Thursday, May 9, 2019

Each of us is Two People: Insights from Earl Nightingale

When I was in high school, I made it a point to never miss the five-minute radio program in which the deep-voiced Earl Nightingale explained surprising and uplifting things about the world. I had to miss a few, but only a few, from 1972 to 1975. Radio stations (worldwide) that carried his program offered to send free copies of his scripts in a self-addressed stamped envelope. Of course, today, the programs would all have been on a website, which Nightingale, who died in 1989, did not live to see. I sent for all of his scripts. The secretary at the radio station wrote to me, wanting to know more about this unusual, perhaps unique, little boy who listened to every show.

Nightingale talked about anything he wanted to. A common structure of his programs was, I’ve been reading a book by x entitled y. I think you would enjoy hearing about it. And he was usually right. He seemed to like Eric Hoffer and Abraham Maslow a lot. He usually talked about successful business and personal life, and how to have a healthy mind—for example, how to not be a mumpsimus. But he sometimes threw in things that were a bit puzzling, such as how there might be UFOs, about the Bermuda Triangle, or about an article called “Secret Thoughts of a Happy Husband.” Not sure where that came from. But we all listened to whatever he said, and most of the time were enriched by it. One of his broadcasts was about the dangers of smoking. In the photo above, notice the absence of an ashtray—a noticeable absence in the mid-twentieth century.

Nightingale knew by experience what he was talking about. When he was twelve, in the middle of the Depression, his father abandoned the family, and he lived in a tent city with his mother outside of Los Angeles. But it was not long before he worked his way into successful military and business careers.

Nightingale’s messages were simple, often obvious—at least, obvious after someone says it. They were based upon the secrets of his vast success in business. He would give examples of how you have to treat your customers with respect, give them what they want, convince them that you care about them, and then really do it. As he was the first to admit, his ideas were not new; they sound strangely like the Golden Rule. But at the time, like today, many people in business thought that the path to success was to beat down your competitors and to get every nickel out of your customers that you can. Nightingale explained that this was a sure path to failure.

As it turns out, in the decades after Nightingale’s death, exactly the kind of oppressive corporate atmosphere that Nightingale hated, one that leaves us customers feeling like the scum of the earth, has become the dominant experience in the marketplace. He would not have liked to see what has happened to our economy in the twenty-first century. When Nightingale was recording his programs, he said that executives really deserved getting paid more than the average worker. But at the time, executives got paid only ten times more; today, it is more like two hundred times. I doubt that executives are twenty times as valuable to their companies today as they were in the 1970s. The modern American economy, dominated by TBTF corporations, would have outraged him.

Nightingale was definitely a conservative, as the concept was understood at the time. He was always defending free enterprise, and was puzzled at the counter-culture people who thought that working for monetary reward was bad. He even said that socialist countries like Sweden were an economic disaster and suffered massive crime waves. Maybe they did at the time, but socialist democracies have since that time flourished. He had the typical mid-century male view of women, they should be secretaries etc., but he was also open to them progressing to an equal status with men, someday. He championed female college education. But he never mixed religion with his conservatism, and he never said one word about the Vietnam War or Richard Nixon, as I recall. He was the kind of conservative we wish we still had.

This is one of several websites with Nightingale quotes.

One of his images that stuck with me is that each of us is two people. One is the person that everyone sees, which I might call the biological person. This is the person who goes to work and fills his or her role in society. The second person is like a ghost hovering over and around the first, invisible but real. This is the potential person, what he or she could be by using all the creativity and zeal that he or she has, looking for and capitalizing upon opportunities. When I look out over a classroom of students, I sometimes I imagine seeing this second person. In many cases, the first person joyfully fills the space created by the second, but in many other cases I see students wanting to get their education over with so that they can walk unprepared into the world where they will have actual responsibilities and not be ready for them.

In some ways, Earl Nightingale was the world’s first blogger. He posted short essays on whatever topic he wanted. Anybody can do a blog now, for free, but back then, Nightingale had to convince sponsors to pay for his show. Maybe my blog posts are my way of doing what the great Earl Nightingale did.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scientific Pseudo-Understanding

As I explained at great (and, I think, interesting) length in my new book Scientifically Thinking, the scientific way of thinking reveals the deep significance and structure of the world around us.

But sometimes us scientists are guilty of pseudo-understanding. I am about to encounter one example in a couple of hours. I am giving the final exam (which includes a lab practical) for my Systematic Botany course. I expect students to know about 150 different kinds of plants, though in reality I emphasize just the most common ones (still about 70). (If you don’t like plant biodiversity, don’t move to Oklahoma. We have more plant species per square kilometer than any other state.) They can pass the exam with a C if they only know the common names, but to get an A they have to know many Latin names as well.

For me, and I bet for many students, if we can say, “that plant is a mustang grape,” we feel as if we know everything there is to know about it. If we can say, “that plant is a Vitis mustangensis,” we really understand everything about it. But of course just giving something a name does not mean we know very much about it. The Latin nomenclature allows us to recognize the relatives and the evolutionary ancestry of the plant, but that is about all there is to it.

The people who really understand each of the plants are those who can recognize it in the wild (hence the lab practical), and who know how it grows and its place in the community of species. The mustang grape, like other grapes, is a vine that takes advantage of the strong stems of bushes and trees in order to get its leaves up in the sun without having to make its own strong stems. Unlike the other common grape species in Oklahoma, the muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), the mustang grape has thick woolly hairs on the underside of the leaf, which might mean that it grows in sunny locations, being able to reflect some of the light and therefore the heat. The two grape species probably bloom at different times, thus preventing cross-breeding that would be beneficial to neither species. Now that’s understanding. Just reciting the name is not.

