Friday, July 18, 2014

What Do You Do with an Old Thesis?

I defended my Ph.D. thesis in Plant Biology at the University of Illinois in 1986 and graduated in 1987. This was back in the microfilm days. Can anyone find my thesis online? I can’t. I still have a paper copy (made back in the days of hand-drawn figures).

One thing you can do with an old thesis is post it online yourself. If you have a website, stick it there as a link. Maybe then a search engine can find it directly, without having to go into the tissues and organs of a university website.

But when I looked at my thesis, I realized it was almost unreadable. It seems inconceivable that this thesis was written by the guy who later produced books that general readers loved, especially Encyclopedia of Evolution and Green Planet. The only thing that made this possible was my subsequent career of teaching, and my continual practice at writing. I had a mission to make science understandable and interesting to students and the general public—and eventually, I learned how.

So I took a couple of days this summer (yes, it was only a couple of days) to rewrite my thesis in plain English. Actually, if I had taken longer, I probably would have gotten bogged down in it and produced a summary less useful to readers. And here’s what I was able to do that I could not in the original:

·         I used plain English, rather than scientific jargonese.
·         I explained the background ideas, which would have been obvious to other experts in the field but which can be presupposed in the general reader.
·         I included photos and stories about the work, showing science to not be some dispassionate truth but to be a very human process, both fun and challenging.

Any of you out there with old theses that nobody looks at—perhaps even you—consider doing what I did. You can read my rewritten thesis on my website.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Science and Religion: The Case of George Washington Carver

I have written in the previous entry about my immense admiration for George Washington Carver as the model scientist. He is also a very interesting example of the meeting of science and religion.

Throughout his life, but less subtly in his later years, George Washington Carver considered his work to be God’s little laboratory, and that God was revealing the secrets of nature to him.

Carver apparently meant this literally, as when, in 1924, he gave a speech in New York City. The New York Times editorial was highly critical of his religious approach to science.

At first the editorial just seems racist, even though the writer might have meant well (saying that a hocus pocus approach to science makes blacks, who are quite intelligent, look like they are not). But this brings up an interesting point: at what point does religion interfere with a scientist’s quality of work?

I am not talking just about creationism. I have written extensively about how creationists use their pseudoscience as a tool to advance a political agenda. It is really bad science and used to promote a really bad goal. Instead, I am talking about deep religious convictions of scientists that motivate them to pursue scientific research as a holy calling—scientific research that might be just as good as that of any other scientist.

This remains a current issue among scientists. The religious convictions held by Francis Collins were the basis for Sam Harris to claim that he should not be the director of NIH. And the religious faith of Kenneth Miller caused some controversy in the Society for the Study of Evolution when Miller received the Stephen Jay Gould Award in 2011. While, in this link, Jerry Coyne is undoubtedly right that a person who publishes books about science and faith open themselves up for public criticism, I have to wonder if Coyne’s opposition to Miller’s professions of faith is entirely fair.

Is it true, then, that real scientists don’t, or shouldn’t, talk the way George Washington Carver did? To me, this is not a very important question to answer. The real anti-scientists are causing so much trouble that we shouldn’t pick fights with real scientists who happen to be religious. A fair percentage (though of course we keep no records of it) of members of the Oklahoma Academy of Science will describe themselves as people of faith. And if they keep doing good work (such as getting students to look closely at the natural world, which may or may not be God’s creation), I am their enthusiastic colleague. I admit I have problem with some religious institutions, such as Oral Roberts University, whose administration uses every opportunity to promote the belief that God directly told Oral Roberts what the truth was, and that settles it for all time. This resulted in a really disquieting moment at the AAAS Southwest and Rocky Mountain Section meeting in Tulsa in 2012 (which I described in this blog soon after it occurred). My first reaction is always to distrust religious scientists, based on my Oklahoma experiences, which have been mostly negative. But in many individual instances, I have found my religious scientific colleagues to be really fine people.

