Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Comments on the keynote speech to Alpha Chi Honor Society.



Speech at Louisville – John Janovy, Jr.

Last fall I was invited to give the keynote address at the national Alpha Chi convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Alpha Chi is a national honors organization; most of the chapters are at smaller colleges and universities; students in the top 10% of their class are eligible for membership. The invitation was issued by Bill Clemente, an English professor at Peru State College, who is vice-president of the national council. The convention was held last week, April 6-9; attendance was maybe five or six hundred, including students and faculty members. The invitation to be their keynote speaker was a major honor. The title of that talk was, of course, “Life Lessons from a Parasite.”

The title was chosen mainly because the Alpha Chi theme is Transcending Boundaries, and of the things that parasites do well, at least as species, it’s to transcend boundaries, particularly ecological ones. Thus the life cycle of a typical trematode is wonderful material to use metaphorically, and of course I chose Posthodiplostomum minimum as my subject. This trematode lives as an adult in fish-eating birds; eggs are shed and first stage larvae develop in snails; cercariae emerge from snails, penetrate small fish, and develop into infective stages. These larvae end up in various tissues, including the eyes. Prevalence varies over the years, depending on how the South Platte River flows, which in turn is based on Rocky Mountain snowpack.

You can see immediately where this narrative is going. A parasite that infects the eyes influences how the host sees the world. A parasite whose prevalence in fish depends on Rocky Mountain snowpack is a parasite whose life is controlled, in part, by events that are distant in time and space. These kinds of relationships are easy to turn into metaphors. For example, we might ask the question: what do the following items have in common?

Zika virus, Ebola virus, influenza, HIV, Cryptosporidium parvum, MRSA, mumps, measles, tuberculosis, Dengue, Giardia intestinalis, West Nile virus, cholera, Cyclospora cyatenensis, SARS, MERS, Lyme borreliosis, poliovirus.

The answer is pretty obvious, namely, that they move through populations by way of various mechanisms; some folks get infected; others are shielded or immune; and everyone, especially people in positions of power and responsibility, needs to understand both the mechanisms by which these agents move through populations and the consequences of such movement. We could easily, of course, ask the same question about the following items:

Snapchat, rumors, fake news, smart phones, money, handguns, rap music, selfies, Pokémon Go, torn jeans, Middle Eastern names, “immigrant,” plastic water bottles, “LGBTQ,” “abortion,” recipes, bad ideas, lettuce and broccoli, car parts.

Again, the answer is pretty obvious, namely, that they move through populations by way of various mechanisms; some folks acquire or accept them; others are shielded from them, or reject them; and everyone, especially people in positions of power and responsibility, needs to understand both the mechanisms by which these agents move through populations and the consequences of such movement. Furthermore, some are only words (LGBTQ, immigration, abortion) that elicit strong responses in people, others provide power (money, guns), and still others enter our personal realms by way of the media and because of distant events over which we have little or no control (Middle Eastern names).

At some point toward the end of this talk I used the term “divisiveness” as an example of a meme that had taken on significant power in recent decades. In other words, it is an entity that is moving through our population, producing reactions, depending on the prior exposure of the recipient. During the question and comment session that followed, two students made comments that I thought were truly profound.

One student indicated that I had characterized the meme “divisiveness” as negative, whereas in the past, it had been a driving force for people to participate in the political process, and indeed to effect change. I agreed with her completely. The other student asked whether I thought that divisiveness could function as a vector, carrying along other memes, or enhancing the extent to which those carried-along memes were accepted or rejected. I had to not only agree completely with this student, but it seemed to me that his idea might be a great one for a senior thesis in communications or journalism.