Sometimes I catch myself reciting the name and then not looking further at the plant. This usually happens when I am on a walk with my wife. She cannot always remember what the plants are, but she probably looks at them more than I do.

Well, time to go give my final practical. I have to be ready for either indoors or outdoors during Oklahoma’s spring-long potential stormy weather. One of the species is poison ivy, and of course I will not tell them which one it is.

Monday, April 29, 2019

How Biology Is, Or Is Not, Different: Thoughts from Ernst Mayr

Ernst Mayr was one of the leading figures in modern biology. He was the last surviving architect of The New Synthesis of evolution. And he kept writing books until he died at age 100 in 2005. Because of his age, his writing is fairly clear: he knew he did not have time to go off onto tangents. He had to get to the point, since he knew any sentence might be his last.

One of his main points (expressed in two books, This is Biology and What Makes Biology Unique?, which are very similar but not quite the same) is that biology cannot be judged by the same standards of scientific rigor as the physical sciences. Yes, we all know that biological systems (such as organisms) follow natural laws. But each biological phenomenon is the result of such a prodigious number of interacting natural laws that you can never exactly predict what is going to happen. The best example is evolution. Immanuel Kant said that there would never be a Newton for a blade of grass. Several writers have noted that Darwin became that very person.

But Darwin was a “Newton for a blade of grass” because he changed our view of biology the way Newton changed the view of physics. What Darwin did not do was to establish a system by which the exact course of evolution could be predicted. One reason for this is that each organism is unique, while each electron is the same as every other electron. It is true that the molecules in a glass of water are different from one another; each has its own kinetic energy, and some of them have hydrogen and/or oxygen atoms with extra neutrons. Although one could say that a glass of water has a “population” of molecules, they do not differ from one another in the extreme way that organisms in a population do.

I will let you read Mayr’s books, if you wish. But I want to remind all of us that there are some laws of nature that biological systems always follow. They include:

  • The rate of diffusion (of molecules, heat, electrons, etc.) is proportional to the concentration or energy status divided by the resistance. One of the components of resistance is distance; it takes a molecule four times as long to diffuse twice as far. This is why diffusion is rapid over short distances, such as a synapse, and slow over long distances, such as a room. This is true everywhere in biology. This is why leaves and animal tissues both have numerous, tiny vessels. I am aware of no exceptions.
  • A related concept is that an increased surface-to-volume ratio increases chemical activity. This is why kindling burns faster than a log, and why bacteria can metabolize so quickly. Any exceptions?
  • A third example is from fluid dynamics. The rate of fluid flow is proportional to the fourth power of the diameter of the vessel. This law is always true for laminar flow, such as in blood vessels and xylem. Any exceptions? For larger things, such as water pipes, gas pipes, and rivers, it is almost true, but turbulent flow (when the fluid starts roiling around) slows the fluid down.

Most scientists agree with Mayr. This is the main reason that I am seldom interested in mathematical models of biological phenomena. A few decades ago, various botanists figured out equations for how much transpiration was needed to cool a leaf off, and how big or small a leaf should be to keep from overheating, and other such things. The equations gave a verisimilitude of precision. Actual leaves may or may not follow these equations precisely. They are good generalizations, but no more than that.

I recommend the writings of Ernst Mayr, even if you are not a professional scientist. Even at age 100 he had an all-encompassing mind.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Thinking Back on René Dubos: Ecological and Evolutionary Medicine

For many years, I have been teaching a subject in general biology classes that I call the Ecology and Evolution of Disease. It includes the subject that is now called Evolutionary Medicine (it now even has its own journal). I continue to be amazed that no general biology textbooks seem to mention it.

I grew up thinking what most people still think about health and contagious disease. As Ogden Nash wrote, “A mighty creature is the germ, though smaller than the pachyderm...” It was all very simple. Germs caused contagious diseases. The solution was to kill the germs. Problem solved.

But it is not so simple, and the book that opened my eyes to the real complexity of health and disease was Man Adapting, a 1965 book by René Dubos. It was an old book when I first read it in the late 1980s. It was ahead of its time, and maybe still is.

Dubos’s main point was that health is a creative response. It is delimited by biology and evolution but it is highly personal. That is, a disease can take a different course in different individuals. Dubos said that, when we ask what man is, we should not be satisfied with the answer that he was an ape. Instead, we should think of ourselves as ecosystems in which health is the result of the proper balance of all of our physiological processes, as well as all the microbial species that call our bodies home.

Dubos wrote about how the human body is an integrated whole, and conditions of the body can alter the course of disease. For example, stress can affect the immune system, with the result that bacteria that are already present but unnoticed can flare up into disease. This is now well known. The stress of viral disease can make a person susceptible to bacterial infections such as sinusitis and pneumonia, caused by “germs” that were already present. The stress of allergies caused me recently to have severe sinusitis. We have all seen examples of people who, from stress and its related habits such as smoking, seem to always be sick. Also, Dubos may have been one of the first scientists to write extensively about how an upset to biological rhythms can result in disease, including infections.

And the effects of stress can pass on from one generation to another. A mother animal who experiences stress can have behaviorally abnormal offspring, and it might result in part from the effects of stress on the prenatal environment of the fetus.

Dubos also included a lot of information about how Old World diseases killed up to 90 percent of many Native American and Polynesian populations, because they had never evolved resistance to these germs. Why didn’t the Europeans die of New World diseases? Because there weren’t very many. America was populated by immigrants from Siberia, and Polynesia by people sailing long distances in boats. Only healthy people could have made those journeys. This opened my eyes to a whole new understanding of some parts of human history. After Dubos, many historians have written about this.

