Saturday, May 21, 2022

Who Cares about Global Warming?

Though most of my students approach global warming with an academic seriousness, they do not seem to really care about it. And, semester by semester, they do not take it with academic seriousness either. And, in society in general, people have stopped caring about global warming, at least in the United States.

The global warming problem has not gone away; in fact, it has been happing faster even than the most pessimistic predictions. Even worse, the effects of global warming interact with one another, with potentially catastrophic results.

One example is the collapse of sea ice shelves. This occurred in March 2022 in Antarctica. The usual “conservative” response is to ignore sea ice. They say, when ice melts in water, the water level remains unchanged; thus, melting sea ice will not alter sea level. This is true, as far as it goes. But the sea ice shelves hold back the flowing shelves of land ice. When a sea ice shelf collapses, the land ice shelves are now free to slide down into the ocean. The land ice, when it slides into the sea or just melts, does raise the sea level. A land ice shelf sliding into the sea could cause a massive oceanic wave which would spread thousands of miles before it peters out and would have a measurable effect on sea level. How significant is this? The devil is in the details.

Perhaps the worst problem is that people, in general, do not seem to believe there is such a thing as evidence. They simply ignore anything they do not want to believe. Scientific evidence, legal evidence, any kind of evidence. The problem, then, is to get people to care. And how can you do that?

I heard an interview of an Icelandic scientist who has taken a different approach to publicizing global warming than what most scientists and educators, including myself, have taken. (I cannot find a link to this interview and do not remember the scientist’s name.) He pointed out that the heartfelt pleas of Greta Thunberg have reached more people, particularly young people, than the popular or scholarly publications of thousands of scientists. He said that humans, in general, care more about the people they love than about academic abstractions, no matter how dramatic they may be. He has tried something that I decided to immediately incorporate into my general botany final exam. Here is my version of it:

“What are three scientific predictions (from a valid scientific website) about what global warming will be like in 2100? Imagine someone whom you will know in the future (child, grandchild, etc.) who will be alive in the year 2100. Imagine that person asking you why our generation did not do more than we are doing to prevent global warming. How would you answer him or her? (Be realistic. Avoid a wildly nightmare scenario, like the man who asked me during a presentation if the Earth would become as hot as Venus. That can’t happen.)

There was a separate interview, on the same news program, of a cattle rancher who is well aware that cattle are among the major contributors to global warming, but he has a plan about how to come close to carbon-neutral cattle ranching. I decided to incorporate a question into my exam based on this also. Here is my version of it:

“One of the biggest contributors to global warming is the production and consumption of beef. What are some of these impacts? Indicate at least two. A cattle rancher said, on a radio interview, that ‘It’s not the cow, but the how,’ which means that he had a plan to make his cattle production operation produce less carbon. Indicate at least two things that he was probably planning to do to meet this goal.”

I hope that these ideas may be useful to some of my scientific and educational readers.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Even at Universities, You Will Teach What the Republicans Tell You to Teach...

 …or else you will be fired. That’s what will happen if, in the next session, the Texas legislature passes the law proposed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

The purpose of tenure in higher education is to protect professors from retaliation by politicians for teaching things that the politicians do not like. It is a protection for truth. By doing away with tenure, the Texas legislature will make higher education in Texas an organ of Republican indoctrination, similar to higher education in Soviet (or Putinist) Russia and Communist China. You teach what the Party tells you to teach, Comrade, or you will be sent to the Texas equivalent of Siberia or Manchuria—or, at least, fired.

Occasionally, professors use tenure as a screen for substandard work, or for their own outlandish theories. But the state university systems with which I am familiar have regular reviews of tenured faculty to make sure they are doing their jobs. Since I got tenure in Oklahoma in 2003, I have turned in about five “post-tenure reviews,” which were examined by committees, in which I had to provide documentation that I was not only doing my job but continuing to keep up with, and contribute to, research in my field.

There are occasional tenured professors you just can’t stop. We had one such professor at my institution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming is occurring and is caused mainly by human-generated carbon dioxide. But this professor taught his students that global warming is a worldwide hoax the purpose of which was to reduce the money that he got for his patented invention used in the petroleum industry. We just put up with him, told our students that he was wrong, and waited for him to retire. In his particular case, we might have preferred that tenure did not offer him any place to hide. But the tenure process that was meant to protect all of us protected him and his right wing extremist screeds.

