Friday, April 28, 2017

An Open Letter to the NRA

To: Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association

Today, April 28, 2017, you made a statement at the National NRA meeting to the effect that “academic elites” were one of the three most dangerous threats to the safety of the United States of America. The others were political and media elites. I am an academic, and you must therefore consider me to be a direct threat to the United States. In particular, I am a scientist.

I realize that you did not actually say that your followers, unrestricted by firearms legislation, should actually start shooting us academics. But clearly some of your followers must have assumed that, at some unspecified time in the future, it might be necessary for them to take up their precious firearms against people like me. Since you verbalized no restrictions on your condemnation of academics, and offered no qualifying statements, I can only assume that you have given your followers permission to be ready to start shooting scientists and other academics at a time of their choosing and with their own judgment. If this is not what you meant, you should have clarified it! I realize that you and other NRA enthusiasts do not plan to violate laws by shooting us, but at some future time of social disruption, there appears to be nothing to stop you from doing this. Some of your followers may think that, if the government cannot protect us from those academics, then we might have to ourselves.

I realize that you envision a future in which those whom you consider to be the enemies of the United States will be swept away by those whom you consider to be patriots. And I assure you that I am planning, at some point in the future, to leave the United States so that you and your wild followers can exercise control over it as you see fit. With many of us academics leaving the country, there will be a massive brain drain, of which Europe, China, Japan, and many rapidly developing countries will be the beneficiaries. Right now China is buying expensive advertisements to invite us to move to China. You don’t want us; you have guns; we get it. I only ask that you give us a little time so that we can exit in an orderly fashion and in a manner that does not disrupt our lives too much. With viewpoints such as yours being so prominent, and having the complete support of the President, it is inevitable that there will be an exodus of academics; we just do not want to be refugees.

For reasons that are obvious, I am not signing my name to this letter.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

An Earth Day Science March in Tulsa

Around the country, scientists and citizens celebrated Earth Day by joining in a March for Science. There were hundreds of such events. In Oklahoma, one of the most anti-environmental state (especially on the government level, but also on the citizen level), there were two, and one of them was in Tulsa today.

It was exactly the kind of Earth Day that one of our senators, Jim Inhofe, one of the world’s most famous climate deniers, would have considered to be a sign from God. After months of record-breaking high temperatures in Oklahoma, including January temperatures in the 90s, the weather suddenly became chilly. Yesterday brought heavy rains and today it reached a high of 52. Inhofe would have said that God meant this as a message to us that Inhofe’s anti-global-warming message is divinely-inspired. Where is global warming now, he would ask. He would, however, look around in vain for a snowball to throw as he once did on the Senate floor the way he did a few years ago.

But despite the chill, hundreds of, maybe a thousand, people came out for the march at Fred Johnson Park, at 61st St. and Peoria Ave. First we all gathered in a large circle and held hands around Johnson Park. A drone photographed us from overhead. (It was not a government surveillance drone.) A musician sang This Land is Your Land, which as a biodiversity ecologist I always found puzzling: the land belongs to all the species, not just to humans. Some of the verses of this song are borderline socialism, and were sung originally by Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma native of whom this extreme right-wing state pretends to be proud. Then we crossed Riverside Dr. (legally) as passing vehicles honked in support (I think; at least some of them waved) and walked in a loop.

For me the best part (aside from seeing many old friends and making new ones) was the placards that people made for themselves. Such creativity! The independent thinking that went into them contrasts sharply with the mindless uniformity of Trump posters. The only element of uniformity was that many Planned Parenthood supporters carried the same posters. But here are some of the placards that I saw:

“Got plague? Yeah, me neither. Thank a scientist.”
“There is no Planet B.”
“Science already made America great.”
“You are the result of 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success. Act like it.”
“Patriots love science.”
There was even a dog with a cardboard poster that said Bark Bark Bark.

Here are some photos of placards.

