Friday, November 3, 2017

Russian Bots and Our Own Worst Enemy

Last night I did a silly thing. I wrote a long, hotheaded, self-righteous Facebook rant urging people to be less hotheaded and self-righteous. I even began by saying, "I started writing, and it turned into a diatribe. Eh, damn the torpedoes." Eventually, my head grew somewhat cooler and I realized that my own impassioned righteousness was a great example of the frame of mind I was warning other people to watch for. So I deleted my rant and decided it would work better as a blog post.

The bee in my bonnet this time was Russian bots and troll farms, and how they've worked to undermine American democracy. I was catching up on the story after the House and Senate Intelligence committees grilled lawyers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter about Russian meddling using their platforms. I try to follow stories like this, because in my job as a reference librarian I teach a class about recognizing fake news and other misinformation. I had honestly fallen behind on this story, though, and I was pretty gobsmacked by some of its details. Hence, the rant below:

Two things in particular were really stunning to me: 1. Russian Facebook pages posing as American activist groups, across the political spectrum, were able to organize actual protests. Using nothing but computer terminals in St. Petersburg, they were able to get people in the United States to leave their computers and go march for various causes. One protest in New York had at least 5,000 people show up. In Houston, pro-Muslim protesters and anti-Sharia-law protesters clashed outside a mosque, and BOTH groups were manipulated into doing so by Russian Facebook pages. 2. Russia is trolling both sides. That's the second thing I hadn't fully realized. Russian trolls, bots, pages, and ads on social media were (and are) posing as partisans at each end of the political spectrum.

But why play both sides like that? Like most people, I had heard that Putin favored Trump over Clinton, and I knew that Russian intelligence and propaganda organizations had tried to influence the election (that's not my liberal bias; it's the conclusion of the American intelligence community, as outlined in this brief from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) But I hadn't realized that Russian trolls and bots had posed as partisans on the left as well as the right. What was their goal? Apparently it was to make democracy weak and chaotic; and to appear weak and chaotic, both to Americans and to Russians who might sympathize with pro-democracy movements there. Yes, they wanted Trump elected, but their broader goal was fostering division and weakening democracy in the United States. And they did a pretty good job of it. Just how good, we don't know yet.

But what we can conclude right now is that Russians aren't the only ones to blame. All they did was add fuel to a fire we lit ourselves. American civility, unity, and critical thinking were already in decline. We had already let ourselves become hyper-polarized and fearful of each other. The internet had helped us cluster into little tribal bubbles of ideology until anyone outside our bubble seemed insane and evil. Many of us had already begun thinking of other Americans as our enemies. I've certainly been guilty of these things. Russia just fanned the flames, and they did it by playing on our hotheadedness, our gullibility, and our partisan tribalism. On both sides, we're so sure we're right that a foreign government can count on us to share false information without questioning it--often without even reading it--if it outrages us enough and fits our pre-existing beliefs. And if it fits the pre-existing beliefs of the like-minded people we've surrounded ourselves with. They can't count on everyone to share it, but they can count on a certain percentage of us to. And again, that's true across the political spectrum.

And that's a big problem. Hyper-polarization, gullibility, ideological absolutism, and demonization of decent people who disagree with us--these things are like cyanide to a democracy. Judge Learned Hand once said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias." If he was right, then we've lost sight of the spirit of liberty, which in my opinion is also the spirit of democracy.

I guess what I'm saying is, things won't get better unless we as Americans take a hard look at ourselves. We're too gullible, too hotheaded, too divided, and too sure of our own tribe's righteousness. Sanctions against Russia and increased diligence from Silicon Valley can only go so far. As the great sage Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

So that was my rant. It's not that scathing, but after an hour or so I realized it was, in fact, rather hotheaded and self-righteous. Not only that, but it was written in the same emotional frame of mind that causes people to share false stories without checking them. In an article I read a couple of days ago, a college professor who teaches media literacy said, "When you feel strong emotion — happiness, anger, pride, vindication — and that emotion pushes you to share a 'fact' with others, STOP." Now, I hadn't shared any false information--the Russian troll farms are all too real--but as the professor says later, it's a good idea to recognize strong emotions in yourself, and take them as a cue that you're not in the most reasonable frame of mind. He's right. My emotional state blinded me to the fact that I was being hotheaded and self-righteous just as I was warning others not to be.

Plus, I was offering glittering generalities. It's easy to say we should be less hot-headed, less gullible, and less "Us-vs-Them" partisan, but it's a lot harder to offer concrete steps to achieve those goals. So, what steps can we take? That's something I need to think about more; something we all need to think about more.

In terms of dealing with attempts to by Russian troll farms to weaken democracy, there are a few things we can do, I think. One is to recognize the problem and how serious it is, and to understand how this kind of Russian propaganda works. This video is an excellent summary, which defines terms like "bot" and "troll farm" that many people may be fuzzy about. It also has advice on how to recognize when you're dealing with one. But it's not easy. With many of the Russian-generated memes, the graphics are lurid and the grammar is bad. Often there are no definite articles like "a" and "the", apparently because those aren't used in Russian. But many memes generated by Americans also have lurid graphics and bad grammar. Maybe a better idea is to distrust any hyper-partisan page, ad, or meme with these features. If it's not the Russians, it's people who are more interested in appealing to your fear and outrage than in getting you to think critically. There's a place for outrage, and even a place for fear, but we shouldn't let people use either to manipulate us.

Another thing we can do is refrain from arguing online with people we don't know, especially people we have no mutual friends with. Those people may be sitting in a troll farm in Russia, getting paid to rattle our cage. Or they may not be people at all. There are computer programs sophisticated enough to make people think they're a real person. People have even fallen in love with bots on dating sites, thinking they were real people. I don't know about you, but I would hate to find that I had wasting an hour arguing with a computer program. Maybe I have already? In any case, the way to avoid that is not to argue with strangers on public pages, especially if they seem to be arguing just to argue. What's the point of arguing with people you'll never meet, anyway? The chance you'll convince them of anything are about the same whether they're in a warehouse in Russia, their mom's basement in Pasadena, or inside a computer, existing only as lines of code.

There are probably many other steps we can take, and I need to learn them, but this post is long enough. One thing I know we need to do is realize that the threat to democracy is real. Russian troll farms are real, and they're only going to get better at what they do. But they can only weaken democracy if we let them push us in directions we were already moving in.

It seems to me there are two things that are absolutely essential in a democracy. 1. Citizens have to be reasonable and informed enough for a government by the people to be viable. This means they can't be too gullible, too uninformed, or too blinded by in-group and confirmation biases. 2. Citizens with different points of view have to be able to coexist. And that means we have to compromise--not about everything, but about many things. Living in a democracy means not always getting your way. And maybe we shouldn't get our way, because we were wrong in the first place. None of us knows everything, or has it all figured out. I certainly don't, and I can be as hotheaded and self-righteous as anybody. But one thing I'm pretty sure about is this: if Americans keep thinking they can't be wrong, and that other Americans with different opinions are their enemies, then we'll tear our democracy apart without any help from Russian trolls.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Morning Thoughts on Freedom of Speech

I woke up this morning thinking about freedom of speech, and what it means. Yes, that is kinda weird. But it's a topic that's been on my mind a lot lately, because it seems to me that some folks on both sides of the political spectrum have become alarmingly hostile to freedom of speech and freedom of thought. For some on the left, liberalism now seems to be about policing what people say and think. That doesn't seem very liberal to me. While I think many hateful, racist, and sexist expressions are truly unacceptable, I also think these folks take things too far. This is also the group that is often in the news for shouting down, and occasionally violently disrupting, right wing speakers on campuses. I can't agree with that, either, for reasons I'll get to below.

Lest any conservatives read that paragraph and cheer, well, y'all ain't all innocent, either. Consider the people I ran into this weekend in front of the Colorado state capitol. I happened to see a small gathering of about 40 people as I walked by, so I stopped to hear what they were saying, as I always do if I have time. This was a mixed bag of right-wing groups. There was a group called Bikers Against Radical Islam, several people waving Trump banners, a few camo clad or cowboy-hat-wearing sagebrush militia types, some people from the south waving confederate flags, and even one African-American guy who apparently calls himself "The Black Rebel". Many of the people there were wearing body armor and helmets, and I imagine most of them were armed.

Anyway, one of the neo-confederate types got up and spoke, and he said that his freedom of speech is under attack. But here's the strange thing: almost in the same breath, he went on to say that there's no place in this country for socialists, or for people who disrespect the flag (presumably by sitting during the national anthem). A guy in front of me cheered. His jacket said, "Stomp my flag and I'll stomp your ass".

