Thursday, May 18, 2006

Down the other -- scientific ignorance part 2

As I said in a previous posting, scientific ignorance is endemic these days. Moreover it annoys me even more than usual when it comes from some one who identifies themselves with the scientific world.

A month ago, on Earth Day, I had the privilege of being part of a wonderful conference -- the "Campus-Community Partnership for Sustainability Conference." It was held at Berea College, in Berea Kentucky April 21-23. The conference successfully brought together scientists, activists, farmers, architects, planners and other who are deeply concerned about how we can make a transition to a post-Peak Oil world. The term "Peak Oil" was coined by geologist M. King Hubbert more than 50 years ago: "The term Peak Oil refers the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognizing that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion." Hubbert successful predicted that U.S. Oil production would reach its peak (maximum rate of production) in the 1970's. Others have used his methods to make predictions for world wide oil production which vary from 2015 to 2035. The conference which focuses on sustainability (and not the oxymoronic "sustainable development" deplored by many environmentalists) will be repeated again next year, at Eastern Kentucky University.

My comments here in should not be taken in any way as a criticism of the conference itself.

My role, as a sociologist interested in environmental sociology and community, was minimal. I volunteered to moderate a few sessions and some discussion. The topics I choose to moderate where those that about which I had little knowledge with the hope of learning something (which I did). The afternoon session, which will be the focus of this posting, was entitled "Ecological landscapes and 'going native'" by Portia Brown. Ms. Brown is a self educated "native plant consultant, educator and advocate" (as she describes herself in her first prize winning entry in the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro governments 2005 Low Maintenance Landscape Design contest Portia is an engaging speaker, and she had a valuable thesis, that "by embracing the richness of our regional plant communities in our manage landscapes we can reduce fragmentation and build much needed connections between and within the human and natural communities."

But there was something in her presentation that nagged at me, and which illustrates the same kind of scientific ignorance I deplored (in previous post) in novelist Michael Crichton.

Portia began her presentation by asking those in attendance what a "native" plant was. One member of the audience offered the following definition (with out any facetiousness), saying that a "native plant is one that was here before European settlers came to the Americas." Portia suggested that such a definition was not general enough (too specific to North America) and offered instead this definition: " a native plant is one that evolved naturally (without human intervention) and persists naturally in the wild of a particular region."

As I listened to her talk, and thought about it over the intervening weeks, I realized that the audience member's definition far more accurately portrayed the way in which Brown (and many others) actually use the term "native plants" than her own, more "scientific" sounding definition.

The fact of the matter is, that we have no way of knowing whether or not the various grasses and wildflowers, shrubs and trees, that Portia used as examples of native species evolved in situ without human intervention or not. Human beings occupied north American since some 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. Evidence only beginning to be understood thorough today suggests that the populations of humans in the new world in 1400 just prior to the arrival of Europeans were many times greater than previously believed. North America was in all likelihood a fairly densely populated landmass, that was decimated by diseases of European origin before the settling of Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Horticulture was practiced though out north America and Agriculture was practiced in various locations.

This definition of "native" is used (although rarely recognized) through out the world. "Native" plants are those that were in existence when Europeans first arrive in Africa, in Asia, and else where in the world. Part of the definitional process is a subtle form of racism. An assumption that no humans other than Europeans had the knowledge and technical capacity to alter the natural world. The less sinister explanation is that we simply have no knowledge of the horticultural practices of humans in regions prior to the occupation by Europeans because most such "indigenous" people had oral rather than written cultures, and the knowledge of those cultures was lost.

Thus Portia Brown considered elderberry with its white fluffy flowers to be "native" and Queen Anne's Lace with similar flowers as not native. But do we know, for a fact, that humans had no role in the propogation and dispersal of elderberry? We do not.

