A panic resolution

panic1Sometimes lives hinge on a few opinions, some arguably non-scientific and emotional. These opinions can defy logic and common sense, but they are deemed valid because of the emotional charge they carry. They “feel” right.

Over the holiday break, I read The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin, co-director of MIT’s graduate program in science writing. To say the book blew me away is an understatement. I’ve rarely read a book better researched, more balanced and more elucidating. Needless to say, I learned a lot from the professor.

In my line of work, persuading readers that James Madison University people do indeed work to change the world for the better, I am often confronted with the passion that drives an individual to act. Seeing an ailing child. Learning the plight of a hurricane ravaged community. Experiencing the depravation of a third world country. Confronting injustice, intolerance and pure unadulterated evil. All produce strong emotional reactions. Or at least they should.

We, being human, feel some measure of despair when we witness the troubles that others not as fortunate as ourselves experience. That drives us to act. What actions we take based on the “truths” we embrace, however, is a critical message of The Panic Virus.

Mnookin traces the evolution of the debate over the efficacy and the impact of immunizations against disease, specifically the anti-vaccine controversy. It details the history of immunization — a fascinating read by itself — and addresses causality in the autism story. I was drawn to read the book initially when I read the author’s philosophy that it is better to be right than to be first, a sentiment wholly lost on much of today’s media.

The author, in fact, takes the news media to task for their irresponsible promotion of junk science and nonsense — often under the false nobility of “fairness.” Few escape the sword: Oprah Winfrey, CNN, NBC affiliate WRC-TV, The Washington Post, Newsweek and even some prominent medical journals.

In one passage, Mnookin references the Oprah Winfrey Show, explaining how using emotion only is a perilous approach:

Winfrey’s suggestion that she is just a neutral disseminator of information is a dodge offered so frequently that it’s easy to overlook how absurd it is…. A more frank reckoning with the message Winfrey promotes would have acknowledged that in her  world, being responsible for your actions has less to do with determining how your behavior affects those around you than it does with making sure you’re “living in harmony” with your true nature. This “I feel therefore it is” outlook may empower Winfrey’s viewers to take charge of their lives, but it ignores completely the perils that face a society where everyone runs around intuiting their own versions of the truth.*

This is where education comes in; why education, reason, logic must be balanced with emotion. This is the promise of change inherent in education.

Those who serve others through magnanimous acts, through generosity, through kindness and overt charity must be cognizant of the truth behind what stirs their passion. Years ago, I was moved by the plight a local family only to learn later they gladly took whatever goods were given them but had summarily refused to participate in any financial counseling. It made me wary and, frankly, a bit cynical.

I learned a similar lesson from Daniel Morgan (’10) about the importance of understanding a culture before one begins to help those who live there. Knowing how best to help is as important as wanting to help.

The Panic Virus, however, gives me hope because it demonstrates that truth can prevail. Emotion will always sit alongside science. Real change, substantive change, lasting change happens most often when both the heart and the mind are thoughtfully engaged — and thoughtfully is the operative word.

We must never lose the passion our humanity produces; at the same time, we must act mindfully, reasonably, scientifically when that is called for, and globally. Passion without thinking is dangerous. Thinking without passion is heartless.

So in this New Year, I have a personal goal for this blog: to write with no less passion — but with way more thoughtfulness, and to look more dispassionately on passionate issues. Call it my panic resolution. It won’t be easy. Instead, it will be hard. Truth is not easily gained — yet it is quite easily missed. Truth requires hard work.

Real, true and lasting change, though, demands we seek it and find it, using both our hearts and our educated minds.

The Panic Virus: A True Story of Science, Medicine, and Fear, Seth Mnookin, Simon and Schuster, 2011; pp. 270-271.


The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech

Language is a magnificent construct with which we can express beautiful subtleties, clever thoughts and challenging ideas. We can discuss thorny issues. We can visit controversies. We can work toward solutions.

Or we can beat each other over the head.

Anyone who peruses the Internet frequently will have noticed a trend in the discussions: an unfiltered proliferation of words flourishing on Websites, blogs, online publications, Facebook pages and Twitter. The ability to “speak” with inflammatory, disparaging and downright mean words is a temptation that apparently befalls many people.

Here some samples that I found posted today (and these are the mild ones):

Alas, the GOP field of candidates reminds me of going to the supermarket to find that this year’s crop of fruits and vegetables is rotten to the core. (Washington Post)

No matter what happens the US is done, finished, over.  All bow to your corporate masters. (New York Times)

I am ashamed of the people who are supposed to be running this country…it’s a “my way or the highway” attitude in Washington DC.  They are a disgrace. (CNN)

We Americans take our freedom of speech very, very seriously.  It’s right up there with breathing.

We speak fearlessly and the press foolishly takes our “pulse” with such comments. How many times have you heard “news” people, say “this is what people are saying?” Add in the “tabloid effect” — the likelihood that the most sensational, outrageous and often the most irresponsible comments will rise to the top of the discussion — and one has to wonder: How valuable is this, anyway?

