Remedial reading, and (noting the season), a regifting of the same: Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric.

A week or so ago, had the pleasure to be interviewed as part of a survey conducted by Ioanna Cionea, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. At the session’s end, when I discovered that professor Cionea did research on rhetoric (among many other topics), it was natural to ask if she could recommend some remedial reading.

She was kind enough to oblige. One piece on her list was Beyond Persuasion: A Proposal for Invitational Rhetoric, a 1995 essay by Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin. What a treasure! Still a few days until Christmas, good gifts could still roll in; but Beyond Persuasion will likely prove to be one of the best of the gifts under my tree this year. Access to the pdf link is nonrivalrous; hence it’s painless (as well as seasonally appropriate) to regift it to all of you.

Perhaps you’re already familiar with this work; good for you! But if it’s new, you’ll find it timely, for two reasons.

First, the government of the United States is undergoing a sea change in the executive branch – one that’s bringing back a positive White House stance on climate change, dating back to George Herbert Walker Bush and the Rio Summit of 1992, but has been absent for a while. Within a few weeks, we’re likely to be back on board with the rest of the world as signatories to the 2016 Paris agreement. We’ll have John Kerry serving as President Biden’s special climate envoy, Gina McCarty as a climate czar, and Jennifer Grantholm as Energy Secretary. That kind of leadership should see agencies such as EPA and NOAA  prosper.  More significantly, it will allow the United States to recover lost ground on the savings and the international market opportunities opening up as the world shifts to cheaper, cleaner renewable energy sources. But U.S. progress will deepen and accelerate to the extent that the current polarized, heated climate change dialog cools a bit. And in this respect, the essay’s title sounds, well… inviting.

Second, the nation and the world are currently experiencing a season of lament. We’re confronting, once again, but with particular force, the reality that our (two-million-year) human history has been one of brokenness and dysfunction, ever bordering on and too often entering deep into the realm of evil. All too frequently and habitually – and systemically – humans have been quick to distrust and dislike people who are different, by whatever measure – gender, skin color, ethnicity, income level, and more. We’ve acted on these base instincts. We’ve treated “the other” inequitably, unfairly. We’ve excluded them, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes deliberately, across the spectrum of human activity and down through the years. We haven’t let “them” belong. We’ve treated what we “have” as zero-sum, and out of fear and selfishness denied “others” access to the benefits and opportunities of what we consider “ours.”

We’re daily confronting the downside of all this. In a spurt of global reflection and self-examination, resolution, and commitment to action, we’re trying to unwind this two million years of brokenness – all in a single generation. The label applied to this work is DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), with sometimes the additional BA (belonging and accessibility) thrown in. It’s arguably (there’s that emotion-labeled word) the most important work of the human race right now. As it happens, Sonja Foss and Cindy Griffin have developed the concept of invitational rhetoric from a feminist perspective, using language and framing that feels particularly fresh and relevant today.

(Okay, Bill, enough dancing around the subject. Just what is invitational rhetoric, and why should I care?)

Glad you asked. The authors summarize it very nicely in their opening:

“Most traditional rhetorical theories reflect a patriarchal bias in the positive value they accord to changing and thus dominating others. In this essay, an alternative rhetoric – invitational rhetoric – is proposed, one grounded in the feminist principles of equality, immanent value, and self-determination. Its purpose is to offer an invitation to understanding, and its communicative modes are the offering of perspectives and the creation of the external conditions of safety, value, and freedom.

They note early on that “Rhetorical scholars ‘have taken as given that it is a proper and even necessary human function to attempt to change others.’” They go on to say “Embedded in efforts to change others is a desire for control and domination, for the act of changing another establishes the power of that change agent over that other… The act of changing others not only establishes the power of the rhetor over others but also devalues the lives and perspectives of those others… This is the rhetoric of patriarchy, reflecting its values of change, competition, and domination… Although definitions of feminism vary, feminists generally are united by a set of basic principles. We have chosen to focus on three of these principles – equality, immanent value, and self-determination – to serve as the starting place for a new rhetoric. These principles are ones that explicitly challenge the positive value the patriarchy accords to changing and thus dominating others.”

Whew! A lot to absorb… particularly for those of us in the crowd who’ve enjoyed the privileges of patriarchs. Might at first blush seem easier, more natural to push back than take this message to heart. But please make the effort to do the latter. Please also read this from the lens of climate science – we’re attempting to warn and change people’s minds about truly existential matters, but it’s not coming across that way. Instead, many people see an effort by elitist, comfortably well-off scientists to put long-term, abstract, ephemeral issues ahead of more immediate, more universal concerns: jobs, health care, education, racial divides, unsafe streets at home and terrorist threats abroad. These challenges have long been chronic and pervasive; the pandemic has brought them all to a crisis point. But the hearers can be forgiven for seeing the messages as patriarchal efforts at domination. We need to take a new tack, and frankly have little to lose in any such attempt.

There’s eighteen pages of expansion on these ideas and illustrative examples. Rather than go into more depth, I’ll adhere to the spirit of the paper and invite you to read it.

As mentioned earlier, the paper has been around awhile; a benefit is that elapsed time has allowed critiques of the approach to surface. A developing Wikipedia article on the subject provides a summary and can point you to more material.

Happy holidays!

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Remedial Reading: Mike Hulme’s 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

Want to make any scientist you know feel shame and guilt? Ask them about some journal publication or book bearing on their research that they should have read, but haven’t. Scientists are brought up from their earliest experience to know thoroughly and acknowledge completely results from prior work. Might not be rule #1, but is certainly in the Ten Commandments for what we do.

Knowing the literature – keeping current – has never been easy. In the old days, there was a lot less published research to track. But scientists were few and far between, and communications were slow, especially across country- and language barriers. There were few journals, but these were not widely reproduced. Not every library subscribed to every journal. Hard to know who was doing what.

Fast forward to today. Journals are available online, increasingly open access, communications are rapid, but the pace of progress is dizzying. Information overload is the reality and the signal is drowned out by the noise. Artificial intelligence to the rescue! An example: google search of Watson goes to medical school offers a rich variety of links. Take your pick. You can learn how IBM’s artificial intelligence, starting a few years back, has begun helping oncologists stay up to date on diagnosis and treatment, in large part by tracking the thousands of contributions that are entering the relevant literature each day. The future looks bright. We’re told that IBM’s Big Blue filled a room; that Watson fits in the equivalent of a few pizza boxes; that within the decade the equivalent capability will reside in each and every smartphone. Each of us will be able to tailor that capability to our particular needs, including helping us stay current.

But think about it. Does that mean we’ll be free of shame and guilt? Hardly. Eight billion people are churning out mountains of new knowledge while our backs are turned. We’ll be forced to do serious triage: reading a paper or two each day or week. We’ll note a paper or two to look at later if time permits (which it won’t). All the while consigning orders of magnitude more material to some virtual dustbin in the cloud.