An important, and still often ignored, aspect of our body ecosystem is its microbial inhabitants. Gnotobiotic animals (born, raised, and maintained in totally sterile conditions) are abnormal. Their organs develop abnormally, and so do their immune systems. They heal more slowly from injuries.

Many parts of our bodies, especially the skin and digestive tract, harbor trillions of bacteria, most of which are harmless, and some of which are beneficial. Some of the beneficial ones produce molecules which, to them, are wastes, but to us are vitamins, especially B vitamins. In our intestines, the lactobacilli and bacteroides are beneficial, while bacteria such as the famous E. coli are usually harmless. E. coli just seem to be along for the ride. In rodent colonies with normal intestinal bacteria, kept in total isolation from the outside environment and other rodents, the E. coli gradually disappear, leaving the lactobacilli and bacteroides to dominate. But even the merely non-harmful bacteria can do us some favors by crowding out the pathogenic bacteria.

This is the ecology of disease within a human body. (There is also the ecology whereby bacteria spread from one host to another.) But evolution also plays a role. This was the book where I first read about how many disease organisms have evolved to become less virulent. For example, many diseases, such as smallpox, leprosy, and (a disease Dubos and his wife studied) tuberculosis became less and less deadly over the course of many decades even before the introduction of antibiotics and antiviral therapy. Some infectious diseases have pretty much evolved themselves out of existence. One example is the English sweating sickness, which was a severe plague from 1485 to 1551. Its main symptom was profuse sweating. Then it vanished. Perhaps, Dubos speculated, it evolved into such a mild form that nobody noticed it after 1551.

I knew he was right as soon as I read his book, because I could think of my own stories. I had read many gruesome stories about smallpox. But my own grandmother had smallpox. For her, it was a severe but not deadly disease, and did not leave pock marks when she recovered. She had become infected with a relatively mild strain of smallpox. Before the WHO began its campaign of worldwide vaccination to eradicate it, smallpox was already on its way out. I also knew this from direct experience. I grew up in Tulare County, California, after which the disease tularemia is named. It is endemic to the area, and probably everyone who lived there had gotten it. Only, for us in the twentieth century, it was a mild disease that we mistook for the flu. I did not know I had had it until I tested positive for tularemia antibodies when I was a teenager.

How can a disease evolve to become milder? The simplest explanation is that a horrible germ that quickly kills its host cannot easily spread to a new host after it kills the first host. The first host is too sick to get up and spread germs around, and everybody stays away from him if he tries. Also, some people are naturally immune to the disease, and they are the ones who survive the most often. But the main reason is that the mild germs are the ones that are successful at spreading to new hosts.

This is the evolutionary process of balanced pathogenicity. It was scientifically demonstrated by a study on a rabbit virus, myxomatosis, in Australia in the 1960s. The rabbit populations evolved resistance to the virus, and the virus populations evolved into a milder form.

I got the impression from reading Man Adapting that balanced pathogenicity was true of all infectious diseases. Of course, it is not. Cholera has not evolved into milder form, because you get it from drinking contaminated water—water that has been contaminated by very sick, or by mildly sick, people. You cannot avoid the bad germs of the very sick people, mixed in as they are with the mild germs of the mildly sick people. Also, malaria may evolve to become worse, because mosquitoes like to bite sick people who cannot shoo them away, rather than alert people who are busy. (However, Dubos pointed out, a person who is very sick from malaria will die sooner, such that the mosquitoes might bite the mildly sick people more often simply because there are more of them.)

It was this book, Man Adapting, that changed many of my views of science, making them less linear and more holistic.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Book of Knowledge

In its twenty volumes, an immense amount of information is crammed. It was intended for children 6 to 16, but I doubt that even 16-year-olds could handle it back in 1951, certainly not now. It was the strangest mixture: Mary Had a Little Lamb would be right next to a long article about English portrait painting during the Restoration, and pages of unclear black and white photos of cathedrals. This set of books struck me, a writer, as a really bad idea from the start, but somehow The Book of Knowledge persisted for at least 40 years. There were pages and pages of “birthday congratulations” for the encyclopedia on its fortieth printing, even one from Bing Crosby, who carefully avoided saying whether he had ever actually read anything from earlier editions of the book when he was a kid.

But I actually enjoyed looking through The Book of Knowledge recently. I do not have television or internet in my second house, where I was confined to recover from the antibiotic-resistant infection of which I wrote earlier. To me, looking through these books was a fascinating glimpse into the past: How to send a telegram, how telephones (the old black bakelite ones) worked, how card catalogs worked in libraries, how sorting machines were used on census cards, how motor cars are made. “Could we ever travel to the moon?” Fun with your typewriter! (You can make faces on typing paper with it.) Wax cylinders for temporary recordings from which secretaries could transcribe letters!

The Book of Knowledge was extremely American-oriented. Under “The Distribution of Wealth,” the entire discussion was about capitalism, which also dominated “How Wealth is Created.” At the same time, one passage said that the assumption upon which taxation is built is equality of sacrifice of both rich and poor. God, where did that idea disappear to? We need it back.

Despite the American bias, The Book of Knowledge presented all the parts of the world equally and, by mid-century standards, without judgment. All religions were treated equally. Women of every race were beautiful, men handsome, and every culture had its own brilliant literature and music. The encyclopedia did not talk about the early civil rights struggles; instead, it included a big section about outstanding American “Negroes,” which was the honorable term at the time, leaving the reader to conclude that black people deserved far better than what they were getting.

