March for Science II

It was fun– and I don’t mean that in a trivial sense.  For me, the March for Science rally in San Francisco yesterday had the right mix of whimsy and angst, of hilarious satire and hard facts.  There were the white lab coats.  The DNA models.  The signs saying, “Remember polio?  I don’t,” “Science Not Silence,” and “If you think science is expensive, try guesswork!”  Although the march was supposedly non-partisan (one sign said, “Science is not Democrat or Republican” and another “Science is not an ideology”), it was hard to skirt the fact that our Chaos President’s administration has been Ground Zero for the unleashing of virulent attacks against scientific principles and evidence-based policies.  In the Trump White House, GOP partisanship and corporate financial interests are favored over data and facts, even if the consequences might threaten the world.  I saw a decidedly partisan sign with just ten characters:  OMG/GOP/WTF?

The speakers ranged from the humorous-but-pointed to the earnest and personal.  Gauging the applause level was my “eardrum approach” to surveying audience sympathies.  When it came to climate change and the denial thereof, the reaction was the most prolonged, almost angry in its intensity.  Then quoting Niels Bohr, who won the 1922 Nobel Prize for describing the atomic structure and later contributed to quantum theory (“Science is the gradual elimination of prejudice”) drew loud approval.  Other topics: support for NASA; the Clean Water Act on the chopping block; fear of a post-truth world in which evidence doesn’t matter; teachers of science and math as the first line of defense- all of these received wholehearted applause.  With the debunking of vaccine-induced autism, there was a slight but perceptible drop in volume.  How about genetically engineering crops to feed the world?  There was definitely a moment of uncertainty when folks had to decide how they felt about GMOs, and whether to clap at all.  Just as the Women’s March in January demonstrated divisions between those supporting women’s rights, the March for Science showed that belief in science does not translate in a homogeneous way to setting policy.

Maybe there should be a March for Science Fiction.  Poets and writers of fiction often set a stage for the interplay of multiple points of view.  This hypothetical staging leads to a grand conclusion, but also allows layering of multiple take-home messages, as I’ve tried to do in my novel Fourth World.  Even in science, there are shades of gray, when you take into consideration ethics, inclusivity and social justice, geopolitics and so on, and sometimes it takes imagination to untangle these factors.  “Science is Hope,” I read on a placard.  Science fiction, which projects current science onto a hypothetical stage by the power of imagination, is also hope.


Yield Sign Ahead

Much to worry about this week.  North Korea tests missiles to deliver nuclear warheads; the era of patient diplomacy is over, announces the VP, and the US fleet steams into the area; Syria steps up bombing of civilians in the aftermath of 59 US cruise missiles hitting their airbase.  Violent confrontations from the Philippines to South Sudan saturate the news.  In my mind is the image of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, standing in front of one another exchanging mighty blows- back and forth and pow and bang, until one man finally collapses in a bloody heap.  The one who remains standing, suffering huge blood loss, a ruptured spleen, multiple broken bones and a concussion, is the winner.  Our Chaos President has promised us “so much winning we’ll be sick of it.”

I took Tai Chi lessons way back in college, and although I’m just a hack, one lesson that stuck with me is that yielding to an oncoming force can be more powerful and effective than running headlong into it.  We were taught that the energy of the opponent can be used to take him down (as was demonstrated on us repeatedly).  One evening after Tai Chi class, I almost stepped in front of a car, when suddenly a girl in the class, who was standing behind me, shouted, “Yield!”  Tai Chi saved my life.

Here’s an excerpt from a scene in Fourth World, in which Leader Chou of the PWE (the one world government) reflects on world domination:

One group, whether ethnic, political or religious; whether a tribe, a nation, or a civilization; would make advances on various fronts, only to see those advances destroyed by the next group.  True, the PWE itself had been compared to an oppressive empire, but that was unavoidable in the first two or three centuries of establishing a truly unified human race:  a frictionless and efficient engine which would allow mankind to achieve its full potential.

