The Anti-Science Ticket

There are so many reasons to vote against the Trump-Pence ticket, it almost seems like piling on to point out that a vote for Trump-Pence is a vote against science and empirical evidence. As a recent article in the New Yorker pointed out:

In May, for instance, while speaking to an audience of West Virginia coal miners, Trump complained that regulations designed to protect the ozone layer had compromised the quality of his hair spray. Those regulations, he continued, were misguided, because hair spray is used mainly indoors, and so can have no effect on the atmosphere outside. No wonder Hillary Clinton felt the need to include, in her nomination speech, the phrase “I believe in science.”

Often, Trump is simply wrong about science, even though he should know better. Just as he was a persistent “birther” even after the evidence convincingly showed that President Obama was born in the United States, Trump now continues to propagate the notion that vaccines cause autism in spite of convincing and widely cited evidence to the contrary. (As he put it during a Republican debate, last September, “We’ve had so many instances. . . . A child went to have the vaccine, got very, very sick, and now is autistic.”) In other cases, Trump treats scientific facts the way he treats other facts—he ignores or distorts them whenever it’s convenient. He has denied that climate change is real, calling it pseudoscience and advancing a conspiracy theory that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.”

Scientific American calls Trump’s lack of respect for science “alarming,” and worries that the U.S. presidential election “shows how far the political conversation has degenerated from the nation’s founding principles of truth and evidence.”

A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Lest Trump’s bizarre approach to what constitutes “fact” and “evidence” crowd out recognition of his running-mate’s preference for biblical, rather than scientific, explanations of the world, Slate has an article reminding us of Pence’s dismissal of “theories” like evolution and climate change.

You know anyone picked by Trump to be his running mate almost certainly will have a problem with established science, of course, but it turns out Pence is also a young Earth creationist. And one with a lot of conviction about it, too. In 2002, while a congressman from Indiana, he gave a short speech on the floor of Congress denying evolution, and used quite a few misleading, if not outright false, claims.

The Slate article has a video of Pence’s speech, and (assuming you can stomach it) it highlights–among other things– his misunderstanding of what constitutes a scientific theory.

Nonscientists use the word theory to mean speculation, or guess—“I have a theory about that.” Scientific illiterates like Pence fail to distinguish between that casual use of the term and its very different scientific meaning.

Development of a scientific theory is a part of the scientific method. It involves summarizing a group of hypotheses that have been successfully and repeatedly tested. Once enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, a theory is developed, and that theory becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a particular phenomenon. Scientific theories are based on careful examination of facts.

Pence’s preference for biblical explanations of the world comes as no surprise to Hoosiers, who have watched him fund parochial schools with public dollars, shift funding from science-based medical services like Planned Parenthood to religiously-based anti-abortion organizations, and enact measures like RFRA to protect those engaging in religiously-based discrimination.

Media outlets tend to portray Pence as less deranged than Trump. It’s a low bar.

 

Unequal Justice

A last word on criminal justice disparities.

I still remember how astonished I was when, some twenty years ago, at a meeting of a small group of executives and government officials of which I was then a part, someone asked “how many of you have ever been stopped for speeding?” Every hand went up. The follow-up question was: “How many of you then had your vehicle searched?” Every black hand went up; no white one did. These were well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken upper-middle class citizens.

Discriminatory laws are easier to change than the historic social structures and ingrained attitudes that have privileged white citizens and disadvantaged black ones for over two hundred years.

Social change tends to be slow and difficult, and racial disadvantage isn’t just economic. Even when the laws of the land are facially neutral, they are not always neutrally applied. If you are black, and especially if you are poor and black, the justice system you encounter is markedly different—and considerably less just—than the system that governs your Caucasian fellow-citizens.

In 1999, David Cole wrote what has come to be regarded as a seminal work on the issue of equality in the American justice system, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the Criminal Justice System. The book documented pervasive race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice.

Cole’s unsparing look at the American justice system examined everything from police behavior and jury selection to sentencing; he argued that our system not only fails to live up to the promise of equality, but actually requires double standards to operate. Cole argued that it is the disparities in the system that allow the privileged “to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor.”

In its review of the book, the New York Times said “No Equal Justice makes a strong case that we have tolerated a law enforcement strategy that depends on the exploitation of race and class divisions.”

Although this unequal application of the law falls most heavily on poorer African-Americans, more affluent members of the community are hardly exempt. (There was something of a media firestorm when prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested for “breaking in” to his own home after a trip to China; police initially refused to believe he lived there.)

