Monday, December 27, 2021

Where Has Optimism Gone? Reflections at the End of the Year

In the process of downsizing my library, I ran across a book that was important in 1990: The Decade of Destruction, by Adrian Cowell. The decade he referred to was the 1980s, and the destruction was of the tropical rainforests. And he was optimistic. As Cowell explored the Amazon rainforest in the 1980s, he saw that there were no groups who were trying to save the Amazon from destruction. By 1990, things looked very different. There were many rainforest conservation groups, not just in developed countries (think Rainforest Action Network) but also many local groups in the Amazon. Cowell wrote his book just as Lula da Silva was coming to power as Brazil’s prime minister, and he had appointed a sincere conservationist, Jose Lutzenberger, as Secretary of the Environment.

I think it is safe to say that optimism related to the Amazon rainforest is receding quickly. Lula da Silva was a disappointment, and “Lutz” quickly departed the scene. The 1980s was the time of the movie The Emerald Forest, when it seemed like the way to save the rainforest was to allow tribes to go back to their primitive way of life and leave them alone. But few such people exist anymore. Further, we cannot protect the Amazon rainforest merely by leaving it alone. Global warming is already causing destructive wildfires in the Amazon Basin, a process that is predicted to get much worse in upcoming decades. Already, the Amazon is a net emitter of carbon dioxide.

While I was mourning the inexorable destruction of the Amazon rainforest, I followed the news about the wildfire destruction of the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada of California, which just barely missed Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. When I was a child, Giant Forest seemed the closest thing I could imagine to Heaven on Earth. I thought this when I was a Christian fundamentalist, and continued thinking it when, later, my religious views were less well defined. But there is no more hope for the ancient North American forests than for the Amazon.

Here is an image from Rainforest Action Network, in which you can see the border of Guatemala and Belize, with rainforest destruction on the Honduras side.

I feel, and I sense that many others feel, a sense of resignation. We live in a dysfunctional economy and society, in which I feel lucky each day to simply not be killed. Wildfires in the west and almost weekly hurricanes in the southeast are the new normal. It is now almost normal in the summer, in Oklahoma, to see the sun dim and red while it is yet far above the horizon, because of smoke from western wildfires. I am giving away Cowell’s book in part because I can hardly bear the thought that there was a time when many of us felt optimism.

And I thus end 2021.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Adaptive Stories: Another Message from Fluff the Cottonwood Tree

This is Fluff the cottonwood tree (she/her/hers). I think this is my sixth message that Stan has agreed to post for me on his blog. I live about a half block away from his house in Oklahoma.

Adaptation is the process or the outcome of evolution in which populations become more successful in their habitats. If you want a more detailed discussion of adaptation, read about it in Stan’s Encyclopedia of Evolution. But you get the point.

Adaptations sometimes seem obvious. For example, leaves are flat because this allows the green cells inside them to absorb more light and allows them to absorb the yummy carbon dioxide more quickly. For such adaptations as these, it is easy to figure out the reason for the adaptation.

But other characteristics are more difficult to explain. Look at this photo of cottonwood leaves. Aren’t they beautiful? I have now shed all of my leaves for the winter, but about three months from now I will grow thousands of new ones.

Notice the teeth along the edges of my leaves. Truly artistic! I’m not bragging, but do you humans have anything this beautiful about your bodies?

But are these teeth an adaptation? Stan insists that they are. Toothed leaves, said Stan, are better in cooler climates, and he showed me a website that made this very point. But there are plenty of exceptions to this pattern. Maybe this is just an adaptive story, insightful but not necessarily true. Maybe trees of the genus Populus, including me, just have a genetic tendency to have toothed leaves, and we also happen to live north of the tropics. These two facts may not be connected at all.

An even better example of an adaptive story is about fluttering leaves. My leaves, as those of all cottonwoods, poplars and aspens, flutter in the wind, creating a delightful shimmering sensation. All leaves move in the wind, producing a sound called susurrus (one of Stan’s favorite words), but my leaves and those of my evolutionary relatives don’t just rustle in the wind; they almost twinkle. Some aspens are called quaking aspens, or trembling aspens, because of this most obvious and beautiful characteristic. This occurs because our leaf petioles are flat rather than round.

