Saturday, October 24, 2020

Why I Love My Small Car

One of the main reasons I drive a small car (a Toyota Prius, in my case) is that, for each mile that I drive, I am emitting less carbon dioxide from the tailpipe. I am doing my part to reduce global warming. But this is not the only reason I drive a small car. Here are some other reasons, which are highly emotional and celebratory. The photo is a stock photo, but this is the model I have.

I can fit my small car into spaces that a larger vehicle could not go. This has proven useful on several occasions. Just recently, when I was in the parking lot of a grocery store, a delivery truck parked in the lot and blocked a bunch of cars, including mine. The delivery people did not care if the store’s customers were inconvenienced. A bunch of other cars were trapped, but there was about a six-foot gap through which my car, but no others, could escape. Similarly, when I stayed at a motel one night (back when I traveled), some a-hole parked his horse trailer in the main lot, taking up eight spaces. He paid the same price I did, but I had no place to park. I got permission from the desk to park my car in the garden. This week, the city of Durant began road construction, without advance notification to the university, and several parking lots became inaccessible. If a car was already parked in the lot, that was just their bad luck. But not mine. My car is small enough I can drive it around barriers and between trees to get away if I have to.

Gasoline is processed, distributed, and sold by a few large corporations. We are pretty much at their mercy. They abuse their powers, imposing their will on us, in direct contradiction to the principles of free enterprise. By buying less gasoline, I take away some of the profits of these oppressive corporations.

Briefly, near the beginning of the current pandemic, gasoline was cheap. The price of oil actually became negative, which means the oil corporations would pay other corporations to take their oil. (The other option was to pour it all into the Gulf of Mexico. Hey, it worked last time, during the 2010 oil spill.) But this did not last very long. Gas prices have again increased. Getting fuel efficiency that is twice the national average saves me about $12 per round trip between Durant, where I work, and Tulsa, where my family lives. This saves me about $300 a year over the average American fuel efficiency.

And, of course, it was cheaper to buy the car in the first place, compared to the cost of a bigger car.

Of course, in a smaller car, I am at greater risk of getting killed by someone driving a larger vehicle. But if we all wanted to be one hundred percent safe, we would all have to drive armored vehicles around, like this man did in 1995 in San Diego.

Despite the American love of big vehicles, and despite the hand-wringing of the oil corporations, who fear that fuel efficiency will put them out of business, Americans have been choosing smaller vehicles more and more each year. How can the oil corporations, and the government that serves their interests alone, reverse this trend? I came up with a fictional idea, which I used in one of my novels. The government could require every vehicle owner to use a minimum of 1000 gallons of gasoline a year; or else, just forfeit the money if they cannot. I called this law the “Koch Quota” after the famous anti-conservationist oil baron brothers. It would be the ultimate socialism, but oil corporations would, I believe, embrace socialism rather than to lose a single dollar in profits.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

What Do You Do with Your Scientific Knowledge?

 Scientific knowledge is not just a private pleasure. It is something to be shared.

A few months back, in my other blog, I shared a story about a kind of Republican you seldom see any more, and I used my childhood optometrist as an example: Dr. James E. Miller of Exeter, California. I recently found an old newspaper clipping about him, from about 1972.

Dr. Miller loved astronomy. Not just looking at stars and planets, but understanding how far away they are and the motions of the planets. He must have felt the kind of excitement that Galileo and Copernicus felt when they realized that the story of the stars was very different from what they had heard when growing up. Dr. Miller was a conservative Christian, but I suspect he must have agreed with Galileo that the Bible told us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

He bought a transparent celestial sphere, with planets and stars, not for his own enjoyment but to teach young people about the heavens. Two places he did this was at Boy Scout camps, helping boys earn their astronomy merit badges, and at SciCon, a science camp from back in the days when there weren’t very many science camps.

On two occasions this month, I got out my telescope (which I keep in my university lab) to look at Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I cannot see them very well, and my telescope is very difficult to use. Mars, though at its closest approach to Earth, just looks like a pink disc. I could just barely see Saturn’s rings. I invited students to come and look at the planets. Two of them did. The excitement was not in the quality of the image, but in the experience of having photons from the planets go straight to your retina. One of the students exclaimed, on seeing Saturn’s rings, exclaimed with great excitement, “I see it!”

I also asked the two students why Mars is red. The red comes from oxidized iron. On Earth, this usually means a reaction with oxygen. But Mars has no oxygen. What caused the iron to oxidize, that is, to lose electrons? I hinted it was something that an oxygen derivative largely shields the Earth from. It was the student who was not a science major who guessed right: UV radiation. The red surface of Mars is only a few centimeters deep.

On those evenings last week, I was doing what Dr. Miller did. And I’m pretty sure that I got a lot of my enthusiasm for all the rest of my science teaching from Dr. Miller.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Beautiful Planet


Imagine yourself on an alien planet, with weird rocks and an almost barren surface. The scene can be very dramatic, as in this example:

But for most of us, a beautiful green forest as seen from a mountain top, with blue skies, or else a green tropical forest from which rain drips refreshingly, is much more beautiful. This is a photo from a forest near my home in Tulsa.

Yet there is no logical reason why the second scene should be better than the first. It is impossible to define beauty in logical terms.