And the books told kids how to do some things that were, at least at the time, important, such as how to do first aid, how to knit, how to make a whistle, how to make a violin from a cigar box, how to make a princess petticoat for your doll, how to cook.

There were classic stories, everything from Guy de Maupassant’s The Diamond Necklace to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. They were always nourishing and uplifting even if, like Maupassant’s story, the ending was a little tragic.

But there was something in this set of books that is often missing in modern education: a sense of wonder. Over thousands of pages, the book asked questions about things that kids had seen many times but never thought about. The wonder of a piece of silk! Does a plant go to sleep? Why is it good to boil potatoes in their jackets? How do chemical bonds form? (Smiling atoms looked at each other and said, “Got any room for a lonely electron?”) How do plants move and feel? And the life of a tree: “How thrilling would be the story of trees if only they could speak!” This sense of wonder was the best thing about this set of books.

The strangest part was how the books were organized. They weren’t. One topic was smooshed against another at random. As a result, each volume had to have an outline at the beginning to classify the topics and tell which page they were on, and Volume 20 was an index. Very confusing. No wonder that the New Book of Knowledge, which replaced this old one, is alphabetical like every other encyclopedia.

On the other hand, all of knowledge is interconnected. That is the way the world is: each bit of knowledge is mixed in with other bits. The kids were expected to just read through the Book of Knowledge and have their knowledge enhanced in every way at the same time, a carnival of sensations. I wonder if it might not be time to go back to this sort of non-arrangement. If such a set of books was online, then you could search for any topic you might want by pressing Control F. I hesitate to admit that this old Book of Knowledge was organized somewhat the way my brain works! As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, I used to imagine that I would lead a big research institute in which all knowledge would be encapsulated. I started a list of topics, in which birds had equal standing with bubbles. I imagined that I would complete the work and die happy at age 103. I soon recognized that it was impossible to gather all knowledge into one place.

But I will never lose my passion for the interconnectedness of all knowledge.

Friday, March 8, 2019

What Does a Scientist Do When He or She Gets Sick?

I mean, besides griping and whining like everyone else. And feeling embarrassed for sneezing in front of a class. And I don’t mean an ordinary sneeze. I mean a convulsive one that makes me bend over double, one that is uncontrollable, and which makes me invent new consonants. Red Skelton did a comedy routine about this once.

What do we scientists do when we get sick? We test a series of hypotheses, that’s what. It keeps our minds occupied even though we may never find out which hypothesis, if any, might be true.

When I became sick over a month ago, I tried to figure out what it was. I first assumed it was allergies. Allergies are famous in Oklahoma. I got a severe sore throat one night, assumed it was a cold, Hypothesis 1, but it was gone the next day, to be replaced by all the usual symptoms of either an allergy or a cold. Lots of other people had the same experience on the same day, which just happened to be the day the rain stopped and a strong wind came from the south during cedar pollen season (Juniperus ashei, abundant in Texas). How likely was it that I had an infection when everybody else had allergies? The rain came back and our windshields ran yellow with cedar and elm pollen. That was hypothesis 2: allergic reaction.

But it didn’t go away. I assumed that Hypothesis 1 had been correct. But nine days later, I still had this cold. Maybe, I thought, it was a bacterial infection, Hypothesis 3. Maybe the allergic reaction weakened my immune system, making me vulnerable to bacteria that I already harbored and which had been waiting their chance to invade me. Evidence: yellow snot. Not just from breathing pollen, but even when the pollen had been rinsed away by more rain.

Ten days of amoxicillin seemed to help. At least my sense of taste returned. But my cough and congestion continued. I went to the clinic again. My snot was now clear, so the conclusion was that Hypothesis 2 had been correct, and I got an allergy shot.

By the beginning of the fourth week of whatever-the-hell, I was beginning to think of bacteria again, because the allergy shot brought no relief. I thought it was working, but this was bias on the part of my brain. My snot was yellow again, and there were the convulsive coughs, along with abdominal muscle pains just from the coughing. I have already used more tissues than I typically do in two or three years. But this is Hypothesis 4: amoxicillin-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill thousands of people. They are the premier example of the statement I used in my encyclopedia: What you don’t know about evolution can kill you. If I had not studied evolutionary medicine, I might never have thought of Hypothesis 4. Most infections, even bacterial ones, are self-limiting, which means you eventually get over them in a few months or decades. But I have too much life that I want to finish before I die, so I hope it doesn’t take this long. And recovery is not guaranteed. Weep not for me, gentle friends, but for the books I will not have a chance to publish unless I recover.

As of this posting, the second-line antibiotic seems to be working. If it does not, I hereby authorize my heirs to post a notice on this blog.

I was in the mood for hypothesis testing because I was reading This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World, by the late great Ernst Mayr. He wrote the book when he was 92 years old; he died at age 100 in 2004. It is thick with information, but pleasantly written (even with a joke or two), and I could relax in the assurance that he had figured out the philosophy of science so that I did not have to. He was not a great fan of philosophers; during the height of Karl Popper’s popularity, he said that every scientist he knew claimed he or she was a Popperian and then went ahead and did whatever he or she was going to do anyway. If I did not have to sit at home, I might never have looked at this book.

Hypothesis testing helps us understand reality, but it also helps take our minds away from the reality that would depress us.

Monday, March 4, 2019

May the Spirit of Science Be With You!

