President Obama likes the “U.N. Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” He says it can “help reaffirm the principles that should guide our future.”
The State Department added helpfully that although the declaration is not legally binding, it “carries considerable moral and political force and complements the president’s ongoing efforts to address historical inequities faced by indigenous communities in the United States.”
This declaration – which carries”considerable moral and political force,” don’t forget – contains this little gem of a paragraph, in Article 26:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,” and nations “shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources.”
In other words, President Obama wants to give the entire land mass of the United States of America back to the Indians. He wants Indian tribes to be our new overlords.
I’m always asked by interviewers if I can think of anything Obama has done that is commendable.
Frankly, until now, he’s done nothing but plot ways to steal my wealth. But things are about to change.
Maybe you missed it, but Obama has endorsed a United Nations resolution declaring the rights of indigenous people that could mean large swaths of the U.S. will be returned to native Americans like me.
I’m hereby staking my claim to Manhattan.
Maybe you didn’t know I have native American blood coursing through my veins. I’m more well-known for my Lebanese and Syrian ancestry. But, truth be told, I have a fair amount of Indian heritage on my mother’s side. So this proposed redistribution of wealth is welcome news for me.
Where do I apply? I want to return wampum for Manhattan.
Earlier this month, Obama said the U.S. would support the U.N.’s “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People,” a non-legally binding promise to finally treat indigenous peoples with some small amount of decency after hundreds of years of the government murdering them and expelling them from their homes and forcibly relocating them to barren desert ghettos and now just letting them live in conditions of appalling, abject poverty. Bush refused to sign on to this, because, I dunno, it was from the U.N., and it might lead to frivolous lawsuits, or something? It’s a non-binding Declaration that basically says “we will be nice to indigenous people,” there’s no good reason not to support it.
But because hysterical right-wingers are hysterical right-wingers, they are seizing on this document as yet more proof that Obama wants to forcibly redistribute all the wealth, from productive hard-working Real Americans to swarthy welfare leeches. Take it away, World Net Daily!
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adoted by the General Assembly more than three years ago, says what Fischer says it does. And it says all manner of other things that, while consistent with our current moral principles, would be absurd if applied retroactively. Fortunately, after all the affirmations, recognitions, proclamations, and acknowledgements, followed by 45 Articles that say very nice things, we come to the final article. It negates all the others:
1. Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States.
2. In the exercise of the rights enunciated in the present Declaration, human rights and fundamental freedoms of all shall be respected. The exercise of the rights set forth in this Declaration shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law and in accordance with international human rights obligations. Any such limitations shall be non-discriminatory and strictly necessary solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for meeting the just and most compelling requirements of a democratic society.
3. The provisions set forth in this Declaration shall be interpreted in accordance with the principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and good faith.
Emphases mine. Recall that the United Nations is a body chartered under the principle of state sovereignty. The people who passed this Declaration are representatives of its 192 member states. Rather clearly, then, the Declaration was not intended to give non-state actors – indigenous groups living inside state borders — power over states. Thus far, 143 countries have voted in favor.
Another clue in this regard is that the Declaration was issued by the UN General Assembly. It’s quite literally nothing more than a debating society. Each of the 192 states has equal voting power and the right to bring up matters. But anything passed by the assembly is nothing more than a recommendation. Indeed, that’s what the State Department announcement [PDF here] meant when it stated “The United States supports the Declaration which–while not legally binding or a statement of current international law–has both moral and political force [emphasis mine].”
Nonetheless, concerns over the ambiguity of the language is what caused the Bush Administration to withhold its approval. Ditto, initially, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — other notable countries with similar concerns. All of them have since signed. ABC reports,
The US about-face came after officials determined that the language would, in fact, not conflict with US law and the complex relationship between national, state and tribal governments. Officials said they waited until a formal comment period for soliciting tribal input had expired before making the move to support the declaration.
“We think it is an important and meaningful change in US position,” said State Department spokesman PJ Crowley. “Of course, as with any international declaration we have certain reservations which we will voice reflecting our own domestic and constitutional interest. The president thinks it’s the right thing to do… Even though it is legally non-binding we think it carries considerable moral and political force.”
So, what’s the point?
Well, it’s an affirmation of existing American and international principle. While states have sovereignty, there’s been a growing consensus in recent decades that aboriginal groups–such as our 565 federally recognized Indian tribes, Native Hawaiians, and Aleuts–should be given a wide berth in preserving their native customs, language, legal systems and so forth. Indeed, it’s established in the United States Constitution that the tribes have a high degree of sovereignty on internal matters. (That’s why, for example, Indians can establish casinos on tribal lands contrary to the law of the states in which they happen to reside.)
So, is this just empty political symbolism? Pretty much.
This is only slightly less kooky than good ol’ Colorado governor candidate Dan Maes’ great UN-taking-over-American-cities-with-bicycles conspiracy theory, but mark my words, it’s going to get traction. Pretty soon we’re going to be seeing it on Beck and then Limbaugh and before you know it, Michele Bachmann will be introducing resolutions on the House floor about it.
Seriously, are they that stupid or do they know they’re full of shit? Anyone who thinks Obama, or any other president, is going to give Manhattan back to the Indians is either delusional or engaged in the most egregious demagoguery imaginable. And the fact that it won’t happen will not change their thinking one bit.
Andy Schlafly, son of controversial conservative figure Phyllis Shlafly and founder of Conservapedia, the ideologically oriented alternative to Wikipedia, has found a new bugbear: the theory of relativity. Shlafly insists that Albert Einstein’s world-changing idea, elegantly expressed in the equation E=mc2, is part of a pervasive and long-held liberal conspiracy to make people have abortions and stop believing in Jesus. Conservapedia’s surprisingly lengthyarticles on relativity makes a convoluted and free-wheeling case that it’s all a government hoax:
The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world. … Virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold.
Despite censorship of dissent about relativity, evidence contrary to the theory is discussed outside of liberal universities. … Some liberal politicians have extrapolated the theory of relativity to metaphorically justify their own political agendas. For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama helped publish an article by liberal law professor Laurence Tribe to apply the relativistic concept of “curvature of space” to promote a broad legal right to abortion. … Applications of the theory of relativity to change morality have also been common. … The Theory of Relativity enjoys a disproportionate share of federal funding of physics research today.
Schlafly also points to the Bible as a reason that Einstein’s theory must be wrong:
9. The action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54.
Conservapedia defines “action-at-a-distance” as “Action at a distance consists of affecting a distant body instantaneously. At the atom level, this is known as “non-locality.” In non-confusing terms, that indicates the ability to cause something to happen instantaneously in another location (i.e., faster than the speed of light). Since Jesus could, reportedly, do this, thus Einstein is wrong. Schlafly’s evidence is John 4:46-54, in which Jesus reportedly cured someone’s son just by saying it had happened.
Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.
“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”
Jesus replied, “You may go. Your son will live.”The man took Jesus at his word and departed.
While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living.
When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.”
Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and all his household believed.
This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed, having come from Judea to Galilee.
Schlafly brags on Conservapedia that he has homeschooled 185 children, all of whom do exceptionally well on standardized tests.
Everyone knows that the American right has problems with science that yields conclusions it doesn’t like. Climate science — which says that we face a huge global externality that requires not just government intervention, but coordinated international action (black helicopters!) has been the target of a sustained, and unfortunately largely successful, attempt to damage its credibility.
But it doesn’t stop there. We should not forget that much of the right is deeply hostile to the theory of evolution.
And now there’s a new one (to me, anyway; maybe it’s been out there all along): it turns out that, according to Conservapedia, the theory of relativity is a liberal plot.
That darn English language that makes words with different meanings sometimes sound similar — it always ends up confusing Christian conservatives of very little brain, whose depth of understanding can only be measured in micrometers. The latest from Conservapædia is that they are on a crusade against Einstein…because smart people who study relativity aren’t reading the Bible, and because a theory about relationship between matter and energy and the speed of light encourages people to be open-minded and tolerant about different ideas, other than the Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian Kakistocracy (FECK for short).
Andy Schlafly is a real boon to us Gnu Atheists who argue that religion rots your brain.
Seeing this made me want to check in on Conservapedia and see what their classic entry on judicial activism looked like these days. Fortunately, it’s still enough to make you think the site was a parody, improved by the fact that we now know it’s not. It starts off in relatively neutral-sounding terms:
Judicial activism is when courts do not confine themselves to reasonable interpretations of laws, but instead create law. Alternatively, judicial activism is when courts do not limit their ruling to the dispute before them, but instead establish a new rule to apply broadly to issues not presented in the specific action.
Hmm, let me try to think of a recent example of that last phenomenon….anyway, eventually they cut to the chase:
In this regard, judicial activism is a way for liberals to avoid the regular legislative means of enacting laws in order to ignore public opinion and dodge public debate.
So judicial activism is something that, by definition, liberals and only liberals do. I wish it was only wingers who accepted this as opposed to a lot of “centrist” pundits. But things get even better:
Judicial activism should not be confused with the courts’ Constitutionally mandated rule in preserving the Constitutional structure of government, as they did in Bush v. Gore, Boy Scouts v. Dale, and D.C. v. Heller.
