November 27, 2010
Of the newly elected Tea Party senators, Mike Lee, a 39-year-old Republican from Utah, has the most impeccable establishment legal credentials: the son of Rex Lee, a solicitor general under President Reagan, he attended law school at Brigham Young and later clerked for Samuel Alito on the U.S. Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court. But on the campaign trail, especially during his heated primary battle with the three-term Republican incumbent Bob Bennett, Lee offered glimpses of a truly radical vision of the U.S. Constitution, one that sees the document as divinely inspired and views much of what the federal government currently does as unconstitutional.
Lee proposed to dismantle, on constitutional grounds, the federal Departments of Education, and Housing and Urban Development. He insisted that “the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the power to redistribute our wealth” and vowed to phase out Social Security. He proposed repealing the 16th Amendment, which authorizes the progressive federal income tax, and called the 17th Amendment, which allows senators to be elected by popular vote rather than by state legislatures, a “mistake.” He pledged to end “the unauthorized federal occupation” of Utah land, insisting that Congress lacks the constitutional power to designate federally protected wilderness unless the relevant state legislature approves. He embraced “nullification,” the idea that states have the right — and indeed the duty — to disregard federal laws, like the new health-care-reform bill, that they say are unconstitutional. Lee, who is a Mormon and a social conservative, also has equated the founding fathers’ invocations of a deist God with the moral values of the Mormon Church. “As your U.S. senator,” he promised during the campaign, “I will not vote for a single bill that I can’t justify based on the text and the original understanding of the Constitution, no matter what the court says you can do.”
Like the Tea Party movement itself, Lee’s constitutional vision may appear to be an incohesive mixture of libertarianism and social conservatism, of opposition to federal power and support for tearing down the wall of separation between church and state. In fact, however, it represents an exotic but, in its own way, coherent idea of the Constitution, one that is consistent with certain familiar strains of legal conservatism and constitutional scholarship but at the same time is genuinely eccentric and extreme. Much of the Tea Party movement’s more-strident rhetoric, seen in light of this constitutional vision, may be best understood not as scattershot right-wing hostility to government but as a comprehensive, if startling, worldview about the proper roles of government and faith in American life.
Many of the positions Lee outlined on the campaign trail appear to be inspired by the constitutional guru of the Tea Party movement, W. Cleon Skousen, whose 1981 book, “The 5,000-Year Leap,” argued that the founding fathers rejected collectivist “European” philosophies and instead derived their divinely inspired principles of limited government from fifth-century Anglo-Saxon chieftains, who in turn modeled themselves on the Biblical tribes of ancient Israel. Skousen, a Mormon who died in 2006 at 92, was for years dismissed by many mainstream conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr., as a conspiracy-mongering extremist; he was also eventually criticized by the Mormon Church. A vocal supporter of the John Birch Society, Skousen argued that a dynastic cabal, including international bankers like the Rockefellers and J. P. Morgan, conspired to manipulate both Communism and Fascism to promote a one-world government.
Skousen’s vision of the Constitution was no less extreme. Starting more than 60 years ago with his first book, “Prophecy and Modern Times,” he wrote several volumes about the providential view of the U.S. Constitution set out in Mormon scripture, which sees the Constitution as divinely inspired and on the verge of destruction and the Mormon Church as its salvation. Skousen saw limited government as not only an ethnic idea, rooted in the Anglo-Saxons, but also as a Christian one, embodied in the idea of unalienable rights and duties that derive from God, and he insisted that the founders’ “religious precepts turned out to be the heart and soul of the entire American political philosophy.”
In 2009, after years of obscurity, Skousen’s ideas were unexpectedly rediscovered by Glenn Beck, who was given a copy of “The 5,000-Year Leap” by a friend. As a result of Beck’s endorsement, the book became a best seller and a Tea Party favorite. Beck’s endorsement also revitalized the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which Skousen founded under another name in 1971 and which offered seminars on his books. During the 1990s, the center typically offered no more than a dozen seminars a year; this past year, it offered more than 200 to Tea Party groups across the country…
November 27, 2010
Do you think that there is a computer screen sitting in front of you right now?
