TIME human behavior

Hey GM, Denial is Not the Answer

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, at a Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance subcommittee hearing , April 2, 2014.
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, at a Senate Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance subcommittee hearing , April 2, 2014. Bloomberg via Getty Images

General Motors and other big organizations can help themselves a lot by telling it early and telling it all. Psychologists show why that's hard.

When it comes to delivering bad news, the learning curve for most corporations is like the terrain of Kansas—which is to say no curve at all. Take General Motors. It was in 2001 that GM got its first inkling that problems with its ignition switches could cause a car to shut off while in operation—never a good thing. More evidence surfaced in 2005 and beyond, but it was only this year that the company came clean and recalled 2.6 million vehicles—getting deservedly blowtorched not just for their design failures but for their slipperiness. So not exactly nimble.

GM is not alone. Toyota was similarly in denial about its stuck accelerator problem, as was Ford in the 1970s with its festive line of exploding Pintos. Despite the fact that across all industries, this nothing-to-see-here strategy has a success rate of precisely 0%—at least if your goal is damage control—humans in many situations persist in using it. Now, a study reported by the Association for Psychological Science sheds a little light on the reasons.

In the research, investigators Angela Legg and Kate Sweeny, then at the University of California, ran a test that involved the familiar good news/bad news dichotomy. Volunteers were administered sham personality tests and then divided into two groups; members of one would be hearing both the good and bad parts of their test results, and members of the other would be delivering that news. When asked, slightly more than half of the people who would be reporting the results said they’d prefer to give the good news first because they were uncomfortable doing it the other way. But of the ones receiving the news, fully 75% said they’d want get the bad out of the way and end on a high.

The implications: both groups were thinking first about their own comfort level. In a second part of the study, the givers of the news were told in advance that the receivers might actually prefer to get the bad out of the way. Many obliged, which speaks well of students in a laboratory setting, but not so well of corporations, which have ample evidence of the cost of dissembling and yet do so all the same.

Certainly, there are legendary examples of corporations handling crises well. Johnson & Johnson’s quick and candid reaction to the Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s—when bottles laced with poison by a never-identified killer began turning up on store shelves—is still taught in business schools as the exemplar of its form. But such cases of candor-above-all are the exceptions. Bill Clinton was famous for his tendency to tell just enough truth to get him through part of a crisis, with the absolute certainty that in short order he’d be back in the soup to explain the parts he left out. It’s what inspired Lanny Davis, Clinton’s one-time counsel, to title his memoir: Tell it Early, Tell it All, Tell it Yourself.

Airlines are also inexplicably obtuse when it comes to delivering bad news. Passengers sit interminably on tarmacs, with no announcement from the pilot or flight attendants about what the cause of the delay is—the thinking evidently being that if you don’t tell a plane-load of angry, overheated people that they’re 45th in line for takeoff and a storm front is rolling in anyway, they’ll somehow not notice. But ducking and weaving this way carries a price, and it’s one that companies and shareholders can easily understand: poor market performance.

Ben Dattner, professor of organizational psychology at New York University and the author of the book The Blame Game, studies corporate annual reports and has found that those companies that shoulder blame for an off year rather than shifting responsibility to an outside cause tend to outperform the stock market year over year, while those that point fingers at excuses such as a spike in oil prices or a European monetary crisis tend to underperform. The reason: plenty of other companies faced those same problems and not all of them saw their earnings tank.

“If you claim that things were out of your hands,” Dattner warns, “shareholders start to ask, ‘Why don’t I just pull my money out and take it to Vegas?’” Better, he says, to tell shareholders that you know what you did wrong and then tell them how you’re going to fix it.

None of this means that that wisdom will be heeded. Corporations, in this sense at least, are people—and people are stubborn, thick-headed and tend to ignore problems. But there are smart, flexible people too. No surprise, they tend to be the ones with smart, flexible companies—and the profits to show for it as well.

TIME life in space

Bill Clinton Is Right: There Are Aliens in Space

The former president weighs in on the existence of ET—and he's probably right

One of the good things about being an ex-President is that you get to say the kinds of things you could never say when you were still the most powerful person in the world. Take aliens—the space kind. Last night, during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show, the 42nd prez admitted not only that when he was in the White House he ordered a review of all of the documents related to the long running rumors over aliens landing in Roswell, N.M. in 1947, but that he would not be surprised if we did eventually get a cosmic caller.

