29 September 2008

Goodbye, Chicago Tribune

Today, I called to cancel our subscription to the Sunday Chicago Tribune. I wrote this letter (submitted online) to explain why:

My husband and I moved to Chicago about four years ago, and shortly afterward began our subscription to the Chicago Tribune. Only Sundays, because we frankly haven’t time to read the newspaper daily. Like many people, we spend so many hours working during the week, most of our news comes from the radio and internet.

Sundays are different, however, and we’ve enjoyed dedicating our Sunday morning hours to reading the Sunday Tribune and the New York Times. It is with regret that we choose to stop including the Chicago Tribune in this ritual. We cannot continue to support a newspaper that publishes intellectually dishonest editorials.

A number of recent editorials have disturbed us, but the latest, “Scapegoating Markets,” was the last straw.

The headline is ironic. While the editorial argues against scapegoating capitalism as the cause of the current financial crisis, instead, attempts to “increase homeownership, particularly by minorities and the less affluent” are scapegoated.

The editorial claims that if deregulation were the problem, “it would be the commercial banks, not the investment banks, that were in trouble,” ignoring the failures of Indy Mac and Washington Mutual, and the shaky status of Wachovia. “The demise of Glass-Steagall turns out to be a boon,” the editorial adds, noting that its absence enabled Bank of America to purchase Merrill Lynch.

The editorial ignores the fact that if the regulations eliminated in the past 20 or so years had still been in place, Merrill Lynch might not have required rescue.

Instead, the editorial blames the current crisis on “an attack on underwriting standards [that] was undertaken by virtually every branch of government.”

Which “underwriting standards” are we talking about? Standards that facilitated discrimination against whole classes of borrowers, including single women and minorities? Redlining of neighborhoods? Certainly U.S. courts and the legislative branch have been instrumental in attempts to eliminate such “standards,” and I hope we are all proud of this.

But where the government has urged relaxation of fiscal lending standards, such relaxation was backed and promoted first by lending industry lobbyists, like—for example—Rick Davis, John McCain’s campaign manager and former president of Homeownership Alliance, a lobbying firm funded by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Which were (until recently) private corporations, by the way, not “mixed” public-private enterprises as your editorial suggests.)

We thought a lot about whether it’s appropriate to cancel our subscription to a newspaper because of its editorials. They’re just a reflection of opinion, after all, and we wouldn’t cancel a subscription because of a disagreement with a columnist. We think that unsigned editorials are different, though, because they represent the opinion of the newspaper as an institution, and we find we can’t continue to support an institution that demonstrates such low standards. If we want to read editorial fueled by ideology instead of facts, we can find lots of that online. From a newspaper, we expect measured and reality-based news and commentary.

We understand that your newspaper is launching a redesign tomorrow: more pictures, less words.

Good luck with that.


Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe

In the past couple years, Victor and I have become big fans of the House Theatre, which is noted for its creative presentations of fairly simple stories and its terrifically high energy. At the Chopin Theatre, the House is now performing an earlier work, Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe. While this science fiction tale is perhaps less substantial than runaway success The Sparrow or even The Magnificents (which got less enthusiastic notices, but which we enjoyed very much) both in script and in execution, it remains an appealing story, performed by a talented cast.

Recommended, especially if you can pick up discounted tickets via Goldstar or HotTix.

26 September 2008

Promoting Science

The other night, I attended a presentation sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, which seeks to promote more (and accurate) understanding of science and technology. The speaker was Alan Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and he talked about science challenges for the new millennium.

These mainly involve the disconnect between a large swath of American opinion and the goals and conclusions of science. Where science conflicts with what Leshner called "core values," Americans tend to just look the other way. So we have a remarkable proportion of citizens who don't accept that humans developed from a simian ancestor, or that the earth is billions of years old. A remarkable proportion of Americans simply don't trust scientists, and look at scientific conclusions as opinions they can take or leave.

Leshner proposed that to deal with this problem, scientists need to do a better job of communicating with the public rather than to the public.

This response seems rather facile. A preposition change is not sufficient. I think the problem needs to be dealt with by dramatizing why these scientific conclusions matter. I am not entirely sure how to do this, but I think it's crucial. For example, millions of Americans are able to reject Darwin's theory of evolution (particularly as it pertains to human beings) because ultimately they feel it doesn't make any difference what they think about it.

We do not live in a society where truth/reality is valued for its own sake. Our public discourse is riddled with lies and spin, and we pretty much have to decide what we think before we decide who we're going to listen to. People are treating scientific conclusions the same way. After all, there are so many scientific conclusions, and they frequently contradict each other: coffee is good for you; coffee is bad for you. In a society where we're overloaded with information, we largely ignore stuff we don't see a way to use or doesn't fit with our world view.

Scientists (and their communicators and policymakers) need to figure out how to make critical scientific conclusions relevant to Americans. Maybe it's by reminding us of why the practice of science is important. What happens when you don't do science properly? How do problems get solved if you pick and choose the conclusions you like best? As some scientists like to joke (with regard to creationists who call evolution "just a theory"), gravity is just a theory--how would you like to jump out that window?

Maybe what we need is an ad campaign that warns us of the consequences of bad science and of ignoring scientific conclusions. People hear about the rewards all the time; they're all around us. The rewards of science are so ubiquitous that we almost feel they're natural occurences. So let's focus on what happens when we don't teach kids to be good scientists, and when our decision makers and policy makers are science ignoramuses (ignorami?).

Our society in recent years has come perilously close to valorizing ignorance (see Idiocracy).

Let's change that.

25 September 2008

Robin Robertson and Simon Armitage

Went to see these two British poets the other night at Loyola University's downtown Rubloff Auditorium (as distinct from Northwestern University's downtown Rubloff Building--Thorne Auditorium--and the Art Institute of Chicago's Rubloff Auditorium--all, no doubt, the result of donations by Arthur Rubloff of the real estate firm) in an event presented by the Poetry Foundation.

Victor has read Simon Armitage's recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so Robin Robertson was the real surprise to me. Firstly, he has a wonderfully sonorous reading voice--I could listen to him forever. Secondly, his poems are chock full of gorgeous sounds. Only a few were not entirely convincing or took an easy way to closure. I was delighted to discover this fine poet.

Simon Armitage who is--at least by appearance--a good deal younger than Robertson, also delivered a good performance, but I liked him more for his manner--the patter between poems--than the work itself. A couple of poems--especially the first one he read, about a sperm whale--were knockouts, but on the whole I wasn't so impressed. I still look forward to reading Gawain, which Victor liked very much, but I wasn't wowed enough to buy another Armitage book.

On the other hand, I bought Robertson's translation of Euripedes' Medea without hesitation, and plan to get to it just as soon as I finish (or abandon) Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.