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.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Why Hasn't China Gone Green?


A special Labor Day essay!

China is the world’s biggest investor in and producer of green energy. Their participation in solar and wind energy is nothing short of breathtaking. They would seem to be a model to the rest of us of how an economy can go green.

They are, however, also the world’s biggest investor in and producer of dirty energy, in particular coal. In addition, they notoriously pollute the environments of their own billions of expendable citizens.

They are the best and the worst. What is going on here? May I speculate?

First, they know that green energy is the unavoidable path of the future. Civilization will collapse into a dark ages pile of wiggling failures if we do not embrace renewable, clean energy. They know this as much as anybody. They do not deny it, unlike the executives of American coal and oil corporations. Accordingly, China (led by its top-down imposition of economic priorities) leads the world in technological innovation of green energy. Someday, they are poised to lead the world.

Second, they also desire to bury the United States. I do not mean in a nuclear or violent way. But they want to bury us as a serious economic competitor. They plan to do this by out-producing us. They appear to be successful. They sell much much more to us than we sell to them. They will do this by using clean energy or dirty energy, whatever is at hand. Once they have buried us, they will be glad to switch to green energy, and at long last let their gasping, sick citizens breathe freely and let the skies become clear.

They are walking a tightrope, but they have done so many times before. They appear confident that they will lead the post-American world into a green energy future.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Open Letter to the Governor of Oklahoma

In your delusions of defending the freedoms of Oklahomans, you and the legislature have guaranteed the absolute and inalienable rights of some Oklahomans to breathe coronaviruses into the faces of other Oklahomans. You have forbidden mask mandates in state agencies, such as the university where I work, and forbidden vaccination requirements. As a result, I am unable to defend myself from getting germs breathed in my face, and I cannot protect my students from having germs breathed into their faces, by a minority of Oklahomans who proudly refuse vaccination and refuse to wear masks. You have guaranteed that our current flood of covid cases will continue unabated. You must be proud of yourself for promoting the unnecessary sickness of thousands of Oklahomans.

Why don’t you go ahead and finish your work? Why stop with covid? There are other germs that can sicken Oklahomans. There are currently state laws that protect Oklahomans from exposure to these germs. Why don’t you strike down those state laws, and leave us even more vulnerable to contagious diseases? You have gone just partway in your blaze of conservative glory.

I refer in particular to salmonella. Some people are asymptomatic carriers of salmonella, and some of them work as food handlers. At the present time, salmonella outbreaks are rare because employees of food service providers are required by state law to wash their hands after using the restroom. This simple measure prevents infected food service workers from spreading the disease. But this state law, from your viewpoint, infringes on the fundamental freedom and dignity of food service workers by requiring them to wash their hands. Why don’t you eliminate this law? The deaths of a few hundred Oklahomans from salmonellosis is a small price to pay for the absolute freedom of food service workers to do whatever they want. Will you be a champion of freedom all the way, or only partway?

A disease that used to be common in America is typhoid fever. Like salmonella, it was spread from the unwashed hands of symptomless carriers to the people who eat the food they prepared. Frequently, the people who eat the food would die. The most famous of the symptomless carriers was a cook named Mary Mallon, now known as Typhoid Mary. Law enforcement caught her as she fled, and forbade her from ever again working as a cook. This was, of course, an infringement upon her American freedom. But they did it anyway. When she refused to stop working as a cook, she was imprisoned for the rest of her life.

But, today, in Oklahoma, according to the principles that you hold so dear, it would be illegal to prevent Typhoid Mary from working as a cook in a public school cafeteria. A school would be required to hire her if she was, in other ways, qualified for the job. The deaths of a few hundred schoolchildren would be, from your viewpoint, a small price to pay for Typhoid Mary’s freedom to choose whatever line of work she wishes.

Finally, there is a disease that was singlehandedly responsible for the deaths of about ten percent of people who have ever died in human history. That disease is smallpox. Through massive, often forced, vaccination of millions of people throughout the world (mostly Asia and Africa), a project led by the United Nations World Health Organization (of which you have a low opinion), this disease has now been eradicated. Nobody will ever again die of smallpox from natural transmission. There are still smallpox germs in freezers in the USA and Russia. We can only hope there are no bioterrorist groups that have the germs in their freezers. By your principles—that nobody should be forced to be vaccinated—smallpox would still be killing thousands if not millions of people.

And why is it okay to require measles vaccinations, but not covid vaccinations? Perhaps your crusade for freedom should expand to include the repeal of all vaccination requirements. Measles and mumps could then make a comeback for which you could claim the honor.