Shame and guilt could hit new levels.

That’s why remedial reading is a recurrent theme on LOTRW. (Oh… you haven’t kept up with this particular literature? You can start your search of prior LOTRW posts on remedial reading here.)

But you’ll have a happier experience if instead you acquire and dive into Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction, and Opportunity (Cambridge University Press, 2009.

As for me, I saw a review somewhere when the book first came out, and was immediately intrigued. When my copy arrived, took it home, in order to tackle it evenings and weekends. But one thing led to another. First it was on top of a stack of books; then a kind of sedimentation saw it buried under a layering of other books meeting a similar fate. Only after a recent move did it resurface, and even then it took covid-19’s stay-put-at-home regime to provide opportunity to pick up the book again and this time read it through from beginning to end.

Want to read a proper review? There are many to choose from; you can start your search here. But, in a nutshell: Hulme looks at climate change from several perspectives: physical/natural science; economics; philosophy; social psychology; politics; faith. He suggests it inappropriately trivializes climate change to see it as a big, complicated challenge but nonetheless merely a problem society must “solve.” Through this variety of disciplinary viewpoints he argues that climate change exposes deeply-held but diverse individual and community values and beliefs about what it means to “live on the real world” (my phrase, not his). Mike Hulme is a self-identified evangelical Christian; he closes the book by suggesting that much climate-change literature falls into one of four categories, to which he applies Biblical labels:

  • Lamenting Eden (mourning the loss of nature as it existed before the Anthropocene)
  • Armageddon (looking at catastrophe to come)
  • Babel (a kind of chest-thumping belief in the power of human technology)
  • Jubilee (framing in terms of social equity and environmental justice)

What a great taxonomy! But there’s much that makes this book special. For instance, other authors treating such a range of disciplines might have been forced (or chosen) to be a bit superficial. By contrast, Mike Hulme has taken the time over a span of decades to immerse himself deeply and professionally into these separate realms. He’s made the effort to thoughtfully synthesize those diverse experiences as he’s gone along. This shows. He’s been able to distill down a staggering amount of material into something more manageable and digestible, without any shortcuts or loss of saliency and credibility along the way. He doesn’t bury the reader in references. But those that survive are carefully selected and thoroughly annotated. What’s more, his writing style is crisp, flows well – in short, highly readable.

Scientists or professionals of any stripe have little excuse for reading germane material tardily. But it sometimes does confer benefits. From the standpoint of 2020 it’s easy to see that Why We Disagree About Climate Change has aged well over the past decade. The material still feels fresh, the conclusions remain on point. What’s more, the 2020 moment is a timely one, as the world is going through another cycle of pondering what to do and how to go about it, and as the United States looks poised to rejoin the global conversation after a four-year hiatus.

In sum, get yourself a copy and dig in! Read it when it first came out? You might consider a reread. Either way, if you’re reading this column, and have gotten this far, chances are good that having this book’s contents fresh in your head will make you more effective in your day job. Also, it’s likely you have your own stack of unread material you’ve been planning to tackle when you get the chance. Choose something from that store and dig in. You’ll be glad you did.

As for me, I’ll be reaching for the next unread book in my own continually growing pile, rising like a stalagmite from the floor of my man cave…

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Dawn in America

Got up early enough this morning (at that time those in the military refer to as “oh-dark hundred”) to collect a daily bit of meteorological data. Here to report:

The sun rose in the east.

Looks as if we’re headed for another one of those days where that sun ratchets up the global average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere by some 10-4 0C, in the process melting enough ice on net to raise sea-level a little less than a tenth of a millimeter, meanwhile reducing ocean acidity/pH by 10-5 units. (Almost as an afterthought, that sun is fueling tropical depression ETA ashore in central America.)

Same old, same old? Or a New Day in America?

Depends on where your focus lies. Fact is, we’re all in the business, each and every day, of capturing a bit of both spirits. It’s useful to maintain a steady sense of “where we are, and whither we are tending,”  to borrow Lincoln’s phrase, but it’s equally important to take advantage of special days and seasons in our lives to take stock, reaffirm commitment to our basic values, the people we love, and more.  

This truth holds for us as individuals, but equally so for institutions. Here at the American Meteorological Society, our members have a quadrennial ritual – producing a priorities statement: this year, Priorities for a New Decade: Weather, Water, and Climate A Policy Statement of the American Meteorological Society (adopted by the AMS Council on Council 28 September 2020). What other NGO’s sometimes refer to as a transition document, and timed to coincide with the election cycle, it lays out a set of goals for our professional and scientific community. But these goals have a special wrinkle. They can’t be achieved unless they’re goals shared by the American people and the government at the people’s service. This is an appeal to a new administration coming in, or version 2.0 of the present one – an appeal for partnership to what we believe should be common aspirations for both scientists and the larger public, for both Democrats and Republicans, young and old, of every background and persuasion.

A quick look at the bottom line (the link provides more detail):

To ensure economic and societal well-being over the next decade (this particular quadrennial happens at a decade’s start), AMS recommends that the nation:

• develop the next generation of WWC experts

• invest in research critical to innovation and advanced services

• invest in observations and computing infrastructure

• create services that harness scientific advances for societal benefit

• prepare informed WWC information users

• build strong partnerships throughout the WWC enterprise

• implement effective leadership and management

Looking at these, some readers might see a fistful of generic nouns and adjectives, a number of bullets that might look vaguely similar to what they remember from four years ago, and jump a “same old, same old” conclusion. But with just a little further thought, it’s easy to see that while each could have been worded similarly in 2016, each means something different in 2020.

An example from the political world so much on our mind these days illustrates this. For years, perhaps decades, “climate change” has been considered a third rail of American politics. Politicians of both stripes avoided the subject. But this year, one of the candidates could make less-than-the-most-artful comments about a particular aspect of the national and global climate-change conversation – namely fracking—and incur little political damage. It appears that country and the world see the handwriting on the wall and have moved on.

A second example: innovation; investments in workforce development; harnessing scientific advancement for societal benefit resonate quite differently in the 2020’s, with economic competition with other nations (particularly but not only China) and concerns about the pandemic’s impact on US K-12 and higher education focusing minds.

Readers might try going through the entire list with new eyes – with a 2020 vision as it were.

This season of America’s political life is a good time for each of us to consider the bulleted goals of the priorities statement, reflect on where we best fit in, assess where we can contribute, and contemplate what help we will need from others if we’re to accomplish what’s necessary. As we reflect on that last point, we might do well to consider those “others” not as strangers, or “them,” but rather as valued, respected partners that we’re inclined to trust (yes, trust), that we’d like to get to know better, listen to more seriously, collaborate with through thick and thin. That goes especially, regardless of where we stand politically, for the other half of the country who clearly saw things differently than we did.

It’s the same-old, same-old, and at the same time a New Day in America.

Whatever we call it, let’s seize it: carpe diem.

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Scientists’ kith and kin.

