Planetary Denial

Earth

Our only home. Image credit: NASA

I’ve lived long enough to walk with friends facing terminal illnesses. One of the most character defining things is how one faces one’s death. One of the most relationship-defining moments is how the friends of the dying walk with their friends in those moments. One thing we do know is that denial never helps. Sometimes, denying a life-threatening illness averts treatment that can save life. Denying that one is dying prevents one from concluding one’s life well. Pretending a dying friend will get better prevents the conversations that allow people to say what is needed to finish well together.

I’m convinced that the planetary systems that sustain life on our planet are in a serious crisis. If you are not convinced of that, I really have no argument for you. Chances are, you’ve heard them all and don’t credit them.

I do. The rapid planet-wide rise of temperatures that corresponds to the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide we have poured into our atmosphere already is having consequences. The death of coral reefs. An arctic free of ice. Coastal cities and inhabited islands that will be submerged. Droughts. Catastrophic fire seasons. Melting glaciers. Melting permafrost adding even more greenhouse gases, accelerating the process.

I’ve lived one place for thirty years. I garden. I’ve seen our growing season extend two to three weeks in that short period. We have more insects. Rains and storms are more intense. Winters are milder. Thirty years is a short time to see some of these changes on a year in, year out basis.

What I read, what I learn from politically impartial scientists who are friends, what I see around me, even what I feel, tells me I am not living in the world of my youth just fifty to sixty years ago. If there is anything to what I read, these changes are only going to intensify in the years ahead. We have yet to see all the effects of the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, let alone what we will emit in the years ahead.

In my childhood, we learned to live under the cloud of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear war, at least so far, have stayed the hands of those who could unleash one. In one way, instant incineration, or a quick, if painful death from radiation sickness may be easier than what we could be facing.

The scenario before us seems to be one of survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost. Drought and famine will likely increase taking many by starvation, or others in wars for food and water. The migrations we have seen in recent years will likely increase, and the confrontations at borders become more violent. We will be in an increasingly unstable world, and even within national borders, tensions will increase. Living near the relatively abundant water supply of the Great Lakes, I wonder what tensions we will face even from other parts of our own country stressed for water. Meanwhile, food pressures or environmental degradation will mean rapid species die offs of other creatures. Imagine a dawn without bird song but simply the intensifying of unremitting heat. As oceans rise, the question occurs to me of where will all the people in our coastal cities live and work?

It won’t all happen at once, which gives us the illusion that somehow we will escape the apocalypse. No doubt, this is what assures the powerful that they can get by. And maybe they will. Those in power today will likely die a natural death, as probably will I. But if the predictions hold, every year will get a little worse. Within a generation, we will know we are in an unremitting global crisis that will take generations or millennia to reverse. In two generations, many places on our planet will be hellish, and it seems credible to me that our social order will not sustain the brutal struggle for survival that will ensue.

I think we all hope for an amazing techno-fix. This seems like our hopes for miracle cures, or even miracle diet plans! Given the complex systems, and planetary scale, and how far down the road we are, I think the best we may do is prepare for the future, and do what we can not to make it worse. From what I can see, we’re not even doing that, and we crucify anyone who seriously talks about the drastic steps needed just to keep planetary temperatures from rising “only” 3 degrees Celsius.

As a Christian, my belief that Jesus is Lord of all challenges me to bring all my thoughts about this under his Lordship. I’m wrestling with what this means when I’m pretty convinced we face an existential crisis as a species we’ve not faced. For starters, I think this means continuing to live by faith. It means that I bring this crisis, and how I live to Him. If I believe all things were created through and sustained by Christ, that means that I do not stop looking to him when things appear dire. It may be that our hope is only in the “new heavens and new earth” of which scripture speaks. That’s not up to me. What is up to me is to continue to live as a responsible steward and caretaker of God’s world. I am increasingly aware that I, and all of us will answer for how we cared for the world, for the species, and fellow human beings who died because we did not care for it well. It challenges me to do all I can and to cherish and preserve the beauty of the earth while we can.

My faith teaches me that love of God and neighbor are intricately intertwined. As Christian communities, I think we will need to wrestle more deeply with how we will care for neighbors who experience loss and need. Will we adopt a “lifeboat ethic” or a “lay-down-our lives” ethic?

It seems to me that Christian communities need to begin talking about these things. These are end of planetary life conversations, and as desperately important as any other end-of-life conversation. It may be an easy escape to hope for the return of Christ to deliver us from all these things. But Jesus says we cannot know the day or hour of this, and we cannot count on this coming before things get bad. What we can count on is that there will be a reckoning for how we lived in these bad times.

