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Jeff Sessions Wants Courts to Rely Less on Science and More on “Science”

Mother Jones

On April 10, a group of lawyers, scientists, judges, crime lab technicians, law enforcement officers, and academics gathered in Washington, DC, for the final quarterly meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, a group whose two-year charter expired in late April. The two-day meeting of the commission was a no-frills bureaucratic affair—a few dozen attendees seated in rectangle formation facing each other to deliberate and listen to expert panels. But the bland exterior could not mask ripples of tension. Had the 2016 presidential election turned out differently, the commission’s charter would likely have been renewed. But under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, members arrived that morning fearing that their efforts to reform the field of forensic science would be cut short. Shortly after 9 a.m., Andrew Goldsmith, a career Justice Department attorney, delivered the bad news: The commission was coming to an end.

Follow-up questions from a few commissioners revealed more bad news. Efforts to improve forensic science and expert testimony, initiated under the previous administration, were now on hold. Kent Rochford, the acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the research arm of the Commerce Department, acknowledged that ongoing pilot studies into bite-mark and firearm analyses would not be completed. A representative from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, Kira Antell, conceded that a project to create guidelines for expert forensic testimony had been paused as well. The message was clear: The era of independent scientific review of forensics is over.

Julia Leighton, a commission member and retired public defender, conveyed the disappointed mood of the room when she spoke a few minutes later. “We have to understand the importance of this juncture that we’re at, where we’re really grappling with, frankly, are we telling the truth as a matter of science to judges and jurors?” she said. “And that can’t be put on hold. It is inconsistent with the Department of Justice’s mission to put that on hold.”

For years, scientists and defense attorneys have fought an uphill battle to bring scientific rigor into a field that, despite its name, is largely devoid of science. Evidence regularly presented in court rooms—such as bite-mark, hair, and lead bullet analysis—that for decades have been employed by prosecutors to convict and even execute defendants are actually incapable of definitively linking an individual to a crime. Other methods, including fingerprint analysis, are less rigorous and more subjective than experts—and popular culture—let on.

But on the witness stand, experts routinely overstate the certainty of their forensic methods. In 2015, the FBI completed a review of 268 trial transcripts in which the bureau’s experts used microscopic hair analysis to incriminate a defendant. The results showed that bureau experts submitted scientifically invalid testimony at least 95 percent of the time. Among those cases with faulty evidence, 33 defendants received the death penalty and 9 had been executed. No court has banned bite-mark evidence despite a consensus among scientists that the discipline is entirely subjective. One study found that forensic dentists couldn’t even agree if markings were caused by human teeth. Until this month, the National Commission on Forensic Science was the most important group moving forensics into the modern scientific era.

A few minutes after the commission learned of its fate, the Justice Department publicly announced its next steps. A new Justice Department Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, established by executive order in February to “support law enforcement” and “restore public safety,” would now oversee forensic science. Sessions, the press release said, would appoint a senior forensic adviser and the department would conduct a “needs assessment of forensic science laboratories that examines workload, backlog, personnel and equipment needs of public crime laboratories.” Rather than an independent body that uses science to evaluate forensics, the new administration seemed to be basing its forensic policies largely on increasing conviction rates for law enforcement.

Forensic science is a mess. Historically under the sole purview of cops and prosecutors, the advent of DNA evidence exposed the failures of older forensic methods. Fingerprint identification became standard practice in police departments around the early years of the 20th century and for decades was considered the gold standard of forensic science. Firearm or “tool mark” evidence connecting a bullet to a specific gun was also in full swing in the early 20th century—and played a major role of the famous, flawed case against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921.

The use of bite marks to identify a suspect began with an actual witch hunt. In 1692, authorities from Salem, Massachusetts, arrested the Reverend George Burroughs for allegedly biting, pinching, and choking girls in order to turn them into witches. During the trial, Burroughs’ mouth was pried open to compare his teeth to the markings found on the injured girls. Twenty years after he was hanged, the colonial government of Massachusetts compensated Burroughs’ children for his wrongful death. Bite-mark evidence should have been put to bed then, but in 1975 a California appeals court upheld a conviction for manslaughter based on bite-mark evidence—even though the court acknowledged a lack of scientific research to support such evidence. Soon, the practice became widespread around the country.

These forensic methods and others were largely developed by law enforcement and guarded from the rigorous testing and peer review used in every other scientific field. As molecular biologist Eric Landler observed in 1989, “At present, forensic science is virtually unregulated—with the paradoxical result that clinical laboratories must meet higher standards to be allowed to diagnose strep throat than forensic labs must meet to put a defendant on death row.”

