Monday, May 21, 2018

Fun with Useless Calculations, or, How to Be a Republican Science Expert


We have nothing better to do, so let’s do some fun and useless calculations. To make it even more fun, we will use English units.

Sea level rise:

  • How much has the sea level risen in the last hundred years? It has risen between 4 and 8 inches.
  • What is the average depth of the ocean? NOAA estimates it is 12,100 feet.
  • Therefore, the rise in sea level corresponds to about four inches, that is, one-third of a foot, divided by 12,100 feet; that is, its depth has increased by a factor of 0.0000275. Assuming that the area of the ocean remains unchanged, the volume has also increased by this amount.
  • What is the volume of the ocean? It is 300 million cubic miles.


The volume of the ocean has therefore increased by 825,000 cubic miles.

Volumes of mountain ranges:

Sierra Nevada Mountains:
  • What is the average height of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Each peak has a different height, but we can use a little over 5,000 feet (one mile) as the average height.
  • What is the area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? About 24,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, therefore, is about 24,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down only to 1,000 feet above sea level, typical of the surrounding area, the volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is 19,200 cubic miles.


Rocky Mountains (including Canada)
  • What is the average height of the Rocky Mountains? Many peaks are over 14,000 feet, but we can use about half that amount (7,000 feet, or 1.4 miles) as the average. Many of the trails listed by the National Park Service are over 8,000 feet in elevation [https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/mileages.htm].
  • What is the area of the Rocky Mountains? About 380,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Rocky Mountains is, therefore, about 532,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down to about a mile above sea level, which is the elevation of some cities such as Denver at the base of the mountains, the volume of the Rocky Mountains is 152,000 cubic miles.


Alps:
  • What is the average height of the Alps? The Alps have about a hundred peaks over 13,000 feet. Grenoble, France, near the base of the Alps, is about 700 feet above sea level. We can therefore use about 7000 feet (1.4 miles) as the average elevation of the Alps.
  • What is the area of the Alps? It is about 115,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Alps is, therefore, about 161,000 cubic miles if you count down to sea level. But if you count only to the base (about the elevation of Grenoble), the volume of the Alps is about 145,000 cubic miles.


Add these three volumes together and you get: the combined volume of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, and the Alps, is about 316,000 cubic miles. This is only 38% as much as the volume by which the oceans have increased in the last 100 years.



Meanwhile, enter Mo Brooks, Republican representative from Alabama, a member of the House Science Committee. He claimed, in a recent session as reported in Science magazine, that “soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas” is causing the observed sea level increase.

Rocks tumbling into the sea? Even if the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Alps all fell into the sea, you would get only 38 percent of the observed sea level rise. Rocks tumbling into the sea? Why has nobody seen 825,000 cubic miles of rocks tumble into the sea?

Mo Brooks is on the House Science Committee. At least his theory, that sea level rise is being caused by rocks tumbling into the sea, is less stupid than Dana Rohrabacher’s theory that global warming in the past has been caused by dinosaur farts. Rorabacher is on the Science Committee too.

Of course, my calculations must be all wrong. When a Republican Congressman just makes something up out of thin air, he or she must be right, and all calculations that disagree with them must be wrong.

Four inches doesn’t sound like much, but for the ocean as a whole, that’s a lot of volume. About half of this volume has come from melting land ice, and half from thermal expansion.

It must be wonderful being a Republican. You can just make things up and they instantly become true regardless of any measurements made by any geographers or scientists over the last century. Republicans give themselves God-like, and blasphemous, powers of knowledge.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Failing to Change the World


I have been reading The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams. The author ties the biographies of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson around a common theme: Humanity has extended its dominion over every part of the globe, and while this may be inevitable, it results in great losses not only to wild nature but to human nature.

For example, in the writings of Jules Verne, Captain Nemo explores the vast unknown expanses of the oceans, in which he desires to leave behind the conflicts of the human race, which take place on land or on the surface of the sea; but he cannot leave behind his own conflict with the human race. He sees the oceans as the ultimate freedom, but he is not really free. And whether it is Captain Nemo revealing the secrets of the oceans, or riders in a balloon revealing what the unknown center of Africa is like, the very act of exploration brings these wild and unknown spaces into the range of human knowledge and therefore dominion. Verne wanted to explore the unknown world, but at the same time regretted the end of the frontier.