While often people are blowing off steam as they pontificate, such loaded, thoughtless rhetoric rarely advances civil discussion. Political correctness has banned whole categories of words; it’s a shame that all malicious phrases (akin more to baseball bats than words) aren’t banned from print or posts. But alas, they are not, and I don’t suggest it. Instead, we should dispense with them ourselves.

Far too frequently, online “discussions” — and I use that term with a certain amount of sarcasm — sound more like verbal beat downs. (“McDonnell is an idiot”; “Obama is the anti-Christ”) Reason and civility are lost to the unbridled sentiments of frustrated individuals. The status quo seems to be “say anything you want and turn a deaf ear to the consequences.” Piling on this way in expressing one’s dislike for a particular political candidate, an elected official or a specific piece of legislation is common, and frankly, quite unhelpful.

Far more infrequent are discussions that explore interesting, controversial and divisive ideas with candor and civility, with honesty and open mindedness. Sadly, these are exceedingly rare.

Once in a while, however, you’ll come across a thoughtful comment that makes you think and that adds to understanding. Earlier this month, Nathan Alvado-Castle commented on a post on this blog about being “green.” In the same thoughtful way, John Reeves commented on a post about Sudan. What they wrote added  new dimensions to the discussions.

Both Nathan and John exercised “free speech” in positive, reasonable and valuable ways. Perhaps commentators elsewhere should follow their lead.  Neither yelled, condemned, name-called. They expressed viewpoints with reason and consideration — and frankly, it was refreshing. So, Nathan and John, thank you!

Somehow we need to change the tone of discussion from the current dismissive rants to comments that further discourse. And while I would never imply that freedom of speech should ever be quelled, I would suggest that thinking before one “speaks” online — or anywhere else — is a policy that might make our sacred freedom far more productive. So let’s change the tenor of of freedom of speech; let’s bridle our own, so we can really talk.

You can read Nathan’s comments here: https://jmubethechange.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/the-green-pen-and-the-yin-and-yang-of-modernity/#comment-4684

You’ll find John’s comments here: https://jmubethechange.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/pickaxe-and-elbow-grease-peace/#comment-4682

Walter, Watergate, Wisconsin and the lynchpin of education

Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks a...

Walter Cronkite (Image via Wikipedia)

Can you imagine how interesting it will be in political science classes all over JMU this week?  I, for one, would love to be sitting in a heated discussion about last night’s news and all of the implications of the Wisconsin legislature’s passage of a bill to weaken collective bargaining.

When I was in college, another national issue was equally riveting: Watergate.  As a political science major, I was fascinated. And as if to top off my four years of studying about politics, constitutional law and governments, Sen. Sam Erwin spoke at my college graduation.

But political/news junkies like me weren’t the only ones following the news. The entire nation followed the unfolding story of the disintegration of an American presidency the same way that Americans  have followed the political escapades of Republicans and Democrats over the past year from first the passage of national health care to the challenge to union strongholds.

But the difference between now and then is staggering.

Back in the 1970s, neither television nor radio had hit its zenith. Newspapers were the primary conduits for news. Radio was where you listened to music. Television news featured Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley for 30 minutes following the local news. If you missed the evening news, you missed it. You would have to wait to read the next morning’s paper. At the time, the New York Times was a colossus, and most major cities had not one but two major newspapers. The idea of 24-hour news was absolutely ludicrous — about as ridiculous as not having a land-line telephone. There was no CNN. (There was no cable!) No Headline News. No MSNBC. No Fox News. No HuffPo or Drudge. No cell phones. No laptops.

Today’s students have the benefit of instant information. They also have billions of up-to-date resources available with a keystroke. Information flows in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades back. A book that could be secured only by scouring the trays of a card catalog and then stalking endless rows of stacks is now available instantly — as a download — to their cell phones. Within a single minute, today’s student can reference James Madison or James Carville or James Brown.

This avalanche of information, though, begs the question: Do students have time to think? And how do they deal with the onslaught not only of information but technology? Are they completely on their own?

In a fascinating piece in the New York Times last summer, writer Matt Richtel wrote:

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

Today’s students unquestionably live in a circus of activity and rapid-fire information. By contrast, by the time President James Madison was 14, he had read all 400 volumes in his father’s library, according to historians at Montpelier. Well, sure, he didn’t have an Ipod, a laptop, 24-hour news or texting. All this begs another question: Will today’s classroom’s be able to produce another James Madison?

Let’s go back to today’s political science classroom. One thing  that has never changed at JMU is the deliberate and corporate emphasis on teaching — that focused exploration of a subject with the guidance of a dedicated educator. Teaching has always been the lynchpin of education at Madison. One could argue persuasively that JMU’s brand of careful and dedicated guidance is perhaps more important than ever.