What on earth, or who on earth, are kith?

Merriam Webster’s website tells us this: Kith has had many meanings over the years. In its earliest uses it referred to knowledge of something, but that meaning died out in the 1400s. Another sense, “one’s native land,” had come and gone by the early 1500s. The sense “friends, fellow countrymen, or neighbors” developed before the 12th century and was sometimes used as a synonym of kinsfolk. That last sense got kith into hot water after people began using the word in the alliterative phrase “kith and kin.” Over the years, usage commentators have complained that kith means the same thing as kin, so “kith and kin” is redundant. Clearly, they have overlooked some other historical definitions, but if you want to avoid redundancy charges, be sure to include friends as well as relatives among your “kith and kin.”

We scientists hold objectivity, critical thinking, and evidence-based work in high regard, and tend to make much of our special gifts, abilities and self-discipline along these lines. But social psychologists – fellow members of our scientist tribe – tell us that most human beings are prone to a particularly pernicious form of cognitive bias, inflated self-assessments of their abilities in virtually every realm – intellect, physical prowess, etc. Scientists aren’t immune to such illusory superiority. We overrate our ability to be objective, the quality of our insights, our uniqueness.

What’s worse, “science” and “scientists” are words that divide our society. Most people know immediately whether they are scientists or are not, and thus whether they fall within some inner circle or not – and some outside that circle then start to see scientists as elitist, and exclusive by nature and intent. Resentment and distrust can and do start to build.

If you and I are honest with ourselves, we see some merit in that claim. By contrast, at least for the present, the word “realist” is far more inclusive (an important attribute in this era of DEI). Few of us regard ourselves as delusional. In fact, it takes effort on our part to brand ourselves as belonging to that small group, whereas membership in the “realist” crowd is conferred on almost all of us from birth, and rarely revoked thereafter.

[Hence the title choice for this blog, which celebrated its tenth anniversary back at the beginning of August. In setting things up in 2010, the thought was, and remains, that we’re all realists, we all “live in the real world” as the familiar saying goes; LOTRW simply acknowledges a reality that we’re pretty much confined to the Earth’s surface; we live on the real world as much as in it. But back to the main thread.]

On this quadrennial day of all days, when 320 million Americans and a watching world breathlessly await the last handful of yesterday’s election results, we should acknowledge, give a shout-out, say thanks, to one subgroup of our realist-kith:

Election boards, poll watchers, and vote-counters.

Here in this country, this group, numbering in the many tens, hundreds of thousands, has been and continues to be busily and objectively totaling up our votes. It’s early hours yet; we’re going to hear controversy in this arena as the days go on, but what a remarkably objective, high-minded group. We owe so much to their integrity, their endurance and persistence, and, yes, their skill. It’s a big step scaling up from counting on our fingers to counting in the millions without losing focus, while catching redundancies, seeing what’s missing, divining intent. The folks who do this, both paid and volunteer, senior and early career, men and women, whites and people of color, LGBTQ, etc., people of every background, both indigenous and of every national heritage, deserve our respect, admiration, and gratitude.

We’re blessed. In many countries around the world, despite the best efforts of election commissions, observers coming in from foreign NGO’s, etc. the same cannot be said. Corruption is rampant, and calling attention to it, let alone attempting to correct it, is dangerous. Let’s not take for granted what this group and this tradition and this legal and constitutional framework have given us.

More than 136 million votes counted so far. Realists all, of every flavor and persuasion, distilling knowledge and circumstances and trust and hope down to a single person or party. And each and every one counted, faithfully, dispassionately (or maybe not, but nonetheless fairly). Any evidence of outside hacking or tampering or intimidation confined to the fringes. Before it’s over, it may wind up in the hands of spectators and stakeholders who will litigate this or that. But the basic process of counting is robust.

For those from our geosciences tribe… all this is reminiscent of IPCC assessments – and the subsequent policymaker summaries and tweaks. It’s not that different in spirit, though much less hazardous and emotionally draining, than the healthcare culture, especially in this covid-19 era. The world is populated primarily by thousands, millions, of overlapping, reality-founded, evidence-based communities of every sort and description, all, in diverse ways, making the world a better place, and improving human prospects. As scientists we’re not doing anything that unusual; we are merely holding up our end. Let’s keep it up!

And once again, on this day, special thanks to all those doing the elections counts.

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E pluribus unum.

“The economy, stupid.” – James Carville.

In 1992, James Carville, then a strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful run for the White House that year, coined a pithy catechism for the campaign, to keep the candidate and the workers on message. It consisted of three parts:

  • Change vs. more of the same
  • The economy, stupid
  • Don’t forget healthcare

The second of these penetrated the national conversation then and since to such an extent that it has been deemed a snowclone.

Fast forward to the present day. Let’s say you’re one of an apparent minority of Americans who hasn’t voted early (90 million have so far; two-thirds of the total tally for 2016). You’re going to vote today; or perhaps you’re old school and planning to vote, in person, on the day, November 3rd. Channeling your inner Carville, what would might be the metric you could use to make your choices? Here’s a candidate, appropriately old school:

e pluribus unum, (stupid).

(you’re free to retain or drop “stupid,” to taste; it was of course, idiosyncratic to Mr. Carville, who spoke that way in order to burnish his brand as someone not merely of Arcadian-heritage but as “the Ragin’ Cajun.”).

E pluribus unum is Latin, but most LOTRW readers will remember having learned at some point in their upbringing that its meaning, though open to interpretation, generally speaking connotes “out of many, one,” or “one out of many,” or “one from many.” Chances are good your exposure to the phrase came not from a Latin class (you’re not that old school) but from American History. Once the quasi-official motto of the United States, E pluribus unum has been supplanted in that role by “In God we trust,” but it still appears on the Great Seal of the United States:

The Great Seal of the United States

Why should this motto be especially apropos, or in any way helpful as a voting guide, in this particular voting round? At first inspection, the phrase might seem too vague – inadequate to the complexity and variety of the issues that count.

Start with the four biggest concerns: the pandemic (and related concerns about healthcare and the education of our young people); the economy (for most, this is about jobs, not just the financial markets); systemic racism (that has dogged our country since its founding); and, finally, America’s (declining) standing in the world.

These are urgent, weighty matters. And there are others. The country and the world face resource needs; in particular we have to keep the food, water, and energy coming. The recent spate of natural disasters – the horrific wildfires and the seemingly endless train of hurricanes, the Iowa derecho, and more – is worrisome whether or not the disasters stem from or were aggravated by climate change. Meantime, environment and ecosystems services are being continually degraded.

By themselves, any of these poses a big national lift – each stupefyingly complex, and each of a different nature, unyielding to any “silver bullet.” So how can they possibly be distilled into a single catchphrase that has any utility?