During this transitional phase, it would be simple enough to arrest the petty saboteurs and protestors, banishing all the opposition immediately to the Quarantine Zones.  But the PWE Council had wisely adopted the Thousand Steps policy, based on the enlightened concept that yielding- in a strictly controlled way, of course- to the opposition would actually hasten the transition, whereas an overpowering show of force could prolong the resistance indefinitely.  The power of the state was not without limits, and history provided many cautionary tales.  Attempts to brutally crush insurgencies in Northern Ireland, Vietnam, the Middle East, South Africa, and China itself, had all led to catastrophic domino effects, throwing fuel onto smoldering fires.


March for Science

I don’t have any scientific data on this, but it seems to me that there has been a sharp rise in marches and other public demonstrations since the election of our Chaos President.  So many widely-accepted ideas and established programs/policies have come under fire from the Administration that an increasing number of alarmed citizens have felt the need to rise up in protest.

Now there’s a March for Science scheduled for Earth Day, Saturday, April 22nd at the Mall in Washington, D.C. and many other sites around the world (locally at Justin Herman Plaza, SF, 11 AM).  As a physician, I grew up steeped in biology, chemistry, physics, physiology and other scientific disciplines; relied on well-designed clinical trials in order to practice evidence-based medicine; applied the fruits of medical research and technological advances to improve or save lives; and feared the encroachment of financial interests which overshadow doing what’s best for patients.  I have simply taken for granted that the scientific method is essential, that data and evidence are critical, and (mistakenly) that everybody knows these things.  So it came as a shock that Science needs a march!  No-one would claim that all scientific studies are accurate and free of corrupt influence, but even the satirical movie Animal House allows (as a university motto) that Knowledge Is Good.

Since higher education is usually the path to scientific knowledge and expertise, it’s hard to avoid the false equivalence of science and elitism, in the minds of many.  And the way to counter such elitism (vigorously aided by the above-mentioned financial interests) is to deny the importance of science, or even set up the idea of fake science as a straw man.  Deny the conclusions of climatologists, and dismantle agreements to fight climate change on a global scale.  Deny that CO2 is a cause of global warming, and put the chief denier in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (see my earlier post, So Who Asked You?).  Cling to the false belief- many times disproven- that vaccines cause autism, and appoint the chief clinger to oversee vaccine safety.  Propose a budget that cuts funding for cancer, immunologic, genetic and other vital research at the National Institutes of Health.  Allow the use of pesticides that have been shown to harm children.  Deny the benefits of forensic science programs that increase accuracy in enforcing the law.  Apparently you can simply choose your beliefs without evidence, as they did in the Dark Ages.

So Science does need a march.  But it won’t end there, as a symbolic gesture; the march will shift public discourse, inspire blog postings like this, prompt letters and calls to Congress, and, more locally, it will bring a wide variety of influential people together in the progressive/technological/academically-heavy Bay Area.  Is the march elitist?  I doubt anyone will care.  See you on the 22nd!

The Latest On Fourth World

My science fiction novel Fourth World came out 6-7 months ago as an e-book, but now is available in paperback, on Amazon:  there is a link to the Amazon site on this blog.  Hope you enjoy it!  I want to thank readers of this blog, and of Fourth World, for all your interest and support.  Who knew there would be so many aficionados of medicine, genetics, geopolitics and Mars in the year 2196?

An update on the sequel, Fourth World Nation:  I know a sizable number of readers are anxiously wondering (and have given me grief over) what happens to Benn and Lora.  Well, the wait is almost over- I am nearly finished with the first writing of the sequel, and re-writing will take a couple of months.  Then it’s onward to the dramatic conclusion to the trilogy!

Who’s More Equal, You or Me?

