Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan for his Thursday Open Mic segment. He talked about his latest Globe column, wherein scientific journals retracted published articles on the grounds that they were “computer-generated nonsense.” Beam explained his fascination with the phrase.
Jim, Margery and Alex also discussed Pope Francis’ positions on gay marriage and child abuse within the Church, and changes to the SAT college exam.
Jim and Margery's questions are edited for brevity. Alex's answers were edited where noted (...).
We read your column, but we weren’t really sure what you were saying.
Even the editor sent me an email yesterday saying, Does this mean the end of the Boston Globe op-ed page? (laughs)
That thing has been out there in the ether-sphere for six or seven days — this admission that the relatively prestigious scientific journal community has been publishing papers generated by random computer programs that are just complete idiocy. I don’t know, it just kind of seized me. It was terrible because it’s the kind of column you want to have written immediately, and yet I stewed over it for a number of days. (…) And then I thought, God, I should do something more important, like about Ukraine. Something that people really care about.
Why didn’t you do that?
Because I hate that stuff. It just bores me to death.
You use the word ‘seriatim’ in the column. What does it mean?
Seriatim means ‘in a row,’ like when you’re describing the affairs that you’ve had with members of the same sex or opposite sex. You’re always careful to point out that they’re seriatim – as opposed to overlapping. It’s like serial monogamy.
It’s Latin for those who don’t know – which of course, according to Dan Quayle — is what they speak in Latin America. Speaking of Latin, what do you think about the serial fandom of Pope Francis – there’s a Pope Francis fan magazine out there, and apparently Francis is upset by it.
It’s confusing because there’s two Pope memes clashing out there at one time. I was amused certainly by the idea that there is an Italian fan magazine – "Il Mia Papa," or "My Pope" – which offers a centerfold.
Yeah, we’ll want to get into the second issue to see what the sisters –
-- Okay, fine. That’s enough --
-- So, that obviously caught my interest. (…) In today’s Boston Globe, John Allen [writes about Pope Francis.] (…) The headline of course, is that [the Pope] seems to say, We’re not going to put on sackcloth and ashes over the child sex-abuse scandals in North America and elsewhere. People are very upset.
My estimation is the first wrong turn the Pope has made. He said, “No one else has done more, yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked.”
I’m perfectly willing to be an apologist for unspeakable acts. Let’s tip our cap to Jim Carroll, whose massive New Yorker piece really called this one point out. It’s really the best English-language piece, still, on Pope Francis. (…) He carved out a huge section of that profile saying, This is going to be challenging. He was very skeptical, and he gave broad voice to the critics on this one point. He called this out as a potential soft spot for Francis. But [remember], we’re sitting in Boston, we’re sitting at Ground Zero of this horror.
The whole world is Ground Zero. Maybe this was the first, but the world became Ground Zero.
I don’t want to disagree with you, because I don’t like playing a losing hand. (…) [But the Pope’s] use of the word ‘transparency’ seems like an unfortunate choice of words.
Inaccurate, I would say.
Yes. Having said that, this is probably the way it looks from where he sits. I entertain hopes that he’ll get out more, and there will be evolutionary change on this.
Pope Francis has only been there a year, though, which may argue for giving him some time. But it’s troubling to hear this statement.
You’re definitely right. Allen had an interesting piece in the Globe. [Francis] appointed this super-conservative Australian head of the treasury – maybe [Francis will] get him out of the center on this. He’s playing a very complicated chess game.
I’m only throwing this out since I’m not Catholic – in the Episcopal religion, there’s a huge balancing act played against Africa, which dominates the Church. I apologize for this line of apologetics, but I mean, it’s quite possible he’s playing a global game. He has other audiences that he’s conscious of at this time, and I hope for motion on this issue.
Pope Francis has opened the door to civil unions for same-sex couples.
What does that mean?
It means that we’re no longer talking about homosexual acts as ‘intrinsic evils’ like Pope Benedict did.
That was the first thing out of his mouth, ‘Who am I to judge these people?’
It seems like he’s open to the idea, at least.
He’s a complicated guy. I had this totally ridiculous, random thought driving in here. I was thinking, if Pope Francis’ first declaration can be, Let’s put some of these thorny, divisive issues social-agenda issues items behind us – he’s obviously ridden a nice wave for roughly a year – why can’t the Republican Party do the same thing? I’d like to see a revivified Republican Party in America. Why don’t they take a cue from him?
To switch gears, the SAT is reformatting its test by not counting wrong answers against the student, cutting obscure vocabulary words, and making the essay optional. What’s your take on this, since writing is what you theoretically do?
My wife hires writers, and I challenge her because so few people make writers write, like as a test. The secret is that really no one in America can write three paragraphs to save [her] life.
Is there any more important skill?
I agree with you. The point is that so-called language skills and math – there’s got to be a reward for the boys and girls who paid attention in class. I like the way you think, but those [tests] are probably here to stay, because the A students want to have their day in court.
What they found is that the SATs aren’t really an indicator of how you’ll do in college.
The top 50 colleges, a lot of them have evolved not only the common application [between the schools]. (…) They’re pooling their resources to change the game, which is great because kids can apply to the colleges they want to apply to.
>> Listen back to Alex Beam's BPR interview: