Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Psychological Differences between Religious and Non-Religious People

There appear to be psychological differences between liberals and conservatives—not in the sense of brain dysfunction, but in the sense of fundamental psychological values. That is, neither liberals nor conservatives arrive at their beliefs completely by reason. They base their morals on the way their psychological values incline them to see the world. We all knew this, but a 2014 article in Science (“Morality in Everyday Life,” by Wilhelm Hoffman, Daniel C. Wisneski, Mark J. Brandt, and Linda J. Skitka; Science 345: 1340-1343) confirm this and give us specific examples of what these values are, based on a study of 1,252 people, from whom they received 13,240 responses.

The psychological differences between liberals and conservatives was not the main purpose of the study. It was to study how the moral or immoral behavior of other people can affect your moral or immoral behavior. That is, is there a “moral contagion” in which one good deed catalyzes another? Believe it or not, you can actually study morality and immorality scientifically. Does committing moral deeds make you feel better about yourself? Does committing immoral deeds make you feel worse about yourself? And, finally, are religious people more likely than non-religious people to be moral?

Previous studies of moral values, the authors said, have been based on what they call “moral vignettes.” Subjects are interviewed by psychologists, who tell them a story with a moral dilemma and ask them what they would do. But this is highly unrealistic. What I think I might do, when I am sitting in a chair in a psychology lab, might be very different from what I would actually do. “...virtually no research has taken morality science out of these artificial settings and directly asked people about whether and how they think about morality and immorality in the course of their everyday lived experience.” That is, this study investigated the things that actually happened each day in people’s lives.

The results were unsurprising but, apparently, have not been tabulated previously. People are happier when they are the recipients of other people’s moral acts (such as care and empathy) than when they experience other people’s immoral acts; but their sense of purpose was more strongly affected by what they did rather than by what they experienced, whether positive or negative.

What about moral contagion? Yes and no. People who experienced the moral kindness of others were more likely to themselves commit a moral act of kindness. On the other hand, after people committed moral acts, they were then more likely to do something immoral, feeling that, by having done something good earlier in the day, they deserved the right to be a little immoral.

What does this have to do with evolution? Evolution has conferred upon the human brain the instincts for both good and bad behavior. Studies such as this one illustrate how both kinds of behavior are kept alive in human populations.

The other results of this study were no less interesting. Religious people were no more or less likely to commit moral acts. The only discernible difference was that religious people tended to feel more disgust at their own immoral acts (or to say that they did). The authors conclude, “religious and nonreligious people commit comparable moral and immoral deeds with comparable frequency.” So much for religion making people better.

The authors of the study concluded, “A closer, ecologically valid look at how morality unfolds in people’s natural environments may inspire new models and theories about what it means to lead the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ life.” They left it to the rest of us to apply their conclusions to the world around us.

The differences between liberals and conservatives was even more interesting. But that is the topic of the next essay.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Earth First: No Wonder Students Forget Biology

Nearly every biology textbook and course begin with molecules, then cells, and work their way up through genetics to organisms, then if there is time a brief look at ecology and evolution, followed by a big section on human anatomy and physiology. If a student wants to know the relevance and importance of something, they quickly learn by the end of the first week to shut up and memorize molecules.

There have been some exceptions. Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine wrote a Prentice-Hall biology textbook in the 1990s that began with ecology, and worked its way down to cells and molecules. There is a 2010 edition of the high school version of book still available on Amazon. The college version has, as far as I can tell, gone extinct, because college biology teachers didn’t learn biology that way and do not want to teach it that way.

I also had a textbook contract for a while, and I wrote the book (and received part of a nice advance), but the book never went into production. I used a wholly original approach. I began and ended with ecology. The first chapter (after an introduction about what science is) was about the flow of energy from the sun, through the food chains, and into outer space. The second chapter was about the cycling of nutrients through the food chains. But, you may ask, how can students learn about these things without first learning about molecules and cells? Well, you don’t have to know much about molecules and cells in order to understand food chains. Then, starting with the third chapter, I worked up from cells to organisms and then ended with communities and ecosystems. That is, I began with autecology and ended with synecology. For synecology, you do have to know a lot about organisms, but for autecology, all you have to know is that plants eat sunshine and hawks eat little animals and decomposers eat everything after it dies.

By beginning and ending with ecology, I placed humans in the context of the Earth. Earth first. There was no escaping it. Ecology could not be skipped.

I did some other original things also. The anatomy and physiology chapters were built around certain ideas, such as exchange of molecules coming in and going out of the organism; integration of processes within the body; and response to environment. Both plants and animals have to do all of these things, but in different ways. Therefore, each chapter had both plant and animal anatomy and physiology. In this way I could explain how, in many ways, an animal is an inside-out plant.