There are some who will think all this is extreme. I so hope you are right. I would love to be proved wrong. But all that I know, see, even feel in my bones tells me we face something as serious as humanity has ever faced. The planet will survive. Whether we do is another question. It may depend on whether we face the hard truths before us, and on how we live whatever life is given us.

“America is Addicted to Wars of Distraction”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, by David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikipedia

Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer who has described herself as “a myth buster by trade,” made this observation in the Times of London on April 22, 1991. I don’t know the context of the quote, although this comes toward the end of the first Gulf War. Whether Ehrenreich (of whom I’ve not always been a fan) is referring to America’s actual wars or some of the metaphorical wars of political discourse, I wonder if she has a point.

I wonder if so many of the conflicts on our political landscape, whether intentional or not, are distractions from larger issues, ones that, if true, are really uncomfortable to face. Perhaps the biggest of these is the future of life on the only place we really have to live. It seems to me that it would be like arguing about the size of the iceberg if you are a passenger on the sinking Titanic.

Every year seems to be the record hottest for the planet. Cities like New York, Washington, DC, Miami and our naval base at Norfolk could be the new Venices. Summer temperatures in some parts of the world inhabited by millions are reaching levels that pose significant dangers to human life. Often, the populations most affected by the changes that have already happened or that will happen are the least equipped to handle them. There have already been massive species die-offs. Are we being presumptuous to think we are exempt? It may be more comforting to us to keep fighting about all this, calling each other tree huggers and climate deniers.

I could go on. I cannot help notice that there are deep flaws in a society where life expectancies are declining, where deaths from suicide are on the rise, where we have more than one “mass shooting” incident a day, where large swaths of our population are wrestling with substance addictions. Are we concerned with the disparities of health outcomes that depend on zipcodes, and that life and death (or bankruptcy) often depends on the health coverage one has, something that could change with a merger or a layoff.

It’s not that people aren’t talking about these things. They are. They tend to be fighting about them. It seems to me that often fighting is like turning up the car radio when the car starts making unusual noises we haven’t heard before. All our political arguments seem like distractions that mask or divert our attention from the ominous noises our society, and our planet are making.

I disagree with Ehrenreich in one important regard. Creating “wars of distraction” is a human rather than American thing. We all do it to avoid facing unpleasant things. The problem is that distractions can kill if they are ignored long enough. On the other hand, silencing the distractions and paying attention to the big scary thing that seems insurmountable is actually empowering. Getting to the hospital at the first sign of a heart attack can save one’s life, and subsequent lifestyle changes may extend it.

Instead of the arguments that distract us from big hairy problems in our world, perhaps it is time to stop arguing. We may not know what to do (or we may have some notions). What if we shut up long enough to really pay attention to why our life expectancy in the US has been going down. What if we paid attention to gun violence long enough to wonder why so many mostly young men in good health are choosing to end their own as well as a number of other lives, which is often the way these things conclude.

If you notice, I’ve said nothing about political party proposals or government solutions. Right now everyone is talking past each other, mostly distracted from the realities they are arguing about. What if we started paying attention to what is happening in the world instead of fighting about it? What if we started taking personal steps on the basis of what we see? I suspect we all might notice things that have been hidden in the arguments of others. We might conclude that things are urgent enough to start listening to each other and stop fighting. I just hope it is soon enough.

If you are tempted to argue about climate change, or gun violence, or other realities I mention in this post, you’ve not understood the point of the post, which is that our arguments often distract from the things we are arguing about. I will take down argumentative comments in the interest of promoting paying attention to the things we have been arguing about and considering what personal action we might take.

Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Learning Questions

Question Mark Questions What Why How Where WhoI sympathized with a Facebook friend who posted the other day a statement that said, this is not for “discussion but for declaration” and that he wished there was a feature on Facebook that allowed for turning off comments. I have wished for that feature many times!

There are times when I’ve posted a comment, sometimes on a controversial issue, or an article, that reflects my own thinking and convictions, and immediately it is beseiged with arguments or counter-posts or even hi-jacked. Trying to engage in an intelligent fashion often seems futile. I honestly feel the commentators just want to shut me down. Sometimes they succeed. I understand why many people only post pretty pictures and cat memes on Facebook!

Frankly, I think it is rude to assume that I am inviting an argument. Sometimes, I just want to express what I am thinking or feeling or share something that I believe is reflective of my convictions that says it better than I could. I see plenty of things I take issue with on others’ profiles. If it is an article, sometimes I stop by and read. Sometimes I learn something. I guess I’ve never assumed the person was inviting an argument, unless they explicitly say so. However, the capability built into Facebook invites argument, wanted or not. Most of the time, it accomplishes nothing except inflaming the feelings of all involved.