Botanists like Stan say that this fluttering movement increases the rate at which carbon dioxide gets into our leaves. Sorry, Stan, but that is almost certainly just an adaptive story. Of course, fluttering leaves absorb more carbon dioxide; and almost any fast-growing plant benefits from having lots of carbon dioxide. Why, then, is it just us members of the genus Populus that have this characteristics? Why don’t sycamores, which like us grow along rivers, have fluttery leaves? There are some that live only a few meters away from me.

To tell the difference between an adaptive story and a scientific explanation, you need to not only explain the advantage of the characteristic, but why you don’t see all organisms that live under the same conditions with that characteristic.

Cottonwood leaves flutter, and as a result we have more photosynthesis. But other trees achieve the same result in different ways. There is no answer to the question of why my leaves flutter in the wind more than those of sycamore trees. Meanwhile, just look at my leaves and admire them.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Science: Close Observation Reveals a World of Wonder

However, without science, close observation is just tedious. There is no point in looking closely at the world if you are just going to make a compendium of random things that you see without understanding how they work.

I was reminded of this recently when I ran across my copy of The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. He called it a novel. But it had no plot. Or, as David Gates, a reviewer for Newsweek, said, “a plot that is completely out to lunch.” [2 January 1989]


Here is the plot. A man (Howie) rides an escalator during his lunch break to buy something. Then he went back to work. I think that’s pretty much it. I don’t think I missed anything in the plot.

It was not a novel. But that’s fine. It might have been better marketed as an exercise in close observation. Baker was encouraging his readers to start looking closely at and noticing even the most ordinary aspects of the world around them.

This is a wonderful objective. The problem is that Baker did not seek to understand anything that he saw. When Howie saw something that he did not understand, he simply speculated about it based on random and inadequate knowledge. I wrote in the margin of the first page, “I love it when someone writes awesome things about ordinary events; but this author writes ordinary things about ordinary events.”

For example, Howie wonders about how perforations are made in commercial paper. But, lacking the inquisitiveness of a scientist, he just makes up random speculations, without trying to find out how perforations are actually made in commercial paper.

When Baker wrote about the beautiful sounds of farts, I laughed out loud, because it stood out as the only thing interesting in the whole book.

Maybe somebody should write a book in which the first-person observer looks as closely at things as did Howie, and then thinks about the scientific explanations for them. Science is hiding in every little cranny of ordinary life. Baker wrote about farts. Why not write about the incredibly fascinating world of intestinal bacteria—nearly all of them beneficial to our bodies—that produce the gas? He wrote about his unsuccessful attempts to conquer insomnia. This was not merely counting sheep, but an entire discourse—in a footnote—about how the sheep are delivered to his apartment by a sheep dispatcher. But he could have written about the two entirely separate sets of motor nerves, one of which awakens us, the other of which relaxes us, instead of the details of his failed attempts to sleep. Instead of annoyingly trivial guesses, the result would be a new appreciation of our bodies.

Baker has made a career out of taking fascinating ideas and making them dull. His novel—maybe this one actually was a novel—The Fermata was about a man (named Arno, even more annoying than Howie) who found that by sliding his glasses down his nose he could make the whole world go into suspended animation except for him. This is an astonishing premise. What wonders a competent writer could create from this! But Arno just piddled around with not-quite-sex. I wish I could write a novel about how a man with this ability might change the world or at least have exciting adventures. But I cannot because Baker already ruined the premise.

Yes, a scientist should write a book like The Mezzanine or The Fermata and make it actually interesting. But it won’t be me. Nicholson Baker has already poisoned the water. If I proposed such a book to my agent, she would probably say Baker already did that, and ruined any possible chances of anyone else doing it better. That is, assuming she remembers either of these books. She told me the publishing industry has a short memory.

A short memory can be, in certain cases, a blessing.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Was Love Born in a Manger?


A church sign I saw out in the country in Oklahoma recently read, “Love Was Born in a Manger.” I will briefly explain why this is wrong.

Most of my life, devoutly Christian, I was deeply moved, almost suffocated, by my belief that Jesus represented the manifestation of God’s love to humankind. I was wrong. The stories of Jesus are wonderful—certainly, in my mind, Jesus represents some of the finest of human love—and I wish I could still believe that love was born in a manger at Christmas.

But I will now explain why this belief is wrong.

The statement implies that, without Jesus having been born, or foreordained from the beginning of Creation to be born, then there would be no love. But it is quite clear that love evolved. I do not mean  in some vague way as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote about decades ago. I mean that love evolved by means of natural selection.