If you can, find some time to sit back with a copy of my latest book Scientifically Thinking and read it while sipping your favorite drink. Preferably a book you have bought rather than borrowed from the library, though enough libraries have purchased it that you can probably look at it first before buying it.

I have received several emails from people who have thoroughly enjoyed this book, which presents science as a thoroughly human activity but one that is constrained by logic that does not come easily to the human mind. One of them interviewed me on his radio show even though he had only read the introduction. (He asked me to tell him more about the Acknowledgements page.)

The most interesting response I have so far received was an email from Gary Spedding, a distillation quality consultant, a member of judging panels for distillation quality, and a contributor to the magazine Artisinal Spirit. (I like to think the title refers both to alcoholic and to creative spirit.) Trained in biochemistry, Gary runs the BDAS (Brewing and Distilling Analysis Services) website. Although British, this Gary is not the same Gary Spedding as the notorious British (brutish?) Holocaust denier by the same name. Gary shared with me an article that is to be published in an upcoming issue of Artisinal Spirit. It is safe to say that I have little experience with this field of study. And I think that Gary probably already knew most of the things that he wrote about my book in his article before reading my book, but my book gave him a framework to organize his thoughts and to show that his work is not entirely different from the work of those of us who call ourselves professional scientists.

Below I will mention some of the topics in Gary’s article, to show you some of the scientific considerations involved in the practice of good beverage distillation. Distillers already know these things, as evidenced by Gary’s articles and references therein, but many need some clarification.

The concept of terroir. I did not know that distillers worked with this concept, though the French wine industry is largely based upon it. Terroir comes from the word for earth, and it means that wine made from grapes raised in one location, say Bordeaux, is very different from an otherwise identically-produced wine made from grapes grown in Alsace. Theoretically, this could apply to almost any agricultural product—I suppose sauerkraut (choucroute) raised in Alsace would taste different from choucroute raised in Bordeaux, that is, if they raise any in Bordeaux. Since it is hotter and drier in Bordeaux, I’ll bet the Bordeaux choucroute would be more bitter. But I had supposed that any terroir-associated differences in the grains used to make whisky or gin would have been lost during distillation. Perhaps I was wrong about this. Gary pointed out how easy it is for an individual, or even a tasting panel, to be biased in its detection of terroir quality (please, Word software, quit changing this to terror).

Tasting panel bias. Humans are all biased, and a panel of expert tasters is no exception. Individual tasters can be influenced by other factors such as color. As Gary pointed out, tasters might think that a darker whiskey tastes better. Also, the taster should do his or her test at a time of day and under circumstances in which bias would be minimized, for example, at least an hour after using toothpaste, but during a time of peak sensitivity, e.g., mid-day. Also, in a panel of judges, some individuals can influence others. If one of them says “Ah!” this must surely influence the others. Are all the tasters blindfolded in individual cubicles? And just how objective are the panelists? Do they enjoy tasting the samples so much that they become the equivalent of the field zoologist’s “trap-happy animals”? (See page 143 of my book.) I wrote that all humans are biased, even scientists, but scientists try to compensate for it. Gary improved on what I said by entitling one of his sections “If you’re biased and you know it clap your hands...” Maybe what you want in a tasting panel is not uniformity of expertise but diversity of tastes, in which case—you might not want to go there—pulling volunteers off the street might be more reliable than what the experts say.

Sample size. A distiller cannot draw a conclusion from one vat, even if s/he has a control vat (whatever that might be) to which to compare it. How many vats? As many as possible? It really depends on your market. If you think “scientifically tested with thousands of independent samples” will sell more product, then do it, if it doesn’t cost more than your likely profits. A scientific rule-of-thumb for statistical significance is to use 30 specimens in each treatment. Is it worth it? Even the statistical tests must be done by expensive computer programs. Don’t use the same vat over and over; that’s pseudo-replication.

Humans as measuring devices. Human senses are not reliable measuring devices. As Gary points out, the sense of smell (which responds to thousands of scents, unlike taste, which responds to only six) varies greatly from one individual to another. One individual might be unable to taste, say, ethyl acetate, while another finds it pleasant, and another dislikes it. Human senses are also influenced by the sequence effect: tasters will pay closer attention to the first sample than to the twelfth, especially if they swallow. (I don’t know whether they do. I have heard that there is such a thing as a spit bucket, so I suppose they don’t.) Even something like how long a bottle has been opened (since opening a bottle introduces oxygen and thus oxidation) can influence taste. Drinks consist of thousands of chemicals, as will anything of biological origin, and a taster cannot pay attention to all of them. But is this really an important consideration? It is, after all, humans who will be drinking it. A subjective (scientifically unreliable) opinion might be exactly what you want from the panel of tasters.

You can use the scientific method just about anywhere. Or, you might intelligently decide to not use it. You just should not overlook it. I will end this entry where Gary ended his article, “May the spirit of science be with you!”

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Global Warming Denialism: What Fundamentalists Are Forcing God to Say

Fundamentalist Christians insist that, since God controls the seasons and the weather, there is nothing that we can do to alter it. This is the basis for their insistence that, no matter how much carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, global warming will not occur unless God wants it to. That is, if God has decided that global warming will occur, then it will occur even if we totally cease all carbon emissions; and if God has decided it will not occur, then we can pour all the carbon we want to into the air and nothing bad will happen.

The fundamentalists base this belief upon Genesis 8:22, in which God tells Noah right after the big Flood, “While the Earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” This verse does not say that global warming will not occur, so long as the seasons continue. There are no scientists who say that global warming will cause seasonal and geographical differences to cease to exist. But to fundamentalists, this verse means that God is in charge of climate and seasons, and that whatever happens on Earth is whatever God has already planned. We cannot reduce global warming by driving smaller cars, nor can a rich televangelist make global warming worse by flying around in a private jet.