Saturday, March 25, 2017

Chapter 15 from INTELLIGENT DESIGNER: EVOLUTION FOR POLITICIANS



Chapter 15. Why are Politicians so Scientifically Illiterate?
A United States policy that could find no other option, he suggested, was one of “indolent short-term expediency.”
—Barbara Tuchman (Stillwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945)
Elected officials in general are scientifically illiterate for two reasons: first, they often are either businessmen or –women, or attorneys, and neither one of these professions requires or encourage scientific literacy; and, second, real scientists and serious teachers, those who are most likely to be quite literate, typically have neither the taste for, nor the resources to seek, elected public office. In a pluralistic society such as ours, both reasons are fairly legitimate. Later on in this chapter I’ll come back to the business community and its scientific literacy because this subject is a rich one to use in exploring the interrelationships between science, technology, national security, and economic health. The legal profession, however, has little or no reason to be scientifically literate except in cases involving modern forensics or industries that are heavily dependent on technology. Lawyers and businessmen can, however, and often do, hire their scientific literacy in the form of consultants and expert witnesses, either of which may be quite literate, but neither of which is particularly constrained by the unwritten laws of real science. In other words, consultants and expert witnesses don’t necessarily do science; instead, they are skilled consumers and users of science.
In a previous chapter I defined “scientific literacy” and explored its several applications. In this chapter I’m actually going to address the problems of science education, but not necessarily what we typically think of as “science education” in the public school sense. Instead, I will focus on what we might call “deep” education, that is, the kind that changes the way we view the world. For example, we might claim that having a vague sense of what a molecule is, and perhaps even being able to define the term, counts as being at least somewhat scientifically literate. After all, you have a word and an idea in your mind and you’re not completely baffled when you hear the word spoken on television or read it in the newspaper. Furthermore, you might actually be able to use this word in a complete sentence, such as “I wonder whether the molecules in these pills will make me sick if I swallow them with good Irish whiskey,” or “I wonder whether some of the molecules in that bag of lawn chemicals will kill my cat.”  These particular sentences reveal an incipient scientific-type curiosity, whereas the sentence “Don’t bother me with all that talk about molecules, just give me something to cure this headache,” although also a complete sentence, nevertheless expresses a naïveté typical of the scientifically illiterate.
The deep education is revealed, however, when you incorporate the idea of a molecule into your daily decision making, regardless of whether the decisions are simple easy ones (whether to put sugar or artificial sweetener on your cereal) or more long term and difficult ones (whether to stop taking your prescribed medicine because of a newspaper report on associated side effects in a small number of cases). In the first instance, you feel comfortable making the simple decision because you also have a third choice, namely neither, and you don’t know anyone who’s actually been hurt by either sugar or artificial sweetener, at least in single doses. Your molecular decision may be influenced by your weight on any particular day, by your weight on previous days, on your desired weight, or on the feeling of having achieved a goal relative to weight control. Although the decision to use sugar or substitute is a pretty trivial one in scientific terms, when that decision becomes part of an overall engagement with matters of diet and weight control, especially for sound and healthy reasons, then the decision indicates a fairly sophisticated engagement with biology as a science, albeit at a highly personal level. And, if you actually read labels on food products and understand most of what these products contain, you’re well on your way toward becoming scientifically literate.
The second instance, namely, the decision to stop taking a prescription drug, is more troublesome because you really don’t have much control over many of the factors that went into your possession of this supply of molecules. You did not write the prescription; your doctor wrote it based on observations that you might know but probably don’t completely understand. You don’t have any information beyond what’s written in the newspaper about the serious side effects cases or from various web sites, some of them provided by the pharmaceutical industry and others provided by kooks. In the best of all worlds you quit taking the medicine and don’t notice much difference in your health because the medicine wasn’t having any dramatic effects anyway (this actually was the case with me and a drug prescribed for joint pain). In the worst of all worlds you start worrying about the potential side effects and can’t seem to get a straight answer from your doctor or HMO. So it becomes a relief when the company that manufactures this drug pulls it from the market. The deep decision has been made for you.
The decisions that I’ve called “deep” are ones that involve both a breadth of scientific knowledge and a propensity, derived from an understanding of science as a way of knowing, to evaluate evidence supporting an assertion and to think in comparative terms. Deep decisions accept the fundamental nature of science, namely its dependence on observations, the independence of those observations from your desires or beliefs, and the fact that to be relevant, observations must function to test an assertion. Such decisions also accept the idea of probability and the fact of statistical variation instead of demanding certainty. In the case of the sugar substitute decision, you may well have shown a high level of scientific literacy if you engaged in all the label reading and diet design activities intended to keep you healthy and actually knew why you were doing these acts. In addition, such literacy probably primed you to acquire further scientific knowledge and understanding if needed, e.g., when faced with a significant environmental issue affecting your property values.
Furthermore, if you’re convinced that your dietary awareness, exercise, and label reading keeps your weight and cholesterol under control then you’re sort of a walking experiment but with a sample size of one and no control group with which to compare yourself. Nevertheless, you have a testable assertion regarding your own body and through your activity based on scientific literacy you are testing that assertion about weight and blood chemistry, and probably also self-esteem. Regardless of the sample size and lack of control group, you are making decisions that affect yourself and perhaps others, such as family members, using knowledge about the natural world, and using that knowledge in a rational way consistent with scientific practice. The alternate version of this assertion, that if you consume large quantities of certain kinds of molecules you will become heavier and less healthy (as revealed by a bathroom scale and the blood work at annual physical exam time), is also well within your power to test, but your decision not to test it is an example of one based on a meaningful relationship between desire and nature. In other words, nature will allow you to fulfill your desire, provided you interact with nature in a way suggested by scientific knowledge about how nature—your body—works.
