our impoverished discourse

No, We Aren’t Going To Run Out Of Oxygen

Or, newspapers really need better science reporters.

I first saw this Bangor Daily News story linked at Shakesville, but I think it’s making the rounds generally.

The article discusses a study from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences of decreased phytoplankton reproduction rates in the Gulf of Maine — which, to be clear, is a real issue, and cause for some concern — and extrapolates the study’s findings into an apocalyptic-sounding threat to the atmosphere of the entire planet: “such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth, from lobsters and fish that fuel Maine’s marine industries to your grandchildren.”

And it’s certainly true: if phytoplankton reproduction rates across the world’s oceans had dropped to 20% of their normal level, and showed no sign of bouncing back, that would pretty much be a doomsday scenario.

But it turns out that while ocean warming and acidification are still real long-term problems, there’s very little reason to expect that these findings have any major implications outside the actual area they cover. The Gulf of Maine’s problems are specific and localized; the world’s oxygen supply is not in immediate danger.

It happens that both my parents are marine invertebrate zoologists; my father is the director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution after spending decades in the biology department researching zooplankton and jellies, and my mother is a science writer in the education department. I asked them about the Bangor Daily News article and the study it discusses, and they said I could quote their responses (sent to me, amusingly, within about five minutes of each other).

Here’s Dad:

It’s only about the Gulf of Maine, where more sediment runoff from recently undammed rivers and some increase in temperature are affecting phytoplankton photosynthesis. It  may have an effect on fish populations in the Gulf in years to come, but there isn’t direct evidence of that yet. The flushing of sediment from the rivers will probably stabilize in a year or so, and water conditions would get clearer in the Gulf. Climate related changes in ocean temperature and acidity may start to affect productivity in some places but won’t affect overall oxygen production.

And Mom added:

[I]n the Gulf of Maine, maybe lobster and groundfish (cod or haddock) will decline in a couple of years, but it might be transient, if the sediment gets flushed out in a year or two. We don’t really know yet how the ocean’s organisms will respond to slightly higher temperatures (maybe some phytoplankton will grow more under those circumstances.).

We’re not going to run out of air. I DO think humans are having an effect on the ocean. But we don’t know the extent yet, or all the implications, so that’s why we need to keep watching.

I’m concerned about overfishing, rising temperatures, and acidification. However, U.S. fish stocks are becoming increasingly well-managed, and are very carefully monitored, so overfishing along U.S. coasts is not so serious as it was[.]

They also checked with a phytoplankton expert at WHOI, who offered some remarks (with the caveat that this is a personal perspective, and not a scientific analysis of the findings):

I think this is a extremely interesting finding that provides a wake up call about the kinds of impacts of environmental change can have on marine ecosystems. In general I think we tend to be too cavalier about ocean impacts. … The impacts noted in the paper are large, but the findings so far are local-to-regional in scope. I don’t think anyone is responsibly ready to project this indicates a massive die off of primary producers at much larger scales. … I think it’s a good bet a lot of those nutrients will be used by phytoplankton eventually. This kind of shift could seriously impact the spatial structure of the ecosystem and how it functions, with potentially big effects for particular species, etc. … but it probably won’t mean anything like a full scale shutdown in productivity or large scale decrease in O2 production or anything along those alarmist lines of reasoning.

My thoughts on this are, mainly, that it shows the importance of better science reporting. The impending-doom spin here seems to have come almost entirely from the newspaper, not the study or the lab that produced it. Responsible news organizations need to ensure their science reporting is accurate and accessible (not always an easy task, I realize, and certainly not made easier by shrinking newsroom budgets and staff). Sensationalist reporting like this may sell papers in the short term, but in the long run — when the dire consequences don’t materialize — it erodes the lay public’s trust in science reporting, and ultimately in science itself, and it often makes people of good will, who earnestly directed others’ attention toward the bad reporting because they trusted they’d been given accurate information, into targets of mockery and derision by the more cynical.

There are very real reasons to be worried about the effect of climate change, and other consequences of human action, some linked and some not, on the ecosystem of the oceans, and it’s certainly true that overall phytoplankton health in the oceans is of crucial importance to the global food chain. But specific, local effects in the Gulf of Maine related to high sediment runoff in recent years are not the right place to look for the worst dangers, and focusing too much on this kind of article can cause us to miss or ignore bigger problems which might not seem as spectacular at first.

