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In American politics, issues like immigration and the refugee crisis generate national headlines daily. But the complex dynamics of immigration are inextricably tied to U.S. history in the Americas, where a legacy of colonialism continues to define the relationship between the United States and the nations of Central and South America.
More than 50 years of interventions in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Chile, Brazil and other countries in the southern hemisphere have affected the lives of these countries’ residents in various ways. Many have resulted over the long term in the systematic destabilization of government coupled with a legacy of violence and military dictatorship, contributing to the reasons that immigrants may cite for wanting or needing to leave their homelands: gang violence, repression, dictatorship and more.
Several professors and students at John Jay have made it their life’s work to investigate the causes and ramifications of this instability, among them José Luis Morín, Claudia Calirman, Pamela Ruiz, and Marcia Esparza. We profiled these scholars in our latest issue of Impact magazine. Read on for a summary of our Impact feature story.
Suing for Justice
José Luis Morín, Chair of John Jay’s Latin American and Latinx Studies Department, is deeply involved with the process of finding justice for the victims of the American 1989 invasion of Panama. Morín had been in the thick of the invasion, which he recalls as “literally a war zone,” and subsequently filed a lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had been directly harmed, seeking reparations from the United States.
Nearly 30 years later, in December 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights finally issued a decision in the case, holding the U.S. government solely responsible for the deaths of Panamanian citizens during the invasion; it is responsible for compensating the victims for damages.
Finally having a decision saying that the U.S. had violated human rights through its actions was a key step toward justice. Morín returned to Panama following the decision, going to communities to explain what this meant and speak to the individuals and families who were part of the case.
“What makes this particularly relevant, and so critical to the work we do in this department, is having our students learn about the history of Latin America and how the U.S. played such an integral role in how these countries developed,” said Morín.
Art Under Fire
The U.S. justified its intervention in Panama as a defense of democracy, but some U.S.-backed “democratic” leaders have turned out to be authoritarian dictators. This was the case in Brazil, where a right-wing authoritarian government ruled from 1964 to 1985.
Claudia Calirman, Associate Professor of Art & Music, is an expert on artistic resistance to government repression in Brazil, and her research — including her first book, Brazilian Art Under Dictatorship — explores how art was expressed in mediums designed to thwart detection. These mediums include body art and what was called “ready mades,” which are every day objects modified to carry subversive or critical messages that could be circulated publicly without implicating the artist.
Calirman’s ongoing work explores different facets of Brazilian art over a variety of time periods, showcasing the ways Brazilian artists approach tough issues and combat repression. Her forthcoming book deals with Brazilian women’s struggles with the term “feminism” as it has applied to their work since the 1960s and ’70s. And Calirman is working on curating a Spring 2020 exhibit at John Jay’s Shiva Gallery about ongoing censorship of art in Brazil.
Pamela Ruiz is a recent graduate of the CUNY Criminal Justice doctoral program whose dissertation analyzed the evolution of gang violence in the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. An explosion of gang violence in these Central American countries is connected to instability and the destabilization of democratic governments.
Ruiz aimed to classify violence that is truly gang-associated, to dispel myths around violence and better target enforcement. “The perception is that all this violence is attributed to gangs,” she explained, ‘but when you go into a country and interview people, you discover that it’s different groups contributing to violence in different areas.”
Her quantitative methods are filling a key gap in research in the region, providing reliable data that policymakers can use to reduce violence, target corruption, and more.
Marcia Esparza, Associate Professor of Sociology and an expert on genocide, state crimes, and human rights violations, would argue that, wherever violence and repression are to be found, remembering victims and commemorating resistance is vital in learning from the past and addressing present violence and corruption.
“If we don’t look at the long-term footprints of militarization on the local level, we cannot talk about democracy or democratic institutions,” she says. Esparza was inspired by her work interviewing genocide survivors in Guatemala to found the Historical Memory Project, which archives and draws on primary sources to memorialize the victims of genocide and state violence, and those who resisted it.
She also emphasizes the importance of helping John Jay students connect with their histories as part of a diaspora. Esparza’s students play a key role in the project’s efforts, as they organize and sort through the large archive to pull together educational exhibitions.
The shared history of interventionist foreign policy and authoritarian rule has created a spider’s web of mutual entanglements that continue to tie the United States to its southern neighbors to this day. This long-term history of invasion and intervention by the United States has created patterns and threads that John Jay scholars trace in their efforts to understand, alleviate, and memorialize violence and instability in these countries, in order to achieve justice, create a lasting peace and, in the process, help some Latinx John Jay students better understand their own histories.
For the full feature, please visit the John Jay Faculty and Staff Research page to read the whole magazine in PDF form!
