Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

Belated Happy Earth Day

May 15, 2017

I remember when Earth Day began in 1970. We lived in Massachusetts, and it was common to see soap bubbles in waterways because few municipalities had sewage systems adequate to dissolve the excessive phosphate that manufacturers put into detergents back then. The previous year, petroleum pollution on Lake Erie was so bad that water near Cleveland literally caught on fire. Richard Nixon, who was president then, was a paranoid politician who played dirty tricks on his opponents and richly deserved his ultimate fate -- but he did have enough sense to establish the Environmental Protection Agency in response to those of us who protested on behalf of Mother Earth.


Because this was at the height of the counter culture era, the image of environmentalists became one of tree-hugging hippies. This never has been true, as the movement also included many science nerds, but they were not the media’s focus. Thus I was very happy this year to see Earth Day organizers’ overt attention to science. It’s an excellent strategy, as the conservative attitude toward science is perhaps the best example of their double-thinking: They want science, as in STEM, while they also often deny the findings of objective scientists.


Back in the day, for instance, conservatives denied scientific admonitions against tobacco – and tobacco companies found a few scientists who were willing to take money to “find” other laboratory results. I briefly worked at a hospital between college and graduate school and remember clearly how the first physician there to speak out against cigarettes was ridiculed, even by other physicians. But eventually the truth prevailed, and cigarette advertising on television ended because of a federal ban. Tobacco companies now push their deadly drug in Third World countries because most Americans have recognized scientific reality.


Now the battle is climate change. The first time I saw an environmentalist wearing a “Stop Global Warming” button, I wasn’t convinced -- but as the years passed and the evidence piled up, I had to acknowledge the validity of predictions. You may remember that I wrote some time ago about a Norwegian ship that was able to sail across northern Canada because so much ice has melted there that geographers’ speculation on a “Northwest Passage” between the Atlantic and Pacific is proving true. Hubby and I saw the effects of a warming Arctic already in 2003, when we went to Alaska in February. At the coldest time of year, inland glaciers that had been monstrous a few decades earlier were notably diminished. The famous Iterod race has had to move its starting line further and further north, as icepacks around the original Anchorage locale are grossly insufficient for Alaskan huskies to pull sleds. Their trails were likely to be mud, not snow.


Yet most conservative politicians aren’t supportive of conservation of the Earth. They interpret biblical admonitions on stewardship to mean dominance, not concern for nature, and believe that they can disrespect Mother Earth with impunity. Despite the recent oil spill in our Gulf, for one example, Rick Scott and other Republicans still want to “drill, baby, drill.” They think only in the short term and only about quick return on flighty investment.


Thinking and Double-Thinking


Thus our best chance of slowing money-grubbing assaults on the planet is to force conservatives to face up to their double-thinking about science. Double-thinking is a mindset with parallel tracks of two differing convictions that never meet – nor even see each other. For one example, I’ve always been astonished at the number of fundamentalists who stoutly deny the theory of evolution, and yet have no objection to dinosaurs-related toys -- with the result that their kids grow up with at least as much interest in Jurassic Park as in the Garden of Eden. I have to wonder if parents intend these contradictory messages, and then I wonder why they don’t wonder.


I recently sat through a sermon by a science-denier who cited a quote from Charles Darwin. At the end of his life, Darwin apparently wrote that he no longer was interested in music or art, as he had been earlier, and the preacher took this to mean that Darwin regretted his evolved philosophy. I interpreted it in a completely opposite way: that as his years wound down, he had no time for anything except science. It’s an amazing thing how two different people can come to opposite conclusions based on the same text– but that’s not really the point.


The point is that most conservative politicians praise STEM, but they fail to think deeply about the first word, “science.” The rest of the acronym – technology, engineering, and math – are relatively rigid subjects that can be taught without much thoughtfulness, but science -- especially the bio-sciences -- inherently involves intellectual and ethical queries that aren’t easily answered, particularly if one’s sole source is the Bible. Yet our governor and his pals prefer STEM to subjects that could be really useful for lifelong citizenship: psychology, sociology, history, world literature, and especially government. Instead, these educational mandate makers insist that students take algebra and calculus. That’s real world preparation, isn’t it?


