Monday, June 17, 2019

The Allure of Science

In the eyes of most people, science has a lofty allure. Even people who do not like the conclusions and beliefs of scientists feel this way. Why is this?

The ideal scientists zealously pursue the truth about the natural world, relentlessly cutting away the prejudices that they and others have, and demanding only the best evidence. No sloppy thinking allowed, no reliance on hearsay or single observations. To be a scientist is, in some ways, like being an athlete. Scientific thinking is a discipline. It is available to anyone, but it is usually only professional scientists and science educators who take on the discipline consistently. A scientist exploring the depths of nature, and an athlete running the course, have a kind of golden shimmer quite unlike the sloppy thinker or the armchair athlete.

This is why anti-scientists want to look like scientists. There are numerous anti-scientific think tanks that announce their seriously flawed beliefs in sciencey-sounding jargon. And some religious groups have even started up their own pseudo-scientific journals. They imitate the very appearance and structure of scientific articles: an objective-sounding title; an abstract; a text that cites evidence and analyzes it with reason; a conclusion; and references to other articles previously published on the same topic. They want everyone to think that they are scientists, even as they discredit scientists.

One example is an article in “Answers Research,” the pseudo-journal started by Answers in Genesis, that purports to show that the speed of light has decreased over the last few thousand years. Therefore the red shift does not indicate the universe is billions of years old but that light used to travel a lot faster than it does now. From the link you can download the PDF. The PDF of the article looks exactly like a scientific article, down to the most minute detail of its appearance.

One hallmark of scientific papers is that they are “peer-reviewed,” which means that other competent scientists anonymously review the paper and pass judgment—sometimes fair, sometimes unfair—on whether the paper should be published. If religious pseudo-science articles have “peer review,” it only means that people who share the same delusion have read it prior to publication.

Remember that in such pseudo-journals, anyone can be a peer (in the sense of micturator).

Of course, it is not just creationists who produce fake scientific articles. There are numerous online journals that will print anything so long as it has a sciencey appearance and you pay them. There is no peer review. I discuss this in Chapter 14 of my book Scientifically Thinking. I end that chapter, “I’m thinking about starting a science journal. I only charge $10,000 per article. If you are interested in publishing there, let me know, and remember I’m a peer.”

I suppose I am flattered to be a legitimate member of the scientific community. But, with ever more fake scientific journals, I fear that the public will begin to disbelieve true scientists along with the fake ones. With this, society can no longer benefit from true scientific research.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Trust the Mother

One of the most divisive political issues is abortion rights. I am a scientist, and I can tell you that there is no single point in embryonic or fetal development in which the unborn child “becomes human.” It depends on the indicator that you use: heartbeat, brain activity, etc. all begin at different times. There are even three events that occur during “the moment of conception.” As a result, I have no scientific opinion about “when life begins.” Nor will I speculate about morality or politics. But I do have some scientific insights that you might find useful.

Love evolved. Love is, from the evolutionary point of view, the instinct for helping and protecting other animals in your species. Natural selection has favored animals that protect their offspring. In this way, they maximize their reproductive success. If you want to know more, search for information about inclusive fitness. The most famous examples are from insects such as bees, ants, and termites, and among mammals such as ourselves.

The strongest love in the natural world is the love between a mother and her offspring. It is a force of nature. If you get between a mother bear and her cubs, it might be the last thing you do. This is because the cubs are the mother bear’s entire genetic future. Human mothers are no less motivated to protect their young, including those not yet born, than any other species of mammal.

In the animal world, a mother’s love is, on the average, stronger than a father’s love. The reason for this is because the mother always knows which offspring are hers, but the father cannot be certain. Every ounce of effort that a mother puts into nurturing and defending her young is well spent, but for the father, there is the lingering subconscious question about whether the offspring are his. (“Mommy’s baby, Daddy’s maybe.”) Genetic tests, in humans and birds, show that some of the offspring in the nest or the home, which the father supposes to be his, are not. The offspring may not be the father’s entire genetic future. Most of us fathers love our children, but on the average, mothers love their children more.

And a mother loves her offspring, including those not yet born, more than politicians do.