DNA emerged as a reliable tool in the late 1980s. It has since exonerated tens of thousands of suspects during criminal investigations and more than 349 convicted defendants, according to the Innocence Project. “I think what we’ve seen with the DNA exonerations,” Paul Giannelli, a member of the commission, told Mother Jones at its final meeting, “is that there’s a heck of a lot more innocent people in prison than anyone dreamed of.”

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a landmark study that shook the field of forensics. Only nuclear DNA analysis, the report found, could “consistently, and with a high degree of certainty,” link an individual to a crime. Around the country, it noted, crime labs lack uniform standards, practices, accreditation, and oversight. And forensic methods that involve expert analysis, as opposed to laboratory testing, really weren’t science at all. NAS proposed creating an independent agency to advance the field of forensic science outside the purview of the Justice Department. “The potential for conflicts of interest between the needs of law enforcement and the broader needs of forensic science are too great,” the report reads. “In sum, the committee concluded that advancing science in the forensic science enterprise is not likely to be achieved within the confines of DOJ.”

Reasons to sever the forensic science research from the Justice Department were numerous. In the early 2000s, the National Academy ditched a planned review of forensic methods after the Departments of Justice and Defense claimed a right to review the study before publication—in other words, the government was reserving the right to alter a scientific study. About the same time, the FBI commissioned its own studies as proof that its method of analyzing fingerprints was sound. In one, the bureau sent the 10-digit fingerprint profile of a defendant and two prints from the crime scene to multiple analysts and asked them for a comparison. When 27 percent of the respondents did not find a match, the FBI asked those respondents for a do-over, this time pointing out exactly what markings the experts should look at to connect the crime scene prints to the defendant. The resulting “test,” Giannelli noted in a 2010 law review article, “was rigged.” Yet cracks began to emerge in the FBI’s own methodology. In a 2002 case, an examiner from Scotland Yard, the London police force, testified that the proficiency tests administered to fingerprint analysts at the FBI were incapable of assessing analysts’ abilities. “If I gave my experts these tests, they’d fall about laughing,” he said.

In 2004, Congress gave the Justice Department money to fund forensic labs with the requirement that grantees turn over investigations into serious misconduct and negligence to outside investigators. But the Justice Department’s inspector general repeatedly found that the National Institute of Justice was handing out millions in grants without enforcing the oversight requirements. “That one anecdote is illustrative of their general approach to forensics, which is they just want more,” says Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. “They don’t really care about the quality of it, they don’t really care about the accuracy of it. They just want more of it.”

The independent government agency the 2009 NAS report called for never came to be, but in 2013 advocates for reform got the next best thing, the National Commission on Forensic Science. Though it was stacked with Justice Department employees as well as representatives of law enforcement and crime labs—a bloc large enough to veto proposals—the commission was prolific during its four-year existence, issuing dozens of recommendations on forensic standards, testing, and accreditation. At the commission’s urging, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch had adopted new accreditation policies for Justice Department labs. Another recommendation Lynch adopted required experts at federal labs to stop saying “reasonable scientific certainty” on the witness stand, which experts had regularly used to bolster their findings. The phrase, the commission concluded, has no scientific meaning and instead conveys a false sense of certainty. Even beyond federal cases, with the commission’s recommendation in hand, a defense attorney could damage the credibility of an expert witness who uses the misleading phrase.

Now, reform advocates see progress halting, and even backsliding, under the new administration. “Definitely bite marks should be terminated,” Giannelli said. “Hair evidence, the way it’s been used, should be terminated. Testimony with respect to fingerprints and firearms identification should acknowledge the limitations of those disciplines, because right now I think the juries are being misled.” He continued: “One of the risks that I see is we’ll go back to the time when there is not science in forensic science.”

Sessions is known as a strong supporter of the use of forensics. As a former prosecutor himself, the attorney general has long supported increased funding for crime labs so that law enforcement can get test results faster. During his 20-year career in the US Senate, he pushed to increase DNA testing—a bipartisan issue. But when it comes to regulating local crime labs or subjecting forensics to scientific studies, Sessions has been a skeptic. Questions about the reliability of forensic methods irked him because they hurt prosecutors’ ability to win convictions based on forensic evidence; calls for more oversight contradicted his desire to see local law enforcement unencumbered by federal oversight or regulation. Given this history, it wasn’t a surprise that Sessions chose to end the commission and bring forensic science research back under the direct supervision of the Justice Department.

