Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Is Science a Religion?

No. But it does have some religious elements to it. I might have written about  my book but I didn’t think of it by press time.

I will use as my example of religion not the hot-headed American conservative celebration of racism and environmental destruction—nothing could be further from science than this. Nor will I use Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, I will use Catholic Christianity.

In many religions, including Catholicism, there is a deep and unquestioning reverence for ritual. Science, too, has its rituals, to which we scientists give our unwavering adoration. In each of these cases, there are essential justifications. I do not mean these practices are bad, but just that we scientists feel a deep reverence for them, like a priest conducting a liturgy. Examples of scientific rituals include:

Holy language. When we write scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, we try to be as emotionally bland as possible. We are passionate about the avoidance of passion. We dare not betray any feelings about the importance of wild species or intact ecosystems. Certainly no humor! I remember finding an article, decades ago, about shallow freshwater ecosystems. The author and editor allowed one joke to get published: a certain principle was littorally true. You didn’t get the joke? Then you aren’t part of our inner circle of priests. Also, in the 1980s, a fellow graduate student, who studied plant physiology, permitted herself just once to say that chlorophyll—in particular, chlorophyll a—was such a beautiful color. But you can bet your bottom thylakoid that she never wrote this in her thesis. We offer these papers on the holy altar of “objective” science, undefiled by humor and enthusiasm. Also, only a botanist would get bent out of shape if someone calls a dandelion a flower.

Holy objectivism. Scientists will almost never, even in our unguarded moment, express any idea for which we do not personally have corroboratory data. We are passionate in our avoidance of personal bias. Meanwhile, anti-scientific zealots proclaim their statements with absolute certainty. For example, an epidemiologist can say that a certain covid vaccine has 99 percent efficacy, thus it “appears that” the vaccine prevents covid. The lay reader thinks that we scientists are not quite sure. In contrast, anti-vaxxers loudly dismiss all evidence and proclaim that the vaccines are dangerous. One even went so far as to call Anthony Fauci a mass murderer. You have to read into the article a few lines to find the reference. Anti-scientific zealots are certain; scientists are hesitant; guess whose views prevail in conservative circles. Scientists use the term “hypothetical” to mean that a hypothesis is being tested; but anti-scientists, who never bother to question their own beliefs, think it means not just guesswork but evil guesswork.

Holy significance. Scientists insist that data should only be believed if the odds are 20 to 1 against the results being random. This is the origin of the 5 percent (p = 0.05) significance level. To have an accepted significance level is essential. A 50 percent significance level would mean that the results are as random as the flipping of a coin (50 percent heads, 50 percent tails). As discussed in Richard Harris’s book Rigor Mortis, it may be important for medical studies to demand even more significance, such as a 1 in 100 or 500 chance, because we have to be really, really sure before we put human lives at risk. But why 5 percent? Why not 4, or 6, percent? But 5 percent it is. This is a religion among scientists. Fortunately, in my one remaining scientific study before retirement, my significance levels are all p < 0.001, that is, there is less than 1 chance in 10,000 that they are due to chance. But in some analyses, if I end up with p = 0.06, I feel that I have utterly failed.

Holy place. Scientists do, in fact, have passionate personal opinions. It’s just that we do not express them in the holy scientific scriptures (peer-reviewed journals). We can express them in popular science books, which is why I prefer this venue of publication. In popular books, we can say (with our scientific authority) that humans are causing dangerous levels of global warming. But any scientist who makes such statements has to be very careful to not risk the disapproval of the bishops of the scientific Vatican. This is why there are very few scientists who write popular books; general readers get tired of phrases that depict scientific uncertainty. This is why most popular science writers, such as Carl Zimmer and David Quammen, began as English majors. Their science is very, very good; and being outside of academia, they are permitted to express their emotions. Many scientists would be proud to be called “a scientist’s scientist,” but not me! I want to be known as someone who makes science interesting and exciting. As you might know from my YouTube channel, I transgress fully into the realm of being a science clown. My editor even allowed me to slip a few jokes into Scientifically Thinking.

