Sunday, November 29, 2015

I've switched from this site to my website -- -- for my blog.

I've consolidated my blog with my website so I won't be using this site any longer. So please go to my website,, to follow my blogging. Thanks! Karl

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The End of Police Raids -- at Long Last -- on Gays of Fire Island

(This is my column in the Fire Island News running this week.)
A gift of freedom for gay men on Fire Island came in 1968—47 years ago—with the end, at long last, of police raids on gays of Fire Island. It took gay men taking their chances with juries of Suffolk County residents—as proposed by a prominent, feisty, rough-and-tumble Suffolk County attorney, Benedict P. Vuturo.

            The juries, one after another, found the gay men rounded up in the 1968 police Fire Island dragnet innocent. And that did it: the cops finally stopped their raids.
With the just-decided landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling establishing same-sex marriage a constitutional right in all 50 states and gay pride parades and a revolution in how gay people are perceived and their rights accepted and expanded—perhaps the biggest contemporary revolution in the U.S. and many other nations (consider Ireland)—what happened for many years to gays on Fire Island seems like a nightmare of another time. And it was.

            These raids every summer were a perverse tradition of the Brookhaven Town Police Department and, with its absorption into the Suffolk County Police Department in 1960, they were continued by the new county police force.

            I first became aware of the raids when hired in 1964 by the daily Long Island Press as a police-and-courts reporter covering Suffolk County.
It was like pulling teeth sometimes to get information from the Suffolk cops. But after their annual raid on Fire Island, the cops wanted the media to know all about it—pitching to us not only the names and addresses of those arrested but their occupations and where they worked. The police effort was clearly meant to damage those arrested, to perhaps get them fired for being gay and being arrested in a raid on Fire Island.

            The assaults on Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines were made by boatloads of cops storming the beach. Prisoners were dragged off in handcuffs and brought to the mainland.
Year after year, the 25 to 40 or so defendants, most of them from New York City and frightened about casting their lot with Long Island locals, would plead guilty to various “morals” charges. Then one judge began sentencing some arrestees to jail, getting himself plenty of publicity.
The Fire Island gay community had had it.
Then the colorful Vuturo, former president of the Suffolk Criminal Bar Association, was retained by the Mattachine Society of New York to represent the arrestees in the next raid. That raid happened on August 24, 1968.
The Mattachine Society prepared the Fire Island gay communities for the legal fights ahead by distributing a pamphlet in 1967 advising against "shortsighted" pleas of guilty and declaring: "Intolerable police state tactics continue because of our cooperation." The pamphlet further said if one was arrested not to provide any more than name and address. “Never carry identification that contains the name of your employer,” it counseled.
Vuturo demanded jury trials for each of the 27 arrested in the 1968 raid. He told me he believed a jury of adults would never convict.
He was correct. He won every trial.
I covered the situation.
As I reported in the Long Island Press—I’m looking now at a yellowed Long Island Press clipping of a story I wrote about the defendants  being arraigned in Suffolk County District Court: “’Outrageous’ was the word Benedict P. Vuturo used…These men will be cleared of these notorious allegations.’ Vuturo said the men didn’t represent a public nuisance, weren’t annoying anyone and police had to search through beach scrub to find them. ‘The police actually sought these men out.’”
The trials were some scenes!
Vuturo toughly cross-examined arresting officers demanding they tell in detail what they saw and what they did. The cops were embarrassed. And Vuturo in his summations spoke dramatically about murders, rapes and other major crimes occurring in Suffolk County and how, he declared, the Suffolk County Police Department was wasting its resources storming Fire Island to round up gays.
“To be on Fire Island—in Cherry Grove or Fire Island Pines—when the cops are there for a raid is to put your life in your hands,” he would intone. “The cops go and beat the bush. They grab you and handcuff you to whoever…Was a breach of the peace committed? Who saw it but the cops who went looking?
For Vuturo it was a case of "civil liberties are civil liberties."
The Suffolk County District Court was busy for months in Fall 1968 with the “Fire Island trials” as they were referred to in court corridors.
Vuturo hoped to lose one case so he could get to the New York State Court of Appeals or U.S. Supreme Court to try to have the laws under which the arrests were made ruled unconstitutional. But he never lost.
He said his victories proved "people—given all the facts—are fair. People aren't stupid. That's what the jury system is all about."
Dick Leitsch, president of the Mattachine Society of New York, had told me that the gay rights group had first considered hiring New York City lawyers, specialists in civil liberties work, to defend the arrestees in the next police raid on Fire Island. “But we figured the courts out there might view them as outside agitators,” he explained. So the society, he said, spoke to some members of the Suffolk County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the flamboyant Central Islip-based attorney Vuturo was recommended.
Vuturo later went on to become a Suffolk County District Court judge.
He died in 1991. In the obituary for him in Newsday, Kenneth Rohl of Babylon, also a Suffolk County criminal lawyer who became a judge, said of Vuturo: “He was a very unorthodox person who saw right to the heart of whatever was involved. You never doubted where he stood. He hated hypocrites." 
            The Brooklyn-born Vuturo, a father of five, was key to ending a Long Island witch hunt. And so were the Suffolk County jurors who showed that the jury system works and, as Vuturo said, “people—given all the facts—are fair.” And deserving huge credit are those gay men of Fire Island who stood up to prejudice and hate in a dark time. Together, they caused the annual police raid on the gay communities of Fire Island to, most thankfully, be no more.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Fire Island Was Paradise,Truly Paradise"