I am talking about altruism. Love promotes altruism which promotes fitness. Not always, but often. To love your offspring and, to a lesser extent, your relatives increases fitness through inclusive fitness. To love your friends increases fitness through direct reciprocity. To have a reputation for being kind and generous increases fitness through indirect reciprocity. Natural selection favors whatever increases our fitness. Often this is hatred, but often (perhaps even more often) it is love. Natural selection gave us the instinct of love. The evidence is that it feels so good. We need food; natural selection favored millions of years of animals who, when hungry, love the taste of food. We need water; natural selection favored millions of years of animals who, when thirsty, love water. Love is an appetite, just as much as sex, food, and water. Whether we decide to use the instinct of love or not is up to each of us individually.

There is another problem with the belief that Jesus is the origin of all love. It implies that those of us who do not accept the doctrines about Jesus (however much we may love Him) do not really love other people, the natural world, or God. We are either faking it or are totally deluded. What I experience, when I feel love for Jesus or for other people or for the creation, is not genuine, according to this view.

But I know what I am thinking. I know for a fact that I am not faking it. Billions of people who are not doctrinal Christians love people, the natural world, and God very passionately. Some are lying, but we can’t all be lying. I cannot speak for anyone else, but it would be the height of arrogance to claim that I am the only non-doctrinally-Christian person who sincerely loves other people. Many doctrinal Christians would claim that those of us who reject their doctrines might sincerely believe we are sincere, but it is in fact a delusion. I am not deluded. The burden of proof is on doctrinal Christians who claim that all who reject their doctrines are either liars or lunatics.

If, in fact, love does not exist apart from a doctrinal Jesus, then it must come from somewhere else. It must be part of human nature. And, as I wrote above, I believe that evolution put it there. Love is a basic instinct.

Merry Christmas, y’all, and though you may not think it possible, I believe Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Is Science a Religion?

No. But it does have some religious elements to it. I might have written about  my book but I didn’t think of it by press time.

I will use as my example of religion not the hot-headed American conservative celebration of racism and environmental destruction—nothing could be further from science than this. Nor will I use Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, I will use Catholic Christianity.

In many religions, including Catholicism, there is a deep and unquestioning reverence for ritual. Science, too, has its rituals, to which we scientists give our unwavering adoration. In each of these cases, there are essential justifications. I do not mean these practices are bad, but just that we scientists feel a deep reverence for them, like a priest conducting a liturgy. Examples of scientific rituals include:

Holy language. When we write scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, we try to be as emotionally bland as possible. We are passionate about the avoidance of passion. We dare not betray any feelings about the importance of wild species or intact ecosystems. Certainly no humor! I remember finding an article, decades ago, about shallow freshwater ecosystems. The author and editor allowed one joke to get published: a certain principle was littorally true. You didn’t get the joke? Then you aren’t part of our inner circle of priests. Also, in the 1980s, a fellow graduate student, who studied plant physiology, permitted herself just once to say that chlorophyll—in particular, chlorophyll a—was such a beautiful color. But you can bet your bottom thylakoid that she never wrote this in her thesis. We offer these papers on the holy altar of “objective” science, undefiled by humor and enthusiasm. Also, only a botanist would get bent out of shape if someone calls a dandelion a flower.

Holy objectivism. Scientists will almost never, even in our unguarded moment, express any idea for which we do not personally have corroboratory data. We are passionate in our avoidance of personal bias. Meanwhile, anti-scientific zealots proclaim their statements with absolute certainty. For example, an epidemiologist can say that a certain covid vaccine has 99 percent efficacy, thus it “appears that” the vaccine prevents covid. The lay reader thinks that we scientists are not quite sure. In contrast, anti-vaxxers loudly dismiss all evidence and proclaim that the vaccines are dangerous. One even went so far as to call Anthony Fauci a mass murderer. You have to read into the article a few lines to find the reference. Anti-scientific zealots are certain; scientists are hesitant; guess whose views prevail in conservative circles. Scientists use the term “hypothetical” to mean that a hypothesis is being tested; but anti-scientists, who never bother to question their own beliefs, think it means not just guesswork but evil guesswork.