I would like to concentrate on William Morris, a writer about whom I knew literally nothing until I read Williams’ book. He was most famous as one of the leading British socialists of the late nineteenth century. He despised capitalism because it oppressed the poor workers, but also because it substituted cheapness for craftsmanship. He inherited a fortune and also ran a successful interior decorating business, for which he was criticized as being a socialist hypocrite. But he ran his business by artisinal, rather than industrial, standards; he particularly detested artificial dyes, and spent a lot of effort on improving natural dyes.



The triumph of cheapness in the economy was just part of the larger picture of ugliness that was gripping the world, in Morris’ view. He loved the Old Norse sagas, and mourned the loss of ancient heroism. He went to Iceland to see the places where the events in the sagas took place. While there, he was enraptured by the wildness of the volcanic landscape, and enchanted by the relative equality of all the people, country people without a rich class of capitalists. But he also loved sailing up the Thames from dirty London into the agrarian countryside. The countryside was ordered into woodlots and fields, and therefore conquered, but it was still filled with plants and animals. Morris despised the loss of the beauties of a farmed countryside.

So, what did Morris do? He spent a fair amount of time in socialist activism. But he knew that no matter how much he did, socialism would remain an elusive goal: the forces of money and power opposed it, so it didn’t matter whether socialism was better for the people or not. Instead, he spent most of his time writing poems and novels about heroic struggles in faraway or nonexistent lands. That is, he was one of the first prominent writers of fantasy. He was much revered by C. S. Lewis (Perelandra and Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkein (Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). (Tolkein was also enraptured by the Old Norse sagas.)

This might seem like simple escape. The world is ugly and getting uglier, so we should like in our imaginations. But that is not how Morris saw it. He strongly objected to “escape” as a description of his writings. Instead, what he was doing was to create a vision of what the world could be like, how we could live, if we pursued beauty instead of ugliness. Morris could not convince very many people of socialism, but he got thousands of people to imagine a beautiful world, and many of these, in cumulative small ways, helped to partially reverse the slide toward ugliness. Morris stirred up a feeling of heroism in the minds of thousands; and, through his successor Tolkein, millions.

This is what I am devoting most of my time to, also. I do not spend very much time in political activism. Instead, my main activities are teaching and writing. This summer, my focus is on writing fiction. I have many novels that need to be refined and perfected, and a few that have not yet been written. Am I wasting my time on a dilettante activity while the masses of poor suffer violence and oppression? I hope not. I hope that my writings, about people real or imagined who pursue beauty and peace against massive opposition, will inspire thousands of other people, who will collectively do more to make the world better than I could ever do myself. My fiction is either historical (e.g. about the Cherokee leader Nancy Ward, or about the writer of Ecclesiastes, or about Heloïse and Abélard) or alternative-futures (What would happen if a new Confederacy arose in Oklahoma? What would happen if a man actually tried to quixotically live a life of altruism?) rather than fantasy like the writings of Morris, and I hope that my writings will have more impact than his did (most of which are forgotten today except by scholars).

William Morris failed to change the world. I expect to fail also. But he succeeded, and I hope to succeed, more by writing than would have been possible by a complete devotion to political action. Lots of people can participate in political action, but only I can write the books that are currently dormant on my computer drives. Now that I have finished this essay, that is what I am going to do right now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sexual Selection in Dixie

It is pretty much standard fare in the South to see guys driving big pickups around, very loudly, hoping that the girls will be impressed enough to have sex with them, and maybe give them a half dozen kids or so. I know this happens everywhere, but it is particularly common in the South.



I generally have great esteem for women: their capacity for empathy, and often their intelligence, far exceeds that of men. Boys aren’t born inferior, but as they grow up they learn, especially in the South, that empathy and intelligence make them look less manly and might interfere with their chances to impress and impregnate girls.

