Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My Disdain for "Sense of Place" Explained

A couple weeks ago or so, one of my friends from the internet expressed concern over my disdain for the concept of "sense of place." He is doing dutiful, important work documenting the organisms of his home city on the east coast, and I sincerely admire him for that. He made a good point that I have not adequately explained the title of my entire blog, and so I offer you that in this post, along with a humble apology for not doing so a lot sooner.

The Missouri River at Leavenworth, Kansas

What I object to has nothing to do with any individual person who chooses to live in one particular place and develop a deep relationship with the land, its wildlife and plants, and human neighbors. We need more of that if you ask me, or at least more of the ideals that come from that sense of rootedness, and reverence for a place.

What galls me is the "sense of place" in the context of nature writing. There is an intolerable overemphasis in the literary community on the idea that you cannot write intelligently and responsibly about a place unless you have lived there a very l-o-o-o-ng time, preferably your entire life. This romanticism is baloney. It probably goes back all the way to Thoreau, or even farther. It was a reciprocal concept, too. The land gave inspiration to the writer, and the writer in turn fostered a greater appreciation of the landscape and its ecology. Some of our best contemporary writers still work off that very principal. Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry in particular come to mind.

Me? I am a semi-nomad. I tolerated the rain of Oregon for my first twenty-seven years, in part because I had little choice. I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for a job, and while that didn't last, I remained in the Queen City for a total of eleven years before moving to the rural town of Forsyth, Missouri for another job. The job lasted eight months, my stay about a year or so. From there it was off to Tucson, Arizona on pure whim. By the time I was finally making friends and getting to know the area, I met my now spouse and moved here to Colorado Springs to be with her.

Now, because I have lived so many places, does that mean I cannot write about any of them with any sense of familiarity or understanding? Hell, no. In fact, I would argue that you cannot readily write about any place without having another place to compare it to. Travel leads to better understanding of the last place you were. Immersion in a community is certainly recommended, but maybe that is difficult because of the very nature of the place. Tucson is not a welcoming city, for example. People are friendly enough, but mostly superficially. They already have their circle of friends and are not generally prone to expanding it. This is due in part to sheer demographics. There is the geriatric set, and then there is the collegiate set at the University of Arizona. There are also the "snow bird" retirees who migrate to avoid the cold winters of their native states. So, only a few people are "desert rats" who stay year-round, and those folks exist in small, close-knit circles.

I lived in the land of "Taneycomo" (Taney County, Missouri) for a very short time, and had there been sufficient job opportunities I might still be there. However, anyone with the slightest degree of observational skills could have reached the same conclusions about the region that I penned in Orion magazine. It is not that Forsyth and other towns there are "simple" or somehow less worthy of attention and appreciation. It is just the opposite, in fact. Easily overlooked, residents are rightly insulted by stereotypes, and tired of being dismissed.

So, nomadic I may be. I suspect I am less like Thoreau and more like John Steinbeck writing Travels With Charley, but on a much slower pace. It is not the place of anyone in the arts to tell another artist, especially a young one, how to approach their craft, or dictate to them what they can or cannot do. Limitations have no place here. The whole enterprise of art flourishes by the uniqueness of its participants. Write on your own terms, and don't be afraid to call out those who would bind you with expectations and rules (aside from grammar, anyway).

I will leave you with one last personal experience that illustrates how expectations of a new place can be colored by a familiar one. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I was encouraged to visit Mount Airy Forest, second only to my hometown of Portland's Forest Park as the nation's largest and mostly undeveloped city park. Well, in my experience of coniferous forests, I found very few insects and other animals in a forest. When I finally broke down and took a hike through Mount Airy Forest, I obviously found the deciduous woodlands to be far richer in diversity than dark, evergreen forests. Now I long to get back to those woods, or at least travel to them regularly.

How do you define "sense of place?" How do you reconcile your personal lifestyle with the public perception of your locale? Let me know, I am nothing if not open-minded on concepts like this. I would once again like to thank my friend for taking the initiative (and risk) in asking me for a proper story about this topic. Carry on, "Thomas of Baltimore."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Depression

My mind is an emotional train wreck right now. Depression has many faces, at least that is what I believe is true for me, and I can speak only for me. It is a condition that can be fleeting, or stubbornly entrenched for weeks or months; and it can be triggered by many stimuli. Lately, the monotonous and unseasonably cold, wet weather, is largely to blame.

