Monday, October 30, 2017

Altruism as Evil: The Work of Donald Trump

Altruism occurs when (usually) animals cooperate with one another, to the benefit of all of them. One kind of altruism, recognized by evolutionary scientists, is indirect reciprocity, in which an individual gains recognition and admiration for doing generous acts—and along with that admiration comes profit. We all want to do business with people who have a public reputation for generosity.

Nearly everyone recognizes altruism as good. Everyone, that is, except Donald Trump. He seems to believe that it is evil to do good things for other people.

One way that more fortunate countries have of helping the less fortunate ones is through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization(UNESCO). Educational and scientific exchanges promote world peace, one of the express purposes of the United Nations in general and UNESCO in particular. UNESCO facilitates altruism, especially indirect reciprocity.

But Trump has removed the United States from UNESCO. Not only does he not believe that the United States should promote world peace in this way, but he also appears to hate the reputation for goodness that the United States used to enjoy as a member of UNESCO. It used to be that when the world looked at America, it thought, “they want to help us,” and we got a lot of admiration for that. But today the world looks at us and thinks, “they hate us.” Trump, who is always sneering and insulting everyone else, already promoted this image, and has now backed it up by action. We hereby send the message to the world that, even if you are our friends, we do not need you. We do not even like you.

Trump’s consistent message has been “America first.” But this is not what he meant. Probably every nation puts itself first. What Trump meant, apparently, was “America only.”

America, Trump thinks, does not need the admiration or goodwill of the world. All we need to do is to intimidate them.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Altruism: Don't We Wish

I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. He had some really interesting thoughts; and not just thoughts, but results of his own research. Oh how I wish I could agree with him.

Haidt’s research shows that our political convictions—in particular, being liberals vs. conservatives—is based on psychology rather than reason. Of course, liberals have always “known” this about conservatives: those conservatives are just mean people who want to oppress and victimize other people. And conservatives have always “known” this about liberals: those liberals are just immoral people who want to destroy the moral compass of society. But Haidt has shown that liberal vs. conservative biases may come from the deepest part of our brains. Conservatives have a need for order, while liberals relish diversity. This even shows up in the conservative preference for dots on a screen that move in lock-step with one another, and liberal preference for dots moving independently.

But what do we do with this information? It is here that, I fear, Haidt has gone off on a cloud of wishful thinking. If both liberals and conservatives can just recognize that their beliefs have a psychological basis, then they could start to talk and work things out. This is, as I understand it, Haidt’s gospel, as it were. He also says that our society needs both liberals and conservatives, to keep each other from going overboard.

Alas, there are two problems here.

  • Liberals are much more likely to agree with Haidt on his basic points. Conservatives will usually reject the very premise that psychology has any influence on their beliefs. They believe that they are God’s chosen and that they are as unlikely to be wrong as for God to not exist. The Holy Spirit has made them conservatives. That being the case, a true conservative will consider it unnecessary or even evil to have a meeting of minds with liberals. Haidt reached his conclusion from his liberal background; can he point to even one conservative scholar who has reached the same conclusion from his or her conservative background? Maybe he can, and if so, I’d like to hear about it.
  • Conservatives have a lot more guns piled up, ready to hand, than liberals. How can any parity of discussion be reached when one side is heavily armed and the other side virtually helpless? If you have guns, who needs dialogue?

These are two deadly asymmetries that make discussion impossible between liberals and conservatives, in general. Happily, some individual conservatives and liberals can talk, but this will not happen on a large enough scale to influence the immediate future.

Haidt gave an example of how liberals and conservatives could discuss an issue and perhaps come to a better understanding of one another. The issue: global warming. The liberals could begin a discussion by citing a military general, rather than an environmentalist, who talks about the dangers of global warming. Great idea. Only we climate scientists have already tried this. Defense Secretary Maddis has already said that global warming will cause international conflicts to which the U.S. military must pay close attention. Maddis is not just a conservative, but a hand-picked Trump follower. But the conservative global-warming denialists have either taken no notice or have been hostile toward this prominent conservative. A search of the most prominent denialist website turned up no matches with “Maddis.” The reason is, of course, that the denialists are paid by fossil fuel corporations, or individuals who have gotten rich from them, or foundations started by them.

Haidt also said that, on average, religion makes people more moral. But in order to justify this statement, Haidt had to include, in the term “morality,” those activities that bind the group together, even if it means that the group is hostile toward other groups and causes a great deal of harm to the world in general. I am sure Haidt does not mean to establish a moral equivalence between, say, the United Nations and the Nazis, but I am unclear about how he avoids this equivalence.