At first, the publisher signed me up and was excited about how different my approach was. Then one of the editors did a chapter-by-chapter lineup of my book with other texts and said, “Um, your chapters don’t line up with theirs.” Of course, that was kind of the point, I thought.

In general, the reviewers were positive about the book. They probably would not have been positive enough, however, to change their whole class and lab schedule to fit in with it. My book would probably have gone the way of the worthy efforts of Miller and Levine. Alas, for marketing reasons, the publisher probably made the right decision to just pay me off and not go into production.

Gordon Orians also took an original approach in his biology textbook. It had three parts: Time, energy, and information. He built the whole science of biology around these three organizing principles. He said, in a symposium I helped to organize back in 1993, that his book got no adoptions, “and I mean that literally.”

All of us maverick textbook writers, however, might be able to trace our roots back to the “BSCS Green Version” of High School Biology. (BSCS was the Biological Curriculum Study Committee.) There was also a Blue Version, which followed the “molecules to man” organization. The Green Version, however, began with placing the student out in nature and having him or her look around and think about what they saw. It began with a rabbit and a raspberry bush. Right there, you have all the ecological interactions, including the rabbit hiding from predators under the bush. Before the end of the first chapter, the student’s eyes were opened to the wonder of the world. Well, that’s the way it worked for me, when I read that chapter back in high school.

“Rabbits. They keep turning up, in nursery tales and comic strips, in candy shops and cabbage patches....and we know about raspberries...about the bushes along the roadside, which tear skirts and trousers and make a fine place for rabbits to hide.” Page one! And by page two the concepts of producers and consumers, and ecological balance, are introduced.

Modern biology textbooks are thick with condensed information. The textbook we use in general biology at my university is "short," a MERE 620 pages not counting glossary and index. But it is short because the information is crammed in, not because it is readable. My students don’t read them. I don’t read them. We use an occasional diagram, such as the genetic code. The only thing we use is the online, computer-graded assignments. If I had begun science with one of those books, instead of a rabbit and a raspberry bush, I might not have become a scientist at all.

This is Stan Rice, reporting to you from the graveyard where I sit with Miller, Levine, Orians, and BSCS.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Welcome Back to the Cold War

Today, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has the capability to destroy the United States, not just because of its nuclear weapons but because of enhanced delivery systems. The Cold War has returned. Those of you who were born after about 1990 have grown up in a world in which mutual assured destruction has always been a possibility but nobody ever thought about it much. The reason for this was because the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia focused more on its own economic development than on wanting to destroy America. Also, at that time, we had a president who was a moderate and thoughtful Republican (George H. W. Bush). But now, narcissistic egomaniacs are in control of both America (Donald Trump) and Russia (Vlad).

I grew up with the threat of nuclear destruction of the world. It didn’t happen. While it is unlikely to happen now or ever, the imminent possibility has returned. All that either Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin have to do is have a conniption fit and press the button.

Actually, it is not quite that simple. Only the president can authorize a nuclear strike. He broadcasts an encoded message to missile crews (the message, conveniently enough, is about as long as a tweet, Trump’s beloved form of communication). After that point, there is probably no chance to stop total nuclear annihilation. The five missile crews open safes to verify that the launch code sent by the president matches the one in the safe, to make sure that the order is not from a hacker. According to this report the five crews have to turn their keys at the same time. Then the report says, “There are five different keys, but only two need to be turned to launch the missiles.” Therefore, the president cannot launch a nuclear strike if everyone thinks he is crazy. But Trump has enough people who believe everything he says that it is not at all unthinkable for two keys to be turned to release The End of the World. And the Russian chain of command is even more mindlessly worshipful of Vlad than the American chain of command is of The Donald.

Evolution has given us brains that respond to imminent threat with quick and thoughtless attack. Not until the 1950s was it possible for such instinctual reactions to endanger the entire planet. For a few brief years, from 1990 until March 1, 2018, it remained possible but very unlikely. Now we are back to the panic mode. Living in a constant panic mode can erode your health. But in the evolutionary past, nobody lived long enough for this to be a problem.

We owe a big thanks to Trump and Putin for bringing the world back to the point in which the end of the world could begin at any moment.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Racism: Beyond Anything We Could Have Imagined

It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.

In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.

But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.

The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.

Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.

Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.

That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Would We Rather Go to War than to Recycle?

We need aluminum (for those of you in the UK, it’s aluminium). Lots of it. It is a light and strong metal. To make new aluminum, you begin with bauxite ore, and use a lot of electricity. But to recycle aluminum, you start with aluminum, and use ten times less electricity than it takes to make it from bauxite.