As indicated in the previous chapter, testable assertions are the hallmark of science, and later I’ll expand on this scientific property within the context of political action. But for the moment, we should remember that in the political arena, assertions are testable only within an historical framework. In other words, politics is an historical discipline with its own rules of evidence that may not match those of proximal or normal science, i.e., the kind of science that does experiments with material amenable to experimentation. Within the realm of history, you can’t really do “experiments,” as we properly define the term; you can only assess the validity of some assertion by looking back on what actually happened when you acted as if that assertion was true. There is no better example of this kind of historical assertion testing than the Iraq war that began with the invasion of that nation by a group of other nations, led mostly by the United States, in 2003. The assertion that Saddam was developing, or had and intended to use “weapons of mass destruction,” the assertion that Iraqis would quickly adopt an American-style democracy once their dictator was overthrown, the assertion that Iraq would be a business-friendly working environment shortly after hostilities ceased, all were tested and shown to be false. But unlike a real experiment, say involving bacterial metabolism, you can’t go back and start over with Iraq.
The vast majority of all politicians rely on public approval to sustain their employment. In addition, once in office, the trappings of power can become quite seductive. These two facets of political life are among the main reasons that politicians are so scientifically illiterate, or at least act as if they are. Nevertheless, most if not all positions occupied by politicians also involve major responsibilities, compliance with various laws, ceremonial activities, and nowadays, public scrutiny of religious beliefs and behaviors demonstrating “faith.”  Nobody who professes to be an atheist should be so stupid as to spend money running for public office in the United States of America, no matter how lowly that office might be or how qualified the individual. Elected membership on the Lancaster County, Nebraska, Weed Control Authority comes immediately to mind; no self-proclaimed secular humanists need apply. Thus politicians are scientifically illiterate, or act as if they are, because the demands of public office, the need for public approval, and the constant scrutiny of their faith-based behavior, all job-related phenomena that work to make such literacy a liability instead of an asset.
Besides the factors of responsibility, approval, and scrutiny, it is also important to remember that mobs want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. In general, science tends to produce more questions and problems than answers and solutions. This tendency derives from the fundamental nature of science as an activity. Elsewhere in this book I use the metaphor of an island of understanding in a sea of ignorance to explain why science produces more problems than solutions. Remember that as an island grows in size (increase in understanding) its shoreline (the boundary between understanding and ignorance) also grows. All the questions and problems lie along this boundary. In addition, to continue with the metaphor, the larger an island gets, the more geographically diverse it tends to become. If that geographic diversity involves mountains, then we have a high perch from which to observe the sea of ignorance. Routinely such observation shows that sea to be much larger than we imagined when we were only down on our hands and knees in the sand studying nature at the [metaphorical] shore.
The familiar case of New Orleans vs. Hurricane Katrina beautifully illustrates all these points about breadth of knowledge, comparative thinking, observations, history, and the basic properties of science. Breadth of knowledge is perhaps the most important factor that should have been considered in the political decisions involving the Mississippi Delta ecology. Thus a broadly educated politician would never simply ask how much money an ecological project—for example, a system of levees and an artificial river (the New Orleans shipping channel)—costs, or how much money the public is willing to spend on such a project. Instead, as a minimum, a broadly educated politician considers history, socio-economic conditions, the probability of disaster, the quality of expertise consulted, whether or not that expertise is in agreement with other expertise from diverse sources, the nature of observations, the process of analysis, and whether the process itself has obvious flaws or internal contradictions. In other words, to really assess the adequacy of New Orleans levees, one would have to study the Mississippi Delta using approaches that would be quite familiar to any evolutionary biologist.
Research over the past half century, i.e., activity increasing both the size of our island of understanding and the length of its shoreline boundary with the sea of ignorance, clearly revealed (produced) more questions and problems about the Mississippi Delta region than answers and solutions. Such research involved new technologies such as satellite imagery, geographic information system software, and socio-economic analysis, as well as experience derived from study of the Achafalaya River and its basin using more conventional methods—measurement of stream flow, sedimentation and erosion rates, pressures on diversion dams and gates, etc. Over the years, the scientific community came to realize that the initial problem and its solution, namely, keeping water out of New Orleans by building levees, was actually only a small part of a much larger problem, specifically, long term management of the interrelationship between a nation’s economy and one of the world’s largest rivers. This kind of collective activity, in which a truly massive ecosystem is the primary player at the center of a highly integrated, far-reaching, transportation and financial network, does not lend itself to governance by mobs that want answers and solutions, not questions and problems, from their leaders. Instead, this kind of system requires almost Jeffersonian dignity, patience, foresight, and breadth, traits that don’t survive well in our Third Millennium media-driven electioneering environment.
Such a broad education, and its use in a public arena, is therefore a lot, indeed probably too much, to ask of any modern politician. But then, of course, it is the job of any newspaper reporter half-way qualified for his or her job to ask the right questions of elected officials in order to reveal those officials’ breadth of knowledge in situations involving natural phenomena, or, in the best of all worlds, to inspire those politicians to acquire knowledge, wisdom, and some decent honest advisers who are not just sycophants. Sadly, perhaps for reasons that are deeply embedded in the human DNA, as a general rule we are not patient with careful analysis, complex interactions between elements of nature, varying degrees of probability, and leaders who are honest about the chances that disaster will befall us. Instead, we seem to admire leaders who are strong advocates of actions based on our beliefs and desires, who inspire us to be courageous, and who tend to simplify a complex universe down to issues and explanations we can understand. And leaders who can convince us we are in danger, and seem to be fighting that danger in an obvious way, are the ones we seem to admire the most. None of this typical interaction between a population and its chosen leaders promotes scientific literacy or honesty about the relationship between nature and people.
