation.  Interestingly, even some of my acquaintances who are usually firm advocates of free speech see CK's actions as those of a "thoroughly disgraceful, propagandized, naive, horrendously ill-informed, dangerous and ignorant mentality".  Most, if not all, of such commentary is coming from white Americans who live in a bubble of white privilege, seeing the painfully slow progress of equality for minorities in the USA as having already all but vanquished the oppression of black people in the USA.  "America!  Love it or leave it!" they say to CK, as if freedom of speech - one of the most important freedoms in the panoply of constitutional guarantees - only applies to those who only sing hymns of praise for what is happening in this great, but sometimes flawed, nation.  They're saying if you find any flaw in the USA's failure to live up to its own ideals, you should get out and seek to find a better nation.  As if any protest about what is happening in America deserves only vitriol and hatred in response.  If someone's right to free speech offends you, then the offenders should leave and never return, it seems.  I'm not buying this perspective - patriotism isn't measured by the overt practices associated with symbols of America, but rather by the effort to make this nation live up to its ideals, including being equally benevolent to all people pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.

Let's get something straight, here.  Like the American flag, the national anthem (including the "rule" that people stand during its performance) is a symbol for the real substance of the ideals providing the foundation for this nation.  It's not the real substance itself!  Freedom of expression is one of those ideals and CK has exercised that freedom with his symbolic act.  However offensive it might seem, there's no law against non-military personal sitting during the performance of the national anthem, nor should there be any such law!  Pseudo-patriotism is embodied in the phrase "America - Right or Wrong!"  I remember this sentiment repeated loudly and often by the so-called "silent majority" during the Vietnam War years.  The same goes for  the sentiment of "America!  Love It or Leave It!"  Time has suggested the protests against the Vietnam war were about valid concerns and most people now seem to recognize that we shouldn't have been involved in that mess in the first place.  I prefer this statement, attributed to Carl Schurz:
“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

When my draft notice arrived in 1969, I was convinced already that the Vietnam war was unjustified by any threat to American freedoms - it was a proxy battle in the Cold War.  [We won the Cold War because Communist dictatorships are fatally flawed and the Soviet Union collapsed of its own doing.]  I had three choices:  Serve in the military, go to jail, or leave the country.  I chose to serve for primarily selfish reasons.  I now have mixed feelings about my military service (in the Army, plus a hitch in the Naval Reserve).  I'm proud of having served when my country called, but in many ways, I wish I had not served the cause of an unjustified war that resulted in so many American and Vietnamese casualties for no good reason.  I served but I never accepted the notion that the decisions of our government (at all levels) are always correct.  To speak out against injustice in America is consistent with the highest ideals of America. It's not even close to a matter of disrespect for those ideals!  Quite the opposite, in fact.

The continuing oppression of African-Americans (and others) remains an ugly stain on the fabric of our national ideals.  Many people (white and black) have died as a result of that oppression throughout our nation's history.  People of color continue to die as a result of that oppression, including victims of discriminatory violence by law enforcement officers, as pointed out by CK.  I'm not a "blanket" cop-hater but I believe some police have committed unnecessarily violent acts in a discriminatory way - the evidence for that is plain for all to see.  And during an "investigation" of each incident of officer violence, they generally get a paid vacation before they're absolved of any responsibility for wrongful violence, with the implicit support of many of their fellow officers, some of who even lie to maintain solidarity with the "thin blue line".  Whistleblowers in law enforcement often lose their jobs and may even experience violence from other officers! The victims of this violence typically are blamed for what happens to them - that might sometimes be true, but there are many cases where the victim is subjected to excessive force for no good reason.  For calling attention to the issue of unnecessary violence by law enforcement, I've been labeled a "cop hater" - the fact is, the only cops I hate are those who commit unnecessary violence, and those who implicitly support such behavior by not preventing it, not reporting it, or committing perjury to absolve other law enforcement officers.  Cops need to uphold high moral standards of service in the performance of their duties - they should not be above the law!

It's very difficult for most white people to appreciate the fact of their white privilege - it surrounds them in a cushion of protection from inequities visited on non-whites.  They don't experience the pre-judging, so to them it just doesn't exist.  Discrimination against blacks continues in many ways (some subtle, and others not so subtle) and we need to have a national "conversation" about this to seek solutions to the evil of unequal treatment.  We shouldn't be condemning someone who has the courage to force us all to consider what is going on and to challenge us to take actions to stop it once and forever.  We should be following Carl Schurz and seeking to set right any perceived wrongs in America!  That should be the duty of all Americans.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thoughts on prejudice, tribalism, and racism

Looking back at the experiences of my 70+ years, one theme seems to come up again and again:  the people I have known stubbornly resist conforming to my stereotypes.  A stereotype can be defined as a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people.  Like everyone else, I'm associated with many different groupings of people and my life has shown me repeatedly that if I see a person who can be grouped within a particular association, membership in that association actually says very little about what sort of person any individual member of that group is.  One group to which I belong is the "tribe" of white male heterosexuals.  These are essentially accidents of birth - not choices I made.  I am also a meteorologist, a military veteran, a person who has used marijuana, an atheist, a citizen of the USA, a fan of drag racing, an artist, overweight, tall, bald, and so on and on. These other associations include both more accidents of birth and many specific choices I've made over the course of my life.