Too Big to Judge

One of the important turning points in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comes as a citywide power outage — and the attendant escape from prison of scores of members of the violent “Mutants” gang — threatens to plunge Gotham into anarchy. The new police commissioner, Ellen Yindel, sees Batman and Robin ride on horseback into the middle of a crowd of Mutants.

Yindel has, up to this point, been a foe of Batman’s, a by-the-book cop infuriated by Jim Gordon’s willingness to turn a blind eye to vigilantism, whose first act as commissioner is to issue a warrant for Batman’s arrest. Gordon has tried to prepare her to understand the necessity of Batman by relating a story about evidence FDR had advance warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but let took no action to stop it, in order to motivate the US to fight a necessary war. The idea is monstrous — but so was the Axis, and US involvement was key to the outcome of WWII. Gordon concludes, “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big.”

So, then, into the middle of the crowd of Mutants escaping from the jail, Batman rides triumphantly on a giant horse, and commands all their attention with the sheer power of his will. Commissioner Yindel watches the scene with several cops by her side, and one asks whether they should arrest Batman. “No,” Yindel stammers: “he’s…too big.”

I started writing this post right after Steve Jobs died, and reactions mainly fell into two camps. Many mourned Jobs as a fallen hero, a world-changing visionary, an incalculable loss; on the other hand, many castigated the first group, decrying Jobs’s perceived megalomania and his history of not giving publicly to charities, Apple’s tight controls on its product ecosystem, and especially the terrible conditions under which Apple products (as well as many other companies’) are manufactured, at Foxconn and other Chinese suppliers.

If you think I’m leading up to comparing Steve Jobs to Batman, you’re not quite right, but you’re not quite wrong, either.


Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?

So, I was going to stay out of this one. It’s a complicated mess, and I think on many points both sides are talking past each other.

It started — well, no, it’s barely even meaningful to talk about where it “started”: the roots of the issue stretch back well before the founding of the United States, and threads are woven throughout our culture and history. But the current blagowebby eruption of this normally-subterranean-from-the-white-liberal-point-of-view conflict was kicked off by Melissa Harris-Perry’s column at The Nation, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” First Joan Walsh responded at Salon; then Harris-Perry wrote a followup blog post; then David Sirota mixed reasonable points about historical comparisons with nasty, condescending personal swipes and counterclaims as overreaching as he insisted Harris-Perry’s claims were.

There were and have continued to be, of course, many parallel and concurrent discussions, debates, and arguments over these posts on Twitter, where in particular Sirota has been prone to undermine what good points he made by adopting a taunting, sneering tone.

But even Sirota’s nastiest jabs seem to have faded to the level of background noise at this point, thanks to Gene Lyons, who penned (and, inexplicably, got Salon to publish — leading me to wonder on Twitter, “maybe Sirota slipped some web intern at Salon an unmarked envelope: ‘hey…make me look reasonable by comparison, eh?'”) “Obama’s bridge too far: When the president gets tough, the tough start whining.” In this gem of a column, Lyons dismisses the entire notion of applying the lenses of race and gender analysis to our history and politics with a “[y]ada, yada, yada”; characterizes Harris-Perry as “a left-wing Michele Bachmann”; and describes her worldview as “a photo negative of KKK racial thought.”


He wrote that.

So, you know, maybe Mr. Lyons just doesn’t quite realize the import of what he wrote; maybe he just figured, well, the KKK think about race a lot, and Harris-Perry thinks about race a lot, so…sure, why not compare them?

As a public service to Mr. Lyons and anyone else who might be thinking about employing a Ku Klux Klan comparison — and as a humble, clumsy homage to ebogjonson’s classic post, with my apologies — allow me to offer this handy spreadsheet: “Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?”

A flowchart to determine whether comparisons to the KKK are appropriate. Spoiler alert: probably not.

Please refer to this as often as needed. Click through for full size.

(Flowchart built with Creately. Edit: forgot to say in the initial post, the flowchart graphic is under a CC-BY-SA license. Feel free to share and adapt it under those terms; a link to this post is sufficient for attribution.)

Really, Gearbox? Really?

