Monday, November 20, 2017

And Now for Some Fake News, Part Two.

I also wrote this one on September 14, 2016.

Prominent Scholar Endorses Trump

Dr. Nikolai Smerdyakov, director of the Karamazov Institute of Scholarly Studies in Prague (a town in central Oklahoma), and one of the most famous scholars of scholarship, today endorsed Donald Trump for President.

“Never in my lifetime,” said Dr. Smerdyakov (who has a Ph.D. from Trump University), “has a presidential campaign been so focused on the factual assessment of important issues. And it is Donald Trump who has kept attention focused on these issues. In all previous campaigns, candidates have talked endlessly about things such as the economy, the environment, race relations, and international relations, which are clearly irrelevant to American national interests in any possible future scenario.

“Instead,” continued Smerdyakov, “Trump has kept America focused on the most important issue: building a wall all along the entire Mexican border. We already have a gigantic fence along the Mexican border, and it has not been very effective. To build a truly effective wall is a challenge for a new generation of engineers: to build a wall so tall and so sturdy, and with an abuttment so deep, that no human being could ever cross it. Not even sending a man to the moon entailed such a design challenge. You want investment in science and technology? Well, here it is!

“The main way that the wall will stop the flow of Mexicans into America,” continued Smerdyakov, “is to make them not want to come. We need another recession and we need it now. If nobody can hire them, then they won’t come. That’s what happened in 2008. No new houses or apartments being built, no jobs for Mexican roofers. Houses abandoned? No lawns to mow. And if spending a trillion American dollars on the wall, or spending a trillion dollars to force Mexico to pay for it, won’t bring on a recession, what will?

“The major result of Trump’s policies,” continued Smerdyakov, “Will be a massive brain drain from America into other countries of the world, so we need the wall to keep Americans in as well as to keep Mexicans out.” When reporters pointed out that most brainy Americans would flee to Canada, Smerdyakov admitted, “Then we will have to build a wall along the Canadian border too. I hadn’t thought of that.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already invited Americans to come to Canada if Trump is elected.

“An added benefit of the wall,” concluded Smerdyakov, quickly recovering, “is that it would block the wind and put all those environmentalist wind generators out of commission. It would also make birds and monarch butterflies take alternative migration routes. But in my scholarly opinion, a good conservative America doesn’t need liberal birds and butterflies crossing our sacred territory.

“And the list goes on,” Smerdyakov continued. “The Apollo program gave us artificial orange juice with artificial pulp. The Mexican Wall program will undoubtedly be able to give us artificial tamales with artificial meat. The market for that will be huge!”

When asked to comment on how America could build the Mexican wall if the scientists and engineers flee to Canada, Europe, and Mexico, Smerdyakov declined to comment.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

And Now for Some Fake News, part one.

Well, now that last year’s campaign is over, there is nothing left to do but to laugh about it, I guess. Here is some of the campaign news you might have missed last year. I wrote this on September 14, 2016.

Candidate Clinton Releases Her Genome

Today presidential candidate Donald Trump demanded that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton release her genome to the public. Much to everyone’s surprise, Clinton agreed.

It turns out that Clinton’s genome is totally unlike any other of the thousands of human genomes that have ever been sequenced—in fact, totally different from the genome of any other species that has been studied on Planet Earth. “You and I have a closer similarity in DNA sequence to bacteria than Clinton has to you or me,” a visibly shaken Dr. Francis Collins admitted. Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, was one of the pioneers of the Human Genome Project. [Editorial note: at the beginning of the Trump Administration, Collins resigned and was replaced by the president of the Smoker’s Association of America.]

The only conclusion that can be reached, according to Collins, is that Secretary Clinton came from another planet. Said Collins, “It appears that Clinton’s genes come from some species of human-like creature that is nicer and more reasonable than any member of the species Homo sapiens.”

When asked about some of the specific differences between the Clinton and human genomes, Collins said, “Human DNA is built from adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. But Clinton’s genes are encoded in glucose and menthol.” When asked to describe glucose and menthol in layman’s terms, Collins said, “Sugar and spice.”

When asked why it was that Clinton sometimes shows human frailties, Collins speculated that Clinton must be faking it. “She is just pretending to have frailties in order to make people think she is one of us.”

When Candidate Trump was asked if he would release his genome, Trump responded, “Over my dead tax returns and medical records.” Then he grinned devilishly, started huffing and puffing, and laid an egg that was pure silicon, just like the eggs of the Horta on Star Trek.