# Brown v. Board of Education – 1954 Supreme Court ruling ordering the desegregation of public schools.
# Griswold v. Connecticut – 1965 Supreme Court ruling establishing a constitutional right to posess [sic], distribute and use contraception.
# Loving v. Virginia – 1967 Supreme Court ruling requiring the legalization of interracial marriage.
Well, at least they’re consistent! Your classier wingnuts tend not to apply their views in such a logical manner. I’m disappointed, however, that they didn’t add to this a traditional Republican complaint about how Ted Kennedy “slandered” Robert Bork by mentioning his publicly stated views in public
I know, I know. It really is very funny but I can’t laugh at this.
Why? Because some of you, right now, are starting to waste the little time you have here on earth by marshalling reasoned arguments and accurate facts to refute Conservapedia’s lies. And so are others. And that is terribly sad.
Worse, it is counterproductive, because every moment you spend engaging right wing lunatics over tired, out-of-date, and utterly nonsensical argument over science they think is too liberal, is a moment taken away from encountering the truly exciting discoveries being announced almost hourly (here’s one: a crocodile with the teeth of a mammal!). And if you are so busy refighting the past that you can’t keep up with the present, then it becomes all that harder to understand what science is doing, and to support it. I’m not talking, say, a Palin/McCain/Jindal level of ignorance, of course. But if you truly think that it is vitally important to engage people who question Einstein’s theory of relativity, it becomes that much harder to muster the cultural courage to fund research that takes relativity for granted. After all, even if I “believe in relativity” wouldn’t it be better to fund research that proves relativity beyond a shadow of a doubt than stuff that assumes it’s true?*
But wait! you protest. We can’t let that garbage hang out there uncontested. Besides, people will learn a great deal about physics if we address the arguments in a clear, accessible fashion, and teach reality.
Yes, sure, I’ll agree that’s all true. So what?
Sure, we can contest them. But if we completely ignore their utterly ridiculous lies, distortions, and antiquated disputes, then we, not they, get to set the terms of the discourse. That is one reason why great scientists won’t bother to lower themselves to engage folks like the bozos behind Conservapedia (doing so also elevates the bozos). I see no reason why anyone, scientist or layperson, should enter an argument over the relativism of relativity. On the other hand, I do think we need to expose right wing ignoramuses as often as possible. In order to ridicule them. And to sneer. But argue over whether E=MC squared makes Jesus’ miracles impossible? That’s a waste of time. Ok, go ahead if you want to. Whatever. But if want to do some real good, you’ll laugh at them instead.
As for learning a great deal about physics through debunking lies…well, yeah, that’ll work. But I think you could learn much more physics by exploring truth. And that requires honest discussion which, almost by definition, cannot take place with people who insist on an enagagement over lies and distortions.
Please people, laugh all you want at these clowns. Mock them. Denounce them, rail against them. Just don’t make the mistake of arguing with them. Don’t waste your time, and ours.*** We can’t afford it now. We never could.
At least two well-respected science journalists and a handful of scientists have canceled their blogs at the popular and heretofore highly respected ScienceBlogs.com community, protesting Seed Media Group’s decision to give PepsiCo a nutrition blog.
On Tuesday afternoon, ScienceBlogs.com’s editor, Evan Lerner (who has contributed to CJR), posted a short note announcing the new blog, called Food Frontiers, which explained that:
As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.
Longtime members of the ScienceBlogs.com community reacted quickly and angrily to the move, arguing that Pepsi was “buying credibility” created by other bloggers on the site, and tarnishing that credibility in the process (tip of the hat to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which brought the scoop to wide attention on Wednesday with a post titled, “ScienceBlogs Trashes its Bloggers’ Credibility”). Announcing that he would move his popular neuroscience blog, Neuron Culture, science journalist and author David Dobbs wrote:
Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t cotton to this. With the addition of Food Frontiers, ScienceBlogs has redrawn the boundaries of what it considers legitimate and constructive blogo-journalism about science. In doing so they define an environment I can’t live comfortably in. So with this post I’m leaving ScienceBlogs. For the moment I am moving my blog to Neuron Culture, hosted by WordPress, while considering other venues that might make sense for me.
Rebecca Skloot, the best-selling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Brian Switek, a freelance science writer and blogger for Smithsonian, announced they, too, are putting their blogs on hiatus. Likewise, Blake Stacey, a physicist and science-fiction writer who writes the blog Science After Sunclipse, Mark Chu-Carroll, a software engineer at Google who writes the blog Good Math, Bad Math, and Dave Bacon, a theoretical physicist who runs the blog The Quantum Pontiff, suspended their operations.
They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. You won’t be seeing much criticism of Pepsico corporate policies, or the bad nutritional habits spread by cheap fast food, or even any behind-the-scenes stories about the lives of Pepsico employees that paints a picture of the place as anything less than Edenesque. Do you think any of the ‘bloggers’ will express any controversial opinions that might annoy any potential customers?
There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to blur the line between blog content and advertising. It’s going to be bloodless dull blogging that will diminish the Scienceblogs brand.
So don’t say hello to them at all — don’t even bother to read them. If you want to know more about food science, check out Tomorrow’s Table or Obesity Panacea (more of an exercise physiology blog than a nutrition blog, but they did recently post on sugar-sweetened beverages. Didn’t like ’em.)
Oh, and I don’t care what the Supreme Court said. Corporations aren’t people. I read blogs written by sentient beings, not committees of shills.
Whatever happens with Myers and the rest of the “SciBlings,” as they’ve become known, it’s pretty clear that a line was crossed with the Pepsi blog and that the line should never be approached again. Yet, with the institutional blogs, one could argue that the SEED Media Group is, if not completely crossing the line, tiptoeing along it. InstitutionalBlogGate (a term no one is actually using, and rightly so) isn’t egregious the way PepsiGate was, since none of the institutions paid for their slots. Also, to quote a commenter at Brookhaven’s blog, “there’s an appreciable difference between a national laboratory and a corporate PR venture.” The labs aren’t trying to sell readers an unhealthy product; they’re trying to spread the word about potentially important research that might make people healthier.
Still, there are some issues of credibility at stake. Would a blog authored by Pepsi scientists have been OK if ScienceBlogs had given it to the company for free? If not, what exactly is different about a research institution’s blog? Can readers put their full faith in these five blogs the same way they can with an ostensibly independent individual’s site? Or is there a difference, the way there is between reading a press release describing a study and more skeptical media coverage of the same research?
A lot depends on who’s doing the writing. Many science writers employed by PR departments are lyrical stylists and smart, conscientious people. But they don’t necessarily fill the role of watchdog the way good journalists and independent bloggers do. That function was neatly described by Marc Ambinder last week in The Atlantic: “When a story is complex, journalists ought to examine whatever thesis they hold and attempt, by reporting, to falsify it.” That’s a little like a scientist’s job description, if you think about it: come up with a hypothesis and then try as hard as you can to prove it wrong. But it’s not a PR person’s job description. “The people writing these blogs are not truly speaking independently as individuals,” says Dobbs, one of the writers who left the network after PepsiGate. “They can’t react critically to everything–at least I don’t think they can while keeping their jobs. Ideally, I would like to see the [institutional] blogs removed. I think ScienceBlogs and the readers would be better off if they weren’t there.”
Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time—they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”
It started last month when 20 or so high-placed science bloggers angrily parted ways with an extremely popular and award-winning online collective called ScienceBlogs because it starting running Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog that PepsiCo paid to have on the site. (Several of the collective’s contributors, including some who left in protest, have written for The Times Magazine.) In farewell posts, the bloggers charged that the advertorial was deceptive and undermined the purpose of the collective.
Seed Media Group, which oversees ScienceBlogs, eventually killed off the commercial blog, but the staff bloggers kept leaving. Some have predicted that the ScienceBlogs network won’t survive the defections. “The ship is sinking,” mused PZ Myers, the writer of the site’s top blog, Pharyngula, which is devoted to “evolution, development and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.”
I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”
But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger’s words, “the most influential science blogging network in the world.” And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink.
Recently a blogger called GrrlScientist, on Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted), expressed her disgust at the “flock of hugely protruding bellies and jiggling posteriors everywhere I go.” Gratuitous contempt like this is typical. Mark Hoofnagle on Denialism Blog sideswiped those who question antibiotics, writing, “their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature.” Over at Pharyngula — which often ranks in the Top 100 blogs on the Internet— PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”
Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?
Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.
Heffernan reckons that Whats Up With That presents credible science. This is a blog that argues that Venus is hot, not because of the greenhouse effect, but because of the high pressure in the atmosphere (so hence Jupiter and Saturn are the hottest planets right?) . Look:
If there were no Sun (or other external energy source) atmospheric temperature would approach absolute zero. As a result there would be almost no atmospheric pressure on any planet -> PV = nRT
Only if there was no such thing as gravity. Air pressure is determined by the weight of the column of air above a particular point. If the pressure is insufficient to support that column, then gravity compresses the column, decreasing the volume and increasing the pressure until it is enough to support the column. So if you turned off the Sun and cooled down the atmosphere, the pressure would not change. Actual credible science on this from Chris Colose is here. Again, this isn’t “bad-faith moral authority”, physics tells us what the right answer is, while Watts Up With That consistently gets it wrong. For example, accusing NOAA scientists of fraud, arguing that “up is flat“, hiding the decline in snow cover, and fabricating false temperature trends. And if you want more, Peter Sinclair’s video debunking Watts was so good that Watt’s abused the DMCA to try to have it supressed.