I do not claim that scientists, because they are scientists, are more honest or broadly educated than politicians. In the realm of science, however, the honesty system operates much more strongly and rapidly than in the realm of politics, mainly because this system typically involves anonymous review of scientific work before that work is made public, and it does not involve public decision-making. If you are doing experiments on the sex life of some tiny worm, and try to publish your results then some well-educated scientist will scrutinize your methods, including your experimental design, statistical analysis, rationale for doing the project in the first place, interpretations of the results, the extent to which you have taken existing knowledge into account, and even the quality of your writing. All this review does not necessarily make you an honest person, but it does tend to pick up flaws in your thinking and mistakes in your actions. But if you go to a cocktail party filled with attorneys and elected city officials, the main question you are likely to be asked about this research is: “Why is this kind of stuff important?”  The question really means: “Why are you wasting time and money, maybe even tax money, on this kind of activity, and why do you seem to be so interested in sex?”
There may be a thousand good reasons why you are studying the sex life of obscure worms, but these reasons probably involve the fundamental nature of science itself. The worms could, potentially, become a model system for the study of hormone action at the cellular level, thus serving to help explain developmental anomalies in humans, livestock, and companion animals. The worms might be extraordinarily beautiful creatures under the microscope, thus quite attractive to students who in turn could easily become internationally renowned scholars studying some global human affliction but who remember fondly their carefree undergrad days back in the lab when all they had to talk about was worm sex. The worms’ reproductive biology could easily shed light on the origin of sex itself, or the evolution of pheromones, both subjects of enormous interest to the scientific community. Pheromone action, as you might suspect, also could be of substantial interest to the cosmetics industry. When a scientist hears that another scientist is studying the sex life of obscure worms, then all of the possibilities mentioned in this paragraph usually come to mind because scientists typically understand how science itself works on a grand scale. Politicians, however, like their constituencies, rarely get past the issues of time, money (especially tax money), and sex, although sometimes, if not often, there is a hidden disdain for people who would spend their lives studying microscopic creatures with no immediate economic importance.
In our example of the worms, politicians’ focus on time, money, sex, and utility is not necessarily stupid, evil, or dangerous, although it has the potential for being all three. In the previous paragraph, I’ve actually revealed all the reasons why in order to remain economically competitive in a technologically competitive world, a nation needs to have a strong, healthy, broad, and active scientific enterprise. Flourishing scientific activity, sustained largely by curiosity about the natural world, breeds scientists, models, new ways of studying nature, and new applications of existing technology. In other words, it is the human resources that are of prime importance to a highly developed nation, not the discoveries themselves. Given enough human resources engaged in research, techniques for studying heretofore mysterious aspects of nature will be developed and the discoveries will be made. Furthermore, breadth of research interest tends to produce transferable technologies, a critical factor in sustaining a technology-based economy.
The laser (light amplification by stimulated emission) is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon from 20th Century science in the United States. A brief history of this technological development can be found on the Bell Labs web site (www.bell-labs.com/history/laser/), but in essence, two scientists—Arthur L. Schawlow and Charles H. Townes—developed the technology from research that began in the 1940s. Schawlow was a researcher at Bell Labs, and Townes was a consultant to the Bell Labs research enterprise. These scientists’ primary interest at the time was molecular structure, and the laser was intended to be a device to help them pursue their research in this area. The commercial development of this technology, along with its rapid spread throughout almost all aspects of modern American life, can be traced to the publication of a paper entitled Infrared and Optical Masers (in Physical Review, volume 112, pages 1940-1949, published December 15, 1958). You can read this original piece of science simply by doing a Google® search using the title—Infrared and Optical Masers—as your search term. Now we have laser pointers in the classroom, laser surgery in the hospital, laser scanning in the grocery story, etc. Although the laser may be the most easily understood example of transferable technology, our daily lives are filled with other cases. And, of course, science feeds on itself in this regard, with practicing scientists always looking for new applications for new and existing technologies.
Another history lesson—actually a rule of human resource development—that politicians typically fail to understand is the following: Artists often spring quickly, even spontaneously, out of a population, but scientists do not. Technological advances and economically important innovations might periodically emerge out of the realm of basic science, but the “realm of basic science” requires a vastly different cultural milieu than does the intellectual soup that spawns artists. Any nation that does not outright suppress or punish artists will end up with a good supply of them, and musicians as well, but to be economically competitive in the Third Millennium, nations need lots of healthy, authentic, curiosity-directed, scientists and such individuals are not guaranteed to arise, and become legitimate scientists, by virtue of their own two hands and a paintbrush or a guitar. Science needs physical facilities, computational power, technology, ready access to information on a global scale, time, and patience. To be economically competitive in the Third Millennium, a nation does not need a bunch of ignorant elected officials, afraid of science, afraid of the word “evolution,” and afraid of anything that seems to support immoral behavior. A nation needs, instead, a bunch of courageous and intellectually honest people who have the interpersonal and verbal skills to help educate its citizens on scientific matters, and especially on the link between economic health and a valid understanding of how nature operates.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Comments on diversity - from an academic's perspective