But it is possible to define it in evolutionary terms. To the extent of their mental capacity, all animals have evolved to feel that their environments are beautiful. Because of our large brains, which allow a feeling of spirituality, we humans are the animals most powerfully moved by the sense of beauty. And it is our natural environments that we find most beautiful.

Why would evolution create a sense of beauty in our minds when we see our natural environment? Because if we feel inspired by the beauty of our natural environments, we are more likely to endure its occasional hardships and to live productively within it, finding all the resources we need for our fitness. Someone who thinks that their environment is ugly is unlikely to try very hard to find resources within it. More generally, if we are happy, we will be healthy and get along better in our social circumstances.

But that almost never happens with humans. No matter where people live, they find their environment beautiful. Even on the barren steppes of Siberia. I had a student once from northwest Kansas. There are beautiful parts of Kansas, but this was not one of them. Yet she said, “It is the most beautiful place on Earth.” Probably, even the poor people who search for usable garbage near the landfills in South America think that a mountain of trash can be beautiful, even as they see the peaks of the Andes in the distance.

I find that beautiful natural scenes from this planet are the scenes that move me with the greatest sense of beauty. And evolution is the reason for it.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, part two.

One of the most important ways in which denialists use a deliberate misunderstanding of multiple causation (see previous essay) is to ridicule global warming. In this essay, I will look at just one example of an effect of global warming that is dominating the news now (September/October 2020): the wildfires in the west, particularly in California.

Scientists are certain that global warming, primarily of human cause, is already increasing the number and severity of wildfires. Of course, global warming is not the only cause. Another factor that makes wildfires in California so big and deadly is the accumulation of dead wood in the forests. I have seen first-hand that buildup of dead wood is also a problem in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I taught field botany for eleven years. Once a fire gets started, there is an incredible amount of fuel for it to burn. (Then, of course, yet another cause is whatever ignited the fire. It is usually lightning strikes, though in one case it was sparks from fireworks at a gender reveal party.

This is hierarchical causation: a spark starts a fire, which burns a massive accumulation of dead wood. This is multiple causation: once the fire starts, it is more likely to spread if global warming has made hot, dry conditions worse than they would otherwise have been.

But some people who deny global warming like to ignore multiple causation. They blame the dead wood, then ridicule one of the other causes, global warming.

According to an article, California has been allowing dead wood to accumulate in its forests for decades.

Why has the dead wood accumulated? Because there is no easy way for humans to get rid of the dead wood. Nature’s way of clearing away dead wood is, in fact, fire. Fire is a part of all natural ecosystems, particularly coniferous forests in California. Almost without exception, scientists claim that we need to have natural fires to reduce the accumulation of dead plant matter. In Oklahoma, where I work, fire is the best way to control the spread of red cedar.

The ash from the fire releases nutrients back into the soil, actually promoting the forest to grow back more vigorously (see my YouTube video). Some species of trees actually require fire in order to germinate, as shown in another of my videos.

The problem is that there is no safe way to start control burns, that is, small fires that burn away the wood in wild forests but not on private land holdings. It is so easy for a control burn to get out of control. If California conservation officials started a control burn, which would clear away wood and reduce the risk of future fires, and if a puff of wind sent the fire onto private land, where it destroyed a house, the state might be on the hook for millions of dollars of liability. The article linked above said that, in order to bring California forests back into a stable fire balance, it would be necessary to set fires to wild forests the equivalent of the area of Maine. There is simply no way to do this safely. Having participated in control prairie burns in the Midwest, I can tell you they are risky undertakings. We have a university class in which an expert fire manager was teaching techniques of control burns; the fire got out of control and burned a fence, for which either he or the university (or insurance) had to pay. This was a scientific expert, in a grassland. Imagine what would happen with a fire crew in a dry forest full of dead wood.

It appears to me that California has allowed wood to accumulate in its forests because of the fear of lawsuits. Anyone who lives in a fire zone, let me know: would you be happy if a control burn, which would make life better for future generations, destroyed your home?

The article took an extreme position, however. The author accused the fire control agency CalFire of letting wood build up in order to create new wildfires. Why? Because the money and the glamor comes from fighting wildfires, not from doing control burns. The firefighters get lots of hazard pay, and, friends have told me, it is nearly a carnival atmosphere. The author of the article compares it to “the Halliburton model.” This is a conspiracy theory that says Dick Cheney, who headed up Halliburton corporation, fanned the flames of the Iraq War when he was vice president of the US, in order to get billions of dollars of contracts from the federal government. I am willing to believe almost any conspiracy theory about Dick Cheney, but even I am a little skeptical about this one. Cheney starting a war to get contracts for Halliburton? I haven’t seen quite enough evidence for this.

We’re stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place. We need to burn that dead wood, but we need to avoid destroying human habitations. This is a problem created by human civilization. The Natives who lived in the forest before Smokey the Bear got there had temporary dwellings, and could usually just get up and move if they saw a fire coming. If you have a big house back in the woods (or, worse, in the chaparral), you can’t do that. You may save your life, but nothing else.

The article also says that California should adopt the model that is successful in the Southeast: namely, control burns. The author seems unaware that control burns are easier in the Southeast because it rains more, and fires are less likely to get out of control.