Well, here’s the reality. Increasingly, Americans are coming to recognize that the biggest challenge we face is cross-cutting: the breakdown of trust and the growing polarization of our society (apologies; this single link is only one of the multitude out there – but then, this is not a new reality, merely an affirmation of an older one. Chances are good you’ve been reading and listening to material along these lines for months or years now)

Enter e pluribus unum. There are reasons for the long-standing popularity of this phrase across the span of US history. To mention just two: it has served to remind everyone of our different geographic origins. It captured the idea that the people of the thirteen colonies, and ultimately fifty states and territories are indeed united. Historically, whenever we’ve faced challenges (the World War II pipeline from the previous LOTRW post provides just a single example) we’ve pulled together. We can and will do so again.

Behind this is an idea which is mere conjecture (per the Darwin quote on the LOTRW masthead) but perhaps contains seeds of a law of social science, with something of the same status accorded Newton’s laws of motion:

  • if we take up societal challenges separately; and attempt to force political solutions on each other, postponing much needed reconciliation until after we’ve won our political victory, we’ll fail in each and every effort, all while ratcheting up the bitter polarization and animus dividing our people.
  • If instead, we make building relationships, trust, equity, and inclusion our primary aim (while maintaining rather than assimilating diversity), there will be no challenge we cannot overcome.  

A bit wordy – not that catchy – but e pluribus unum isn’t a bad distillation. And we all have the sense that if we could through some miracle come together after the election, then we’d have taken a big first step towards solving the problems that face us.

Note well! Some reading this post might say it shows a particular political bias. That’s not the intent. The desire for unity is not confined to either major party, Democratic or Republican, left or right, red or blue. Members of either would tell you that’s not only a desired goal but a necessary one. The disagreement comes in how such unity might be achieved. So you and I, in making our choices, have to dig a bit deeper, look at the candidates, at every level of the ticket, from top to bottom, and ask how much attention each candidate is devoting to this goal in his/her rhetoric, whether the rhetoric matches action, whether the commitment if newfound or lifelong.

If we do that, a miracle will indeed occur!  But it doesn’t lie in the direction you might think. It’s the effect on us. It’s not so much that if we all think like this we’ll elect a certain right set of candidates. Rather it is that if a hundred-some million of us think like this that shared mindset will empower us to transform America.

An important final amendment and rephrasing. One serious shortcoming to e pluribus unum is that throughout much of the American experience, the “many” embedded in pluribus falls short of being the necessary big tent including everyone, on an equal footing. Originally, “many” embraced a variety – but only of white male property owners. It excluded males who owned no real property. It excluded women. It excluded slaves. It excluded LGBTQ. These exclusions have at best been painfully and only partially removed one by one over the years. Indelible stains of age-old inequities remain.

Perhaps a better phrase might be

Ex omnibus, unum: out of them all, one.


If you haven’t already done so, please vote, and let democracy’s miracle occur.

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The innovation workforce pipeline.

The previous LOTRW post compared innovation to a tractor pull; throughout history, each increment of innovation is made a bit more challenging by the growing accumulation of prior progress that must be accommodated and pulled along.

Fortunately, not all innovation is equal. Some innovations make future innovation easier across the board. These matter most; they lie primarily in the realm of IT and computing.

The LOTRW post noted that just as success at a tractor pull depends on driver skill as much as machinery, so innovation at its heart depends on people. To sustain innovation, nations and societies require a trained and able workforce: available, energized, and coming online in substantial numbers. That in turn requires an educational pipeline. Incubating and driving the flow in this particular pipeline – the supply of early career professionals pushing forward the boundaries of science and technology and harnessing the advances for societal benefit – should be at the top of America’s priorities.

Today, in this respect, there’s ample reason for both serious concern and hope.

Pipeline analogs are familiar across any national agenda and throughout history. One famous example? D-Day. At first light on June 6, 1944, German troops at Normandy awoke to this view of the English Channel:

the spigot of the pipeline

The sight had to be sobering. German troops knew that the 7000 ships and vessels they saw were merely the pipeline’s faucet. That armada didn’t represent the sum total of Allied power. Rather, it was the outlet end of a continuous flow of convoys plying the Atlantic, conveying thousands more Allied troops and their armament; men and women ferrying military aircraft across the Atlantic to England; an industrial base spanning the whole of America and the Allies that was churning out guns, tanks, ships, aircraft and other needed instruments of war. Casualties on D-Day itself might be uncertain, but the final outcome would never be in doubt, because that big, fat, full-to-bursting pipe.

Fast-forward to today, and the U.S. educational pipeline. In recent years it has been struggling to supply the STEM undergraduates and graduates needed to populate America’s innovation-oriented workforce. The shortage has been particularly acute in the much-needed and sought-after computer science and IT. Students have been finding themselves unable to enroll in the needed classes. The problem is pervasive, affecting the large state institutions, as well as elite small colleges. Qualified university faculty have been enticed by lucrative job offers from the big private-sector IT firms and their surrounding swarm of startups. Unfriendly trends over the past few years in the US reception for foreign-born students haven’t helped. The university business model had increasingly been built on attracting bright students from India, China and elsewhere around the world, who generally paid full-retail for their education; those students had begun to favor alternative education opportunities in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the rest of Europe.

origins of the pipeline

All this was before the pandemic. Covid-19 has hollowed out the U.S. educational pipeline, and STEM education in particular, at all levels. K-12 public-schools have been forced to essentially empty out their formerly crowded classrooms, in order to meet social-distancing requirements. This fall semester much education is being accomplished remotely. This move to virtual learning has aggravated preexisting educational inequities; the poorest school children lack access to the needed IT infrastructure and hardware; and have had inadequate prior opportunity to master such tools. Some children and school districts will bounce back quickly, but for others the damage may prove more enduring. Experts are already researching the consequences. They will be debating their findings for years to come.

today’s K-12 workforce pipeline

The picture for higher education is hardly better.  Students are taking a large fraction of courses remotely. They and their parents are questioning the continuing high costs. The pandemic has increased existing barriers and created new ones to international student participation.

the higher-education workforce pipeline

The pipeline is still in place, but the flow has been slowed.

It may well take a few years to reverse this reduction in supply of early-career IT professionals. This possible shortfall may well be the greatest impediment to US innovation over the next decade. The possible consequences start with reduced quality of life here at home. They extend to a decline in the United States’ standing in geopolitics and US ability to shape a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable world.

So, Bill, where’s the hope?

Perhaps it can stem from study of this image:

the 1930’s aircraft pipeline

It depicts US aviation manufacture on the eve of US entry into the second world war. The contrast between that and the corresponding scene above is substantial. And yet only a few years separate the two. Americans, when unified and motivated, can accomplish great things. (More in the next post.)


A closing note: the previous post triggered an e-mail response from Lawrence Buja. Lawrence is currently director of strategic initiatives at the University of Nevada, Reno. His cv includes several other similar roles, including some time at NCAR. A bright guy, who combines vision and integrity and great interpersonal skills.

