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Topics - Curtis Metcalf

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Books / The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin
« on: November 11, 2019, 07:42:26 am »
I'm definitely planning to read this book.

An in-depth interview with the author Corey Roberts is here. I thought it was insightful and eye-opening. This On The Media episode is what brought the book to my attention. I would have never imagined Clarence Thomas as a black nationalist extremist.

Here's the NY Times review.

Sports Talk / Naomi Osaka
« on: January 27, 2019, 11:08:01 am »
I'm all in on Ms. Osaka as a worthy successor to the throne although I don't think Serena's quite done with it yet.

Congratulations on her Australian Open title. What do you all think?

Producing / The 31 best dance scenes in movies
« on: November 10, 2018, 02:28:41 pm »
Click here for the full article

What do dance scenes add to a movie? Unspeakable bliss, for starters. Dancing starts when dialogue fails. When lovers need to move beyond conversation, when conflicts boil past negotiation, when joy can’t be expressed in any other way than by leaping into the air on a trumpeter’s high note.

With the rise of movie musicals in the early part of the 20th century, dancing moved easily from stage to screen, becoming bigger, more potent, ever more spectacular — and a lasting love affair with the moviegoing public was born. It’s still going on: Witness the mainstream success of “La La Land,” a film in the golden age mold.

Taking stock of film’s dance treasury to pick the paragons was an irresistible challenge. In making my choices for the best dance scenes, I looked at several factors: mastery of technique, imaginative choreography, quality of the music — this is very important — and design and storytelling. I value authentic expression more than dance doubles and tricky editing. But, in the final analysis, transcendence won out. Does the dancing carry me away, give me chills, distill some truth about the human experience? Whether it’s a masterpiece of steps and skill, or an intentionally funny, hot mess, or a dreamscape that’s intriguingly weird — dancing that moves you is great dancing.

I also had to set some rules for this list: I considered specific dance scenes, not the quality of entire movies. I didn’t include documentaries or foreign films; no “Pina,” no “Mad Hot Ballroom.” With matchless artists in movement, music and choreography, the 1940s and ’50s dominate my choices, but even those aren’t exhaustive. I settled on the era’s best and moved on. I handicapped Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, limiting them to just one dance (it’s my No. 1, the best of the best) from all the jewels in their 10 films together, because if I didn’t, they’d eat the list. Our vast cinematic history is studded with marvelous dancing, and one has to draw the line somewhere.

Click here for the full article

Check out #27

Other Comics / The Strange History of Comic Book Advertisements
« on: June 04, 2018, 02:07:44 pm »
I thought folks here might appreciate this:

The Strange History of Comic Book Advertisements

Hudlin's Huddle / Afrofuturism Class Appearance
« on: April 13, 2018, 02:27:03 pm »
Here's Reg holding forth in Tananarive Due's Afrofuturism class at UCLA:

Sports Talk / 50 Greatest Black Athletes
« on: August 08, 2017, 05:23:48 pm »
From The Undefeated website.

There are some notable snubs.

Feel The Funk / Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business
« on: May 15, 2017, 03:35:30 pm »
This is a very interesting documentary. As much as I love Prince the musician, this film makes me understand how much of a business genius he was. The film is a smart and thorough analysis of the transformation of the music industry.

Education / Schools That Work
« on: November 06, 2016, 01:21:30 pm »
Schools That Work
New York Times, Nov 4, 2016

BOSTON — Alanna Clark still remembers the stress of third-grade reading time. When her class read books together aloud, Alanna would often become confused. She didn’t understand how her classmates could answer the teacher’s questions about the book so quickly. As they did, Alanna was still just trying to take in the words.

“It was frustrating, because I used to think, maybe I’m reading the wrong part,” she said. “But I wasn’t.”

