Category Archives: Academia

Trump’s climate war evokes shades of a dark past


When science stands opposed to the greed of the powerful, witch hunts can result.

To understand the threat posed by the Trumpsters, a look at past conflicts provides some informative and thoroughly chilling insights.

From Paul N. Edwards, Professor of Information and History at the University of Michigan, writing for the open source academic journal The Conversation:

President-elect Trump has called global warming “bullshit” and a “Chinese hoax.” He has promised to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate treaty and to “bring back coal,” the world’s dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuel. The incoming administration has paraded a roster of climate change deniers for top jobs. On Dec. 13, Trump named former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another climate change denier, to lead the Department of Energy (DoE), an agency Perry said he would eliminate altogether during his 2011 presidential campaign.

Just days earlier, the Trump transition team presented the DoE with a 74-point questionnaire that has raised alarm among employees because the questions appear to target people whose work is related to climate change.

For me, as a historian of science and technology, the questionnaire – bluntly characterized by one DoE official as a “hit list” – is starkly reminiscent of the worst excesses of ideology-driven science, seen everywhere from the U.S. Red Scare of the 1950s to the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the 1930s.

The questionnaire asks for a list of “all DoE employees or contractors” who attended the annual Conferences of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a binding treaty commitment of the U.S., signed by George H. W. Bush in 1992. Another question seeks the names of all employees involved in meetings of the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, responsible for technical guidance quantifying the economic benefits of avoided climate change.

It also targets the scientific staff of DoE’s national laboratories. It requests lists of all professional societies scientists belong to, all their publications, all websites they maintain or contribute to, and “all other positions… paid and unpaid,” which they may hold. These requests, too, are likely aimed at climate scientists, since most of the national labs conduct research related to climate change, including climate modeling, data analysis and data storage.

On Dec. 13, a DoE spokesperson told the Washington Post the agency will not provide individual names to the transition team, saying “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.”

Energy’s interest in climate

Why does the Department of Energy conduct research on climate change? A better question might be: How could any Department of Energy fail to address climate change?

Established in the 1940s under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the US national labs’ original assignment was simple: Design, build and test nuclear weapons and atomic energy. Since nuclear bombs create deadly fallout and reactor accidents can release radiation into the air, weather forecasting and climate knowledge were integral to that mission. Therefore, some labs immediately began building internal expertise in “nuclear meteorology.”

When high-flying supersonic transport aircraft were proposed in the late 1960s, the labs used climate models to analyze how their exhaust gases might affect the stratosphere. In the 1970s, the labs applied weather and climate simulations developed for nuclear weapons work to analyze urban smog and the global effects of volcanic eruptions. Later, the labs investigated whether nuclear war might cause dangerous climatic effects, such as catastrophic ozone depletion or “nuclear winter.”

The newly formed Department of Energy took over the labs in 1977. Its broadened mission included research on all forms of energy production, efficiency, pollution and waste. In the late 1970s, for example, Pacific Northwest Lab sampled aerosol pollution with research aircraft, using instruments of its own design.

By the 1980s, when man-made climate change became a major scientific concern, the labs were ready for the challenge. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has run the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center since 1982, one of many DoE efforts that contribute crucially to human knowledge about global climate change.

An ideologically driven purge?

The Trump questionnaire harks back to the McCarthyist “red scare” of the early 1950s, when congressional committees and the FBI hounded eminent scientists accused of communist leanings.

A principal target of suspicion then was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, but later opposed nuclear proliferation. Oppenheimer chaired the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, direct ancestor to the DoE – and saw his security clearance unjustly revoked following humiliating hearings by that same AEC in 1954.

Many other physicists were also “repeatedly subjected to illegal surveillance by the FBI, paraded in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, charged time and again… with being the ‘weakest links’ in national security, and widely considered to be more inherently susceptible to communist propaganda than any other group of scientists or academics,” according to a history by author David Kaiser, on suspicions of atomic scientists in the early days of the Cold War.

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Forensic criminal science based on very few facts


If you watch American television, you know one thing for certain: The wonks and wizards in the nation’s crime labs employ that latest infallible scientific tools to find and incarcerate serial killers, arsonists, and other doers of dastardly deeds.

Reassuring, no?

Especially if you’re sitting on a jury a deciding on the fate of the man or woman in the dock, a decision that could, perhaps, lead to a lethal injection.

But you would be wrong to place unquestioning faith in those crime lab wizards, for unlike the televised version of forensic science, the realty is a shabby simulacrum of the glib screenwriter’s version.

