Saturday, November 24, 2018


The swift rise and rapid collapse of McCarthyism more than sixty years ago offers evidence and a relatively recent example of the capacity of American society and democratic institutions to recover from the paralyzing sway the politics of fear, xenophobia, ethnic division and subversion can temporarily hold over the body politic.

Donald Trump and Joseph McCarthy

Surfacing during eras of extreme cultural stress, and highly dependent on the symbolic appeal of simplistic purifying or redemptive solutions targeting infectious ‘alien’ agents—the Red Menace in the ‘50s or terrorist Muslims and Central American caravans today-- such movements rely on two basic ingredients. First, a heightened fear that ‘enemies’ have penetrated the nation’s porous borders, taking advantage of our over-tolerant institutions; and second the powerful appeal of a self-appointed charismatic leader willing to transcending normal institutional limits in order to protect the vulnerable homeland and root out by any means necessary subversive elements within and without.

There have been previous outbreaks of what historian Richard Hofstadter first described as the “Paranoid Style” in American politics. But the infectious America First nationalism and anti immigrant fear-mongering of Donald Trump today has only one major parallel: the fierce anti-communist witch-hunt fanned to a fever pitch by the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, in the early 1950’s. Though different in scope and scale, both McCarthyism and Trumpism share a common script, and, if history is any guide, contain similar seeds leading to their own ultimate devolution and destruction.

McCarthy was late to recognize but quick to exploit the enormous potential and power that extreme and undocumented charges against ‘elite’ government officials could bring at a critically unsettling moment in the early Cold War. Aided and enabled by ambitious politicians, credulous reporters and officials like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover willing to use the Senator for their own purposes, McCarthy was suddenly elevated to position where even the threat of his investigations could silence or destroy powerful individuals and institutions at every level of government and society. Even without Trump’s enormous degree of institutional authority, McCarthy’s assumed power, for a time, seemed unlimited.

Though initially challenged by a few members of his own party who recognized the danger he posed to constitutional freedoms, and later, publicly, by media figures such as the respected broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, it was, importantly, McCarthy himself whose continuing excesses brought him down.

Legal decisions ultimately prevented some of his most extreme actions, though not before thousands of individuals had their careers and lives destroyed by mere threats or charges. Exposed to a national audience during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohn’s bullying misuse of power, prompting the famous line uttered by Attorney Joseph Welch: “Senator, have you at last no decency left?” exposed him for the demagogue he was.

Once the spell was broken, the air went rapidly out of the balloon. Public approval diminished; previous supporters backed away from the spectacle. McCarthy’s political power in congress soon evaporated, and though in some cases it took decades, individuals and institutions McCarthy had attacked could begin to respond and rebuild.

We don’t know yet how many insulted American heroes, generals or admirals it will take, or how many humiliated or berated intelligence agents, or agencies. Nor how many ignorant and un-empathetic comments about Puerto Rican hurricane, Synagogue shooting or Californian fire victims.
How many juvenile or vile name-calling tweets belittling basketball players, commentators or political critics it will take to break the spell. But the spell will break. Indecency has its limits!

On the political side, the scale of the country’s growing repudiation of Trumpism is becoming increasingly evident as final vote counts in various regions confirm the strength of an actual ‘blue wave’ in national and state elections. Where Trump’s acolytes and enablers did win, their victories were hard-fought and far narrower than expected, often dependent on deliberate techniques of voter suppression and political gerrymandering. Denied or not, rising blue tides do indicate gradually melting poles of support.

True to form, and much like that of the earlier demagogue, the President’s immediate response was to attack: first by deriding losing candidates who had not sought his blessing; then by firing the Attorney General whom he had long blamed and demeaned for not sufficiently protecting him from the Mueller investigation, and then by appointing a strong supporter who would do so. Attempting to reassure his base, Mr. Trump then reignited his war with the fake news media, berating African American reporters at his first full news conference and then banning an assertive CNN reporter who insisted on asking difficult questions.

As vote counts tightened, he was quick to charge election officials with fraud, whipping up resentment and public passion against nameless ‘enemies’ as well as against the legitimate mechanisms of democratic governance. Most recently, in attacking a Federal Appeals Court ruling against his asylum policies, he incurred an unheard of rebuke by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who defined the independence of the Judicial System as a critical feature of American democracy countering the President’s attack by saying “there are no Obama judges, or Bush or Clinton judges…..”

