Sunday, February 22, 2015

Some Ways of Confronting Anti-Science Are Better Than Others

It is an annual ritual in Oklahoma. The same legislators file the same bills each year. Two of them that come up year after tiresome year are intended to guarantee the rights of religious students to not be forced to believe in evolution. Sigh. Students already have this right. As President of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences I know a lot of science teachers in Oklahoma and none of us, to my knowledge, ever requires our students to believe in evolution, just to know the scientific theory and evidence. What they do with it is their own business. A couple of years ago, the best student in my evolution class (and, incidentally, the university valedictorian) was a creationist. I certainly did not penalize her. Students do not need legislators protecting them from scary scientists.

So every year the leading science educators in Oklahoma send emails to legislators urging them to not consider these bills in their committees. I tell them, each year, that these bills are a big-government top-down solution to a non-existent problem.

There is no need to resort to abuse and ridicule of these legislators, even though it is clear that they do not know what they are talking about. (What else is new?) A simple explanation that the bill is unnecessary is sufficient. But I recently saw an article written for an Oklahoma progressive website (there are some) that mercilessly ridiculed one of these bills. Yes, the bill was ridiculous (and may not even be heard in committee) but there is no need to insult people. For obvious reasons, I will not identify the author. Here are some excerpts from “Frankensteins Return with Obsessive Legislation”:

The religious fundamentalists here who want to keep our school kids as dumb and unsuccessful as possible have introduced yet another ‘Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act’ bill in the Oklahoma Legislature.

These types of bills have been regularly defeated or vetoed in the past, but I must say the bill introduced this session, in its current form, is one of the most loony and unconstitutional measures I’ve ever read in my more than 30 years of writing about politics in the great state of Oklahoma.

This latest religious-intrusion bill is a rambling, overly qualified, disingenuous cartoon of rhetorical nonsense. It should be enshrined as one of the worst legislative bills ever written in the history of the planet. (Full apologies to the legislative staff member/attorney who had to put this slop together in some semblance of coherence.) The bill’s language should be carved out in stone and placed next to the state Capitol’s Ten Commandments monument. My fellow Okies, let us now bow our heads in prayer to Our Oklahoma God of Mediocrity and forgive those who make this state a laughingstock to the rest of the world. Amen.

Using language like this only makes religious fundamentalists stronger in their distrust of scientists and educators (I don’t know the author and I’m not sure if the author is either). To save time and to minimize the effects of cortisol on my body, I’ll just stick with the basics when I write to legislators.

For more information about the anti-science bills in Oklahoma, you may visit the website of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Starting Humanity Over

Only a few decades later than the rest of you, I finally got around to reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This is the classic novel of a bunch of young boys on a desert island in the Pacific who did not know whether they would ever be rescued. They chose a chief, who tried to get them to build a fire on the mountaintop as a signal to passing ships. However, a renegade chief influenced most of the boys to murder two of the others and to pursue the original chief in order to, it is implied, impale him on a stick. In the process of becoming murderers, the boys also burned down the forests of their island which were their only source of food.

This story directly addresses the question of whether violence is a natural part of the human mind or is something that is learned, a very hot debate at the time Golding wrote the novel and, strangely enough, still debated. Those who thought (or think) that violence is learned might have guessed that these innocent boys would have developed into a peaceful society. But the boys created a society more vicious than the war-torn world from which they had come. The clear message is that hitting the reset button, starting over, in human history, even if it were possible, would not create a utopia, and would be very likely to produce something much worse than modern civilization which at least has a few traditions that restrain savagery.

