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.

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.

 

 

 

Trump’s first 100 days of chaos

“We only seek to find the truth and set it free,” reads the slogan of the nonpartisan public affairs forum, San Francisco-based Commonwealth Club. Before the Club moved to temporary headquarters, en route to its brand new offices which are set to open sometime this year, I always loved riding the elevator to the meeting rooms – and reading that message in large script on the entry wall.

Today, finding the truth is a tall order.

Warning: This is a political column. Despite my avowed intention to stay out of politics until there is at least a ray of hope somewhere, politics just won’t go away.

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Recently the Commonwealth Club hosted a program titled “Trump’s First 100 Days: Part One.” Panelists included two women: Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of the SF Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations (a US-born citizen); and retired CA Supreme Court Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, Chair, Santa Clara Jail Commission (and the great-granddaughter of slaves, she mentioned at one point.) They were two impressive citizens. This writer would have been happy to spend an hour listening to their understandings and perspectives.

Also on the panel were two white male gentlemen who dominated (unless the Moderator intervened) the conversation: Steven Fish, Professor of Political Science, University of California Berkeley, and Sean Walsh, GOP Political Strategist.

Riding herd on this well-informed, and certainly passionate about their positions, quartet was Scott Shafer, Senior Editor, California Politics & Government, KQED – which is partnering with the Commonwealth Club on these programs.

If I were covering this extremely interesting event for a non-fake news outlet, it could be effectively done in about 10,000 words. Instead, I offer here the excerpted (wildly condensed)  responses each panelist had to Shafer’s opening question: In this bizarre beginning – it was 38 days in when this program aired – to the Trump presidency, “what jumps out at you?”

Steven Fish: “It is not clear that the president of the United States is completely loyal to his own country, or the ideals of democracy.”

Judge Cordell: “We should be talking about the first 100 lies.” (She expounded on that at some length, and with clear, concise accuracy, ticking off the lie and the truth.)

Samara Billoo: “There is a sense of fear in my community,” spurred by “racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic” messages coming from the White House and its Republican allies.

Sean Walsh: “He does not have his advisers, transition people, in place. He (our president) is in the process of putting his administration in place.”

Shafer: “Chaos.”

It’s going to be a long 100 days, and then some.

Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Making All Knowledge Available to All? For Free? Believe It

Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.

archive-crowd

Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’

This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.

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A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?archive-scanner

But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.

You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.archive-planets

Fact-check it out.

Ben McBride on Peacemaking 101

Just when peace for violence-prone communities seems an impossible dream – along comes Ben McBride.

Ben McBrdie

McBride, who merges the zeal of a Baptist youth leader with the practicality of 15 years as an advocate for community peace and justice, believes that dream can become a reality. Not tomorrow – but soon enough to believe in it. One evidence of his belief is in the fact that some eight years ago he moved his family (a wife and three daughters) into an Oakland, CA neighborhood tough enough to have won the title of the “Kill Zone.” The idea was to understand firsthand the root causes of gun violence. They have occasionally had to leave town briefly when one group or another was exceptionally angry, but they’re still there.

And gun violence is actually down. This is in part due to McBride’s blatantly walking both sides of the street – as a civilian trainer for police, and a community activist for oppressed groups. The double life has its problems. As a central figure with a group that linked arms to stop traffic on the Bay Bridge one busy afternoon he drew the ire of both law enforcement agencies and his own father, whose career was in transportation. (McBride tells of committing a minor offense as a teenager and asking the responding officer to “take me to jail, just don’t take me to my father.” His father has mellowed after seeing his children reach law-abiding adulthood.) But when community organizers see him hired to work with police, they often consider it a betrayal. In reality, McBride walks both sides convinced that they can come together in the middle.

McBride spoke recently on “Crossing the Street: The Power of Peacemaking,” one of a series of programs on “Waging Peace” at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Much of the talk was concerned with what he terms “the theology of resistance” – as in resisting injustice.

