I, Science

Around the nation tomorrow, there will be marches for science.  Why should that be so?  We might understand marches for women, or marches for a minority group, but why should scientists march?  We make only 5% of the population, it’s clearly a small proportion of the workforce.  I am sure I could build a compelling scholarly argument for the importance of science, but rather than go about it mechanically, I’ve decided to talk more about my relationship with science and why it’s so important to me.

Like many children I enjoyed books with different animals and learning about their characteristics.  I remember watching many an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  I had a book on whales that I love to read a lot, and one on dinosaurs.  I remember learning about the different planets.  I found the colors of the planets, the sun, so stunning.  Different atmospheric compositions led to vastly different looks.  I marveled at the thought of looking up at the red sky of Mars.  I used to capture a variety of insects in jars.  And while I would certainly not encourage such behavior from my child without proper care and the hopes of setting it free, I marveled at the structure and behavior of such creatures.  When I look back on these memories, I have hard time imagining every child not being like this.  Maybe it was a precursor to what I would eventually become, but there seems nothing so natural as wanting to observe the world around us and learn about it and wonder how it works.  How can one not marvel at the array of colors that nature provides?  How can we not wonder at the flight of some creature and the scurrying of others?  How can we not be fascinated by the massive size of the blue whale, to the little aphid that seems but a speck in your hand?  I am certainly not an expert in child behavior, but I have watched enough children to know what observers they are.  And while they may not understand all they see, they are constantly looking.  It seems to me the essence of science lies in the very heart of who we are as humans.

From at least my early elementary age, I remember being fascinated by thunderstorms.  Seeing the lightning streak across the sky was nature’s fireworks and I loved every minute of it.  Often peeking out the window at night, and occasionally sneak out at night so it under the ledge of our house to watch the thunderstorms.  My very first introduction to meteorology was in grade 6 when we learned about different cloud types and how different cloud types could often be predictors to the type of weather that was coming your way.  For some reason I found that fascinating, but I know there was also an aesthetic quality to clouds that I found beautiful.  Their variety of shapes and colors depending on the position of the sun.  To this day I still look up at them and they seem almost beautifully magical floating there.  My first real act as an atmospheric scientist at around adolescent to early teens.  I say this because my observations were recorded mentally over probably a couple of years.  Thunderstorms in the prairie of Alberta are seen a long way off and I noticed that when a line of bubbling cumulonimbus clouds was on the horizon the wind was always blowing towards the clouds, yet the clouds kept getting closer.  After enough observation I saw this as simply a fact, and knew when to tell my family to prepare for thunderstorms.  Often adults would question me, saying “you’re wrong kid, the wind is blowing the other way”.  Of course I wouldn’t learn why this was the case until university, but it gave me some pride to recognize patterns in such a way.

My mother was always good at supporting me asking questions, and even better at showing me how to find those answers.  In those days it was the library.  How easily today I could have looked up the answer as to why wind blows towards the thunderstorms before they come to you. Kids today really have it so much easier, but they also have to deal with a lot more misinformation than I had to deal with in a library.   She taught me a lot about research and to look for answers in multiple places to make sure there was some consensus.  Though she didn’t have an advanced degree, she was always one to have questions herself and research the answers before forming an opinion.  Although she never said so explicitly, I think it was important more to see that our own senses are not enough to really understand how things work, and having information from other sources can help us answer our questions and make better sense about what we see.

When I look back, the ingredients it took for me to become a scientist seem rather organic.  Parents who encouraged questions and were curious themselves, made science feel like it was no extra effort.  School was effort at times, and I didn’t understand everything easily, but it never stopped me from finding it all quite interesting.  My favorite subject in high school was actually biology.  I loved learning especially about organ systems.  The way the body works and maintains itself still amazes me to this day.  So while there may be some combination of genetics that works in my favor, I find it hard to understand how we aren’t all scientists.  Not by profession, but just by nature.  I think, that regardless of my job, science would be a part of my life.  It has already helped me immensely in understanding so much and answering so many questions, and knowing that there is always more to learn is rejuvenating because it means that maybe I will learn something and it will change my whole outlook.  It means that what I do today, because of what I have learned, might be something that I never saw myself doing before.  I used to think that it was sad that I could not learn everything there was to know.  Beyond the impossibility of that task, I think life would go stale quickly if there wasn’t newness.  Science may not bring certainty, but it does bring to the fore previously unknown possibilities and who can say that does not make life more fulfilling?

Some people think that science removes mystery from the world and thus makes it less exciting.  It was in the 8th grade that I decided to become a meteorologist.  I can tell you that a thunderstorm today excites me to less than it did when I was a child.  In fact now, when I look at a thunderstorms I see equations and physical laws floating around like code from the Matrix.  I see into the cloud and in my head see interactions between droplets and crystals that I never saw when I was a child.  I understand the magnitude of the forces that meet to produce this wonder of nature, and I feel the weight and power of it, in a way I never could have as a child.  It is like the difference between falling in love with someone, and the deep intimacy and friendship that you develop after you’ve known that someone for many years.  It is love with depth, it brings a lasting feeling of happiness and well being.