Moreover, Brown's definition which excluded "human intervention" is scientifically specious on another ground. Distinguishing between the role of humans in propogating and dispersing seed and plants across the landscape from the role of other species, seems artificial and arbitrary. Wild roses existed in the Americas before Europeans arrived. Rosa acicularis or prickly rose, is clearly a part of the same biological family as European cultivated roses (and as blackberries and rasberries). According to "Native Americans made medicinal tea from wild roses which was used as a remedy for diarrhea and stomach maladies. They sometimes smoked the inner bark. The Crow used a solution made by boiling rose roots in a compress to reduce swelling. The same solution was drunk for mouth bleeding and gargled as a remedy for tonsillitis and sore throats; vapor from this solution was inhaled for nose bleeding." How did this plant that shares biological ancestors with European plants end up in north American (or vice versa). In all likelihood because of the transport of plant seeds or other germinating matter by animals such as birds.

Plant species arise in one place and seeds, spores, cones, or other means of germination are transported by animals (and the wind) to new places. Birds are frequent distributors of genetic matter. But mammals and other species may help with the disrtribution of edible plants through their feces. From a scientific point of view the difference between the role of human and of other animals is merely a matter of degree, and perhaps intentionality (although not always).

This unscientific distinction between the role of humans animals and the role of other animals in the dispersal of plant species through the world, is frequently accompanied by an equally unscientific view of the landscape as something that is fixed and unchanging that we, humans need to lock into place and protect from any disruptive influences. This mind set worries extensively about the invasion of foreign species that "aggresively" crowd out "native" species. One example in this region is the mimosa tree or silk tree with its long lived prink tasseled flowers. Mimosa is fast growing, and spreads easily. In the past two decades of warmer weather, mimos have spread at the edges of Kentucky forests, generally along roadsides, often claiming the same general niche that dogwood and redbud occupy. In cooler wetter years they die back, and resurge again in warmer drier springs and summers. These trees which originated in central Eurasia, and came to the U.S. as popular ornamental trees. This has earned the mimosa a spot on lists of dangerous and banned foreign species.

But let us consider this more carefully, 20,000 years ago when the last ice age was winding down, the forests of Kentucky were largely arboreal nondeciduous forests. At some point the oaks and maples, sycamores and dogwood that we love so much were "foreign" invaders themselves. What makes that transition "good" and current transitions in forest species "bad"? What ever it is, it is NOT science.

Up one side -- scientific ignorance part 1

Ignorance of science, of the actual realities of the scientific method and scientific logic, and even of the factual knowledge generated by the scientific method, is endemic these days. I have come to expect that from my science phobic, religiously conservative students who fear learning any real science will damn them to an afterlife in hell fire. But what really gets me is when it shows up in people who actually claim the mantel of science.

Take Michael Crichton, graduate of Harvard Medical School, but best known as author of such blockbusters as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, and more recently State of Fear. The primary thesis of State of Fear (which reads more like a master's thesis than a compelling thriller) is that international discussion of global warming has far outstripped scientific knowledge and is primarily driven by political ambitions rather than by actual knowledge. One would be hard pressed to call it an "anti-environmentalist" tract since the overriding message of the book is that a lot more money should go into environmental research -- a conclusion with which it is hard to find fault.

What struck me about State of Fear however, is the lack of understanding of scientific reasoning demonstrated by Crichton. Although there were a number o f examples, one in particular has stayed with me for two years. This is the first novel I've ever read that has charts and diagrams in it with footnotes, and it is Crichton's interpretation of two of these charts that is problematic. One chart shows the steadily increasing (from the 1950's to the present) measurement of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. [One of several sites where a cumulative graphic representation of CO2 concentrations similar to that used by Crichton can be found is]. The other show the more variable, but over all increase in world wide average temperature from 1880 to the present [if you've never seen this iconic graph check out the copy of it on the EPA's Global Warming (oops, sorry "climate change") page]. The graph of atmospheric CO2 concentrations shows a stead, uninterrupted, increase in concentration of the gas in the atmosphere over the past 60 years; the graph of average global temperatures, while showing an overall trend over the past 125 years of increasing temperature, shows significant year to year variations, and even a short period, centering around the 1960's during which the trend of global average temperatures went down slightly (before returning to an overall upward trend in the 1970's. Now here is Crichton's stunning piece of nonscientific logic from State of Fear: Because the two trends are not identical, year for year, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere can not possibly be a "cause" of the climatic temperature. Scientists, are you listening here -- unless you can show an exact, constant, never varying correlation, between your x variable and your y variable, you can never claim that x could be a cause of y. Unfortunately, this specious argument will sit quite well with the vast majority of scientifically illiterate Americans.