The denialist problem is this: Denialists say that dead wood causes wildfires and global warming (which doesn’t exist, and they ridicule it) does not. The simple fact is that both of them are causes, just waiting for that spark. Denialists should stop twisting the truth by focusing on some causes and ignoring others.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, Part One


In my book Scientifically Thinking (Chapter 9), I explain the different kinds of cause and effect. Almost everything that happens has more than one cause.

Consider the example of hierarchical causation. An example of this is AIDS. If an AIDS victim dies of pneumocystis pneumonia, then you could say he was killed by the Pneumocystis carinii germ. But the reason the germ got a chance to spread was the depletion of the immune system, caused by HIV. The hierarchy of causation is, therefore, HIV—immune depletion—Pneumocystis. You cannot say “HIV does not cause pneumocystis pneumonia; Pneumocystis does.” The simple fact is that they both do, in a hierarchical fashion.

A very real example of people using hierarchical causation to mislead public opinion regards gun laws. I have heard “gun rights” people say that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The simple fact is that people use guns to kill people. It is hierarchical causation. Nobody believes that guns jump up and start shooting all by themselves. It is just a deliberate argument by the gun lobby to heap ridicule upon even mild versions of gun control.

Washington Post photo

This can lead to a dangerous situation. Many people have lots of guns and are ready to use them at the slightest provocation. And the social pressures against them are dwindling. Some white separatist groups openly display their weapons, clearly wanting us to know that they are ready to use them if something happens that they do not like. During the September 29 presidential debate, Donald Trump said that white supremacist groups should “stand by.” He clearly wants them to be ready to use their guns at some unspecified time in the future.

Another kind of causation that is misused by conservative denialists is multiple causation. This is one that has been deliberately propagated by Donald Trump. Covid-19 is caused by the coronavirus. The United States has now had more than 200,000 coronavirus deaths. But Donald Trump did not believe this. He believed that anyone who died of coronavirus but had previous underlying conditions should not be counted as coronavirus deaths. If you die of coronavirus, but you are old, then you died of being old, not from the coronavirus. Or if you have diabetes, and die of coronavirus, then you died of diabetes, not of coronavirus. Read about it here []. I have not heard whether, since his diagnosis and return from the hospital, he has changed his mind about this.

The simple fact is that coronavirus deaths, in fact all deaths, have multiple causation. If a diabetic dies of coronavirus, the diabetes had weakened his or her health, and the coronavirus finished him or her off. Both the virus and the diabetes caused it. By Trump’s line of reasoning, if I (a pre-diabetic over 60 years old) die of coronavirus, it is not a coronavirus death. The simple fact is that I am getting along fine right now and am not on the brink of death; if I become ill with coronavirus, this is the spark that starts the fire. It would still be a coronavirus death.

Science denialists like to claim that, in cases of multiple causation, they can choose one of the causes and ridicule the others. This is especially true of global warming denialism, the subject of the next essay.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Evolution of a New American Religion


In America today, a new religion has evolved: the worship of Donald Trump. Many or most of his supporters (or should I say His?) worship Him. They do not merely support Him. They have made Him into the representative of God upon the face of the Earth. Not all Trump supporters do this, but several million of them do. I will explain and give five ways you can tell that, to many Trumpers (His word) it is a new religion.

Religion is an instinct. Everyone has it, though some people (who consider themselves atheists) have psychologically diverted it into a different form. And religion is a universal instinct within the human species: all humans, and only humans, have it. Religion must provide a strong evolutionary advantage, or else it would not pervade the human species.

Religion evolved because it promoted evolutionary fitness of individuals. First, individuals who are members of a religious tribe benefit from the success of that tribe; a tribe whose religion causes them to fiercely fight other tribes, slaughtering them not merely as enemies but as heretics, benefit from the resources they get from the other tribes. Second, leaders of the religious tribe benefit within the tribe because they get more resource and reproductive opportunities. The rest of the tribe reveres them for their spiritual leadership. Today, many charismatic religious leaders get lots of money and sex from their brainwashed followers; this must have happened thousands of years ago also. The genes of the charismatic leader, including the genes for having intense religious experiences, are thus over-represented in the next generation.

Consider this photo, taken in rural Oklahoma in September 2020, in the run-up to a presidential election many of us are nervous about, since Donald Trump has not been very clear about whether he would give up power even if He loses. In this photo, a rich Trumper (a large house is a mile away surrounded by lawn which must take a couple of thousand dollars to mow, which is done frequently) has two flags: an American flag, and a Trump flag, both at the same height. In flag display protocol, the American flag should be highest, the state flag next, and other flags below them. This supporter, first, considers Trump to be equal to the United States in importance; and, second, that the United States has no value apart from Trump.