I’ve seen a few places where this works, mostly closed and moderated spaces with clear ground rules for online discussion. One of the differences between the futile arguments that proliferate on so much of social media and healthy discussions, is that healthy ones are characterized as much by questions and listening as by statements and speaking. These discussions don’t always exclude efforts to persuade, but do so from a foundation of respectful listening and learning and questioning, and an openness to learning from another, even if this means change. It’s rare, and it leaves space for people to make up their own minds without rhetorical bludgeoning.

One of the marks of such conversations is that they are characterized by learning rather than leading questions. Learning questions are genuinely curious and really want to understand what a person thinks and feels and values and why. Leading questions are trying to maneuver a person into a place where one can assert the superiority of one’s own ideas and beliefs. Learning questions are open and open-ended. You really don’t know what the other will say or where the conversation will go. You might even discover something that changes you. Leading questions have already decided where you want things to go and what you want the other to say.

While I think it could happen in a Facebook comment box, I think it is far better face to face. Here are some of the kinds of questions one might ask:

“I’d love to know how you came to think the way you do about this question?”

“This is something I didn’t quite understand. Could you tell me more?”

“That’s really interesting. Could you say more about the basis for this idea?”

Who or what has been most influential in leading you to these conclusions?”

What has your way of thinking about this meant for how you live?”

So what should you do if you still think differently and would like to have a conversation about that difference?

First, a good test of whether you’ve really understood the person is that you can re-phrase what they think and they say, “yes, that’s it.”

Second, ask yourself if you really want a discussion of your thoughts in the same way you’ve been learning from your friend. Are you willing to be asked questions and to explain yourself so another can understand.

If so, then I think there is one more learning question that might be something like this:

“I think we differ about what we’ve been discussing. Would you be open to discussing how we might differ?

We cannot assume that another wants to have this discussion. Here, too, it seems we need to learn. We are inviting someone into a situation where we are having a good argument, one in which we differ, and are seeking to understand the difference and whether one of these is superior to the other (it could be that there is another way of thinking that has occurred to neither of us!).

Theoretically, one might do this on Facebook, but it would take a lot of typing! I think that is one of the problems with the format. It is designed for the quick response, not the deliberate step-by-step process by which two people understand each other. It is often a free-for-all with many people who know nothing of each other throwing in their two cents worth. No wonder it is usually a hot mess.

I do think Facebook can be a place where we learn something about what each other think. What would help me, and perhaps help this space, would be that if we disagree with what we’ve read, we ask first, would you be willing to discuss your ideas about this? That’s a learning question, as well as a courtesy. Then, if we want to, we can figure out the best way to do that, which might not be on Facebook. Would that be so hard?

 

 

The Greatest Thing de Tocqueville Never Said

512px-Alexis_de_tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville. Artist Théodore Chassériau [PD US + France]

I’m writing this on July 29. It is the birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America. Each day, I post on my Bob on Books Facebook page a literary birthday of the day, and a quote by that person. I am learning that one must verify the source of quotes one finds on Google–many that are attributed to individuals for whom there is no record of them actually saying what is attributed to them. I discovered this to my chagrin with de Tocqueville. He was reputed to have said:

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

My chagrin is that I made this discovery after posting the quote, which cannot be found in his works. Note to self: always double-check the source of quotes!

It has become popular to quote this with all the “make America great again” rhetoric, perhaps as a counter, asserting that only a “good” America can be a “great” America. It turns out that a number of U.S. presidents including Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton quoted it attributing it to de Tocqueville. Hilary Clinton used the quote in her debate with Donald Trump. So I am in famous company. I’ll leave you to decide if that company is “good.”

A friend’s comment got me to thinking further about this quote. At first glance, it seems like an elevating idea that our greatness is a reflection of our goodness. And indeed, some of our ideals, including the equality of all human beings (at least all “men”), equal protection under the law, inalienable rights, and so forth, are good ideas. I think our “first freedoms” are good ideas.

The truth though is that we have never entirely lived up to these “good” ideals, and what is not good is the pretense that we have. In fact, the pretense may be more dangerous than our failures because it prevents us from honestly facing them. Despite our beliefs in equality, for the initial part of our history, we considered blacks to be three-fifths of a person for representation, and in a number of states, merely property to be bought and sold. We protected property rights, except that of the original inhabitants of the land. With them, we repeatedly broke treaties and seized lands. We interned our own citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, even the families of those who served in our military.