Continual exposure to a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, willingness to incite violent passions, compulsion to lie, lack of empathy towards minorities, asylum-seekers, victims of natural disasters—and even homeless children-- and vindictiveness toward those in the press or public who dare to question his policies and behavior, appears to have begun to awaken a significant portion of the public, among them former supporters.

We may not know yet whether the “spell” has fully been broken, or where the  break point actually is, but it is clear politically that his self-inflated balloon has sprung leaks. Attacks on old ‘enemies’ (Hillary, ‘fake news’ media, congressional opponents, proponents of climate change, NATO allies) will go on, as well, but have passed their sell date. Those, and even newer threats like the ‘invasion’ of legitimate asylum-seekers from Central America may no longer serve to patch the increasingly visible holes. Failed tax policies, disruptive tariff wars and unexpected foreign events emanating from the Middle East—as well as the fallout from the Mueller investigation—may well complete the process.

Just as McCarthy’s rampage weakened democratic institutions at home while endangering America’s standing abroad, Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders and murderous tyrants can only undermine any remaining sense of America’s moral capacity to guide international affairs in a positive direction.

Yet, cultural and institutional limits to coarse, brutal and amoral practices in the name of public welfare do exist, and if modern American history is any guide, there is a point when ‘fevers’ (political or otherwise) do break. The question then is how basically healthy bodies can slowly recover and rebuild, and how much lasting damage has been done.

Les Adler


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Sunday, November 18, 2018


A friend alerted me to a superb and extremely sobering article by Bill McKibben in the November 26, 2018 edition of the New Yorker. Entitled "How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet," the piece lays out in detail the depth of the climate crisis we're in, and how we got here with the help of Exxon, the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson and decades of dithering or deluded politicians. 

McKibben offers a ray of hope, if we the people, worldwide, can come together and fight against disinformation and special interests for our own survival and the survival of the biosphere that supports us.

The future is here--Southern California wildfire
Credit: FEMA

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Decades of research have shown that negative stereotypes have a major impact on people's performance and achievement. The theory that best explains these deleterious effects--stereotype threat--argues that the targets of negative stereotypes have to fight against a potentially disabling dose of anxiety and self-doubt when they are in a situation that evokes the stereotype. Typical examples might include a black student taking a scholastic aptitude test, a woman starting a STEM-related job, or an older person faced with a physically or mentally demanding task.

Happily, a growing body of research has shown that seemingly small interventions can reduce or in some cases even eliminate the impacts of stereotype threat. Many of these interventions focus on creating a different mind-set, for example by removing stimuli that evoke the stereotype, writing an essay about one's own family and character at the beginning of a school year, or reinforcing the idea that intelligence is malleable. Some of these positive effects last far beyond a single test or challenge, in some cases improving students' grades for an entire year.

For black children we can now add the potentially lifelong impact of having even one black teacher early in life.

 Graduates--Bennet College, 2008

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and American University utilized student data derived from Tennessee's STAR class-size reduction program, which started in 1986. They found that black children who had a black teacher in kindergarten were 14 to 18 percent more likely to enter college. Having two black teachers in their first two school years boosted children's chances of enrolling in college by a remarkable 32 percent compared to peers who did not have those black role models.

The researchers believe that having one or more black teachers enhances black children's sense of what is possible and worthwhile for them.

One way in which having a same-race role model may have played out is by inculcating "grit" or determination, traits that are as important to achievement in school and life as knowledge or cognitive skills. The researchers found that black middle-school students who had had a black teacher in their first years of school were 10 percent more likely to receive teacher comments such as "persistent," "made and effort," or "tried to finish difficult work" than peers who had had only white teachers early on.

Having at least one black teacher as an early role model may be particularly important for boys. Using data from North Carolina, the researchers found that for boys, having had a black teacher in elementary school reduced the high school drop out rate by one-third.

"The role model effect seems to show that having one teacher of the same race is enough to give a student the ambition to achieve, for example, to take a college entrance exam," said Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins. "But if going to college is the goal, having two teachers of the same race helps even more."

In addition to the impact of having same-race role models, the researchers found that teachers' expectations also influence children's long-term aspirations and success. Black teachers, it turns out, tend to have significantly higher expectations for black students than white teachers do. Those expectations, in turn, can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Since the vast majority of teachers are white, even if they cannot be same-race roll models to black children, it falls to them not to under-estimate the potential of their black students, but to assume and convey the belief that they have the same potential for learning, achievement and success as white children.