Schoolkids dying of measles, salmonella, and typhoid fever, and millions of people dying of smallpox—this is the kind of paradise that the world would be if it had followed your principles of “freedom.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Video about covid and evolution

Here is a link to a video on my Darwin channel about covid and evolution, as explained in the previous essay. The current surge is due to low vaccination rates. With more viruses, you have more new mutations, and more cumulative risk.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

An Artificial Pandemic

I am reporting to you from inside the covid pandemic in America in 2021. Back in 2020, when we had mask mandates, the number of covid cases began to decline a little, then steeply declined in 2021 because of widespread vaccination. By early summer 2021, it seemed to most of us that the end of the pandemic was in sight.

But only a couple of months later, the pandemic had come back. There were as many people sick from covid (though fewer dying) as during the previous surge. The differences this time:

  • The vaccine (from whichever company) proved remarkably effective. “Breakthrough” cases, in which fully vaccinated people became ill, were very rare. Almost all of the covid cases were unvaccinated people. It is a pandemic primarily of the unvaccinated.
  • In many southern, conservative states, vaccination rates are very low. In Oklahoma, only about one-third of the people are even partially vaccinated. The main, though not the only, reason for this is that the extremely right-wing people think that the government, at any level, has no right to require vaccination or masks.
  • Right-wing politicians rammed through an agenda of blocking mask requirements. In some states, such as Texas and Florida, Republican governors issued executive orders prohibiting mask mandates, even at schools and hospitals. In Oklahoma, not only did Governor Kevin Stitt issue an executive order, but the state legislature passed a law, prohibiting mask mandates. It is illegal for me, or the university at which I work in Oklahoma, to require students to wear masks.

The result is many thousands of people who are sick from, and many more thousands are carriers of, the coronavirus. That is, Oklahoma and other states have a huge population of viruses lurking inside the bodies of humans.

In many other countries, large numbers of people are sick from covid because of limited access to vaccines. But in America, it is because the majority of people refuse the vaccines that are freely available to them—even when incentives are offered. At my university, you can get $100 for getting the vaccine.

And from there, evolution runs the show. Here’s how:

  • Mutations occur all the time. The result is mutant viruses. Not all of them, but just a few.
  • The greater the population of viruses, the more chance there is that a dangerous mutation will occur. This is where the delta variant came from. This is a matter of probability. If there had been fewer sick people, the population of viruses would have been smaller, and this particular variant might not have occurred. If you have ten times as many sick people, the mutation is ten times more likely to occur. This is exactly what happened as a result of people refusing vaccination.
  • If the mutation enhances the ability of the virus to spread to other people, natural selection will favor it. If a mutant strain of virus can infect ten times as many people as a previous strain, it will spread ten times as fast. Soon it will become the dominant, or maybe the exclusive, strain of virus. This is exactly what happened with the delta variant, which is almost the only strain of covid now in the United States.
  • Evolution cannot be stopped, even if the majority of Oklahomans reject evolution. It happens anyway.

If you have refused vaccination for reasons other than a health condition, you have helped to create an artificial pandemic. The pandemic would have “burned itself out” and our population might have reached “herd immunity,” to use popular phrases, if almost everyone had been vaccinated. If you refused vaccination, you have contributed to the illness of hundreds of thousands of people and the deaths of hundreds.

If you decided to not get vaccinated, it is not just a personal decision, but one that you have foisted on everybody. On me, for example. I am required to teach in-person classes at my university. Even if I wear a mask, there is at least a slight risk that I will get infected by the virus. The risk is cumulative. If my odds of getting infected in a typical laboratory session are one in a hundred thousand, by the end of the semester with 50 lab meetings, my odds will have increased to one in two thousand. Is this a risk I am willing to take? I should make this decision, but in Oklahoma, that decision has been made for me by the governor, the legislature, and the seventy percent of people who have refused vaccination. Unvaccinated people hold the power of life or death over me. Even if I do not die, I could bring the virus home to infect my wife, daughter, son-in-law, and/or two grandchildren.

Therefore, in Oklahoma, a majority of the people believe that “I have an absolute, God-given right to spread germs to other people, and maybe kill them.” Their right to be free from societal responsibility is more important than the right of other people to live.

The huge number of covid victims, nearly all of them unvaccinated, has clogged our health care system. Health administrators in Oklahoma have repeatedly warned that the system is on the brink of collapse. In some places, covid patients have to wait in the ER for admission to the hospital. In other states, patients are being put in beds in the cafeteria. This is almost all due to people refusing vaccination. Thanks a lot, right-wingers!

In one state, Arkansas, the Republican governor (Asa Hutchinson) issued an executive order banning mask mandates. The order was struck down in court. Hutchinson’s response was to say he had reconsidered, and that his order against mask mandates had been wrong. He welcomed the court’s decision. As far as I am aware, he is the only prominent Republican who has had this change of heart.