This would be a laughably trivial matter except that it is the principle upon which the Republicans who are largely ruling America believe. The most famous global warming denier, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, has said that, because “God’s still up there,” the “arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

But the Bible also suggests in several places that God is also in charge of your lifespan. God has already decided how many days you are going to live, and there is nothing you can do about it. The verse that says this most clearly is Psalm 139:16, in which the psalmist records words he attributes to God: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Fundamentalists usually use this verse to prove that an “unformed substance” (an embryo) is fully human (“my” unformed substance). Almost in passing, they acknowledge that this means our days are numbered.

Elsewhere, Jesus says that the hairs of our head are numbered. I remember listening to evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong on the radio telling us all that his hair was falling out, and that if he counted them, he could calculate the exact date on which he would become bald. He seems to have been unaware that, in most cases, when a hair falls out of a follicle, a new one grows back.

Perhaps “numbered” just means “limited”? The hairs of our head, and the days of our lives, are finite, and we should be mindful that we will not live forever, and we had better get our lives in shape before it is too late. This is a good interpretation, but is not a fundamentalist one. The psalm says, regarding “the days that were formed for me,” every one of them. Each day of our future was written individually in God’s advance plan. In another psalm, the psalmist said that our lifespan was limited to 70 years (or, he concedes, maybe 80). I knew someone who literally believed he would drop dead on his 70th birthday. But most fundamentalists would say that only God knows how many days we will live, and each one of us has a different number of days. This assertion is scientifically untestable (how could you ever prove that someone died on a day different than the one written on God’s secret list) but seems to be a straightforward literal interpretation of Psalm 139:16.

If fundamentalists then took this verse one step further, they would have to conclude that your number of days is predetermined, no matter what you do. Don’t bother with eating healthy food; go ahead and drink and smoke; don’t worry about hiking or walking, just go ahead and sit on the couch and listen to televangelists and Fox News all day, because it won’t make any difference. Eating vegetables will not make you live any more, and eating fat and sugar will not make you live any fewer, days. Fundamentalists generally do NOT take this interpretation. Instead they say that God made your body and you should take care of it, at least a little bit.

If God is in charge of the climate, and He is also in charge of your lifespan, why do fundamentalists tell us there is no point in working toward planetary health, but that it is important to work toward personal health? I think there is only one possible reason: they are using Genesis 8:22 as an excuse to ignore, or even be hostile toward, the science of climate change. Their fundamental beliefs therefore appear to be, “God is in charge of everything except when He isn’t,” and, “God’s truth is whatever the Republican Party says that it is.”

God is the tool of the fundamentalists. You would think that one advantage of being God is that you are in charge. But, poor little God; He has to do whatever the fundamentalists tell Him to do.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Message I Sent to President Trump

This past week has been a banner week for global warming. We finally understand that President Trump has Godlike powers even over the weather. So, we have nothing to worry about. Trump will protect us from the consequences of global climate change.

Here is the email I sent to the White House:

“Dear President Trump,

I wish to praise you for your Godlike power, wisdom, and ability. Many Christians worship you, but I have hesitated to do so. Perhaps I should reconsider. Last week you told global warming to come back, “we need you.” And it did! In Oklahoma, where I live, it was 20 degrees, and very soon after you spoke your holy words, the temperatures increased to almost 80. The very weather obeys you! How can anyone, now, deny your Godlike power?”

I assume nobody on the White House staff will read this, certainly not Trump.

Another reason this is a banner week: Trump is appointing one of America’s most famous climate change deniers, John Christy, as his science advisor. Christy vigorously maintains that, because of his Christian faith, he will never believe that global climate change is occurring. But now he might have to reconsider whether it is God, or Trump, who controls the weather.

Even if he does read this, I doubt that Trump would catch the sarcasm.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Scientific Sense of Importance: The Case of the Fire Ant

We scientists like to think that our work is important. And it is. But sometimes we scientists get a little carried away and exaggerate the importance of our particular lines of research. One example that I have personally observed is the invasion of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta.

Fire ants came from South America to Alabama about 1930, where the young naturalist E. O. Wilson, who went on to become one of the leading evolutionary scientists in the world, found them. They have spread inexorably since that time, restricted to warm wet areas. Right now, in Oklahoma, they live in the southern part of the state but not the northern part. And they can be a menace. If you disturb their nest, they will quickly swarm all over you. And they swarm over and eat some ground-nesting birds and young mammals who cannot run away. They have even killed a person, as told in this news report. They once crawled up the river of snot from a little boy’s nose, very quietly, and when he moved they attacked him. He lived, I think.

There is an annual meeting of Imported Red Fire Ant (IRFA) researchers. I went to two of the meetings, back when scientific travel money was easier to obtain. Both years I presented results of small research projects (it was never a major focus of my work) about the effects of fire ants on plants. I was the only botanist at the meetings.

It is understandable that some scientists would study the fire ants, especially since they are a potential menace. It is important to monitor where they are and what they do. And they have astonishing behavior. Not unlike army ants, they can lock themselves together in a clump, and can float in water. That is how they came across the Red River from Texas into Oklahoma.

But, as it turns out, fire ants have not been a major threat. Cold temperatures and dry conditions have stopped their northward and westward spread. Central Park is safe. They have spread to California, perhaps in nursery soil, but fire ants are way down the list of threats to the health and safety of Californians. Ground-nesting birds have not been driven to extinction by them, and you are about as likely to be killed by a meteor as by fire ants.

