Space shuttle Atlantis sits on launch pad 39A while being fueled for launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida July 8, 2011
Patriotic turns-of-phrase get shopworn fast. “Land of the free and home of the brave” is coded deeply into our linguistic consciousness, but quick, what does it come from, “Oh Beautiful,” “The Star Spangled Banner” or “My Country ’tis of Thee”? (And no singing through them all until you bump up against the right lyric.)
Still, the free and brave idea was exactly what was on my mind last week when I was at the Kennedy Space Center for the final launch of the space shuttle program. It’s hard to watch 4.5 million pounds of explosive machine lift off the pad with four human beings aboard and not be impressed by the pure brass it takes just to build such a monster, to say nothing of being willing to climb inside it. And it’s hard to look around at the thousands of reporters and hundreds of TV cameras reporting every moment of the event — in real time, to the whole globe — and not reflect that the First Amendment was an awfully nifty idea.
Last week’s mission isn’t the only thing about NASA that gives me a love-of-country charge. Even as the latest group of American astronauts run their final laps around the planet, a whole swarm of unmanned probes are continuing to explore the solar system: Cassini, Messenger, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Dawn, Express; all are either on their way to or have already arrived at such diverse destinations as Saturn, Mercury, Mars, Pluto, the asteroid Vesta and, in the case of the Voyagers, the interstellar space beyond out solar system altogether. Two more probes — Curiosity and Juno — are queuing up for launch later this year to Mars and Jupiter. And every single one of those machines is wearing an American flag somewhere on its hull. It ain’t “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” chest-thumping to find that worthy of more than a little national pride.
The problem is, the land of the free and the home of the brave is also in danger of becoming — not to put too fine a point on it — the land of the dunderhead, and my trip to Canaveral drove that point home too. It’s no secret that as a people, we’re rapidly losing the basic fund of knowledge we need if we’re going to function well in a complex world. Just last week another dispiriting poll was released revealing how little some of us know about our own national history. Only 58% of Americans can say with certainty what happened on July 4, 1776 — a figure that falls to a jaw-dropping 31% in the under-30 cohort. Fully 25% of Americans who do know that we seceded from someone or other to become a nation don’t know who that former parent country was. This follows on the heels of other polls showing similar numbers of folks believing that we fought the Russians in World War II and beat them with the help of our stalwart German allies.
Being historically illiterate is bad. Being scientifically illiterate, however, is even worse — if only because having a working knowledge of how the world operates is essential to understanding critical areas of national policy. Type the words “global warming” and “hoax” into Google and you get an appalling 10.1 million hits. The polls are all over the map on this one, but they all show that rising numbers of Americans think climate science is fraudulent or exaggerated — up to 41% in one survey. It’s not merely opinion to say that those people are simply wrong. There may be raging debates among scientists about the precise severity, mechanisms and trajectory of global warming, but the basic science is established and accepted, whether you want to admit that or not.
Then of course there are the 18% of Americans who believe the sun revolves around the Earth and the 28% who think the moon landings were faked. Google that last one and you’re taken to sites that profess to be forums for political debate. Political debate? About faking the moon landings? This isn’t the Roman Senate folks, it’s fantasyland.
What got me thinking about all this last week was a stop I made after the launch at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex — a combination museum and theme park on the Canaveral grounds. The center’s special feature this season is called Sci-Fi Summer 2011 — and it delivers just what it promises. Adjacent to the rocket garden, with its full-size mock-ups of America’s most legendary boosters, is a massive map-like display comparing the size of the Saturn 1B, the Saturn 5, the Mercury Redstone, the space shuttle and the International Space Station to the Starship Enterprise. That’s fine, except that all of the other spacecraft actually existed and the Enterprise, um, doesn’t. The spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong, Gordon Cooper and other astronauts are similarly commingled throughout the exhibit with uniforms worn by the Klingons and Romulons. There is also an entire pavilion set aside for a Star Trek display.
O.K., it’s cranky to begrudge people a little fun and, well, Star Trek is undeniably cool. But do we really not get enough fun and cool elsewhere? Is there anyone alive who thinks that the one thing America needs right now are a few more ways to divert and amuse ourselves? Mix Cooper with the Klingons or the shuttle Enterprise with the Starship Enterprise long enough and the kids who consume all of this stuff will no longer be able to tell them apart.
Scientific literacy really is a part of good citizenship. And when it comes to space science, you don’t need a lick of fiction to make it fun. An engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works in the interplanetary program once explained why he loves his job by saying, “If you can’t have a good time coming to work and building robots to send to Mars, give it up, man.” The same used to be true of merely learning about such things. It must become true again if America is going to keep its edge.
Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ruled on Friday that marijuana has “no accepted medical use” and should therefore remain illegal under federal law — regardless of conflicting state legislation allowing medical marijuana and despite hundreds of studies and centuries of medical practice attesting to the drug’s benefits.
The judgment came in response to a 2002 petition by supporters of medical marijuana, which called on the government to reclassify cannabis, which is currently a Schedule I drug — like heroin, illegal for all uses — and to place it in Schedule III, IV or V, which would allow for common medical uses.
The DEA ruled that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” has a “high potential for abuse,” and “lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision.”
Not only does this decision conflict with state laws, however, it also conflicts with a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the branch of the National Academy of Sciences charged with answering complex medical questions for Congress. Way back in 1999, the IOM said:
Scientific data indicate the potential therapeutic value of cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation; smoked marijuana, however, is a crude THC delivery system that also delivers harmful substances.
Despite the issue of smoking marijuana, the IOM said that medical use of the drug is acceptable when other alternatives have failed.
In addition, in 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an investigational new drug application, or IND — which grants permission to study a drug with the goal of approving it for marketing if it is safe and effective — for Sativex, an inhalable marijuana-derived drug, which includes both THC and CBD, the main active components of cannabis. So, while one federal agency says the drug is too risky for use even under medical supervision, another is studying it for possible approval for marketing.
The synthetic marijuana-based drugs nabilone and dronabinol (both used to treat nausea and vomiting) are already approved in the U.S. and have been placed in Schedules II and III, respectively. Schedule II includes drugs with high abuse potential like Oxycontin, while Schedule III includes milder painkillers like codeine combined with Tylenol.
Since the IOM report was released more than a decade ago, the evidence for the medical benefits of marijuana and related drugs has continued to increase. In the last three years alone, cannabinoids have been found to help kill breast cancer cells, fight liver cancer, reduce inflammation, have antipsychotic effects and even potentially help stave off the development ofAlzheimer’s disease and reduce progression of Huntington’s disease.
Further, a 2011 review of the effectiveness of cannabinoids for non-cancer pain found “no significant adverse effects” and “significant” analgesic effects.
Although the DEA judgment sounds like a setback for medical marijuana advocates, in one important sense it is an advance. The government had long delayed making a judgment on the petition, but now that it has, it makes it possible for advocates to appeal it in federal court. Now, that process can be set in motion.
It’s worth noting, though, that this isn’t the first time a petition to reclassify marijuana has been filed and rejected. The Los Angeles Times reported:
The first was filed in 1972 and denied 17 years later. The second was filed in 1995 and denied six years later. Both decisions were appealed, but the courts sided with the federal government.
Still, if an appeals judgment were to be based on scientific evidence, rather than political considerations, this time around, it’s easy to imagine a very different outcome.
F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011
Adult obesity rates increased in 16 states in the past year and did not decline in any state, according to F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America‘s Future 2011, a report from the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Twelve states now have obesity rates above 30 percent. Four years ago, only one state was above 30 percent.
The obesity epidemic continues to be most dramatic in the South, which includes nine of the 10 states with the highest adult obesity rates. States in the Northeast and West tend to have lower rates. Mississippi maintained the highest adult obesity rate for the seventh year in a row, and Colorado has the lowest obesity rate and is the only state with a rate under 20 percent.
This year, for the first time, the report examined how the obesity epidemic has grown over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent. Today, more than two out of three states, 38 total, have obesity rates over 25 percent, and just one has a rate lower than 20 percent. Since 1995, when data was available for every state, obesity rates have doubled in seven states and increased by at least 90 percent in 10 others. Obesity rates have grown fastest in Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee, and slowest in Washington, D.C., Colorado, and Connecticut.
“Today, the state with the lowest obesity rate would have had the highest rate in 1995,” said Jeff Levi, Ph.D., executive director of TFAH. “There was a clear tipping point in our national weight gain over the last twenty years, and we can’t afford to ignore the impact obesity has on our health and corresponding health care spending.”
Obesity has long been associated with other severe health problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure. New data in the report show how rates of both also have risen dramatically over the last two decades. Since 1995, diabetes rates have doubled in eight states. Then, only four states had diabetes rates above 6 percent. Now, 43 states have diabetes rates over 7 percent, and 32 have rates above 8 percent. Twenty years ago, 37 states had hypertension rates over 20 percent. Now, every state is over 20 percent, with nine over 30 percent.
Racial and ethnic minority adults, and those with less education or who make less money, continue to have the highest overall obesity rates:
- Adult obesity rates for Blacks topped 40 percent in 15 states, 35 percent in 35 states, and 30 percent in 42 states and D.C.
- Rates of adult obesity among Latinos were above 35 percent in four states (Mississippi, North Dakota, South Carolina, and Texas) and at least 30 percent in 23 states.
