Friday, April 20, 2018

Hypatia, You Are Not Forgotten

The movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the few fictional movies ever to be reviewed in Science magazine. I have now seen it three times and have come to understand it. It is one of the few essential movies that you need to see to understand the meaning of science in the human mind. You’d better see it at least once.

Hypatia of Alexandria (Egypt), in the fourth century of the Christian Era, was a philosopher and teacher. She accepted students of diverse faiths, including a Roman pagan and a Christian. She taught them that if two things are equal to a third, then all are equal, and she insisted that this applies to herself and to her students: she the (we would say today) atheist, and her pagan and Christian students, were all equal.

Hypatia’s faith was different from those of any of her students. They believed that truths were revealed by one or more gods, while she believed that the highest pursuit of the human spirit was to understand the universe itself, to decipher what it is telling us. In particular, she wanted to understand why the planets did not move in a perfect circle around the Earth. Ptolemy had said that the planets and sun traced their own little circles as they orbited the Earth, but this seemed whimsical: if the universe is perfect, why should these little epicycles be necessary? Then she found out that the philosopher Aristarchus, centuries previously, had suggested that the planets, including Earth, went around the sun. But if the universe was built on perfect circles, then the Earth must describe a perfect circle around the sun, which it does not: sometimes the sun was smaller (more distant) and dimmer than at other times. Then she figured out that the Earth travels in an ellipse around the sun. After she died, and her writings were lost, it took another 1,200 years until Johannes Kepler rediscovered this truth. To Hypatia, the universe had to have mathematical perfection, and it was our job to understand it. This remains the fundamental belief of scientists, although we now recognize that a great deal of historical contingency, what we might call messiness (for example, the Big Bang created globs of galaxies, not perfectly spaced ones) that Hypatia might have found unacceptable.

Alexandria was going through successive waves of turmoil all during this time. Unlike Hypatia and her students, the adherents of religions all hated each other. The Egyptian pagans attacked the Christians, then the Christians attacked the Egyptians and destroyed the library of Alexandria, the most famous condensation of knowledge in all of history, gleefully rejoicing in the burning of scientific books. Then the Christians turned on the Jews. The Romans couldn’t do much; they were the nominal rulers, but the Empire was in decline and the Roman soldiers couldn’t do much. Hypatia’s Roman student became the Consul of Alexandria, and he very publicly loved Hypatia. Her Christian student became a famous bishop. They tried to keep violence from getting out of hand, but the majority of Christians did not listen to the peaceful bishop; instead they followed the radicals who called upon Christians, in the name of Jesus, to stone to death everyone who did not agree with them, and this eventually included Hypatia. The charges leveled against Hypatia were that Scripture forbade a woman to teach in public. They should just stay home and, if they should happen to venture out in public, keep their damned mouths shut. Hypatia spoke in public and was a scholar. This was plenty of reason for the Christians to push her to the altar, strip her, stone her, and drag her mutilated body through the streets. A young Christian man, who had been Hypatia’s slave but whom she liberated even though he sexually assaulted her, tried to save her, but not very hard.

In this image, Hypatia tries to save scrolls from the Library of Alexandria as it is being pillaged and burnt.

All of the religions that were concentrated together in Alexandria were guilty of killing people of other religions. But in Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, it was clearly the Christians who carried out the most and the worst violence, and who eventually became the leaders of the western world. The leaders of this violence became saints, such as Saint Cyril.

Hypatia was troubled by the fact that the events on the Earth were so messy and random, while all around the Earth, the heavens were perfect, though in an elliptical rather than a circular way. The recurring imagery of the movie is the ellipse—such as the circular opening in the library vault, seen from the side—and a view of Earth from outer space, focusing down onto Alexandria, and then receding again into the indifferent stars.