           (This article ran in the Fire Island News last week.)

           “Fire Island was paradise, truly paradise,” Phyllis Italiano was saying. “The life we had there for that period of years—for 35 years—was idyllic. “

            Phyllis was blissfully reminiscing the other day about the decades she spent on Fire Island with a couple whose celebrated marriage was charmed and happy—her older sister, actress Anne Bancroft and comic genius Mel Brooks. Often, her second sister, Joanne, joined them. “For us, it’s always been about family,” she noted. The three daughters’ parents were Millie (nee DiNapoli) and Michael Italiano, born in New York City of Italian immigrants. The three girls and their folks lived in The Bronx.

            Phyllis said the link between her family and Fire Island was sparked by Anne in 1960 staying for a weekend at the Fair Harbor home of fellow actress Enid Markey. “Anne absolutely fell in love with Fire Island,” recalled Phyllis.

           “She said, ‘Look, I would like to rent there next year. If I rent it would you and Joanne run it while I’m working on Broadway?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” said Phyllis. “My kid [the first of her four children] was one year old. I loved the beach.”

            So, in 1961, she and Anne rented actor Martin Balsam’s house in Fair Harbor—“he had headed out to Hollywood to make movies.” She was immediately impressed finding that first Memorial Day weekend that “this is a family place.”

           The next year, 1962, Anne and Mel had gotten together and all were back at Fair Harbor. In 1963 Anne bought a house in Lonelyville. “It was a big rectangle, way up on stilts, overlooking the ocean. Anne bought that house for $28,000.” Designed by Richard Meier, it was on No Name Walk.

            In 1964, Anne and Mel were married. And the following year they purchased a house behind that rectangular one—“we called it the second house”—and that’s where Phyllis and Joanne and kids (Joanne, too, is a mother of four) lived.   

            “The ocean was the king of our lives,” said Phyllis. “We had breakfast together and we started every day the same way. Anne and I would go for long swims.” They would swim in the bay and the ocean, although sometimes ocean-swimming was tricky. She spoke of one day Anne swimming in a sea that was roiling, and how Anne glanced at her with a “look on her face: ‘Give my love to Mamma.’ I had to get the lifeguard to get her out.”

            “We had just unbelievable times. We would walk to Ocean Beach to go out to dinner. We loved reading,” she said. “We played games at night.”

