Monday, June 23, 2014

Self-satisfaction means death of scientific inquiry

In science, self-satisfaction is death. — Jacques Monod

As Features Editor for the Cape May County Herald during the housing boom of the early 2000s, I assigned a story on lumber alternatives for new housing construction to a relatively new assistant.

Several days after I assigned the story, he turned in (what he thought was) the finished product. His 1,200 words praised a new, sustainable wood source that was not widely available and used by only three builders in the entire county—all of whom he had interviewed for the article.

“Why,” I asked, “are there only three companies using this material?”

“it’s just too expensive,” he replied quite assertively.

“Then you should state that in the article,” I said. “Plus, I see where you only interviewed three people—in fact, the only three that use this lumber.” I handed the paper back to him. “Now get me some interviews with contractors that don’t use the material, and find out why. In essence, get their side of this.”

The kid was damn mad about this. “How many more contractors do you want?” he demanded.

“Well,” I said in my best avuncular tone, “you got three that use the stuff; now get three that do not.”

As he continued to silently stare at what he apparently thought was his completely unreasonable editor, I told him what all journalists should know, but most of whom must constantly be reminded: “A newspaper’s job is to be objective,” I said. “Give both sides of the story, if you will. When we stop allowing both sides of an argument to plead their case, we lose credibility.”

He added two more interviews with contractors that had decidedly opposite views to the first three, making the overall article (somewhat) more impartial. But for the rest of his time under my supervision, he held my proclivity for fact-finding against me.

He wasn’t a journalist; never really let himself develop into one. You can study journalism, you can be trained as a journalist, but unless you develop a journalist’s heart…

Having spent my early grammar school years within walking distance of Independence Hall, my journalist’s heart was nurtured on the history of the United States. That heart experienced its first cardiovascular contractions when I learned of what went on at those antique desks inside the hall (we could sit in them in the early 1950s) back in 1776. It experienced a shot of adrenaline when I studied the Constitution a short time later, and settled into a steady rhythm by the time I read—and understood—the Bill of Rights.

But just as with physical cardiac health, you need a journalistic EKG once in a while to make sure you’re not suffering from arrhythmia. The Philadelphia Inquirer provided me with an unscheduled checkup on page A27 of their June 13 edition. In an article unabashedly titled, “Don’t give equal time to climate-change deniers,” the author, an environmental professor at a local college, proposes that the media close off any further discussion because, he wrote: “There is only one side of this story.”

He—like my young editorial assistant mentioned above—displayed his indignation at an unnamed news organization that aired a segment on global warming which presented those who said we should be concerned, and those who held the opposite view. Imagine! They actually presented both sides of an argument!

“Sure,” the author admits, “they (media) want to provide a balanced view. But not all stories have two sides.”

Aren’t scientists supposed to welcome skepticism? Isn’t that what true science is about—questioning?

Hopefully, the Inquirer—operated by open minds responding to the pulse of journalistic hearts—will ignore the climate-change author’s plea, because he has apparently flatlined.

The above editorial was published in the Oped section of the Philadelphia Inquirer (p. A17) June 23, 2014


Monday, February 10, 2014

Ignorance...Apathy...or Arrogance?

I follow sports for what I consider the proper reason: They are a pleasant diversion from life’s everyday annoyances—from things like car payments, health issues, bank balances, income tax, political correctness, the shrinking waistband on my trousers…

I don’t follow (listen to, watch, or read about) sports for lessons in life. And certainly not for updates on what is and is not proper social behavior. So I became annoyed (infuriated actually) when I recently heard a 28-year old sports commentator (who by the way, has been on Earth less than half the time I’ve been following sports) make the blasé declaration that, “We’re not offended by that anymore,” while referring to the use of profanity in a public forum.

Really? We are not offended? Who the hell is “we” in his absolute affirmation? Was he referring to our society in general? Was it sports fans in particular? Was he perhaps singling out 20-something-year-olds, for whom he obviously (thinks he) is the spokesman?

His remark was made in objection to a penalty levied by the National Basketball Association on a player for shouting the profanity de rigueur, politely called the ‘f-word’, not once, but multiple times (to anyone who would listen, I guess) during a well-attended game.

Neophyte adults such as this Harvard graduate (Could the banter around that campus cafeteria be any worse than that heard in a military chow-hall?) often seem to make the mistake of believing that anything happening before their birth (indeed, before their cognizance) should be relegated to pre-history. Using that reasoning, I suppose I must accept his view (elsewise I might offend him).