Here are the five characteristics that make Trumpism a religion:

  1. They believe that everything Trump says is truth. Truth consists of His sayings, just as the Chinese recently considered the words of Mao in the Little Red Book to be Truth. Trump creates Truth as He speaks. Something that may not have been true before He said it becomes true when He says it. Trump cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound but, to His followers, He is omnipotent in this particular way.
  2. Trump is not only omnipotent, but they think that He is, like Jesus, without sin. Every lie He tells, every promise He breaks, every sexual sin, all are holy in the sight of God. The brainwashed followers of many Christian evangelical leaders feel the same way about their evangelists; Trumpers do the same, which makes it a religion.
  3. Trump’s followers know and care nothing about His policies. It is His image, not His substance, that they worship. Many of these followers (not the one in this mansion, but most of the run-down houses I see that fly Trump flags) are poor, and they cannot explain how His policies have made them any richer in the last four years. This is because Trump has no policies. What passes for policies are whatever Trump happens to get mad about on any given day. In this way, Trumpers are like many evangelical Christians, who follow Jesus but never read the Bible and thus have no idea what Jesus said. They are like the followers of the three generations of North Korean dictators.
  4. There is no good-natured humor allowed. Many of us progressives allow ourselves to be ridiculed in a friendly fashion, and even do it ourselves. On my YouTube channel I often make fun of myself. But Trump hates anyone who makes fun of Him. He can’t stop the flood of anti-Trump cartoons, but if He ever gets the chance to silence them, He certainly will. In this sense, Trumpers are like the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France who dared to make fun of Mohammed.
  5. There is no middle ground. You either adore Trump or else you are a heretic. Just look what has happened to moderate Republicans. Just as in the late Middle Ages Catholics hated Protestants more than they hated Muslims, so Trumpers hate free-thinking Republicans more than they hate Democrats. Well, except Hillary, whom Trumpers consider to be the devil incarnate. In my lifetime I have watched the destruction of a middle ground, progressive Republicans and conservative Democrats, a process that Trump has deliberately accelerated.

There are my five reasons. One of my Facebook contacts just wrote, “God is all in all. He will guide Trump.” This is a statement of faith—not in God, but in Trump. Why not just admit that Trump is merely a human being, whether you support Him or oppose Him? Because He has made Himself into a Messiah. Fortunately, not all Trump supporters worship Him—I know some who do not—but enough of them do that America could be in for some severe problems.

Could this turn violent? Might Trumpers get out their guns? I hope not. But some Trumpers are piling up weapons—one of them told me so. And it has happened before, when religion has inspired mass slaughter. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572, Catholics killed thousands of protestant Huguenots in Paris. Then as now, Paris was one of the most civilized cities in the world. This isn’t ancient Babylonians we are talking about here, much less savages. Germany was very civilized when the Nazis arose to power.

If the Trumpers do attempt to grab power (if they lose the election) through violence, they will fail. The armed forces, sworn to defend the Constitution, will not support them. But they can cause a lot of domestic terrorism on the way down.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Listen to the Scientists! A Look Back at Harrison Brown


Harrison Brown was a twentieth-century nuclear chemist who developed some of the most important processes that went into making the bombs that fell on Japan at the end of World War II. His role in ushering in the age of nuclear war bothered him, however, and he became an activist not only to work against nuclear proliferation but one of the leading scientists of his time to analyze the prospects for the human future.


One of the earliest books that faced the ecological challenges of human survival was his 1954 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future. Remember that this was more than a decade before the environmental movement began. Starting about 1968, dozens of books, some reasonable, some alarmist, came out claiming that human civilization and industry was going to destroy the world. One of these books, by Gene Marine, was called America the Raped, and the cover picture showed a bulldozer destroying the entire natural world. But Harrison Brown’s book predated the alarmism. On the cover, H. J. Muller, Albert Einstein, and (of course) Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas praised Brown’s book.

Brown took into consideration all the data he could find to make projections about the future. First, about human population. He took a close look at human demography: female survival and childbirth rates, for example. His book was one of the earliest to have population pyramids which are now standard in every text. He considered that birth rates might decrease if contraception was made widely available. But he also shared the view of the Malthusians, among whom was a physicist of whom I had never heard (Sir Charles Galton Darwin, who wrote a book in 1953; guess whom he was descended from), that people will have as many kids as they can unless restrained by law.

Then he considered food production. How much food can we produce? Although neither he nor anyone else actually foresaw the Green Revolution, he did consider technological advances in food production, including the possibility, then new, of large-scale hydroponics. He even considered the possibility that humans could get most of their calories from Chlorella, a single-celled alga that does not need farmland to grow. He said the Earth could support 100 billion people if everyone ate Chlorella, but he knew this would never happen.

He also considered the availability of energy and raw materials for transportation, industry, etc. Nobody knew how much, or how little, coal and oil there was. He said that there was a lot of coal and oil, as well as mineral ores, but that we were rapidly depleting the easily available materials. He made his estimates of mineral availability, even such rare minerals as vanadium, based on the assumption that we will not recycle them. Many modern “conservative” economists also do not believe that recycling is worthwhile. Brown said there is a lot of oil, if you are willing to spend a lot of money to extract it. No more gushers. He could not foresee fracking, but this is what happened: fracking is not cheap. Brown considered biofuels. For example, he said that 10 tons of sugarcane have as much energy as 6 tons of coal, but once again it is hard work to use biofuels. Natural petroleum, he concluded, will be a memory of the distant past.

Considering all the data, Brown made predictions of what the human population of the Earth would be in the future. His predictions were pretty good for 1954, but he underestimated human population growth. He predicted 6.0 billion people by 2025, and 6.7 billion by 2050. But we are, in 2020, rapidly approaching the 8 billion mark.