Denise Thompson is an Associate Professor in John Jay College’s Department of Public Management, and an expert on disaster management and risk reduction. Her new book, Disaster Risk Governance: Four Cases from Developing Countries, was published in July 2019 by Routledge. To learn more about where and how she does this work, you can read a profile of Dr. Thompson in this year’s Impact magazine.
Read on for an edited interview with Dr. Thompson about her work related to disaster planning and recovery, and how she approached writing a book on such a complex topic:
What factors are most important to consider when planning for storms or natural disasters, whether far in the future or imminent?
Maybe the best way to answer that is to look at the disaster cycle. Mitigation, planning preparedness, response, recovery, reconstruction, and then back to mitigation. Even though I put the phases into discrete components, the cycle is integrated, not discrete. And the steps must always be revised.
Mitigation is essentially putting structural and non-structural elements in place well ahead of a storm. That includes hardening infrastructure as well as putting systems in place to make sure we can respond.
The preparedness phase gets ready for imminent disaster, including by bringing together supplies, people and other resources to respond, and making sure supplies are prepositioned where they’re expected to be needed; organizing transportation and marking routes for evacuation; and more.
Recovery includes the immediate response post-disaster, where communities plan for building or rebuilding; get schools, offices, child care and other systems back up that are required for day-to-day functioning; and bring critical services back on line, like roads, food supplies, water, and the government.
Finally, reconstruction is a process of longer-term rebuilding. Ideally, this includes innovation to ensure communities are “building back better,” and is an extremely integrated, wide-spectrum process that moves toward hardened infrastructure and sustainable processes. This happens after an assessment is done of the damage, and must be integrated into planning.
One example is in the Bahamas. Because they are unable to rebuild exactly the same as before the storm hit, the government is thinking about putting some infrastructure underground, like communication towers, to create some protection from the next storm.
How do you factor in climate change when considering ongoing efforts to prepare for and recover from natural disasters?
Well, what is a disaster? We have to think about that. I was listening to a story on NPR, the bird population of the U.S. shrank by one billion birds – that’s climate change. And even epidemics. Certain bacteria and invasive species thrive in certain temperatures. So it’s a disruption, not only of the human ecosystem, but also of the animal ecosystem.
When we talk about disasters, we tend to talk about natural disasters, but it’s so much bigger. We’re not even talking about man-made disasters, like terrorism or cyberattacks, which could be catastrophic. Those are disasters, too, but man-made.
Given the trends in natural disasters associated with climate change (e.g., hurricanes and tropical storms are more frequent, and more frequently of record intensity levels), are there places that are becoming unlivable, or that should be abandoned?
Yes, there are places that should be abandoned. A lot of these countries, their populations are concentrated along the coast, and there are vulnerabilities. Like schools that are flooded in every single storm of course should not have been built where they are.
Are issues of rebuilding and relocation tied in with race and class?
These issues are very tied to rebuilding in many places. You can also look at a place like Flint – race, class and vulnerability are interlinked. Or Newark. Usually, African Americans, Latinos and other minorities are more vulnerable to these disasters. And it’s harder for the poorest communities to recover – the same event has a more drastic impact. The rich have more resources.
In island states, the line is more blurred. The interiors are more rugged, which means most people tend to locate along the coastline, so it’s not as clear-cut an issue as in, say, Hurricane Katrina. But there’s an issue of moral hazard; even knowing that it’s dangerous, people build anyway, knowing that somebody will help them to rebuild. Like the government, or insurance money. So people tend not to bother to plan for disasters.
However, organizations have been exploring insurance, like livelihood protection, for poorer people. For example, the Caribbean Catastrophic Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF) pools resources from many countries in the region, who pay into this fund. They are disbursed to governments directly, to help pay for rebuilding. Commercial facilities might be getting out of disaster insurance, but others are stepping into that void.
Is there an ideal balance between recovery efforts provided by home governments versus outside aid?
I don’t know if there’s an ideal balance. Governments operate at different levels – national, regional, local, community, household – so we usually say that the government closest to the people should be equipped to help them. But what we find is that often the governments closest to the people are themselves incapacitated by whatever event took place, and they’re not able to help. And if you go one level higher, they may be able to help in some ways but not others, and so on. In cases like those, outside help is needed; the quantity depends on the issue.
Is there a useful role for individual aid?
There’s a useful role, but it’s hard to manage spontaneous volunteers. They may put themselves in harm’s way. Typically we say, go through an entity to help. Most agencies right now want money, because they can best divert it to where it’s needed. That may be potable water, or a sanitary facility, or helping women or children get out of situations where they’re more vulnerable thanks to the disaster. It may be a number of things.
