Monday, June 24, 2019

When It Comes to Science and the Truth:Just the Facts, Please.

“There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.”

I’m no scientist, not by a long shot. When God was giving out the kind of brain and intellect needed to plumb the depths of human knowledge with precise observation and experimentation, I think I was in the wrong line.  Hence, I still suffer from PTSD as a result of high school organic chemistry and in college my favorite science class was “Rocks for Jocks”, also known as Geology 101. That’s why the scientists I’ve come to know in my life: I so respect them. Like a young woman named Sherri who is an actual rocket scientist from M.I.T., helping to design crew quarters for the next manned space mission. Is that cool or what?! Or my friend Simon whose specialty is materials science: he invented a biodegradable form of plastic that will help save planet earth, one disposable fork at a time. 

Scientists: people who come by their knowledge not by opinion, but by study, often years and years and years of study and schooling. Scientists: who come to discover answers to the hardest of human questions not by winging it, not by slinging it, but by care-filled and careful work. Experiment. Observe. Fail. Experiment again. Observe. Maybe finally succeed. Then repeat. Facts realized: not by hocus pocus or sleight of hand but by the scientific method. 

So, call me crazy, but when it comes to science, I actually trust scientists like my two friends. 

I wish I could say the same for millions of my fellow citizens, the ones who do not trust hard and true and proven scientific fact. Take the so-called “anti-vaxxers”, a tenacious and scary group of folks who, regardless of the real facts when it comes to the science and success of vaccines, still refuse to get their children vaccinated, thus endangering many other children. They are against vaccines and so that stubborn opposition has resulted in something the United States has not seen for a very long time: outbreaks of the measles and chicken pox. School closures, panic in the community because of the real fear of spreading diseases that had once been essentially stamped out through universal childhood vaccinations. 

The part I do not get in this anti-science movement is that scientific facts actually prove that vaccines do work, overwhelmingly so. Fact. According to the Centers for Disease Control, vaccines have prevented more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children in the past twenty years alone.  Or take the polio vaccine: the CDC reports that the United States has been polio free since 1979.  Not one case has been reported. If you grew up in the 1950’s, you still remember the polio scares, the reality that polio resulted in 15,000 case of paralysis a year, before the invention of the polio vaccine in 1955. 

But maybe scariest part of this movement, much scarier to me than the threat of any actual disease is the threat of willful ignorance. The threat of so many folks, too many folks, making decisions and drawing conclusions based upon opinion, not scientific fact. Opinions coming not from actual scientists, but instead in many cases, from celebrities. The most visible and vocal anti-vaxxers are not scientists: they are actors. That’s right, actors, like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone, and Jessica Biel to name but a few of the high-profile celebs who pretend and claim to know more about vaccine science than actual vaccine scientists.  The one so called “scientific” study that supposedly proved a link between vaccines and autism, still cited by some anti-vaxxers, was long ago discredited by the medical profession, its author stripped of his medical license.

Here’s what may be the most important fact of all. God gave each of us a brain to think, not just emotions to feel. I can go ahead and feel all I want: that vaccines are dangerous, that the world is flat, that climate change is a hoax and that the universe was created in a literal seven-day period. But I cannot state these as being factually true. I cannot claim the proof of so-called “science” to back up my claims, if that science is false or shoddy or shaped to agree with my opinion. And I certainly won’t be turning anytime soon for advice on cancer care from Kim Kardashian or on climate change from a failed real estate developer turned politician.

Science is science. Opinion is opinion. When we mix up the two: that’s when we get into trouble. As the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it is true, whether or not you believe in it.”

Thank you, science and scientists, for sticking to the facts. Just the facts.




Monday, June 17, 2019

Summertime Is Almost Here: It's About Time!!!!!

“Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.”       --Al Bernstein

First day of summer. 

There is something so sweet, so graceful, so wonderful about that phrase, that realty of the one day when we actually pass over from spring into summer. First day of summer is this week: as we finally move from the intensity and packed activities that so often mark the month of June. Teary and grateful graduations and antsy kids sitting at school desks daydreaming as they look out the windows at puffy clouds in a high blue sky.  Moving vans being packed up on the streets of the city as thousands of students go home or go away for a first job. Late June ends in a loud crescendo of activity and is quiet. Or at least quieter.