Another important theme was that women should be encouraged to be science leaders. One young woman carried a placard with a quote from Rosalind Franklin. And another carried this poster:

Environmental protection is a big issue in Tulsa. Terry Young, who was Tulsa Mayor from 1984 to 1986, told the story of Helmerich Park, at the corner of Riverside Dr. and 71st Street, a place that my wife and I pass often on the walking trail. We always see a lot of people using the park, including a lot of volleyball players in the sand court. It is one of the places Tulsa can be proud of. But apparently, according to one speaker, the city council met one night and simply declared that the park was not being used and that it should be sold to a developer. The publicity for this sale claimed that the land would be used for an REI outdoor recreation store. As it turns out, the developer planned a mall—one of many new malls in Tulsa—including five acres of asphalt parking. Former Mayor Terry Young is involved in two lawsuits against this development. He decried the ascendancy of ignorance in our national thinking. And yet, ignorance can be a good thing. Scientists admit ignorance but then set out to make discoveries to counteract the ignorance. As Alan Alda, an actor turned science activist, said, “Ignorance is a wonderful thing with curiosity attached to it.” Young pointed out the problems with this decision included the following:

  • The rationale for the sale—that the park was not being used—was patently false.
  • The taxpayers, whose money bought the park in the first place, were not consulted about this sale. Even though the city is the owner and the city can do whatever it wants with its money and the taxpayers have no right to complain, the taxpayers feel tricked by this decision. The city can do whatever it wants but the citizens can also vote however they want. And the voters do not want a “we’ll do whatever the hell we want with city land” government.
  • Private donations were used to purchase the park land. The donations were for the park, not for the city’s general fund.

There have been successes. The Carrie Dickerson family led a campaign to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant at Inola, northeast of Tulsa. The reasons were not just the usual concerns about nuclear waste, but also about how the reactor would have required immense amounts of water, a resource of which Oklahoma periodically runs short. They won! But we cannot assume that successes will continue.

I want to thank the organizer, Nancy Moran, who must have worked tirelessly on almost nothing else except this event. And she is organizing another event, the Climate March, next week, also here in Tulsa. It feels good, really good, to know that there are so many of us, even though we are a minority, who care about what we are doing to the Earth, which conservatives pretend to believe is God’s Creation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Little Victories: Conversion of a Climate Skeptic (Guest Essay)

I am happy to post a guest essay from my botany student Matt Spears! It is his story of how his father finally came to admit that humans are causing global warming. I think it is interesting that his Dad’s reasons for rejecting global warming previously had more to do with political identity than with an understanding of science. Working against science denialism is an uphill fight but we can be happy for little victories!

(Beginning of guest essay)

My 70 year old father considers himself a conservative.  He calls me a liberal.  I am 31 now, but when I was about 18 years old I began to learn about things that at the time “blew my mind.”  I was learning about things I had never heard from my parents.  I was so excited to share these new ideas with them, but quickly discovered why my parents never talked about these things.  My dad called my new realizations about the world, which included global warming, “horse shit” and no matter what evidence I presented to him I was wrong.  It used to make me so angry.  It seemed like all of our time together consisted of arguments, but I was young, full of energy and very passionate so I persisted until years later when I got tired and gave up trying to get through to him.  I read a study where “permanent” changes were observed in the brains of people who would play violent video games every day.  My dad listens to conservative talk radio and watches FOX “so-called” news every day so I assumed that, for the most part, he has literally been brain washed to only believe what the talking heads of conservative media tell him.