Given that a mother’s love is the strongest love in the natural world, I believe we should trust the instincts of an individual mother. The idea that pregnant women are eager to kill their unborn children unless white men pass laws and tell them not to is ridiculous. Maybe we should trust the mother to make the right decision regarding her unborn offspring.

Friday, June 7, 2019

What Is a Forest Worth? More Requiem for Nature

Whenever I write about somebody else’s book, I fear that I might have represented it. I sent the link to the previous essay to John Terborgh, author of Requiem for Nature. He responded that my summary was essentially correct. He added, reprinted with his permission:

The world has moved on in a way that is predictable but not conducive to protecting nature. I say predictable, because the fundamental economic goal of nearly every country on the planet is to maximize economic growth. With this as the background to nearly all important policy decisions, nature doesn't have a chance. It is the empty chair at the conference table.

Perhaps the most memorable lecture I heard in college was one delivered by my Freshman biology professor in which he laid out in vivid terms the consequences of unchecked population growth. That, my friend, was in 1955. Here we are, 64 years down the road, and putting the brakes on the human population is still a topic that can't be mentioned in polite company - much less in open political debate.”

One issue in my essay remains unresolved. Terborgh said that a tropical forest is worth more dead than alive. In my book Green Planet, I said that a forest is worth more alive than dead. Which of us is correct? I realized that it depends on who is making the decision. For people collectively, as in a community or a world, a forest is worth more alive. But for individuals or corporations whose only goal is short-term profit, a forest is worth more when it is dead. Alas, evolution (biological or cultural) rewards individual, not collective, benefits. Collective benefits accrue only when they provide a direct and immediate benefit to individuals. For example, altruism within a group of animals offers immediate benefits to most, even if not all, of the individual animals in the group.

In the first photo, I am leaning against a rainforest tree (I have no idea which species, there are so many!) in 1989; in the second, I saw an area in which the rainforest had been hacked away, exposing soil to erosion.

Meanwhile, all I can do is to teach and to write. I continue to do these things even if they are likely to have little effect on the course of the future. As John added at the end of his message, “Carry on with your efforts to prod students into thinking out of the box. It's the only way we'll get out of this mess.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Requiem for Nature?

In 1999, ecologist John Terborgh, of the Duke University environmental program, published a book, Requiem for Nature, in which he convincingly made the case that few of us wanted to hear: There is no hope for the survival of wild nature or wild biodiversity. The conclusion was similar to that of Diane Ackerman, whose book I reviewed in an earlier essay, only Terborgh shows us the dark side.

In 1999, every indicator showed that the forces of destruction, especially in the tropical rainforest, were accelerating. But Terborgh presented plenty of examples from the United States, as well.

Yes, there were many tropical national parks. But many of these parks were “paper parks,” that is, they existed only as designations on maps. (You could now call them “Google parks.”) Many of them had no guards, some had just one guard. Settlers encroached on the parks. The government could take credit (and possibly receive foreign aid) for protecting nature, without spending anything on it. Many of the parks, far from being located in biodiversity hotspots, were in areas that were unsuitable for agriculture and low in biodiversity: they were the easy ones to “protect”.

Even the parks that were protected suffered from “empty forest syndrome.” The adult trees still stood, but (1) young trees did not germinate to replace them, and (2) many animals were missing, producing an eerie silence. The parks existed, they had a certain area, but they were oddly shaped. In 1989, I visited Jatun Sacha in Ecuador, and it was a skinny corridor of land. As a result, most of the forest in the preserves is very close to human-dominated landscape. The human effects therefore penetrated into the protected area, making it unnatural. The landscape was fragmented. Strange ecological imbalances happen in small parks, and on small islands (such as an explosion of leaf-cutter ant populations) that would not happen in a large protected area.

In this photo, a graduate student from Europe classifies orchids rescued from the branches of rainforest trees that had been cut down. There was no time to do anything else at Jatun Sacha except make records of what was killed.

Terborgh used examples from all over the tropical world, and the story is everywhere the same. There were a few exceptions—some nature preserves on Madagascar were respected and protected by local people—but such examples were rare. Wild nature is threatened even in countries that have “charismatic megafauna” wildlife, in Africa and in Nepal, where tourists spend a lot of money.

Many proposed solutions were not working. One idea that was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s was to support the rubber tappers, who made a sustainable living off of wild rubber trees, without killing them, and without plantations. These were the people championed by the charismatic Chico Mendes, who was assassinated in 1988 by a gunman hired by a large land-owner. But the rubber tappers remained poor, and their product could not compete in the marketplace with commercially-produced rubber. Another failure has been forest protection by edict. When the Thai government, alarmed by the loss of watershed forests, prohibited logging, the price of lumber increased, thus making illegal logging more profitable.

In some cases, land degraded by human activity can recover. The processes of ecological succession are amazing and were among the earliest things that inspired me, as a child, to be interested in nature. But it doesn’t always work. If a tropical forest is cut down, and is then invaded by alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica), a cycle of fires can then prevent the forest from ever growing back, that is, in a time frame meaningful to humans.

For many of us, the modern mantra is “sustainable development.” But sustainable development does not require biodiversity. Agroforestry and plantations can be sustainable, even when dominated by just a few species. The conclusion Terborgh reached is that the human future does not depend on biodiversity; humans, and human civilization, can survive just fine without the high levels of biodiversity found in nature. We cannot honestly use “human survival” as a justification for protecting biodiversity. There is no shortcut: we have to save it for its own sake, not ours. “Whether we like it or not, tropical forests are worth more dead than alive,” Terborgh wrote. In strict economic terms, that is—which are the only terms that matter to most governments.

Things have only gotten worse, at rates and in ways that Terborgh did not, apparently, imagine. He wrote, “I am confident that objectivity and popular opinion will eventually prevail in the United States to bring conservation and development into balance.” But even if the Obama Administration might have encouraged this, Donald Trump proclaims loudly that conservation is the enemy of prosperity. Whatever hopeful trends Terborgh saw have been deliberately smashed by people who, perversely, call themselves conservatives. Terborgh called for a redesigning of democracy. Well, we’re getting it: it is being redesigned into a system in which the president can do whatever he wants with no constitutional restraints. I don’t think that’s what Terborgh meant.

The situation can only get worse, as populations increase and conflict over resources escalates.

This does not necessarily mean that the world will go as far as it did in RenĂ© Barjavel’s novel Le Voyageur Imprudent, in which the human species 100,000 years from now evolved into males with claws, with which they had dug away all mountains and valleys and made the Earth into one vast plain, and females as large as mountains, with thousands of teats, from which the males fed. But a few generations from now, the phrase “natural world” may simply mean a municipal park. “I hope I am wrong,” Terborgh wrote, “but if I had to bet, I would wager that the last gorilla will die in a zoo.”

It is not good news, but Terborgh wanted conservationists to be honest about the problems and not pour time and other resources into lost causes.

To find good news, you can only, at best, read about individual success stories. The United States government refused to protect an endangered species of beetle in Oklahoma. So, the Cherokee tribe stepped in and did it. And, as I took a break from reading Terborgh’s bad news, I opened the May 2019 National Geographic and read about Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where nature is thriving, full of wildlife, because of the support of local people, 180 of whom it employs. Sometimes human ingenuity can surprise us (this was the same issue that had a long article about Leonardo da Vinci). An isolated example the Gorongosa may be, but what else am I supposed to think about? As a writer, I look for the individual stories. It is too depressing to do otherwise.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Family and Friends in Times of Disaster

These last couple of weeks, we have experienced natural disasters in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tornadoes have raked through parts of the city. Heavy rain has swollen the Keystone reservoir. The Arkansas River is within inches of being higher than it has ever been. Though relatively few people have actually been harmed by these disasters, all Tulsans have had to be ready to evacuate from either or both of these kinds of catastrophes. Just today, Tulsa was on the national news again, this time because the flood waters are receding as fast as they rose.

And that is where being a member of a family or a network of friends is very important. My wife and I have a sturdy home not far from the river; though not on low land, flooding is possible. My daughter and son-in-law have a flimsy apartment on high land. And I have a second home, the one where I reside when I teach at the university in Durant, 160 miles away, out of the current danger zone.

