Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

24 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Scientific Literacy, Education, and the Poetry of the Cosmos

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“Science is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.”

“People,” lamented Richard Feynman in 1964, “I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people — are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in.” In the half-century since, we’ve sequenced the human genome, put a man on the moon and rovers on Mars, confirmed the existence of the Higgs “God particle” boson, and achieved innumerable scientific miracles, small and large, that enhance our daily lives in fundamental ways. And yet, bad science spreads, good science journalism is fighting an uphill battle against media reductionism and distortion, and the general public remains as just as woefully and pitifully distrustful of or, worse yet, unconcerned with science as in the Feynman days.

In this fantastic conversation with Stephen Colbert, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson — passionate crusader for space exploration, eloquent champion of the whimsy of the cosmos, modern-day Richard “Great Explainer” Feynman — brings his characteristic blend of sharp insight, quick wit, and unapologetic opinion to the issue of scientific literacy and how it relates to everything from education to government spending to morality.

Highlights below, though the entire hour-long conversation — including the most brilliant and hilarious James Cameron Titanic critique you’ll ever hear — is more than worth the time.

On the ethics of discovery vs. the broader morality of application:

We are collectively part of a society that is using or not using, to its benefit or its detriment, the discoveries of science. And at the end of the day, a discovery itself is not moral — it’s our application of it that has to pass that test.

On the misunderstanding of science:

[Science] is distrusted not because of what it can do, but because people don’t understand how it does what it can do — and that absence of understanding, or misunderstanding, of the power of science is what makes people afraid. … Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you — go figure out how it works! That’s why we need a scientifically literate electorate — so that when you go to the polls, you can make an informed judgment and you can draw your own conclusions rather than tune into a particular TV station to have your conclusions handed to you.

On the poetry of astrophysics:

Some of the greatest poetry is revealing in the reader the beauty of something that is so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. The simplicity of the universe, if it doesn’t drive you to poetry it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.

On what’s wrong with education:

Our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff and, generally, we call those people ‘smart.’ But at the end of the day, who do you want: The person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rabble off a bunch of facts?

A brilliant addition to history’s best definitions of science:

[Science] is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to interpret what happens in front of you.

On our broken yardsticks for assessing the value of scientific research:

Today, you hear people say, ‘Why are we spending money up there when we’ve got problems on Earth?’ And people don’t connect the time-delay between the frontier of scientific research and how it’s going to transform your life later down the line. All they want is a quarterly report that shows the part that comes out of it — that is so short-sighted that it’s the beginning of the end of your culture.

He goes on to point out that people grossly misperceive how much is actually being spent “up there,” assuming anywhere between 10 and 15% of taxpayer money, whereas the real number is a mere 6/10 of a penny on the tax dollar, or 0.6%. The solution:

The greatest need is to be able to have the foresight necessary to make investments on the frontier of science even if, at the time you make those investments, you cannot figure out how that might make you rich tomorrow.

Finally, when Colbert asks the grandest cosmic question of all — why there is something instead of nothing — Tyson answers with a brilliant haiku-esque retort that hints at the power of ignorance as a tool of science:

Words that make questions
May not be questions
At all

Tyson’s latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (public library), is a must-read.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Good Girls Revolt: The Untold Story of the 1970 Lawsuit That Changed the Modern Workplace

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How the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media shaped the modern workplace.

In the summer of 2006, a young journalist named Jessica Bennett started as an intern at Newsweek. Shortly thereafter, three guys showed up as interns and by the end of the summer, all three of them were offered jobs but Jessica — who had been given a number of their stories to rewrite — wasn’t. Once she eventually was, a year later, she found herself getting worse assignments and fewer published articles than her less experienced male colleagues. Meanwhile, her best friend, Jesse Ellison, another Newsweek writer, had just found out that the guy who had replaced her in her previous position was hired at a significantly higher salary.

At first, it didn’t even occur to the young women — who had come of age in the post-feminist era — that there might be a gender issue at work, especially at a magazine where women comprised 40% of the masthead and the managing editor was female. But the deeply engrained boy’s-club mentality of day-to-day management became increasingly evident and frustrating for many of the women on the staff, who had started pooling together and discussing the issue. Then, one day, Tony Skaggs, a veteran researcher in the magazine’s library, walked into Newsweek video producer Jen Molina’s office and told her that decades earlier, the women at Newsweek had sued the magazine for gender-based discrimination. Shocked, Molina Googled the lawsuit but found nothing — a particularly besetting outcome for those of us who belong to the generation nursed on the notion that if it isn’t Googleable, it doesn’t exist.

In The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), Lynn Povich, one of the original Newsweek staffers who helmed the watershed lawsuit, tells its previously untold story, building — or, perhaps, deconstructing — around it a larger narrative about the tectonic shifts in gender politics in the past four decades and where this leaves us today. Not unlike Mad Men, it exposes the many social, cultural, and legal limits for women at the time, but also tells what Povich calls a “coming-of-age story about a generation of ‘good girls’ who found [themselves] in the revolutionary ’60s.” Perhaps most jarring of all, however, is that even as we read on as modern people who take pride in the progress of the past half-century, we become increasingly aware of the subtler but no less damaging sexist undercurrents that, forty years later, still permeate many social structures and cultural institutions.

At Newsweek, our ‘problem that had no name’ in the mid-1960s was sexism, pure and simple. At both Time and Newsweek, only men were hired as writers. Women were almost always hired on the mail desk or as fact checkers and rarely promoted to reporter or writer. Even with similar credentials, women generally ended up in lesser positions than men. One summer, two graduates of the Columbia Journalism School were hired – he as a writer and she as a researcher/reporter. That’s just the way it was, and we all accepted it.