Holy significance. Scientists insist that data should only be believed if the odds are 20 to 1 against the results being random. This is the origin of the 5 percent (p = 0.05) significance level. To have an accepted significance level is essential. A 50 percent significance level would mean that the results are as random as the flipping of a coin (50 percent heads, 50 percent tails). As discussed in Richard Harris’s book Rigor Mortis, it may be important for medical studies to demand even more significance, such as a 1 in 100 or 500 chance, because we have to be really, really sure before we put human lives at risk. But why 5 percent? Why not 4, or 6, percent? But 5 percent it is. This is a religion among scientists. Fortunately, in my one remaining scientific study before retirement, my significance levels are all p < 0.001, that is, there is less than 1 chance in 10,000 that they are due to chance. But in some analyses, if I end up with p = 0.06, I feel that I have utterly failed.

Holy place. Scientists do, in fact, have passionate personal opinions. It’s just that we do not express them in the holy scientific scriptures (peer-reviewed journals). We can express them in popular science books, which is why I prefer this venue of publication. In popular books, we can say (with our scientific authority) that humans are causing dangerous levels of global warming. But any scientist who makes such statements has to be very careful to not risk the disapproval of the bishops of the scientific Vatican. This is why there are very few scientists who write popular books; general readers get tired of phrases that depict scientific uncertainty. This is why most popular science writers, such as Carl Zimmer and David Quammen, began as English majors. Their science is very, very good; and being outside of academia, they are permitted to express their emotions. Many scientists would be proud to be called “a scientist’s scientist,” but not me! I want to be known as someone who makes science interesting and exciting. As you might know from my YouTube channel, I transgress fully into the realm of being a science clown. My editor even allowed me to slip a few jokes into Scientifically Thinking.

Liturgical Latin. Scientists love, love, love to use Latin and Greek phrases. And something that means the same thing in Latin as in Greek can have different meanings. If a shot (or, in jolly old England, a jab) goes under the skin (as perhaps all of them do), they are hypodermic (Greek); but an infection under the skin is subcutaneous (Latin). We give Latin, or Greek, or Latinized, names to every species of organism. If you don’t know the Latin names of the animals and plants, how can you be considered knowledgeable about forests or prairies or deserts? It is essential to have standardized names for species. For instance, non-scientists might just call all prairie grasses “grasses,” but each species is a little different and deserves its own name. But why Latin? The language of vicious world conquerors, then later of scholarly snobbery. There are reasons. One is that Latin is international; nobody speaks it today, even many Catholic priests. But I can tell you that it makes me feel really, really good to say Liquidambar styraciflua.

Later today I will probably start writing on my last scientific paper. I will try very hard to not get enthusiastic about it, despite all those p < 0.001 values that show that budburst times of Oklahoma deciduous trees, are responding, and responding clearly, to global warming.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Live Fast and Die Young: Another Message from Fluff the Cottonwood Tree

This is Fluff the cottonwood tree (she/her/hers). I think this is my fifth message that Stan has agreed to post for me on his blog. I live about a half block away from his house in Oklahoma.

I know Stan is the one with the botany Ph.D., but I know a thing or two myself. And today I am going to tell you about the evolution of life cycles.

Cottonwoods like me are the James Deans of the tree world. We live fast and die young. In contrast, many of the oak trees that grow here in Oklahoma, like the post oaks up on Turkey Mountain, live for several centuries. They grow slowly and invest in the future: they have strong wood, for example. They produce large seeds (acorns). They grow in stable forests where long life and big seeds are important in winning the game of competition. But us cottonwoods live along rivers, creeks, and lakes. I live near Joe Creek, a quintessentially Okie name, although it is a rip-rap lined drainage ditch. We cottonwoods do not have a future to invest in.

The margins of rivers, creeks, and lakes are very unstable habitats. Every few years, a major flood will come along and sweep many of us away into the oblivion of death. I am a little luckier than most; I live far up on the bank. But the flood waters almost got me—and Stan’s house—in 2019. Still, the cumulative risk of death from flooding is very great, and it is a rare cottonwood that is able to enjoy his or her hundredth birthday. Why build strong wood, when we do not live very long? And why invest in big seeds to compete against trees, most of which will get swept away in a flood anyway? We live fast and die young. We reach our full height after maybe fifty years. After that, our trunks keep growing but our roots are not very deep. We are just asking to get knocked over in a flood. But even if we do not, we fall over as our weak wood rots away. From where I stand, I can see a house with a new roof. The old one was damaged by one of my fellow cottonwoods falling on it during an unremarkable storm. If you want to plant a tree near your house, you should probably choose an oak instead of a cottonwood.

We reproduce like crazy as soon as we are about fifteen years old, which is young for a tree. We need to get as much reproduction finished as possible, in case we die even sooner than we expect. Stan took this photo of some of my seeds in 2019.