“If we were visited someday I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, “I just hope it’s not like Independence Day,” a reference to the 1996 movie in which aliens do land—and behave very, very badly.

Has Clinton gone ’round the bend? Not a bit–depending on whether you subscribe to the life-is-easy or life-is-hard school of thought. Physicist, broadcaster and author Paul Davies of Arizona State University is one of the leading proponents of the we’re-all-alone camp, arguing in his aptly titled book The Eerie Silence that biology emerging from dead chemicals was such a cosmic longshot that it’s entirely possible it happened only once, here. But that position is becoming increasingly untenable.

First, there are about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way and our galaxy is one of at least 100 billion in the universe. So, as the overworked idiom goes, do the math. What’s more, ever since the Kepler Space Telescope was launched in 2009, close to 4,000 candidate planets have been discovered in the Milky Way and close to 1,000 have been confirmed.

Planets aren’t the same as biology—witness Earth’s lifeless brothers and sisters in our solar system—but the increasingly evident presence of water and organic chemicals in asteroids, comets and throughout the interstellar medium suggests that the ingredients for life are everywhere. If that’s so, it may take little more than that chemistry plus some energy source (light or heat) plus time to cook up something living. Clinton may have had his political critics in his eight years in the White House, but science, in this case, appears to be on his side.

TIME NASA

Leaked NASA Memo Says Agency Is Giving Russia the Cold Shoulder

NASA confirms a leaked internal memo that states it suspended the "majority of its ongoing engagements" with Russia over the country's recent incursion into Crimea, but says it will keep working together to maintain operation of the International Space Station

The gossip among spaceheads on sites like The Verge and NasaWatch (which is not an official NASA site) is that NASA has suspended all “contacts with Russian Government representatives…unless the activity has been specifically excepted,” in the phrasing of a supposedly leaked memo. The biggest of those exceptions would be anything related to the operation of the International Space Station, in which both countries have skin—literally—in the form of astronauts.

The alleged memo is unusually frank in its phrasing, blaming the chill on “Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Fox News, Huffington Post, CBS News and others are confirming the report, but AP has said nothing and NASA is so far mum.

A NASA representative at the Johnson Space Center emailing with TIME had no knowledge of the supposed memo and seemed amused by it, given that agency officials met with their Russian counterparts just this morning. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has been making the point that Russia’s unreliability makes it all the more imperative for NASA funding to get a bump so the U.S. can free itself of the need to hitch rides aboard Soyuz spacecraft—at $70 million per seat—just to reach the Space Station.

It’s unlike NASA to play cute with leaks, letting this memo slip, say, just to put some heat on Congress for more money and on Moscow for better behavior. Russia does like those steep air fares we pay them and doesn’t need to be reminded of that. The memo—if it exists—may be the result of someone inside NASA overstepping, but a formal statement is still pending as of late Monday afternoon.

Update 8:10 p.m. ET: NASA indeed suspended some activities with Russian officials. NASA’s full statement:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

TIME health

Dear Anti-Vaxxers: You Want Pure Nature? OK, Die Young.

Jonas Salk in 1955, the year his polio vaccine was proven effective
Jonas Salk in 1955, the year his polio vaccine was proven effective Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Parents who oppose vaccines are not only misinformed, they're spoiled, having grown up in a world that stands behind the berms built by the scientists and vaccine developers who came before them.

None of the New York parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children today were around the city in the summer of 1916, which is good for them and good for any of the kids they might have had. It was in that summer that 27,000 children nationwide were struck by a polio outbreak, 9,300 of them in New York. Of those 9,300 victims, 2,700 died. The Salk family at 116th St. and Madison Ave. escaped the scourge, meaning that their two-year-old son Jonas was spared. History notes that when he grew up, he had a little score-settling to do with the poliovirus.

‘Messing with nature’ is the whole point of medicine, given that it’s nature that cooked up every disease that ever existed.That hard experience of a city and its people makes the sublime obtuseness, recklessness and flat-out numbskullery of some of today’s New York parents entirely indefensible. A deeply disturbing investigative piece in New York magazine reveals that fully 245 of the city’s private schools have vaccination rates that fall below the 95% level needed to ensure herd immunity — the protection that’s provided to the few unvaccinated members of a community because so many others are protected that a pathogen never gets a foothold. Of those schools, 127 fall below 90% and 37 fall below 70%. Nine schools fall in a dismal range of 18.4% to 41.5%. Numbers like that are the leading cause New York is suddenly suffering a measles outbreak, more than 50 years after the first vaccine against the disease was licensed.

