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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.
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Our family tree is complicated, and some of the branches are still unlabled.
- A new study of the genomes of Modern Humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans suggests the three were interbreeding quite often.
- The study also found DNA from an unidentified, archaic human ancestor which we inherited from the Denisovans.
- Homo Erectus is the most likely source of this DNA.
Some of our evolutionary relatives never really left, genetically speaking.<p>The paper, <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosgenetics/article?id=10.1371/journal.pgen.1008895" target="_blank"><em>Mapping gene flow between ancient hominins through demography-aware inference of the ancestral recombination graph</em></a><em>, </em>was published in PLOS Genetics. It's authors used a new statistical method to analyze the genomes of two Neanderthals, a Denisovan, and two modern humans.</p><p>The new method allowed the researchers to determine when segments of one individual's DNA are worked into the chromosomes of another. These occurrences are called "recombination events" and can be used to determine when specific genes entered our genome and provide evidence of where it came from. As an example of how this can be <a href="https://www.livescience.com/mystery-ancestor-mated-with-humans.html" target="_blank">used</a>, if Neanderthal DNA contained genes from another pre-human ancestor that they then passed to us, this method would identify it. </p><p>The analysis confirmed previous studies that showed that Modern Humans interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans. However, this analysis suggests that some of this mixing took place between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, long before what previous studies had suggested. It also indicates that more instances of interbreeding occurred than previously suspected.</p><p>Most interestingly, the researchers noticed that one percent of the DNA in the Denisovans from an even more ancient human ancestor. Fifteen percent of the genes that this ancestor passed onto the Denisovans still exist in the Modern Human <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-08-dna-ancient-unidentified-ancestor-humans.html" target="_blank">genome</a>. </p><p>Exactly who this ancestor was is remains unknown, but some clues point to who it was. The fact that this ancestor separated from the linage that would lead to modern humans about 1,000,000 years ago is the most useful one we currently have. This led the researchers to suggest Homo Erectus as the most likely candidate. </p>
Who was Homo Erectus?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="oZzgXq4d" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="0007d6c597f8cc6c95d9d3b5fae7c1ad"> <div id="botr_oZzgXq4d_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/oZzgXq4d-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/oZzgXq4d-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/oZzgXq4d-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The bane of all school teachers focusing on human evolution and the original "missing link," <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_erectus" target="_blank">Homo Erectus</a> was the first human ancestor to leave Africa. They spread widely throughout the old world, with their remains found from Spain to Java. They resembled modern humans, though they were a tad shorter. They were the first to control fire, made tools, created artwork, and likely had rudimentary language.</p><p>It should be repeated that while Homo Erectus is the probable source of this ancient DNA, the jury is still out. We would have to sequence its genome to know for sure. </p><p>Studying human evolution leads us down some very strange roads. It is increasingly clear to us that wherever there was an overlap of human species, there was interbreeding and that a considerable amount of the genetic remnants of this endure to this day. While this might get in the way of the old view of evolution as a slow climb to the humanity, the pinnacle of biological achievement, it does provide us a richer view of who we are, where we come form, and where we might be going. </p>
Some of the most extreme weather in the Solar System just got stranger.
- The Juno probe orbiting Jupiter has observed lightning at impossibly high points in the Jovian atmosphere.
- The findings, combined with other atmopsheric data, led to the creation of a new model of the atmosphere.
- The findings answer a few questions about Jupiter, but create many more.
Shouldn’t be all that surprising really, the planet is named after the god of thunder….<p>The findings are described in the study, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2532-1" target="_blank"><em>Small lightning flashes from shallow electrical storms on Jupiter</em></a><em>, </em>published in <em>Nature</em>. Previous missions to Jupiter, including Voyager 1, Galileo and New Horizons, all observed lightning, but without the benefits of the equipment on the Juno probe or more recent developments in models of the Jovian atmosphere.</p><p>In this case, the lighting is notable for how high it is occurring in the atmosphere. While previous observations suggested lightning in water-based clouds deep inside the gas planet, the new data suggests lightning exists in the upper atmosphere in clouds of water and ammonia. This lightning is dubbed "shallow lightning." </p><p>According to a <a href="https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2020/08/ammonia-sparks-unexpected-exotic-lightning-jupiter" target="_blank">press release</a> by Cornell University, where two of the scientists involved in the study hail from, the ammonia is vital in creating the lightning, as it functions as an "anti-freeze" of sorts to keep the water in the clouds from freezing. The collision of droplets of mixed ammonia and water with ice water particles creates the charge needed for lightning strikes. <br> <br> This is different from any process that creates lightning on Earth.</p><p>That wasn't the only bit of strangeness the probe noticed. While Juno saw plenty of ammonia near the equator and at lower levels of the atmosphere, it was hard-pressed to find much anywhere else. To explain this, researchers developed a new model of atmospheric mixing. They suggest that the ammonia at lower levels of the atmosphere rises into storm clouds, interacts with water to cause the aforementioned lightning, and then falls back down in the form of <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-08-ammonia-rich-hail-jupiter-weather.html" target="_blank">hailstones</a>. </p><p>The scientists gave these ammonia and water ice hailstones the name "mushballs<a href="https://www.inverse.com/science/jupiter-mush-balls" target="_blank"></a>."</p><p>This model explains many things, including why Juno couldn't detect ammonia where it expected to: the mushballs would be more challenging to detect than ammonia or water vapor. The scientists further speculated that the weight of the mushballs pulls the ammonia to lower levels of the <a href="https://scitechdaily.com/nasas-juno-spacecraft-reveals-jupiters-unusual-electrical-storms-shallow-lightning-and-mushballs/" target="_blank">atmosphere</a> where it is detected in more significant amounts. </p>
A NASA designed graphic demonstrating the weather systems theorized to create "mushballs." The liquid water and ammonia rises in the storm clouds until they reach points where the extremely low temperatures cause them to freeze. Freezing into semi-solid "mushballs" causes them to fall where they redistribute ammonia throughout the lower atmosphere.
How can we possibly know all of this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="DywYHLlW" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="5a2fd33c35687b126de47078bac6875d"> <div id="botr_DywYHLlW_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/DywYHLlW-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/DywYHLlW-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/DywYHLlW-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Juno relies on several pieces of equipment. The most relevant in this case is the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave_Radiometer_(Juno)" target="_blank">microwave radiometer</a>. This device uses microwaves, like the ones you cook with, to measure the Jovian atmosphere's composition. When microwaves hit water or ammonia particles, they begin to heat up. By hitting the planet with microwaves and then looking for changes in the particles' observed temperature, the probe can determine what chemicals are present.</p><p>The findings of these studies demonstrate that Jupiter's atmosphere is more complicated than previously thought. Given how we already knew about the storms larger than <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Red_Spot" target="_blank">Earth</a>, temperatures that swing between extremes in different layers of the atmosphere, and winds that blow at 100 meters per <a href="http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/~showman/publications/ingersolletal-2004.pdf" target="_blank">second</a>, that is saying something.</p>
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