The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain.
– Scientific American “Donald Trump’s Lack of Respect for Science Is Alarming“
This week’s featured post is “What’s a 21st-Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?” It’s an essay question. I don’t have an answer, but I’m hoping you do.
This week everybody was talking about the Olympics
But I don’t think you need me to tell you more about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt.
Personally, I got frustrated watching NBC’s Olympic coverage, because they always seemed to have something better to do than show us athletic competition.
The women’s 5000 meter finals Friday night summed up my experience: Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana had already won the 10,000 meters in record time, and she moved out to a seemingly insurmountable lead in the 5000. So the announcers got bored and cut away to show us clips from the heartwarming story that happened in one of the qualifying heats, when New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and America’s Abbey D’Agostino, helped and encouraged each other to finish after a collision. Then they showed us close-ups of Hamblin running in the finals (she finished 17th and was never near the front of the pack) and D’Agostino watching from the stands with a torn ACL.
By the time the announcers found their way out of the time passages and back to the race they were supposedly covering, Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot had erased Ayana’s lead and was whizzing past her. We did get to see the finish, with Cheruiyot far ahead on her way to an Olympic record. But imagine how exciting it must have been, when Cheruiyot began to make her move and everyone suddenly realized this race wasn’t over yet. I had to imagine it, though, because I didn’t see it. Thanks, NBC.
ThinkProgress‘s Lindsey Gibbs tells the fascinating story of South African runner Caster Semenya, whose right to compete as a woman has been challenged because she has unusually high testosterone levels. This isn’t about doping or sex-change surgery or some other artificial method for acquiring an advantage; she was just born that way.
Unlike drug tests, gender tests (or testosterone tests, if you will) are not carried out at random. And Semenya happens to be tall, muscular, flat-chested, and black. This is not a coincidence. According to Katrina Karkazis, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, in the past, IAAF specifically singled out female athletes who “display masculine traits” for testosterone tests, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has encouraged its national charters to “actively investigate” any “perceived deviation” in gender.
In practice, gender testing is far more about policing women’s bodies than protecting women’s sports. Testosterone tests tend to target women who don’t fit into the ideal Western standards of what a woman should look like — delicate and overtly feminine, white and lithe.
ESPN’s Kate Fagen agrees with a tweet she saw:
I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.
Semenya is allowed to compete because of a precedent-setting challenge by Indian sprinter Duttee Chand, who said:
I was born a woman, reared up as a woman, I identify as a woman and I believe I should be allowed to compete with other women, many of whom are either taller than me or come from more privileged backgrounds, things that most certainly give them an edge over me.
The idea that sport had a level playing field before women like Chand and Semenya arrived is a myth worth challenging. Gibbs concludes that naturally high testosterone is like a lot of other genetic differences that don’t bother us:
Sports are supposed to reward freak-of-nature athletes. … Every elite athlete has some sort of physical advantage they were born with.
538‘s Christie Aschwanden writes a more intellectually challenging account of the nebulous relationship between sex and gender, but comes to the same conclusion:
In the end, the real question to ask is: What is the purpose of sport? Is it more important to provide uncomplicated stories that make us feel uplifted, or to celebrate extraordinary human effort and performance? My vote goes to the latter. Participating in sports taught me to feel powerful in my body, and I’m glad that no one put limits on how strong I could be. When Semenya takes to the line on Saturday, I’ll be cheering for her every step of the way.
For me, this comes back to a point I made when the Caitlyn Jenner controversy was at its peak: Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum. It’s simple and in some ways comforting to think in binary terms like male/female, black/white, gay/straight, citizen/foreigner, and so on. But those clean categories are always something we impose on the world, not the way the world is.
Semenya won the gold medal in the 800 meters Saturday night.
As usually happens, women Olympians have had a harder time getting respect from the media than men. Liz Plank compiles the incidents in “The Wide World of Sexism“.
and Trump’s policy speeches
Hillary Clinton has had a full spectrum of policy proposals since early in the campaign, but it’s often been hard to get anything more specific out of Donald Trump than “I’m going to build a wall.” Having criticized him for this, I have a responsibility to pay attention when he does give some specifics.
Law and order. Tuesday, Trump went to West Bend, Wisconsin, a 95% white suburb 40 miles from Milwaukee, which has been torn by riots after yet another police killing of an unarmed black man. [I got the unarmed part wrong, apparently. See the comments.] He gave a law-and-order speech “about how to make our communities safe again from crime and lawlessness.”
Trump’s answer: Stop criticizing police.