But sometimes women can make some stupid choices. When a guy drives a big pickup truck around and makes noise and releases a cloud of fumes thick enough that I could run my Prius on them (just the fumes), what does this prove? It only proves that they can push a gas pedal down. It does not prove that they are skillful drivers (I saw one of them get stuck in a ditch, having assumed that his truck was powerful enough to back out of it at a 45-degree slope), nor does it prove that they are rich (the truck might have been bought on credit). Some women actually fall for it. I mean, if it never worked, then guys might stop doing it; natural selection would certainly operate against it. But it works often enough that the dynamo of sexual selection keeps the Dixie stereotype going. The kids pop out and learn to behave like their parents.

Trucks, guns, beer, and sperm: the male characteristics produced by sexual selection in Dixie. The female characteristics? Telling the males how virile they are and having lots of kids. From this list, only the sperm and the kids make any sense from the evolutionary viewpoint. Sexual selection in Dixie certainly does not produce intelligence or skill which might bring wealth or reduce the burden of social problems. This is why Dixie will remain forever poor. In other cultures in America and in other cultures of the world, intelligence and cooperation are sexually desirable traits. The future belongs to those cultures, whether the progressive culture in America, or the prevailing cultures of Europe, China, and Japan.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Hypatia, You Are Not Forgotten


The movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the few fictional movies ever to be reviewed in Science magazine. I have now seen it three times and have come to understand it. It is one of the few essential movies that you need to see to understand the meaning of science in the human mind. You’d better see it at least once.



Hypatia of Alexandria (Egypt), in the fourth century of the Christian Era, was a philosopher and teacher. She accepted students of diverse faiths, including a Roman pagan and a Christian. She taught them that if two things are equal to a third, then all are equal, and she insisted that this applies to herself and to her students: she the (we would say today) atheist, and her pagan and Christian students, were all equal.

Hypatia’s faith was different from those of any of her students. They believed that truths were revealed by one or more gods, while she believed that the highest pursuit of the human spirit was to understand the universe itself, to decipher what it is telling us. In particular, she wanted to understand why the planets did not move in a perfect circle around the Earth. Ptolemy had said that the planets and sun traced their own little circles as they orbited the Earth, but this seemed whimsical: if the universe is perfect, why should these little epicycles be necessary? Then she found out that the philosopher Aristarchus, centuries previously, had suggested that the planets, including Earth, went around the sun. But if the universe was built on perfect circles, then the Earth must describe a perfect circle around the sun, which it does not: sometimes the sun was smaller (more distant) and dimmer than at other times. Then she figured out that the Earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. After she died, and her writings were lost, it took another 1,200 years until Johannes Kepler rediscovered this truth. To Hypatia, the universe had to have mathematical perfection, and it was our job to understand it. This remains the fundamental belief of scientists, although we now recognize that a great deal of historical contingency, what we might call messiness (for example, the Big Bang created globs of galaxies, not perfectly spaced ones) that Hypatia might have found unacceptable.



Alexandria was going through successive waves of turmoil all during this time. Unlike Hypatia and her students, the adherents of religions all hated each other. The Egyptian pagans attacked the Christians, then the Christians attacked the Egyptians and destroyed the library of Alexandria, the most famous condensation of knowledge in all of history, gleefully rejoicing in the burning of scientific books. Then the Christians turned on the Jews. The Romans couldn’t do much; they were the nominal rulers, but the Empire was in decline and the Roman soldiers couldn’t do much. Hypatia’s Roman student became the Consul of Alexandria, and he very publicly loved Hypatia. Her Christian student became a famous bishop. They tried to keep violence from getting out of hand, but the majority of Christians did not listen to the peaceful bishop; instead they followed the radicals who called upon Christians, in the name of Jesus, to stone to death everyone who did not agree with them, and this eventually included Hypatia. The charges leveled against Hypatia were that Scripture forbade a woman to teach in public. They should just stay home and, if they should happen to venture out in public, keep their damned mouths shut. Hypatia spoke in public and was a scholar. This was plenty of reason for the Christians to push her to the altar, strip her, stone her, and drag her mutilated body through the streets. A young Christian man, who had been Hypatia’s slave but whom she liberated even though he sexually assaulted her, tried to save her, but not very hard.



In this image, Hypatia tries to save scrolls from the Library of Alexandria as it is being pillaged and burnt.

All of the religions that were concentrated together in Alexandria were guilty of killing people of other religions. But in Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, it was clearly the Christians who carried out the most and the worst violence, and who eventually became the leaders of the western world. The leaders of this violence became saints, such as Saint Cyril.