Overshadowing everything, in 1954, was the real risk of nuclear annihilation, something about which he knew a lot. He considered war to be inevitable. It was “...likely that industrial civilization is doomed to extinction.” The elimination of war, as impossible as it was and is, he considered to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for the persistence of civilization. War could, Brown said, destroy civilization, and whatever might emerge in the aftermath would be something very different from civilization as we know it. For example, much of our technical knowledge would be valueless if society collapsed, and would then be forgotten.

Brown said that the United States had a special role to play in the future of the world. “...the destiny of humanity depends upon our decisions and upon our actions. We still possess freedom, our resources, and our knowledge, to stimulate the evolution of a world communtiy within which people are well fed and within which they can lead free, abundant, creative lives. Or we can refuse to take constructive action, in which case man will almost certainly start down the steep incline... Never before in history has so much responsibility been inherited by a group of human beings.” America needed to be a peacemaker. This fantasy is becoming less likely every year.

My conclusion is this. Listen to the scientists! Not to the talking heads paid by corporations, nor to environmental extremists. Listen to the people who analyze and try to understand the data! Listen to the International Panel on Climate Change. And realize that, if the past is any guide, the scientific predictions will be underestimates of the perils we will face, just as Brown’s underestimated our current population by two billion people.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Who Remembers the Threat of Nuclear Holocaust?



Back in 1984, many of us were worried that the election of Ronald Reagan would usher in an era of nuclear conflict. He rattled his sabers and was cheered as a war hero by the conservatives. Then it didn’t happen. Instead, he was open to the overtures of peace from a Soviet Empire that was, we now know, rapidly crumbling.

But back in and before 1984, there was no shortage of books that addressed the existential challenge of nuclear annihilation. One such book was The Caveman and the Bomb, which drew a comparison between the human desire for war and a Neanderthal mentality. It was quite a long and detailed book, but is perhaps best remembered for its cartoons, of which I provide four:

The authors tried to sound upbeat and, in so doing, addressed some fundamental issues. “We can say no to our Neanderthal mentality, to our genes. We are the only creatures on earth who can do this. We have this opportunity because our genes whisper to us, they do not shout…We can be greater than the sum of our genes. If that is our decision, evolution can’t do a thing about it. Making that decision is the supreme test of our humanity…”

It turned out to not be the supreme test of our humanity. As it happened, the Soviet Union simply could not keep up its military expenditures and needed a way to emerge from the arms race without losing too much face. I do not believe that either they or we have become better people as a result.

Today, we may not face an imminent nuclear threat, but the weapons are still there. And Trump, unlike Reagan, is a man who is just unstable, egotistical, and hateful enough that he might goad the other nuclear powers into new confrontations.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Who Remembers Nuclear Winter?


In the early 1980s, a lot of us were worried about what would happen if the United States and the Soviet Union did, in fact, begin a nuclear war. The policy of both the US and USSR was “mutual assured destruction,” the acronym of which was, appropriately, MAD. Both countries enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over. And with Ronald Reagan as president, a man who had a reputation for war-mongering and saber-rattling, it seemed like there was no way to avoid the End of the World. Reagan even announced the SDI, or “strategic defense initiative,” as a way to destroy Soviet missiles in Earth orbit before they had a chance to land on our soil. Maybe, then, nuclear war would be something that we could survive: just get out the lemonade and lawn chairs and watch the light show in the sky.

As it turned out, most of Reagan’s statements were saber-rattling. Perestroika and glasnost were the 1980s Soviet terms that reflected Henry Kissinger’s détante, French for relaxation. Both sides should just relax a little. This is what Gorbachev believed, and it led to the crumbling of the Soviet empire before the end of the decade. Nuclear holocaust remains possible, especially as Trump single-handedly pulls out of denuclearization treaties, but nobody seriously expects it, even with a president who makes Reagan look like a flower child.

In the early 1980s, everyone was worried about the direct effects of explosions and radiation. The explosion would kill people for miles around, but the radiation would kill people for hundreds of miles around, especially since by that time the nuclear bombs were far larger than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But in the background, a brilliant scientist was thinking about other possible effects. Carl Sagan was a planetary scientist and knew that planetary atmospheres worked as interacting systems. He did some calculations—simple at first then more complex—about how much smoke would enter the atmosphere from the nuclear holocaust. He concluded that there would be enough to plunge the Earth into darkness. The dust would settle, but not before the Earth had frozen beyond any hope of recovery. Ice would be everywhere. By the time the soot absorbed sunlight and melted the snow, life would already have become extinct. Sagan and colleagues supported this view in a famous paper published in Science. It was the Christmas issue—Merry Christmas, everybody! A paper immediately followed it in which many prominent scientists, headed up by the famous eco-alarmist Paul Ehrlich, explained all the ways in which the cold temperatures would cause the collapse of natural ecosystems. Owen Greene and two other writers published a book in Britain, simply titled Nuclear Winter: The Evidence and the Risks, in 1985.

This was also right about the time that events of global cooling were being recognized in the history of the Earth. Three periods of almost total glaciation of the Earth (“Snowball Earth”) were recognized during the Precambrian time, the most recent one ending just before the explosion of multicellular life at the beginning of the Cambrian period. Earth almost became a permanently ice-bound planet on three occasions. This was also a few years after the initial publication of the theory, now universally accepted, that an asteroid hit the Earth 65 million years ago and plunged the Earth into temporary darkness, from which it recovered. This resulted from one asteroid impact; what might have happened from a planetary-scale nuclear war?


