Saturday, June 24, 2017

Not a Scientist

According to Dave Levitan, author of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, it was Ronald Reagan who first used the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but...” and then proceed to make outrageously false statements that were easily disproved by scientific evidence. The plague of false statements has proliferated until now politicians, almost all of them Republicans, seem to feel obligated to tell lies and pretend that they are being scientific in doing so.

Politicians, like most other people, can be forgiven for not understanding science. It can sometimes be very complex. But what any reasonable non-scientist would do is to trust scientists to understand science. It is reasonable for politicians and others to demand to see some evidence, and I think scientists are obligated to provide evidence. I present evidence to my students and readers all the time. But once this is done, the non-scientists should at least acknowledge that the evidence has been presented. It would really, really, really bother me if I made a statement outside my field of expertise, only to discover that 99.9 percent of the experts disagreed with it. But this never seems to bother Republicans.

Levitan goes through lots of examples of Republican politicians lying and trying to cover it up with the appearance of scientific fact. He classifies the examples into a small set of patterns. I mention just six of them.

One of these patterns is cherry-picking. In global warming, a Republican can pick the warmest year in the 1980s and the coldest year in the 2000s and point out that the temperatures are not very different—deliberately ignoring the fact that all the other 1980s temperatures were cooler and all the other 2000s temperatures were warmer. It’s like finding a seven-foot-tall giantess and a four-foot tall male dwarf and saying that women are three feet taller than men.

Another pattern is to ignore the follow-up. For a while, the so-called Climategate scandal circulated around the conservative pseudo-media. When the news first came out, there was the possibility it might have been true. Subsequent investigations have shown, however, that there was no scandal at all. But Republicans still talk about it as if it is true.

Yet another pattern is to praise scientists and then, behind their backs, undermine them. Many Republican representatives have praised NASA then said that NASA’s climate data are false.

Yet another pattern is for the politicians to claim that if we do not know everything about a subject, then we know nothing about it. Republicans demand absolute certainty about every aspect of climate science—every ocean current, every glacier, every local slight variation of temperature—or else we can say nothing at all about climate science. This is, of course, hypocritical, because these same Republicans make statements about things regarding which uncertainty remains, in fact, they make stuff up without any evidence at all.

Yet another pattern is for Republicans to make fun of anything they do not understand. Following the lead of Sarah Palin, they love to make fun of biologists who study fruit flies. What Republicans deliberately ignore is that fruit flies have many of the same genes, and mutations in those genes, that we do. Biologists can study the effects of those mutations in fruit flies, which have two-week life cycles and regarding which there are no ethical concerns. There is an autism-related mutation in fruit flies. Fruit flies don’t get autism, but we can experimentally study the gene in them, which we could not do in humans.

The last category that Levitan considers is the straight falsehood, in which a politician just makes something up. His first example is Todd Akin saying that a woman’s body can spontaneously abort a fetus that resulted from rape, and that therefore abortion laws should not contain any exceptions for rape—since rape pregnancies simply do not occur. But I think Levitan missed something here. Todd Akin must have heard, somewhere in a biology class in which he was half asleep, about what biologists call the Bruce Effect. Some mammals, such as mice and monkeys, are, in fact, able to abort unwanted fetuses. In geladas, for example, when a female is taken over by a new dominant male, her body aborts fetuses that were fathered by a previous dominant male. This must have been what Akin was thinking about, only it does not happen in humans.

Of course, there are examples of Republicans just making stuff up. Mike Huckabee (who fancies himself a highly ethical Preacher of the Gospel) said that a single volcano can produce as much carbon dioxide as a hundred years of human activity. In actuality, the biggest recent volcano, Pinatubo, released 0.05 gigatons of carbon; but human activity releases 10 gigatons per year, that is, 1000 in a century. Huckabee’s numbers were off by a factor of twenty thousand. But, if you are a preacher, who’s counting?

