Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Feminist Fluid Mechanics?


According to post-modernists, science is just a social construct. There is no such thing as truth, or at least truth that we have any chance of understanding. These scholars, most of whom are on the political left, keep trying to demolish all of science. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Fundamentalists can walk right in and say, See? Science has nothing to do with truth, which means that you should send lots of money to my Ministry so that I can pay for my whores.

One example is an article by Katherine Hayes about fluid mechanics. Entitled “Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows,” this Duke professor of literature seems to think that fluid mechanics is filled with sexism. I cannot find a link to this article, so I use a Nature review about it. She derived her ideas from Luce Irigaray, so it is not even original. She indicated that scientists feel that fluid flow is feminine. “Men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual fluids and vaginal fluids.” She concludes that fluid mechanics in general, and turbulent flow in particular, cannot be understood except from a feminist perspective.

Now, I can see that maybe behavioral studies of chimpanzees might be sexist, in which the actions of the animals are interpreted differently by male vs. female observers, but fluid mechanics?

Where do you start with something like this? I think it is sexist to say that, because women menstruate, they are better able to understand fluid mechanics. While I am no expert, I wrote an educational article about fluid mechanics (American Biology Teacher 66 (2004): 120-127). I do not feel that my protrusive organs impaired my ability to do so. Besides, male sexual organs are not solid; they engorge with...with...with...fluid!

Academics need to publish papers and there are journals that will publish anything. My favorite example was a fake article written by a newspaper reporter that mixed hematology and plate tectonics together and would have gotten it published had he not voluntarily revealed his fraud. This is especially true with online journals, but Hayes published her article back in 1992 when journals were all on paper.

Sorry, post-modernists. Science discovers truth. Occasionally there is bias, but the scientific method itself is an attempt to get rid of the bias. This is the subject of my upcoming book, Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate YourMind, Solve the World’s Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science).

Besides, there might be another reason that women can understand fluid mechanics better than men. My wife just told me that she spends more time than I do cleaning the bathroom (by her choice). I suppose that gives her some insights I do not have.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Science and Democracy: Confusion


I read a pre-publication copy of a book about attacks on science and on democracy, to be published soon by a company that has published two of my books. Because I do not want to give bad publicity to this publisher, I will give no further identification of the book.

The book has no overall theme, because it is a collection of essays from different authors, each one writing whatever he or she wants. The essays contradict one another. That is fine, and is part of the appeal of a multi-author edited volume. One possible theme is that both science and democracy are being attacked by the same people and for the same reason: the so-called conservatives want to control the world, and they want to brush aside or destroy any criticism they may receive from scientists. Another possible theme is that science is essential to a functional democracy: citizens without access to reliable knowledge cannot make the right decisions for running their society. Along these lines, essays range from the extremely pedantic (e.g., John Dewey would not have approved of the modern attacks on science) to leftist pot-shots, with which I agree but I would prefer to make my own rather than to read someone else’s. I may throw potshots into this blog but I try to leave them out of my books.

I see two major problems with all of the essays in this volume. First, there is the assumption that science is essential to democracy. This is true. It was certainly what the Founding Fathers envisioned, especially the very scientifically literate Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The first presidents, all Enlightenment figures, governed with the spirit of scientific reason, even though they were sometimes wrong. But, starting with Andrew Jackson, everything got messed up and has remained messed up ever since. Andrew Jackson despised scientific knowledge, or any knowledge at all. Even when he was shown that the Cherokee tribe had adopted the advancements of civilization, he continued to call them savages and insist that their land be taken by white people. He simply would not look at the facts in front of him. That is exactly what Donald Trump does today. Trump has a painting of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. To discuss the importance of science to democracy is so Enlightenment and has been an irrelevant topic in American politics for almost two hundred years.