The anti-vaxxers all cite the same imaginary problems to support their resistance: Vaccines are linked to autism (they’re not), they cause autoimmune diseases (they don’t), they are “messing with nature,” as one pediatrician in a Marin County, Calif. practice that indulges parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids or want to administer the shots on their own schedule, told Mother Jones Magazine. Um, OK.

But here’s the thing the anti-vaxxers need to know, for the one billionth time: You’re wrong. Really, it’s that simple. You’re trafficking in junk science, in thoroughly debunked science, in the dizzy stuff of rumor mills and conspiracy theories. And about nature? “Messing with nature” is the whole point of medicine, given that it’s nature that cooked up every disease that ever existed. You want pure nature? OK, die young.

The authorities cited by the warring camps ought to settle the matter all by themselves. On one side we have the likes of Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari. Nothing wrong with naked models, TV hosts, and fashion designers, but they’re not, you know, scientists. On the other side we have the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and virtually every serious medical journal on the planet.

So anti-vaxxers, you lose. Or actually, your kids lose.

Parents who oppose vaccines are not only misinformed, they’re spoiled, having grown up in a world that stands behind the berms built by the scientists and vaccine developers who came before them. If you’ve never seen measles — or polio or whooping cough or mumps — you have the luxury of believing they don’t exist.

“We live in a very healthy community,” said one of the sublimely glib doctors cited in the Mother Jones story. “The incidence of these diseases are very low, not only here but nationwide. And so it’s safe to do a modified vaccine schedule, in my opinion.”

But the incidence of these diseases is very low precisely because most doctors and parents don’t think the way you do and do vaccinate on schedule. “We live in a very dry community,” the doctor might as well have said. “So it’s safe not to maintain the levees and flood walls that have protected us until now, in my opinion.”

And so you drown; and so unvaccinated children get sick. The words “in my opinion” are not themselves some kind of rhetorical vaccine. They can, instead, be the pathogen. Like all pathogens, they can kill.

 

 

TIME earworm

Yes, It’s Possible to Get ‘Let It Go’ Out of Your Head

Frozen
Disney

Infectious songs are known as 'earworms' for a reason. TIME's science editor on how to eradicate them. (Hint: Try chewing gum.)

If you’re like half the people on the globe, the song “Let It Go” has been been playing on an endless loop in your head since you either saw Frozen, heard Idina Menzel/Adele Dazeem sing the film’s most infectious song on the Academy Awards, walked into any public space that has a radio on, or—in the most extreme cases—have children under 10. The authorized Disney version on YouTube has been streamed more than 166 million times. It’s been sung by TV traffic reporters and remixed as a club anthem.

It was a lovely song the first time. Even the 20th. But the 200th?

Before you ask: No, pounding your head on your desk will not dislodge a song from your brain. But there is hope—not least because science is on the case.

The use of the word “infectious” is more than a metaphor in the case of a song like this, because the exponential way it spreads indeed resembles nothing so much as a pandemic. Think a flu can get passed around easily in a crowded elevator or movie theater? What about a song trickling from the Muzak or blasting from the screen? You can even pick it up person to person, on the street, passing someone who’s humming the blasted thing—the musical equivalent of an uncovered sneeze.

What makes these songs—which the Germans call ohrwurms and we picturesquely translate to earworms—stick, and how can you get them unstuck? First of all, not every song has earworm potential. Even Mrs. Wagner probably never got any of Richard’s songs stuck in her head—though research does show that classical composers and fans of their music can contract that form of higher-brow earworm. Typically, however, it’s the simplicity and repetitiveness of a song that gives it its auditory stickiness, U.K. musicologist Vicky Williamson told NPR in a 2012 interview. In the same way parents of babies and toddlers pick up every cold their viral-sponge children contract in day care and pre-K, so too do they become infected with Raffi and Barney and The Wiggles.

“I get many, many frayed parents who have listened to too many children’s introduction songs or learning songs,” Williamson said. “They heard them 30, 40, 50, 100 times and they’re stuck as a result.”