Understandably, in the infinitely tortured world of Republican political thought, there are examples that may not fit into any of Levitan’s categories. One example that he did not (as I recall) mention comes from Michele Bachman (whom he did mention in a different connection.) She said, in 2006, that we should not worry about global warming, or any other environmental issue, because Jesus has already saved the world. You will notice that Bachman did not say, “Don’t worry about terrorism; Jesus already saved the world,” or, “Don’t worry about the economy, Jesus already saved the world.” She used—deliberately—a line of reasoning that she would not use in other contexts.

The only problem I have with Levitan’s book is that it is too timid. The Republican politicians he cites are not merely making mistakes, or bending the truth, or even merely lying. You can pretty much summarize the entire Republican position as, “I’m not a scientist, but I don’t need to be, because God has made my brain infallible and utterly incapable of error, so I can just make stuff up and God is obligated to make it true.” Republican politicians do not merely mangle science. They are blasphemers who consider the possibility that they may be wrong to be as unthinkable as God Himself being wrong. Of course, if Levitan had said this, the publisher would have rejected it. (Maybe Levitan tried and had to back down.)


Republicans have guns and consider themselves to be incapable of error even after thinking about something for only a few seconds. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why I Will Not Talk with a Climate Change Denialist

That is, if I can reasonably avoid it.

I live and work in Oklahoma, the hotbed of creationism and climate change denialism. I feel like I am a missionary in a hostile tribe just because I accept scientific evidence. I am, for the most part, personally reclusive about my knowledge of evolution and climate change. I, of course, am quite clear about them when I teach and write, but I seldom engage in discussion about them with people who disagree. The only neighbors who know my views are those who have first declared their similar views to me.

I tell everybody I can about botany, the science of plants. But the reason I seldom speak in person about the sciences of evolution and global warming is that I will almost certainly experience personal attack if I do. Today, I joined in with other activists at an information table outside a farmer’s market to tell people about global warming. This is something I have not done before and probably will not do again. Most of the people who went by were supportive, to varying degrees. This is something you might expect from the visitors to a farmer’s market. But there was one climate change denialist who decided to subject me to a barrage of lies and tried to make me feel like I was a force of darkness and repression.

Okay, I started it. A man and his wife and baby were leaving the farmer’s market. Our information table was not within the market itself, but in the lawn of a nearby church that had specifically invited us to be there. I spoke first. I said, “Thank you for coming to the Farmer’s Market. By doing so, you have helped to reduce your carbon emissions, because you have bought local produce that has not been trucked across the country for thousands of miles.” I thought this was a positive thing to say.

But this was when the man decided to launch his attack. He said that there has been no global warming for the last ten years. I told him that my own research has clearly demonstrated global warming over the last twelve years. (I will present some of my data in another essay.) He simply said that I was lying and had made all of my data up.

But he did not stop there. He said that the government must have paid me thousands of dollars to do my research, and that I was being paid to say that global warming was occurring. I told him that I had done my research entirely for free. I would have told him that I gathered my data about budburst dates in deciduous trees by simply writing them down almost every day for two months each of twelve years, something that required no money. But I didn’t have a chance to do this. He just called me a liar again.

Next he said that Barack Obama was an evil man, a liar, and a hypocrite because of all the fuel that he burned in Air Force One to go to Paris to sign the climate agreement. Of course, when Trump uses a lot of jet fuel to fly to his personal vacation resorts at taxpayer expense, it is just fine. According to an AP report by Chad Day, published last month, “Flying Trump to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One twice cost at least $1.2 million.” The report continues, “...documents made public Thursday by Judicial Watch are some of the first to put even part of a price tag on Trump’s frequent visits to his Palm Beach, Florida, club. The numbers reflect only the costs associated with the president’s plane, Air Force One. Not included are expenses for Secret Service protection or support vehicles provided by the Department of Defense, which must be airlifted into place.” This is just fine, according to Oklahoma Republicans, but Obama flying to Paris to sign the climate agreement was evil.