1. She found the science blogosphere, esp as represented by ScienceBlogs is cacaphonous and of uneven quality.
My comment: This is neither novel nor surprising.
2. She was “nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings” in their reaction to what has become known, more or less tongue-in-cheek, as PepsiGate.
The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard. They don’t quit anytime there’s an ad that looks so much like an article it has to be marked “this is an advertisement.”
My comment: Obviously I differ with her on this, as I felt strongly enough about Seed’s blunder to leave immediately, before almost anyone else had, and before it was clear the reaction would be both broad and deep. You can read both my quick initial post announcing my departure — A food blog I can’t digest — and a more considered explanation at Why I’m Staying Gone from ScienceBlogs. And as you can read below, I’m not the only one, even among “legacy media,” types (I write for the same sorts of outfits Heffernan does, including the New York Times Magazine), who thought the transgression was serious enough to warrant leaving.
I’m tellin’ ya, though… don’t brush her off completely.
Yeah, let’s criticize that she didn’t get past the first impression of science blogs. We should expect Heffernan to look before leaping – she writes for the Times, after all, which still has a certain reputation as a paper of record and quality. But let’s not pretend that her impression ain’t shared by anyone else.
For instance, she took heat for recommending a climate denialist blog. But that’s not the first time that blog got recommended by people who ought to know better. That tells me there’s something we can learn there.
When we read Heffernan’s piece, we don’t like it. She was bound to get a lot of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” (which, like I said, she earned). But she’s not getting as much, “Would you like to learn?”
Now, because she is a public figure, and counts people like David Dobbs among her colleagues, we might be able to convince her we ain’t so bad. Win for us if we do.
But a lot of us are probably just going to give her up as a lost cause. “She didn’t like the science blogosphere? Tough noogies. Good riddance.”
Bora nailed it when he wrote about the power that the Science Blogs website in particular had, but it’s true for the rest of us. There’s probably a lot of other people who have reactions like Virginia, but don’t blab about them in such a public forum. So they go away all quiet-like, and nobody makes the effort to reach out and invite them back.
We can do better than, “Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”
That’s where I think this incident points out a real problem: if we’re really trying to promote science, Virginia Heffernan is our target audience: she’s a smart and educated person with no science background, who would benefit from learning more about science in an informal manner. She’s one of the people we ought to be speaking to using blogging as a platform.
If we’re driving her away before she learns anything, there’s something wrong. And castigating her after the fact, essentially for being driven away, is not helping at all.
That’s what bothers me about this whole incident. Firing up people who are already interested in science and know something about it is great, but to paraphrase an Adlai Stevenson joke, we need a majority. If we want to improve the standing of science, and make the world a better place, we need to reach people like Virginia Heffernan (at the very least), and get them on the side of science.
(Of course, my calling her “half stupid” isn’t as helpful as it might be, and now I sort of regret that phrasing.)
Now, it might be that she’s really a denialist in disguise, and deliberately whipping up sentiment against ScienceBlogs for nefarious purposes. But, you know, if you always assume that people who disagree with you are acting in bad faith, you’re not going to get anywhere good. I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt on the Watts thing, especially since the other two sites she recommended are, in fact, excellent sources for people who want to learn about science.
Man, that Heffernan article is turning out to be such an excellent marker for stupid. Now some Catholic wanker is citing it as supporting his claim that scientists are all nasty people, claiming that the problem with science is scientists. Being Catholic, you know exactly who he is going to complain about.
Heffernan writes about the meltdown over at Science Blogs. “Science Blogs”, as you may well remember is the home of blogger PZ Myers who is famous for advancing science by desecrating the Eucharist. While Myers is the most read of the misogamists at Science Blogs, his penchant for the unpleasant is rather standard fare.
“Science Blogs” has recently seen many of its bloggers leave in protest over the addition of a new nutrition blog called Food Frontiers. Science Blogs’ sin that PepsiCo sponsors the site. It is indubitable that nobody does righteous indignation quite like the ungodly.
Wow. Every sentence is wrong.
There is no meltdown. There was risk of one, but Seed got their act together, and we’re all working away productively now.
Cracker abuse is so 2008. Get over it. And no, that wasn’t science, nor did I claim it was: it was a protest against the inanity of reactionary Catholics.
Misogamist? Moi? I’ve been happily married for over 30 years!
Nobody quit over the addition of Food Frontiers.
It was not a sin that Pepsi sponsored the site. The problem was that it was not labeled as an advertisement, and blurred a boundary between advertisement and content. That’s what got people upset, as well as a pattern of infrastructure neglect.
Funny about that ungodly business. I’m definitely ungodly; I’m still here. So is Greg Laden. ERV thought it was all a tempest in a teacup. Jason Rosenhouse didn’t even seem to notice. The biggest ungodliest bloggers here seem to have had a range of reactions; and several of the people who decamped were theists.
Like I said, everyone who cites the Heffernan noise positively seems to be factually incompetent, including Heffernan herself.
The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teachingthat homosexual sex is immoral.
The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.
Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.
“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”
An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.
“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”
Howell said he was teaching his students about the Catholic understanding of natural moral law.
“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said in an interview with The News-Gazette in Champaign. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”
The e-mail in question discussed the differences between consequentialist moral thought (the idea that an act’s morality can be determined by its consequences) and morality based in natural law, which depends only on the acts themselves. It’s pretty hard to discuss morality without having this discussion.
The email offered homosexuality and other sexual behaviors that are against church teaching (everything from the use of contraception in marriage to sex with children) as examples of things that a consequentialist might approve of under the right circumstances, whereas a Catholic cannot approve under any circumstances.
Unfortunately, this conversation about the class’s subject matter is verboten. Someone who apparently doesn’t even take the class or understand the subject matter decided to report this academic conversation to the campus gestapo. This is what we call the Dictatorship of Moral Relativism. We live in America, where only Islam receives such deference.
First off, let me say that I am Catholic – hardcore – and that I’ve had a significant amount of instruction on the subject of Catholic Social Teaching, which is why when this story came out, I went to find the emails, which, of course, had been conveniently posted for me on the Interwebs.
I have to say, I’m not buying the kid’s side of the story for a couple of reasons.
One, the Catholic Church does actually believe that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man, and Dr. Ken does a pretty fantastic job of laying out about ten years worth of education on the matter. Like it or not (and I’m guessing, in the general population, you’ll find more people siding with the latter), the Church has some strong feelings about two men or two women doing it, and those strong feelings are not open to interpretation, though I’m sure there are some modern scholars who like to pretend that Catholicism has a liberal American brand that is a fully competing dogma rather than the slips of paper in a Vatican suggestion box they happen to be. Fr. Pfleger comes to mind. At any rate, the Catholic Church is pretty damned clear on this stuff, no pun intended, and Dr. Ken was stating, pretty comprehensively, the party line. Better than a lot of people, I might add. In other words, Dr. Ken wasn’t just making sh*t up for the purposes of pissing off an entire demographic. And, for what it’s worth, the discussion never went into a judgment on thepeople having Teh Gay Sex, just the nature of the act itself, which is frankly unusual when people discuss this stuff. And admirable, because it’s pretty clear he’s trying to discuss this matter in a way that doesn’t disrespect the reader.
Two, I find it hard to believe that, when one signs up for a class on Catholicism, even at a major university, that one won’t expect to be taught the tenets of Catholicism. Call me crazy, but generally, a course on Catholic teaching would probably involve teaching what the Catholic Church believes. I would suspect students might also be required to regurgitate this on a test. I suspect that some students may disagree with the subject matter. But I also suspect that by age 20, you’re more inclined to take sources into consideration and approach the subject from an academic, professional standpoint. Put more concisely, if you take a class on a religion knowing you disagree with the tenets of that religion, perhaps you shouldn’t get your panties in a bunch when the professor outlines those tenets. Professors should not be required to preface every culturally “controversial” statement they make on any subject with “If you cannot handle a viewpoint that differs from yours, please stand in the hallway until I can safely call you and your fragile viewpoint back into the conversation.”
This sounds like a disagreement between this kid and the Catholic Church with Dr. Ken caught in the middle, punished for just being a member. The disagreement is understandable. I mean, I get it. Try rectifying a libertarian viewpoint with a strong Catholic faith, and yeah, I get it. The firing over the disagreement, however, is not. If you don’t like the Catholic faith, take it out on the Catholic faith, not the people teaching about it. You’re not going to like the result of that little game; if it’s true that speaking the realities of a faith are enough to disqualify a professor from academia, then honesty about sex is going to disqualify pretty much every professor of any dogma at any academic institution anywhere in the United States.