In addition to the energy used to refine bauxite into aluminum, there is also the fact that the largest bauxite reserves are in countries that often have low industrial capacity and do not use very much aluminum. They are small countries that would not be able to put up much resistance if a country like the USA told them we wanted their bauxite. The largest reserves (7.4 billion metric tons) are in Guinea, a small poor African nation. Brazil has 3.6, Vietnam 2.1, and Jamaica 2.0 billion metric tons. The only significant industrial power with large bauxite deposits is Brazil, with 3.6 billion metric tons. Industrial countries have far less: China has 0.8, Russia has 0.2, and the USA has only 0.04 billion metric tons of bauxite reserves.

Our extravagant use of raw aluminum, while throwing used aluminum into landfills, makes economic sense only because we can get new aluminum from smaller countries. What if these countries decided to charge more money for it, or preferred to sell the bauxite to one of our competitors, such as China? Would we go to war for bauxite rather than to recycle what we already have? I wonder how many Americans are lazy and selfish enough that they would prefer to see an aluminum war rather than to take a few extra moments and a few extra steps to recycle aluminum cans? Half of our federal budget is for the military. How many Americans consider half of our tax money (and the money we borrow from other places), and the lives of our fellow Americans in the military, to be expendable so that we can throw whatever we like in the garbage? Go ahead. Next time you see a soldier, tell her or him that you would rather see them engaged in open conflict than for you to recycle, then tell yourself what a patriot you are.

There are a lot of rare and expensive metals in cell phones. One example is gold. At present, it is cheaper to mine gold from ore than it is to recycle it from electronic equipment. But that is only because, first, we ignore the environmental costs of gold mining, such as at the big mine in Australia shown in the figure, and second, we assume that we will never run out of ore. It is easy (in most places) to recycle old cell phones; electronics stores have receptacles for them, and some will even pay you for them. But Americans prefer to throw them away: ninety percent of them. Would we, perhaps, be willing to go to war for gold rather than to recycle it?

Some of those elements you heard about in high school chemistry actually have some very important uses. Praseodymium, for example, is a component of metal used in aircraft engines. Cerium is used as a catalyst to refine petroleum. Lanthanum is used in carbon arc lights such as those used in projectors. Neodymium is used in welders’ goggles. Samarium is part of the crystals used in optical lasers, and absorbs neutrons in nuclear reactors. Gadolinium is used in color picture tubes and magnetic resonance imaging. These are highly specialized but very important uses.

The reason I chose these particular metals is that Afghanistan has raw ores for these metals—a trillion dollars’ worth.

Though not a chemist, I can imagine that recycling these metals must be difficult, much more so than recycling aluminum. Imagine getting neodymium out of old welder’s goggles. At what point does it become cost-effective to recycle rare metals? The answer depends, of course, on the availability of raw ores for these metals. If Afghanistan will allow American corporations to mine their ores, and let us do so for cheap, then our industrial and political leaders will probably choose to use new, rather than recycled, rare metals.

But Afghanistan seems to be continually at war; America has had a very active and expensive military presence since 2002. When industrial leaders make their calculations for investing in rare metal mining in Afghanistan, they assume that American military presence will be available to protect them for free, that is, at taxpayer expense.

And, of course, our economic competitors such as China want these metals too.

This brings up the uncomfortable possibility that America might be willing to go to war for raw ores of these important rare metals rather than recycling them. We may choose to go ahead and throw away all those metals and, if we start to run out of them, just go to war and take what we need. As any black or Native American can tell you, American history consists largely of the white American government and economic leaders benefiting from the forced labor of, or taking land and all its resources away from, people of color. I am not suggesting that our current Afghan war is motivated by the desire for these metals at this time. One the other hand, maybe it is, or will soon be.

A war for raw mineral ores can be avoided by recycling, which is very easy to do for aluminum, very difficult to do for neodymium, but always possible.

Recycling is the right thing to do for world peace.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mining the Middens

Wouldn’t you just love to take one of my classes? Oh, the field trips I have taken students on! Not so much anymore, because of liability and financial issues, but in the past. I have taken students to such wonderful places as sewage plants and landfills.

I took an environmental science class from Wheaton College Science Station (almost 13 years ago) to the Rapid City dump. We got to experience it with all our senses. The landfill director told us that there was probably a million dollars’ worth of aluminum in the landfill. Two of my entrepreneurial students instantly began discussing plans to recover it. Of course, they didn’t follow through once they realized what the cost of recovery would be. If you want to get that million dollars, you need to get it before it enters the landfill.