In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bombshell 2009 NAS report. In his opening statement, Sessions, the committee’s top ranking Republican at the time, expressed skepticism of the report’s findings. “I don’t accept the idea that they seem to suggest that fingerprints is not a proven technology,” he said. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain.” Instead, Sessions’ worried that the NAS report would be used by defense attorneys during cross-examination to discredit exerts, leaving prosecutors “to fend off challenges on the most basic issues in a trial.”

The hearing took place in the shadow of new information about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 after he was found guilty of murdering his three children by setting fire to their home. The principal evidence prosecutors used against Willingham was the findings of two fire investigators who claimed that the conflagration could only have been caused by arson. Yet even before Willingham’s execution, the arson evidence against him had been debunked by a premier fire expert, though Texas’ clemency process had failed to heed the report. In August 2009, a few weeks before the Senate hearing, a fire scientist hired to review the case issued a blistering report denouncing the original investigators’ work as “characteristic of mystics or psychics,” not scientists. A few weeks later, The New Yorker published a detailed investigation of the Willingham case. Based on flawed forensic science, an innocent man had been executed.

When Sessions had his turn to question the witness panel, he brought up the Willingham case. Sessions read extensively from a piece of commentary submitted to a small Texas newspaper by John Jackson, one of the prosecutors in the Willingham case, who had gone on to become a local judge. In his op-ed, Jackson claimed that despite the flawed forensic evidence, Willingham was guilty, and listed bullet points intended to prove Willingham’s guilt. But Jackson’s points read like someone in denial of the newfound facts about the case—in fact, the author of The New Yorker piece, David Grann, had already written his own rebuttal to Jackson’s list by the time of the Senate hearing. Still, Sessions proceeded to read several misleading facts about the case. “That does not excuse a flawed forensic report,” Sessions concluded. “But it looks like there was other evidence in the case indicating guilt.”

The 2009 investigation into the Willingham case was the work of Texas’ own Forensic Science Commission—a state-level version of the national commission that Sessions just closed down. In the last few years, the Texas commission has received increased funding and responsibilities from the state Legislature, becoming a national leader in reviewing the scientific validity of forensic disciplines. It has taken up issues such as hair analysis and problems with DNA testing, and last year it recommended a ban on using bite-mark evidence in the courtroom. Texas, not Washington, is now carrying the torch for forensic reformers.

At the final meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, the group held a session on wrongful convictions, featuring Keith Harward, who had served 33 years in Virginia for a rape and murder based on bite-mark evidence before being exonerated by DNA evidence. When the panel ended, a few members expressed a sense of helplessness now that the commission was shutting down. John Hollway, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, rose to apologize to Harward for the decades he lost in prison. “Your story brings up the tragedy of putting this commission on hold,” said Hollway, who was not a commission member but was involved in subcommittee work. Hollway said he worried that “we will lose time to help the other people like you who are incarcerated improperly or, worse, the people who are still to be incarcerated improperly because we cannot solve these problems yet.”

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Jeff Sessions Wants Courts to Rely Less on Science and More on “Science”

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This Simple Advice Completely Changed the Way I Cook (and Eat)

Mother Jones

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In the days after reading Samin Nosrat’s new book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, eating felt like a new adventure. My tongue became a detective, searching for the source of different flavors and how they mingled together, whether they balanced each other out or dragged each other down. And when it came time to cook simple meals, the raw carrots and greens in my fridge looked less intimidating: I had new tools to tame them.

Inspiring this sense of culinary liberation was precisely Nosrat’s goal with her cookbook, which eschews formulaic recipes in favor of heartfelt stories, bits and pieces of science, and time-tested nuggets of kitchen wisdom (not to mention gorgeous and witty watercolors by the prolific Wendy MacNaughton). “Anyone can cook anything and make it delicious,” asserts Nosrat, who joined us on our latest episode of Bite. The new cookbook, out on April 25, “will change the way you think about cooking and eating, and help you find your bearings in any kitchen, with any ingredients, while cooking any meal.” Lofty promises, but boy, does Nosrat deliver.

Nosrat came of age as a cook in the early 2000s at Chez Panisse, the legendary farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley, California. In 2014, she became known as “the chef who taught Michael Pollan to cook,” after she was featured in Pollan’s book Cooked and the Netflix special with the same name. What defines her work is her focus on salt, fat, acid, and heat as the “four elements that guided basic decision making in every single dish, no matter what.” It’s not as if other chefs haven’t discovered this strategy; in fact, when she revealed her theory to a fellow cook, Nosrat writes, “he smiled at me, as if to say, ‘Duh, everyone knows that.'” But Nosrat had “never heard it or read it anywhere, and certainly no one had ever explicitly” taught her the idea.