Like it or not, the world is not full of people who subscribe to the happy-clappy, Sesame Street, “everyone in the world is friends and nothing you do can ever be judged as objectively wrong” progressive liberal understanding of the universe. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with it, and you’re going to need to be prepared. The whole point of a university is, shockingly, to give people an education: to teach students to think critically about reality and their beliefs, and, more importantly, communicate in the real world where there are, occasionally, ideas and actions that make us uncomfortable. At least, that was the whole point. If you use “people being uncomfortable hearing something they disagree with” as the golden standard for firing professors out of a university, you’ve got a big problem on your hands. The standards of academia and the exchange of ideas that drives them will be pretty much all but lost to a four-year indoctrination program on how to become overly sensitive, easily outraged and how to petition any semblance of authority for the redress of even the most basic of grievances. Not to mention, all sense of critical thinking and rational argument will be erased. That’s cool if you’re, say, in Cuba, but notsomuch in the Western world.
So here’s the gist of it: maybe Catholicism is wrong about homosexual sex (we can hash that puppy out another time), but that doesn’t mean that someone should be fired for teaching an authentic viewpoint. When someone tries to beat an academic institution over the head with idealism, forcing professors to scrub out all the parts that their precious little angles’ ears can’t bear to hear, things get f**ked up. Look at Texas and imagine if this situation were reversed and a “liberal” professor’s head was on the chopping block for teaching the realities of evolution to a student who didn’t like how a fossil record conflicted with his carefully sheltered world view. The effect, and the result, is exactly the same.
I hate to say it, but I think the student was wrong. I read the professor’s email, and I don’t think it is hate speech at all.
It’s stupid speech.
A letter that condemned students, that threatened students if they didn’t agree with his views, that discriminated against a segment of society, or that denied people full participation in the culture for their views or background or private practices…that would be hate speech. This letter, though, is a pedantic and polite explanation of the views of the professor and of the Catholic church and of his interpretation of utilitarianism, and in fact is careful to say that he isn’t condemning any individuals. We can’t endorse using this kind of discussion as an excuse to expel people from academia — we want professors and students to be able to communicate freely with one another, without fear of retaliation. I see no sign that the professor was discussing the matter in a way that disrespects any of his students.
And the student complaining was doing so poorly. The professor’s ideas made him uncomfortable. He disliked what he said. He thought the professor was insensitive.
Those are not good reasons. If a student is never made uncomfortable, that student is not getting an education.
Bad reasons are given, but I still think UI made the right decision in not renewing this guy’s contract. Kenneth Howell is in ignorant fool who mistakes his religious dogma and his personal prejudices for knowledge.
Here’s an example. Keep in mind that this fellow is a professor, supposedly teaching college students something about philosophy. Here he’s trying to explain why homosexuality is wrong.
But the more significant problem has to do with the fact that the consent criterion is not related in any way to the NATURE of the act itself. This is where Natural Moral Law (NML) objects. NML says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act. Consent is important but there is more than consent needed.
One example applicable to homosexual acts illustrates the problem. To the best of my knowledge, in a sexual relationship between two men, one of them tends to act as the “woman” while the other acts as the “man.” In this scenario, homosexual men have been known to engage in certain types of actions for which their bodies are not fitted. I don’t want to be too graphic so I won’t go into details but a physician has told me that these acts are deleterious to the health of one or possibly both of the men. Yet, if the morality of the act is judged only by mutual consent, then there are clearly homosexual acts which are injurious to their health but which are consented to. Why are they injurious? Because they violate the meaning, structure, and (sometimes) health of the human body.
Here’s reality. A penis fits nicely in the hand, and a hand is usually better at stimulating the clitoris than a penis in the vagina, and our anatomy is such that our arms are of the right length to comfortably reach our genitals. Therefore, masturbation is a moral sexual act. We can extend this to point out that a man’s hand can stimulate a clitoris and a woman’s hand can stimulate a penis, and therefore, mutual masturbation, as is being practiced by tens of thousands of teenagers on this Friday night, is also a rightful act. There is no practical difference in anatomy or physiology between mutual masturbation between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple, so these acts are also entirely natural.
This reasoning can be extended to a great many sexual acts: oral and anal sex, frottage of various kinds, fantasy play, sadomasochism, etc. There are more aspects of male and female anatomy in which they are alike than in which they differ, and in fact the only act which can be uniquely performed by a male and female couple is penile-vaginal intercourse. So this one act out of many is all that this professor can point to in order to justify heterosexuality as the only proper interaction, but this requires ignoring the majority of human sexual behaviors. I have to wonder if all Catholic teaching permits in the bedroom is genital-genital contact. How sad for them.
Read the professor’s own account of his dismissal. I hope we hear the university’s side. Before people take their usual culture-war positions, understand that if the facts are as the professor relates them, this is not essentially a question of whether or not one approves of homosexuality. This is about academic and religious freedom. The professor was teaching a course on Catholicism and Catholic morality. The Catholic Church unambiguously teaches that homosexual expression is immoral. You are perfectly free to disagree with that in a university, but that’s what the Church teaches, and the professor is obligated to present that teaching in a course on Catholicism. According to the professor, students in the past have argued against that position in class, always respectfully. This was the first time an aggrieved student went to pieces over it, and demanded that the university take action against the professor — which it did.
Again, we await the university’s side of the story. But if the facts are substantially the same, then we have a case in which a professor cannot even teach his subject in a straightforward, accurate manner, without putting his job at risk. Is this really the kind of scholarly atmosphere we want? Is it conducive to a free exchange of ideas, and actual learning? As Beckwith writes in his blog commentary, imagine the reverse, and that a Catholic student complained to the university that he felt “excluded” by a gay professor’s arguments in favor of the licitness of homosexuality in a class on LGBT Studies. In what conceivable world would the university fire the professor? What kind of university lets a whinypants student dictate the content of a professor’s course?
I well remember sitting in a history course at LSU in which the professor, an avowed secularist, was making fun of the medieval church. One student stood up, yelled at him for “anti-Christian bigotry,” and stomped out. I felt that the professor really had been laying it on thick re: the Church, but he was an excellent professor, and I could put up with his prejudices because I learned so much from him. Besides, we could dispute him in the classroom with no problem. This isn’t exactly the same thing as the University of Illinois case here, because this history prof could have taught his subject matter that day without snarky editorial commentary about medieval Christianity; it’s hard to see how a professor teaches a class on Catholicism while ignoring the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Still, that people are so willing to be grievously offended by thoughts that conflict with their own beliefs, and universities and other institutions are willing to kowtow to the most delicate student sensibilities — provided they are expressed by members of politically approved demographic groups — is dreadful for robust, honest discourse, to say nothing of actual scholarship.
Stories like this make one see the university as an increasingly Orwellian place where “tolerance” means putting up with people who already agree with you. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, their tolerance for religious and academic freedom runs the gamut from A to B.
Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, published results today describing the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.
This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.
“For nearly 15 years Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchison and the rest of our team have been working toward this publication today–the successful completion of our work to construct a bacterial cell that is fully controlled by a synthetic genome,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and president, JCVI and senior author on the paper. “We have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good. We look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”
According to Dr. Smith, “With this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works.”
In another step forward in the quest to create artificial life in a test tube, a team of genetic engineers led by Craig Venter has built a synthetic genome and proved that it can power up when placed inside an existing cell.
Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” [The New York Times]
The technical achievement is worth crowing about. The researchers built on Venter’s trick from last year, in which he took the genome from one bacterium, transferred it the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterial species, and watched as the new cell “booted up” successfully. In this new step, the researchers built a genome from scratch, copying the genetic code from a bacterium that infects goats and introducing just a few changes as a “watermark”; then they transferred that synthetic genome to a cell. As the researchers report in Science, the cell functioned and replicated, creating more copies of the slightly altered goat-infecting bacterium–now nicknamed Synthia.
But the reactions to Venter’s accomplishment have been mixed–while some celebratory headlines trumpeted the creation of artificial life, many scientists said the reaction was overblown, and took issue with Venter’s claim of having created a truly synthetic cell. Here, we round up a selection of responses from all corners of the science world.
Bioethicist Arthur Caplan finds the philosophical ramifications of the work fascinating:
“Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.” [Nature News]
But many experts say that since Venter copied a pre-existing genome, he didn’t really create a new life form.
“To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech. Dr. Baltimore described the result as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science, but just a matter of scale…. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” Dr. Baltimore said [The New York Times].
In addition, many experts note that the experimenters got a big boost by placing the synthetic genome in a preexisting cell, which was naturally inclined to make sense of the transplanted DNA and to turn genes on and off. Thus, they say, it’s not accurate to label the experiment’s product a true “synthetic cell.”
Anyway–this news just hit the wires thanks to an embargo break, so I don’t have time to go into more detail. Joe Palca at NPR has posted his article on the subject. For background, please check out these stories I’ve written about this general area of research:
Who knows exactly what this means as yet — but it’s important! You can argue if you like about whether it’s really “artificial life” — that argument has already started, and already seems boring. There are also speculations about designing microorganisms to help us solve problems like global warming or (let’s say) massive oil spills. Not completely crazy speculations, either. But there’s a long way to go before anything like that is coming off a biological assembly line. And eventually we’ll be going much further than that, beyond designer microorganisms into much weirder terrain. This isn’t a culmination, it’s just a start.