When you talk about disaster planning, mitigation, risk reduction, it’s a big, involved process, and very complex. It’s hard to get a handle on it, but agencies do it. Their effectiveness depends on resources. And no one place has the level of resources needed. That’s why governance systems are important, to bring all these things together – the resources, money, people, institutions, laws, and the formal and informal arrangements that must be made to keep people safe.
This is obviously a vastly complex topic that touches on every area you can imagine. How do you write a book about that? Is your book more broad, or is it more of a tool?
The idea for the book came when I was doing a lot of work in the Caribbean and seeing a lot of money being spent, with a minimal return on investment. When the next event came, we were still dealing with the same issues. Activities were happening piecemeal, done by aid agencies, governments, the UN. And preexisting factors, like colonialism, undermined institutions. These were antecedents to what we’re seeing now, but we never could put them together, because we’re always trying to put out fires.
Disaster management systems happen in context of the country, and I realized that countries with weaker governance systems also have weaker disaster management systems. Governance is an umbrella term, comprising all the institutions, systems, actors and processes that come together around disasters.
So what I wanted to do was come up with a number of variables we could use to pinpoint areas we could shore up to improve disaster risk reduction and outcomes. I looked at institutions as a key component in that, like legislation, insurance, security. I also talked about labor policy, networks, economic investment – all these things may not be part of disaster policy, but they support it.
Why did you pick those four specific countries – two in the Caribbean, two in Sub-Saharan Africa – to feature in your book? Did you find some similarities there?
When I came into academia in 2008, there wasn’t much literature on poor countries. And that is not specific to disaster management. The voice was missing. I thought, if I looked at the sub-Sahara and the Caribbean, I would be better able to come up with a governance framework that actually works for developing or poorer countries.
The similarities I picked up are mostly in the institutional and informal aspects. For instance, indigenous peoples from the Caribbean and from Africa were similar in that they had communities with their own laws and customs that may be opposed to planning around disasters. Also, these countries have a legacy of corruption – not all poor countries, some rich countries have higher rates of corruption – but still, government ineffectiveness, government inaccessibility to their populations, these things were comparable. Those cause inefficiencies and waste in the system, they cause people to take longer to recover from disasters. It’s complex and messy.
In the book you have to try to manage the multiple components; you can’t write on everything but you can pick out the salient things. I hope that’s what I was able to do.
Is it disheartening, to see inefficiencies and to see problems getting larger every year, problems that we’ve caused ourselves and failed to find effective solutions to thus far?
Yes, but at the same time, we’re working more closely with communities, and households and individuals, and I think that’s where it has to happen. So while governments create the policies, the infrastructure and the systems, the ecosystem is bigger, with subsystems within it. If you work at the micro level, you can shore up the entire system.
In the Caribbean and in Africa, there are regional agencies that are the real workhorses and innovators – the East African Commission, the African Union, Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management System, CARICOM. CCRIF, for example, is one of the first in the world to push for countries to pool their resources. Other regions, like Southeast Asia, are doing a similar thing. All of these groups come together to actually build and pilot things.
In June 2019, OAR shared a few of our 2018 most productive scholars with our Twitter followers. Check out the whole thread below, and don’t forget to follow @JohnJayResearch and the researchers mentioned below to get more information in real time!
Last year we recorded more than 700 journal articles and book chapters published by @JohnJayCollege faculty members! While we finish adding up this year’s #JJCResearch productivity, we want to introduce you to some of our most productive #JJCFaculty scholars
First up is @ktwolff11, who also won the 2019 Scholarly Excellence Award and the Donal EJ MacNamara Award for significant scholarly contributions to #criminaljustice! His most recently published article examines patterns of recidivism after a sex offense, find it here: (bit.ly/2XaqWmw)
Next is @kevinnadal, @JohnJayCollege professor of psychology and the author/editor of two books in 2018! His research explores the impacts of microaggressions on the mental health of marginalized groups including people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, & more. #JJCResearch
Today’s ft. #JJCFaculty scholar is @ElizabethJeglic, who published 2 books, 9 peer-reviewed articles, 6 book chapters, and 7 online articles and blogs last year!! Her research focuses on sexual violence prevention — her latest article is in journal ‘Sexual Abuse’ #JJCResearch
Next up is @JohnJayCollege criminal justice prof @PizaEric. Not only is he often featured by the media as an expert on policing matters, but he published 13 journal articles in 2018 on the data behind risk-based policing, CCTV, and more! #JJCResearch
Do you know @JohnJayCollege poli sci prof Samantha Majic? An OAR #BookTalk alum (), last year she published new book “Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S.” and has been speaking and writing about the harms of & issues surrounding sex trafficking. #JJCResearch
Last year, @DrMazzula, who is the founder of the @LatinaRAS as well as a @JohnJayCollege prof, kept busy writing and presenting about two key issues: microaggressions, and gender/minority representation in academia. #thisiswhataprofessorlookslike #JJCResearch
And don’t forget Philip Yanos, who in 2018 not only published his book ‘Written Off,’ but also a monthly column in @PsychToday by the same name. His articles, on stigma attached to mental illness, were cited more than 700 times last year!