Alanna had a reading disability, and she was falling behind. Her mother repeatedly asked the school for help, without success — and then began to fear that a pattern was repeating itself. Alanna’s sister, who was 12 years older, had also struggled in school. But schools kept promoting her, until she eventually made it to community college, where, unprepared, she flunked.

With this fear as a spur, Alanna’s mother entered her into the long-shot lotteries that allow Boston children to attend schools outside their neighborhood. Alanna won one of them, and today is a poised, soft-spoken 10th grader at a charter school called Match, housed in an old auto-parts store on Commonwealth Avenue.

Charter schools — public schools that operate outside the normal system — have become a quarrelsome subject, of course, alternately hailed as saviors and criticized as an overrated fad. Away from the fights, however, social scientists have quietly spent years analyzing the outcomes of students who attend charter schools.

The findings are stark. And while they occasionally pop up in media coverage and political debates about charter schools, they do not get nearly enough attention. The studies should be at the center of any discussion of educational reform, because they offer by far the clearest evidence about which parts of it are working and which are not.

The briefest summary is this: Many charter schools fail to live up to their promise, but one type has repeatedly shown impressive results.

Hannah Larkin, the principal at Match, refers to such schools as “high expectations, high support” schools. They devote more of their resources to classroom teaching and less to almost everything else. They keep students in class for more hours. They set high standards for students and try to instill confidence in them. They focus on giving teachers feedback about their craft and helping them get better.

Complete article here...

Vox Populi / Blue Black Lives
« on: July 09, 2016, 02:29:23 pm »
For anyone interested, here are a couple of data-based charts from FiveThirtyEight articles that lend some perspective to recent events:

The Police Are Killing People As Often As They Were Before Ferguson

The Dallas Shooting Was Among The Deadliest For Police In U.S. History

By FiveThirtyEight

When ABC News aired a story about incendiary remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s longtime pastor, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, the media freaked out. Many political analysts thought it was sure to set back, or even destroy, Obama’s chances of winning the nomination. Then, five days after the ABC News story aired, Obama gave one of the most important speeches on race in American history, and his support in the polls barely budged.

So, did Obama’s speech save his campaign? The story is more complicated than that, and it presaged a lot about how the media, voters and Obama addressed race during Obama’s presidency. “A More Perfect Union,” a short documentary from FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films by Emmy-award winning director Eric Drath, re-examines a seminal moment from the 2008 campaign and goes behind-the-scenes with the Obama campaign as they responded to the Rev. Wright controversy.

Vox Populi / "White Guilt Cartoon"
« on: February 12, 2016, 10:20:32 am »
Parents outraged after students shown ‘white guilt’ cartoon for Black History Month

Was anybody aware of this?

A Virginia school district has banned the use of an educational video about racial inequality after some parents complained that its messaging is racially divisive.

The four-minute, animated video — “Structural Discrimination: The Unequal Opportunity Race” — was shown last week to students at an assembly at Glen Allen High School, in Henrico County, as a part of the school’s Black History Month program.

The video contextualizes historic racial disparity in the United States using the metaphor of a race track in which runners face different obstacles depending upon their racial background. It has been shown hundreds of thousands of times at schools and workshops across the country since it was created more than a decade ago, according to the African American Policy Forum, which produced it.

“The video is designed for the general public,” said Luke Harris, co-founder of the African American Policy Forum and an associate professor of political science at Vassar College. “We produced something you could show in elementary and secondary schools or in college studies courses.”

He added: “We found that the video has a huge impact on the people that we’re showing it to. Most of us know very little about the social history of the United States and its contemporary impact. It was designed as a tool to throw light on American history.”

But in Glen Allen, about 14 miles north of Richmond, some parents complained, calling it a “white guilt video.”

Henrico County Public Schools officials initially defended the video, saying it was “one component of a thoughtful discussion in which all viewpoints were encouraged.” But after the story began to spread nationally, school officials switched gears, labeling the video “racially divisive” two days later.

