2019
September
18
Wednesday

Today, our five stories delve into what a philanthropist learned from listening, what vaping says about our search for easy fixes to bad habits, the trust factor in climate modeling, a push for Bible literacy in public schools, and Muslim women comics taking the mic.

But, first, a story from California.

They are unusually tall and robust – unusually old, too. They invariably prompt those who encounter them to slip into superlatives, or silent awe. They’ve witnessed natural disasters and nature’s rebirth. And now, their future is a bit more secure.

“They” are 483 giant sequoias, which for 60 years have lived within the world’s largest privately owned giant sequoia forest, some 538 acres in California’s southern Sierra Nevada. The owners have agreed to sell the property for about $15 million to the Save the Redwoods League, which, assuming it meets fundraising goals, will ultimately transfer it and another property to the U.S. Forest Service for inclusion in the Giant Sequoia National Monument.

It can seem counterintuitive to feel protective of trees whose mightiness is unassailable. Their stature, as venerable sentinels that have stood through the global comings and goings of the Roman Empire, the Han dynasty, and Mayan civilization, provides a young country with its own sense of ancient history. Like their native land, the trees dwell comfortably with bigness: the property’s famed Stagg tree, which dates back 2,000 years, soars 250 feet tall and is wider than a two-lane highway. And now they dwell safely, protected by a sense of stewardship of something that is so much bigger than ourselves.

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A deeper look

1. Melinda Gates: What she's learned

In her work overseeing one of the world’s most influential philanthropic organizations, Melinda Gates has discovered what she considers a fundamental truth about development work: empowering women is the key to uplifting humanity. 

Amelia
Courtesy of Gates Archive
Melinda Gates meets in eastern India with women from Pradan, an Indian nonprofit that works with poor people in rural communities.

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Melinda Gates has been at the forefront of some of the most important technological advances of the past half-century, partnering with her husband, Bill, at Microsoft Corp. in the shared belief that “writing software for personal computers would give individuals the computing power that institutions had, and democratizing computing would change the world.”

With their Microsoft fortune, the couple in 2000 founded what is now the world’s largest philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As co-chair of the foundation, which has an endowment of $46 billion, Ms. Gates funds programs that support and drive major government initiatives around the globe.

Today, Ms. Gates has emerged from 20 years of experience visiting women in some of the world’s poorest villages with a strong message that is uniquely her own. 

“Year by year,” she writes in her new book, “Moment of Lift,” “I see more clearly that the primary causes of poverty and illness are the cultural, financial, and legal restrictions that block what women can do – and think they can do – for themselves and their children.”

When women have power and use it, societies prosper. “No other single change can do more to improve the state of the world” than elevating women to equality with men, she writes.

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Melinda Gates: What she's learned

Melinda Gates walks into the Pacific Northwest-themed conference room at Pivotal Ventures, the investment and incubation company she founded to jump-start progress for U.S. women in technology.

Having just finished a recording session, she moves seamlessly through the day at the company’s headquarters on the shores of Lake Washington. As she slips onto a stool at the head of a sleek conference table and starts answering questions, it’s instantly apparent that Ms. Gates’ professionalism and poise are matched by her easygoing warmth.

Right now, she’s talking energetically about one of her top U.S. policy recommendations: paid family medical leave for both fathers and mothers when a child is born. If the father takes time off, “we know that over time he builds a deeper relationship with his child,” Ms. Gates says. Her broader agenda? Incentivizing men to do more household work – a burden now primarily borne by women. “It would kick a door open that has been shut in this country,” she says.

Author of a new bestseller on women’s empowerment, “Moment of Lift,” her first book, Ms. Gates would later give a talk in London that was sold out within 48 hours. After that, she would jet to Paris to speak with finance ministers of leading industrial nations about digital financial inclusion for women: a plan to link mobile phones to digital bank accounts that she says will add $3.7 trillion to emerging economies by 2025 and create 95 million jobs, boosting opportunities for women.

Large numbers and superlatives tend to accompany Ms. Gates wherever she goes. She has been at the forefront of some of the most important technological advances of the past half-century, partnering with her husband, Bill, at Microsoft Corp. in the shared belief that “writing software for personal computers would give individuals the computing power that institutions had, and democratizing computing would change the world.” 

With their Microsoft fortune, the couple in 2000 founded what is now the world’s largest philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As co-chair of the foundation, which has an endowment of $46 billion, she funds programs that support and drive major government initiatives around the globe. 

A self-described perfectionist who wants to have all the answers, she’s confident enough to joke about her failures and times she didn’t have a clue, such as when a major HIV prevention program in India used foundation funds to build community centers for sex workers. “Bill and I never thought in a million years we would be building community centers or renting tiny little spaces” that were refuges for sex workers and their children, she laughs. (Still, it worked, helping to curb the AIDS epidemic in India and save millions of lives.)

Prashant Panjiar/Courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Melinda and Bill Gates enjoy a moment with women of the village of Jamsaut in India in 2011.

But it wasn’t always this way. For more than 20 years after marrying America’s wealthiest man in 1994, the naturally shy Ms. Gates shunned the spotlight and fiercely guarded her privacy. A 1995 Seattle Times article about her, headlined “A Microsoft Mystery,” raised the question: “Equipped with youth, brains and wealth, her power to do good seems vast, but she has yet to make a significant move. What will she do with the tools in her hands?”

Little did anyone know that behind the wall of privacy Ms. Gates was struggling – uncertain not only of her voice but of who she was.

It was Feb. 28, 2001, and Ms. Gates and a few female confidants had gathered at friend Emmy Neilson’s home in Seattle’s lakefront Laurelhurst neighborhood for the first official meeting of their spiritual group.

Suddenly, as if an omen, a large earthquake rocked the area – a 6.8 magnitude temblor, felt as far away as Idaho, that would be named after the nearby Nisqually River delta. “I thought that was a very good sign,” says K. Killian Noe, a Yale Divinity School graduate and close friend of Ms. Gates who organized the group. “Because the spiritual journey should involve inner earthquakes and inner landslides.”

At the time, Ms. Gates, a Roman Catholic and mother of two young children, was wrestling not only with spiritual questions, but also with what to do with her life, and even more fundamentally, with her identity.

Her early trajectory had earned her accolades as a quick learner with a knack for science and math. Growing up in Dallas the daughter of an aerospace engineer and a stay-at-home mom, she thrived under the mentorship of liberal nuns at an all-girls Catholic high school, where she first learned computing and was valedictorian of her class. In five years, she earned a degree in computer science and an MBA at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “College for me was coding with the guys,” she writes in “Moment of Lift.” After summer stints with IBM, she got a job offer in 1987 from the much newer and smaller firm Microsoft, where she was the only woman among the first class of MBAs hired.

She rose swiftly, and by 1996 was general manager of information products at the firm. Glass ceilings seemed a thing of the past. “I had thought mistakenly as a young woman that we had broken through [gender barriers],” she says. “I was in computer science. I had a great career at Microsoft. Yes, I faced issues at Microsoft and slights here and there, but I didn’t see the hidden biases,” she says.

