Carl Sagan’s “foreboding” of a dumb America; too late to stop it?

August 9, 2017

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

NASA photo of Dr. Carl Sagan with a model of the Mars Viking Lander, in Death Valley, California. Or was it taken on Mars? How could we tell, if we lacked sharpened and practiced critical thinking practices?

Are we already too late?

In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.

Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.

Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?

How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.

Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?

We have cause to worry, I think.

  • 58% of Americans eligible to vote, voted in 2016. While that’s near a recent high-water mark, it’s a paltry percentage compared to other democracies in the world. Apathy was highest in key states Donald Trump carried; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but trailed President Barack Obama’s 2012 totals by 2 million votes, in those key states. 2016’s election was decided by people who did not vote.
  • While tensions run high in the Korean Peninsula, only about 36% of Americans can find Korea on a map. Most of those who can find Korea favor diplomacy to resolve tensions, not war. Who was the wag who said God gives us wars so Americans learn geography? (It was Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly in 1879, rephrased and repeated dozens of times by others.)
  • Flat Earthers? Oy.
  • Anti-vaccine movement. Chem-trails fearfuls. Climate change dissenters. Creationists. Moon-landing deniers. Racists. So-called non-racists who oppose immigration completely. Republican senators who imagined a tax cut for the wealthy would help working and poor Americans have better health. DDT advocates. “Libertarians” and so-called conservatives who fear “socialism” of the economics of John Maynard Keynes, one of the foremost capitalism defenders in economics.
  • Cuts to education. As a barometer, consider Texas, where 25 years ago the state provided 67% of funding for public schools. After decades of cuts, the state provides only 38% of public school funding in the 2017-2019 budget. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick touts the total as an increase.
  • Cuts to science. Trump administration proposals slash all science research dramatically, as if we already have cures for cancer and the common cold, and Alzheimer’s disease.

To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.

How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?

 

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

Pollsters for the New York Times asked 1,746 Americans to locate North Korea on a map. 36% could do it; many of the guesses are troubling, if not downright shocking. In the map above, from the New York Times, correct answers are marked in red, incorrect in blue.

“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.

How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?

More:

The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:

 

 

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Serena Williams is REALLY good

March 16, 2017

Serena Williams portrait in the New York Times Magazine. Credit Christopher Griffith for The New York Times. Stylist: Sarah Schussheim. Hair: Johnnie Sapong. Makeup: Fiona Stiles

Serena Williams portrait in the New York Times Magazine. Credit Christopher Griffith for The New York Times. Stylist: Sarah Schussheim. Hair: Johnnie Sapong. Makeup: Fiona Stiles

Tough to track down the original screen capture — genius in recognizing it, whoever did it first — but it’s clear that Serena Williams is one of the better things to come out of America, and to some, America’s only hope in a time of Trump.

Headlines make it appear Serena Williams has a more effective foreign policy and military deterrent than the U.S. under Trump’s regime.

You get the idea.

Two copy editors in different departments write headlines, and they get mashed up by a third editor or some robot. Hope results. Not vain hope, we hope.

Two copy editors in different departments write headlines, and they get mashed up by a third editor or some robot. Hope results. Not vain hope, we hope.

Didn’t know it was an old screen cap — hadn’t seen it before. It’s timely again, and I needed the laugh.

 

More:


Unintentional bogus history: Archduke Ferdinand assassinated! British lead assault on Damascus!

June 30, 2014

Santayana said it:  Those who don’t remember history, yada, yada, yada.

It almost turned Dada-esque over the weekend, when a Syrian television editor mistook a “history-as-it-happened” Twitter feed for actual events.

One reason to learn history, I tell students, is so that you cannot be jived by politicians and others who wish to persuade you falsely.  Add to that:  So you won’t be suckered by false news reports when you’re at the editor’s desk.

I wonder how many hoaxes get started this way?

Is that today's newspaper? Toronto Daily Star, June 29, 1914. Not today's edition.

Is that today’s newspaper? Toronto Daily Star, June 29, 1914. Not today’s edition.


Here’s the photo of Obama the GOP hope Americans never see

May 17, 2013

It’s a prize-winning photograph by “Scout Tufankjian, an independent photographer whose portfolio includes a book of photographs from Obama’s first run for the White House.”

Scout Tufankjian's award-nominated photograph of Barack and Michelle Obama in East Davenport, Iowa, in 2012.

Barack and Michelle Obama in Booth No. 3 at Lagomarcino’s in the Village of East Davenport, Iowa, during the 2012 election campaign

Photographs sometimes reveal truths, and sometimes those truths are wonderful, and smile-making.

Bill Wundram’s column discusses the photo, in the Quad-City Times (it’s worth the click to read it).

THE QUIETUDE of the soda fountain booth was a marked difference from a rousing Obama appearance a half-hour earlier at a curb-to-curb outdoor rally.

