Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

facts

These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.

Art & the Protection of Democracy

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Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facts, Truth & Being Nice to One Another

Truth sign“Critical thinking,” says author Tom Nichols, “is that thing that says ‘Start asking questions. Don’t be afraid of where they go.’ It is okay to change your mind.”

Nichols, who has changed his mind more than once but has never not been a critical thinker, was in San Francisco recently promoting his latest book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. He is more than a little concerned that the acceptance of untruths and outright lies, and the increasing willingness to ignore experts on all subjects, is going to get our democracy into deep trouble.

“There’s been a change,” he says, “from ‘I doubt you; explain.’ to ‘I know more than you do.’”

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols & interviewer Melissa Caen

Nichols is unquestionably an expert himself – a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion (among a long list of other credentials on his Wikipedia page) – and sees many reasons for the death of expertise. A virtual epidemic of narcissism, for one; technology in many of its uses and abuses for another. But the danger of the “collapse of expertise,” he says, is that it can easily lead to mob rule. And poof, there goes democracy. Nichols is concerned, as he writes in The Death of Expertise, that “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was also in town recently, talking a good bit about facts and truth herself. Unsurprisingly, Pelosi feels there is not much respect for either in the present administration. She opened her remarks with a report on President Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders. “The first thing the president said was, ‘Do you know I won the popular vote?’ Now first, that wasn’t relevant to what we were there for. And it wasn’t true.”

Nancy Pelosi & Scott Shafer 5.30.17

Pelosi with interviewer Scott Shafer of KQED

Pelosi repeatedly said she felt things could get done, including on many issues that would require  cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. “But we have to start with facts. Data. Truth.”

Nichols says the best way to get the facts – “the real story” – is to read multiple sources. (“I read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.”) And to those who would say, “I don’t have time,” Nichols has one answer: “Yes. You. Do.”

If the issues and the problems are complex, Nichols suggests that part of the answer is sublimely  simple: “We have to be nicer,” he says. “We have to believe we want the best for each other.”

That has, in a not-so-distant past still fondly recalled by more than a few Americans, been true.

 

 

 

A Soft Spot for a Pillow

tired guy

Rejuvenation. Couldn’t we all use a little rejuvenation? It is not a subject on which I have spent a great deal of time; but recent events prompt this report.

Walking home from downtown one recent, hot San Francisco afternoon this writer happened to pass a Sutter Street storefront window featuring a sign: Rejuvenation Pillow. Who could resist?  The sidewalk was steamy, a homeless gentleman was asleep in an adjacent shady doorway, guarded by a small shaggy dog; and the usual cacophony of impatient taxis, Muni buses and wailing ambulances prevailed. I stepped inside, and into – Peace. I mean, a huge, cool, quiet room full of beds tastefully made up with coverlet corners tastefully turned back. I spotted a water jug on a shelf near the desk in back. Cool water! There was no one in the sales room at the time other than one serene young woman at the desk.

“Ummm,” I said into the tranquil air, “I’m wondering about the Rejuvenation Pillow.”

(Pillows are a widespread concern these days. The MyPillow people would have you believe their pillow is the answer to  prayer, which may or may not be the case, I haven’t tried it. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Nick Hoppe recently devoted an entire column to his pillow struggles – but then, who am I to snipe at pillow columns?)

“Certainly,” said a serene voice. “I’ll be happy to show you one.” Whereupon she produced a pillow and invited me to rest my head upon it. Bliss. Admittedly it was a hot day and I’d been walking a lot of uphill blocks and the place was cool and quiet; still, the pillow had to speak rejuvenation for itself. What follows is an unsolicited, unpaid paean to my new pillow.

Bear on pillow

Bear rejuvenating on pillow

The Rejuvenation Pillow is a product of New Mexico-based Sachi Organics, which gets ingredients from South Dakota, North Carolina and Texas to create the all-organic pillows shipped to California – good ol’ Made in USA. What enables it to rejuvenate is a filling of all-organic buckwheat hulls or millet hulls, encased in all-premium eco wool and covered in organic cotton sateen. What’s not to love about all this ecological refinement?

I chose the millet, partly because the serene saleslady said the buckwheat made a slightly rustling sound. The millet hulls are supremely silent. What they quietly do, within their eco wool-encased dual chamber design, is squish themselves around in the manner of your choosing, as if some drifting cloud paused to cushion your weary head. If you choose to shift or move a little, your agreeable pillow squishily moves as appropriate. After a few weeks of this, I am unabashedly in love with my pillow. Rejuvenated, you might say.

While there are possibly more important issues confronting mankind these days, most of them seem surrounded by bad news. Rejuvenation pillows? Nothing but good news. You’re welcome.