I dabble in cooking, but I tend to rely on recipes, so I am ripe for this type of revelation. I spent an afternoon with Nosrat and witnessed her wizardry at work through an experiment with acid. Th amazing illustration above aside, acid in cooking refers to vinegar, citrus fruits, condiments, pickles, and all kinds of fermented foods, among other things. Acid alone tastes sour, but combined with other things, it heightens flavors and creates balance.

Witness what happened with some plain carrot soup. Nosrat cooked two diced onions in olive oil and butter until they were soft. She added two bunches of peeled, sliced carrots, water and salt, and simmered the mixture until the vegetables were tender. Then she subjected it to an immersion blender to make it smooth. Aside from maybe the immersion blender (and you could cool the soup and use a regular blender instead), all of these ingredients are cheap, accessible, and pretty straightforward to cook. The soup they produced was earthy and sweet; a perfectly fine office lunch, as Nosrat branded it.

What transformed it into a Chez Panisse-worthy potage was a few drops of one of the cheapest household ingredients: vinegar. Nosrat learned of this secret from a fellow cook while still working in the restaurant’s kitchen. She was skeptical of the advice—”Vinegar? Who’d ever heard of putting vinegar in soup?”—but when she obliged, she confronted sheer magic. “The vinegar acted like a prism, revealing the soup’s nuanced flavors—I could taste the butter and the oil, the onions and stock, even the sugar and minerals within the carrots.” The acid brought everything to life. As Nosrat writes: “If something I cooked and seasoned ever tasted so dull again, I’d know exactly what I was missing.”

Maddie Oatman

When Nosrat made me the carrot soup, we actually sampled three versions—one with no adornment, one with added vinegar and salt, and one with a salsa verde of cilantro, ginger, salt, and lime. To hear the full results of the taste test, you’ll have to tune in to the whole episode.

You can make similar soups with all sorts of vegetables and their acid companions; see below for Nosrat’s recipe for corn soup, which only requires four basic ingredients, plus a garnish or two. Choose the freshest ingredients you can find. And when you’re done, as she advises in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: “Taste the soup for salt, sweetness, and acid balance. If the soup is very flatly sweet, a tiny bit of white wine vinegar or lime juice can help balance it out.”

Silky Sweet Corn Soup

From Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat

Ingredients
8 to 10 ears of corn, husks, stalks, and silk removed
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) of butter
2 medium yellow onions, sliced
Salt

Directions

Fold a kitchen towel into quarters and set it inside a large, wide metal bowl. Use one hand to hold an ear of corn in place upright atop the kitchen towel—it helps to pinch the ear at the top. With your other hand, use a serrated knife or sharp chef’s knife to cut off two or three rows of kernels at a time by sliding the knife down the cob. Get as close to the cob as you can, and resist the temptation to cut off more rows at once—that’ll leave behind lots of precious corn. Save the cobs.

In a soup pot, quickly make a corn cob stock: Cover the cobs with 9 cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the cobs. Set stock aside.

Return the pot to the stove and heat over medium heat. Add the butter. Once it has melted, add the onions and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are completely soft and translucent, or blond, about 20 minutes. If you notice the onions starting to brown, add a splash of water and keep an eye on things, stirring frequently, to prevent further browning.

As soon as the onions are tender, add the corn. Increase the heat to high and sauté just until the corn turns a brighter shade of yellow, 3 to 4 minutes. Add just enough stock to cover everything, and crank up the heat to high. Save the rest of the stock in case you need to thin out the soup later. Season with salt, taste, and adjust. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes.

If you have an immersion blender, use it to carefully blend the soup until it is puréed. If you don’t have one, work carefully and quickly purée in batches in a blender or food processor. For a very silky texture, strain the soup one last time through a fine-mesh sieve.

Taste the soup for salt, sweetness, and acid balance. If the soup is very flatly sweet, a tiny bit of white wine vinegar or lime juice can help balance it out. To serve, either ladle chilled soup into bowls and spoon salsa over it to garnish, or quickly bring the soup to a boil and serve hot with an acidic garnish.

Variation

Follow this method and the basic formula I described above–about 2 1/2 pounds of vegetables or cooked legumes, 2 onions, and enough stock or water to cover—to turn practically any other vegetable into a velvety soup. The cob stock is unique to corn soup; don’t try to replicate it when making any of the variations. Carrot peel stock won’t do much for soup!