On the face of it, Lt. Governor Patrick’s purpose appears limited. Conservatives in Texas and Oklahoma loathe Critical Race Theory. Patrick’s proposed law claims to be aimed just at this theory. But we all know that the law rescinds all tenure for new faculty hires. This means that the state government, which is ultimately in control of tenure (my tenure had to be approved by the state government in Oklahoma), can use any reason they like for denying tenure, if this law passes. I teach evolution. Texas and Oklahoma Republicans hate evolution. It’s easy to see where this is going.

Texas prides itself in its educational system. K-12 teachers are paid well, and higher education is well supported. One of my former Oklahoma undergrad student got a job as a high school teacher and, immediately upon being hired as a high school biology teacher in Texas, was earning more money than I do now as a tenured professor. The message is, or has been, clear: come to Texas and you will find satisfying and well-paid work as an educator, or for corporations (mostly oil). Your kids will get a good education.

But this message is changing. All over the country, new Ph.D.’s are looking for work, and at the moment Texas looks like a good place to go for work. But if this law passes, new Ph.D.’s will suspect that, if they go to Texas, the government will dictate what they are to teach and what they are to research. If you are an historian or sociologist, your research must not reach any conclusions that you suspect the state government may not like. A job offer in Minnesota vs. a job offer in Texas will then be a no-brainer.

Oklahoma is, and has always been, worse. Whatever Texas does, Oklahoma will do a few months later. Our governor, Kevin Stitt, wants to imitate Governor Greg Abbott. I am convinced that the Oklahoma House and Senate will pass bills just like the one that Lt. Governor Patrick demands in Texas. And in Oklahoma, we do not support education very well. K-12 and higher education has always been supported in Oklahoma far less than in Texas. In Oklahoma, we will fall just as precipitously as Texas, but starting from a lower level.

The supply line of academic Ph.D.’s is drying up. We (at a university in rural Oklahoma) advertised for a botanist (to replace me when I retire) and we got only five applicants, four of whom were not interested in teaching. The fifth applicant had his choice of jobs wherever he wanted to go, and he decided not to come here. When I applied for jobs in 1992, one of the institutions said that they had received 800 applications. Being a teaching professor is now a much less desirable career, and for the ever smaller pool of Ph.D.’s who want to teach, Oklahoma and Texas will be off the edge of the Earth.

Professors at private institutions in Texas (hi, Mary Kay!) need not worry. But the entire body of higher education in Texas will be hurt by this tarnished image. And, of course, Oklahoma.

As a retiring professor, my advice to any new Ph.D.’s reading this is, don’t come to Oklahoma or Texas. Matter of fact, the whole field is in precipitous decline. Do something else. For me, doing research and teaching in botany was always my highest aspiration, even when I was in high school. That is a dream from the past.

To whatever extent higher education has served as the conscience of the nation, it will serve that function no longer. I am so freaking glad I am retiring now. For those of you with ten to twenty years more work as teaching professors, good luck. I am one of perhaps the last wave of professors who, by teaching and writing and research, will have been able to make a difference, and to make the world better.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Asymmetry and Fake LinkedIn Profiles

Researchers in human evolution, and writers who present their research to a popular readership, have long known that bodily asymmetry is an indicator of general genetic health. Mutations, toxins, and disease can lead to bodily asymmetry, especially facial asymmetry. In mate selection, one mate can assess the health of the other mate by seeing his or her facial symmetry. If the left side doesn’t line up with the right, that might mean something somewhere is wrong.

People with facial symmetry are esteemed as beautiful and healthy. And these are also the faces that corporations want to present as representatives to their customers. You are much more likely to respond positively to a sales rep with a symmetrical face.

Corporations have used this fact to generate thousands of fake profiles (for example, on LinkedIn). These fake beautiful people will make you want to consider doing business with the corporations that they represent.

How do you know that an online personality is a real person? You can’t. It’s as simple as that. But there are some things you can look for. Back when I used to answer robocalls (something I no longer do; nor do I decline them, since that would tell the spammer that the number they have reached is real) I would listen to the “person” for a few seconds. Then I would say, “You are a robot.” The voice would keep talking for a couple of seconds, then say “I am not a robot.” Of course, you can program a robot to say, “I am not a robot.” I just delete all these calls without even answering them.