The nuclear winter hypothesis was never summarily disproved. However, it slipped gradually from the attention of scientists and the electorate. Even though nuclear winter was based on complex mathematical modeling, the model was not complex enough. It assumed that the smoke would spread uniformly, and the little clear patches would be spots of warmth that would keep the Earth from falling to the low temperatures Sagan had predicted. Also, the oceans would freeze, but not fast enough to prevent them from being a source of heat to the land areas of the Earth. Nuclear winter moved from being a dead certainty (really dead) to being a possibility. Meanwhile, nuclear war itself became less and less likely.

This is why nobody talks much about nuclear winter anymore. But it does illustrate one important point. In trying to predict the (catastrophic) future, we should think not only about the direct effects (e.g. blasts and radiation) but the indirect ones as well. In estimating the likely effects of global warming, we need to think not only about the warming but the indirect ecosystem effects.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Destroying the Frontier and Native Americans: America in 1700-1900


Some people, unfortunately including some major environmentalists, consider the “westward expansion” of white settlers inevitable. After all, they needed the land for farming, to feed hungry mouths, not just their own but to ship back east to feed hungry mouths in the cities. Native Americans were not using the land efficiently, in their view, so the land had to be expropriated (i.e., stolen) from them. This was certainly the justification that people such as John Sevier used to justify taking Cherokee land to form the Watauga settlement.


But there is more to the story. American farmers were careless of the land they farmed. They allowed soil erosion, precisely because they knew they could always move west and get some more land, as soon as the Natives were cleared off of it. Benjamin Franklin said that Americans were bad farmers because they had so much land. And Thomas Jefferson said that “it is cheaper for Americans to buy new land than to manure the old.”


What do we conclude from this? The westward expansion of white farmers was largely unnecessary. If they had taken care of their land, they could have kept using the land they had already forced the Natives off of. The devastation of Native communities by white settlers was largely unnecessary even for the white settlers. They preferred to kill Indians than to be good stewards of their own land.


This provides an astonishingly different view of American history than you will find in most textbooks. These texts may condemn white genocide of Native communities, but they (erroneously) claim that the expansion was necessary to feed White America.


Monday, August 17, 2020

Scientific (and Other) Insights from a Novelist

E. L. Doctorow, who died in 2015, was one of the most significant American novelists. Several of his books were made into movies. City of God was not one of them. It did not really have a plot that one could follow. It was the convergence of numerous story lines, several of them within the minds of characters whom I never quite identified. But City of God was an astounding book. As a scientist, I was amazed at how beautiful and poetic (without sacrificing accuracy) Doctorow was when he wrote about everything from cosmology to ants. And, of course, about evolution. This is an intellectually challenging book. I recommend it to my fellow scientists. The book is thick with theology, which it neither embraces nor hates.

I just want to mention some examples. Unlike most people in the arts, Doctorow understood how evolution works. This includes cultural evolution, a process that is very similar to biological evolution except that it uses memes (ideas) rather than genes. Memes live in human minds, and spread from one human mind to another; their fitness consists not only of how many minds they live in, but how effective they are at getting those minds to spread them to other minds. Memes can have a life of their own. Doctorow’s example was movies. Movies propagate themselves; they are a malign life form. He speculated that maybe movies came to Earth about a hundred years ago, forced us to create them. He called them a tapeworm in the planetary guts. I know it sounds strange to us; we believe that we make movies and decide to watch them. But what if they are manipulating us? This is the discombobulating aspect of cultural evolution; ideas and cultural creations can parasitize us. A current example, which Doctorow did not live to see, is how extremely violent ideas can propagate from one conservative mind to another, turning otherwise nice people into people who are a hair-trigger away from killing you.

He also wrote that “…whatever condition God provides, some sort of creature will invent itself to live in it.” (Invent itself is a figure of speech.) This is a fundamental understanding of where biodiversity came from and why. Evolution is not a stepladder toward greater complexity, as both its detractors and supporters often depict it; it is the generation of opportunists that fill previously empty resources spaces, whether deep oceans or minds.


I previously wrote about how white people, in general, carry a burden of guilt for oppressing darker races, and we whites (or almost-whites) need to take extra steps to prove that we, individually, have broken from our sordid heritage. Some cultural groups have more of a burden than others. Doctorow wrote a lot about the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jews, using a little-known example from Lithuania. Doctorow wrote that the Germans “bent the Jews to the shape of their hatred.” They committed any and all atrocities that they could imagine. They even boarded up Jewish hospitals and set them on fire, with patients and staff in side. It was an offense punishable by death for the people of the countries they conquered to keep a record of their brutalities, much less resist them. A major plot within City of God is the search for a box with a diary in it of what the Nazis did in Lithuania.


I think the German people had, and continue to have, a heavy burden to prove to the world that they are no longer Nazis, and that they are as far away from being Nazis as anyone could be. They have repented, and they need to keep showing the world over and over that they have repented. Everyone has to be nice; the Germans have to be extremely nice. And they are doing this. Germany is, today, one of the least racist countries, and one of the most positive forces for good in the world. They are doing penance for their Nazi past. If you want to find Nazis, you are more likely to find them in America, or France, or Austria. Now, if only the modern descendants and defenders of the Confederacy would do penance! It would make the United States a much better place not just for the former slaves, but for white people as well. Germany outgrew its Nazis; can conservative America outgrow its celebration of slavery?