Lawrence had this to say:

I was researching science innovation over coffee this morning and came across your tractor-pull blog…

…Two things came to my mind as I read your article: 

1. As you drew the reader’s focus onto the driver at the end, I was expecting you to wrap up with a vision for producing great drivers faster in the science domain.  Something like: Learning to drive a competition vehicle is an ad-hoc process.  However, the US’s leadership and investments in R&D innovation allows us to be more strategic and intentionally intertwine cutting-edge research with education to grow our next generation of drivers (i.e. scientists) ready to to be highly competitive right out of the gate.  This means integrating students and post-docs directly into the proposal generation process, building partnerships with industry and national-labs that address both real-world research challenges and the research talent pipeline problem faced by the partners, and [some 3rd great example I can’t generate this early in the morning]. Constantly striving to give our newest researchers the tools to become great faster is one of the important elements of sustaining innovation in this country.  Or something like that. 

2. One of the things I loved doing at NCAR was thinking sideways to discover and apply proven processes from nonscience domains to advance our science.  This included creating business gantt charts to organize and plan our complex climate simulation campaigns, using an U.S. Army After Action Review to the launch of the next IPCC modeling cycle a year early, applying the Toyota Production System and Just In Time zero inventory principles to CMIP simulations that were getting crushed under a tsunami of data.   Currently I’m reading the new, 2017, edition of “What the CEO wants you to know” by Ram Charan.  One of the topics he discusses is increasing profits by increasing the Velocity of Business.  If you translate “profit” to “science discovery” and leave “investment” alone, you have the making of a great LOTRW topic on Increasing the Velocity of Science|Discovery|Innovation. How do you get faster return for the nation’s science investment without sacrificing quality by using technology and streamlined processes to

  • get grants to researchers faster so they can start research now rather than in 6 months.
  • enabling researchers to discover faster
  • enable researchers to publish faster and wider
  • etc…

Thanks so much, Lawrence! So well said, and a great note on which to end.

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Innovation? It’s similar to a tractor pull. As a nation, we should take heed and prepare accordingly.

A vignette: in the 1990’s, I did a fair bit of government-related travel. Too many sleepless nights in distant hotel rooms, too tired to read, biological clock messed up, but there would be TV. Would tune around looking for sports channels. In most of the countries (American) football, basketball, etc., were hard to come by. But there was some of the beautiful game (soccer). There were evening summaries of (mostly-Asian) golf. There was plenty of cricket (lot of former British colonies dotted across Asia). Sumo wrestling. And then there was off-hours American sports coverage. Like axe throwing. Log rolling. Drag racing…

…and tractor pulls.

Of course, these were tractors on steroids. Any connection to the riding tractor for your 1/3-acre yard (Really? C’mon, man!) or to the big guys with the fully-enclosed, air-conditioned cabs used by agribusiness was purely accidental. The machines in question look more like tricked-out locomotives. Today’s versions, like that pictured, sport banks of V-8 or V-12 engines. Or WWII piston aircraft engines. Or turbines; in writing this, came across one powered by four. 

The actual contest? Well, after substantial minutes of prep, lining things up – tractor and driver pull a sled for several seconds, over a distance no more than 100 yards. 

Wow, Bill, that certainly must have cured any insomnia you might have had on your travels. Cricket sounds like fast-paced, nail-biting drama by comparison. And what possible connection could there be to serious society-wide innovation?

Here’s the deal. In the formative days, 1920’s farmers used their working tractors, and pulled sleds weighted by friends and neighbors, riding up top. Not enough weight? Add a few more people. The tagline? Pull on Sunday, plow on Monday. Tame stuff. Today’s sled, though, isn’t just any load. It may weigh 60,000 pounds or more, and ratchets this weight forward as it progresses. The front end of the sled has grouser bars acting like teeth, digging into the soil. In this way, the sled’s drag increases with every increment of motion. There quickly comes a point when it’s too much even for 5000-or-so horsepower machines (some powered by methanol and turbocharged; back when I used to watch them there was no mention of or interest in fossil-fuel offsets…). At this point the tractors belch satisfying amounts of flame and smoke and rear up from the effort – lucky to pull the full 100 yards. And then there are the epic fails. They’re explosive – filling the air/threatening drivers and crews with fiery blasts of tractor parts and more smoke – satisfying even the most jaded (or sleepiest) of thrill seekers. 

This is where the parallels to innovation come in: in the same way, as science and technology advance, the store of human knowledge grows along with it. Keeping track of what’s been accomplished, or what’s been tried and led only to a dead end; maintaining focus on what’s truly relevant to a given societal problem, vs. a mere distraction, becomes more of a chore to the researcher. This is a special problem for early-career scientists; successive newcomers find literature reviews evermore daunting. 

[An aside to illustrate the point. The previous LOTRW post, a tribute to my thesis advisor, referred to differences at the University of Chicago between the Department of Physics and the Department of Geophysical Sciences during the 1960’s. Here’s another difference. Physics graduate students taking the qualifying exam were expected to know all of physics (!!). And there was a lot to know. By contrast, the geophysical sciences were in a relatively nascent stage of development. There was a lot less to comprehend. And students weren’t asked to know it all; we were merely required to prove that we could learn something if we had to. With the faculty, students would work out an individually-tailored exam, covering three specific topics. Took a few months to bone up; then stood for questioning.] 

Sixty years ago, issues of the Physical Review, and Physical Review Letters, filled library shelves, containing thousands of heavily-multiply-authored articles, premised on big machines – particle accelerators, plasma-fusion reactors, etc.. By contrast, the Journal of Geophysical Research and the Journal of Atmospheric Science, were slimmer both issue-by-issue and in total shelf-feet, populated with Small Science versus Big Science.  Of course, to look at an issue of JGR or JAS today is to find several special sections and multiply-authored papers, premised on extensive observing and computational infrastructure, basically identical to the physics of yesteryear.

Even back then, Jeremiahs like Derek de Solla Price were noting inexorable trends in all fields of science towards bigger, more expensive research, requiring contributions from communities of scientists, not so much individuals, with less room for small science (and less room as well for “mavericks”). De Solla Price suggested the possibility, in a time frame as short as a century or two that the pace of scientific advance might begin to slow (note that by those lights we’re a third of the way there).

We needn’t be dismayed. After all, science really is an endless frontier. Claims over the years that science has learned all there is to learn have proved premature. Subjectively, the increasing costs of innovation don’t seem to be increasing faster than the resulting economic growth. We have examples. Take Moore’s law. In the mid-1960’s, Gordon Moore conjectured that the number of transistors fitted on an integrated circuit chip was doubling and would go on doubling every two years. That forecast has generally verified over the period since, despite gloomy predictions that it was on the verge of failure. 

The same applies to natural resources. As early as1956 the petroleum geologist King Hubbert predicted that worldwide oil production would peak by 1970. Oil production did in fact peak around then, and declined slowly for decades, until further innovation (primarily the development of fracking) greatly expanded the oil resource. And innovation in the agriculture-, energy-, and water-resource sectors has so far put paid to Malthusian forecasts of doom.