Clearly, these guys don't believe in freedom for all types of speech or expression. They don't believe socialists should have it, apparently, and they don't believe people who they see as disrespecting the flag should have it. (I can't resist pointing out that they were waving confederate flags, which seems fairly disrespectful of the American flag to me, and they were displaying American flags in ways that violate the flag code in all kinds of ways. I didn't point that out. I didn't have body armor on.)

As the speaker with the microphone attacked socialists and anthem-sitters, the Bikers Against Radical Islam cheered, too. Now, I don't know their exact thoughts, and I'm against radical, violent forms of Islam, too. (I don't like any form of fundamentalism.) But I've heard many people with similar beliefs (often in biker garb, for some reason) say that they think Islam--even moderate Islam--shouldn't get First Amendment protection, because "Islam is an ideology, not a religion". That makes no sense at all, of course, but the point is that if these people believe something like that, then they don't believe in free speech or thought for Muslims, either. Polls also show that many people don't believe in First Amendment protections for atheists, though nobody at this gathering mentioned them.

So these folks don't believe in freedom of speech for others. But that doesn't necessarily mean that their freedom of speech isn't under attack. Is it under attack? I don't want to dismiss the idea without giving it a fair hearing, even if I dislike this guy's worldview. One thing is clear. His First Amendment rights are intact. After all, he made his speech into a microphone on the steps of the state capitol, and the state troopers nearby were keeping the peace, not arresting him.

But the First Amendment only protects you from being punished by the government for what you say. It doesn't protect you from social consequences. It doesn't keep people from disagreeing with you---freedom of speech is a double-edged sword that way. It also doesn't keep people from shunning or ridiculing you.

However. What I woke up realizing this morning is that freedom of speech and the First Amendment aren't identical things. If fear of social consequences keeps you from speaking your mind, even if the First Amendment doesn't, do you really have freedom of speech? I'm not sure you do. The First Amendment (probably) won't protect you from losing your job for what you say. But if you do lose your job, you don't really have freedom of speech, even if you have First Amendment protection from the government. And sometimes that's OK, because freedom of speech isn't an absolute right. I have no problem with somebody who shows up on the news marching with a swastika losing their job. But at the same time, society should be wary of shutting down free speech through social or financial pressure, because the free exchange of ideas is important.

But why is it important? Some on the right and left may be asking that right now, and it's a fair question. There are a few commonly-cited reasons, but I only want to mention a couple. First is the "marketplace of ideas" argument. The classic early expression of this idea is by Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment."

Soaring words, but I don't fully agree with them. I think the marketplace of ideas is important, but for a different reason. Holmes seemed to believe that popular acceptance of an idea is a good test for truth. I don't think it is--lots of terrible ideas are extremely popular. While it seems like hubris for me to question the great Holmes, I think the reason the marketplace of ideas is important is that without it, good ideas will never see the light of day in the first place (whether they win popular acceptance or not). If Galileo had been thrown in a dungeon and his books burned, the truth about the solar system would not have emerged, perhaps for decades. And he was speaking the truth, even if the masses had never accepted it. Even if--God forbid-- today's flat earthers come to dominate popular thought, Galileo was right.

So, the free exchange of ideas is important, even if those ideas don't win popular acceptance. But what about truly awful, hateful ideas? Does hate speech deserve a place in the marketplace of ideas? If bad ideas often gain popular acceptance, isn't that an argument against having ideas like Nazism in the marketplace at all? Should the emerging strands of American Nazism we saw in Charlottesville see the light of day at all? Why not just shut that down, and declare that it's unacceptable in a decent society; that such a poisonous product has no place in the marketplace of ideas? Should it even be cast outside of the protection of the First Amendment, and be declared illegal, as it has been in many other countries?

Maybe. But that makes me nervous, too. For one thing, who gets to say what counts as hate speech? What if we declared hate speech illegal, and then in a few years radical theocratic Christians gained enough political power to start prosecuting people who criticized them, using hate speech laws? Can you imagine that happening? I can. What truly counts as hate is not an easy thing to pin down, and though this may get me in trouble with other liberals, I don't think everything that gets called hate speech really is. Let's go back to that neo-confederate dude speaking on the state capitol steps. He was holding a shield with a confederate flag on it, and he was saying it's a symbol of history, not hate. Then he pointed to the Black Rebel in the audience, and said, "He's here with us. He knows we don't hate him."

And I don't think they do hate him; at least not most of them. I do think the confederate flag is an ugly symbol of a hideous time, and not something to be celebrated. I think waving it is incredibly insensitive, but I think somebody could actually wave it while not hating African-Americans. Does the guy speaking actually have hate in his heart? I don't know. Some people that wave that flag do. I imagine some people in that audience actually do hate blacks (and Muslims, and atheists, and socialists, etc.) and some don't. I didn't see any obvious white supremacists there. I've learned to recognize white supremacist symbols, and I see them fairly regularly--usually as tattoos on ex-convicts--but I didn't spot any there. Maybe I just missed them.

In any case, I think some people truly think that flag is a harmless expression of heritage. I disagree that it's harmless, but I do believe some people who wave it don't actually hate African-Americans. And some wave it who do. It's an ugly symbol, either way, but should it be suppressed? What about when it clearly is a symbol of hate--when it's carried by someone with an SS tattoo on their neck, for example? Should it be illegal then?

Even if it really is hate, and even if it has no place in the marketplace of ideas, there is another argument that it shouldn't be made illegal. That's the "safety valve" idea of freedom of speech. The idea here is that a society needs to give even hateful ideas an expression, so that people don't go underground with them, where they will fester and bubble up and surprise us later.

Recent history shows how this can happen. When you try to suppress an idea, you don't kill it. You'll likely just make the person who holds it believe it even more strongly, and start thinking of themselves as an oppressed martyr. The suppressed idea then gets whispered in living rooms (I've been stuck in those living rooms) and circulated in underground magazines and websites. Then, people who think those ideas have disappeared are in for a very unpleasant surprise when they return later.

Whether an idea is truly hateful, or simply conservative and therefore distasteful to liberals, something I think liberals need to consider more is that any attempt to control people usually results in a backlash. Conservatives especially hate being told what to do, and they extra-especially hate being told what to do by liberals. If we liberals think we can tell them what they're allowed to say and think, and they'll say, "Oh, OK", we're delusional. We may succeed in shushing them for a while, but they will resent it, and they will start looking for revenge. The election of Trump can be seen in many ways, but one thing it clearly was is an act of rebellion against "bossy liberal elitists". It was a backlash, and liberals (including me) should have seen it coming.

Don't get me wrong. And if you're a liberal, I'm not saying liberals are responsible for people voting for Trump. We aren't the ones who checked that box on the ballot. But we have to learn that trying to control the way people think and speak usually causes a backlash, and that can contribute to things we really, really don't want happening. Like having a nightmare like Donald Trump as president.

You may say that people shouldn't lash back like that. Maybe they shouldn't, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that they do. We can't control how they react. All we can do is try to engage with them in a way that doesn't make things worse.

And both liberals and conservatives need to be careful that they don't forget the value of freedom of speech and thought. They--or rather, we, as Americans--need to remember that freedom of speech isn't just freedom for people you agree with. As Noam Chomsky once said, "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." We need to remember that freedom of speech is not identical with the First Amendment. It can be suppressed without touching the First Amendment. Does that mean all speech should be socially acceptable? Of course not. But it does mean the free exchange of ideas is a vital part of an open, healthy, democratic society, and whether we are liberals, conservatives, or moderates, we forget that at our peril.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

White Privilege and the Weight of History

I love Billie Holiday, but I don't enjoy the song "Strange Fruit". It's the most powerful song I've ever heard, and I think every American should hear it at least once, but to be honest, I turn it off when it comes on. It's just too sad. I made myself listen to it tonight, though. It's on my mind because of a comment I saw on Facebook that I can't stop thinking about. The man who made it was white, and he said this:
We could be lynched today for having been born "privileged" never mind the facts of the hard work and sachrifices [sic] made by our loved ones to put us where we are today. 
Now, despite the title of this post, I don't use the term "white privilege" much, though I think it's a real thing. I lean liberal, but I shy away from recently-popular political terms like that. Saying them makes me feel like I'm jumping on a bandwagon and not thinking for myself. I also figure conservatives will stop listening to me as soon as I say them, and I want them to keep listening. I don't know if that makes sense or not. But I looked at that comment and thought, "If that's not white privilege, I don't know what is."

I hope it's mere ignorance that allows someone to say a thing like that. Surely this man had a faulty education, and he's never seen a photo of a lynching, even though many were taken. He must not realize that not so long ago--within the lifetime of people still living--white people could hang, dismember, and burn black people, with no consequences. He must not know that after many lynchings, those white people were so sure they wouldn't be punished that they would pose for a big group picture next to the broken body, their faces in full view. Only a person who doesn't feel the generational weight of a word like "lynched" could use it so lightly.