But her promising tech career came to an abrupt halt when she decided in 1996 to leave her job managing 1,700 employees at Microsoft. Instead, she stayed home to care for her first child, daughter Jenn, because, she thought, “that’s what women do.” Overnight, Ms. Gates found herself isolated in the 66,000-square-foot mansion that her husband had started building before their marriage. Everything came crashing down.

“A lot of things cascaded together that caused that crisis of self,” Ms. Gates recalls. “The shift from having been a working career woman, to all of a sudden I am living behind a gate, with people who have a certain image of my husband, and I am living in a big house ... when I grew up in a tiny little home. And then I am a young new mom,” she says, her voice trailing off.

Jonas Bendiksen/Rockefeller Foundation/AP/File
Farmers gather in Malawi under a program funded by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations to help small farms across Africa.

On a scale of difficulty, “the crisis of self felt like a 10,” the numerically minded Ms. Gates says. “It feels like [the] bottom is falling out of your life, like who am I?”

Slowly, she began making friends outside work, and in 1999 started jogging with three other women on Monday mornings after they got their children to school. One of them was Ms. Noe. “Right off the bat ... we went deep really quickly,” Ms. Noe recalls of Ms. Gates. Ms. Noe realized the women – all well-off materially – could come together powerfully in a journey of faith and purpose. 

In all, nine women joined the spiritual group that first met on the day of the 2001 earthquake. They encouraged one another to be vulnerable, to tap into their inner wisdom and pain. In that way, Ms. Noe says, they could discover how to best be an “instrument of love in the world.”  

“We worked a lot on that in this spiritual group that Melinda was part of and still is a part of,” Ms. Noe says. “What does it mean to go inward to the places of your own pain and brokenness and woundedness, and from there, go outward into the world?”

Buoyed by her intimate friends and spiritual discovery, Ms. Gates would carry the question with her that year as she made her first trip to Asia for the Gates Foundation. 

From dirt-floored huts in India to windswept fields in Africa, Ms. Gates launched into a series of trips over the next decade that would fundamentally shape her priorities for the foundation, her views on feminism, and her own voice. The goal of saving children’s lives in developing countries drove the early work of the foundation. But Ms. Gates quickly learned family planning was also an urgent priority, by listening directly to impoverished women.

None spoke more powerfully than Meena, a young woman Ms. Gates met in 2010 in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where infant mortality is high. Meena stood in the doorway of her mud hut, cradling her infant. The baby was born at a health center and was breastfeeding – both goals of a foundation-sponsored health program. But when Ms. Gates asked if she wanted more children, Meena, despondent, said no. Hopeless about educating or even feeding her infant and her other son, Meena pleaded with Ms. Gates to take them both.

Courtesy of Gates Archive
Meena, a young mother from India who Melinda Gates met in 2010, influenced the philanthropist’s views on family planning.

It was a heart-wrenching encounter for the foundation executive who realized that, despite the program’s successes, it had tragically failed to meet Meena’s need for family planning. “It was really a catalyst on her own journey,” recalls Gary Darmstadt, former director of family health at the Gates Foundation, who was with Ms. Gates when she spoke with Meena. “Here is a stunning example of how we kind of missed it.”

Family planning – using birth control to prevent or space out births – “is what women were asking her for, and in many cases, they literally were dying as a result of not having the access,” says Dr. Darmstadt, associate dean for maternal and child health at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Convinced family planning was vital for the overarching goals of health and poverty alleviation, Ms. Gates decided to take a major public stance. She announced at a 2012 London conference that the foundation would double its investment in family planning to $1 billion by 2020, leading a huge reinvestment by governments. 

The truth spoken by ordinary women that Ms. Gates delivered to high-level government officials and international conferences was unusual. “She would be sitting in a circle on a dirt floor in a hut one morning, and then in the afternoon would be talking to the president of the country,” says Dr. Darmstadt. “Being able to bring that voice from women from the field into the room at that level, that was definitely new.” 

For Ms. Gates personally, it was a turning point, as well. She overcame her shyness to take a bold public stance, braving criticism even from the Catholic Church. Having witnessed the frailty of newborns, she disagreed with the Vatican’s opposition to contraceptives. “My conscience at the end of the day says, ‘I don’t want babies and moms to die,’” she says.

The more she learned about the struggles of poor women in Africa and Asia – including the discrimination and abuse they faced from husbands who, for example, beat their wives for using birth control – the stronger her voice became.

“It wasn’t until I saw these other women and what they were up against that I could turn the question back on myself and say ‘Wow, we have a long way to go in the United States and all over the world,’” she says.

After years of doubt, Ms. Gates emerged as an ardent feminist. “I realized that many of the things that had been said earlier in the feminist movement were true – that all these barriers existed.”

Connecting with women overseas also helped Ms. Gates look deep inside and confront an earlier abusive, controlling relationship before she met Bill that she felt silenced her for many years. “I really explored that with the help of a therapist ... who could support me to even go back through what had happened to me,” she says haltingly. 

Courtesy of Frederic Courbet/Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Melinda Gates visits a baby at a health care center in Dakar, Senegal.

Ultimately, that allowed her to speak up more forcefully within her marriage to Mr. Gates, whom, she notes, “was pretty used to running things at Microsoft.” “It wasn’t until I could face that [earlier] abuse that I could understand why in certain places in my marriage I hadn’t used my voice as strongly as I would have liked.” 

In a dark room in a village southwest of Dakar, Senegal, Ms. Gates was listening to a woman sob. She was expressing regret over her past role restraining girls undergoing traditional genital cutting. Back in her hotel room later that night, Ms. Gates, too, couldn’t stop crying.

It was 2012, and the further Ms. Gates delved into the struggles girls and women faced in the developing world – from child marriage to forced prostitution – the stronger her convictions grew about the overarching importance of women’s equality.

“If you want to lift up humanity, empower women,” she writes in “Moment of Lift.” “Year by year ... I see more clearly that the primary causes of poverty and illness are the cultural, financial, and legal restrictions that block what women can do – and think they can do – for themselves and their children.” When women have power and use it, societies prosper. “No other single change can do more to improve the state of the world” than elevating women to equality with men, she writes.

Ms. Gates views male-dominated culture, religion, and law as the roots of much oppression of women. But instead of seeing such forces as immutable, she has sought out and promoted grassroots programs that have carefully ended practices that harm women and girls.

One such program is Tostan, which in the Wolof language in Senegal means “breakthrough” – or, literally, when a chick cracks open its eggshell. Launched in Senegal in 1991, Tostan is a community-led empowerment project based on empathy and understanding between those providing aid and the people they serve. In the Tostan model, a small team of facilitators fluent in the local language moves into a village for three to five years. The team invites the villagers to discuss their ideals, while teaching them about health, reading, math, and human rights. The conversation often sheds light on the gap between villagers’ own ideals and practices that hurt women and girls.

“Our whole approach is reinforcing the positive values of the community,” says Tostan founder Molly Melching, who arrived in Senegal as an exchange student in 1974 and has devoted her life to humanitarian projects in Africa. Tostan, now active in eight African countries, has achieved striking results: More than 8,000 communities where the program is operating have decided to abandon child marriage and female genital cutting.