Somewhere a child has nowhere to turn for answers to the questions they have.  Somewhere a child is told not to ask questions, or is simply told what their parents say is the truth of things, and that questions are dangerous.  Somewhere parents have decided that their girl shouldn’t be educated, or that science is not for girls.  Somewhere a teacher doesn’t understand science themselves and thus kills the joy of curiosity and learning in their students.  Somewhere a group of politicians have decided that memorization-based exams are the important metrics to determine funding.  Somewhere a television show is making scientists seem irrelevant and worthy of ridicule for finding excitement in discovery. Somewhere a journalist is completely misrepresenting a scientist’s findings.  Somewhere a government is denying the findings of scientists to help rich people make more money.

These things make me sad.  I see no reasons why we can’t be a society that is constantly asking questions.  We have a tool for answering those questions that we know is reliable.  It is so pervasive now that we don’t even recognize all the ways it shapes our lives. If we supported that scientist in all of us, the one who first makes their appearance at the earliest of ages, the power and value of this tool would be immense.  It helps us ethically and morally.  It helps us fight oppression and inequality.  Science is the only thing that has no politics, no religion, no race or culture.  It truly is for everyone, and in everyone.

I see the March for Science as not just a political statement.  It is about showing the value for curiosity, for education, for discovery, and for wonder that we seem to be losing.  Our government has become one which seems to think it has nothing to learn.  One where opinion is as valid as fact.  One where there is no consequence for lying.  I don’t blame Trump for this alone, he may be the penultimate in this dangerous attitude, but it has been bleeding into our society for some time.  The March for Science is a march for progress.  A march that shows we care about our fellow human, and that we value science as a means to reduce suffering in the world.

I say all this, not because I am a scientist and I worry about my job.  I say this because it is my lived experience.  I say this because we all intrinsically know that change is the only truth in this universe, and that time makes a fool of the arrogant who think they have nothing more to learn.  I say this because history is full of the darkness that follows when we rest our futures on superstition and falsehoods.  Finally, I say this because I do think there is significant evidence that human-induced climate change is the scientific issue of our time, and threatens our very existence.  It challenges us like no other issue, because it cannot be solved by one nation.  It cannot be “felt” on a day to day basis.  It is the essence of science because it takes us beyond the narrow field of view that we each individually possess and asks to widen the lens and reach out into space and time, and think big.  If we cannot do that, the story of humanity becomes a tragedy.  I, for one, refuse to let it be, because I know we can do better.

 

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Solidarity

Well the strike of faculty in the Pennsylvania State System of higher education ended after 3 days of class.  Given that I had a couple of blog posts leading up to the post I thought it might be useful to sum up.  Before I get into the details of the agreement I thought I would start with some more personal observations.  I have never been on strike before and I found the experience interesting.

I think it was initially just odd because I think we all expected a last minute agreement.  It was also an odd feeling that I then became a truant, somebody who wasn’t fulfilling his contractual duty and for all intents and purposes didn’t have a job.  On the picket line we stand outside the university grounds and it was weird to get locked out of any access to campus systems as if we were just another person who didn’t work or attend the university.  I understand how it goes, but it feels a bit cold for a place that you’ve invested the last 14 years of your life in.

stike_millersvilleOn the picket line the feeling was definitely more positive.  There were so many students who supported us.  They honked their horns, came and stood with us on the picket line, and delivered snacks and water.  I really can’t express how much strength it gave all of us to see the student support.  We also had some support from grade school teachers who had recently gone through strikes of their own who lent support.  I really thought you would just be standing their on the picket line and then would have to walk to the closest fast food place in order to get lunch.  I’m pretty sure I gained weight on the picket line with all the food that was brought to us..

strike_calustudentsThere was also an intense camaraderie among faculty.  I saw many faculty I hadn’t seen in a long time as our separate “lives” in separate buildings often keeps us from interacting frequently.  I met faculty I had never met before and we had great conversations in getting to know each other better.  Despite the individual or department oriented battles we normally face every day, on the picket line there was a common sense of purpose that was a wonderful feeling.  And even though the strike is over, there is a part of me that misses that feeling.  I am sure I would feel differently if it was a cause I didn’t believe in, but when you mix in that feeling that you are fighting for something you think is important, with a group of people all feeling the same way, it’s powerful.  More powerful than I imagined it would be.  As a consequence there was also a darker side to this.  I am not sure what it all means yet but I found myself having an equally intense set of negative feelings to those who crossed the picket line.  There were a few.  While I know, intellectually that different people might have legitimate reasons, it was a sacrifice and a risk for all of us.  I even know someone who had very intense health problems and still went on strike.  I’m struggling with the empathy and already lost somebody who I considered a friend who crossed.  And I have another one that also crossed and am not sure how to deal with it right now.  Well so there’s that. “Group think” is a powerful force.  Although I’m happy to say that it still wasn’t cause enough for me to want to chant.  I’m not chanter.  🙂