The worst such picture I've ever seen is of a black teenager who was castrated, dismembered, and burned to death near Waco, Texas while 10,000 people watched. They made a postcard of it, as was common at the time. One participant in the lynching sent a copy to his father, and wrote:
This is the Barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe
The victim's name was Jesse Washington. I think every white American should force themselves to look at that postcard. I imagine most black Americans have already seen it.

As for that white man who thinks he might meet such a fate because he was born privileged, I agree with him. Not that he's at risk of being lynched, of course--that's outrageous, and truly offensive. I just agree that he was was born privileged. He was born to parents and grandparents who would never have met Jesse Washington's fate, because of the color of their skin. He may even owe his existence to that fact--how many babies were never born because their potential forebears were lynched? I also don't doubt that his parents and grandparents worked hard. But I know they never had to take an impossible-to-pass test before they could vote. I know they never bought a Negro Motorist's Green Book so they could take a trip and still eat in restaurants, stay in motels, and use restrooms. They never had to sit in the back of a bus, be called "boy" into their old age, or wait at a counter until all the white people had been served. They never earned lower wages for their hard work because of the color of their skin. They never listened to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit", and thought, "That could be me."

My parents and grandparents never had to face those things, either. Yes, they worked hard too, and that's one reason I'm privileged. Another reason is that they were white, and so am I. Yes, things are better than they used to be. But I've never once been pulled over by the police and wondered if I would live through it. Yes, I think most cops are good, but I've never looked in the rear-view mirror and thought, "Is this one of the bad ones? One who hates me before he even knows my name?" If I were black--right now in 2017--I would know what that's like. I think that's something white people need to realize. Whether they agree with black athletes kneeling for the national anthem or not, they need to realize that they do so knowing what it's like to worry about running into that bad cop. They do so knowing what the word "lynched" really means. They feel the true weight of that word.

And I don't--not the way they do. Yet here I sit pounding angrily on a keyboard, even though none of this has ever affected me personally. And that's another kind of privilege. I'm sitting here livid about things I was never subjected to; things my parents and grandparents were never subjected to. I wonder how upset I would be if I were black, and saw that white man's breezy comment about a horror he can't begin to understand? I know I wouldn't handle it with the grace most African-Americans show in those circumstances. Maybe that's because I haven't had a lifetime of practice dealing with things like that. Like they have.

Friday, September 22, 2017

From the Gangplank to the Big Hole: Deep History in the High Plains

If you drive west along Interstate 80 from Cheyenne, Wyoming, you'll soon begin to cross the Rocky Mountains. But the strange thing is, you might not realize it. In this part of Wyoming, the high plains are really, really high. They form a great ramp that goes up to 7,000 feet--almost to the top of this section of the Laramie Range, which is low by Rocky Mountain standards. When you get to the place where the plains touch the granite of the mountains, you're higher than any point in the eastern United States, but it's mostly a big flat place. The only clue at first that you're crossing a mountain range are a few low granite hills that poke up through the plains.

This highest section of the high plains is called the Gangplank, and it played a key role in American history. When the Union Pacific railroad was looking for a way across the Rockies, they weren't interested in the soaring, craggy peaks to the north and south. That's much grander scenery, but you don't want to build a railroad through it. What they needed was a smooth climb to a gentle mountain pass, and this is where they found it. The trains still go this way today, sharing the Gangplank with Interstate 80.

The Gangplank isn't the most scenic entrance to the Rockies, but it's an fascinating place--once you know what what you're looking at. This is a landscape with a story to tell, and that story is much, much older than the Transcontinental Railroad. If you could go back in time about 30 million years, most of the Rocky Mountain region looked a lot like this stretch of I-80 today. The mountains were already millions of years old, and they had eroded until they were almost buried in their own debris, which formed sloping plains like the Gangplank. Only the tops of the mountains protruded, as the granite hills still do here. The Gangplank region is a fossil landscape; a window into a mostly-vanished world.

This world began to change a few million years ago, when rivers began to eat away at the plains and uncover the mountains. Geologists aren't sure if this happened because the whole region was lifted, making the rivers steeper, or because the climate grew wetter, making the rivers more powerful. Perhaps it was a bit of both. In any case, the mountains were uncovered, in an event known as the Exhumation of the Rockies. Because the Gangplank is between two rivers, it was left behind as one of the only places where the plains still rise to the mountaintops. The rocks here preserve an unusually complete record of the rise, burial, and resurrection of the Rocky Mountains.

It's an epic tale, and to understand it, a good place to start is to leave the interstate at Exit 345, and pull into a parking lot full of big rigs. At the east end of the lot is a sign about the Gangplank and its geologic history, with a nice (though slightly outdated) diagram, shown to the right.

As the image shows, three very different geologic structures come together here. The "You are here" marker is at the edge of the Gangplank, which is made of almost-horizontal layers of rock. At 5 to 37 million years old, these rocks are youngsters. But just a couple miles west, you enter a far more ancient landscape. Here the granite and metamorphic rocks are between 1.4 and 1.7 billion years old. Hard, ancient rocks like this are called basement rocks, because they form the foundation for most of North America (though they're often deeply buried below younger layers of sedimentary rock).

Now, if you look north or south, you may see layers of red and tan rock that poke up through the plains at a steep angle. These range from about 300 million to 65 million years old. They're mostly buried here, but in other parts of the Rockies they're exposed and and breathtaking. At places like Red Rocks near Denver, or the Flatirons near Boulder, you can see that they lean against the ancient basement rocks like a stack of plywood against a wall.

But they weren't always tilted like this. Before the Rockies began to rise around 70 million years ago, they were flat. Then the basement rocks rose from deep underground and tilted them upward; pushing them aside like a man coming up through a trap door. But what about the near-horizontal rocks of the Gangplank? Why weren't they shoved sideways? Because they weren't there yet. They formed as the mountains began to wear down, and that's why they're still relatively flat.

That's the basic story you get as you stand on the high, flat expanse of the Gangplank and read the sign above. But standing by the interstate looking at a sign isn't that satisfying. What we need is a place where we can descend down into the the rocks sketched on the sign, and see them in real life. Luckily, there's just such a place a few miles to the south, just across the Colorado border.

To get there, take the I-80 service road a couple miles west and head south on Harriman Road. It's a dirt road, but a relatively civilized one. To your left, you'll soon get a good look at the tilted sedimentary rocks that lean against the ancient granite. After driving among stubby granite hills for a few miles, you'll emerge into a sweeping landscape of red mesas and the high, snow-capped peaks of the Colorado Front Range. It's big, beautiful country.

Our destination is Red Mountain Open Space, a public park managed by the city of Fort Collins, Colorado. The park is in a valley the ranchers here call the Big Hole. As holes go, it is quite large, especially if you look into it from the edge of the Gangplank. To get a basic sense of the geology of the Big Hole, take a look back at the sign from I-80. South of the Gangplank is an eroded region of older, tilted sedimentary rocks. That's the landscape we're in now, but with one wrinkle.

No, seriously--there's an actual wrinkle in the rocks here, and it's a big one, called the Sand Creek Anticline. To see it, head east from the open space parking lot on Bent Rock trail, following Sand Creek. Soon you'll enter a canyon that cuts straight through a hill of red and salmon-colored rock. We'll call this Red Mountain. The rocks here rise and then fall again in a big arch, or anticline. The picture above shows the curve in the rocks inside the canyon. When you leave the canyon and look back to the south at Red Mountain, as in the picture below, you get an even better view of the anticline. The yellow lines show how the rock layers bend inside the canyon, while the steep layers in the foreground have eroded into formations called flatirons. This anticline is an asymmetrical one--the layers on one side are much steeper than the other. There's a reason for that, as we'll see.

If you turn around here and look north, you'll see that the Sand Creek Anticline runs for several miles through the Big Hole. The hill in the next picture doesn't have a name that I can find, so I'll call it Swoop Mountain, because the rocks here take a big swooping path across it. On the left side of Swoop Mountain, you can see the same red rocks that form Red Mountain, but there are several younger layers lying on top (these layers once covered Red Mountain, too, but have eroded away.) As the yellow lines show, all the layers across Swoop Mountain drop down from the west (slanting down off the Rocky Mountain front) and suddenly rise again steeply, like the rocks in Red Mountain (visible on the far right). Then they slope gradually to the east. Some of the yellow lines go through empty space, because some of the rocks have eroded away. The lines show how the rocks would bend if they were all still there. Swoop Mountain shows that surface landforms don't necessarily mirror the shape of the rocks below. Here the rocks bend downward right where the surface bends upward as a hill.