Some of you might, however, have different views. I encourage comments.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Celebration of George Washington Carver

I recently posted an essay about George Washington Carver, botanist and humanitarian, and how he was my idea of a model scientist. (I got a few of my facts wrong and have modified the entry.) He is one of the heroes of Black History Month (February), but I am hesitant to promote Black History Month, since it implies that we should be surprised that black people did great things. George Washington Carver was a great scientist and humanitarian; the fact that he happened to be black is important but secondary. And he was a famous botanist! We need for people to know what a botanist is. This photo is of one of his herbarium specimens (Hordeum jubatum).

I visited the George Washington Carver National Monument in July for the Carver Day Celebration. I will soon post videos from the monument on my YouTubechannel.

The event that I appreciated the most was a performance of “George Washington Carver and Friends” by the Bright Star Touring Theatre, which that particular day consisted of just three people: a young white woman, who plays the part of a schoolgirl wanting to write a report; and a black man who played Carver…and Jackie Robinson, and Thurgood Marshall, and Booker T. Washington, and the man who invented the egg beater, and even the woman who became a millionaire selling her beauty products; and the manager. The actors were very good and they involved audience children in every part of the play. I thanked them for promoting science; they even got the audience chanting “Sci-ence! Sci-ence!”

Check them out if you know a school that needs educational theater!

Here is a display in the Visitors Center that tells about how, to Carver, science was a way of serving humanity.

Next I will post an essay about science and religion, focusing on George Washington Carver.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tobacco Corporations Killing Us for Profit in Yet Another Way

For many decades tobacco corporations wanted to suppress the fact that tobacco use is addictive. Scientists have known about nicotine addiction for a long time. However, when Congress subpoenaed the executives of the major tobacco companies to testify in 1994, all of the executives raised their hands and swore that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive. About that same time, an employee of one of the tobacco companies copied some of the internal research documents and released them to the Journal of the American Medical Association. These documents proved that the tobacco companies knew, from their own secret research, that nicotine was addictive. The corporate researchers even referred to cigarettes as NDDs—nicotine delivery devices. Not only did they know they were selling an addictive product, but addiction was their product. (The Russell Crowe movie The Insider tells this story.)

The tobacco corporations not only knew that addiction was their product, but they knew that most smokers start smoking when they are young. They accordingly focused some very successful advertising campaigns on young consumers. “Joe Camel” was a particularly successful image that made young people think smoking was cool.

In the late 1990s the federal government and state governments sued the tobacco corporations for the health care expenses due to lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases. Tobacco corporations had been making the profits from, and taxpayers footing the bill for, smoking-addiction-induced cancer. Despite their best efforts and attempted appeals, the tobacco corporations had to pay these expenses, and in addition had to stop marketing their products to young people.

A similar thing is happening with the corporate attempts to discredit global warming science. One of the early leaders of these attempts was the same man who fought to discredit the link between smoking and cancer: Frederick Seitz. One of the groups that fight to discredit global warming, the Heartland Institute, still denies the health dangers of smoking. They used to have this on their home page, but now keep it hidden on a web page that is not easy to find.

The truth gets even more indirect and mysterious. I describe now a report I heard on All Things Considered yesterday. Today, nearly everyone has heard that stress causes numerous health problems, including heart attacks. The scientific research behind the stress-heart disease connection is excellent. But the earliest major researcher who studied the physiology of stress—Hans Selye—got most of his funding from tobacco corporations. The reason is actually quite simple. Numerous things cause heart attacks. Stress is one of them. Smoking is another. Others include poor nutrition and genetic factors. All of these factors interact with one another. And what the tobacco companies wanted to claim, although Selye never actually said this himself (as far as I can tell), was that stress, not smoking, caused heart attacks. What Selye did not say, the tobacco companies were eager to say. Their advertisements openly proclaimed that you should smoke to relieve stress. Tobacco corporations wanted to blame stress and avert criticism of smoking.

