Thursday, September 16, 2021

Has the Pandemic Made Us Appreciate Science?

 

No.

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJCl9QfityU&t=5s


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.

 


Friday, July 30, 2021

Plants Don't Just Live in Habitats; They Create Them!

I have just posted a video from the scene of the action. I show some clumps of alder (Alnus maritima) growing in the Blue River in south central Oklahoma. One glance and you would say that the river is their habitat. (By the way, that habitat, with its white water emerging from the aquifer, is the nicest place to do field studies in Oklahoma in the summer—in fact, it might be the only nice place to do field studies in an Oklahoma summer.)


But the alders are not just growing in the river. They are creating their own habitat, in four ways.

First, once an alder bush starts growing on a rock in the river, its trunks emerge from the water. (Sometimes floods wash away the trunks; they just grow back, usually within a year.) The trunks slow the water down just a little bit. Dead leaves and stems in the river accumulate at the trunk base, as well as some mineral soil. The alder clumps are creating little islands of soil in the river that would not have been there without them. When these dead tissues decompose, the soil can nurture other plants, such as the sycamore saplings that grow up from the soil.

Second, the roots of the alders have little nodules that are filled with Frankia bacteria. Like the more familiar Rhizobium that grows in legume roots, the Frankia bacteria “fix” nitrogen; that is, they take nitrogen molecules from the air (the little air spaces in the soil) and fix it into ammonium molecules, which act as a fertilizer for the alder. It is a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) arrangement: the alder feeds the bacteria, and even protects them from excessive levels of oxygen gas. In turn, the bacteria produce more ammonium than they need. That is, the alder roots are absorbing nitrogen atoms from the inside, not from the outside. But it goes beyond this: when the alders lose their leaves, stems, and a few roots, the plant tissues have nitrogen atoms in them that came from the bacteria. But when these dead tissues decompose, the nitrogen atoms go into the soil, where it can be used by other plants, such as the walnut saplings that grow up from the soil.

Third, the roots of the alders have mycorrhizal fungi growing in them. This is what makes them fat and orange rather than skinny and brown the way most roots are. The alder feeds the fungi, and in turn the fungi extend their filaments out into the soil and absorb phosphate ions more effectively than could the roots themselves. It is a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) arrangement: the alder feeds the fungi. In turn, the fungi absorb more phosphate than they need. That is, the alder roots are absorbing phosphorus atoms from the inside, not from the outside. But it goes beyond this: when the alders lose their leaves, stems, and a few roots, the plant tissues have phosphorus atoms in them that came from the fungi. But when these dead tissues decompose, the phosphorus atoms go into the soil, where it can be used by other plants, such as the dogwood bushes that grow up from the soil.

But wait, there’s more! Fourth, the mycorrhizae of one alder clump can connect with those of another alder clump, causing the whole alder woodland to form an interconnected whole. They can share nutrients and even send signals to one another. This is the “wood-wide web” that Suzanne Simard first wrote about in 1997. The individual alder clumps create their own individual habitats in three ways, and a collective habitat in a fourth way. How cool is that?

Natural selection does not always favor competition and warfare among species. It can favor cooperation and mutualism. Natural selection favors whatever works: sometimes competition, sometimes cooperation, so long as it enhances the reproduction of the individuals, in this case, the alders. The alders are doing well by doing good.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Save the Elephants! Maybe

African elephants are the flagship “charismatic megafauna” of conservation fundraising efforts, perhaps second only to giant pandas. The efforts to save the elephant have included confining them in wildlife reserves and protecting them.

But even well-intentioned human efforts often backfire. By crowding them into wildlife reserves, we have created high population densities for the elephants. Each elephant can run over, chew up, and kill 1500 acacia trees. When confined in a small area, elephants can devastate the acacia trees—upon which they depend for survival. And protecting them from hunting makes these dense populations grow even larger.



The acacias also depend on the elephants. Weevils infest acacia seed pods and can kill practically every seed in them. But if an elephant eats the pods before the weevil grubs hatch, the grubs die and the seeds survive, to sprout on a nutritious dung heap once the elephant is finished with them. But acacias cannot benefit from this vital service of the elephants unless there are not too many elephants.

My point is simple: once we mess up the natural balance, it is very difficult to figure out what to do next.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Science as THE way of knowing

It is common among scientists, as among others, to refer to the scientific method as a way of knowing, but there are other ways as well. I wish to briefly explain that science is not just a way of knowing, but the way.

I am not referring, of course, to the subject matter of science. I refer to the scientific method, about which I wrote my most recent book, Scientifically Thinking.

 

I have had positive and exciting responses to this book. One email that I received is typical:

“[I am] an astronomy PhD student in UC Riverside. I read your fantastic book (Scientifically Thinking) and all the way during reading the book I was like: This book is really great! I think this book can be and is a life-changer and savior for many of us, regardless of the field of study and career.