When asked for comment, President Barack Obama said that the entire thing had been seriously overblown. “How silicon you get?” he asked during an interview.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Novel as Experiment in Whitehead's Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was one of the most famous novels of 2016. In this novel, a young slave Cora escapes from Georgia on the Underground Railroad, and eventually...does she make it? I won’t spoil the ending. But in this novel the Railroad is really a railroad, with railroad cars on tracks running through tunnels.

One impression is inescapable, and intentional. The amount of deliberate suffering inflicted by slave owners and slave hunters on the slaves, and even on other whites, is almost infinitely brutal. In this novel, slave hunters would kill and rape white abolitionists. Slave owners would put the eyes out of a slave who tried to learn to read. A white daughter turned in her parents to be hanged for hiding a fugitive slave (Cora), in return for an elevation of her social status. One slave hunter wore a necklace made out of human ears. One slave owner tortured his male slave by cutting off the slave’s manhood, stuffing it in the slave’s mouth, and sewing it shut.

Remember, this is fiction. Many of these things did not actually happen. For example, it makes no economic sense for slave owners to torture and kill their slaves for minor infractions; slaves were expensive to buy and maintain. Slave owners would, in the real South, treat slaves like animals, but not usually worse. But Whitehead achieves the novelist’s purpose, to make the reader hate slavery, and to see how it turns slave owners into devils.

And then I realized that this was the point. Most of these brutal things occurred at some point in history, but not all at once. During the lynchings after the Civil War, whites would indeed torture blacks. In doing so, they were not losing any money, the way slave owners would have. Whitehead took actual events from the lynching period and stuck them into the time of slavery. Whitehead also created a superficially nice-looking South Carolina, where black escapees were treated nicely, but it turns out that they were being sterilized in the name of scientific eugenics, and being used in scientific experiments. These things actually happened in the first half of the twentieth century. By placing the brutalities of fictional Georgia and North Carolina alongside the superficial niceness of the fictional South Carolina, Whitehead was inviting us to compare them. Were eugenics and scientific experimentation (as in the Tuskegee experiments), any less brutal than slavery? We usually don’t ask that question, because they occurred separately in history. Whitehead lines them all up during one brief time in Cora’s life. He performs an experiment with history. Hypothesis: eugenics is less brutal than slavery. Conclusion: No, they are both brutal.

I tried this kind of literary experiment when I was in junior high. I wrote a short story in which I divided England into two counties, Rupertshire and Spratleyshire, and I gave them two different forms of government. I set them side by side and allowed a traveler to directly compare them. That’s all I remember about this story, which might be in a box somewhere.

The Underground Railroad will certainly stir your fury. The young escaped slave Cora did not take every opportunity for revenge that came to her. I found myself wishing she had tortured and slowly killed the slave catcher in Indiana, rather than leaving him alive and tied up. That is, Whitehead stirred my desire for revenge then confronted me with mercy. This literary theme will never grow old.

Colson Whitehead broke up the timeline of history in a way that is forbidden in most historical fiction: he altered the historical context. But he made this broken timeline into parallel segments and compared them, as in a scientific experiment.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Altruism as Evil: The Work of Donald Trump

Altruism occurs when (usually) animals cooperate with one another, to the benefit of all of them. One kind of altruism, recognized by evolutionary scientists, is indirect reciprocity, in which an individual gains recognition and admiration for doing generous acts—and along with that admiration comes profit. We all want to do business with people who have a public reputation for generosity.

Nearly everyone recognizes altruism as good. Everyone, that is, except Donald Trump. He seems to believe that it is evil to do good things for other people.

One way that more fortunate countries have of helping the less fortunate ones is through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization(UNESCO). Educational and scientific exchanges promote world peace, one of the express purposes of the United Nations in general and UNESCO in particular. UNESCO facilitates altruism, especially indirect reciprocity.

But Trump has removed the United States from UNESCO. Not only does he not believe that the United States should promote world peace in this way, but he also appears to hate the reputation for goodness that the United States used to enjoy as a member of UNESCO. It used to be that when the world looked at America, it thought, “they want to help us,” and we got a lot of admiration for that. But today the world looks at us and thinks, “they hate us.” Trump, who is always sneering and insulting everyone else, already promoted this image, and has now backed it up by action. We hereby send the message to the world that, even if you are our friends, we do not need you. We do not even like you.

Trump’s consistent message has been “America first.” But this is not what he meant. Probably every nation puts itself first. What Trump meant, apparently, was “America only.”

