Thursday, January 26, 2017


Now that President Trump has said that he might send more suspected terrorists to Guantanamoreinstate the CIA's black sites--prisons in foreign countries into which people can be "disappeared" and tortured--and now that he has said that he absolutely believes that torture works and that if his advisers want to torture, he'll "work toward that end," all of us who refuse to condone torture need to speak out against it once again.

Here's what I believe about torture:

1. Torture in any guise is morally wrong, repugnant, and soul-destroying, not only to the victims but also to the torturers. Whenever and wherever it has been used, it has left a stain that lasts for centuries. We still recoil at the horrors inflicted on suspected witches in medieval Europe, the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition, or the tortures inflicted on "enemies of the state" in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Calling torture "enhanced interrogation" does not make it any less repugnant or reprehensible.

Institutionalized Torture at Abu Ghraib
Credit: Wikipedia

2. It doesn't work. Under torture people will admit to anything and everything. Although proponents of torture always trot out the tired argument, torture cannot be justified as necessary to elicit potentially lifesaving intelligence. When a state institutionalizes torture, it is almost always to  terrorize and control its own population or some demonized subgroup. 

3. It's an unhappy commentary on human nature, but both history and decades of psychological research have shown that it's remarkably easy to use authority, peer pressure and institutional norms to turn ordinary people into torturers. 

4. Therefore we need a strong moral stance, laws and positive leadership to prevent torture from becoming institutionalized and "normalized," especially in times of uncertainty and fear. If our elected leaders fail in this vital role, or worse yet, conspire to lead our nation to once again practice and justify torture, it's up to all of us to resist in every way we can.

It seems to me that torture is such a gross violation of our shared humanity that it is not an issue on which anyone can remain neutral or silent.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


If you're rich, it's inconvenient if poor people start to wonder why they're poor, and even worse if they recognize they're not alone, come together, organize, and gain political power. If you're white in America, it's inconvenient if people of color start to wonder why they face so many more obstacles than you, and even worse if they come together, organize and gain power. If you're a member of a privileged group, it's not surprising that you would see recognition of that fact by non-members as divisive and dangerous.

Sarah Palin's tweeted advice to President Obama on this year's Martin Luther King day is a great example of this: "Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card." 

And if you're Arizona State Representative Bob Thorpe, a " . . .life-long Fiscal-Conservative Republican who promotes Constitutional Liberties (freedoms), limited government, low taxes, protecting the lives of our unborn children and 2nd Amendment rights . . .," and you sit on the legislature's Education Committee and chair the Government and Higher Education Committee, you're the right person in the right position at the right time to propose HB2120--the "education; prohibited courses and activities" bill.

The University of Arizona, Tucson--soon an idea-free zone?/Credit Jr P/Flickr
Coming from an avowed promoter of "Constitutional Liberties (freedoms)", the bill is remarkable in that it sets out to limit the freedom of school teachers and college professors to teach, and students to learn about pretty much anything involving how groups of people have been defined and treated in the past or are being seen and treated today.

Here are some of the bill's "prohibited courses, classes, events and activities" for school districts and charter schools throughout Arizona, community colleges, and universities under the State Board of Regents, including the state's educational flagship, the University of Arizona. To be banned, classes, events or activities that . . .


 Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

Advocate ethnic solidarity OR ISOLATION BASED ON ETHNICITY, RACE, RELIGION, GENDER OR SOCIAL CLASS instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

God forbid that teachers should expose students to a crazy, divisive idea like social justice.

Thorpe's bill significantly expands and extends to colleges and universities a 2010 law that banned K-12 courses or classes that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of students as individuals."

The new bill has some very sharp teeth--a school district, community college or university could lose ten percent of its state funding if it's caught teaching a forbidden subject or allowing prohibited activities.

Tacked onto the bottom of the bill is a statement with a remarkable twist on the words of Martin Luther King, whom I imagine would be appalled by this gross misuse of of his dream for justice.

Martin Luther King: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Bob Thorpe: "It is the intent of the legislature that Arizona shall not educate nor judge an individual based upon their religion, political affiliation, social class, gender, ethnicity, race or by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." (Emphasis mine).

King's dream was of a nation providing equal rights, respect and justice for all. Thorpe's dream is of a state prohibiting teaching or learning about unequal rights, prejudice and injustice impacting the very groups he names.

To say that enacting this bill into law would have an enormous effect on education, especially higher education, would be a huge understatement. A quick glance at the University of Arizona's course catalog shows multiple classes dealing with all of those issues--as would the catalog of any self-respecting institution of higher education.

I can picture someone in the Attorney General's office--that's the agency that would be empowered to vet what gets taught or not at the college level--going through the university's course offerings line by line:

"OK, here we go. Anthropology 150A1--Race, Ethnicity and the American Dream. That one's got to go."

"Anthropology 222--African American Studies: A History of Ideas. Cross that one off."

"303--Gender and Language? Hmm. Questionable. Let's cancel it."

"314--Race and Language in the US. No way."

"317--Latin American Immigration and the Remaking of the US. Are they kidding?"

"319--Mexican American Culture. When in doubt, close it out."