In the small town I call home it is as if someone throws a switch to "off" and suddenly the streets are less crowded with cars and the pews in church are less peopled with worshippers who now claim Sunday morning for golf or sleep or the paper or a hammock. True: some places get busier. The line out the door at the local ice cream shack often snakes out into the parking lot.  The line of cars going on Cape stretches back mile after mile, everyone anticipating going over the bridge and then taking a deep breath and knowing that summer has truly begun.

What's your summer cue? Your summer start, the one thing or event or demarcation that absolutely lets you know that your summer has truly and finally begun?

Nature has its cross over point of BS to FS--before summer to full summer.  So this Friday the 21st at 11:54 am, summer begins on the longest day of the year, clocking in at 15 hours, five minutes and thirty six seconds of daylight.  That day the sun will rise at 5:25 am for those of us in the Eastern Time Zone and it won't go down until 8:30 pm.  The next day we'll lose two seconds of light, as the earth begins to tilt away from the sun.

But let's not worry about that. Not yet.

My signals for summer? I've got so many! Hot and crispy onion rings from a beachside clam shack I've visited since childhood. The sounds of a Red Sox game on the radio as I zoom along in my car with the windows down. A late day bicycle ride on my favorite local stretch of road, grinding the gears up a long hill and then gliding at 25 miles per hour on the downhill, feeling so free in that journey.  Sitting on the backyard screened in porch and listening to the peepers on a warm July evening.

I've no doubt we'll all soon find ways to complain about summer. After all we New Englanders can be cranky Yankees. We can find just about anything to kvetch about.  So much too soon we'll be carping about how wicked hot it is or how it's raining too much or how we just wish the tourists would go back home or how we have to mow the lawn again or just how bad the Sox are playing.

But let's not go there. Instead let's go out to the garden and carefully pluck away the weeds so by mid-August we'll be biting into ripe and red tomatoes.  Let's go out to the front yard with our son or daughter and play catch as dusk settles in.  Let's lean back into the sultry heat of a July day and then listen as the hot bugs buzz away with their insistent call.  Let's just be grateful to the Creator for a time of year when rest is possible, when time is ours' for the taking, when memories are made and stored away, so we can unpack them next February as the snow falls.

It's almost summer, God's gift to creation, free and ready for the taking.  I for one cannot wait!  The water's fine. Jump right in. Last one in is a rotten egg.

So welcome back, summer. We missed you.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Secret to Running the Race of Human Life? Just Do It.

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."   --Henry David Thoreau

55,334 steps.

That's the number of strides it takes for a runner to complete a marathon, 26.2 miles from beginning to end, to compete in and then complete, this most ancient of athletic competitions. So in our own Boston Marathon, for example, that's all the way from the postcard perfect town green of suburban Hopkinton to the finish line under the shadow of the skyscraping Prudential Center in downtown Boston. A very long way to propel one's self using only your body. No Uber. No commuter train. No cruising along the Pike in your car. Nope. Just your muscles and your breath and your will to finish.

So what's the secret to competing in and completing such a herculean task? There must be a mysterious shortcut, maybe a hack that makes marathoning somehow easier, right? I've got friends who run marathons and when I ask them just how they do it, how they achieve the seemingly impossible, how they can actually run such a very long distance, their answer is both obvious and simple.

They just run.

They lace up their sneakers and begin with one step and then another step and another and another and another. They have the goal of being a marathoner and then they take that hope and translate it into action. Into running: when the weather is perfect and they've got a tailwind that makes them feel as if they are Mercury, the Greek god of fleet footedness.  They also run when it is cold and rainy at 6 am. They run after working a full day, even though all they really want to do is flop down on the couch with a beer. Instead, they get up and they go out and they run. 

They just run.

Told you the answer was a no brainer, so clear and yet so hard sometimes. To dream big dreams for ourselves in this life but then to also have the discipline and the courage to make them come true. To imagine a glorious victory but then do the hard work of getting to that finish line. In Thoreau's words, to build castles in the air and then also have the wisdom to build foundations under them.

Ask most humans if they've got some dream they've always wanted to achieve and guaranteed they will have at least one great hope.  One achievement they've always fantasized about realizing. To run a marathon. Write a book. Sing a solo on stage. Start a business. Stand for election to public office.  Build a house. 

What's your dream?