            Mel’s comedy-writing for Sid Ceasar’s Show of Shows “had ended,” he had started his The 2000 Year Old Man routine with Carl Reiner which skyrocketed in popularity on records and TV. He was working on other projects. “I remember on Fire Island,” said Phyllis, “reading the script of Blazing Saddles and thought, ‘My God, this is going to be terrific!’ I read the script there of The Producers, the first film in his film career.”
            Anne had, meanwhile, become a star in films and on stage. She won an Oscar for her acting in The Miracle Worker and became a world-renowned sex symbol as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. She wrote, directed and acted in the hilarious movie Fatso. She won Tonys for her performance in Two for the Seesaw and also the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker. She might have to travel—but she made sure she got back to Fire Island. .
            “It was so safe for children, so secure,” noted Phyllis, her former married name Wetzel. Phyllis is now retired after 27 years as a teacher and also was an assistant principal in the Yonkers public school system.

             The absence of cars on Fire Island, Phyllis said, and the warm community life made Fire Island “a safe, wonderful place” for youngsters. “The kids bonded together. They’d go out in the morning and you’d see them at dinner.” As the years went by, son Michael Wetzel worked at Kismet Inn and daughter Paula Wetzel at Maguire’s restaurant.

           “All the girls in the family did baby-sitting during their early teens. Once my daughter, Joanne, my oldest, had a job at about age 13 raking the bay beach in Fair Harbor of seaweed. She would be out at 8 in the morning cleaning the beach before breakfast. That was how Fire Island was—a real community—everyone helped everyone else.”
            Meanwhile, “every day Mel would wash the front windows of the house,” she said. “And he would go down to the ocean and surf-cast and catch fish.” Mel also thoroughly enjoyed “sitting on the back deck in a great chair Anne had bought. And he’d fall asleep.”

            They liked going for shellfish. Then there was the time, Phyllis recalled, when “we went out with flashlights at 1 a.m. in the morning crabbing and caught a load of crabs. I said to Mel, ‘We don’t want to kill them by putting them in the refrigerator,’” Better, she thought, would be putting the crabs in the kitchen sink until it was time to cook them. “But they crawled out of the sink—16 or 17 crabs—and they were all over the place and we had to scurry around at 3 a.m. to catch them. And, you know, crabs bite.”

           A son, Max, was born to Anne and Mel in 1972. He would go on to be a writer for Saturday Night Live and author. His initial book: The Zombie Survival Guide.

            In 1996, Phyllis, Anne and Mel left Fire Island for the Hamptons. Anne thought they could “buy a very big house for all the family.”
Anne and Mel initially rented in Westhampton and then settled in Water Mill. Phyllis purchased a house in The Springs, a hamlet north of East Hampton.
            “The Hamptons are lovely. I’m not going to say I don’t love the Hamptons,” said Phyllis, who is deeply involved in East Hampton Town Democratic affairs, has a program on the Wainscott-based TV operation LTV, and is active in civic and educational affairs. “But being on Fire Island, it was the happiest time of our lives.”

            She has just returned to Fire Island once since 1996 only “because I’ve been so busy.” But she intends to “go back to Fire Island this year. I’d love to see it again.”

            Anne, married to Mel for four decades, died 10 years ago this month, Phyllis noted sadly.

Monday, June 1, 2015

My First Big Story

           (This column ran in the Fire Island News last week.)