And last but not least, @JohnJayCollege is home to some great podcasts. Check out @indoorvoicespod, @TWOH_VL, @NewBooksPoliSci, @QualityPolicing, @JohnJayTLC on Teaching and Learning, and @lavueltablog. So much to learn about!
John Jay faculty and staff came together for a reception on May 14th to honor 76 of their own who received major and external grants and awards in 2018. The funded projects are a testament to the hard work John Jay’s community devotes to research and to honorees’ dedication to studies and creative work that strengthen the scholarly fabric of the institution. The awards funded projects of all types, from those with potential therapeutic implications to those that could change international policy, and more.
Among the honorees were Dr. Jeff Mellow and Dr. Deborah Koetzle. Their grant, from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, took them to El Salvador to work on alleviating the severely overcrowded conditions in many Salvadoran prisons.
Both Dr. Mellow and Dr. Koetzle have been working to apply evidence-based, empirically-verified practices to corrections for many years, so when the opportunity came to apply their knowledge gained from research in the United States to an international setting, they knew they had to take it. The project took place in cooperation with El Salvador’s National Criminological Council and Director of the General Office of Penal Centers.
El Salvador’s rate of incarceration is among the highest in the world — second only to the United States, with more than 600 out of every 100,000 persons incarcerated. Although the overcrowding rate is slowly coming down thanks to the construction of new prison facilities, the researchers described unhealthy conditions in some prisons. Some facilities were at 800 or 900 percent capacity, with bunks overfilled with bodies, increased risk of infectious disease, and insufficient room for programming or recreation.
Dr. Koetzle described the severely overcrowded prisons as “strangely quiet” and very still, as inmates have little room for movement. “No one should have to live in those types of conditions,” said Koetzle. “But the other side of that is really seeing the government and the system putting forward meaningful, genuine efforts to address it.”
Releasing the bottleneck
The counterpart to overcrowded higher security institutions are the granjas, or minimum security prisons, to which incarcerated individuals can transition as part of their rehabilitative journey toward release. Their gradual reintegration and movement through the system requires a protracted process of repeated assessments. “Inmates have to both finish a minimum of a third of their sentence, and also engage in very extensive programming to move from closed prisons to open prisons,” said Mellow. “But the problem is there’s a bottleneck, and only about 6% of the inmates, out of 40,000, are in the open prisons.”
As part of the government’s effort to ameliorate prison conditions and move people through the system more quickly, the researchers were engaged to hire, train and manage criminological teams — composed of one lawyer, one educator, one psychologist and one social worker — that helped to build capacity to assess inmate progress toward rehabilitation while drafting more than 2,000 proposals to improve the process based on empirical data collected throughout.
“Our goal was to improve the correctional system and policies, to maintain our relationships down there, and help [the government] to introduce additional evidence-based practice and risk assessments that we think can really help them open up bottlenecks and be more efficient and effective in identifying low-risk individuals to move them through the rehabilitative phases,” said Mellow.
They brought to the process many collective years of experience in working to introduce standardized, evidence-based practice to the U.S. correctional system. Both professors also brought back lessons learned from their time in El Salvador that could translate to better practice in the United States, emphasizing the ways Salvadorans involved in the justice system are still encouraged to feel a part of their community on the outside. “They have families much more engaged, and they are really trying to provide for employment opportunities,” remarked Koetzle. “I think on those two fronts in particular, we could learn.”
Mellow also outlined elements of the rehabilitation program, broadly called “Yo Cambio,” that he felt were exceptional, including “conjugal visits, which we rarely do in the United States, and focus on vocational education. They also have a Fair Day where inmates will go out to sell all the wares they’ve made inside the prison, and the national Olympic game day. You can see that they are really trying to show that inmates are part of the community. They’re people.”
The life of a PI
Working on a large international grant was both a challenge and a source of immense satisfaction. “You’re wearing 100 different hats,” said Mellow, who was Primary Investigator on the grant. “Everything from drafting subcontracts to thinking about lunch for the trainings, to dealing with messages every day, getting everybody paid, and dealing with the funder. Plus doing the actual work, and writing the quarterly and final reports and analyzing the evaluation. If you think about it, you’re managing 40-something people.”It was “not typical to have so many staff in institutions for this length of time,” added Koetzle, the project’s Senior Advisor. “[And] engaging in international work stretches you a little bit differently.” They took seven trips to El Salvador during the two-plus years of their grant work, and talked about the greater investment of resources, time and flexibility needed to pull off a successful overseas project.