Two weeks ago, while I was at my parents’ house, I saw a flyer about a discussion on climate change that would be held at a popular local bar.  The flyers were passed out at the Rotary group he attends every week.  I couldn’t believe that in my very conservative home town of Sherman, Texas a discussion on climate change was happening outside of a college or university and, most of all, my dad had brought home the flyer.  He agreed to go and met us there at the bar.  Two professors from the environmental science department at Austin College and the head meteorologist at the news station KXII were there to answer questions that those of us in attendance would ask.  It was obvious nearly everybody there already understood global warming, but there were two whom I recognized that did not.  One of those was the owner of the bar who made a short rant about his freedom to do whatever is in the best interest of business.  I just happened to be in the rest room for that and only heard the end.  After a couple of pints I began to chime in with comments and my dad followed.  He didn’t have much to say and was really just there to listen.  The speakers were all very thorough in their explanations of global warming.  It couldn’t have been any clearer to all of us who attended, no matter what our views had been walking in there, that global warming is real and our actions are making it happen at an alarming rate.

So, on the way home I called my mom to tell her all about it.  While we were talking I heard a click like somebody else was on the line.  My mom said it was my dad.  I said “Dad, what do you think?”  He replied “We’re doing it.” That’s all I needed to hear and I guess that’s all he needed to say because he just hung up.  I almost couldn’t believe it after all these years.  I want to gloat and tell him I was right all this time, but I know better.  Now, I hope he realizes that it’s not me who’s full of shit, It’s Bill O’Reilly.

(End of guest essay)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lord, Liar, Lunatic...or Lourdes

Here is a thought for Easter from a scientific viewpoint. Was the resurrection of Jesus an illusion? I’m not saying that it was, but this question gives us an interesting opportunity to compare the process of science with the process of religious faith.

A famous fundamentalist evangelist of the 1970s was Josh McDowell, who was well known for turning the piercing light of logic upon the Christian religion and proclaiming that its fundamental tenets had passed the test of credibility. That is, he acted as if he was being scientific about it. Most famously, he posed the question of Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus was not Lord, then He must have been a liar, for He claimed that He was, or a lunatic, for believing Himself to be. Lord, liar, or lunatic—a catchy phrase.

Catchy but wrong. If, in fact, you can eliminate the liar and lunatic options for Jesus, then the only possible conclusion is “Lord,” which is true only if McDowell considered all the possibilities. But there is a fourth possibility: the resurrection was an illusion, which people wanted so badly to believe that their minds created the beliefs.

This does not mean that the early Christians, or their successors, were lunatics. Perfectly normal people can have illusions; they become lunatics only if the illusion overwhelms their common sense ability to function in society. Because nearly everyone is vulnerable to bias and illusion, scientists use certain safeguards, such as the use of controls and specifying exactly what your dependent variable should be, in order to keep from falling into this all too human trap.

I will use a couple of examples from the Catholic Church, which is actually less prone to illusion than many fundamentalist sects.

First, consider the “miracle of Lourdes.” In 1858, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes in southern France. Not once, but eighteen times. Two of the things the Virgin told her were, first, that she (not just Jesus) had been immaculately (asexually, presumably through mitosis) conceived, and second, that if believers would dig a hole at the base of the grotto they would release a spring of water that would have healing properties.

Consider the claim about the immaculate conception of Mary. Some people say that this had to be revealed by the Virgin herself to Mlle. Bernadette, because Pope Pius IX had not declared this doctrine until 1854, only four little tiny years before Mlle. Bernadette’s visions, and during those four brief years Mlle. Bernadette could not have possibly heard about it. Of course, she most certainly could have known about it.

There is a spring from the grotto and it ejects enough water that people can go swimming in it. And millions have done so. The grotto of Lourdes has had 200 million visitors since 1860. Claims have been made that the waters cured nerve damage, cancer, paralysis, even blindness. The Catholic Church recognizes that many of these hundreds of claims have been delusions, but has certified 69 of them as genuine. We all know, however, about the placebo effect: almost anything can make you feel better, or even feel cured, it you sincerely believe it to be so. The placebo effect has long been the bane of pharmaceutical development. But the placebo effect works so well, especially if the placebos are expensive, that some scientists wonder if possibly the placebos should be used to unleash the body’s self-healing capacity. Numerous scientific studies have been conducted with the water from this spring, and no curative effects have been found.

