Because Beating the Russians Wasn’t Enough: Crafting A Martian Narrative

Joi Weaver proposes that space exploration, that boon of sci-fi fans and writers, lacks a compelling narrative outside the scientific community. It’s ironic that a subject that has served so many artists so well may itself suffer from poor storytelling, but the ongoing shut down of poorly-funded NASA programs proves her point. Here’s an excerpt from her post at the Mars Artists Community blog:

The early space missions had a story that anyone could grasp: we were sending men to the moon! It was dangerous! It was exciting! It was putting our country in the forefront of science! This narrative kept public attention and support for the space program high through the Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo missions.

But it fell short, ultimately resulting in an early cancellation of Apollo and hamstringing all future NASA spaceflight. Why? No-one ever developed a new narrative. “We’ve beaten the Russians to the moon,” most people thought, “isn’t that the end of the story?”

Of course it’s not the end. But you wouldn’t know that to talk to the average person-on-the-streets. Many people believe the shuttle was capable of lunar landings and had no idea the whole shuttle program was coming to an end until a few months ago. NASA, for all its media presence, failed to provide a new narrative. In the post-Challenger era, NASA decided to stress the safety of spaceflight, despite the fact that it is the riskiest human endeavor possible. NASA TV became little more than clean-cut men and women floating in a sterile environment, smiling as they talked in acronyms that meant nothing to the public: it was very safe, but it was terrible story-telling.

Fortunately, Joi argues, there’s still time to do something about this:

Mars is still a blank slate in the public mind. Some of the more well-informed people may know about the rovers, but that’s about it. This is an opportunity. We can still set the narrative for Mars, and more importantly, learn from NASA’s mistake: the story can’t just be about getting there, or we may never go back after the first trip.

A narrative is almost never set by a single person; rather, it’s a hundred little stories that slowly take root in the heart and mind of the people, gradually changing the way we see the world. No-one can say that the MER program happened because Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles. But would it have happened, or happened in the same way, if he hadn’t written it? Where would the space program be without Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, and a hundred others who fanned our desire to explore?

It’s time to start creating the narrative for Mars, to show the Red Planet as we know it: a place of danger, beauty, and adventure. A place that could, eventually, become home.

Check out Joi’s collaborative Mars narrative at the Mars Blog Project:Mission. And don’t be afraid to contribute!

(image courtesy of NASA)

Caught Between Oxford and Mars

I’ve always wanted to visit Europe; there are so many things there that inspire me, that mark the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. However, I haven’t yet been able to go (the funds have just never worked out), though many of my friends have lived there for a semester or two.

I envy them sometimes, but not because of their academic experiences. I hope to never have to enroll in any school ever again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-education. In fact, I love to learn: I’m addicted to it. But I’ve grown tired of jumping through hoops to prove to someone else that I’ve learned enough to be permitted to learn something else, and I would really rather not go through that again. If that means I never have a fancy string of letters behind my name, that’s fine with me.

But sometimes I get insecure, and doubt the worth my own life goals. How could my dreams of going back to Florida for a shuttle launch compare with my friends’ goals to return to Oxford, Athens, and Assisi? Are my goals of writing a science fiction novel that inspires the next generation of explorers really equal to my friends’ goals of elected office, scholarship, and parenthood? We’ve received essentially the same college education: a focus on the great books of the Western world, combined with Socratic discussion. Did their education simply stick better? Am I just the dumbest one from the group? After all, someone has to be. Their dreams are filled with the greatest achievements of history, and all I can think about it are spaceships and the difficulties of colonizing Mars.

Sometimes I want to pretend that I’m like them. I wish I could long for that “towery city, and branching between towers,” but I find myself drawn into a vision of the first simple buildings on a distant dusty red planet. I try to desire the slow pace of the ancient cities they love, but find myself eager to return to the happy bustle of the Kennedy Space Center. Many of them would be thrilled to be able to live in Oxford, while I’m just as happy in my smog-filled Southern California, at least until the first colony ship departs for Mars.