[Cross-posted at Shakesville.]

I had really expected that nearly two years ago would be the last time I’d write about Duke Nukem. I’d happily put the character, the franchise, and its gleeful participation in the worst traits of gamer culture, out of my mind. Until Gearbox Software announced they had acquired the rights and that the vapor-for-fourteen-years Duke Nukem Forever would be seeing release after all. So, thanks for that, guys. That’s just swell.

Since that miserable announcement, almost like clockwork, predictably awful globs of congealed misogyny have been flung forth from Gearbox HQ, splattering all over the gaming press. They held a press event at a strip club; they flagrantly violated PAX’s longstanding “no booth babe” policy (a policy which, it seems, contrary to how it was presented, was basically voluntary all along); and most recently they announced that the multiplayer capture-the-flag mode (a de rigueur component, of course, of any multiplayer shooter) would be entitled “Capture the Babe,” and that when a player had “captured the babe,” slinging the presumably-otherwise-passive female character over his shoulder, she would occasionally “freak out,” and need to be slapped (on the ass, Gearbox hastened to clarify, not the face! So that’s OK then) to “calm her down.”

…yeah. The aim of the game mode is to 1) abduct sexually objectified “babes” who have no agency of their own, but 2) who hysterically “freak out” at being bodily lifted up and hauled around, 3) who you then physically abuse to ensure their compliance, and 4) collect them as trophies.

I was going to write at more length about this, but Gunthera1’s excellent post at The Border House pretty much covers it, so I recommend reading her if you need more background or detail.

I’ll add a couple of other notes, however. As a bit of background, Randy Pitchford from Gearbox was on the “Irrational Interviews” podcast produced by Boston-based Bioshock developers Irrational, back in February, and when asked about the challenges of marketing games, he (I’m afraid I’m paraphrasing from memory, but I don’t believe I’m misrepresenting him) explained that seeing marketing materials for a game is like “when you meet a girl (sic), and you decide in 5 seconds ‘would I do her, or not?'” It’s obviously a total shock that a fellow like that might be insensitive to concerns about sexist content in the game he’s making.

And finally, Penny Arcade — having, perhaps, after the Dickwolves debacle, decided to prove everyone wrong who ever praised them for attempting to take a thoughtful approach to game-related controversies — have joined in.* In an echo of their earlier misrepresentation of criticism of the “Sixth Slave” comic, here they misconstrue the DNF criticisms as being solely about the slap rather than about using women as trophies — literally objects — ignoring that at least within the conceptual framework of the game enemy soldiers in the Call of Duty games have agency and contend directly with the player, and slandering hundreds of thousands of soldiers as “murderers” into the bargain.

It seems like for every lovely moment like David Gaider’s eloquent rebuttal to an aggrieved “Straight Male Gamer” there’s still a half-dozen episodes which (to borrow Mr. Walker’s phrase) make my spine hurt. This is why we can’t have nice things, game industry.

Addendum: Denis Farr pointed out to me on Twitter something I’d missed: evidently the game also includes cigarette vending machines labeled “fags”. So, uh, yeah.

*For those who may not want to click through, the comic shows Tycho, in an exaggerated “moral scold” posture, wagging his finger at Gabe and declaiming, “Did you know there’s a mode in Duke Nukem where you slap a woman’s bottom?” In the second panel, Gabe, looking bored, responds, “Did you know there’s a mode in Call of Duty where you murder, like, a million people?” as Tycho appears taken aback. In the third panel, Gabe continues, “It’s called Call of Duty.”

On Security Theater

(Updated below)

I assume that y’all are more or less familiar with the TSA’s new “security” measures — you get the choice of submitting to a full-body imaging scan which produces detailed images of your naked body, which images are then supposed to be but not necessarily actually destroyed, or of submitting to an “enhanced pat-down” (and if you think that sounds a lot like “enhanced interrogation technique,” well, that’s maybe not such a coincidence) in which a TSA employee of the same gender (as long as you’re cis and your gender presentation fits the conventional binary) gropes your entire body, chest and groin included.  If you’re inside security and try to refuse both procedures, you will neither be allowed on the plane nor allowed to leave the airport without being threatened with arrest and hefty fines.  I’m dashing this post off quickly, so I won’t include links to sources — I’m confident that Google will back me up.

