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.