And while wealthy criminals can afford their own forensic guns for hire, poor defendants relying on cash-strapped public defenders stand little chance of rebutting the men and women in the white coats, adding yet another element of injustice to American criminal jurisprudence.

We witnessed the process first-hand in our years of reporting on the courts.

We offer two dissections of forensic science from two leading legal scholars.

First up, a Young Turks interview with the the dean of the UCLA Law school:

Is Some Forensic Science “Junk” Science? Jennifer Mnookin Interview With Malcolm Fleschner

Program notes:

Malcolm Fleschner of The Young Turks interviews Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of the UCLA School of Law. Malcolm and Dean Mnookin discuss why hopelessly faulty forensic science is going unchallenged in courtrooms across the country and being used to put countless innocent defendants in prison.

Bite marks are bunk, even fingerprints questionable

Another detailed debunking comes from Jessica Gabel Cino, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University, writing in the open source academic journal, The Conversation:

Forensic science has become a mainstay of many a TV drama, and it’s just as important in real-life criminal trials. Drawing on biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine and psychology, forensic evidence helps answer questions in the legal system. Often, forensics provides the “smoking gun” that links a perpetrator to the crime and ultimately puts the bad guy in jail.

Shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files” and “NCIS” cause viewers to be more accepting of forensic evidence. As it’s risen to ubiquitous celebrity status, forensic science has become shrouded in a cloak of infallibility and certainty in the public’s imagination. It seems to provide definitive answers. Forensics feels scientific and impartial as a courtroom weighs a defendant’s possible guilt – looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the faith the public and the criminal justice system place in forensic science far outpaces the amount of trust it deserves.

For decades, there have been concerns about how the legal system uses forensic science. A groundbreaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences finally drew the curtain back to reveal that the wizardry of forensics was more art than science. The report assessed forensic science’s methods and developed recommendations to increase validity and reliability among many of its disciplines.

These became the catalyst that finally forced the federal government to devote serious resources and dollars to an effort to more firmly ground forensic disciplines in science. After that, governmental agencies, forensic science committees and even the Department of Defense responded to the call. Research to this end now receives approximately US$13.4 million per year, but the money may not be enough to prevent bad science from finding its way into courtrooms.

This fall, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its own report on forensic science. It’s a more pronounced acknowledgment that the discipline has serious problems that require urgent attention. Some scientific and legal groups are outraged by or doubtful of its conclusions; others have praised them.

As someone who has taught forensic evidence for a decade and dedicated my legal career to working on cases involving forensic science (both good and bad), I read the report as a call to address foundational issues within forensic disciplines and add oversight to the way forensic science is ultimately employed by the end user: the criminal justice system.

Is any forensic science valid?

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recognized ongoing efforts to improve forensic science in the wake of the 2009 NAS report. Those efforts focused on policy, best practices and research around forensic science, but, as with any huge undertaking, there were gaps. As PCAST noted, forensic science has a validity problem that is in desperate need of attention.

PCAST focused on what’s colloquially termed “pattern identification evidence” – it requires an examiner to visually compare a crime scene sample to a known sample. PCAST’s big question: Are DNA analysis, bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification and footwear analysis supported by reproducible research, and thus, reliable evidence?

They were looking for two types of validity. According to PCAST, foundational validity means the forensic discipline is based on research and studies that are “repeatable, reproducible, and accurate,” and therefore reliable. The next step is applied validity, meaning the method is “reliably applied in practice.” In other words, for a forensic discipline to produce valid evidence for use in court, there must be (1) reproducible studies on its accuracy and (2) a method used by examiners that is reproducible and accurate.

Among the forensic science they assessed, PCAST found single-sourced DNA analysis to be the only discipline that was valid, both foundationally and as applied. They found DNA mixture evidence – when DNA from more than one person is in a sample, for instance from the victim and the perpetrator, multiple perpetrators or due to contamination – to be only foundationally valid. Same with fingerprint analysis.

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Israeli shapes a U.S. law enabling campus purges


How would Americans like it if, say, North Korea dictated a law barring criticism of that country on U.S. campuses.

We imagine lots of folks would get righteously upset.

But an Israeli propagandist and former Deputy Prime Minister has done just that.

From the Intercept:

After Donald Trump’s election emboldened white supremacists and inspired a wave of anti-Semitic hate incidents across the country, the Senate on Thursday took action by passing a bill aimed at limiting the free-speech rights of college students who express support for Palestinians.