My dreams seem crazy, by comparison. I’ll never be one of the few human beings to set foot on Mars; in fact, I’ll be lucky to see mankind land there within my lifetime. I don’t have the math or science background to be one of the incredible crew of people who send others into space or drive rovers on faraway planets. The most I can hope for is to write something that inspires someone else to study more, to try harder, to become one of the few to set foot on a planet other than this one. And if something that I write contributes to a single person reaching out into space, I will be happy.

The education my friends and I share gave us all a love for tradition and the great things that mankind has done throughout history. And yes, in a world of revisionist history and apathy about the ability to accomplish anything great, it is of utmost importance to hold on to the great things of the past. But someone has to love the things of the future, too. The massive Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center is no cathedral, but it is breathtaking, and it’s no small matter to appreciate it. Launch pad 39A may not be the Parthenon, but it is the point from which so many of mankind’s dreams have taken off, dreams that still continue to this day.

So I wish my friends well in their dreams of Oxford, London, and Athens: fare forward, travellers! But I’ll keep my dreams of Gusev and Marineris, and my hope of the ice-bound Europa. After all, it’s going to be the future soon.

The World’s Worst Proof for the Existence of God

I have come to terms. I’ll admit it: Philosophers are less attuned to ‘the obvious’ than most.

I even remember the morning that I realized I had no choice but to accept the stereotype. A group of philosophy faculty and students were gathered in my professor’s office, and we needed more chairs to accommodate everyone. Five or six people calculated the number of chairs needed. Five or six different numbers resulted.

The story came to my mind while exploring John Locke’s epistemology as described in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and his personal commentary on the EssayThe Sillingfleet Correspondence.

In a previous article, I discussed Locke’s theory of government: whether or not it is correct, I found his ideas, at the very least, readily understandable. So I was surprised by my reaction to Locke’s explorations of ‘human knowledge’. I couldn’t help but feel like Locke and I were struggling to accurately count chairs.

If we join Locke on his journey, by the end we cannot know God exists, much less that Jesus was and is God, much less that core Christian doctrines are true. The Trinity? In Lockean terms, we can’t even know that the house next door exists, or that Barak Obama is President! We can have faith in these things, but to have faith in any given thing, according to Locke, means it is not known:

Faith stands by itself, and upon grounds of its own; not can be removed from them, and placed on those of knowledge. Their grounds are so far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certaintty, faith is destroyed; it is knowledge then, and faith no longer.

How did he take us here?

“For with me,” Locke writes, “to know, and be certain, is the same thing; what I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.”

Locke equates ‘actual knowledge’, or “the present view the mind has of the agreement or disagreement of any of its ideas,” with certainty. ‘Certainty’ is not merely confidence: to satisfy Lockean certainty, the knower must, while knowing, have immediate perceptions of the relating ideas. Any connection between not immediately perceived ideas is less than certain, and is believed only based on probability.

For example, I can only know that ‘my soccer ball is round’ if I am right now perceiving my soccer ball and its roundness. Apart from that, I can’t be certain that it hasn’t ceased to exist or taken on a square shape, even if highly improbable.

If we accept Locke’s terms, we can understand his theory of knowledge. Locke would assert that I don’t know that my friend in the next room exists—it’s only highly probable. I don’t know that I was born in January. I don’t know that God exists.

As we approach the text, we probably come with a fairly solid idea of what ‘certainty’ is—the fuzzy term is ‘knowledge’. If we accept that knowledge is certainty, then sure: I guess I don’t know when I was born or that God exists.

But does Locke’s definition align with our experience, or is he miscounting chairs? While reading, I’m find myself tempted to say, ‘Well, yes, Mr. Locke, five chairs would be right if five people were here, but look—there’s seven of us!’ On an intuitive level, something doesn’t sounding right.

If a father says to his child, “You know I love you,” we don’t normally assume he is trying to say, “You know there is absolutely zero possibility that I do not love you.” That would be false: it is impossible to have a direct perception of another’s person’s internal feeling of love—we can only know the expression of those feelings. What the father refers to is a firm faith in paternal love that he understands to be a kind of knowledge even apart from certainty.