The pandemic will probably never stop. The reason is evolution. There will be new variants, and they will spread, even if the delta variant eventually dies out. Thanks to right-wing extremists, who will continue to refuse vaccination, the covid pandemic will become a permanent aspect of our culture forever into the future. I hope events will prove me wrong, but the facts and the reasoning above seem indisputable. That is, unless, maybe, the virus kills most of the right-wingers. But this will probably not happen. They will just remain a permanent strain on our health care system, and continue to add billions of dollars to our collective debt.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Star Snot?!


You read that right. Throughout the world, on dry bare ground, you can find little black crusts. When it rains, these crusts swell up and become greenish. They do look like greenish-black snot, or, as I prefer to think, like something produced by an animal that had an emergency with one or the other end of its alimentary canal. Ancient people, with more imagination than knowledge, made a wild guess that these snotty crusts came from meteors, asteroids, etc. Star snot. Or, more politely, star jelly. See my video about it.

You read that right. Throughout the world, on dry bare ground, you can find little black crusts. When it rains, these crusts swell up and become greenish. They do look like greenish-black snot, or, as I prefer to think, like something produced by an animal that had an emergency with one or the other end of its alimentary canal. Ancient people, with more imagination than knowledge, made a wild guess that these snotty crusts came from meteors, asteroids, etc. Star snot. Or, more politely, star jelly.

What they actually are is thick patches of the cyanobacterium Nostoc commune. Cyanobacteria are a group of photosynthetic bacteria. In fact, they have the same kind of photosynthesis that you find in plant chloroplasts. In fact, chloroplasts are the evolutionary descendants of cyanobacteria. Not only are they single cells, but they are simple cells, without a nucleus or internal structures. Not having roots, stems, or leaves, the only place they can grow is in water or on bare ground. These cyanobacteria have the ability to dry up and wait for the next rain.

Cyanobacteria, like a few other bacteria, have the ability to “fix” nitrogen, that is, to transform atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonium fertilizer. Because of this, cyanobacteria can live in places (such as surfaces of dry soil) that are deficient in nitrogen. Even though the Nostoc is not trying to fertilize the soil, it ends up doing so, because some of the ammonium leaks out. Nostoc fertilizes the soil. Eventually, other plants can grow in this enriched soil and drive out the Nostoc. The Nostoc then disperses into the wind, and some of them may land on a new patch of dry soil and start to grow again.

I never noticed star snot before. It was doing important work, and I, despite doctoral-level botanical training, knew nothing about it.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Plant Superhighway!

I recently posted a video about the Plant Superhighway. In this video, I am in a weedy field which is turning into a young forest very near a busy highway in Oklahoma. The young forest seems so calm and serene in contrast. But, silent and underground, the plants have superhighways that are just as busy as those built by humans.

For much of my professional life, I considered ecological succession to be a process of shading out: trees such as many oaks in Oklahoma shade out the smaller trees such as honey locust, black locust, and persimmon, which shade out the bushes such as sand plum, which shade out the herbaceous perennials such as goldenrods, which shade out the annual weeds. That was pretty much the story as I told it in three of my books.

As far as this story goes, it is true. But I now realize there is so much more to the story than this. One reason that herbaceous perennials, such as goldenrods, displace the annual weeds is that the annuals have to sprout from seeds, while the perennials have already built up underground reserves and can grow faster in the spring. Bushes shade out herbaceous plants because their stems are higher up in the air; trees, higher yet. But the early-successional weeds, shrubs, and trees have another strategy (in the ecological sense) that promotes their survival and evolutionary fitness. They form underground connections.

When a goldenrod gets established, it not only puts down its roots and stores up food, but it sends out underground stems to new locations, where they become new plants, genetically identical to and connected to the mother plant. Through these underground stems, food can travel from one plant to another. Any plant that happens to be lucky can send nutrients to the less lucky plants, allowing them to form an integrated whole that secures resources for its use. I first learned of this from the research of David Hartnett and Fakhri Bazzaz at the time when I was in their lab at the University of Illinois.

This integration may be absolutely essential to the survival of early-successional plants; at least, most of them do it. In the video, we see goldenrods and false-goldenrods; sand plum bushes; and even trees such as persimmon, black locust, and honey locust that connected into large, integrated systems. It looks, at least, like individual, unconnected early-successional plants do not stand a chance on their own.

There might also be connections among different kinds of plants, via shared mycorrhizal strands. The “wood wide web” of inter-plant connections may be as important of an explanation of ecological succession as the process of one kind of plant shading another (as explained in an earlier essay and video. These connections dampen the variability of light, moisture, and nutrient conditions. They do this by forming underground superhighways.