The people who make pilgrimages to Lourdes (the second largest tourist spot in France after Paris) are not lunatics, but they are experiencing an illusion. The human mind, even a normal mind, sees what it expects to see.

Second, consider the “miracle of F├ítima.” Based on persistent rumors, somewhere between thirty and one hundred thousand pious Catholics had gathered near this Portuguese town, fully convinced that some unspecified solar miracle was going to happen on October 13, 1917. They would latch onto anything out of the ordinary as a miracle. The people were watching the sun, many of them having smudged smoke onto glass to make solar filters. Some reported seeing the sun itself become a spinning disc in the sky, which careened toward the Earth and then zigzagged back to its original location. Others reported seeing multi-colored sunlight. Others saw both. Some saw nothing.

Since the sun is so big and so far away, this event could not possibly have happened any more than actual stars could fall from the sky the way the Bible says. So what did happen? The spinning and zigzagging could have been retinal after-images. Haven’t you ever seen these after glancing at the sun? Happens to me all the time, if I happen to look toward the sun and then away. What about the colors? Sometimes high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals can refract light into a rainbow of colors, even forming colorful bright blotches to either side of the sun. They may immediately precede a snowstorm. They are called false suns or sundogs. They can cause the appearance of three suns. I have seen them. If I had not studied the rudiments of physics, I might have considered them a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples might have wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was not really dead that their otherwise sane and normal minds played tricks on them. Christian apologists claim it could not have been an illusion because the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus rise from the dead. But it cannot be denied that they hoped He would. In one account, two disciples walked with a stranger, whom they did not recognize, upon the Emmaus Road. Only after he was gone did they “realize” that the stranger was in fact Jesus, but with a different face. This is exactly what a psychologist would expect to hear from someone who was experiencing an illusion.

The disciples weren’t crazy. They were just human.

Liar and lunatic are not the only alternative to Lord. There are two alternatives: Lord and Lourdes. Scientists never assume (or at least never should assume) that we have considered every possibility.

Friday, April 7, 2017

New video

I just posted a video about how fundamentalists misuse religion to attack the science of global warming. Wait until you see how I approached this subject, with Jim Inhofe and a Jesus finger puppet.

An Environmental Theme in American Literature: The Awakening Land

I recently finished reading Conrad Richter’s trilogy, The Awakening Land, which he finished in 1950. The three novels are about the settlement of Ohio: The Trees, about how pioneers carved out survival in a thick forest; The Fields, about how the pioneer settlements evolved into a little village; and The Town, how the little village became a major city in Ohio. The trilogy followed the life of a woman named Sayward (Saird) Luckett, later Wheeler, who grew up in a cabin but by the end of her life lived in a rich mansion. See a more detailed summary here.

At first, I was disaffected by what seemed to be the author’s approach. Sayward loved to cut trees down and to see others cut them down, for they represented a fearful primordial forest. (The primordial forest at the beginning of the trilogy, with leaves so dense that hardly any light penetrated throughout the forest, never actually existed. There were disturbances before the arrival of pioneers, especially fires set by nature or by the Natives.) Even into the second novel, she was glad to see the trees out of the way. But I should have known to expect something different before the end. Richter lived at a time when conservation awareness was beginning to grow in America. And sure enough, when Sayward was old, she realized that she missed the trees and the peaceful shade that they brought. She planted some trees by her mansion, some of the few trees in the city, and when she was dying she had her bed turned toward the window to see them. She regretted taking the land away from the trees: “Sometimes she wished she could give them back their land, for it was she who had taken it from them.”

Even the choice of the title, The Awakening Land, implied that nature is asleep until humans roust it into usefulness. But perhaps Richter intended this to be irony.

Although beautifully written, the novels seemed primarily episodic. Some of these episodes were funny, and some were beautiful: the chapter “Rosa’s Rainbow” was one of the best short pieces I have read. The only overarching plot of the trilogy was that the forest gave way to human progress. There was no structural conflict to be resolved.