‘Common sense’ intuition will, I think, suggest that the father makes sense, and is not simply speaking lazily. The same applies to a person who says, “I know God exists.” When we hear that, it doesn’t seem we typically take her to mean, “It is absolutely impossible that God does not exist,” nor, “I have a highly probably opinion that God exists.”

Consider Locke’s description of faith.

Faith…is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deduction of reason, but upon the credit for the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. …[But] revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason.

Revelation as subservience to reason is the vital point. Locke defines reason as: “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas, which it has got…by sensation or reflection.” Locke claims that faith is not made out by reason, but unless we have had a clear sense perception of God, or resurrection from the dead our lack of grounded ideas implies that even the most basic tenants of faith are, at best, probable opinions.

In one way, this may seem like pointless semantics. Whether faith is ‘knowledge’ or ‘high probability’: what practical difference comes from holding one or the other?

Stepping back a bit can reveal how Locke’s theory does matter. His theory didn’t stop with mere transfer of terms. Locke says that things not tied to physical reality are not certain, and therefore, cannot be known. This (though maybe unintentionally) grounds later philosophical assertions that anything metaphysical is not even probable, seeing as probability itself is not a ‘sensible’ idea. (See Hume.)

Arguably, the logical conclusion of that assertion is the contemporary divorce we see today that divides ‘science’ and ‘faith’. The secular academic community has been infused with the idea that scientific beliefs are ‘knowable’, but faith beliefs are personal and ‘irrational’.

Maybe Locke should slow down and recount the chairs. Knowledge intuitively seems separable from absolute certainty. Claims like, “I know when I was born,” “I know you love me” or “I know God exists” are understandable. In fact, I know they are understandable. ‘

Against All Gods: An Open Invitation to ‘The New Atheism’

Anyone seeking a witticized slam of ‘The New Atheism’ should stay away from Against All Gods.  The new release by Dr. Phillip Johnson and Dr. John Mark Reynolds refuses to wade into mind-numbingly circular surface arguments with writers of the new atheism. Instead, Johnson and Reynolds focus on “breaking down…communication barriers” between the new atheists and those of religious faith, particularly within the university.

Johnson and Reynolds are not setting out to grind new atheism into dust, but to establish space for rigorous, candid conversation. Johnson writes:

We will make certain critical points about what the atheists are writing. However, our desire is not to shut down the discussion with a resounding rebuttal but rather to encourage careful examination of the issues both inside the university classroom and outside. We believe that the truth can only benefit from…uninhibited discussion… For this reason we welcome the surge that the new atheism represents…

Both Reynolds and Johnson are clear that they ‘welcome’ the new atheism for one main reason: they ask the right questions. Despite “ill-founded” conclusions, declarations such as ‘God does not exist’ or “humans are primates, [and their] mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes” necessarily raise important questions. Does God exist? Are humans more than animals with physiological capacities? The 21st century Western world, chock full of superficial distractions, can only benefit from reminders that these questions exist and should be taken seriously.

The new atheism, which depends upon ‘scientific naturalism’, asserts that science—Darwinism in particular—is both absolutely indubitable and absolutely atheistic. Because of the sharp division between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’, the new atheists conclude that religion is an anti-scholastic delusion, and religious studies don’t belong in general education curricula.

In the first half of Against All Gods, Johnson focuses on responding to this dichotomy of faith and reason. New atheists like Steven Pinker define faith as a “euphemism for religious belief and as meaning believing something (such as that God exists) without good reasons to do so.” Johnson rejects this equating of ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ and offers his own definition of faith as “retaining confidence in what you have good reason to believe when you are in danger of being confused and losing your bearings.” Faith is the grounding for reason, Johnson writes, not the lack of it.

Johnson’s next point naturally rises from his re-definition: every individual has a faith. New atheists’ faith in science is as much faith as religious faith. What’s more, Johnson presses, faith in science is less reasonable than religious faith, as it cannot satisfy certain physical phenomena (e.g. ‘Where did the first cell come from?’) as adequately as religious, metaphysical hypotheses.