Why did the man criticize Obama flying in Air Force one? The key was that the man called Obama a hypocrite. You see, the reasoning seems to go like this. Democrats say that burning unnecessary jet fuel is bad for the climate. Republicans, however, say that they can burn all the jet fuel they want for any reason whatsoever. Therefore, if a Democrat ever burns any jet fuel at all, it is hypocrisy. For Republicans, however, it is not, since they say it is not a problem. This is like a thief saying that it is okay for him to steal money, but not okay for a person who disapproves of theft to do so.

So the only time a denialist will so much as listen to someone who disagrees with him or her is if that person lives in a hovel and is not responsible for any carbon emissions. Well, I don’t quite live in a hovel, but I am very frugal in my energy use. I didn’t get a chance to tell him this, but if I had, I imagine he would have called me a liar, just as he did regarding my research.

The man also claimed that, unless every other country in the world becomes perfect, the United States should not try to do anything at all. We will be, if he and Trump have their way, be the very last country in the world to reduce our carbon emissions. So much for America being a leader.

The man’s final attack was to say that environmentalists wanted to keep Africans poor and diseased and miserable because we want them to not have any electricity, any at all. This is, of course, not true, but I didn’t have a chance to say this. Another person who was with me started to say it, but the man refused to listen to it. We tried to tell him that locally-generated solar and wind energy makes electricity more accessible to rural African villages than would building billion-dollar power-plants, precisely because it would save the expense of thousands of miles of transmission lines from point of production to point of use.

I did get a last few words in to the wife with the kid. She told me she came to the market for safe food. I said that, even though we disagree, she was part of the solution to the climate problem. What she was doing was good for more reasons than she had known. I think she might have been inclined to agree with me on that one point—I sensed a distinct lessening of tension—but I think she did not want her husband to see her agreeing with me about anything.

There are some evolution and climate change denialists who are reasonable people, not necessarily in their approach to the information but at least in their approach to me. There are denialists who will not call me an evil liar. But they are rare enough that I think I will just stay away from any personal discussions on these subjects.


I think it is about time for this old missionary to retire. At some point, it is time to move to some place in which one is not constantly in fear of personal attack. France looks like a pretty good place, especially since the new prime minister has specifically invited climate scientists such as myself to move there. As explained above, if you accept science in Oklahoma you are subjected to the same kind of verbal attacks as black people were throughout the South in the pre-civil-rights era. If I had been black in the 1950’s and France had invited me to come, I would have taken the invitation very seriously.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Did Lucretius Foresee Natural Selection?

Historians of science often point out bits and pieces of philosophy from the ancient world that were possibly ancestral to modern science. It is not hard to find ancient philosophers who believed in an ancient world that has changed over time, which is a rudimentary form of evolution. But perhaps Darwin’s main contribution to science, and one that took a lot of his fellow scholars by surprise, was natural selection. As Daniel Dennett has pointed out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, natural selection brings the world of chance and the world of order together into perhaps the most powerful idea that has emerged in the history of human thought. For those of you who do not know what natural selection is, it occurs when replicators (such as organisms or ideas) have heritable diversity, and then some of them replicate more than others.

I ran across one possible precursor of the idea of natural selection in De Rerum Natura by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. His view of the universe most closely resembled that of the atomists, although he did not use this term. He believed that these atoms, or elements, or particles came together to form everything that we see in the world. But there was no divine hand assembling them together into the right or the best forms. Instead, they came together at random. Some of these random assemblages worked better than others. This would, in fact, be an ancient statement of natural selection. Lucretius did not say it quite this clearly, but…see what you think. Lines 1025-1031 of Book One of De Rerum Natura reads, referring to atoms, “…but in numbers vast, shifting now here, now there, throughout the whole, harried by blows relentless down the course of endless time, trying now this now that of motion and of union, they at last come into patterns such as those whereby this world of ours is built…” In Book Two, Lucretius says that because atoms came together to form great things in our world, they might also have done so in other worlds, and done so differently. Whether this is just a Star Trek view or a multiverse view, I cannot say, but it is an example of a rudimentary form of this idea almost two thousand years before Darwin made it explicit.


