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Free speech on campus holds the cure to America's growing polarization
Outrage culture is causing provocative issues to be pushed out of public discourse and important artworks to be literally white-washed. Teaching civil discourse at universities is key to sustaining the American experiment.
- In July 2019, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington – in part depicting dead Native Americans and laboring slaves – over concerns that the painting presented traumatic content.
- The mural, by Stanford University art professor Victor Arnautoff, was created as a pointed critique of Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans.
- The reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of America's growing outrage culture, which removes the opportunity for people to practice the skills they require to have difficult conversations.
In early July, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington that hangs over a staircase in George Washington High School in San Francisco. The reason: Concerns the images of minorities, including white colonists stepping over a dead Native-American and slaves laboring at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, will traumatize students.
In his historic painting, Russian-American artist and self-described communist Victor Arnautoff, a Stanford University art professor who specialized in social realism, was pointedly critiquing Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans. Eliciting reactions from students is the point. It's an invitation to learn about this history that is often swept under the rug, and it makes a pointed assertion about the importance of countering the prejudice it reveals. Censorship often harms the very people it's intended to protect – in this case, it would strip students of an important opportunity to grapple with racism in our past and deprive them of an opportunity to discuss solutions to the problems that history has created in the present.
The vote to destroy a "significant monument of anti-racism," reads an open letter signed by more than 500 academics across the country, "is a gross violation of logic and sense." It is. But that's not all. The school board's reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of broader cultural trends.
"[W]e're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether."
With social media facilitating our tribal instincts to gang up on the 'other,' universities grappling with pressure to remove faculty who work on provocative issues, and iconic works of art being literally whitewashed, we're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether.
Research confirms the trend too. A new Pew study found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are "not confident that others can hold civil conversations with people who have different views." Even more alarming, a recent academic paper found many people in each political party don't only disagree with the other, they believe members of the opposing party are "downright evil." And the latest Gallup/Knight campus expression study found that students today (61 percent) are more likely than they were in 2016 (54 percent) to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense.
The student findings are notable when viewed as one symptom of this trend. They point to the fact that challenges facing campus speech aren't unique to the academy. This is a cultural problem, and we're seeing its reverberations across sectors of society – including higher education.
If it's a cultural issue and not a sector-specific one, it changes how we approach the solution. In fact, by zooming out, universities come into focus as uniquely positioned to help America address our growing divisiveness. Consider the environment that campuses traditionally provide for conversation and deliberation. They invite students to understand diverse views in their intellectual complexity while practicing the skills for having these important and difficult conversations.
"These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn."
Policy change can play a role in aiding that ideal. Though the past few years have seen a number of gross overreaches from state houses – bills to dictate what classes can be taught, establish partisan litmus tests for staff hires, and mandate minimum punishments for students – there's a role for principled, targeted policies in shoring up legal protections for free expression on college campuses. In a recent essay Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), pointed out that the percentage of colleges that maintain severely restrictive speech policies declined from 74.2 percent in 2009 to 28.5 percent in 2018, while at the same time a number of problematic Department of Education regulations have been repealed or revised. That is, in part, attributable to policies tailored to addressing those barriers.
While legal protections of free expression alone don't foster an open environment, they help clear the way for civil discourse, open inquiry, and peaceful pluralism in general. And in that space, we're seeing a largely untold story unfolding through the efforts of innovative, path-breaking scholars who are expanding opportunities to come together in productive and scientific exploration. Courageous crusaders like those at Interfaith Youth Core who are gathering students, faculty, and staff from different cultures and backgrounds to build the will, skill, and knowledge to respectfully engage deep difference. Leaders at the newly growing HBCU Debate League who are giving students a platform to grapple with myriad ideas. And countless others tailoring opportunities to their own campuses at schools across the country.
These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn.
These projects stand to equip individuals to overcome the challenges of the present moment. And we have reason for hope. The American experiment – distinct from every country before it – is built not just on tolerance of difference but the invitation of it. Our diverse, dynamic society, with its rich mix of religious, cultural, ideological, and other differences, is made possible by civil liberties and a culture that values them. And higher education is at its best a microcosm of that.
Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
The dark side of the information age<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1NzYwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE3MzY3Nn0.0HveQP16MbMkj9HXE8miohSHXETOak7oFDtBdXtE7lM/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C400%2C0%2C256&height=700" id="60d48" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9085c1a7d5b3f81344c3002acdf1df68" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
The cure for bad information is good<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="e0tfZ3YB" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="601aa46855087a4dfcf02a67a160e0c4"> <div id="botr_e0tfZ3YB_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/e0tfZ3YB-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><strong></strong><strong></strong>That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.</p><p>"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/covid-19-infodemic/" target="_blank">told <em>Yale Medicine</em></a>. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."</p><p>In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages. </p><p>In the <em>Yale Medicine </em>article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline). </p><p>When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.</p><p>"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources." </p><p>She recommends following health agencies like <a href="https://twitter.com/who?lang=en" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the WHO</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/CDCgov?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a>, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">COVID-19 mythbusters page</a>. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/mental-health-activities-coronavirus-lockdown" target="_self" rel="dofollow">take a mental break</a>.</p><p>We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.</p>
Carbon locked in soils can be emitted by bacteria.Turning up the heat on them releases more carbon.