Comments on diversity – from an academic’s perspective
John Janovy, Jr.
Beginning in the fall of 1966, I started teaching large introductory courses in biology. My sections varied from 110 to 362 students, and I taught these kinds of classes for 46 years. Going back through my records, I estimate that the total number of students involved was about 16,000, although it may have been higher. Early in my career I started giving a few points for students who filled out a simple questionnaire, came by my office, and carried on a five-minute conversation (which often lasted much longer than that). The criterion for getting those few points was that I needed to be able to recognize these individuals, by name, on campus outside of class. I started having these visits because of the number of letters of recommendation I was being asked to write, and it seemed like I needed to at least know who these people were and why they were taking my class. I ended up giving those points to about half of them, or up to 7,000 or 8,000. I also ended up knowing quite a few of them by name, for various reasons, even though they did not come by for the interview and points. I still communicate with a few of those ~16,000 former students.
Among these thousands were people who had gone to high school (or equivalent) in at least 12 different nations, spoke at least that many languages (among them), and had traveled to 62 different nations, including those the US government later considered terrorist-harboring states. These students were of pretty much of all shapes, sizes, and colors, academic strengths, interests, clothing styles, religious affiliations, sexual orientations (insofar as I knew), and a broad range of ages (from a 17-year old high school senior taking college classes, to a 72-year old non-traditional student). They came from high schools of all sizes and sophistication levels in Nebraska and elsewhere in the nation, including parochial schools, public schools, and small schools in Nebraska Sandhills towns. Some were home schooled. Some had children of their own. At least a few were immigrants whose parents’ first language was not English. One was a refugee from a war-torn African nation. Their majors included the full range of those offered by my institution.
Among the athletes were football players (at least three of whom ended up in the NFL and one on the cover of Sports Illustrated), volleyball players (at least two on national championship teams and one Olympian), gymnasts of both genders, a few female (and one male) basketball players, swimmers, track athletes, golfers, bowlers, and rifle team members. I filled out numerous grade and progress reports on these athletes; it’s pretty obvious to me why certain students might not be eligible to play in a bowl game or compete in conference or national championships. In my experience, academically the athletes as a group were quite representative of the general student population.
Among my former students, I know of three who are now deceased but there may be more. Among those who I keep in contact with, their current situations range from very successful physicians, including those who teach in med schools, to college profs and administrators (at least one vice chancellor), dentists, public school teachers, several different kinds of health care professionals (nurses, dental hygiene, physical therapy, radiology), attorneys, housewives unemployed outside the home, ranchers, and professional artists. I’d be very surprised if the range of occupations was not far greater than those I know about, although because I am a biologist, a lot of my students ended up in the health professions.   
My interactions with these students ranged from recruiting them into my lab for research, recruiting them into my Cedar Point Biological Station course, to helping them with vocabulary for hours, and during multiple visits, to hiring them for editorial work, to wondering who they were and why they were not taking advantage of the help offers, to writing them numerous recommendation letters—scholarships, professional schools, etc. In three cases, in my office, I felt like I had to keep a student engaged in conversation until he/she calmed down enough so that I was convinced he/she was not self-destructive.
All three of those cases were in my last month of teaching, April, 2011, and the course was BIOS 103, Organismic Biology. All three of those students who sat in my office in April, 2011, were doing just fine; I blame their mental state—obsessed with performance and the “correct” answers—on George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind, and the experience of growing up in a high stakes standardized testing environment. I was not quick enough at the time to check on where these kids went to high school; had I done that, I might have been able to add parochial or private school pressure to the mix of factors that evidently created such stress. I do remember, however, the day one of our teaching assistants made the comment in seminar, with a sort of “what the hell has happened?” look on her face, that this particular freshman class was the first one that had never known any educational environment other than that produced by NCLB.
So, what is my take-home relative to the human resources that walk into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s front door every year by the thousands? I have some reflections and impressions to share, reflections and impressions that may have some relevance to the coup that took place on January 20, 2017, the leader of which is now working very hard to alter the United States of America’s fundamental character into something resembling an under-developed, illiterate, intellectually-impoverished, obedient, pathologically nationalistic, state on a downward spiral toward government-induced willful ignorance, fiscal collapse, military defeat. I hope I’m wrong in my predictions, but nothing I’ve seen so far, especially relative to public education policy embraced by the new administration, assures me that is the case. We’ll see.
