Sunday, May 29, 2022

Don't Offend the Extreme Right: The Darwinian Marketplace

Back in 2011, at the suggestion of Oklahoma’s grand old man of science, Vic Hutchison, I started emailing college biology departments across Oklahoma and requesting that they post a statement supporting evolutionary science on their departmental websites. I even provided a sample that they could use as a draft.

A number of universities—usually the biggest ones, who were confident of their enrollment—responded positively: several departments at OU (the University of Oklahoma), OSU (Oklahoma State), and at TU (University of Tulsa). Even some historically religious colleges posted statements, including OCU (Oklahoma City University).

A couple of departments, however, were unable to reach agreement about support for teaching evolution. East Central University (a state university) and Southern Nazarene University (a private university) both had creationist faculty members who shot down the idea.

But what about the universities I never heard back from? I cannot know, of course, but I can relate the experience at my own institution (Southeastern Oklahoma State University). The faculty completely supported the evolution statement, and it perfectly reflected what we teach. But they did not want to post it. We did not want to alarm any prospective students or their parents. This took me by surprise, but when I thought about it, I could see market forces (Darwinian market forces) at work.

The economic survival of our university depends on getting students to register for our classes, and to finish their degrees. That’s pretty much it. We have been doing it better than many other Oklahoma colleges and universities. While others were suffering economic reversals, we continued growing; and we have not shrunk very much during the pandemic. Our success, I think, made our sister institutions a little jealous. If we put an evolution statement (or a global climate change statement) on our website, the students might decide to go somewhere else, or their parents might make that decision for them.

Now, the reasoning goes, once the students arrive, they will discover that evolution is included in their science courses. In my experience, a few of them have been upset, and may have written home about it. But, for the most part, they either did not care, or were surprised to discover evolution was not the Worship of Satan as their preachers had told them it was. The goal of educating students about evolution was achieved, for the most part. (Many of them just ignore the subject.) Therefore, I cannot argue with the decision for our department to remain silent on our website about the subject of evolution.

Let me tell you the story of one of my general biology students. He took every opportunity he could to let me know how stupid he thought I was. One of my exam questions was about Neanderthals. Europeans have a few Neanderthal genes, and Neanderthal bones have some DNA in them. I simply asked if it was possible to clone a Neanderthal. The correct answer, having nothing to do with evolution, is that we have a few Neanderthal genes but no Neanderthal nuclei for cloning. It was a biotech question. But this student said that since you evolutionists think you have some Neanderthal genes, why don’t you just use those genes to clone a Neanderthal? He went out of his way to insult me. My reaction was simply to write down a zero for that question.

I also required a paper, which I graded leniently, about a semester project in which each student chooses some activity to promote their health and reduce their carbon footprint. Nearly every student got full credit. But this student said that he decided to drive his big truck less. He made it clear that the reason was not for health or to reduce his carbon footprint, but because of high gas prices which he blamed on Biden; his citation was #Letsgobrandon. Then he decided to get out his old childhood bicycle and ride it. But it was too small. The seat was narrower than an Ethiopian hunter, he said. The seat broke; the bar under the seat poked him, as he said, right up the butt. He threw the bike in the ditch and gave up. I’m sure you can see as readily as I that he just made this stuff up. But I couldn’t prove it, so I gave him credit for the paper.

This student also took every opportunity to insult the ideas of vaccination, masking, and social distancing. He even emailed me to defend the use of ivermectin as a treatment for covid.

One of our laboratory activities was about the Donner Party. You can learn a lot about human physiology by studying the demographic records of this group of pioneers that was starving out in the snow during the California gold rush. One of the questions in the manual was about possible ways in which men could contribute to the survival of their families or of the group. He wrote that the men could keep the women warm. This was just one indication of his misogyny, to go along with his racism.

He seemed to be doing his best to get as bad of a grade as possible without actually failing the course. He wanted a D and he got it.

My point in telling his story is this. The only way our university can survive economically is by pleasing students like him. He cannot tell us to not teach evolution, global climate change, and public health. And we already do not penalize students for their religious beliefs. The ability of other students to learn about science is not obstructed by this student’s quiet resentment. But if I challenged him, privately (as his insults were private), he could complain to the university administration, and the administration would tell me to back off. So I took the easiest—and perhaps wisest—approach: I calculated up the points for the things he got right, and calculated his grade, making no comments.

This is how the Darwinian marketplace works. We have to get students to come and pay us. Any university that gave students an inferior educational experience would lose enrollment. But so also would any university that proclaimed scientific truth. The students who want to learn—or, more often, do not care—will still come. But our survival may depend on that marginal recruitment of angry right-wingers, who would almost certainly not come if we had website statements supporting the science of evolution, of global warming, and of public health. We would prefer to have no anti-science racist students, but if they must go to college somewhere, we want them to come to Southeastern, not to East Central.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Who Cares about Global Warming?

Though most of my students approach global warming with an academic seriousness, they do not seem to really care about it. And, semester by semester, they do not take it with academic seriousness either. And, in society in general, people have stopped caring about global warming, at least in the United States.

The global warming problem has not gone away; in fact, it has been happing faster even than the most pessimistic predictions. Even worse, the effects of global warming interact with one another, with potentially catastrophic results.

One example is the collapse of sea ice shelves. This occurred in March 2022 in Antarctica. The usual “conservative” response is to ignore sea ice. They say, when ice melts in water, the water level remains unchanged; thus, melting sea ice will not alter sea level. This is true, as far as it goes. But the sea ice shelves hold back the flowing shelves of land ice. When a sea ice shelf collapses, the land ice shelves are now free to slide down into the ocean. The land ice, when it slides into the sea or just melts, does raise the sea level. A land ice shelf sliding into the sea could cause a massive oceanic wave which would spread thousands of miles before it peters out and would have a measurable effect on sea level. How significant is this? The devil is in the details.

Perhaps the worst problem is that people, in general, do not seem to believe there is such a thing as evidence. They simply ignore anything they do not want to believe. Scientific evidence, legal evidence, any kind of evidence. The problem, then, is to get people to care. And how can you do that?

I heard an interview of an Icelandic scientist who has taken a different approach to publicizing global warming than what most scientists and educators, including myself, have taken. (I cannot find a link to this interview and do not remember the scientist’s name.) He pointed out that the heartfelt pleas of Greta Thunberg have reached more people, particularly young people, than the popular or scholarly publications of thousands of scientists. He said that humans, in general, care more about the people they love than about academic abstractions, no matter how dramatic they may be. He has tried something that I decided to immediately incorporate into my general botany final exam. Here is my version of it:

“What are three scientific predictions (from a valid scientific website) about what global warming will be like in 2100? Imagine someone whom you will know in the future (child, grandchild, etc.) who will be alive in the year 2100. Imagine that person asking you why our generation did not do more than we are doing to prevent global warming. How would you answer him or her? (Be realistic. Avoid a wildly nightmare scenario, like the man who asked me during a presentation if the Earth would become as hot as Venus. That can’t happen.)

There was a separate interview, on the same news program, of a cattle rancher who is well aware that cattle are among the major contributors to global warming, but he has a plan about how to come close to carbon-neutral cattle ranching. I decided to incorporate a question into my exam based on this also. Here is my version of it:

“One of the biggest contributors to global warming is the production and consumption of beef. What are some of these impacts? Indicate at least two. A cattle rancher said, on a radio interview, that ‘It’s not the cow, but the how,’ which means that he had a plan to make his cattle production operation produce less carbon. Indicate at least two things that he was probably planning to do to meet this goal.”

I hope that these ideas may be useful to some of my scientific and educational readers.