“Smooth Soup Suggestions” Wendy MacNaughton

Bite is Mother Jones‘ food politics podcast. Listen to all our episodes here, or by subscribing in iTunes or Stitcher or via RSS.

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This Simple Advice Completely Changed the Way I Cook (and Eat)

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Getting Scientists out of the Lab and Into the Street Is Harder Than It Sounds

Mother Jones

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Caroline Weinberg, Valorie Aquino, and Jonathan Berman met online after Berman, a post-doc in physiology, created a Facebook group and web page to galvanize some of the protest energy among scientists after Trump’s inauguration. The three, who were in New York, New Mexico, and Texas, thought that scientists should organize a march to “call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.” Weinberg, a public health writer and researcher, and Aquino, who was finishing her Ph.D. in anthropology, volunteered to coordinate the planning. Almost overnight, the march became a viral social-media campaign.

The culmination of all their work will occur on Saturday, April 22, when the three volunteer co-chairs of the March for Science will witness the results of their first experiment in grassroots organizing—with anticipated crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, DC, and satellite marches in some 500 cities around the world, including in the Republican strongholds of Wyoming, Idaho, and Oklahoma.

The experience of pulling together this march, Aquino said, was tantamount to starting an NGO from scratch and immediately having “1 million members and running it with total strangers.” Weinberg told me over the phone in late February that the only reason she was able to get involved was because she “wasn’t working that day” and saw online chatter about the march. “We happened to be at the right place at the right time,” she said.

When they began to organize in January, they envisioned their march to be comparable to the Women’s March: a grassroots campaign that channeled the public’s anger into a productive movement for social change. President Donald Trump’s antipathy to science was clear before he took office, when he declared climate change was a hoax and appointed climate change deniers as his advisers. In just under 100 days as president, Trump has also alienated a much broader swath of the science and academic communities: He’s threatened to pull funding from the University of California-Berkley over anti-Trump protests; he aligned himself with anti-vaccine critics, proposed steep budget cuts to science agencies, wanted to eliminate or downsize science advisers’ role in the government, appointed Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and has sought to roll back agency work based on public health research.

Climate activists, who have organized similar marches since at least 2014, have planned their people’s climate march in DC and in 200 cities around the country one week later. Although the two marches have overlapping constituencies and purpose, those involved in the climate march focus on specific policy demands—fighting climate change—while the science march is vague, championing more public engagement, evidence-based policies, and science research. But during the evolution of the science march, the organizers have been forced to face some unexpected realities about the community it’s engaging. Weinberg noted the “origin story” of the march is the narrative of “unbelievable sprawling grassroots nature.”

Aquino and Weinberg had more flexible schedules (Berman worked nine-hour shifts in his post-doc) to fit into their suddenly packed days and were able to put their other priorities on hold. Aquino postponed finishing her Ph.D. a few months ahead of schedule, and Weinberg stopped her freelance income in order to dive into planning the big picture and wrestling with the many logistics of permits, volunteer coordination, and march routes. Less than a month after Berman started the March for Science Facebook group, the three organizers, with the help of about 40 volunteers, had cobbled together a hasty, decentralized infrastructure for the online platforms and hundreds of satellite marches that popped up. They added more experienced organizers who created a database—what Weinberg calls “some kind of magic program”—to locate volunteers with the skills to address inevitable fires and the daily tasks, such as doing outreach to high schools and colleges.

The organizers were not just planning a single march. Their goal was to build a movement of scientists and science-enthusiasts who take a stand when objectivity is under attack. In the process, they have struggled with growing pains, some predating the Trump administration. One is philosophical: What duty do scientists have to participate in a debate that politicizes and misrepresents scientific study? What responsibilities do scientists have as citizens?

For years, Republicans (and occasionally Democrats) have threatened to defund federal research and have resorted to cherry-picking scientific studies that support their conclusions. House Science Chair Lamar Smith has perfected this rejection of inconvenient scientific findings by popularizing the myth of a so-called pause in global warming. But organizers say the debate feels more urgent given this uniquely anti-fact White House and appointed climate change deniers.

“We’re all very nervous about entering into a territory where science is seen as being explicitly political,” Adam Frank, an astrophysics professor, tells Mother Jones, explaining an essay he wrote about the march that was published on NPR. Frank thinks scientists do need to protest but worries that overt politicization is “the worst thing that could happen to science. Last thing we want is science being aligned with one or another political perspective.” He sees that we’ve passed a tipping point of attacks “where scientists don’t know what else to do.”