All these characteristics fit together. In order to grow fast, we have large xylem vessels in our wood, which conduct water rapidly to the leaves at the top of the tree. The very fact that we have lots of big, hollow vessels in our wood is what makes the wood weak. Oak trees have stronger wood, but the price they pay for it is slower growth.

I do not recommend the James Dean strategy in general, but my species lives in a habitat in which trees get destroyed quite often. For us, the James Dean approach works very well. The same is true for all species. If a disaster happens frequently, it is better to grow up fast and reproduce early. One such disaster is predators. Research has shown that fishes that live where there are predators will grow fast and reproduce young. But in the absence of predators, they grow larger and more slowly, reproducing later. The same pattern has been observed in opossums. It sounds like a law of nature, a spectrum of life cycles, and I am at the James Dean end of it.

Despite this, trees almost always live longer than animals, even most tortoises. I will probably outlive Stan.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Deadly Tomato


As I walked through the weeds between the early-successional trees in the field about which I earlier wrote, I noticed a Solanum dimidiatum weed (horsenettle). It was in the same genus as the potato, a close relative of the tomato. And it had what looked like little green tomatoes on it. This is the time of year when tomatoes are really good. But if you think these tomatoes might be delicious, think again. The entire plant is filled with toxins that are dangerous, even deadly, to most animals.


[Photo from Carolina Biological Supply Company] 

The horsenettle plant expends a lot of its energy creating these toxic compounds [what are they]. Expensive they may be, but they protect the plant from having its leaves eaten by most animals. But there is at least one group of animals that can eat the leaves as if they are not toxic at all. The sphinx moth (Sphingidae) caterpillars (hornworms) of the genus Manduca can eat them with little effect on their growth. I know this because I have measured the growth of hornworms when they ate ground-up horsenettle leaves and when they did not; their growth was the same. The toxins do not protect the horsenettles from hornworms, but in many cases, there are no hornworms about. The plant is taking a chance. It invests in imperfect, but usually good, protection.

You may wonder how to compare hornworms that eat horsenettle tissue and those that do not. To what do you compare the ones that do? This is an interesting story. You can purchase little hornworms, special vials to grow them in, and hornworm chow. They do not naturally eat this chow, but if you start them on it when very young, they will eat it and grow grossly big. It is sort of hornworm junk food. The control worms are the ones that eat only the chow; the experimental worms have horsenettle tissue mixed in with the chow.

Herbivores, and the defenses of plants against them, are a constantly moving evolutionary target. They hardly ever get it right, but they come close enough that there are lots of plants, and lots of herbivores, in the world. Any plant that invested too much in defense would grow slowly and die; but if it invested too little, it would disappear down the gullets of extinction. There is a balance of nature, but it is imperfect and shifting.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

A Deliberate Attack on Altruism

Altruism, within the human species, is where someone does something nice for another person with no calculated expectation of a reward for it. Of course, if there were never any rewards for people doing good deeds, this behavior pattern would never have evolved in humans. Everyone who does a good, altruistic deed at least hopes that he or she will receive some reward, directly or indirectly, but does not do a calculation in advance of the deed. There often isn’t any time for such a calculation. The calculation was done by natural selection in millions of years of our evolutionary ancestors, and today it is instinctual. In the past, doing good deeds was profitable. It remains so today.

But altruism is under attack in Texas. Everyone has heard about the Texas abortion law, which empowers anyone (not even a Texas resident) to sue anyone else whom they suspect, even if they cannot prove, of providing, or even “aiding or abetting,” an abortion in Texas. The Texas law establishes an inducement: the plaintiff can get $10,000. Suppose the defendant is innocent. The defendant has to prove his or her innocence in court, a lengthy process, and legal fees can be very expensive. The law specifies that the defendant cannot recover those fees, presumably even for a frivolous suit. Somebody can sue me because they claim that they think I helped someone get an abortion, even in the absence of evidence, and I am stuck with the time and expense of proving myself innocent.

The major thing about this law is not that it is about abortion. It is that the law takes a Texas aim at altruism. It incentivizes citizens to turn against fellow citizens for profit.

Political conservatives, especially gun-nuts, have long taken aim (literally?) at altruism. They promote a sign in which one neighbor proclaims that another neighbor does not have a gun. This amounts to inviting criminals to burglarize the gun-free house and perhaps to kill the owner. The gun-nut neighbor does not have the guts to go and kill his neighbor himself, so he puts up a sign inviting criminals to do the job for him. This is a totally blatant attack on the goodwill of one citizen for another. This is common enough of an occurrence that you can buy signs like this one on Amazon. I have searched, but found no indication, that this is a joke. Please, let it be a joke—but I fear it is not.