Since Inauguration Day, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have gone up; worried folks are looking for a parallel between Big Brother and our Chaos President.  But another parallel comes to mind, and I thought of it again when reading today’s Forum piece in the New York Times.  Allison Stanger, the liberal poli-sci professor who invited conservative Charles Murray to speak at Middlebury College- and as a result suffered whiplash and a concussion at the hands of violent protestors- points out that freedom of speech and assembly protect everyone, especially minorities.  During the Vietnam War and early days of the civil rights movement, many liberal, idealistic young people, myself included, had to struggle for the right to demonstrate peacefully and to speak our minds.  The Constitution backed up our view that we were all created equal, and therefore had equal rights.  That historical struggle for freedom of speech and assembly, says Stanger, “has been a means to greater inclusivity and social justice.”  From firsthand experience, I agree.

Now I see similarly liberal, idealistic young people preventing those with a different opinion from gathering or speaking, in the name of inclusivity and social justice.  It’s just as ironic as George Orwell’s punchline from Animal Farm:  yes, we are created equal, “… but some are more equal than others.”  Violent rejections of invited speakers have erupted at Middlebury, UC Berkeley, McMaster University and elsewhere.  Even setting aside the educational imperative- the argument that college should be a “battleground for competing ideas,” that we “benefit from civil engagement with those with whom we disagree”- these illiberal eruptions, often involving people clad all in black and wearing masks, are profoundly disturbing, raising a specter of tyranny through righteous zero-tolerance.

Maybe this is no longer about safe spaces, or about clarifying our own beliefs by inviting other, challenging points of view.  Maybe it’s about the lessons of Psych 101.  There seems to be an opportunistic, tyrannical streak in human nature, one that pops up under the right circumstances (especially when participants are incognito), no matter which side you’re on.  As a writer, I feel the need to point out this regrettable human trait, which shapes many aspects of the dystopian future in Fourth World.  As an old protestor, though, I hope that George and I have gotten it all wrong.  I invite readers’ comments.

Grinding the Axe

In Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, the narrator Larry Morgan describes the pain in his past, writing the final chapters of his book in tears:

Yet now, having held in grief and resentment, and evaded thinking too much about the episode that changed my life with the finality of an axe, here I am exalted by having made use of it, by having spilled my guts in public.  We are strange creatures, and writers are stranger creatures than most.

We write what we know, and sometimes what we know is painful- perhaps not as acutely as an axe falling, but more chronically, like a corrosive acid.  When writing about and making use of the pain, it’s important not to let self-pity take charge.  There are several themes in Fourth World, motifs intertwined like strands of DNA.  One of these, I imagine, is almost a universal feeling:  that of not belonging, of always looking in from the outside, no matter what one accomplishes in life.  In my case, that came from moving back and forth, as a child, between countries with different dominant languages and cultures, histories and aspirations.  One country (Malaysia) had the history of being the colony of another (the UK, where the British held- and still hold- strong prejudices regarding their former colonial subjects).  Feeling like an outsider in London was- and is, for Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.- not imaginary.  And, believe it or not, California in the mid-1960s was not a friendly place for Asian kids either- especially those who kept their original names.  Even with English as my first language, a vaguely British accent was a source of humor.

Despite objective evidence to the contrary, immigrants are often told that they are being too sensitive; reassured that the prejudice they see every day is not really there; reminded that after years of living in this country, they have reaped the benefits.  But do they truly belong?  I’m grateful to live in the US and feel much more fortunate than the vast majority, but still sympathize (which literally means to suffer with) today’s immigrants, especially in the current hostile climate.

In my novel Fourth World, Benn Marr has it much worse:  he comes from an Earth colony on Mars!  Here’s his conversation with Lora:

Benn snorted.  “You know, I do try awfully hard to keep the weird behavior to myself.”

Lora spotted a segue opportunity.  “Actually, you might rephrase that:  trying so hard to keep to yourself is your weird behavior.”  Lora took a deep breath- it was as good a time as any to say it.  “This has been bothering me since Highland City.  Benn:  you are, without  doubt, an extremely difficult person to read.”