© Healthination.com
Frustration

Feeling powerless to change circumstances is without a doubt one of the leading emotions that causes me to fall into despair. I truly can't change the weather. It is going to be bad until it is good again. I cannot change the marketplace. My chosen profession and its attendant skills and knowledge will continue to be devalued for as far into the future as I can see; but I also can't change who I am, which, at its core, is a writer. It is also difficult to accrue new skills and new circumstances when one does not have the financial capacity to attend classes, travel to better weather, or otherwise self-improve....because you can't earn enough at your profession.....a vicious cycle.

Anger

Frustration for me results in one of two things: sadness or anger. Usually it is the latter. Lately I have been more silent than usual because I fear nothing but a string of expletives would leave my mouth (or my fingers as they dart across the keyboard). I wish that it was more widely considered by the scientific community that violence and depression in men are strongly linked. Men have a much harder time expressing themselves verbally. Why do they smash the plate against the wall during an argument with their spouse or significant other? "There! Do you see that? That is my heart, shattered." Men want desperately to have a tangible expression of how they feel, and this often comes out violently.

Snowball Effect

One expression of depression for me is what I call the "snowball effect," whereby one negative thought leads to another and they keep accumulating until there is no stopping them and they almost bury you. During one of these episodes your life seems to stink more than it really does because the snowball is also a dredge that hauls up memories that are not necessarily still applicable to your current condition. The good thing is that I am getting better at recognizing this before the snowball builds enough momentum to be all-consuming. The bad lunch does not carry as much weight as I thought initially, and can be allowed to fall off the conglomerate of other matters.

Coping Poorly

I will assert that few people are able to cope with depression, tragedy, and other life challenges in a healthy manner. Such things usually trigger extremely bad coping "skills" such as addictions, flight (from relationships, reality, etc), suicide, and homicide. These days, another coping mechanism is "oversharing" on social media. This is understandable. Misery doesn't necessarily love company, as the old saying goes; but misery does crave understanding and empathy; and reassurance that most situations we face are only temporary. Facebook has become in many ways a 24-7 version of Oprah or The Phil Donahue Show, or Sally Jesse Raphael for those who can remember that far back (I even appeared on Phil Donahue's show in February of 1989 to talk about adult children of divorce).

Anyway, few of the ways we want to exorcise our demons are productive. I cannot go on a shooting spree when what I really want is to kill the marketplace, not its inhabitants; and the social fabric of our world already has enough holes in it anyway. We need more patches and some really good seamstresses. I can't kill myself because then I send someone else down the road I just exited. Drugs and alcohol only serve to make one more destitute financially, and more unhealthy physically.

Therapy?

Suggesting someone suffering from depression get "counseling" can seem helpful, but here timing is everything. So is type. Personally, I am so self-analytical as it is that seeing a psychoanalyst is redundant. Back in the day I eventually tried a twelve-step group for adult children of alcoholics. I was receptive enough to the idea in that particular window of my life to actually get a few things out of it. This is when I first realized my problem with "God" was actually rebellion against religion, a human social institution. I also finally started understanding how my "buttons" were getting pushed, and began rewiring the mental circuitry so that I could better articulate my own position instead of reacting inappropriately to the other person.

Both one-on-one therapy and peer therapy groups can be helpful if only because you are expressing yourself out loud and you tend to hear yourself better when you do that. Listening to the experiences (traumas, really) of others helps build empathy and creates a more holistic view of one's place in the spectrum of personal atrocities and joys. Ideally, it does this by creating a reverence for those who suffer, including one's self.

Comedy

There is a reason that you never see the theatrical "tragedy" mask without the "comedy" smile right there next to it. I find that the one sure-fire antidote to depression is humor. I think I may start building a library of stand-up comedy DVDs to have at the ready for my next low spell. A good dose of humor might not cure me permanently at any given time, but it will get my head out of itself and probably get me started writing my own material or drawing a cartoon. Comedy is also an awesome substitute for those times when the weather, lack of transportation, or other obstacle prevents you from doing equally healthy things like getting outdoors in nature, or exercising. Maybe music has the same effect on you as comedy has on me. Personally, music can be profoundly sad to me, so I have to be careful in my choices of artists and albums.