I feel I am a better person after reading this book. That's why I recommend it to everyone I know and even don't know: last time I recommended it to a stranger in a playground who was trying to raise
his little son a better person that himself!”

However, one reviewer (who was otherwise rapturous about how much he loved the book) accused me of being a scientific imperialist. How dare I say science is the only way of knowing? He said this was dangerous.

I plead guilty.

Science, as a profession, confines itself to repeatable and measurable data. The scientific method, however, can be applied to other kinds of observations that are not physical. What the scientific method allows you to do is to, as much as possible:

  • Avoid bias. Science allows you to recognize your own biases and at least try to compensate for them.
  • Have appropriate construct validity. Science allows you to, as much as possible, use a source of information that really tells you what you want to know.

These are characteristics that all kinds of thinking, including philosophical and religious, need to have. (Note that many fields of study outside of science—such as history—do in fact use data that are physical. Music is grounded in the physics of sound and in the psychology of the human mind. Psychology, in turn, is based on physiology and evolution. Literature is also based on psychology and evolution. As I use the term, science may include all of these fields of experience.)

If a religious person makes a claim, there must be something other than his own craziness that can support it. At least, find it in the Bible before blurting it out. While finding a Bible proof-text does not count as scientific thinking, it is better than the kind of craziness that we see around us today. Christian fundamentalists wave their Bibles in the air without reading them.

While I consider science to be the way of knowing, it is clearly not the only way of experiencing. I have had numerous and powerful religious experiences, both when I was a fundamentalist Christian, and now when my views are less defined. When I listen to music, I do not think about music theory; I am swept away by a rapture that is not unlike religious experiences that I have had. Earlier, I reviewed The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell. He studied his little patch of forest floor scientifically, but his experience was strongly influenced by Buddhism (he kept referring to the spot of land as a mandala).

And while I now question the historical reliability of the “stories of Jesus,” I am irresistibly drawn to them; I continue to write about them in my fiction and use Bible quotes even in my science classes. To me, Jesus is real, even though it may all be inside my head. I love this guy. I just don’t claim this to be knowledge; it is experience.

As I close, I must mention a source of bias in my views. I have, on several occasions, been duped by religious cult leaders. One was Garner Ted Armstrong. I was also swept into a Church of Christ cult for many years. My faith was more powerful than any experience I have had before or since. It was strong enough that I ignored contrary evidence, such as the verified news that Garner Ted was having illicit affairs with undergrad women at his college. With a history of such vulnerability to cult-thinking, how can I trust anything that is generated solely within my brain? I’m just speaking for myself, but I’ll bet you have similar vulnerabilities. I need to test my beliefs against evidence.

The distinction between knowledge and experience is particularly crucial today, when millions (not many millions, I hope) of people believe that everything Donald Trump says is as infallible as if God Himself had said them, and that there is a totally secret conspiracy that stole the election from Him. Few of them will go as far as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who claimed that mass shootings were all fake, and that the California wildfires were started by a satellitefinanced by Jewish money, but many of them use their religious delusion to claim that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax and that we should neither wear masks nor get vaccinated. At this point, treating religious experience as if it is knowledge has become a public threat.

That is, I get upset when I see people using religion as a basis for believing and doing terrible things, which is something that I almost did as well. I am reacting in horror to what I might have been, as well as to what they are. That is my bias but, I think, a reasonable one.

Scientific thinking, not necessarily science, is THE way of knowing.

 





Tuesday, June 29, 2021

True Protein, Fake Protein

An important question in scientific thinking is, how do you know which measurements to trust? Let me give an example regarding protein. I just posted a video about this.

For photosynthesis, leaves require both chlorophyll (to absorb the light) and an enzyme called rubisco (to absorb the carbon dioxide). All leaves require both, but a leaf down in the shade requires more chlorophyll, and a leaf out in full sun requires more rubisco. If a scientist is interested in measuring the amount of rubisco, it would seem to be easy enough: just measure the amount of carbon dioxide that the leaf absorbs.

But carbon absorption varies from moment to moment, based on temperature, light, and amount of carbon available to the leaf. What many scientists really want to know is, how much carbon absorption capacity does a leaf have? That is, how much has the leaf invested in carbon uptake? We expect leaves in full sunlight conditions to invest more in carbon uptake—that is, to make more rubisco. That’s what we really want to measure.


But measuring the amount of rubisco is difficult and expensive. Is there a simpler, and still valid, way of measuring rubisco indirectly? The measurement has to have construct validity—that is, it must give a realistic idea of how much rubisco is in the leaf.