I thought it was against the law to incite one citizen to commit a crime against another citizen. Certainly if I put up signs urging people to kill Donald Trump, I would get in trouble for it. But this apparently does not apply to people who want to destroy all community goodwill and turn America into a madhouse of hatred.

As it turns out, the worst that people like me feared from the Texas abortion law has not yet come to pass. It was too extreme even for most conservatives, except for the legislators and governor who thought that Texans would all admire them for trying to destroy community goodwill. Apparently even most Texas Republicans do not want to see their state become a madhouse of hatred. There have, at the time of this writing, been only two lawsuits filed. One of them was from a disbarred Arkansas lawyer. As you might expect from a lawyer who breaks the law, he was allowed to sue for $10,000 so he sued for $100,000.

The intent of the law was to scare women away from having abortions in Texas, not because it is illegal, but because their facilitators would not be able to afford defending themselves against the lawsuits. It is, in fact, having this effect. This is now The Texas Way. Hey, pardner, we can use this approach for any conservative cause. So giddy up! What else can we do with this legal procedure?

Conservatives all over the country are foaming at the mouth at the fact that there are minority voters who do not share their white supremacist agenda. If an extremist right-wing state like Texas wanted to pass a law against minority voting, it would be quickly declared unconstitutional, even faster than they could wipe their butts with the constitution. But they could pass a law saying that anyone anywhere could file a suit against someone they suspect of voter fraud, and the defendant would have to pay the legal fees. It would take months to resolve the case. This is an easy and, if the Texas abortion law is any guide, legal way to keep minority voters away. Minority voters, rather than to face this kind of opposition that might send them into homelessness, will simply stay away from the polls where right-wing poll-watchers will take their pictures and download them directly onto litigation documents.

Minority voters could use this same law against white voters. I think that, in the court in which money rules, they would not be successful. But what if they were? What if organized minorities suppressed the white vote? That would just be one more example of what I am saying—that the Texas way promotes neighbor against neighbor, citizen against citizen, even if it is not necessarily an attack of conservatives or whites against others.

Could such a law actually work? We do not know. But it is impossible to not believe that the Texas legislature would be willing to give it a try. While there are lots of nice Texans—I know some—these nice Texans have absolutely no influence on their lawmakers, who are turning Texas into a medieval fortress of oppression. And there are plenty of pathogenic right-wingers who would be delighted to do the same in other states.

The only way I can be safe from lawsuit in Texas is to not go to Texas. I haven’t been there for a long time, and I will never go there again. I encourage all of you to also stay out of Texas. It ain’t a place for nice people.

This is supposed to be a science blog. This essay is about the science of altruism. But I really, really want to get back to writing about trees and stuff. Maybe this political craziness will slow down just long enough for me to do so. Fluff the Cottonwood Tree has another essay she wants me to post. I hope to do it soon.

Monday, October 4, 2021

This Is Starting to Get Crazy


Many of the Americans who oppose covid vaccination and mask mandates are fierce and even crazy. There has been nothing like it in medical history. Never before have so many people vehemently attacked medical science, at least not since Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination about 1800.

On Tuesday, September 28, a man in Wichita Falls, Texas, tried to enter a hospital without a mask. A security guard told him that the hospital required masks. The man became so angry that he attacked the guard and bit his thumb clear to the bone. You can read about it here from a local Texas newspaper.

This is beginning to look like a plague of insanity.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Greetings from Thumbelina


Some time ago, I posted a Darwin video about Thumbelina. This is a very old story, continually reappearing in new children’s books, about a young woman who is so small that she can hitch a ride on the back of a swallow or hide inside of a tulip (to use the two examples from our public library). We all know it is impossible to have a human being this small, but why is this so? 

Organisms can be very small. If you define an organism as something that can actively maintain constant internal conditions, and can reproduce itself, then the smallest organisms on Earth are bacteria and archaea. Viruses are smaller, but they cannot maintain constant internal conditions, or reproduce, by themselves; they have to outsource these processes to the cells that they parasitize. Astrobiologists (scientists who generate fact-based speculations about possible life on other planets) have lively disagreements about what the smallest life forms could be.