           A year-long 50th anniversary celebration—extending through this summer—is underway to commemorate a great event: the creation of the Fire Island National Seashore. In a David-versus-Goliath saga, a most extraordinary place—Fire Island—was saved.
It was my first big story as a reporter on Long Island. It was 1962 and I had just started at the Babylon Town Leader, a newspaper which for decades had criticized projects of New York State public works czar Robert Moses, a Babylon resident. Moses had just announced his plan to build a four-lane highway on Fire Island. It would, claimed Moses, “anchor” Fire Island and  project it from storms.
I was assigned to go to Fire Island to do an article about the impacts of the highway on the island’s nature and communities. I was a 20-year-old from New York City but I knew something about nature having been an Eagle Scout and coming from a family that went camping every summer.  
A walk in exquisite Sunken Forest made the environmental significance of Fire Island clear to me immediately on the visit, arranged with the help of George Biderman of the Fire Island Association. I lucked out in learning about its magical communities by connecting with articulate Fire Islanders such as TV journalist Charles Collingwood and writer Reginald Rose who, with others, explained how these communities — and the island’s nature — would be largely paved over by the Moses road.
I wrote a story, the first of many. Two other weekly newspapers joined with us in the journalistic crusade including running our articles: the Suffolk County News and the Long Island Commercial Review.
What an uphill battle. Hardly any elected officials would say or do anything in opposition to Moses. He also seemed to have some big daily newspapers in his pocket. The New York Times and Newsday pushed hard for the road.
But we kept pushing, too. We found, for example, how the four-lane highway Moses built to the west, along Jones Beach, rather than being an “anchor” needed to be regularly bolstered with sand pushed along its edges by bulldozers working at night.
The first call I received the morning my first story ran was from Murray Barbash, an environmentally attuned builder from Brightwaters. Murray (who passed away in 2013) and his brother-in-law, Babylon attorney Irving Like (thankfully, very much with us and still a Long Island environmental champion) organized a Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore. The view was that Moses could not be stopped on the state level because of the enormous power he wielded in New York.  If Fire Island were to be saved, it would have to be through the federal government. Also, the Seashore initiative offered a positive goal.
A national seashore was then a relatively new idea. The first, Cape Hatteras, was created nine years earlier, in 1953.  But U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall paid a visit and embraced the Fire Island National Seashore vision. Also, conservation-oriented Laurance Rockefeller, the brother of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller, became chairman of the state Council of Parks in 1963 and liked the Fire Island National Seashore concept, too.
Moses was furious at what was happening. He confronted Nelson Rockefeller. Moses had run for governor himself, in 1934, and suffered a then record two-to-one defeat, so he amassed power by running state commissions and authorities instead.
According to the Leader’s source—a person at Moses’ Long Island State Park Commission—at the climactic meeting with Rockefeller, Moses insisted the highway would happen and that the governor put a lid on his brother. If Rockefeller wouldn’t, Moses threatened he would resign from his many commission and authority posts. He seemingly thought the state would fall apart without him. In the collision, Nelson wouldn’t be steamrolled.
Moses quit his government posts. And the bill establishing a Fire Island National Seashore was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 11, 1964, the date now the kickoff for the all-year 50th anniversary celebration.
Murray and Irv, it should be noted, went on to flip the Fire Island strategy a few years later when Long Island was faced with the Long Island Lighting Company’s plan to build seven to 11 nuclear power plants—the first at Shoreham. They understood that there would be no way at the federal level to stop this. The U.S. nuclear agencies—the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—never denied a construction or operating license for any nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime (to this date).
So here the strategy was to utilize state power. Citizens to Replace LILCO, created by Murray and Irv, pressed for passage of the Long Island Power Act and use of the state’s power of eminent domain to eliminate LILCO if it persisted with its nuclear scheme. This was the key that caused the closure of a completed Shoreham plant and no other nuclear plants being built on Long Island.
            The Babylon Town Leader was sold in 1964. At the newspaper I also covered the early civil rights struggle on Long Island. And I went to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair opening day to report on activists from Long Island protesting racism in hiring by the World’s Fair. Moses had held on to being in charge of the World’s Fair.
The chain that bought the Leader ran my article as a front-page story with the headline: “Jail Pavilion for Suffolk CORE.” But no longer was I protected by Moses-critical management.
I was called in to see the associate publisher, Wilson Stringer, who declared: “Mr. Moses called and is very upset with you. You’re fired.”
I would end up at the daily Long Island Press and after its closure in 1977, writing books—I’ve authored six—and anchoring the nightly news on Long Island TV station WSNL. For the past nearly 25 years, I’ve hosted the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up.  I’m chief investigative reporter at Long Island TV station WVVH.
And I’m a full professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury. I teach Investigative Reporting and Environmental Journalism—and continue to practice both.  
So I’ve done fine, despite Moses. As has Fire Island.
Whenever I head out to Fire Island and see it come into view, a good feeling comes over me about my part in helping save this national treasure.