White America has finally begun to confront the reality of our unequal application of the laws. Thanks to technology and the proliferation of smartphone cameras and other digital recording devices, social media is filled with visual evidence of police conduct that challenges our most cherished beliefs about the maintenance of law and order. Recent books, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an eye-opening examination of the drug war, have added to the evidence of dysfunction.

Even Congress—in a rare bipartisan effort—has acknowledged the inequities and is attempting to reform the system.

If we are to create a truly equal society—defined as a society that gives its citizens a level playing field and genuinely equal protection of the laws—we must look beyond economic security, important as that is. We also need to ensure that our government institutions are not treating similarly-situated citizens differently based upon the color of their skin rather than upon their behavior.

 

 

 

 

 

What This Campaign Has Unleashed…

Over the past few months, I have seen increasing numbers of news reports like this one about a man who stabbed an interracial couple after seeing them kiss in a bar.

“He tells them, ‘Yeah, I stabbed them. I’m a white supremacist,’” Lower said. “He begins talking about Donald Trump rallies and attacking people at the Black Lives Matter protest.”

And this one:

Wichita State University student body president Khondoker Usama, a 23-year-old Muslim student from Bangladesh, and a Hispanic friend stopped at a local Kwik Shop late on a Friday in March. In an interview with the Washington Post, Usama says he noticed a white motorcyclist verbally harassing a black man, “calling him a lazy ass, saying, ‘You guys don’t work.’ He was using racial slurs.”

He says when the man took note of Usama and his friend, he began shouting, “Hey, you brown trash, you better go home.” Usama’s friend insisted, “It’s my country. Who the hell are you to tell me, ‘Go home?’”

“He seemed to be looking for a fight,” Usama told the Post. “The man started punching my friend. My friend dodged the first punch. I got in the middle of them—I told my friend to get back in the car. [The man] pushed me and he hit me over.” He began “kicking [my friend] in the stomach, indiscriminately punching him.”

Usama called the cops and the motorcyclist took off, but not before endorsing Trump.

“He was chanting, ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’” Usama told the Post. “‘Make America great again! You guys are the losers! You guys, we’ll throw you over the wall!’”

And stories like this one.

Tracey Iglehart, a teacher at Rosa Parks elementary school in Berkeley, California, did not expect Donald Trump to show up on the playground.

This was, after all, a school named after a civil rights hero in a progressive California enclave, with a melting pot of white, African American, Latino and Muslim students.

That has not stopped some children from channeling and adopting the Republican presumptive nominee’s xenophobic rhetoric in playground spats and classroom exchanges.

“They said things like ‘you’ll get deported’, ‘you weren’t born here’ and ‘you were born in a Taco Bell’,” said Iglehart, 49. “They may not know exactly what it means, but they know it’s powerful language.”

As Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in the New York Times

This community of Forest Grove, near the farm where I grew up in western Oregon, has historically been a charming, friendly and welcoming community. But in the middle of a physics class at the high school one day this spring, a group of white students suddenly began jeering at their Latino classmates and chanting: “Build a wall! Build a wall!”

The same white students had earlier chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Soon afterward, a student hung a homemade banner in the school reading, “Build a Wall,” prompting Latinos at area schools to stage a walkout.

Hillary Clinton recently accused Trump’s campaign of taking racism mainstream. Given the daily drumbeat of articles like those referenced above, Trump’s continued rhetoric, and his clear reluctance to distance himself from the white nationalists who enthusiastically support him, it’s hard to argue with that accusation.

Most political observers expect Trump to lose the election, and many expect the margin to be substantial. That’s well and good–but this is a genie that will be very hard to put back in the bottle.

I believe that most Americans–including most Republicans–reject the racism, misogyny  and xenophobia that have formed the basis of Trump’s campaign, but the sudden prominance of a politically significant white nationalist movement in the U.S. will challenge us for the foreseeable future.

Americans who have shuddered when considering Le Pen’s National Front in France and similar hard right movements elsewhere in Europe can no longer comfort ourselves with the fiction that we are less susceptible to that particular kind of ugliness.

For that disquieting epiphany, we have Trump to thank.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday’s post about the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Baltimore police department contained several suggestions about implementing change. A recent series of articles in the Washington Post pointed to a reform I omitted.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

According to the Post, many police departments have inadequate “early warning” systems, and many have none at all. As a result, “bad apples” are protected, rather than identified, until they do something so egregious that it cannot be covered up.

