Saturday, October 24, 2020

Why I Love My Small Car

One of the main reasons I drive a small car (a Toyota Prius, in my case) is that, for each mile that I drive, I am emitting less carbon dioxide from the tailpipe. I am doing my part to reduce global warming. But this is not the only reason I drive a small car. Here are some other reasons, which are highly emotional and celebratory. The photo is a stock photo, but this is the model I have.

I can fit my small car into spaces that a larger vehicle could not go. This has proven useful on several occasions. Just recently, when I was in the parking lot of a grocery store, a delivery truck parked in the lot and blocked a bunch of cars, including mine. The delivery people did not care if the store’s customers were inconvenienced. A bunch of other cars were trapped, but there was about a six-foot gap through which my car, but no others, could escape. Similarly, when I stayed at a motel one night (back when I traveled), some a-hole parked his horse trailer in the main lot, taking up eight spaces. He paid the same price I did, but I had no place to park. I got permission from the desk to park my car in the garden. This week, the city of Durant began road construction, without advance notification to the university, and several parking lots became inaccessible. If a car was already parked in the lot, that was just their bad luck. But not mine. My car is small enough I can drive it around barriers and between trees to get away if I have to.

Gasoline is processed, distributed, and sold by a few large corporations. We are pretty much at their mercy. They abuse their powers, imposing their will on us, in direct contradiction to the principles of free enterprise. By buying less gasoline, I take away some of the profits of these oppressive corporations.

Briefly, near the beginning of the current pandemic, gasoline was cheap. The price of oil actually became negative, which means the oil corporations would pay other corporations to take their oil. (The other option was to pour it all into the Gulf of Mexico. Hey, it worked last time, during the 2010 oil spill.) But this did not last very long. Gas prices have again increased. Getting fuel efficiency that is twice the national average saves me about $12 per round trip between Durant, where I work, and Tulsa, where my family lives. This saves me about $300 a year over the average American fuel efficiency.

And, of course, it was cheaper to buy the car in the first place, compared to the cost of a bigger car.

Of course, in a smaller car, I am at greater risk of getting killed by someone driving a larger vehicle. But if we all wanted to be one hundred percent safe, we would all have to drive armored vehicles around, like this man did in 1995 in San Diego.

Despite the American love of big vehicles, and despite the hand-wringing of the oil corporations, who fear that fuel efficiency will put them out of business, Americans have been choosing smaller vehicles more and more each year. How can the oil corporations, and the government that serves their interests alone, reverse this trend? I came up with a fictional idea, which I used in one of my novels. The government could require every vehicle owner to use a minimum of 1000 gallons of gasoline a year; or else, just forfeit the money if they cannot. I called this law the “Koch Quota” after the famous anti-conservationist oil baron brothers. It would be the ultimate socialism, but oil corporations would, I believe, embrace socialism rather than to lose a single dollar in profits.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

What Do You Do with Your Scientific Knowledge?

 Scientific knowledge is not just a private pleasure. It is something to be shared.

A few months back, in my other blog, I shared a story about a kind of Republican you seldom see any more, and I used my childhood optometrist as an example: Dr. James E. Miller of Exeter, California. I recently found an old newspaper clipping about him, from about 1972.

Dr. Miller loved astronomy. Not just looking at stars and planets, but understanding how far away they are and the motions of the planets. He must have felt the kind of excitement that Galileo and Copernicus felt when they realized that the story of the stars was very different from what they had heard when growing up. Dr. Miller was a conservative Christian, but I suspect he must have agreed with Galileo that the Bible told us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

He bought a transparent celestial sphere, with planets and stars, not for his own enjoyment but to teach young people about the heavens. Two places he did this was at Boy Scout camps, helping boys earn their astronomy merit badges, and at SciCon, a science camp from back in the days when there weren’t very many science camps.

On two occasions this month, I got out my telescope (which I keep in my university lab) to look at Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. I cannot see them very well, and my telescope is very difficult to use. Mars, though at its closest approach to Earth, just looks like a pink disc. I could just barely see Saturn’s rings. I invited students to come and look at the planets. Two of them did. The excitement was not in the quality of the image, but in the experience of having photons from the planets go straight to your retina. One of the students exclaimed, on seeing Saturn’s rings, exclaimed with great excitement, “I see it!”

I also asked the two students why Mars is red. The red comes from oxidized iron. On Earth, this usually means a reaction with oxygen. But Mars has no oxygen. What caused the iron to oxidize, that is, to lose electrons? I hinted it was something that an oxygen derivative largely shields the Earth from. It was the student who was not a science major who guessed right: UV radiation. The red surface of Mars is only a few centimeters deep.