Hypatia was troubled by the fact that the events on the Earth were so messy and random, while all around the Earth, the heavens were perfect, though in an elliptical rather than a circular way. The recurring imagery of the movie is the ellipse—such as the circular opening in the library vault, seen from the side—and a view of Earth from outer space, focusing down onto Alexandria, and then receding again into the indifferent stars.

Today, most of the American opponents of scientific truth are evangelical Christians, and they are closer to using violence against scientists than we usually think. American evangelical Christians do not even want to question whether the proclamations of their preachers and of Donald Trump are consistent with the Bible, much less with scientific and historical truth. At other times and in other places, there are other enemies of truth: Stalin killed geneticists, and Islamic terrorists don’t want anybody to disagree with them about anything. But for me, here in America and now, it is the evangelical Christians whom I consider the most dangerous, just as they were to Hypatia of Alexandria. The violent Christians (that is, most of them) set science back a millennium. Many of them appear to want to do so again.

Whether the tragedy of Hypatia is repeated again, or not, we should not forget her or the power of a woman’s mind.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Oklahoma, You Are Famous!


I live and work in Oklahoma. It is one of the reddest and most fundamentalist states. But we could look down our noses at California and say, at least we don’t have earthquakes.

But that has changed recently. And I don’t mean over geological time. According to an article in the March 16 (2018) issue of Science, Oklahoma has had a 900-fold increase in earthquakes just since 2009. Thea Hincke, Willy Aspinall, Roger Cooke, and Thomas Gernon begin their article (“Oklahoma’s induced seismicity strongly linked to groundwater injection depth”) begins with this sentence (in the abstract): “The sharp rise in Oklahoma seismicity since 2009 is due to wastewater injection.” They indicate that Oklahoma is “the most seismically active region in the contiguous United States.”

This process, also known as “fracking,” uses high pressure wastewater to push oil out of tiny pores in the rock. To the Oklahoma government, oil production is the one and only energy policy for the future. Alternative energy, such as solar and wind, or increased energy efficiency, were unthinkable. The only possibility was to increase oil production and to keep using oil, and only oil, as inefficiently as ever, no matter what the consequences. The oil companies could get anything they wanted from the Oklahoma government, including the lowest gross production tax in the country. Of the nine major oil-producing states, Oklahoma has the lowest tax rate for oil companies, according to this graphic from okpolicy,org:



And the government of Oklahoma will do almost anything, including destruction of the quality of education, to keep that rate low, and to discourage energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. Therefore, the Oklahoma government considered fracking to be our only hope.

Starting in 2009, Oklahoma experienced a massive increase in earthquake frequency and intensity, especially in the very locations that had the most fracking, according to this graphic published in the Science article:



For several years, the government officially denied that there was any connection between fracking and earthquakes. When the state seismologist Austin Holland said that the evidence was conclusive, the dean of University of Oklahoma’s College of Earth and Energy told him that the results were unacceptable. A vast amount of the College’s funding comes from oil companies. In 2013 Holland was summoned to a meeting with OU President David Boren and Harold Hamm, CEO of an oil company, where he was also told that he should not say anything negative about fracking, according to this article in the Norman Transcript, the newspaper of the city in which OU is located. Late last year, Holland testified that this pressure was his principal reason for leaving Oklahoma. He was assured that he had complete academic freedom, but the university also had the freedom to make him shut up or leave.

In 2016, the frequency and intensity of earthquakes became so bad that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission shut down 37 fracking sites, but only after a large earthquake caused so much damage that even the oil companies could not ignore it.

According to the Science article, the chance of an earthquake is greatly reduced if the wastewater injection is kept away from the hard, base rock layer underneath the oil-bearing layers. While placing depth limits on fracking, it may be possible to continue fracking without having as many earthquakes. But my point is that it took a catastrophe for Oklahoma to even admit that fracking ever caused any earthquakes at all.

Meanwhile, residents of central Oklahoma continue to experience earthquakes. Oklahoma residents pay all the costs for the damage, while the oil companies get all the profit from the fracked oil. Support structures are beginning to tilt, and floors to crack open, even outside of the earthquake zone. We are simply used to this in Oklahoma; we simply recognize that corporations can do almost anything they want no matter what damage it may cause to ordinary citizens.

