Witnessing History

June 8, 2008

I left my dorm here in Washington, DC at 6:00 am Saturday morning to go with a group of about ten friends to see Hillary Clinton’s “concession speech.” We had one ardent Hillary fan with us (Jon Cardinal) and one to-remain-unnamed McCain supporter, and the rest of us were Obama fans. We were the first ones in line so a number of media outlets interviewed our group.

Jon in particular got interviewed a lot, and he’s good at making sound bites. Here’s video of him being interviewed by Julie Pace of the Associated Press:

That interview paid off–Jon was quoted in the AP piece about the Clinton speech that got picked up by newspapers around the world:

Clinton backers described themselves as sad and resigned. “This is a somber day,” said Jon Cardinal, one of the first in line. Cardinal said he planned, reluctantly, to support Obama in the general election. “It’s going to be tough after being against Obama for so long,” he said.

I had never been to a political rally before, so what the newspapers described as a relatively calm crowd leading up to the event sure seemed exciting to me. Because we were the first ones in we were positioned excellently to shake hands with Hillary, Bill and Chelsea. My friend Andy Cunningham had a nice chat with O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland as well. One of our friends called the group to tell us she had seen us shaking hands with the politicelebrities on CNN as well.


I thought the speech itself was excellent, if a little late in coming. Hillary really does come across so much better in person than she does on TV. I watched the same speech on YouTube afterward and it didn’t seem as authentic as it had in person, so I have to remember to give Hillary a little more thought when watching future speeches. As an Obama supporter, it was also wonderful that this was the one speech I got to go to. Hillary was also able to speak more candidly on several issues that were normally left out of her stump speech: the role that sexism played in the race for one, and gay rights as well.

We waited in line from 6:30 to 10:00, stood pressed against a barrier by die-hard Hillary fans (most of whom were great, some of whom were not-so-great) from 10:00 to 12:45, and finally got out around 2ish. But the experience was well worth it!


Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

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Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


We Have to Choose

March 29, 2008

The picture on the cover of the new issue of The New Republic is a fascinating (and disturbing?) hybrid of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. However, this super-candidate can never be, we have to choose, and preferably soon.

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The Blank Faith

March 25, 2008

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Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are a sort of blank slate. People from different backgrounds look at him and come to strikingly different conclusions.

There are, of course, the crazies who think Obama is a wicked Muslim Manchurian candidate. A friend of mine was recently giving a campus tour to a prospective student and the student’s parents. They walked by a TV in a lobby showing Fox News (of course) and happened to ask my friend who she was supporting. She replied that she was an Obama supporter, and the mom leaned in and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Well, don’t you think it’s possible, just possible that he’s a plant from Al Qaeda?”

So there are those people. (I’m certain the child will choose my school)

Then are the sincere, likable evangelical Christians who are turning away from the GOP in favor of Obama. They see his religious expressions as more genuine than the professions of prior Democratic candidates, and like his rhetoric that incorporates their religious heritage into policy directions they are generally in line with. They are passionately pro-life and generally against gay marriage, but they are coming to question the Iraq War (if they ever supported it), they see poverty and climate change as moral issues, and they’re more likely to feel compassion than fear when considering immigration.

When I was a freshman, my school’s College Democrats sold 15 t-shirts and counted that a milestone. By this year (five years later) the student Facebook group supporting Obama has 150+ students. I chock this up to a combination of disillusionment with Iraq, feelings of being used by the right-wing-machine, and Obama’s personal appeal and newish approach to religion (at least for a Democrat). The only Hillary supporters I know here are two faculty members and a student from Guyana.

And another friend of mine is a self-described “third-generation secular humanist,” and she sees Obama’s faith in a different light:

Me: “Frankly, I miss the days when the Republicans were the ones associating and apologizing for the nutty religious leaders, and you knew the Democrats were pleasantly secular with a window-trimming of gentle religion for political purposes.”

Her: “Actually, I think Obama is only socially religious and doesn’t really believe in God. I’ve read his books, but I think a lot of that’s political; you have to do that to run for office.”

To each their own?


Jonah Lehrer, Kanye West, and John Mayer

March 20, 2008

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Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex spoke at the Clinton School last night, and it was great. I just reviewed Lehrer’s first book Proust was a Neuroscientist and was excited to hear him speak on the purposefully outrageous title “Kanye West Was a Neuroscientist.” I also had the privilege of introducing him. I had written out the introduction, but then cut it down quite a bit, so here’s the longer version I didn’t actually get to give:

I am a student of science. Science appeals to my practical side; it took us to the Moon and back, it let us map the human genome, and science helped us eradicate smallpox, all within my parents’ life spans. Science appeals to me because the reductionist technique is an incredible tool for fighting disease and gaining knowledge about the world we inhabit.

I started my day this morning with a lab for Advanced Genetics, where we’re studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species so important that only genetics students have ever heard of it. This semester we undergrads have been using the elegant techniques of science to create new, if extremely specialized, knowledge about the world. The techniques of science and the philosophy of reductionism are so powerful that it’s tempting to apply them to every field of knowledge. But we need balance.