It turns out that there is such a measurement. Instead of picking rubisco out from among the thousands of proteins in the leaf, just measure the total amount of protein. Total protein content is a valid estimate of rubisco content because, as it turns out, rubisco constitutes one quarter of all the protein in the leaf. It stands out from all the others. Total protein content is a realistic stand-in for rubisco content.

But even measuring protein is a complex process. There is an even simpler way. Most of the nitrogen in a leaf is inside of proteins. There are a few other kinds of nitrogen-containing molecules, such as DNA, but they are very rare in comparison. Thus, measuring the amount of nitrogen in a leaf is a pretty good stand-in for the amount of rubisco.

Measuring the nitrogen content of leaf tissue is fairly simple—not quite simple enough to do in your garage, but it doesn’t require a fancy lab. The Kjeldahl technique was developed over 100 years ago. You put the tissue in strong sulfuric acid, which pretty must blasts the organic molecules to smithereens. One of these smithereens is ammonia. Most of the nitrogen in the leaf ends up in the ammonia, which can be easily measured by titration. Thousands of articles have been published in which investigators measured rubisco in leaves indirectly by the Kjeldahl technique.

But the method is open to manipulation. It is a good measure of protein only if most of the nitrogen in the sample comes from protein. For a leaf, this is a good assumption. For milk, it is a good assumption. That is, unless a milk producer wants to lie about how much protein is in the milk. This is what happened in China in 2008. Milk producers tried to pass off low-protein milk as high-protein milk by adding melamine, which contains nitrogen atoms. Maybe nobody would ever have noticed, but Chinese babies started dying from kidney failure.

I suppose it is possible for botanists to adulterate their leaf tissue with melamine to bump up the estimate of rubisco content. But who would do that? The milk producers thought they could save millions of yuan by adulterating the milk. But, although crime pays, botany doesn’t. The cardinal rule of credibility in science, as in anything else, is to follow the money.

I give other examples of construct validity, and its everyday importance, in my book Scientifically Thinking.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Quiet and Close Observation: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell

The Forest Unseen is a 2012 book by David George Haskell which I have only now gotten around to reading. This blog is your place to go for reviews of old books. Of course, maybe it is new to you, in which case I hope this review encourages you to read the book.

Haskell chose a square meter of area on the floor of an old growth forest in Tennessee. It was not out in the middle of a wilderness; there is no such place in the eastern United States. In fact, it was just downhill from a golf course. But it was as close to undisturbed nature as one could expect to find. Having chosen his spot, Haskell watched it for a year and wrote a book about what he saw.

Anybody could have done what Haskell did. It is true that he used his immense knowledge of nature to not only identify the organisms that he saw, but to draw the numerous connections between these organisms and the larger world of science. But anybody could have seen these things and figured out at least a little about what they were doing. That is the main impact of The Forest Unseen: wonders await us if we just sit quietly and look closely at the natural world. You don’t need a Ph.D. to do this.

The tiny world of fungi and arthropods and wildflowers is an exciting place. Haskell captures the immediacy of this excitement by usually writing in the present tense. You are there with him, seeing what he sees. You can’t just quickly glance at the world of nature. There is a photo on the cover of Haskell looking through a hand lens at the forest floor. Much of the excitement is on a tiny scale. At one point, he had to watch the soil for a half hour before he realized that what he was seeing was a horsehair worm rather than a bit of leaf litter.

Haskell used poetic language masterfully. As numerous reviewers have remarked, his descriptions are some of the most beautiful that have been written. For example, he described chickadees on a cold day as “four pennyweight furnaces” because of the immense amount of heat, relative to their size, that they produce. He referred to the “pheromone love poems” of invertebrates. Tiny mushrooms and other fungi are a “regatta” (he also says “flotilla”) of colors in a decomposing sea of leaf litter. He is the only writer I know, other than Edgar Allan Poe, to use the word tintinnabulation. This poetic language is exactly what his readers, amateur naturalists, need. Scientists would strongly object to some of his terms, for example when he called a fern gametophyte a little lily pad. It looks like one, but the description is misleading—but only misleading if you are taking a botany course. Maybe the university publishers rejected it for this reason. But the major commercial publisher that released it knew that this book was perfect for nature-lovers.

Haskell draws many fascinating connections between what he sees and the larger world of scientific (and other) knowledge. For example, when he describes a snowflake, he explains how the six-sided shape follows inevitably from the chemical characteristics of the water molecules, but also that each snowflake is different because its shape is determined by so many microscale processes, the little tiny differences in temperature, humidity, and wind as each snowflake forms. Thus each snowflake is the product of natural law and historical accident. This is a major scientific concept, but you can see it in a snowflake. He also explained that Johannes Kepler, in his study of snowflakes, drew some incorrect conclusions, but his observations laid the groundwork for scientists a few decades later to discover that everything was made of atoms—something Kepler did not believe.