That said, innovation requires a constant societal pull, just like that sled. And society’s “tractor” needs to be robust, not frail; else it’ll self-destruct from any strain.  

Which brings us to the “prepare accordingly” part.

The innovation that matters most is the innovation of innovation itself. We see this most vividly in society when it comes to technology for developing and managing information that is innovation’s foundation. The invention of the computer has made it possible to do the trillions upon trillions of necessary sums that in turn enable control of manufacturing processes, to financial transactions underpinning global commerce, to weather forecasts, to scientific research of every stripe. The internet has enabled communication of such vast amounts of data and calculation worldwide. Development of an internet of things and robotics portends a future in which quotidian human concerns can and will be handled, to increasing extent, autonomously. Exascale and quantum computing seem to be coming online just when needed to meet demands of the big-data analytics and artificial intelligence powering the next round of innovation. As a society, we need to formulate and put into force the policies that will sustain this technological advance.

But this is only the tractor. The driver is another story:

There’s plenty of power at a pull, but driver skill usually is the difference between winning and losing.

Driving skill is critical, especially coming off the starting line. The driver must bring the revolutions-per-minute up on the engine to build the proper manifold boost so the turbos can do their job. When everything is right, the driver side-steps the clutch and the power is unleashed with a big roar.

Knowing the track and equipment is just as important. Each track has a personality of its own, and pullers “read” tracks much like golfers read putting greens.

In short – “anyone” can enter a tractor pull – sit in the seat and “let ‘er rip.” But to finish, with machine intact, let alone win, let alone win with consistency – is like everything else in life. It requires scientific and engineering knowhow, teamwork, and the discipline required to master and maintain the needed skills over a period of years. 

As a society, we need to sustain a growing, diverse workforce to drive innovation writ large. This is a policy challenge of a different kind. More in the next post.

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Remembering Colin Hines (1927-2020).

a young Colin Hines

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”– Theodore Roosevelt

Late last week brought a phone call from Paula and Franco Einaudi, friends of many years, with news that wasn’t unexpected, but was nevertheless unwelcome. They’d just learned that Colin Hines had passed away on August 30. During his very productive lifetime, Colin was a scientist of extraordinary gifts. But the loss for us was also personal. While on faculty at the University of Toronto, Colin had supported Franco’s postdoctoral work. A few years earlier, when Hines had been at the University of Chicago, he’d advised my Ph.D. research. Throughout our lives, but especially during our early careers, Colin had been good to us as well as good for us. The same held true for his nurturing and equipping of his other postdocs and graduate students (George Chimonas and Dick Peltier come especially to mind). We mourn his loss; we celebrate his legacy.

For a few of the basic facts, you might read this obituary (with a mid-career photo) on September 2 from the Toronto Star. Several days of personal reflection over this Labor Day weekend has prompted these (admittedly fragmented) additional vignettes:

Colin the scientist. Colin’s scientific work concentrated for the most part on the Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere[1]. With the regard to the former his major contribution was the discovery that internal atmospheric gravity waves generated in the lower atmosphere could account for much of the fine scale dynamics observable in the upper region. With regard to the latter he and a colleague, Ian Axford, developed a theory of magnetospheric convection – a conceptual model of the general circulation of the magnetosphere as driven by the interaction between the sun’s heliosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field. This accomplishment compares to Hadley’s 18th-century discovery and characterization of the cellular structure of the tropical atmosphere in response to solar heating that today bears Hadley’s name. These discoveries have each withstood the test of time while serving as portals through which future researchers could enter the field and make myriad additional contributions.

The man in the arena. Throughout his career, Colin embodied Roosevelt’s admired “man in the arena” – down to every last bit of valor and the accompanying dust and sweat and blood. Educated at Cambridge, he exhibited that Cambridge cultural mix of raw intelligence combined with mental quickness that make the tribe so formidable – sometimes even terrifying – at scientific workshops and conferences.  (Think Richard Scorer, Owen Phillips, Francis Bretherton, Michael McIntyre, Tommy Gold, to name just a few I saw in action personally over the years; it’s as if somewhere along the line they’d misheard Descartes to say “I debate, therefore I am.”). One particular moment from an AGU meeting: George Chimonas and I were settling in for a talk when Hines appeared. He said something like “This paper is rubbish from beginning to end. But I have to go across the hall to hear a speaker in a different session. Take care of this guy.” George and I sat through the talk. Sure enough, it wasn’t great shakes, but suddenly during the Q&A Hines reappeared at the back of the room. He caught our attention and gave us a glance as if to say “well?” We shrugged our shoulders. He frowned, raised his hand, proceeded to ask the speaker to show particular slides shown during the talk (how could Hines have even been sure they were there?), and off the cuff gave a different interpretation of everything from the data to the math. Incidents like this weren’t limited to the momentary; some of them were milestones in prolonged controversies that threaded through the literature and technical meetings for years. 

That carried over to the politics of science – not the role of science in politics, but the politics of science played out among the oversized personalities of the scientific community. Colin, a Canadian citizen, had been fairly quiet on such matters during his time in the United States, but upon his return to Canada in 1967 he threw himself into that fray with gusto.  

This same man-in-the-arena spirit extended into every conceivable realm. A University of Chicago vignette: His students had entered ourselves as a team in the graduate school intramural basketball league. We were mediocre-to-poor; one evening we were short a player, and Colin volunteered to join. What could go wrong? 

Our opponents that night were from the business school (today’s Booth School). 

They beat us 70-12.

Worst of it was that Hines took an elbow to the eye, opening a cut that required stitches. Later on, when with him or looking at photographs, I could always see the small scar…

When it came to investments, Colin wasn’t content with balanced index funds or any of that tame stuff; he preferred a much more hands-on approach and developed and applied his own theoretical understanding to the financial world – accepting the ups and downs that brought. He appreciated the arts and literature, but didn’t stop there; he wrote a few novels. At every turn he’d see something, and then try it.

In short, Colin was a force. Sometimes there was a price, not just for him. There would be collateral damage. But on balance, his influence was overwhelmingly positive. And all of us around him constantly had to up our game. He made us better, stronger, more thoughtful.

Colin the gracious. And he could be kind, not just about the small things but the big things. Two of these made a huge difference in my life.

I had graduated from Swarthmore College in 1964, and spent my first year at Chicago as a research assistant (RA) in the physics department, preparing for a career in solid-state physics. I then made the switch to geophysical sciences over the summer of 1965. Hines was kind enough to offer me an RA.  He didn’t assign me any duties at first. After a couple of weeks I went into his office and said as much. He looked up at me from his desk, and said (with the merest hint of a smile? Hard to tell), “Look, I’m happy to support you. But I don’t want to spend my time thinking of ways to keep you occupied.” 