Commercial jingles, of course, are deliberately designed for just this contagious simplicity—a little like cooking up a superflu in a lab and unleashing it on the world. The target of the jingle or other earworm, says consumer psychologist James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati, is the brain’s primary auditory cortex, which is located in the temporal lobe—a site also associated with short-term memory. But if you think the “short” part of short-term offers hope for the death of the worm, forget it. Some songs have the power to subvert the brain’s quick erasure mechanism, with each repetition only making the problem worse, the way that scratching a rash just makes it itch more. As Kellaris explained to a consumer psychology conference, “certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain.” Indeed, “abnormal reaction” is a decidedly polite way of describing the feeling of being willing to extract your own brain through your ears as long as it means you could yank the song out too and stomp it to death on the floor.

Investigators at the University of Montreal are exploring using magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation to study more closely just what goes on in the song-infected brain. And the British Academy and the BBC have now launched an interactive website called, yes, The Earwormery, that fills you in on the latest news and asks you to take a survey—your contribution to earworm research.

As for what you can do today? Listening to another song is known to help, though the risk is real that the old worm will merely be replaced by a new one. Keeping busy with work, exercise or even a crossword puzzle tends to distract the brain and briefly silence the tune, though you can’t work or jog forever. And not that you’d want to go out of your way to make yourself sad, but good moods tend to be more closely associated with active earworms than bad moods. One University of Reading psychologist even suggests chewing gum, since the rhythm of the chew can disrupt the song.

The good thing is, nearly all earworms do eventually fade, so patience helps. If you’re stuck with the score of Frozen however, whatever you do, don’t start thinking about other kids’ movies, like, say, Despicable Me 2, with other catchy songs like, say, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” When that baby gets stuck in your head it’s…well, never mind. Too late.

TIME

The Art of Optional Outrage

The Great seal of the State of Maryland—with its scandalous words on the banner at the bottom
The Great seal of the State of Maryland—with its scandalous words on the banner at the bottom

We are getting very good at taking phony baloney offense at things—and that cheapens all of us.

I used to try to get upset about the motto of the state of Maryland, I really did. A few decades back, when I was a freshman at the University of Maryland and the women’s movement was still comparatively young, there was something of a kerfuffle about the phrasing at the bottom of the state’s Great Seal: Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine — words that virtually no Marylander had ever read and so could not be expected to know are Latin for “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words.”

This, of course, sparked the ire of, um, dozens, and there was brief a mini-movement to change the words to Fatti, Fatti, non Parole — or “Deeds, Deeds, Not Words.” The motto, nonetheless, has endured, not least because it dates back to the family crest of the first Lord Baltimore in 1622, and most reasonable minds agreed it could thus be grandfathered — or great-great-great-great-grandfathered — in. But not so a commentator in the The Washington Post this weekend, who authored a new attack on the very old words under the headline, “The Maryland motto is sexist in any language.”

To which I say: sigh, I guess, provided you really have the energy and bandwidth to give a hoot. And that is the bigger question.

As the recent faux scandale about Stephen Colbert’s allegedly racist Tweet showed, not all umbrage is created equal. There’s optional umbrage, reserved for things almost nobody really gets upset about until somebody posts them or publishes them with the sole intent of pointing to them in horror. There’s tactical umbrage, which is sort of optional umbrage with a purpose. And there’s real umbrage — which really should be the only kind, and yet, increasingly, is the least common.

It’s no surprise that in a multicultural society with nearly everyone’s defensive posture set permanently to DEFCON 1, it’s race that sparks the most optional umbrage. It’s the kind of thing that, as my colleague Jim Poniewozik pointed out, had people hurling brickbats at George Jefferson and Archie Bunker back in the 1970s. It’s the same thing that has people laughing today — but only guiltily — at Key and Peele’s two-partCollege Bowl” parody of African-American athletes’ names, despite the fact that Key and Peele themselves are both biracial and that, as with all good social satire, there’s some truth behind the humor. But even the guilt is getting harder to maintain, thanks to a sort of irony arms race underway among channels like Comedy Central and sites like Funny or Die. When even SNL, which may be one of the progenitors of the modern era of comedy but still makes its home on old-line network NBC, can run a cop show parody called “Dyke and Fats,” as it did this past weekend, it’s clearly getting harder to play at indignation.