After my genetics lab I go to the daily Chorus rehearsal. Walking into the music building for Chorus is like crossing an invisible but impenetrable barrier between entire realms of knowledge and ways of knowing. Few of my friends in the science building are active in the arts, so I have a hard time explaining the irreducible experience of singing Brahms’ German Requiem with a group of talented musicians. And hardly anyone in Chorus would stay awake if I started talking about the routine glory I see in the polymerase chain reaction.

Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an exuberant demonstration that these barriers between science and art can and should be broken down. By taking test cases of artists, authors, musicians, and cooks who anticipated the discoveries of today’s neuroscience, Lehrer makes a strong case for the importance of the arts. And when Lehrer writes about the limitations of science, it is all the more convincing because he also writes knowledgeably about its groundbreaking successes.

Lehrer studied neuroscience at Columbia University, where he worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Lehrer was a writer for the Columbia Spectator, a Gospel music DJ for Columbia’s radio station, and Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review, the university poetry magazine. He also worked as a line cook at Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin.

Lehrer then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he did much of the research that would become his first book. Today he is Editor at Large for Seed, a magazine about science and culture. He has written for the Boston Globe, Nature, and NPR, and writes a blog about neuroscience called the Frontal Cortex. Join me in welcoming Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer’s talk was largely based on content from his book. He talked about Escoffier and Stravinsky, and how our love of music is rooted in our ability to recognize patterns. Great artists make good music by setting up a pattern and intentionally withholding it from us. Because we want the pattern again and don’t quite get what we want, our ears and our brain stay fascinated. This, Lehrer argued, is a key similarity between Beethoven and Kanye West. It’s almost like Stravinsky and Kanye West are evolutionarily conserved hox developmental genes in fruit flies and mammals (I’ll let you pick which is which) that have been recently discovered to be homologous. From the outside they look completely different, but what makes them tick is basically the same.

Lehrer’s speech also reminded me of the new John Mayer song I heard for the first time last week. “Say” is pretty simple–it’s the high guitar (or ukulele?) hook at the beginning that first caught my ear. But listen to the chorus too; it’s one six-word phrase repeated over and over:

This simple pattern is very catchy–it sticks in your head. I heard it once on the radio, and then once on the PA system before Bill Clinton spoke (random mix of music I’m sure) and then I had it stuck in my head the whole drive back from New Orleans. I literally flipped through stations hoping to hear the song. I thought about stopping to buy it, but never passed any music stores. At that point I didn’t know who it was or the name of the song, but I was hooked.

So I got home, found out what the song was, and bought in on iTunes. I must say, I’m already kind of tired of it. The Chorus is just too repetitive. While Mayer has some excellent other music, his singles tend to be of lower quality. The difference between a good song and an ok song, or between mere pop music and real music seems to be in these patterns. “Say” is simply too predictable. You know exactly what Mayer will say before he says it, because it’s the same thing over and over again. Really great music flirts with that repetition but never quite gives you satisfaction. And that’s why Brahms takes more effort to listen to, but will likely stand the test of time longer than John Mayer. Or at least his radio singles.


Clinton Global Initiative University

March 20, 2008

Last weekend I went to New Orleans to visit the Tulane School of Public Health (a prospective graduate school for a few years from now when I get tired of working again) and attend the first annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) University. This was also my first ever visit to New Orleans (more on that later) and a great chance to get out of small-town Arkansas for a few days.

It also meant I got the pleasure (and mild exhaustion) of making a bit of a cross-country drive. Actually, it was only eight hours or so, but some of the drive was quite beautiful, in a flat sort of way. The weather was also outstanding.

CGI U

CGI University was the first annual conference for students modeled on the innovative Clinton Global Initiative meetings that have been going on for several years. At CGI, leaders in business, politics, and other fields from around the globe make commitments to action. At the next year’s CGI conference, everyone gets to hear who followed through on their commitments.

CGI University was planned similarly, with students making commitments in the areas of (1) human rights and peace, (2) global health, (3) environmental and climate change, and (4) alleviating poverty. My commitment involved connecting a group of students at my school who are interested in health policy with some local public health professors to do some research that will (hopefully) have an impact on health care in Arkansas.

CGI U featured a lot of interesting people–Bill Clinton, James Carville, Ray Nagin, General Honore, Lauren Bush, and so forth. It was also incredibly well-produced / slick (read: expensive). I hope the conference encourages students to do more good in the world than would have been done by simply giving that money directly to good work. But I imagine it did just that. I also got a chance to pass out ~100 copies of Frank, the magazine I work on at the Clinton School, to a very receptive and interested audience.

Despite the interesting speakers and such, the best part of the weekend was connecting and networking with students from around the country. It’s always reinvigorating to be around a group of talented, dedicated young people who aren’t satisfied with things as they, and who dream of things as they could be. So kudos to the Clinton Foundation for finding a way to bring all of us together.