It is much more difficult to create a fake online personality if a portrait is involved. But, at the moment, it is possible. Researchers have found that fake LinkedIn profiles have faces that are too perfect. The facial symmetry is utterly perfect. No real human being is utterly symmetrical (see this article).

Of course, corporations will quickly learn how to insert a one percent facial asymmetry generator into their fake personalities. In the near future, we will never be able to tell if the person in the profile is real or not.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Evangelical Religion and Hypnosis, part two.


The following is a creepy story about religion and implanted memories. It makes me shudder because I used to be in a fundamentalist church that did not do anything like this, but could have. I cringe to think how close I came to a fundamentalist psychological hell, the way Paul Ingram did.

In 1988, Paul Ingram, a local Republican leader in Washington state, was accused by his daughters of sexual abuse, including ritual satanic abuse, over the course of several years. No evidence has ever been found that these acts of abuse ever happened. Despite this, the daughters’ testimony was accepted as evidence, and Ingram was convicted and given a twenty-year sentence. Ingram pled guilty to the charges. Subsequent research makes it clear that these events never occurred. The memories were implanted, through deliberate or inadvertent hypnotism, by the fundamentalist church to which the family belonged. An implanted memory can seem just as real as a true memory. A church seminar leader apparently asked one daughter, Ericka, to try to remember if she had been abused. This was enough for her to “remember” that it had happened. Then the memory was implanted in Paul.

This is what religion can do, especially the fundamentalist variety that believes that Satan is everywhere and can trick you into doing things that you would normally not even want to do—that is, unless you join and give money to a fundamentalist church. The Satan hypothesis was enough to send an accusation that would have gone nowhere in a mainstream church over the edge into an ever growing series of accusations in a fundamentalist church.

It kept growing. Paul Ingram was accused of killing 65 babies in satanic rituals. And he believed that he had done so. Needless to say, no evidence was ever found. No graves. Of course, the fundamentalist church could always claim that Satan had erased the evidence. By the time Ingram was released from prison, before the end of his term, he may not have been entirely convinced of his own innocence.

Fundamentalist churches use psychological manipulation which can go to absurd lengths and destroy people’s lives. They can do this because the churches believe in a Satan who can manufacture or erase evidence. This is another example of trance logic, which is a characteristic (as explained in the previous essay) of hypnotism.

In addition, psychoanalysts were happy to use three-quarters of a million dollars of taxpayer money to “recover” these “hidden” memories. Fundamentalism uses psychological manipulation and implanted memories to oppress people and destroy their lives, and some unethical psychologists are willing to make money off of this phenomenon.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Evangelical Religion and Hypnotism, part one.

We cannot explain the whole evangelical megachurch phenomenon on hypnotism. But there is a lot of overlap. It appears that many millions of Christians are partly hypnotized by evangelical preachers who, without conscience, manipulate them.

One characteristic of hypnotism is called trance logic: that is, accepting a logical impossibility almost without noticing it. Usually, when confronted by two situations that cannot both be true, the human mind tries to figure out what happened, struggling mightily to rationalize them. But when a person is in a hypnotic trance, they simply accept both without any mental stress.

In 1959, Martin T. Orne used the presence or absence of trance logic to distinguish between people who had really been hypnotized and those who just pretended. The pretenders tried to explain what happened, the truly hypnotized people did not.

Millions of people, most of them at least pretending to be Christian, believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, and that there was massive election fraud. When confronted with the total lack of evidence of any fraud, they persist in their beliefs. That is, the lack of evidence causes them no discomfort whatsoever in their beliefs. This is not something that thinking people do. This is something that hypnotized people do.

This does not offer any justification for what the evangelicals are doing. It is well known that no one can hypnotize you to do something you believe is wrong. The hypnotized people, who resonate with the racist rants of the far right, who desire a far-right dictatorship, and who have lots and lots of guns therefore must believe that taking armed action against the rest of American society is at least acceptable. If they do take up arms to establish themselves as the rulers of what was once the United States, they cannot claim that the hypnosis was responsible for their actions. They really are evil; hypnosis merely facilitates their evil.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Gorilla Lawyers and Jury Abuse

I grew up being idealistic about the American legal system. This was partly from watching nearly all of the Perry Mason reruns. And while I knew that it was imperfect, I felt at least that our system was, overall, an effective way of maintaining justice in America. I knew that problems remained with the oppression of minorities and women, but that America was making progress toward ever greater fairness in justice. It was, at least, a good system of determining whether a defendant was guilty or not.