In the event of flood, we will go to my daughter’s apartment; in the event of tornado, they will come to our house; in event of both, we all go to Durant. We have a plan. Those who do not have family or friends have only one place to go: an evacuation shelter.

My family is really fortunate to have the flexibility of three residences. A network of family and friends is, and has been throughout history, the most important way that humans have survived, and recovered from, disasters.

Natural disasters will become larger and more unpredictable in the future because of global warming. This is Tulsa’s third “five-hundred-year flood” since 1984. The only way the world can survive climate change disaster will be international cooperation. Many nations are cooperating in global warming prevention and adaptation.

The United States used to be one of those nations. But, as part of his interminable anger, Donald Trump pulled us out of international agreements on global warming. And, in several other ways, he has done his best to piss off even our closest allies.

It’s not just tension with China. Trump refused to endorse the joint statement from the 2018 G7 meeting. Our allies in the G7 group of nations seem to have decided that they must cooperate among themselves, leaving America in its self-imposed tantrum. Below is a BBC news photo, available at the link above, that shows a typical moment in what is supposed to be constructive cooperation between America and its allies:

Leaders in this photo, besides Trump and Bolton, include Japan's Shinzo Abe (4), Germany's Angela Merkel (6), France's Emmanuel Macron (7), and Britain's Theresa May (8).

As a result, the United States cannot expect any international assistance in the event that we should suffer a natural disaster, or, for that matter, any other kind of disaster. Trump says that he wants a policy of America First, but what he is actually doing is creating a policy of America Only. In so doing, we are rejecting any help that anyone else might ever be willing to give us. We are like the man who tells his family and friends that under no circumstances will he take shelter in their houses if floods or tornadoes come.

As we have known since the days of Petr Kropotkin, mutual aid (cooperation), a form of evolutionary altruism, is our most important human adaptation. Trump is rejecting nature’s most important evolutionary accomplishment.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Human Age

I have been reading Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age. As usual, I read good books several years after they come out.

The point of Diane Ackerman’s book is that humans have completely transformed the Earth to such an extent that no place is truly natural—nor is there, perhaps, any place that is entirely artificial. Humans have so completely transformed so much of the Earth that even the places we seemingly have not touched are now different, for example by global warming. But at the same time, all kinds of species have “invaded” the human landscape, whether transported by humans such as many invasive species (starlings from Europe, for example) or simply by exploring their way into our cities (as with coyotes downtown in cities).

Ackerman must be the world’s best science writer (in English, anyway). Try these quotes:

About urbanization: splattered balls of mercury whose droplets have begun flowing back together, we’re finally merging into a handful of colossal, metal-clad spheres of civilization.

[The sun] reaches into the mumbling corners of our private universe, spurs growth, sheds light on all our episodes and exploits, transfigures daily life. Its edible rays feed the green plants on land and sea, which animals graze upon, and we dine upon in turn, and so it quivers through our blood. Every molecule of our being, every mote inside us, every atom and eave in the mansion of the body and the penumbra of the mind was forged in some early chaos of a sun.

And finally: Sometimes it seems as if Gaia were so pissed off she finally decided to erase her workmanship, atomizing the whole shebang and flicking our Blue Marble back into the mouth of the supernovas where our metals were first forged.

Years ago, someone who wrote a blurb for the jacket of my second book compared my writing to hers. Only now, upon reading Ackerman for the first time, do I realize what a compliment that was.

Much of Ackerman’s book is filled with small- or large-scale success stories of people who have capitalized upon the increasing desire among humans to reduce our impact on the Earth. She seems particularly impressed by natural buildings and vertical farming. All of this optimism is set against a background of terror, that humans are changing the Earth so much that we will no longer be able to fit our civilization into it, but she doesn’t talk about this very much. It is never very far, however, from the reader’s mind.