By unanimous consent, the Senate quietly passed the so-called Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, only two days after it was introduced by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

A draft of the bill obtained by The Intercept encourages the Department of Education to use the State Department’s broad, widely criticized definition of anti-Semitism when investigating schools. That definition, from a 2010 memo, includes as examples of anti-Semitism “delegitimizing” Israel, “demonizing” Israel, “applying double standards” to Israel, and “focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

Critics have pointed out that those are political — not racist — positions, shared by a significant number of Jews, and qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

According to the draft, the bill does not adopt the definition as a formal legal standard, it only directs the State Department to “take into consideration” the definition when investigating schools for anti-Semitic discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Now why do we say that the law is the creation of an Israeli propagandist?

That’s because those key words — demonizing, delegitimizing, demonizing — are the formula created by Israeli political propagandist, Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and a good friend of Sheldon Adelson, the zealous Ziocon and Las Vegas casino magnate, and newspaper publisher who poured $25 million into a Trump-supporting PAC and sits on Trump’s inauguration committee.

Sharanksy,’s formulation is a brilliant semantic coup, employing words of such vagueness that they can be applied to virtually any critic of Israeli policies.

We know that, because they have been applied to us, repeatedly, first when reporting on the actions of a campaign launched against the Berkeley Daily Planet, a paper that came under fire from a motley crew of militant Ziocons angry because the paper published letters critical of Israeli government policies toward its Palestinian population.

Hillary Clinton lead the way

Attesting to the brilliance of Sharansky’s word-spinning is the fact that it was adopted as the adoption of that very definition of antisemitism by the State Department under Hillary Clinton.

Surely it’s legitimate to criticize the actions of a government which clearly applies double standards by seizing land and homes of non-Jewish citizens while not taking the same actions toward the property of its Jewish citizens.

Similarly, one could question’s Israel’s legitimacy, given that the state was created as the result of an accord between by the British and French governments without the consent of those who lived their, the majority of them not Jewish.

As for demonizing, what word could be more vague?

A call for immigrant sanctuary on Cal campuses


With the Trumpster promising immediate mass deportations on taking the presidential oath, one California elected official is calling for a declaration of sanctuary for the state’s college and university campuses.

From the East Bay Times:

California’s public colleges and universities should be declared “sanctuary campuses” and protect law-abiding students from the threat of deportation, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to leaders of Cal State, UC and the community college system.

“We must take urgent stock of current policies and vulnerabilities pertaining to the personal data held and processed by the University of California, to shield students from federal agencies under a Trump administration,” he wrote.

Newsom, who is running for governor, met with students Thursday at a UC regents meeting in San Francisco to discuss their concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions of people who entered the country illegally.

Calls for sanctuary campuses are mounting across the state. Cal State Chancellor Timothy White announced at a CSU board meeting this week that unless forced to by law, Cal State “will not enter into agreements with state or local law enforcement agencies, Homeland Security or any other federal department for the enforcement of federal immigration law.”

Chart of the day: Univ. of Calif. workers go hungry


From Food Insecurity Among University of California Employees, a report from the Occidental College Urban & Environmental Policy Institute

blog-foof
The Los Angeles Times reports:

Seven in 10 University of California workers in clerical, administrative and support services struggle to put adequate food on the table, according to a new Occidental College study.

The study, set for release Monday, found that 45% of 2,890 employees surveyed throughout the 10-campus UC system went hungry at times. An additional 25% had to reduce the quality of their diet.

The problems persisted even though most of those surveyed were full-time employees with college degrees and average earnings of $22 an hour.

Peter Dreier, an Occidental professor of politics who conducted the study with two colleagues and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 2010, said the results were startling.

“This is a systemwide problem; it exists on every campus,” Dreier said. “This is not a handful of people who happen to be down on their luck. They need a living wage so they can afford to feed their families.”

Studies reveal music’s big impacts on growing brain


We’ve always been passionate believers in the value of music and art ecducation starting at the earliest years.

Gowing up in Kansas in the 1950s, we were the beneficiary of musical education that started in elementary school, where we participated in both singing and band programs, acquiring a love of music that has lasted throughout these last seven decades.

Our paternal grandmother was an elementary school teacher in Abilene, Kansas, and music was a critical part of her daily teaching. After her death in 1959, we received a letter from one her colleagues, telling us that one of her students had written that he still found inspiration in songs he had learned in her first and second grade classes.

The pupil was Dwight David Eisenhower, then serving as President of the United States.