“The Henrico School Board and administration consider this to be a matter of grave concern,” School Board Chair Micky Ogburn said in a statement released to The Washington Post. “We are making every effort to respond to our community. It is our goal to prevent the recurrence of this type of event. School leaders have been instructed not to use the video in our schools.”

“In addition, steps are being taken to prevent the use of racially divisive materials in the future. We do apologize to those who were offended and for the unintended impact on our community.”

Ravi K. Perry — an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and President of the National Association for Ethnic Studies — told The Post that he worked closely with school officials over several months to plan the presentation, which he also moderated. The video, he said, was just one element of a 30-minute-long, interactive presentation that was shown to two separate groups, each with around 1,000 students. He asked students to fill out a “group membership profile” and write a poem describing their identity. He said the students were “fully engaged” and the response afterwards was overwhelmingly positive.

The objective, Perry said, was to allow students to “engage American history through the lens of African Americans and other marginalized groups” and to understand that “we all have multiple identities.”

The idea for the presentation came about, he said, after a racist song was played over the loud speakers at a football game in October in which the visiting team was from a predominately black high school. The song, a racist parody of the theme song from Disney’s “Duck Tales,” included 13 racial epithets in a single minute, according to Raw Story.

“I  feel extremely grateful to the principal and her staff for being courageous enough to provide a comprehensive educational experience on race in America,” he said. “That is something that you should be applauded for doing and not something that millions of people across the country should find distasteful.”

He added: “Had I been presenting at an environment where the state standardized curriculum had fully integrated the experience of African Americans, then perhaps the material selected to present to students would have been different. Because the information that many  students nationwide are learning about race in America is limited or wrong, it’s important to provide them with historical context.”

The scope of the backlash remains unknown, but the statement noted that “school division leaders” received “numerous emails and phone calls objecting to the video.”

Among the parents who found the video problematic was Don Blake, whose granddaughter attended the Glen Allen High assembly, according to NBC affiliate WWBT.

“They are sitting there watching a video that is dividing them up from a racial standpoint,” Blake told the station. “It’s a white guilt kind of video. I think somebody should be held accountable for this.”

Kenny Manning, a student at Glen Allen High, told ABC affiliate WRIC that reaction on campus was mixed.

“A lot of people thought it was offensive to white people and made them feel bad about being privileged,” Manning said. “Others thought that it was good to get the information out there. There is oppression going on in the world, and that needs to be looked at with a magnifying glass, I guess.”

The video begins with four athletes — two of them white, two of them non-white — taking their marks before a race. After the starting gun fires, the two non-white runners are forced to remain in the starting blocks while their white counterparts begin running. The non-white runners are hit with words such as “slavery,” “broken treaties,” “genocide” and “segregation” as the white runners pass them by.

The white runners eventually pick up dollar-symbol-marked batons that grow in size and are eventually passed off to younger white runners who enter the race.

It takes more than a minute until the non-white competitors are allowed to begin running. Not long after they do, they are confronted by overwhelming physical obstacles, such as a rainstorm, rocks, a large hole in the track and sharks.

Each obstacle, the viewer learns, symbolizes real-life barriers to success, such as discrimination, poor schooling, standardized tests, racial profiling, the school-to-prison pipeline and housing discrimination. The video shows that these obstacles result in shortened lifespans for the non-white runners.

A white male runner then crosses the finish line ahead of everyone else on a rapidly moving conveyor belt. He holds a water bottle labeled “Yale” and the word “privilege” hovers nearby. A white female runner finishes shortly behind him.

As the video ends, viewers are left with a written message: “Affirmative action helps level the playing field.”

Harris, the African American Policy Forum co-founder, told The Post that the video is intended to show that race-conscious programs are not designed to create “favoritism for damaged individuals,” but instead are about creating remedies for damaged institutions. The backlash from some white parents in Virginia didn’t surprise him, he said.