We actually are a better nation when we recognize the ways we have not been good, and take steps to rectify them. Often, these steps are ones we take with the children or grandchildren of those wronged. In some instances, we’ve never fully faced the wrongs we’ve done, or even denied the wrongs.

It seems to me that we are at our most dangerous when we are blind to the ways we have not been or are not good. When people of the north sat in their churches and railed against slavery while benefiting from the cotton trade, there was a blindness to our complicity with evil. When slave owners sang hymns to God after coming from beating their slaves, there was a blindness to participation in evil.

I think rather than boasts of greatness or goodness or rating ourselves against other nations, I would be content if we would spend more time measuring ourselves against our good, but imperfect, ideals. And rather than pointing at others and how they might be better, it seems a healthier and more honest stance would be to look at those ideals and how each of us might be better. Oddly enough, that might be a “better” that is actually pretty good–good for us, good for the nation, and good for our reputation in the world.

Counterfeit Books on Amazon

liturgy-of-the-ordinary

Did you buy this book from a third-party seller on Amazon? It is very possible you purchased a counterfeit copy, and a rather poor knock-off at that. You also robbed the book’s publisher of revenues and the book’s author of her royalties.

The story about this broke today on Christianity Today. The book is Liturgy of the Ordinary, a book by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren on encountering God in the ordinary of everyday life–from making beds to peanut butter sandwiches to hunting for lost car keys. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2018. The publisher was InterVarsity Press [in the interests of full disclosure, I work for IVP’s parent organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA]. The publisher revealed today that they have discovered that at least 15,000 copies of the book were sold on the Amazon site by third-party sellers that were counterfeits. The retail value of these sales would have been $240,000. I do not know the details of the author’s contract, but suspect this represents a loss in the neighborhood of $20,000 in royalties. Only after Christianity Today contacted Amazon in connection with this story were the third-party sellers of Warren’s book removed from the Amazon site.

The New York Times reported on this practice on June 23, 2019. They reported a hands off attitude by Amazon. While Amazon warns against the sale of counterfeit products on their site, they do not screen third-party sellers apart from responding to complaints. A seller that sells enough copies, which appears to be what happened with Warren’s book, becomes the default seller, taking over the “buy” button. When I first read about this in the NYT article, it just confirmed my low estimate of Amazon’s business ethics. I’ve long observed the practices of paid reviews, read reports of treatment of workers in their warehouses, and the pressures they’ve placed on vendors. When it came to print publications and other physical products, I’ve long ago decided to buy only from brick and mortar vendors.

Today it became personal. Amazon allowed my friend to be stolen from, and not just for a few bucks or a few copies of her book. Tish Harrison Warren was a former colleague in campus ministry, and following publication of her book she offered a workshop for some of those I minister with. She is an gifted and thoughtful writer and speaker. Amazon claimed in the NYT article that counterfeiting wasn’t a big problem. I think my friend would beg to differ.

One of the problems with counterfeits is that while you probably saved some money, you not only unknowingly participated in theft from my friend and her publisher, you likely received an inferior product. Warren posted a list of defects found in counterfeits of her book, and separately posted images of these defective copies including differences in the colors on the cover. Here are some of the specific issues she noted:

-Annotation numbers throughout the book being in full size font, not superscript. This is not consistent—the copy I’m looking at has a large 1 on page 18, followed by superscript 2 and 3 later on the page.

-Condensing of words—the best example of this is Greg Jao’s name on the endorsements page. It looks like GregJao without the space. I can also see it on the subtitle at the start of chapter 2 on page 25.

-Incorrect running headers: The left page should always have the chapter title, the right page should always have the chapter subtitle. The copy I’m looking at has the previous chapter’s subtitle on the left page (p. 26)

-Missing character glyphs—the best example of this is on page 74 in the chapter title. The Y in “my” (Fighting with My Husband) is missing the lower part of the letter

-Darker section breaks (the little graphics throughout the chapters) are darker, like nearly black. In one of our copies, they should be a pale gray.

Warren recommends these steps if you are one of those who suspects they purchased a counterfeit:

1. If you believe you have received a counterfeit edition, please return the book to Amazon and ask for full credit.

2. Please note the seller from whom you purchased the counterfeit edition and send that information to AuthenticEditions@ivpress.com. We are attempting to stop the sales of these editions through Amazon’s marketplace re-sellers.

3. Please rate the seller experience low on Amazon. This will help decrease the visibility of the re-sellers who have made counterfeit editions available.