After the speech, the Obamas adjourned to the cool of Lago’s. Tom had  prepared for them to be seated in Booth No. 3.

“The Obamas were shaking so many hands before coming into our soda shop that I had to make three different chocolate sundaes for them.” Tom says. “They kept melting.”

You can see all the photos in this Sony contest in a slide show, here.

More:


What news organizations need to know about “no-fly” zones over disaster areas

April 4, 2013

Lots of chatter around the internet today on the discovery that the Federal Aviation Agency posted a notice making the area over the oil spill in Arkansas off limits to aircraft.

Some people claimed they were certain that it was because Exxon-Mobil paid to get a special favor; others wondered why the government would be complicit in such a deal. Several of the comments linked to aerial photos of the spill, and said ‘obviously’ Exxon Mobil doesn’t want photos of the severity  of the spill to get out.  Bill McKibben’s tweet alerted me to the controversy (take a look at that video, too).

Actually, it’s common procedure to make sport flying and other unnecessary flying over disasters, off limits — FAA has a special set of regulations for that.  Rescuers and disaster fighters, and relief workers,  don’t want sight-seers on visual flight rules posing hazards to flights necessary to work on disaster relief or clean up of a spill of a toxic or hazardous substance.

But this doesn’t mean that news organizations cannot fly — in fact, there is a special regulation to ALLOW news aircraft over the zone, for photography and other reports.

Here’s the notice at FAA’s website (I’m sure that link will be unworkable in a few weeks):

FAA notification, NOTAMs notice of Mayflower, Arkansas, temporary flight restrictions; screen grab April 3, 2013.

FAA notification, NOTAMs notice of Mayflower, Arkansas, temporary flight restrictions; screen grab April 3, 2013.

Most announcements of restrictions of any public activity by a federal agency contain a notice of from where the agency draws that authority; I didn’t include it in the screen grab, but FAA notes the authority flows from Title 14 CFR section 91.137(a)(2).  That’s the Code of Federal Regulations, the set of volumes that list all the regulations the federal government has.  This was also published in the Federal Register — and I suspect the NOTAMs is also published there — but CFR is the more permanent set of books for finding government rules.

In the interests of open government, of course the FAA makes these rules available online.  They are available at several sites.  Here’s the meat of the regulation:

Section 2. Temporary Flight Restrictions in the Vicinity of Disaster/Hazard Areas (14 CFR Section 91.137)

19-2-1. PURPOSE

This section prescribes guidelines and procedures regarding the management of aircraft operations in the vicinity of disaster/hazard areas in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.137. TFRs issued under this section are for disaster/hazard situations that warrant regulatory measures to restrict flight operations for a specified amount of airspace, on a temporary basis, in order to provide protection of persons or property in the air or on the ground.

19-2-2. RATIONALE

TFRs in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.137 are issued when necessary to:

a. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(1) – Protect persons and property on the surface or in the air from an existing or imminent hazard associated with an incident on the surface when the presence of low flying aircraft would magnify, alter, spread, or compound that hazard.

b. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(2) – Provide a safe environment for the operation of disaster relief aircraft.

c. 14 CFR 91.137(a)(3) – Prevent an unsafe congestion of sightseeing and other aircraft above an incident or event that may generate a high degree of public interest.

NOTE-
This provision applies only to disaster/hazard incidents of limited duration that would attract an unsafe congestion of sightseeing aircraft.

Specific  rules of restrictions, who in the FAA declares them, who can grant waivers, and to who the restrictions apply, get spelled out following that  part.

Notice that, generally, these restrictions apply only to flights below 1,000 feet.  A good camera in a television station’s helicopter can get a lot of great shots from 1,000 feet out (three football fields) — this is a distance often seen in the videos of police car chases.  So it’s not a complete ban.

Savvy news organizations will know how to get news photos using the specific exemption for news aircraft, with procedures spelled out so the FAA knows it’s a news gathering operation; I’ve put the critical clauses in red:

c. Section 91.137(a)(3). Restrictions issued in accordance with this section prohibit all aircraft from operating in the designated area unless at least one of the following conditions is met:

1. The operation is conducted directly to or from an airport within the area, or is necessitated by the impracticability of VFR flight above or around the area due to weather or terrain, and the operation is not conducted for the purpose of observing the incident or event. Notification must be given to the ATC facility that was specified in the NOTAM for coordination with the official in charge of the activity.

2. The aircraft is operating under an ATC approved IFR flight plan.

3. The aircraft is carrying incident or event personnel, or law enforcement officials.

4. The aircraft is carrying properly accredited news representatives and, prior to entering that area, a flight plan is filed with FSS or the ATC facility specified in the NOTAM. Flight plans must include aircraft identification, type, and color; radio frequencies to be used; proposed times of entry to and exit from the TFR area; the name of news media or organization and purpose of flight.

