We’re so VERY sorry, Carl Sagan…

As a writer, I see my ‘job’ as telling stories, sharing fanciful tales about fictional peoples in made-up places doing imaginary things. Nothing is real per se. Yet, the way I make that compelling is to root it in the tenets of reality, to infuse my specific voice into the story and to give it weight and meaning; I’m not here just to amuse or entertain but to evoke and inspire. These require a foundation, ample soil to root themselves in so they can grow into something real and affecting. So, my tales might be of swashbuckling airship captains or alien infections in the frigid antarctic or of demigods or the walking (and talking) dead but everything has to have some connection to this world, the real world.

Wise writers generally avoid risky topics, especially ones like politics and religion. Being overstated about your own personal feelings on these topics can have the tendency to alienate groups of potential fans. When one is trying to establish a reader base, avoiding be strident or overbearing is paramount. However, events in the country are reaching a point where I feel that not speaking, not expressing my confusion or outrage is even worse of an option. Damn the consequences.

With the election of Trump, we’ve seen a lot of commentary concerning the role of the press as well as its integrity or veracity. Pundits on the far right disclaim that the majority of news media sources are actively ‘lying’ to the American public, a statement repeatedly made as well by the current President. Additionally, we’ve seen aspects of life, like science and medicine, which should be apolitical becoming immensely politicized and their proof or effects called into question.

I’m no mewling babe, seeing this world anew. I know both science and medicine can be highly political. But they shouldn’t be. Science and medicine are methodical and disciplined. They have a set process to prove or disprove their veracity. While human error or intent can influence the results, science innately polices this: you can’t ‘prove’ something in science without peer review. That requires a rigid and documented process that can be tracked, examined, questioned and tested. You could claim that Pomeranians are actually a higher-intelligent alien race sent to conquer us, but to call it Science, you have to prove it with experiments and verifiable data. Once that is accomplished, once you can prove the substance of your hypothesis and peers can duplicte your results, then you hypothesis becomes scientifically true. It is Fact not Opinion. You might interpret what that means moving forward, but the numbers, statistics and calculations are not in question. They are true, no matter what political party you caucus with.

That’s why when I hear average people saying that science is opinion, I am both outraged and deeply concerned. Science can only be science if it is proven, as well as consistently and repeatedly probable. If 99% of the scientific populace says that the world is warming dangerously, that our ecology is in peril, that mankind is (at least partially) responsible for it, then the debate concerning what steps to take to remedy can definitely rage on, but not the very truth of where we stand, where we are at. The fact that the environment is in trouble is not debatable. You cannot decry that fact. Not without PROVING IT. If you’re going to wage a ‘science fight’, bring your charts and your figures, your thesis and your experiments; don’t bring faith or hunches or politics. They have no place in science.

The same is true for health and healthcare. You can argue that the government might have no place providing healthcare. But it currently does, imperfect though it might be. If you support people who want to take that away from your fellow Americans, people will needlessly get sick and suffer.  Some will die.  Limited to no access to health care can and does increase your chance of serious harm, even death.

I have been in a place many times when good healthcare was not available to me; I simply could not afford for it. Nearly a decade go, I had a fibrous cyst resting on my spine between my shoulder blades. It was not cancerous, but it was growing because it was infected and was pressing on my nerves. This began causing chronic pain as well as limited mobility. If it continued, the results could have been much worse.

I could not afford surgery, so all I was left with was visiting the much touted (by conservative voices) emergency room. All that they could do was to lay me on a gurney face down and have an attending ER doctor cut open my back and try to cut the cyst away from the muscle and tissue. And – of course – my SPINE. Beause it was an ER procedure, they could not give me general anesthetic and the local anesthetic that they could and did use simply mingled in my infected cyst.  So great was the pressure due to the infection that when the doctor nicked the cyst, it literally exploded onto the room and everything in it.  That included the anesthetic; I was treated to a 45 minute exploratory back surgery where I felt every slice, ever tug.

After all of that, I could not even pay for the ER, so all of my debt fell upon my fellow (at the time) New Yorkers. After the excision, I had a open wound on my back for nearly two months. Because I held a job that made at least a minimum wage (yet offered me no health care plans), I was not eligible for basic health care benefits from the state. I could not afford EITHER a pain reliever or ANTIBIOTICS. I had an open wound and was not able to ensure that I was preventing an infection or have any relief from pain.  I worked a 40-50 hour work week and could not afford nor was eligible for the more basic remedies for my health condition.