My recent experience in a jury pool have completely changed my mind. Since I was way down the list, they did not need my participation and they sent me home on the second day. This was good, because I was already about to lose my composure. I will tell you what I saw, without divulging any facts of the case itself. I will tell you briefly about what I learned about human evolution from my brief jury experience.

The jury is a captive audience. Literally. Two members of the jury pool tried to leave, but within minutes they were back, though not literally in handcuffs. Jury duty is a civic responsibility just like paying taxes. But the jury is also a captive audience for lawyers to abuse. We had to submit to their verbal abuse. Here are examples.

The prosecution and defense are both expected to ask questions to determine the suitability of a prospective juror for any particular case. The prosecuting attorney asked several in the jury pool whether they would hold it against the defendant if no defense at all was presented. Several answered that they would consider the lack of defense to be evidence (though not proof) of guilt. This was enough to get both attorneys to request that these people be excused from the jury, since the law presumes the defendant is innocent until proven beyond reasonable doubt to be guilty. Fair enough. But for this prosecuting attorney, this was not enough. He asked one woman about this, she answered, and that should have been the end of it after thirty seconds. The prosecutor then verbally attacked the juror for several more minutes, reducing her to tears. This was totally unnecessary and should be illegal. But it appears that jurors have no rights; an attorney can verbally abuse them in a way that would not be acceptable in any workplace or social interaction outside the courtroom. But the woman had to put up with it until, just before lunch, she was among several jurors to be excused. One of the jurors (who had to stay) told me that she felt the jurors were on trial and themselves being treated like criminals. Certainly the defendant got more rights and respect than the jurors.

The defense attorney was no better. During his introduction, he said that one of the charges against the defendant was rape. “Oh, that sounds so scary, doesn’t it? Rape!” Rape, he wanted us to think, was not necessarily such a bad thing. Though I was not there when the trial began, I can just imagine that, with the same tone of voice and zeal, he would have torn into the victim and made her feel like she was being raped all over again. The point of the trial was not whether rape was bad; it was whether the defendant raped the victim. The defense attorney—who bore a striking resemblance to Edward G. Robinson from the old gangster movies—had us really angry at him. He was prejudicing us against his client.

Only later did I realize what this had to do with human evolution. The lawyers, despite their membership in the species Homo sapiens and their rich clothes, were the equivalent of alpha male gorillas. They had a captive audience—jurors who had no choice but to be present and remain silent, jurors who had no rights of citizens: the lawyers, either defense or prosecution, could say anything they wanted, say things that, if I said them to my students, would get me fired (if I were not already so close to retirement), that if anyone other than one of the lawyers said them to anyone else in any other place, would get them disbarred. There is no such thing as protection from verbal abuse or aggression, from slander. Defendants have rights, but jurors do not. On paper, jurors are American citizens, but in reality, once a juror enters a courtroom for jury selection, he or she has no rights. This is the perfect dream of an alpha male. An alpha male gorilla has to earn his status, but in a courtroom, this status is accorded him by law. He does not have to be nice to anybody, and therefore seldom is. There are two rewards for being a courtroom lawyer, whether prosecution or defense: first, big money; second, the joy of humiliating a group of captives who have been pummeled into meekness. The fantasy of an alpha male lawyer: to be able to humiliate women and get away with it, because they are required by law to submit to him.

I’m not convinced law enforcement officers are any better. Our house was burgled, and my wife saw the burglar run away. He had forced his way in through a side window, which was locked and which was held shut by vertical dowel rods in the sides. But he used a lever to exert a force strong enough to break the rods. We had taken reasonable precautions to secure our house. But when the police came, one officer told my wife that she should have had the front storm door locked. The door itself was locked. But the burglar had come in through a secured window, not the (also secured) front door. The policeman had to find some way to scold the victim. Some, though presumably not all, police officers are male gorillas who like to demean female crime victims. No investigation was ever undertaken, as far as I have been able to determine.