A more important problem is that all of the warring approaches to the relationship between science and democracy, whether positivism or Popperianism or Deweyanism or post-modernism or whatever, totally ignore the evolution of the human brain. As I point out in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the human brain did not evolve to reason. It evolved to rationalize in such a way as to promote the evolutionary success of the person with that brain. The human brain creates illusions that may or may not bear any resemblance to the real scientific world. That is, without science, the human brain is open to infection by any and every kind of delusion, whether from the right or from the left. Ideas live in human brains as organisms live in habitats, and the successful ideas are not necessarily the ones that are right but the ones that, for any reason or no reason, people like.

As I plowed through all the approaches to science and democracy in this book, I wondered, which approach is right? Probably none of them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

There Is No Such Thing As a Desert


Or a forest, or a grassland, for that matter. But I think I can illustrate my point most vividly using the example of deserts.

Many different kinds of habitats get lumped together in the category we call “desert.” Unfortunately, once our human minds have created a category, we assume that everything within that category is the same.

The habitats we call “deserts” are very diverse. The most obvious way they differ is that the “deserts” of the different continents are the homes of almost entirely separate sets of species. When you see desert shrubs in California, in the Middle East, and in western Asia, they are not the same species. Leafless, succulent plants in American deserts are usually cactuses, whereas in Africa they are spurges or milkweeds. South Africa has many species of succulent, leafless plants in the Aizoaceae family, different from all the others. The animal inhabitants of the deserts on different continents are also distinct.

But even within one “desert” there is a lot of habitat diversity. Consider the southwestern deserts of North America. The areas that ecologists refer to as the Mojave Desert (e.g., southeastern California) are covered with widely-spaced shrubs. The areas that ecologists call the Sonoran Desert (e.g., in the Phoenix area) has shrubs (but not the same species) and many species of cactus. In fact, the shade cast by acacia bushes is important to the survival of young cactus seedlings. The areas that ecologists call the Chihuahuan Desert (e.g. near Big Bend) has shrubs and succulents (though usually agaves rather than cactuses), but the space between them, unlike the other deserts, is filled with grasses. This makes sense, as this kind of desert intergrades into the high plains grasslands. (No, that’s not where chihuahuas come from.)



Above: Chihuahuan desert in Big Bend National Park; below, saguaro flowers in the Sonoran desert near Tucson.

But even within one of these subtypes of desert has a lot of habitat diversity. The Chihuahuan Desert grow on the tops of hills as well as on the slopes and lowlands. At the tops of some of these mountains in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and in northern Mexico, there are some small oak forests. These forests are the remnants of oak lands that used to be widespread in the countryside back when the climate was wetter. As the climate became drier, the forests survived only as little patches on somewhat cooler and wetter hilltops. Most of these oak species are found nowhere else in the world; some of them live only in one forest. If you scan your eyes over the entire Chihuahuan Desert, you might not even notice these forests. Of course, the oak-patch animals are a lot different than those of surrounding desert land. See here for a link to a 2013 blog entry.


Maple trees in a desert? In Big Bend National Park, maple trees grow in an isolated moist spot near the base of the pinnacles.

Another example is desert arroyos. Arroyos are stream beds that are dry most of the time but which can be filled by flood waters during heavy rain. The soil under the arroyos is usually wetter than in the surrounding desert. Not surprisingly, the species of plants that live there are almost entirely different than those of the surrounding landscape. In southwestern North America, one of the shrubs that grows in arroyos, but not away from them, is the desert willow Chilopsis linearis, which is not really a willow.



An arroyo is the same as the middle eastern wadi, although the species found in wadis are almost completely different from those in arroyos.

All this does not include what scientists sometimes call “polar deserts” in which there is too little snowfall to allow soils to support plant life even during the brief summers.

I find the word “desert” to be a useful category. It is one of the entries in my Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. It refers to a place with too little water to support a thick growth of plants. But I recognize that “desert” is an artificial category that exists only as a way of us making sense of the world. As I explain in my soon-to-be-published ScientificallyThinking, humans tend to lump things into categories, which is find unless we then homogenize everything within the categories.

