Draining the Brain

A healthy human brain depicted on the left, and an Alzheimer’s addled brain depicted on the right. The American Political Brain is in the throes of a neuro-degenerative disease that will leave us less innovative, less competitive, and unable to made decisions based on reliable evidence.

The most definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s Disease, a severely degenerative disease of the brain, is an autopsy. Of course, the symptoms show up earlier – memory loss, personality changes, physical changes, and differing degrees of diagnosis are achievable with cognitive tests and scans of the brain. But distinguishing Alzheimer’s from other neuro-degenerative diseases of aging is still a difficult medical challenge. All such diseases do have one thing in common: they ravage the mind of the afflicted, ruining that life and the lives of those around them, until there is no more of the original person left. There is only the burden of intact memory born by those who remember the person, and the emotional and financial hardship, born out of love and devotion to the person, in caring for that person whose brain is utterly savaged.

When Donald Trump ran for President, he famously promised to “drain the swamp” – the swamp being Washington D.C. and the metaphor intended to convey that he will remove corruption and gridlock (due to entrenched interests) from government. It is the height of delicious irony that the claim of D.C. being built on a swamp is an utter myth, based on a tiny drop of truth (a very small part of what is now D.C. was once marshy land), and yet forms the basis of a (hollow) political slogan.

While Trump has failed to do what he pledged – in fact, he introduced even more special financial and business interests into D.C. while actively encouraging and cultivating petty partisan deadlocks and even rifts within his own party – he has succeeded in doing something else: draining the political brain of the United States.

The symptoms are apparent, but I fear America will only realize the extent of the degeneration when the Trump administration is a by-gone era and an autopsy of his legacy reveals the extent of the disease. I fear we may learn that this singular act of depleting the nation’s science policy capabilities also destroyed America’s competitiveness and leadership in the world, at the same time making it impossible to even sustain the innovation economy required to achieve his isolationist “America First” policy platform. But as with the Alzheimer’s patient, the most definitive diagnosis would come too late to save the patient or the family. Can we as a nation reliably diagnose the illness now, and rush to treat?

Unlike Alzheimer’s or other neuro-degenerative diseases, Americans have a chance to prevent the disease from spreading by engaging their representative lawmakers and arguing loudly and publicly for the brain drain to stop.

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The Sign of Four Estates: The Week in Review, April 30 – May 6, 2017

Jodi and I pose in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. We had just emerged from a memorable and excellent visit with Texas Congressman Peter Sessions’ office.

This week Jodi and I left for Washington D.C. on Monday for an event at the Canadian Embassy on Tuesday night. She had been invited to attend an evening celebrating science in Canada, especially Nobel Prize-winner Art McDonald and projects at SNOLAB, that nation’s premiere underground science facility. In addition, Jodi and I hit Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with staffers from Congressman Sam Johnson and Congressman Pete Sessions’ offices. We returned to Dallas early Thursday morning, in time to attend a very special event at SMU later that night: a dinner with the Board of Trustees at SMU where faculty receive the University’s top research and teaching distinctions. This was yet another whirlwind week in a semester of whirlwind weeks… but at least, this time, I could spend it with Jodi.

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A Force for Greatness: Science Policy Links for the Week of April 16-22, 2017

Given how much the past few months have been largely about “eating the seed” corn by threatening to pillage the nation’s scientific capabilities, this week was comparably more uplifted. Having reached a tipping point with the rhetoric of the current president, scientists and science advocacy organizations started planning a “March for Science” back in late January. It started small, but absorbed many organizations who signed on over time and yesterday it was revealed as a world-wide force for educating a world where the rise of ignorance has never seemed more breakneck. This week’s science policy news links are a mix of the uplifting (scenes from the many “Marches for Science” across the globe) and the cautionary (fake science organizations still abound).

  • PHOTOS: Scientists Take To Washington To Stress A Nonpartisan Agenda“. Meredith Rizzo. National Public Radio.  Comments: a few scenes from a very geographically diverse effort to highlight the importance of science to humanity. These appear to be only from the march in Washington D.C.
  • Remarks“. James Beacham. March for Science, Geneva. Comments: My colleague’s, James Beacham’s, opening remarks to participants at the Geneva March for Science (recorded by my student, Matthew Feickert). A good look into why one scientist chose to march. James was an organizer of this satellite march.
  • The Universe in a Box“. Claire Lee. TEDxKlagenfurt. Comments: Claire is a colleague of mine and at yesterday’s “March for Science – Geneva” in Switzerland she gave a short version of this lovely talk on what we know about the universe, how we represent it with creative aids, and how that relates to all we do not know. I link the original TEDx talk because I don’t have video of the one from yesterday’s march.
  • Intelligent Design Advocates Are Angry They’re Not “Partners” in the March For Science“. By Hermant Mehta. Patheos Blog. April 21, 2017. Comments: A leading fake science organization, The Discovery Institute (DI), laments being excluded from having a prominent role in the “March for Science.” But the reason is simple. Science is not a democracy – it’s the tyranny of facts and evidence. And the facts and evidence have been clear for over a century: biological diversity in the natural world is the result of evolution by means of natural selection. The DI actively works to undermine that evidence, not by conducting research (what scholarship they have on record is poor, and mostly just criticism, commentary, poor math, and historical misrepresentation), but by using the US legal system to try to inject their specific conservative Christian-based creationist ideology into science classrooms. Shame on them for lamenting they were excluded from organizing a March for Science when they themselves are a force that actively undermines science; cheers to the actual organizers for standing firm against this nonsense. I applaud mature and reasoned religious organizations that accept the scientific evidence about the natural world without seeing it as a threat to their beliefs. The DI is, sadly, not one of those. Science is a shield against dangerous nonsense, and the DI is institutional dangerous nonsense that seeks to undermine the very foundation of modern medicine.
  • Victory in Texas“. Glenn Branch. National Center for Science Education. Comments: This past week, the Texas State Board of Education, which notoriously either ignores expertise for science education recommendations, toys with including religious or watered-down guidance for public school science teachers, or even admits anti-science into the discussion of science standards, took a positive step forward this week. After considering changes to the science education standards, they adopted a slate of changes that removed language from the standards that had opened the door to using religious arguments to counter scientific ones in the science classroom. This is a big step for Texas. While there are no guarantees the next SBOE won’t undo some of this good, it was heartening in this era to see a group of elected representatives walk back from the educational abyss.