And Selye went right along with this. Mark Petticrew, Director of Public Health for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and his colleagues examined thousands of documents that were made public as a result of the “tobacco settlement” of the late 1990s. They found that tobacco corporations vetted the content and wording of Selye’s papers (see hyperlink above). Says Petticrew, “tobacco industry lawyers actually influenced the content of his writings, they suggested to him things that he should comment on.”

Hanse Selye was certainly a famous scientist, author of thousands of papers and 39 books. But was Selye a liar? It does not appear so. But tobacco companies paid for his research and used his results to lie to the American public. Blood is on their hands, and Selye was their, apparently willing, tool.

You see, some scientists will say whatever you pay them to say. Far fewer scientists will do this than lawyers and politicians, but there are some. Corporate interests, such as the coal and oil industries, have found these few and use them over and over and over.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Christians Think the Rest of Us Are Just Places to Pile Their Shit

My next door neighbors seemed to be the nicest Christian people in the world. They just had a baby, their firstborn, and have been cheerfully preparing their house to accommodate the new arrival. Derek Brewer is a realtor, just starting his own business. His wife Whitney was one our our brightest and smartest alumnae from Biological Sciences at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

I counted myself really lucky to have them as neighbors, especially since we have a shared driveway. They are very quiet, even when they have a lot of visitors. Because I wanted to encourage them to stay, and not move away—nearly anybody who might move in after them would be worse, I figured—I have given them unlimited right to park in the shared driveway, half of which is mine, and I waived my right to park there.

Apparently I was a fool for trusting Christian goodness.

I generate very little garbage. I am proud of treading lightly upon God’s good green Earth. I do not use disposable dishes except when the alternative is very burdensome. And my lovely wife Lee spent many, many hours washing cloth diapers when Anita was young. (One of the pleasures of having an almost-28-year-old daughter is that it has been a long, long time since this was necessary.)

But when I did open my city garbage bin to put a tiny bit of refuse in it tonight, I found that it was almost completely filled by a big plastic garbage bag full of disposable plates and newborn diapers (used, of course). This bag was as much garbage as I generate in two months. I know where it must have come from. In order to put the garbage in my bin, one of them had to open my gate, walk across my back yard, and put it in, then walk back and close the gate. It could not have been a simple misunderstanding. Anyone stupid enough to do this by accident would not have been smart enough to open a gate.

I’m  tired of fundamentalist Christians treating everybody else in the world as places to pile their shit, and I mean this literally, or for target practice, or as scapegoats to blame everything on. If only us Democrat bleeding-hearts would get out of the world, all problems would be solved. For those of you who read this blog and think that maybe there is some way to reach some kind of mutual understanding with creationists, just remember that they have a fundamentally different worldview from the rest of us: they are the elect of God, and the rest of us are damned and worthless. Speaking as the president of Oklahoma Academy of Sciences (but not on behalf of the Academy), and as president-elect of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (but not on their behalf either), I will not lift one finger to cooperate with creationists in any capacity.

It is, in itself, a small thing, since I generate so little garbage. I just wish they had ASKED first. But Christians don’t need to ask before dumping their shit on neighbors, or parking their cars in their neighbors’ yards, or any other thing they want to do. They are the chosen of God and the rest of us are just standing in their way.

Now, if I trespassed in someone’s yard for ANY REASON they would consider it their right and God-given duty to shoot me. I do not have a gun or any plans to get one. But (see the previous blog entry) it appears that there are two groups of people: the people with guns who believe they have a right to do whatever they want, and those without guns who must just accept whatever the others do. Happy July 6, and God bless America.

Here is the letter I will be leaving for them, to give them a chance to set the record straight in the event that the garbage came from somewhere else:

“Derek and Whitney—In my trash I found a large trash bag full of disposable dishware and used newborn diapers. Would those happen to be yours? Or did you happen to see anyone enter my back yard through the fence and leave a bag of garbage there? They should know I am not the neighborhood dump. If you need extra space for trash please in God’s name ask first. You have my number. Dr. Stan Rice. P.S. If you see anyone doing this, please let them know it is a bad example for Christians. –S.R.”