I ask sarcastically, but if scientists can make a simple organism with entirely synthesized DNA, why could they not in theory create a human being whose entire self will have been designed by a scientist? What would that say about human dignity? Do you really trust humankind not to use that power to create races of masters and slaves? I don’t. The abolition of man, indeed.
Have you ever sent out a “tweet” on the popular Twitter social media service? Congratulations: Your 140 characters or less will now be housed in the Library of Congress.
That’s right. Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006, will be archived digitally at the Library of Congress. That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions.
We thought it fitting to give the initial heads-up to the Twitter community itself via our own feed @librarycongress. (By the way, out of sheer coincidence, the announcement comes on the same day our own number of feed-followers has surpassed 50,000. I love serendipity!)
We will also be putting out a press release later with even more details and quotes. Expect to see an emphasis on the scholarly and research implications of the acquisition. I’m no Ph.D., but it boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data. And I’m certain we’ll learn things that none of us now can even possibly conceive.
Twitter further explains the news in its own announcement. Biz Stone writes that after a six-month delay, “Tweets will be used for internal library use, for non-commercial research, public display by the library itself, and preservation.”
The news is quite significant and reinforces the importance of the information we share in 140 characters or less. In many ways history can be relived through tweets, and now the Library of Congress can ensure that not a single character is lost in the sea of real-time information.
Remember that Tweet you wrote about Tiger Woods that seemed hilarious at the time? Or that night you shared your thoughts on your cousin Bob’s lack of personal hygiene? Good news — all of the world’s most trivial 140-character-or-less Tweets will soon be housed forever in the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress now has its bookish little hands on every public Tweet ever Tweeted in the 4-year history of Twitterdom.
Of course, it also includes two-plus years worth of my standing morning tweet, which usually is something like “Awake. Need coffee,” along with late night tweets that I’m sure would rather be forgotten by the people who sent them. Now, they’re preserved for posterity.
When I first heard this announcement, I was more than a little, well, surprised. What possible use could the Library of Congress have for the often inane 140 character statements of 105 million people ?
Needless to say, this is a pretty incredible announcement. It’s great that a major public institution can step forward and do the kind of digital preservation job that only that kind of institution would be capable of.
It would be really great if their next step could be a similar archiving project for, say, Blogger or WordPress blogs. Or perhaps other big national libraries around the world could each pick a site and dedicate themselves to preserving their content for future generations.
The problem: Who says my tweets belong to Google or the Library of Congress? They didn’t even buy me dinner to discuss this. And they won’t buy you dinner, either, even though they are annexing the work that you did with absolutely no logical or plausible explanation of why they should own it.
Twitter’s entire appeal—and how it was sold to its users—was this: short, ephemeral 140-character bursts that were largely completely unsearchable. Twitter’s own search function doesn’t go back more than two weeks, and mostly it doesn’t work properly. Thus, while many tweets were substantive links and discussions of major issues from stock trading (through the Stock Twits network) to agriculture, many more were typo-laden, banal observations about what to eat for lunch. (I, like most smart Twitter users, don’t follow those people. But they’re there.)
First, let’s not pretend that the Library of Congress cataloging and saving every tweet ever—a capability not even open to private corporations—was a totally foreseeable consequence, outside of the Psychic Friends Network. If you ask anyone who wrote a tweet or anyone who knows what Twitter is, “hey, where do you think your tweets will be in five years?” it’s fair to say that “The Library of Congress” wouldn’t have been the first or the 15th answer. It’s also fair to say that “making money for Google in a vast database created quietly without public knowledge” would be high on the list either.
Twitter had a duty to let its users know—clearly, not in vague terms—that their ephemeral tweets would become permanent and searchable. That’s basic corporate misrepresentation.
Second, let’s think about why Google and the Library of Congress have a right to any tweets. Do you know why they would? I don’t. This isn’t about privacy. It’s about who the content belongs to. And just because something is on the Web, open to all, doesn’t mean it belongs to the government OR to Google. A wide variety of news sources are on Google, but that doesn’t mean that Google owns the right to catalog and republish them in the future, packaged in Google’s own way outside of their original users.
On Wednesday, the Library of Congress announced it had signed an agreement with the microblogging service Twitter to archive all public tweets sent since the service began in 2006. I spoke with Martha Anderson, the director of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress, about the project and how it fits into the library’s digital-archiving efforts. She warned me when we got started that her department had a cumbersome name.
So who came to you with the request, or the idea about Twitter?
Twitter approached us. They were looking around; they are a small business — which happens, quite often. Businesses cannot afford to sustain all the content they create over the life of the business. And Twitter hadn’t reached that point yet, but they were aware of the need to sustain the content someway.
So they began to look around for a strategy for conserving that content in the long term. They knew we had this program at the library, so they called us and asked if we were interested in the Twitter archive.
We do a collection for every Supreme Court nominee — Web sites and blogs and all sorts of things. Well, one of the things they asked us to collect were tweets for the nomination of Justice Sotomayor. So that was the first indication we had that our selection officials were interested in Twitter.
Correct me if I have this wrong, but in the past, you’ve done your Web archiving on a subject basis, and this is the first time you’re grabbing an entire type of content off the Web?
Exactly. And that’s the significance of this. Yesterday [Wednesday, when the agreement was announced], one of my staff came in to tell me that people were saying this was a change from static to streaming. This is first time [on the web] we’re looking at a whole corpus of material from a source.
And I think personally, this is me, don’t quote me as saying this from the library, as librarians we need to think more about our relationships to content creators, content-generating activities, in a way we used to think about things with publishers — we would get a relationship to a publisher through copyright, or that sort of thing. Now, the information base is different, and we really need to work on those kinds of relationships.
Is there anything analogous in Library of Congress history?
Well, the library is accustomed, with analog materials, to collecting everything from a creator — we have in our prints and photograph division all the output from the Department of Interior’s historic American buildings survey. It’s a huge record of American architecture.
A lot of time we will get all the negatives and works of a photographer. So we’re used to a mass of things, rather than a selection in the analogue world. This is our first foray into doing this in the digital world.
When do you start?
The agreement has been signed, but we still have a lot of technical details to work out — how we’ll technically transfer it, and when. There’s a built in six-month window, so we don’t have the live Twitter archive at any given time. There is a window for people if they want to delete their tweets, things like that.
There’s a built-in lag? Yes, so once the transfer is complete, if a researcher comes here, we’ll let them know that it’s 2006 till six months prior. And there’ll be a rolling period of transfers after that.
Can individuals choose to opt their tweets out of it?
You know, I don’t know. I think that’s a question for Twitter. There’s several questions about that which they are still working out. We asked them to deal with the users; the library doesn’t want to mediate that.
What about user information? Have you any thoughts about whether you’re going to keep that or strip that out? Obviously, that gives a lot of context for a tweet.
It does. And I think that’s one of the big issues for us to understand in terms of privacy. And there’s a lot of work going on, especially over at [the National Institutes of Health] about how to anonymize data and still make it useful. We’re really big on partnering with people to learn what they’re learning, so I think that’s an area we’ll look into. In serving it, what can we do to make it useful to research but not identify personal information?
Is the plan to keep all tweets, forever?
Nothing is forever! I think this is a real learning opportunity. We’re embarking on this with the idea that what we receive, we will keep for the long term. That’s about the best we can say.
How much will it cost?
Well, it’s a gift; we didn’t pay for it. But it will be the cost of storing what is, right now, around 5 terabytes, and the staff effort of maybe one full-time person over the years.
Since the decoding of the human genome, biotechnology companies have claimed that by matching a person’s genetic make-up with specialised treatments, they can tailor drugs to maximise benefits and minimise side effects. Alas, researchers have discovered that the link between a given person’s genetic make-up and specific diseases is much more complex than they had hoped. The tantalising vision remains out of reach.
A rare exception has been the success that Myriad Genetics, an American firm, has had with two genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Certain versions of these genes, it has been shown, are associated with a high risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The University of Utah has patented the genes and licenses them to Myriad. The firm uses that exclusivity to create expensive genetic tests for cancer risk which only it offers for sale (the patents and licensing conditions are different outside the United States).
The BRCA patents have long frustrated medical researchers, cancer lobbyists and legal activists. They claim that the firm’s grip on the two genes unlawfully stifles both innovation and basic science. Given the history of patent rulings in America, that has been a fringe argument—until now.
On March 29th the New York District Court made a ruling that, taken at face value, turns America’s approach to the patent protection of genes on its head. A coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had challenged the very basis of Myriad’s patents. The nub of the case was this question: “Are isolated human genes and the comparison of their sequences patentable things?”
Until now, the answer had been “Yes”. But Robert Sweet, the presiding judge, disagreed, at least as far as the BRCA genes are concerned. After weighing up Myriad’s arguments, he ruled: “It is concluded that DNA’s existence in an ‘isolated’ form alters neither this fundamental quality of DNA as it exists in the body nor the information it encodes. Therefore, the patents at issues directed to ‘isolated DNA’ containing sequences found in nature are unsustainable as a matter of law and are deemed unpatentable subject matter.” Mr Sweet reasoned that DNA represents the physical embodiment of biological information, and that such biological information is a natural phenomenon.