This problem is the very same one we encounter when we consider altruism, about which I have often written. Altruistic behavior, encouraged by empathetic feelings, enhances an individual’s evolutionary success within his or her social environment. In ancient times, the social environment was very local. Today, the environment can be the whole world. Natural and cultural selection may favor warm, fuzzy feelings within the group, but may also favor extreme hostility. This hostility can take two forms: the feeling of sweet revenge against cheaters within the group, and extreme hostility toward people outside the group, whether they are cheaters or not. It might be enlightening to think that conservatives draw the line between “us” and “them” more narrowly than do liberals. Haidt may have written about this someplace.

In a related thought, Haidt also said that, according to surveys, conservatives care more about the people around them, while liberals care more about the people of the world. And here is where I have to draw a completely different conclusion from my Oklahoma experiences than Haidt may draw from his New York experiences. The conservatives who live around me in Oklahoma seem to be hostile toward everyone except, maybe, their own families. They dump garbage in their neighbors’ yards and allow their dogs to attack anyone who is out on the street. Many of them fly Confederate flags, which displays their hostility toward even many of their immediate neighbors. And, in this reddest of red states, “Oklahoma is ranked 3rd in the nation for women killed by men in single victim-single offender homicides.” (see data here). Red states are not moral, at home, or in their communities. I wonder if the surveys that Haidt has conducted indicate more about what people like to think about themselves than what they actually do. Prominent conservatives, from Bill O’Reilly on down, proclaim Christian morality while pursuing immoral personal lives.

What I come away with, from Haidt’s statements, is that individual conservatives and liberals might try to understand one another better, after finding some personal common ground. This common ground might be something as strange as a shared adoration for the music of the 1930s country singer Jimmie Rodgers—which I share with a very conservative person I’ve not yet met but if I do I will talk to her about this rather than about politics. But on a national level? I think it is hopeless.

Haidt’s views might be appropriate for a society at equilibrium—that is, one in which liberal and conservative views can mix and respond to one another, reaching some kind of stable balance. But right now, our country is experiencing extreme disequilibrium. This is not true in every country. In France, a country about which I know a little, the conservatives and liberals disagree vividly. But the conservatives do not have stockpiles of guns in France the way they do in America. Even if American conservatives choose not to use these guns, they have the psychological advantage: we all know that they have them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Cultural Evolution of Mimicry and Deception

Mimicry and deception are everywhere in nature, thanks to evolution. Some mollusks attract fishes by waving fishlike gills. When the fishes approach, the mollusks lay their parasitic eggs on them. Orchids mimic bees and wasps, and attract bees and wasps, which try to mate with the flowers and only end up pollinating them.

Mimicry and deception are everywhere in human society, thanks to cultural evolution. I want to briefly share an example. What do you do if you are pretending to be a scientist, and you are trying to spread your gospel which just happens to be totally contrary to all scientific data? And you want journalists to spread your gospel for you? Well, you cannot do much, unless someone gives you a lot of money. If you have the money, you can pretend to be a real grown-up scientist and you might convince journalists to believe you.

Let’s suppose you are trying to convince people that there is no such thing as global warming. The first thing you can do is to send out your literature in an envelope that looks like it comes from a legitimate source. Thousands of us scientists received an envelope that looked like this:

This plain white envelope looks like it is from the New York Times. But where is it really from? You don’t want people to know, so you put your return address, but not your name. A journalist would notice, but only if he or she had time to look closely. It doesn’t actually claim to be from the New York Times, because the NYT logo is in the lower, not upper, left.

The second thing is to have literature that looks really, really slick. A journalist might not take seriously something amateurish, such as the “National Sunday Law” weird religious pamphlets that millions of people (42 million, in fact) have gotten in their mailboxes. Those pamphlets were obviously printed up at a local rural Oklahoma print shop. But the anti-global-warming book inside the white envelope was really slick:

Third, the name of your organization should closely imitate that of a respected scientific organization. For example, if I wanted to make my literature look like it came from AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world’s premier scientific bodies), I could call my group the AAAST (American Association for the Advancement of Scientific Thought). Only an experienced scientist might notice the difference; a journalist might not. This global-warming denialist group called itself the NIPCC, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which looks really similar to the pre-eminent world body that studies climate change, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Fourth, you get together with other similar groups, and you praise each other’s work. This book was published by the Heartland Institute, but was co-sponsored by (Craig Idso) and by the Science and Environmental Policy Project (Fred Singer). Craig Idso and Fred Singer are in fact co-authors of the Heartland book. If you visit the website of the latter group, and click on “about us,” you will find a blank, at least I did. You see, the three authors have formed three organizations, each of these organizations has gained the endorsement of two other organizations, and all three are well-funded, perhaps from the same source.