To dream big is to be human. To dream big is to listen to the divine voice within that dares us to become and not just to be. In this season of graduations, speakers stand before wide eyed and huge hearted graduates and seek to inspire those young people to soar, to take that degree and become who they are called to become in the world. Who their Creator made them to be. 


That's all good. Yet the best of intentions, even the greatest idea of all time: it cannot, it will not ever come true unless we as the dreamer finally make the commitment and begin the race. Sit down before the computer with its blank screen and then type the very first word.  Arise at 5 am to get into the office early before most folks have had their first cup of coffee. Pull on well worn running shoes and put one foot in front of the other and begin at mile marker one.

In the race called human life, we can all dream. That's a great beginning. But to finish? We must get to work. We must leave the easy life of day dreaming and then do the actual work of life building. We must run.

Ready? Set? GO!


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Living In the Middle In a World of Extremes

"A horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle." 
--Ian Fleming, British author

Smack dab in the middle. An equal number of folks above me and below me. Not cutting edge but instead most often middling in my ways and opinions and tastes and politics. This is where I usually land in this life. Find myself. Claim as home.

Somewhere in the middle.

And so my class rank on graduating high school was something like 600th out of 1,200 students at West Springfield, Massachusetts High School, a school that by the way is today ranked number 178th out of 395 high schools in the state. Which put it in the middle. Then I attended the University of Massachusetts, considered a middle safe pick for middle class students like me back then. I wanted to go to my first pick for graduate school, Harvard University, the tops of the top, the pinnacle, but I instead went to the middle of my three picks, Boston University, having been rejected by that crimson school in Cambridge. 

The middle. I always seem to return there.

My tastes tend to middle brow. What better place is there for dinner than in a well worn Main Street diner, parked on some urban street or a lonely stretch of rural road? When my local Sears Department store went out of business this year, the retail mecca I'd faithfully shopped at for all of my life, the land of Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances, where I'd gotten my first credit card, bought my first TV: I shed a tear the day they closed their doors. Middle America did too. That's where America shopped.

My favorite place to visit? The mid-west of course, Minnesota to be exact, a second home where I've made lots of friends, where I rediscover every time I go there, a more balanced pace of life, certainly not as fast or frantic as the east coast. A middle way of life. Minnesotans speak of an attitude of "Minnesota nice", and do so without a tinge of irony. Midway between the coasts? This "middle-ish" guy loves to call it his second home, in the middle of the country.     

Politics is where I get in real trouble. In the middle.

I am not an over the top lefty liberal, a cold brew coffee drinking, MSNBC addict who's crying out "IMPEACH NOW!" at the top of my lungs. Nor am I a far righty conservative, a Fox News watching acolyte who's convinced climate change is a hoax and that the current commander in chief can do absolutely no wrong. Being in the middle ideologically often brings derision, even contempt from both sides, proof that in this current time in history, politics has been pretty much hijacked by the extremes, the way out ends of the ideological spectrum. That's sad because the truth is that most Americans identify themselves as political moderates. That the answers to our current civic woes probably lie somewhere in the middle ground of compromise.

The middle. 

Even religion is caught these days in extremes of thought and practice. Some folks of faith would be more than happy to take their cherished beliefs about life and then impose them on the populace as a whole, even though we live in a religiously diverse land of many faiths and of no faith too.

Last week hundreds of conservative American religious leaders took out a full page ad in the national USA Today newspaper, asking America to pray for the President, a seemingly noble effort led by Franklin Graham, Billy's son. But of this, Graham said, "When the Mueller report came out, instead of moving on to something else, they’re continuing to attack the president. I’m just burdened for him and his family that God would somehow protect him and get him through this.”

Wait. Shouldn't all people of faith in fact be praying for all of our leaders, not just one select person? Pray for all of those office holders on the left wing and the right wing and the middle wing too? Does Graham actually believe that God plays favorites in politics, is of one narrow extreme ideological stripe?

Yup. No middle ground there.

Me? I'm taking my place and staking out my turf right here in the middle, unashamedly, because that is where most humans live most of the time. Because in order for there to be extremes, there needs to be a middle, to keep both sides in check, to keep things in balance, to save us from ourselves and our more extreme beliefs and ways.  

The middle. That's where I am. That's where I'll be.  And you?