Ms. Gates credits Tostan with changing how she thinks about development work, showing the best answers to problems are already present in the locals’ drive for a better future. “You have to go in and really listen,” then design solutions with the local community, she says. “You do not get cultural change unless there is openness and  ... discussion.” 

Even religious practices can be changed from the inside, Ms. Gates says. Senior imams in Senegal told her “there is this mistaken understanding that the Koran doesn’t allow for family planning, but it does,” she says. “They said ... we can use our network so the imam all the way down at the local village level in Senegal is giving the right messages to women,” she says. “That’s a great change from within.”

Ms. Melching and other development experts say they’re impressed by Ms. Gates’ thoughtful questions and ability to listen, as well as by her willingness to make anonymous, extended stays in the field that are rare for a wealthy philanthropist.

“It’s the head and the heart that come together in a very powerful and unique way,” Dr. Darmstadt says of Ms. Gates. “On one hand, Melinda is very data driven and evidence driven, but on the other hand she is very relational. ... She wants to sit down and hear these women’s stories. She wants to really understand what life is like for them.”

In 2014, Ms. Gates and her daughter Jenn spent three days living with a family in a village in Tanzania. It was the first time Ms. Gates stayed overnight with a family in the field. They slept in a former goat hut. Ms. Gates helped chop firewood and cooked over a fire. She walked half an hour to fetch water, carrying it in a bucket on her head. “I learned more on that homestay than ... on any previous foundation trip,” she writes. Seeing the mother, Anna, labor 17 hours a day, Ms. Gates says she gained a visceral appreciation for the “massive burden of unpaid labor” that weighs on women’s futures.

Increasingly, such insights from abroad galvanized Ms. Gates to act on problems in the U.S. – and even closer to home. At the foundation, she has moved to ensure women and girls are at the forefront of global development initiatives, a decision announced in Science magazine in 2014. It was, she writes, “the strongest lever I ever pulled to direct the focus and emphasis of our foundation.” For American women of her daughters’ generation, she sees hidden biases as a big challenge, particularly in the workplace. Through Pivotal Ventures, which she started in 2015, Ms. Gates is working to boost opportunities for women where they are badly lagging – in technology and venture capital. “If women are not in tech, women will not have power,” Ms. Gates writes. 

All such efforts are amplified by Ms. Gates’ heavyweight role in directing the world’s largest foundation. “They use their size as leverage,” says Brad Smith, president of Candid, a nonprofit that researches foundations’ work. Mr. Smith lauds the Gates Foundation for leading by example and collaborating with other foundations around the world. “They have been refreshingly good about sharing what they have learned about the work, including failure ... saying what they have done wrong, and what they could do better.”

The Gates Foundation, which has given away $50 billion since its inception, has contributed to a significant decline in child deaths and poverty worldwide. Still, important targets remain. When asked what keeps her up at night, Ms. Gates doesn’t hesitate: “contraceptives.” In 2012, the foundation spearheaded a global partnership that set the goal of giving 120 million more women and girls in the world’s poorest countries access to modern contraceptives by 2020. So far, the initiative has reached about 50 million women and girls. “When you move forward for women and you start to provide contraceptives, there are things that chip away at that progress all the time,” she says. 

As with the foundation’s trials and errors, Ms. Gates is more forgiving of her own imperfections and willing to speak out – a sign her activism on the world stage has just begun. “Maybe my best self is when I’m open enough to say more about my doubts or anxieties, admit my mistakes, confess when I’m feeling down,” she writes. “Maybe my best self is not my polished self.”

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2. Vaping and a culture that substitutes one risk for another

Beneath a public-safety scare about e-cigarettes lie deeper questions about Americans' tendency to substitute one vice for another, choosing an easier fix over examining a problem's root cause.

Amelia

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Americans often want to have their cake and eat it, too. They've engineered substitutes for a host of habits that have come with unintended consequences. The latest? Vaping.

From its patented origins over 15 years ago, the technology known as “vaping” was rooted in the heady promise of better health, if not an escape route from an addictive vice. In some ways, its original promise echoes a wider cultural impulse among Americans trying to battle pleasurable but unhealthy ways, observers say.

In the past two years especially, however, vaping has become more than a cessation tool, experts say. Spurred on by a pop-savvy industry, vaping has become a cultural phenomenon, an expression of the kind of "cool" that cigarette makers once sought. The images of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, now banned in most U.S. advertising, have been replaced with the tech-savvy hipster hitting a Juul.

"That the decline in smoking is giving way to a surge in e-cigarette use and vaping, and that the U.S. has often gone from one drug epidemic to another, each point to the need to understand the more fundamental reasons – perhaps cultural, perhaps economic –driving the use of these addictive substances," says Dhaval Dave, an economics professor who is researching vaping.

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1. Vaping and a culture that substitutes one risk for another

As Collin Avrard stands behind the counter at Crescent City Vape, a shop that bills itself as NOLA’s best with its “100+ flavors of premium e-liquid, all hand-crafted in the USA,” he’s quick to recommend his favorite flavor: corn bread pudding.

“It has the most outlandish name,” laughs Mr. Avrard, an employee with wire-rimmed glasses whose glinting gold grill matches the gold watch on his wrist. “But it also lands spot-on with what it tastes like.”

It’s one of many e-cigarette flavors that two states have banned this week in response to a number of illnesses linked to the use of vaping devices. 

Mr. Avrard says he first started vaping a few years ago in an effort to be healthy, not cool.

He was determined to quit smoking cigarettes, an addictive habit he started at age 15, he says. At 18, desperate to break an addiction he knew was harming his health and well-being, he started vaping e-liquid pods that contained the same amount of nicotine as a cigarette. He’s now following the “tapering” method to curb and eventually end his addiction to nicotine.

“I started about 12 milligrams and now I’m at 3,” says Mr. Avrard, who says he began to feel healthier within a week of switching. “So I’m starting to work on zero now.”

His ultimate goal is to give up the vaporizer entirely, ”even though I am working at a vape shop.”

Indeed, from the moment of its patented origins over 15 years ago, the idea behind “e-cigarettes” – and the technology that would come to be known as “vaping” – were rooted in the heady promise of better health, if not a ready-to-order escape route from one of the nation’s most addictive and deadly vices.

In some ways, the original promise behind e-cigarettes echoes a wider cultural impulse among American consumers trying to battle pleasurable but unhealthy ways, observers say. With an oft-noted faith in technology, Americans saw certain butter-replacing margarines as a way to battle cholesterol and heart disease, and synthetic sweeteners to battle obesity, as well as hosts of other products that claim similar escape routes. All would allow Americans proverbial ways to (literally) have their cake and eat it, too.

Vaping now looks like a major example of how challenging that proposition tends to be. In the past two years it has become more than a cessation tool or a risk-free alternative to smoking, experts say. Spurred on by a pop-savvy industry with sophisticated marketing techniques, vaping has become a cultural phenomenon, an expression of the kind of “cool” that cigarette-makers once sought, especially among teens. 