Onward

I have no way of knowing who is reading this, and what their own struggles may be. I do hope that they gain a measure of hopefulness and a sense of brotherhood out of this essay. Meanwhile, I need to scatter my eggs among less weather-dependent, market-driven baskets and reclaim my identity as something more than what I do for an occupation. We're all much deeper than we know, and far more substantial than what society tells us we are. Don't fall for it. Laugh at it instead, and be the individual example of what you want humanity to be. You'll fail early and often, but don't we all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I am not a "Bernie bro," yet

The holier-than-thou Hillary Clinton supporters who continue to rail against those Bernie Sanders supporters who have professed that they will not vote for Clinton under any circumstances, including the general election in November, are only strengthening the resolve of Sanders supporters and may, ironically, end up recruiting more "Bernie or Bust" diehards. This has a lot less to do with what Clinton-backers have to say about Sanders, and a lot more to do with what they are insinuating about those who are "feeling the Bern."

People do not take kindly to being insulted, and that is exactly what many of Clinton's supporters and the Democratic National Committee are doing to those who are supporting Bernie Sanders, even if unintentionally. Those advocating for Clinton may think they are harmlessly reminding the Sanders camp that the real focus needs to be on defeating the Republican party nominee in November, and the sooner everyone is on board with the same candidate and platform, the better. What I suspect Bernie's supporters are hearing is that "you silly, young, naive folks need to fall in line and get with the program."

This is the same kind of crap that I remember hearing in my late twenties, even thirties, after I had dropped out of college. When people would offer the advice that I should "go back and finish your degree," what I heard was: "You have no right to succeed unless you do it the traditional way that I and everyone else has had to!" So, when you ask us Sanders supporters to "please, recognize we must triumph over Republicans at all cost," what we hear is: "You are delusional to believe anything Sanders is feeding you, that there is any alternative whatsoever to Elephant versus Ass, no way we are ever going to achieve those 'pie in the sky' dreams of universal healthcare, livable wage, and everything else Sanders stands for." Well, baloney. "But that's not what we are saying," you claim. Doesn't matter. That is what we are hearing, and perception equals reality, especially in politics.

My impressions of this brand of Clinton supporter are probably equally flawed and overly-generalized. Here is my take, obviously exaggerated to make a point: Well, you must be perfectly happy with the status quo, then. You must be happy being a low- to mid-level employee in a multi-national corporation where you get a respectable wage, health insurance, a 401K, etc. Maybe you think that your membership in the Audubon Society is enough to guarantee that legislation adverse to the environment can be kept to a minimum. Maybe supporting the local homeless shelter is a sufficient means of mitigating the profound, institutionalized oppression of the poor. Get it, yet?

There is no perfect candidate, certainly. No argument there, but unless the Clinton backers start understanding the emotions and real-life struggles that Sanders supporters have at the heart of their very being, you really risk permanently alienating even more potential Clinton supporters should she win the party nomination. I am frankly astonished that Sanders is not winning every demographic. I am middle-aged, and I support Sanders because, in the immortal words of Peter Finch's character in Network, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Sanders has catalyzed this sentiment better than any previous candidate in my politically-aware lifetime.

I have this image of Bernie leaving his house for work every morning, and above the inside door frame is a sign that reads: "In case of emergency, run for President." Seriously, if he is running for the highest office, it says to me that things are even worse than we citizens imagine, and this may be our very last chance to change things. But, hey, if you still prefer "the Devil you know," you have the right to vote for other candidates. Keep up the condescending rhetoric, though, and you won't just lose potential political allies, you'll start losing personal friends.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

God Without Religion

It has been a long, agonizing road to get to this point where I can be even remotely comfortable discussing matters of personal spirituality. In my experience, whatever social pressures I may have faced to drink alcohol, do drugs, have sex, or get married pale by comparison to the frequent and intense attempts to convert me to one form of Christianity or another.

Several years ago it suddenly dawned on me that God and the Church are not the same thing. It was then that I began to lose my hostility toward the concept of a Higher Power. My scientific friends and colleagues may be disappointed to learn that at minimum I allow for the possibility of God, that I have not rejected the idea outright as a certified atheist. Am I rationalizing my own beliefs to placate both camps? Perhaps, but I expect to offend many with the following outline of my objections to Christianity as I know it. I also reserve the right to revisit each of the topics more in depth in later posts to this blog.

