Friday, May 19, 2017

How Religion "Advances"

Today it is relatively rare to find racist Christianity. Nowadays, fundamentalist megachurches proclaim that members of any race are equally invited to donate money to their coffers. But it wasn’t so long ago that many white fundamentalist Christian groups did not want to associate with members of other races.

It is even rarer to find Christians who insist that the Earth is the center of the universe. The only example of which I know is http://www.fixedearth.com. But it was not very far in the past that churches all insisted on geocentrism as a fundamental belief.

In these and in many other cases, the advances in belief—advances toward racial harmony and a scientific understanding of the universe—were the result of forces and processes that were not inherently religious. After slavery was abolished, people began to gradually realize that people of other races were fully human and deserved the same rights as one’s own race. Partly this was due to the utter failure of supremacists to find scientific verification for their beliefs, but mainly, I believe, because more and more people became acquainted with members of other races and discovered, usually pleasantly, that people they might once have disdained were actually nice, ordinary people. In many cases it was devout people who led the push toward racial harmony—and there is hardly a better example than Martin Luther King Jr.—but it was not religion itself that led these advances. None of the leaders, or followers, of racial integration re-read their Bibles and discovered, “Holy Moley! Right there is a verse that we’ve been overlooking for two thousand years.” The Bible did not change. There were, or so the fundamentalists claim, no new revelations from God. The advances in racial harmony, inside and outside of churches, came from accumulated experience which most religious groups have now acknowledged. Reason and experience led the way; religion followed.

It is clear that the conversion of religious people to heliocentrism occurred because science advanced, and religion followed.


Science, experience, and reason are the head of the animal of society; religion is the tail, sometimes wagging, sometimes dragging.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Flicker of Hope for the Future

On May 13, I joined with some volunteers from Up With Trees, a Tulsa organization that plants and maintains trees, mostly on public land in cooperation with the city government. This organization applied to Americorps, the federal entity that coordinates many different volunteer efforts. Americorps approved their application and sent about eight young Americans to help Up With Trees in city-wide tree maintenance activities for three weeks. On May 13, the young people (who received room and board, and a small stipend) helped Up With Trees prune and mulch the trees in a municipal park in the Greenwood district of North Tulsa. It was a perfect spring morning and I could not have been in a better place.






Nor could I have been with better people. These young people came from many places such as Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Jersey. Some had just graduated from high school, some from college. Two of the college graduates majored in political science and wanted to have some environmental influence on government policy. Politicians spend their time saying ridiculous things to get people to vote for them, but when work has to be done and done right, they (we hope) rely on their advisors, among whom these two young women may eventually number. One was a child psychology major, who had never heard that there was such a field of study as environmental psychology. A human habitat that includes trees makes people feel better and heal from injuries faster. Planting trees produces measurable social benefits. And then there was the young woman, just out of high school, who wanted to study both engineering and art, because she wanted to produce sculptures that produced energy, for example artistic wind turbines for municipal parks. It is on this kind of creativity that the only hope of our future rests.

Tree work is far from the only thing that the Americorps students are doing. They also help low to moderate income people prepare tax returns and provide activities for school children. Their next stop, after Tulsa, is Ferguson, Missouri, where they will help kids, many of them from families that feel that the dominant white culture is oppressing them. They need to learn positive responses, to help their communities, rather than to create an expensive and dangerous law enforcement problem.

I was glad to spend a relaxing morning with these students, to hear their stories, and to let them know that scholars such as myself take their aspirations seriously and appreciate their devotion to making the world better.

This is the American model of improving our shared public spaces: the federal government allocates money to young people to work for the public good before entering their careers. It is money well spent. The French model, based on my limited observations last summer, is a little different. There, the government uses a great deal of money to hire people to do all the work in shared public spaces. I watched a team of five government employees in Strasbourg cutting away weeds from cracks in sidewalks and streets. I think the American way is probably more cost effective. But there are politicians in America who think that any spending on the public good is a waste of money. These opponents of the shared public good are undermining the future of America. Americorps students are doing a lot of good for not much money. A degenerated park in North Tulsa, or disaffected youth in Ferguson, can be costly problems. If politicians would only look past the economics of campaign donations and see that supporting public service is an inexpensive way to accomplish essential goals.