Perhaps Johnson presses the topic a little too far in this section when he equates ‘religion’ with ‘metaphysics’. There are intelligent Christian philosophers, such as non-reductive physicalists, who avoid being metaphysical reductionists. Still, the meat of Johnson’s point remains: religious alternatives are as-or-more reasonable than Darwinism, especially Darwinism as interpreted by scientific naturalism. The case is not closed, Johnson says to the atheists, so stop trying to shut the door.

The finals chapters, written by Dr. John Mark Reynolds, are largely a response to the new atheists’ conclusion that religious studies, particularly in the university, are delusional and anti-scholastic. Reynolds begins at the source—traditional texts. He does not object to the new atheists disliking, or even loathing the Bible, but Reynolds does take issue with poor reading of Biblical texts, especially because the resulting misunderstandings destroy open communication.

In his chapter “The Obstacle of Old Books,” Reynolds connects how new atheists are reading Scripture to their hasty conclusions about Christianity. After outlining what I would term a useful and enlightening ‘idiot’s guide to hermeneutics’, Reynolds contends that new atheists refuse—or don’t know how—to employ the basic guidelines of charitable reading. For example, when atheist scholars (Dawkins in particular) ignore historical information like early Israel’s tribal and warlike world, it leads to unfair judgments about the brutality seen in the Old Testament.

Poor readers refuse to imagine the world of a text, and so close themselves off to the mere possibility of its truth. “Imagination,” Reynolds writes, “is a wonderful tool that allows me to consider the possibility that any religious, philosophical or scientific idea might be true.”

According to Reynolds, such critical consideration is based in wonder, not cynical, unrestrained doubt, and as such, it has every place in the university. Whereas unleashed cycnicism paralyzes academic discovery, belief in truth grants motivation and purpose to intellectual study.

Religion, says Reynolds, sustains the university. Learning is a journey that includes discovery of truth and cultivation of virtue via personal and artistic mentors. Without religion, education becomes vacuous intellectual hedonism. Contrary to what new atheists say, education is not “constricted” by exposure to religion; it is fueled by it. Reynolds concludes Against All Gods with a historical defense of orthodoxy in light of this assertion: new atheists claim that, historically, religion has been the oppressor of academic pursuits, but Reynolds argues that it has been the impetus of intellectual progress.

The existence of Johnson and Reynolds’s book demonstrates Reynolds’s final point. It is a piece of well-crafted analysis filled with sound arguments that sticks its foot in the door new atheism is trying to slam shut. This dialogue is far from over, Johnson and Reynolds protest. New atheism and religion have much to discuss, and both sides have every reason to embrace the conversation and see where it leads. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Digging into Darwin

Darwin’s Dead and He Ain’t Coming Back…or so the Christian bumper sticker says. Personally, my favorite is the one of the Jesus fish eating the upside-down mutant fish with legs labeled ‘Darwin’. In the Jesus vs Darwin showdown, apparently survival of the fittest is true after all.

For many Christians, the instinctive reaction to Darwin, author of the theory natural selection—not, as commonly thought, the author of theory of evolution—is defensive and even hostile. Darwin, some think, is the guy who tried to kill God in the 19th century. He’s the main cause of modern secularization; his theory is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Everyone and their great-uncle’s cousin have an opinion about Darwin. But few have slogged through his five hundred-page classic The Origin of the Species—the book that influenced the future shape of biology, geology, botany, et cetera, et cetera…

But is it possible to let Darwin speak for himself? Not without cracking open Darwin’s text.

From the Introduction, Darwin states that his purpose is to show that “the view which most naturalists entertain…that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” His goal concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Throughout the course of Origin, the exclusive focus of his work is the interconnectedness of specific species and how they trace back to one or more ‘archetypal’ organisms.

In fact, not even until the last pages of his work does Darwin address more universal implications of his theory:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.