JJ’s Take-homes (may not match your impressions if those impressions are formed through ignorance, especially willful ignorance):
(1) You cannot predict much of anything from what someone looks like, what they are wearing, where they went to high school, their sexual orientation, their religious affiliations, or any other trait, although their ability to read and answer multiple choice questions, especially if they have already been given both the questions and the answers, is not as great these days as it was in the 1970s and 80s. Again, I blame No Child Left Behind and the Bush White House’s infatuation with standardized testing and punishment for failure or inadequacy. On the plus side, however, NCLB certainly provided lots of employment opportunities for statisticians.
(2) You can sort of predict a person’s future success from how well, and how easily, they converse, read, and write. Of all the students who seemed to speak with confidence, who seemed unafraid of me, and who both read and wrote well, those students seemed to achieve their immediate and near-future goals pretty easily. Those near-future goals were generally professional schools or grad school.
(3) The right-wing “pundits” who decry safe spaces at colleges, accuse faculty members of warping young minds into bleeding-heart liberals, blame the nation’s ills on multi-cultural awareness, ask for political party affiliation of profs, and are ready to purge American higher education of tenured humanities scholars, those so-called “pundits” are simply full of shit. These guys are not pundits; they are willfully ill-informed brainwasher wannabes, picking anecdotes and generalizing them to reinforce their followers’ biases, prejudices and fears. The vast and overwhelming majority of college students just want to satisfy graduation requirements, minimize their debts, keep their parents happy, get decent grades, and eventually find employment. Some of them obviously want to get laid. More than half these students, however, are at least somewhat concerned about inappropriate physical contact.
(4) In my entire career, I have never seen any instance in which a person’s sexual orientation was a problem for one of my classes, or for society as a whole. Among those 16,000 students, somewhere between 500 and 1000 were likely LGBT; I never knew which ones. I also have worked professionally with people from several different nations (some of which ended up on the US terrorism watch list), from many different areas within higher education (the arts, humanities, business, basic and applied sciences, administration, staff [including custodians], and alumni organizations) and never once, in my 46-year career, has sexual orientation or significant other relationships affected our ability to do the business at hand.
What I have seen affect careers, however, is pathological insecurity, narcissism, and an obsession with reputation on the part of administrators. In other words, people who cannot bring themselves to focus on the institution’s basic missions of teaching, research, and service, and do not understand the available resources, but instead must demonstrate their power, often through stretching of ethical standards and bullying of subordinates, are significantly more of a problem for society than are people pursuing their private lives in ways that have no bearing on how we as a society actually function. The only people I have known to be damaged by LGBT status are the LGBT people themselves, and such damage has been a result of discrimination and violence against them.
(5) I have known people who have functioned to teach critical thinking, transferable skills like writing and data analysis, meaningful professional behavior (usually by example), and appreciation as well as [attempted!] understanding of the arts and humanities, but who would have been summarily fired because of administrator capriciousness had they not been protected by tenure. In other words, they were doing exactly what higher education is supposed to be doing to sustain what some of us call “American exceptionalism,” but for some reason made a middle manager uncomfortable, or weren’t doing their job in an area of expertise that middle manager thought was important. In general, middle managers either make or break an organization; capriciousness, narcissism, and self-importance are traits sure to inhibit accomplishment of a unit’s mission, whether that unit be an infantry patrol, an academic department, or a nation.
The current evolution toward untenured adjuncts, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is not good for American higher education and because American higher education has been a real source of strength for the country, it’s not good for the nation. “It” in this case is, of course, the business model in which certification, content delivery, and unit production (graduate) per unit expense (dollar) supersede quality and intellectual diversity. In this case, those pursuing the business model as a management strategy have mistakenly equated certification with quality; those pursuing this strategy are simply wrong. The adjuncts themselves, often appreciative of any kind of an academic income, are major victims of this strategy because so many of them should be tenured profs instead of temps.
“Quality” in education equates to a broad understanding of arts and literature, possession of transferable skills, ability to work with diverse populations, ability to read and write well, ability to analyze complex situations and documents, and personal, psychological, and emotional self-confidence. It is not the mission of an American university to produce people “trained for a job;” it is the mission to produce people with the above traits who are also able to do not only one job, but their next job, another person’s job, and the next job after that. Reading, writing, and an ability to understand quantitative issues are essential in this regard, and those are the traits that university can and should focus on. They are also the traits that are taught most successfully through breadth of experience.
