Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 18, 2010

CELEBRATING SCIENCE.... A few months after his inauguration, President Obama was showing so much passion for science and scientific integrity that one observer characterized him as "almost strident" on the issue. The description put a negative spin on what I consider to be one of the president's more endearing qualities -- I can't think of a modern president who speaks as often and as enthusiastically about science as Obama.

Indeed, nearly a year ago, the president announced that, from now on, there will be an annual White House Science Fair. Obama explained at the time, "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we're going to lead by example. We're going to show young people how cool science can be."

With that in mind, Jonathan Cohn notes that today is "Geek Day" at the White House, and in this context, that's definitely a good thing.

Today at the White House President Obama hosts another group of students who won a national championship. But it's not the hockey team from Boston College or the swimmers from Texas. It's the Rock'n'Roll Robots from Southern California.

And who are the Rock'n'Roll Robots? I'm glad you asked. They're a group of Girl Scouts who were part of a team that won a national robot-building competition for students. They're among more than 80 students the White House is honoring as part of its first annual Science Fair. [...]

I'm sure this is not the first group of accomplished student innovators to win White House recognition. But I don't recall past presidents giving the event the trappings of a sports championship visit. And while it's just a public relations event, it also sends a broader message about the value this administration and its allies place on intellectual achievement.

Damn straight. America's future depends on our willingness to make a real commitment to innovation, science, research, and intellectual pursuits. I consider it a huge step in the right direction that we've gone from a semi-literate president who publicly and repeatedly mocked those with post-graduate degrees, to a president hosting a White House Science Fair.

Indeed, it shouldn't be this way, but there is a political undercurrent to all of this. It's tragic, but Republican hostility towards science, evidence, and reason speaks to the larger inability of the GOP to shape effective public policy, and the apparent cultural divide over the value of intellectual achievements.

In 2010, the nation's leading Democrat is a president who values science, innovation, and learning. On the flip side, one of the nation's leading Republicans is a former half-term governor who rejects modern biology, considers climate science "snake oil", and who disdains elites with "Ivy League educations."

Whether the United States is able to maintain its role as the global leader will depend on which side of this divide wins.

Postscript: At the Science Fair today, the president will announce his appearance on an upcoming episode of "Mythbusters" on the Discovery Channel. I find this exciting because, well, I love "Mythbusters."

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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So how does Sarah or for that matter the Arizona State Legislature expect America to retain world leadership in technology if our kids are not well educated?

My conclusion is that they do not care.

They intend oil, gas, climate, roads, etc to last for their generation only. They may say otherwise, but that is the effect of their policies.

Not that we will know after we are dead, but our kids and grandkids will HATE his generation for wasting the world when we knew better AND knew how to prevent it.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on October 18, 2010 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Know-Nothingism is a recurrent theme in American politics, along with paranoia, racism, and exceptionalism.

The Republican / Teatard party happens to combine all of them right now, and the sociopathic financiers happen to find them useful as shiny objects of distraction.

The latter are historical accidents and will change sooner rather than later. But the former likely will be with us for decades -- if not centuries -- to come.

Posted by: bleh on October 18, 2010 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

I love "Mythbusters," too. But Obama's appearance is an excellent opportunity for a cool yet gracious guy to finally be the one to inform Jamie that the only people who think he doesn't look totally stupid in that cocked beret are...well, guys who look like Jamie.

Posted by: The decidedly pro-Adam shortstop on October 18, 2010 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think the hard-right Republicans are selfish enough that they only care that natural resources last to the end of their lifetimes.

I think they fervently believe that God will provide. Which, you know, is an entirely different kind of insanity, but at least it's not unashamedly evil.

Posted by: Remus Shepherd on October 18, 2010 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, I swear you are even more of a geek than Kevin Drum and he's almost criminally geek.

I say that as a former high school science fair prize winner.