The archaeology books all tell us that some of the richest sources of information about ancient and prehistoric human life is garbage heaps, tastefully called kitchen middens. While the great monuments and cave paintings proclaim what people of those times wanted others, including us perhaps, to think about them. Trash heaps tell it like it is. Archaeologist Bill Rathje is already using our landfills to study our recent history. You want to know what people ate? Look for bones and seeds in their trash piles. You want to know what they consider valuable? Look for what they did not throw out. What do you find when you look at our trash piles? You see that we are throwing away the future.

First, even where it is illegal, people still throw thousands of tons of toxic waste into the garbage and then it goes to the landfill. Some of the toxins, such as heavy metals, never decompose. We do not care if seepage contaminates the water sources of other people besides ourselves today, much less people of the future.

Second, we throw away so many things that have value. Recycling is often a more economical source of materials than manufacture from raw materials. The only reason that, in many cases, recycled paper is more expensive than paper from freshly-killed trees is that the trees are either raised in plantations using sometimes ecologically unsound techniques or the National Forest Service is willing to sell them to timber companies dirt cheap. (Actually, soil is valuable. Try replacing it once it has eroded away.) The only reason that rare metals such as germanium may be cheaper to mine and refine than to recycle is that the taxpayers are paying for military operations in Afghanistan, which has immense deposits of rare metals, and one result of this is that we can have access to those metal ores (more on this in the next essay).

So if someone says that recycling isn’t cost effective, ask some questions, such as:

  • How did you calculate the cost effectiveness of recycling vs. use of raw materials?
  • How did you calculate the cost of depleting supplies and dumping poisons on future generations—or did you do any such calculations?

What will future archaeologists (if any; humans may survive but civilization may not) think when they dig up our trash heaps? Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Machine Age, Electronic Age, Garb-Age. They will marvel out how little value we placed upon our planet, upon our fellow humans, and upon or descendants.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Some Thoughts on Evolution from My Students

I gave my students extra credit on the final exam for my Evolution course in Fall 2017 if they shared their thoughts about evolution and religion. I wanted to pass a few of them on to you. I did not require them to agree with me; they could write anything they wanted and get credit, so long as they gave reasons for their beliefs. Remember, my university is in rural Oklahoma. Very few of the students actually had to take the course; it was a self-selected sample of students taking an elective. There were actually more anti-religious than religious students. The samples below are from the more thoughtful answers, often some combination of creation and evolution.

“I believe the theories and approaches of evolution are scientific fact, proven to be right, therefore, un-arguable. Evolution has shown prediction of how life flourishes and expands. Personally, I still believe there is a greater “force” that drives life and consciousness, and our intelligence is trying to hint to us there is something more, even if it’s not a white man with a beard.”

“Jesus—Done…I’m kidding. I am a Christian, so I do believe that God created existence. I think that God answers the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Why was there a big bang? Why was there a first cell? Why was there anything? Science can explain how, but not why. That is why I believe in creationism. With that said though, I also know evolution occurs. I mean come on, the evidence is strong for it. I do think that some of the Bible is metaphorical and poetic…”

“I am a Christian…However, I believe that evolution occurred and is still occurring today…We have billions of years of evidence suggesting its validity, so who am I to say it’s wrong. I’ve seen a catfish walk from one pond to another, this makes me believe that they could have stayed on land like Tiktaalik.”

“…if I was to create something then why not create a natural law to creation so you don’t have to keep changing things…Either way I shall always have an open mind and learn.”

“I am a Christian but my belief system isn’t anchored to the infallible bible. I…see the Bible as a book of wisdom…That being said, I believe that God created all that is and allowed the laws of nature to form life as we know it…There is no need to attack timelines because what God gave us was love for one another and never intended on us fighting over when things happened.”

“I have yet to understand why our origin story wants to be dictated by so many institutions. Rather I wish we could look back and appreciate just how amazing the story of our earth and species is. Instead of argue about it, why don’t we try and figure out more about it.”

“I was raised Southern Baptist and thought about salvation…the divine, etc. I had an early traumatic event when I was left alone in my house when 3-4 years old—I, literally, thought I slept through the rapture and was left behind, I went wandering outside crying and could not find anyone…I continued going to church, but things kept happening that made me question everything I’d been told…While I respect the beliefs of individuals I’ve found it increasingly hard because I do not understand how a person can be content…not questioning something that makes up such a large part of our identity…”

“I don’t believe evolution…Science does not care about opinions, it only is concerned with fact. The fact is that evolution has occurred…The idea of a god creating all life that we know is truly insulting to the billions of years of history of life fighting to survive.”

“I don’t know.”