Today, most of the American opponents of scientific truth are evangelical Christians, and they are closer to using violence against scientists than we usually think. American evangelical Christians do not even want to question whether the proclamations of their preachers and of Donald Trump are consistent with the Bible, much less with scientific and historical truth. At other times and in other places, there are other enemies of truth: Stalin killed geneticists, and Islamic terrorists don’t want anybody to disagree with them about anything. But for me, here in America and now, it is the evangelical Christians whom I consider the most dangerous, just as they were to Hypatia of Alexandria. The violent Christians (that is, most of them) set science back a millennium. Many of them appear to want to do so again.

Whether the tragedy of Hypatia is repeated again, or not, we should not forget her or the power of a woman’s mind.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Oklahoma, You Are Famous!

I live and work in Oklahoma. It is one of the reddest and most fundamentalist states. But we could look down our noses at California and say, at least we don’t have earthquakes.

But that has changed recently. And I don’t mean over geological time. According to an article in the March 16 (2018) issue of Science, Oklahoma has had a 900-fold increase in earthquakes just since 2009. Thea Hincke, Willy Aspinall, Roger Cooke, and Thomas Gernon begin their article (“Oklahoma’s induced seismicity strongly linked to groundwater injection depth”) begins with this sentence (in the abstract): “The sharp rise in Oklahoma seismicity since 2009 is due to wastewater injection.” They indicate that Oklahoma is “the most seismically active region in the contiguous United States.”

This process, also known as “fracking,” uses high pressure wastewater to push oil out of tiny pores in the rock. To the Oklahoma government, oil production is the one and only energy policy for the future. Alternative energy, such as solar and wind, or increased energy efficiency, were unthinkable. The only possibility was to increase oil production and to keep using oil, and only oil, as inefficiently as ever, no matter what the consequences. The oil companies could get anything they wanted from the Oklahoma government, including the lowest gross production tax in the country. Of the nine major oil-producing states, Oklahoma has the lowest tax rate for oil companies, according to this graphic from okpolicy,org:

And the government of Oklahoma will do almost anything, including destruction of the quality of education, to keep that rate low, and to discourage energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. Therefore, the Oklahoma government considered fracking to be our only hope.

Starting in 2009, Oklahoma experienced a massive increase in earthquake frequency and intensity, especially in the very locations that had the most fracking, according to this graphic published in the Science article:

For several years, the government officially denied that there was any connection between fracking and earthquakes. When the state seismologist Austin Holland said that the evidence was conclusive, the dean of University of Oklahoma’s College of Earth and Energy told him that the results were unacceptable. A vast amount of the College’s funding comes from oil companies. In 2013 Holland was summoned to a meeting with OU President David Boren and Harold Hamm, CEO of an oil company, where he was also told that he should not say anything negative about fracking, according to this article in the Norman Transcript, the newspaper of the city in which OU is located. Late last year, Holland testified that this pressure was his principal reason for leaving Oklahoma. He was assured that he had complete academic freedom, but the university also had the freedom to make him shut up or leave.

In 2016, the frequency and intensity of earthquakes became so bad that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission shut down 37 fracking sites, but only after a large earthquake caused so much damage that even the oil companies could not ignore it.

According to the Science article, the chance of an earthquake is greatly reduced if the wastewater injection is kept away from the hard, base rock layer underneath the oil-bearing layers. While placing depth limits on fracking, it may be possible to continue fracking without having as many earthquakes. But my point is that it took a catastrophe for Oklahoma to even admit that fracking ever caused any earthquakes at all.

Meanwhile, residents of central Oklahoma continue to experience earthquakes. Oklahoma residents pay all the costs for the damage, while the oil companies get all the profit from the fracked oil. Support structures are beginning to tilt, and floors to crack open, even outside of the earthquake zone. We are simply used to this in Oklahoma; we simply recognize that corporations can do almost anything they want no matter what damage it may cause to ordinary citizens.

