Bracing for President Trump

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the U.S. caught nearly everyone by surprise, and fingers were immediately pointed in all directions as the election’s losers looked to lay blame. Chad Orzel offers one relevant narrative: “There are a lot of people who feel like they’re being screwed by a system run for the benefit of people in big cities on the coasts who sneer at them as ignorant, racist hicks.” Ethan Siegel extends an olive branch on Starts With a Bang, saying “we all have our biases, even if we ourselves are scientists,” and encourages EVERYONE to accept the responsibility of becoming more informed in a political climate that drips with misinformation and emotional spin.

On Denialism Blog, Mark Hoofnagle examines the conspiracist worldview and what we might expect from a conspiracist White House, noting “we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on Earth.” Meanwhile, on The Pump Handle, Kim Krisberg sounds a scientific battle cry, writing “public health has plenty of practice confronting and overcoming powerfully entrenched interests for the greater good. Just ask Big Tobacco.”

Finally, John DuPuis has started to document the damage done by Trump to important scientific issues, such as vaccination. On Respectful Insolence, Orac writes “it’s no surprise that antivaxers are very happy about the election of Donald Trump, and they hope to get something out of it.” The true consequences of Trump’s presidency remain to be seen, but his win is a wake-up call to advocates of science and social justice. We must remain vigilant, and we must remember that without effective outreach and communication, we will lose. As Chad Orzel notes, the fight going forward “involves working to treat everyone with respect and decency and empathy,” and not merely casting stones at those who think differently.

See also:

Myron Ebell, Evil Arch Climate Uber Villain on Stoat

Clinton-Trump Gap in Key States on Greg Laden’s Blog

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Thanksgiving Gratitude and #NoDAPL

Today is about American tradition, and feeling grateful for all that we have been given. The first Thanksgiving represented the gratitude of American settlers towards the indigenous peoples who originally inhabited this country. It is about the men and women who came to North America on the Mayflower giving back to the men and women who helped them to survive in the ‘new’ world. It is about Tisquantum, a Patuxet enslaved by a Briton, sold in Spain, liberated by monks, and steeped in the English language before returning to his homeland and teaching the colonists to “catch eel and grow corn.” It is about Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag, who “had given food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.” It is about coming to understanding with your adversaries and beginning life anew.

Although Thanksgiving is literally about gratitude toward Native Americans, many today will be content to stuff themselves with industrial meat and processed foods, purchased for the least price from the most socially and environmentally irresponsible corporation, all while whooping about football games on television and waxing philosophical about the acceptability of the Cleveland ‘Indians’ logo, Chief Wahoo. Not to mention Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, in the Dakotas, the bloody history of our republic repeats itself. Time and again we have appeased Native Americans with treaties only to turn around and break them violently for the sake of our ‘progress’ and ‘manifest destiny.’ While your Uncle Bob cheers on his favorite team today, many Americans in the heartland are literally at war. I imagine the diverse community at Standing Rock has much to be thankful for: their own resilience, the aid and sympathy of people from around the world, and their mighty river, the Missouri, which they are trying to protect from harm. What the peaceful warriors at Standing Rock will NOT be thankful for are the mercenaries assaulting them with pepper spray, rubber bullets, water hoses, and concussion grenades. #NoDAPL is not just a native issue: it is relevant to all individuals concerned that climate change is a moral and existential threat to humanity. Scientists should be on the front lines among the water protectors demanding that the new 1172-mile-long oil pipeline, the ‘great black snake’ connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to an oil tank farm in Illinois, should not be made whole. We must ALL demand that the Dakota Access Pipeline remains unliving. Because President Obama, in his usual modus operandi, is not about to lift a finger.

See also: Hundreds Of Veterans “Self-Deploy” To Standing Rock To Defend Protesters

Arrival, Eschatology, and Philip K. Dick

The new film Arrival, based on a story by Ted Chiang, is unlike most any science fiction blockbuster at the box office these days. It’s a tense, thoughtful, somber meditation on the human condition and the nature of a higher reality. In many ways, it is a religious film that deals with eschatology (the end times or judgment day).

