Monday, March 9, 2015

It's Not the Science--It's the Ethics

Although I’m only tangentially trained in science (I took geology courses to help me beef up my archaeology cred), I am somewhat more than your average science groupie.  Actually, I’m not sure there are science groupies, but should there be, I am the equivalent of an avid fanboy. What academic credentials I so possess are focused on the philosophy of science and technology, both of which I comment upon frequently.

I subscribe to The New Scientist, read the science and technology articles first in the New York Times, and one of the few feeds I get through my e-mail is the one from Space Weather.  So it should come as no surprise that I’m more than a little disturbed by the current rise in what journalists are referring to as “antiscience.”

Most of time I just dismiss reports about those who still don’t believe that we’ve landed on the moon, or that the earth is flat, or who find it any kind of reasonable to believe that the Biblical account of creation is literally true.  I do live in Texas, after all.

But newer manifestations of this phenomenon are growing more and more alarming: people who refuse to vaccinate their children for fear of autism, air-born ebola threats, etc. The latest issue of National Geographic Magazine (which manifests itself spiffily on my iPad once a month, proving that some applications are actually worth owning) poses the question, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”—and begins with a reminder of Jack D. Ripper’s obsession with fluoridation (and his excuse for launching nukes at Russia in Dr. Strangelove).

So now I have to out myself as maybe one of those “reasonable people” who “doubts” science, because for one I don’t buy fluoridated toothpaste (figuring that I already get enough of it in my tap water)—and I'm skeptical about GMOs.

However, I also have to point out that my skepticism stems not from the process of genetic modification itself. As the article assures us, the scientific community has declared GMO foods to be no worse for us than those developed from the hand-selection of genetic characteristics human beings have been doing with animals and plants since the Neolithic. And while that is probably the case, my questions stem from another discipline: philosophy.

More precisely, I’m worried about ethics.  And genetic modification schemes bring on huge questions concerning the morality of some activities—like transferring genes from one species to another, or the practice of patenting genes and wreaking havoc on the farmer next door who accidentally gets his canola plants crossbred with your proprietary strain.

For some background, see these two articles: Monsanto's Harvest of Fear (Vanity Fair, May 2008), and the more recent Monsanto’s Newest GM Crops May Create More Problems Than They Solve
(Wired 02 Feburary 2015).

Many of the problems critics point to have to do with issues other than science, such as whether the science is smart, necessary, or even desirable. The same issues are frequently raised about organic gardening and farming, and dismissed on similar grounds (the science to "prove" that organic is more healthful seems to be slim). While organic crops may arguably be no more nutritious than conventionally grown crops, it’s pretty easy to argue that the former are better for us in myriad other ways, because they don’t require pesticide, they tend to be sustainably grown, and they actually do taste better.

So, while I fervently agree that this world is getting dumber and dumber about science and how it works, let’s please not throw out the proverbial baby here. Neither science nor technology are without blame in creating the state of the world as it is.  And if we want to convince the generally ill-informed populace of its validity, science as a discipline cannot ignore ethical questions and/or dismiss them out of hand. Raising questions about science is not always about denying its importance or rejecting its methods. Rather, it's about making sure we can make moral arguments to support the use of what science discovers.

Image credit: I obtained the photo from Wikimedia Commons via the keywords "genetic modification." It was uploaded by Canoe1967.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Caravan Dreams

Sometimes it actually becomes possible to act on a desire—to fulfill a pipe dream or a deeply held wish.  So, after innumerable years of daydreaming about owning an old travel trailer (specifically, a ‘60s era Shasta Airflyte), the planets and stars finally reached a favorable conjunction and we got one.

Sort of.

Last year I filed for Social Security benefits, realizing that what I’d acquire in extra benefits by waiting until age 70 probably wouldn’t pay off in the end (given my genes and the current state of the world). The tidy little sum I now get every month on top of my salary (I’m still teaching full time) has meant that we’ve been able to pay off significant debt and begin to allow ourselves a few luxuries we’d never have dreamed of before now.  Our frugality had, in fact, begun to wear on us, and we decided that rather than wait for actual retirement we’d try to enjoy ourselves to a modest extent before then.