“That the decline in smoking is giving way to a surge in e-cigarette use and vaping, and that the U.S. has often gone from one drug epidemic to another, each point to the need to understand the more fundamental reasons – perhaps cultural, perhaps economic – that are driving the use of these addictive substances,” says Dhaval Dave, professor of economics at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, who is researching vaping usage.

Marketing an image

The images of Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man, now banned in most U.S. advertising, has been replaced with the young hipster hitting a Juul, one of the more sleek-looking and popular brands today.

But over the past few weeks, an outbreak of some 500 lung injuries associated with vaping across the United States, including what federal officials say are at least seven deaths, has health experts and government officials sounding an alarm about the little-studied health risks of vaping products. Some are suggesting, in effect, that ingesting the various vaporized chemicals in e-cigarettes may be akin to the unintended consequences of the past, like the introduction of dangerous transfats in butter replacements.

On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate an interagency federal response, officials said. Last week the Trump administration said it would begin a process to enact a federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes, which have become popular among younger users, after Michigan moved to enact a ban on flavored-vape sales. New York state, as well as the nation of India, imposed similar bans on Wednesday, as California and Massachusetts also consider it.

But regulators should be cautious, too, Professor Dave says, since well-intentioned regulations and initiatives could also have their own unintended spillovers, in this case possibly driving a return to smoking.  

Indeed, the health risk is not the only issue, experts say. There are deeper questions about the motives behind human behavior, the subtle effects of marketing messages, and the complex ways that human beings seek to toggle satisfying physical and emotional cravings and their own health.  

A victory against youth smoking

“We could take a look at more of the larger social and structural influences behind behaviors like vaping and other addicted behaviors, coupled with the ways media influences users’ behavior,” says Yvonnes Chen, professor of mass communications at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, who has studied the impact of vaping ads on adolescents. “When we think about our tobacco control efforts, especially with our youth, we’ve received a lot of success. I mean, fewer and fewer people are smoking now, which really deserves to be celebrated.”

And according to a study this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, smokers who switched to e-cigarettes were much more likely to quit than those turning to nicotine patches, gum, or similar products.

“But now I think the question is whether or not we are masking another potentially addictive product under the label of a quote-unquote ‘healthy’ cessation tool,” says Dr. Chen. “I think that is something that even a lot of researchers are still debating, whether or not that’s true. It’s a very contentious topic in public health.”

Yet as vaping products have exploded across the country, with nearly 11 million users in 2018, much of the increase has come from high school students, experts say. In 2018, 3 million students, or nearly 21% of the U.S. high school population, reported using e-cigarettes – an 80% increase from 2017, according to the CDC.

View from a vape shop

But here at Crescent City Vape, owners and patrons say the outbreak of illness could be seen as an aberration among the millions of people who currently use vaping products. They attribute the illnesses to the underground market selling vaping products laced with THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.

“We’ve had thousands of people come through these doors now,” says Joe Gerrity, the shop’s co-founder. “And over a thousand people have quit smoking cigarettes working with us. We don’t encourage anybody to start vaping unless you are already smoking cigarettes or struggling with a nicotine addiction of another kind. And we encourage everyone to wean themselves off to zero nicotine,” he says.

It’s been five years since Mr. Gerrity got into the vaping business; he’s about to open a fifth Crescent City Vape location in New Orleans. “We consider ourselves to be a health and wellness store,” he says. 

But health experts say that the current state of the vaping industry is like a Wild West of products with differing ingredients and a hodgepodge of additives and infused chemicals. 

“Well, it’s not just those who have been using THC oil or vaping marijuana,” says Dr. Harold Farber, professor of pediatrics in the pulmonary section of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, noting that many cases were from flavored and nicotine-laced e-cigarettes. 

“If you think, ‘Oh, well, yeah, it’s not the ones that you buy commercially,’ well, there’s no real regulations even on the popular, commercial ones when it comes to quality, safety, what you can put in there, or even good manufacturing processes,” Dr. Farber says.

Apart from the disputes about health and safety, however, many observers note how the idea of vaping morphed from a “cure” from smoking to a risk-free replacement for the same needs and social pleasures derived from smoking.

“We’re repeating history”

“I feel like we’re repeating history when it comes to what’s been happening with the e-cigarette epidemic,” says Melinda Ickes, professor in the University of Kentucky’s department of kinesiology and health promotion. “We saw the tobacco industry use very similar tactics, where they would talk about their products not being that bad for you, and then make it seem like it would be very fun and you can be the ‘it’ person if you are using these products.”

Dr. Ickes points out that while there may indeed be less harm to the body than smoking, that doesn’t mean that vaping is harmless. “And we don’t have enough evidence to even say that they are ‘modified risk’ products,” she says.  

“Yet, while there has been that conversation of the reduced risk of vaping, I think more important in my mind, especially when it comes to addicting youth, is that there’s manipulation going on in the way these products are marketed.”

The e-cigarette technology was first developed and patented by a Chinese pharmacist who was seeking a safer and cleaner way to inhale nicotine, experts note. The pharmacist’s father, a heavy smoker, died after being diagnosed with lung cancer. 

“From 2003, if you see the earlier content and analyze vaping ads, they definitely targeted a lot more smokers trying to quit,” says Dr. Chen of the University of Kansas.

“But the narrative definitely changed,” including to an emphasis on reducing secondhand risks to other people, she says. “And then more recently, they turned to emotional and social appeals. So they include using celebrities, using famous attractive models, and you also see more of a younger appeal. But you also have these sort of outdoor ads, that, while vaping, you’re actually getting in touch with nature.”

As the vaping industry mimics the advertising and strategic playbook of the tobacco industry before the “master settlement” in 1998, in which cigarette-makers agreed to pay out more than $200 billion to cover state health costs and put an end to most of their marketing efforts in the U.S., experts say regulators have to use similar tactics to battle the messages being sent to the nation’s youth.  

“Back in the day, there was a similar mythology around the safety of cigarettes and tobacco. ... The early data on vaping should give us a clue that it’s not quite as safe as people may think,” says Dr. Mark Calarco, national medical director for clinical diagnostics at American Addiction Centers in Brentwood, Tennessee. “Vaping being safer than smoking cigarettes is probably more of an urban legend, perpetuated among the vaping and smoking communities.”

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Climate realities

An occasional series

3. Behind the climate hype: Can models be trusted?

The quest for certainty is perpetual. But it may be important to realize when that might constrain rather than support progress.

Amelia
Leah Millis/Reuters
Environmental advocates, including Greta Thunberg, join Washington-area students at a school strike for the climate protest on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington Sept. 13, 2019.

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Katharine Hayhoe knows climate models aren’t perfect. 

“The more you know about models, the less you trust them, and the more you kick their tires,” says Dr. Hayhoe, co-director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. 

Still, she and thousands of scientists around the world are banking on these simulations as guideposts for the planet’s future. What makes them so confident?

For one thing, models are constantly being checked and verified against observations: They’re run in the deep past, in the recent past, on other planets. They input current conditions, and are constrained by the laws that govern the Earth’s climate system.