It was certainly never very far from my mind as I read the book. I was helping to supervise my ten-month-old granddaughter, who is exhaustingly cheerful. She loves exploring, or having attention paid to her, or being left alone to bang on things, and (we are lucky) she even likes most foods. She must have some incredible smile-muscles. And I kept thinking over and over about what kind of world she will encounter, a world messed up by earlier generations. It is not just my love for nature that makes me write and teach about environmental issues. I can always see her silhouette against our picture window with a view of flowers and leaves whenever I teach or write.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Each of us is Two People: Insights from Earl Nightingale

When I was in high school, I made it a point to never miss the five-minute radio program in which the deep-voiced Earl Nightingale explained surprising and uplifting things about the world. I had to miss a few, but only a few, from 1972 to 1975. Radio stations (worldwide) that carried his program offered to send free copies of his scripts in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Of course, today, the programs would all have been on a website, which Nightingale, who died in 1989, did not live to see. I sent for all of his scripts. The secretary at the radio station wrote to me, wanting to know more about this unusual, perhaps unique, little boy who listened to every show.

Nightingale talked about anything he wanted to. A common structure of his programs was, I’ve been reading a book by x entitled y. I think you would enjoy hearing about it. And he was usually right. He seemed to like Eric Hoffer and Abraham Maslow a lot. He usually talked about successful business and personal life, and how to have a healthy mind—for example, how to not be a mumpsimus. But he sometimes threw in things that were a bit puzzling, such as how there might be UFOs, about the Bermuda Triangle, or about an article called “Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband.” Not sure where that came from. But we all listened to whatever he said, and most of the time were enriched by it. One of his broadcasts was about the dangers of smoking. In the photo above, notice the absence of an ashtray—a noticeable absence in the mid-twentieth century.

Nightingale knew by experience what he was talking about. When he was twelve, in the middle of the Depression, his father abandoned the family, and he lived in a tent city with his mother outside of Los Angeles. But it was not long before he worked his way into successful military and business careers.

Nightingale’s messages were simple, often obvious—at least, obvious after someone says it. They were based upon the secrets of his vast success in business. He would give examples of how you have to treat your customers with respect, give them what they want, convince them that you care about them, and then really do it. As he was the first to admit, his ideas were not new; they sound strangely like the Golden Rule. But at the time, like today, many people in business thought that the path to success was to beat down your competitors and to get every nickel out of your customers that you can. Nightingale explained that this was a sure path to failure.

As it turns out, in the decades after Nightingale’s death, exactly the kind of oppressive corporate atmosphere that Nightingale hated, one that leaves us customers feeling like the scum of the earth, has become the dominant experience in the marketplace. He would not have liked to see what has happened to our economy in the twenty-first century. When Nightingale was recording his programs, he said that executives really deserved getting paid more than the average worker. But at the time, executives got paid only ten times more; today, it is more like two hundred times. I doubt that executives are twenty times as valuable to their companies today as they were in the 1970s. The modern American economy, dominated by TBTF corporations, would have outraged him.

Nightingale was definitely a conservative, as the concept was understood at the time. He was always defending free enterprise, and was puzzled at the counter-culture people who thought that working for monetary reward was bad. He even said that socialist countries like Sweden were an economic disaster and suffered massive crime waves. Maybe they did at the time, but socialist democracies have since that time flourished. He had the typical mid-century male view of women, they should be secretaries etc., but he was also open to them progressing to an equal status with men, someday. He championed female college education. But he never mixed religion with his conservatism, and he never said one word about the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, as I recall. He was the kind of conservative we wish we still had.

This is one of several websites with Nightingale quotes.

One of his images that stuck with me is that each of us is two people. One is the person that everyone sees, which I might call the biological person. This is the person who goes to work and fills his or her role in society. The second person is like a ghost hovering over and around the first, invisible but real. This is the potential person, what he or she could be by using all the creativity and zeal that he or she has, looking for and capitalizing upon opportunities. When I look out over a classroom of students, I sometimes I imagine seeing this second person. In many cases, the first person joyfully fills the space created by the second, but in many other cases I see students wanting to get their education over with so that they can walk unprepared into the world where they will have actual responsibilities and not be ready for them.

In some ways, Earl Nightingale was the world’s first blogger. He posted short essays on whatever topic he wanted. Anybody can do a blog now, for free, but back then, Nightingale had to convince sponsors to pay for his show. Maybe my blog posts are my way of doing what the great Earl Nightingale did.