Tactical umbrage is a different beast. It’s the stuff of the cheating husband whose wife finds a telltale hotel receipt in his suit and who responds to her charge with the outraged countercharge, “You went through my pockets?” (Hey, when it’s fourth and long, you throw the bomb.) It’s the stuff of political campaigns that take phony offense at anything they figure will get them a day’s worth of press traction, as in 2004, when Whoopi Goldberg was performing at a John Kerry fundraiser and told a shopworn joke that was a coarse play on George W. Bush’s last name. Bush staffers made a great public show of taking to their fainting couches, demanding all sorts of apologies from Kerry — until the next news cycle, when a fresh outrage was needed.

Bush himself fell victim to the same disingenuousness when, in a moment of admirable candor, he conceded that his war on terror would never end with a satisfying surrender ceremony on the deck of a carrier, allowing all manner of delighted Democrats to pile on, accusing him of the high crime of Doubting Our Troops. Bush was doing nothing of the kind, as those same Dems knew, but practitioners of tactical umbrage don’t have to be fair, they just have to pair up an idea or a person (Bush, Kerry) with an unsavory label (Quisling, creep) and hope the connection sticks.

Compared to its tacky siblings, real umbrage can be a dignified and bracing thing — both in nonfiction and fiction. It’s Army counsel Joseph Welch famously smacking down red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 with his timeless question, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last have you left no sense of decency?” It’s Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning turn in Philadelphia, playing Andrew Beckett, a man dying of AIDS, who is asked by a punctilious librarian if he wouldn’t be more comfortable alone in a reading room and responds, “No. Would it make you more comfortable?” It’s every time you’ve ever been genuinely offended by something and have gathered yourself to defend yourself — with poise and proportion and a contained sense of outrage.

That’s not easy, which is one of the reasons it’s so rare. And it doesn’t always get you the quick win you want — the way a political cheap shot or a dust-up over a dead scrap of Latin does. But umbrage isn’t always about the offender — it’s about the offended. Handling it well is the true manly — and womanly — deed.

TIME

Science Proves It: Greed Is Good

Wall Street, home of the good guys? Kind of.
Wall Street, home of the good guys? Kind of. Spencer Platt; Getty Images

Egalitarianism is not all it's cracked up to be. A new study shows that inequality and social hierarchies can be good things—within certain limits.

Let us now stop and praise the plutocrat. Really. Props too to the bailed out, the overprivileged, the exploiters of the little guys, the Machiavellian narcissists who earn way, way too much and are taking advantage of the rest of us to stay that way. Oh, and let’s praise Putin too.

Greed really is good, as are income inequality, bullying across class lines and even the iron fist of the political strongman—in certain contexts, at least. That’s the conclusion of a new study from the University of Oxford, just published in Nature Communications. Using mathematical models of human social groups, the researchers found that when communities are hierarchically structured—meaning that there is a potential for high inequality too—the individuals at the top tend to make more of an effort in the interests of the group than those at the bottom, including competing with outside groups and facing potential danger in the process.

The authors detected that behavior across nearly all cultures, and cite corresponding studies of chimps, blue monkeys and ring-tail lemurs, showing that higher ranking individuals tend to venture closer to the perilous border of the group’s territory during patrols, and high-ranking females will join the males in combat with other groups. In return, the lower ranking members are allowed to become what is known as free-riders, hiding behind the skirts of the big shots and contributing little on their own. The price for this protection? Don’t cross the dominant members of your own group or they’ll direct their power—and ire—at you too.

Studies like this always raise illuminating and troubling questions and are easy to exploit by nearly anyone with a social or political agenda. (See? There really is such a thing as the safety net turning into a hammock; the makers versus the takers really do exist. Or: See? Bully-boy behavior is the stuff of the apes, something egalitarian societies—and homo sapiens as a whole—ought to have left behind by now.)

But, as in nearly all matters of human behavior, the reality is more nuanced than ideology allows for. Throughout history there is a long tradition of powerful people who serve the group in some way being rewarded with more power still. Famous generals become Presidents (Washington, Grant, Eisenhower), not just because everyone knows their names but because they’ve proven their fortitude in battle and can prove it again if dangerous outsiders come calling. If you’re confused about Vladimir Putin’s stratospheric approval numbers at home even as he has made Russia an international pariah—at least in the eyes of the West—be confused no more.