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Disaster Waiting to Happen at Indian Point

             In 1976, Robert Pollard, a rarity among U.S. government nuclear officials—honest and safety-committed—said of the Indian Point nuclear power station that it was “an accident waiting to happen.”
Pollard had been project manager at Indian Point for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from which he resigned at that time charging the NRC “suppresses the existence of unresolved safety questions and fails to resolve these problems.” He joined the Union of Concerned Scientists.
An explosion and fire at a transformer at Indian Point 3 on Saturday is but one of the many accidents that have occurred at the Indian Point facility through the years—none catastrophic as have been the disasters at the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants.
            But Indian Point 2 has been in operation for 41 years, although when nuclear power was first advanced in the United States, plants were never seen as running for more than 40 years because of radioactivity embrittling metal parts and otherwise causing safety problems. So licenses were limited to 40 years.

Indian Point 2 is thus now running without an operating license while the NRC considers an application before it from the plant’s owner, Entergy, to allow it to run another 20 years—for 60 years.
           Indian Point 3, where the transformer explosion and fire occurred, has been operational for 39 years and its license expires this year. (Indian Point l was shut down early because of mechanical deficiencies.) Entergy also is seeking to have Indian Point 3’s operating license extended to 60 years.

These old, long problem-plagued nuclear plants, 26 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, are now disasters waiting to happen in a very heavily populated area. Some 22 million people live within 50 miles of the Indian Point site.
            “This plant is the nuclear plant that is closest to the most densely populated area on the globe,” declared New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Indian Point site on Sunday. Cuomo, who has been pushing to have the Indian Point nuclear plants closed, noted that this was “not the first transformer fire” at them. And the concern is that “one situation is going to trigger another.”

Entergy PR people in recent days have stressed that the transformer explosion and fire occurred in the “non-nuclear part” of Indian Point 3. However, as Pollard noted in a television documentary, “Three Mile Island Revisited,” that I wrote and narrated on that accident, “there is no non-nuclear part of a nuclear plant.”
             What could be the extent of a major accident at Indian Point?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1982 issued a report titled “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences” or CRAC-2. The research for the report was done at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
              CRAC-2—you can read the full report online at 
—projects that in the event of a loss-of-coolant accident with breach of containment at Indian Point 2, there could be 46,000 “peak early fatalities,” 141,000 “peak early injuries,” 13,000 “cancer deaths” and a cost in property damages (in 1980 dollars)  of $274 billion (which in today’s dollars would be $1 trillion)
            For an accident at Indian Point 3 in which the transformer explosion and fire happened, because it is a somewhat bigger reactor (generating 1,025 megawatts compared to Indian Point 2’s 1,020) the impacts would be greater, said CRAC-2

For Indian Point 3, in the event of a meltdown with breach of containment, CRAC-2 estimates 50,000 “peak early fatalities,” 167,000  “peak early injuries,” 14,000 “cancer deaths” and a cost in property damage at $314 billion.
             Compounding the problem of the Indian Point plants being old—consider driving a 60 year-old car on a high-speed Interstate—they are at the intersection of the Ramapo and Stamford earthquake faults. As a 2008 study by seismologists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found: “Indian Point is situated at the intersection of the two most striking linear features marking the seismicity and also in the midst of a large population that is at risk in case of an accident. This is clearly one of the least favorable sites in our study area from an earthquake hazard and risk perspective.”

“This aging dilapidated facility has endless problems leaking radioactive chemicals, oil and PCB’s into the Hudson River. It’s unconscionable to permit the continued operation of Indian Point,” said Susan Hito-Shapiro, an environmental attorney and member of the leadership council of the Indian point Safe Energy Coalition.
            Further, she pointed out this week, Indian Point has been described as “the most attractive terrorist target” in the U.S. because of its proximity to New York City and it also being seven miles from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Indeed, there was consideration by the 9/11 terrorists of crashing into Indian Point. Both captured jets flew over the Indian Point nuclear station before striking the World Trade Center minutes later.