The Bible has very similar stories. Adam and Eve were in a perfect garden (in which the only thing to eat was fruit) very much like Golding’s island. Adam and Eve could not be satisfied there, however. And, as in Golding’s novel, one of the results of the rejection of paradise is hunting and meat consumption. So humankind started over, this time outside the Garden. Perhaps the most famous Bible story of all was about God pressing the reset button on humankind by destroying everyone in the world except Noah’s family, whom he considered to be perfectly righteous. But this didn’t work. Very soon after Noah’s family emerged from the Ark, Noah got drunk and his family was torn apart by intrigue (with a sexual overtone). Then God pressed the reset button again: this time, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah while rescuing Lot and his daughters. But they had hardly escaped into the mountains before they involved themselves in intrigues presumably as bad as anything they had left behind in the wicked cities. Then God pressed the reset button again, leading the Israelites out of captivity and into the wilderness to start their own new and righteous society, which failed at every step. Finally, God pressing the reset button to start Israel over again in the time of Nehemiah worked about as well as the previous attempts. These stories are some of the epic tales upon which western civilization is based.

Our evolutionary ancestry assures that every human society, large or small, isolated from or connected to others, will have conflict that results from competition and the desire for domination. Leaving a burning hulk of Earth behind and starting over on a new planet somewhere else in the galaxy would likewise fail. Evolutionary science has at least revealed to us that these destructive behaviors are not mindless evil but are the result of natural selection and are therefore understandable even if not excusable.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Functions of Governments

Happy President’s Day, everybody. It’s tax time again, the perfect time to think about the functions that governments perform.

There are many functions, of course, but one of the major functions of a government is to oppress people and keep them in a subservient position; to demean them and make them feel inferior. This is never more apparent than at tax time.

Taxes are necessary. We all know this. And I am not going to speculate about whether taxes are too high (or low) or comment on how the federal government or state governments use tax revenues. But it is the process of taxation that seems designed to frustrate and demean citizens. The federal government, and at least the state government of Oklahoma where I live, have several ways of frustrating and demeaning taxpayers that appear to be new this year and are unlikely to be the result of mere errors.

Two examples come from the IRS.

  • The PDF of the 1040 form indicates that, quote, “You can save data typed into this form.” But this appears to be impossible. When I try to save the form, only the blank form is stored on my computer. If I have to make any changes in the form, I have to completely start over.
  • Form 1040 indicates, on line 45, that we are required to submit Form 6251 (Alternative Minimum Tax). But no such form exists on the IRS website, whether you use the search box or scroll through the hundreds of forms, and whether you search for the name or the form number.

In previous years, I never encountered these problems. I always found, filled out, and submitted Form 6251, and I always saved my filled-in tax forms. These are new problems the IRS has created for this year. They have succeeded in making me hate them.

The Oklahoma Tax Commission also has PDF forms for the taxpayer to fill out online. The instructions indicate that, for married couples filing jointly, both the taxpayer and spouse receive one exemption. But the online form will not allow the spouse exemption to be entered. Try clicking on the box, or filling in the number, and nothing happens. By law, my wife and I constitute two exemptions; but the tax form only allows one, unless you fill it in by hand. The entire form is “automatic” which means that this glitch cannot be overridden. Again, this feature worked fine in previous years. The OTC has also succeeded in what appears to be their attempt to make me hate them.

Every year I find taxes frustrating, but I thought that at last I had worked out the system so that filing would be easy. This is impossible, however, since each year federal and state governments ruin something that used to work.

These new processes seem to have no function except to make people like me, who are willing to pay taxes, grovel in the dust and feel like criminals. I feel like I am breaking the law by disobeying the requirement to submit the federal form 6251. Rather than making us feel like fellow citizens who are contributing to the common good, the IRS and state tax commissions want to show us that they are the alpha gorillas and put us, psychologically, in our places. The federal government is not of, by, or for the people. If it were, I would be glad to pay my taxes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Brain Exercises

Intelligence is not something that we have simply because evolution favored excessive brain development in our evolutionary ancestors, nor is it something fixed by our circumstances in life. I think we all realize that intelligence is something that we can deliberately cultivate, and, within certain limits, it is never too late to start. There have been many studies consistent with this view, including some that show that working mental puzzles reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease even in old people who, upon post-mortem examination, turned out to have had advanced plaque in their brains.