- A new study shows that an increase in temperature can increase the amount of carbon released by the soil.
- This is in line with previous studies, though this one demonstrates a larger increase than the older experiments.
- The risk is that increasing temperatures cause a positive feedback loop.
The dirty details of an aggravated carbon cycle<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="CabkeAzx" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="169377c88f392a86f6c42180b74820a5"> <div id="botr_CabkeAzx_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/CabkeAzx-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>There is a lot of carbon in the dirt. The world's soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere, all the plants, or all the animals<a href="https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/" target="_blank"></a>. A third of this trove of carbon resides in the soils of the <a href="https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/26866/20200813/tropical-soils-highly-sensitive-climate-change.htm" target="_blank">tropics</a>. Under normal circumstances, this works as a carbon <a href="https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle" target="_blank">sink</a>, keeping carbon in storage and out of the atmosphere. Some of this carbon is used by bacteria in the soil to provide the building blocks of new microbes. They expel surplus carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. </p><p>Many of these microbes are known to be more active when exposed to higher temperatures. To determine what this could mean for carbon emissions, a team from The University of Edenborough and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute turned up the heat in tropical soils to see what would happen. </p><p>The researchers went to an undisturbed plot of forest on Barro Colorado Panama, the home of the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute. They placed heating rods just over a meter into the soil and turned up the heat, warming the earth by four degrees centigrade. They then measured the carbon emissions from the heated ground and another nearby patch left at ambient temperature. These measurements covered two years.</p><p>Their findings, published in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2566-4" target="_blank">Nature</a>, show that the heated soil emitted 55% more carbon than the control plot<a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200812144102.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow"></a>. <br> <br> Study lead author Andrew Nottingham commented on these findings to the <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-08-global-tropical-soils-leak-carbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">AFP</a>. "Carbon held in tropical soils is more sensitive to warming than previously recognized. Even a small increase in respiration from tropical forest soils could have a large effect on atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations, with consequences for global climate."</p><p>You can probably also spot the potential feedback loop here: If the global temperature increases too much, more carbon will be released from tropical soils, which then increase the greenhouse effect, which causes global temperatures to rise. </p>
Once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, thrice is evidence of a pattern.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="8PLWDgcM" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="378380d273bf4a1c9606370acea15e58"> <div id="botr_8PLWDgcM_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/8PLWDgcM-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Previous studies on this topic point in the same direction. Those studies and the models they inspired suggested that increased temperatures could increase soil-based carbon emissions, but they all underestimated how much carbon would be involved.</p><p>A 2016 study focusing on temperate soils also concluded that increasing soil temperatures would increase their carbon <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature20150" target="_blank">emissions</a>. They predicted that, if left unchecked, these emissions would equal the amount produced by a country similar to the United States over the next few <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">decades</a>. Another experiment in Colorado found similar <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">results</a>. Both of these studies found lower increases in carbon emissions by percentage than the study on Barro Colorado. </p><p>However, these studies did not take place in the tropics, and the differences in the soils between temperate and tropical zones could explain the differences between the studies. Moreover, the dirt on Barro Colorado Island differs from the dirt in the Amazon and may be more inclined to produce more emissions when the heat is turned up. The same can be said of tropical soils <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/climate/tropical-soils-climate-change.html?searchResultPosition=3&utm_campaign=Hot%20News&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93170710&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8McWKRhE8U9ChcWW2qkqNyp2Qndzr1aJmGlrMUwK_h1bM8RDQukWcM8r2OcBKW2Y0bWlRr9o4WUixKDzIo4HzKkVv19g&utm_content=93170710&utm_source=hs_email" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">elsewhere</a>. </p><p>Another <a href="https://www.forestwarming.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">experiment</a>, very similar to the one in Panama, is currently underway in Puerto Rico. However, this experiment is taking the extra step of also heating the plants near the heated soil to see what the effect of warmer temperatures is on their ability to absorb carbon.</p><p>The current study also did not heat the soil past the one-meter mark and cannot provide us with predictions of what more comprehensive heating of the soil would do to emissions. It was also comparatively short, and the effect may be reduced in the long run as the nutrients in the soil are depleted by the increased activity of the microbes, which are using the carbon and other resources to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02266-9" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">reproduce</a>. </p><p>The team behind the most recent study will continue their experiment to try and understand how tropical ecosystems respond to increased <a href="https://www.earth.com/news/billions-of-tons-of-co2-could-be-released-from-tropical-soils/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">temperatures</a> over more extended periods of time. </p><p>As we increase our understanding of the planet and its various environmental systems, the potential consequences of climate change become clearer and more horrifying. This new study supports previous findings that suggest disrupting soils can increase carbon emissions. While it may be too soon to tell if the eye-popping increases found by this study are typical or an outlier, they do re-enforce the notion that a breakdown in the systems that keep the climate stable is possible if nothing changes. </p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
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