Posted by: Yellow Dog on October 18, 2010 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Note that our side is in general only marginally better on "science" than teabaggers. Our side in practice only cares about "science" insofar as clouds or storms or global warming is concerned. Not many more on our side have any idea what "diagonalizing a linear operator" means than the other side. And just like the other side, people on our side prefer it that way - they just cover their love of ignorance with phrases like "I'm a visual learner" and "I have a intuitive feel for the subject" and idiocy like that.

Posted by: sherifffruitfly on October 18, 2010 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Tangentially, yesterday I heard on my TeeVee that only ONE Republican candidate this year believes that climate change is man made.

-probably something in the water they serve at the Chamber of Commerce. . .

Posted by: DAY on October 18, 2010 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Postscript: At the Science Fair today, the president will announce his appearance on an upcoming episode of "Mythbusters" on the Discovery Channel. I find this exciting because, well, I love "Mythbusters."

Must resist... urge to make... Birth Certificate Joke!

Posted by: Nied on October 18, 2010 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Note that our side is in general only marginally better on "science" than teabaggers. Our side in practice only cares about "science" insofar as clouds or storms or global warming is concerned. Not many more on our side have any idea what "diagonalizing a linear operator" means than the other side. And just like the other side, people on our side prefer it that way - they just cover their love of ignorance with phrases like "I'm a visual learner" and "I have a intuitive feel for the subject" and idiocy like that.

I think Steve's Point isn't that liberals are all science whizzes, who when not thinking about politics spend our time coming up with better proofs for the Poincare conjecture. But that we are willing to defer judgment to an algebra professor if we need help diagonalizing a linear operator, rather than dismissing them as a "pointy headed intellectual."

Posted by: Nied on October 18, 2010 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

The idean behind Obama's appearance on Mythbusters is to try and prove he isn't a foreign-born Muslim socialist. I wonder what they can blow up to prove that?

Posted by: just guessing on October 18, 2010 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

The first time Obama spoke out in support of science, it sounded so radical to my ears that I was shocked to realize just how far the country had gone toward Idiocracy and Cyril Kornbluth's famous Marching Morons of intellectual decline.

Now, we've reached the point where-- partly because of Dumbo's catastrophic eight years of superstition and ignorance-- it feels like there is a need to assert without irony that an Ivy League education is better than none.

When LBJ boasted of all the academic heavyweights in his government, Sam Rayburn said he wished "just once, one of them had ever run for sheriff." Apparently we're now about to fill Capitol Hill with a government in which no one has even done that, much less ever passed a course in civics or Econ 101.

AND, the once universal US notion that education is the key to a brighter tomorrow-- these days, the key to ANY tomorrow at all-- is now all but gone after a couple of generations of demonizing (and defunding) public education in order to shortchange it in favor of home schooling, just as if today's youth are not already inadequately socialized and more and more cut off from communication with anyone but each other.

There's no telling, but what school kids would be more likely to stay in school and even fight to get a real education if they all knew it would lead to a high quality university that would be as affordable as it is challenging and provide not only a lifetime of personal benefits from the (forgotten? irrelevant?) Liberal Education that once helped define this nation and advance the wise principles of its founders, but ready employment-- reliable, satisfactory, and sufficient.

But these days, the so-called free market does not seem to allow us the luxury to provide adequately for our children or give them the tools to continue making our children's lives better than their ours. Instead, apparently still stunned by Future Shock, today's Regressives are taking the future we grew up expecting to be part of and putting it out of reach entirely.

That is, college is unaffordable, creates crushing lifetime debt, and no longer guarantees even a reasonable expectation of employment, much less a decent family life or secure retirement.

Perhaps it is yet another warning sign that women are staying in school while more and more men drop out-- a sort of hunter/gatherer gap where bread-winning takes precedence over family building. Hence, the decline of the family and the destruction of the social contract in which people are not murdered while sleeping in their own beds in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods.