"344--African American Religion--Could go either way. I'll kick that up to the A.G."

And that's just part of the offerings of one department. What about African Studies; Care, Health and Society; Communication; Public Health; Education; Environmental Health; Family and Community Medicine; History; Gender and Women's Studies (clearly that whole department needs to go); Latin American Studies (likewise); Mexican American Studies (ditto); Psychology; Public Health; Sociology; Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies; etc., all of which offer courses analyzing those forbidden group differences?

I'm guessing that a few departments, such as Veterinary Science, might escape unscathed.

It's also impossible to exaggerate the chilling effect such a law would have on all teachers, professors and administrators, knowing that a class exercise or even a comment that someone in the Attorney General's office might decide was in the forbidden zone could threaten financial support for their institution.

In George Orwell's disturbingly prescient novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, he elaborates Newspeak, a debased version of English in which concepts like "freedom," "peace," or even "science" do not exist, and so cannot be thought. Anyone who somehow managed to think a forbidden thought was committing a thoughtcrime and would soon be found out by the Thought Police.

In light of the progress this proposed law makes towards Newspeak, I suggest that Representative Thorpe change the name and number of the bill to HB1984--the "Education; Ignorance is Strength bill."

Credit: Stephen Bettany

Click here to read about a brilliant response to Arizona's embrace of ignorance, the Librotraficante Caravan, which is carrying banned books about Mexican-American history to Arizona.

And go here to read a deeply insightful essay by Roberto Rodriguez, an associate professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of  Arizona, who links HB2120 with the book burnings and torture carried out by the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico as part of the demonization and destruction of indigenous knowledge and culture.

And here and here to read about successful legal challenges to this legislation.

Monday, January 09, 2017


While the US marches ever deeper into the swamp of climate-change denial, led by Donald Trump and his appointees, much of the rest of the world is surging ahead into a sustainable future.

One case in point--since January 1 of this year, every train in Holland has been running on 100% renewable energy, almost all of it generated by wind. Dutch trains carry 438 million passengers and haul 36.5 million tons of freight every year.

Dutch train, now 100% wind-powered/Credit I, Maurits90
This remarkable accomplishment only took two years, starting with an agreement between the train companies and energy company ENENCO in 2015. The goal was 100% renewable energy by 2018, but the project was completed a year early, in part because of the early completion of wind farms in the Netherlands, Belgium and Finland.

While Trump rails against wind energy, seemingly because it offends him to see the turbines from his Scottish golf course, the Dutch, who have a long tradition of windmills, don't seem to mind at all. Especially when they know that they are doing their best to fight climate change and, of particular threat to them, rising sea levels.

Dutch windmills--old and new--Eemshaven, the Netherlands
Credit Wikipedia


We all know that exercise is good for us. Decades of research has shown that even moderate physical activity--such as brisk walking--improves health and lengthens lives.

Based on this, both the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate physical activity or 1 1/4 hours of intense exercise per week, spread throughout the week.

Biking and other exercises add miles--and years--to your life/Credit Connie Ma

Recognizing that many people can't build daily exercise into their schedules, but might hit the streets, the courts or the trails on weekends, a team of British researchers set out to see if even "weekend warriors" are healthier because of the the exercise they do.

The short answer is--you bet they are.

Writing in this week's edition of the prestigious medical journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Gary O'Donovan and his colleagues conclude that men and women who got the recommended amount of exercise in just one or two outings per week were 40 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, 30 percent less likely to die from any cause, and nearly 20 percent less likely to die of cancer, compared to inactive adults.

The health benefits for weekend warriors were similar to those for people who exercised the same amount, but more regularly during the week.

"The weekend warrior and other physical activity patterns characterized by 1 or 2 sessions per week of moderate or vigorous-intensity physical activity may be sufficient to reduce risks for all-cause, CVD [cardiovascular disease], and cancer mortality regardless of adherence to prevailing physical activity guidelines," the researchers write.

Their study tracked almost 64,000 men and women 40 years and older over the course of 8 years, as part of a long-term English-Scottish health survey. Exercise patterns were determined from self reports while causes of death came from death certificates. The study's findings are particularly useful because of its length and the large number of participants.

Here's the take-home message from O'Donovan:

If you already are a weekend warrior, keep up the good work. If you are thinking of becoming more active, begin with a moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking. Walking is associated with low risk of injury and it's important to set realistic goals that provide motivation and build confidence. I would recommend that middle-aged and older adults take part in at least 12 weeks of moderate-intensity exercise before introducing any vigorous-intensity exercise.

A new study, published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, analyzed 39 separate studies and concluded that both aerobic and resistance exercise can improve cognitive functioning in people over the age of 50. The exercise can be moderate, yet the cognitive gains are significant.

The bottom line--get up, get out, and exercise, even if you can only manage it once or twice a week.


My email today included notices of two new academic posts that I found eye-opening:

KIT, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, in Germany, has endowed a new professorship dedicated to the study of the risks from extreme weather events. I guess they haven't been convinced by the arguments of climate-change deniers.