From down here in the Big Hole, we see that the sign on I-80 is basically correct, but simplified. The layers here do slope down to the east, but they have a sharp bend in the middle that doesn't appear on the sign. The reason for the bend, most likely, is that the basement rocks below the surface have a fault in them--they've broken into two blocks here. The block on the east side of the valley has lifted and rotated, leaving the sedimentary rocks draped over the fault like carpet over a cracked concrete floor.

But what about the Gangplank? How does it fit into all this? You can see it on the horizon in the picture above, but to get a better look, we need to hike to the other side of Swoop Mountain. From there, you see the view below. The cliffs on the right are the Chalk Bluffs; the escarpment formed by the southern edge of the Gangplank. The picture shows that these rock layers are basically flat. They weren't tilted and warped by the rising Rockies, because they formed afterward--from the eroding Rockies. The red layers on the left are tilted, though you can't see it very well in the picture.

The contact between these two rock layers is an example of an angular unconformity--a place where rocks of different ages and angles meet. There's no physical gap between the two layers, but over 150 million years is missing from the rock record. The deep red rocks are about 245 to 285 million years--older than the dinosaurs. The white rocks sitting on top of them here--more visible in the picture below--are called the White River Formation. They formed in a time when the dinosaurs were long extinct and strange prehistoric mammals roamed the West. But 150 million years is is just a minor gap. Further east, the White River Formation lies directly on top of basement rocks that are at least 1,400 million years old. That's a lot of missing history. Luckily, much of it can be found in other places.

I should mention one more feature, because if you take this hike, you'll notice it. Walking back toward the parking lot, on the east side of Swoop and Red Mountains, you'll see the weird crest of white rocks in the image below. Those are layers of gypsum from the Permian Period, when this part of the country was a shallow, salty lagoon near a hot desert--similar to the salt flats of today's Persian Gulf. Water evaporated rapidly in these conditions, leaving behind deposits of gypsum (or alabaster, if you want it to sound fancy). These layers erode and dissolve faster than most other rocks, often leaving cavities that can cave in as sinkholes. Rattlesnakes like to gather in one of the sinkholes near here to spend the winter in cozy heaps, so watch your step in these parts.

We've covered a lot of ground here, and an enormous amount of time, so maybe it would be good to step back and look at the big picture. That would be the image below. This is an aerial view of the whole region, copied from Google Earth and labeled by me. Now, I'm librarian, not a geologist, so take it with a grain of salt--the lines and boundaries are far from exact, and will likely make real geologists cringe.

Satellite Image from Google Maps. Amateur annotations by the author.

Here we see the Big Hole in the right foreground, the basement rocks of the Laramie Range to the left, and the Gangplank to the northeast. Interstate 80 is a few miles past the top of the image. In the Big Hole, you can see how the sedimentary rocks tilt to the east, pop up again at the Sand Creek Anticline, and then tilt eastward again. To the northeast, the Gangplank is much less tilted, but it also slopes gradually eastward to form the the western Nebraska plains. The caprock of the gangplank is a coarse sandstone called the Ogallala Formation. It's very porous, and it gets waterlogged below the ground to the east, where it forms the famous Ogalalla Aquifer.

This is vast, impressive country, spanning big distances and stupendous amounts of time. It's a whole series of ancient worlds, stacked one on top of the other. That's true in many places, of course, but here you can descend into the remnants of those former worlds, and think about how they rose and fell. It's a wondrous landscape that can tell many stories, and the more stories you learn, the more wondrous it becomes.


To Explore Further:

Geology Underfoot Along the Front Range. Lon Abbot and Terri Cook

Roadside Geology of Wyoming. David Lageson and Darwin Spearing

Roadside Geology of Colorado. Felicie Williams and Halka Chronic

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hopes and Dreamers: DACA and the Purpose of Morality

With the fates of 800,000 DACA applicants on the line, I wonder if it’s a good time for Americans to reflect on the moral issues at stake in this situation. These days people on either side of the political spectrum tend think the other side is simply amoral. But that’s usually not true (even if a few on both sides really are amoral). Most people on different sides of the political spectrum actually think morals (or ethics, I’ll use the words interchangeably) are crucially important, but they think of morality in fundamentally different terms. The words “morality” and “ethics” mean something very different to conservatives than to liberals. This isn’t just my opinion--there’s a lot of psychological research to back this up.

The DACA issue highlights these different ways of thinking about ethics or morality. For example, you’ll hear many liberals (including me) and moderate conservatives saying that Dreamers did nothing wrong. They were brought here by their parents, they had no choice in the matter, and often barely remember the country they came from. But you’ll hear other conservatives saying, “The law is the law. They’re here illegally.” For them, that’s the critical moral fact. These folks may actually believe that morality requires that Dreamers be deported. They’re not trying to be evil (how many people really try to be evil?) As hard as it is for liberals like me to imagine, most are actually trying to do the right thing, within their moral framework.

But a lot of pain in this world has been inflicted by people trying to do the right thing--that’s why it’s so important to consider carefully what the right thing actually is. So let’s do that. If different sides are framing morality in such different terms, then maybe it would be helpful to lay these different approaches on the table and compare them. To put it another way, maybe this is a good time for Americans to think about what morality is fundamentally about. What’s the stuff actually for? What’s the point of being moral or ethical in the first place?

I once spent a couple of years reading everything I could about ethical theories, but I finally realized that for me, ethics boils down to something very close to the Golden Rule: treat others as I would want them to treat me. When in doubt about the right thing to do (and there’s often doubt) err on the side of compassion. As I see it, the fundamental fact that even makes ethics necessary is that other people have feelings. They have pleasures and pains, and hopes and dreams, just like I do, and theirs are just as intense as mine. I can’t prove that, but I think it’s an extremely safe assumption. (I should also say I’m not that good at following the Golden Rule, but I should be, and this is why I think so.)

Anyway, if ethics is fundamentally about the fact that other people have hopes and feelings, the next question is: who should I treat ethically? My answer is: anyone capable of pleasure and pain, and hopes and dreams. In other words, any human being (and many animals, too, but that’s another topic). That means how I treat someone shouldn’t depend on what language they speak, or what God they do or don’t pray to, or what country they were born in, or live in now. Those things don’t matter. What matters is that they are human, and have feelings and hopes just as intense as mine.

Some people will be reading all this and shaking their heads, because again, many Americans fundamentally disagree with my view of what morality is about. For them, morality is about other things: maybe it’s about following rules or laws scrupulously, or purity in sex or language. Maybe it’s about doing what they believe God wants, or making sure people get the rewards or punishments they deserve (an eye for an eye, etc.). For many people, a crucial component of morality is in-group loyalty: watching out for “your” people, and being suspicious of others. They actually see that as the right thing to do. Again, that's hard for liberals to remember, so we risk falling into the intellectually-lazy habit of thinking they are simply amoral.

Of course, not all conservatives think in these “if you’re not one of my people, you matter less” terms, but many on the far right do, and it’s not hard to find examples. Not long ago a guy told me he would rather see a million foreigners die than one American. A million! I’ve heard similar sentiments all my life. They’re not uncommon. And for some people with that outlook, it’s a pretty narrow group that counts as an American. You can see this if you drive down the interstate and see those motel billboards that have the little Christian fish on them, or say “American-owned”. That’s to tell travelers that the motel isn’t owned by immigrants with non-English accents and “foreign” religions. It doesn’t matter that those immigrants are most likely naturalized citizens who therefore ARE Americans, every bit as much as I am. They don’t match some people’s image of what an American is, and very often that means they don’t get the same moral consideration. They’re seen as “other”, and you better believe that makes a difference in how some people treat them.

But the fact is, most people have trouble empathizing with people who are different from them (I’ve already noted how hard it is for liberals like me to remember most conservatives believe they are doing the right thing.) Maybe it just requires more imagination to put ourselves in such different shoes, or maybe it’s human nature. Everyone does it, to some extent. But for some on the right (notice I didn’t say “all”) that basic human tendency is something to be embraced. They think it’s just self-evident that “our people” deserve more moral consideration than “others”. They also tend to think rules or laws should be followed scrupulously even if they cause human suffering.

I think both of these assumptions need to be seriously questioned, because they’ve both caused an enormous amount of pain in this world. That’s why I think people need to stop and ask themselves something they may never have asked before: what is morality really about? Why be moral at all? What if the reason rules and laws exist in the first place isn’t for their own sake, but for the sake of making the world a nicer place to live in; to make societies more conducive to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And what if all people are, in fact, created equal? What if whether you should treat someone decently doesn’t depend on whether they are “your people”, but whether they’re human beings with hopes, dreams, and feelings? Because that’s exactly what they are, and the hopes and dreams of 800,000 human beings are riding on how people answer these important moral questions.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Thoughts on Ideological Purity

A couple of times recently I've heard the phrase "ideological purity", and thought, "That's really what some people want, isn't it?" Part of the reason our country is so polarized, I think, is that there are vocal minorities on both sides of the political spectrum who insist on ideological purity. They have an orthodoxy, and they try to enforce it. They view moderate and independent members of their own party as heretics (or at least dangerously lapsed), and they view the other party as infidels and villains so irredeemable that it's a waste of time to engage with them.