If anything should change the accuracy of the above information, I will update this essay or simply delete it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Do Americans Have the Same Human Nature as Everyone Else?

America bristles with firearms. You can safely assume that everybody you see has one hidden on their person or within easy reach. This is not true, but it is close enough to being true that you certainly would not want to make the opposite assumption.

Firearms advocates, who want to see as many people carrying guns as possible, claim that this makes us safer. They have all kinds of rationalizations and anecdotes to support this.

But the numbers tell a different story. Here are some numbers from Wikipedia regarding the number of firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people per year in recent years. The article appears well-referenced and I consider it more reliable than either conservative or liberal things I see floating around the web.

Firearm deaths per 100,000 per year
Costa Rica
South Korea

Clearly, the United States has one of the highest rates of firearm-related homicides in the world—not as high as countries with lots of organized crime, like Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras, but higher than virtually anyone else. Our rate is even higher than Nicaragua, a Central American nation whose socialistic government we considered so evil in the 1980s that President Reagan used illegal means to get firearms to the right-wing “contras.” But if you compare us to countries that have similar living conditions to ours, or so we think, we have ten to a hundred times as many firearm deaths per capita. Just compare the UK and the USA. We cannot claim that there is no social strife in Europe; they have ethnic and economic tensions just as we do. Perhaps ethnic uniformity explains the exceptionally low firearm death rates in Japan and South Korea, but not the UK, France, Germany, or Italy, where they have social tensions with Gypsies and Muslims.

Americans have more guns and more gun deaths. Most other countries have fewer guns and fewer gun deaths. Clearly guns are not keeping us safe from gun deaths.

There appear to me to be two possible explanations. One is that we have too many guns at least in the hands of people who are not capable of handling the responsibility. The other is that there is something exceptional about America that makes us different from everybody else. “American exceptionalism” is usually meant as a belief that America and Americans have special privileges in the world; to religious conservatives it means that we are specially blessed of God, God’s people. A lot of conservative megachurches have American flag backdrops for their services. But if this is so, then it means that one way that we are exceptional is that we are exceptionally bloodthirsty.

There’s something different about an American that will make him (sometimes her) ten to a hundred times more likely to shoot your brains out (or your children’s brains out) than someone from any other country except those with drug cartels or civil wars. What might this be? If it is not simply the fact that so many Americans have guns, then it must be something about us.

I refuse to believe the latter without further proof. I believe that all humans have the same human nature, based on the recent evolutionary diversification of all races only about 100,000 years ago. I do not believe that Americans are biologically or intrinsically more bloodthirsty than Englishmen. I believe that the problem is too many unregulated guns. We need gun regulations—not by themselves but in conjunction with education and a deliberate cultural effort to shift the way we think. If you say that this is impossible, then think about what you are saying: that Americans are intrinsically bloodthirsty.

Either our gun problem is a problem that can be solved, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t then we should hang our heads in shame and not meet the eyes of the rest of the world, recognizing ourselves as incorrigibly bloodthirsty. If there is a third alternative, I am not aware of it and my readers are welcome to post a third alternative.

Happy Fourth of July!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Model Scientist

Note: I corrected some factual errors from the original posting.

When I recently taught my graduate Research Methods course, I told the students that George Washington Carver was a model scientist. None of them had ever heard of him. Of course most of the students were from Asia and Africa, but even the American students had never heard of him. Those of you out there who teach, let us keep the memory of George Washington Carver alive. If you know a teacher, let them know about this blog entry, or encourage them to read on their own about this great scientist.

Carver was a great scientist not just for his research but because (1) his research focused on turning the agricultural produce of poor rural people into value-added products that would increase their income and (2) he persisted in the face of prejudice. He was good enough to work in a major university, but he could not, because he was black. However, he found his calling at Tuskegee Institute, helping poor rural black farmers in the South.