Music and fine arts programs slashed as testing rises

But today, in classrooms across the country, education is music and the fine arts has fallen prey to a combination of budget cuts and the relentless imperative of the standardized test, a regime designed to turn out cogs in the machine rather than well-rounded, independent-minded individuals.

As the journal of the National Education Association reported in 2014:

Across the nation, the testing obsession has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science, not to mention world languages, financial literacy, and that old standby, penmanship. Our schools, once vigorous and dynamic centers for learning, have been reduced to mere test prep factories, where teachers and students act out a script written by someone who has never visited their classroom and where “achievement” means nothing more than scoring well on a bubble test.

“NCLB [No Child Left Behind] has corrupted what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” explains NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Teachers have to teach in secret and hope they don’t get into trouble for teaching to the Whole Child instead of teaching to the test.”

A Google search for the words “music education elementary schools eliminated” turns up more than a million hits, a tragic litany of stories reporting slashed programs across the nation and throughout much of the Western world.

Musical training improves standardized testing scores

Ironically, music education actually improves children’s test scores, as the Children’s Music Workshop notes:

Music education programs increase children’s cognitive development. Also, research shows that “preschoolers who took daily 30 minute group singing lessons and a weekly 10-15 minute private keyboard lesson scored 80 percent higher in object assembly skills than students who did not have the music lessons,” as reported in a 1994 study by Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine (Harvey, 1997). It is clear that music education programs dramatically stimulate a child’s learning capacity, as shown in drastic increases in the scores of children who participated in music programs. Music education programs can begin as early as preschool and should continue for the greatest results.

When music education is sustained throughout the elementary years, children continue to learn better through the clear connections between music and other areas of study. For instance, a 1999 study presented in Neurological Research reveals that when second and third-grade students were taught fractions through basic music rhythm notation, they “scored a full 100% higher on fractions tests than those who learned in the conventional manner.” This study shows that the students who learned about the mathematical concept of fractions related their music knowledge of the relationships between eighth, quarter, half and whole notes in order to fully understand the material.

Students in music programs consistently score better on tests, as also exemplified in the 2001 study compiled by Music Educators National Conference, which exhibits that “SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 41 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework/experience in the arts.” It is obvious that when students have experience in music education in both the elementary and high school level, they perform considerably better in other important subjects as well. Music education programs in the elementary school level are necessary for the future success of students in all subject areas.

Musical training reshapes the brain

A major study by scientists from Harvard and McGill University and published in the Journal of Neuroscience [open access] used brain imaging to map changes in children’s brains resulting from musical study concluded with this summary:

M]usical training over only 15 months in early childhood leads to structural brain changes that diverge from typical brain development. Regional training-induced structural brain changes were found in musically relevant regions that were driven by musically relevant behavioral tests. The fact there were no structural brain differences found between groups before the onset of musical training indicates that the differential development of these brain regions is induced by instrumental practice rather by than preexisting biological predictors of musicality. These results provide new evidence for training-induced structural brain plasticity in early childhood. These findings of structural plasticity in the young brain suggest that long-term intervention programs can facilitate neuroplasticity in children. Such an intervention could be of particular relevance to children with developmental disorders and to adults with neurological diseases.

And yet another study proves the power of music. . .and dance

And now comes yet another study revealing the direct impact of education in music and dance on the brains of growing children.

From Concordia University in Montreal:

Endless hours at the barre. Long afternoons practising scales. All that time you spent in piano lessons and dance classes as a youngster may have seemed like a pain, but new research now confirms what your parents claimed: it’s good for mind and body.

In fact, a recent study published in NeuroImage ($35.95 to access] by a team* of researchers from the the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, proves that dance and music training have even stronger effects on the brain than previously understood — but in markedly different ways.

The researchers used high-tech imaging techniques to compare the effects of dance and music training on the white matter structure of experts in these two disciplines. They then examined the relationship between training-induced brain changes and dance and music abilities.

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UC Berkeley purge: The chancellor has resigned


University of California Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks has handed in his academic robes, the victim of campus sexual harassment and other scandals as well as a petition campaign by faculty members.

And that’s after the spent $200,000 trying to polish his image [below].

From the Washington Post:

UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks announced his resignation Tuesday, a week after Linda Katehi stepped down as UC-Davis chancellor. Both leaders had been embroiled in multiple controversies.