Tornado, Andarko Oklahoma, May 1999/Credit Dizpics1/Wikipedia
Intense, large-scale tornado outbursts like this are happening more frequently
The University of Warwick, in the UK, has appointed its first cyberpsychologist, Monica Whitty. Professor Whitty joins other researchers at the university's Cyber Security Centre. Her focus is "on the human element . . . behaviour online to identify cyber criminals and in turn protect people from becoming victims."

Maybe if Hillary Clinton had known about Dr. Whitty a year or two ago, we'd have a different person taking the oath of office on January 20.

Sunday, January 08, 2017


The international newspaper The Guardian has been tracking killings by police in the US since 2015. They've just published their findings for 2016. The numbers continue to be shocking, both in terms of racial disparities and the enormous contrast between the US and other countries.

Protest following the death of Akai Gurley, 11/20/14--Credit Wikimedia

The basics:

--Police in the US killed 1091 people in 2016, slightly down from 1,146 in 2015.

That represents a rate of 3.4 deaths per million people in the US. For perspective, that's 44 times the rate in the UK, 38 times higher than in Germany, 24 times the rate in Canada and 15 times that of France.

--If you're Black in America, your risk of being killed by police is 2.3 times as high as if you're white.

--If you're a Black man 15 to 34 years old, your risk of dying in a police encounter is 9 times that of whites and 4 times higher than a white man your age.

--If you're a Native American, you have 3.5 times the risk of being killed by police than if you're white.

--Deaths at the hands of police vary greatly state-by-state. Police in Alaska, New Mexico and Oklahoma are 3 times as likely to kill people as the national average, and 10 times more likely than police in Delaware, with just one such death in 2016 and a population just under 1,000,000.

In recent years, videotapes of shootings by police under questionable circumstances have shocked millions of people, provoked multiple demonstrations and riots, and brought the issue of police use of lethal force in the US out into the open. Although the statistics for 2016 (and earlier years) clearly show a serious racial bias in US policing, we should be equally concerned about the fact that US citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity, are far more likely to die at the hands of police than citizens of any other western nation.

You can read about some of the causes and possible cures for this ongoing epidemic in two earlier postings:



And you can read an update for the first 10 months of 2017, showing a continuation of the same deadly pattern, here.

Thursday, January 05, 2017



On September 16 of last year I posted about pre-election polling research that showed that potential Trump voters were far more enthusiastic than potential Clinton voters. The pollsters warned that this enthusiasm gap could make the difference in a close race.

Unfortunately, that prediction turned out to be right on target. Today, Nate Silver's 538 published an analysis showing that Democrats and independents who stayed home rather than voting did make the difference. Thanks to them, as much as those who were enthusiastic enough to actually vote for Trump, we'll be inaugurating President Trump in a few days, with all that implies.

". . . Donald Trump probably would have lost to Hillary Clinton had Republican- and Democratic-leaning registered voters cast ballots at equal rates," concludes the author of the 538 analysis, Harry Enten.

Once again we're reminded that evil doesn't just happen because of the actions of bad people but, as Martin Luther King said, because of " . . . the appalling silence and indifference of the good people . . ."

Not voting counts too--this time a lot/Credit: nshepard

Wednesday, January 04, 2017


Climate-change deniers were thrilled to report about an apparent slow-down in ocean warming noted in a 2013 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. For once, it appeared that they had some actual data on their side. They will now have to switch back to denying the data, demeaning the researchers (or following Trump and blaming China for making up the whole concept of climate change), since first NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and now an independent consortium of researchers from the US and the UK have shown that the slowdown didn't happen.

It turns out that the slowdown or "hiatus" was largely the result of inappropriately combining temperature readings from satellites, ships and buoys. Buoys tend to give cooler readings than measurements made aboard ships, so as more buoys came on line in recent years, they produced a false cooling signal.

An ARGO float at work--one way scientists measure ocean temperatures/Credit: UCSD
When the three data sets--from ships, buoys and satellites--are analyzed separately, each shows continuous warming of the oceans averaging 0.12 degrees C (0.22 degrees F) per decade over the past 75 years.

"Our results mean that essentially NOAA got it right, that they were not cooking the books," said Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group and the lead author of the new study, published today in the open-access journal Science Advances.

Note, 1/11/17: It didn't take long for the denial to kick in. A story in the conservative UK Spectator argues that "their case rests on the El Nino temperature increase and will be destroyed when the El Nino subsides, as it is currently doing. A temporary victory over the ‘pause’."

Environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli promptly destroys that argument by pointing out that if the El Nino years are analyzed separately, they show warming of 0.18 degrees C (0.32 degrees F) per decade over the past fifty years, as do the La Nina years taken separately, with neutral years averaging 0.16 degrees C (0.29 degrees f) per decade.

If you wonder why climate change denial persists in the face of basic physics, decades of research, and a now visibly destabilized climate, please read Naomi Klein's 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein makes the case that conservatives, representatives of the neoliberal market-fundamentalist consensus realized long ago that acceptance of the reality of human-caused climate change would threaten the foundations of the current global economic system. To preserve the system, they have no choice but to deny the reality as long as they can.