If you only know me as a member of the "white people" association, for example, what stereotypes of that particular grouping do you think apply to me?  All of them?  If not, which ones?  What does it say about you if you automatically believe those stereotypes of my "white people" tribe apply to me?  When I was a boy in the Chicago suburbs of Dupage County, most of the people I knew were WASPs - White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and I learned about a widely-held but rarely vocally expressed view of racial and cultural superiority associated with my "tribe" of WASPs.  Other tribes were looked down upon by many members of my WASP tribal association.  I knew a few Catholics, even fewer Jews, and essentially no African- or Mexican-Americans.  Interestingly, my best friend in high school was a Catholic and yet somehow that friendship apparently was tolerated by the members of my WASP tribe.  I was not vilified for being friends with a white male Catholic, and if anyone felt I was betraying my Protestant tribe, they never said it to my face.  Later, of course, I became an atheist - a group that many Americans despise and which is subject to discrimination.

As time went by, I became aware of the discrimination that existed in my town against non-white Americans.  At some point, I heard that an African-American had tried to buy a house in my neighborhood and the neighbors (not including my parents) had banded together to threaten to buy the home rather than let a black family move into our tribe's territory!  I was not raised to be a racist, even though racism was rampant around me, so this discovery came as something shocking.  I was ashamed of my tribe's racism.  It seemed that my tribe was prejudiced against other tribes and would go to extreme lengths to avoid having to associate with those belonging to a different racial tribe.  If I chose to be close friends with an African-American (remember, there were none about!), how would my WASP tribe have reacted?  What if I chose to date a black woman?  I'll never know, but I think I know a likely response to such behavior.  I've learned that some members of my own family were/are notably prejudiced against other racial tribes, so I think I know what their response would have been had I been dating a black or Latino woman.

Having been drafted into the Army - an organization that one typically does not consider to be socially advanced - I was thrown into the company of a widely diverse group of people, including blacks, Latinos, farm boys, southern "rednecks", etc.  One of my lasting memories is meeting an 18 year-old African-American man serving with me in Vietnam who seemed very innocent and naive to me.  But it turned out he had some amazing strength of character.  He resisted what I felt was good-natured badgering from me and some of my friends about his innocence.  For instance, he would pray before eating in the mess hall.  He didn't curse, or drink, or smoke pot.  Some of the blacks in our company called him an "Uncle Tom" because he declined to be called "brother" by people to whom he was not related.  This was not the stereotype of an angry, "militant" young black male - he was comfortable with whom he felt himself to be and literally didn't care what anyone else thought.  I often wonder what has happened to him - I regret not taking more time to get to know him.  I was still learning back then, I suppose.

After my time in the Army, I returned to the mostly white world of my professional life, but in the course of that career, I became acquainted with a group of Mexican-American meteorologists who included some of the smartest people I've ever had the good fortune to meet.  Bam!  There went another stereotype.  I also met some amazing women who had become scientists, and some of them were at the very top of my profession.  Thud!  Another stereotype falls.  I have met and known outstanding African-American meteorologists.  Crash!  So much for that stereotype.  Despite all the barriers put in their way, these professionals have achieved much and have earned their professional standing, so don't tell me it can't be done!!  I was discovering that stereotypes and default assumptions based on tribal associations were phantoms that had no basis in reality.  I was going to have to abandon my notions of who people are based in the heuristic approach I had been using:  belong to group X, you're a good person, whereas if you belong to group Y, you're not a good person.  That simply didn't give reliable results and as a science professional, that meant it had to be rejected.

If you take some time to get to know someone, rather than assuming that their membership in some tribe tells you who they are and what to expect from them, you'll find inevitably they're simply human beings whose attitudes and behavior may or may not fit your expectations.   Perhaps some of them will be a good match for a specific stereotype you have, but not some others.  You just can't know that until you know them personally!

The evidence is around you if you take the time to abandon your default assumptions about other humans and learn about them as individuals, not members of some association.  Make the effort rather than pre-judging someone without any real evidence.  Learning how things look to other people is an excellent path to a deeper understanding of your own beliefs and behaviors.  Savor the rich diversity of humanity instead of seeing other tribes as lesser human beings.