A few points about this situation, though they’re probably not going to be new ideas to anyone.

  • There is no reason whatsoever to believe this will in any way make air travel safer.  People who want to sneak things onto planes will still find ways to do so, because people who want to sneak things onto planes are not stupid, and will be able to figure out, just as I have figured out, and just as you have probably figured out, that neither the grope-down nor the naked scanner will reveal any objects hidden inside a person’s body.  People who, for example, want to blow up a plane while they’re on it are probably not going to be deterred by the idea of sneaking the explosives on by swallowing them or inserting them rectally — after all, drug smugglers have been doing so for ages.
  • What makes air travel safer is good investigative and intelligence work, so that plots against air travel can be stopped in the planning stage, before anyone gets on a plane.
  • Approximately one in six American women has been the victim of rape or sexual assault in her lifetime.  That means about 8% (at least) of the flying public are now legally required to relive their sexual assaults.  (The remaining 92% are “merely” required to submit to an initial sexual assault.)
  • A common refrain from defenders of the new measures is “I’d rather be groped than blown up.”  It’s crucially important to try to get through to people who argue that, that being groped in no way reduces their already-minuscule chances of being blown up.
  • Another common claim is “we have to do anything we can to prevent another 9/11.”  But, aside from the aforementioned intelligence work, which we aren’t doing as much of as we should because we’re distracted by nonsense security theater like this — and aside from the bill being sponsored by Rep. Markey which would require screening of 100% of air cargo, an entirely sensible measure — we have already done all we can to prevent “another 9/11.”  Namely: we locked the cockpit doors.  It will never again be possible for hijackers to gain control of an airplane and fly it into a building, killing thousands; and unless you’re just invoking the September 11th, 2001 attacks for cheap political gain you have to accept that nothing short of that would be “another 9/11.”  (The September 11th hijackers themselves also had a hand in ensuring that another such attack could never happen: they let all air passengers know, from now on, that it is not safe to assume hijackers are just after ransom and intend to the hostages unscathed once their demands are met.)
  • We have to assume that the people in charge of devising and promulgating these policies — the TSA, DHS, and up the chain to the President — are themselves also not stupid, and know just as well as some guy with a blog that there’s no plausible way the new screening methods will improve security in any meaningful sense.  We have to conclude, then, that improving security is not their purpose.
  • Finally, even supposing that there were some way in which these measures would reduce the already-minuscule chances of dying in a terrorist attack, it wouldn’t matter.  It wouldn’t matter because these searches are clearly in violation of the 4th Amendment: they are neither reasonable, nor spurred by immediate probable cause, nor backed by warrants issued on evidence of probable cause and describing the specific things to be searched for and seized.  This would be plainly true even if these techniques were effective, and the fact is that they aren’t.  (In DC v. Heller, for example, the Supreme Court made it clear that even a law which is demonstrably effective at reducing crime does not supersede [their interpretations of] the Constitution.)

Update: Of course, another thing to keep in mind here, and it’s something I’m as guilty of as anybody, is that arbitrary harassment and abuse by authorities who can’t be effectively held accountable for it have just been the status quo for many marginalized populations in the US, especially people of color, GLBTQI people, people with disabilities, poor people, etc.  It’s only now that affluent white men — John Tyner, a software engineer; Penn Jillette, a millionaire comedian — are being subjected to this kind of treatment that there appears to be some serious outrage growing.  Only now that white men aren’t treated differently from those other people.  There are all kinds of ways in which that doesn’t say anything good about our society.

Nouning, Again: The Crux

About a year and a half ago, I wrote this:

Recent discussion … has reminded me, too, that this doesn’t apply solely to negative descriptions like racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.  If it were more normal to use “feminist” (for example) as an adjective, a mostly fruitless debate over whether Barack Obama is “a feminist,” which tends toward devolving into people claiming their set of views is what defines “a feminist” and anyone who doesn’t quite match up is “not a feminist,” we could be discussing how feminist he is[.]  These things are matters of degree.

In the time since then I’ve continued to think about the issue, and I suspect that I missed an important point in my original post — even though, with the Neal Stephenson and Jay Smooth citations, it was staring me in the face.  It’s still important to think about “isms” in terms of degree rather than as simplistic, binary oppositions.  But another, probably equally important way to see it is that nouns tends to be about identity, while adjectives are more easily applicable to action.