strike_studentSo how did it all end?  Well I am happy to say we won.  Well sort of.  For those who believe that it was about the money for faculty I think we more than effectively proved them wrong.  After going an entire year without a new contract and losing the normal small increase in salary we usually get to keep pace with inflation, our final deal revealed very little salary increase and most of it was negated by health care cost increases.  We did reduce some of the deductibles slightly as the increased health care costs really impacted those faculty who themselves or their family have health problems.  I am happy to say that we did effectively eliminate all items from the table that reduced academic quality that I talked about in my previous post.  We also made sure adjuncts were treated fairly.  The biggest downside to it all is that the contract was short term.  It was only a 3 year contract, retroactive to when the last one expired.  So this contract will expire in May of 2018 and we’ll have to go through negotiations again.  Ultimately it’s disheartening how much the state wanted to degrade quality education for the purpose of money.  It seems apparent that they know the truth: that faculty really care about their students and educational quality and they can keep trying to degrade that and force us to take it on the chin in terms of salary.  Our increase in salary was half of what other state unions were able to get.  For most other unions it is just about salary and benefits, but our contract contains a lot of things that impact educational quality which can be used as leverage to keep salary increases low.  In a normal world, one might expect new contracts to contain things that enhance educational quality not weaken it.

With the way education is being attacked in this country I am thankful that I am in a union and that other educators have unions as well.  I naively thought it was kind of a silly thing when I started out.  It didn’t occur to me that such a large portion of society wouldn’t see it as important to always invest in and make better, as opposed to running it like a for profit business.   Currently the state schools in PA get appropriations that cover only about 25-30% of their costs.  To me this isn’t public higher education, this is a private school system with some state subsidies.  No wonder tuition costs continue to rise.  I suspect this strike is just one of many future battles we’ll be facing, and I’m ready to keep fighting.

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Here is my theme for the strike as I was the PR person and was hounded by reporters at times and “could not be everywhere at once”.

Don’t Bring Me Down

There have been numerous articles now posted in local papers about the upcoming possibility of a state system of higher education strike in Pennsylvania.  And with that comes comments.  It has been unsettling to see the amount of ire towards educators.  I know there are a lot of conservative people in PA.  In a way PA is probably a good microcosm for the general breakdown of the country in Republican vs. Democrat.  There is a thread in attitude by the critics of the strike and I just wanted to briefly talk about it.  I don’t know what to do about it, but it does make me sad.

  1. There is of course general ignorance towards the problem.  Nobody really understands what educators go through on a daily basis, but apparently we can all easily be replaced with more qualified people at a lower cost.  For most people it’s all about the bottom line.   Dollars and cents.  Critics don’t think of whether or not changes to our contract might not cause the quality of education to suffer, we are simply greedy people who want more money and don’t care about our students.
  2. There is an overwhelming sense in these hard times that if other people are suffering we should suffer too.  One person commented “Let them not work for a year and see them struggle to pay their bills just like us.”  When did we become a country who simply wanted to tear each other down.  Shouldn’t we be trying to raise people up?  I want other people to have good health care…if mine became bad I wouldn’t be asking for others to have their health care reversed.  As we tear each other down, it seems like the only people going up are the very wealth in our society.  I saw a meme recently that was based on a Harvard Business study on perception vs reality.  Most people think CEOs make 30 times what the average American worker makes, when in fact it’s 350 times more.  Here is a video that illustration financial perception vs. reality.  It seems to me that the wealthy have done an excellent job at pitting us against each other.  In the south poor white people blame poor black people or poor Latinos for their problems.  Average workers are pitted against educators.  Teacher salaries are actually quite low compared to other countries and yet we are painted as people who are draining the system.  Poor people are pitting against law enforcement.  Yet law enforcement doesn’t pay very well, and pensions are being cut.  Law enforcement is an important job that requires intelligent and highly skilled people.  Somewhere in lost in the sea of finger pointing are wealthy people laughing at us all and distracting us from who is really
    taking away all of our money.
  3. Anti-union sentiments are strong.  I never really thought much about unions and their value.  I know unions can become corrupt.  Anything can become corrupt. Churches, government, business.  But overall I’ve noticed that when there are no unions, workers are taken advantage of more strongly.  This country has a history of workers not being treated fairly and humanely.  Unions have helped us rise out of that situation.  They have brought us child labor laws and helped workers make living wages.  And while there are plenty of examples where workers are treated well without a union, by and large this isn’t always the case.  Some companies have no need to form unions, others I think it is very important.  Our union is unique because our contract also contains important elements to educational quality.  Investing in education pays off, but when we treat it like a business and we don’t invest in that business, the quality suffers.