Rather than blindly trusting the models out there, climate scientists are constantly questioning them, trying to better understand what they are good at and where they are less certain. 

Even those uncertainties hold lessons, says Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University. 

“Uncertainty doesn’t mean you should not take action because you don’t know the outcome,” he says. “It means you should be very cautious about the extremes happening because you can’t rule them out.”

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Behind the climate hype: Can models be trusted?

There’s a common adage among scientists and statisticians: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

That’s certainly true in the modern world, where – despite the fact that they’re by nature mere shadows of real-world scenarios – computer models serve as vital guideposts in some of humanity’s most complex and dangerous pursuits, from skyscraper and bridge construction to air and space travel.

In the world of climate science, models have come under particularly intense scrutiny, with some skeptics dismissing them entirely. At the same time, thousands of scientists are banking on these models as guideposts for the planet’s future. What makes them so sure?

“[Climate] models encapsulate everything we know about how the world works,” says Andrew Gettelman, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. 

The equations that are their foundation are ones we use over and over, and are interwoven in the fabric of our lives. “If we didn’t understand thermodynamics and we didn’t understand water and how water condenses, internal combustion engines wouldn’t work,” he says. “If we didn’t understand fluid dynamics, we couldn’t predict the weather, we couldn’t make pipe systems work, and make chemical plants work. None of the physics in climate models is new.”

That said, today’s models are incredibly complex, taking into account a multitude of processes that affect climate, and uncertainty is part of their DNA. They offer a range of scenarios based on human actions – the choices we make around mitigating carbon emission, for instance – but there also is uncertainty in the forecasts each model gives, and a difference in what the top models being used tell us. 

Take the most basic: long-term global temperature increase. Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, notes that what the models predict ranges from warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius to 4.5 degrees C – and that gap hasn’t materially changed as models have gotten more sophisticated.

“That’s kind of bonkers,” says Dr. Marvel. “A degree and a half is not that bad, and 4 1/2 degrees is totally catastrophic.” 

But Dr. Marvel, and others, worry that communicating scientific uncertainty to the broader public can be misinterpreted: “There is uncertainty, but there is also really, really great certainty,” she says. “We’ve ruled out ‘fine.’ ‘Fine’ is not going to happen.”

Scientists generally welcome uncertainty, says Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University. Differences among climate models help show the points where they agree, and the elements we can really trust, and the range of results they give help us understand the risks of various actions.

“Uncertainty doesn’t mean you should not take action because you don’t know the outcome,” says Dr. Shindell. “It means you should be very cautious about the extremes happening because you can’t rule them out.”

Simulated worlds 

A lot of the confusion about models comes from a misunderstanding of what they are, and what they aim to do, says Dr. Gettelman. The models aren’t theoretical worlds so much as simulated ones, constrained by laws of physics and chemistry and constantly being validated against observations, recent history, and the deep past. Climate models aren’t designed to predict specific weather or events, but they do predict the probability of weather patterns and weather extremes occurring. 

Today’s models are extremely complex, requiring massive supercomputers to run them. The Community Earth System Model Dr. Gettelman works on relies on some 1.5 million lines of code.

NOAA
Most climate models break the Earth down into a 3D grid system, calculating that system for grids at various longitudes and latitudes and heights into the atmosphere. As the models improve, those grids get ever finer and incorporate more elements of the climate system.

These simulations have come a long way from the basic energy-balance model that Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, used to demonstrate the greenhouse effect back in the 1890s. But in essence, they’re not that different from the far more basic climate models that scientists were using four or five decades ago. 

“At their heart, [models] follow basic physical laws that are very well understood,” says Dr. Shindell. “We have theory and we have observation and we have measurements in the real world that all hold together.”

Kicking the tires

Rather than blindly trusting the models out there, climate scientists are constantly questioning them, says Katharine Hayhoe, co-director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. 

“The more you know about models, the less you trust them, and the more you kick their tires,” Dr. Hayhoe says. 

She knows what they’re good at, like simulating observed changes in temperature and the jet stream. And she knows what they do less well, such as modeling how quickly the ice sheets are melting or the rate that Arctic sea ice is lost. 

In those cases, as with extreme precipitation, many models actually are underestimating how fast things are changing, says Dr. Hayhoe. Models are also better at predicting changes over a bigger time and space scale than they are at forecasting those changes for smaller regions, or the nearer-term future.

And, when it comes to the big differences among what the models tell us, scientists are getting better at understanding where that gap comes from. One of the major reasons: clouds.

The clouded view

Clouds have become a huge focus of many climate scientists because of the large impact they have on climate. But cloud formations are incredibly complicated to model reliably.

Clouds have a warming effect, because they act like a blanket over the Earth. But they also have a cooling effect, as white clouds reflect solar energy away. The net effect of clouds on the planet tends to be cooling, explains Dr. Gettelman, and it’s a huge effect.

“Small changes to clouds can really magnify or damp what we do with carbon dioxide,” he says. 

Given all that, clouds are one of the most important things for a climate model to get right, but also one of the hardest. 

The scale at which clouds form is tiny: liquid water droplets crystallizing around a dust grain. “That is incredibly small scale,” Dr. Marvel says, “but of course climate models need to simulate the entire climate, which is the largest scale you can get, and those don’t match very well together.”

To get around that, models approximate clouds in various ways, but it’s an imperfect science, and much of modelers’ efforts these days go into improving and refining those approximations. They’re also starting to bring in other key parts of the climate system, like the biological processes involved in the carbon cycle – how natural land- and ocean-based carbon sinks may shift in the future. 

Building a virtual planet

Despite all these uncertainties, scientists emphasize that the models are consistent on the most basic points: The Earth is warming. We’ll get more days of extreme temperatures, with dangerous levels of heat. And there will be more extreme precipitation events.

What’s perhaps most disconcerting to many climate scientists is the fact that with the most recent generation of models, which have worked hard to incorporate more processes and reduce structural uncertainties, many have started running “hotter” – showing temperature changes in the long term of 5 or 6 degrees C instead of 4 degrees – and it’s not yet clear why that is.

These newer models might be more accurate, Dr. Marvel says, but without fully understanding why what they’re telling us has changed, she doesn’t think their results can be totally accepted. 

But what scientists emphasize over and over is that the models they work with may not be perfect – and are almost certainly “wrong” at some level – but they offer us the most complete, and validated, way of understanding the trajectory our climate is on that we have. 

In essence, the models are the laboratories that climate scientists use. Earth scientists can’t build anything in the real world that replicates our entire system, so “in order to conduct experiments on our planet, we have to build a virtual planet,” Dr. Hayhoe says. 

Climate models “are like alternative Earths that we can run what-if experiments on,” she continues, “which further underscores the fact that we are currently running an unprecedented, although inadvertent, experiment with our actual planet, which is the only home that we have.”

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A deeper look

4. More public schools are embracing the Bible. Is it literature, or religion?

Can you ask schools to promote study of a religious cultural touchstone while remaining inclusive as a society? A fraught question of church and state is once again rearing up in America's public schools. 