And she described it as “outrageous” that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved an evacuation plan for Indian Point “although it would never work” in the event of an major accident at the plants considering the millions of people who stand to be affected.
             The key to New York State’s strategy to shut down Indian Point is the denial by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to give Entergy a “water use permit” to let it continue to send many hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day from the nuclear plants into the Hudson River.

“We need to make sure DEC stays strong,” says Hito-Shapiro.
             In light of the historic, reckless, scandalous weakness of the federal government when it comes to Indian Point—and the nuclear power plants of other utilities—strong state action is most necessary.



Saturday, September 6, 2014

Zephyr Teachout -- The Most Refreshing Candidate for New York Governor in Decades

            The most refreshing candidate for New York governor in decades—and I’ve interviewed several—was on Long Island last week. Zephyr Teachout is challenging incumbent Andrew Cuomo in a primary this coming Tuesday to decide who will be the Democratic nominee for governor.

She is an expert on governmental corruption. Indeed, her book Corruption in America is soon to be published by Harvard University Press. And Ms. Teachout’s emphasis on investigating and exposing corruption isn’t simply academic. Previously she was national director of Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan organization working for “transparency and accountability” in federal, state and local governments with a focus on documenting how money is perverting democracy.

There can be no more important time—in this state and nation—for a specialist in corruption,

Ms. Teachout (an unusual name going back 350 years to her Dutch roots, she explained) is a professor of constitutional law at Fordham Law School.

She was in Sag Harbor last Sunday at a “meet-and-greet” at the Sag Harbor studio of artist Julie Keyes. It attracted people from all over Long Island. Steve McCormack, a teacher, came 50 miles from Miller Place and explained that he is “active in Democratic affairs” but has become disgusted with “walking door-to-door for candidates who are in cahoots with big business.”

Ms. Teachout sat down for a 20-minute interview with me in which she blasted Mr. Cuomo for his abrupt shutdown of a Moreland commission the governor formed to investigate corruption in state government. Last month, in a Page One story, the New York Times detailed how Mr. Cuomo dissolved the commission after it began investigating entities close to him. And this despite Mr. Cuomo’s claim when he formed the commission that it would be “totally independent...Anything they want to look at they can look at—me, the lieutenant governor... any senator, any assemblyman.”

“It’s an outstanding display of hubris to create a commission to investigate corruption and shut it down after it did exactly that,” said Ms. Teachout. ” The “rule of law” was twisted “to not apply to Cuomo’s business associates.”

She was equally critical of Mr. Cuomo’s “interference” with another Moreland commission he set up to investigate the Long Island Power Authority. The governor “imposed a foregone conclusion” on this panel “pressuring it” to decimate LIPA and have a New Jersey-based utility, PSEG, become the main electric utility on Long Island.

Ms. Teachout said “Long Island should have been put first” by “the fixing of what was wrong” with state-created LIPA and “not privatize” the utility system. Lost now is “accountability” and “the long-term costs of this privatization are not known.”

Moreover, she said she has a “very different energy vision” than does Mr. Cuomo. She seeks to have the state get all of its power from renewable energy sources.

She declared that she is a strong opponent of nuclear power and the Indian Point nuclear plants just north of New York City “have to be closed. Nuclear power is unsafe.” (Mr. Cuomo is also for the closure of Indian Point. However, the Republican nominee for governor, Rob Astorino, is for keeping Indian Point open and for building new nuclear power plants in New York State.)

Ms. Teachout is against fracking—the drilling into shale for gas—which she called “a threat to the water supply.” She faulted Mr. Cuomo for not making a decision on whether fracking should be allowed in New York State while also, she said, “taking $1 million in political contributions from pro-fracking interests.”

She said she and her running mate, Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor and a leader in challenging monopolization of media, are “old-fashioned trust-busters.” There is “too much power concentrated in the hands of a few and it’s bad for the economy and bad for democracy.” Former New York Governors Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were trust-busters, she noted. “It’s a long American tradition.”

Their campaign, she said, was “gaining momentum every day.”