I am nearly certain that Lucretius’ ideas had little influence on the development of science. His manuscript was almost literally an example of the cliché of the last copy being saved from the kindling pile. But the strength of the idea may be illustrated by the fact that it occurred independently in more than one great mind.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Alas, Hugh Macmillan

When I took up my first, temporary, full-time faculty position (at The King’s College in 1987), I discovered some fascinating books in the library. They were exactly what I wanted to read at the time. I was (and am) a botanist, and I was also an enthusiastic evangelical Christian. (My religious views are now less specific.) They were the writings of a Scottish minister of the Free Kirk (Presbyterian) of Scotland, who was also trained as a botanist. Hugh Macmillan (1833-1903; he lived the perfect Biblical lifespan of three-score and ten)  wrote numerous books in which he saw the signature of the Creator in every aspect of the cosmos, especially in the botanical world. To him, a forest was not just a forest but a cathedral of God, and an alpine meadow (the subject of his first book, First Forms of Vegetation (first edition 1861)) was not just little plants but living creatures who defied the harshness of their environment to create green beauty. It was not just his love of God and of plants that attracted me to read book after book of his, but his passion for seeing blessings arise out of adversity, a subject on which I wrote two articles for the American Scientific Affiliation (1987 and 1989. I have seldom read books with such pleasure as I experienced from reading Hugh Macmillan. I wanted to write a biography of him, something that has apparently still not been done; I even got a grant from The King’s College Alumni Association to partially cover the costs of travel to Edinburgh to look for his biographical information (a grant that I ended up not using).



His books, which were widely published and translated into several languages, included:

  • The Ministry of Nature
  • The True Vine, or, The Analogies of Our Lord’s Allegory
  • Sabbath of the Fields
  • Two Worlds are Ours
  • The Clock of Nature
  • The Spring of the Day
  • Gleanings in Holy Fields
  • The Poetry of Plants


There is much to like in Macmillan’s approach to the natural world. He wrote a whole book about The Sabbath of the Fields, which is an ecological commandment in Exodus, inseparable from the much-vaunted Ten Commandments, to let agricultural fields rest and recover their fertility every seven years; a commandment totally ignored by today’s Bible-waving fundamentalists. Two Worlds are Ours referred to the Bible and to Nature, from both of which humans can gain inspiration. In The Clock of Nature, Macmillan noticed the seasonal patterns of organisms, a science now called phenology, which is one of my areas of expertise; and of which Rev. Gilbert White had written in the late eighteenth century in The Natural History of Selbourne, which was one of Darwin’s favorite books. Perhaps most importantly, Macmillan for the most part steered clear of the evolution controversies that attended the publication of Darwin’s works. He was also so observant and thoughtful, very much like Darwin, and very different from the broad sweeping generalizations of Herbert Spencer. Of course, Macmillan fell into a few traps, which is nearly inevitable since scientists must use the best information available, even if this information turns out to be false. Macmillan quoted Job 38:31 in the Bible, in which God challenged Job, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?” To Macmillan, this meant that the Pleiades were the center of the universe which, he pointed out, astronomical observations had confirmed. Oops.

But the major flaw in Macmillan’s approach was that he forced Christian beliefs upon the natural world. Unlike the prevarications of modern creationists, Macmillan’s statements were not demonstrably false, except the Pleiades statement and maybe a few others. But he imposed all of them, rather than letting the natural world inform him. I was doing the same thing at the time I read his books, of course. Macmillan was happy, and so was I, in our shared and (unlike those of modern fundamentalists) harmless delusions. It is therefore with sadness that I must say that the entire opus of Macmillan’s natural history writings was wrong. Gloriously, beautifully wrong.


But that does not mean his life was wasted. As a leader in the Free Kirk, he did a lot of good things and spiritually nourished a lot of people. Though diluted by the passing of over a century since his death in 1903, Macmillan’s influence might yet be felt in people whose lives he made better.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Introducing a New Philosophy: Real Ecology

As of this week, it is official. Trump has declared that we will part ways with the rest of the world and produce as much carbon dioxide as we possibly can. Far from just permitting coal and oil, he is encouraging it, even demanding it. The United States is going to pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as possible and happily watch the environmental consequences wreak havoc on the Earth. Trump is delusional and sees Himself as the Great Messiah presiding over the End Times, which he is trying to create as rapidly as possible, in this way as in many others. I think He will enjoy watching the rest of the world, as well as many Americans, suffer.