“The anger is a reaction that we expect to get from some Americans, because we live in a society that doesn’t have honest discourse about race,” Harris said. “Our society is as heterogeneous as any on the planet, but American social history from a multicultural, multiracial perspective is just something that people have not been exposed to.

“When someone highlights that message, some people go after the messenger.”

Henrico Superintendent Pat Kinlaw said in the district’s statement that the video presentation at Glen Allen High remains under investigation.

“The matter continues to be under review internally after first coming to the attention of school division leadership on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 4,” Kinlaw said. “While we as educators do not object to difficult and constructive conversations about American history and racial discourse past and present, we understand why many people feel this video in particular was not the best way to deliver such an important lesson.”

Perry said it was unfortunate that school officials had chosen not to use anger about the video to engage in a larger dialogue about race within their community and instead chosen to support the views of the loudest voices.

“In politics,” he told The Post, “that’s what we call ‘pandering.'”

“It’s where you assume, for example, that the only types of folks you should be paying attention to are the ones who call your office. If you only pay attention to the people who call or email you, you are immediately shutting off the people who don’t have the time or the resources to get in touch and that goes to the heart of what was being talked about in that video.”

Vox Populi / The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
« on: December 07, 2015, 04:14:18 pm »
Here's a sample of Ta-Nehisi Coates doing his day job...

From the October issue of The Atlantic

American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.

  • “Lower-class behavior in our cities is shaking them apart.”
  • “We are incarcerating too few criminals.”
  • “You don’t take a shower after 9 o’clock.”
  • “The crime-stained blackness of the Negro”
  • "The “baddest generation any society has ever known.”
  • “It’s like I’m in prison with him.”
  • “Our value system became surviving versus living.”
  • “The Negro poor having become more openly violent.”
  • “Now comes the proposition that the Negro is entitled to damages.”
Complete article here.

Vox Populi / Justice Stevens Pens Six Amendments to Tune-Up Constitution
« on: December 02, 2015, 07:34:55 am »
Justice Stevens Pens Six Amendments to Tune-Up Constitution

The Paragraph, January 28, 2015

Since William Rehnquist joined the Supreme Court, it has made several rulings that have knocked the U.S. Constitution out of whack. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who deliberated on most of those rulings, has written six amendments to fix the damage and tune-up the Constitution. Stevens published his proposed amendments last year in the book "Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution." The amendments are terse, surgical fixes, which seem to fit the Constitution's style of saying much with few words. The book gives a good history and description of each problem. Here is a brief rundown with the text of each amendment:

1. The "Anti-Commandeering" Rule: In 1997, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court, created an "anti-commandeering" rule, which bans Congress from ordering state officials to carry out federal duties. The case was brought by two county sheriffs, who did not want to do background checks for firearm sales as ordered by the Brady Act. The new rule led to holes in the database that would allow persons prone to violence, like the killer in the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, to get firearms. Stevens notes that the "anti-commandeering" rule could also cripple other Congressional acts, from routine administration of federal programs to emergency responses to national catastrophes or acts of terror. His fix adds four words (in bold below) to the Constitution's Supremacy Clause:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges and other public officials in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

2. Political Gerrymandering: Given that he has not heard one word in favor of political gerrymandering from any federal judge, Stevens believes that his amendment addressing it should sail through into law. He points out that, in addition to making legislative districts less representative and less competitive, political gerrymandering tends to give us candidates with more extreme positions. In 1986 the Supreme Court made it practically impossible to challenge gerrymanders by setting a lofty and cloudy standard: "[A] finding of unconstitutionality must [show] continued frustration of the will of a majority of the voters or effective denial to a minority of the voters of a fair chance to influence the political process." Stevens takes a simpler view: "Just as a controlling political party may not use public funds to pay its campaign expenses, it is also quite wrong to use public power for the sole purpose of enhancing the political strength of the majority party." He would ban that abuse of power with this new amendment:
Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political, or historic boundaries or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion.