The problem in our poorest communities is not that there are too many police, the problem is that there are not enough police. … Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society – a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent – share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee, and many other places within our country.
They have fostered the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America.
Every time we rush to judgment with false facts and narratives – whether in Ferguson or in Baltimore – and foment further unrest, we do a direct disservice to poor African-American residents who are hurt by the high crime in their communities.
In other words, he’s repeating the mistake I described two years ago in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“: He has removed all the context of a community that was already feeling oppressed by the police, all the day-in day-out experience of ordinary citizens being degraded and disrespected. Instead he’s talking about the Milwaukee riot as a one-off event in which unscrupulous liberal politicians sold “false facts and narratives” to gullible black people, who had been perfectly content until somebody told them Sylville Smith was dead.
But riots don’t come out of nowhere, and urban blacks aren’t violent savages looking for an excuse to go on a rampage. The Baltimore riots didn’t happen just because of Freddie Gray, and the Ferguson riots weren’t just about Michael Brown. To describe them that way is like blaming the California wildfires on whichever particular spark happened to set them off, while ignoring the underlying roles of drought and climate change.
In general, I am skeptical of Trump’s expressed concern for African-Americans (where he’s currently polling at 2%). If you want to reach out to a community, you go there. You don’t talk about that community in front of other people. As I see it, the point of Trump’s concern is to reassure the white people of West Bend that he (and by implication, they) are not really racists. He’s selling the idea that he wants more and harsher policing in Milwaukee out of compassion, not out of fear and racial stereotyping.
In front of another nearly all white crowd in Michigan, he again talked “to” blacks.
What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?
You mean, other than voting rights and health insurance? Again, this is a white stereotype of black experience. You have to wonder how it sounds to a middle-class black couple who may be struggling to make ends meet, but have jobs, hope for their kids’ education, and a home in a neighborhood they don’t consider a slum.
- fantasizing about the past. In particular, he continued to lie about opposing the Iraq invasion when in reality he expressed support for it until after it started becoming unpopular. He quotes from an Esquire interview he gave late in 2004, where he sounds critical of the war. But even then, he just said he would have invaded Iraq better than Bush did, not that he wouldn’t have done it. Trump has been a weather vane on this issue; whichever opinion was popular at the time was the one he had supported all along.
- proposing to do stuff the Obama administration is already doing. President Trump will work together with our allies in the region and with NATO to get rid of ISIS. Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before?
- proposing to do impossible stuff. “We cannot allow the internet to be used as a recruiting tool, and for other purposes, by our enemy – we must shut down their access to this form of communication, and we must do so immediately.” But why stop there? While we’re holding that magic wand, let’s cut off their access to the English language, so they can only recruit Americans in Arabic.
- proposing to do stuff that is against the American values we’re supposed to be defending. Rather than pull out of Iraq, “we should have kept the oil.” So we would have kept soldiers in Iraq “to guard our assets. In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils.” Clearly his notion of “the old days” doesn’t include the post-World-War-II period, when we didn’t sack Germany for everything we could carry off; we funded the Marshall Plan to rebuild it. He also wants to keep Guantanamo open and send more people there, trying them in military tribunals and torturing them if necessary.
His “extreme vetting” of people who want to come to America is still vague enough that it’s hard to tell whether it falls under stuff we’re already doing or stuff that’s against American values. Probably it’s a mixture. Vox explains.
The Trump campaign had a shake-up, with Paul Manafort out and Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon in. It’s not clear whether Manafort is out because the campaign has been a disaster, or because of what’s come out about him: He funneled pro-Russian Ukrainian money to Washington lobbyists, without registering as a foreign agent. On the surface that looks illegal; it at least deserves an investigation. If anybody connected to Clinton did something similar, I’m sure Congress would be all over it.
Bloomberg‘s Eli Lake now looks like a prophet. When Manafort joined the campaign in April, Lake wrote: “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal“.
Meanwhile naked Donald Trump statues began appearing in cities around the country. New York City defended its decision to remove theirs:
NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.
I’m of two minds about this, and I’m glad to hear that the sculptor is a Gary Johnson supporter, so Democrats have nothing to answer for. Slate‘s Christina Cauterucci sums up the anti-statue position:
Encouraging people to laugh at the statue of Trump because it’s fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked doesn’t tell them Trump is a bad person. It tells them that fat, wrinkly, and small-dicked (or transgender, or intersex) people are funny to look at and should be embarrassed of their naked bodies.
Like many of Trump’s own insults, the statues are “demeaning, gratuitous, and don’t say anything worth saying.”