But the challenges created by managing a large grant from so far away were paired with a huge pay-off. Both Mellow and Koetzle agreed this was one of the most rewarding projects they’d ever undertaken, and talked about the valuable insights they had learned from working in a different context and system. They also had only positive things to say about their team of local staff, both about their capabilities and their constant enthusiasm and dedication.
“That’s something that really stood out — the number of times they thanked us for giving them the opportunity to help their country,” said Koetzle.
Now that the grant has ended, as of February 2019, Dr. Mellow and Dr. Koetzle, along with co-PI and Senior International Officer in John Jay’s Office of International Studies and Programs Mayra Nieves and their program coordinator, PhD candidate and Salvadoran native Lidia Vásquez, are looking ahead. They are working on publishing their results with a Salvadoran university, in Spanish, and would like to see some of their recommendations translated to national policy. Their greatest hope, though, is to find continuing funding to keep doing the work to which they’ve dedicated so much time over the last two years, and perhaps even extend its scope to other nations in Central and South America with similar overcrowding and assessment challenges in their own criminal justice systems.
“We are hoping for the project to come back, “said Mellow. “That is our goal.”
Dr. Jeff Mellow is a Professor in John Jay College’s Criminal Justice Department, Director of the Criminal Justice MA Program, and a member of the doctoral faculty at the CUNY Grad Center. His research focuses on correctional policy and practice, program evaluation, reentry, and critical incident analysis in corrections.
Dr. Deborah Koetzle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College and the Executive Officer of the Doctoral Program in Criminal Justice. Her research interests center around effective interventions for offenders, problem-solving courts, risk/need assessment, and cross-cultural comparisons of prison-based treatments.
If gender inequity is baked into today’s workplace, what can John Jay students and other Master in Public Administration (MPA) candidates do to fix the problem? Dr. Maria D’Agostino, with co-authors Helisse Levine (LIU-Brooklyn) and Meghna Sabharwal (UT-Dallas), published an article in the Journal of Public Affairs Education in March that represents the first step toward answering that question.
Dr. D’Agostino, an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Management, has focused her recent research on women in public administration. Not only are women — along with other persons whose gender presentation isn’t traditionally male — underrepresented in leadership and management roles but, according to the theory of Second Generation Gender Bias, the workplace isn’t even built to accommodate the needs of anyone but men.Longstanding cultural beliefs and biases, formed over many decades, put up invisible barriers to women’s advancement, and workplace structures and practices can inadvertently favor men. One such practice is negotiation, which figures prominently in 21st century workplaces. When negotiating for starting salaries and other benefits, studies show that men see better negotiation outcomes than women, and that these differences are more due to stereotyping and structural bias than to behavioral differences. Negotiated Order theory, which has also heavily influenced D’Agostino’s work, suggests that the results of biased negotiations build up over time, meaning that when women or people of marginalized genders start out behind, they usually stay behind.
D’Agostino believes that MPA programs are a great place to take on these challenges. “A lot of experimentation goes on in the public sector,” she said, giving examples of vital pieces of legislation that have trickled down from government policy to private sector workplaces, including Title IX, Paid Family Leave, and New York City’s 2017 law barring employers from asking about applicants’ salary history.
According to D’Agostino, MPA graduates are often perfectly placed to address inequality. “[Graduates] work in city, state, and federal government, they work in nonprofits, and in the private sector. The essence of public administration is serving the public and the common good, and they are the face of that; they are the decision-makers in terms of creating policy that becomes city, state, and federal law, which can even spread to the private sector. They are both creating and implementing policy, so they have a big impact on the future.”
It is therefore a concern for D’Agostino and her colleagues that more MPA programs aren’t tackling issues of workplace inequality head on. In her study, researchers surveyed MPA administrators to find out how many programs around the country offer courses in negotiation, let alone courses that incorporate elements of gender bias into coursework. They found that “none of the programs offered a standalone course on gendered negotiation, and those that offered courses on negotiation generally only focused on transactional portions,” said D’Agostino.
Her suggestion? Incorporate second generation gender bias into curricula as a core competency for all MPA programs. Raising awareness among students in the field could lead to big changes inside workplaces, but also in the ivory tower. “Academics could do more research, which could inform practice, which would affect training, which would impact the field in terms of gender equity.”