Sawubona,” McBride said – having his audience repeat the word several times – “is the Zulu word for hello. The traditional reply is Sikhona.” The expanded meaning of the words is central to resisting injustice, he added. “Sawubona literally translates “I see you.” Sikhona means, “Because you see me, I am here.” The business of seeing “the other” with as few lenses, or filters, as possible goes to the heart of McBride’s peacemaking message.ben-mcbride-1

Peacemaking, he argues, requires “disrupting my point of view with ‘the other’s point of view. It  is about stepping into the middle of the tension.”

Opportunities to get groups like community protesters and law enforcement officers to meet in the middle of the tension without violence are few, and fraught. McBride has been called to places like Ferguson where tensions have long simmered – and already exploded. But his ability  to see the perspectives of opposing sides boosts his ability to defuse.

McBride’s lay audiences – this recent one consisted of 40 or so individuals of differing ages, ethnicities and views – rarely have an opportunity to fully inhabit either side of such tensions. But considering how to see “people closer to pain than we are” makes the middle of the street at least a less threatening place to stand. And having the husky, smiling McBride standing there too wouldn’t ever be a bad idea.

 

 

Age, Agility and National Stamina

It is a little known but verifiable fact that this writer is a graduate of Circus 101. Well, I completed the course, that is, some five or six decadespast my turning-cartwheels-in-the-backyard days.

The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

This comes to mind because of all the recent stamina talk. At the time of my circus experience I was several years younger than the current candidates for president of the United States. I am still the age of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and frankly, Justice Ginsberg and I (I am not officially authorized to speak for my 1933-babe sister) resent the stamina talk. She, of course, is making her debut (speaking only, opening night) with the Washington National Opera this year; I’m afraid opera performance is not on my bucket list. But still.

Stamina-wise there is at least the circus thing. As I recall, my late-life circus experience began with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a class offered by the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now Circus Center) titled Circus 101. It sounded interesting, and at least worth undertaking for a good story. So I called the Circus School.

“Could a reasonably flexible 60-something woman be eligible to take your Circus 101 class,” I asked the nice lady at the other end of the line? She replied, essentially, if you’ve got the money we can work you in. “You can set your own limits,” she said.

So I showed up for the first class, raising the median age by two or three decades, and quickly learned my limits: upside-down is not for 60-somethings. Oh, I could still do upside-down, headstands with my feet on the wall or the occasional cartwheel; but then I tended to get dizzy and throw up, which is not in the curriculum. I found I was very good, though, at balancing the peacock feather on my chin and at being part of the human pyramid; I always got to be the top of the pyramid because nobody wanted to step on the little old lady. I was also quite good at the Ooze – a sort of backward roll-over with a collapse at the end.

In my class was a lovely Chinese-American girl named Yvonne, who measured approximately 24-18-24 and could juggle three balls before we even started. By the second class her husband Ken had been talked into joining. Ken and Kit, another husky young man who showed up at the same time, could perform great feats of strength and skill, but because they had all those muscles getting in the way I could beat them at grabbing my ankles and doing bend-overs and such that they couldn’t even approximate – which made me feel initially quite superior.

Rola-bola performer, not the author

Rola-bola performer, not the author

All feelings of superiority quickly disappeared. We learned the egg roll, the diablo and the rola-bola, that last being a balancing act on a board set on a large pipe, which when circus people do it looks easy as pie. It is not. (Nor is juggling four balls.)

I did discover that I really shone at the human caterpillar. This begins with a base person on all fours (hands and feet, not knees.) The next person rests on top of the base person, feet crossed, hands on the floor, and additional caterpillar people are similarly arranged. The rear legs and all hands move in unison, theoretically, until somebody giggles.

Is any of this relevant to today’s world, nearly two decades later? Well, it provides food for thought and some great metaphors.

One can only hope that everyone on the political spectrum will have the stamina – not to mention agility – required for running the country at all levels and branches of government. And that our collective community can master the rola-bola without turning into one great Ooze.