But what kind of mental exercises? Like many other science nerds, I sort of enjoy accumulating trivia in my brain. But more recently I have started disliking trivia. What I emphasize in my own continued learning, and encourage in my students, is a creative understanding of major concepts. For example, I do in fact continue to memorize Latin names of plants, to add to the considerable list that is already stored in my cerebral interneurons, not because they are fun trivia (how could you not like a name such as Liquidambar styraciflua?) but because each species is different and plays its own unique role in the extremely important ecosystems in which we live. Quercus stellata and Quercus alba are very different trees, even though both are often called “white oaks.” This is not trivial. Perhaps my dislike of trivia is why I find the NPR program “Ask Me Another” a bit irritating.

And perhaps this is why I enjoyed encountering an article by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano (“Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind”) some time back in the October 18, 2013 issue of Science. (Not being a psychologist, I cannot claim to have read the article, much less understood it. I just enjoyed seeing it.) Not all forms of brain exercise are equally characteristic of our uniquely human type of intelligence.

One of the unique aspects of human intelligence is Theory of Mind, which I may summarize simplistically as the ability to know what other people are thinking. This is a kind of intelligence that proved extremely important in prehistoric human evolution; people with the greatest fitness were those who could best survive and reproduce in the complex social landscape of their tribes. It is a kind of intelligence that, I suspect, robots and computers will never have (though even as I write this someone may be creating an AI program that proves me wrong), and which alien life forms, should they exist, may be unlikely to have.

Kidd and Catana preconditioned volunteers by having them do one of four different kinds of activities. The controls did not do any supplemental reading, either of books or of blogs like this one which, if I may presume, encourages readers to think about complex topics in many situations. One group read nonfiction. Another group read genre fiction. A third group read literary fiction. They then tested the ability of the volunteers to figure out what other people were thinking by giving them a quantitative test in which they predicted what a character in a reading would do next. They found that only the group that read literary fiction showed a temporary enhancement in the ability to understand others.

As a writer who keeps looking for a chance to publish fiction, I was intrigued to discover that it is possible to scientifically define the difference between literary and genre fiction. While imperfect, the distinction is rather simple: in genre fiction, you always know how the characters are going to act (good people are always good, bad people are always bad, and detectives are always hard-boiled), while in literary fiction the characters mentally wrestle with their options. In literary fiction, the characters are always trying to figure the world out, while in genre fiction the characters know exactly what to do and do it. This is, of course, a continuum; some people would consider Twilight to be genre fiction, although it does have some literary elements, in which the vampires are not consistently bad. Not all science fiction is based on attacks by evil space monsters; Star Trek was famous for breaking this mold, as was the father of science fiction, Jules Verne, whose Captain Nemo was a very complex character. Or you could say that literary fiction makes you think, while genre fiction just allows you to play with your mind.

Let me imagine that, just possibly, Kidd and Catana see themselves as missionaries of mind. They work at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which also happens to be the world focus of fiction publishing. Increasingly, literary fiction is difficult to publish. I doubt that very many literary agents or publishers will hear Kidd and Catana’s gospel of the mental healthfulness of literary fiction.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Evolution of Individuality

Last fall, when the leaves were turning, the cottonwood trees were patchworks of yellow and green. Each branch seemed to be on its own schedule for leaf fall, even though all of the branches were on the same tree, had the same genes, and experienced the same environmental conditions. I am not sure why this pattern occurred. But it got me to thinking about the evolution of individuality.