Amelia

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Should the Bible be taught in public schools? That’s the question at the crux of a controversy as legislators in nearly a dozen states have put forth bills to allow Bible classes, with three states passing laws to that effect. 

The classes are supposed to be purely academic, but they’re part of a larger conservative initiative that critics say is promoting a Christian worldview in a country where Muslim shopkeepers in Dallas are equally as American as the cattle ranchers on the plains of middle Georgia.

“We understand the line and we take it very seriously,” says Jamie Davis, a pastor who teaches the Bible to middle schoolers for academic credit in Cochran, Georgia.

The Supreme Court banned school-sponsored Bible readings, such as reading scriptural passages during daily announcements, in 1963. However, the ruling also left the door open to a purely academic study of the Bible, as long as it’s “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.” The battle over today’s Bible classes is being fought over whether they follow that guideline, or instead impose a particular religious viewpoint on students in public schools.

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1. More public schools are embracing the Bible. Is it literature, or religion?

“What does holy mean?” asks Jamie Davis, a local youth pastor in Cochran, Georgia.

The seventh graders, their faces lit through stained-glass windows of biblical scenes at Bethany Baptist Church, go silent. The word is of course everywhere in the Bible, which they are here to study for academic credit. Though half of the students are regular church-goers, they are all stumped.

“It means set apart,” says Mr. Davis.

That notion of holy as separate is at the crux of a growing controversy around Bible literacy classes that are springing up in public schools around the country – or offered in coordination with the school system, as here in Cochran.

In 2019, 13 bills promoting Bible elective classes have been proposed in 11 states, with three states – Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia – signing bills into law. The classes are supposed to be purely academic, but they’re part of a larger conservative initiative that critics say is promoting a Christian worldview in a country where Muslim shopkeepers in Dallas are equally as American as the cattle ranchers here on the plains of middle Georgia.

The legislative flurry is resurfacing a decades-old debate about what role – if any – the world’s best-selling book should play in American public schools. As in the past, it centers around strongly held views of the importance of the Bible to American cultural identity that clash with opponents’ desire to be inclusive of those of differing – or no – faith.

But religious conservatives are driven by a new sense of urgency as they perceive their values to be sidelined or even denigrated by increasingly mainstream progressive views, and they sense a political opening with the election of President Donald Trump and his public support for Bible literacy classes. 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
What is God like? A teacher's notes for a religious literacy class for Bleckley County middle schoolers at Bethany Baptist Church.

“This issue has a certain type of cycle to it. It never disappears completely,” says Steven Green, a professor of law and history at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and author of “The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine.”

“I think it’s because we do have certain members of the community in the United States … who feel their vision of what the United States represents is under threat and is being challenged,” he says. 

Part of a larger legislative campaign

Of particular concern to opponents is the fact that these Bible literacy laws are part of a bundle of model legislation prepared for lawmakers by conservative groups, led by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.

Originally dubbed Project Blitz, the legislative campaign includes other bills promoting the display of “In God We Trust” in public buildings, proclamations recognizing Christian Heritage Week, resolutions favoring marriage defined as between a man and a woman, and bills protecting licensed professionals such as florists and cake bakers from being sued for turning down work that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Mark Chancey, a professor of religion at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says the campaign “privilege[s] the civil rights of the Christian right above those of everyone else.”

Supporters of the Bible elective bills point to the many references or allusions to the Bible by authors from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison, the use of biblical language such as “an eye for an eye” and “David and Goliath” in popular culture, and the impact the Bible has had on a wide range of fields.

“We believe that understanding the Bible is a really important part of cultural literacy, especially in the West and especially in the United States,” says Steven Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation, the organization that drafted the model Bible class bills. “You don’t teach it in an evangelistic way, but to understand art and music and history, you really need that kind of background.”

In response to criticism over the model legislation initiative, Mr. Fitschen says it touches on “issues that were very much in the forefront of the news and things that legislators in the states were figuring out how to handle and we were offering our view on how to address these things constitutionally.”

A majority of Americans support Bible electives, but ...

The legality of teaching the Bible in public schools has undergone a series of court rulings and continues to ignite intense reactions ever since two major Supreme Court rulings limited the scope of religion in schools.

In the famous 1962 Engel v. Vitale case, the court ruled school-sponsored prayer unconstitutional. A year later, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the court banned school-sponsored Bible readings, such as reading scriptural passages during daily announcements.

However, the majority opinion in the Abington decision also included a statement opening the door to a purely academic study of the Bible, as long as it’s “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

Indeed, a smattering of Bible-related classes endured in public schools across the country. For example, Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, offers an elective class on “The Bible and Mythology.” Hamilton County Public Schools in Tennessee has offered Bible elective classes on Genesis, Revelation, and the Old and New Testaments since 1922.

2019 poll by the professional educator association PDK found that 58% of American adults surveyed said public schools should offer Bible studies as an elective, and 77% of adults supported offering comparative religion classes – but 4 in 10 Americans “express concern that Bible studies may improperly promote Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.”

Professor Chancey, at SMU, says one of the “great ironies” about the proposed Bible class bills is that there is no need for new legislation for schools to teach the Bible in an academic manner – the Supreme Court has already given leeway for that. But he cautions that it’s “hard to teach these courses in that way.”

In 2006 and again in 2012, Professor Chancey was commissioned by the Texas Freedom Network to examine the Bible elective classes offered in Texas, which passed a law in 2007 encouraging school districts to offer such classes. He found substantial evidence of legal and academic problems with many of the courses, including teaching from a religious perspective. While his second report noted some improvement, he wrote that most classes were of a “mixed quality” and some were “blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage[d] students to adopt those views.”

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), a faith-based group that advocates for religious freedom for all, says many of the recent Bible class measures have been “carefully crafted to have constitutional muster at least on their face, but they can still be harmful.”

“I think it sends a problematic message that to be a full or true American one must be Christian,” she says.

Ms. Tyler also raises concerns about states showing a religious preference through selection of the Bible translation used in class, or not providing funding for training teachers how to teach the Bible appropriately.

“Usually they use Sunday school curriculum,” says Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, referencing an ACLU report about Bible courses in Kentucky. “They recruit from Sunday schools to find teachers, and teachers end up teaching with a bias toward their own religious perspectives.”

Best student in Bible class: a self-proclaimed atheist

Back in Cochran, a large billboard on the edge of town proclaims, “Jesus is Lord.” A piece of folk art not far away shows a wooden U.S.-style flag with a Christian cross where the 50 stars usually are.

Some 42% of people in the surrounding Bleckley County are religious, with a quarter of the population attending Baptist churches, according to Sperling’s BestPlaces, which draws from a wide variety of data, including the census. Jews and Muslims make up 0.0% of those living within the county’s 219 square miles.

But there are plenty with no faith. Mr. Davis, the teacher, says that his favorite student so far was a high schooler last year who identified as an atheist. “This student was super smart, he asked the best questions, and he was here to honestly try to understand, discuss, and learn,” he says.

Mr. Davis is a pastor and the class is run by the Bleckley Christian Learning Center, whose homepage quotes the verse from Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.” But he says he recognizes First Amendment concerns.

