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Scientists take a stand against “alternative facts”

“We need to base policy on facts,” says AAAS president Barbara Schaal. AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Schaal spoke at the organization’s annual meeting in Boston this morning. She’ll be giving a major address on the same theme later today.

Schaal’s statement about the need for fact-based barbaraschaal021616policies seems obvious when you think about health care policy, climate change policy, energy policy, education policy, and a host of other areas. Yet, as recent headlines show, many people in the United States’ current government seem to have other views.

Just last month, Kellyanne Conway, an official counselor to U.S. president Donald Trump, went on national television and defended untrue statements by Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer. Conway said Spicer’s untruths were just “alternative facts.”

“When officials use words like ‘alternative facts’ without embarrassment, you know there’s a problem,” says Rush Holt, the chief executive officer for AAAS.

That’s not all.

Trump has said he doesn’t  believe in climate change, and his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency has said he considers the scientific finding that human activity is contributing to climate change to be a “religious belief.”

The administration and Congress have also taken actions that signal problems for science. Science-based rules have been rescinded. Various lawmakers have announced an intention to axe the Affordable Care Act and replace it with some undefined something. The president has issued executive orders that are keeping scientists from several countries from entering the United States. Other executive orders have laid down arbitrary guidelines that will make any future rulemaking almost impossible. And scientists within some agencies have been given orders not to talk to people outside the agency about their work, which would include journalists and other scientists.

Why worry?

“The case for science is important,” stresses Schaal. Basic scientific research forms the foundation for many things that we depend upon for our well-being: infrastructure, health care, technology, and more. “It’s important to keep that technology pipeline going,” she says. And that “begins with basic research.”

For example, think about how much you rely on GPS to get where you need to go. The basic research that makes that possible began decades earlier.

“We would not be able to have accurate GPS without Einstein’s theory of relativity,” Schaal says. That’s because the technology needs to account for differences in speed between the satellites used for the system, differences in gravity, and so forth.

In short, says Schaal, science is “essential for modern life.”

For basic research to continue, though, funding must continue. And in the United States, a huge chunk of that money comes from government programs. Good scientific research can also continue only when there is a free flow of ideas.

‘Science is international’

“Science is international,” Schaal continues. “Science is science without borders.” When scholars come to the United States from other countries, they add to the scientific knowledge here. And that in turns helps people around the world.

Trump’s executive order, banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries, would frustrate the free flow of ideas and information. That’s one reason why AAAS spoke out against the travel ban when it was issued in January. (A federal appeals court has ruled against the ban, but it’s not yet clear whether Trump will appeal or try another move to reinstate the ban.)

Politics seems to be playing a role, not only in the travel ban, but also in how the administration will shape its policy decisions. Environmental rules that were based upon years of scientific study and that had gone through detailed rulemaking processes were rescinded—apparently for political reasons. Similar signs bode poorly for other crucial protections for health and the environment.

“Climate science is extremely important for the future of nations and the future of the globe,” notes Schaal. Because of that, statements such as Pruitt’s, claiming the findings of mainstream science on climate change are just “religious beliefs,” are especially worrisome.

Another big worry is that the country could be unprepared to deal with a crisis where scientific knowledge and guidance are crucial. The administration has not yet announced science advisors or leaders for various agencies. That could hamper day-to-day rulemaking and policy work. It can also leave the country vulnerable if a catastrophe happened, such as another offshore oil spill or nuclear emergency.

“What we want is for every government to use science to help it make its policies,” Schaal concluded.

Scientists and supporters are heeding the call, and independent work is underway for an April 22 March for Science.

“This march is gaining energy. It is not petering out,” says Holt. “The tee shirts are selling fast.”


Calling all people of good conscience

image“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

It’s unclear who first said this famous quote or a variation of it. But its truth is very clear — self-evident in the same sense that Thomas Jefferson used the word when he penned the Declaration of Independence. And in my opinion, the recent actions by Donald Trump and his cronies make that quote a call to action right now for all people of good conscience.

The call to action applies to all the people who voted for someone other than Donald Trump in the last presidential election. It applies to those people who didn’t bother to vote. It applies to those people who were unable to cast a ballot as a result of voter suppression efforts that had a disproportionate impact upon people of color and those who are poor.

And that call to action applies most of all to people who voted for Trump but keep insisting that they are not racist, bigoted, sexist or against basic constitutional freedoms.

I am not willing to accept the platitudes of people who said I shouldn’t worry because the president would have good advisors. Nor am I willing to give a pass to anyone who claimed that they were not supporting all the vile things Trump espoused during the campaign, but only voted for him or went with a third-party candidate (thus giving Trump a majority in a state) because they wanted to shake things up in Washington and see a return of economic prosperity.