Suppose I wanted to convince everyone that the Earth was the center of the universe. I could start up that AAAST that I mentioned earlier. Then I could get some of my friends to start the STAA (Scientific Thought Association of America) and others to start the Ptolemy Institute, and I would instantly have two other societies endorsing whatever I might say, that is, if they want to still be my friends and receive...

And receive the funding that we all receive from the same source. The Heartland Institute keeps its funding sources secret. But leaked documents reveal that most of their funding comes from the Koch Brothers, who get their wealth from people burning lots of oil. They probably get a few dollars here and there from other sources, but Heartland is mostly a front for the Koch Brothers. If I had a rich donor, I would ask that donor to fund three institutes, not one.

Fifth, you have to make your funding look like it is not all from a single place. Heartland claims that it receives 60 percent of its funding from foundations, 19 percent from individuals, and 18 percent from corporations. But, you see, the Koch Brothers have a foundation, and a corporation, and they are also individuals!

Other “think tanks” are more transparent about their funding. The Cato Institute (whose lie-filled diatribe against Rachel Carson somehow got repurposed into a chapter in a book that was inexplicably published by National Geographic) acknowledges the Koch Brothers right on their homepage.

But, as it turns out, the Heartland Institute is not just funded by oil interests. It must also be funded by tobacco corporations. Heartland proclaims that smoking is bad but it should not be in any way discouraged, except in kids. This is so ridiculous that nobody could believe it, even the tobacco corporations themselves. Heartland’s website claims that anti-smoking advocates “personally profit” from their opposition to smoking. They give no data, not even any anecdotes, to support this preposterous claim. They imply that tobacco corporations aren’t in it for the money but they just want to make life better for everyone. But all of the profits (from book sales, or salaries for scientific research) that come from opposing tobacco amount to just a few hours’ worth of tobacco corporation profits. Their statement indicates that teachers such as myself who try to get students to stop smoking are reaping profits from this. But I have not earned one penny from my anti-smoking educational efforts.

What this amounts to is that Heartland will say anything if you pay them enough. Only oil and tobacco can pay them enough.

I don’t think I need to convince you that what Heartland and its associated groups are doing is wrong. I wanted to tell you about it because of the deceptive practices that they use, practices worthy of any sinful orchid or any parasite. The only thing more amazing than their strategy is that people fall for it.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Four.

Scientific presentations already follow a narrative format: the introduction sets up the problem, the methods and results sections work through it, and the discussion (or conclusions) resolves the problem. Two consequences of the narrative structure in scientific papers are:

  • Everyone knows the materials and methods section is the boring part of the story. In many journals, it either appears in smaller print, or as an online supplement.
  • Null results—that is, when the hypothesis is not confirmed—seldom get published. Narratives they may be, but not very good ones. But, as Stuart Firestein explains in Failure: Why Science is So Successful, this is very unfortunate, because the null results of one investigator or team can, when read by another team, save them a lot of wasted time and expense. The second team can, by studying the null results, either give up while they have time, or devise a better method. Failures, null results, are as much a part of the narrative as the protagonist’s setbacks are part of the hero’s tale.

This happens a lot in literature. People like stories that have happy endings, or are at least resolved at the end. A story is supposed to make sense, even if the world does not. In this way, a story can help us understand the world, or at least accept it, a little better. Only in rare instances is a happy ending actually required: the four damsels and three swains agreed on the happy-ending rule in Boccaccio’s Decameron, but this is unusual. Even in tragedies, things get resolved: at the end of Hamlet, we find that things really were rotten in the state of Denmark.

(Joke intermission. In a Russian tragedy, everybody dies; in a Russian comedy, everybody dies happy.)

Music also follows a narrative structure. Music definitely follows a narrative arc. In fact, it can be arcs within arcs. Most musical pieces follow the “ABA form” or “sonata form,” as I learned it in music theory class in 1975. Introduction of one or more themes; Development of interacting themes; then Recapitulation (recap) of the triumphant, modified theme or themes. You find this in nearly all classical music that people like to listen to. The theme-and-variations form, and the verses-and-refrains form, are variations of this structure. Frequently, the development is in the relative minor (if the introduction is in major), as in A minor following C major; or the other way round.