The human tendency to lump things into categories may seem harmless enough when we lump different habitats into the category “desert.” This makes us overlook much beautiful diversity. But when we start lumping people into racial categories, we start assuming they are all alike, characterized usually by the worst people in each race.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What to Do When the Government Does Nothing Good


What do you do when the various levels of government, which are required by law to protect the environment and its wild species, does nothing? Or, worse yet, if the government actively tries to damage the environment? The environment is what keeps us all alive, yet the federal government, and many other levels of government in America, seem dedicated to demolishing our life support system.

The EPA is the Environmental Protection Agency and one of its jobs is to protect endangered species. Its previous director, Scott Pruitt from my home state of Oklahoma, decided that the EPA had nothing whatsoever to do with environmental protection, and that its purpose was to provide him with a secret telephone and luxury travel. Now he’s back in Oklahoma trying to figure out ways to waste Oklahoma taxpayer money as badly as he wasted federal taxpayer money.

So, what do we do? Just give up? It feels like it sometimes. But, fortunately, there are some large groups of people who really do care about the future and prosperity of humans and nature. One of those is the Cherokee Nation. Just recently, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma set aside a portion of the tribe’s park on Sallisaw Creek as a mitigation and protection area for the endangered American burying beetle. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is supposed to do this but meets resistance from the Trump Administration and from Congress. Instead, all that the Southwest Regional Director of the FWS could do was to happily look on as the Cherokee tribe stepped up to fill in the gap.


"Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker reads an executive order designating a portion of the tribe’s 800-acre park on Sallisaw Creek in Sequoyah County as an American Burying Beetle Conservation and Mitigation Area for the next 10 years as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Regional Director Amy Lueders looks on."

See the article here from the Cherokee tribal website.

Friday, August 17, 2018

How One Scientist Writes Fiction


I am a scientist and I write fiction. (Time will show whether I publish any.) People assume, therefore, I must write science fiction. But this is not the case.

If I did write science fiction, I would probably write about an apocalyptic future in which humans have defiled the Earth so much that it loses its Gaia equilibrium and lurches from disaster to disaster. There is a long history of such literature, from the 1960s The End of the Dream by Philip Wylie to the more recent move Wall-E. Some writers, with scientific backgrounds, have science as part of the plot, especially the rise and rapid spread of new epidemics, such as the movie Contagion.

In these examples, science propels the plot or acts like a causative character. The human characters tend to be shallow and predictable in their responses to science-based catastrophes. The scientific concept is in charge.

But in my fiction, the characters and their struggles are foremost. I like to create characters whom the reader can really love (or sometimes hate) and who interact in complex ways. The characters advance the plot, and whatever does not advance the plot must be excised. In my case, I sometimes stick in didactive passages of science education, which I later remove. Does science play any role in my fiction?

Yes, of course it does. It is always in the background. In my fiction, the characters are (almost) always aware of the world in which they live and know how it works. In my fiction, a forest is not just a forest. The drier forests on the hillsides are different from the moist bottomland forests. My characters know the different kinds of trees. They know about germs, but also about the rich and fragrant microbial life of the soil. In my fiction, soil is not just dirt. My characters learn things from watching plants grow and finding fossils in rocks. In my fiction, nature is not a character but is a force: it is neither malevolent nor safe, but something entirely its own that we need to respect. I wish everybody knew enough science to understand how the world actually works; in my fiction, my characters generally do.

Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage. But a stage is dead. It has dead props that humans can move around wherever they want. But the world, scientifically understood, is not like this. It is a living planet to whose processes we must all fit our activities.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Consumer Cultures, Right and Left


America consists of a mixture of different cultures. More than ever before, these cultures mix but do not blend. Part of this is because many members of the dominant white culture do not want to dilute their firearm-barbecue-bacon-yellow beer-pickup truck culture. Major store chains cater to their strange and often dangerous wishes.