The original “Nouning Considered Harmful” post was, in part, inspired by debate over whether Barack Obama was or was not “a feminist.”  Now, some sixteen months later, a similar debate is occurring over Sarah Palin’s description of herself as “a feminist,” and the larger attempt by conservative women to “claim” (or “reclaim”) the term “feminist” to describe their generally anti-choice, anti-marriage-equality, pro-capitalist, pro-traditional-patriarchal-family policy positions.

(My responses to this are mainly 1) to note that attempting to co-opt progressive language for anti-progressive policies, or to smear progressive policies with anti-progressive labels, is standard right-wing newspeak procedure; and 2) to quote this excellent Bitch, PhD post: “My point is that it irritates the hell out of me when I see an argument about feminism in which neither side seems to actually remember that feminism isn’t about what women or men ‘choose’ to do: it’s about the way society is structured.” (emphasis mine)  That is, to claim your policy positions are feminist, when you’re actually advocating against structural changes in society that would improve the socioeconomic status of women as a class, is an absurdity.)

But the question of whether a specific person “is a feminist” or not is the wrong question, I think; it’s either a meaningless question, or it’s a meaningful question asked in a counterproductive way.  As I understand it, it’s a basic tenet of anti-oppression thought that people get to define their own identities.  And this can be kind of tricky, it turns out, and lead to some pretty fraught discussions of appropriation and self-definition, when someone like Sarah Palin calls herself “a feminist.”  Because to claim to be, or not to be, or that someone else is, or is not, “a [noun]” is a claim about identity.  People really, really don’t like to be told their identity is something different from what they themselves say it is, and people who subscribe to progressive views tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone else “no, your identity is X, no matter how much you say it’s Y.”  Identity is personal and internal, it resides in the mind — and no one but me knows my mind, so how can anyone else contradict my claims about my own identity?

So this is the crux of the nouning issue, then: if I say “you are a racist” or “you are a feminist” I’m making a claim about your identity, and in some sense that’s just not a claim I’ve got the right to make.  If I say “I’m not a racist” or “I’m a feminist” I’m making a claim about my identity, which I’ve got every right to do, but the validity of which no one but me has any way to evaluate.

If, on the other hand, I say “the policies you support would tend to keep the political, social and/or economic status of women as a class lower than that of men as a class,” or (equivalently) “the policies you support are un- or anti-feminist,” I’m making a claim that can actually be evaluated, because it’s a claim about actions and effects in the world, not thoughts within someone’s brain.

Some further reading, from which you’ll be able to click through to all sorts of blog posts about whether Sarah Palin is a feminist, should you be so inclined: Pilgrim Soul, Kate Harding.

Quick Hit: Health Care Reform

Well, it’s done.  The House has passed the Senate bill, and the package of reconciliation fixes.

There are a bunch of good things that kick in quickly, and that’s a big plus.  Some thirty-odd million more people are going to have health care coverage, and insurance companies will (at least in theory, though I expect they’ll find whatever ways around this they can) be prohibited from denying coverage to or retroactively rescinding coverage from sick people.

There’s no long-term solution to rising costs, and the Democrats’ — from the President on down — betrayal of their own party platform, which says “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right,” is craven, disgusting, and disheartening in the extreme.  And this is an absurdly industry-friendly bill, carefully tailored to maintain insurance company profits, and to not introduce any measures, such as genuine competition from a public option, optional earlier Medicare buy-in, removing their anti-trust exemption, or new, robust regulation, that would come close to bringing American per capita health care costs in line with the rest of the developed world, who spend much less for care as good or better than ours because single-payer systems are more efficient.

So in short, the Democrats remain a party largely under the influence of corporate money and the inbuilt misogyny of our social structure, while the Republicans are not only completely and happily under those influences but actively seeking at all times to expand them.  D. Aristophanes’ graph, thus, applies pretty well both to the HCR bill and to the parties themselves.

In other news, as Paul Krugman notes, Newt Gingrich is now attacking the HCR bill by comparing it to LBJ’s civil rights legislation.  Hey Newt, your mask is slipping.