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

An Early and Amazing Scientific Insight

I found something interesting when I looked through my old copy of Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It was about classical Greek science. As strange as it may seem, at the time, many philosophers thought that air did not exist. It was just space. I am unsure how they explained wind, but they must have had some confabulation to make the wind fit into their worldview.

But the philosopher Empedocles came up with an easy demonstration that air was something, rather than nothing. He used a clepsydra, or water clock to prove it. The water dripped down at a steady rate, and was replaced by air at the top. But if air is not allowed to enter the top, the water will not drip. You can see the same phenomenon if you suck liquid into a straw, then close off the top of the straw, the fluid will not drip out. If the air was nothing, then this could not happen.

There are, all around us, many simple ways to test scientific hypotheses. When I wrote my book, Scientifically Thinking (see my website), I had not thought of this particular example. But you can read about lots of others in my book. Science is just, as Huxley said, organized common sense.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Changing the World? Another Prairie Festival at the Land Institute

I went to the Prairie Festival in September 2019. This year’s festival is virtual, due to the pandemic.

The Prairie Festival is an annual celebration at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It is part scientific meeting, part artistic celebration, and part barn dance. The scientific presentations, which drew experts from all over the country, spoke to a crowd in a big barn with sides open to the weather, which is often nice just before and after the festival but usually tempestuous during it. I sat on the dirt floor to listen to the presentations.

The Land Institute has the modest task of saving the world’s agriculture. The standard farming practice of much of the world—planting crops that only live one year, and which require megatonnage of fertilizers and pesticides—have long been causing immense soil erosion and pollution. The Land Institute scientists are busily making discoveries that can allow a transition to an agricultural system that uses perennial crops and in which crop biodiversity can reduce or even eliminate the need for chemicals. These are not just theoretical questions. They have also bred perennial edible grains such as kernza that have market value, that is, unless the big corporations that make money from wheat and corn bury it under layers of misinformation.

The Land Institute also knows that you cannot have an agricultural transition without having cultural support. The hundreds of attendees loved being there. We carry the good news of ecological agriculture back to our homes and lives (I teach university students about it). Hence the barn dance: this event has to be fun.

Some of the best scientists and environmental activists were there. Amory Lovins, founder and director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented mounds of facts (all of them easy to understand, but there were lots of them) that the transition to sustainable energy, leaving behind fossils fuels, is not only possible but profitable, and not someday but right now. If left to themselves without political pressure from the Trump worshipers, citizens and utilities alike will favor energy efficiency. Another major speaker was BillMcKibben. The “minor” speakers were also amazing, such as the quietly confident evolutionary-scientist-turned-environmental-educator Ana Luz Porzecanski from the American Museum of Natural History.

But I cannot imagine that their effort will ultimately be successful. I know they will continue their efforts and enthusiasm—for the alternative is for us to give up and die.

Here are some of the things that make me less confident than ever that the efforts of sincere and intelligent environmentalists will change the world enough and in time to avert disaster.

I have always told my students that global warming itself is not going to kill anyone. It is the consequences, such as agricultural collapse, that are dangerous. I tell them that we simply cannot afford global warming. But Bill McKibben told about a place in the Middle East where the daytime temperaturesexceeded 129 degrees F in 2019. At this temperature, a human will die in three hours. (Be warned that every news outlet that covers this story requires you to enable ads or in some cases to subscribe before you can even look at their website.)

Unlike many of the attendees, I came away from the Festival with an action plan: to continue doing what I already do, which is to teach undergraduates about the problem. It fits right into general biology and general botany; indeed, it would be unethical to omit it. But for many of the others? I glanced over at a woman’s notes. There was very little specific information on them. She wrote, “Need dramatic change.” (She wrote Δ instead of change. In which case, maybe she was a science teacher who will make a difference.) “Must think in new ways,” she also wrote.

Bill McKibben spends much of his time protesting in ways that get him arrested. He is a professional jailbird in this sense. This includes protests against Trump anti-immigration policies. Why? Because many of these immigrants are environmental refugees, for example from drought-blighted farms in Honduras. I teach my students that there will soon be environmental refugees; India already has fences up to keep flooded Bangladeshis out when, someday, they lose most of their farmland. But apparently it isn’t someday; it’s now. But it is fortunate that McKibben gets arrested up in the Northeast, because if he protested in Texas, he would be guilty of a felony and face up to ten years in prison. This law took effect on September 1, 2019.

I have also always assumed that correct information about what is going on in the world is readily available. But I have recently found that many legitimate news sites require you to either enable advertisements to be downloaded to your computer, or that you subscribe. Perhaps the only news you can get is (overwhelmingly) from Trump-worshiper websites or (much less) from flaming liberal websites. Where is this wonderland of information promised by that new-fangled internet?

Whenever I leave a Prairie Festival, I feel good that so many sincere and intelligent people are at work on these vital problems. But as I drove back down into Oklahoma, and saw the hundreds of pieces of garbage on the roadside, my enthusiasm was drowned in the reality of the utter self-centeredness of the majority of people.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Unalienable Right to Spread Germs

Yep, folks, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. One of the unalienable rights of Americans is the right to spread your germs to other people. At least, this seems to be the view of American conservatives today, such as Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt who said, “We believe in freedoms.” He said this even while, himself, wearing a mask. While this article is a couple of weeks old, the situation has not changed.

