Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bad News about Your Constitutional Rights

Have you looked at the Bill of Rights lately? Maybe you should. You probably assume that, even under an extreme right-wing federal administration, you have constitutional rights. You assume that, even if fundamentalists have a big role in the new government, you still have freedom of religion. You assume that you have freedom of speech and of the press. But that is not what the Constitution actually says. In this essay, I will examine mainly the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (in the Bill of Rights).

The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Did you catch that? The First Amendment prohibits Congress (the Legislative Branch of the federal government) from making laws that limit freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly, and petition. The First Amendment does NOT say that the Executive Branch cannot do so. Suppose that some future right-wing fundamentalist-endorsed federal government might wish to restrict non-fundamentalist churches, or to prohibit non-right-wing speech, etc. Such a government could do so by executive decree. If Donald Trump were to prohibit anyone from criticizing or ridiculing him, he could issue an executive order, and it would not be unconstitutional.

Or, individual states could establish religions and prohibit free speech. The Constitution does not prohibit them from doing so; only Congress.

Of course, Congress could then pass laws that prohibit such executive decrees. But would they? Would a Republican Congress get around to passing such legislation? Of course, lawsuits could reach the federal court system (the Judicial Branch), but this process could take years. It is almost impossible to imagine that the federal courts would allow restrictions on free speech and religion: even many Republican judges, such John Jones, the judge who ruled against a group of creationists, are neither extremists nor even activists. Furthermore, an executive decree prohibiting criticism of the Chief Executive would depart drastically from precedent, that is, from previous judicial decisions. But what is precedent? Precedent is simply a convention that the courts may choose to follow, or may not.

While it may be unlikely that even President Trump would issue decrees prohibiting freedom of speech and religion, there are other ways that the Executive Branch could accomplish these same goals. Consider, for example, my right as a scientist to teach about evolution and global warming. The new Executive Branch, supported by fundamentalists and energy corporations, could but probably would not try to stop me directly. But they could proclaim that any university or college that permits its faculty to teach about evolution and global warming will no longer receive federal funds. Such a threat would cause the immediate closure of any such college or university, if for no other reason than that students would be unable to obtain federal grants and loans to attend such a college or university.

So don’t be surprised if this happens. It is legal.

In contrast, the Second Amendment says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

That is, “the right to bear arms” cannot be restricted in any way, according to the way conservatives interpret this Amendment. This amendment prohibits not only Congress, but also the Executive and Judicial branches, from restricting arms. Imagine with me, if you will, a federal government that decided to allow unlimited access to all arms, whether conventional, semi-automatic, or fully automatic; and, hell, why not cannons and nuclear weapons too? This would, by the Constitution, be legal. If individual states restricted access to certain arms, the federal government could not stop them (since it has only delegated powers, all other powers being retained by the states) but it could deny them federal funding.

We could be looking at an imminent future of repressed speech, enforced religion, and thousands of crazy militias doing what they want, however unlikely this future scenario may actually be.

And if I’m wrong, would somebody please explain it to me.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Let's Hope Lysenko Stays Dead

Isaac Asimov, one of the most brilliant science writers (or writers, period) of the twentieth century, had something to say that is particularly relevant right now about how the outcome of the elections may influence the future of science and education. This quote, in fact, illustrates a fundamental weakness of democracy. He said something to the effect that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

I fantasize that there could be a society in which well-educated people who understand the world and care about it could make the decisions in the best interests of everyone else. But of course this is impossible. If a scientific elite ruled a society, evil demagogues would soon displace the scientists and create a dictatorship far worse than any democracy could ever be.

The list of scientific things that the new Trump team has totally wrong—despite having their errors explained to them—goes far beyond the ones most people already know about: global warming, evolution, and endangered species. According to this article, Trump has also bought into anti-science hoaxes such as the belief that vaccination causes autism, that there never was anything wrong with the ozone layer, that environmentally-friendly light bulbs cause cancer, that wind farms will make you sick, and that ebola can spread just by being around Africans.