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’d spent an RA year in the physics department, knocking myself out with my fellow graduate students to make our faculty look good, and going home each night struggling to find the hours and energy to study a bit. I could see the same thing going on with other graduate students in the geophysical sciences. Hines was telling me in effect I had a fellowship.

From that point on, I’d have walked through fire for him. 

Then, the second: early in January of 1967 I took my qualifying exams. In the oral phase I wound up talking at cross purposes with Gene Parker (discoverer of the solar wind). Although I passed, the experience did not augur well. A couple of months later (March, April?) I gave Hines a progress report on the start to my thesis research. After a day or two, he called me into his office, and said, “Looks like you’ve broken the back of the problem.” He went on,“Should mention, I’m leaving Chicago at the end of this spring quarter to take a position at the University of Toronto. So why don’t you finish up? Oh, and by the way, Parker is on sabbatical in Greece right now. If you do finish, we’ll have to substitute someone else on your committee.”

!!!

Every other faculty member I’d ever seen or heard of would have been saying to me more like, “so why don’t you pack up, move with me to Toronto, and start out all over again?”

Again, he didn’t have to tell me twice. I shelved sleep (to such an extent that after one 40-hour stint without I convinced myself that there was a “sleep barrier,” a point beyond which you didn’t get any more tired, and I had broken through it[2]) and hammered out the thesis. I defended just before the end of the spring quarter. David Atlas, the radar meteorologist, who’d been on the University of Chicago faculty only a few weeks, replaced Gene Parker on my committee. 

There’s much more, but you get the idea. Colin was a man of passion, in every aspect of his life, but especially when it came to his family – his wife Bernice and his children. That was evident at Chicago, when the kids were small, but during our all-too-brief and sporadic encounters over ensuing decades, he was always full with stories of his kids and their diverse accomplishments, bursting with enthusiasm and pride.

Colin, thanks for entering the arena – and especially for inviting us to join, and in some cases pulling us in! We love and miss you.


[1]Loosely speaking, the ionosphere comprises the air above heights of 35-40 miles or thereabouts. That air is rarefied. For the sake of comparison, the air at the top of Mount Everest (five miles) is only a third as dense as air at sea level. Go up another five miles and the air is only a third of that again; essentially a tenth of the air density at sea level. The total air mass at ionospheric levels is only a thousandth of the mass of the atmosphere as a whole. At or above those heights, the molecules of the air are not protected from the most energetic solar radiation, which strips electrons from the molecules. And still further up, above 200 miles height, virtually all the molecules are ionized, and their motions are constrained by the Earth’s magnetic field as well as the pressure forces familiar here on the Earth’s surface. This highest region is known as the magnetosphere; it extends out a few Earth radii sunward; in an extended tail, many Earth radii in the opposite direction. 

Meteorologists make much of the dynamical complexity of the lower Earth’s atmosphere. The problems posed by weather prediction inspired the very notion of chaos theory. But ionization adds a raft of additional equations and additional layers of complexity to the prediction problem (something like advancing to higher levels of any online game). Colin was singularly adept at working these more complex problems.

[2]Fourteen hours later, I awoke… that’s living on the real world for you, versus fantasyland.

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The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6-Step Guide for Moving Forward

If you’re a person of color in the United States, you’ve been living out the racism issue every single day of your life. But if you’re white, and especially if you’re too young to remember the 1960’s, events of the last several months may be prodding you to dig a bit deeper into what’s going on. This being the 21stcentury, the age of social media, there’s a virtual mountain of material a few key clicks away. It’s expanding every day.

The problem is where to start. 

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve heard of Ed Maibach. Maibach is Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He’s a leading expert in the field; in fact, he and Tony Leiserowitz just won Climate One’s Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication, given to a natural or social scientist “who has made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to a broad public in a clear and compelling fashion.” 

No, Ed Maibach has not begun writing on racism per se. But he knows a thing or two about communication. He advises climate scientists this way: “to effectively share what we know, we need simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources… To help people convert their good intentions into effective actions, we need to do everything we can to make the actions we are promoting easy, fun, and popular.”

Hmm. The word “climate” doesn’t appear anywhere in these instructions, suggesting these aren’t mere specialized tactics, but rather general principles, equally applicable to communicating on racism or any other topic. 

Perhaps the advice might guide seekers as well as speakers.

Where can meteorologists find a trusted source on the problems posed by racism and its impacts? Well it turns out that as in many other professional fields, especially the sciences, we have a number – but not nearly enough. Fortunately, one of these has made the effort share his experience and perspective through a small book on the subject – Marshall Shepherd, in The Race Awakening of 2020: A 6-Step Guide for Moving Forward.

A former NASA scientist, Marshall Shepherd is currently a professor of atmospheric science and geography at the University of Georgia. Unusually for a scientist,  he’s well-known to the general public, through his television work and through his regular science contributions to Forbes. (Full disclosure: he’s also a former president of the American Meteorological Society where I work.)

His message blends personal narrative and suggestions for action. Early on in the book, he provides a definition. Citing Bill Jones, one of his college professors, he frames racism as a power imbalance: when a certain racial group holds the majority of political, economic, and societal power, they can explicitly, implicitly or systematically discriminate against others or suppress equality to maintain the balance of power.

The rest of this stage-setting material is equally accessible – simple and clear.

Then he segues to his six proposed actions:

  • See color
  • Shatter flawed narratives
  • Stop using code words
  • Analyze use of microaggressions
  • Speak to your kids
  • Lean on unbiased faith.

Each action is a chapter heading, and as titled contains a bit of mystery, draws the reader in. Each is fleshed out in crisp language. 

The book closes with a checklist of other actionable steps:

  • Complete the census
  • Register to vote
  • Know your state and federal Congressional districts
  • Know your local school board, county commission, and district attorney representatives
  • Engage in school activities, PTSA meetings and parent teacher conferences
  • Support legislation that makes voting easier
  • Have lunch or dinner with someone of a different race, culture, or faith
  • Seek ways to build community bridges between law enforcement agencies and your community
  • Review hate crime laws where you live and advocate for stronger ones where needed
  • Volunteer with organizations helping youth or fighting for civil rights
  • Start a race-focused small group in your church
  • Read other books on racial conciliation
  • Work to eradicate poverty
  • Review your friends group. Are there some that constantly promote or say racist things?
  • Vote (local, state, and national elections)
  • Fervent prayer
  • Keep those cell phones charged

To sum up, Marshall Shepherd, one of the most trusted voices in our community, has provided a simple message. He’s proposed actions that are easy, fun, and popular (chances are the lists above include some measures the reader will find more affirming than new). 

Ed Maibach would give him an A+.

(Oh, yeah, you might ask. Where’s the repeated part? And the variety of sources?)

Glad you asked. Did I say the book was short? It’s a mere 70 pages plus change. And cheap (in fact, free to your Kindle)? So “buy” it. Read it more than once. That’ll take care of the repeated part.