The church is a human institution

The church is a creation of human society, and so is vulnerable to all the problems that any human enterprise faces: Corruption, greed, lust for power, and sexual abuse to name but a few such perils. Time and again we have witnessed the abuse of power by men of the cloth who hijack the Lord for their own personal gain.

God is defined in masculine terms

Not every person has a good experience or perception of their own human father, so interpreting God as a man will inspire inappropriate fear, resentment, perhaps even hatred in those individuals estranged from their own male parent (or any other male in a position of power who has abused that power).

The Bible and hymns use a language of war

Christians claim to be a peaceful group, but the language of the Bible and hymns is anything but peaceful. Vanquishing the enemy is the overriding message, and if that means spilling blood, so be it. The God I believe in is not hostile in the least.

The church assumes that human beings are “special.”

I took “Lutheran 101” at our church and was disappointed (but not surprised) to find the belief is that only human beings will go to heaven, not any animals or other organisms, because only people have souls. Well, first of all, humans are animals. I don’t know how one proves we have souls and other species don’t. Setting ourselves apart from the rest of nature is futile at best, and highly destructive at worst.

Emphasis on the hereafter at the expense of the here-and-now

The overriding concern of Christianity is to get as many souls to heaven as possible, and because the apocalypse guarantees instant judgment, many want to hasten the second coming. There is no incentive to work toward world peace in the meantime. Indeed, the greater the conflict, the more potential for heavenly intervention.

God is judgmental (but forgiving)

On the one hand we are taught that God sits in judgement of us, while on the other God is endlessly forgiving. Which is it? I prefer the forgiving God, not only out of self-interest but out of the belief that there is at least something redeemable about everyone. It is natural to want eternal salvation for those "like us" and eternal damnation for those we perceive as the antithesis of what we hold sacred, but I suspect it is a lot more complicated than that.

The church attempts to legislate morality through political avenues

Here in the United States, our Constitution is firmly established on the idea of a separation of church and state. This is no longer the case, and while there are certainly moral ideals we should be aspiring to, the form that religious lobbying has taken is one of intolerance and exclusionism rather than compromise and inclusiveness.

The church considers science to be an enemy of faith

My personal belief is that God created life through the process of evolution. This statement may upset as many of my scientific friends as my church friends, but it underscores my fervent desire to see science and religion work together to conserve and protect creation, no matter how it came to be.

Lack of requirements for sacrifice and commitment

One of my childhood Jewish friends honored me by inviting me to his Bar Mitzvah back in the day. Now that was truly impressive. He had studied and learned an entire language (Hebrew) for his faith, and during this ceremony stood and recited passages from the Torah at length. This demanded intellectual commitment, substantial time to study, and physical stamina. Where is that kind of expectation in Christianity?

Proselytizing

Not once to my knowledge have I ever been approached, let alone lectured to, by a Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, or other non-Christian believer. However, there have been plenty of times when I have encountered Christians eager to convert me to their denomination. This is no way to win friends, by threatening them with eternal damnation if they do not subscribe to a particular belief system.

I have come to the conclusion that religion is too often a barrier to achieving a personal relationship with God. There is good reason that so many of our most thoughtful human beings have stressed the need for solitude and communion with nature to restore one’s faith, rejuvenate one’s spirit, and reach a better understanding of creation.

Please understand that I respect your own ideologies, and that I conduct my personal relationships on a case-by-case basis. How you live your life speaks volumes to me, and we would not be friends if I did not accept who you are in your entirety. I do expect the same courtesy in return.

Religion and I do share one thing in common, of course. We both want God to be Who or What we think He/She or It really is. We want, Above all, to be right.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mountain Bikers & Trail Runners: Slow Down for Snakes!

Here in Colorado, at least along the Front Range, we enjoy a variety of "wilderness" recreational opportunities from hiking to rock climbing. Sometimes differing modes of trail enjoyment come into conflict, and sometimes the wildlife suffers even worse consequences. Here I will relate why people traveling over trails at high speed (mountain bikers and trail runners specifically) need to understand their potential impacts on reptiles in particular.