On the far right is a vocal minority that refuses to compromise on anything, and attacks more moderate conservatives, calling them "Republicans in Name Only" or even "cuckservatives". Or they accuse them of being slaves to political correctness. 

Which brings us to the far left. While some conservatives have distorted the meaning of political correctness beyond recognition, and claim they're "not bowing to political correctness" when they're really just being rude or hateful, some on the left really do insist on a rigid form of political correctness. It is an orthodoxy, and they do try to enforce it. After all, the literal meaning of the words "politically correct" implies that there's a political viewpoint--and manner of speaking--which is indisputably the "correct" one. We've all seen the conservative speakers shouted down on liberal campuses, and even "ideologically impure" liberal professors have been targeted for their heresies. And have you noticed there's a whole genre of articles circulating on social media entitled "Why You Need to Stop Saying ________."?

Some on the far left really do try to tell others, across the political spectrum, exactly how they should be thinking and speaking. It may be worse on the left than the right, and I say that as a moderate liberal. Even as I write this, I'm wondering who will be offended by it, and whether they will write me off as a heretic. Do moderate conservatives have similar fears?

In any case, I think there are many problems with these attempts to enforce orthodoxy. One is that more moderate and independent types on both sides (who are actually the majority) are afraid to speak their minds, not for fear of being attacked by the other side, but for fear of being attacked by the orthodox wing of their own side. So there's fragmentation and bad blood within as well as between political parties, and the country grows more fragmented and dysfunctional. 

But there's another problem with ideological orthodoxy that I want to focus on here, and it is this: Once you declare that one particular stance on an issue cannot be wrong, and should not be questioned, you have stopped reasoning about that issue. And once you declare that others can't question an ideology, you've said that they must stop reasoning, too. People with rigid ideologies may still be "thinking", in the sense of spending mental energy defending or elaborating that ideology, but if there is no possibility of changing their ideology, they aren't really reasoning. Because the whole point of reasoning is to discover truths you didn't already know. Isn't it?

And chances are, there's a lot we don't already know. What are the chances that either extreme on the political spectrum (which is an artificial construct anyway) in this particular country, at this particular time in history, has finally got it figured out? Not very high, if you ask me. The universe is far bigger and more complex than our little primate brains can easily grasp. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, and if there's one clear lesson to be learned from psychology it's that the human mind is easily fooled. Our senses are woefully limited, and we fall prey to dozens of different perceptual illusions, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. As a species, our ability to see the world clearly is so pitiful that for most of human history we didn't know the shape of the planet we spent every day of our lives on. We were so sure it was flat that we attacked the people who said it wasn't. We probably burned a few at the stake for it.

We know more now, of course (and we're slightly more tolerant of opposing views). There are things we can be confident of, but they're mostly things which can be empirically verified. We're confident enough now that the world is round, for example, that we can call it a fact. But most ideologies aren't entirely, or even mostly, factual. They're full of opinions about complex systems like economies and social dynamics that can't easily be pinned down empirically, as well as value judgments and ethical stances that may never be empirically testable. But you wouldn't know this when talking to the ideologically orthodox on both sides of the the political spectrum. They sound for all the world like they're talking about established facts, when they're usually just expressing opinions and forgetting the difference. (I've been guilty of this myself, of course).

And perhaps we can be confident of some things we can't really call facts. As I stop and think this over (that's the main reason I write these--to clarify my thoughts), I suppose there are some moral opinions that we can be pretty confident in, too. We can be confident that murder, rape, and slavery are wrong, for example--confident enough to enforce legal penalties against them. But these are clear cases that most people agree on, whereas many of the opinions people express as though they were facts really are just opinions, and not ones that most people can agree on. 

So here's the question I want to ask people at both far ends of the political spectrum: Are you really that sure that your opinions are right? So sure that you can stop reasoning about them? So sure that you can tell others to stop questioning and reasoning as well? Should anybody be THAT confident in their opinions?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sagan's Dust Mote: An Evening Reflection

Tonight I sat on my couch just as the evening sun was streaming through my west window, and I noticed a few dust particles glowing and dancing in the light. It made me think of Carl Sagan's famous reflection comparing the Earth to "a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."

His comparison was inspired by a photo of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, just as it was leaving the solar system. That's it, in the image I've posted here. That little dot in the band of light at the top is Earth, as it looks from beyond the orbit of Neptune. The "sunbeams" are actually bands of refracted sunlight created by the camera's optics, but that's a justifiable bit of poetic license. After all, Earth really is suspended in sunlight.

As I watched the dust motes in my living room swirling in that same sunlight, I thought about Sagan's comparison, and wondered how accurate it was. Is our whole world--the home of every known living thing--really that tiny? To find out, I did some figuring. I'll spare you the math and skip to the results--I think you'll find them impressive.

Imagine the Earth really were the size of one of those dust particles floating in my living room--a big one; about 30 millionths of a meter across. That speck of dust would be about 15 inches from the sun, which would be about the size of a BB. Neptune would be orbiting that BB at a distance of about 37 feet.

And the nearest star? It would be 63 miles away.

That's about the average distance between all the 100 billion or so stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If Earth were a speck of dust, the Milky Way would still be over a million miles across. And that's just one galaxy, in a universe filled with uncountable galaxies.

It seems, then, that Carl Sagan wasn't exaggerating at all. If anything, he was being too generous. On the scale of the stars, our planet is unimaginably tiny--a little speck of nothing. And yet, it's not nothing; not to us. But don't listen to me. Listen to Dr. Sagan, because he said it better than I ever could:
Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. 
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Darkness, Light, and Prairie Dogs

This past Thursday I was off work on a beautiful day in Colorado, and I was depressed. It was the National Day of Prayer, and Donald Trump was using it to sign an executive order promoting "religious freedom", which all too often these days means using religion as an excuse to discriminate. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives was using the day to vote for a bill that--if it passes the Senate and gets signed--will result in millions of people losing meaningful health insurance. And then there as a tweet by a former Republican congressman named Joe Walsh, saying "Your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care." I figured that was a good summary of the way many Republican politicians think, and that was depressing.

So, I did what I always do when I get depressed and cynical about the human race, and took a hike. Getting out in nature always restores me. But this time, it was taking a while. I was walking along, stewing about the news and human cruelty, when I saw a litter of prairie dog pups playing, while their mother watched over them from their burrow. Every once in a while one would run back and nuzzle its mama, and then go play again. They were having a blast, and my dark mood vanished instantly. 

I thought, "However ugly humans can be, there's still all this joy and beauty in the world" Prairie dog pups have been spilling out of their burrows to play in the spring sun for millions of years. It's an ancient, rhythmic cycle of happiness that's older than humanity. And that's a beautiful, awe-inspiring thing.

So nature did its trick, and I was soothed. And I stayed that way, but my thoughts soon grew darker and more realistic. And here I need you to bear with my for a while, because I'm going to sound really cynical, but my ultimate point is not cynical at all. So buckle up--it gets ugly for a second. As I kept walking, I realized I shouldn't romanticize the prairie dog pups too much. I'm convinced they were feeling real joy as they romped, but their lives are hard. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, and hawks are out there hunting them, and not all the pups are likely to make it to adulthood. Plus, prairie dogs are plagued with disease. Literally--they get bubonic plague. And they're no angels themselves--they often kill smaller rodents who compete with them for food. 

So I kept walking, still soothed but more sober. As I came around a small hill, I heard a strange snorting sound. I started looking in the bushes, hoping to see a badger (for some reason I was imagining badgers sound like that). But it turned out to be a deer. There was a group of mule deer browsing on the hillside, and one of them was snorting, shaking its head, and pawing at its face. And here was another reminder not to romanticize nature. Most likely, the deer had been attacked by a deer bot fly. While it was grazing on bushes, the fly--which mimics a bumblebee almost perfectly--had flown up and sprayed its eggs into the deer's nose, and its young had grown into bullet-shaped worms in a cavity in the deer's head. Now the deer was slowly snorting and coughing them out, so they could go on with their horrid little life cycle. The deer will probably be fine, but it's safe to say its life is no bowl of rose petals. That's why I always scoff when I see products that say they're safe because they're "all natural". Have people SEEN what nature is capable of?

But please stay with me, and don't get me wrong. Nature is beautiful and endlessly awe-inspiring, and I love it as much as anyone I know. But it isn't benevolent. It's not malevolent, either. It just IS. Organisms in nature evolve because they find a niche that's stable. That niche may be the "playful, lovable otter" niche, or it may be the deer bot fly niche (or the bubonic plague bacterium niche, for that matter.) Evolution doesn't have a preference, because it doesn't feel empathy. It doesn't say, "I can't make a fly that does that to a deer!" Nature as a whole does not feel compassion. What happens just happens, and sometimes it's pretty awful. 