Education itself may need reform, but the answer isn’t to reduce quality.  Let’s look at what research demonstrates as effective pedagogy and make that happen in our schools.  Let’s make education truly affordable again.  Let’s not bring each other down, and focus on the true cause of our suffering.  People on welfare aren’t my enemy.  People who have lost their jobs, their benefits, who have had to take pay cuts aren’t my enemy.  I would support you every step of the way for you to improve your quality of life, and be treated fairly by your employer.  I’m not your enemy either.  I’m in the middle income tier in PA, as are many other professors.  Your teachers on average are in an even worse place financially.  The middle class continues to get thinner and it’s not good for our country.  There should be common ground between democrats and republicans to work together to build the middle class.  Weakening education and tearing middle class people down, doesn’t seem to be the answer.

Educational Quality in Jeopardy in Pennsylvania Universities – Why a Strike Might Happen

Dear Students,

I love university.  From the very first moment I started as a student, I thought it was great.  The buildings, old and new, housing different academic fields, knowing there were extremely knowledgeable people who were dedicating their entire lives to those fields and passing on that knowledge to students.  I was nervous my first day.  University, I think no matter how small a university you go to, it feels big.  Big ideas, a campus much bigger than your high school and anxiety filled visions of getting lost, looking stupid, and feeling small run through our minds.  By the end of the first year I realized I was in love.  I felt that after 1 year of university I had learned as much as I did my entire time in high school.  I was exposed to diverse groups of people, diverse sets of ideas, and could literally feel my mind and my values growing.  Now I know my experience is not everybody’s.  It’s not everybody’s calling to devote themselves to this institution we call university, but by my junior year I knew it was my calling.

Society is made up of many different parts, and I believe that universities play an important role.  Whether a student pursues an Associate or Bachelor degree, or chooses to specialize more deeply in their area of interest through a graduate program, the character and knowledge they bring into their new roles in the “real world”, as a result of their education, is important.  We live now in a nation where universities are under attack.  Education is becoming increasingly undervalued.  Yet history clearly demonstrates that when societies make education a priority, it promotes greater innovation and economic growth, empowers people with knowledge as an antidote against oppression, and gives us the ability to flex our minds and adapt in an ever changing and increasingly technological world.  The most current attack on universities in this nation is in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).  If a new contract isn’t agreed upon between the faculty union and the state system by Oct. 19th, the faculty at 14 universities across the state will go on strike.  This has the ability to cause great disruption to the education of our students and because the state system is trying to spread the message that our striking is out of selfishness and desire for money, and a betrayal to the students we say we care about, I wanted to take a little time to explain why we’re striking and why it matters.

Educational Quality

wcu_rally
                             Faculty Rally at West Chester University

Several proposals by PASSHE remain sticking points in our ability to come to a fair agreement, and most of them have to do with educational quality. The state has conceded on some of the items that would have a negative impact on teaching from their initial proposal.  Some of the major ones still outstanding are as follows:

  • An increase in workload for full-time adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty are an important part of a university because as faculty retire or move on, as programs grow, we need quality adjuncts to fill teaching roles.  When we get good ones and the position becomes permanent and tenure track, it is an easy transition for that faculty in their new role as a permanent professor.  By increasing their workload to 5 classes (a lot by any university standards) and reducing their pay by 20% the probability of attracting quality adjunct faculty is reduced.  In addition their increased workload will have negative impacts on the quality of teaching and thus the student is not served well.  The state also wants to significantly reduce the pay for part time adjunct faculty as well.
  • Increased reliance on adjunct faculty. Ultimately adjunct faculty would like a job with more security as we all would.  Adjunct faculty are only there to teach and generally play no other role in the university.  They don’t advise students, they don’t serve on committees or are required to do university service.  And why should they?  They don’t have the same protections as tenure-track faculty and can be let go at any time.  The state wants to increase the cap on the percentage of adjunct faculty at each state university.  Coupled with the last point, this means less quality teaching.  It means that since adjunct faculty are often looking for more permanent work, this will result in universities constantly utilizing less experienced lecturers who have never taught courses before.  Any student who has taken a class from a first time teacher for a course, you know it’s not as good as it could be.
  • Increased workload for those supervising internships, supervising student teachers, and teaching lab courses. Any time there is a numbers increase on supervision, the time with each student is less.  Good supervisors do a lot of work and it is a very helpful role.  The increases in workload for internship supervision is by 67% and for supervising student teachers 20%.  The most egregious one for me is the reduced value of lab courses.  This is a difficult one to explain, but basically one hour of lab used to count as one contact hour, but now they want to reduce it to 2/3rd of a contact hour.  Faculty in the state system are required to teach 24 contact hours an academic year.  So those who teach lab courses will have a greater workload even though labs have grading, and take time to prepare just as much as a lecture.  This will also discourage faculty from offering lab courses.  Lab courses are part of important hands-on experiences.  They are usually in smaller settings too, where students have more interaction with their professor.  Increased hands-on experience in the classroom is proven in research studies to be an important part of quality teaching. So why doesn’t the state system want that?  Because if I am teaching a 3 credit course with 3 lab sections, I have 6 contact hours for a 3 credit hour course.  A regular lecture course with no lab is 3 credits and 3 contact hours.  So if I teach labs I teach less credit hours.  You, as a student, pay by credit hours.  You are a dollar sign to them, and nothing more.  They don’t care how well you are taught, or what research demonstrates about effective teaching practices.  It’s about how much money they can make.  This is what’s happening all across the U.S. in public higher education.
  • Allowing administration to move faculty to different departments to teach different courses. Did you ever have a teacher in high school teach you a subject that wasn’t their specialty?  It happens in middle schools and high schools all the time.  Have the PE teacher, teach a history class, have the biology teacher, teach a couple of math classes.  This could happen at university now as well, where teachers who didn’t specialize in a particular area are forced to teach outside their area of expertise.  How much would you expect to learn or enjoy such a class?