“Life’s Work” : A book of life for today

Dr. Willie Parker wants the moral high ground back.Willie in scrubs.full

That ground was seized 40 years ago, to his regret, by those who would deny women control of their reproductive destinies – “when ‘the antis’ adopted words and phrases like ‘pro-life’ and ‘culture of life.’” But Parker, a deeply committed Christian physician who has provided compassionate care – including abortions – to countless women, is out to retake the moral high ground of reproductive justice. With kindness, scientific truth, and scripture. Parker’s book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice tells his personal story alongside the stories of real women needing to choose abortions and the men and women fighting to preserve their right to do so.

In a recent appearance before a group of residents and other medical/academics at the University of California San Francisco, Parker spoke of his life and work.Life's Work Both encountered a turning point, he explains, on hearing Martin Luther King’s famous last speech which included the biblical story of the good Samaritan. In that story: after others had passed by a man in need a Samaritan stops to help. Those who passed by, Dr. King said, worried, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Parker writes in Life’s Work that “What made the Good Samaritan good, in Dr. King’s interpretation, was that he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Immediately after hearing that, Parker writes, “Once I understood that the faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not to judge her or to impose upon her any restriction, penalty or shame, I had to change my life.”

Parker’s life-change led him from a good job as an ob/gyn in an idyllic Hawaiian locale to becoming an expert in abortion care – both the medical procedures and the many and complex needs of women he sees when providing care. His passion now is to keep that quality of care available, especially to poor and underserved women in parts of the U.S. where access is made more and more difficult by restrictive state laws. Which led him to talk of the politics of abortion.

Fran & Willie Parker 6.14.16

Dr. Parker with a fan

“President Trump has an agenda that marginalizes women,” he told his UCSF audience. “But he does not have a mandate. We have to do a deeper dive into engaging politically, and not legitimize what’s happening. It’s most important not to become disheartened – which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Parker, who grew up poor in Alabama, the descendant of slaves, says he “draws from the history of enslaved people” – in understanding the women he sees and their need to make their own, personal reproductive choices.

Some 60 years ago this writer, faced with a pregnancy resulting from workplace rape, was forced to seek out a back alley abortion. There was no Willie Parker to defend my choice, or to explain why it was morally and spiritually right. No one should be able to claim some moral superiority that supports sending women back to those dark ages, which is the direction we are headed. Now, though, there is a voice to be reckoned with. To quote Gloria Steinem re Life’s Work: I wish everyone in America would read this book.

Throw-Away Culture v The Planet

Building 2.16.17

Built in late 1980s

The very lovely, 12-story building in which I have lived for four+ years – along with 90 other condo-owning geezers, sometimes more delicately referred to as “retirees” or “seniors” but let’s face it – is about to embark upon an exterior repair job that will run upwards of $3 million. Repair. Not build, or upgrade, or renovate. Repair. This building is slightly over 25 years of age. (Its owners average generally at least three times that; are WE getting $3+ million repair jobs? We wish.)

Our building exterior is a material known as EIFS, which stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System. According to its Wikipedia page, EIFS is “a general class of non-load bearing building cladding systems that provides exterior walls with an insulated, water-resistant, finished surface in an integrated composite material system,” in case you care. I am on the Homeowners Association board of directors. For a writer whose undergraduate degree was in Art and who was born essentially without a left brain, I know more about EIFS than I ever wanted to know; I can absolutely promise you that.

EIFS is still quite commonly in use. But I think they have figured out something that early EIFS people overlooked: using paper in an exterior building material is a very bad idea. Guess what happens when the sealant shrinks and water gets in and there’s paper involved. Our EIFS people hadn’t figured that out yet.

3965 Sacramento April '17

Built in 1905

Oh, well. What’s $3 or $4 million to fix a 25-year-old building? I do have to mention that the 4-story house we sold in order to move into this lovely building was itself built in 1905. Throughout a century or so of earthquakes and California rainy seasons (about half of which time it belonged to my husband  and/or the two of us) our exterior repair ran to a few thousand dollars in repainting every six or eight years. It is hard not to mention that I grew up in Virginia, where 18th century buildings (still doing fine) dot the landscape.

No offense to the building industry, but what’s wrong with building buildings to last more than 25 years without 4’ by 8’ panels falling off (yes, two of them did, in a bad storm earlier this year) in the middle of the night?

Building damage 1

(After the storm)

This essay started out to be all about planned obsolescence. EIFS buildings perhaps are not deliberately designed to become obsolete in a decade or two; ours just happened to fall into that category. And the above just came to mind as I was starting to write. But about planned obsolescence. It has its own Wikipedia page. According to that page, it “tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly” (which also has its own Wikipedia page.) It was inspired not by the building nightmare but by my recent experience with my beloved Epson printer/copier machine.