So, let’s recap: I was working a full time job, but my employer was too cheap to provide even basic health insurance and assistance (for those who would say ‘get a different job’: Walmart was the only major employer in a thoroughly rural upstate New York township). I had an existing condition that was potentially deadly and verifiably debilitating and painful. My only recourse was the emergency room and while – YES CONSERVATIVES! – they did have to provide medical aid, they were only obligated to do so for the bare minimum of expense. The resulting aid was painful and dangerous and created a danger of (for me) secondary infection and was a bio-hazard for the emergency room and for the nurses and doctor who were present. After the visit, I had to treat an open wound site for a several weeks but could not afford either pain management or preventative measures to ensure optimal healing.

That is the definition of a broken system. ObamaCare would have provided me some means for proper treatment, but this was too long ago. I will not say that the Affordable Care Act is perfect nor is it universally affordable to some. But it was better than nothing. After the House of Representative voted to repeal the ACA, that is precisely what it will soon become: nothing. No (or limited) aid for those in need.

At the very least, your representatives should be willing to meet you and hear your very real concerns. Most are simply avoiding their constituents, an act as cowardly as it is brazenly and unequivocally disrespectful. If they are willing to deny healthcare to the young, the old and the disadvantaged and disabled while simultaneously shuffling that money into tax breaks for those who have no issues obtaining healthcare due to their wealth, then they should do more than enjoy a barbecue and beers in celebration with their president. They should stand by their decisions and their goals and not brand the medical professionals, the financial professionals and the reporters who decry their actions as liars.

Worse than our representatives are their supporters. Not because they are fundamentally bad people, but because they simply do not question the explanation and excuses they are given. I have a frequent (and largely unproductive) argument with a family member who responds to every accusation or point I make against conservative goals and actions by pointing back at the Democrats and at the past election. While in many ways, his comments about the Democrats are not completely wrong, simply deflecting my comments with a mirror is not answering my comments; its ignoring them. Willfully ignoring them. This lack of critical questioning and moderate skepticism is dangerous and destabilizing. Neither point is 100% correct in this debate, but dismissing facts as ficiton or lies, choosing to not turn around and look at what is happening around you is perilous at best. It is letting go of the controls of freedom and democracy and hoping that someone else will maintain control and not wreck the entire thing.

With Trump as president … that’s a dangerous gamble, at best.

…tbc

RUWUEU,
Sean

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Two by Two by Triceratops

sci•ence

  •  the state of knowing
  •  knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
  •  knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

scientific method

  • principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.

‘And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”‘ – George Owell, 1984

In the early months of 2010, the Texas Board of Education mandated an unprecedented series of changes to history books that were soon to be used in Texas public schools. While the changes sparked a short-lived media controversy, the issue was largely forgotten during the opening months of the Republican Primary race announcements. Largely out of public notice, the Texas State Board of Educators approved the amendments, 10-to-5, making over 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards which affect history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school. Those standards had originally been created by a panel of esteemed educators and scholars in the social sciences.

The changes generally involved changes to the language used, but did involve cases where historical references were changed or additional ‘facts’ were added. While this might seem somewhat innocuous, it was the nature of the changes that cause exceptional worry in historians. In my opinion, it should cause worry in us all.

Some of the most noteworthy changes were the replacement of the terms ‘capitalism’ with ‘free market’ and ‘imperialism’ with ‘expansionism’. The problem is that these terms are not truly interchangeable. The American economic system is Capitalism. Our conquest of Hawaii and the seizure of lands previously owned by Native Americans can only be described as Imperialism. Redefining how we describe our history dilutes the lessons it has to teach. Even more disturbing is the redefinition of our entire system of government as being a ‘constitutional republic’ and not a ‘democracy’. While both are technically correct, why change things? Because the the term ‘democratic’ sounds too much like Democrat, whereas ‘republic’ sounds more like Republican.