4. If you desire to ensure you are buying authentic editions, visit the following URL: www.ivpress.com/real-liturgy. This will allow you to buy from InterVarsity Press at 40% off plus free shipping for all addresses in the U.S.

5. If Amazon refuses to grant a full refund for the purchase of the counterfeit edition, please email AuthenticEditions@ivpress.com and IVP will be in touch with you on a special price for us to replace the counterfeit editions at the best possible price.

You might look for similar defects and pursue similar remedies with other counterfeits. Good luck! Just another instance where the old axiom caveat emptor comes into play. If you are not buying from Amazon itself, read the ratings, report poor service and counterfeits. Amazon relies on you to “drain the swamp” (do you like the idea of doing Amazon’s work for them?).

I personally love the fact that the publisher is offering the book at such a discount, which is available for anyone who wants to purchase the book. Here is the Bob on Books review, if you want to learn more about the book before you buy, helping the author retrieve lost royalties (don’t use the publisher link in the review).

As I mentioned, I’ve long ago decided to buy books and other physical products from local vendors. Sure, I will shop for good prices like anyone, but I want to sustain the businesses committed to my community, booksellers and others. Can you tell I’m pretty fed up with Amazon? It seems to me that the only thing they respond to is customer behavior and perhaps well-publicized negative publicity, and perhaps not even that. As someone who not only reviews but loves books, appreciates the people who write them (including a number of friends) and the skilled professionals who publish, distribute and sell them through legitimate channels, I am against anyone who undermines the flourishing of the book trade. I’m against those who undermine local commerce. Allowing the unscrupulous to steal from my friends is just about the last straw.

How about you?

The Death of My Hometown Newspaper

vindy

One of the papers I delivered. Image scanned from Pages From History (c)1991, The Vindicator Printing Company.

On Friday of this past week, I saw a post that the daily newspaper from my hometown of Youngstown will cease publication at the end of August. This announcement came on the heels of the newspaper’s 150th birthday. As the publisher and general manager of the paper noted, ” The Vindicator will not have much of a birthday celebration.”

The story is a familiar one, perhaps exacerbated by generations of business losses and corresponding population declines. Circulation fell, and with it, advertising revenues. Attempts were made to modernize, to pare staff, to reduce the size of the paper. Other investors were sought. Eventually, the owners, the fourth generation in the family to own the paper, determined that there was nothing more that could be done to stem the continuing financial losses.

The news came like a body blow. This was a paper that had been the voice of the Mahoning Valley for generations. It stood up to the Klan in the 1920’s when the city had a Klan mayor supported by many of the ministers as well as people of the Valley. It chronicled mob and political corruption. The big news stories of my youth appeared in its headlines: the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, the football championships of the Browns in the Sixties, Vietnam, Woodstock, the moon landing, and Kent State. My picture appeared as valedictorian of my senior class. My wife’s engagement picture was there. For that matter our births were recorded there as were the obituaries of parents and grandparents.

I delivered the paper for over three years. I got up early on Sunday mornings, and delivered it on hot summer days and subzero days in the dead of winter. I often read its news stories before any of my customers. Sure, we complained when our papers were late or we got “shorted,” but it was a great learning experience. On my route, nearly every family took the paper. People noticed if they didn’t get their paper.

We subscribed to the local paper in Toledo and Cleveland. It was obligatory in Toledo, where my wife worked for the paper. We bought the local paper at least on Sundays for a time in Columbus where we now live. Then we stopped. Recycling the papers was a chore. We could watch the news on TV. Then the internet came along and we could often get news coverage for free until papers started putting up paywalls.

Interestingly enough, the Vindicator never used paywalls. I constantly looked up articles for my blog. I didn’t think to subscribe. Turns out I was one of the reasons the paper died. I valued keeping in touch with my hometown. But not enough to pay for it.

The greater loss is to the people who still live there. Local newspapers cover everything from local sports and entertainment events to weddings and deaths. They also cover local civic, business, and political affairs, the things that shape the quality of life of a community. At their best, they can offer far more depth than a 15 second story on TV. Usually, no one else offers the same kind of coverage of these local matters, or the impact of state and national policies on local life. It was said by Tip O’Neill, one time speaker of the House, that “all politics is local.” No other place keeps track of how city council members vote or how political appointees or civil servants do their jobs.

Furthermore, it is the disciplined work of getting the facts straight and writing a succinct and interesting story about a local school board meeting that trained many newspeople of the past to get the facts straight and write stories on issues of national import. Certainly no newspaper is neutral but many could tell the difference between news coverage and the editorial page. I wonder whether modern agenda journalism in part is a product of the lack of experience working under editors committed to those stubborn things called facts.