Haskell even discusses theology when he describes ichneumon wasps, which he saw following a sunfleck on the forest floor. These wasps lay eggs in caterpillars. The eggs hatch, and the grubs eat the caterpillars from the inside. In the nineteenth century, scientists, philosophers, and theologians argued about whether this constituted cruelty that was contrary to the character of the creator God. I’ll bet that very few of Haskell’s readers knew anything about this controversy that directly involved Charles Darwin and his religious friend, the botanist Asa Gray. Wonderful!

I hope that this book continues to inspire all of us, even after we have finished reading it. I sat outside, reading it, and my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter saw the picture on the cover. I told her what Haskell was doing, and right away we got out a magnifying glass and started looking closely at the soil of our backyard. It is possible that this little act, especially if we continue to do it, will have changed by granddaughter’s life.

Richard Louv’s books encourage parents to let kids play in the wild—climb trees and all that. Such undirected play is extremely important. But it is also important for people of all ages to stop and watch the immediate environment carefully and quietly, as Haskell did. It may be hard to get kids to do this for very long, but even for the few moments that they will slow down and look will prove very important to their mental development.

Alas, I cannot do what Haskell did. I cannot go and find an undisturbed place and listen to nature. I don’t believe there is any such place in Oklahoma. Every square meter of Oklahoma is filled with human noise, as well as human garbage. One “natural area” near Tulsa is right near an airport where hundreds of amateur pilots fill the sky; you can usually see and hear three at a time. Another is near a quarry which has constant explosions. There is no place where one does not continually hear loud, fast pickup trucks. Down by the Arkansas River in Tulsa, and Lake Texoma on the state’s southern border, there are hundreds of pieces of garbage everywhere. Or, perhaps there is a quiet place without trash. That is what Black Mesa is like, out in the Panhandle, very near New Mexico. But to get there I have to drive almost nine hours (one way). Not only is silent watching of nature a rare gift that Haskell has, and the rest of us could have, but places to do it are even rarer.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Garbage in Oklahoma: Another Message from Fluff

 

Hi. This is Fluff, a female cottonwood tree in Tulsa (she/hers). My thoughts are being passed on to you by a botanist named Stan Rice (he/him/his), who is the only human who stops to talk with me.

Right at the base of my trunk, the City of Tulsa has designated an area in which volunteers can place bags of trash. The volunteers can pick up pieces of garbage from the banks of Joe Creek, which is a drainage ditch near where I am growing, put them into plastic bags, and leave them for the city to pick up.

Joe Creek certainly needs the trash pickup. The banks of the creek are thick with garbage, most of which has floated in from upstream. Stan has estimated the number of pieces of garbage along Joe Creek. It is approximately one thousand pieces of garbage per mile. There is a similar density of garbage along the banks of the Arkansas River.

Stan has made over a hundred estimates of the number of garbage items, easily visible from an automobile, along Oklahoma highways. The number ranges from ten to a thousand, with the average being about a hundred, per mile. This means that, on a typical 200-mile drive through Oklahoma, you are likely to see twenty thousand pieces of garbage. No wonder Oklahoma has such a bad reputation, completely apart from the political news of…don’t get me started. Since Stan made so many estimates, it is not likely that bias (which I discussed in an earlier message) accounts for the results: Stan did not just see a trashy place and count the pieces of garbage. He made a systematic, unbiased survey.

Every once in a while, you will find plastic bags of garbage along the roadside in which volunteers have picked up garbage for the highway department to pick up. Once Stan even saw a man actually picking up garbage. But, from month to month and year to year, such acts seem to make very little difference in the amount of garbage along the road. The reason is the huge number of people who throw litter on the roadsides. While most people do not litter, a very large number of people do, and do so in huge amounts. One of the most common ways is that people pile light garbage in their pickup truck beds and drive along the highway, pretending to not notice that the garbage blows out of the truck bed.

And nearly all this garbage is recyclable. Not that it makes any difference right now; the City of Tulsa recycling facility is shut down due to a fire. Recyclables, put into separate bins by many conscientious homeowners, now gets mixed in with the regular garbage.

But I told Stan about another source of garbage along Joe Creek. Thieves break into houses and grab stuff to take with them. Later, they hide under the bridge and sort through it to find anything of value to them, whether it is costly items or pieces of information they can use for identity theft. They simply dump the remainder into the creek bed. Since I stand by the creek all day and all night, I have seen this happen. In addition, the homeless people gather garbage with which they construct shanties in which to live along the creek. Much of the garbage problem is also a crime problem, and a poverty problem. And a sanitation problem. It is not at all uncommon to see piles of human excrement on the path. Designating a place under a cottonwood tree for volunteers to place bags of trash will not solve these problems.