Much of what these “conservatives” consume is for its cultural value only. Take, for example, pickups. They like to say they use their pickups for work. But this is largely untrue. I am collecting data about pickup trucks. I have not analyzed it yet, but it appears that less than twenty percent of the trucks are used for work. Eighty percent of the pickup trucks in Oklahoma have empty truck beds and are not towing anything. They are just for show. It is an expensive practice that depletes our resources and puts lots of extra carbon in our atmosphere.



But conservatives are not the only people who have a subculture. There is also a largely white subculture of liberals who are proud to eat portabella instead of beef, who do not own guns, who drink wine and dark beer, and drive fuel efficient vehicles. There are major store chains that cater to their strange though usually harmless wishes, too.

To see this, all you have to do is to take a stroll through a Whole Foods. Being a member of the liberal subculture, I could easily spend hundreds of dollars on the things that are available there. But if you look at those things critically, you find that very little of it is actually important, and consuming those things is not necessarily making the world better. How is using Mad Hippie Facial Cream ($26 for 2.1 ounces) or Dead Sea bath salts making the world better? My wife and I buy some of their unpackaged bulk items, and a few other things, but we find most of the products at Whole Foods humorous.



One of these packages shows a homeopathic remedy that contains poison ivy extract (Rhus toxicodendron, now Toxicodendron radicans), and a “soup cleanse” book that undoubtedly contains healthy recipes but they will not “cleanse” you of “toxins” any more than any other healthy diet.

Finally, this package is just salt. But the Indian company that sells it makes it sound that salt is part of the freedom movement of Mahatma Gandhi.



One way to make the world better is to consume less, and make more efficient use of what you consume. Don’t drive big pickups around, and don’t waste your money on Mad Hippie Facial Cream. Consume less stuff, and the corporations that cater to conservatives and to liberals will not be very happy with you.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

One Drop


Throughout the ages, white racists have boasted of their racial purity. In an earlier essay I said that there is no such thing as a pure white race. But it is not only that white racists have racial pride—something that other races often have as well—but they also have fear of contamination.

The example that comes first to mind is the one-drop rule for blackness before the Civil War. From the white racist point of view, you were black if one of your parents was black; or one of your grandparents was black; even if one of your great grandparents was black. That is, even quadroons (one-quarter black) and octoroons (one-eighth black) were considered black. And if your mother was a slave, you were a slave. Sally Hemings, only one-eighth black, was Thomas Jefferson’s slave. However much he may have wanted to free her, he apparently could not afford to do so, because it was against the law to just say, “Okay, you’re free now.” Some black people in the past remarked that blackness must be very powerful, if its power cannot be attenuated even by generations of white ancestors.

This fear of black contamination continued long after the Civil War. In 1890, Louisiana law classified Homer Plessy, an octoroon, as black even though he was seven-eighths white. He was therefore required to ride in the “colored” train car. He refused and was arrested. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision (1896) that segregation was not only legal but could be based on the one-drop principle.


The famous French writer Alexandre Dumas, creator of the Three Musketeers, was part black (from Caribbean ancestors).


It was not just blacks who experienced this. My great great great grandmother Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit was one-eighth Cherokee. No photos exist of her, but she probably could have pretended to be white. But since she was registered as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she had to go on the Trail of Tears, and take her one-sixteenth Cherokee daughter Minerva (my great great grandmother) with her.

Why are white racists so afraid of the genes of darker people? Former president Barack Obama is half black, half white. White racists hate him. But black Americans were happy to accept him. I am not aware that any of them ever objected to his partial white ancestry.

You can send your DNA off to have it tested for your likely ancestry. Often, people who thought themselves pure white found out that they were partly black. I do not know if any of these white people were racists; they might have just found it interesting, and found themselves wondering about what secrets have been lost from their family history. Maybe white racists are afraid to have their DNA tested in case they find themselves to be tainted with blackness.