“We understand the line and we take it very seriously,” says Mr. Davis. Even though the Georgia legislature allows Bible literacy classes to be taught inside public schools, he notes that “none of this particular program is funded by taxpayers. The school simply releases the students to us with the parents’ permission. It is strictly non-denominational.”

There is also a physical delineation here in Cochran. A small country road separates the school from the church. A school resource officer walks the class out of the school building and stops traffic on Country Club Road as they cross and enter the church.

Lila Dykes is one of the students who crosses the road several times a week to attend “Bible class,” as she calls it.

A seventh grader, she throws herself enthusiastically into a class skit about integrity – framed as a conundrum over whether to take her mom’s change while she is sleeping to run outside to buy a treat from an ice cream truck.

Lila says she likes the skits and the conversation. But mostly she likes to think about how her own spiritual faith differs from how the Bible influences secular life.

“It is about stepping outside of church and looking at the Bible in a different way,” she says. “It’s actually really fun.”

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5. A Muslim woman comic walks into a bar ...

Approaching a problem indirectly can often change thinking more easily than hitting it head-on. Muslim women comics are putting that idea to the test with satire. 

Amelia
Pinar Istek/Round Earth Media/IWMF
Comedian Mariam Sobh performs her solo set, “Headscarf Above Water,” at Judy’s Beat Lounge of The Second City in Chicago, Aug. 3, 2019. Muslim women are increasingly using comedy to challenge perceptions and foster understanding.

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For Sabeen Sadiq, a Pakistani American Muslim on the Chicago comedy circuit, performing onstage is one way to control the narrative and lessen the tension surrounding her faith, she says. So Ms. Sadiq performs at bars across the city – a point of contention in her jokes. 

“It was hard telling my conservative mom that I did stand-up in bars,” Ms. Sadiq jokes. “I’d be like, ‘There’s a curtain with guys on one side and women on the other – and we serve tea.’” 

Generations of comics have used stand-up to educate the broader society about their culture or ethnic group. Now Ms. Sadiq is part of a growing wave of performers across the U.S. using comedy to puncture stereotypes of Muslim women and to show how much they have in common with their audiences. 

Mona Aburmishan, a Palestinian American comic, attributes the growth in American Muslim women comedians to the need for Muslims to speak out in a more casual way.

“A lot of us Muslims are sick and tired of going to rallies and protests,” she says. “It doesn’t leave you feeling awesome. But if you can make somebody laugh, you’re the most powerful person in the room.”

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A Muslim woman comic walks into a bar ...

It’s intermission, and the Comedy Clubhouse is buzzing with conversation. Young people in business attire or hipster T-shirts have refreshed their drinks and are settling into plastic chairs. One woman stays perched on a corner bar stool, sipping water and chatting. She’s wearing a yellow sweater – and a hijab. 

When the lights go dark, the host introduces her as Mariam Sobh, the only Muslim woman to take the stage tonight. Walking to the microphone, Ms. Sobh already has a good idea of what’s on the minds of audience members. She goes right at it. 

“I was crossing the street in my neighborhood and this guy walked by me, muttering ‘ISIS’ under his breath,” Ms. Sobh says.

There’s a brief, uncomfortable pause and a few sparse chuckles in the crowd of about 20 people. “So I turn to him and said ‘Allahu akbar!’ I mean, if you really thought that I was a terrorist, would you want to provoke me?” 

The room bursts into laughter. Ms. Sobh has corralled the elephant in the room, the same one that shows up nearly every time she performs. With that out of the way, she owns the space for the rest of her five-minute bit, leaving patrons in stitches with jokes about headscarves, terrorism, and patriarchy in conservative Muslim families. 

Generations of comics have used stand-up to educate the broader society about their culture or ethnic group. Now, Ms. Sobh, a radio anchor whose mother is from the Midwest and father is Lebanese, is part of a growing wave of performers across the U.S. using comedy to puncture stereotypes of Muslim women and to show how much they have in common with their audiences. 

Muslim women are still behind men such as Hasan Minhaj and Ramy Youssef, who have established themselves on the comedy scene, says Yasmin Elhady, an Egyptian-Libyan American lawyer and part-time comedian in Washington, D.C. Mr. Minhaj’s Netflix special, “Patriot Act,” aired in late 2018 and Mr. Youssef starred in his original comedy series, “Ramy,” released this year. Ms. Elhady expects Muslim women to follow suit, bringing their lives into the mainstream via comedy, the way Ellen DeGeneres did for the LGBTQ community. 

“I just don’t think standing in a protest line and fighting for our rights is the best thing for Muslims right now,” Ms. Elhady says. “People both in the industry and out are very excited about us [female Muslim comedians]. I’ve only been met with kindness and support since I started in comedy two years ago.” 

Early struggles 

Things were different when Ms. Sobh started her career in Illinois 15 years ago. She wanted to expose people to Muslims in the arts, particularly in the post-9/11 era, when she was a student at the University of Illinois. 

She hoped to start her career as a television news reporter but was turned down repeatedly.

“They would tell me off the record that I didn’t get the job because of my hijab,” she says. “That’s just how it was when I was starting out.” 

So Ms. Sobh went to work for Illinois public radio station WILL-AM, and soon performed at open mic events and shows. She has been on the stand-up scene in Chicago for about four years. 

“When I started out, none of my jokes were about being Muslim,” Ms. Sobh says. “But then I realized I needed to address the elephant in the room, which is me wearing a scarf, because a lot of people made assumptions once they saw it. I figured it was my chance to dispel the assumptions that people make about Muslims.” 

Some audience members say they left Ms. Sobh’s show with a better understanding of what Muslims experience on a daily basis. 

“A lot of the jokes were really funny, and at the same time, this lifestyle and culture are very different from my own,” says Jonah Dagen. The performance “made me a bit more conscious.” 

Another audience member, Margaret Larkin, says she could relate to Ms. Sobh’s struggles with misconceptions and microaggressions.  

While it’s a bonus when people walk away from her shows having learned something, Ms. Sobh says she’s just “an American woman who tells jokes and makes people laugh.” 

At the Comedy Clubhouse, Ms. Sobh even took on a topic conservative Muslim communities shy from: sex. 

“Something that is taboo in the Muslim community is the topic of sex,” she says. “It’s kind of ironic because if you look at all of the really religious communities, they are the ones who are doing it all the time. You look around and you see like, what, 10 kids?”

Comedy as commentary 

Sabeen Sadiq, a 28-year-old Pakistani American also on the Chicago comedy circuit, says she feels the tension between confronting stereotypes and wanting her audience to understand that she isn’t so different from them. 

Pinar Istek/Round Earth Media/IWMF
Comedian Sabeen Sadiq kills time on her phone before her show at Gman Tavern in Chicago, May 21, 2019. Ms. Sadiq says performing onstage is one way she can control the narrative.

Performing onstage is one way she can control the narrative. In a highly polarized society, comedy helps lessen some of the tension surrounding her faith, she says. Ms. Sadiq hosts and performs her bits at various bars across the city – a point of contention in her jokes. 