Ten of the fifteen board members are avowed Republicans. The apparent intent of these changes are to cast the Republican party and its specific interests in a better light. One of the changes was to downplay the importance of Thomas Jefferson as a Founding father because he was not a practicing Christian. They also struck down a requirement to ensure that “students learn that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others.”  The board decided to strike down the inclusion of hip hop music in favor of country music as a uniquely American invention, even though country music is generally derived from a combination of European, Old English and Irish music. Music like Jazz and Hip Hop originated purely is America, but… well, draw your own conclusions why they weren’t picked. This might sound like a ‘race card’ being dropped, but they also reduced the attention given to Lincoln’s inauguration and emancipation speeches and gave equal accounting to Andrew Jackson’s inauguration and subsequent speeches. While I can see Jackson’s role in our history as deserving attention, it seems suspicious to me that they’d also reduce attention given to the Great Emancipator unless the abolition of slavery was less important to them than the historical tenets of the successionist states.

The problem with this is that the Texas Board of Educators were making decisions based upon political and philosophical reasons, not scholarly or educational ones. David Bradley, a board member, even admitted to this politicization of the process, saying “We took our licks, we got outvoted [in a vote 10 years ago] … Now it’s 10-5 in the other direction … we’re an elected body, this is a political process. Outside that, go find yourself a benevolent dictator.”  They favored terms and events that inferred a more ‘conservative’ outlook and removed terms and facts of a more liberal nature. Ultimately, this will reduce the objectivity of the education that the children will be receiving; it limits the full scope of the history of the United States and diminishes the contributions of minorities. When history is viewed retroactively through a politically-tinted lens  we often change the meaning and implications of what has shaped our nation.

I question both the credentials and the agenda of the members of the Board. The vast majority are lawyers and businessmen, not educators or scholars. Don McLeroy, the chairman of the Texas State Board at that time, has even gone on record indicating he believes that dinosaurs existed concurrently with homo sapiens and were present on Noah’s Ark during the Biblical Flood. While I will not challenge his beliefs, I will question his capacity to make objective decisions. The belief that tigers and triceratops co-mingled in Noah’s Ark indicates a very specific worldview and belief system. If he believes that textbooks should teach this as scientific fact, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, then how can he objectively make decisions about American history without letting his own personal beliefs color those decisions?

So, why is this important now, two years later? Or to you specifically, who may not even live in Texas? First of all, Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the country, so large in fact that their orders often can influence the price of certain books in the market thereby lowering them. When this occurs, other school districts across the country will also purchase the same books, since they are priced lower due to Texas’s orders. In this way, what Texas chooses as textbooks is often what a large portion of America’s school districts will be using to teach their students. By now, your children might be studying history with a decidedly partisan outlook. Luckily, teachers still have some sway in exactly what lessons children take from their studies, but clearly the foundations of educational objectivity are being challenged.

However, more worrying is that this is just another example of the previously inviolable nature of factual evidence and scientific methodology being gradually eroded and suborned by political agendas. There’s an old maxim that ‘history is written by the victor’ but that’s a fallacious statement. History is actually written by a quorum of observers. What we know as true is based upon centuries of documentation that corroborates specific facts. And while it can be said that scientific truth is always evolving, always changing, the methodology to obtain that ‘truth’ is even more structured and less subjective than that employed by historians. It is determined by experimentation that is replicated by peers scientists who have all reached the same conclusions. In short, scientific fact is proven by observation and repeated testing and history is written because evidence indicates that an event occurred a specific way or because of a specific reason.

What we are seeing is the trumping of truth and fact by conservative ideology and expediency, a process that has been ongoing for the last two decades. Science and learning are ridiculed and spurned by the conservative right. In September, Rick Santorum admitted that “[Conservatives] will never have the elite, smart people on our side”, which he accepts as the status quo. It’s not unsurprising that conservatives eschew any type of cooperation with scientific experts; those people could readily discount the entire foundation for the narrative the conservatives are supporting, especially about issues like global warming and the economy. For Republicans, ignorance is bliss.

As Americans, we truly need to examine what we’re being told, what our representatives are doing. I’m sure the vast majority of Texas did not expect the Texas Board of Education to make the sweeping changes it made, under the helm of a dentist who believes dinosaurs took a cruise with Noah. This has to start before we tick a box on a ballot. This means looking into what your representatives believe and say, even when not in front of a camera (especially when not in front of a camera!). This is not just about whose fiscal policy will chart the course of the country; it’s about whose philosophical values will dictate what our children are taught and understand, about moral values that tell us who we can marry or who is a worthwhile citizen and how they can become one.

In short, it’s about revising who we were as a country, who we currently are, and who we will become. Make sure that America is representative of a melting pot of ideas, not just the worldview of a select few.