Oklahoma is now world-famous. The authors of this study were British and Dutch. Science is read worldwide. I suspect, however, that most Oklahomans do not know or care what anyone else in the world thinks about our state.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Your Evolution Professor Telling You to Read Your Bible

Many of my students are creationists and claim to be Bible believers. But many of them have not read much of the Bible. On the first day of class I always write a passage from the sermon on the mount (“Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these”). Almost none of the students, even the ones in the Jesus T-shirts, recognize it. They go to church and listen to preachers quote select passages of scripture, usually chosen to reflect Republican agenda items. Rarely if ever do members of these fundamentalist churches check up on the preachers, or read the passages that the preachers avoid.

So here is what I did. I teach at a secular university (thank God!) so I could not tell students what to think about the Bible; or even what I think about it. But I did tell them that if they believe the Bible they should read it for themselves—all of it, not just the parts their preachers quote. And they should think for themselves about what it means, rather than the interpretation the preacher insists that they believe.

Their evolution professor, telling them to read the Bible? These students have been living off of tidbits of the Bible that their preachers give them, sort of like pre-Reformation Catholics being unable to read the Latin Bible and having to just believe whatever the priests said. Only this is worse; these students do have access, in all formats (except clay tablet), to the Bible. I have, perhaps, made the Bible fully available to them for the first time, if only by irritating them to read it.

In this way, I am like John Wycliffe or Martin Luther, Protestant reformers of the late middle ages who, along with others, made the Bible available in languages the people could read. I, like them, am encouraging people to actually read the Bible.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Psychological Differences between Liberals and Conservatives

I continue writing about the study of 1,252 people by Wilhelm Hofmann et al. (Science, 2014) that I summarized in the preceding essay. One of the purposes of the study was to compare the moral values of liberals with those of conservatives.

Liberals cared more about fairness, liberty, and honesty, while conservatives cared more about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. That is, the values to which conservatives fundamentally cling are those that make them march in lock-step with one another and believe whatever their religious and political leaders tell them. Many of us would say that the moral values of liberals—try to be fair to and honest with people, and give them the liberty to live as they please, so long as they do not harm others—are superior to the moral values of conservatives, that is, to impose their moral values on other people.

In what I write next, I am going beyond the conclusions of the paper.

It is the conservative moral values that are leading our nation and world into peril. Conservatives are loyal to the Republican party and defend the authority of Donald Trump (though this was not yet the case at the time the article was published). They believe themselves to have sanctity, that is, saintliness, and for anyone who disagrees with them to be impure. Whatever their leaders tell them, they cling to it and are ready to rise up and fight any who differ from them, under the right conditions.

The values to which we liberals cling, however, are not those that are getting the world into trouble. We want to be fair to everybody: for example, it may be fair for you to have a gun, but it is fair for us to not be shot by your gun, and life is more valuable than gun possession. We liberals want liberty for everyone, but we recognize that your gun liberty is restricting our liberty to live. And we want to be honest, which is why our statements are more moderate and cautious than the simplistic and flaming rhetoric of the conservatives, and why such a breathtakingly high number of lies have issued forth from the current Republican political leaders. Practically every Trump tweet contains an easily recognizable lie. Conservatives want to be loyal to their party and to their exalted leader, and will make stuff up to bolster that loyalty.

Of course, there are spectra of liberals and of conservatives. But the liberals are more likely to recognize this. A typical conservative cannot have a decent conversation with any liberal: loyalty, authority, and sanctity are of prime importance. But I would rather have an honest conversation with a thoughtful conservative than spend time with a ranting liberal. I doubt, however, that most conservatives would prefer talking quietly to me to listening to the rants of Rush Limbaugh.

One cannot help being attracted to a political viewpoint that matches his or her psychological inclinations; but some of those inclinations endanger the future of the world, and others do not. Your desire to shoot me, and my desire to not be shot by you, may be equally the products of our inclinations; but your desire is bad, and mine is good.

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) said on a February 21, 2018 news program that most mass shooters are Democrats. I wonder if she, and others like her, are beginning to stir up the moral sentiments of conservatives to begin to take physical action against liberals.

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.