The ACLU’s and PUBPAT’s lawsuit against Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation, which hold the patents on the BRCA genes, as well the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), charged that the challenged patents are illegal and restrict both scientific research and patients’ access to medical care, and that patents on human genes violate the First Amendment and patent law because genes are “products of nature.”
The specific patents that the ACLU had challenged are on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations along the BRCA1 and 2 genes are responsible for most cases of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. The patents granted to Myriad give the company the exclusive right to perform diagnostic tests on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
William L. Warren, partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, believes this is a “poor decision that may have negative short-term implications for financing in the biotechnology sector, and hence the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics, until it is overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in the next one to two years. Certainly, the sequencing of genes and disease-associated mutations for use in developing diagnostic probes and assays provides useful nonnaturally occurring subject matter that should qualify for patentability under the statute.
“While native genes in the body are originally products of nature, isolating portions of the DNA in order to perform a diagnosis transforms the DNA structurally and functionally into patentable subject matter,” he continues. “The isolated DNA has been markedly changed to become a useful product, even though it carries some of the same information as the native gene.
“Whether through the progress of scientific knowledge and techniques the isolation of such DNA fragments becomes routine or obvious is a separate question, which was not at issue in this case.”
GenomeWeb quotes ACLU attorney Chris Hansen as saying:
“Today’s ruling is a victory for the free flow of ideas in scientific research. The human genome, like the structure of blood, air or water, was discovered, not created. There is an endless amount of information on genes that begs for further discovery, and gene patents put up unacceptable barriers to the free exchange of ideas.”
Hansen is making the argument that gene patents have created an anti-commons that is impeding important research. But is that so? I looked into the issue three years ago and could find little empirical support for the …
… concern that the over-proliferation of patents, instead of encouraging innovation, is stifling it. This argument achieved prominence in an influential 1998 article published in Science by two University of Michigan law professors, Michael A. Heller and Rebecca S. Eisenberg. Heller and Eisenberg worried that the privatization of biomedical research “promises to spur private investment but risks creating a tragedy of the anticommons through a proliferation of fragmented and overlapping intellectual property rights.”
By “anticommons,” they meant a situation in which the existence of a large number of intellectual property rights applicable to a single good or service unduly retards or even prevents its provision. The blockage to innovation would occur because of high transaction costs, the conflicting goals of various intellectual property owners, and cognitive biases in which owners overvalue their own patents, undervalue others’ patents, and reject reasonable offers.
As evidence for a biomedical anticommons, analysts regularly cite the high profile case of “probably the most hated diagnostics company,” Myriad Genetics.
As evidence against the existence of a research anti-commons, I cited a number of studies by the National Academy of Sciences and I further noted that …
… in 2006, Nature Biotechnology published a review (free registration required) of the academic literature on the existence of a research anticommons. The review concluded that “among academic biomedical researchers in the United States, only one percent report having had to delay a project and none having abandoned a project as a result of others’ patents, suggesting that neither anticommons nor restrictions on access were seriously limiting academic research.” Worryingly, the review noted there was evidence that secrecy was growing among academic researchers. However, patent issues do not seem to be fueling this secrecy. One study suggested that increased academic research secrecy arises chiefly from concerns about securing scientific priority (scientific competition) and the high cost and effort involved in sharing scientific materials and data.
In 2007, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a report, International Intellectual Property Experiences: A Report of Four Countries, which surveyed thousands of scientists in the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and Japan to assess their experiences in acquiring, using, or creating intellectual property. The AAAS study found “very little evidence of an ‘anticommons problem.'” As Stephen Hansen, the director of the AAAS study, noted in a press release, “All four studies suggest that intellectual property rights had little negative impact on the practice of science.”
Perhaps there is newer and better evidence for a research anti-commons. I will look into it again and report back.
Biotech businesses and their scientists say the decision will stifle research, destroy incentives for product development, and grow government by leaving federally supported universities as the only institutions willing to undertake further genetic studies. None of this rings true. No doubt holding legal monopoly over a part of a human being is more lucrative for any firm than having to compete with other companies in developing biotechnology, but it is not necessarily best for patients. Other industries do just fine in terms of innovation, and much better in terms of cost control, without being able to patent their consumers.
[The company] sells a test costing more than $3,000 that looks for mutations in the two genes to determine if a woman is at a high risk of getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs in the case had said Myriad’s monopoly on the test, conferred by the gene patents, kept prices high and prevented women from getting a confirmatory test from another laboratory.
Considering the amounts of money at stake in the principle, we’ll be hearing much more about this in months to come.
This does not invalidate patents on organisms with modified genes or genomes, nor does it invalidate the act of modifying a gene in order to insert it into an organism. This does not, by my reading, set up Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready crops to lose patent protection, though it may free up competitors to develop similar genes, and may give farmers an easier way to protect themselves against a claim when Monsanto asserts patent violations because of crosspollination.
The court was asked to consider the chilling effect on research produced by patents for naturally occurring genes. Fortunately, the decision seems to have avoided that line of argument, as it opens a massive can of worms. In general, I’m inclined to oppose patents and copyright laws that restrict research, artistic development, medical care, or other humanitarian services. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s a call judges ought to be making. I’d rather see the laws themselves fixed when such chilling effects are seen. This judge’s ruling fired a shot across the bow of lawmakers about the abuses of genetic patents, and one hopes lawmakers will listen.
Given the sweeping victory on a summary judgment motion, the ACLU is understandably elated. “We are extremely gratified by this groundbreaking decision,” said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “This is the beginning of the end to patents that restrict women’s access to their own genetic information and interfere with their medical care.” We can hope so. The appeals are inevitable, and are headed toward a notably pro-corporate and anti-woman Supreme Court, so there’s no guarantee that this ruling will hold up, but it’s a good first step.
Peter Meldrum, Myriad’s chief executive, said the company will appeal. “I don’t believe that the final outcome of this litigation will have a material impact on Myriad’s operations,” he said. “We have 23 patents relating to BRCA genes, and this litigation only involves seven of those 23 patents.
If you thought that fingerprints or DNA fragments were the only bits of forensic evidence that could pin you to a scene of a crime, then think again. Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder have found preliminary evidence suggesting that you can be identified from the unique mix of bacteria that lives on you.
Each person, they say, is a teeming petri dish of bacteria, but the composition varies from person to person. Every place a person goes and each thing he touches is smudged with his unique “microbial fingerprint.” The bacterial mixes are so specific to individuals that researchers found that they could pair up individual computer keyboards with their owners–just by matching the bacteria found on the keyboard to the bacteria found on the person’s fingertips. Describing their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists write that that if this bacterial fingerprint technique is refined, it could one day help in forensic investigations.
The approach, when developed more fully, could potentially provide information where existing forensic techniques fall short, says Martin Blaser, a professor of medicine and microbiology at New York University. “When you just swab the skin, you get at least 100 times more microbial DNA than human DNA,” he says, so less material could give investigators a stronger signal.
Blaser also notes that fingerprints can’t be accurately read if they’re smudged, while a smudged print could still contain enough microbes to analyze. “The microbiome is us–it’s just another form of fingerprint, just like genomic DNA is us,” says Blaser, who wrote an accompanying commentary to the study, both published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
So far, though, a lot of questions remain about how accurate the technique can become. “We did these studies as a proof of concept,” says Fierer. “Now we need to do the hard work.”
For one thing, it is unclear whether an individual’s microbial signature could be retrieved if another person has touched the object being sampled. Another open question is just how stable an individual’s microbiome truly is. Antibiotics, for example, change an individual’s bacterial profile, although nobody knows for how long. A key step to developing the needed level of confidence, says Fierer, will be to expand the database of microbial communities found on individuals’ hands. Being able to compare a profile to a large number of other profiles will provide a baseline for extracting the truly individual elements.
However, says Relman, “the very reason that makes it more complex gives it all kinds of value that DNA will never have.” For example, he says, a person’s microbiota can reveal not just his or her identity–it can also give clues as to what that individual tends to eat, for example, or where he or she works or lives, so researchers could determine how the types of microbes carried on the body are dependent on such factors.
“I think this is the beginning of the process,” Relman says. “But we are going to need a lot more sources of the variation before we can still see the individual shining through.”
Fierer swabbed the keys of three computer keyboards as well as the fingers of their owners. By sequencing the DNA of the bacteria he found, he showed that the communities on keys and fingertips are a close match. They could be used to tell the three people apart, even though two of them share the same office.
All of these samples were taken an hour or so after the owners had last typed on their keys, but Fierer found that leftover bacteria can stand longer tests of time. After swabbing the skins of two volunteers, he found that two weeks later, the bacteria were still informative and the communities were unchanged, even if the swabs were kept in open containers at room temperature.
So far, that’s not particularly impressive. Three is a vanishingly small number if we’re seriously talking about applications in forensics. So for his next trick, Fierer sequenced bacteria from nine computer mice. He compared them to sequences from bacteria on the mouse owners’ hands and to a database of similar sequences from 270 people who had never touched the devices. In every case, the mouse microbes were significantly more similar to the communities on their owners’ hands than to those from the other 278 people.