In symphonies, each movement usually has an ABA form. The first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony has dramatic themes in the introduction, then a development that builds up tension. That is an understatement. At the end of the development, there is an extremely strident chord repeated thirty-six times. Just before you scream, the recap begins. This symphony has such a powerful narrative structure that a Tulsa audience of hundreds listened to the conductor give an hour-long lecture about it before performing the symphony. The first movement is so exhausting that Mahler wrote in a three-minute relaxation period before the second movement. The conductor duly sat down on his podium as if he had just wrestled a Viking. Now that’s a story.

Many classical symphonies follow a narrative structure in their (usually four) movements, with an ABA form within each movement. The first movement is an introduction. The second movement is often slow and thoughtful. The third movement is often lively and everybody looks forward to it. The fourth movement is a resolution and frequently features the return of the original theme. The fourth movement, or any other movement, can also have a coda, which is a big bang ending that extends past the resolution of the theme. One of the most famous codas is at the end of the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just when you think you have heard the final notes, along comes this surprising coda. This symphonic movement has such an obvious narrative structure that musical humorist Peter Schickele applied a football-game-style commentary to it.

Mozart was a master of musical narrative structure. Mozart was unrivalled in the way he made the horizontal (tune) and vertical (chord) structures work together perfectly, with seeming effortlessness, as in the Gran Partita.

Sometimes the narrative form in music is completely overt. Each of Antonín Dvořák’s symphonic poems (such as The Water Sprite, The Golden Loom, and The Wild Dove) tells an intricate folk tale, usually grisly. I love them!

The first chapter of Genesis is a song. It has six stanzas for the six days of creation. Each stanza ends with a refrain, “and there was evening, and there was morning, another day.” Creationists, by forcing it into a literal meaning, have killed its beauty. I even rewrote Genesis 1 into a form that fit the tune of Oh What a Beautiful Mornin.’ (“The creation of Earth is like music, the creation of Earth is like music...” and “It’s such a beautiful cosmos, you’d better keep it that way.”)

The middle of the twentieth century was a time of embarrassment for classical music. Composers, usually working on university faculties (hence this music is sometimes called “academic”, suitable only for study and not for enjoyment) and having very few listeners, wrote music that was deliberately formless and void with darkness over the face of the deep, as in Genesis 1:2. In most cases they didn’t even have tunes. Students, including me, were made to pretend to like them. I could list some of the pieces and composers, but you almost certainly have never heard of them. They have become extinct, except when some musicians drag out the fossils and play them for audiences that endure them. Nobody goes around humming them. Today much of that pretense has been abandoned in schools of music. These pieces of “academic” music just leave the listener feeling confused. Music does not have to end with a bang, but it should end at some sensible spot. This is why most people, in thinking about the early twentieth century, can name only composers like Hindemith, Gershwin, and Joplin, who wrote tunes. What’s there not to like about the March at the end of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses? But “academic” composers looked down on Hindemith, especially since he insisted on sending every movement on a nice chord.

Science is stories. Literature is stories. Music is stories. We cannot not think in stories. We cannot not feel in stories.

This is only one reason that the vast story of evolution resonates less with the human spirit than does creationism. Evolution does not have a narrative arc. I tried to give it one in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, but it just didn’t match up to Genesis 1 or to Adam and Eve (Genesis 2). Ursula Goodenough tried it too, with even less success than I.

Science needs as much interesting narrative as it can get, but not at the expense of reality. I am particularly annoyed by the sound bite at the beginning of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, in which a woman says, “We have to believe in impossible things.” No, we don’t, not even (as Lewis Carroll wrote) five impossible things before breakfast. If we let the narrative dominate, then science is as useless to us as religion. This is not, however, likely to happen.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Three.

And the little son of a birch looked up and said, Daddy, tell me an understory.

Why do we love stories? I here suggest that our brains evolved that way, at least since our evolutionary lineage, Homo sapiens, became distinct from the other ape lineages.

The natural world can be a brutal, frightening place. It is full of predators, poisonous critters, diseases, droughts, storms. And, most of all, other human tribes who want to claim our hunting grounds as their own. Humans have fought over hunting grounds since prehistory, and as late as 1755, when the Cherokees fought the Creeks over the hunting ground at Taliwa, now part of Georgia. My sixth great grandmother Nanyehi was the Cherokee war hero in that battle.