Benn, who had a history of stumbling badly where Lora was concerned, thought she was still teasing.  “You mean difficult to read, as in a boring novel?  I’ll try to spice up my plot.”  She met his grin with a blank look.

“Difficult because I’m written in a foreign language?” he tried again.

“Come on, Benn.”  Lora rolled her eyes.  “Not a foreign language.  But you do act like a foreigner.  I always get the feeling that you’re holding back, standing apart and watching, as though you don’t belong.”

“That’s because I don’t belong.  And you do?  I admit, you fit in much better than I do, what with having social skills and all.  I’ll be forever an outsider, Lora:  the colonial subject visiting the imperial capital, tolerated only as long as I have something to contribute.  Otherwise it’s ‘Back to the colony, boy, your permit’s been canceled.’”

“You don’t need to feel that way, Benn.  You see yourself as more of an outsider than others do.”

“Do you really suppose these folks consider us Martians their equals?  Back to the original subject, do you think Torch Halsey thinks of us as neighbors or alien freaks?”

“Halsey’s not a valid example; to him, everyone is a potential terrorist!”


We Live in a Sci-fi World II

Stem cells are all the rage.  And why not?  There is the potential to generate tissues of all kinds (kidney, brain, eyes etc.) from these undifferentiated cells, and to transplant those tissues into humans in order to treat disease.  During national elections, the analogy would be to turn uncommitted voters into Democrats or Republicans and then to move them into districts where they’re needed to boost the Electoral College count.  Stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can grow up to be anything you choose by design.  An uninformed, unenlightened, unfeeling cell can one day become President of the United States- oops, I mean a kidney!

But their promise comes with great risk (see POTUS, above).  As a sad example, three very unfortunate women with partial loss of vision due to macular degeneration recently went to a Florida clinic where stem cells were injected into their eyes in an unproven treatment, and that resulted in their total blindness!  The use of experimental treatments without adequate studies will only increase, now that stem-cell clinics are popping up like spring flowers, and funding for the National Institutes of Health falling like autumn leaves.  In the current climate (pun intended) of denying scientific data, turning to “alternate facts,” and stigmatizing knowledge and expertise as elitist, careful assessment of the risks and benefits will diminish, while opportunistic stem-cell providers, like those in Florida, will thrive.

In my novel Fourth World, I’ve tried to keep a balanced view of stem-cell technology and genetic engineering, acknowledging both the gains and the pitfalls.  Dr. Neelin, Professor of Recombinant Anatomy, has made a cause of pursuing what he calls quacks and quasi-sequencers.  This is from a cadaver demonstration that Benn Marr attends:

Neelin held his right hand up.  “I have one more example of quackery to show you.  Bob, you see, was a victim not only of technical incompetence, but of outright fraud.  Late in his life, he fell out of a Banyan tree while bird-watching in the district then known as Australia.  He sustained a pelvic fracture and had to enlist the help of a migrant clinic in the back country, in order to regenerate the broken bone.  They infused him with an unidentified stem cell, his diary shows, but the end result was only discovered at Bob’s post-mortem.”  Neelin appeared to be rummaging around in Bob’s intestines.  He finally pushed them toward the back with outstretched fingers, exposing two thin bony structures pointing upward from the pelvis.  Puzzled interns frantically interrogated their datadiscs, again without success.

“Their treatment provided Bob, bless his original heart, with these two extraneous bones, which you see protruding here.  These bones did nothing to help Bob with his pelvic fracture, but he would have found them useful- very useful indeed- had he… been… born… a…”  Neelin paused expectantly.

“A kangaroo!” shouted Benn triumphantly.

Neelin released Bob’s intestines with a loud flop and whirled around to face Benn.  “A kangaroo or any marsupial- excellent!  Young man, you are the first intern in over two decades to recognize these as epipubic bones:  their function is to support a marsupial’s pouch.  Excellent!”