These are big dreams for sweeping change in MPA programs and in offices across the U.S. For now, D’Agostino and her colleagues are developing a conceptual framework for talking about the issue. Her next step is to interview both men and women in various positions in seven states, to try to understand the implications of second generation gender bias as they play out in real workplaces and to hear about real workers’ experience with bias.
You can find the full article, “Gender in negotiation: Preparing public administrators for the 21st century workplace,” online at the Journal for Public Affairs Education’s website.
Maria D’Agostino is an Associate Professor in John Jay College’s Department of Public Management. She is also the co-founder of Women in the Public Sector at John Jay, a program which educates, engages, and fosters a consortium of students, faculty, public service practitioners, and community members interested in women in public service. It promotes gender equality and provides opportunities to address gender issues in public service.
Dr. D’Agostino is the co-recipient, with WPS co-founder Dr. Nicole Elias, of the 2018-19 Inaugural Presidential Student-Faculty Research Collaboration Award from John Jay’s Office of Student Research and Creativity, for the examination of gender equity in municipalities. Her recent research has focused on women in public administration, including a 2018 co-edited book, Governing in a Global World: Women in Public Service.
On April 16, 2019, John Jay College’s Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff spoke at Session 4 of TED2019 in Vancouver. The program featured eight speakers representing eight projects that are receiving funding from The Audacious Project in 2019. Dr. Goff spoke on behalf of his independent non-profit organization, the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which was one of this year’s Audacious Projects.
CPE focuses on addressing racism in the United States. According to Dr. Goff, “When we change the definition of racism from attitudes to behaviors, we transform that problem from impossible to solvable.” CPE’s project, COMPSTAT for Justice, is a database leveraging data collected from police departments and cities on police behavior in an effort to identify problem areas where specific police behaviors can change.
With the support of The Audacious Project, CPE wants to extend the results it’s already seen with partners adopting COMPSTAT for Justice, by delivering the project to police departments serving 100 million people across the United States over the next five years.
As an evolutionary biologist, and author of such books as Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals and Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, From Pointless Bones to Broken Genes, Nathan H. Lents has joined the ranks of scientists whose work is under attack by proponents of intelligent design.
There is no coherent theory about intelligent design; according to Lents, the one commonality is that supporters “don’t buy modern evolutionary theory, or some part of modern evolutionary theory. They hold a whole variety of incompatible positions.” The views of intelligent design supporters range from believing the planet was created less than 10,000 years ago, to finding a role for God in gradual or ongoing acts of creation and evolution, to those who think God “set up” for life to evolve as it has in something Lents calls “the Perfect Pool Shot.”
Lents’s most recent book, Human Errors, came out in 2018 to great excitement from the science and reading communities. When it was published, he thought that intelligent design supporters “would just roll their eyes. I didn’t offer it as a serious critique [of intelligent design], so I didn’t think they would respond in a serious way but they absolutely did; they went on the attack.” Lents said it took him months to learn about the different types of creationists and how to respond to and refute their attacks effectively, promoting scientific thought without getting dragged into the mud.
This month, Lents and two co-authors can be found standing up for modern evolutionary theory in Science, a journal that has been at the center of important scientific discovery and thought since its founding in 1880, reviewing Darwin Devolves, a new book by biochemist Michael Behe. He is among the best-known figures in the intelligent design movement; Lents characterizes Behe as a serious man who views his own work as serious science.
“Michael Behe believes in common descent, the true age of the earth, that all living things have evolved, he believes in all of that. But the only thing that he takes issue with is the source of all this diversity in life, that then gets acted on by natural selection. He thinks that God or a supernatural force of some kind has to provide this new influx of genetic information somehow, periodically, and then evolution can play out for a while. Either it was preloaded in the ‘perfect pool shot’ or there are ‘continuing miracles of life.'”
While creationism and trying to explain science with a creationist mindset have always been with us, in the late 1990s Behe introduced a concept called “irreducible complexity,” and this notion has really taken over those who are trying to marry science and creationism. Irreducible complexity is the idea that evolution must be false because natural selection acts by propagating mutations that create advantage for the organism; however, some structures are so complex that they never could have evolved, because their individual pieces must work together to convey advantage. Behe holds that evolution could not have produced all of the interrelated structures in a complex system like, for example, the eye, because the innumerable steps and parts it takes to make up the eye (and therefore to create vision) aren’t advantageous on their own, and therefore could not have evolved without the hand of an intelligent designer.
Lents doesn’t agree with that theory. “What we do know is that these structures don’t evolve as fully-formed units. When the eye was evolving, it wasn’t like a fully-formed retina — boom — just appeared, and then a full-formed lens, that’s not how it works. The whole thing becomes gradually more complex, and then, of course, many, many steps later it looks like if you remove any one part the whole thing doesn’t work, but that’s because it’s evolving as a unit, not stepwise. It’s not like building a car. The good thing is that, if you look at the eye, we can find intermediates, not in the fossil record but in living things right now, that have an earlier version of the eye.”