One of the themes of this blog is the value of the local. We all live someplace. The question is whether it is a good, and beautiful, and distinctive place. Does it have roots, a connection with a particular past? Does it have community institutions that give it character? Is it a rich and varied place, or a desert of big box stores and strip malls? I think part of the grief, the punch to the gut, that so many of the people from Youngstown felt this past weekend, was the loss of one more piece of its distinctive identity, and one more thread that helps knit a community together.

I don’t know what can be done in the case of Youngstown. I hope other media are able to step up and fill some of the gap. Public TV and radio have a particular role to play here. I wish now I had subscribed to the Vindicator, even as part of the Youngstown diaspora. It appears I’m too late for that. But perhaps not for the paper where I now live, that has faced the same pressures and has been forced to some of the same measures as the Vindicator. Today I decided to put my money where my mouth is. I became a subscriber.

Are Universities in the United States Losing Their Edge?

princeton-university-in-new-jersey

Princeton University, Public Domain via GoodFreePhotos

The lead story in this week’s University World News reported that universities in the United States received their worst rankings in the sixteen years the QS World University Rankings have been published. Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, says the United States is seeing an unprecedented rate of decline in these global rankings. While five of the top ten schools are from the United States, only 29 are in the top 100, and 72.6 percent of the schools saw a decline in their rankings.

Why is this happening? Sowter observes:

“This attrition of confidence has been compounded by worsening international student ratios, relative to global peers, and evidence that America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat.”

Declining federal funding

Courtesy of the National Science Foundation

In the US, federally funded research funding has declined from a peak in 2011 by 13 percent by 2016. Recently, the current US administration proposed another $7.1 billion cut to Department of Education funding. However, it should be noted that funding cuts go back to the previous administration. States have also been cutting research funding during this period. Any increases in funding have come from industry and from universities themselves. Meanwhile, the research output at China’s top ten universities now nearly equals that of the US although the “research impact” of US universities is still twice that of China. China has been making an aggressive investment in research funding during this period.

Concurrent with these funding declines are political attacks on science, striking the use of “evidence based research” in government reports, and publicly questioning finding concerning climate change and the safety and efficacy of vaccines. These factors also color global perceptions.

This is regrettable because an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study shows that the majority of Americans strongly support funding for scientific research (71-72 percent), and view research as beneficial (72 percent). It appears that in perceptions of science as in other matters a smaller but energized base skews perceptions held by a broader swath of the American public.

As an American who is a Christ-follower engaged in ministry in higher education, I have deeply mixed feelings about all this. On one hand, I am a witness to the huge advances in medicine, digital technology, transportation safety, development of renewable energy, and many other aspects of human life that comes out of research labs. Our research output has contributed to vast improvements in human flourishing in many areas. I’m also conscious of the double-edged character of so much of our research, that may both heal and kill, and sadly often is utilized for the latter.

Also, as one whose first allegiance is to the kingdom of God that knows no boundaries of national borders, I do not have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the greatness of American research universities, as much as I love my country. Advances in knowledge are to be celebrated whether they occur at Harvard, or Oxford, or at the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University in China, the University of Melbourne, or Universidad National Autonama de Mexico (UNAM). I do regret that it appears we will have fewer opportunities to welcome students from other countries.

What troubles me is seeing good resources squandered. I wonder what is not being researched for lack of funding in American universities. I wonder about the quality and focus of research when more of it is tied to industrial or military clients. What questions of basic research are being ignored? What talent is fleeing our borders for countries more favorable to research? As in so many things, research universities may take decades to develop into greatness, but can decline within a few years. Right now, American universities are trying to keep up by increasing their own funding efforts as state and federal funding declines. It can be asked how long this is sustainable as well as what else suffers along the way. Will funding pressures and the loss of international students, who bring tuition dollars into the university, result in universities becoming more selective in admissions, enrolling the elite at the expense of those requiring scholarships and grants?

What is clear is that what we do in the next years will be decisive. If we start now, perhaps in five years the precipitous declines in these rankings, and the corresponding declines in our universities may be stabilized or reversed. If we don’t begin now, things likely will get worse, even as other universities in China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, and other parts of the world get better. The quality and output of our research universities, coupled with the protection of academic freedom in our universities have been one of the marks of American greatness. Both are in jeopardy and it seems the question we must ask is whether we are willing to accept this form of loss of American greatness.