Assuming that the analogy holds true, Darwin still never attempts to answer where that ‘prototype’ might have originated. He certainly never rules out the possibility of a divinely orchestrated evolution that utilizes the means of natural selection. It would seem that, if a Creationist wishes to dismiss Darwin, it must be on scientific, not religious grounds—common descent of species is possible within the Christian conception of God. As author G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

Whether discussing the hive bee’s architectural genius or the tyrannical, slave-making habits of the Formica rufescens ant, Darwin’s observations of the natural world evidence how miraculous it is. If those species had a common ancestor, would they be any less miraculous? For my part, and aside from any concerns of the theory’s accuracy, I find the idea of God using the gradual processes of the natural world to develop his energy from a single seed even more awing. But for any Christian, The Origin of the Species is well worth reading, particularly while keeping that in mind. Give Darwin the benefit of the doubt: he’ll open up an amazing world of intricate and diverse, yet unified life. No cannibalistic Jesus-fish required.

The opinions here expressed are solely that of the author.
…well, not solely, but you know what I mean.

Global Warming: Facts, Fiction, and Freedom

Global warming might be real, but that doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it.  In fact, if your actions are motivated by guilt or fear, Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley would rather you didn’t act at all.

Hayhoe and Farley are the authors of A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.  Though I am personally still skeptical of many global warming claims, it’s hard to imagine a team more qualified to write this book.  Katharine Hayhoe is a scientist and professor whose research has been used by the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Congress, various state and federal agencies, and over two hundred newspapers and media outlets worldwide.  Andrew Farley is a pastor, professor, and the author of The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church.  Together, this husband-wife team combines a clear presentation of scientific findings with a Biblically-centered interpretation and call to action.

A Climate for Change argues that, despite what many evangelicals may still tell you, climate change is real–and it’s happening now.

The authors begin by addressing several of the most common objections to the theory of climate change, arguing that these objections are neither scientifically founded nor realistic.  They pay particular attention to some common evangelical objections, recognizing that this is a sticky subject for many Conservatives and for many Christians:

As Christians, we’re naturally suspicious of people who believe differently from us.  How can such activists–those whose voices have so often been raised against us on fundamental issues like family and the sanctity of life–have anything worthwhile to say about the environment?

In the past, we may have seen climate change used as a political tool on the part of this party or that organization to manipulate and get what they want.  Our hesitations are justified.  It’s hard to trust information from sources we feel might manipulate facts to suit their political agenda.

But the issue of climate change really is different.  It’s not about blue politics or red politics or any kind of politics.  It’s about thermometer readings and history.  It’s about facts and figures.  It’s about reality.  And that’s what we want to explore with you in this book. (p. XV)

For one thing, many have objected to claims of global warming because of severe cold weather conditions.  It’s hard to take global warming seriously, for example, in the middle of a severe snowstorm.  This, argue the authors, is due to a misunderstanding of the fundamental difference between climate and weather:

Don’t let your memory of some recent extremes, whether hot or cold, influence whether you believe global warming is really happening.  The reality is that global warming is about long-term changes in climate, measured over many decades or more.  It’s not about short-term changes that we see in the weather from one day to the next, or even from year to year. (p. 59)

Thanks to the recent “Climate-gate” scandal, global warming facts and fiction are more difficult than ever for the public to distinguish.  This book was released in October 2009, just before the email scandal broke, so it’s unclear how or whether the facts cited might be different had the book been written today.  The authors do mention, however, that the facts on which they base their claims are both old and indisputable.  They quote Sir John Houghton:

I’ve worked with hundreds of scientists and the vast majority know that it is happening and understand the science.  The basic science after all is very old science; it’s been known for two hundred years that we are as warm as we are at the moment because of greenhouse gases.  If you put up more of these gases, the world become warmer.  There is no doubt about that from a physics point of view or from a basic science point of view.  No scientist who knows anything will dispute that. (p. 67)

The final section of A Climate for Change contains both common-sense lifestyle change suggestions and some good teaching on Christian social responsibility.  Caring for the earth, the authors argue, is a way of caring for the poor, since they are the people most directly impacted by environmental changes.  People cannot redeem the earth–only God can do that, and he certainly does not need our help.  On top of that, he never commanded the New Testament Church to care for the natural world.  Even the commands found in Genesis 1:27-31 are more general than is sometimes assumed:

If we’re honest, there really is nothing here beyond be fruitful, increase, rule over the animals, and eat anything you want. Furthermore, if we conclude that there is an ecological mandate for today within this passage, then we must equally conclude that our mandate is to have more and more children and to increase the world’s population.  This would, in turn, contribute to more climate change and environmental issues, not diminish them. (p. 133)

While the authors would like you to believe their claims about global warming, they do not want you to act without proper motivation.  Far from imposing a guilt trip on their readers, Hayhoe and Farley instead advocate simple, common-sense, money-saving solutions that will inevitably benefit both you and your neighbors even if nothing is wrong with the climate–and they suggest that you make no changes at all if you are acting out of a sense of guilt:

…the true Christian message is one of freedom of choice, not guilt of duty. The moment we adopt any action out of obligation, we set the wheels of human effort in motion.  Then it is no longer Christ in us and Christ through us.  Instead, it is merely the human-driven notions of philanthropy or activism. If you decide you don’t want to individually contribute to a solution to climate change, so be it.  You are free in Christ to decide that.  Conversely, if you as an individual decide to make decisions that will help, that is great.  You won’t earn status points with God.  (p. 139)

I still don’t know whether global warming is real.  Hayhoe and Farley believe it is, but as a non-scientist I am not qualified to critique their evidence.  I do know, however, that if I’m going to continue in my skepticism I’ll have to find some new arguments, as A Climate for Change effectively dismantled my previous assumptions.  The book is worth reading no matter what you believe about the global warming debate and who knows, you may find, like me, that you don’t know as much about the subject as you thought you did. ‘

Political Science: BPA and the FDA

The FDA will soon release its latest findings on the plastic-strengthening chemical, bisphenol A (BPA).  As I’ve written before, BPA’s supposed health risks have been highly publicized to the benefit of both businessmen and politicians—so much to their benefit, in fact, that it would be hard to believe all the rumors even if the FDA, EPA, and numerous independent studies hadn’t already declared the chemical harmless.

BPA is just one example of the many ways in which science has historically been shaped by political concerns.  Unfortunately, this misuse of the discipline isn’t going to end anytime soon, especially if media outlets get their way.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the LA Times in particular have stated that the FDA ought to rule the chemical unsafe—and that it ought to do so before the new study comes out in the next few days or weeks.  If the new study does prove that BPA is definitely harmful, then plastics containing the chemical should by all means be pulled from shelves.  If there really is a danger here, something must be done about it – but danger seems unlikely given current research.

What does seem likely is that people will continue to take advantage of BPA’s carefully crafted poor reputation in order to advance their own political careers and agendas.  I’ve written before about Senator Schumer’s BPA-free Kids Act, which would ban the chemical from all food and beverage containers intended for use by children, thus tremendously boosting those companies that manufacture BPA-free products—many of which, by the way, work with Fenton Communications, the public relations firm behind the “General Betray Us” ads.  Now Wisconsin is also considering a pre-emptive ban:

Madison — The sponsor of a state bill to ban bisphenol A in baby bottles and sippy cups said Wednesday she is confident there is enough support to institute such a ban in Wisconsin.

State Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) said a Senate committee vote on the matter could come in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the Assembly’s Committee on Consumer Protection held a 2 ½ -hour hearing Wednesday on the merits of the bill. Health advocates spoke in support of the measure, noting that the chemical has been linked to breast cancer, reproductive failures, behavioral problems, obesity and sexual dysfunction.

Food manufacturing representatives and chemical industry employees, including Steve Hentges, the chief lobbyist for the chemical makers, urged the committee to turn down the bill. He said science does not show any danger to human health. He noted that no government agency has found BPA to be of concern.

Politicians should not rely on unproven scientific claims to advance their own agendas.  The FDA should not ban a substance that its own researchers have so far declared harmless, and it should not compromise the objectivity of its upcoming report with such a declaration.  Science and politics have always had trouble mixing well, but scientists should especially take note when their findings stand to benefit – or decimate – so many financial and political interests.

Image credit

Regulating Rumors: The BPA-Free Kids Act

Senator Charles Schumer cares a lot about the milk your children drink- why else would he want to make sure you to buy only the most expensive baby bottles and sippy cups on the market?