Posted by: Tomm Undergod on October 18, 2010 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

And another thing-- Paul Goodman said that as long as diplomas were required to get a job, they should be issued along with the birth certificate, because they demonstrably had nothing to do with one's ability to perform. Having a piece of paper that now costs $20k and up is a lot like what happens when schoolrooms are repurposed to make young people into a profit center by passing some national test that financially rewards the school district without actually being educated.

But if you put in the time, money, and effort to earn a degree, what if society then says it still does not need you, has no place for you in business or industry, and no longer makes it possible for you to have-- or afford -- a family of your own.

Instead, we abandon and neglect both young and old both, threaten their future (everyone's future), and leave them with an inheritance of massive debt, lower expectations, and less security.

At this rate, there won't be any ice floes left where we can abandon the useless and inconvenient. And what can we do with them when there's not even enough manufacturing know-how left to produce Soylent Green?

Posted by: Tomm Undergod on October 18, 2010 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats were against science when Republicans, namely Reagan, supported SDI. Couldn't be done, Democrats told us. Ditto for ballistic missile defense.

Now, we have airborne lasers that have taken out missiles in flight. The U.S. and China have taken out satellites in space from ground-based platforms.

Science has proven you can hit a bullet with a bullet and laser weapons are viable.

My point is simple: science is non-partisan. However, politicians, wonks, and voters are. They tend to dismiss science when invoked by those on the opposite side of the political aisle.

It would be great if both sides stopped doing it.

Posted by: Badlands on October 18, 2010 at 4:37 PM | PERMALINK

All you ever needed to know about the Republican Party's position on science was revealed at a GOP Primary Debate in 2008 where the 6 white men running for President all held up their hands in response to the following question from Wolf Blitzer: "Can I get a show of hands for those who do not believe in evolution?".

Doesn't get much more embarrassing than that.

Posted by: Kiweagle on October 18, 2010 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

It's lip service. The NIH budget, including the Administration's recommendation, just sucks.

Posted by: John on October 18, 2010 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

@Badlands: The Star Wars system, which was proposed in 1984, was based on MISSILES, not LASERS - that came much later. The people criticizing it were non-partisan scientists, y'know, those people who believe in and practice science.

The complaint about the system today, aside from constantly pissing off our allies who don't want our missiles in or around their countries, is that such a system can be easily circumvented by the more likely smuggling of a bomb into the US.

See, if a country fires a missile at America, they're effectively telling us exactly who the idiot was that pushed the button. D'OH!

Posted by: Kiweagle on October 18, 2010 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

"The complaint about the system today, aside from constantly pissing off our allies who don't want our missiles in or around their countries, is that such a system can be easily circumvented by the more likely smuggling of a bomb into the US."

Easily circumvented? Hardly. Smuggling a working nuclear device - I'm assuming you're alluding to a nuclear weapon - is no small task. The only one who is worried about it is Dick Cheney. Tell me you don't agree with old Dick.

And even if some sort of terrorist group got lucky and smuggled a working nuclear device into the country without getting caught and not radiating themselves in the process, and even if said terrorists were able to get the physics package needed to detonate the device into the country, and even if the terrorists were able to break the encrypted software and re-program the physics package to detonate and were able to detonate the weapon, it really wouldn't be too hard for the U.S. to figure out from where the device was stolen.

Posted by: Badlands on October 18, 2010 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, it's really hard to smuggle stuff into this country, just ask all of those guys who sell drugs and the immigrants the right screams about every day.

And, for that matter, don't you have any idea how porous port security is these days? The logistics alone are a nightmare.

There's also plenty of radioactive material stockpiled across the country and being transported via truck or train on any given day.

My original point still stands, SCIENTISTS were the ones who objected to the Star Wars initiative.

Posted by: Kiweagle on October 18, 2010 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

Thom Undergod, I believe Mr. Rayburn wasn't denigrating academics, per se, but was, instead, making the valid point that what was needed in government was not just a high level of education (those "academic heavyweights"), but also the expertise gained from running and winning a political campaign (that "running for sherriff" clause).
It's a rare enough occurence in the Democratic Party and currently nonexistant in the Republican...