So the best thing that defenders of the Earth can do is to support true science, starting with the scientific method of positing propositions and offering theories of explanation. Opposition to this methodology is not nearly as bad now as it was back in Galileo’s day, when church and state combined to threaten his execution for asserting that the world was round. We have more freedom, and like everything else, science evolves. Just in my lifetime, much of Newtonian physics was replaced by Einstein’s insights -- and who knows what will be next? The important point is to keep an open mind and not to scorn those who explore new possibilities.


Final thought on this: We should watch our words. Scientists can be their own worst enemies in using jargon that they think will mark their work as new and trendy – but too often, it results in a negative pushback that slows down their research. I’m thinking of the recent announcement of an “artificial womb” that promises to enhance the growth of premature babies. An immediate outcry was the result, with people thinking of artificial infants, not simply the improved incubator that the invention is. Words matter. Perhaps the neo-natal physicians who developed this could have avoided a public relations disaster if they had taken more English.


My Worst Political Mistake Ever


If you don’t care about politics and local history, you’ll probably want to stop reading now. As I said last week, a computer breakdown meant that I devoted time to sorting paper files, and the following analysis is a result of combing through one from 1979.


The broader context: the Florida Democratic Party followed the reforms of the national party that grew out of the 1968 and 1972 elections, and in 1975, we had our first state convention, as opposed to the (yes, smoke-filled) caucuses of earlier times. A straw ballot at the convention propelled Georgia neighbor Jimmy Carter to the national nomination in 1976, and party leaders ever since have seen the value of such conventions. National media loves to come to Florida in November or December of the year prior to presidential elections.


I worked hard to elect Jimmy Carter in 1976, but like many of my friends, I was persuaded to desert him in favor of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy for the 1980 nomination. The Kennedy campaign offered me a paid position to organize delegates to the 1979 state convention, which again would feature a straw ballot. Times were different then; Hillsborough County had few Republicans, and Democrats organized some big events that fall. We filled the Tampa Theater for a county convention, and on another weekend, we went to the courthouse and cast ballots using voter machines. Almost two thousand Democrats participated in this election, with about a hundred candidates competing for 75 delegate slots to the state convention.


I was not on the ballot, as I had an assured place with the Kennedy campaign, but Hubby was. Labor developed a slate that would go to the convention uncommitted to either Carter or Kennedy, and of course both national candidates organized their supporters. Carter’s people were led by his Bayshore cousin, Calvin Carter. So when I came across this paper file, I thought those of you who are political animals would be interested in this blast from the past. I still know some of the winners, while others I’ve forgotten -- but what is clear is that labor did well, as all of the candidates who topped a thousand votes were on its slate. Some were pledged to Kennedy, others to Carter, and many to neither. The winners included Hispanics and African Americans -- but women, not so much.


The top vote-getters (and their affiliations, if I remember them) were: Manuel Arduengo, 1483; Bob Garcia (bus drivers), 1477; Adrian Castro, 1463; Brian Blair (carpenters), 1458; Danny McKinnon (plumbers), 1451; my Hubby (United Faculty of Florida), 1431, Randolph Myers, 1409; Kelly Sapp (electricians), 1396; Margie Strickland (wife of an electrician), Simon Simpson, 1378; Perry Harvey (dockworkers; later a city council member), 1218; and Ernie Hartless (mechanists), 1144.


So how does this become the worst political mistake I ever made? I did too good a job of organizing, and Kennedy beat Carter decisively – despite days of recounting because the incumbent’s people just couldn’t believe they lost. My mistake: I was young and didn’t realize that if an incumbent has a badly divided party, he probably will lose the general election. Jimmy Carter was and is a good man, and I lost patience with him too quickly. The result in 1980 was Ronald Reagan -- and the beginning of a downward slide on environmentalism, feminism, and many other goals of the reformist 1970s. It’s been slow going ever since.


doris@dweatherford.com





Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

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