3. Campaign Finance: We have gone far down the road to corruption since 1907, when Congress passed a law banning all corporate contributions to political candidates, and many states enacted, outside of narrow lobbying rules, a total ban of corporate activity to influence public policy. In 2010, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, produced the infamous Citizens United ruling giving corporations the unlimited right to finance campaign speech. And last year, by the same 5-4 vote, the Roberts Court struck down any limit on total donations a person could make to candidates, giving rich persons the right to spend millions in a single election. The strongest proposed amendment addressing this problem states that corporations are not persons and money is not speech. Stevens' amendment states neither, but he believes it would eliminate "the most serious consequences" of Citizens United:
Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.

4. Sovereign Immunity: The Eleventh Amendment, banning a citizen of one state from suing another state in federal court, was prompted by states that wanted to dodge their war debts. Their reasoning leaned on "sovereign immunity," a principle that holds the "sovereign," any of the individual states in this case, above the law, shielding it from court action. Stevens says that this doctrine "should never have been adopted in a democracy." He notes an argument against it from the famous Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was so laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past." Since the arrival of Rehnquist, the Supreme Court has made a series of rulings that stretched sovereign immunity and weakened state compliance with national law. For example, in 1974 a Rehnquist opinion let Illinois skate on paying damages for past non-compliance with a federal law for aiding aged, blind and disabled persons. And in 1999 the Rehnquist Court, citing an unwritten state sovereignty rule imagined to be in the "plan of the [Constitutional] Convention," forbade Congress to authorize suing a state for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. To Stevens, striking down the sovereign immunity doctrine is a matter of simple justice. A state-owned hospital, school, or police force should not have a defense to federal claims that a private one does not. To right this wrong Stevens adds an amendment:
Neither the Tenth Amendment, the Eleventh Amendment, nor any other provision of this Constitution, shall be construed to provide any state, state agency, or state officer with an immunity from liability for violating any act of Congress, or any provision of this Constitution.

5. The Death Penalty: Stevens points out the main arguments for the death penalty: that it keeps the murderer from murdering again; that it deters murder; and that it gives revenge for society's outrage. But there are good counter-arguments: that a sentence of life without parole also keeps the murderer from murdering again; that it would as well deter murder; and that society has evolved away from vengeance, as shown by its concern that death sentence execution be painless. Another strong argument is that the death penalty is final, yet fallible. Especially with the rise of DNA testing technology, many cases of false convictions have come to light. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, two Supreme Court rulings, including one upholding a judge's instruction to a jury to choose death when the evidence for and against it is balanced, have made the death penalty a bit more likely. To Stevens, the "final, yet fallible" argument is reason enough to abolish the death penalty, which he would do by adding five words to the Eighth Amendment:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty inflicted.

6. Gun Control: For more than two hundred years, federal judges have, according to Stevens, uniformly understood the Second Amendment to be limited in two ways. One, that it applies only for military purposes, and two, that, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not limit the power of state or local governments to regulate ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in 1939 the Court ruled unanimously that Congress could ban possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to "a well regulated Militia." But the Roberts Court has twice ruled against governments trying to tamp down gun violence. In 2008, a 5-4 majority, citing the Second Amendment, threw out a Washington, D.C., law and created a new Constitutional right for a civilian in D.C. to keep an enabled handgun at home for self-defense. And in 2010, the same 5-4 Court, citing the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, threw out a Chicago handgun ban, and extended the Court's newly-created Constitutional right to the states. To restore the Second Amendment to its original meaning, and to return the power of regulating firearms to state and local governments, Stevens adds five words to the Second Amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia, shall not be infringed.

Justice John Paul Stevens Putting Stevens' amendments through looks like a long row to hoe. But, as Bertrand Russell once said of his own proposal for political change, "[T]he difficulty ... does not diminish the desirability of such a change." And Stevens is undaunted:
As time passes, I am confident that the soundness of each of my proposals will become more and more evident, and that ultimately each will be adopted. The purpose of this book is to expedite that process and to avoid future crises before they occur.