"While we make efforts to find and train new black teachers," says Papageorge, "we also need to educate white teachers about implicit bias, teach them to be culturally competent, and show them how not to exacerbate these existing achievement gaps."


You can access the original research article here.


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Tuesday, November 06, 2018


Just a quick note linking to an intriguing story on about the possibility that the interstellar object 'Oumuamua that zipped through the solar system last fall--the first such interstellar interloper ever detected--may have been a light sail built by an extraterrestrial civilization.

This isn't wide-eyed speculation from a tabloid, but a serious analysis by two respected researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Shmuel Biali and Abraham Loeb. What caught their attention was the fact that 'Oumuamua didn't follow a purely gravitationally-driven trajectory as it careened through the solar system. Instead, it accelerated away from the sun with a force proportional to the inverse square of its distance from the sun.

 'Oumuamua's trajectory through the solar system

That would have been understandable if the object had been a comet, accelerated by jets of gas and dust triggered by the sun's heat. However, astronomers were unable to detect traces of any comet-like activity from 'Oumuamua, which left the anomalous acceleration unexplained. To Loeb, who chairs the advisory board of the Breakthrough Starshot solar sail project, 'Oumuamua's one-over-r-squared acceleration exactly matched the way a lightweight solar sail would have acted.

 Artist's representation of 'Oumuamua as an elongated asteroid
(Observers estimated that it was 10 times longer than its width)

Loeb and Biali went on to analyze in detail the properties of a solar sail following 'Oumuamua's trajectory. They found that it would have to be constructed of very thin material, less than a millimeter in thickness, weighing no more than a tenth of a gram per square centimeter. They also calculated the wear and tear on a sail of this description speeding through interstellar space, colliding with gas and dust as well as being stressed by its own rotation. They conclude that it could have survived a trip of at least 16,000 light years, about one-sixth of the way across our home galaxy.

(Note that there's nothing mysterious or hypothetical about a solar sail with these specifications. We humans have made, tested and deployed a variety of solar sails.)

'Oumuamua sailed out of the solar system before astronomers could perform more definitive studies, and it's not going to return. So it's nature will remain a mystery. Critics point out that that makes the hypothesis that it was an alien craft untestable, and so not scientific. However, Loeb and Biali point out, even the possibility that it was the product of an alien technological civilization warrants an active search for more such visitors.

It's a bit technical, but you can read their article here.


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Monday, November 05, 2018


We all know that guns are a hot-button issue here in the United States. The Constitution grants and the Supreme Court affirms Americans' right to bear arms, and we do that to a fault. According to the Independent, US citizens own 40 percent of all the privately owned arms in the world, more than the next 25 most heavily armed countries combined. That's a remarkable 12 guns for every 10 of us, men, woman and children.

Many of those 393 million guns don't just sit unloaded, securely stored and unavailable to children. While millions of responsible gun owners do keep their weapons safely away from children, millions do not. Here's one sad result whose magnitude shocked me: According to Stephanie Chao, a pediatric surgeon and professor of surgery at Stanford University, children aged 15-19 in the US are 82 times more likely to die from gun homicide than in any other developed country.

Nearly 3000 US children die from firearm injuries every year
Photo credit: Mediapart

Please excuse my emphasis here: American teenagers are not twice as likely to die from a deliberate gunshot, not 10 times more likely, not 50 times more likely, but 82 times more likely. Than in any other developed country.

The statistics for younger children, and for suicide and accidental deaths from guns are not quite so horrendous, but the US is a consistent and clear outlier on every measure relating to gun deaths.

As a pediatric surgeon dealing with trauma every day, Chao would very much like to find ways to reduce or prevent these tragic deaths. Here's a clue that she found. State by state, laws make a difference.

"Firearm-related injuries are the second leading cause of death among children in the United States," she says, "but we found a clear discrepancy in where those deaths happen that corresponds with the strength of states' firearm legislation. In states with lenient laws, children die at alarmingly greater rates."

How much difference can gun laws make? Chao and her colleagues found that in states with the most relaxed gun laws 5 children out of every 100,000 die from gun-related injuries every year. States with the strictest gun-control laws cut that death rate nearly in half, down to 2.6 children out of every 100,000.