apscuf-contract-now-670x280

Matters of Money

So you might say this is a pretty one sided discussion what about money.  Clearly faculty want more money right?  So let’s talk about that a little.

  • Well who wouldn’t like more money? But keep in mind we have already been without a contract for almost a year and a half and have been on a salary freeze.  We would also like to be treated with similar salary increases as the state has offered other unions in the state.  We would like our salaries to keep pace with inflation.  Who doesn’t want that? However, if you talk to any of your faculty, you’ll probably find that they care less about that, than impacts on their work quality, and the quality of education they can provide you.  To show you how committed the faculty are to improving education, recently the state system tried to offer faculty more money to their salary to try and have us ignore all the measures they are taking to reduce educational quality.*  The union refused to sign a contract based solely on a salary increase, and refused to be pitted against adjunct faculty.
  • Health care costs are also currently a point of contention. There are many unions who have had to take a hit in increased health care costs.  How far we will get in regards to this issue remains to be seen, but we do believe that quality health care should be something provided by employers and changes proposed by the state system would incur additional costs in range of thousands of dollars to faculty.  We have taken smaller hits in the past which have essentially negated salary increases.  This year, most faculty expect a similar result and don’t expect more net salary given the increased health care costs we are likely to incur.

The mission of PASSHE is to provide the highest quality education at the lowest possible cost to students.  The problems that we face in higher education in this country are perhaps broader than just what we are facing here, but if tuition costs are not going down and quality continues to get lowered something about the system is broken.  We have less direct say in these larger problems, but we can be advocates for the quality of education you receive as a student.  Thus, I felt it was important for students to know that your faculty do care about you.  We don’t see you as a customer or a dollar sign. We see ourselves as people who play a role in your future, and thus the future of the region, the state, and the nation, and we feel the quality of education you get is important.  We are tired of decisions being made about teaching dictated from a group of people who haven’t spent any time in the classroom.  If you are concerned about the strike, you and your family need to send an e-mail to the university president at the university you attend.  You need to contact Chancellor Frank Brogan (Chancellor@passhe.edu).  You need to write your local state congress representatives.  We faculty, still hold hope that a strike will not be necessary, and if it happens a strike is no holiday to us.  I’ll be just off the California University of Pennsylvania campus, on the picket line, every day, hoping sooner than later, I will get to walk back on the campus and give students the quality education they deserve.  You may not agree with our taking a stand on these issues, and that’s okay, but I hope you can respect my right to see this as important, and I hope that you all will take a stand for whatever you truly care about in your futures as well.
In Solidarity,
Swarn Gill
Department of Earth Science,
California University of Pennsylvania

*Note:  The article that discusses the offer made to faculty to increase their salary, states that our average salary for faculty is over $100,000.  This is untrue.  Salaries at public universities are publicly available.  Here you can find all salaries of all employees in the university system.  You can export this data to excel.  I calculated the average salaries from cell B270 to B6315 (which is almost all faculty) and came up with an average of just under $80,000.  A big difference from what PASSHE is saying.  The data is from 2013, but represents the contract we are currently under.