Posted by: Doug on October 18, 2010 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

No, Kiweagle, scientists weren't the ones against Star Wars. It was politicians from the other side of the aisle, as well as scientists with a political axe to grind. And well, let's just assume you are correct - those scientists were wrong.

And if our borders are so porous, why hasn't someone smuggled in a nuclear weapon yet? By your logic, it should be as easy to do as smuggle in coke or heroin. Of course, you don't understand a nuclear device or you'd know that it's worthless without the physics package. That's even tougher to crack and smuggle. It's not like the Russians leave their physics packages sitting around.

Of course, the missile defense shields work wonders in the battlefield, which explains why countries like Israel and Kuwait have bought them. They work. And those countries aren't going to forgo the obvious because someone might smuggle a nuke into their country.

Seriously. Smuggling a nuke exists in sci-fi books and Cheney's decrepit brain.

Posted by: Badlands on October 18, 2010 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry Badlands but you are full of shit.

Tactical missile defense systems are a completely different problem and one that is much easier to solve compared to ballistic missile defense. The longer range and much higher missile speeds and especially the vastly wider area that needs to be defended all make a ballistic defense far more difficult than the theater defenses you refer to in Israel. And even those systems, while useful, are not entirely effective or cost-effective. Otherwise, why would Israel need (or claim to need) to invade Lebanon in 2006 and occupy Gaza now primarily to prevent Hezbollah rocket attacks?

The fact is that after 25 years and around $100 billion, the best ICBM defenses the U.S. can offer can barely be counted on to take out a single missile flying a known course after being launched from a known location at a known time. In real life, any meaningful attack will have anywhere from several to hundreds of missiles, fired without warning and directed at multiple targets hundreds of miles apart. And for far less than the cost of our interceptors those attack missiles could be equipped with chaff, decoy warheads and other countermeasures that would make intercepting them much more difficult.

Furthermore, who said a nuclear bomb smuggled into the U.S. would have to be done by an independent terrorist group? There is no reason why North Korea couldn't decide to go that route instead of putting the nuke on a missile. Every one of your objections to a smuggling scenario is even more applicable to someone developing and using an ICBM to attack us.

Note: I consider it unlikely that anyone will detonate a smuggled nuclear weapon in the U.S. in the foreseeable future, but I consider it far more likely than us being subjected to a nuclear missile attack and particularly being subjected to such an attack by anyone that doesn't have the resources to overcome a much more robust missile defense system than we are capable of producing now or in the near future.

Posted by: tanstaafl on October 19, 2010 at 1:25 AM | PERMALINK

And your history is equally flawed. In fact, scientists were among the leading groups criticizing Ronald Reagan's SDI proposal.

In 1987, the American Physics Society concluded that a global shield such as "Star Wars" was not only impossible with existing technology, but that ten more years of research was needed to learn whether it might ever be feasible. (per: http://www.salon.com/news/news960607.html by way of wikipedia). Offhand, I'd say that the results of the program since they show that they understated the difficulties.

The Union of Concerned Scientists were another group critical of the technological practicality of the various SID proposals.

Finally, since you focused on laser defenses, I would note that unlike the space-based laser proposals included in some of the early SDI initiatives, the current laser systems are intended to be deployed primarily from aircraft and sometimes surface ships or ground stations.

Because of the difficulties mentioned in the early part of my previous post (MIRVing, decoys, etc), these systems need to be forward-deployed to within few hundred miles of the launch sites in order to attack the missiles during boost phase. Doing so during times of tension with known nuclear powers, might deter an attack, but they would be of little value in a large scale or suprise attack unless they were deployed in numbers and maintained at a readiness level that would entail costs unfustifiable by any realistic appraisal of the likelihood of such an attack.

Posted by: tanstaafl on October 19, 2010 at 1:44 AM | PERMALINK

@tanstaafl: Oh Snap! Nicely said.

Posted by: Kiweagle on October 20, 2010 at 2:17 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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