On those evenings last week, I was doing what Dr. Miller did. And I’m pretty sure that I got a lot of my enthusiasm for all the rest of my science teaching from Dr. Miller.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Beautiful Planet


Imagine yourself on an alien planet, with weird rocks and an almost barren surface. The scene can be very dramatic, as in this example:

But for most of us, a beautiful green forest as seen from a mountain top, with blue skies, or else a green tropical forest from which rain drips refreshingly, is much more beautiful. This is a photo from a forest near my home in Tulsa.

Yet there is no logical reason why the second scene should be better than the first. It is impossible to define beauty in logical terms.

But it is possible to define it in evolutionary terms. To the extent of their mental capacity, all animals have evolved to feel that their environments are beautiful. Because of our large brains, which allow a feeling of spirituality, we humans are the animals most powerfully moved by the sense of beauty. And it is our natural environments that we find most beautiful.

Why would evolution create a sense of beauty in our minds when we see our natural environment? Because if we feel inspired by the beauty of our natural environments, we are more likely to endure its occasional hardships and to live productively within it, finding all the resources we need for our fitness. Someone who thinks that their environment is ugly is unlikely to try very hard to find resources within it. More generally, if we are happy, we will be healthy and get along better in our social circumstances.

But that almost never happens with humans. No matter where people live, they find their environment beautiful. Even on the barren steppes of Siberia. I had a student once from northwest Kansas. There are beautiful parts of Kansas, but this was not one of them. Yet she said, “It is the most beautiful place on Earth.” Probably, even the poor people who search for usable garbage near the landfills in South America think that a mountain of trash can be beautiful, even as they see the peaks of the Andes in the distance.

I find that beautiful natural scenes from this planet are the scenes that move me with the greatest sense of beauty. And evolution is the reason for it.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, part two.

One of the most important ways in which denialists use a deliberate misunderstanding of multiple causation (see previous essay) is to ridicule global warming. In this essay, I will look at just one example of an effect of global warming that is dominating the news now (September/October 2020): the wildfires in the west, particularly in California.

Scientists are certain that global warming, primarily of human cause, is already increasing the number and severity of wildfires. Of course, global warming is not the only cause. Another factor that makes wildfires in California so big and deadly is the accumulation of dead wood in the forests. I have seen first-hand that buildup of dead wood is also a problem in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I taught field botany for eleven years. Once a fire gets started, there is an incredible amount of fuel for it to burn. (Then, of course, yet another cause is whatever ignited the fire. It is usually lightning strikes, though in one case it was sparks from fireworks at a gender reveal party.

This is hierarchical causation: a spark starts a fire, which burns a massive accumulation of dead wood. This is multiple causation: once the fire starts, it is more likely to spread if global warming has made hot, dry conditions worse than they would otherwise have been.

But some people who deny global warming like to ignore multiple causation. They blame the dead wood, then ridicule one of the other causes, global warming.

According to an article, California has been allowing dead wood to accumulate in its forests for decades.

Why has the dead wood accumulated? Because there is no easy way for humans to get rid of the dead wood. Nature’s way of clearing away dead wood is, in fact, fire. Fire is a part of all natural ecosystems, particularly coniferous forests in California. Almost without exception, scientists claim that we need to have natural fires to reduce the accumulation of dead plant matter. In Oklahoma, where I work, fire is the best way to control the spread of red cedar.

The ash from the fire releases nutrients back into the soil, actually promoting the forest to grow back more vigorously (see my YouTube video). Some species of trees actually require fire in order to germinate, as shown in another of my videos.

The problem is that there is no safe way to start control burns, that is, small fires that burn away the wood in wild forests but not on private land holdings. It is so easy for a control burn to get out of control. If California conservation officials started a control burn, which would clear away wood and reduce the risk of future fires, and if a puff of wind sent the fire onto private land, where it destroyed a house, the state might be on the hook for millions of dollars of liability. The article linked above said that, in order to bring California forests back into a stable fire balance, it would be necessary to set fires to wild forests the equivalent of the area of Maine. There is simply no way to do this safely. Having participated in control prairie burns in the Midwest, I can tell you they are risky undertakings. We have a university class in which an expert fire manager was teaching techniques of control burns; the fire got out of control and burned a fence, for which either he or the university (or insurance) had to pay. This was a scientific expert, in a grassland. Imagine what would happen with a fire crew in a dry forest full of dead wood.