By doing nothing now, those people are backing all the awful things the new regime is doing. That regime is working to get rid of protections for people who need health insurance in order to stay alive. It is blatantly violating the civil rights of people who have a lawful right to be in the United States. It is imposing its views of religion upon third parties (both inside and outside the United States), while cutting off basic health services. It is shutting the borders to refugees and fomenting hate.

That government is allowing conflicts of interest to persist while Trump and others keep their tax returns secret. That government is disparaging a free press. It is shortcutting science-based decision-making and cutting off public access to information. That government’s orders are denying due process. And statements and actions from its leaders are laying the groundwork for further erosion of first amendment freedoms and other constitutional rights.

If any people who claim they voted for Trump really have any decency, they will speak out publicly and denounce those actions.

They will go on social media and post a picture of themselves at a march or other demonstration in support of human rights or post a picture of their sizable donation check to the ACLU or another organization fighting against the new regime’s efforts to bolster hate and suppress basic freedoms. And they will paste on their profile pages a copy of their emails or call logs to the government, objecting to these wrongs.

Those people must also show me that they are taking affirmative steps to support efforts to have a return to transparency in the government’s dealings, to preserve core provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and to protect the American people from the evils of conflicts of interest by Trump and his cronies.

Otherwise, don’t expect me to believe that you are really good people. Frankly, in my view, people whose actions helped get this regime into power and who now stay silent share in culpability and are in a sense collaborators.

The Constitution starts with the words, “We the People.” Well, we the people need to stand up for the rule of law and everything that the Constitution stands for. We need to speak out and take lawful action in whatever areas of influence we have. And we ALL need to do it now, particularly those people who claim they really are good people, regardless of whom they voted for.

As the quotation says, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

“The damage is done”

So, the 2016 presidential election is over. Both the U.S. House and Senate have Republican majorities that have pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, reverse actions intended to combat climate change, and move backwards on civil rights protections for multiple groups in society. And enough fervent supporters got out to the polls yesterday to elect a demagogue for president.

Donald Trump has shown contempt for women and been accused of raping a child. He has been accused of fraud, refused to disclose financial information from his tax returns, and apparently reneged on contracts and other promises. He has insulted Hispanics, Muslims and other religious and ethnic groups. He has shown a willingness to use the court system and other vindictive measures against anyone who dares to challenge him. To add insult to injury, his judgment and self-control are such that his campaign managers allegedly took over managing his Twitter account in the days before the election.

The damage can be very widespread. Thousands of bankruptcies would result if families lose their insurance or the protection of no more denials for preexisting conditions or lifetime limits on healthcare expenditures for serious illnesses. The country and world could see a serious economic depression as a result of trade wars. Civil rights could suffer, and people who have fought hard for basic rights and liberties could see them wiped out. The country could find itself in a worse situation than before the days of Brown vs. Board of Education. And the world could find itself at war if its leader fails to show good judgment.

But, as Trump’s campaign manager said after her boss repeated accusations that were shown to be false: “The damage is done.”

Some damage is done, but we can try to stop further harm.

I just wrote to my congressmen, asking them not to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Without it, lifetime limits on expenditures could return, which would further complicate the nightmare for families like mine and those of friends where a loved one has been struck by cancer or another life-threatening illness.

We do not have to–nor should we–sit idly by on this issue or on any other policy issue that affects us and those whom we love.

Start speaking out now, and let elected officials know what we need and what we expect them to do about it. After all, the next congressional elections are in just two years.

In the meantime, I expect Congress and Trump to ram through policies that a packed Court would ultimately uphold. Before the Supreme Court would uphold those laws, however, they can be challenged in the lower courts, and those cases will take time to work themselves through. By then–or shortly after–a different majority in Congress might be able to take other action.

Outside of official channels, speak up when you see something that’s wrong. Don’t let loudmouths badmouth and bully people of other colors, ethnic groups, religions, or sexes or gender preferences. Don’t accept violence and intimidation.

Good people can’t stop all the bad consequences that could follow as a result of this year’s election. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up trying to do what’s right.

Whatever happens, we can’t sit idly by.


Standing up for voting rights

Image by Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons.

Image by Tom Arthur, Wikimedia Commons.

A Supreme Court decision earlier this week held states may set their legislative districts on the basis of total population, rather than just the number of registered voters. Constitutional commentators properly hailed the decision as a major affirmation of the principle of “one person, one vote.”

But all is not as rosy on the voting rights front as those news reports suggest.