So I suppose I could casually babble that language in his presence, or that of his wife, mother, sister, grandmother, daughter, or anyone he values, since, “He is not offended by that anymore.”

If the f-word does not offend him, what does? The n-word?  The s-word?  The q-word?  The c-word?  The r-word?  The m-word?

How about the a-word? Oh, hell…I’m just going to say it: The kid is arrogant! He must actually believe that his sensibilities set the standard for society…for sports fans…for 20-something-year-olds…

He certainly does not speak for most of the 20-somethings I interact with. (Of course, none attended Harvard.)

This is not the first time I’ve been resolute on this topic, and it’s not the first time that I’ve qualified my opinion by citing my résumé: After four years in the military and 22 years in the Philadelphia Police Department, I doubt there’s any expletive a novice could come up with that I haven’t heard, imagined, or broadcast myself.

Yet the motive for an obscenity remains the same throughout history—all human history, not just what a youthful sportscaster acknowledges: Whether uttered in anger, fear, confusion, anxiety, or jocularity; it is most certainly always uttered in ignorance.

And sometimes arrogance.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

If Anyone Asks, It Was Oxford

I presented a paper at an Oxford University Roundtable this past October.

I've presented papers I've written before—in the universities I've attended here in the states, specifically LaSalle and Rider, but they were essentially classroom discussions. Oxford was different. It was the big leagues. Hell, man; it was OXFORD!

Of course the universities that conferred degrees upon me were not the minor leagues, mind you, but, I mean…hell, this was Oxford!

Out of the 14 presenters, I was the only non-Ph. D., and I told them so, declaring myself the “dummy” of the group. (I figured I’d get a better reception if I buttered-up the docs a bit first!)

Maybe it worked, because I believe it was well-received. It sparked some lively debate, and I made some salient points. (Do you like that word—salient? I pulled that one out of my holster during the presentation. It seemed like a good Oxford word. I did mention that the presentation was at Oxford, didn't I?)

I didn't see much of London, outside of Heathrow Airport, during the four days I was in England, but I had some spare time to socialize with and get mildly assimilated among the British general public in Oxford (when I wasn't hanging out with the profs).

The easiest way to express my opinion about the experience is to repeat the answer I gave my wife when she picked me up at Philadelphia International and asked, “How was England?” I told her I would move there tomorrow, if it were practical.

That surprised her, since she was well-aware that the airline had lost my luggage and it didn't
show up at my hotel until 7 p.m. the evening before I left to come home. So she quite naturally expected me to start wailing about what a disaster my expedition to the UK just had to be.

Consequently, my appearances at Oxford the first day, the second day, and the third day, were in the blue jeans I wore for travel. They were new, pressed, and presentable (pun intended), but they were jeans. And hell, man; this was Oxford! And here I was standing in front of (to me) academic aristocracy pontificating on the state of contemporary higher education.

Serendipitously, I discovered that my audience was concentrating on the content of my presentation and not at all concerned about my élan (or lack thereof). This, in retrospect, is exactly what I should have expected. They were interested enough in my topic and sympathetic enough about my wardrobe limitations to make me feel a legitimate part of the group.

Nor did the British cordiality end at the gates of the university. Oxford—the city—is a college town and accordingly is heavily populated by students, most of whom get from here to there on bicycle. They (and their bikes) are all over the place. They ride with the traffic in the streets and follow strict traffic rules, including stopping for red lights, wearing helmets, using hand signals, and being equipped with their own lighting.

Whenever cyclists ventured onto the sidewalk, they dismounted and walked their bikes. And if a pedestrian was standing in the way, they waited until the walker moved! Really!

I was standing by a bus stop talking to one of the professors when I chanced to look behind me and realized that there was a pair of cyclists patiently standing there, waiting for me to finish so they could pass. Imagine that! And when I stepped back and said, “Oh, excuse me,” they both said, “thank you.”

Oh, and by the way, there was an endless queue (another word I latched onto in England) of bicycles parked along the walls, fences, and sidewalks adjoining the university. I did not see one that had a lock attached.

I have to tell you, when the townspeople—students, shopkeepers, professors, taxi drivers, bus drivers, shoppers—are outwardly cordial, and bikes are left unlocked, and the intelligentsia is actually interested in what you came there for…well…that’s a place I could move to.

Did I mention that it was Oxford?

Me in my travel-jeans on an Oxford quad after my presentation. (Note the emergency briefcase I used until my luggage arrived.)