There is however, a simple, common sense way to demonstrate the flaw in Crichton's argument.
Ever since reading it two years ago, I have imagined having a conversation with Crichton, in front of an audience of undergraduate students, that would reveal to those students the scientific and logic flaws of Crichton's arguments. Since I am a lowly, unknown, community college faculty member in rural Kentucky, my chance to go head to head with Crichton are pretty slim. So I have decided to satisfy my urge by imagining how such a conversation might go.

Greer-Pitt: Dr. Crichton, as I understand your point, you contend that increasing CO2 concentrations could not be a cause of increases in global average temperatures, because, while CO2 concentrations have increased steadily, during the same time average global temperatures have risen, but not steadily, and global temperatures have even shown short periods of cooling before returning to an overall pattern of rise.

Crichton (in my imagination): Yes, Dr. Greer-Pitt, this is true. I point out in State of Fear, that for CO2 concentrations to have been the cause of the rise in temperature, that these concentrations also would have had to decline during those years of temperature decline.

Greer-Pitt: Dr. Crichton, like everyone else who lives in the northern Hemisphere, I'm sure that you have noticed, year after year, that the average temperatures in January are cooler than the average temperatures in June?

Crichton: Well, in California, we do some times have a warm sunny day in January, and a cool, foggy day in June.

Greer-Pitt: Indeed. But I'm talking about average temperatures. Would you not say that on the whole the average of temperatures (both highs and lows) in January are generally lower than the average of temperatures in June?

Crichton: Certainly. It is the difference between winter and summer.

Greer-Pitt: I'm so glad you brought up the issue of seasons, of winter and summer. What would you say is the primary cause of the passage of the season, the primary cause of cooler temperatures in winter (January) and warmer temperatures in summer (June).

Crichton: As almost any American school child can tell you, seasonal change is caused by the tilt of the earth's axis. As the earth revolves around the sun, the north pole (since we live in the northern hemisphere) alternatively points towards the sun (during the summer) and away from the sun (during winter). This tilt in the axis affects the amount of time that sunlight shines on the northern hemisphere, and how directly that sunlight falls. We notice this in the changing length of days. Winter days are shorter (less sunlight) and summer days are longer (more sunlight).

Greer-Pitt: So you would say that the tilt of the earth's axis and the amount of sunlight falling on the surface (both in terms of the hours of the day and how directly the suns rays fall) are the root cause of the temperature differences that we in the northern hemisphere see between winter and summer?

Crichton: Certainly. But you know that weather and the actual temperature of any day, vary considerably due to a variety of factors such as the winds, cloud cover, and moisture content.

Greer-Pitt: Excellent point. In fact, as we trace the change in temperature from January to June, we don't always see a smooth upward rise in temperature do we?

Crichton: Certainly not. It is not at all unusual for a week or two in May to be cooler on average than the month of April.

Greer-Pitt: We in Kentucky call that common cold snap in May "Blackberry winter" because it seems that often we get a cold snap that coincides with the blooming of the blackberry vines.

Crichton: Weather is a very complex phenomenon, with many factors contributing to daily temperatures.

Greer-Pitt: Yet, you would still say that there is an overall rise in temperature from January to June?

Crichton: Certainly.

Greer-Pitt: And you would also say that this overall rise in temperature is caused by the tilt in the earth's axis and the amount of sunlight hitting the northern hemisphere?

Crichton: Yes.

Greer-Pitt: Would you say that the length of day (length of sunlight hours) and amount of sunlight increases in a regular, continuous manner from January to June 21 or 22 (the first day of summer)? There are no periods of fluctuation in which the earths axis changes its direction or that the day light hours decrease even slightly during that period?