America, Trump thinks, does not need the admiration or goodwill of the world. All we need to do is to intimidate them.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Altruism: Don't We Wish

I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. He had some really interesting thoughts; and not just thoughts, but results of his own research. Oh how I wish I could agree with him.

Haidt’s research shows that our political convictions—in particular, being liberals vs. conservatives—is based on psychology rather than reason. Of course, liberals have always “known” this about conservatives: those conservatives are just mean people who want to oppress and victimize other people. And conservatives have always “known” this about liberals: those liberals are just immoral people who want to destroy the moral compass of society. But Haidt has shown that liberal vs. conservative biases may come from the deepest part of our brains. Conservatives have a need for order, while liberals relish diversity. This even shows up in the conservative preference for dots on a screen that move in lock-step with one another, and liberal preference for dots moving independently.

But what do we do with this information? It is here that, I fear, Haidt has gone off on a cloud of wishful thinking. If both liberals and conservatives can just recognize that their beliefs have a psychological basis, then they could start to talk and work things out. This is, as I understand it, Haidt’s gospel, as it were. He also says that our society needs both liberals and conservatives, to keep each other from going overboard.

Alas, there are two problems here.

  • Liberals are much more likely to agree with Haidt on his basic points. Conservatives will usually reject the very premise that psychology has any influence on their beliefs. They believe that they are God’s chosen and that they are as unlikely to be wrong as for God to not exist. The Holy Spirit has made them conservatives. That being the case, a true conservative will consider it unnecessary or even evil to have a meeting of minds with liberals. Haidt reached his conclusion from his liberal background; can he point to even one conservative scholar who has reached the same conclusion from his or her conservative background? Maybe he can, and if so, I’d like to hear about it.
  • Conservatives have a lot more guns piled up, ready to hand, than liberals. How can any parity of discussion be reached when one side is heavily armed and the other side virtually helpless? If you have guns, who needs dialogue?

These are two deadly asymmetries that make discussion impossible between liberals and conservatives, in general. Happily, some individual conservatives and liberals can talk, but this will not happen on a large enough scale to influence the immediate future.

Haidt gave an example of how liberals and conservatives could discuss an issue and perhaps come to a better understanding of one another. The issue: global warming. The liberals could begin a discussion by citing a military general, rather than an environmentalist, who talks about the dangers of global warming. Great idea. Only we climate scientists have already tried this. Defense Secretary Maddis has already said that global warming will cause international conflicts to which the U.S. military must pay close attention. Maddis is not just a conservative, but a hand-picked Trump follower. But the conservative global-warming denialists have either taken no notice or have been hostile toward this prominent conservative. A search of the most prominent denialist website turned up no matches with “Maddis.” The reason is, of course, that the denialists are paid by fossil fuel corporations, or individuals who have gotten rich from them, or foundations started by them.

Haidt also said that, on average, religion makes people more moral. But in order to justify this statement, Haidt had to include, in the term “morality,” those activities that bind the group together, even if it means that the group is hostile toward other groups and causes a great deal of harm to the world in general. I am sure Haidt does not mean to establish a moral equivalence between, say, the United Nations and the Nazis, but I am unclear about how he avoids this equivalence.

This problem is the very same one we encounter when we consider altruism, about which I have often written. Altruistic behavior, encouraged by empathetic feelings, enhances an individual’s evolutionary success within his or her social environment. In ancient times, the social environment was very local. Today, the environment can be the whole world. Natural and cultural selection may favor warm, fuzzy feelings within the group, but may also favor extreme hostility. This hostility can take two forms: the feeling of sweet revenge against cheaters within the group, and extreme hostility toward people outside the group, whether they are cheaters or not. It might be enlightening to think that conservatives draw the line between “us” and “them” more narrowly than do liberals. Haidt may have written about this someplace.

In a related thought, Haidt also said that, according to surveys, conservatives care more about the people around them, while liberals care more about the people of the world. And here is where I have to draw a completely different conclusion from my Oklahoma experiences than Haidt may draw from his New York experiences. The conservatives who live around me in Oklahoma seem to be hostile toward everyone except, maybe, their own families. They dump garbage in their neighbors’ yards and allow their dogs to attack anyone who is out on the street. Many of them fly Confederate flags, which displays their hostility toward even many of their immediate neighbors. And, in this reddest of red states, “Oklahoma is ranked 3rd in the nation for women killed by men in single victim-single offender homicides.” (see data here). Red states are not moral, at home, or in their communities. I wonder if the surveys that Haidt has conducted indicate more about what people like to think about themselves than what they actually do. Prominent conservatives, from Bill O’Reilly on down, proclaim Christian morality while pursuing immoral personal lives.