I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, though, because there’s an ongoing debate among anti-Trump people about whether to respond to him with fear, anger, or laughter. The statue clearly comes out on the side of laughter; which is a point worth making. (Though I agree with Cauterucci about the collateral damage to people who share the statue’s supposedly risible features.)
As for the offense to Trump himself, what standards of decency are he and his supporters playing by? If I could identify any, I’d happily grant him the protection of those standards. But it gets tiresome to follow rules and uphold standards when your opponents don’t.
Back in February, a young woman artist painted a nude Trump with a small penis, an image which briefly became a viral sensation. According to Salon, she literally got a black eye for her efforts.
And finally, Chelsea Handler explains sarcasm to Trump. My inner pedant can’t resist pointing out that he should have claimed his “Obama founded ISIS” line was hyperbole, an “obvious and intentional exaggeration”, though Handler’s framing of it as lying also has merit. And she throws in yet another small-penis joke: “Poor Melania. The only way she’ll ever have an orgasm is if she plagiarizes one from Michelle Obama.”
and conspiracy theories
Wouldn’t it be great if our political campaigns revolved around issues that were real? Sadly, this is not the case.
“ransom.” Republicans have been charging that the Obama administration paid a $400 million “ransom” to Iran to get back three Americans. This is another version of the argument I discussed in “If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany” after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Like the money we supposedly “gave” Iran in that deal, it was really their money all along. By withholding it, we got concessions from them in exchange for nothing of ours.
Vox has the long complicated explanation. The short version is that the Shah’s government ordered weapons from us just before it fell, and we neither delivered them nor returned the money to the revolutionary government, which we didn’t recognize. The agreement that President Reagan made in 1981 to resolve the Iran hostage crisis included the establishment of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal to adjudicate a bunch of the remaining issues, including the Shah’s $400 million.
This churned out over decades, until the Obama administration eventually decided it was going to lose the case and settled out of court. There was interest involved, so the $400 million was just a first payment on what we owed. Simultaneously, a prisoner-exchange deal was being negotiated, in which we swapped our prisoners for their prisoners. Suspicious of the Iranians, the administration withheld its cash payment until it was sure Iran was keeping the terms of the prisoner deal. That resulted in the sequence of events that can be made to look like ransom: money goes in one direction at about the same time that people go in other.
Vox says this flap exemplifies everything that’s wrong with our national discussion of Iran. As time goes on, it becomes more and more clear that the Obama’s critics were wrong about the Iran deal: The Iranians are sticking to it, which (at a minimum) should greatly delay the day when they get nuclear weapons.
This creates a major problem for team anti-deal. They need evidence that the deal isn’t working and should be undone, but the facts about the deal’s core provisions don’t support that. The result is an endless deluge of spin. Every new piece of information on Iran or the nuclear deal becomes evidence that Iran is evil or cannot be trusted.
The “ransom” story is another in a list of spun-out-of-nothing stories designed to the Obama administration look hapless in its dealings with Iran, when in fact it has been doing quite well.
Clinton’s “health problem”. The latest Clinton pseudo-scandal is that there’s something seriously wrong with her, which the campaign is covering up. She has seizures or brain damage or something. The “evidence” for this consists of fake documents circulating on the internet, video clips from odd angles replayed endlessly, photos of Clinton being helped up icy steps last winter, and Sean Hannity’s interviews with doctors who have never examined Clinton. New York magazine reviews and debunks.
The problem with this theory is that all those physical and mental disabilities supposedly go back to before she proved herself to be sharp and focused during 11 hours of hostile questioning by the Benghazi Committee.
So this seems like a short-sighted plan of attack for Trump. Next month, a feeble, brain-damaged old woman is going to kick his butt in the debates. How is he going to explain that?
When hearing these stories or similar ones, it’s important to remember “The Fox Cycle“, a six-step process by which nonsense on right-wing blogs becomes mainstream media news.
- Right-wing bloggers, talk radio hosts, and other conservative media outlets start promoting a fringe or false story.
- Fox News picks up the story and gives it heavy, one-sided coverage.
- Fox News and conservative media attack the “liberal media” for ignoring it.
- Mainstream media outlets eventually cover the story, echoing the right-wing distortions.
- Fox News receives credit for promoting the story.
- The story is later proved to be false or wildly misleading, long after damage is done.
but we should be talking more about the Louisiana floods
If New Hampshire ever has a big natural disaster, I hope it doesn’t happen while the Olympics is interrupting a presidential campaign. The floods in Louisiana are getting so little coverage that when the disaster-relief bill comes up in Congress, a lot of people are going to be asking “What Louisiana flood?”