In January after the inauguration, Robert Young, a coastal geologist, wrote in the New York Times that “trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.”

The organizers of the science march believe it’s their responsibility to wade into politics, but they have tried to balance on the nonpartisan tightrope. “I would actually argue that science is political,” Aquino said. “Scientific integrity goes beyond one person eroding it. It hits across both sides of the aisle and people who aren’t necessarily affiliated with a political party at all.”

Weinberg noted, “If you believe in scientific research and evidence-based policy. You take a stand for that and take a stand for what you believe in.”

Then there is the problem of diversity within the scientific profession. Many of the public figures discussing the march are white men. In some respects, the science march has become a microcosm of the criticism STEM initiatives and academia have received for being far too white and male.

BuzzFeed reported on the time the organizers’ attempted to address concerns about diversity by forming a committee and issuing a diversity mission statement. Conservative outlets, such as the National Review, have seized on these statements to claim the march is much more about the left co-opting science for political gain. Steven Pinker, a best-selling author and Harvard University professor of psychology, gave this faction a boost, tweeting in January that the march “compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric.”

But the criticism comes from both sides. At least one early collaborator has distanced herself from the march, claiming that disorganization, clashes of vision, and micromanagement left the march doing too little to include diverse voices:

Gill did not return a request to explain further. Aquino had alluded to some infighting in an earlier interview back in February, noting that some of her 18-hour days were as much about handling “some kind of meltdown and crisis” as they were about organizing the big picture. Since then, organizers have brought on more than 200 partners. They range from science celebrities—Bill Nye the Science Guy, for instance—to nonpartisan academic institutions, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as more overtly political groups, like Tom Steyer’s climate advocacy arm, NextGen Climate. Beyond the dozens of partner organizations, they have put forward a set of basic principles supporting science. They have also managed to raise $1 million for the day’s costs and beyond, by selling merchandise and through sponsorships.

They have all tried to plan the next steps for their newly recruited activists after the march is done. “I’ve never really gotten to step back and really consider all this from a 30,000-foot view,” Aquino said. She hardly expects any overnight change in politics or among scientists, but added, “I’ve never seen such a united front in the science community and science supporters.”

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Getting Scientists out of the Lab and Into the Street Is Harder Than It Sounds

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Scientists say that human-caused climate change rerouted a river.

Raj Karmani was a graduate student in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when his frequent trips to the neighborhood bagel store opened his eyes to food waste. Most of the unsold bagels usually went into the trash. Karmani’s obsession with efficiency got him thinking: What if there were an app that would sync up businesses with fresh, excess food and organizations in need of it? In 2013, he started Zero Percent, an online platform for food donation.

Here’s how it works: First, a food producer at a commercial kitchen, say a restaurant or bagel shop, opens an Uber-style app and drops in detailed data about the excess food: the amount, where to pick it up, when to pick it up, etc. Then, a delivery person, hired by Zero Percent, scoops up the food and drops it off at any number of youth groups, community centers, or nonprofits that have also signed up for the app and signaled a need.

Right now, Zero Percent operates in the Chicago area and in Urbana-Champaign (but plans to expand), and its biggest clients include the University of Illinois and the local Salvation Army. Karmani says Zero Percent has delivered more than 1,000 meals. As a well-educated and relatively well-off immigrant, the experience has been eye-opening for him. “Some of these kids have never seen strawberries.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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Scientists say that human-caused climate change rerouted a river.

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Tens of thousands of teachers are getting climate-denying propaganda in their mailboxes.

That’s the outcome of an agreement to settle a lawsuit that sought to force the state of Michigan to provide door-to-door delivery of bottled water to homes in the city. Flint’s drinking water was deemed unsafe in 2015 due to high lead levels.

The suit was filed last year by a coalition that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, Michigan’s ACLU, and a local resident. A judge approved the settlement on Tuesday.

Under its terms, $97 million will be set aside to replace lead or galvanized steel water pipes going into Flint homes with copper pipes. The state has three years to assess the piping and swap it out, if need be, in at least 18,000 area residences.

The deal allows the state to avoid delivering water to homes, and it provides a timeline for shutting down nine distribution centers in Flint that offer free bottled water and filters. If monitoring finds that lead levels are below an EPA-set threshold for the first half of 2017, Michigan can close those stations in September.

“For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground,” said Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC attorney. “The people of Flint are owed at least this much.”

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Tens of thousands of teachers are getting climate-denying propaganda in their mailboxes.

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