I began my jury experience with a modicum of hope, thinking that perhaps the system worked, however imperfectly. My most modest expectations were dashed. But I left with an unexpected modicum of hope. I was expecting a random selection of 60 Oklahomans to be a sorry bunch—racist, offensive, loud. Maybe that is what I would have seen in a rural Oklahoma setting. But this was in Tulsa, along with Norman the little oases of decency. With few exceptions, the jury pool consisted of sincerely good, fair, intelligent people. Some of them had experienced tragedies in their lives, such as divorces, or the murder of a child. The lawyers made sure that every detail of each of these tragedies was entered into the court record. Are you trying to tell me that the fact that your daughter was murdered will not influence your ability to reach a fair decision in this case? You must be a biased and bitter person if your daughter was murdered… Okay, the lawyer (I forget which one it was) didn’t say the second thing, but lashed into the poor, old mother—a black woman—with unmitigated vigor, actually saying the first thing, only implying the second. That poor woman’s only comfort was a fellow juror (the other woman who had been reduced to tears) who put her arm around the woman’s shoulders as she wept. I really like and respect the fellow members of the jury pool, therefore of the final jury that was soon to hear the lawyers bend the truth. I believe that these jurors will reach a fair decision in this case by largely ignoring the lies, antics and assaults of the alpha male lawyers.

Another modicum of hope. A small percentage of lawyers offer pro bono services to help poor and oppressed people, especially women. I know individual examples of lawyers who are heroes of goodness. And there are some organizations. Just one that I have heard of in Tulsa: Still She Rises—Tulsa. But they are generally underpaid and powerless. They are the secret Underground Railroad in the Confederacy of Lawyers. We are lucky to have them.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Or Would They?


Obviously, or so we think, most Republicans would not take violent actions to secure permanent control over America. But maybe they would not need to. All they would have to do is sigh, look the other way, and let the extremists within their Party take violent actions.

After all, it is unlikely that most Germans actually shared Hitler’s passion for eradicating the Jews. But especially after Hitler became dictator in 1933, nobody would openly say so. Since there were so many domestic spies, they would not say so privately either. Most, but not all, youth were Hitler Youth. There were 22 assassination attempts on Hitler, not counting the “several” in early World War II. This culture of terror continued in East Germany, as part of the Soviet bloc. A Soviet bloc which, in the last couple of days, it seems that Vladimir Putin wants to re-establish.

During the War, many Germans wished they could get away from Hitler’s command, but by then they were trapped. I read Paul Brickhill’s The Great Escape, which was made into a fantastic movie in the 1960s. The Allied prisoners were constantly digging escape tunnels, and the Nazis were constantly searching for them. But I got the impression that the Nazi commanders weren’t searching very hard. They wanted to look to their superiors as if they were working hard to catch escapees. They tried to crush tunnels, they inserted rods, they implanted microphones, they hired spies to slip into the rafters or under the huts. If they did catch an escapee, this would make them look good to their superiors. But that is all they really wanted. When they did catch an escape tunnel, they just shut it down. The only punishment they gave to the would-be escapee was to put him in the “cooler” for a couple of weeks. One of the Nazi commanders actually told Brickhill, in prison, to not blame them for what the Gestapo did. Brickhill clearly communicated the idea that the Nazi commanders of prison camps didn’t want to do this job.

My uncle was in the European theatre of World War II and told us all a war story which, in retrospect, seems a little embellished. But not completely. He was guarding a group of prisoners at the end of the war. Most of the German soldiers seemed relieved that they had been captured. All except the SS officers. They were absolutely crazy. My uncle could tell that there was one SS officer among the prisoners. He was the one who attacked and tried to kill my uncle in what sounded to me like a kabuki drama. My uncle shot him eight times. When asked to explain to his superior why he had done this, he said, “Seven wasn’t quite enough, and I didn’t have nine bullets.” Anyway, the point was clear: only the crazy SS troops really believed in the Third Reich.

Most Republicans can, when the dictatorship is established, say that we should not blame them for what the extremists have done. And if there is a Judgment at Nuremberg style inquiry after the fall of the Republican dictatorship, only the leaders will be convicted.

Most Republicans do not worship Trump, at least anymore. But would they go along with those who do?

Natural selection favors the fitness of genes in their environments. In humans, natural selection also occurs on the level of ideas within society. Fitness is not an intrinsic value, with either genes or ideas, but have value relative to their environments. This explains some of the literally crazy ideas that people have had under social conditions that legitimized them. Examples include mass acts of violence during religious wars, such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. So far, right-wing acts of extreme violence in America have been small and sporadic, like the cashier being shot for asking a customer to wear a mask in Georgia earlier this year.

I believe that Republicans, as a whole, would not take up arms against fellow Americans. But they would not stand up against their powerful Party leaders.