I grew up next to the Mississippi, so I know that river floods are among the least televisible disasters. There’s no storm surge, no wildfire, no tornado dropping out of the sky. It’s just the inexorable creep of the waterline higher and higher.
Well, OK, sometimes it televises, like when coffins go for a swim.
That’s almost as striking as this video of a burning house floating away in West Virginia earlier this year. That’s become my new standard of misfortune: “It could be worse. I could be watching my burning house float down the river.”
and two unusual political statements
Wired and Scientific American do not usually weigh in on presidential elections. But this time they have. Wired endorses Hillary Clinton
for all of its opinions and enthusiasms, WIRED has never made a practice of endorsing candidates for president of the United States. Through five election cycles we’ve written about politics and politicians and held them up against our ideals. But we’ve avoided telling you, our readers, who WIRED viewed as the best choice.
Today we will. WIRED sees only one person running for president who can do the job: Hillary Clinton.
… Her vision is bright and forward-looking; Donald Trump’s is dark and atavistic. She’s qualified, she knows the material; Trump is all bluster. We happen to believe that for all the barbs aimed at Hillary Clinton—the whole calculating, tactical, Tracy Flick enchilada—she is the only candidate who can assess the data, consult with the people who need to be heard, and make decisions that she can logically defend. Sure, she’s calculating. She’s tactical. There are worse things you can ask of a person with nuclear codes.
and Scientific American doesn’t tell you who to vote for, but wants you to be aware of Donald Trump’s “alarming” lack of respect for science.
Many politicians are hostile to science, on both sides of the political aisle. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has a routine practice of meddling in petty science-funding matters to score political points. Science has not played nearly as prominent a role as it should in informing debates over the labeling of genetically modified foods, end of life care and energy policy, among many issues.
The current presidential race, however, is something special. It takes antiscience to previously unexplored terrain. When the major Republican candidate for president has tweeted that global warming is a Chinese plot, threatens to dismantle a climate agreement 20 years in the making and to eliminate an agency that enforces clean air and water regulations, and speaks passionately about a link between vaccines and autism that was utterly discredited years ago, we can only hope that there is nowhere to go but up.
and you might also be interested in
The Justice Department says it is going to phase out its use of private prisons to house federal inmates. Currently about 1 in every 8 federal prisoners is in a privately owned facility rather than a federal prison.
But we’re still far from the end of the private-prison industry, because most of their business comes from states and from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which detains large numbers of undocumented immigrants. But the Justice Department’s decision could mark a turning point. (Still, this is serious: Corrections Corporation of America stock has fallen from over $27 to under $20 since DoJ’s announcement.)
Privatizing prisons was always a bad idea, because it creates a perverse set of incentives.
- A prison should rehabilitate its inmates and return them to society, but a business wants repeat customers.
- All prisons are tempted to cut corners on expenses that benefit the prisoners, but only private prisons can immediately transform those savings into bonuses or profit.
- All industries try to increase their business by lobbying and contributing to political campaigns. But for the prison industry, “increasing business” means depriving more citizens of their freedom.
The Olympics is about the worst thing that could have happened to the Trump train. Here’s a candidate whose message depends entirely on convincing Americans that they’re living in a failing nation overrun by criminal immigrants. And for the past two weeks, tens of millions of Americans have been glued to a multi-ethnic parade of athletes, winning easily. “Make America Great Again” has never felt more out-of-touch than it does against the backdrop of tenacious, over-achieving American athletes driven by their own journeys in pursuit of the American Dream.
According to Voice of America:
nearly 50 of the athletes were born outside the U.S. The range of nations is wide: Sudan, Kenya, China, Albania, Montenegro and Cuba, to name just a few.
In a move described as “fighting absurdity with absurdity”, the #CocksNotGlocks campaign will have University of Texas students hanging dildos from their backpacks when classes start Wednesday. The point is to protest the new Texas law that allows concealed carry of firearms inside campus buildings.
The idea comes from UT alum Jessica Jin, who says:
A lot of our American culture is still so puritanical, and we see that in the continual normalizing of gun culture, while shutting down sex culture, which is pretty harmless and happy. If the guns around you aren’t making you uncomfortable, then maybe this dildo protest will make you think twice about what it is that makes you feel uncomfortable, and why.