Dr. Marcia Angell (’60), editor emerita of the New England Journal of Medicine and a senior lecturer at Harvard, said it well: “My daughters got tired of hearing me say that I got a better liberal arts education at Madison College than many of my friends and my colleagues and my daughters got from schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford … because the faculty at Madison was not too proud to teach.”

Think about that! The willingness of professors to engage and to seek out students in undergraduate research, in classrooms, in discussions and more — all for which JMU is renowned — positions students to benefit optimally from the onslaught of information and technology. To paraphrase Mr. Cronkite: “They are there.*” And they are focused on students first and foremost.

The value of an engaged educator can never be discounted, but I would contend that now, perhaps more than any time in history, that kind of guidance, leadership, connection and dedication of the educator is not only critical but essential.

And to borrow another phrase from Mr. Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is.”

You can read all of Matt Richtel’s fascinating piece, here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

*”You Are There,” was the title of a series of history films made during the 1950s for which Cronkite was a frequent host.

Juan Williams, Helen Thomas and Civil Discourse

Juan Williams

Juan Williams, Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

Today has been awful so far.  I woke up to news that so outraged and disappointed me that I was shaking.  I learned that Juan Williams, a veteran journalist for National Public Radio and a commentator for FOX television, has been fired.


Apparently, Williams said on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, that whenever he boarded an airplane and saw a woman wearing a burqa, it made him nervous.  For this and for conceding a point to his host, he was fired.

As a long-time news junkie, a political science major, a writer and a journalist, I have always been interested in honest and open discussion on even the prickliest and most inflammatory issues. I have long liked Williams for crossing back and forth across ideological battle lines and for offering thoughtful contributions to any discussion. The ability to do so without consequence is fundamental to education, to progress, to the foundation of civil society.

Now Williams’s voice is gone from NPR. On top of the Rick Sanchez firing at CNN and Helen Thomas’s “early” retirement, it seems that getting fired for expressing an opinion is a growing phenomenon.  People used to lose their jobs for things like thievery or violating the public trust.  Now they get magazine columns and television shows.  What does that tell us about the ethics underpinning our public discourse? What has happened to our First Amendment?

Public discussion — in American media, at least — has degenerated into what amounts to cordoned camps, throwing rocks across the proverbial walls. We are not longer listening and discussing, we are name-calling. Instead of listening and talking, we accuse each other of fear mongering, lying, ignorance, extremism, stupidity, idiocy, evil — even of being witches and whores.  If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical.

Real change in a civil society requires discourse. Ironically, few understand that like Williams, who has written extensively about the struggle of African Americans to gain civil rights.  For too long, their voices — their opinions — were dismissed.  They were fired from the public square. Earlier this year, Williams addressed a crowd during the opening of a new museum telling the story of segregation at the historic train depot near President James Madison’s historic home Montpelier. Williams said, “This is a place of justice. This is a place that tells the truth.  This is a place where you can take a child and say this place shaped our history as much as Madison shaped our history.”

I wonder how our current discourse, like the depot, will shape our history? Keith Olbermann’s (MSNBC) condescending vitriole adds little to the discussion.  Sean Hannity’s (FOX) smug self-righteousness doesn’t either.  But somewhere in the middle, I had always counted on Juan Williams to bridge the gap, to enter into either arena with thoughtful ideas. As a commentator on NPR, he brought honest, interesting and unbiased illumination to issues.  As a commentator on Fox, he often challenged the conservative point of view, delivering reasoned and intelligent perspective.

Williams was one of the last sane voices.  And now he’s been thrown out of camp. I am disappointed beyond measure at NPR’s decision. I have long considered them last bastion of true journalism and the one place where I could go to hear both sides of a story.

One of my favorite parts of being on a college campus is the incredible variety of disciplines, opportunities and opinions. For instance, across the complete spectrum of political thought from liberal to conservative, everyone is heard.  If you don’t believe me, listen to what students themselves say. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZqdthP2Qww&feature=player_embedded

At JMU, diversity of thought and opinion is valued. Different opinions are respected. We have to co-exist.  We have to be civil.  We have to disagree, and perhaps more importantly, we have to agree to disagree.  That’s what Dave Rexrode (‘01)  and Dave Mills (‘02) do.  One heads Virginia’s Republican Party and the other heads Virginia’s Democratic Party — and they’re friends. It’s also what my local NPR station, WMRA, works very hard to promote. The alternative is a campus where probing thought, where over-the-top and out-of-the-box ideas are never explored.  A college cannot — and should not — exist if it has only homogeneous thought.  Opinions matter.  At JMU, differing opinions are the sparks that ignite change.

Now tell me, what do you think?

Here’s the link to the Washington Post story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/21/AR2010102101474.html

If you want to read more about JMU’s civil campus, check out this link: http://www.jmu.edu/jmuweb/general/news/general10254.shtml And be sure to watch an upcoming issue of Madison magazine for a story on the two political Daves.

Finally, in the interest of civil discourse, below you’ll find a link to the memo NPR sent it’s affiliates explaining Williams’s firing.


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