Liturgical Latin. Scientists love, love, love to use Latin and Greek phrases. And something that means the same thing in Latin as in Greek can have different meanings. If a shot (or, in jolly old England, a jab) goes under the skin (as perhaps all of them do), they are hypodermic (Greek); but an infection under the skin is subcutaneous (Latin). We give Latin, or Greek, or Latinized, names to every species of organism. If you don’t know the Latin names of the animals and plants, how can you be considered knowledgeable about forests or prairies or deserts? It is essential to have standardized names for species. For instance, non-scientists might just call all prairie grasses “grasses,” but each species is a little different and deserves its own name. But why Latin? The language of vicious world conquerors, then later of scholarly snobbery. There are reasons. One is that Latin is international; nobody speaks it today, even many Catholic priests. But I can tell you that it makes me feel really, really good to say Liquidambar styraciflua.

Later today I will probably start writing on my last scientific paper. I will try very hard to not get enthusiastic about it, despite all those p < 0.001 values that show that budburst times of Oklahoma deciduous trees, are responding, and responding clearly, to global warming.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Live Fast and Die Young: Another Message from Fluff the Cottonwood Tree

This is Fluff the cottonwood tree (she/her/hers). I think this is my fifth message that Stan has agreed to post for me on his blog. I live about a half block away from his house in Oklahoma.

I know Stan is the one with the botany Ph.D., but I know a thing or two myself. And today I am going to tell you about the evolution of life cycles.

Cottonwoods like me are the James Deans of the tree world. We live fast and die young. In contrast, many of the oak trees that grow here in Oklahoma, like the post oaks up on Turkey Mountain, live for several centuries. They grow slowly and invest in the future: they have strong wood, for example. They produce large seeds (acorns). They grow in stable forests where long life and big seeds are important in winning the game of competition. But us cottonwoods live along rivers, creeks, and lakes. I live near Joe Creek, a quintessentially Okie name, although it is a rip-rap lined drainage ditch. We cottonwoods do not have a future to invest in.

The margins of rivers, creeks, and lakes are very unstable habitats. Every few years, a major flood will come along and sweep many of us away into the oblivion of death. I am a little luckier than most; I live far up on the bank. But the flood waters almost got me—and Stan’s house—in 2019. Still, the cumulative risk of death from flooding is very great, and it is a rare cottonwood that is able to enjoy his or her hundredth birthday. Why build strong wood, when we do not live very long? And why invest in big seeds to compete against trees, most of which will get swept away in a flood anyway? We live fast and die young. We reach our full height after maybe fifty years. After that, our trunks keep growing but our roots are not very deep. We are just asking to get knocked over in a flood. But even if we do not, we fall over as our weak wood rots away. From where I stand, I can see a house with a new roof. The old one was damaged by one of my fellow cottonwoods falling on it during an unremarkable storm. If you want to plant a tree near your house, you should probably choose an oak instead of a cottonwood.

We reproduce like crazy as soon as we are about fifteen years old, which is young for a tree. We need to get as much reproduction finished as possible, in case we die even sooner than we expect. Stan took this photo of some of my seeds in 2019.

All these characteristics fit together. In order to grow fast, we have large xylem vessels in our wood, which conduct water rapidly to the leaves at the top of the tree. The very fact that we have lots of big, hollow vessels in our wood is what makes the wood weak. Oak trees have stronger wood, but the price they pay for it is slower growth.

I do not recommend the James Dean strategy in general, but my species lives in a habitat in which trees get destroyed quite often. For us, the James Dean approach works very well. The same is true for all species. If a disaster happens frequently, it is better to grow up fast and reproduce early. One such disaster is predators. Research has shown that fishes that live where there are predators will grow fast and reproduce young. But in the absence of predators, they grow larger and more slowly, reproducing later. The same pattern has been observed in opossums. It sounds like a law of nature, a spectrum of life cycles, and I am at the James Dean end of it.

