Archive | politics

Notoriety pays: Cliff Mass

Cliff mass 1 Influenced by mentors Carl Sagan and Steve Sneider, University of Washington atmospheric meteorologist Cliff Mass has always happily considered himself to be an activist. As a university professor, he already saw himself as more than a scientist in being an educator. His list of outreach activities- and especially, his very public firing by radio station KUOW – has made him quite well known in Seattle.

The reasons Cliff was fired are political and comical.

For 15 years, Cliff had a segment on public radio station KUOW, where he gave the weather forecast and discussed Pacific Northwest weather, climate, and education-related topics. His show had a large following, and audience response to his descriptions of the need for coastal radar played a large role in the establishment of that system. But then Cliff made a big mistake- he spoke about math.

Through the years, he had notice a diminution of math skills in the K-12 schools and in entering freshman at the university, which he blamed partially on the discovery math curricula that was recommended by many Schools of Education, including the University of Washington School of Education. The problem here was that the University of Washington School of Education was a big donor to KUOW. So KUOW issued a no-math warning.

Cliff complied reluctantly, having other avenues (such as a popular blog) where he could discuss math. But on another show, a Seattle Times article about the rejection of in-state A student applicants (the University of Washington is a state university) in favor of higher-paying out-of-state students came up. As a faculty member who was an undergraduate advisor with colleagues on the admissions committee, Cliff knew this urban legend to be untrue, and said so. And the next day, he was fired, primed by speaking out about math. You can read Cliff’s account of this here. http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/05/no-more-weather-on-kuow-weekday.html

Another radio station, KPLU, picked up Cliff’s segment, and there he enjoys free rein of expression and a larger audience. Another windfall is that many people cancelled donations to KUOW, sending them instead to Cliff, for his lab, or to KPLU. He is yet better known, and this notoriety can be very, very useful.

True citizen, Cliff is constantly involved in one civic issue after another, often controversial. As part of his crusade for better math education, Cliff has worked on the elections of 3 pro-math Seattle Public Schools board member elections, and has seen all 3 candidates win despite money poured into opponents’ elections by business interests in town.

He is also activist in his field, speaking out publicly on science issues. Early in his career he began advocating for better weather prediction in the USA, which was seen as criticism of NOAA. On April 1, H.R. 2413, The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act passed a vote in the House of Representatives and has gone to the Senate, a gratifying and long-coming result.

While a believer in anthropogenic climate change, Cliff is outraged that many people, including scientists, overhype and overstate data, and has publicly dissected scientific literature that exaggerate the data. He is particularly annoyed at scientists and media who attribute specific weather events to long term climate change. (See http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/07/15/texas-tall-tales-and-global-warming/ on the Texas heatwave and  http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2011/06/scary-snowpack-stories.html on snowpack association with climate change.)

“Careers are made and lots of research money comes to the ‘right’ position,” he says. “And the media loves global warming. But if you don’t know the facts, you can’t fight it. It isn’t worth it to do the right thing with the wrong information.”

An unfortunate side of Cliff’s responses to exaggeration is that climate change deniers quote him to demonstrate lack of scientific consensus on climate change, or even as a disbeliever. But being as honest and accurate trumps the occasional misuse of words.

(This is a very important point, and I like Cliff’s take on it. Many scientists refuse to speak with media representatives, as they fear being misquoted. This is a shortsighted fear of little actual significance. Your credibility can ultimately be more hurt by staying silent.)

Still, Cliff says, you have to protect yourself, and you can’t let activism get in the way of developing your career. He advises academics to get tenure before taking on too much controversy. Universities can, as Cliff’s did, put pressure on a faculty member because of their own vested interests, and won’t always protect their faculty in public conflicts.

Update: On June 3rd, Cliff’s choice for elementary school curriculum was voted in by the School Board, throwing over the District choice.

 

 

 

 

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Obituary: Lee Lorch, mathematician and civil rights activist

lee jpgLee Lorch died on February 28, 2013, in Toronto, Canada, at the age of 98. A well-respected mathematician as well as a dedicated civil rights activist, his activism and the effect of that activism are the focus of his obituary in the New York Times. Generally, scientists overestimate the professional risk to themselves for speaking out on political and social issues, but Lorch was treated badly at every place he worked in the USA. He moved to Canada- first to the University of Alberta in 1959 and later to York University in Toronto- when it was clear that, despite his stellar mathematic research and teaching, no American college would employ him.

Late in his life, Lorch received many honors from institutions, organizations, and fellow mathematicians, including an honorary degree from City College, a college that had blocked his promotion early in his career. In most of his activist endeavors, he was back by colleagues, but not by boards or administrators. Students protested for him, Albert Einstein protested for him, newspapers and professional organizations backed him- but he still was not allowed to keep his academic jobs.

His crimes….

At his first job after WWII, City College in New York City, he worked with tenants at Stuyvesant Town, a large housing complex , to eliminate the “No Negroes Allowed” policy. This initial work was vital in the eventual passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. His promotion was blocked by the appointments committee.

At Penn State University, he was denied reappointment for having invited a black family to live with them in Stuyvesant Town. That family stayed on when the Lorches (both Lorch’s wife and daughter were activists as well) were forced out, starting the integration of Stuyvesant Town.