First, there’s the fact that plaintiffs sued in Evenwel v. Abbott and pursued their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger weren’t folks who were refused a right to vote. Nor were they crammed into a district with way more people than other districts. Instead, they argued that the state acted wrongly by drawing state legislative district lines based on the total number of people, versus the number of registered voters. Because rural areas tend to have higher percentages of registered voters, the plaintiffs argued that their votes were somehow diluted.

Put aside the fact that urban areas also tend to have higher proportions of minorities. Don’t think about the fact that minorities are often underrepresented on the lists of voters. And forget the fact that there has been a history of discrimination against minority voters in the United States. Nope, these plaintiffs claimed that they were the ones who somehow had their voting rights infringed.

The Supreme Court’s ruling rejected that claim and held that the state had acted properly in using total population as the basis for setting its voting districts. In her opinion for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s majority opinion even quoted Alexander Hamilton—subject of Broadway’s top musical hit right now:

There can be no truer principle than this—that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.

Significantly, however, the Supreme Court did not decide whether a state could decide to use the total number of registered voters instead of population. That leaves the door open in case a state legislature decides to try that approach.

Unfortunately, some state officials apparently still take actions that limit voting rights, and that’s easier to do after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder.

In fact, Texas — the same state where the Evenwel case was brought — seems to have a particularly poor record when it comes to protecting the voting rights of minority groups. This point was hammered home last week at a voting rights training program for lawyers presented by the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.

Speaking to a group of about 70 lawyers, attorney Gerry Herbert outlined a particularly egregious case in Texas that deals with photo ID requirements for voters. Significantly, the state law excludes things like state university photo IDs, but allows driver’s licenses and gun permits — even though one doesn’t need to be a citizen to get a gun permit in Texas. And while a state photo ID could be obtained free of charge, people would need to pay money and might have to travel long distances to get documents required to apply for that photo ID. Perhaps most damning were comments made by various state officials, applauding their departments for periods when they went without having to issue any of those “free” photo IDs.

Herbert outlined some of Texas’s other efforts to prevent so-called “voter fraud.” Forget the fact that there isn’t evidence of any widespread voter fraud. Among other things, the Texas state government wants its bureaucrats to be especially vigilant and watch for tell-tale signs. One criterion listed was suspicious or exotic-looking stamps. And an actual example from a state official’s actual presentation was a U.S. stamp highlighting awareness of sickle-cell anemia — a devastating disease that especially afflicts black people.

Plaintiffs actually won a challenge to the Texas photo ID law, but the case is currently on appeal. In the meantime, the law remains in effect. “Texas has been allowed to use this law even though it was found racially discriminatory,” Herbert said.

Other worrisome cases include the debacle in Arizona last month, where Arizona’s Maricopa County drastically reduced the number of voting places. While people across all groups had long waits, those in minority groups would have felt a disproportionate burden, speakers at the ACS training program noted. That’s because those voters were more likely to have had to get back to work.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby case, the government would have had to get pre-approval for the change in the number of voting places. And it would have had to show the absence of a disproportionate effect.

Now most changes probably won’t be reviewed until after the fact — and that’s a problem. It calls for diligence on the part of state and local governments and the electorate. And it calls for attorneys and society at-large to support efforts to enforce voting rights.

Find out what’s going on in your community. And do your part to encourage everyone to register and then get out to vote. Consider supporting efforts by groups such as the American Constitution Society as well.

We may not always agree with what other voters do at the polls. But if we let government curtail the legitimate rights of any voters, we all will ultimately suffer for it.

For our own protection?

Admiral Michael Rogers. Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers.
Photo from NSA biography.

Admiral Michael Rogers will do his utmost to protect Americans from terrorism. But he would never want the price of security to be the basic liberties that Americans hold dear.

“I don’t want to compromise who we are or what we are,” Rogers said. “As long as we can find something in the middle, I can live with that.”

Rogers is Commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Service. Yesterday he spoke in Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Cleveland Clinic’s Ideas for Tomorrow Series. The Cleveland Council on World Affairs was a sponsoring partner for the event.

Rogers admitted that NSA has been involved in a great deal of controversy lately. But, he cautioned, people should not believe everything they hear or read in the press.

“We are a foreign intelligence surveillance organization,” Rogers said. “It is illegal” to collect data on domestic persons, he added.

But, he noted, there is an exception: The agency can go to a judge and seek access to data for a specific phone number if it can demonstrate a connection between someone with that phone number and a person believed to be involved in terrorism activities. And, Rogers added, recent executive directives and changes in the law require people outside the NSA to review and approve any such information requests before the NSA can get the data and then access it.