The Good News and The Bad News on Climate Change

On Friday, at my university, we were fortunate enough to have a very well know climate science researcher speak, Michael Mann.  IF the name sounds familiar it’s because he was the one that produced the famous “Hockey Stick” graph that appeared in the peer-reviewed Geophysical Research Letters journal in 1999 (I wonder how many graphs have their own Wikipedia page!).  The graph of course was much maligned by climate change deniers funded by various lobbying groups, but has since that time proven to be quite accurate and verified by other researchers.  His was also among the e-mails leaked in the scandal called “climategate” which, despite the spin of deniers from out of context e-mail excerpts, has been debunked by the scientific community.  It was a great opportunity to hear from someone who has been at the heart of promoting scientific research on climate change, while also dealing with a great deal of political controversy and pseudo-science promoters who try to claim human-induced climate change is a hoax.  Like many climate scientists he has reached a point where he no longer finds it very useful to reach out to the public with facts and figures.  Numerous research articles have concluded that now, views on climate change are governed by political ideology rather than directly arguing with the science behind human-induced climate change.  I found the talk quite illuminating since I too have reached the same conclusion that scientific evidence seems to carry little weight when having discussions with people about the issue.  I also found it illuminating to learn more about the political state of affairs in the U.S. right now, so I wanted to share some good news and bad news takeaways for those of you concerned about our Earth.

The Good News

One thing that I thought was a good take away is that if you are a person debating or discussing this topic with a friend, relative, stranger whatever, that talking about the scientific consensus is probably the most helpful thing you can do.  Obviously there are always going to be contrary people, but for many there is still a misconception that this is a split issue, and research demonstrates that a lot of minds are changed by pointing out how much consensus there really is.  For more conservatively minded people reminding them that there are more economic benefits to doing something to not doing something, and that climate change also represents a national security issue is also important.  Fortunately there is already a faction of the military addressing climate change from this perspective.

The other bit of good news is that there is a great deal of plans in place by scientists and engineers to start dealing with climate change.  Basically the scientific community is prepared, and are simply waiting for the political will to be able to spring into action.

Michael Mann also said there are a lot of Republican members of congress who are closeted climate change supporters.  They accept the scientific evidence and feel that it is important to do something about it.  Why are they in the closet, well they have learned the lesson of Bob Inglis.  He was a SC congressman who served from 2005-2011 and came out for doing something about climate change from an evangelical Christian perspective.  He said the scientists were right and as Christians we should be caring for God’s creation.  If you are a Christian this is a valid position to take and is supported by scripture.  Bob Inglis ended up losing by a landslide in the Republican primary as his opponent was support by the Koch brothers.  Michael Mann and Bob Inglis are good friends and so I believe this political inside information to be plausible and valid.  In some ways by releasing him like that, conservative America has opened up a can of worms and Mr. Inglis now promotes doing something about climate change from both a Republican and Christian viewpoint.

The Bad News

Well the bad news is also related to the good news.  It makes me concerned, not only that the massive money of the Koch Brothers and energy companies lobbying against solid science is preventing us from taking action that will help this planet, but also that we have so many Republican people in congress without the political courage to stand up to the money.  It seems if they all banded together I am not sure what the likes of the Koch Brothers could do, if all of a sudden all of those people in congress lost their next elections suddenly. It would sort of “show their hand”.  I guess it upsets me that the people we elect can be so intellectually dishonest and live with themselves.

I asked Michael Mann what the political tipping point would be to make all these Republican congress people come out the proverbial closet.  He said that it would take the Republican party to crash and burn in this next election.  Only by losing the executive branch and the senate (and possibly the house) would make them turn around and start to support more environmental concerns.  The problem is that this election is looking a lot closer than it should be.  A small margin of victory by Clinton isn’t going to cut it.

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What is clear is that whatever your political stance, climate change is in your best interest and it behooves you to vote for politicians who do have the courage to fight for this planet.  Given Gary Johnson, and Trump’s stance on climate, these are really not viable options.  And most importantly make sure you vote for people in the senate and the house who accept the scientific consensus on climate change as well.

Finally I also want to help promote Michael Mann’s new book.  It gives a much more in depth discussion than my little summary here.  He also teamed up with a satirical cartoonist from the Washington Post who provides some good humor throughout the book.  The book address things like ethics, politics, the money and ideologies behind climate science deniers, logical fallacies, and of course some basics about the science.  I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

The book discusses tipping point in the climate system which are points which there is no quick return from and can lead to rapid disaster.

Tuition Free

One of Bernie Sanders big talking points during his Primary campaign run is free college tuition and public colleges and institutions.  Something so grand is easy to get behind and while I in principle support equality in access to education I think it’s worth looking at a little more carefully in terms of costs and benefits.

A couple of years ago The Atlantic published an article that showed that the cost to giving free public higher education in the U.S. would cost $62.6 billion dollars.  Now this is tuition alone, it may not include some student fees, and does not include room and board which can also be a big expense for parents.  Nobody could argue though that life would get a lot easier for families or those students only having to pay living costs.  So where should this money come from.  We could, as a society, just decide to pay for it.  It would be roughly $630 a year for the average taxpayer (approx. 100 million taxpayers in the U.S.), which means the average person’s taxes would increase to a little over $50 a month.  While I could certainly afford something like that, I don’t think everyone could, nor would such a tax increase go over well.