In addition, I told Stan that it is nearly inevitable that people will start bringing bags of household garbage to leave at this spot. The people who live in apartments have large dumpsters for their garbage, but these dumpsters are frequently overfilled. And then there is the stuff too big for dumpsters. Stan once saw a semi-truck fuel tank left at a recycling depot. I told Stan that the spot at the base of my trunk will quickly become a pile of junk. The location is easily accessible by truck, including pickup trucks that will bring in big pieces of junk to dump them.

The problem is that you Americans get, use, and throw away too much stuff, almost all of it in large packaging. The creek bed in my shadow is thickly studded with Styrofoam fragments. You don’t need all that stuff to be happy. Of course, what would you expect a cottonwood tree to say?

I produce a lot of leaf litter each autumn. But unlike industrial human litter, my leaves decay rapidly and help to build up the soil.

The City of Tulsa sign, beside my trunk, has been out for a couple of days and is already covered with graffiti. The city officials have good intentions, but what can they do against the mass of human filth?

There is so much garbage along the creekside path, including broken glass, that Stan doesn’t like to walk there anymore. But I hope that he comes along to say hello to me once in a while. Until next time, farewell from Fluff, the cottonwood tree.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Wonderful Diversity: The Shifting Lives of Plants

I just finished reading Jonathan Sauer’s Plant Migration: The Dynamics of Geographic Patterning in Seed Plant Species, published in 1988. In this book, the author was manifestly attempting to explain large-scale patterns and principles that governed the way in which plant species moved from one place to another. He tried to classify the different processes and kinds of habitat. He failed spectacularly. In some cases, he ended up with very, very short chapters when he found almost no examples of what should have been a general principle. The closest he came to a general law was the (trivially obvious) fact that dispersal is centrifugal (outward from a seed source) while natural selection is centripetal (getting rid of plants from places to which they have dispersed but cannot survive). Duh. He admitted that the conclusion he reached is that there are no general rules of plant migration. Each plant species has migrated during its history, and that every plant species has its own story. And he said he was pleased to have failed in his quest. I, also, am pleased. What a beautiful, diverse, quirky world this is, as illustrated by the history of each different plant species.

I enjoyed this book because I love stories. I read the Bible for its stories, not for the theological frameworks that have been imposed upon it. I read history because of its stories of unpredictable directions, not for some overarching theories.

Here are some examples from Sauer’s book that I found interesting.

  • The true cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum zeylandicum) is native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon; hence the name zeylandicum) and southern India. Then why is there a patch of it in Mauritius, an island off the coast of Madagascar, about 3000 km away from Sri Lanka? A botanist might try to think of a way that cinnamon seeds might float on ocean currents and end up on Mauritius. But this is the way it actually happened. The Dutch had a monopoly on the spice trade, including cinnamon. The French wanted in on the trade, and managed to get some cinnamon plants to Mauritius, an island that they controlled. They planted some groves there. But in the face of an impending British invasion, they destroyed the garden. Too late; the birds had already spread the seeds from the garden to the surrounding forest.
  • Matricaria discoides is the little pineappleweed that grows in disturbed soils in Siberia but is also “native to” North America. Ever since I first saw this tiny plant growing in the compacted dirt of our junior high track in California, I have loved it: you can step on it, but it keeps growing. Its response to maltreatment is to release a beautiful pineapple scent. One might think that this plant was brought from Siberia to North America the same way as many other invasive plants such as Russian thistle (tumbleweed), by industrial transportation. But archaeological studies show that Matricaria was present in western North America before the arrival of Europeans. This indicates that it might have dispersed naturally or might have been carried by Native Americans when they first crossed the Bering land bridge.
  • Fennel is usually a small garden herb, but now that it has escaped from gardens into the disturbed grasslands around Santa Barbara (and on Santa Cruz island) they grow two or three meters tall and are almost the only large plants around.
  • The story of eastern Australia being taken over by Opuntia cactus from America in the early twentieth century, and their subsequent biological control, is well known to nature-lovers. What is less well known is that the Australian government blamed the spread of the cactus on emus, a large flightless native bird, eating the fruits. So, they set bounties on emus, which resulted in 335,000 emus being killed. The cactus only spread faster, up to 100 hectares per hour.
  • One of the ways that cactus spread in Australia was by the cactus pads sticking to livestock, falling off in a new location, and rooting.
  • Dam construction in the American southwest, at fever pace from the 1930s and 1960s, has led to the spread of the invasive tamarisk (salt cedar) in two ways. First, there are no longer downstream floods that would wash away the salt cedar thickets. Second, sand accumulation above the dam created new habitat for the tamarisks.