It would certainly seem so if you are reading these words online, but in fact you are not actually “seeing” the computer screen in front of you. What you see are photons of light bouncing off the screen (and generated by the internal electronics of the screen itself), which pass through the hole in the iris of your eye, through the liquid medium inside your eye, wending their way through the bipolar and ganglion cells to strike the rods and cones at the back of your retina. These photons of light carry just enough energy to bend the molecules inside the rods and cones to change the electrochemical balance inside these cells, causing them to fire, or have what neuroscientists call an “action potential.”
From there the nerve impulse races along the neural pathway from the retina to the back of the brain, leaping from neuron to neuron across tiny gaps called synaptic clefts by means of neurotransmitter substances that flow across those gaps. Finally, they encounter the visual cortex, where other neurons record the signals that have been transduced from those photons of light, and reconstruct the image that is out there in the world.
Out of an incomprehensible number of data signals pouring in from the senses, the brain forms models of faces, tables, cars, trees, and every conceivable known (and even unknown — imagined) object and event. It does this through something called neural binding. A “red circle” would be an example of two neural network inputs (“red” and “circle”) bound into one percept of a red circle. Downstream neural inputs, such as those closer to muscles and sensory organs, converge as they move upstream through convergence zones, which are brain regions that integrate information coming from various neural inputs (eyes, ears, touch, etc.) You end up perceiving a whole object instead of countless fragments of an image. This is why you are seeing an entire computer screen with a meaningful block of text in front of you right now, and not just a jumble of data.
At any given moment there are, in fact, hundreds of percepts streaming into the brain from the various senses. All of them must be bound together for higher brain regions to make sense of it all. Large brain areas such as the cerebral cortex coordinate inputs from smaller brain areas such as the temporal lobes, which themselves collate neural events from still smaller brain modules such as the fusiform gyrus (for facial recognition). This reduction continues all the way down to the single neuron level, where highly selective neurons — sometimes described as “grandmother” neurons — fire only when subjects see someone familiar. Other neurons only fire when an object moves left to right across one’s visual field. Still other neurons only fire when an object moves right to left across the visual field. And so on, up the networks, goes the binding process. Caltech neuroscientists Christof Koch and Gabriel Kreiman, in conjunction with UCLA neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried, for example, have even found a single neuron that fires when the subject is shown a photograph of Bill Clinton (PDF) and no one else!
The models generated by biochemical processes in our brains constitute “reality.” None of us can ever be completely sure that the world really is as it appears, or if our minds have unconsciously imposed a misleading pattern on the data. I call this belief-dependent realism. In my forthcoming book, The Believing Brain, I demonstrate the myriad ways that our beliefs shape, influence, and even control everything we think, do, and say about the world. The power of belief is so strong that we typically form our beliefs first, then construct a rationale for holding those beliefs after the fact. I claim that the only escape from this epistemological trap is science. Flawed as it may be because it is conducted by scientists who have their own set of beliefs determining their reality, science itself has a set of methods to bypass the cognitive biases that so cripple our grasp of the reality that really does exist out there.
According to the University of Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking, however, not even science can pull us out of such belief dependency. In his new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with the Caltech mathematician Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking presents a philosophy of science he calls “model-dependent realism,” which is based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events and assume that the models match reality (even if they do not), and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions “we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” Employing this method, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation…”
November 27, 2010
It’s been a challenging time for the climate change story on just about every front. A year ago, the unauthorized release of a cache of controversial e-mails written by prominent climate scientists created a media firestorm just before the United Nations climate-change summit in Copenhagen. The international effort to strike a treaty that would limit greenhouse-gas emissions went down in flames. It’s been a slow burn ever since, for scientists and journalists alike.
After the intense media attention to Copenhagen in late 2009, the amount of climate-change coverage in 2010 declined significantly in some major American newspapers—to a four-year low—with the focus increasingly on domestic and foreign politics, according to a recent survey using Lexis-Nexis. The U.S. Senate tossed climate-change legislation onto the pyre, and recent mid-term elections brought a slew of Republicans to town that don’t believe the climate science and are likely to fight federal action. Meanwhile, the Gulf oil spill comprised the bulk of environmental coverage and consumed the time of many reporters who also cover climate science and policy.