The George Washington Carver National Monument, at Carver’s birthplace, is near Interstate 44 in western Missouri. I’ll bet it is the only national monument in honor of a botanist, and one of the few that does not honor a military hero or battle.

Here is the entry that I wrote for Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, which was never published:

Carver, George Washington
Botanist, chemist, agriculturalist

George Washington Carver devoted his life to the study of agricultural plants, specifically for the benefit of former slaves and sharecroppers in the poor rural South of the United States. His studies benefited poor rural farmers in two ways: first, by improving techniques of production, which increased the farmers’ chances of self-sufficiency; second, by inventing new markets for their products. Carver is widely considered a hero among scientists, because he overcame personal privations and connected pure scientific research directly to the improvement of the lives of disadvantaged humans.

Carver was born as a slave in Missouri. His birthdate is unknown, because vital statistics of slaves were not always recorded. Along with his mother and sister, he was kidnapped by Confederate soldiers and sold in Arkansas. The others died, and Carver barely survived. He was returned to his master. Carver’s recurring respiratory illness after the Civil War meant that, instead of doing heavy farm labor with the other sharecroppers and freed slaves, Carver had time to wander the fields and make observations. He became so knowledgeable about plants that his neighbors called him “the Plant Doctor.” The local school in Diamond Grove (present day Diamond), Missouri did not permit black children, so Carver walked almost ten miles to a black school in Neosho. He stayed with a black family named Watkins, there so he didn’t need to walk twenty miles a day for education. His love of plants inspired him to also become an artist. Mariah Watkins told Carver he should learn all he could and come back to help his people. Carver went to Kansas to continue his education. When he witnessed the murder of a black man by a white gang, he fled to another city, where he finished high school. He studied art at Simpson College, but was advised that he would be better at science than at art.

Carver was the first black student at Iowa State University, where he studied botany and graduated in 1894. His mentors were so impressed with him that he stayed to earn a Master’s degree in 1896. His work at the Agricultural Experiment Station earned him national recognition in the study of fungal diseases of crop plants. In 1896, the president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, educator Booker T. Washington, convinced Carver to join the Tuskegee faculty. Carver remained there for 47 years, until his death in 1943.

The soil in Alabama had been depleted by cotton farming. Carver developed systems of crop rotation, in which cotton was alternated with other crops, such as sweet potatoes, so that the soil could build back up. Crop rotation with legumes, especially peanuts, was particularly important.  Carver also developed many new uses for crops for food and industry. He developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, including glue, dyes, ink, varnish, and new foods, which included sauces, but (contrary to popular belief) did not include peanut butter. He did similar research for other Southern crops, including sweet potatoes and pecans. He also developed improvements in adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, paper, plastic, shaving cream, shoe polish, and synthetic rubber. He received three patents (one for cosmetics, and two for paints). Carver did not, however, keep a laboratory notebook, and exact formulas for his procedures are largely unknown. To teach the farmers how to use their land better and to create new markets, Carver established an agricultural extension system of advice and laboratory research, modeled after the system in Iowa.

Carver was not well known in the United States even though former president Theodore Roosevelt praised him (at Booker T. Washington’s funeral) in 1915. He was, however, better known in England, where he was elected to the Royal Society of Arts, one of the few Americans to receive that honor at that time. He became famous when he testified with impressive intelligence before a committee of the U.S. Congress about the many uses he had developed for the peanut. Three American presidents met with him. The crown prince of Sweden studied agriculture under him for three weeks, and the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi also studied with him. Industrialist Henry Ford financed a laboratory for Carver, and worked alongside him in the development of soy-based rubber and synthetic automobile fuel.

After Carver’s death on January 5, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated a national monument to him in Missouri. It is one of the few national sites dedicated to the honor and memory of a black American and perhaps the only one to a botanist.

Further Reading

Kremer, Gary R., ed. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.