Baby gartersnake basking on trail

I have been fortunate to encounter at least four species of snakes along popular trails in various parks and open spaces. Snakes make use of patches of earth unobstructed by vegetation in order to bask, warming their bodies for active hunting later, to help digest a meal, or otherwise regulate their metabolism. Trails are ideal for this purpose and it is not uncommon to find serpents stretched across the full width of a trail.

Obviously, venomous snakes such as the Prairie Rattlesnake also pose a threat to people using trails. Trail runners must be mindful of the potential to encounter rattlesnakes, especially in early morning or early evening hours, and on overcast days. I personally recall one afternoon when a trail runner passed me, and I almost tripped over a Prairie Rattlesnake shortly thereafter. I suspect the runner never saw it.

A handsome Prairie Rattlesnake stretched across a trail

When traversing terrain at a high rate of speed, it is essentially impossible to notice a snake or other small organism on the trail. If it is noticed it may be mistaken for a branch or other object. Snakes are generally well-camouflaged and overlooked even by those seeking to find them.

Besides the fact that a snake cannot move rapidly enough to avoid an oncoming bicycle tire, or running shoe, it is usually not programmed to do so behaviorally. A snake's primary defense against a perceived threat is to rely on camouflage and stillness in hopes the predator or danger does not detect it. So, snakes are, figuratively if not literally, "sitting ducks" when it comes to oblivious mountain bikers and trail runners.

Aw-w-w, a basking baby gophersnake

There is evidence that other types of small animals also suffer from collisions or other encounters with mountain bikers and trail runners. While my chief personal interest is in insects and spiders, and I find a great deal of carnage related to even regular bicyclists, most invertebrate species have robust, widespread populations that can withstand even heavy mortality. Not so with many reptiles, small mammals, ground-nesting birds, and other organisms. Remember that all animals are subject to many non-human mortality factors as well: Predators, parasites, disease, and infertility for example.

Gartersnake smile

What can you do to avoid conflict and still enjoy yourself? Consider recreating at a time of day when reptiles are not normally active. Yes, that means late morning through afternoon during the warmer months. Winter riding means little or no conflict with wildlife. Slow down, especially in open habitats such as prairies, meadows, and glades, south- or east-facing hillsides, and along rock outcrops. Ride only on trails designated for mountain biking (but you do that already, I'm sure). If there is a park headquarters, visitors center, or nature center, consult with personnel there to find out which trails are best, and whether there is frequent wildlife activity along them.

Thank you for reconsidering your riding and running habits and becoming more "wildlife-friendly" to other creatures. Those of us who share the trails but move at a slower pace and enjoy our encounters with animals will be grateful for your thoughtfulness.

Prairie Rattlesnake thanks you for your courtesy

Sources: Burgin, Shelley and Nigel Hardiman. 2012. "Is the evolving sport of mountain biking compatible with fauna conservation in national parks?," Australian Zoologist 36(2): 201-208.
Craver, Monica. 2009. "The Impacts of Mountain Biking on Amphibians and Reptiles, 2008," e-mail to Council ATdnv.org
Davenport, John and T. Adam Switalski. 2006. "Environmental Impacts of Transport, Related to Tourism and Leisure Activities," in Davenport, John and Julia L. The Ecology of Transportation: Managing Mobility for the Environment. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 333-360.
Goode, Matthew J., Jeffrey M. Howland, and Michael J. Sredl. 1995. Effects of Microhabitat Destruction on Reptile Abundance in Sonoran Desert Rock Outcrops. Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program Heritage Report. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, Arizona.
Vandeman, M.J. 2011. "The Impacts of Mountain Biking on Wildlife and People - A Review of the Literature," ARPN Journal of Science and Technology 4(7): 418-426.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Advice to Creative People

I could probably summarize my advice to other creative people in one sentence: "Get comfortable with yourself." What would be the fun in that, though? It takes awhile to grow into that mindset anyway, so here are some thoughts that might help you get there faster.

Value your works

Maybe the first thing you have to appreciate is that what you produce are "works": irreproducible images, passages, and other products of your personal vision, interpretation, and mind. Social media, and the digital age in general, has severely eroded the value that our society once assigned to the arts. Don't stand for that. Demand compensation, within reason of course, that reflects what you put into a given work. Recognize your worth as an artist and human being and don't back down from it.