I should also mention that just last summer we’d had some work done on the house (about which I’ll write anon), which included a new hog wire and cedar fence with two twelve-foot gates on the west and south. This was viewed at the time as rather fanciful, since we had nothing to pull through those gates and no real hope of getting anything any time soon: just planning for the distant future, we thought.

Then, after I had paid off the loan on Vera, it was the Beloved Spouse’s turn to purchase his final car (we don’t either of us imagine ever buying another). Quite coincidentally, the Shasta company had celebrated its 75th anniversary last year by re-issuing the little 16 foot Airflyte in a somewhat modified version at a price comparable to what we would pay for an authentic vintage job. And this version has a toilet, which is a significant issue for folks our age.

Of course, we needed a car that could pull a trailer—even one as modest in size as the Shasta—so we conducted research on Toyota FJ Cruisers and small trucks, looking for the most fuel-efficient V6 we could find.  In the end there turned out to be no such vehicle—and everything appropriate got about the same: 20 mpg or less.  And since we didn’t want anything fancy (my dream was to find something with as few electronic components as possible), we started looking at another company that had been making vehicles since 1941: Jeep.  The Wrangler Sport we ended up with has 4-wheel drive, no GPS, roll-down windows, and locks that require keys be inserted into them. And, it can easily pull our little 2500 lb. trailer.

It also turns out to be a terrific dog car, which we found out by dragging the Guthrie boys to California and back over our winter break.

More on that will follow, because it involves a visit to the Valley and some time at old haunts. But the fact that I can write anything at all is due in no small part to the fact that we were able to get away for the first time in ten years, and that having fulfilled the probably silly dream of having that trailer parked in the back yard (just as my grandmother had done in my fondly-remembered childhood).  Every time I go back there, it makes me smile.

First stop in an RV park, Midland/Odessa Texas, 21 December 2014

The last three photos are a bit cheesy (via Vintique on the iPhone), but they remind me of some taken inside Gram’s Shasta back in the day.

It's not quite Grandma's trailer (somewhat less substantial, and the back bench can't be used as a bed, even for dogs, because when it's pulled out it blocks the loo), but makes for a lovely little backyard retreat and a good place for sipping wine and watching sunsets.

Educating one's desire is an admirable pursuit, but it can lead to general angst and resentment, especially when one is surrounded by ridiculous extravagance on all sides. So while it's probably not inappropriate to question my philosophical purity, at least we didn't buy a behemoth truck to pull one of the colossal forty-foot toy-hauler monstrosities that were parked next to our little Shasta on the lot. And the important thing, I think, is that we wouldn't ever want to.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Coming of Age in the Twenty-first Century

Early on, in my misspent youth, I aspired to be both good-looking and smart. So I read Vogue magazine when I could afford it, looking for interesting ways to dress on my embarrassingly meager salary, so as to attract interesting men. I didn’t get very far with this ambition, but I was apparently attractive enough so that after my first divorce I dated highly intelligent men with Good Prospects.  As it turns out, though, it might have been the other aspiration that attracted them, rather than my questionable gorgeosity.

To foster the “smart” end of the equation, I pretentiously read The New Yorker (again, when I could afford it), and made sure I picked up the latest issue whenever I found myself flying home for a holiday.  This act was only partly a sham, because I really did enjoy many of the articles, and actually appreciated their length.  I read prose by Ursula LeGuin, Pauline Kael, and others whose work I admired, while seatmates on the plane read Time (articles in which were already getting shorter and shorter). If I wanted a news magazine, I chose U. S. News and World Report, because it seemed more heady—but also because the articles were more thorough than those of its competitors.

Although my motives may not have been entirely pure, I did learn a great deal, and was pointed toward interesting writers, topics, and points of view.  By shamming intellectualism, I actually became an intellectual.  I continued to pursue my part-time Ivy League degree, and have enjoyed an intellectually challenging and rewarding life ever since.