Crichton: Well, cloud cover may limit our ability to see the sun on some days. But no the earths axis doesn't change direction.

Greer-Pitt: And the cloud cover doesn't change the overall increase in sunlight time and strength does it?

Crichton: No.

Greer-Pitt: So to summarize, you would say that the primary cause of the passage of the seasons, and the average increase in temperature from January to June in the Northern Hemisphere is the tilt of the earth's axis and its impact on the length of days and amount of sunlight hitting the northern Hemisphere.

Crichton: Yes.

Greer-Pitt: And you would say that this was so, even though the phenomenon of the axis tilt and amount of sunlight change in a consistent way, while the actual average temperatures of the weeks from January to June although on a general upward trend fluctuated considerably producing periods (from days to weeks ) in May and June that are cooler than February or March or April? You are saying that it is possible for there to be a cause that is constant and steady in its progress, while the consequence is less constant and more variable?

Crichton: Yes. Because observed weather, even if it has long term regularities like seasons (winter and summer), is a complex phenomenon, and the weather on any given day is the result of both the long term seasonal trend and factors such as wind, clouds, and moisture.

Greer-Pitt: And you would not argue that for axis tilt and amount of daylight to be considered the primary causes of seasonal change, they would have to vary exactly has the daily temperature varied? You would not discount axis tilt and day light hours as an overall cause of June being warmer than January just because the axis didn't wobble or the day light decline during "Blackberry winter"?

Crichton: Certainly not.

Greer-Pitt: Exactly. There is no requirement in science that there be a one to one correspondence between a causal factor and its consequence. As complex as weather is, climate is even more complex. But within that complexity we can identify basic causal factors. Increasing CO2 concentrations can be the cause of an overall increase in global average temperatures, even though it continued to rise during short periods of temperature decline. Just as we can say increased hours of sunshine are the cause of overall increase in seasonal temperatures, even though the hours of sunlight continue to rise during short periods of temperature decline (such as Blackberry Winter). While there may be other types of evidence that cause us to question the role of CO2 in global warming, one argument we can rule out is the lack of an exact one to one correspondence between the steady rise of CO2 and the more erratic, but still overall rise in global temperature.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Too Crazy or Too Radical for Harvard

Monday May 15, 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education article reports on the decision o f the Massachusetts High Court that supported Harvard University's firing of a man with bi-polar disorder for "egregious workplace misconduct (conduct so inimical to an employer's interest that any employee would be fired for the same acts)." Among the things that the man in question did were: "created a Web site decrying low wages at the university,...brought his laptop computer to work and used it to access and update his Web site... distributed fliers advertising the Web site, and sang, clapped, and danced to protest songs playing from his Web site." He also came "to work in a brightly colored, traditional East Indian dress, made loud phone calls from his desk to his relatives, the police, and the American Civil Liberties Union."

My first thought was, if making loud, personal phone calls from your desk is a fireable offense, then why is my former office mate still around here? Okay, I admit there is a difference between this Harvard case where the man's job was receptionist in the lobby of a museum (shhhh!), and my former office mate whose desk looks out over the college's tutoring center (one fo the noisest locations at the campus).

My second thought, is that Harvard really has problems if "any employee" would be fired for creaing a website that decried low wages, and who advertised and called attention to that web site.

Alright, I get it, the man was in a public space in a position that requires quiet and decorum so that visitors to the museum may use it appropriately, but still, it indeed ANY Harvard employee would be fired for this type of behavior, I think that something is amiss.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Did Culture end evolution?

Author and journalist, Tom Wolfe, made the claim that "Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, 'man reasoning,' but Homo loquax, 'man talking'!" (Quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2006 on-line at . Wolfe, by his own admission has been highly influenced by the thinking of sociologists like Max Weber and anthropologists like Clifford Geertz.

As a sociologist (with extensive anthropological training), I too have often pondered this idea, and come to a similar, but more limited conclusion.