(6) The United States has thrived because it has been a nation of freely-expressed creativity in the arts and sciences. Richard Florida’s books (The Rise of the Creative Class and others) laid out the basic thesis that tolerant societies are, or can become, richer, more innovative, and economically healthier than intolerant ones. His theories were focused mainly on urban areas, and over the past decade or so have been validated in some cases but not in others. You can’t turn Podunk, Nebraska, into Silicone Valley just by appreciating rap music whether you listen to it or not, and ignoring the fact that some folks are gay. But the visual arts, music, good libraries, and diverse entertainment venues all enrich our lives immeasurably. You may work hard all day, but when your kid plays in the school orchestra, you go listen and come away from the experience feeling like your time on Planet Earth has suddenly become more important, more enjoyable, and richer.
The tolerance principle applies to human talent across nationalities and ethnic groups. Here is the biology lesson: statistically speaking, a child born into a Syrian refugee family is just as likely as one born into a Texas Southern Baptist preacher’s family to be LGBT, to be a superb musician, to be able to write poetry or stories that bring tears to your eyes, to become an engineer, or to wreak havoc with his or her personal behavior. However, what happens once that child exits the womb determines how, or whether, those innate traits are expressed. Culture can, and does, strongly influence our lives from the hour we’re born until the moment we die. The real question, when dealing with human diversity, is whether the individual characteristics that you personally find objectionable really are damaging to the society that supports you. If the answer is no, it’s time to be tolerant. Skin color, ethnicity, religious preference (including none), sexual orientation, art, music, and literature are not problems for societies as a whole unless the members of those societies make them a problem. If you need a history lesson, do a Google search using the word “Holocaust.”
(7) Finally, because of those questionnaires, I know that a large number of my ~16,000 former students attended parochial schools, and that probably 60% of them were Catholic. Others came from places like Lincoln Christian and Lincoln Lutheran; many of them wore crosses; and many were involved in church-related volunteer or youth-group activities. I have been yelled at from the back of a large auditorium (Henzlik Hall) because we’d arrived at the evolution section of BIOS 101, and I’ve had extended written correspondence with a student who wanted to help me accept Jesus as my personal savior. One semester I had to miss a class, and as a substitute exercise, asked my students for a 250-word essay on the subject of evolution. A surprising number of those essays, posted on our course management software site for my BIOS 101 section, began with the words “In our family, we would not be allowed to talk about evolution . . .” (or something to that effect). Given that at the time—pre-climate-change rhetoric—evolution was sort of a litmus test for basic scientific literacy, that kind of response was a mild shock. The fact that more than one or two wrote it, out of the ~250 who did the exercise, was sobering.
I’m not going to blame religion for all our nation’s willful ignorance ills, but I do believe that religion must share a chunk of the responsibility, especially in those denominations where obedience, judgement of others based on their personal traits, and intolerance are the norm. As part of my research for a writing project (Comes the Millennium: A Look at the Burgeoning Hysteria, Religious Mania, and Anti-intellectualism as the Millennium Approaches, 1996, St. Martin’s Press, published under the pseudonym “Jack Blake”), I studied religion for a full year. I spent an enormous amount of time in various libraries, seriously reading both primary and secondary literature on Christianity, including its history.
I avoided other religions, including both monotheistic and polytheistic, for three reasons: first, because the volume of literature was just so staggering; second, because “evolution” seemed to be such an anathema to good old American southern-type Christian denominations, including the ones I was sort of familiar with; and third, my ignorance of Judaism and Islam, not to even mention polytheistic ones such as Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and tribal religions in the Americas and Africa  (to quote from an Internet source) was so vast that I was simply not equipped to get into the literature and deal with it in a scholarly way. The Christianity part was tough enough, but at least I felt like I was in somewhat familiar territory, having gone to Presbyterian churches since childhood, worn out my copy of Egermeier’s Bible Stories, a gift for my seventh birthday, read all of Karen Armstrong’s and Elain Pagel’s books, read David Chidester’s Global History of Christianity, and routinely consulting my copy of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.
So in my opinion your qualifications for voting in a nation so heavily dependent on science and technology are established largely by your church. If you came out of that church believing that the planet is ~10,000 years old and that the Genesis origin myth is literal fact, you are not well educated enough to assess the political positions on any issue involving science, technology, energy, and the environment. If you came out of that church believing that homosexuality is a sinful life-style choice and that gay marriage will destroy society, you are not well educated enough about human biology and diversity to help solve our nation’s problems. If you came out of that church believing (and acting in accordance with that belief) that women are not fit for the same roles in society as men, you are not well educated enough to help solve our nation’s problems.