This seems to be the appropriate time to announce a new philosophy. In 1972, Arne Naess started the Deep Ecology movement, which said that humans had no more rights than other species. He and others who followed him were careful to not seem anti-human. It is now clear that this movement did not go far enough.

Here follows the first draft of the Real Ecology view of the future.

I.                The human species

A.    Good and evil. Evolution produced a human species with amazing intellect but with a nature that consists of both love and hate, both altruism and a desire to massacre fellow humans, especially those of a different ethnicity. Human history has always consisted of both and always will. However, the hate and massacre component has always been predominant. In the past, notably evil people could cause only local destruction. Ivan the Terrible massacred an entire city (Novgorod) but was unable to massacre an entire people. Hitler massacred millions but only in Europe. Now evil people have the ability to cause worldwide destruction, because of our technology. They will, and the good people will be unable to stop them. There is utterly no hope for a peaceful human future.
B.    Environmental destruction. Humans, all over the world and throughout time, have caused environmental destruction, and always will. This destruction will continue until the ecosystems of the Earth become unsustainable, which will be followed by the collapse of civilization except in isolated places. Environmental destruction has almost always occurred as fast as it possibly could. In a few instances, as with the life of Wangari Maathai in Kenya, individual heroes and heroines have inspired widespread progress, but these examples are far too few to make any difference in the overall trend. The only thing that has slowed environmental destruction has been economic collapse. Humans have destroyed as much of the Earth as they could economically afford to.
C.    Religion. Humans are unique in having religion. The main process of religion is that leaders claim that God has given them permission, even commandments, to oppress and destroy all people whom they consider heretics, and to destroy as much of what they consider to be the Creation as they possibly can. The good side of human nature makes it difficult to actually kill a person; but because of religion, it is easy to kill a heretic. In fact, religion is the most potent force that creates a widespread sense of glee at inflicting suffering on entire heretic populations. The number of religious people who revere God’s creation and, out of respect for God, and for the good of other people, wish to maintain the ecosystems of the Earth will not only be outnumbered but wiped out by the dominant religious oppressors. Though not the only such religion, Christianity has been the most destructive religion in human history on a global scale. Religious leaders decide what they want to do, then claim that God wants them to do it; in effect, they are blasphemously using God, should one exist, as their tool. Nothing short of the extinction of this form of religion can change the inevitable outcome of misery and destruction.
D.    Science. Humans are unique in having science, but it has always been and will remain an insignificant component of human thought and action, except insofar as it contributes to the technology by which humans oppress and destroy one another and the Earth. Science has revealed the genetic unity of the human species; but, particularly when inspired by religion, humans have created as many barriers as possible, whereby they justify the destruction of other humans and the habitats on which they depend.

II.              The United States

A.    The United States is the most powerful country that has ever existed. Acts of good or evil committed by the United States have determined the course of world history starting in the second half of the twentieth century, and will continue to do so. The United States has the ability to destroy the human and natural world.
B.    The leaders of the United States, with the support of approximately half of its people, have made the decision to impose their will on the world, even if it means the destruction of that world. These leaders, particularly those who have sworn loyalty to Donald Trump, believe that they will remain safe and prosperous even in a world that they have shattered. There are a few Republican environmentalists, but they are irrelevant in their Party. The United States produces the most carbon emissions per capita, but will suffer fewer consequences of global climate change than most other countries. American leaders have decided that they will intensify this situation.
C.    Accordingly, the United States will prove to be the greatest force for evil in the history of the world and will lead the world into destruction.
D.    Other countries should not attack the United States, which has a military and a nuclear arsenal larger than those of the rest of the world combined, or attempt to change its chosen trajectory. This would be futile, especially as long as it remains under the leadership of a delusional man who does not recognize the constitutional limitations of presidency. The United States will destroy itself. With appropriate preparations, the rest of the world can contain the damage to a certain extent. The rest of the world should prepare to fill in the vacuum that will be left by the inevitable collapse of the United States.