An early-warning system, of course, is only as good as the data it includes. Some systems, according to the Post, exclude the sort of information one would expect–complaints filed, incidents of excessive force–instead recording things like grooming violations (growing a beard in violation of the rules) or absences. And as one officer noted, recording even relevant data doesn’t do any good if no one is reviewing it and acting on it.

The real problem is a very human one: the deeply-embedded tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us versus them.” The culture of a police department is very similar to that of a military group. Such “bonding” can be an important asset when danger approaches, but it can lead to a counterproductive protectiveness when one of “ours” is accused of improper behavior. When the accusation comes from someone who doesn’t look like “us”–someone who is culturally or socio-economically or racially different–that tribal instinct can overcome good judgment.

As strong as that impulse is, it behooves us to recognize that there are a lot of good guys in blue who play by the rules and require others to do the same.

Back in my City Hall days, I remember a conversation with the then-Chief of Police, about a lawsuit that had just been filed against a member of his force. Far from being defensive, he immediately agreed to investigate the allegations, saying “When we give someone a lethal weapon and the authority to use it, we have an obligation to make sure he is well-trained, emotionally healthy, and wearing a badge for the right reasons.”

Says it all.

Breach of (Social) Contract

Thanks to ubiquitous smart-phone cameras, social media and Black Lives Matter, the general public can no longer ignore accusations that officers in a number of police departments routinely use excessive force and engage in unconstitutional behaviors.  Investigations by the U.S. Justice Department—most recently in Baltimore— confirm persistent, systemic practices that violate the rights of the citizens we expect police to serve and protect.

For a year following the death of Freddy Gray, the Justice Department monitored the Baltimore police department. The results of that investigation were unambiguous: unconstitutional practices included disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans, and excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities. The report attributed these practices to “systemic deficiencies” in training, policies, and accountability structures that “fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively.”

A DOJ investigation of police in Ferguson, Missouri, reached a similar conclusion, finding a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans that targeted them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences.

Baltimore and Ferguson are hardly unique.

As a practical matter, widespread distrust makes policing infinitely more difficult. Good policing depends upon access to reliable information and co-operation with community leaders; avenues of communication dry up when police are seen as enemies rather than protectors.

Far more troubling than the practical consequences of unprofessional behavior, however, is the damage done to America’s social fabric by what can only be seen as a breach of our most fundamental social contract.

The Enlightenment philosophers who influenced America’s founders proposed a trade of sorts; we call that trade the “social contract.” Citizens would give government the exclusive right to exercise coercive force; in return, government would use that force to protect individual rights—to provide for a society of “ordered liberty,” within which the strong could not prey with impunity on the weak.

We Americans argue constantly about the proper role of government, but there is no serious debate about the state’s obligation to provide for the public safety, or about the right of all citizens to expect equal justice before the law.

When government fails to keep its part of that essential bargain, when it breaches the social contract, it damages the bonds of citizenship and undermines the rule of law.

An old lawyer once told me that there is only one legal question: what should we do? How can our dysfunctional police departments go about changing entrenched, perverse cultures? A few suggestions, drawn from the research literature:

  • Training is key—and currently very uneven. A number of police departments across the country have instituted effective training programs that help individual officers understand implicit bias, calibrate their responses to the magnitude of the threats encountered, and learn techniques that calm, rather than exacerbate, confrontations. Those programs need to be replicated everywhere, but especially in troubled departments.
  • Policies governing police activities need to be clear, effectively communicated to the rank and file, and fairly and strictly enforced. Those policies should also be vetted by lawyers familiar with the Constitution and especially the jurisprudence of the First and Fourth Amendments.
  • Collection of accurate, relevant data is critical. Data is the means by which we measure progress, the standard against which we determine the appropriateness of behavior. It allows self-evaluation, and its public availability also allows other stakeholders to hold police accountable. That data should allow the department to identify problematic officers and intervene before they cross a serious line.
  • Every police department should have a transparent complaint process accessible to citizens, and complaints against police officers should not be evaluated solely by their peers. (In Baltimore, this was evidently a source of considerable—and understandable—distrust.) Complaints should be reviewed by disinterested parties, and policies prohibiting retaliation for filing a complaint should be strictly enforced.

In the long term, departments should focus more attention on the way they recruit and select new police officers. The recruiting process should include psychological examinations to weed out men and women who are likely to abuse authority, or who are otherwise unsuited to the stresses of the profession. And it should go without saying—so I’ll say it—departments should aim for recruits who are representative of the populations they will serve. That sounds easier than it is, but the results are worth the effort.

If Americans still believe in e pluribus unum—if we still want to unite, rather than divide, our many communities—fixing our policing problem is an essential first step.