At Fisk University, a historic black college in Nashville Tennessee, Lorch tried to enroll his daughter in an all black school, and refused to answer questions for the House Un-American Activities Committee about his interest in communism. At Fisk he taught 3 of the first blacks to get doctorates in mathematics. He was let go.

At Philander Smith College, in Little Rock, Arkansas, a small all-black institution, his prior interaction with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the activism of his wife, Grace, and daughter Alice in assisting the first black child, Elizabeth Eckford, to enter the all-white public school, and his own work in accompanying other black students to schools through angry crowds, caused Philander leadership to refuse to renew his appointment in 1957. A photograph of Elizabeth Eckford won a Pulitzer Prize, and Little Rock was a touchstone in school integration.

There are no lessons here for what he could have done “differently” that would have allowed him to keep working in academia in the USA. Considering black people to be equal to white people was considered to be subversive. Compromise would have made board members rest easy, but it would not have been effective.

A magnificent life.

Lee Lorch, Rights Activist Who Fought For Housing Desegregation, Dies at 98. David Margolick. March 3, 2014. The New York Times p A21. http://nyti.ms/1eNJA1D

See also: An appreciation to Lee Lorch. Mathematics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Scott W. Williams. May 28, 1995. http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/special/lorch-lee.html

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Why science is telling us all to revolt…

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Mention “capitalism” in a group of scientists, and most will grow uncomfortable. Scientists do not learn about the history of science and its relationship to economics in graduate school, and many scientists believe their profession to be untouched by the policies that affect the rest of the world. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine,” herself an environmental activist, wonderfully sees that environmental scientists are moving beyond the bench and ivory tower to broadcast and exhort action on climate change as well as the economic underpinnings of that change.

It won’t be polite and pretty, but Klein argues that change cannot happen without activist scientists who connect personal and policy decisions to the pure science of climate change.

As Klein points out in her article, there have always been scientists who have gone beyond academic avenues to protest policies and urge change. But this has generally been in reaction to a particular event. In her article, “Why Science is Telling All of Us to Revolt and Change Our Lives Before We Destroy the Planet,” Klein highlights geophysicist Brad Werner of the University of California, San Diego and climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K. as scientists who speaking out not only on the effects of climate change, but on the underlying politics that must be changed if the world is to be saved.

Bows-Larkin and Anderson believe we have lost the chance for gradually cutting CO2 emissions, and must drastically reduce energy consumption now by at least 10% a year to even have a 50-50 chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius (an increase of 2 percent Celsius has been predicted to be the threshold for climate catastrophe). A 10 % reduction a year has not occurred since the 1929 Depression: After the 2008 crash of Wall Street, emissions were reduced by 7% and only for 2 years before rebounding. The impact of such cuts on the developing world  could destroy communities, and finding ways to handle the inequities of the impact of needed CO2 emission cuts must also be considered. These drastic cuts cannot occur with capitalism as it is now structured.

They fault other climate scientists for not speaking strongly and realistically enough to get across either the scientific predictions of climate change, or the economic and political steps that will be needed to reduce CO2 emissions.

In a recent interview with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!,” Anderson and Bows-Larkin further document what a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature would look like- the loss of sea corals, an increase in flooding and droughts. But they also point out that the continued increase in emissions is on target to cause not a 2, but a 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature, and that a 4 degree increase would result in a 30% reduction in wheat and rice yields at low latitudes, and 80 cm sea rise that would be devastating for coastal communities. Swings of temperatures would bring even more temperatures, so we are looking at temperatures approximately 10 degrees warmer in New York and Chicago, which would wreck havoc with area ecosystems.

To even hope to reduce emissions, we cannot wait for low carbon energy supplies such as wind and solar to be in place. We are out of time. We must, Bows-Larkin and Anderson say, reduce consumption immediately, and scientists must speak out and be absolutely clear about climate predictions, and what it takes to mitigate them. They must communicate with the public, with politicians, in traditional and non-tradtitional ways, no matter what it takes.

Furthermore, scientists must also realize they they, too, must cut back with their own consumption. One example Anderson gives for scientists is to cut down on their work plane flights: Anderson himself traveled to China from the U.K. to do a lecture tour in Manchester by train. As he points out, it is not just the train emissions versus plane emissions, but the constant lifestyle choices of flying around the world, taking taxis instead of public transport, doing and spending to  save time and add comfort.

“We do not have to keep flying around the world in a sort of old-fashioned, colonial style. You know, here’s the great white hope, the great white males from the rich parts of the world, flying around to the poor parts of the world, telling them how they should be living their lives, “ said Anderson.

No one wants to hear or believe that is isn’t enough to advocate that others cut down on travel, or to rationalize that we are doing our part because of the work we do. Scientists are not entitled to be exempted from the hard work of reducing energy consumption. None of us can wait until policies change, but we all need to make individual lifestyle changes to reduce damage to the world.

“How Science Is Telling Us All to Revolt.” Naomi Klein. The New Statesman, October 29, 2013. http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt

“We Have To Consume Less”: Scientists Call for Radical Economic Overhaul to Avert Climate Crisis. Amy Goodman. Democracy Now! December 9, 2013. http://www.democracynow.org/2013/11/21/we_have_to_consume_less_scientists

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