To fight a battle, a tribe needs a military leader. Often, tribes have distinct war and peace leaders; traditional Cherokees had a war chief and a peace chief simultaneously. If the military leader brings about a victory, he brings the news back to the tribe and relates it in a narrative format, in which he is the hero, supported by his loyal followers, and in which victory was not due to luck but to the prowess and skill of the warriors, especially him, and to the blessings of their gods. And he (or she) might bring back physical plunder to share altruistically. This is the most visceral form of narrative.

In the ensuing time of peace, guess who gets the most resources and the most reproductive opportunities? Why, the military leader (war chief) and his top aides. That is, the leader who not only won the battle but could tell a story. All in the tribe who bought into the story stood a better chance of getting resources and reproductive opportunities. The genes for brains that not only were capable of, but craved, the narrative form spread in the population. Making sense of the world, especially in the form of religious narrative, might have been one of the major selective forces that resulted in the particular form of human intelligence that we have.

And the myth must be about an individual, not a collective. Even when the Soviets tried to champion stories about heroic collectives of peasants against the bourgeoisie, they had to create individual heroes; and Stalin was only too happy to assume the role of hero himself.

As I will explain in my forthcoming book tentatively titled Scientifically Thinking, due out in 2018 from Prometheus Books, the human brain did not evolve to reason, but to rationalize; not to see truth but to create it, so as to manipulate other people. Natural selection favored brains that were delusional. Not too delusional, but sometimes pretty close to it, as when religion causes some people to follow a leader to senseless deaths. We cannot jeer at the Jonestown cult, because their brains were not too different from ours. We evolved from the tribes that followed their leaders to the deaths of many in the tribe, but from which enough survived to enjoy the spoils of war and to reap the fitness benefits from it. This may have worked well enough in the past, but today our population and technology has grown so much that this kind of thinking threatens our survival. Having an ape brain couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The scientific method can unleash our minds. But you can see the kind of uphill battle we face.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Two.

As I said in the preceding entry, scientists need to tell visceral, compelling stories if we are to have any chance that the public will notice the Truth that we Reveal. We have yottabytes of information about global warming, but Senator Jim Inhofe can simply say that God told him there is no global warming, and that settles it. (He vaguely refers to the Bible for support, but misquotes it.) We scientists are the Revealers of Truth, at least as much as any group of humans can be. We need to get our story out. This is part of the message I get from Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have a Narrative, which I introduced previously.

But how can we get a compelling, visceral story out of global warming?

The best stories have a single protagonist and often a single antagonist, good vs. evil. It is not as successful if you have a whole population of protagonists or antagonists. Stalin said that the suffering of an individual is a tragedy, while the suffering of a multitude is a statistic. He knew a thing or two about causing such statistics. I remember a church play when I was a teenager in which two girls were chattering away while a boy was agonizing over the suffering of the world. When he said, “My grandmother died,” the girls immediately stopped chattering and came over to comfort him. Then when he said, “Not really, but a million other grandmothers died,” the girls went right back to their chattering.

The protagonist need not be perfectly good or the antagonist perfectly evil, but they need to be there. But with global warming, the protagonists are the thousands of scientists and environmentalists who are trying to lead the world toward an atmospheric carbon balance that will avoid catastrophe. And the antagonists are everybody, including many scientists, who simply consume too much energy, directly or indirectly, by driving vehicles that are bigger than they need to be, using the air conditioning more than we need to, etc. Corporations are also antagonists, but they are responding to our demand. Oil companies could not make money if we decided we don’t want to burn as much oil.

But maybe here we have the kernel of a good story here. Let’s start building a plot. The antagonists are two gray-haired men who just happen, by merest chance, to resemble the Koch Brothers, mega-giants of the oil industry. And in their bored-room, they are depressed, because they have seen all the economic analyses that show that demand for oil is decreasing even while most economic growth and jobs are in wind and solar. Renewable energy is good for the economy, but not for them. Oh, wait, this is getting good. Into the bored-room comes the daughter-in-law of one of the men. She cries as she sees the charts on the smart-boreds. (I can do even better. Got it!) She is holding their little granddaughter. She says, Daddy, you promised me that oil was the key to a golden future for our family, but all around me I see climate disasters, and I just know that my daughter, your grand-daughter, is going to grow up in a cataclysmic world of climate disruption. Oh, Daddy, how could you do this to me? To her? Then, of course, you need the morally-conflicted son who finally decides to leave his high-paying oil job and join Earth First! and sabotage bulldozers. And then...