Don't emulate anyone else

It is very easy to fall into the trap of believing that if you....followed the writing routine of Elmore Leonard, say, you would be much more productive and successful. Balderdash. Not everyone works the same way. A routine that is effective for one person is completely inappropriate for another. Seldom are even two consecutive days the same for my own writing style. If you are producing, then you are doing what works for you. Only if you fail completely to produce, over a long period, do you need to re-think your approach.

Make your art a priority

You do have to make your creative endeavors a priority in your life if you want to be successful. Still, recognize that on some days, even the best at their craft would sooner have a root canal than sit down at the desk, stand at the easel, or whatever. Just the same, remember that healthy eating, exercise, cultivating loving relationships with others, and personal education are also necessary for your productivity. A diversity of activities each day, or at least each week, is key to keeping energized and creative. I make it a point to take a brisk 30-minute walk every day, unless the weather poses a threat to my health.

The myth of the muse

One cannot rely on someone else, or something else for inspiration. "Write (draw, paint, etc) what you know" is a constant refrain from teachers and mentors, but there is good reason for that advice. It is a steady stream feeding your creative self, and it lends uniqueness to your voice. You must believe in your personal perspective, realm of experience, and style of expression. My personal desire to change public attitudes towards insects, spiders, and other "unlovable" creatures drives me daily. What I don't already know I learn; and I infuse my writing and photography with my personal enthusiasm and awe for the natural world.

There is no "writer's block"

If you are passionate about your work, there is no valve on creative flow. It is a constant torrent. What can happen is periodic lack of motivation and/or a lack of focus. Many of us are prone to distraction, maybe even have undiagnosed ADD. Committing to one project, be it an essay, novel, painting, or commissioned sculpture, may seem impossible at times because other projects or life events are clamoring for our attention. That is natural and afflicts everyone regardless of their occupation or career. Accept that this will happen, and take extra care of your physical and mental health when it does.

Don't compare yourself to others

Many times this will be a pitfall, something that consumes you when you are vulnerable to a sudden attack of an inferiority complex. Your measure of success must be your own. You may be prone to jealousy and envy, but most of us are. Use those emotions as motivation, not as an excuse to wallow or give up. Your uniqueness is all you have going for you. Celebrate it.

Get comfortable with turmoil

There is some truth to the "suffering artist" cliché. Passion often comes from personal experiences, circumstances, or world events and issues that you react viscerally to. Channel the rage, anger, hostility, or pain into something that moves others. Personally, I believe my greatest successes are when I express opinions and beliefs that are shared by others, but that those other people never dared broadcast out of fear. What would their friends think? How dare they say that! Be that kind of daredevil.

Don't apologize

This comes on the heels of being fearless. Do not be fearful of changing your mind or attitude when confronted by an opposing point of view that has merit; but don't apologize for expressing yourself in the moment, espousing your own personal interpretations (be they written, drawn, painted, sculpted, sung, etc) of your world. You are not responsible for how others receive your works. Your intent should never be to willfully hurt others, but you are going to cause wounds now and again and you have to accept that as part of the price of the creative process. Forgive yourself when that happens.

Don't live by someone else's standards

Did I say that already? Well, it bears repeating. Here is "A Cartoonist's Advice," by Bill Watterson, the man behind Calvin and Hobbes:

"Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble."

Write your own rules

Whatever you may take from this blog post, there is greater value in what you decide is best for yourself. You will always be your own worst critic, but you have to also be your staunchest advocate. There is no one else capable to making you great. So, pin those self-affirming statements to the wall over your desk, to the frame of your easel, or mirror, or monitor. Experience joy. Make sacrifices. Accept occasional poverty (in the financial sense only). Think. Feel. Live. That is all that art is.

Friday, April 8, 2016

On the Growing Distrust of Science

© Gazettaofapocalypse.Blogspot.com

The sociopolitical landscape of the U.S.A. at this moment seems rather schizophrenic when it comes to whether citizens greet science and scientists with trust and acceptance, or distrust and disbelief. It is my opinion that this is not a sudden phenomenon, but one that has been brewing for several decades. It is not the result of changes in the scientific method, either, but in the agendas of the parties engaged in scientific research. There is now less independent research and more study by scientists beholden to corporations. Meanwhile, politicians have exploited the growing chasm between religion and science. Lastly, the internet has spawned more misinformation than ever, and made it easier for individuals and groups of like minds, predisposed to belief or skepticism, to reinforce their own opinions.