With a new UN climate meeting starting Monday in Cancun, environment reporters and climate scientists alike are regrouping, lowering expectations for the Mexico meeting and figuring out how to cover climate change going forward.
“There’s a tremendous difference,” says Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post’s chief environment reporter. Copenhagen was a “cliff-hanger,” with a “sense of anticipation and excitement,” she recalled: “While there was uncertainty about what Copenhagen would produce, people thought something significant was going to happen.” But going into the two-week Cancun deliberations, “it feels like there is absolutely no momentum…. What will there even be to cover in Cancun in terms of public policy or reader interest?”
Like many of her colleagues, Eilperin has scaled back her own coverage of not only the Cancun meeting—she’s only going for the second week and may be joined by a Mexico City correspondent—but of climate-change policy in general. With climate legislation dead for now in Washington, D.C. “there’s a little more room for covering other environmental issues,” she said, citing plans to expand her reportage in areas like oceans and wilderness.
At The New York Times, Erica Goode, editor of the paper’s seven-person environment cluster, says coverage of Cancun will certainly be scaled way back from that of Copenhagen, sending Washington correspondent John Broder to Mexico as the paper’s primary person covering the proceedings. “Obviously, the situation has changed dramatically from a year ago. A year ago the issue was still front and center on the administration agenda, and there was a lot of expectation for what might happen…. There is not a lot expected at Cancun.”
But, says Goode, the larger climate-change story is still high on the Times’s agenda, as evidenced by a new series, “Temperature Rising,” which will “focus on the central arguments in the climate debate and examine the evidence for global warming and its consequences.” The series launched on November 13 with a massive front-page Sunday package (and multimedia online graphics) on the state of the science and impact of sea level rise from melting glaciers. It was a return to days of yore, with an enterprising Justin Gillis, who replaced Andrew Revkin as the paper’s chief environmental science reporter in May, reporting from a helicopter flying over Greenland.
Goode says that the “back-to-basics” series was intended “as a huge service to readers to step back and do richer explanatory pieces that take a hard look at the evidence…. Some readers don’t understand what the whole debate is about.” At least two more pieces are expected this year in the Gillis series, with more to come in 2011. According to Goode, the series had been put on hold because of the Gulf oil spill, among other things, which gobbled up space in the paper and reporting time that might have otherwise gone to climate change.
The Times’s new series was cited by Harvard climate scientist Dr. James J. McCarthy as a good example of putting important climate science in perspective—an approach he said has been missing in recent climate coverage. “Over the past few years, coverage of climate science in the U.S. media has been disappointing,” he said in an interview. Stories tended to inflate “juicy quips from stolen private e-mail exchanges,” but barely mentioned the “subsequent, thorough investigations by universities and academies that found no evidence of wrong doing.”
The challenge ahead, of course, is finding new angles to freshen up the climate story after a tough year in which the amount of climate coverage showed a steep slide after Copenhagen in major newspapers like the Times and the Post. The number of stories mentioning climate change or global warming dropped to a four-year low in both papers in the third quarter of 2010. While this certainly reflected a diversion of resources to the oil spill, the amount of climate-change coverage has been declining all year long, according to a Lexis-Nexis search by Carolyn McGourty, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs working with this correspondent.
The amount of climate-change coverage first shot up in the spring of 2006, following the release of Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Peak coverage occurred in early 2007, accompanying the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment report documenting scientific knowledge about the widespread hazards that rising greenhouse gas emissions pose to the planet. Coverage remained steadily high throughout 2008, fluctuated in mid-2009, and jumped up again at the end of last year when “Climategate” and the Copenhagen conference collided. The one-year anniversary of those two pivotal events has, not surprisingly, produced a bumper crop of articles reflecting on the lessons learned by journalists and scientists involved in climate change communication and coverage…
November 27, 2010