One of the common themes in science fiction over the decades has been the rise of the clones. Maybe some mad scientist somewhere is creating clones of humanoids. Or hordes of machine-like, identical outer space monsters attack Earth. We fear the power of genetically-identical hordes, whether of insects or humans. When a group all looks alike to us, we assume every member of the group is identical, even when they are not. To prejudiced European eyes in the past, large populations of Mongols or Chinese or Japanese looked alike, even though this is not true. In the history of the eighteenth-century American frontier, all Cherokees looked alike to the whites, and the Cherokees could not tell the difference between Englishmen and Americans. Individualistic Americans looked with fear on the superficial sameness of communists. To human eyes, all bees look alike. We fear their uniformity, because it looks to us as if they are merely parts of a gigantic monster network, no single individual of which may be dangerous. But we fear the mindless devotion of each individual to a collective superorganism. In fact, most biologists think of swarms of bees, ants, or wasps as organisms whose components are the individuals.

But much of this fear is based on a misunderstanding of evolution. Even in conditions of near or complete genetic uniformity, social evolution favors individuality. As identical twins grow up, they usually diverge in their personalities, each wanting to carve out his or her own niche in the little world in which they spend their childhood. In evolving populations, even the slightest genetic differences can become the basis for sympatric speciation, a divergence into different species even when the organisms are located in the same place.

Robots of any given make really are all alike, all programmed to respond the same way to circumstances. This is never the case with biological organisms. But even with robots, if the robot creators should incorporate a genetic algorithm into their control systems, robots can diverge into different, as it were, personalities. Evolution, whether biological or social (or, in the case of genetic algorithms, computational), always produces diversity. Of course, stabilizing selection can then eliminate some of this diversity. But new diversity always comes along.

While I do not understand why cottonwood trees in autumn are patchworks of yellow and green, they remind me of the never-ending evolution of diversity.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Nearly Infinite Capacity for Adjustment

The human brain has a nearly infinite capacity for adjustment to circumstances, so long as these circumstances are not immediately lethal. And this is not necessarily a good thing.

People often think of the environment in which they grew up as beautiful, even if such an environment is, by any objective measure, not beautiful. I keep thinking back to the student I had who considered northwestern Kansas to be the most beautiful place on Earth. To me, it seems that most of the rest of Kansas is actually more beautiful than the flat, agricultural northwest portion of the state.

And people have the ability to adjust their thinking and attitudes even to painful circumstances. They will rationalize to think of their sufferings as blessings. Without their sufferings, they claim, they would not have had certain important spiritual insights. One quick example is a book that was published, and had a very limited circulation, in the 1970s: Thank God I Have Cancer was the title. The author said that were it not for cancer, he would never have discovered the wonders of laetrile.

This is an obvious survival mechanism. We are descendants of people who considered their circumstances good enough in which to make a successful living, or at least to not give up. Even slaves developed a culture of stories and music, not allowing themselves to be turned into mere machines.

But there is a bad side to such irrepressible optimism. It doesn’t take many generations, perhaps only one, for people to forget beauty and blessings that are lost. As a botanist and lover of forests, one example I immediately think of is that we no longer notice that our American and European forests are ghosts of what they used to be. It is true that there are forests all over the place in the eastern U.S. and in the western mountains, but most of them are second-growth forests that have recovered from logging. Gone perhaps forever are the huge old trees that once dominated these forests. The two-meter-thick tulip poplar trunks that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw on one of their horseback trips were not all that unusual. We assume that the forests of comparatively small trees that we see today are the way these forests have always been. Our minds invest them with great beauty; the grandeur of the old forests is forgotten. This bur oak tree in Oklahoma looks big, but by the standards of an earlier century would be small for an eastern deciduous forest.

Global warming is starting to kill our forests. But there will still be forests in the next century. It is nearly certain that all of the sugar maple and beech forests in America will die; these species will persist only in Canada. Maybe most of the oaks will die also. There are oaks that can persist in relatively warm and dry conditions, such as post oaks. But post oaks cannot disperse to and grow up in dead black oak or white oak forests fast enough to keep them looking like oak forests. There are, however, trees that can grow rapidly and adjust to the fluctuations of temperature and moisture that come with global climate change. Examples include introduced mulberries (such as the white mulberry) and trees of heaven. There may be hikers in the twenty-second century who will exclaim at the beauty of the forests of mulberries and trees of heaven dominating the Appalachians, not realizing that the great, diverse forests that persisted into the twenty-first century—the ones we see today—have disappeared. They will have grown up loving the beauty of the depleted, skeletal forests around them.