Corporatization, and Science as Product

In an age where perception equals reality, science and scientists are increasingly viewed as agents for the advancement of corporate profits, at the expense of consumer access, safety, and environmental health. The pharmaceutical industry is a great example. Privatization is thus the overriding problem with science today. At worst it excludes science in the decision-making process. It subverts peer-review and limits protocols based on cost-benefit analysis in the monetary sense only. More money is invested in lobbying for deregulation than in establishing and upholding basic standards of health, safety, and disclosure. Even more money is spent on procuring patents and protecting "proprietary information." Science, in essence, is now all about product and everything that this concept entails.

That even includes advertising, from prescription meds to energy. Here in Colorado, we are subjected nightly to advertising which promotes fracking, a means of extracting fossil fuels that are otherwise difficult to harvest. There is actually no science in the advertising. It plays upon sympathy for rural populations that rely on oil and mineral rights to supplement farm and ranch income. Well, of course it is major corporations, usually absentees from the states they are exploiting, that make the real profits. "Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development" and "Protect Colorado" are behind the ads, but guess who bankrolls them?

Where is the Oversight?

The government regulatory agencies we have traditionally relied upon to serve as watchdogs for the public interest are also increasingly in the pockets of the multinational corporations they were designed to be skeptical of. This is what happens when industries are successful in lobbying for deregulation. Did we learn nothing from the collapse of the big banks of Wall Street? Apparently, because we seem hell-bent on repeating the same scenario with science; only this time it is our personal health and the health of the environment that are at stake.

Yet another problem is that scientific decisions are now bypassing the scientific community. No unbiased scientist in their right mind is going to blindly sign off on the decision to make the Detroit River the new water source for consumers in Flint, Michigan, for example. Again, politicians are not scientists, but now they are not even soliciting input from scientists, or they do so after the fact.

© Scilogs.com
Scientific Illiteracy

Two factors are largely responsible for public scientific illiteracy: the expansion of social media, and funding cuts to education at all levels. Misinformation, urban legend, and rash "theories" now spread at warp speed thanks to Facebook Twitter, and other internet portals. The consumer, for their part, has the attention span of a gnat, and the media demand answers instantly to "fill the void." Consequently, journalists are quick to pull the trigger on a flimsy "theory" instead of weighing all sides, and waiting patiently for traditional authorities, including scientists, to chime in. This study suggests a sort of "bandwagon" phenomenon in the wake of hot-button topics like the Zika virus.

Funding for public education is also suffering at state and local levels, and every interest group demands that politicians make funding contingent upon their own agenda. Consequently, we get legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution, and/or equating "creation science" with evolution. Regardless of one's faith, it should be obvious that in order to be fully informed, students need to be aware of basic scientific principles, not shielded from them.

Solutions?

All of the preceding concerns have resulted in the perfect storm of consumer ignorance and orchestrated deception on the part of many for-profit entities. None will be solved overnight, but perhaps we can agree on some goals and strategies for reversing the trends.

  • We need to return the scientific process to the arena of full transparency. Indeed we must, if it is to regain its rightful place of unbiased authority. The public should always be informed as to what company, industry, or agency a scientist is working for.
  • Funding must be increased, or restored in many cases, for independent, basic research from which more specific research is then generated. The same holds true for funding of science education from kindergarten through high school, and in informal settings like parks and museums.
  • We need more rigorous reporting from media to expose bad science, and publicize accurate science. Journalistic standards and integrity from peer-reviewed journals to the nightly news and online outlets need to be returned to their former glory. Where are the Woodwards and Bernsteins of today?

I am not holding my breath for the day when corporations and government officials suddenly start accepting the idea of accountability, but as a writer I hope to continue demanding that they do; and demand more of myself in articulating scientific matters in a timely manner, with a voice of authenticity, and respect for my readers. We need an honest dialogue more than ever, fearless in expressing our fears, and with minds open to enlightenment.