Last fall, when Hurricane Joaquin looked like it might threaten Washington, D.C. (it didn’t; it turned south and missed the eastern seaboard entirely), Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council discussed the role of God’s judgment with Jonathan Cahn. Cahn made the case:
God knows that American leaders have “crossed a gigantic line” and “overruled the word of God massively” when they “legalized the killing of the unborn in 1973 and now we have the striking down of marriage.” Cahn said that the White House’s decision to celebrate LGBT pride month with rainbow lights was another “act of desecration” that will “provoke judgment.”
And Perkins underlined it:
All of these things are quite amazing when you look at them collectively. And I’ll just say this Jonathan, because I know that there are those on the Left that like to mock these things. America has a history, our leaders actually, our president, our governors, when these things have happened in Nature, like hurricanes, all of these external events that put our nation at risk; there’s a long line of historical tradition here where we — not so much in recent years — but they had stepped back and said, “Is God trying to send us a message?”
So this week, when “a flood of near Biblical proportions” hit Perkins’ home in Louisiana, he didn’t seem to be taking that step back and asking if his convention speech endorsing Donald Trump had called down God’s judgment.
Turn back, Tony. Forswear your foolish ways.
Amanda Marcotte makes a good point about the American swimmers in Rio, who police say vandalized a gas station and then made up a story about being robbed: “If the swimmers are lying, I doubt it will be used as evidence from here on out that we can’t trust anyone else who says they were robbed.” Women and rape, on the other hand …
Rush Limbaugh and World Net Daily have identified the latest Obama plot to undermine American values: lesbian farmers. Rural areas everywhere should fear for their conservative purity.
Sadly, this is not satire: Yesterday, White Lives Matter protesters with Confederate flags, at least one Trump hat, and at least one semi-automatic rifle protested outside Houston’s NAACP headquarters.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of discussion about how many Walmart employees need food stamps or some other form of public assistance. (So do employees at other low-wage businesses like McDonalds.) The point being that if government aid allows workers to survive on ridiculously low wages, it’s really the employer who’s getting the subsidy. (Many Walmart workers did get a raise in February, but it appears that hours were cut at the same time.)
This week, Bloomberg revealed another way Walmart lives on the public dole: Its stores require far more from local police than comparable retailers like Target.
Police reports from dozens of stores suggest the number of petty crimes committed on Walmart properties nationwide this year will be in the hundreds of thousands. … More than 200 violent crimes, including attempted kidnappings and multiple stabbings, shootings, and murders, have occurred at the nation’s 4,500 Walmarts so far this year, or about one a day. …
“The constant calls from Walmart are just draining,” says Bill Ferguson, a police captain in Port Richey, Fla. “They recognize the problem and refuse to do anything about it.” … There’s nothing inevitable about the level of crime at Walmart. It’s the direct, if unintended, result of corporate policy.
Most of the policies in question revolve around keeping labor costs low. There just aren’t enough employees around, or enough security people to back them up. The police are the backup, so the cost shifts to the public.
and let’s close with something futuristic
3D printers do amazing things, and when their potential is fully realized, they’ll replace a lot skilled workers. (But that’s a problem for another day: Quite possibly, America will bring back manufacturing without bringing back manufacturing jobs.) The printer in the picture is special, though: It prints food, and cooks as it goes.
It comes from Columbia University, where they’ve been trying to make more complex 3D printers that can print with many different materials at once, and so construct more elaborate products than the plastic-or-something-like-it objects the early printers made.
While experimenting with making multi-material printers, [Professor Hod] Lipson noticed the students in his lab were beginning to use food as a test material.
“They were using cookie dough, cheese, chocolate, all kinds of food materials you might find around an engineering lab,” he says. “In the beginning, it was sort of a frivolous thing. But when people came to the lab and looked at it, they actually got really excited by the food printing.”
Lipson then brought some New York City chefs into the lab, who extended the experiments to include egg, pesto, cream cheese, flour, and jam. (Cream cheese apparently is particularly easy to work with.)
Lipson sees the printer as having two main uses for consumers. First, it could be a specialty appliance for cooking novel foods difficult to achieve by any other process. You could print, say, a complex pastry designed by someone in Japan, a recipe you’d never have the expertise or equipment to make by hand. Lipson says he could imagine digital recipes going viral, spreading across the globe.
The second use is about health and targeted nutrition. People are already increasingly interested in personal biometrics, tracking their blood pressure, pulse, calorie burn and more using cell phones and computers. In the future, it may be possible to track your own health in much greater detail—your blood sugar, your calcium needs or your current vitamin D level. The printer could then respond to those details with a customized meal, produced from a cartridge of ingredients.
It’s not quite like ordering food from the Star Trek replicator, but it’s getting there.