Unlike Chad Orzel, I haven’t read the source material, so I experienced the film with fresh eyes. I was immediately reminded of Philip K. Dick and his real-life experience of being ‘touched by an angel.’ Dick, both a life-long Christian and prolific author of fantastical science fiction scenarios, felt that he had come into contact with the Logos, which he alternately identified as Jesus Christ, and so experienced a deeply personal revelation about the nature and meaning of time. Dick had many names for the entity he came into contact with, including VALIS (for Vast Active Living Intelligence System). VALIS proved to Dick that temporal causality flowed in both directions, both from past to future and from future to past. Note that Hollywood loves adapting Dick’s work, having done so with Blade Runner, Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall, and others. Dick’s fiction is also the basis for Amazon’s series The Man in the High Castle. After coming into contact with VALIS, Dick came to believe that all his work, which had once seemed to him fantastical, was actually a deep metaphor for reality. Part of his insight was the idea that ancient Rome never ended; that the world as we know it is really a black iron prison.

In Arrival, the central character of Dr. Louise Banks seems to flashback to the death of her child from cancer. It appears that random moments from her past begin to make sense in the present (as they do in Signs by M. Night Shyamalan). This would be a synchronistic scenario, a view that everything happens for a reason, and well-aligned with what Dick experienced. In the moment of his revelation he felt that he had been programmed from birth by VALIS with seemingly random signs, symbols, and cosmological ideas, which only later made sense as part of a grand design.

But it turns out Arrival is not quite Dickian in its conception of cause and effect; Louise isn’t remembering important moments from her past, she is witnessing important moments from her future. This places her in the same vein as a prophet or oracle. Her ability to flash-forward is not well explained and she seems to be the only human being capable of precognition. Her exceptional nature has religious connotations as well; her indispensability in the salvation of Earth is akin to the return of Christ itself. She is, in fact, a messiah.

The film begins with twelve alien ships positioning themselves around the planet, proximal to different cultures with different languages (compare this to Revelation 12:1, ‘A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’). The aliens are menacing, squidlike, incomprehensible. As a linguist, Louise is sent to speak with them. The nature of language is central to the thesis of the film, and according to Chad, language issues feature much more prominently in the source material by Chiang. Louise explains that languages are not neatly interchangeable, and in fact the language(s) one speaks determine the way one thinks. For example, early in the film she comments that the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ is best translated into English as ‘a desire for more cows.’ When the aliens in their twelve ships express a concept that she translates into the word ‘weapon,’ Louise is quick to note that they might really mean ‘tool.’ When she further deciphers the alien’s message to mean ‘give weapon,’ she has reason to believe that they are offering humanity a gift. But the Chinese, half a world away, believe that their aliens are saying “use weapon.” Distrust and fear from military types on all arcs of the globe quickly threaten to lead to war. The future hangs on by a thread.

It is only Louise realizing that she can remember the future that allows her to prevent global destruction. Arrival is solved with a paradox: Louise has a memory of the future in which the Chinese General tells her what she said to him in the past in order to avert the war. This is the only way she knows what to say to him in the present. Does that make sense? Of course the aliens have come to Earth for paradoxical reasons as well; they are giving a tool to humanity because they will need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future.

All this differs from Dick’s conception of reverse causality; Dick did not experience visions of his personal future, but he realized that the future was nonetheless communicating with him, and had been all his life. It was not Dick’s memories of the future, but VALIS’s memories of the future, that created orthogonal axes of cause and effect in his mind.

As Louise ultimately asks, with the knowledge that falling in love will eventually lead to the death of her child from cancer, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” For that matter, could you?

Understanding the History of HIV

On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith explores the story of Gaetan Dugas, a man who was long blamed for precipitating the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The vilification of Dugas had nothing to do with science; instead he was dubbed “patient zero” in a misinterpretation of his study moniker “patient O” (for Outside). Dugas’ portrayal in the media turned him into a modern Typhoid Mary, but he was not an originator of the U.S. epidemic, as a 2007 molecular analysis proved and a new paper in Nature confirms. Smith writes “This is the real scandal and lingering tragedy of Dugas. His story was used to stoke fear of HIV-infected individuals, and especially gay men, as predators seeking to take others down with them.” Does science finally have the clout to revisit such an entrenched media narrative?

In other news, The Verge reports on a man who may hold the key to halting the spread of HIV and AIDS. Patient Z258, as he is known, exhibits natural immunity to “a whopping 98 percent of the de-clawed HIV virus strains the scientists generated in the lab.” Understanding the broadly neutralizing antibody that protects Z258 could lead to powerful new treatments for the disease.