Now Bernie Sanders has a plan to get that $75 billion through a Wall Street speculation tax.  There seems to be some disagreement as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but even if he was able to cut college tuition costs by half this might be a good thing.  Of course the tuition costs are only one of the things he wants to change.  He wants to stop the government from profiting off of student loans, and he also wants to allow students to be able to refinance their loans at lower interest rates.  Overall I would say that he wants to make some sensible changes.  Educating your people is an investment, one that pays off, and you don’t need to profit off their loans as well.

Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated public was one of the most important parts of having a successful democracy and he is quite right.  So there is some big support for making college accessible to everyone.  My biggest concern though is that free tuition doesn’t necessarily support this aim, and so much larger shift needs to happen.

  1. With free tuition my hope is that universities will shift away from the expectation of simply producing job ready individuals. My hope is that we can allow many more students who simply want to go through and learn more about philosophy, the humanities, ethics, and how science works. More of that liberal arts centered education which has shown to be very beneficial in the market place even if it doesn’t directly seem to qualify one for a particular job.  With public higher education not being run under a business model anymore, then perhaps we can shift away from students being seen as products that have to yield immediate results or a directly translatable degree to a job.  My university actually has a degree in Professional Golf Management.  Yes I still can’t believe this is a thing.  I’m not saying that such people don’t need to be educated, but the fact that you need to create a specific degree to do that job seems surprising.
  2. As a professor it is clear to me there are many students who don’t want to be there. I don’t see free tuition as the thing that sparks students into working hard to learn and become better people.  Now may be classes could become more fun when everything isn’t so outcome based as it must be in order to meet certain performance indicators for funding, but in order for college to be of the most use to us as society several other things need to happen.  The first is K-12 reform in also getting away from a business model through those compulsory years.  By promoting critical thinking better, students may be able to handle college better.  I feel a lot of problems I see with students today are a result of being raised in a school system that focuses on rote memorization of facts and testing, over critical thinking skills.  A system in which getting the grade is more important than how you get there.  We also need to promote the value of education in general.  Perhaps it’s a bit of a chicken and egg since running schools like a business tends to put people in the mindset that knowledge is only valuable when it is directly applicable to a job, but we all need to be better in promoting how a broader knowledge base has benefits beyond just our job, since being in a democracy and being part of a pluralistic society requires us to be multidimensional in the knowledge we are proficient in.

    We also need to stop promoting college education as the be all and end all of being valuable in society.  In many countries with free tuition students much choose a track at the age of 16 as to whether they want to go to college or take a vocational track and learn a trade.  And while I don’t want to shut students off so early to the possibility of going to college, trade skills are of such an important value to society that it makes me sad here that we still are under this paradigm that everybody should go to college to be valuable in a society.

  1. I do think free tuition a higher education institutions is not necessarily a right. I do think it is a privilege.  A privilege that I think our country can afford.  And I think free tuition allows university to maintain higher levels of academic rigor.  Currently universities don’t want you to fail people, pushes you to graduate students to keep numbers higher, to make it look like your program or universities has a high graduation rate, all because it brings in more students and brings in more funding.  So I think free or lower cost tuitions gives more institutions freedom to keep standards high and thus those that do graduate are of a higher quality.

Of course there are even more secondary positive impacts.  More informed voters should lead to more responsible politicians, and less government waste.  The last episode of Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was an excellent example how making the decision to eliminate lead from homes would actually be a benefit instead of a cost in the long run.  We need voters who not only understand issues but understand economics well enough to realize good investments from bad.  Then there is also the stimulation to the economy as many more graduates who would no longer be burdened by massive student loan debt would be able to spend more.

People complain about the idea of free tuition, often because they say they don’t want to pay for someone else’s education.  But you already pay a lot more for people’s ignorance.  You pay a lot more because our generation of college graduates are deeply in debt and can’t spend money.  You pay a lot when our best and brightest can’t go to college and only our richest can.  You pay a lot more when someone remains in poverty instead of being able to get out of it through a college degree.

Minimum wage vs. College Tuition costs

Whether you feel like tuition should be free or not, the problem remains.  Students are in massive debt.  College tuition prices have increased faster than wages, and we are no longer able to give an equal opportunity to students who want to get college degrees.  Something has to change.

The Long Silencing of Women

Sometimes I think about this world, and all the problems we have and begin to wonder what kind of world it would be if women were considered truly equal to men.  Imagine all those gifted females throughout history who would have made amazing leaders, who would have made amazing scientists, scholars, inventors, who would have made amazing artists, performers, musicians and who were instead suppressed, killed, treated as property, relegated to one role only.  A society thrives on its intellectual capital.  How much have we lost?  We will never know.