The Trump team attacks on science affects me personally in three ways. First, one of my major pieces of ongoing research shows that tree buds are opening earlier each year, which is evidence of global warming. Do I need to suppress or alter my results to fit in with Trump’s views? Second, I teach and write books about evolution. Will I be suppressed from doing this? Third, another major research and conservation effort in which I am involved is saving an endangered species (the seaside alder Alnus maritima). Does this make me an enemy of the state?

I used language that was a little bit exaggerated in the previous paragraph, such as enemy of the state. Surely the Trump team cannot actually ban the teaching of, and research on, evolution, global warming, endangered species, etc., can they?

As you are probably not surprised to discover, the answer is yes and no. No, they cannot do so directly. But they can use the power of federal money to do so. Suppose—and at this point it is just speculation—that the federal Department of Education, soon to be run by creationist Ben Carson, announced that no federal funds can be used at educational institutions in which evolution is taught? This would include student scholarship money. If they did this, my university would face an immediate crisis: the president would have to tell me to not teach evolution, for if I did so, it would cause the university to close. Such an action could be challenged in the courts, but this would take years.

In case you think this cannot happen, I need to remind you of the story of Trofim Lysenko, who had an utterly wrong theory of genetics but one which Joseph Stalin liked. Lysenko’s utterly wrong theory of genetics became the doctrine of the Stalinist USSR. The world-famous geneticist Nikolai Vavilov opposed Lysenko. Stalin did not kill Vavilov, but let him die in prison. The Trump team would not take any steps against people like me as Stalin did against Vavilov. They would not have to. I will not starve in prison. But I might find my job description changed overnight. I might turn overnight from a science teacher into a teacher who must be silent in order to not be a creationism preacher.

A more recent example was a George W. Bush era director of the Fish and Wildlife Service who told FWS scientists that they would not discover, in their research, that there were any endangered species. Period.

The federal government can in fact strangle science. I remain vigilant against any first steps in this direction. You say Trump would never do this? I hope you are right.

Here is my summary of Lysenkoism, from my Encyclopedia of Evolution:

Lysenkoism Lysenkoism is the doctrine of agriculturalist Trofim Lysenko, who dominated Soviet biological science during the Stalinist era. The early years of the Soviet state were plagued with social upheaval and, in the early 1920s, poor harvests. Wheat was usually planted in the autumn, when it produced leaves; after overwintering, the wheat plants would reproduce in the spring for an early summer harvest. The Russian winters frequently killed the overwintering wheat. Lysenko, a plant breeder in Azerbaijan, demonstrated that if the wheat seeds were stratified (kept in cool moist conditions for a few weeks), they could be sown in the spring and would reproduce in time for an autumn harvest. Stratification is now known among plant physiologists as one of the standard ways of influencing the germination and developmental characteristics of seeds. If Lysenko had stopped here, he might today be revered as the man who helped to save Soviet agriculture. But he went further. He claimed that this stratification process actually changed the seeds in a way that could be inherited. Stratify the first generation, he said, and all the subsequent generations would have the new, convenient trait. His genetic theory was essentially the same as that of French biologist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, which had been discredited years earlier by most scientists.
What happened next is an illustration of a government imposing its philosophy on science and on its technological application. Lysenko’s Lamarckism happened to resonate well with Soviet philosophy, which claimed that individuals and whole societies could be changed if forced to change, and the change would be permanent. If humans, why not all species? Moreover, Lysenko adopted just part of the Mendelian view as European and American scientists understood it at that time: that heritable changes could occur by big, sudden leaps (mutations). This also pleased the Soviet authorities, still proud of their Bolshevik Revolution that appeared to them to have, in the single year of 1917, propelled Russia from the Middle Ages into the modern world. Lysenko’s doctrine was proclaimed to be truth; evidence to the contrary was suppressed, and experimental results were forced to fit into a Lysenkoist interpretation.