I’ve written before (here and here) about the BPA controversies – now, thanks to Senator Schumer, parents may have no choice but to buy expensive BPA-free baby products.

Senator Schumer recently introduced the BPA-Free Kids Act, which would prohibit the manufacture or sale of bisphenol-A infused food and beverage containers to children and toddlers.  BPA is a hot topic these days everywhere from nurseries to Newsweek.  The chemical, which is used in many common plastics, is rumored to cause a number of troubling health issues, including cancer and obesity.

Despite what you may have heard in the media, BPA’s harmful effects have not been conclusively proven; in fact, a brand new independent study released by the EPA found that current BPA levels are quite safe. The FDA has also determined that the chemical is safe. This, paired with the fact that special BPA-free plastics are astronomically expensive, should make us wonder who really stands to gain from this proposed ban – our children, or those who produce specialty plastics?

BPA-free plastics manufacturers are certainly benefitting, regardless of the actual risk to our children:

Ron Vigdor, the founder and CEO of BornFree, sells trust. More precisely, he sells baby bottles for about $5.50 that are guaranteed to contain no bisphenol A, a chemical that is widely used in $1 baby bottles.

…Vigdor began selling his bottles in Whole Foods grocery stores in 2006, and his production capacity has grown to 1 million a year. The established companies – which sell about 60 million baby bottles annually – are now marketing their own BPA-free bottles and cutting production of older models.

… To boost press coverage, Vigdor hired Fenton Communications, which specializes in political advocacy and was already engaged with other anti-BPA outfits, such as the Environmental Working Group.  Vigdor’s market gets a boost every time the media publicize a report on BPA’s possible hazards…

You may recall from one of my previous posts that Fenton Communications is the same firm behind the “General Betray-Us” attack campaign:

“Putting aside the fact that the claims were entirely bogus, the fear campaign against BPA was a brilliant business move for Fenton-and a win/win/win for liberals.  David Fenton… represents many radical environmental groups like the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, who could benefit from creating a bogey man.  And he also represents trial lawyers, who could make millions by bringing about class action lawsuits against the manufacturers of plastics.  Lastly, trial lawyers are major donors to Democratic politicians, so getting them on board was easy.  And plastics competitors who didn’t use BPA could now charge absurd prices for their products at upscale stores like Whole Foods, based on the fact that their product (though more expensive) was ostensibly “safer.”

BPA has been given such a bad name that worried parents can’t buy these unnecessarily expensive BPA-free plastics quickly enough.  The sheer volume of money generated by the BPA-scare campaign makes one wonder why Senator Schumer is so eager to regulate the cycle with his proposed ban.  Perhaps he really does care about the milk your children drink – or perhaps he has met some very persuasive lobbyists.  Either way, why has the media all but ignored the studies in which BPA is vindicated? ‘

Integral Ambiguity: Why We Can’t Understand Art

“Is it not strange,” Benedick of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing muses, “that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” Tell us something we don’t know, says Terry Teachout, writing about yet another study that affirms the mysterious sway music has over human beings. He expresses impatience with the obviousness of the observation and the elusiveness of an answer to it. Old hat, he says, that music affects us in ways we don’t understand. Whether it be sheeps’ guts or Stravinsky, the puzzle remains: how is it that something with no identifiable propositional content speaks to us, in the way instrumental music so incontestably does?

Instrumental music is, as Teachout says, “radically ambiguous.” It is not meaningful in most of the ways we ascribe meaning, but obviously means a great deal. This assessment holds true of a variety of media that we acknowledge as art–one thinks particularly of performative and visual arts. Is such ambiguity mere perversity on the part of the contemporary art world, or does it indicate something requisite to the art we don’t understand? Could it be that for art to be great, it is necessary that it elude us?

Teachout’s main point is that instrumental music is attractive, though ambiguous–and, as Teachout concludes, attractive because ambiguous. Great art is open in a way which compels. One of the major identifiable downfalls of bad art is that it is highjacked by its own didacticism. It is art turned sermon, ironically hampered from communicating by the artist’s transparent intention to communicate at all costs, even at the cost of her art’s artistry. Bad art is often bad because it “push[es] you around,” as Teachout argues great art does not.