The third novel did have a major plot: the romance that developed over many years between Chancey Wheeler, Sayward’s youngest and sickly son, and the frail, quiet, and thoughtful Rosa Tench. Everybody but them knew that they were half-siblings. Rosa was born from an affair that Portius Wheeler, the father, had with a schoolteacher when he was the master. But the two young people knew only that the adults, for reasons not explained to them, condemned their romance. I found myself hoping that this would reach a satisfactory resolution. Rosa had to live with a poor family and never received recognition or even a single word from the rich Wheeler family. I was hoping they would invite her into their home. This did not happen. The resolution of this plot was gruesome and occurred well before the end of the novel, which, as a direct result of this, I did not want to read. Had I known what would happen, I might not have read it. But it remains a beautiful piece of literature and a testament to the development of the American attitude toward the land, which everyone except, at the end, the main character, assumed was progress.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Springtime in Oklahoma, or, Will Molly Eat It?

There were plenty of visitors to Robber’s Cave State Park on April 1. This is not one of the state parks that the Oklahoma government, in its desperation to cut everything except oil corporation subsidies and the budgets of the legislature and governor, plans to close. Just a few of the visitors came for the Spring Field Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences. Few, but appreciative.

We (faculty and students) were surrounded by nature. Oh, wait, not quite. The forests were mostly shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) and post oak (Quercus stellata). But the shortleaf pines have nearly all, at least in this part of the state, hybridized with loblolly pines, which have been planted for lumber and pulp production. And every bit of the forest has been affected by human impact, including fire suppression. But it was a nice spring day and we were seeing things that were almost natural. The oaks were just opening their catkins and unfurling a few baby leaves. Post oaks dominate the poor, dry soils of these mountains.

Gloria Caddell, at the University of Central Oklahoma, led the botany field trips.

We didn’t even get out of the parking lot before we found plants that were interesting in more than one way. Gloria explained how to distinguish the three species of violets and how to distinguish poison ivy from fragrant sumac. But I explained that you could eat violets. I convinced Molly, a student from my university (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), to try one. After she was finished looking at a black cherry in bloom, I convinced her to eat some fading redbud flowers too. Last of all, I got her to eat some greenbriar buds.

We explored different habitats within the park. Closer to the creek, we found red maple, bur oak, and black oak. At the edge of the water we saw a birch tree with its male and female catkins. The male catkins dangle from the branch behind the female flowers. This arrangement improves the chances that the pollen that comes to the female flowers is from a different tree rather than the same one. We also saw several wildflower species, some spectacular like the plains wild indigo, Baptisia bracteata.

Baptisia is one of the leguminous plants that produce nitrogen-fixing nodules, as mycologist Steve Marek explained. It is always good to have people from different areas of study together on the same field trip.

And, as always, leave it to Gloria to open our eyes to see the tremendous biodiversity of a trampled lawn in a picnic area. As future high school teacher Lainee Sanders discovered, there was not one but two species of buttercups in the picnic area. (The dog appeared to not care about the flowers.)

There were some high school teachers on the trip. Melissa Bates brought high school students from Oklahoma City. They looked closely at little Antennaria flower clusters, perhaps never having realized that there were boy antennarias and girl antennarias growing together.

You never know where you are going to find moss growing. We found some growing on an old glove, sporophytes and all!

Chad King, a botanist at University of Central Oklahoma, gave an evening presentation about dendrochronology. Tree rings are a storehouse of information about all the tree’s experiences, therefore about things such as climate and fire history. He displayed one of his specimens, a very old tree that had had an eventful life.

Almost everything we saw was something that could so easily have been overlooked if we had been hiking fast or jogging. We need these times of slowing down, looking closely, even nibbling, under the guidance of those among us who know a lot about hidden biodiversity.