“It was hard telling my conservative mom that I did stand-up in bars,” Ms. Sadiq joked during one of her late-night shows at Chicago’s iO Theater. “I’d be like, ‘There’s a curtain with guys on one side and women on the other – and we serve tea.’” 

For Mona Aburmishan, a Palestinian American veteran of the Chicago comedy scene, comedy allows her to deliver the truth “in a lovable way.”

“When you want your kids or dogs to take their medicine, you hide it in food,” she says. “A lot of my jokes are kind of like that. They are really intentional, and I’ll make these subtle jokes where people don’t really process it till they walk out of the room.” 

She attributes the growth in American Muslim women comedians to the need for Muslims to speak out in a more casual way, to get their message across without facing backlash.

“A lot of us Muslims are sick and tired of going to rallies and protests,” she says. “It doesn’t leave you feeling awesome. But if you can make somebody laugh, you’re the most powerful person in the room.” 

Farah Ajlouni contributed to this report. This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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The Monitor's View

Why global health emergencies first need a dose of trust

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In only the fifth time in its history, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency in July to head off a pandemic. The trigger was an unexpected spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. While that crisis appears contained, the warning was a reminder that medical interventions alone cannot deal with such outbreaks. The missing piece, according to a new report, is trust between communities in crisis and the institutions that serve them.

The report, issued Wednesday, comes from a new body set up by WHO and the World Bank to provide independent judgments on the world’s readiness to respond to health emergencies.

One of the recommendations is that countries improve their capacity for community involvement well before a crisis hits in order to alleviate fear and trauma.

In many health crises, the first task is often to dampen fear in order to build up social trust. “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear,” advised Florence Nightingale, the famed 19th-century nurse. It is a lesson worth recalling as the world learns to better prepare for health emergencies.

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Why global health emergencies first need a dose of trust

In only the fifth time in its history, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency in July to head off a pandemic. The trigger was an unexpected spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. While that crisis appears contained, the warning was a reminder that medical interventions alone cannot deal with such outbreaks. The missing piece, according to a new report, is trust between communities in crisis and the institutions that serve them.

The report, issued Wednesday, comes from a new body set up by WHO and the World Bank to provide independent judgments on the world’s readiness to respond to health emergencies. The 15-member Global Preparedness Monitoring Board concluded that the current state of readiness is “grossly insufficient.”

“For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics,” stated the report. “We ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides.”

One of the recommendations is that countries improve their capacity for community involvement well before a crisis hits in order to alleviate fear and trauma. “Long-term, sustained community engagement is crucial for detecting outbreaks early, controlling amplification and spread, ensuring trust and social cohesion, and fostering effective responses,” the report stated.

This was a key lesson from the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. At the time, high levels of distrust in health services not only hindered efforts to deal with the outbreak but contributed to its spread. In addition, WHO’s declaration of an emergency, while necessary for the rest of the world to heed, may have created undue fear in local communities and also a narrative of victimization.

The world must “heed the lessons these outbreaks are teaching us” and learn how to “fix the roof before the rain comes,” says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO.

The report warns of a general crisis in trust of institutions. “Governments, scientists, the media, public health, health systems and health workers in many countries are facing a breakdown in public trust that is threatening their ability to function effectively,” it found.

In many health crises, the first task is often to dampen fear in order to build up social trust. In one study of Congo’s Ebola crisis, scholars found fewer people sought care as fear of the disease increased. “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear,” advised Florence Nightingale, the famed 19th-century nurse. It is a lesson worth recalling as the world learns to better prepare for health emergencies.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Looking forward to … deadlines?

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Deadlines can often feel like anxiety-inducing threats. But prayer can shift our perception to the idea of a deadline as a promise that we can witness God’s active goodness at every moment.

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Looking forward to … deadlines?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Threats. For years, that’s what deadlines felt like to me. They hung over the horizons of my work, small clouds of anxiety or larger ones of dread. Hearing others talk about due dates, I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

Somewhere along the road, though, I came to welcome the idea of a deadline as a promise. A promise that whatever is assigned will be done by then.

When I think about this major shift in perception, I realize it grew from what the teachings of divine Science had taught me about spiritual reality. Because God is ever present, the goodness God gives us is immediate. In fact, we are the direct beneficiaries of God’s creative activity. You could say we are what He is doing every moment, and His work is complete.

These ideas give hope and assurance that whatever seems undone only needs to be viewed spiritually to see its perfect, finished state. “Eternity, not time, expresses the thought of Life,” writes spiritual pioneer Mary Baker Eddy, “and time is no part of eternity.... Time is finite; eternity is forever infinite” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” pp. 468-469).

I had occasion to put these ideas into practice one summer when I was juggling two jobs. There was just enough time for everything – except finding parking downtown for my second job.

At first, worry filled my thought as I drove every day. But I really longed to feel certainty, not anxiety. That’s when I decided to pray.

I remembered Christ Jesus’ model of accomplishment. He got things done at exactly the time and in exactly the way they needed to be done, no exceptions – and nearly always immediately!

How did Jesus explain this unparalleled ability? He credited his relation to God: “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do” (John 5:19). And he counseled, “Take … no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself” (Matthew 6:34).

To me, this meant taking a stand not to stress about parking while I drove to my second job. Instead, I challenged myself to think expectantly – not just expecting to find parking, but expecting to perceive God, infinite Mind and divine Principle, as ever present and active. And affirming mentally that my status as God’s cared-for child was complete.

I felt so much spiritual confidence from this prayer that I dropped my habit of searching for parking several blocks away in case nothing was available close to work. And I found a parking space steps away from the entrance. Not just once, but every time, all summer long.

As small an illustration as this is, it gave me an expansive and joyful sense of dominion over time limitations.

In the early years of the Christian Science movement, a much larger example took place. James Rome, who served as a night watchman at The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, described what it was like to face the daunting deadline for the enormous task of building an extension to this building that would hold several thousand more people than the original edifice held:

“At first I thought that, since it seemed impossible for the building to be completed before the end of summer, the communion would likely be postponed until that time. Then came the announcement that the services would be held in the new extension on June 10.... [One night] the conviction that the work would be accomplished came to me so clearly, I said aloud, ‘Why, there is no fear; this house will be ready for the service, June 10.’ I bowed my head before the might of divine Love, and never more did I have any doubt.

“... I noticed that as soon as the workmen began to admit that the work could be done, everything seemed to move as by magic.... I have often stood under the great dome, in the dark stillness of the night, and thought, ‘What cannot God do?’ (Science and Health, p. 135.)” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 61).

When there’s a deadline looming, it’s an opportunity to witness what God is doing in us and for us right at that moment. This always includes completion, the guarantee that every good idea is already fully realized and entire. Who can dread a promise like this?

Adapted from an article published in the Aug. 5, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
A Palestinian man in the southern Gaza Strip reads a newspaper on Israel’s parliamentary election Sept. 18, 2019. With more than 90% of the vote counted, the Blue and White party had 32 seats while rivals Likud had 31. Now, bargaining begins to form a government. The result could mean Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure may be reaching its end – as well as his ability to shield himself from prosecution for corruption.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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