Well-run news organizations already know this; in an age when more and more news rooms operate on a shoe string, it may be that this information about how to cover disasters is not passed along in the newsroom, though.  So I’m reposting it here, so you’ll know, so news organizations now, so environmental reporters can get a copy of the regulations  to carry with them when they head out to cover spills, fires, floods, and other disasters.

I’m waiting, too.  It’s only a matter of time until somebody figures out a local kid has a good radio control helicopter, and it can carry a GoPro camera; or until a local news station invests in a news-gathering drone.  Here in Texas, we’ve already had one environmental disaster uncovered by a drone operated by a guy just checking on real estate.

If you see some footage of the disaster filmed on or after April 3, would you let us know, in comments?

And spread the word to any reporters you know.

More:

Amateur video of the spill:


Fox News, still geographically challenged (Arkansas? What’s that?)

September 15, 2012

Bret Corum calls our attention to another Fox News remaking of the map of the world:

Fox News lost Arkansas, moved Missouri

Misreporting the news is bad enough — but changing the map? Nations go to war over such things . . .

It appears that, in the Fox News view of the world, Missouri conquered Arkansas, and Alabama and Mississippi either swapped spouses and houses, or are in the middle of some geographic square dance, and the satellite caught them in the middle of a do-si-do into each other’s old territory.

Look on the bright side — so far they only screwed up 8% of the United States with their mapping errors.  On the other hand, they named nine states, and made four errors — 55% correct.  That’s probably not a passing score even under No Child Left Behind rules.

One gets the sinking feeling that such sloppiness with the facts infects everything Fox does, though.

I wonder what kinds of errors and screw-ups one could find, if one seriously paid attention to what Fox claims.

More:

  • Why Fox News – yet again – needs a copy editor (apple.copydesk.org)  (Charles Apple’s column on news design is always a good read — but this piece lists several, maybe a hundred, other instances of copy editor-less screw-ups on the news and other places.  God bless copy editors, and let’s hope these errors were all caused by a lack of one.)

Tip of the old scrub brush to the ever-vigilant, accuracy stickler Bret Corum.


Sen. Marco Rubio’s call for a mediocre America

July 19, 2012

As good ideas go, it’s difficult to top the idea of public broadcasting, and particularly Lyndon Johnson‘s creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the subsequent formation of NPR and PBS, and the proliferation of public broadcasting stations across the U.S.

For a small pittance of money from public coffers, the nation gets the massive advantage of working news networks dedicated to informing the public accurately, and great cultural preservation, including education of the very young.

Big Bird, wikipedia image from PBS

Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio wants to kill the Big Bird that lays the golden eggs for our kids. Big Bird doesn’t make rude comments in response.

For-profit broadcasting has been absolutely unable to equal quality programs on television like “Sesame Street,” or “Masterpiece Theatre,” or “American Masters,” or “American Experience.  For-profit radio has nothing to equal “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Prairie Home Companion,” or even “Car Talk.”

You know some politician is playing to the yahoos and anti-civilization types when he takes a swipe at schools, libraries, or public  broadcasting.

So, we know Marco Rubio‘s questioning of funding for CPB is a swing for the foul territory, an appeal for ignorance, to ignorance and ignorants.  ABC News, a rival of both NPR and PBS, reported the story with all its ironic drippings:

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., expressed worry this morning about broadcasting outlets that use taxpayer money to stay on the air.

But Rubio made his comments on NPR, a broadcasting outlet that uses taxpayer money to stay on the air.

“I do have concerns about spending money on public broadcasting,” Rubio told Diane Rehm during an hourlong Q&A on NPR.

NPR has been a source of criticism from congressional Republicans who view it as a liberal refuge that espouses its views courtesy of public funding. Although only 2 percent of NPR’s funding comes from government grants, the loss of federal funding would undermine the ability of NPR stations to pay for NPR programming, NPR says.

Rubio argued that private donations should support such an enterprise as NPR, and that plenty of outlets are available to house that ideology and format. He admitted, though, that he enjoys Rehm’s show and that NPR’s funding is low on the list of costs that should be cut.

A caller pointed out the irony of Rubio’s position, saying, “He’s spending an entire hour on the show today.”

Rubio countered that a half-century ago, a station like NPR might have been necessary, but “today there is no shortage of options” for news and opinion.

“I have 300 stations on my satellite radio,” Rubio boasted.

300 stations on his satellite — which most Americans cannot afford — and not a single station equal to the worst of NPR’s network.

Shame on Marco Rubio.  Tighten your seatbelts, America, it’s going to be a bumpy election, with lots of appeals to ignorance and praise for doing less than the best.

Do you know where the word “yahoo” comes from?  Rubio is one of the epitomes.

Now, here’s the trouble:  Is he making this appeal in hopes of winning votes, in hopes of getting Mitt Romney’s attention for the vice president’s slot on the ticket?  Or is he really just that anti-quality, anti-American?  Bet he doesn’t like baseball or apple pie, either — we won’t even mention Mom.


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