Oklahoma is now world-famous. The authors of this study were British and Dutch. Science is read worldwide. I suspect, however, that most Oklahomans do not know or care what anyone else in the world thinks about our state.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Your Evolution Professor Telling You to Read Your Bible

Many of my students are creationists and claim to be Bible believers. But many of them have not read much of the Bible. On the first day of class I always write a passage from the sermon on the mount (“Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these”). Almost none of the students, even the ones in the Jesus T-shirts, recognize it. They go to church and listen to preachers quote select passages of scripture, usually chosen to reflect Republican agenda items. Rarely if ever do members of these fundamentalist churches check up on the preachers, or read the passages that the preachers avoid.

So here is what I did. I teach at a secular university (thank God!) so I could not tell students what to think about the Bible; or even what I think about it. But I did tell them that if they believe the Bible they should read it for themselves—all of it, not just the parts their preachers quote. And they should think for themselves about what it means, rather than the interpretation the preacher insists that they believe.

Their evolution professor, telling them to read the Bible? These students have been living off of tidbits of the Bible that their preachers give them, sort of like pre-Reformation Catholics being unable to read the Latin Bible and having to just believe whatever the priests said. Only this is worse; these students do have access, in all formats (except clay tablet), to the Bible. I have, perhaps, made the Bible fully available to them for the first time, if only by irritating them to read it.

In this way, I am like John Wycliffe or Martin Luther, Protestant reformers of the late middle ages who, along with others, made the Bible available in languages the people could read. I, like them, am encouraging people to actually read the Bible.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Psychological Differences between Liberals and Conservatives


I continue writing about the study of 1,252 people by Wilhelm Hofmann et al. (Science, 2014) that I summarized in the preceding essay. One of the purposes of the study was to compare the moral values of liberals with those of conservatives.

Liberals cared more about fairness, liberty, and honesty, while conservatives cared more about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. That is, the values to which conservatives fundamentally cling are those that make them march in lock-step with one another and believe whatever their religious and political leaders tell them. Many of us would say that the moral values of liberals—try to be fair to and honest with people, and give them the liberty to live as they please, so long as they do not harm others—are superior to the moral values of conservatives, that is, to impose their moral values on other people.

In what I write next, I am going beyond the conclusions of the paper.

It is the conservative moral values that are leading our nation and world into peril. Conservatives are loyal to the Republican party and defend the authority of Donald Trump (though this was not yet the case at the time the article was published). They believe themselves to have sanctity, that is, saintliness, and for anyone who disagrees with them to be impure. Whatever their leaders tell them, they cling to it and are ready to rise up and fight any who differ from them, under the right conditions.

The values to which we liberals cling, however, are not those that are getting the world into trouble. We want to be fair to everybody: for example, it may be fair for you to have a gun, but it is fair for us to not be shot by your gun, and life is more valuable than gun possession. We liberals want liberty for everyone, but we recognize that your gun liberty is restricting our liberty to live. And we want to be honest, which is why our statements are more moderate and cautious than the simplistic and flaming rhetoric of the conservatives, and why such a breathtakingly high number of lies have issued forth from the current Republican political leaders. Practically every Trump tweet contains an easily recognizable lie. Conservatives want to be loyal to their party and to their exalted leader, and will make stuff up to bolster that loyalty.

Of course, there are spectra of liberals and of conservatives. But the liberals are more likely to recognize this. A typical conservative cannot have a decent conversation with any liberal: loyalty, authority, and sanctity are of prime importance. But I would rather have an honest conversation with a thoughtful conservative than spend time with a ranting liberal. I doubt, however, that most conservatives would prefer talking quietly to me to listening to the rants of Rush Limbaugh.

One cannot help being attracted to a political viewpoint that matches his or her psychological inclinations; but some of those inclinations endanger the future of the world, and others do not. Your desire to shoot me, and my desire to not be shot by you, may be equally the products of our inclinations; but your desire is bad, and mine is good.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) said on a February 21, 2018 news program that most mass shooters are Democrats. I wonder if she, and others like her, are beginning to stir up the moral sentiments of conservatives to begin to take physical action against liberals.