My beloved Epson WF 3520, age four years, took to printing in weird colors. After extensive cleaning of the print heads and performing other bewildering actions in the Systems menu, I persuaded it to resume printing photos (for instance) in absolutely true colors. But now it’s inserting disconcerting lines across peoples’ faces and stuff. Not good. I made a trip to the local Office Max where it was purchased four years ago to ask what else I might do to make the lines go away. The following conversation ensued:

Me: “Is there another Systems thing I can try?”

Office Max clerk (age 20-something): “Did you clean the print heads?”

Me (proudly): “Yes.”

OM: “And the nozzle?”

Me (hesitantly): “I think so.”

OM: “How long have you had it?”

Me: “About four years. I bought it here.”

OM: “Oh! That’s a pretty good run.”

Me (an aside that was totally lost on OM): “Clearly you weren’t born in 1933.”

But come on now, folks. Four years is a “pretty good run” for a $400+ machine used by a little old lady who doesn’t print out much beyond an occasional letter or a short story every now and then? God help us.

Old-time sales & service shop

The DiMele Bros repair shop in NYC

In the olden days, which are getting more olden by the day, there were places called Repair Shops. There was often one titled Mr. Fix-It. Alas, one does not repair anything much in this brave new day – one simply tosses it away and buys the latest new model. In San Francisco we do have a spot beloved by many, Phil’s Electric. (This is an unpaid plug.) If you have something electric that Phil’s can’t fix, you’ve probably worn it out over too many decades.

Things electronic, however, are another matter. You don’t wear out an iPhone 4, you discard it for the 5 and then the 6 and then the 7 and now maybe the 7S. Can you wear out a FitBit? Or an Apple Watch? Or any item gently referred to as a “device?” Nahh.Funky cellphone lady You can, without undue effort, lose them to theft, ineptitude or malfunction. In the latter case – see above re my lovely Epson – the good news is that function can actually be restored in some cases.

Having just done an internet search I find there are more than a few electronic repair places in San Francisco, so perhaps all is not lost. There’s even one near Phil’s Electric.

Vicente Fox. Has. Opinions

Vicente Fox is not shy with his opinions.

Vicente Fox.1

Fox onstage

During a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club the former president of Mexico (2000-2006) shared his thoughts on border walls, immigration, the global economy and Donald Trump. None of these would be pleasing to Mr. Trump – nor would they come as any surprise, since the two men regularly tweet insults at each other.

In advance of a conversation with Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy, Fox strode onstage and entertained his audience – which seemed not to include many Trump supporters – with a 30-minute, statistics-filled, no-notes commentary on the world in general and U.S./Mexico relations in particular.

As to that latter, “After years of democracy, friendship and cooperation, your leader says ‘Wait a minute! We have to build a wall!’” This, Fox maintains, is a very bad idea. “You are perhaps shooting yourself with a gun in the foot. Attacking ourselves in a trade war? Crazy.” Fox suggests that successful relationships between neighbor countries are built on “love, compassion, diplomacy and democratic dialogue.” The trade war now seeming likely will benefit neither, he believes.Vicente Fox.2

And as to the wall? “It’s going to take 35 billion U.S. dollars to build the wall. With that $35 billion you can create 10 million jobs. China built a wall, at great sacrifice. Paid for it with their own money. To protect against the Mongols and the Manchu. What happened? China was invaded by the Mongols and the Manchu. Berlin? They built a wall to keep freedom out.” Fox is not enthusiastic about walls.

Immigration? “We don’t want any more invasions by gringos.” Fox suggests that the problem of illegal immigration into the U.S. might better be addressed by spending that $35 billion on “going to the heart of the problem, in Central America,” where desperate situations in more than a few countries are forcing desperate people to attempt to enter the U.S. through Mexico.

This writer lays no claim to expertise on Mexican politics or political history. (Two Mexican friends, when asked, allowed as how they felt Mr. Fox got very rich during his presidency but didn’t do a lot for their poor communities.) But former president Fox, movie-star handsome, charmingly funny and a man who thinks the world would be better off if women were in charge? What’s not to love?

Vicente Fox.3

With Commonwealth Club CEO Gloria Duffy

Fox, in his Commonwealth Club appearance, referred more than once to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that the world belongs to humanity. “That means all 8 billion of us,” he says. (A tiny exaggeration, though checking the world population clock is both fascinating and scary.) Among Fox’s strongest current opinions is that his non-friend Donald Trump spends too much time talking about withdrawing his country from the world, protecting its citizens, building walls, making America great. Fox suggested to his San Francisco audience that he had a response to this:

 

“I have decided to name myself – humbly – head of a shadow government representing the world,” Vicente Fox quips, “to say to your president  — — —  ‘What about us??’”

Worth thinking about.