Dirks faced questions about whether Berkeley was too lax in response to sexual harassment allegations against faculty and how the school would surmount steep budget troubles. The Los Angeles Times disclosed last month that he was under investigation for possible misuse of public funds for travel and the personal use of a campus fitness trainer without payment. The Daily Californian student newspaper also reported that the university had spent $9,000 for an emergency exit near Dirks’s office as a security measure in case of protests. All of this undermined the three-year tenure of a historian and anthropologist who sought to rejuvenate undergraduate education at Berkeley and boost public support for higher education’s great public flagships.

“Definitely a significant number of faculty had lost confidence in him,” Robert Powell, a political scientist and chair of Berkeley’s faculty senate, said Wednesday. “The reasons vary depending on different people you talk to.”

Dirks, who took office in June 2013, said he plans to step down when a successor is ready to take his place. When he exits, his tenure as chancellor is likely to have been the shortest at UC-Berkeley in a half century. Edward Strong served in the job for four years, from 1961 to 1965, and Glenn T. Seaborg for three, from 1958 to 1961.

UPDATE: More details from the Los Angeles Times:

In recent weeks, however, pressure for Dirks to resign has escalated. A petition expressing loss of confidence in his leadership was recently signed by more than 45 distinguished professors, including former Academic Senate leaders, members of the National Academy of Sciences, department chairs and heads of research units.

“There was a whole series of really bad steps which shows he’s cut himself off and is unresponsive to the campus community,” said Michael Burawoy, co-chairman of the Berkeley Faculty Assn., who signed the petition.

However, Judith Butler, a professor of comparative literature, expressed concern that maneuvers like the petition occurred among a small group without open discussion by the full faculty. “The real question is who was this small group working in the summer and do they really represent the faculty?” she asked. “I’m not convinced.”

She declined, however, to give an assessment of Dirks’ effectiveness.

Former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau called the news of Dirks’ resignation “a sad day for Berkeley.”

Butler, a faculty member we respect, raises an interesting point.

Who were the faculty members who wanted Dirks gone?

Dirks came from the humanities, unlike his predecessor Birgeneau, a physicist.

The University of California has been reshaping itself in the corporate model, which is why we have dubbed it Global Corporate University. The priority has been on seeking ways to create revenue by funding research for corporations to buy, both in the hard sciences [witness the Amyris debacle] and in the business school.

Was Dirks, who traditionally emphasized the importance of the humanities, a field that doesn’t produce all that lucrative intellectual property or churn out tomorrow’s business executives, a man out of place at Cal?

It’s worth pondering.

The university’s costly image spinning

We can’t read the full story in the subscriber-only San Francisco Chronicle story, but they do let you read the first paragraph, to which we’ve added another paragraph from the story we found in a news aggregator:

As UC Berkeley prepared to eliminate hundreds of jobs and take millions of dollars in loans to help balance its flagging budget, the campus also paid more than $200,000 to “improve the chancellor’s strategic profile nationally and internationally,” The Chronicle has learned.

The decision to pay outside consultants of the last year to burnish Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ global image is seen by some faculty as the latest in a series of missteps — including his kid glove treatment of star employees who sexually harassed students and colleagues and his uneven handling of the campus; $150 million budget deficit — that led to Dirks’ decision to step down. The companies agreed to “increase exposure and awareness of Dirks’ vision for higher education, elevate the chancellor as a “key thought leader” and “form key partnerships” so that potential donors would understand his philosophy.

The news about the image polishing confirmed suspicions we raised in a blog 16 March post, reprinted in full below [emphasis added]:

The curious case of the missing monobrow. . .

Coming to Berkeley from Columbia University, where Nicholas B. Dirks had served as executive vice president and dean of the faculty of  Arts and Sciences, the new chancellor of the flagship campus of the University of California underwent an amazing transition.

Here’s the image the folks at Cal’s PR department sent out when 8 November 2012 when announcing his appointment:

BLOG Dirks

And here’s an image of Dirks captured from the apology video just posted:

BLOG Dirks after

So what happened to the monobrow, a furry feature evident in countless photos [for instance] taken before his transplantation to the Golden State from the urban wilds of the Big Apple?

And then there are the eyeglasses. In all but two of the images we found doing a Google image search, Dirks wore his specs at a genial, approachable half staff, yet in the apology video he gazes out from behind glass, the lenses interposing themselves between seer and seen.

And what’s the deal with the flowers, the white blooms often associated with funerals and death?

Maybe its our old anthropological training kicking in, or simply the observation skills honed during five decades of journalism, but our sense is that in coming to image-conscious California Dirks fell into the hands of media handlers.