We tolerate too the enormous wealth some inventors and industrialists accumulate because at least part of the time, they make our lives better too. (Thank you for the cars, Mr. Ford, and for the iPod, Mr. Jobs.) Admittedly, we’re a lot less tolerant when wealthy and powerful people create things that benefit only other wealthy and powerful people—(Thank you for, um, the $25 million condo that nobody I know will ever remotely be able to live in, Mr. Trump)—but we’d rather have an economy that rewards ambition than one that smothers it.

Free-riding is more complex than it seems as well. There’s truth to the fact that in the past, at least, welfare could be a disincentive to work, especially when the work that was on offer was unappealing (you try working a deep frier all day) and paid little more than the free money the government was giving you. But there’s a limit to that—especially when it comes to arguments against extending long-term unemployment benefits.

Under federal formulae, a weekly unemployment check tops out at 40-50% of your last paycheck. If you were grossing only $400 a week to begin with—and plenty of hourly workers don’t make even that much—that’s a cool $200 in benefits. How long could you lounge about in that hammock? On the other hand, health insurance free-riders—people who wait until they’re sick to sign up—do represent a real risk. So the only way to make sure everybody gets a fair shake is—oh, what do you call it again? Ah, yes: a mandate.

The behaviors we share with the lower apes are there for a reason: they worked when we were lower apes, and they still do. The plutocrats, the pampered, are necessary members of a complex economy, and calls for pure egalitarianism have always been nonsense. But so is the tough-love, pull-yourself-up, no free lunch even if you’re starving ethos of the people who have forgotten—or never knew—what that kind of desperation feels like. There’s not a thing wrong with the rich and powerful, provided that they remember what wealth and power are for. Blue-tailed monkeys and lemurs do—so how hard can it be?

TIME space

Space: Where America and Russia Are Stuck With Each Other

American astronaut Steve Swanson, left, and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, are seen as they depart the Cosmonaut Hotel, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, prior to their launch aboard a Soyuz rocket
American astronaut Steve Swanson, left, and cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev, are seen as they depart the Cosmonaut Hotel, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, prior to their launch aboard a Soyuz rocket NASA/Joel Kowsky & Getty

Two countries don't have to like each other to fly together; they just have to need each other

There’s no Crimea in low Earth orbit. That happy fact is one reason that, for now, at least, U.S.-Russian cooperation in space will go on, including a planned launch today from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, which will ferry two cosmonauts and one astronaut up to the International Space Station (ISS). It’s something of an irony that during the early years of the Cold War, the race to the Moon was the very soul and symbol of the rivalry between the two countries, and now space is the only place America and Russia can stand to be in each other’s company. But it’s not exploratory good-fellowship at work. It’s hard reality—not to mention hard currency.

Start with the currency: Capitalist Russia may be richer than the Soviet Union ever was, but its economy is still a slow, petro-dependent mess. Ever since the last shuttle stood down in the summer of 2011, the U.S. has had no way to get astronauts up to the ISS other than aboard the workhorse Soyuz rocket. Even when the shuttles were flying, our astronauts would sometimes hitch a ride aboard the Soyuz, but seats didn’t come cheap, going for $26 million each in 2006. That fare that jumped to $43 million in 2011 and now that the shuttle program is no more, it’s a tidy $71 million per. When the airlines do it, it’s called dynamic pricing; when the Russians do it, we call it highway robbery. But hey, we always wanted them to try capitalism. Well, this is what it looks like.

For Russia, there’s also international prestige at work. Their space program consists of pretty much the old Soyuz and nothing more—no space stations of their own, no lunar probes, no interplanetary probes. Baikonur itself, which used to be within the Soviet Union, has been part of another country entirely—Kazakhstan—since the Soviet break-up (though as recent event have shown, those post-Soviet borders may be less permanent than one might think). This comes at a time when the U.S. is still the world’s dominant spacefaring nation, China is a rising cosmic power, and even North Korea—Asia’s Toontown—can put a satellite in orbit. If you want to play in the big leagues, you’ve got to have people in space, and the ISS gives Russia some place to send them.