Saving half of children at risk from gun-related death would be a very good thing. Saving all of them would be even better. "Each and every one of these deaths is preventable," says Chao. "Our study demonstrates that state-level legislation prevents children from dying from guns."

When it comes to our children, perhaps we can get away from slogans and fiery rhetoric, and work towards sensible gun-safety laws in more states. Three thousand US children don't need to die from gunshots next year.


As I write this, the 2018 midterm elections are just a day away. If you would like to find out about gun-control legislation and pro-gun-control candidates in your state, here's an excellent resource. Your vote could save young lives.



Picture a river flowing down from the mountains to the plains. In the high country, where the river's descent is steep and hedged in by canyon walls, it's likely to follow a relatively straight path, basically tracing the shortest route down. Once it gets to the plains, however, there's no big difference between one path and another, and the river will begin to meander.

 Meandering river
Credit: Alana Whitman

Something similar is true for the jet streams, vast rivers of air that circle the globe from west to east, sometimes reaching speeds of 250 miles per hour. Like rivers, jet streams typically meander north and south. The size of those meanders and the speed with which they gradually drift eastward have major impacts on the weather. The UK, for example, was deluged by record floods in 2007 and again in 2012 when the jet stream looped far to the south and then stalled, unleashing extended periods of heavy rains.

Meandering polar jet stream

That, in turn, gets us to climate change and quasi-resonant amplification (QRA). 

One of the most dramatic impacts of global warming and climate change is that the far north and south are warming much faster than the mid-latitudes and the tropics, a phenomenon known as polar amplification. What this means is that the temperature difference between the poles and the tropics-- which is what creates and drives the jet streams--is reduced. And like a river crossing a plain, this reduced gradient lets the jet stream meander farther north and south, and also tends to make the individual loops, known as Rossby waves, drift more slowly from west to east.

At the extreme, the meanders in the jet stream can form a stable sequence of exaggerated loops around the planet that can stay in place for weeks or months. This is known as quasi-resonant amplification  (QRA) and its results can be devastating. Warm, sunny days can extend into deadly heat waves, droughts and wildfires; while cool, rainy weather can linger, drenching an unlucky region with unprecedented rains and floods.

Michael Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science and Pennsylvania State University, says that as of 2018 this phenomenon has now passed from the theoretical to the all-too-real and threatening. "It played out in real time on our television screens and newspaper headlines in the form of an unprecedented hemisphere-wide pattern of extreme floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires," he says.

Unfortunately, Mann adds, climate models indicate that such QRA-caused weather extremes will grow more frequent and more severe unless we get a handle on global warming. We can hope that humanity (and the politicians who hold the reins) will get their act together. In the meantime, however, we can all expect more QRAs and the devastating weather extremes they bring coming to a region near us.

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Saturday, November 03, 2018


A few schoolyard trees might make the difference between a child's future success or failure.

That's the remarkable implication of new research carried out by Ming Kuo, an environmental scientist at the University of Illinois and her colleagues. Using advanced imaging technology and innovative statistical analysis, Professor Kuo and her colleagues found that the amount of tree cover in and around schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods predicted the academic achievement of students, especially in mathematics. She cautions that the current study only shows a statistically robust correlation, not proof of cause and effect. Still, she  would like to see these findings widely applied as a relatively inexpensive intervention that could potentially benefit millions of disadvantaged children in the US.

"Early math skills are one of the best predictors of later success, not just in math, but in school in general," says Kuo. "So what we have here is a very exciting clue that maybe simply greening -- planting trees in school yards -- could potentially have a significant impact in math achievement and school success down the line for these kids. And you don't have to plaster the schoolyard with trees -- just bringing schools up to average looks like it could have a substantial effect."

 Treeless schoolyard, Washington, DC
Credit: chesbayprogram

Kuo and her colleagues found that tree cover in and around schools had a beneficial effect on children's academic success independently of the levels of disadvantage in their student bodies, the percentage of bilingual students, the number of students, the percentage of female students, and the pupil/teacher ratio. And the impact of trees was localized and specific--more tree cover in the catchment neighborhood did not have the same effect, nor did the amount of grass or shrubbery in the schoolyard.

Schoolyard with trees, Greenbelt, Maryland
Credit: Marjorie Collins/Library of Congress 

As most of us have learned, complicated problems usually require complicated solutions. Wouldn't it be great if Professor Kuo has alerted us to a simple intervention that could at least help solve the complex and extremely important problem of so-called "underachieving schools"?

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