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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 Science-based rules have been rescinded.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.”

Happy New Year?

Saying “Happy New Year” seems kind of odd when I’m anything but happy. But hey, I want other people to be happy right? And it would be nasty and rude to snap at other people when they give me a similar greeting.

Last year started out a lot happier. My husband was with me, and we went for a lovely hike after arriving back home after a great trip out of town with our kids. And although one of our daughters had been very ill in 2015, last year dawned with hope. She had finished a very strenuous medical regimen, and all indications were that she would get better and put aside the disease that had plagued her the whole year before.

Image (c) K.M. Kowalski.

Image (c) K.M. Kowalski.

As the year continued, our hope grew. Our daughter’s tests came back with good news in January, and she was stronger when I saw her in February.

That same month, my husband drove six hours while I was away at a conference so we could be together on Valentine’s Day. The following month, we were again with our daughters for Easter. And in April our daughters came to join us for Opening Day—although due to a game postponement we wound up going out for great Lebanese food instead.

Meanwhile, things were looking up for my husband and me. We were both more in love than ever. On Mother’s Day last year we went for a challenging hike, lunched at a winery, rested a bit at home and then had a romantic dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. We had planned a trip to Europe for late spring. And when I was out of town visiting my daughters in mid-May, the last words my husband said to me in a phone call were: “I love you. I’m looking forward to Europe.”

They were the last words I would ever hear from him. Just after my plane landed on my return trip, I learned that he had died while I was away.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, our daughter learned later in the summer that her disease had returned. More surgery and additional medical treatments would be needed. And now she, I and our whole family are praying that she’ll be okay.

So, no, I’m not in an especially gleeful mood. I’m not feeling particularly happy.

But I appreciated people who told me “Merry Christmas.” Christmas was indeed rough without the love of my life, and I was feeling anxious about lots of things. Yet there also were moments that were merry: my grandson asking “Again? Again?” when he wanted me to give the dreidel another spin or set the balls into continuous motion on his Pound and Roll Tower; having him curl up next to me as we read and hearing him say “more good book” at the end; wandering through a Christmas lights display at an arboretum; sharing fun with my daughters’ friends; going to church together; hiking through the woods; and more.

Christmas was different, but under the circumstances, it was as lovely as it could be.

This new year will be different too. And, under the circumstances, I hope it will be as happy as possible.

So, yes, I want people to wish me a happy new year. And I want their prayers for me and my family.

Happy new year, everyone!

Having a blue, blue Christmas

This has been a really rough year for me on a personal level, and the holidays are even tougher. For the first time in decades, I won’t hear my husband say “Merry Christmas” to me. I miss him. I still love him. And I wish he were still alive and well to celebrate with me and the rest of our family.

So, I went to a lovely “Blue Christmas” service last night for families who are having a tough time facing the holidays and found it really moving. For one part of the service, people were invited to bring up an ornament or memento of someone they’ve lost to place on a Christmas tree that will be displayed in a church alcove throughout the rest of the Christmas season.gracexmastree2016

My daughter’s photo doesn’t get the color quite right, but the item I hung is a glowing neon yellow and orange. I’d actually tried to find a baseball-themed ornament in the attic, but it was late at night and close to freezing in the attic that abuts the non-insulated roof. However, I did find the glowing neon yellow and orange item, which is kind of tired and worn and not at all the type of thing you’d ever find on a department-store tree. Yet every year Mike absolutely insisted that it had to go on the tree, along with another neon yellow and orange item. Hence, it does remind me of Mike, because it was kind of funny how he always defended the neon yellow and orange ornament, saying it had to go up.

But then I kind of lost it during the service. Here the priest was talking about how treasured all of the mementos are. And I look up there, and everyone else’s items are kind of white or silver or Christmas red. And then there’s the neon orange and yellow. And the memories of our laughing over Mike’s insistence that it go up, coupled with the priest’s comments, made me cry. I would give anything for Mike to still be with me, making the same jokes about having the neon orange and yellow item on the tree.

And that might have been okay. But then the irony of the whole thing and the inherent garishness of the item struck me as funny. So I’m trying not to laugh, because that would be inappropriate. I mean, I’m in church, right? At a service for families who are grieving, right?