And I think many Republicans with a social-Darwinist outlook, like Joe Walsh of the Mean Tweet, think that's something humans should emulate. While some liberals romanticize nature by seeing it as benevolent, there's a subset of conservatives who look to the callousness of nature for an ethical example. And both are committing that most common of fallacies, the appeal to nature fallacy. The fact that nature does something doesn't mean we should. Mammals often commit infanticide. Male ducks practice what's euphemistically called "forced copulation". These things are absolutely natural, because they happen in nature all the time. Does that mean we should do them, too?

Hell no.

And that's my non-cynical point, if you've stayed with me this long: even if nature as a whole is pitiless, compassion and empathy do exist, and they can be cultivated. It doesn't just exist in humans. I believe a mother prairie dog feels compassion (and maybe even joy) as she watches her babies play. Many animals seem to be compassionate toward their close relatives. A few of the more brainy mammals and birds form friendships with non-relatives, occasionally even from other species. There's a whole theory of why this happens, called reciprocal altruism, but the point is that they've widened the circle of care beyond family. Humans have widened it even further. We, or at least most of us, are capable of looking at other sentient beings and realizing they are capable of joy and suffering, just like we are. If nothing else, sheer, cold logic should tell us that other people's hopes, desires, fears, and pains are just as real and intense to them as ours are to us. Why wouldn't they be? 

Even if other animals are capable of this sort of realization (and I bet some are) there's not much they can do about it. We're different. We can look at nature's dearth of kindness and compassion and say, "That's not good enough." Once I came upon a dog stranded on a pillar of rock. Its owner told me later it had been missing for a week. Nature would have let that dog die, but I didn't. I got it off that rock and got it some food and water. And you would have too. And that is an amazing thing. Think about it: we are a part of nature that is actually capable of seeing suffering in the world, and deciding to do something about it. We are, at least in this part of the universe, nature's conscience. 

Or we could be. We have that potential. But history has shown that we sharpen nature's hardest edges as often as we smooth them. The worst of us have invented cruelties nature could never match, because nature isn't cruel. It may be mostly compassionless, but it doesn't revel in the pain of others. Some people unfortunately do. So, cruelty, like kindness, is also a rare element in the universe, and I think most of us are capable of both under the right circumstances. There's a darkness in us darker than anything in nature, but there's a light in us, too. That light is composed of things like compassion, kindness, and the ability to make the world a better place; to make life in it more worth living. Maybe it's a divine light, I don't know. Maybe it's the light in the Jewish idea of the broken vessels, and gathering and cultivating that light is the act of tikkun olam--repairing the world. Maybe that light is what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of heaven is within. And maybe it's a happy accident? I don't know the answer, and I don't know that it matters. But I am pretty sure that humans have a choice between the darkness and the light inside of us. And I know which one we had better choose.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hidden Beauty

At times when science is questioned and threatened, as it is currently, its defenders remind us of the many reasons science is vital: Science cures diseases and improves our quality of life. Science education and funding helps the US stay competitive in an increasingly technology-driven global economy. Science helps us understand how the world works; uncovering nature's deepest laws. All these things are true and crucial, but I think there's another gift science gives us that's widely underappreciated, even by many scientists. Science shows us the hidden beauty and wonder of nature. Science can make the mundane awe-inspiring.

Consider, for example, the rock in the picture above. It doesn't look like much, does it? It sits in a parking lot at a trailhead near Boulder, Colorado, and people walk by every day without ever noticing it. But that rock has a story to tell.

It comes from a layer of rock in the canyons above Boulder known as the Coal Creek Formation. If you look at it closely, you see that it's made of smaller rocks--it's a type of rock called conglomerate. The constituent rocks are slightly rounded, like river rocks, because that's exactly what they once were. Long ago, they were part of a rocky riverbank a few miles from a mountain range. But no animals roamed that bank, and no trees shaded it. Animals and trees didn't exist yet, because that riverbank existed 1700 million years ago.

Even then, the pebbles inside that rock were ancient by our standards. They had eroded out of rocks formed millions of years before, when the ancient core of North America colliding with a line of volcanic islands, which slowly smashed together to create the first land that would become Colorado. Mountains rose in the collision, and then began to erode away, as mountains constantly do. The riverbank was eventually buried, and the pebbles and sand solidified into a layer of conglomerate. Then it was buried deeper and deeper, until eventually it was miles underground, where the heat and pressure fused the pebbles and sand together into a metamorphic rock called quartzite. The conglomerate had become a metaconglomerate. In some places where this rock appears today, you can see where the original river pebbles were warped and stretched in its journey through the depths.

A billion and a half years ago, then, our boulder was part of a layer of rock buried deep in the earth. And there it stayed, for hundreds of millions of years. Up above, single-celled life slowly evolved into complex organisms like early plants and animals. Some of the fish came onto the land and became amphibians, and some of the amphibians evolved into early reptiles. Finally, after 1400 million years, our rock began to rise again. Far-off tectonic forces were lifting a new mountain range, called the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. The Coal Creek formation rose to the surface, and was then hoisted into the air as a part of the mountains. Once again, erosion set in, and parts of the formation eroded into pebbles in mountain streams. Aprons of rocky debris spread out of the dwindling mountains onto the flatlands. One day, they would become the soaring red cliffs of Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Boulder Flatirons. Finally, the Ancestral Rockies crumbled into a sea of sand dunes (which would one day form the rocks at Garden of the Gods), which was in turn covered by an actual, shallow sea.

Elsewhere, dinosaurs evolved and grew into giants, who eventually migrated across the Jurassic coast of Colorado, leaving their huge footprints and bones in the sand. The seas rose again, and giant reptiles patrolled the waters, while pterosaurs soared above the waves like scaly pelicans. Then the sea retreated again around 67 million years ago, as a third set of mountains--called the Laramide Rockies--started to rise. Triceratops and T rex roamed the rainforests below, leaving more bones and footprints along the Front Range, before they were killed by an asteroid that firebombed North America. All the while, the Coal Creek formation kept rising with the mountains.

The Laramide Rockies began eroding as soon as they started to rise, and parts of the Coal Creek Formation again fell into mountain streams, creating a new generation of river rocks. Giant boulders southwest of Denver tell us that enormous floods once roared out of the mountains, powerful enough to carry refrigerator-sized rocks for nearly fifty miles. Eventually, all the erosion nearly buried the Laramide Rockies in their own debris. The high plains rose nearly to the tops of the mountains in a smooth incline, as they still do in southern Wyoming. The surface of the plain was high above the current sites of the cities along the Front Range. Our boulder was still part of a larger rock, which was (probably) buried once again.

Finally, around 5 million years ago, the land began to rise again (or perhaps the climate grew wetter) and rivers began carving up the landscape once again. The hard rock in the buried mountains resisted erosion, and the mountains began to emerge from their debris. These were the modern Rockies--the fourth mountain range our rock has seen. Earth entered one of its periodic ice ages, and glaciers began to descend from the mountains. They would stick around for 100,000 years or so, carving the high peaks into their current dramatic form, and then retreat for a few millennia during a brief, warm recess. Human civilization has arisen during the latest recess.

Down lower, when the ground around Boulder was still a few hundred feet higher than it is today, our rock finally eroded out a cliff and fell into Coal Creek. Its rounded shape tells us that floods knocked it against other rocks and ground away its edges, and its large size tells us these were powerful floods--only a flood can carry a rock that big. One of these floods finally carried it out of the mountains and deposited it on a flat plain. That plain was left standing by erosion around it, and now it's a mesa (technically a pediment) known as Rocky Flats. Rocky Flats is now notorious for being radioactive, due to careless handling of nuclear waste by some recently-evolved primates. At some point, those primates built a parking lot, and put our boulder there as a decoration. And there it sits. For now.

Will it still be sitting there when we are gone? It certainly could be--we are ephemeral things by its standards--but how long we last will depend on how wise and lucky we turn out to be. In any case, in the short time we've been here, we've discovered science. And science has allowed us to look at that nondescript rock in a parking lot and see beyond its initial appearance, to the amazing, eons-long story it can tell. The rock can't appreciate the grandeur of its own story, but we can. That's a major reason science is so important--it gives us the knowledge we need to appreciate the hidden beauty of nature.

Of course, some people don't see science this way. They think science kills the wonder of nature by reducing it to equations and theories; by "unweaving the rainbow" as Keats put it. And science can be dry and boring, when it isn't communicated well. But it doesn't have to be. When it is communicated well, science can show us the astounding majesty of nature. I think the physicist Walter Lewin put this best (in a lecture on the beauty of rainbows): "Knowledge always adds. Knowledge never subtracts. Knowledge is hidden beauty." That nondescript rock in a parking lot is full of hidden beauty, once you know how to see it.