You get the point. You can see why this kind of fiction might never get published and would never become a movie, since there is so much money and political power (are there any politicians who are not wholly dependent on industry money?) against it. Now, meanwhile, there is a protagonist. A climate scientist who just happens to look like Michael Mann is driving out in the countryside at night, headed into New York City where he is going to fly, at the last minute, to France, where he will be warmly embraced by President Emmanuel Macron, who has invited American climate scientists to move to France (this part is real). He has just said goodbye to his father, who happens to look like James Hanson. But, in a scene that I am shamelessly stealing from the movie Silkwood, somebody forces his car over to the side of the road...

At the last minute, it is the son of the oil magnate who rescues the climate scientist...

This would be a dangerous narrative to promote. Corporations would not like it one bit, and when they don’t like something, watch out. We are, therefore, left with the complex, less visceral narrative, not just because of oil industry money, but because the oil giants are not the only antagonists.

The climate denialists could come up with something similar. A novelist and screenwriter could come up with an evil, secret organization of environmentalists who want to kill the one, heroic climate scientist who knows the truth that global warming is a hoax. The evil environmentalists drive around in blue Priuses looking for their victims. The Antarctic ice isn’t really melting; it is the evil, evil scientists who cause the glaciers to fall apart by blowing them up with bombs. And the evil, evil scientists also issue false weather reports so that families with smiling, playing kids will have picnics in river valleys all unaware that a gigantic rain event is going to flood them to their deaths, over which the scientists will drool in glee. Of course, this kind of book is so stupid that it couldn’t get published.

Wait. The above paragraph is pretty much a summary of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear. Millions have read it and think it is pretty much a true picture, with the names changed to protect the guilty. But while oil corporations could sue the ass off of anyone who would write the first novel idea I proposed above, even with the names changed, who has ever sued Michael Crichton for his novel? At least, a Google search turned up nothing. And he’s dead now.

The narrative that the oil companies are spreading is:

  • The oil companies aren’t in it for the money. Oil executives make thousands of times more money than any climate scientist, but this does not, of course, color their perception. They are totally free of the love of money.
  • The oil companies want to make the future more secure for you, your children, and your grandchildren. They could not possibly be sacrificing your future for short-term gain.
  • The oil companies are the only ones who can save us.

With this kind of narrative, you can see why scientists like Michael Mann get death threats. People who buy into the oil company narrative see climate scientists as, practically, killers.

You can see the problem. Climate science explains things, while denialists simply accuse everyone else of being evil. The denialists have the thriller-story.

This is the same problem that almost any scientific topic has. Take diabetes. (You can have it. I have it, not too badly yet.) How can you tell a story that has a single protagonist and single antagonist? You cannot start a story with someone suffering multiple amputations or something; that would be too depressing. It would be better to start with someone who has just experienced his first, and frightening, diabetes-related event. He’s driving along in the country, and he happens to look like me, and drive a car like mine (a bright green Prius), and he suddenly starts going blind and has to pull over and park. It isn’t really blindness; it is an ocular migraine, in which a small gray circle like a solar afterglow spreads across the whole field of vision, breaking the visual information apart into twinkles and scrambling it. In fifteen minutes it is all over, the man’s vision has returned, but he realizes he should have taken the earlier warning signs more seriously. This is scary without being depressing.

But the antagonist? What would it be, a pancreas? Or would it be...ah, I’ve got it. The antagonist could be a pharmaceutical corporation that wants to charge one hundred billion zimbabwean dollars per pill for something you have to take twice a day. The protagonist is a botanist who studies a rare species of tree that has a phytochemical that can control diabetes, but the pharmaceutical companies know about it and are hunting him down to get him from threatening their multibillion dollar glucophage and insulin industry. Now, I wonder where that idea came from? Actually, I discovered a plant extract that kills bacteria, and a small pharmaceutical company was investigating it, but a big company bought them out and stopped the research. I imagine that it was because the chemical in my extract remains active even at high temperatures and after sitting on a desk and drying out for months, and would thus be very cheap to transport onto the battlefield and into the jungles... But, of course, I do not know any of this.