So what is the take-home from all this commentary? The answer is relatively simple: humanity’s problems, and by extension any nation’s, state’s, or city’s problems, cannot be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. These problems can, however, be alleviated when we know their origin, collect data on various attempts to solve them, and are rational about their actual impact on the quality of human life in general. Thus what disturbs you personally is, in the larger scheme of things, inconsequential unless that disturbing factor is also making life difficult, shorter, and more unpleasant and constrained, for many others.
A growing income gap between rich and poor is a good example of a consequential problem and history has shown us repeatedly that this problem is a major one for any nation. Lack of educational opportunity is also a consequential problem, especially when that lack is unevenly distributed among a population. A nation simply cannot function with an ignorant and unskilled population. Or rather, a nation simply cannot function in a way that allows its citizens relative freedom and a rich cultural life under such conditions. Totalitarian states demonstrate this principle beautifully. Finally, equality of opportunity and equality under the law are essential elements of a nation, state, or town in which the quality of human life is relatively high. Again, totalitarian states beautifully demonstrate this principle by withholding such equality from segments of their populations.
As I read my local newspaper, the books my local library provides, and the magazines, mostly with well-documented stories, delivered by my local postman, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that our current president, Donald Trump, and his hand-picked team of small-minded wackos, are all working overtime to generate inequality of opportunity, inequality under the law, inequality and indeed diminished quality of education, diminished quality of the common environment, and an irrational focus on so-called problems that have little impact on our national health. This irrational focus, a good example being wholesale deportation, has every chance of having a major negative impact on our nation’s economic health.
And why is this current administration so focused on these acts? The only answer I can give, and it’s an answer derived from interacting with those thousands of people over the past half-century, is that we have chosen to put an emotionally insecure, under-educated, bully in a position of enormous power over our lives. Like bullies in general, Mr. Trump and his appointees are focusing their destructive efforts on the most vulnerable aspects of our society. The choice to give those kinds of bullies that kind of power, ladies and gentlemen, was a big time mistake.
So it’s now time to be observant, rational, and analytical instead of emotional about the United States of America. It’s time to ask whether legislation and executive orders actually strengthen the nation, or weaken it by reducing equality of opportunity and equality under the law. It’s really time to ask whether pronouncements from the White House have any substantial basis supported by data, published research, or matters of public record. If the answer is “no,” as it so often seems to be nowadays, then you have my personal assurance that nobody, and I do mean nobody, even your friends, will harm you if you admit that whatever you are being told has no basis in fact and act accordingly. Do not be afraid of knowledge; do be afraid of demagogues and pathological liars. And be especially afraid of your own prejudices when they lie to you, from inside your mind, about what the world is really like.