Our ability to love what we see as we grow up may cause us to forget the beauty that we have lost. Oppressed people may grow up loving life despite their circumstances of poverty. Prophetic voices may arise to stir them, but unless they are actually suffering pain and starvation, they may feel that their circumstances are just fine, even beautiful, and they may not rise up to demand release from their oppression. Already the new generations are accepting the fact that they cannot aspire to improvements in life that my generation took for granted. Many people simply accept that having two jobs will barely keep them alive. The stories about well-paid unionized workers may seem like fantasy to them.

Our ability to make the best of, and find beauty in, our circumstances may lead to a world in which people accept, and even enjoy, blighted ecosystems and chronic oppression.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Drama of Global Warming

Well, today I started teaching my general biology class about global warming, as I do every semester. Since I write science books (of which I have published four) and novels (thus far unpublished), I began thinking about why global warming is not a more prevalent theme in fiction. I thought about this as I walked to work. Walking is a good way to promote health but also to save energy and reduce carbon emissions. It is also a good time to think.

Global warming does figure prominently in most of the future scenarios of science fiction novels. However, the global warming that is occurring right now is largely absent from fiction. Why?

The main reason is that global warming is very real and is accelerating, but is still a largely gradual process. It is occurring over a time scale that does not lend itself to a plot line very easily. You can’t see it. You can see weather, but you can’t see climate change. You could write a novel about a big storm, but there have always been big storms; the novel would be about the storm, not about climate change. It is impossible to say that any particular storm (such as the one occurring right now in the Northeast) is or is not due to global warming. Any particular storm may or may not have occurred even without global warming. All we can say is that global warming is making storms stronger in general. How do you get a plot out of that?

There have been at least three movies or books based on global warming, and they illustrate three approaches to making fictional drama out of global warming.

First, in the 1990s, there was a TV movie called The Fire Next Time. The approach it took was to show how global warming shattered a family’s personal economy (the main character was a gulf shrimper) and how they came back together in the end. The plot was about the family, with global warming just being the background setting.

Second, a few years back, the movie Day After Tomorrow showed incredibly dramatic weather events. The movie started with a sudden fracture of an ice sheet and ended with a huge storm paralyzing New York City (even worse than the one that is descending upon them this week). This movie derived its plot line from exaggerating the trends of global warming. The ice is indeed melting (according to a study I read about today in the French media but have not seen in the American media yet), but it is usually hard to see. Antarctica still has a lot of ice.

Third, who could forget one of Michael Crichton’s last novels, State of Fear? In this novel, Crichton depicted all scientists, except a few brave outsiders, as filthy liars who have not merely invented global warming but who are actually causing the breakup of glaciers by setting off bombs! Scientists are part of a worldwide conspiracy, and they track down the true heroes (the ones who believe everything the Koch Brothers say) by following them in their evil blue Priuses. It was a poorly written novel that strained credulity so much that it was a third-rate piece of hack work. Every plot component was weak. This, from the man who wrote much better books such as Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park?

None of these works are actually about global warming. Is it possible to have a novel about global warming that is realistic yet also dramatic? Maybe one that is set in Bangladesh. Rising sea levels may inundate half of the country—including their incredibly productive agricultural land—this century. Could Bangladeshis flee over the border into India? India is already building a big fence to keep them out.

(Photo from Brisbane Times)

Maybe a young Indian man and young Bangladeshi woman could meet one another and kiss through the fence…I see plot potential here…Aside from something like this, global warming remains a major threat that is huge but slow, and which even those of us who study it have to measure its components rather than actually seeing it.