The U.S., meantime, has to tolerate Russia and pay its extortionate ticket prices simply because that’s the only lift around. When you’re hitching a ride to spring break, you’d better be ready to pay for the gas and the Red Bull and put up with whatever’s on the radio. The ISS (despite that International in the moniker) is almost entirely a NASA-built, U.S.-paid-for station, and the hard fact is, Moscow controls our access to it.

That should change soon—even faster now that the political situation is so sour. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences—private American companies both—have already made successful unmanned resupply runs to the ISS and both are also working on upgrading their cargo vehicles to carry people. SpaceX is currently in the lead, though it’s at least a few years away from flying astronauts. NASA is building its own heavy-lift rocket for carrying astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, but it won’t be ready for anything but test flights until after 2020.

That schedule, of course, could be accelerated considerably if Washington gave NASA the green light and the cash. America’s manned space program went from a standing start in 1961 to the surface of the moon in 1969—eight years from Al Shepard to Tranquility Base. The Soviet Union got us moving then. Perhaps Russia will do the same now.

TIME creationism

Creationism in Schools—On the Taxpayer’s Dime

Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948.
Back to the future? At South Carolina's Bob Jones University, Dr. Maude Stout "teaches the controversy" over evolution in 1948. Francis Miller—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Vouchers are increasingly being used to teach kids to question not just evolution, but cosmology, biology, even math.

Science loves balance. Gasses rush in to fill vacuums; cells seek homeostasis; an action is never quite satisfied until there has been an equal and opposite reaction. So it’s perhaps fitting that just days after the science wires were buzzing over a new (and thrilling) confirmation of the Big Bang, there is a new (and dispiriting) report on Politico.com about the growth of taxpayer-funded anti-science education in American schools.

According to Politico, 14 states will spend a collective $1 billion in 2014 on vouchers for private and religious schools that teach kids to mistrust not only the science of evolution, but also cosmology, geology, biology and even math. Twelve other states—including bright blue New York—are considering following their lead.

Occasionally the programs don’t just “teach the controversy,” as their backers like to say, but something darker. Evolution, according to one set of texts, is a “wicked and vain philosophy.” Children are taught to “discuss the importance of a right view of evolution,” a view that does not—no surprise—include an enthusiastic embrace of Darwin.

The problem with teaching children like this—apart from the fact that it’s simply incorrect—is that it disqualifies them from full participation in the larger world. It’s awfully hard to be part of the global conversation about the Big Bang breakthrough when understanding the science requires you to accept that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, while your teachers are telling you it’s less than 10,000. It’s awfully hard to be mathematically literate when your geometry and algebra classes are being interrupted to discuss the role numbers play in the Bible.

All of this is being shouted about and litigated over, with the usual parties involved: the ACLU is suing to prevent New Hampshire’s and Colorado’s voucher programs from going forward; Republican political leaders—including Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Eric Cantor and La. Governor Bobby Jindal—are calling for even more-ambitious voucher programs. The Koch Brothers and their billions are pushing for additional public subsidies to pay for the expanded programs.

Backers of the non-science curriculum, of course, frame their goals in the noble-sounding idea of allowing families to “choose the best learning options for their children,” in the phrasing of the website for Florida-based Step Up For Students, which provides scholarships for low-income kids to attend private schools. But their thinking is more troubling than that. Bob Tuthill, the group’s head, told Politico that topics like the age of the Earth and the reasons for the Civil War are simply too controversial for the government to mandate how they should be taught. Once your anti-science ideology is bumping up against the whole Civil-War-was-about-states’-rights-not-slavery school of thought, you’ve got to rethink the company you’re keeping.

Even schools that take pains to give a nod to scientists do it in a qualified way that undoes their ostensible point—as when the website of a Philadelphia private school applauds “the men and women of science,” but cautions that “our understanding is not complete until we filter it” through Scripture. But science already has a filtration process in place, thank you very much. It’s called peer review and many of those peers are people of deep faith and spirituality themselves; they’ve simply learned to keep their religious beliefs and their scientific rigor far enough apart so that both are served well.

None of this non-science comes free. At the same time a Gallup poll reveals that 46% of Americans believe human beings were created in their present form, one international survey found American kids finishing 26th of 34 countries in math and 21st in science. Paul Peterson, the head Harvard University’s Program on Educational Policy and Governance is oddly sanguine about where this could lead, according to Politico, predicting that the free-market system will weed out the schools that teach science badly, because parents will quit sending their kids there.