The principal Russian scientist to disagree with Lysenko was geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. (Due to secrecy imposed by Soviet authorities, scientists outside Russia knew scarcely anything about what was happening there.) Vavilov had done extensive research regarding genetic variation in crop species (local varieties and wild relatives), and provided great insights into the processes of domestication that had produced these crops. The thing that emerged most clearly from his research was that in order to breed crops, and in order to save them from disease, it is necessary to save the genes. The researcher must travel extensively, gather seeds or other plant reproductive parts (such as potato tubers), and keep them alive. One cannot just grab some seeds, like Lysenko, and force them to change into what one needs them to be. Vavilov spent time in prison for his beliefs. He died during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg). Some of his fellow geneticists starved within reach of bags of potatoes, which they were saving for the future of agriculture. Vavilov was one of the small number of scientific martyrs.

After Stalin’s death in 1952, Soviet leadership had to rethink many things about domestic and external policy. While they never openly repented for their Lysenkoist errors, the Soviet political and intellectual leadership moved away from Lysenkoism and adopted the same kind of genetics that was proving successful in the west—particularly with the breakthrough the next year by Watson and Crick in demonstrating the structure, and genetic efficacy, of DNA.
Further Reading

Gould, Stephen Jay.  “A Hearing For Vavilov.”  Chap. 10 in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.  New York: Norton, 1983.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Was What Happened on November 8 Stupidity? Unfortunately Not.

Many progressive thinkers such as myself were stunned at what seemed like the utter stupidity that led to the election of Donald Trump. But then I realized it was not stupidity at all. It was typical human intelligence. The key word is human.

Intelligence did not evolve so that animals in the hominin lineage could understand the world better or keep facts straight in their minds. Those are two of the functions of intelligence but not the most important. The most important benefit of intelligence, during human evolution, was so that some individuals could bend the facts, warp reality, and create delusions that would trick other individuals into following, supporting, or helping them. That is, the major function of human intelligence has always been to gain individual advantages, whether by using the truth or by using lies. (A good liar has to be very intelligent.) Not what is best for a country or the world, but the individual. Trump acted in a supremely effective fashion to gain advantages for himself.

Though it makes me sick to think about it, I must admit that Donald Trump seems to have the genius of knowing how to manipulate people. He knew exactly how to evoke a resonant sympathy with what is in the hearts of most people: racism, sexism, and general hatred. All of his words were in the service of these purposes. He knows that human intelligence does not primarily care about facts, but rather beliefs and impressions. When he mocked disabled people, he was evoking the old childhood memories of bullies on the playground.  He played our brains like the keys of an organ. In this way he was able to completely deflect attention away from the evil things he has done. He did not appeal to our love of humankind or our logical understanding of the equality of races; instead he stirred up hatred of anyone who is different from him. He got his followers chanting “Make America Hate Again” (oops, sorry for the slip) without ever specifying which Yesteryear America he was talking about. The Great Depression? The Confederacy? The wars of extermination against Native Americans? Trump disabled, in his followers, the very ability to ask or even recognize the existence of such questions.

Democrats just don’t get this. Every time, over and over, Democrats cite facts as if they matter. Well, apparently they don’t.

For me, the problem is that Trump has used the rest of us as raw material for his own individual expansion of power. But maybe the solution is also individual. What do I do now? Maybe all I can do is pay attention to and enjoy the direct responsibilities that I have, rather than to try to fix the world or to even nudge it a little away from catastrophe. And who knows? Maybe in my writing and teaching I will end up changing the minds of some people—not to get them to share my political opinions (which I cannot do at a public university) but to start using their brains in a more empathetic and logical fashion. I got up this morning and taught two classes. I was really depressed but I managed to make those two classes some of the best I have ever taught. I even invented, on the spot, a new activity for student involvement in learning about how nerve transmissions work. Maybe some of my readers and students will start noticing that there is more to the world than just their deep visceral hatreds and prejudices. And I can do this no matter who is president.

There might be a kind of truthful and pure intelligence that evolved somewhere in the universe in some species; but that place is not Earth and that species is not Homo sapiens.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Dark Ages, Coming to a Campus near You

On Halloween, a preacher came to our campus (Southeastern Oklahoma State University) and started yelling about how much God hated women (he said that all women on our campus were sluts), how much God hated Muslims (his shirt read “Allah is Satan,” even though Allah is the translation of the same word the Old Testament uses for God), and how black people should just accept their inferior lot and let white people rule them, all in the name of God.