Of course, ambiguity is not sufficient on its own for greatness in art, any more than your not selling any paintartings affirms your genius.  It is surprising, however, what a crucial role ambiguity does play in art. This seems largely an issue of appeal: if art is not open enough to appeal to a wide variety of people over a broad span of time, it will be insular and occasional, too tied up in a particular time and place. It seems at the very least judicious to throw open the doors to one’s art, to invite a multiplicity of interpretation for the sake of a broader appeal. In many ways, great art is about creating a space for movement and for meaning. Or, on another view (and perhaps more in line with the way of contemporary art), it is art which intrudes into the viewer’s space, makes demands without commanding anything, changes without persuasive argument.

It is not just openness, however, that lends the ambiguity of art such power: it is also its inability to be analyzed. Something that we are confident we comprehend is of no interest. In general– as Teachout says–we live in “a prosy, commonsense world where everything has a name and most things have an explanation.” Great art is experienced as transcendent in part because it does not yield itself easily to explanation. Things which we do not fully understand allure and involve us in a way that things we think we know do not.

That great art has such palpable emotional (even spiritual) resonance continues to bemuse since it has none of the identifiable marks of information in which we usually traffic. We understand how information has results, but the affect of great art cannot be broken down into a formula. Art’s success at moving us is ascribable to that very ambiguity which makes its power puzzling. Ambiguity makes a piece offer something different each time we return to it; it is not exhaustible in the way so much entertainment or information is. Because of this, it has a power over us which daily life does not: it continues to command our attention because it escapes our understanding. ‘

The Problematic Suppositions of Wired

Amy Wallace’s essay “An Epidemic of Fear,” published in this month’s issue of Wired, is both perceptive and worrying. Wired’s articles often comment on the growing debates between social groups and professional communities. This month’s feature focuses on the conflict between anti-vaccination proponents—mainly parents—and the scientific community that contends they are necessary.

Wallace’s essay, while offering some sympathy to parents, argues heavily in support of the scientific community. Unfortunately, her view also creates worries about parental rights.

Consider Wallace’s comments about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children:

In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitivly, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).

The figures sound alarming. Wallace provides reasons for us to believe that vaccination exemptions result in serious health concerns for both specific individuals and larger communities. The issue, however, is garbled amidst Wallace’s concern that parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated are doing so on irrational grounds—even though, as Wallace points out, the majority of parents abstaining from vaccinations live in more highly educated communities. Yet she says that naysayers oppose vaccinations because of fear and “unmet need,” as opposed to scientific evidence or reasonable doubt. She adds:

…Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” [Carl] Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

Wallace’s attention to the motivations underlying parents’ objections to vaccinations does not cohere with her primary thesis that vaccinations are necessary. Furthermore, her comment that these objections are a result of fear and irrationality is not far removed from the kind of remarks Sigmund Freud makes in his Civilization and It’s Discontents. He writes, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” Like Freud, Wallace implies that parents are trying to assuage their fears using superstitious means. This line of thought implies that our unmet fears and needs are irrational, and so the direction in which we point our fears and needs is unjustifiable.

Of course, we cannot deny—nor should we—that we are liable to hold beliefs that are not wholly logical. Wallace’s position, however, not only has the capacity to generate more fear among anti-vaccine proponents, but it also has the capacity to undermine parental rights. If she argues that parents who object to the scientific community about vaccinations are irrational, perhaps they should not be allowed the freedom to choose not to have their children vaccinated.

Yet the fact that fear exists among parents does not imply the absence of reason. With all the controversies surrounding treatments, as well as updated information about side-effects and the rise of medical information available online, parents are justified in questioning scientific authority. By dismissing parents’ concerns as illogical, Wallace feeds this distrust. Respect goes both ways. If the scientific community is truly a bulwark of logic and reason, it should seek to bridge the gap between parents and doctors by effectively communicating about the challenges and controversies regarding science and medicine. Furthermore, if Wallace wants to convince parents that the scientific community should be trusted, she will also seek to bridge this gap, instead of engendering more doubt. ‘