And how much are we still losing?  Here are some important things to note about the state of women around the world:

Women are still very much treated like property.  It has only been in recent history that the dowry system has gone away in many parts of Europe and North America, but it is still quite prevalent in many countries.  The idea that a daughter’s family should have to pay, just to have their daughter become the property of a man, and that failure to give an adequate dowry ends in violence against the woman is deplorable.

If this was not dark enough, when it comes to women being treated as property one only has to look to human traffickingWomen make up 98% of all humans sold for bonded sex or labor.

When women are seen as objects or property rape is even more common place.  These rape statistics are truly horrible to read.  And if you want to get all picky on how hard it is to collect rape statistics and you don’t trust these numbers you can factor in a liberal margin of error and still be see some devastating numbers.  And the difficulty in ascertaining how common rape is, should give you more cause for alarm than less.  Darkness is much more successful remaining hidden than exposed.  Some highlights from the linked article (which is well referenced) is that somewhere between 60-99% of all rapes are committed by men, and 91% of rape victims are female.  Also 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and to those who think there is a large amount of false rapes reported, this number ranges only between 0.7% and 8%.  So even by your most liberal margin of error the raping of women is far too common.  Especially given that it is estimated that only 40% of rapes are reported to authorities.  These statistics are largely just from North America where rape statistics are easier to gather. A U.N. study found that “worldwide, a whopping 25% of men (1 in 4) had raped someone in their lives. 1 in 10 (10%) had raped someone who wasn’t their partner.”

Not unrelated to the points above is the greater crime of outright killing of our daughters, both in the womb and without.  In countries where women have limited opportunities for employment, where women will cost their family great financial burden from having to pay dowries, females are aborted or killed as babies disproportionately.  While this number favors countries of India and China, it estimated that about 200 million females are aborted or killed as infants every year.  That is 1/35th of the world population.  In other words 3 out of every 100 pregnancies end in death for that fetus or child solely on the basis of gender.  As I’ve argue before there is a strong correlation between abortion and infanticide and what the cost of that child is to the family.  A woman is a cost and a burden to many families.  There is logic or rationale for why this must be so.

On how much money can a daughter bring to a family if she is uneducated? In a not too terrible statistic 53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls, however, 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.  Indicating a different quality of education for women, or different amount of time girls are allowed to stay in school.  Educated women make better choices about their health and pregnancy.  For example in Mali, women with a secondary education or higher has an average of 3 children, whereas those with no education have 7.  Women without education tend to not use birth control or even know about it, thus uneducated people, who can provide less successfully for their children have more of them.  In Pakistan the difference between gender in education is an astounding nearly 700,000 less girls being educated instead of boys (although to be fair an even more astounding statistic is that over 5.5 million children are without education in Pakistan).

What do the statistics say about women and politics?  Here is a list of major countries that have only within the last 125 years or so have even given women the power to vote.  For much of “civilized” history women have had little or no say in choosing who governs them.  And how do we stand right now on the role of women in actually governing?  This link shows the incredible disparity in representation in government around the world between men and women.  Perhaps the most telling statistics from this article is that what is considered a successful benchmark for women in government is 30%.  Women make up 50% of the population and yet a goal of 30% is considered admirable. Few countries have reached that benchmark.  Currently only 22% of all national parliamentarians were women.

In science trends are more promising.  Women still only make up 42% of all science careers in the U.S.  A great international study that looks at the role of women when it comes to published scientific papers, finds that males outnumber females as lead authors in every country.  The authors admit that this may be due to the predominance of senior scientists that are men and this may hopefully change in the future, but currently women are still under-represented in science.  The study also notes “despite more than a decade of policies aimed at levelling the playing field. UNESCO data show that in 17% of countries an equal number of men and women are scientists. Yet we found a grimmer picture: fewer than 6% of countries represented in the Web of Science come close to achieving gender parity in terms of papers published.”

I won’t even pretend to have even listed all issues women face.  There are of course many others, a lot of them ripples of the deep impact from the even greater patriarchy of the past.  Even those ripples will take time to calm, and return us to equilibrium.

I am not insensitive also to issues that men face, some are very harmful and perpetuate the very serious realities that women face also.  Men have their burdens, but it is clear than women have the heavier load.  A burden they never chose to carry, a burden that men have given them.  This is not the oppression of a minority; this is the oppression of half of the human population.  Oppression so deep and ingrained that many women are even complicit to their own oppression, thinking that the extra burden they carry is normal and deserved.  I don’t care to point out how religion plays a role in all of this, although gender bias is deeply ingrained in many religious doctrines, and denying many women a place in the religious hierarchy.  The point is, there is zero moral justification for the way so many women are treated in this world.

To all the women who weren’t able or aren’t able to be all they could, I just want you to know that as someone who continues to strive towards being a better feminist, I hear your voices.  It may do no good to wonder what could have been, but we all should be in the business of wondering what could be.

 

*I dedicate this post by my friend Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes.  A more intelligent and compassionate woman you will not meet.