But we wanted to make our work important. So we emphasized the potential threats that fire ants posed to public health and safety, and to the economy. For scientists whose research programs were invested in fire ant ecology, it was important to do this. We did not spread deliberately false alarms about the Attack of the Killer Ants, but we put a spin on it that, at least subconsciously, was intended to scare funding agencies into supporting our work.

Everybody wants to think their work is important, and our minds create a bias to this effect. Scientists are like everyone else in this respect. But the scientific method, at least, makes us scientists aware of our biases and requires us to present evidence for our assertions.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Caveman’s Shadow

This is a brief meditation upon how science has changed everything we see.

If a caveman stood straight up (which he could; the old movies showing cavemen dragging their knuckles are ridiculous) at midday, he would see his shadow just like every other sunny day. He would not have realized that his shadow pointed straight north.

If he had done so on the first day of spring or fall (assuming he knew about what day this was), he would most certainly not have realized that the length of his shadow would be exactly the same as his height if he was at 45 degrees north or south. Or that the reason for this was that the Earth revolved around the sun and was tilted relative to the plane of its revolution. He would just see his shadow. But today we can look at our shadow and see a whole story about the movement of the Earth.

In this and many other ways, the scientific viewpoint changes everything we see.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Look Back to Some Good Posts of the Past

For those of you who have only recently started reading this blog, I had some fantastic posts in 2012.

I took a long road trip from Oklahoma to California and back. One of the main purposes of this trip was to take photos and make videos to teach about evolution. I posted a series of “Evotour” essays, with photos. I saw some really interesting and thought-provoking things! The links are below:

I also posted a series about Religion and Science, The Vast Gulf. Science and religion differ markedly on such issues as:

I also had a series of posts from the Oklahoma Evolution Workshop in October 2012. A stimulating experience, not to be forgotten!

I posted numerous free-standing essays, of which my best were:

Appealing to the Basest Instincts. This was about politicians, and it has suddenly become more relevant than ever!
Reality of Global Warming: The 2012 Phenology Conference Includes a part in which two scientists who consider global warming to be a gigantic problem were listed among the “3000 scientists who reject global warming.”

If you have time, take a look at these. I have left out essays which, however interesting, dealt with issues that were mainly relevant in 2012.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Fiction as Science: The Example of On the Beach

Fiction can be science. This is a point that I made in my recently-released book Scientifically Thinking: Sometimes fiction has a structure similar to scientific research. The novelist sets up an experiment and runs it to test a hypothesis, just like a scientist would, only the experiment takes place in a fictional mind-space rather than in the lab or field.

In 1957, the world was on the cusp of nuclear annihilation, and nobody knew what might happen next, and what the consequences of nuclear war might be. Everyone knew there would be a lot of radiation, but nobody knew how much or what the physiological effects on humans or any other species might be.

Into this milieu of peril came Nevil Shute’s famous novel On the Beach, in which the entire Northern Hemisphere had been destroyed by nuclear war. The Southern Hemisphere, including Australia where the novel is set, did not participate. And yet the radiation crept inexorably down from the north. On the southern shore of Australia, even as the radiation destroyed northern Australia, life continued almost as before. The electric trains still ran, since Australia had its own low-quality coal for power plants, but there was no gasoline, so people rigged up their cars to be drawn by horses. The novel was set in 1964, which was the future, but near enough so that the readers could not feel distant from it.

This novel was made into a famous 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. Only a really important movie could have gotten this line-up.

It is an amazing movie, except that almost the only soundtrack was Waltzing Matilda over and over and over. But even here the movie was well done. Drunken fishermen were singing the song out of tune, but right at a dramatic moment when Dwight and Moira had to confront their doomed love for one another, the orchestra played the tune in perfect and disturbing harmony.

Into this Australian scenario comes an American submarine that just happened to be in the south when the war struck. Toward the end, Commander Dwight Towers realized that he and his crew were the only Americans still alive in the world. He was the only American with any authority. When he realizes this (page 164 of Signet edition), “He said wearily, ‘I guess the United States is me, right now. I’m thinking of running for President.’”

Nevil Shute set up the fictional experiment, and controlled the variables that he knew would make the results of the experiment too difficult to interpret.

  • Shute made the dying silent and without destruction. If the novel was filled with explosions and carnage, it would just be confusing. But Shute had the radiation approaching invisibly. The atmospheric circulation of the Northern Hemisphere is almost entirely separate from the Southern, but not quite. The air is almost still right where the sun is straight overhead, but this latitude of stillness moves north and south with the seasons, causing the atmosphere of the North to mix with that of the South in a gradual and totally consistent manner. Every Northern Hemisphere city that the submarine crew saw through their periscope during a reconnaissance mission was nearly intact except for the total absence of people.
  • Shute made it easy for people to choose a painless end to their lives. The Australians also chose to end their lives, once they knew death was inevitable, by taking poison pills, for which they lined up at health dispensaries. For the sake of simplifying the experiment, Shute made up a poison that makes you painlessly fall asleep forever. I am not aware that any such poison exists.

Therefore the novel can focus clearly on the central questions, rather than being distracted by mayhem.

One question this novel addresses is this: what would people do if life seemed utterly normal, except that they knew that death was coming, and they knew almost exactly when it would arrive and how it would happen?