Geology Underfoot Along Colorado's Front Range / Lon Abbott and Terri Cook  I learned about this rock, and the Coal Creek formation, from this excellent book. My copy is falling apart, because I've tromped all over the Front Range with it in my backpack.

The Hidden Beauty of Rainbows / Walter Lewin 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Facts are not Partisan: A Plea to Honest Conservatives

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him.
- George Orwell, 1984
Still from the film Gaslight
Most of the people I knew growing up were conservatives. I'm from rural Arkansas--a red part of a red state--so many of my friends, extended family, and teachers were very conservative. And most of them were good, honest people. My maternal grandfather, for example, was the very picture of a conservative man's man. He was a cattle-rancher; a big man who was still saddle-breaking horses well into his sixties. He didn't even have to try to be manly. He had that rare kind of effortless masculinity that other men looked up to, and were secretly intimidated by. He was a staunch Republican, from a family that was Republican when most southerners were Democrats. And he was one of the best and most honest men I've ever known. In fact, honesty was something he was known for. Several people made a point to tell me that my grandpa was one of the most honest people they had ever met.

I'm a moderate liberal myself, and my grandfather never liked that (he once peeled a Bill Clinton sticker off my car) but I think he would have been pleased to know he was my main role model for honesty. At times in my life when I've been asked to do something advantageous but dishonest, I've always thought of him. And it's helped me do the right thing. 

That's one reason I'm so disturbed by our new president and his administration. My grandfather was one of many Republican role models I've had in my life, and I don't want to see their party take the path it's taking. I don't want it to become the party of Trump. While most of the Republicans I knew growing up were good people, I truly don't think Donald Trump is. He just isn't like them. He's not modest. He's not polite. He's not kind. He's not respectful of other people. He follows none of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He's an admitted adulterer who's bragged about behavior that the Republicans I grew up around would be sickened by. 

But what I want to focus on here is that he is not honest. 

It's a demonstrable, well-documented fact that our new president is a habitual liar. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's true. Just the other day, he told a group of sheriffs that the murder rate is the highest it's been in 47 years. That wasn't simply untrue; it was almost the opposite of the truth. FBI data show that the murder rate is close to the lowest it's been in 50 years. And that's just one of many of Trump's lies. Recently, he lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, saying it was bigger than Barack Obama's, even though anybody could compare pictures of the two crowds and see that this simply wasn't true. And his staff backed him up with their own lies. Kellyanne Conway created a new catchphrase when she claimed they were just "alternative facts", and then created an internet meme with a lie about the Bowling Green Massacre, which, as everybody now knows, never happened.

This administration's lies are so bold and pervasive that they're starting to seem like an intentional strategy to make people question their grip on reality. As many have pointed out, it closely resembles a form of psychological abuse called gaslighting. In the movie Gaslight, a sociopathic man makes Ingrid Bergman think she's going crazy by making her think she can't believe her own eyes. When she sees a gaslight flickering and wonders why, he denies that it's happening, even though she can plainly see it. Soon, rather than believe he could lie that shamelessly, she starts to question her own sanity. That's the reason gaslighting works, ironically. Most people can't imagine lying remorselessly themselves, so they can't believe anyone else could either. They start to doubt their own sanity before believing another person could really be that dishonest. 

Now the Trump administration is taking advantage of that fact, and they're starting to resemble a propaganda ministry in an authoritarian country or dystopian novel. Lately it's been reminding me of the information minister in Iraq during the American invasion in 2003. Remember him? I'll never forget how he looked right at the cameras and said there was no invasion, while American troops poured into the country all around him. I never dreamed we would have an American president and his staff acting like Saddam Hussein's information minister, but here we are.

And that shouldn't be acceptable to any of us--Republican or Democrat. Facts are not partisan. Reality doesn't care what ideology we subscribe to, and facts are facts whether we believe them or not. That's basically what facts are. And facts must be defended, even when it isn't easy. After the Boston Massacre, John Adams almost ruined his career by defending the British soldiers in court. He did the hard and unpopular thing, because he believed that some of those soldiers were innocent. During the trial, he said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Both parties should hold themselves to Adams' standard.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans can disagree about many things and remain decent, honest people. They may honestly disagree about what's right and wrong, and even what's true (if the evidence is inconclusive, or made to seem that way). But when it comes to truth and facts, there are two things both parties should agree on: 1. There's no such thing as alternative facts. If a claim contradicts the evidence, it's a falsehood, not an alternative fact. 2. Facts matter. Truth matters. Both parties should consider it unethical to tell lies, and grossly unethical for a leader to gaslight citizens as a political strategy.

Any party that can't accept or follow these principles has gone badly astray. Any party that tolerates habitual, blatant disregard for truth will either self-destruct or betray the democratic principles it was created to uphold. Believe it or not, I don't want to see either of these things happen to the Republican Party. Obviously I don't want to see the Republican Party to damage our country with a wildly unethical president, but I also don't want to see it self-destruct. I really don't. Even if I disagree with Republicans about most things, I wouldn't want to live in a one-party country ruled by the left. I think opposing factions are necessary to keep either side from sacrificing basic rights and liberties to their ideology, and I think there are people on both sides who would do just that if they could. History has shown that either the right or the left can descend into tyranny when unopposed.

So, if you're the kind of decent, honest conservative that I grew up around, I'm not going to plead with you to abandon your party. I know that's not going to happen. But I am going to plead with you to take a stand, and fix it. Don't let Trump become the face of the Republican Party. Don't let it become the first party in American history to abandon truth completely. Don't let that happen to the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. Please...don't let that happen on your watch. 

You may be getting defensive right now, and if so I don't blame you. I probably would be too if I were in your shoes, and believe me, I don't envy your position. I genuinely feel bad for the many Republicans I know who are as horrified by Trump as I am. To my knowledge, nothing quite like this has happened before in American history. Even Nixon didn't try to make the American people disbelieve their own eyes and ears. No national politician has ever seemed truly devoid of honesty the way Trump seems to be. 

You may also be thinking I'm a hypocrite, asking you to do something about a lying politician in your party, when there have been plenty of lying Democrats. After all, Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Bill Clinton did, in fact, have sex with that woman. Hillary Clinton never came under sniper fire. Yes, "my" politicians have also lied. But I don't think they've ever lied like Trump does, because I can't think of any politician in American history who has. 

But let's say I'm wrong. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Hillary would have been just as dishonest as Trump. If that were true, you and I both know two wrongs don't make a right. Another politician's lies don't make Trump's lies OK. So, call me a hypocrite if you like. Believe Hillary lied as much as Trump if you must. And then show me why you're better than that, even if I'm not.

I wouldn't make such a plea in normal times, but these are not normal times, and this is not a normal Republican president. What's at stake here is not just the future of your party, but the future of the entire country...perhaps the future of the entire world. You can think what you like about me; that's not important. What's important is that Republicans take a stand and tell Trump that his lies are unacceptable and have to stop. That simply has to happen, and I'm hopeful that it will. Here's why: if you're one of the many good, honest conservatives like the ones I grew up around, I know you. You're in the same party as my tough, honest Republican grandfather, and he was nothing like Donald Trump. He was so much better than that, and I believe that you are too. 


Saturday, January 28, 2017

What Patriotism Means to a Liberal

The other day I was taken aback when I heard a nice, intelligent-sounding young woman explain why she disapproved of Barack Obama and supported Donald Trump: she said she thought Trump has more pride in America. I think it really jolted me because I had just listened to Obama's farewell address, and it was absolutely packed with patriotic themes: with references to American history, to freedom, to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and much more. It seemed like the essence of patriotism to me.

Of course, it was a very different kind of patriotic expression than Trump's, and maybe that's why it didn't seem like patriotism to her at all. And Trump's approach, with its appeals to fear and jingoism, had never seemed like patriotism to me. Frankly, Trump's idea of American pride scares me. We all know that pride has a dark side. In people and in nations, pride can be healthy self-respect, but it can also be a destructive arrogance. Trump's American pride strikes me as the second kind--the kind of belligerent, uncritical nationalism that has caused untold suffering in recent centuries.

Patriotism can simply be another word for nationalism, and I think anybody will agree that nationalism also has a dark side. The most extreme example, of course, is Nazi Germany; a case of runaway nationalism that caused one of the greatest tragedies in human history. After living through it, Albert Einstein called nationalism "the measles of mankind". I can see his point.