A big thing is coming up in the week ahead looms large over science in the United States:

  • The current federal spending legislation for FY17 expires at midnight on April 28. If the Congress fails to act to extend the legislation, the government shuts down. This means any active program that relies on federal funding also shuts down, such as operations in Antarctica or the national laboratories that are crown jewels in the treasure chest of U.S. science. Write your Congressperson(s) and ask them to act to support science while keeping the country operating through the rest of the year. 

Eating the Seed Corn: Science Policy Links for the week of April 9-14, 2017

Signs and portents abound in rhetoric from the current executive branch of the United States. Science, the only known way of establishing reliable information about the natural world, should be essential as a part of policy decision making. I try to highlight places where science and science-related agencies in the US have abandoned policy making based on the most reliable information available about the natural world. This is for just the week of April 9-14, 2017.

  • Scott Pruitt, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, continues to march forward with a governing philosophy based on achieving a specific political outcome, independent of the facts about how human behavior impacts the environment – specifically, the entire climate of planet Earth:
    • Fact Checker: Pruitt’s claim that China and India have ‘no obligations’ until 2030 under Paris Accord“. Glenn Kessler. April 14, 2017.  The Washington Post. Scott Pruitt tries to build a case for abandoning the Paris Accord based on his complete misunderstanding of national obligations in the treaty. The Washington Post investigates.
    • Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt calls for an ‘exit’ to the Paris climate agreement“.  Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis. The Washington Post. April 14, 2017. Pruitt makes the case for “exiting” the Paris Accord. Rather than embracing the economic opportunities that diminishing the old way of fueling economies might bring, he instead abandons the power of the free market in a misguided attempt to prop up the worst parts of the fossil fuel energy industry. He makes the case based on a complete falsehood that will appeal to some desperate sectors of America (e.g. places affects by the closure of coal mines due to competition with natural gas) but which has nothing to do with reality.
  • National Academies Releases Sweeping Review of Research Misconduct and ‘Detrimental’ Practices“. American Institute of Physics FYI Bulletin. April 12, 2017. Science is a process for establishing reliable information, and each stage of the process is flawed but together, and repeated over and over, they work to ferret out unreliable information. The NAS have released a report recommended ways the current way of implementing science in the US could be improved. Science is about improving by identifying flaws and errors. Finding them doesn’t make science weaker; in fact, that makes science even stronger as a way of knowing. Other systems, like political thought, that don’t admit error and instead shift blame are permanently flawed.
  • Obama’s ‘clean coal’ investments are now helping Trump officials push fossil fuels“. Chris Mooney. The Washington Post. April 13, 2017. Ironically, the push to develop coal power plants that sequester much of their carbon output was provided by the Obama administration, and now Trump and his administration constantly tout “clean coal” – but they forget to tell the American public it will cost them about 4x more for clean coal than standard coal, and so they hide the economic reality behind an equivocation that sounds good and means nothing. And the push to mine more coal is NOT with the intend to burn it cleanly, nor price the cost of mining it (e.g. health effects on miners) into the cost to consumers. In fact, right-pricing coal this way would only boost the economics of alternatives to fossil fuel and for cleaner burning, easier-produced non-coal fossil fuels like natural gas. And, after all, it was natural gas that already cost the coal industry the very most jobs over the past 10 years.
  • …Why Americans Increasingly Reject Expertise“. Diane Rehm. “On My Mind”, a podcast. April 14, 2017. Her guest, Tom Nichols, discusses his work entitled “The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign against established knowledge and Why it Matters.” Authority and expertise are NOT the same thing, though Americans often confuse them. A person can speak from authority but have no expertise in what they claim. Think a businessperson making claims about vaccine safety. How is it that Americans started to reject expertise? Diane and her guest-host explore this with Nichols. Nichols himself brings an interesting perspective on this issue, as he is professor of national security affairs in the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College.