The students in the Americorps group had many different goals in life, but just one purpose: to make America better.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Hagfishes

I just posted a Darwin video about hagfishes. They are disgusting but also are beautiful examples of evolutionary adaptation. Let creationists work on that one.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Emmanuel Macron's video

In just the few moments since I posted my last essay, I encountered this video in which Macron specifically invited American climate scientists.

Go East, Young Man

Horace Greeley famously urged young Americans to go west. But my advice to young academics is to go east.

Unless personal ties totally prevent you from going there, China would probably be a wonderful place for young American scientists. In two recent issues of Science magazine (9 December and 16 December, 2016), China bought huge advertisements to tell you young American scientists how much they want you. They bought 72 pages of some of the most expensive advertising in the magazine world to invite you. This is in addition to the numerous smaller advertisements about which I reported earlier this year. Though they did not say so, it is clear that they are capitalizing on the hostility that American scientists are receiving from the Trump Administration.

France has made their call even clearer. At the head of the news section in the February 10, 2017 issue of Science, there is a quote from Emmanuel Macron, who is the new president of France. Macron issued a “solemn call” to American scientists. He said, “From next May, you will have a new homeland: France.”

The American federal government, and numerous state governments (such as Oklahoma, where I live), scientists are considered to be liabilities and even mildly dangerous. A law that its sponsors intended as a way of rescuing students from evil scientists narrowly missed passage in the Oklahoma House.


Personally, I just want to hold out until retirement. But for those of you younger scientists who have a little career flexibility, consider accepting an offer from a country that wants you.

Friday, April 28, 2017

An Open Letter to the NRA

To: Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association

Today, April 28, 2017, you made a statement at the National NRA meeting to the effect that “academic elites” were one of the three most dangerous threats to the safety of the United States of America. The others were political and media elites. I am an academic, and you must therefore consider me to be a direct threat to the United States. In particular, I am a scientist.

I realize that you did not actually say that your followers, unrestricted by firearms legislation, should actually start shooting us academics. But clearly some of your followers must have assumed that, at some unspecified time in the future, it might be necessary for them to take up their precious firearms against people like me. Since you verbalized no restrictions on your condemnation of academics, and offered no qualifying statements, I can only assume that you have given your followers permission to be ready to start shooting scientists and other academics at a time of their choosing and with their own judgment. If this is not what you meant, you should have clarified it! I realize that you and other NRA enthusiasts do not plan to violate laws by shooting us, but at some future time of social disruption, there appears to be nothing to stop you from doing this. Some of your followers may think that, if the government cannot protect us from those academics, then we might have to ourselves.

I realize that you envision a future in which those whom you consider to be the enemies of the United States will be swept away by those whom you consider to be patriots. And I assure you that I am planning, at some point in the future, to leave the United States so that you and your wild followers can exercise control over it as you see fit. With many of us academics leaving the country, there will be a massive brain drain, of which Europe, China, Japan, and many rapidly developing countries will be the beneficiaries. Right now China is buying expensive advertisements to invite us to move to China. You don’t want us; you have guns; we get it. I only ask that you give us a little time so that we can exit in an orderly fashion and in a manner that does not disrupt our lives too much. With viewpoints such as yours being so prominent, and having the complete support of the President, it is inevitable that there will be an exodus of academics; we just do not want to be refugees.


For reasons that are obvious, I am not signing my name to this letter.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

An Earth Day Science March in Tulsa

Around the country, scientists and citizens celebrated Earth Day by joining in a March for Science. There were hundreds of such events. In Oklahoma, one of the most anti-environmental state (especially on the government level, but also on the citizen level), there were two, and one of them was in Tulsa today.