Among others at the event for Ms. Teachout was Julie Penny of Noyac who commented, “I’ve been massively disappointed in Cuomo. We need someone who will work for us.”  She added, “It’s too bad Cuomo refuses to debate Teachout on the issues that matter to us and have such repercussions over our lives. “

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Science May Be Objective But That Doesn't Mean That All Scientists Are Because of Their Drive to Push Their Institutions and Projects

             Earlier this summer, a group of Congressional representatives—led by Tim Bishop of Long Island—hosted a reception in East Hampton for a fellow congressman, Bill Foster of Illinois.
             An emphasis was on how Foster is one of only three scientists in the House of Representatives. His invitation to the fundraiser was headed with, “Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?”  Foster stated: “The complex economic and technological issues our nation faces today will require leaders who think through the critical issues of the day, using logic and facts rather than resorting to mindless party-line talking points...Part of that solution has to be to elect more scientists and engineers to Congress.”

A biography of Foster accompanying the invitation noted that for 22 years he worked at Fermilab and “participated in leading-edge scientific research, designed and built state-of-the-art physics experiments.” Fermilab in Illinois, with 1,750 employees, is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Considering especially the debate among Congressional representatives on climate change, science is indeed important.  Foster is a Democrat, like Bishop of Southampton, and the other representatives who hosted him on June 28th, Steve Israel of Huntington on Long Island and Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan. Democrats in Congress, and Democratic President Barack Obama, have been blasting Republicans in Congress who deny climate change and global warming are happening. The science on climate change and global warming is clear, they emphasize.  They charge the GOPers have a politicized “anti-science” agenda.

Bishop’s Republican opponent this year, State Senator Lee Zeldin of Shirley, Long Island is holding his own fundraiser on September 8th with as his main guest former Representative Allen West of Florida, typical of those GOPers. “When asked if he felt that climate change was causing the Earth to become warmer, West responded with a firm ‘No,’” according to published reports.  West is a hero of the Tea Party in which climate change denial is strong.

Yes, utilizing science rather than a dubious political line when it comes to climate change and global warming is a good thing. But, on the other hand, scientists often also have their own political agendas rooted in promoting scientific institutions and their projects.  Science might be objective—but that doesn’t mean all scientists are.

Many of us are familiar with President Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell address to the nation in 1961 about the rise of a “military-industrial complex.” Not widely known is that the original draft of that speech warned not just of a “military-industrial complex” but of a “military-industrial-scientific complex.” The president’s science advisor, James Killian, later president of MIT, pleaded that the word “scientific” be eliminated, and it was. Nevertheless, President Eisenhower went on warning, “Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists and laboratories.” He declared that “in holding scientific research and discovery in respect…we must also be alert to the equal and opposing danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”

David E. Lilienthal, first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), used similar words in his 1963 book Change, Hope, and the Bomb. He wrote how now “scientists are ranked in platoons” and ” the independent and humble search for new truths about nature has become confused with the bureaucratic impulse to justify expenses and see that next year’s budget is bigger than last’s.” He spoke about the “elaborate and even luxurious [national] laboratories that have grown up at Oak Ridge, Argonne, Brookhaven.”

In that line he was referring to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) set up by AEC on a former Army base in Upton on Long Island and now operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

One need only examine what happened to Bishop’s predecessor in the lst Congressional District, three-term Representative Michael Forbes of Quogue, Long Island in 1999 after he challenged BNL, to see the concerns of President Eisenhower and Mr. Lilienthal playing out. Mr. Forbes was concerned about radioactive leaks from nuclear reactors at BNL and spoke out forcefully. He was opposed in a primary for the Democratic nomination by Regina Seltzer of Bellport, Long Island whose husband had been a BNL scientist. BNL personnel manned phone banks for Seltzer. She took the nomination from Forbes by 45 votes, but lost the general election. Meanwhile, a highly capable representative was driven out of Congress.

There have been many studies into scientists being influenced by ties to government and corporations and perverting their analyses.

Being anti-science, as such, is wrong. But so is having an uncritical belief in scientists