Good Writing Matters, Mr. President

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Re “It’s the Twitter Age. Let Trump Have His Way With Words,” by Farhad Manjoo (State of the Art column, Aug. 28):

It’s not as if Donald Trump is an articulate, thoughtful or composed person who just happens to make spelling errors on Twitter. That would be forgivable.

The problem is that his tweets are like a mirror held up to the inner workings of his mind: nonsensical, unintelligent, erratic and dangerous.

The end result is a barrage of tens of thousands of tweets going back almost a decade that are full of not just spelling errors, but also a cascade of other public embarrassments: one-word sentences that operate more like dog barks, poor word choices, odd (or missing) punctuation, factual mistakes and outright lies.

This is unforgivable for a president. End of story.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Terror lives here

Re: Manchester suspect latest second-generation citizen to attack European city

It is absurd, naïve, and wholly insufficient to place blame for the Manchester terrorist attack on a “feeling of cultural dislocation”, particularly when the suspect in question was a British citizen who was born, raised and educated in Manchester. Cultural dislocation is a genuine phenomenon, no doubt. But to connect it to the coordinated and preemptive slaughter of innocent people is the height of intellectually dishonesty.

Like many jihadis before him, the Manchester bomber was a middle-class, university-educated, soccer-loving European citizen. These facts alone prove the point that Islamist terrorism isn’t a matter of poverty, education, or lack of economic opportunity. Rather, it is the direct result of a person’s specific beliefs about specific doctrines, particularly those related to jihad, martyrdom, and Paradise. Furthermore, the jihadis are themselves telling us this, ad nauseam.

Until this fact is fully absorbed, any attempts to counter Islamist terrorism will be futile.

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Note: An edited version of this appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail

Don’t talk

Re Saudi, Canadian Meeting Draws Criticism (Nov. 3): It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia is a pariah state. It practices institutional apartheid (against women and non-Muslims). It violently suppresses not only free speech but also free thought; in 2014, it brought in laws that equate “atheist thought” with terrorism, which is punishable by death.

For Canadian officials to have met with a Saudi state-backed “human rights” commission on Parliament Hill, and to have flown the Saudi flag, is an affront to liberal values.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail.

More transparency. Less energy.

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[Note: An adapted version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, the public policy journal of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.]

I fully support the promotion of new and more advanced building energy technologies as a means to improve building performance and reduce energy use and related carbon emissions (“The Potential of More Efficient Buildings”, Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2016). However, to fully realize these aims, we cannot rely on advancements in building technology alone.

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Reeling After the Orlando Massacre

Once again the United States needs to have a serious discussion about gun law reform. But in addition, there needs to be honest talk about the consequences of specific intolerant beliefs.

For example, the Charleston church shooting a year ago was fueled by an individual’s racist beliefs, so it was entirely appropriate for the national conversation to focus on the behavioral consequences of systemic and entrenched racism.

Similarly, after the countless Islamist terrorist attacks around the world — from Paris to Brussels to San Bernardino to Orlando, not to mention the daily atrocities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere — it’s entirely appropriate to have a conversation about the behavioral consequences of specific religious beliefs.

Intolerant and illiberal doctrines related to martyrdom, blasphemy, honor and apostasy reliably lead to oppression and violence against women, homosexuals, freethinkers, liberals and even other Muslims.

An honest and mature public conversation about the consequences of specific beliefs, religious or otherwise, is not “Islamophobic,” nor is it bigotry against individuals as people. It is intellectual honesty. And, at this point, it’s also essential for the maintenance of civil society.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Not all old buildings are ugly or new ones, beautiful

I enjoyed reading Edward Keenan’s column, “In praise of Toronto’s ugly old buildings”. However, the author seems to conflate “old” with “ugly” and “new” with “good.” These words are not synonymous. There are numerous examples of new buildings that are ugly, lifeless and dehumanizing. Similarly, there are many old buildings that most people would recognize as being interesting and beautiful and that give their neighbourhood — and our city — its character.

Urban aesthetics influence us in more important ways than many people realize. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” This is why I don’t think that ugly buildings should be praised. Rather, we should praise buildings that are beautiful and human-scale — regardless of whether they are new or old.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star.

Facts and values: On science, ethics and climate

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As someone who has greatly admired Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at the New York Times, I very much enjoyed reading the story about his life’s journey in the world of journalism and science communication that was recently published in Issues in Science and Technology. However, I took issue with one of the claims he makes about science.

Revkin claims, as if it were self-evident, that a major hurdle in our response to climate change is that “science doesn’t tell you what to do”. He then invokes the “is-ought” problem coined by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume which states that no description about the way the world is (facts) can tell us what we ought to do (values). I would argue, however, that this separation between facts and values is a myth. Values are reducible to specific kinds of facts: facts related to the experience and well-being of conscious creatures. There are, in fact, scientific truths to be known about human values (a view defended most notably by the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values). Continue reading