It appears to me that California has allowed wood to accumulate in its forests because of the fear of lawsuits. Anyone who lives in a fire zone, let me know: would you be happy if a control burn, which would make life better for future generations, destroyed your home?

The article took an extreme position, however. The author accused the fire control agency CalFire of letting wood build up in order to create new wildfires. Why? Because the money and the glamor comes from fighting wildfires, not from doing control burns. The firefighters get lots of hazard pay, and, friends have told me, it is nearly a carnival atmosphere. The author of the article compares it to “the Halliburton model.” This is a conspiracy theory that says Dick Cheney, who headed up Halliburton corporation, fanned the flames of the Iraq War when he was vice president of the US, in order to get billions of dollars of contracts from the federal government. I am willing to believe almost any conspiracy theory about Dick Cheney, but even I am a little skeptical about this one. Cheney starting a war to get contracts for Halliburton? I haven’t seen quite enough evidence for this.

We’re stuck between a rock (Iraq?) and a hard place. We need to burn that dead wood, but we need to avoid destroying human habitations. This is a problem created by human civilization. The Natives who lived in the forest before Smokey the Bear got there had temporary dwellings, and could usually just get up and move if they saw a fire coming. If you have a big house back in the woods (or, worse, in the chaparral), you can’t do that. You may save your life, but nothing else.

The article also says that California should adopt the model that is successful in the Southeast: namely, control burns. The author seems unaware that control burns are easier in the Southeast because it rains more, and fires are less likely to get out of control.

The denialist problem is this: Denialists say that dead wood causes wildfires and global warming (which doesn’t exist, and they ridicule it) does not. The simple fact is that both of them are causes, just waiting for that spark. Denialists should stop twisting the truth by focusing on some causes and ignoring others.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Cause and Effect: The Last Refuge of Denialists, Part One


In my book Scientifically Thinking (Chapter 9), I explain the different kinds of cause and effect. Almost everything that happens has more than one cause.

Consider the example of hierarchical causation. An example of this is AIDS. If an AIDS victim dies of pneumocystis pneumonia, then you could say he was killed by the Pneumocystis carinii germ. But the reason the germ got a chance to spread was the depletion of the immune system, caused by HIV. The hierarchy of causation is, therefore, HIV—immune depletion—Pneumocystis. You cannot say “HIV does not cause pneumocystis pneumonia; Pneumocystis does.” The simple fact is that they both do, in a hierarchical fashion.

A very real example of people using hierarchical causation to mislead public opinion regards gun laws. I have heard “gun rights” people say that “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The simple fact is that people use guns to kill people. It is hierarchical causation. Nobody believes that guns jump up and start shooting all by themselves. It is just a deliberate argument by the gun lobby to heap ridicule upon even mild versions of gun control.

Washington Post photo

This can lead to a dangerous situation. Many people have lots of guns and are ready to use them at the slightest provocation. And the social pressures against them are dwindling. Some white separatist groups openly display their weapons, clearly wanting us to know that they are ready to use them if something happens that they do not like. During the September 29 presidential debate, Donald Trump said that white supremacist groups should “stand by.” He clearly wants them to be ready to use their guns at some unspecified time in the future.

Another kind of causation that is misused by conservative denialists is multiple causation. This is one that has been deliberately propagated by Donald Trump. Covid-19 is caused by the coronavirus. The United States has now had more than 200,000 coronavirus deaths. But Donald Trump did not believe this. He believed that anyone who died of coronavirus but had previous underlying conditions should not be counted as coronavirus deaths. If you die of coronavirus, but you are old, then you died of being old, not from the coronavirus. Or if you have diabetes, and die of coronavirus, then you died of diabetes, not of coronavirus. Read about it here []. I have not heard whether, since his diagnosis and return from the hospital, he has changed his mind about this.

The simple fact is that coronavirus deaths, in fact all deaths, have multiple causation. If a diabetic dies of coronavirus, the diabetes had weakened his or her health, and the coronavirus finished him or her off. Both the virus and the diabetes caused it. By Trump’s line of reasoning, if I (a pre-diabetic over 60 years old) die of coronavirus, it is not a coronavirus death. The simple fact is that I am getting along fine right now and am not on the brink of death; if I become ill with coronavirus, this is the spark that starts the fire. It would still be a coronavirus death.

Science denialists like to claim that, in cases of multiple causation, they can choose one of the causes and ridicule the others. This is especially true of global warming denialism, the subject of the next essay.