What I come away with, from Haidt’s statements, is that individual conservatives and liberals might try to understand one another better, after finding some personal common ground. This common ground might be something as strange as a shared adoration for the music of the 1930s country singer Jimmie Rodgers—which I share with a very conservative person I’ve not yet met but if I do I will talk to her about this rather than about politics. But on a national level? I think it is hopeless.

Haidt’s views might be appropriate for a society at equilibrium—that is, one in which liberal and conservative views can mix and respond to one another, reaching some kind of stable balance. But right now, our country is experiencing extreme disequilibrium. This is not true in every country. In France, a country about which I know a little, the conservatives and liberals disagree vividly. But the conservatives do not have stockpiles of guns in France the way they do in America. Even if American conservatives choose not to use these guns, they have the psychological advantage: we all know that they have them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Cultural Evolution of Mimicry and Deception

Mimicry and deception are everywhere in nature, thanks to evolution. Some mollusks attract fishes by waving fishlike gills. When the fishes approach, the mollusks lay their parasitic eggs on them. Orchids mimic bees and wasps, and attract bees and wasps, which try to mate with the flowers and only end up pollinating them.

Mimicry and deception are everywhere in human society, thanks to cultural evolution. I want to briefly share an example. What do you do if you are pretending to be a scientist, and you are trying to spread your gospel which just happens to be totally contrary to all scientific data? And you want journalists to spread your gospel for you? Well, you cannot do much, unless someone gives you a lot of money. If you have the money, you can pretend to be a real grown-up scientist and you might convince journalists to believe you.

Let’s suppose you are trying to convince people that there is no such thing as global warming. The first thing you can do is to send out your literature in an envelope that looks like it comes from a legitimate source. Thousands of us scientists received an envelope that looked like this:

This plain white envelope looks like it is from the New York Times. But where is it really from? You don’t want people to know, so you put your return address, but not your name. A journalist would notice, but only if he or she had time to look closely. It doesn’t actually claim to be from the New York Times, because the NYT logo is in the lower, not upper, left.

The second thing is to have literature that looks really, really slick. A journalist might not take seriously something amateurish, such as the “National Sunday Law” weird religious pamphlets that millions of people (42 million, in fact) have gotten in their mailboxes. Those pamphlets were obviously printed up at a local rural Oklahoma print shop. But the anti-global-warming book inside the white envelope was really slick:

Third, the name of your organization should closely imitate that of a respected scientific organization. For example, if I wanted to make my literature look like it came from AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world’s premier scientific bodies), I could call my group the AAAST (American Association for the Advancement of Scientific Thought). Only an experienced scientist might notice the difference; a journalist might not. This global-warming denialist group called itself the NIPCC, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which looks really similar to the pre-eminent world body that studies climate change, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Fourth, you get together with other similar groups, and you praise each other’s work. This book was published by the Heartland Institute, but was co-sponsored by (Craig Idso) and by the Science and Environmental Policy Project (Fred Singer). Craig Idso and Fred Singer are in fact co-authors of the Heartland book. If you visit the website of the latter group, and click on “about us,” you will find a blank, at least I did. You see, the three authors have formed three organizations, each of these organizations has gained the endorsement of two other organizations, and all three are well-funded, perhaps from the same source.

Suppose I wanted to convince everyone that the Earth was the center of the universe. I could start up that AAAST that I mentioned earlier. Then I could get some of my friends to start the STAA (Scientific Thought Association of America) and others to start the Ptolemy Institute, and I would instantly have two other societies endorsing whatever I might say, that is, if they want to still be my friends and receive...

And receive the funding that we all receive from the same source. The Heartland Institute keeps its funding sources secret. But leaked documents reveal that most of their funding comes from the Koch Brothers, who get their wealth from people burning lots of oil. They probably get a few dollars here and there from other sources, but Heartland is mostly a front for the Koch Brothers. If I had a rich donor, I would ask that donor to fund three institutes, not one.

Fifth, you have to make your funding look like it is not all from a single place. Heartland claims that it receives 60 percent of its funding from foundations, 19 percent from individuals, and 18 percent from corporations. But, you see, the Koch Brothers have a foundation, and a corporation, and they are also individuals!