My point is that the only way to make major scientific topics such as global warming or diabetes into gripping narratives would be to do things like this to them. Or maybe some very creative person could come up with a middle road between boring and overdramatized that would work. We’re still waiting for that to happen, and it can’t happen soon enough.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, part one.

Humans have an instinctual love of the narrative arc. The narrative arc, in which a protagonist confronts problems (including his own problems) and eventually solves them, is as ancient as human language. People have always been telling stories ever since our brains were large enough to do so. Maybe Homo ergaster, whose Acheulean stone technology remained unchanged for a million years, had no imagination; but Homo sapiens certainly has had imagination for the last hundred thousand years or so. We cannot not tell stories about everything all the time. That’s the way our brains work. We know this because the earliest writings, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and all the stories in the Bible, already had the narrative arc form, implying that the form existed prehistorically. In a later essay, I plan to speculate on how and why the narrative arc (or the Joseph Campbell hero story) evolved in human brains, and I mean evolved.

Scientific research, also, consists of a narrative arc. This is why the stories about the Earth, which scientists investigate and communicate, should be so gripping and fascinating to the human imagination. But science has particular problems. First, many scientists are so focused on the details of their work that they simply provide a list of facts, which may be interesting to them but which may be meaningless to almost everyone else. Second, much of what we scientists study is complicated and depends on knowledge that a lot of people do not have. Every bit of scientific research is already a story, but scientists can get through to everybody else more effectively if we embrace the narrative arc mindfully rather than stumbling into it imperfectly.

Protestations of impartiality aside, scientific journals, especially the major ones, tend to publish the research with the most interesting stories. I am completing a research project the conclusion of which is, “Insects eat post oak leaves, more in some years than others, and more on some trees than others, for reasons we do not understand.” Not enough of a story for a major journal; there is a place waiting for it in a minor one, however. Even within the major journals, people read and remember the good stories. Think of the most famous articles in the journal Science. The article about ants walking on stilts and stumps to find their way home; the one about hummingbirds preferring flowers that have been genetically altered; the one about how spiders can scare grasshoppers into shitting out less nitrogen simply by being there (with the spider mouthparts glued shut). Those are certainly the ones I remember. The ones about “this is the number of gigatons of carbon that are fixed by the world’s forests” etc. are valuable, even monumental; I read and cite them, but they are just not gripping stories—sorry, Chris Field. When I eventually publish my article about how warmer winters are causing some species of deciduous trees, but not others, to open their buds earlier in the spring, I think that will be a good story, although I cannot compete with the ant guy.

Science journalists and filmmakers have known this for a long time. In the famous PBS series about Evolution, the first episode, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” explained the evidence and process of evolution; but they did so alongside a re-enactment of how Darwin came to realize what was going on. It remains one of the best historical movies I have ever seen, as well as a great science film. Another episode, “Evolutionary Arms Race,” tells about the escalating coevolution between predators (or parasites) and prey. But they do this by showing the process of discovery used by Edmund Brodie Jr. and Edmund Brodie III to reveal why certain species of newt were thousands of times more toxic than would be necessary to kill almost any predator, showing them at work in the field and the lab. The episode also told the story of the man who discovered the delta-32 deletion in the CCR5 white blood cell protein, and FIV endogenous retroviruses in wild cats. There were also two very touching stories from Russia: one of a prisoner who had multi-drug resistant TB, and one of a nineteen-year-old woman, on leave from medical school, who had it also. “I’m only nineteen, I have to be hopeful,” she said. The writers of the episode had my students’ hearts in their hands with that one. The series aired in 2001. I keep hearing back from former students about these episodes that I used in class. Now that was some real science education.

To survive, scientists have to convince the general public that what we are doing is not only true but valuable. Often, we fail to do this. If the public tunes us out, we don’t have a chance. We need to have a clear, simple narrative in order to communicate with them. Of course, it’s not all our fault as scientists. We have an important and true story about global warming. It is not entirely our fault the public is not grasping it. It is also the millions of dollars that the oil companies are spending to create misinformation campaigns, at least in America. This appears to not be a problem in Europe. Maybe nearly all Europeans accept global warming because their scientists are better storytellers, but I suspect this is not the case. It is the oil and coal money. But, to do what we can, we scientists have to tell gripping, visceral stories, not merely interesting ones.

Humans also have a limited attention span. I know I do. And I have the visceral feeling that the introduction I just wrote is already long enough to be a blog entry by itself. Tune in next time to see me tackle the problem of the narrative of global warming.