It was exactly the kind of Earth Day that one of our senators, Jim Inhofe, one of the world’s most famous climate deniers, would have considered to be a sign from God. After months of record-breaking high temperatures in Oklahoma, including January temperatures in the 90s, the weather suddenly became chilly. Yesterday brought heavy rains and today it reached a high of 52. Inhofe would have said that God meant this as a message to us that Inhofe’s anti-global-warming message is divinely-inspired. Where is global warming now, he would ask. He would, however, look around in vain for a snowball to throw as he once did on the Senate floor the way he did a few years ago.

But despite the chill, hundreds of, maybe a thousand, people came out for the march at Fred Johnson Park, at 61st St. and Peoria Ave. First we all gathered in a large circle and held hands around Johnson Park. A drone photographed us from overhead. (It was not a government surveillance drone.) A musician sang This Land is Your Land, which as a biodiversity ecologist I always found puzzling: the land belongs to all the species, not just to humans. Some of the verses of this song are borderline socialism, and were sung originally by Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma native of whom this extreme right-wing state pretends to be proud. Then we crossed Riverside Dr. (legally) as passing vehicles honked in support (I think; at least some of them waved) and walked in a loop.

For me the best part (aside from seeing many old friends and making new ones) was the placards that people made for themselves. Such creativity! The independent thinking that went into them contrasts sharply with the mindless uniformity of Trump posters. The only element of uniformity was that many Planned Parenthood supporters carried the same posters. But here are some of the placards that I saw:

“Got plague? Yeah, me neither. Thank a scientist.”
“There is no Planet B.”
“Science already made America great.”
“You are the result of 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success. Act like it.”
“Patriots love science.”
There was even a dog with a cardboard poster that said Bark Bark Bark.

Here are some photos of placards.






Another important theme was that women should be encouraged to be science leaders. One young woman carried a placard with a quote from Rosalind Franklin. And another carried this poster:



Environmental protection is a big issue in Tulsa. Terry Young, who was Tulsa Mayor from 1984 to 1986, told the story of Helmerich Park, at the corner of Riverside Dr. and 71st Street, a place that my wife and I pass often on the walking trail. We always see a lot of people using the park, including a lot of volleyball players in the sand court. It is one of the places Tulsa can be proud of. But apparently, according to one speaker, the city council met one night and simply declared that the park was not being used and that it should be sold to a developer. The publicity for this sale claimed that the land would be used for an REI outdoor recreation store. As it turns out, the developer planned a mall—one of many new malls in Tulsa—including five acres of asphalt parking. Former Mayor Terry Young is involved in two lawsuits against this development. He decried the ascendancy of ignorance in our national thinking. And yet, ignorance can be a good thing. Scientists admit ignorance but then set out to make discoveries to counteract the ignorance. As Alan Alda, an actor turned science activist, said, “Ignorance is a wonderful thing with curiosity attached to it.” Young pointed out the problems with this decision included the following:

  • The rationale for the sale—that the park was not being used—was patently false.
  • The taxpayers, whose money bought the park in the first place, were not consulted about this sale. Even though the city is the owner and the city can do whatever it wants with its money and the taxpayers have no right to complain, the taxpayers feel tricked by this decision. The city can do whatever it wants but the citizens can also vote however they want. And the voters do not want a “we’ll do whatever the hell we want with city land” government.
  • Private donations were used to purchase the park land. The donations were for the park, not for the city’s general fund.

There have been successes. The Carrie Dickerson family led a campaign to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant at Inola, northeast of Tulsa. The reasons were not just the usual concerns about nuclear waste, but also about how the reactor would have required immense amounts of water, a resource of which Oklahoma periodically runs short. They won! But we cannot assume that successes will continue.


I want to thank the organizer, Nancy Moran, who must have worked tirelessly on almost nothing else except this event. And she is organizing another event, the Climate March, next week, also here in Tulsa. It feels good, really good, to know that there are so many of us, even though we are a minority, who care about what we are doing to the Earth, which conservatives pretend to believe is God’s Creation.