Despite this, trees almost always live longer than animals, even most tortoises. I will probably outlive Stan.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Deadly Tomato


As I walked through the weeds between the early-successional trees in the field about which I earlier wrote, I noticed a Solanum dimidiatum weed (horsenettle). It was in the same genus as the potato, a close relative of the tomato. And it had what looked like little green tomatoes on it. This is the time of year when tomatoes are really good. But if you think these tomatoes might be delicious, think again. The entire plant is filled with toxins that are dangerous, even deadly, to most animals.


[Photo from Carolina Biological Supply Company] 

The horsenettle plant expends a lot of its energy creating these toxic compounds [what are they]. Expensive they may be, but they protect the plant from having its leaves eaten by most animals. But there is at least one group of animals that can eat the leaves as if they are not toxic at all. The sphinx moth (Sphingidae) caterpillars (hornworms) of the genus Manduca can eat them with little effect on their growth. I know this because I have measured the growth of hornworms when they ate ground-up horsenettle leaves and when they did not; their growth was the same. The toxins do not protect the horsenettles from hornworms, but in many cases, there are no hornworms about. The plant is taking a chance. It invests in imperfect, but usually good, protection.

You may wonder how to compare hornworms that eat horsenettle tissue and those that do not. To what do you compare the ones that do? This is an interesting story. You can purchase little hornworms, special vials to grow them in, and hornworm chow. They do not naturally eat this chow, but if you start them on it when very young, they will eat it and grow grossly big. It is sort of hornworm junk food. The control worms are the ones that eat only the chow; the experimental worms have horsenettle tissue mixed in with the chow.

Herbivores, and the defenses of plants against them, are a constantly moving evolutionary target. They hardly ever get it right, but they come close enough that there are lots of plants, and lots of herbivores, in the world. Any plant that invested too much in defense would grow slowly and die; but if it invested too little, it would disappear down the gullets of extinction. There is a balance of nature, but it is imperfect and shifting.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Deliberate Attack on Altruism

Altruism, within the human species, is where someone does something nice for another person with no calculated expectation of a reward for it. Of course, if there were never any rewards for people doing good deeds, this behavior pattern would never have evolved in humans. Everyone who does a good, altruistic deed at least hopes that he or she will receive some reward, directly or indirectly, but does not do a calculation in advance of the deed. There often isn’t any time for such a calculation. The calculation was done by natural selection in millions of years of our evolutionary ancestors, and today it is instinctual. In the past, doing good deeds was profitable. It remains so today.

But altruism is under attack in Texas. Everyone has heard about the Texas abortion law, which empowers anyone (not even a Texas resident) to sue anyone else whom they suspect, even if they cannot prove, of providing, or even “aiding or abetting,” an abortion in Texas. The Texas law establishes an inducement: the plaintiff can get $10,000. Suppose the defendant is innocent. The defendant has to prove his or her innocence in court, a lengthy process, and legal fees can be very expensive. The law specifies that the defendant cannot recover those fees, presumably even for a frivolous suit. Somebody can sue me because they claim that they think I helped someone get an abortion, even in the absence of evidence, and I am stuck with the time and expense of proving myself innocent.

The major thing about this law is not that it is about abortion. It is that the law takes a Texas aim at altruism. It incentivizes citizens to turn against fellow citizens for profit.

Political conservatives, especially gun-nuts, have long taken aim (literally?) at altruism. They promote a sign in which one neighbor proclaims that another neighbor does not have a gun. This amounts to inviting criminals to burglarize the gun-free house and perhaps to kill the owner. The gun-nut neighbor does not have the guts to go and kill his neighbor himself, so he puts up a sign inviting criminals to do the job for him. This is a totally blatant attack on the goodwill of one citizen for another. This is common enough of an occurrence that you can buy signs like this one on Amazon. I have searched, but found no indication, that this is a joke. Please, let it be a joke—but I fear it is not.

I thought it was against the law to incite one citizen to commit a crime against another citizen. Certainly if I put up signs urging people to kill Donald Trump, I would get in trouble for it. But this apparently does not apply to people who want to destroy all community goodwill and turn America into a madhouse of hatred.

