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Critical views of science in the news

Cool Sh*t I’ve Read and Seen Lately. Cops Waging War, Masters of Sex, Nabokov and More!

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I've got an especially eclectic bunch of "Cool Sh*t" to nominate this month. Two articles by top-notch science journalists, a tough, timely investigative report by the ACLU, a sexy cable series and a classic short-story collection. (See my previous nominations in columns one, two, three, four and five of this series.)

"How to Talk about Climate Change so People Will Listen," by Charles C. Mann, The Atlantic, September 2014. Veteran science journalist Mann reviews eight books on climate change and finds a reasonable middle ground between those who warn "apocalypse awaits" and others who claim "minimal fixes will get us through." This is one of the most sensible overviews of global warming—and how we should manage with it—I've read in a while.

"War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing," a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, June 2014. This report was released before the recent eruption of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, but it reveals that the disturbing behavior of police in Ferguson is a symptom of an even broader, more alarming trend in American law enforcement. "American policing," the ACLU states, "has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight."

"Seeds of Doubt," by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, August 25, 2014. In this in-depth profile, Specter dismantles Vandana Shiva, a charismatic leader of the global movement against genetically modified food. What makes Specter's critique especially devastating is that he seems to bend over backward to give Shiva the benefit of the doubt.

Masters of Sex, Season 2. The first season of this Showtime series about the pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson seemed gimmicky--like Mad Men with physicians in St. Louis substituted for advertising execs in New York. But Season 2—and especially episodes 3 and 4, which I just watched--is blowing me away. Each episode is like an extremely entertaining, dramatic, unpredictable Ph.D. thesis about the paradoxical intertwinings (intercourses?) of love, sex, science and (in episode 4) race.

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vintage. I've always been ambivalent about Nabokov. Sentence by sentence, no writer delights me more; only John Updike and Nicholson Baker come close. But Nabokov has always seemed a little cold, amoral. He's an aesthete, obsessed with the gorgeous surfaces of things, including people. He can come across as callous toward—even amused by—the suffering of his fellow mortals. But as I got into this collection of stories—written from the 1920s through 1950s and collected and translated by Nabokov's son, Dmitri—I gradually discerned a redeeming morality, or ethical stance, or something in Nabokov's worldview, which reminds me of Buddhism. No matter how bad things are, Nabokov seems to imply, reality—infinitely marvelous, magical, mystical--is right there in front of you waiting for you to notice it. Open your eyes up, pay attention, see and you might find consolation--or at least distraction from your pain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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