This is hardly surprising. Americans resisted the practice of variolation, which was an early form of vaccination against smallpox. Britain borrowed the idea from Asia in the 18th century. British troops got variolated, but George Washington maintained that we are Americans and we reject British medical advances. As explained in the book PoxAmericana, Washington finally had to reverse course on this policy, and adopt variolation. But modern conservatives would have continued to reject it.

What this means is that if you are someone who lives in a way that puts you at risk of getting coronavirus, and you are symptomless, or you believe yourself to be symptomless, you can walk right up to me and cough in my face. I will be wearing a mask, but the mask does not completely prevent me from getting the virus. It is more useful in preventing me from spreading it. Being in a high-risk group (diabetics over 60), I could die from the same viral load that would not kill you. But you have the right to do this! It’s right there in the Declaration. Or so many seem to think.

This should not be surprising. Many Americans already believe in the right to carry loaded firearms which they can use against other people the moment they feel threatened, especially if the “threat” has darker skin. If they have the right to project bullets, why not viruses as well?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Why Fundamentalists Must Believe the Coronavirus Pandemic is a Hoax

I have posted a video that describes the ideas below.

Thousands, if not a million or more, fundamentalist Christians in the United States believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax that has been started by Democrats to make Donald Trump look bad. Part of this is because white evangelicals have, as the title of a recent book indicates, chosen to “worship at the altar of Donald Trump.” In some cases, fundamentalist belief that there is no coronavirus pandemic has led them to acts of aggression, as certain recent viral videos have shown.

But there is another reason that fundamentalists MUST reject the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is caused by a virus. And that is because the Bible says so. I first pointed this out in a blog entry in 2012.

Actually, the Bible does not say that there is no such thing as viruses, or that they never cause disease. But I present below the evidence that the New Testament describes one-third of all diseases as being demonic in origin.

Here is a complete list of Jesus’ healings, in which I indicate which ones were and were not attributed to demon possession. In order to do so, I have tried to determine which of the parallel Gospel accounts refer to the same event, so as not to double-count them. And here they are (demonic events in bold).

Healing a leper

Centurion’s servant


Peter’s mother-in-law

Same day: demoniacs

Gadarene swine

Forgave the paralytic

Resurrected ruler’s daughter

Woman with hemorrhage

Two blind men

Dumb demoniac


Man with withered hand

Blind dumb demoniac

Canaanite woman with demon daughter

Epileptic boy falling into fire

Blind men near Jericho

Demoniac near Capernaum


Deaf dumb man, Decapolis


Blind man at Bethsaida


Young man in his funeral


Another woman with flux


Man with dropsy


Ten lepers


Official’s son

Lame man at Bethsaida


I cannot be sure of some of the classifications; item 23 might be the same as item 2, but I have erred on the side of caution in favor of fundamentalists; item 2 refers to a servant, item 23 to a son, which most of us believe could just be a garbled transmission of the account, but fundamentalists do not believe garbled transmission is possible in the Bible. I have omitted the famous account of Lazarus, since it was considered an example of a resurrection, not a healing.

The point here is that seven of the 24 healings were specifically described—in all the parallel accounts available—as the casting out of demons. This is 29 percent. If you count the stories separately, 14 out of 46 involve demons, which is 30 percent. That is, in roughly one-third of the healings, exorcism was involved. In one of them (14), clear symptoms of epilepsy are described.
Creationists make a really big deal about evolution. Decades ago, they wanted to outlaw the teaching of evolution. When that didn’t work, they tried to mandate equal time for creation and evolution. When that didn’t work, they wanted to mandate the inclusion of a mention of creationism. Clearly, over the decades, evolutionary science has been their target. More recently, they have begun attacking the science of global warming with nearly as much fervor as they once attacked evolution.
But they didn’t have any trouble with medical science. Their children learned about how viruses, bacteria, protists, fungi, and parasitic worms cause contagious diseases, and how mutations can cause other diseases—in medical school, in college, in high school, even before high school. In none of these places, except perhaps their own schools and colleges, was demonology mentioned. I have never heard of fundamentalists trying to get legislation passed to mandate the inclusion of demonology in the medical science curriculum. They chose to allow a figurative interpretation of, or perhaps just to ignore, those Bible passages that attribute disease to spiritual causes. Fundamentalists occasionally attempt exorcisms, but they never insist that the rest of us agree with them.
How can the creationists do this? They think that God has given them the right to decide which parts of the Bible to take literally and which parts to take figuratively. “Day” is literal in Genesis 1 and figurative in Genesis 2; “the Earth” was figurative in Peleg’s day but literal in Noah’s day; and natural law accounts for the wind and the rain and diseases but not the origin of species.
I wondered, in 2012, what God would do without fundamentalists to tell us which parts of the Bible to believe and which ones not to believe. But now I know. They have embraced a literal Bible interpretation to such an extent that they reject medical science, except when they get sick. There are more stories than any of us can list of fundamentalist preachers rejecting the coronavirus pandemic, only to themselves die of covid.