But I want to be clear. I'm not saying Trumpism is equivalent to Nazism. I'm just saying it leans in that ultra-nationalist direction much more than I am comfortable with. At the same time, I think patriotism can be a good thing. Patriotism can simply mean loving one's country, and I do love my country. Many conservatives have the idea that liberals don't love America. I've even heard some say that liberals like Obama hate America. We don't. We love our country, but we have a different idea of what that means, and how to express it. Our love of country--our patriotism--doesn't look the same as the conservative version, and I think that's why conservatives sometimes have difficulty recognizing it.

So, I'd like to clarify what patriotism means for liberals (or at least this liberal), and why I can't agree with Trump's version of it. My purpose here isn't to denounce anybody, but to explain why I, and millions of other liberals, love our country, and what that means.

Before I can explain what my patriotism is, though, I have to explain what it isn't. Please bear with me through the negatives--I'll get to the positives.

My patriotism isn't about declaring that my country can do no wrong. Clearly, it has done wrong. Look at slavery. Look at Jim Crow. Look at how we treated Native Americans. It serves no purpose to pretend those things never happened. Nothing good can come of declaring, "My country, right or wrong". To do so lets us excuse whatever we do, right or wrong, simply because it is us doing it.

My patriotism isn't about an aggressive belligerence toward other countries. It isn't the "my way or the highway" attitude George W. Bush showed the world, and Trump is now showing. Many other countries, and their citizens, have achieved great things, and deserve our respect. America shouldn't act like a swaggering high school bully any more than the bully should. If that approach is wrong for an individual, why should it be right for an entire nation? Besides, as I mentioned above, history has shown that we aren't always in the right.

My patriotism isn't about thinking our leaders and their policies can't be criticized. This was also a view of patriotism that developed during the Bush years, and many times before. Remember the Dixie Chicks? I suspect it's going to make a comeback under Trump. But what kind of sense does such an idea of patriotism make in a democratic republic? Ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and as the Declaration of Independence says, it "derives its just powers from the consent of the governed". That means the governed should always be able to speak their conscience, whether in dissent or agreement with official policies or with the opinion of the majority.

My patriotism isn't necessarily militaristic. Of course I honor the sacrifices and bravery of the people who have fought and died on behalf of this country. Their sacrifice is greater than any I'm ever likely to make. At the same time, not every military action our country has engaged in, or might engage in, is justified. Some of our wars should not have been fought, and that can't be changed by the terrible fact that Americans died fighting them. That is tragic, but it's true. Politicians learned long ago to suppress dissent by starting wars and then claiming that questioning those wars is equivalent to disrespecting our troops. It isn't equivalent, and we should never let politicians use our soldiers' sacrifice as a tactic of manipulation. And we should never let them send our soldiers off to risk their lives in an unjust war.

My patriotism isn't about a quasi-religious reverence for symbols like the flag. It seems to me that what's really important isn't the symbol, but the principles it represents--the principles expressed in the Declaration and Constitution. Similarly, my patriotism isn't about forced expressions of allegiance to those symbols, as in the Pledge of Allegiance. I've never thought it made sense to affirm our freedoms by requiring people to stand up and recite a pledge in unison. Where is the freedom in that? Besides, the Pledge isn't a founding document like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. It was created by a Christian socialist Baptist minister (imagine that!) in 1892, as a part of a campaign to sell American flags. The "under God" part wasn't added until 1954--around the same time that "In God We Trust" was added to our money. And that brings us to religion...

My patriotism isn't about linking American pride or identity to Christianity, or any particular religion. Many of our founders were freethinkers, not orthodox Christians, and they were careful to separate religion and government, on the theory that good fences make good neighbors. James Madison modeled the First Amendment on the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson later said that mention of Jesus was expressly left out of that statute, because it was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." Freedom of religion is one of most precious things we have in this country, but today the phrase has been twisted to mean the freedom to discriminate. That's the very opposite of what freedom of religion is about. It's about the freedom to believe, or not, according to your conscience, not to impose your belief on others. As a freethinker myself, I'm following a tradition that goes back to Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Paine. Should those original patriots be considered unpatriotic because they weren't orthodox Christians?

Similarly, my patriotism isn't about imagining that "real" Americans come in any particular race or religion. A white Baptist cowboy born in Texas is not one speck "more American" than a gay Filipino Muslim in born in California...or a Hindu born in India and naturalized as an American citizen. To think otherwise is to misunderstand what this country is about. It's about freedom, diversity, and opportunity; not any particular race or religion. If you want to see a truly deep kind of patriotism, go to a business owned by a naturalized immigrant with an accent. Very often you'll find a picture of them proudly standing in front of the flag on the day they became an American citizen.

That's why my patriotism also isn't about suspicion of foreigners, or the idea that my life is more important than anyone else's because I was lucky enough to be born in this country. I recently heard a Trump supporter say he thinks one American life is worth millions of foreign lives. Millions! I once heard someone say, "I'm a nationalist. I don't care what happens to foreigners". I'm appalled by that attitude. It seems both cruel and nonsensical to me, and here's why: imagine that a Muslim child is adopted from Syria and raised as an American Christian. Does that event magically change something and make her life more important than if she had stayed in Syria? More important than if she had stayed Muslim? If so where does that happen? At the border? When she is baptized? Does it make her hopes and fears, her pains and aspirations, less real? Of course it doesn't. My birthplace might make me luckier than others, but it doesn't make me better than others, or my life more valuable.

OK. Enough about what my idea of patriotism isn't. Now let me say what it is.

My idea of patriotism and pride in my country was best stated by a German immigrant named Carl Shurz, who became an American citizen, a Union general, a United States senator, and Secretary of the Interior. In 1899, he spoke in opposition to people using patriotism as an excuse to annex land after the Spanish-American war.
I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.'
That's my idea of patriotism: not to declare that our country is always right just because it's our country, but to strive to make sure it actually is right. What patriotism means to me is a continuing struggle to achieve the promises our country was founded on: that we are all created equal, that governments are created by the people and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of the press, assembly, petition, and all the other principles in the Bill of Rights. Those are principles that generations of Americans have have fought--and still fight--to turn into realities.

It's a continuing struggle. I think that's important to remember. The principles in the Declaration and Constitution were set down over 240 years ago by people we rightfully call founders, but that was only the beginning. When the Declaration was written, its authors had no intention of treating all men--or all people--as if they were created equal. Only property-owning white men had all the rights of citizens, and millions were enslaved--the Constitution referred to them as "three fifths of all other persons". The Bill of Rights was widely ignored, and didn't even apply to the states at first. What had to happen next, to begin achieving the promise of our founding documents, was best expressed by Martin Luther King: people had to "cash the check" those documents had written.

People had to fight to hold their country to its promise that we are all created equal, and have inalienable rights. It's often said that we owe our freedom and rights to our veterans who fought for them, and that's absolutely true, but we owe them to others as well. We owe them to the people who fought with words and activism instead of guns; who fought in the courts, in Congress, in the newspapers, and on the streets to abolish slavery, to secure the vote for women, to gain citizenship for Native Americans, to overturn Jim Crow, to fight discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity, and on and on and on. Many of those people died before they ever saw the fruits of what they fought for. Think about that: Dred Scott died before slavery was abolished. Elizabeth Cady Stanton never saw women voting. Homer Plessy didn't live to see Rosa Parks win the fight he lost. I once came across Plessy's tomb in New Orleans, and stood there awestruck by that brave man fighting for rights he would never see realized. That's why I consider these people, and many others like them, to be founders of our country just as much as Jefferson or Madison, because they helped fulfill the promises those original founders made, but didn't keep.

So that's my idea of patriotism. I love my country, and because of that, I want it to fulfill its promise. And I don't think it's unpatriotic to say it still has work to do. I want my country to keep the principles it was founded on, and the rights and freedoms its citizens have won since then. My patriotism is about fighting to make sure we achieve a country with real freedom of religion, real freedom of expression, real due process of law, real government by the people, and real equality for all Americans. That's what patriotism means to me.

But it means something else, too. As I wrote the words above just now, I realized I haven't really earned the right to attempt soaring rhetoric. How much have I sacrificed to make the principles of the Declaration and Constitution a reality? What have I done, compared to people like George Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, or scores of others? Not much. Not yet. Yes, my patriotism is about pride, because I'm proud of what my country has achieved,but it's also about modesty: modesty on the national level in recognizing that our country has not fully realized its promise, and modesty on a personal level, in recognizing that my contribution so far has been slight. My patriotism, then, is about recognizing that what's truly great about America are the rights and freedoms people before me have fought for in struggles I can hardly imagine.

Finally, my patriotism is about understanding that those rights and freedoms have to be protected. It's about realizing there will always be people like Donald Trump, who will try to chip away at them, and perversely claim to do so in the name of patriotism. And if I ever want to think of myself as a patriot--as someone who works to make his country right and keep his country right--I have to do my part to keep that from happening.