For the links and references, click here for the article.

Spirituality / All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists
« on: September 11, 2015, 06:39:37 am »
The New Yorker
By Lawrence M. Krauss

As a physicist, I do a lot of writing and public speaking about the remarkable nature of our cosmos, primarily because I think science is a key part of our cultural heritage and needs to be shared more broadly. Sometimes, I refer to the fact that religion and science are often in conflict; from time to time, I ridicule religious dogma. When I do, I sometimes get accused in public of being a “militant atheist.” Even a surprising number of my colleagues politely ask if it wouldn’t be better to avoid alienating religious people. Shouldn’t we respect religious sensibilities, masking potential conflicts and building common ground with religious groups so as to create a better, more equitable world?

I found myself thinking about those questions this week as I followed the story of Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who directly disobeyed a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, and, as a result, was jailed for contempt of court. (She was released earlier today.) Davis’s supporters, including the Kentucky senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul, are protesting what they believe to be an affront to her religious freedom. It is “absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberties,” Paul said, on CNN.

The Kim Davis story raises a basic question: To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it? It’s possible to take that question to an extreme that even Senator Paul might find absurd: imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women. For Rand Paul, what separates these cases from Kim Davis’s? The biggest difference, I suspect, is that Senator Paul agrees with Kim Davis’s religious views but disagrees with those of the hypothetical Islamic fundamentalist.

The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.

In recent years, this territory has grown murkier. Under the banner of religious freedom, individuals, states, and even—in the case of Hobby Lobby—corporations have been arguing that they should be exempt from the law on religious grounds. (The laws from which they wish to claim exemption do not focus on religion; instead, they have to do with social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.) The government has a compelling interest in insuring that all citizens are treated equally. But “religious freedom” advocates argue that religious ideals should be elevated above all others as a rationale for action. In a secular society, this is inappropriate.

The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.

In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.

Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems. Scientists have an obligation not to lie about the natural world. Even so, to avoid offense, they sometimes misleadingly imply that today’s discoveries exist in easy harmony with preëxisting religious doctrines, or remain silent rather than pointing out contradictions between science and religious doctrine. It’s a strange inconsistency, since scientists often happily disagree with other kinds of beliefs. Astronomers have no problem ridiculing the claims of astrologists, even though a significant fraction of the public believes these claims. Doctors have no problem condemning the actions of anti-vaccine activists who endanger children. And yet, for reasons of decorum, many scientists worry that ridiculing certain religious claims alienates the public from science. When they do so, they are being condescending at best and hypocritical at worst.

This reticence can have significant consequences. Consider the example of Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers are calling for a government shutdown unless federal funds for Planned Parenthood are stripped from spending bills for the fiscal year starting October 1st. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides fetal tissue samples from abortions to scientific researchers hoping to cure diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer. (Storing and safeguarding that tissue requires resources, and Planned Parenthood charges researchers for the costs.) It’s clear that many of the people protesting Planned Parenthood are opposed to abortion on religious grounds and are, to varying degrees, anti-science. Should this cause scientists to clam up at the risk of further offending or alienating them? Or should we speak out loudly to point out that, independent of one’s beliefs about what is sacred, this tissue would otherwise be thrown away, even though it could help improve and save lives?

Ultimately, when we hesitate to openly question beliefs because we don’t want to risk offense, questioning itself becomes taboo. It is here that the imperative for scientists to speak out seems to me to be most urgent. As a result of speaking out on issues of science and religion, I have heard from many young people about the shame and ostracism they experience after merely questioning their family’s faith. Sometimes, they find themselves denied rights and privileges because their actions confront the faith of others. Scientists need to be prepared to demonstrate by example that questioning perceived truth, especially “sacred truth,” is an essential part of living in a free country.

I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.

If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist, then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.

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