Satisfying curiosities

On Abraham Flexner’s impact, and particularly on his insight into the usefulness of apparently useless knowledge:

Flexner’s Institute for Advanced Study is one of the greatest second acts in educational history. His first major triumph, of which we continue to be the beneficiaries, was the upgrading of medical education through tougher admissions and graduation standards, as well as a dedication to evidence-based teaching and research. Much of today’s medical school curriculum had its origins in the Carnegie Foundation’s 1910 “Flexner Report.” Taking Johns Hopkins (where he had studied classics) as a model, Flexner convinced some of the wealthiest men in America to donate massive sums for the establishment of modern, research-oriented medical schools at Chicago, Columbia, Rochester, and elsewhere. His efforts to transform the training of the nation’s physicians, as much as his founding of the Institute for Advanced Study, inspired the New York Times to say in a 1959 page-one obituary, “No other American of his time has contributed more to the welfare of this country and of humanity in general.”

Flexner succeeded in setting medical education on a modern scientific course through a powerful blend of knowledge, passion, and, perhaps most importantly, a knack for talking extremely wealthy people into following his lead. He next turned his potent skills toward changing the future itself. Surprisingly, in light of all of his efforts to enhance medical training, Flexner launched the Institute for Advanced Study by diverting a large gift that a wealthy family had planned to use to establish a new medical school. He convinced them instead to found a new sort of institution in Princeton, “a paradise for scholars who . . . have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enabled to do so.”

Flexner’s pitch rested on a brief history of the major advances in science and medicine through the ages. He traced one well-known practical discovery after another back to its foundations in curiosity-driven, fundamental research that seemed, at the time, to have no possible connection with any sort of useful application. When one potential donor held up Marconi’s invention of the radio as the most useful event in modern science, Flexner reminded him that this was an instance of completely “useless” research in electromagnetic waves by Maxwell and Hertz half a century before being “seized upon by a clever technician.” Giants of Western science, from Galileo to Bacon, Newton, and many others, provided yet further evidence for Flexner’s basic insight: “throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which . . . ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”

Pope Francis’s TED talk

Pope Francis has talked of the “God of surprises,” and just as often turns out to be a pope of surprises. That’s true of his surprise (pre-filmed) TED appearance in Vancouver last night.

I’ve been following along with the TED conference through Snapchat from a few people I follow, so already felt somewhat connected to the talks there. I hope Pope Francis’s participation sets a standard for things like this, and that someday a younger pope might surprise an audience like this in person.

Death of a White Oak

Bruce Shipkowski reports from Bernards, New Jersey (an hour west of Manhattan) on an incredible White Oak tree that lived for more than 600 years and became a part of American history:

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A white oak tree that has watched over a New Jersey community and a church for hundreds of years began its final bow Monday… Crews at the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Bernards began taking down the 600-year-old tree that was declared dead after it began showing rot and weakness over the last couple of years. …

“I know it seems funny to some to mourn a tree, but I’m really going to miss seeing it,” said Bernards resident Monica Evans, recalling family photos during weddings and communions.

The tree has been an important part of the community since the town’s inception in the 1700s. Officials say it was the site of a picnic Gen. George Washington held with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Rev. George Whitefield, a noted evangelist, preached to more than 3,000 people beneath the tree in 1740.

Arborists say the tree had stood for nearly 300 years before the church was built in 1717. It stands about 100 feet tall, has a trunk circumference of 18 feet and has a branch spread of roughly 150 feet. …

“It has been an integral part of the town, that’s for sure,” said Jon Klippel, a member of the church’s planning council. “It has always been there, even before there was a town, and over the years many people have met there, been photographed there, had a meal under the tree. We’ve been blessed to have it here.”

But there is a silver lining for tree fans: Another white oak cultivated from the old tree’s acorns was recently planted at the church, so its legacy will continue at the church.

Trees like this are natural landmarks, and special symbols of our country. I’m reminded of the old idea of planting trees at the founding of a new institution or public initiative as a symbolic act of the hope that whatever new thing takes root as the tree does, and flourishes for generations for the betterment of the people.

Trees matter.

First visits to Ave Maria

I was looking back through my old writings, and found the following reflection that I wrote in mid-March 2012 after visiting Ave Maria for what I think was my first or second visit there.

I’m on my way back to Philadelphia, riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor northward from Ave Maria, Florida. On the way down I had lunch with a woman who had never heard of the place, it being a town and university so freshly sprung.

For most of my time visiting, traveling, and working in Ave Maria the students were largely away on spring break. The exception was The Queen Mary Pub in the town square, the sole watering hole in Ave Maria and a place that ended up feeling like a second home, literally a place where everybody knows your name.