One theme that does recur over and over is that nearly all of the changes that humans have inflicted on the natural world have been disruptive. The natural world is incredibly complex, and whatever happens in one part causes a change in another part. Humans have tried to impose simplicity on a system that was never meant to have it, whether it was sheep ranches on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands or farms in the Midwest. To force nature to stay within the conceptual boundaries we have set for it is like getting a two-year-old to always do exactly what you want. Only it’s worse, because every species is like a squirming toddler. Just about the only example of humans doing something constructive was that the goats which overran Santa Catalina Island off the California coast stayed away from the resort town of Avalon, perhaps scared of the people, and this allowed the native chaparral and sage to grow back.

A major example of human interference has been fire suppression, about which I have previously written in this blog. Foresters wanted to control all wildfires but, Sauer said on page 130, they “quickly realized…that they had grabbed a tiger by the tail.” In the absence of small fires, dead wood builds up, with the result that any fires that do start will be infernos.

Another recurring theme is that colonial powers have repeatedly kicked out native peoples who were living sustainably, whether Native American or native New Caledonian people, and then impose a system unsuited to the land and which inevitably fails. Fire suppression is a good example. David Douglas, after whom the Douglas fir is named, saw Natives burning savannas in 1826.

Sauer brought part of the confusion on himself. He included migration in space, whether it was migrations of just a few meters or migrations halfway around the world. He included migration in time, whether just since the last ice age or since the beginning of plant life on dry land. The result was a mishmashed compendium of fascinating stories. But I liked it anyway. Long live diversity!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Our Continuing Shame of Racism: A View from 1964

 The days are counting down here in Tulsa for the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which started on May 31, 1921. For many years, is event, in which white Tulsans burned to the ground the prosperous Greenwood district, in which black people created thriving businesses. It has been difficult to get very many facts about what happened, even a total count of how many were killed (mostly? all?) black, of what kinds of atrocities may or may not have been carried out. Newspaper accounts from the time vanished from microfilms, and a police box of photographs has vanished. You can, and I plan to, read more about it in Scott Ellsworth’s The Groundbreaking.

The commission that has planned the commemoration used to include Republican Governor Kevin Stitt, but when he signed the bill that effectively outlawed teaching the history of racism in Oklahoma, the rest of the commission removed him from membership. Stitt attempted no defense of his actions.

The oppression of blacks (and even more so of other minorities) in America has tarnished our international reputation, even now that the president who at least went along with it is out of office. Every time there is a new police shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer, especially when no action is taken, as recently in North Carolina, the world thinks more and more of us as a land of racial oppression. This is something that even Joe Biden cannot change, and the world knows it.

My point in this essay is that this has been going on for a long time. In 1964, Jorgen Bisch visited China, in the heyday of its Maoist oppression, and wrote an article about what he saw for National Geographic (published November 1964). One of the things that he saw, and that alarmed him, was “communist propaganda.” Schoolchildren had written essays about how white Americans oppressed blacks. The author saw some of those essays posted on a wall, and took a photo of them.




In one of the essays, a white Uncle Sam is walking away from a black man. In another, a black American is holding up a red flag of liberation from racist oppression. Look at this photo, because I very much doubt you will see it anywhere else.

At that time, white Americans really were oppressing and sometimes killing blacks, and worse was to come. This bad image of Uncle Sam was justified. Resentment toward America was justified.

We recognize, of course, that the Chinese government was far worse, not just toward its own citizens who appeared to even slightly differ from Chairman Mao’s views, but also in the way it treated its own minority groups—to the extent that you may not have even known that there were minority ethnicities in China. Even the normally meek Joe Biden has called China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority “genocide.”

I believe we are not as bad as the communists were and are. But it sure doesn’t help much when we project to the world the racist hatred that we do have. Our right-wing extremism plays right into the propaganda machines of our competitors and potential enemies.

And we use Christianity to justify it. I recently went to a fundamentalist church meeting in Durant, Oklahoma, where the speaker proclaimed that the new requirements to teach about racism were satanic. He meant this literally. His evidence was that the watchwords for the fight against racism were Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity—the first letters of which spell DIE. This shit is so extreme that you can’t make it up. The speaker digressed from his theme only long enough to proclaim that Biden stole 41 million votes (I did not make this number up) from Trump.

This is a blog about science and evolution. This essay, like many others, reinforces the theme that there is no biological or evolutionary justification for racism.

Armed protests are planned for the Race Massacre commemoration. What could possibly go wrong? As a white-presenting Tulsa resident, I’m getting a little nervous.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Big Headlines! Why America Will Never Convert to Electric Vehicles

It’s the big headline today! Ford is going to formally announce its new all-electric F-150 pickup truck! Oh, can’t you just barely contain the excitement! Yesterday, President Biden took one for a test drive in a lot where everything a 78-year-old man might run over had been removed.