- Meanwhile, rates of adult obesity for Whites topped 30 percent in just four states (Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia) and no state had a rate higher than 32.1 percent.
- Nearly 33 percent of adults who did not graduate high school are obese, compared with 21.5 percent of those who graduated from college or technical college.
More than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year were obese, compared with 24.6 percent of those who earn at least $50,000 per year.
“The information in this report should spur us all – individuals and policymakers alike – to redouble our efforts to reverse this debilitating and costly epidemic,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A, RWJF president and CEO. “Changing policies is an important way to provide children and families with vital resources and opportunities to make healthier choices easier in their day-to-day lives.”
This year’s report also includes a series of recommendations from TFAH and RWJF on how policymakers and the food and beverage industry can help reverse the obesity epidemic.
The recommendations for policymakers include:
- Protect the Prevention and Public Health Fund: TFAH and RWJF recommend that the fund not be cut, that a significant portion be used for obesity prevention, and that it not be used to offset or justify cuts to other Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) programs.
- Implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act: TFAH and RWJF recommend that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issue a final rule as swiftly as possible regarding school meal regulations and issue strong standards for so-called “competitive” food and beverages – those sold outside of school meal programs, through à la carte lines, vending machines and school stores.
- Implementing the National Physical Activity Plan: TFAH and RWJF recommend full implementation of the policies, programs, and initiatives outlined in the National Physical Activity Plan. This includes a grassroots advocacy effort; a public education program; a national resource center; a policy development and research center; and dissemination of best practices.
- Restoring Cuts to Vital Programs: TFAH and RWJF recommend that the $833 million in cuts made in the fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution be restored and that programs to improve nutrition in child care settings and nutrition assistance programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children be fully funded and carried out. If fully funded these programs could have a major impact on reducing obesity.
“Creating healthy environments is key to reversing the obesity epidemic, particularly for children,” remarked Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey. “When children have safe places to walk, bike and play in their communities, they’re more likely to be active and less likely to be obese. It’s the same with healthy food: when communities have access to healthy affordable foods, families eat better.”
Additionally, for the food and beverage industry, TFAH and RWJF recommend that industry should adopt strong, consistent standards for food marketing similar to those proposed in April 2011 by the Interagency Working Group, composed of representatives from four federal agencies – the Federal Trade Commission, CDC, Food and Drug Administration and the USDA – and work to implement the other recommendations set forth in the 2005 Institute of Medicine report on food marketing to children and youth.
State-Specific Obesity Information
Teen Moms Are Taking over Reality TV. Is That a Good Thing?
“This is the happiest day of my life!” So says Maci Bookout, according to a recent cover of OK! magazine, where the 19-year-old Teen Mom star and rumored bride-to-be flashes a beauty-queen smile. Sharing cover space with Bookout — and sporting a bikini, plus a baby on each hip — is Leah Messer, 19, whose dream wedding was featured in last spring’s season finale of Teen Mom 2. (One month later, she filed for divorce.) Elsewhere in the celebrity mediasphere, one might find Teen Mom‘s Farrah Abraham, 20, staging a photo op for paparazzi on a Florida beach, or Abraham’s castmate Amber Portwood, 21, posing for photographers outside her latest court hearing; she was recently sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to felony domestic battery against the father of her child.
A spin-off of MTV’s popular reality series 16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom recently entered its third season. With more than 3 million viewers each week, it’s the network’s top-rated show after Jersey Shore, and its subjects provide endless fodder for the tabloids. But MTV’s teen-pregnancy franchise is a more discomfiting venture than most artifacts of the reality-TV age. Not quite famous for being famous, as the denizens of The Hills andJersey Shore are, these young mothers became famous for making unplanned detours into parenthood — and inviting cameras along for the ride. Though MTV recruited them to be the subjects of cautionary tales, the network has turned them into success stories: television stars and cover girls, gainfully employed just for being themselves. (Last December, Portwood disclosed that she earned $140,000 from a six-month contract with MTV.) The contradictions of Teen Mom — brand fame might be encapsulated in a 2010 cover of Us Weekly: Bookout and Abraham stand back to back, cradling their adorable toddlers and grinning sunnily above the somber headline INSIDE THEIR STRUGGLE.
It’s an uneasy mix of messages from programs intended to document and deter teen pregnancy, not exalt it. Lauren Dolgen, senior vice president of series development at MTV and the creator of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, got the idea for the shows after reading that each year, 750,000 15-to-19-year-olds become pregnant in the U.S. “This is an epidemic that is happening to our audience, and it’s a preventable epidemic,” Dolgen says. “We thought it was so important to shed light on this issue and to show girls how hard teen parenting is.”