In this review, Lents sticks to the science. They point to sections or examples in Darwin Devolves that fail to take into account evidence produced by testing modern evolutionary theory. Although Lents and both of his co-authors have been subject to attacks on their work by supporters of creationism, he says he’s learned his lesson about responding to attacks that are ultimately unserious or political in nature.
“I’ve come to realize, Lents says, “that in these exchanges, my real audience is not the intelligent design community. I’m writing for millions of silent readers who come into this debate innocently and earnestly when they see their children start to learn about evolution in middle school and they want to see what’s out there, they want to read for themselves. So that’s who I’m writing for, the people who are just genuinely trying to find answers about what the science really says, what evidence do we really have, that kind of stuff. So I’m not really speaking to the intelligent design community anymore, I’m just speaking to the general public, trying to correct the record on science.”
In fact, that really sums up Lents’s approach to writing more generally. He wrote his second book for the general public, “first of all to entertain, but also to help them understand how these little quirks that we have in our bodies have come to be, and how to live with them, and survive and thrive.” It’s very important to Lents to advance the idea of a scientific mindset, which he says intelligent design proponents don’t have.
“Science, at its best, comes at the evidence and tries to come up with an explanation that best fits that evidence. And even when that explanation starts to become what we call accepted science, it is still tested. But intelligent design supporters, including Michael Behe, their starting point is that they have a truth that they already believe is true, and then they try to mold an explanation for the science around that preconceived notion. So it’s backwards. And that’s why they end up with egg on their face so often, because they’ll come up with an explanation that fits the limited data that we have at one point in time, and then we just get more data and a fuller understanding and they have to keep revising their explanation. And that’s just not a good way to come up with the truth.”
Lents plans to continue writing fact-based science texts with the general public in mind, even if he does invite further criticisms from the intelligent design community or other conservative elements. He says he’s currently laying the foundation for his next book, “which is about human sexuality in the evolutionary context. If you see a pattern in my work, it’s that I’m getting more and more controversial with each book.” Lents wants to look at human sexuality as it’s connected to the greater natural world, and the ways that social constructs have shaped our expressions of sexuality. His argument? “A label-free approach to sexuality is much more in line with our natural biology. The only thing labels do is create restrictions.”
Dr. Nathan H. Lents is a Professor of Biology at John Jay College, as well as the Director of John Jay’s Honors College. Apart from being the author of the two books mentioned above, Dr. Lents blogs at The Human Evolution Blog and on Psychology Today. For more, read his bio.
To read his review with co-authors Joshua Swamidass and Richard Lenski in Science, visit the website.
It’s winter, which we sometimes call “flu season.” In fact, “you can catch influenza at any time during the year if exposed to the virus, and its severity is the same regardless of when you get sick,” says Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín. We don’t fully know the answer to why influenza is more common during the colder months. According to Nathan Lents, “The virus is viable for a longer time in cold air, and spreads more readily in dry air. Another reason that may contribute is that winter air dries our mucus membranes, which makes them less effective at preventing viral entry. We also tend to spend more time indoors with closed windows and recirculated air.”
A somber anniversary
The 2018 flu season was also the 100th anniversary of the infamous global influenza pandemic, a year when more
than 500 million people around the world are estimated to have died from flu. Of that number, 675,000 fatalities came from the United States, with roughly 20,000 from New York City alone. According to Mike Wallace, in his 2018 book Greater Gotham, more Gothamites died of disease in the city than died during World War I; the ongoing war effort actually impaired New York’s efforts to fight the flu, by concentrating soldiers in training camps where disease could spread and by taking much-needed medical personnel away from home to establish medical camps near the battlefields in Europe.
Despite the high numbers of fatalities at home, New York of 1918 had a lower death rate than other major cities (4.7 deaths per 1,000 residents, as compared to Boston’s rate of 6.5 and Philadelphia’s of 7.3). This was attributed by Health Commissioner Royal Copeland to New York’s long history of public health work, and particularly the alleviation of unhealthy conditions around the city at the turn of the 20th century.
Vaccines and you
Today, scientific and public health efforts have brought some protection from a repeat of 1918 in the form of vaccines. In the case of the flu, explains Dr. Lents, “Each year’s vaccine is targeted toward the three to four strains that appear to be spreading the most rapidly. The injected vaccine contains killed viruses [from those strains], while the nasal spray contains live but weakened viruses. In both cases, the large dose of viral particles elicits a strong immune reaction from our bodies, including the production of antibodies that can stick around for years or even decades. The second time we are exposed to the same virus, it only takes a day or two to mount the same level of immune response. This ‘priming’ gives the immune system enough of a head start that it usually prevents the infection from ever taking hold.”