And in the fine print, you’ll find he proposes this action: read other books on racial conciliation. In fact, Marshall Shepherd succeeds in making his readers more accepting/trusting of other voices. His book can be used as a portal to that more extensive conversation, which has been going on for almost as long as there’s been a printed word. There’s your variety of sources.

Want a suggestion for your next step? How about Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-racist? Another, equally engaging view of the world – itself a powerful blend of personal narrative and polemic against racism.

[A tip of the hat here to (my AMS boss) Paul Higgins.  Kendi’s book is well-known, but I probably wouldn’t have read it had it not been for Paul’s repeated, enthusiastic references to it over these past months. Thanks, Paul!]

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Reducing systemic racism.

Addicted: physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects.” – Oxford Languages

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self criticism, and regular self-examination.” – Ibram X. Kendi

“Racism is steeped in denial.” – Ibram X. Kendi

Each day’s news brings fresh examples of systemic racism to light. What might it take to reduce the racism rampant in our society versus merely lament it? The previous LOTRW post promised a further exploration of this topic.

Ibram Kendi suggests, in How to be an Anti-Racist, that racism shares features in common with addictions – such as alcoholism and other chemical dependencies on opioids and nicotine. To the extent the comparison holds, looking for ideas from that direction might be a good place to start. To do that, however, is to discover that the outlook is not encouraging, for two basic reasons.

To begin, chemical addictions (caffeine excepted) afflict only a fraction of the population. For example, in the United States, with a population north of 300 million, perhaps some 15 million are alcoholics. The number of opioid addictions is put at only ten percent of that latter figure. Smokers number some 34 million. By contrast, systemic racism is near-universal; it dogs all of us. This is the first problem.

Moreover, for metabolic dependencies, there exist some chemical therapies , which though themselves of limited efficacy, can provide some help. But chemical approaches to reducing systemic racism don’t appear to be in prospect. That leaves behavioral approaches. The latter are not actual cures so much as coping strategies. To work, they require vigilant self-awareness and concentrated effort. They must be maintained moment by moment, day to day, essentially indefinitely. Unsurprisingly, relapses are common. That is the second problem.

Organizations provide help to those in need. One of the best-known is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is not perfect; its faults are several and its detractors are legion. Any web search will provide more information on these. Yet AA can point to some successes, which it attributes largely to its twelve-step program. This being the year 2020, and eight billion people being a large number, the world already includes some who have already rephrased and (slightly) adapted that program for application to the racial problem. Here are the twelve steps as framed by Racists Anonymous:

  1. I have come to admit that I am powerless over my addiction to racism in ways I am unable to recognize fully, let alone manage.
  2. I believe that only a power greater than me can restore me in my humanness to the non-racist creature as God designed me to be.
  3. For my own good and the good of future generations, I have decided to turn my will and my life over to the care of God insofar as I understand God.
  4. I’ve made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself concerning my bias toward others on the basis of race, class, gender, physical attributes, abilities, nationality, sexual orientation, and more.
  5. I have admitted to God, to myself and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongful thoughts and actions.
  6. I am entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. I humbly asked God to remove my shortcomings.
  8. I’ve made a list of all persons I have harmed and am willing to make amends insofar as this is possible.
  9. I will make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them, others, or create more harm than good.
  10. I will continue taking personal inventory, and when I behave wrongly, I will admit it promptly.
  11. I will continually seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with God insofar as I understand God, praying for knowledge of God’s Will and Wisdom for my life along with the power I need to carry that out.
  12. As I have spiritual awakenings as the result of these steps, I will share this message with other race addicts as I seek to practice these principles in all my affairs.

A few observations.

First, context: as Kendi notes, denial is a critical barrier. Only a fraction of alcoholics can bring themselves to openly admit they have a problem, that they’re hurting not just themselves but others, and that their problem is out of control. Case in point? AA members add up to no more than ten percent of alcoholics in the United States.

But denial is only the initial hurdle, one of several. Again, as Kendi emphasizes, the “searching and fearless inventory” is a similarly big lift. Most of us, if we bother to reflect at all on our shortcomings, gloss over the specifics. Some churchgoers find comfort in the phrase “we have done that we ought not to have done, and left undone that which we should have done,” but surely that falls far short of what’s needed.

We gloss over the particulars because to acknowledge them, to list them, to give them voice, confronts us with our need to make amends. Scale is an obstacle. We recognize that when it comes to systemic racism, “amends” carry considerable economic impacts and redistributive consequences. But it gets worse. A recovering drug user making restitution faces an individual challenge. By contrast an entire society making restitution faces additional complexities and history requiring a social framework for progress. Developing the framework requires collaboration, but it also requires leadership – individuals and institutions at the top who will give actual reparations priority and provide the means and structures that will make our cumulative individual efforts matter. As a result our initial tendency is to see a huge, insurmountable liability rather than recognize that what confronts us is opportunity – a step that opens the way to solving other societal challenges including wresting a safe, meaningful, and sustainable living from the wild and restless and increasingly damaged planet on which we find ourselves.

(This point typically fails to get the primacy it deserves. Many see challenges such as national security, domestic law and order, climate change, environmental degradation, public health, law and order as problems that need to be solved first – only then will we have the luxury of tending to equity and love and trust in our fundamental relationships with each other. But we likely have got the order reversed. It may be that if we first get right with each other relationally, most of our other societal challenges will melt away. And it may be that to make progress we have to make incremental improvements on all these fronts simultaneously.)

But for many, perhaps most, the real elephant in the room is the appeal to a Higher Power, or God as we understand God. Some consider this language anathema and have stripped it from the twelve steps. Here’s one example, attributed to AA Agnostica:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe and accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to ourselves, without reservation, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
  7. With humility and openness sought to eliminate our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Understandably, much of controversy swirling around AA focuses on this, as any web search will quickly reveal. For some, the active involvement of a Higher Power is what makes the twelve steps effective: the sine qua non. To remove it is to strip the twelve steps of any efficacy. All that is left are empty words. For others, any such bow in the direction of a higher power is pure (and intolerable) hypocrisy – a stumbling block. They’d rather trust in the “collective wisdom” of other searchers.

You and I get to choose where we stand on this spectrum. Many in the middle, desperate to manage their addiction, participate in one or another group spanning this divide and keep their opinions to themselves. But we don’t get to choose what we do. If we are to move the world to a better place, then large numbers, if not all of us, will have to get past denial, do inventory, and make amends. Best to embrace this, rather than flinch from it.

One final point. Action on our part along these lines doesn’t guarantee successful outcomes. That’s because efforts at amends can never make the injured party whole. Damage can never be completely undone. The individuals and groups injured, really all of us, have to add a generous overlay of forgiveness to every social transaction.

And, repeatedly along this path, given the continuous effort required, the obstacles to be overcome, the existential personal and societal stakes, we’re likely to find ourselves offering an unvoiced prayer – whether to something or Someone.

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