How small could a vertebrate be? A vertebrate is an animal that has (in addition to vertebrae) whole systems of organs that maintain constant internal conditions. Vertebrates are so complex that they could not possibly be microscopic.

But they can be pretty small. Scientists recently discovered a frog, Paedophryne amaneusis, that is so small that it can comfortably sit on a dime. X-rays reveal that it has a complete skeleton. It does not have a tadpole stage, but it attracts mates with ultrasonic peeps. I suspect that it does not need to have as much anatomical complexity to maintain internal conditions; for example, it probably absorbs most of the oxygen that it needs through its skin.

This image is from the source in this link.

Humans have seventy trillion cells. Would Thumbelina need to have seventy trillion very tiny cells? Probably not. She could have tiny organs that did everything that they needed to do, each organ with fewer and smaller cells.

But there is one organ that would need to have a minimum size: the brain. While Thumbelina could metabolize as she rode around on the back of a swallow, she would not be able to enjoy it, or even know what was happening. Since no one knows how to define consciousness, we cannot say how big a brain has to be to be conscious; but Thumbelina’s brain would definitely be too small.

Probably everyone has heard about the homunculus. This is supposedly a tiny complete person that lives inside of a sperm head, made famous by the Nicolaas Hartsoecker drawing (1695). According to many scientists of the late seventeenth century, that is where people came from: a little person inside a sperm grows up by consuming the food inside the egg. Some of the sperm had little men, some had little women, as in the drawing. Even more amazing, the male homunculi had sperm, with homunculi inside of them, with homunculi inside of them, with…how far can you go? Forever? Scientists at the time knew no reason to doubt it.

The reason that you cannot have an infinite regression of smaller and smaller objects is that everything is made of atoms. Although atoms are incredibly small, they are not infinitely small. This places a lower limit on the size of anything made out of atoms.

We must be careful to avoid the argument from incredulity: If I cannot believe it, then it cannot exist. Not long after I post this essay, a computer scientist might create a qubit structure that could fit inside Thumbelina’s head and impart a reasonable level of intelligence. But the principle remains unchanged: there is a lower limit of brain size for human intelligence, and Thumbelina is probably below that limit.

There are upper limits also. A very large walking vertebrate could not exist, since volume (weight) increases as the cube of the linear dimension while the strength of a leg increases only as the cross-sectional area (the square). An animal twice as big in linear dimensions would have legs four times as strong but would weigh eight times as much. This is true only for animals that walk on land. Whales can be much larger, but their weight is supported by the buoyant force of the water that they displace.

None of this will make any difference to people who are enjoying the new King Kong vs. Godzilla movie, or to my granddaughter who enjoys the Thumbelina books. But, I suspect, human imagination is limited—not by size, but by our evolutionary heritage. We imagine things that our evolved brains allow us to imagine, and nothing more.


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Has the Pandemic Made Us Appreciate Science?



One would think that the pandemic would have made Americans want to learn more about disease and health, about how to minimize the spread of disease by means of vaccination, social distancing, etc. In fact, this is what science writer Robin Marantz Henig said in the November 2020 issue of National Geographic: “Maybe the pandemic will persuade even the skeptics how crucial scientific discovery is to human flourishing.”

At the time Henig wrote this, it seemed so inescapably reasonable. But this has turned out to not be the case. The surge in covid cases in America, the great majority of them among the unvaccinated, has only strengthened the anti-science fervor among many Americans. About half of Americans disregard science, and many of these openly detest it. Rather than acknowledging that masks slow down the spread of covid, some states not only do not have mask mandates but have made these mandates illegal. Here in Oklahoma, it is illegal for schools and other state entities to require measures that protect either children or adults. It is difficult to appreciate the depth and scope of the hatred that many Americans feel toward science, whether it is the study of how diseases spread (epidemiology), or any other branch of science.

Right now, as shown in this graph from a French news website, America is leading the world in the number of covid deaths per day. Brazil used to be the leader, and Indonesia was briefly, but America has gone back to being the world leader in covid deaths per day.

As a science educator in rural Oklahoma, I feel quite despondent right now about the hostility of my neighbors toward any kind of scientific evidence about anything. I used to be inspired in my work; now, I just count the days to retirement.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Why Hasn't China Gone Green?


A special Labor Day essay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Open Letter to the Governor of Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Video about covid and evolution

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

Saturday, August 21, 2021

An Artificial Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Star Snot?!


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Plant Superhighway!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.