Why I Have Confidence in the Work of Research Scientists

banner-982162_1920The title of this blog post is written carefully. I do not trust individual scientists more or less than any other persons. I have confidence in the work they do because of the rigorous process to which it is submitted. I also particularly specify researchers, people who are testing theories, running experiments, presenting findings at conferences, and submitting papers to journals for publication. I am not speaking of scientific popularizers or those who use the cloak of science to advance ideological agendas. I also speak in the plural. Individual scientists, like any humans may err, but the scientific community has built in processes that sift out the erroneous.

I will be honest, I do not write as a scientist. I write as someone who knows scientists from work in collegiate ministry at a major research university. I write as someone who has watched people work for months setting up lab apparatus for experiments, only to get inconclusive data and start over. I’ve watched people spend hours of effort crafting research proposals for grants that are vetted by fellow researchers in a system where one in four or less are funded. I’ve listened to reports of those who report research findings in conference presentations only to have their work torn apart in question sessions, forcing them to go back and correct mistakes in their research process. I’ve observed the agonizing process of writing articles for academic journals in one’s field–articles that are sometimes rejected, at other times are returned with reviewer critiques that must be addressed before re-submission, and sometimes published only to be challenged by other researchers who cannot reproduce the purported results under the same conditions. The price for deliberate fraud is high. One is basically black-balled.

That’s what research scientists do. They are part of a scientific community relentlessly (and sometimes ruthlessly) committed to attaining ever-closer approximations to understanding the truth about the physical cosmos around us. Scientists don’t always agree on theories or the significance of research findings. Sometimes, a dedicated researcher or group of researchers will persist 40 years (basically their working life) to substantiate a theory, sometimes changing the ways scientists think about some aspect of their field. Often they replace a workable, mostly right theory, with one that works even better. It’s a process without shortcuts that takes time, and a good deal of money. But their work has yielded space shots and smartphones, cancer treatments and eradicated small pox and nearly eradicated polio.

Why do I write about this? I write because the work of these people is under attack. People are fostering the notion that these people are not to be trusted, that their reports on things like the earth’s climate and our contribution to climate conditions are nothing more than a deep state conspiracy. It is one thing to write such things when you are talking about some distant “them” you may never have personally encountered. I have friends who do this work, and they are mystified by this. Many would say they don’t have a political bone in their bodies because their research is so engrossing. There are many who share my faith. There are many others who don’t. At the lab bench and the scientific conference, it doesn’t make a difference. It comes down to how good your research is. My friends are usually among the first to cry out against those who make false claims in the name of science. Truth matters that much to them.

There are those who use science to advance political or ideological agendas. They are usually popularizers who either never wore a lab coat, or have given it up but use their reputation to bolster their claims. One may think here of ethologist Richard Dawkins who cherry picks scientific studies to support his militant atheism. One research study shows that most British scientists believe he misrepresents science. Others cherry pick science to support their particular view of biblical creation. Both approaches use science to answer questions science was not intended to answer. Most research scientists I know, no matter what they believe, want no part in any of this, except to go on the record that this misappropriates science.

It is axiomatic that when a particular group attacks a group of “them,” be they scientists or immigrants or home schoolers, we would be wise to recognize that the attack is primarily designed to garner support for that group, and to use a grain of salt in assessing their attack. I would suggest, in the case of science, that if you really care about truth and don’t want to be “faked” that you go and meet some real scientists at your local college or university. Ask yourself, “do I personally know any scientists?” Most Americans do not, which makes them an easy target.

I don’t absolutely trust science, in the way I do God. Any scientist worth his or her salt wouldn’t want me to. Most often, they present their research in terms of confidence levels or intervals, such as a 95% probability that a predicted result will occur, or results within a certain range will occur. Most of us formally or informally act with confidence even when probabilities are not that high. At what percentage of rain chances will you carry an umbrella or rain gear? At what odds will you place a bet on your favorite team?

So when scientists who have worked through the rigorous process I have described publish results and their work has survived the rigorous winnowing process of peer review, I’m willing to place confidence in the work of this scientific community. That doesn’t mean a better theory might not replace it at some point. Newton’s understanding of gravity still works pretty well in most cases, even though Einstein’s theory offers a better account. All of life is like this. But that’s a far cry from believing scientists are purposefully deceiving us. At the end of the day I’m far more inclined to place confidence in the scientists than the deniers. There is no comparable process to the peer review and criticism process for deniers who often just have to put something on the internet. So in whom are you going to place your confidence?