The problem is, before that happens the American economy will already have weeded out the children who graduated from those schools—at least when it comes to competing for the highest skilled, best-paying jobs. And the global economy, which increasingly depends on innovation and high tech, will weed a little bit more of America out too.

TIME Presidential Politics

Rand Paul And The Perils Of Right-Now Thinking

Rand Paul speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, March 19, 2014
Rand Paul speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, March 19, 2014 Justin Sullivan ;Getty Images

Democratic fears about the Kentucky senator's crossover appeal illustrate the foolhardiness of making snap judgments

There is nothing as unwise as the brain feeling whatever it’s feeling right this second. Right-now feelings are the necessary precursor to right-now actions—the stuff of bar fights, of impulse purchases, of hopping into bed with someone you really, truly ought to be having nothing to do with, but never mind that because the heart, or some other part of you, wants what it wants.

I was put in mind of the right-now brain when I read Saturday’s column by the estimable Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. The teaser headline for the story on the Post‘s homepage was “Dems Should Be Frightened of Rand Paul,” and while the headline on the story itself was more measured (“Rand Paul: the most intriguing man in today’s Republican party”), it made the same point: After the Kentucky senator’s pitch to students at the University of California, Berkeley—the symbol and soul of west coast liberalism—the GOP may have finally come up with a presidential prospect who can tie the Democrats in knots.

Marcus’s piece was closely reasoned and, if you’re a Democrat, gave you no small reason for worry. Paul can indeed be impressive as he argues liberal ideals refracted through a libertarian prism. But the fact is, worry is endemic in politics—and it often leaves us feeling foolish afterwards. There was similar hand-wringing on the left about the coming Mike Huckabee boom during the 2008 cycle; that was followed by the promised Fred Thompson juggernaut. How’d those work out? Republicans have sweated over similar warnings about can’t-miss Democrats over the decades—Teddy Kennedy, Jerry Brown, Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn (really), Dick Gephardt (for 20 minutes)—only to see them all come to naught.

Big picture political strategizing, divorced from any one candidate, is shot through with right-now thinking too. Last October, the GOP-led government shutdown had gleeful Dems predicting the final, self-inflicted collapse of the Republican brand; less than six months later, those same Democrats are bracing for a midterm electoral pounding by resurgent Republicans. The GOP similarly whooped and Democrats similarly panicked at the almost comically awful Obamacare rollout last fall. Now the website is working and the Administration is at least within binocular distance of its original 7 million enrollment target.

Right-now thinking is with us from babyhood. One of child psychology’s most-cited experiments is the famed marshmallow test, in which pre-K subjects were left alone with a single marshmallow and told that if they can resist eating it for three minutes, they’ll get two when the experimenter returns. The kids, predictably, did poorly on the test—unable to forecast how they’ll be feeling just a few minutes in the future, when they’ll regret having indulged in the instant.

But we struggle with the same inability deep into adulthood. We elope because of right-now feelings; buy 70-inch TVs after we walked into the store planning on nothing bigger than 45 inches; spend twice as much on food when we go to the supermarket hungry than when we’ve just eaten lunch. Wars have been launched on the strength of right-now reasoning. In the wake of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the thinly-sourced weapons of mass destruction argument sounded more plausible than it would have if the Administration had made the same case for an invasion on 9/10 or earlier. Ethnic minorities have suffered too—the Japanese-Americans who were interned after Pearl Harbor, the Sikhs who were attacked after 9/11 because their turbans just looked somehow Middle East-y.

In the case of political emotions—at least the kind set off by Marcus’s column—there’s not a whole lot of harm that will be done. Rand Paul’s backers will surely be circulating the clipping to raise funds and enthusiasm for their man; Democrats will, just as surely, circulate it in alarm to push their own agenda. The impact on Paul’s fortunes will likely be a wash.

There’s nothing wrong with giving transitory feelings a role in in-the-moment decision-making. It’s what pushes us to do brave and creative and scary things when simple prudence would dictate otherwise, and it does motivate us to get politically involved. But sometimes, standing still and doing nothing is just as smart. Right-now feelings belong in the brain’s front seat; they just don’t belong behind the wheel.

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