Until we didn’t. Just as young omen today are discovering that post-feminism isn’t really ‘post,’ we were discovering that civil rights didn’t include women’s rights. . . . We began to realize that something was very wrong in the Newsweek system. With great trepidation, we decided to take on what we saw as a massive injustice: a segregated system of journalism that divided research, reporting, writing, and editing roles solely on the basis of gender. We began organizing in secret, terrified that we would be found out — and fired — at any moment. For most of us middle-class ladies, standing up for our rights marked the first time we had done anything political or feminist. It would be the radicalizing act that gave us confidence and courage to find ourselves and stake our claim.

'Women in Revolt,' Newsweek, March 16, 1970

But what makes the lawsuit most striking is that it took place immediately after Newsweek ran a cover story on the fledgling feminist movement titled “Women in Revolt” in March of 1970, with a screaming cover featuring a naked woman bursting through a broken female-sex symbol. As the issue hit newsstands on that fateful Monday morning of March 16, 46 of Newsweek’s female employees filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the charge that they had been “systematically discriminated against in both hiring and promotion and forced to assume subsidiary role” due entirely to their gender. It was the first sex-discrimination lawsuit in the history of media, and it garnered prolific news coverage around the world — some of which was itself appallingly emblematic of the sort of culturally condoned sexism at the heart of the lawsuit. Povich offers a chilling example:

The story in the New York Daily News, titled “Newshens Sue Newsweek of ‘Equal Rights,'” began, ‘Forty-six women on the staff of Newsweek magazine, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced today they were suing the magazine.

But the women, undeterred, moved forward with the suit. They had chosen Eleanor Holmes Norton, the assistant legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, to represent them. Povich recalls a monumental moment at the packed press conference:

‘It is ironic,’ [Norton] said, waving a copy of the magazine, ‘that while Newsweek considers women’s grievances noteworthy enough for such a major coverage, it continues to maintain a policy of discrimination against the women on its own staff. . . . The statistics speak for themselves — there are more than fifty men writing at Newsweek, but only one woman.’ She pointed out that although the women were graduates of top colleges, held advanced degrees, and had published in major news journals, ‘Newsweek’s caste system relegates women with such credentials to research jobs almost exclusively and interminably.’

But the irony didn’t stop there. Povich recalls:

It was an exhilarating moment for us, and a shocking one for Newsweek’s editors, who couldn’t have been more surprised if their own daughters had risen up in revolt. We had been secretly strategizing for months, whispering behind closed doors, congregating int he Newsweek ladies’ room, and meeting in our apartments at night. As our numbers increased, we had hired a lawyer and were just reviewing our options when we were suddenly presented it with a truly lucky break. In early 1970, Newsweek’s editors decided that the new women’s liberation movement deserved a cover story. There was one problem, however: there were no women to write the piece.

Indeed, when the idea of a women’s liberation cover story first came up, the editors immediately realized they couldn’t have a man write it — but they didn’t trust any of the women on the staff with it. Instead, for the first time in the magazine’s history, they went outside the organizaton and hired Helen Dudar, a star writer at the New York Post, to write the piece. (Coincidentally or not, Dudar’s husband was one of Newsweek’s top writers.) As Povich recalls, this only galvanized the women at Newsweek, who then decided to time the lawsuit with the cover story’s release. The rest, as the saying goes, is history — but, oh, what riveting and reverberating history.

In an age when we celebrate how women are changing the face of media, The Good Girls Revolt is an essential piece of media history that shows us not only how far we’ve come but, with just the right amount of self-conscious cultural discomfort, how far we’re yet to go.

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21 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Why Understanding the Individual is the Key to Understanding Mass Movements

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“Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) was one of the most prolific and dedicated diarists in modern literary history, her journals a treasure trove of insight on life, literature, society, and human nature. From the The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us Nin’s illustrated insights on life, this poignant mediation on Paris vs. New York, and Henry Miller’s wisdom on giving vs. receiving — comes this thoughtful reflection on why understanding the masses, in sociology and in politics, must be preceded by understanding the triumphs and tragedies of the individual:

The general obsession with observing only historical or sociological movements, and not a particular human being (which is considered such righteousness here [in America]) is as mistaken as a doctor who does not take an interest in a particular case. Every particular case is an experience that can be valuable to the understanding of the illness.

There is an opacity in individual relationships, and an insistence that the writer make the relation of the particular to the whole which makes for a kind of farsightedness. I believe in just the opposite. Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood, and this would give a far greater understanding of mass movements and sociology.

Also, this indifference to the individual, total lack of interest in intimate knowledge of the isolated, unique human being, atrophies human reactions and humanism. Too much social consciousness and not a bit of insight into human beings.

As soon as you speak in psychological terms (applying understanding of one to the many is not the task of the novelist but of the historian) people act as if you had a lack of interest in the wider currents of the history of man. In other words, they feel able to study masses and consider this more virtuous, assign of a vaster concept than relating to one person. This makes them …. inadequate in relationships, in friendships, in psychological understanding.

A couple of pages later, Nin ties this to political leadership in a way that, in an election year, rings more urgent than ever:

My lack of faith in the men who lead us is that they do not recognize the irrational in men, they have no insight, and whoever does not recognize the personal, individual drama of man cannot lead them.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is sublime in its entirety.

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