III.            A green future

A.    Nature has always recovered profusely from human activity. It always has and it always will. Jungles grow over ruins. Wild plants and animals have even returned to the area damaged by the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl.
B.    The human species may or may not survive, but human civilization certainly will not.
C.    Therefore, there is nothing to worry about regarding the ultimate future of life on Earth.

IV.            How should we live?

A.    As individuals and as nations we must live responsibly on the planet, because this is the right thing to do. It is consistent with the good part of human nature, even though it is inconsistent with the evil part. Those of us who live in a way that shows love to our fellow humans and all other species do so because we believe it is the ultimate joy.
B.    But we do not need to worry. Nothing we can do will prevent greedy and religiously delusional people from nearly destroying the Earth. We recognize that no amount of enlightened ecological economy, no amount of love, can prevent world catastrophe. And no amount of destruction can prevent the ultimate recovery of the post-human Earth.


Though cynical, this manifesto is no more negative than the facts demand.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Darwin, A Good Man

Many fundamentalists depict Darwin as some kind of monster. But, as explained by French scientist Pierre Jouventin (in his book The Hidden Face of Darwin), this cannot be true, because Darwin was a good man. First I give the quote in French, then a partial translation.

“...loin de conseiller l’abandon ou l’élimination des plus faibles, il allait jusqu’à encenser une civilisation où l’on protège “les idiots, les estropiés et les malades”! Darwin ne se contentait pas de l’écrire, il pratiquait quotidiennement la charité chrétienne sans pour cela croire au paradis comme son épouse. Les témoignages et les biographes concordent pour reconnaître que c’était un homme de bien, bon fils, bon époux, bon père de famille, ami fidèle et tolérant (comme l’il a montré avec Wallace et Fitzroy pourtant opposés à ses idées sur l’évolution de l’homme), préférant ses enfants et ses recherches aux honneurs et à l’argent, aimant passionément la nature, les plantes et les animaux, un être extrémement sensible qui a abandonné ses études de médecine pour ne pas voir couler de sang, assister aux dissections et entendre crier les patients, ému par les misères et les souffrances du monde humain aussi bien qu’animal.”


“Far from counseling the abandonment or elimination of the weakest, he went as far as praising a civilization in which one protects “idiots, cripples, and sick people”! Darwin did not content himself with writing; he practiced daily the Christian charity without believing in paradise as did his wife. Researchers and biographers agree in discovering that he was a man of good, good son, good husband, good father of the family, faithful friend and tolerant (as he showed with Wallace and Fitzroy even while they opposed his ideas about human evolution), preferring his children and his research above honors and money, loving passionately nature, plants and animals, a being extremely sensitive who abandoned his studies of medicine so that he would not have to see blood flowing, or assist at dissections, or hear the cries of patients, touched by the misery and suffering of the human as of the animal world.”

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Simple Message, But One That Trump Cannot Understand

Here is a short entry. I just sent this message to the White House where I know it will never be read, or if it were read, would not be understood.


“I know that nobody ever reads these letters, so even if I had Russian state secrets to reveal in them, they would go unnoticed. Well, I have no Russian state secrets, but I can tell you something that is really going to help the Russians prevail over us. It is global warming, which you refuse to admit and refuse to do anything about. Global warming will enhance Russian agriculture. They will have longer growing seasons, and they will be able to grow wheat further north. Meanwhile, it will harm American agriculture. Global warming, to which America is the principal contributor, will boost Russian agriculture while harming ours. There are a few setbacks for the Russians—the heat wave and drought of 2011 caused Russia to suspend its wheat exports—but only temporary ones. So, thanks to global warming, America may soon be buying grain from Russia. Thanks a lot, Trump.”