Each episode of 16 and Pregnant tracks one teen from the latter stages of pregnancy to the first months of her child’s life. The series does not sugarcoat the challenges its subjects face: the slights and scorn of peers, friction with disappointed (grand)parents, colic, drudgery, arguments, sleep deprivation and — with dismayingly few exceptions — the burden of a feckless, absent or outright abusive boyfriend. Both 16 and Pregnantand Teen Mom (which features alums of 16 and Pregnant such as Bookout, Abraham and Portwood) beckon viewers to the website ItsYourSexLife.com which offers sex-ed resources and promotes dialogue between teens and their parents about sex.
The approach works. An October 2010 focus-group study commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 4 in 10 teenagers who watch an episode of 16 and Pregnant talk about the show with a parent afterward and that more than 90% of them think teen pregnancy is harder than they imagined before watching the series. “Any show that provides an opportunity to get more direction from a responsible adult, whether it’s a parent or an educator — that’s a terrific opportunity,” says Leslie Kantor, national director of education initiatives for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
But Kantor adds that despite their quest for gritty realism, the shows may create a distorted view of teen sexual activity. “Showing the consequences of risky behavior can be helpful to some young people,” she says. “What you don’t want is to send the message that everybody is having unprotected sex. These shows create a perception that tremendous numbers of teens are becoming pregnant or becoming parents.”
And actually, they’re not. The teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. has consistently declined over the past 20 years, except for a small spike from 2005 to 2007. Approximately 7% of girls 15 to 19 years old became pregnant in 2006 — a significant number but perhaps not an epidemic. Nor does the casting of the shows reflect the actual racial breakdown of teen pregnancy. While Teen Mom focuses heavily on white girls, unplanned pregnancies affect African-American and Hispanic teens at nearly three times the rate of whites.
Liz Gateley, a former executive producer of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom who is no longer with MTV, says the network specifically targeted middle-class girls through church groups and parenting organizations. “If we did inner-city people who really had difficulty with their upbringing,” she says, “we thought the public will discount this as, ‘Oh, that doesn’t apply to me.’” According to Gateley, the model for the series was Juno, the Oscar-winning 2007 film about a white, middle-class teenage girl who gets pregnant — right down to the animated-sketchbook style of the movie’s credits. (Dolgen would not directly contradict Gateley’s account, but she maintains that the show casts a wide net in recruiting subjects.)
Bookout, subject of the premiere episode on June 11, 2009, was cast after her mother happened upon a Craigslist ad for the program while searching online for maternity-modeling jobs for her daughter. “When I first watched [the premiere], I had no idea it was going to be as big of a deal as it is now — such a controversial phenomenon,” Bookout says.
But she has no regrets. During her two years in the limelight, she has left the father of her now 2-year-old son Bentley and fallen in love with a new man (though she says she has no wedding plans). She’s appeared on dozens of magazine covers, spoken alongside Bristol Palin to groups about teen-pregnancy prevention and enrolled at Chattanooga State Community College, where she’s studying English literature and creative writing. “I don’t necessarily think I would change anything,” Bookout says of her stint as a reality star. “I’m very proud of what my life has become and what the show has done.”(See why parents sex-talks with kids are too little, too late.)
Her castmate Catelynn Lowell, 19, is proud too. “I’ve changed girls’ lives since the show started,” she says. “I go to schools and talk about adoption, preaching contraceptives and abstinence.” In many ways, Lowell is the outlier of the group. Unlike Bookout and the other Teen Mom parents, Lowell arranged an open adoption for her 2-year-old daughter Carly, and her relationship with her child’s father remains intact; they plan to marry after graduating from college. The tabloids, for the most part, leave them alone. “I don’t know why that is,” Lowell says. “Probably because we don’t get into trouble.”
Other cast members can’t say the same. Portwood is a fixture on TMZ.com and other tabloid sites; primary custody of her daughter Leah currently rests with the girl’s father, and in June, Portwood was hospitalized after a reported suicide attempt. In March, Teen Mom 2 star Jenelle Evans, 19, was arrested for assault, and in February 2010, Abraham’s mother Debra Danielson struck a plea deal after she allegedly choked and hit her daughter.
These skirmishes may not come as a complete surprise to regular viewers of the shows. Tension, despair and sometimes explosive conflict are among the ingredients that make the series such addictive, even shocking television. That’s why Bookout, the most glamorous star in the Teen Mom firmament, is also the last person to suggest that the shows glamorize their subjects.
“In every episode, someone is trying to figure out if they can pay their rent or go to school or find a job or when they’re going to be able to take their next nap, because they haven’t slept in 24 hours,” Bookout says. “In every episode, someone has their heart broken.”