“I would vote for him,” one person said at a reception following the event.

“I don’t trust him,” someone else answered, noting that Rogers left a lot unsaid.

Ironically, the night before Rogers’ talk I’d just finished reading Rachel Bohlen’s debut novel, The Historian. No, this is not Elizabeth Kostova’s 600-plus page vampire book from 2005. Bohlen’s 2014 book bills itself as speculative fiction about time travel, but it’s more of a political thriller. Bohlen’s friendship with my daughter was a big factor motivating me to purchase the book, and I could see how it reflects Bohlen’s background as an attorney and as an alumna of Xavier University’s honors program.

In the book’s near-future setting of Washington, D.C., a Department of Time has the country’s only time machine and its security forces will stop at nothing to thwart anyone suspected of possible time travel terrorism. Those efforts include extensive searches and surveillance to thwart any possibility of time travel terrorism—defined to include even public criticism of the government. Life imprisonment or death is the punishment for a conviction.

Bohlen’s heroine, Emilia Falk, describes herself as a mere historian at the Department of Time, working away in her cubicle on classified and probably pointless research projects. Like most people, she pretty much accepts the secrecy and tight security measures for everything even remotely related to the Department of Time—until her own sister is accused of time terrorism.

Like Rogers, the character who heads the Department of Time is charming and reassures the public in all his statements that the government is only acting within the bounds of the law. Yet while media reports about nonclassified NSA activities are certainly not a crime in the real world, Rogers is clearly concerned about some of those reports.

“I have watched targets…change their behavior as a result of these revelations” about certain technology details and other things, Rogers said. “For those who would say this hasn’t had an impact, clearly you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

However, curtailing discussions about nonclassified technology could threaten freedom of speech and of the press. The practice of science, which relies on open discussion and peer review, could suffer as well.

“Personally, for me, I do not want another major terrorism event on my watch,” Rogers said. He stressed again that the NSA acts within the bounds of the law, subject to both congressional oversight and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Unfortunately, less than 20 percent of the public approves of the job Congress is doing, according to the Gallup Poll. And ex parte proceedings and a high government “win rate” have led some to question whether the FISA court is a “rubber stamp” for the government.

“The very mechanisms we put in place to engender trust in this world today don’t have that trust,” Rogers noted. Even if everyone in the NSA is in fact following the law, that’s a problem.



Fracking Foe’s Billboard Signs Will Come Down


—These billboards are at the center of an Ohio lawsuit against a local man who opposes fracking and related activities.

—These billboards are at the center of an Ohio lawsuit against a local man who opposes fracking and related activities.

An Ohio opponent of fracking and activities relating to shale oil and gas has been sued in state court by a deep well injection company and its on-site manager. As I wrote last week for Midwest Energy News, the case to force him to remove two billboard signs fits into a broader pattern.

Various citizen groups and advocates feel that public agencies and private companies are not listening to concerns about the rapid expansion of shale gas activities in the state. More detail about the lawsuit is available here:

Now it seems that fracking foe Mike Bolls will have to take down the billboard signs after all—and without any court ruling in the case. Bolls says the owner of the billboards has given him until September 9 to remove the signs.

The reason, Bolls says, is pressure on the owners from lawyers for the injection well company. According to Bolls, the company threatened to add the billboard owner to the lawsuit if they did not terminate the contract.

Bolls notes that the billboard owner and his wife are both in their 70s. “They’re just not wanting to go through the battle of having to fight a court case at their age,” Bolls says.

The contract with Bolls was a month-to-month oral arrangement, so Bolls says he won’t get any money damages or refund as a result of the early termination. But Bolls speculates that other billboard owners could lose money if anyone who was offended by a sign could get it down with the threat of a lawsuit. People would be less likely to rent billboards, he reasons.

Taking down the signs won’t automatically make the pending lawsuit go away. For one thing, the complaint’s request for injunctive relief goes further than that. Moreover, the plaintiffs have also sought an unspecified amount of punitive and compensatory damages.

Whether they will proceed with the case remains to be seen, however. And Bolls says he wouldn’t change anything he’s done.

“I would not have done anything different,” he says. “I believe the message is true.”



Ohio utilities fight net-metering rules

My latest feature at Midwest Energy News considers the clash of interests between utilities and customers who feed energy into the grid:

Ohio utilities take net metering fight to state Supreme Court

A case going before the Ohio Supreme Court could have a major impact on distributed generation in the state, while raising questions about corporate separation and possible conflicts of interest for regulated utilities.

Read more. . .

Ohio customers' electric bills have two main parts: distribution and generation. Image by Kathiann M. Kowalski.