Even after this promising result, Fierer is very measured about the prospects for this technique. Like other widely used forensic tools, identification by skin bacteria would need to undergo a lot of development and refinement before it could actually be used in investigations. This is just a ‘proof-of-principle’, an inkling that this technique is worth more research.
Would it work on a wide variety of surfaces, on objects that aren’t touched as often as keyboards or mice, or on those that are touched by different parts of the skin? Could certain bacteria give away their owner’s identity more than others? Would a database of hand bacteria be useful? And how would you deal with objects that had been touched by several people?
If this work pans out, Fierer suggests that skin bacteria could be used to provide independent confirmation for other lines of evidence such as DNA or fingerprint analyses. After all, the bacteria in and on your body outnumber your cells by a factor of 10, and their genes outnumber yours by a factor of 100. It’s possible that the genes of these residents might be more useful in establishing our identities than our own genes.
But Foran is much more sceptical. He says that Fierer uses the word “match” throughout his paper but the word has a very specific meaning in forensics. “[A match] means that there are absolutely no incongruities between the data produced from a questioned sample and those from a known sample,” he explains. That’s very different to saying that a bacterial sample is more similar to those from person A than person B. “Perhaps it can be said it seems more likely person A touched an object than did person B, however we definitely cannot say person A did touch the object.”
As it turns out, even the most obsessive-compulsive among us carry about 150 species of bacteria around on our hands, and those bacteria in turn carry a genome unique to that person. Those bacteria could potentially become a damning forensic tool at crime scenes, allowing investigators to gather DNA information unique to a perpetrator even without recovering any of that person’s actual DNA.
But aspiring villains need not worry about being bacterially identified anytime soon. As is, the process is only 70-90 percent accurate, a margin of error too wide for even the most kangaroo courts. There are still a lot of questions to be answered as well: if more than one person has touched a piece of evidence, will the microbial profile be compromised? Is the microbiome stable enough to be used as an identifier (since, for instance, taking antibiotics can alter one’s bacterial profile)? Can criminals intentionally alter their bacterial profiles to throw investigators off the trail?
I certainly hope more testing is done, because this seems like a technology that comes fully loaded with the possibility of serious mathematical errors. For example, suppose I find a dead body, a murder weapon, and on the weapon traces of bacterial DNA. Then I pluck a random person off the streets of Washington DC and the bacteria on his finger matches according to a test that’s 90 percent reliable.
A lot of people are going to read that as indicating that there’s a 90 percent chance that the random person is a murderer.
In reality, there are about 600,000 people in Washington DC and if you submitted them all to a 90 percent accurate bacterial DNA analysis, you’d wind up with 60,000 false positives. And since there’s only one gunman, the odds that your random person is the killer aren’t 9 in 10, they’re 1 in 60,000—the guy is almost certainly innocent. And improving the test to 99 percent accuracy doesn’t help much. But people make this mistake all the time, whether it comes to “data mining” to find terrorists or giving mammograms to young women with no risk factors. Even tests that are fairly reliable in a statistical sense need to be used very carefully.
The fissure vent eruption on Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland on March 21, 2010.
The big news this morning is the eruption that started last night at Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, producing a 1-km fissure vent. The pictures and videos I’ve seen so far have been quite impressive, with the classic look of a “curtain of fire”, where basaltic lava erupts explosively from a linear array of vents – you can see the geometry in the image from the BBC/AP (above). Especially clear is the dual nature of the eruption, with both the explosive fire fountains and the effusive (passive) lava flows from the root of the curtain of fire. In many “curtain of fire” eruptions on Hawai`i, the curtain (see below) eventually coalesces into a single fire fountain, sometimes producing fountains that can reach a few kilometers in height. This will be something to watch for in the coming days if the eruption continues.
Here is some video taken last night of the fissure eruption – impressive stuff!
Daylight image of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull.
Airspace over Iceland is closed for the moment, although these style of eruptions don’t produce much of volcanic ash – although there is likely significant fine droplets of lava forming some ash fragments, Pele’s tears and Pele’s hair (all basaltic volcanic products). However, eruptions like this can emit a lot of volcanic gases like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide – much like this eruptions distant relative, the Laki eruption of 1783. And even though the eruption is explosive, the hazard to surrounding communities is relatively low unless the lava flows encroach on populated areas or there is significant ice/snow melt to produce lahars or a jokulhlaup. However, Icelandic authorities have evacuated hundreds of people from the region near the eruption as a precaution (with text messages no less!)
The eruption reportedly began beneath glacial ice, a potentially serious situation wherein water can burst out of the glacier to inundate areas down stream. The lava fissure was later said to have established outside, albeit next to, the glacier, suggesting a reduced flood threat.
Iceland’s volcanos are primarily basaltic volcanos. As such, the tend to yield hot, fluid lava flows. Major explosions are the exception, but can happen when lava meets ground water.
The highest volcanos of Iceland are capped by major ice sheets, as they effectively capture moisture from frequent North Atlantic storms. Historically, extreme glacial outburst floods have burst from these glaciers and swept to the south coast of the island.
For this volcano, this is the first eruption since 1821. Scientists admit that there was little warning of an eruption, all the more proof that one can never be too complacent with nature.
As this is a major event from the area, cameras were undoubtedly rolling. However, since the story continues to break, photos so far are few. Undoubtedly more photos will appear as the day goes on, so stay tuned.
Geophysicist Páll Einarsson said all known eruptions in Eyjafjallajökull have been in connection with eruptions in the neighboring volcano Katla underneath the Mýrdalsjökull icecap. Now that Eyjafjallajökull has started to erupt, Katla might follow.
“Katla is of a completely different kind […] but they seem to be connected, because all known eruptions in Eyjafjallajökull were related to Katla eruptions and therefore it seems that they might a prelude to eruptions in Katla,” Einarsson said.
“Eyjafjallajökull might to a certain extent work as a detonator for a dynamite explosion,” the geophysicist added. “If it goes off it is like Katla can’t resist it and also wants to join in. Those eruptions can be big and cause extensive damage.”
Almost all of the 600 people evacuated following a volcanic eruption in southern Iceland have been allowed to return home and all flights resumed in the Nordic island country, authorities say.
“We are allowing almost all of the 600 inhabitants to return to their homes, with the exception of the residents of 14 farms who are not allowed to return,” local police chief Kjartan Thorkelsson said at 1730 GMT on Saturday (0430 AEDT on Sunday).
“All roads have now been opened, but we encourage people not to drive unless it is necessary,” he said. “There is still an official situation of danger because of the volcanic eruption.”
Hjordis Gudmundsdottir of the Icelandic airport authority meanwhile said all domestic flights had resumed about 1600 GMT on Saturday (0300 AEDT on Sunday).
After being halted following the eruption, traffic in and out of Iceland started up again about 1100 GMT (2200 AEDT), but most international flights suffered serious delays.
“There are no problems getting to Iceland and domestic flights have now resumed, but of course there are delays,” Gudmundsdottir said.
She said air traffic was still barred from a small area, “but it’s not a big area, and it’s OK to fly (in the area) if it’s above 5000 feet (1524 metres).”
“The problem with (volcanic) ashes wasn’t as bad as we thought it could be,” she said.
So why don’t Jews write more fantasy literature? And a different, deeper but related question: why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian? Why no Jewish Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias?
My interest in these questions is partly personal. Tolkien and Lewis loomed large in my childhood and, as I read them to my own children, I wonder what they ought to mean to us as Jews. But my thoughts are also stimulated by the recent publication of some apparent exceptions to the rule: from the United States, The Magicians, a fantasy novel for adults by novelist and critic Lev Grossman, and from Israel, Hagar Yanai’s Ha-mayim she-bein ha-olamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the acclaimed second installation of a projected fantasy trilogy, which, when it is finished, will be the first such trilogy in Hebrew.
Asking these questions is hardly frivolous when fantasy, especially children’s fantasy, has today become a multi-billion dollar industry. In addition to the perennial popularity of Lewis and Tolkien, there is of course the publishing tsunami that is J. K. Rowling, as well as the lesser but still remarkable successes of recent fantasy authors such as Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud, all magnified immensely by the films based on their books. Fantasy is big business.
Indeed, one wonders why, amidst all the initiatives to solve the crisis in Jewish continuity, no one has yet proposed commissioning a Jewish fantasy series that might plumb the theological depths like Lewis or at least thrill Jewish preteens with tales of Potterish derring-do. Granted, popularity is rarely cooked to order and religious allegory sometimes backfires (a mother once wrote Lewis that her nine year old son had guiltily confessed to loving Aslan the lion more than Jesus). But still, what non-electronic phenomenon has held the attention of more children (and not a few adults) during the last ten years, than Rowling’s tales of Hogwarts? And, as Tom Shippey has shown in Tolkien: Author of the Century, the Lord of the Rings trilogy consistently tops readers’ polls of their most beloved books. Why the apparent aversion to producing such well-received books by the People of the Book?
Some readers may have already expressed surprise at my assertion that Jews do not write fantasy literature. Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.