But I definitely was losing the battle on the “don’t laugh” bit—so I’m covering it up by looking like I’m still crying. And then my daughters are really acting sweet and concerned. So I’m really, really trying to get the laughing under control.

At this point, I can’t help but think about Mike’s second-favorite sitcom episode. That’s the one from the Mary Tyler Moore show in which there’s a funeral for Chuckles the Clown.

But then, ugh, now I’m both crying and laughing. That’s because I remember how much Mike liked that episode and would always laugh whenever he talked about it.

So, bottom line: The service brought back memories and was cathartic—but not really in the way I’d imagined going in.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all some good nights and great memories.

French wines could come out ahead among winners and losers from climate change

Climate change creates both winners and losers in ecosystems. It could be disastrous for some species, shrinking their range or leading to the end of some isolated populations of plants or animals. But one upside could be better French wines.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

In a study published last week, Elizabeth Wolkovich at Harvard University and Benjamin Cook at Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies examined long-term records on French winegrape harvests. “I’m mostly a climate scientist and Lizzie is primarily an ecologist studying plants,” says Cook. “So this particular study was a great way to combine our two disciplines into a really interesting study.”

“I personally became interested in winegrapes since I study phenology,” says Wolkovich. That area of science deals with “the timing of plant and animal events that recur each year, such as leafout or flowering,” she explains. A grape isn’t just a grape, either. “Different varieties (e.g., Pinot Noir versus Cabernet Sauvignon) have incredibly different phenologies and winegrapes have tremendously long records — so both these features drew me to studying winegrapes.”

Those tremendously long records go back more than 300 years, to the 1600s. Those records provided the researchers with lots of data. Also, because climate change takes place over time, the records let the team see how the harvests meshed with different climate trends.

As a general rule, the earlier the harvest was in a particular year, the better the wine would be. For the most part, those early harvests tended to happen in years that were both warm and dry.

Until recently.

Warming trends seem to have broken that link between warmth and low rainfall as a condition for early harvests, the researchers found. That finding was a surprise.

“We are seeing a change in the way drought affects the harvest,” Cook explains. ”Before 1981, you need a hot dry summer to get an early harvest. After, thanks to global warming, you can get hot enough for an early harvest even without a drought.” The team published their research online on March 21 in Nature Climate Change.

So far, the change seems to be good for producing fine French wines. However, there’s no guarantee that the trend will continue. At some point, for example, too much moisture could conceivably affect the vines or the quality of their grapes. Similarly, even if climate change seems to be good for wine grapes in one region, a 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that other wine regions could well suffer as the ecological balance of their area shifts.

Nor does the study mean that climate change is not a problem. Hosts of other studies forecast widespread ecological harm, health consequences and other impacts.

Nonetheless, we can all appreciate and toast good science. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of fine wine.

“For white, I’m partial to a nice dry riesling,” Cook says. “For red, I like a peppery cabernet franc.”

“Dry rieslings are great!” says Wolkovich. “I also like red blends, especially ones with interesting varieties.”

ADDENDUM:
A new study published on April 1, 2016, found that climate change could also boost wine production across the English Channel in the United Kingdom, BUT–and you know there would be a BUT, right–there would likely be more susceptibility to weather shocks.
In other words, grape production could grow, but there would also be significant threats from increases in extreme weather events, such as frosts after bud-burst or extra heavy rainfall.
The team at the University of East Anglia writes about its work in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research.

Shout-out to Jonna Michelle

Personal and family issues have made this summer WAY more hectic than I had ever imagined. I promise I’ll soon be back to my usual columns about science, policy, journalism and life in general.

Today, however, I want to take a moment to give a huge shout-out to Jonna at Jonna Michelle Photography in  Silver Spring, Maryland. Please read her blog post about Bethany and Jarrod here:

http://www.jonnamichellephotography.com/blog1/silver-spring-engagement-photographer-bethany-jarrod

And let me repeat what I said on FACEBOOK this morning:

A huge THANK YOU to Jonna at jonnamichellephotography.com for sharing her amazing talents and even more wonderful friendship with Bethany Meissner and her fiancé Jarrod Jabre. I love her work and am so excited that she will be photographing our daughter’s wedding in a few weeks!

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.