I have borrowed these photos from Amy Elizabeth Kennedy's Facebook posting.

He had permission to come and speak outdoors by the clock tower (well, what passes for one on our campus; a clock on a pole) but he got that permission by lying to the university staff about what he was going to do. He said he was coming to share the Gospel, but of course there was no Gospel whatsoever in anything that he said.

He accomplished his purposes. He wanted to make people angry. He succeeded in making all of the students who heard him upset (not one student took his side, not even our redneck Trump-supporting students). Some of these upset students simply went away. But when the preacher started verbally attacking black students, one black student started to get physically rowdy (wouldn’t you?) while several other black students held him back. The situation got so tense that police had to escort the preacher off campus. His visit was, to him, successful. He wanted to show us how much, according to him, God hates us, and he succeeded in doing that. He wanted an angry response, and he got it. Now he can go back to his donors and say, “See, what did I tell you? I told you Satan would attack me.” (I have heard fundamentalist Christians say that the hostility of the world is proof that you are doing God’s will. By that definition, Hitler was doing God’s will.)

And he left behind him an impotent and confused discussion about how to prevent such incidents in the future. Everyone seems to be saying that we cannot restrict any form of free speech on campus. This is ridiculous. We already restrict speech that would, for example, recruit terrorists or encourage murder. Speech is not unlimited and never has been. I believe that anyone speaking on campus should be sponsored by a class or by a recognized student organization. If we let just anybody come and speak, no matter how hateful their words, how can we be sure they don’t have guns also? And maybe, for all we know, this preacher did.

The story had a different ending on All Saints Day at East Central University. East Central knew this preacher was coming. When he arrived, he proceeded to exercise his first amendment rights, only to discover that the marching band, at exactly the same time and place, was exercising theirs. Guess who won!

I do not know the name of this preacher’s “ministry,” but whatever it is, he should rename it “Make Jesus Look like an Asshole Ministry.” Because this is what he succeeded in doing. Say all you will about how most Christians are not like him. But such a large number of self-identified Christians are hate-filled racists, though few of them are so vocal about it, that I wonder whether this preacher might represent the norm of American conservative Christianity. I suspect that, in fact, this man reflects what American Christianity is like. Good Christians who preach peace and love may, in fact, be a minority in this country, at least among fundamentalists. All you have to do is see the breathtakingly large number of fundamentalist Christian organizations that endorse Donald Trump, whose entire message is how much he hates anyone who fails to revere him; Donald Trump, whose slogan should be, Make America Hate Again.

The impression I took away from this incident is not that Jesus is an asshole—this incident had nothing to do with Jesus—but that on the whole, at least in America, religion is a negative force and I hope we get rid of it as much and as soon as possible. When you consider what America is like, and the Bible Belt states more than the others, you can get an idea of the fruits of religion. Poverty, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and violent crime are rampant in the most Christian parts of America. In order to find a society in which people are, by and large, nice to one another, you have to look at countries such as France. When I visited, as a family member not just a tourist, I was astonished at how well people treated their neighbors and fellow citizens and visitors. The sooner we can become more like France, and leave Christianity behind, we will be a better society. A society that, in fact, more closely resembles Jesus. We need a secular society if we are to survive as a free country.

I am sure it has not escaped the attention of anyone that fundamentalist religion is pushing—perhaps significantly—toward the establishment of a religious dictatorship. Remember, they have guns and they believe God has given them permission to use them however they want.

I am particularly angry that I spent so much of my life suckered into religion. I lost decades of my life to having my brain warped by creationism and fundamentalism. Though I left doctrinal Christianity behind over a decade ago, it took an incident such as this to allow me to see how ugly and despicable my erstwhile religious views were.

Creationism is not about science. It has one purpose only: to support a hatred version of religion and get it established in a powerful position so that they can control the thoughts and lives of the rest of us. Arguing science with a creationist? Don’t bother. They don’t even know what’s in the Bible, much less about science.