  • One hypothesis is that people would go wild and plunder one another and establish warring states. Maybe this is, in fact, what Americans would do, with our tradition of taking whatever we want for ourselves and our worship of guns. One might imagine that a lot of men would go wild and take as many women as they could get, and plunder the houses of anyone with no, or fewer, guns.
  • But another hypothesis is that people would continue on with their daily lives as long as possible. This is what the Australians did and what countries with a greater sense of social identity would do. I imagine that this is what would happen in, say, Finland. The people continued their jobs, their families, their marriages just as before. This is also what Americans did during the Cold War: they continued their daily lives.

Why would a society of people continue with their normal lives even as death approaches? Here are two possible reasons.

  • A normal life was their only sense of comfort and happiness.
  • A normal life allowed them to fantasize that it wasn’t really happening. In this novel, the American submarine commander Towers has a romance with a young Australian woman (Moira Davidson), but he is chaste with her since he considers himself still married to his wife in Connecticut, even though she must be dead. Towers even bought presents to take home to his wife and children, whom he knew yet denied were dead. The wife of the Australian naval officer put in a garden for the next year that she pretended to believe would still come. This might be the most chilling aspect of the novel: to see people living in their fantasy worlds.

In the end, everyone dies doing what they loved best. One seaman, when the submarine came to his hometown, jumped ship and spent his last day fishing in his own boat. Another, who had a race car, was willing to die during a dangerous race, but he won the championship; then took his poison pills while sitting in his race-car (in the book; in the movie, he killed himself with carbon monoxide). The Australian officer dies in bed with his wife. Moira dies as she watches Dwight sink his submarine offshore. They all died, except Dwight and Moira, with smiles on their faces.

Another question that this novel addresses: What is your responsibility to alleviate the inevitable suffering for those who cannot understand it? The Australian officer tells his wife she may have to kill their baby rather than let it suffer if they die first. At first she angrily insists that this is murder, but eventually decides it is mercy.

Yet another question: Is it fair the Southern Hemisphere should suffer from the fallout of what the Northern Hemisphere has done? All the characters struggle with this constantly, though only once in a while blurting it out.

I hope we are never in a position to find out what we would do if the end of the world was coming inevitably, gradually, and at a time we knew several months in advance. I hope that the real experiment is never done. Is it possible that this novel, and the movie made from it, forced people to confront the reality of the nuclear threat and keep it from actually happening?

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Welcome to a Peaceful New Year!

Well, that may be too much to expect. No matter how much peace and goodwill we create in our lives and among our family, friends, and associates, external forces (such as corporations and politicians) do their best to disrupt us. Because those forces keep us desperate, we will buy whatever the corporations want to sell and go along with whatever the politicians want to foist on us. The classic example is the family with two breadwinners and three jobs that does not have enough time to eat healthy or to work for social and economic change. Corporations, and governments that support those corporations with tax dollars, are happy to supply the unhealthy food.

But the more peace we can have in our own lives, (1) the happier and healthier we will be despite our circumstances, and (2) the more independent we will be of the dominant forces of society as well. To find inner peace, we do not have to subscribe to a specific spiritual doctrine or purchase a special kind of health food. All we have to do, as much as possible, is to find a regular balance in all the things we do in life, all of them in moderation. If we can, that is.

By balance I refer mainly to keeping a regular schedule with your biological clock. More or less regular times for getting up and going to sleep, for eating, and seeking mindful relaxation. One of the worst things we can do—I say from the experience of having done them and then quit—is to let other people control our minds and create tension, mostly from television. Unsubscribe, folks, and save yourselves a lot of money. I quit cable in 2002 and since that time I have saved $10,000. Not sure where that money went, but it didn’t go to cable. Learn to cherish silence. Worked for me. Instead of watching TV, I read and write. Usually in silence.

We become most aware of the disruption of our biological clocks when we experience jet lag. Everything seems to go out of balance, not just our cycles of sleep and wakefulness. But it is not just jet lag but poor daily time management that can disrupt our biological clocks.

Medical assistance may be necessary. If you have sleep apnea, as I did, surgery or a ventilation device may be helpful. Get rid of apnea and you will get your life back. At least I did. I also have sleep onset myoclonus, which is a kind of torture that even Dick Cheney never thought of: at the moment of sleep onset, my muscles contract just enough to wake me up. Maybe just a little muscle, maybe a lot of big ones. Over and over and over and over several times a minute. Medication brought this under control. There is heavy-duty medication, but hemp oil may work just as well. I used to take regular naps; now, I nap maybe three times a year.

An article was published in the November 25 issue of Science in 2016: “Circadian physiology of metabolism,” by Satchidananda Panda of the Salk Institute in La Jolla (Volume 354, pages 1008-1015) This link takes you to the summary; full articles are available only to AAAS members. In this article, the author summarized the many different disorders that can result from disruption of the biological clock:

  • Obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • Disruption of gut microbes
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Liver disease
  • Increased cancer risk
  • High cholesterol
  • Sleep disorders
  • Compromised muscle function

What a list! All of these physiological effects are interrelated, and related to the biological clock. Disrupted sleep can make you fat, give you diabetes, make your intestines sick, and increase the risk of other problems. I was astonished to see this list. I have some of these problems in small measure; what a walking sicko I would be if I did not seek to live in harmony with my biological clock.

I have found that, by mindfully seeking inner peace and following a regular schedule, I am seldom tired. For this, I must also thank certain medications. But we must enable such medications to work by seeking regularity and balance. Even when I have no work to do, I find myself reading and writing—I am on vacation right now—because they are not, for me, stressful. I rest the way the heart muscle rests: between each beat.

Was Ben Franklin right? Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Seems too simple. But if Franklin read that Science article, he would have claimed vindication.