A few years after the founding of what was to become Penn State a lawmaker quipped that State College was a town “equally inaccessible from all parts of the state.” This isolation blessed the town with a separation from the day-to-day chaos of the world, providing a special atmosphere in which to learn. It’s also what helped cultivate the spirit of Happy Valley as a place “outside of time” in some sense.

I think much the same could be said for Ave Maria today, a college town that’s miles away from the nearest neighboring town on 5,000 acres of land near a 22,000 acre preserve. A special spirit could develop here, too. The place has existed here for fewer than five years, so time will tell.

In the center of the town there’s Ave Maria Oratory, a cathedral-like church. Outside the town square there are maybe 200 homes spread across the landscape. At night the sky is yours to behold in its fullness, while even in winter warm air tends to fill your lungs on an evening run. Children that ride bikes past one another on a street greet each other by name. It’s a deeply human place, even while still surrounded by marsh and swamp.

The “Notre Dame of the South,” I’ve heard it called, Ave Maria is an experiment in whether the values that once shaped both American and Catholic culture can be regenerated in the midst of an overwhelmingly secular time, whether old ways can again direct distinctly Christian lives.

“When we have broken from our god of tradition,
and ceased from our god of rhetoric,
then may God fire the heart with His presence.” 

—Emerson

Journalists should be skeptics

Walk into almost any news room or journalism class in the country and probably a majority will say something about the importance of objectivity in reporting. It’s not that they think they don’t have biases, but rather that they believe they will be impartial in their reading of events, placement of data, and interviews with sources as to provide an “objective” picture of reality. But what if the notion of objectivity in journalism were its great weakness?

“Objectivity” presupposes an impartial observer able to share a “view from nowhere.” A journalist’s mission is to synthesize the raw materials of a situation into a coherent portrait of the truth. But as a reporter learns more about a subject, cognitive biases will take hold on what information is deemed important or relevant.

Elizabeth Murphy, Penn State’s Daily Collegian editor, wrote a few years ago on her organization’s having received a court order to remove articles from their site and why they refused to agree. She provided a glimpse into the objectivity mindset of journalists:

The Daily Collegian will not yield to intimidation.
The Daily Collegian does not answer to the government.
The Daily Collegian reports the truth as it happens, day in and day out.

What happens when the newspaper reports information that turns out not to be the truth? Or only a partial picture of the truth? Does careless research not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does lazy interviewing not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does simple need to fill out a minimum word count not threaten to obscure the truth each day?

A better standard to adhere to as a journalist would be to acknowledge our tendency toward bias and proclaim that journalists should be naturally skeptical—rather than claiming the mantle of objectivity and truth. Skepticism is a useful attitude for journalists because it gives them a freer hand to investigate, to maintain relationships with contentious public figures, and to share what they know without having to climb onto the high pedestal of objective public good every time they publish.

Skepticism rather than objectivity insulates journalists from the sort of attacks their credibility suffers every time something is reported incorrectly.

In 2003, Jesse Walker explained a problem with the objectivity approach:

There’s a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like “We report, you decide.” And there’s a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of “objectivity” is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.

Jack Shafer at Slate took on the notion of the “objective” war reporter that same year.

Cato: A Tragedy

Reading Joseph Addison’s “Cato: A Tragedy.” A few of my favorite parts:

Juba:

Honour’s a sacred tie, the law of kings,
The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,
That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her,
And imitates her actions where she is not

Sempronius:

Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence

Portius:

I’ll thunder in their ears their country’s cause,
And try to rouse up all that’s Roman in them.
‘Tis not in mortals power to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius — we’ll deserve it.

Bias against elderly people

I’m sure that young and old have been at odds since human beings emerged on the scene. Right now that’s playing out in terms of “Baby Boomers v. Millennials” complaining. That’ll change someday, and then it will be my generation’s fault, and we’ll criticize young people for their excesses.

These aren’t unique thoughts, but they’re two things I thought of recently as related reasons that younger people tend to be biased against elderly people.

First, younger people tend to be biased against the elderly because the elderly have seen a lot, and this often makes them less enthusiastic and more skeptical of fresh ideas than younger people would like.

Second, younger people tend to be biased against the elderly because the elderly are likely to know a lot by virtue of their long lives and their experiences “mining” different parts of the terrain of human experience. This makes the elderly possessors of different sorts of knowledge, sometimes acquired from deep “shafts” within the mine, and which can make younger people uncomfortable.

Maybe I’ll expand on these at some point, but if not at least wanted to jot them down for reflecting on in the future.