As it turns out, the worst that people like me feared from the Texas abortion law has not yet come to pass. It was too extreme even for most conservatives, except for the legislators and governor who thought that Texans would all admire them for trying to destroy community goodwill. Apparently even most Texas Republicans do not want to see their state become a madhouse of hatred. There have, at the time of this writing, been only two lawsuits filed. One of them was from a disbarred Arkansas lawyer. As you might expect from a lawyer who breaks the law, he was allowed to sue for $10,000 so he sued for $100,000.

The intent of the law was to scare women away from having abortions in Texas, not because it is illegal, but because their facilitators would not be able to afford defending themselves against the lawsuits. It is, in fact, having this effect. This is now The Texas Way. Hey, pardner, we can use this approach for any conservative cause. So giddy up! What else can we do with this legal procedure?

Conservatives all over the country are foaming at the mouth at the fact that there are minority voters who do not share their white supremacist agenda. If an extremist right-wing state like Texas wanted to pass a law against minority voting, it would be quickly declared unconstitutional, even faster than they could wipe their butts with the constitution. But they could pass a law saying that anyone anywhere could file a suit against someone they suspect of voter fraud, and the defendant would have to pay the legal fees. It would take months to resolve the case. This is an easy and, if the Texas abortion law is any guide, legal way to keep minority voters away. Minority voters, rather than to face this kind of opposition that might send them into homelessness, will simply stay away from the polls where right-wing poll-watchers will take their pictures and download them directly onto litigation documents.

Minority voters could use this same law against white voters. I think that, in the court in which money rules, they would not be successful. But what if they were? What if organized minorities suppressed the white vote? That would just be one more example of what I am saying—that the Texas way promotes neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen, even if it is not necessarily an attack of conservatives or whites against others.

Could such a law actually work? We do not know. But it is impossible to not believe that the Texas legislature would be willing to give it a try. While there are lots of nice Texans—I know some—these nice Texans have absolutely no influence on their lawmakers, who are turning Texas into a medieval fortress of oppression. And there are plenty of pathogenic right-wingers who would be delighted to do the same in other states.

The only way I can be safe from lawsuit in Texas is to not go to Texas. I haven’t been there for a long time, and I will never go there again. I encourage all of you to also stay out of Texas. It ain’t a place for nice people.

This is supposed to be a science blog. This essay is about the science of altruism. But I really, really want to get back to writing about trees and stuff. Maybe this political craziness will slow down just long enough for me to do so. Fluff the Cottonwood Tree has another essay she wants me to post. I hope to do it soon.

Monday, October 4, 2021

This Is Starting to Get Crazy


Many of the Americans who oppose covid vaccination and mask mandates are fierce and even crazy. There has been nothing like it in medical history. Never before have so many people vehemently attacked medical science, at least not since Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination about 1800.

On Tuesday, September 28, a man in Wichita Falls, Texas, tried to enter a hospital without a mask. A security guard told him that the hospital required masks. The man became so angry that he attacked the guard and bit his thumb clear to the bone. You can read about it here from a local Texas newspaper.

This is beginning to look like a plague of insanity.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Greetings from Thumbelina


Some time ago, I posted a Darwin video about Thumbelina. This is a very old story, continually reappearing in new children’s books, about a young woman who is so small that she can hitch a ride on the back of a swallow or hide inside of a tulip (to use the two examples from our public library). We all know it is impossible to have a human being this small, but why is this so? 

Organisms can be very small. If you define an organism as something that can actively maintain constant internal conditions, and can reproduce itself, then the smallest organisms on Earth are bacteria and archaea. Viruses are smaller, but they cannot maintain constant internal conditions, or reproduce, by themselves; they have to outsource these processes to the cells that they parasitize. Astrobiologists (scientists who generate fact-based speculations about possible life on other planets) have lively disagreements about what the smallest life forms could be.

How small could a vertebrate be? A vertebrate is an animal that has (in addition to vertebrae) whole systems of organs that maintain constant internal conditions. Vertebrates are so complex that they could not possibly be microscopic.