Because the influenza virus is so good at mutating from year to year, “no vaccine is 100% perfect, and getting the flu shot will never protect you against 100% of all flu strains,” says Dr. Sanabria-Valentín. But the vaccine will “significantly decrease the risk of getting sick, and will decrease the severity and length of infection, and decrease the chance that you get other people sick” if you do contract the virus.
Vaccinating also helps to protect those around you in other ways, namely by contributing to “herd immunity.” “Some people cannot be vaccinated because they are too young, too old, immune-compromised, or battling other kinds of infections,” says Dr. Lents. When the percentage of people in a population are effectively immunized, it helps to prevent the spread of disease to those who were unable to receive the vaccine. But when the percentage of vaccinated people falls because individuals who otherwise could be immunized choose not to be, it puts vulnerable populations at risk.
Conquering vaccine hesitancy
“Controversies about vaccinations have been out there since we adopted this preventative measure almost 100 years ago,” says Dr. Sanabria-Valentín. “There are a lot of myths about vaccinations which are peddled by conspiracy theorists trying to sell you something or by people who might have good intentions but got swindled by ill-intentioned people trying to make a fast buck. One of the most popular ones is that vaccines can cause autism in children. This claim was first made in a study that was demonstrated (by many groups) to be fraudulent; no direct relationship between receiving vaccinations and autism has been found. There is overwhelming consensus among scientists and physicians that vaccines are safe and effective even though, like most medical treatments, in very rare cases they can cause side effects and in even rarer instances can cause serious unintended health problems. There is overwhelming evidence that vaccination has helped not just individuals, but humankind.” Although diseases like smallpox, polio and the measles were all but eliminated by vaccine technology, skepticism about immunization–which many attribute to the rise of social media–has caused some long-gone diseases to stage a comeback.
Dr. Lents stated that “in 2017, 80,000 people died of influenza, the highest number in 40 years. If more healthy people had been vaccinated, that number could have been much less. Each person that decides not to vaccinate adds a little bit of risk to the entire population.” This dynamic played out in October 2018, when measles–which was declared eliminated in the US in 2000–broke out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The New York City Department of Health confirmed 42 cases in Williamsburg and Bensonhurst as of mid-December, and is currently barring un-immunized students from attending local schools. And according to The Guardian, Europe is also experiencing a surge in vaccine hesitancy and a corresponding growth in the numbers of new measles cases; Europe will see more than 60,000 new cases this year and 72 deaths, the highest number this century.
It is generally agreed that fears about vaccine side-effects are overblown, and contradicted by scientific consensus. “Vaccines are constantly monitored and modified as circumstances dictate. The FDA does not approve a vaccine unless initial trials indicate the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. In response to vaccine safety concerns today, healthcare providers have to give vaccine information sheets to recipients clearly describing the risks and benefits of the vaccine. And finally, vaccines are subject to particularly high safety standards because, unlike other health treatments, they are given as preventive measures to protect healthy people,” explains Dr. Evelyn Aranda Jaque. “Although vaccination is not 100% effective, studies on flu vaccination programs have shown that people who get vaccinated are less likely to be seriously ill or die in comparison with those who do not vaccinate. We must consider that the widespread use of vaccines for life-threatening diseases in the United States has led to a dramatic decrease in their incidence.”
Evelyn Aranda Jaque is a substitute Associate Professor at John Jay College, where she teaches classes including Immunology and Microbiology. She received her Ph.D. from the Physiology Department at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Dr. Aranda Jaque’s research since her doctorate days has largely focused on the role of angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels) in tumor progression.
Nathan Lents is a Professor of Biology and Director of the Honors Program and Macaulay Honors College at John Jay College. He holds a Ph.D. in human physiology and postdoctoral training in computational biology from NYU. In addition to his laboratory research, Dr. Lents writes popular science articles, blog and books. His most recent book is Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes.
Edgardo Sanabria-Valentín is the Associate Program Director of John Jay College’s Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math (PRISM) as well as the college’s Pre-Health Careers Advisor. He holds a Ph.D. from NYU-School of Medicine, and spent three years working in the biotechnology industry. Dr. Sanabria-Valentín is the recipient of the ESCMID Young Scientist Award (2007), a Leadership-Alliance Schering Plough Graduate Fellowship (2006), and the NBHS-Frank G. Brooks Award for Excellence in Student Research (2001).
Mike Wallace is a Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College and author of Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919. Dr. Wallace is also the co-author of Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and the founder of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the CUNY Graduate School. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University.