 

This year, General Motors announced that it plans to phase out electric vehicles by 2035 and manufacture only electric vehicles. (Note: this site may have a paywall.) I here briefly explain why this will not happen.

It is true that hybrid and electric vehicles get much better fuel efficiency, without sacrificing maneuverability, than gasoline vehicles. Anyone like myself who has driven one will attest to this. I enjoy my hybrid more than any car I have ever owned. Mine is a Prius but I have no reason to doubt the quality of other brands.

But it will never happen in America, or at least in Oklahoma.

This is because, in America, the purpose of a vehicle is not only, perhaps not mainly, transportation. At least where I live in Oklahoma, the major purpose of a vehicle for many people is not transportation, but to express dominance, fury, and frustration to everyone within hearing or collision range.

Redneck Okies love to drive around big, noisy, fuming trucks even when they have nowhere they need to go. They drive them fast, which means they sometimes cannot control them. For this purpose, an electric vehicle simply will not work.

First, the vehicles have to be big. Size itself should be no deterrent to the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles. Rednecks think that nobody can admire them if they drive a small vehicle. By actual count, about one-third of all vehicles I have seen in Oklahoma are big pickup trucks. Therefore, most electric vehicles will be unacceptable to redneck Okies though perhaps to other Oklahomans.

Second, the vehicles have to be heavy. One of the ways in which hybrid and electric vehicles get good fuel efficiency is by using lightweight components. But redneck Okies want to have not just large trucks but heavy ones. The reason for this is that they want to express their fury by driving around a vehicle that can bash other vehicles without harming their own. To them, the entire system of roads is a potential demolition derby. This, at least, has been my experience. In my family, we have had collisions that were not our fault on four occasions in the last couple of decades. In each case, the driver was a white man with a larger vehicle, on two occasions a large truck. One of those collisions—very recent, and an ongoing source of grief—was a hit-and-run in which the white man with the big pickup drove away from the scene, after causing an injury. The victims were my daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. In another case, my vehicle was totaled by a pickup truck that did not get even a scratch—and the driver had false insurance cards. In none of these cases did the police actually seek out the drivers. It was, instead, the insurance companies that did so. Public safety does not matter; only profit. But at least there is profit in the service of public safety, from time to time. In order for a pickup truck to crush a smaller vehicle, it does not need to just be large but to be heavy. Electric and hybrid vehicles, even when large, are relatively light.

Third, the vehicle has to produce a lot of noise. The redneck drivers want everyone around them to hear their dominance, fury, and frustration. At both of my residences in Oklahoma, there is nearly a constant stream of big pickup trucks that are extremely loud. The drivers want us to admire them—and they assume everyone admires a loud truck. Maybe the redneck guys think they can get a gal that way. “Oh, wow, he must be such a man—he can push down a gas pedal!” Whether there really are any women who are that stupid or not I do not know. When I see the looks on the faces of the drivers, I sometimes see fury and frustration. Electric and hybrid vehicles are quiet. By actual count, at least half of the beg pickup trucks I see are loud. The technology exists for even a heavy truck to be quiet, as about half of them are. But a quiet truck is, to the rednecks among Oklahomans, unacceptable.



Fourth, the vehicle has to produce a lot of fumes. A truck with good fuel efficiency cannot produce fumes. Fumes are a way for the driver to create a space of dominance around him an to antagonize other people.

For these four reasons, hybrid and electric vehicles will never predominate in Oklahoma, unless there is a complete, and nearly impossible, shift away from the redneck culture. Here in Oklahoma, we still fly confederate flags, for God’s sake (at least the rednecks think it is for God’s sake).

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Arizona Ballot Audit: Miracles in the Service of Racism

This week, the Arizona re-audit of 2020 election ballots received international attention. This is a science blog. The Arizona re-audit of ballots provides a good opportunity to examine the process of scientific inquiry, in fact the process of determining the truth, and the results are not pretty. They indicate a strong tendency within the Arizona Republican Party, and the Republican Party in general, toward racism.


AP photo

Most Arizona Republicans are, we assume, not racist. But enough of them are that they have started a conspiracy theory: that 20,000 ballots were flown in from China pre-marked for Biden and Harris; that these ballots were stuffed into ballot boxes, thus contributing to a Democratic victory in Arizona. And the rest of the Arizona Republicans, even those who call the conspiracy theorists crazy and unhinged, are going along with them in support of the re-audit. 

I will apply some of the ideas in my recent book, Scientifically Thinking, to this claim, not because the conspiracy theory deserves any examination, but in order to learn some things, some very disturbing things, about Republicans.