But they can be pretty small. Scientists recently discovered a frog, Paedophryne amaneusis, that is so small that it can comfortably sit on a dime. X-rays reveal that it has a complete skeleton. It does not have a tadpole stage, but it attracts mates with ultrasonic peeps. I suspect that it does not need to have as much anatomical complexity to maintain internal conditions; for example, it probably absorbs most of the oxygen that it needs through its skin.

This image is from the source in this link.

Humans have seventy trillion cells. Would Thumbelina need to have seventy trillion very tiny cells? Probably not. She could have tiny organs that did everything that they needed to do, each organ with fewer and smaller cells.

But there is one organ that would need to have a minimum size: the brain. While Thumbelina could metabolize as she rode around on the back of a swallow, she would not be able to enjoy it, or even know what was happening. Since no one knows how to define consciousness, we cannot say how big a brain has to be to be conscious; but Thumbelina’s brain would definitely be too small.

Probably everyone has heard about the homunculus. This is supposedly a tiny complete person that lives inside of a sperm head, made famous by the Nicolaas Hartsoecker drawing (1695). According to many scientists of the late seventeenth century, that is where people came from: a little person inside a sperm grows up by consuming the food inside the egg. Some of the sperm had little men, some had little women, as in the drawing. Even more amazing, the male homunculi had sperm, with homunculi inside of them, with homunculi inside of them, with…how far can you go? Forever? Scientists at the time knew no reason to doubt it.

The reason that you cannot have an infinite regression of smaller and smaller objects is that everything is made of atoms. Although atoms are incredibly small, they are not infinitely small. This places a lower limit on the size of anything made out of atoms.

We must be careful to avoid the argument from incredulity: If I cannot believe it, then it cannot exist. Not long after I post this essay, a computer scientist might create a qubit structure that could fit inside Thumbelina’s head and impart a reasonable level of intelligence. But the principle remains unchanged: there is a lower limit of brain size for human intelligence, and Thumbelina is probably below that limit.

There are upper limits also. A very large walking vertebrate could not exist, since volume (weight) increases as the cube of the linear dimension while the strength of a leg increases only as the cross-sectional area (the square). An animal twice as big in linear dimensions would have legs four times as strong but would weigh eight times as much. This is true only for animals that walk on land. Whales can be much larger, but their weight is supported by the buoyant force of the water that they displace.

None of this will make any difference to people who are enjoying the new King Kong vs. Godzilla movie, or to my granddaughter who enjoys the Thumbelina books. But, I suspect, human imagination is limited—not by size, but by our evolutionary heritage. We imagine things that our evolved brains allow us to imagine, and nothing more.


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Has the Pandemic Made Us Appreciate Science?



One would think that the pandemic would have made Americans want to learn more about disease and health, about how to minimize the spread of disease by means of vaccination, social distancing, etc. In fact, this is what science writer Robin Marantz Henig said in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic: “Maybe the pandemic will persuade even the skeptics how crucial scientific discovery is to human flourishing.”

At the time Henig wrote this, it seemed so inescapably reasonable. But this has turned out to not be the case. The surge in covid cases in America, the great majority of them among the unvaccinated, has only strengthened the anti-science fervor among many Americans. About half of Americans disregard science, and many of these openly detest it. Rather than acknowledging that masks slow down the spread of covid, some states not only do not have mask mandates but have made these mandates illegal. Here in Oklahoma, it is illegal for schools and other state entities to require measures that protect either children or adults. It is difficult to appreciate the depth and scope of the hatred that many Americans feel toward science, whether it is the study of how diseases spread (epidemiology), or any other branch of science.

Right now, as shown in this graph from a French news website, America is leading the world in the number of covid deaths per day. Brazil used to be the leader, and Indonesia was briefly, but America has gone back to being the world leader in covid deaths per day.

As a science educator in rural Oklahoma, I feel quite despondent right now about the hostility of my neighbors toward any kind of scientific evidence about anything. I used to be inspired in my work; now, I just count the days to retirement.