First, and foremost, there is an entire world of species other than man, without language, for whom evolution continues unabated. Indeed, one could argue that evolutionary pressures (adapt or go extinct) are greater than ever for species other than man, because of human cultural impact upon the environment. The most famous or infamous (depending upon what side of the evolution/creationism divide on sits) example of human economic activity impacting evolution is Kettlewell's study of the relative preponderance of light and dark variants of the peppered moth (Biston betularia) in England published in March 1959 in the Scientific American (Vol. 201, No. 3, pp48-53).

A digression: while using Google to check the exact reference above, I found that most of the recent citations of this article are by creationism/intelligent design advocates, and I noticed a fascinating lacuna in the understanding of such people of the concept of "evolution." One page in particular made the knowledge gap crystal clear, stating that the example of the peppered moth showed "NATURAL SELECTION in action. The problem is that there is NO EVOLUTION occurring (no increase in complexity)!" [empahsis in the original]. Source: (note the link at the bottom of the page back to the "Creation Science home page." Since when (in science) are "natural selection" and "evolution" two different things? Evolution is change, any kind of change, even change to a less complex level of organization. Human's losing the function of the appendix (a lessening of complexity) is just as much evolution as the changes that gave birth to language.

Back to Tom Wolfe, and the relationship between evolution and culture. Putting aside the continued presence of evolution among other species, can we argue that evolution disappeared from human kind, when language and culture appeared? Certainly humans have made use of cultural knowledge and creativity to adapt culturally to environmental conditions (clothing, fire, agriculture, electricity, engineering technology, etc.). I would argue however, that our reliance on increasingly complex culture has made us more suceptible to environmental extremes and evolutionary pressures, and will lead to our eventual extinction. (Exctinction is evolution, too). The Europeans who settled Greenland during the Medieval Warm Period , depdent on European technology, went "extinct" (at least in Greenland) when the Younger Dryas (Little Ice Age) came along. We too are likely to become extinct when global warming pushes the climatic envelop to extremes, and our technology is unable to make the transition.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Starting Over with this Blogging Thing

We Americans are the champions of the fresh start, the "new leaf." Linguist Benjamin Whorf studied the language of the Hopi more than 50 years ago and concluded that the Hopi view of time was different than that of English speakers. Whorf pointed out that Hopi has only two tenses "manifest" and "unmanifest" (where as English has three -- past, present, future). According to Whorf, when speaking Hopi one can only talk of things that are manifest (do exist, have or are happening, in the realm of the real) and things that are unmanifest (dreamed, imagined, hoped for, anticipated, in the realm of the unreal). I always wondered if that meant that traditional Hopi native speakers had difficulty with most Americans' love of the "do-over" -- the "yeah, I screwed up, but now its a new day, let bygones be bygones" philosophy.

Personally, I'm not to thrilled with my President acting like "Fish" (Ally McBeal -- remember) and mumbling the political equivalent of "bygones" and assuming that we'll all just forget recent history (the lack of WMD, prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraid, six years of ignoring global warming, etc., etc.) .

But, what is bad public policy can also be good mental health practice for us as individuals, so rather than beating myself up over the months I did not keep up with blogging, I'm just going to start afresh.

Iran and nuclear weapons

I am inclined to agree with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who accused Western nations today of hypocrisy and said "I'll tell you, they are not concerned with nuclear programmes ... They are themselves engaged in nuclear activities and they are expanding day by day. They test new brands of weapons of mass destruction every day."

I am more than dismayed by the probability that Iran will join the nuclear weapon club, being an "ban-the-bomb" girl from way back. Nor do I believe that we should "do nothing." But I am adamantly opposed to all punitive approaches, whether military or economic. I have decided that any thing we might do to punish Iran creates far more long term damage to the world, than letting them proceed. What I advocate is a complete change in foreign policy that focuses on positive reinforcement. We dp more to deal with hunger, with AIDS, with poverty, with environmental destruction, with cultural imperialism. We become a genuine good neighbor.
Not a short term response, doesn't prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but in the long run might prevent them from using them.