And so it was with some amusement that I added The New Yorker to my Newsstand subscriptions on my iPad a couple of weeks ago.  My one regret now, however, is that I’ll probably never have the time to read everything I’d like to, now that my interests are so much broader and deeper than they were during my callow years.  I’ll probably have to cancel it when I finally retire, because it’s awfully pricey—although its digital features are quite wonderful—but for now I’ll use part of my Social Security check to keep it going.

What brought all this to mind was an article by A. O. Scott in the New York Times magazine (to which I also subscribe online), called “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” (September 11, 2014). In it Scott bemoans the deaths of “the last of the patriarchs” (in television shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, none of which I have seen, although I kind of wish I had watched Mad Men, and may yet someday).  He doesn’t miss the sexist aspect of patriarchal authority, but notes that in progressing beyond patriarchy “we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.” He goes on to note the popularity of “Young Adult” fiction among so-called grownups, between the ages of 30 and 44. (Oddly enough, though, anything labeled "adult" fiction tends to be pornographic).

Now, while I’ll admit to being geekily fond of comic book movies, I haven’t been able to bring myself to pick up copies of the Divergent or Hunger Games books. I never did get into Harry Potter, either, beyond the first chapter of the first book.  The plots and characters of all of these franchises are so familiar and so borrowed from older, wiser works that I read while I was earning the aforesaid degree, that I can only see reading them as an effort to get inside the heads of my “young adult” students.  And to them I always recommend Ursula LeGuin's books written for younger audiences, because she's pretty egalitarian in her treatment of her readers.

It took me eight years to get my B.A., and during much of that time I was also working as an admin around scholars at Penn—many of whom are now dead, but from whom I learned how to become (eventually) an adult. So I find myself trying somewhat desperately (and perhaps pathetically) to find ways to lead my own students toward at least a few more worthy literary endeavors.  They will probably never read War and Peace.  But how about a bit of Dickens?

The Beloved Spouse and I watched David Suchet’s tribute to Agatha Christie the other night on PBS and wondered at Christie’s ability to write lucid, careful prose as a very young child.  It shouldn’t be all that surprising, once one is familiar with what children read in those days: Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Kenneth Grahame’s Dream Days. The prose in these “children’s” books is so rich, complex, and erudite that they’re well worth reading by adults today—rather like some of the cartoons we watched as kids (Rocky and Bullwinkle, anyone?) that amused both children and parents. 

It seems a bit ironic to me that some of the animated films out today offer more intellectual stimulation than do novels aimed at teenagers. But The Box Trolls, which is amazingly animated and richly written, is far less juvenile than what I’ve seen of the Harry Potter movies. I’m not talking here about the Disney princess movies (however engaging they might be) that make me happy I don’t have a small daughter today and don’t have to deal with the princess phase. Rather, it’s Lemony Snicket and Despicable Me that seem to harken back to Kenneth Grahame’s hilarious, luminous story, “Its Walls Were Made of Jasper.” I tried reading the latter to my Art History students when I was teaching about manuscript illumination. But they didn’t get it: too many unfamiliar words.

Scott reminds us in his essay that Huckleberry Finn is commonly relegated to the children’s section of libraries, and that’s about as close as most of today’s students get to literary depth.  Numerous attempts to ban it suggest its potential power to do just what Socrates died for: corrupt the minds of the young by teaching them how to think. I’m pretty sure they don’t read Moby Dick anymore, and if they get any Shakespeare at all, it’s Romeo and Juliet.

Another irony exists in all this, and it has to do with J. M. Barrie.  Peter Pan didn’t want to grow up. The Disneyfied Peter Pan never did, and he lives on in popular culture’s reluctance to offer few if any grownup models.  In the end, Scott’s essay has explained to me why I watch so few television series today, and perhaps why most of the contemporary literature I read is science fiction or works about science.  I’ve long held that some of the most compelling prose comes wrapped in covers that depict galaxies far away.  One of the first science fiction novels I ever read was Wilmar Shiras’s Children of the Atom, which sparked an interest in science and speculative fiction that hasn’t left me even in my dotage.  That particular novel probably inspired the X-men comics and characters, and although aimed at the young, treated its readers as if they were—at least potentially—adults.   

Image credit: The cover of Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, via Wikimedia Commons.