 

False Prophets

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project

Rembrant, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

I’ve been thinking about the question of how, in an era of “fake” news, “alternate facts,” and conflicting discourses, one discerns truth from falsehood. It is actually quite an important question, because few of us want to go down a wrong path or be deceived or deluded.

Warnings abound in the scriptures about false prophets along with instructions about how one may discern them. While many of today’s voices are not claiming to be prophets, they are attempting to convince people to believe a certain narrative, and to respond in certain ways based on that belief. They may not claim the label, but they are functioning in the role, even if they do not invoke religious language.

One passage on which I have particularly reflected is Jeremiah 6: 13-15

13 “From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.

I notice at least several things here that bear on our contemporary concerns:

  1. Do people have a significant financial interest that is tied to their message? In today’s world, this could come in the form of significant followings that garner advertising dollars, or campaign contributions, or donations to a cause, or a business seeking an “inside” or “preferred” track.
  2. The fact that a person is in a religious office or invokes religious language does not mean their message is true. Jesus warns of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Jesus actually describes them as ravenous wolves. Sadly, religious offices and language can be used to exploit people for one’s own purposes or gratification.
  3. Is there a demonstrable pattern of deceit on the part of the speaker, apart from their message? Jeremiah says that they “practice deceit.” In Jeremiah 23:14 (NRSV), Jeremiah describes the false prophets of Jerusalem as “walking in lies.” As children, we may have been taught that when we tell a lie, we make it harder for someone to know if we are telling the truth. If there is a demonstrable pattern of lying in action and deed, we should be even more reluctant to credit a message from such a person as truthful.
  4. They refrain from confronting hard truths that point out flaws, indeed sins, in their hearers lives, or minimize their seriousness. I’ve written elsewhere (and prior to our current administration) that we have dressed the wounds of racism and our treatment of native peoples as though these were not serious national sins. False prophets assure us that there is nothing really wrong with us, that we are all basically good people, and that no serious amendment of our lives is required. Sometimes, such messages are accompanied with the scapegoating of others who are “them,” outsiders in some way on whom we may conveniently place all the blame.
  5. They tell us life will be all right, that we will have peace, even if we are in imminent danger. That’s what we want to hear, after all, isn’t it? In Jeremiah’s day, people were longing for liberation from the yoke of the superpower, Babylon, and the false prophets said it was coming soon. Jeremiah took to wearing a wooden yoke to symbolize this domination. When a false prophet broke the yoke, Jeremiah replied that God would replace that yoke with one of iron (Jeremiah 28).
  6. They are shameless. Dictionary.com offers the following synonyms for shameless: brash, wanton, improper, bold, rude, audacious, flagrant, brazen, outrageous, high-handed, unabashed, immoral, unprincipled, abandoned, arrant, barefaced, brassy, cheeky, depraved, dissolute. While the term “hypocrite” is not on this list, the fact that the moral character of these people is distorted enough that they flaunt what most people are ashamed of means we should not look for truth from this person.

It is noteworthy that Jeremiah, and other true prophets like Elijah, were far outnumbered by false prophets. It’s not popular, and sometimes dangerous, to tell the truth. Indeed, one thing that may distinguish true prophets from the false, is that their message has been personally costly (as opposed to the “gain” of false prophets).

Scripture provides two other important criteria that distinguish false prophets.

  1. A prophet is false if what they prophesy does not come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). No matter our efforts to defy or deny reality, in the end, we either live by its truth or find ourselves false to our loss. We may say gravity does not exist, but our denial of its reality will be readily and lethally exposed if we step into the air from a tenth story window.
  2. Prophets are false even if what they prophesy comes to pass if they lead us to believe in what is no god (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). For the Christian, if a message invites us to put ultimate allegiance and trust in anyone or anything else than the Triune God of holy love and saving grace through Christ, whether it be ourselves, a political party or figure, a religious teacher, or anything else, that message is false.

I’m not going to point fingers, and I would ask in commenting that you refrain from this as well. Usually, we don’t point fingers at those whose messages we listen to, but rather at the “other guys.” What I might suggest instead is that we use the criteria above to honestly evaluate those to whom we listen. What matters most is that we discern whether those we listen to are telling us the truth. If we are people who teach, or blog, or editorialize, and seek to persuade others, we do well to examine ourselves by these criteria.

At the end of the day, to build our lives, or to build our nation on lies is a perilous undertaking. To speak falsehoods is even more perilous. Jesus warns that on the day of judgment we will give an account for every careless word (Matthew 12:36). He warns that if our words or lives cause a “little one” to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone around our neck and drown ourselves in the ocean than face God’s reckoning (Matthew 18:6).

This is not a game.