The experience of wonder, of joy and delight on the part of the reader, has long been recognized as one of the defining characteristics of the genre. This wonder is connected with a world, with a place of magic, strangeness, danger, and charm; and whether it is called Perelandra, Earthsea, Amber, or Oz, this world must be a truly alien place. As Ursula K. Leguin says: “The point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie.”
To answer the question of why Jews do not write fantasy, we should begin by acknowledging that the conventional trappings of fantasy, with their feudal atmosphere and rootedness in rural Europe, are not especially welcoming to Jews, who were too often at the wrong end of the medieval sword. Ever since the Crusades, Jews have had good reasons to cast doubt upon the romance of knighthood, and this is an obstacle in a genre that takes medieval chivalry as its imaginative ideal.
It is not only that Jews are ambivalent about a return to an imaginary feudal past. It is even more accurate to say that most Jews have been deeply and passionately invested in modernity, and that history, rather than otherworldliness, has been the very ground of the radical and transformative projects of the modern Jewish experience. This goes some way towards explaining the Jewish enthusiasm for science fiction over fantasy (from Asimov to Silverberg to Weinbaum there is no dearth of Jewish science fiction writers). George MacDonald’s Phantastes, thought by some to be the first fantasy novel ever written, begins with a long epigraph from Novalis in which he celebrates the redemptive counter-logic of the fairytale: “A fairytale [Märchen] is like a vision without rational connections, a harmonious whole . . . opposed throughout to the world of rational truth.” Contrast Herzl’s dictum that “If you will it, it is no Märchen.” The impulse in the latter is that of science fiction—the proposal of what might be—and indeed Herzl’s one novel Old-New Land was a utopian fiction about the future State of Israel.
The article has taken heat from fans of the many Jewish fantasy authors. But most of them have missed the point. Weingrad isn’t asking whether Jews write fantasy or enjoy reading it. Instead, he’s concerned with why there aren’t any compelling fantasy “worlds” that incorporate Jewish folklore and tropes the way Narnia and Tolkein’s Middle Earth develop Christian ones.
But is that really such a puzzle? In the first place, the landscape of most fantasy novels is essentially the numinous forest of the Teutonic Dark Ages. It is not so much a Christian world as a world on the cusp of Christianity: a pagan Götterdämmerung.
Jews can, of course, appropriate this setting for literary purposes. But I don’t think it has the same imaginative gravity that it does for Christians. Similarly, the warrior values that animate a lot of fantasy are not traditionally Jewish. One could, I suppose, write a story around around a learned rabbi–but surely that would not be as interesting as one focused on knights, errant wizards, and chieftains of mounted hordes. Finally, as Weingrad notes, there’s no fantasy without evil. And Jewish teaching on this subject is extremely ambiguous; unlike some Christian doctrines, Judaism tends to deny evil as a force independent of and opposed to God.
For these reasons, Jews drawn to speculative writing may have an affinity for the science fiction over fantasy. The technological rationalism and optimism of much science fiction is also, in a way, more American–and America has offered the broadest field for Jewish literary efforts since World War II.
But Weingrad neglects a “fantasy” genre founded by Jews, and arguably shaped by Jewish preoccupations. That’s the superhero comic book invented in the 1930s by the likes of Robert Kahn–Bob Kane to you. There could never be a Jewish Narnia that would preserve the features many readers find compelling (I confess that I always vastly preferred Tolkein, whose work is richer and less didactic). But the universes of Superman, Batman, and the rest are worthy counterparts.
His name is Michael Chabon, you fool. Or Jonathan Lethem. Or, as my friend Sam Goldman insightfully observes, perhaps you ought to pick up a superhero comic. Practically every iconic superhero was created by Jews. Wrap your mind around two Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creating an invincible hero called Superman in 1932.
Probably more accurately, the Jewish CS Lewises are named Stan “Stanley Lieber” Lee and Jack “Jacob Kurtzberg” Kirby. Weingrad is asking the wrong question if he wants a one-to-one transposal of the Christian Lewis to Jewish creators, who are less likely to create direct parables because an impulse to convert doesn’t exist in Judaism, but questions of justice, power and responsibility — stuff that concerns Jews, I hear — are central to the Marvel Universe. Back when Jews still lived in urban enclaves, Lee and Kirby created the Thing, the first Jewish superhero (and probably the first Jew in space), to bring the ersatz-Lower East Side values of “Yancy Street” to the gentile masses and give the Yancy Street kids a relatable hero to look up to — the world scorned him for his appearance, but he was brave and strong and moral and had more heart than anyone. I don’t need to explain the civil rights allegory of the X-Men, but you could make quite the engaging Haggadah out of the “Days of Future Past” storyline. If it’s young-adult fiction you want, practically nothing will get kids into the habit of reading, and reading passionately, than comic books.
Don’cha just love utter rubbish? Simply off the top of my head:
Robert Silverberg; Esther Freisner; Peter Davison; Michael Burstein; Neil Gaiman; Marge Piercy (great grand-daughter of a Rabbi); Peter Beagle; Charlie Stross and Michael Chabon (by pure coincidence I have been reading Gentleman of the Road, set in the ninth century kingdom of the Kazars and, as he says in a post-script “Jews with Swords”, all day today).
Farah Mendlesohn pours out her wrath on Michael Weingrad’s article “Why There is No Jewish Narnia” in the inaugural issue of Jewish Review of Books, and its assertion that Weingard “cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.” Allegedly a review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Hagar Yanai’s HaMaim SheBeyn HaOlamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the second volume in an Israeli YA fantasy trilogy, Weingard treats only briefly with his two subjects and mostly uses them as a backdrop to his theory of Judaism being a far less hospitable environment than Christianity for the development of a fantastic tradition, of “all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth.” Farah responds by listing a dozen Jewish fantasy authors off the top of her head, and commenters to her post contribute quite a few more, but though it seems likely, reading between the lines of Weingard’s article, that these authors are either wholly unfamiliar to him or that he would be surprised to learn of their Jewishness, I’m not sure that this listing accurately addresses the point Weingard is trying to make.
It seems clear to me that the essay’s title is meant in earnest, and that Weingard is specifically hunting for Jewish authors of the same caliber, fame, and influence over the genre as Tolkien and Lewis, of which there are indeed none. More importantly, when Weingard calls for a Jewish Narnia, he is calling for “works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian”. As Jo Walton says in the comments to Farah’s post, “I think it’s more useful to ask what Jewish fantasy stories there are than what Jewish fantasy writers,” and again the answer would be that there are precious few. The most well-regarded, famous and influential Jewish fantasy writer working today is probably Neil Gaiman, but Jewish elements in his fiction are few and far between, and the folklore and myths he draws on in his work are mostly Christian or pagan, with some forays into various Eastern traditions. Which is understandable when one considers that Weingard’s argument about the relative paucity of the Jewish fantastic tradition is undeniable. It’s a religion and a culture that is not only less rooted in and concerned with the numinous than Christianity is–the afterlife, for example, is treated in Judaism almost as an afterthought, and receives very little attention in the halacha or in Jewish scholarship–but whose folk tales and traditions seem to have almost no fantastic component. There’s a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned–because there’s not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.
None of this is to say that I don’t sympathize with Farah’s exasperation with “Why There is No Jewish Narnia.” Weingard’s essay is riddled with so many staggering assumptions, sweeping generalizations, and plain untruths that even its most self-evident arguments come to seem suspect. Chief among these is the fact that though he deftly analyzes the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism which render the former so suitable to the Tolkienian mode of fantasy by noting that Christianity is rooted in a dualism between good and evil, whereas Judaism balks at placing any power on an equal standing, or even in opposition, to God, Weingard touches only lightly on the real-world factors that discouraged Jews from exploring the fictional avenues that Tolkien and Lewis did. To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of. Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion. One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.
Part and parcel of Judaism’s resistance to explorations in the realm of faerie, he goes on, is a discomfort with the semi-dualism that’s necessary to classic fantasy — the idea of a Devil figure, in other words, who seems capable of actually conquering the mortal world (be it Narnia or Middle-Earth, Fionavar or Osten Ard) and binding it permanently in darkness. As Weingrad notes, correctly I think: “Christianity offers a far more developed tradition of evil as a supernatural, external, autonomous force than does Judaism, whose Satan (or Samael or Lilith or Ashmedai) are limited in their power and usually rather obedient to God’s wishes.” Tolkien’s Sauron makes sense in a Christian universe; he makes less sense in a Jewish one.
But once you add up these insights, they jostle uneasily with Weingrad’s professed desire for a Jewish Tolkien, or a Jewish Lewis. What he seems to have demonstrated is that modern fantasy depends on Christianity, or at least a Christian-pagan synthesis, for its forms, conventions, and traditions. This suggests that you could write a novel that embodies a kind of Jewish critique of fantasy — in much the same way that China Miéville’s novels are a kind of Marxist critique of Tolkien, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Mists of Avalon” was a feminist critique of Arthurian-based fantasy, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy is an atheist’s critique of C.S. Lewis, and so on. (And indeed, Weingrad’s essay reads Lev Grossman’s new novel “The Magicians” as a kind of crypto-Jewish critique of Narnia and/or Harry Potter.) But the genre itself will remain irreducably Christian, and a truly Judaic fantasy would have to belong to, or invent, a different genre altogether.