First, there is open and obvious bias in the re-audit. The contractor conducting the audit is called CyberNinjas. With a name like that, the far-right Republican bias of the contractor is obvious. They are looking only for things that will, in their estimation, prove the Chinese connection, and can easily overlook any evidence to the contrary, even if individual employees do not intend to do so.

Second, the conspiracy claim is untestable. If the Republicans find any ballots that they consider to be fraudulent, they will claim that they have proven that the election was stolen—a claim that Donald Trump still makes, and that about half of Republicans believe with religious fervor, even if they do not believe the China theory. But if they do not, they will merely claim that the fraud was so perfect that it left no evidence. That is, the conspiracy theorists have already decided that they are correct, no matter which conclusion is reached by the audit.

Third, is their scenario even possible? How could China have gotten 20,000 ballots slipped into ballot boxes in Arizona? Did Chinese nationals carry ballots with them to the United States, travel to Arizona, and cram the ballots in? Is there any evidence that there was an influx of Chinese nationals going to Arizona? Or, perhaps, the Chinese government sent them to Chinese nationals who were already here. Since there is no evidence of Chinese nationals visiting Arizona or stuffing ballots, then it must have been Asian Americans who did it and did so without leaving any evidence. Sneaky devils! And that is my point. This conspiracy theory is racist because it buys in with widespread hatred of Asian Americans, which came to national attention in 2021. It would require supernatural powers for the Asian Americans to sneak the ballots into the boxes, and to coordinate this activity among themselves without the use of social media. That is, they would have to be demons. This is something that some Arizona Republicans believe, and the others are willing to consider as a possibility.

Fourth, what are the criteria for the evidence? I can hardly say it, it is so weird: they are looking for bamboo fibers in the paper on which the ballots were printed. Bamboo fibers in the paper would, they think, prove that the ballots were printed in China. Most Chinese paper is probably made from the wood of poplar, of which China has large plantations. But even more important is the question about how to recognize bamboo fibers in the paper. One question is, how much bamboo would they consider to be enough bamboo to call it bamboo-based paper? But even more important is the question about how to recognize bamboo fibers in the first place. A microscopic view of bamboo xylem (found here but which I cannot copy for this essay) looks almost the same as any other xylem, which is the kind of fiber from which paper is typically made. My point is that the conspiracy theorists never bothered to specify how bamboo fibers were to be recognized.

None of this really matters, of course. The Arizona Republican racists will continue to claim that Trump won the state and national election, even without ANY evidence to back it up. To them, it is a matter of religious devotion. Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake (warning: this site has a paywall and may demand money from you to look at the article) said in a radio interview on May 14, 2021 that his party (if they allow him to remain) is in denial of reality. I would go further and say that they do not believe there is such a thing as reality except whatever Donald Trump asserts. That is their entire reality.

This is such an extreme position—not simply unscientific, but against the very basis of human consciousness—that some Republicans are calling for others to form a new party.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Bring It On, Comrade: We Love Being Vulnerable

Our energy system is wide open to Russian cyberattacks and we are just fine with it. Go ahead, comrade, bring it on. Shut us down so that we don’t have any oil and gas. We’re lying here with our fat bellies to the sun just waiting for you to stab us.

By now everyone has heard about the cyberattack on the pipeline in the eastern US that briefly shut down supplies of oil and gas to the southeastern US. Colonial Pipeline paid $5 in ransom to the attackers in cryptocurrency. The cyberattackers were merely identified as Eastern European.

But what if the price they asked was too high, and the pipeline continued to be shut down?

Or what if the cyberattack had been on Cushing, Oklahoma? This is the town through which all the oil and gas for the entire country flows, or so I am told, though I find this hard to believe. It does, however, have an effect on the oil industry all out of proportion to its size: it stores 13% of the oil in America.


Most of the problems with the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack was panic buying by people who feared that they would be temporarily without gasoline. But what if the cyberattack was prolonged, or if it shut down Cushing?

Because of pipelines, our oil supplies are vulnerable to attack—formerly physical attack by terrorists, and now cyberattacks by our comrades overseas. There is not much we can do about this. Oil comes from wells, travels through pipes, to refineries and then to retail points.

But renewable energy is not usually so vulnerable. You can collect solar energy, either passively through mirrors or directly into electricity, anywhere. It can be distributed on a local grid. And the wind blows everywhere. I suppose cyberattackers could shut solar and wind energy down, but it would take thousands of attacks.

We have known this for decades. I grew up in Cushing. We moved away in 1964. My parents told me, while we were there, that Cushing was at the top of the Soviet nuclear hit list, because of the oil “tank farms” and pipelines.

Not only to prevent global warming, but also to prevent cyberattacks that can cripple our energy system, we need to make a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, even if Comrade Trump insists that we should not.