Other “think tanks” are more transparent about their funding. The Cato Institute (whose lie-filled diatribe against Rachel Carson somehow got repurposed into a chapter in a book that was inexplicably published by National Geographic) acknowledges the Koch Brothers right on their homepage.

But, as it turns out, the Heartland Institute is not just funded by oil interests. It must also be funded by tobacco corporations. Heartland proclaims that smoking is bad but it should not be in any way discouraged, except in kids. This is so ridiculous that nobody could believe it, even the tobacco corporations themselves. Heartland’s website claims that anti-smoking advocates “personally profit” from their opposition to smoking. They give no data, not even any anecdotes, to support this preposterous claim. They imply that tobacco corporations aren’t in it for the money but they just want to make life better for everyone. But all of the profits (from book sales, or salaries for scientific research) that come from opposing tobacco amount to just a few hours’ worth of tobacco corporation profits. Their statement indicates that teachers such as myself who try to get students to stop smoking are reaping profits from this. But I have not earned one penny from my anti-smoking educational efforts.

What this amounts to is that Heartland will say anything if you pay them enough. Only oil and tobacco can pay them enough.

I don’t think I need to convince you that what Heartland and its associated groups are doing is wrong. I wanted to tell you about it because of the deceptive practices that they use, practices worthy of any sinful orchid or any parasite. The only thing more amazing than their strategy is that people fall for it.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Four.

Scientific presentations already follow a narrative format: the introduction sets up the problem, the methods and results sections work through it, and the discussion (or conclusions) resolves the problem. Two consequences of the narrative structure in scientific papers are:

  • Everyone knows the materials and methods section is the boring part of the story. In many journals, it either appears in smaller print, or as an online supplement.
  • Null results—that is, when the hypothesis is not confirmed—seldom get published. Narratives they may be, but not very good ones. But, as Stuart Firestein explains in Failure: Why Science is So Successful, this is very unfortunate, because the null results of one investigator or team can, when read by another team, save them a lot of wasted time and expense. The second team can, by studying the null results, either give up while they have time, or devise a better method. Failures, null results, are as much a part of the narrative as the protagonist’s setbacks are part of the hero’s tale.

This happens a lot in literature. People like stories that have happy endings, or are at least resolved at the end. A story is supposed to make sense, even if the world does not. In this way, a story can help us understand the world, or at least accept it, a little better. Only in rare instances is a happy ending actually required: the four damsels and three swains agreed on the happy-ending rule in Boccaccio’s Decameron, but this is unusual. Even in tragedies, things get resolved: at the end of Hamlet, we find that things really were rotten in the state of Denmark.

(Joke intermission. In a Russian tragedy, everybody dies; in a Russian comedy, everybody dies happy.)

Music also follows a narrative structure. Music definitely follows a narrative arc. In fact, it can be arcs within arcs. Most musical pieces follow the “ABA form” or “sonata form,” as I learned it in music theory class in 1975. Introduction of one or more themes; Development of interacting themes; then Recapitulation (recap) of the triumphant, modified theme or themes. You find this in nearly all classical music that people like to listen to. The theme-and-variations form, and the verses-and-refrains form, are variations of this structure. Frequently, the development is in the relative minor (if the introduction is in major), as in A minor following C major; or the other way round.

In symphonies, each movement usually has an ABA form. The first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony has dramatic themes in the introduction, then a development that builds up tension. That is an understatement. At the end of the development, there is an extremely strident chord repeated thirty-six times. Just before you scream, the recap begins. This symphony has such a powerful narrative structure that a Tulsa audience of hundreds listened to the conductor give an hour-long lecture about it before performing the symphony. The first movement is so exhausting that Mahler wrote in a three-minute relaxation period before the second movement. The conductor duly sat down on his podium as if he had just wrestled a Viking. Now that’s a story.

Many classical symphonies follow a narrative structure in their (usually four) movements, with an ABA form within each movement. The first movement is an introduction. The second movement is often slow and thoughtful. The third movement is often lively and everybody looks forward to it. The fourth movement is a resolution and frequently features the return of the original theme. The fourth movement, or any other movement, can also have a coda, which is a big bang ending that extends past the resolution of the theme. One of the most famous codas is at the end of the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just when you think you have heard the final notes, along comes this surprising coda. This symphonic movement has such an obvious narrative structure that musical humorist Peter Schickele applied a football-game-style commentary to it.

Mozart was a master of musical narrative structure. Mozart was unrivalled in the way he made the horizontal (tune) and vertical (chord) structures work together perfectly, with seeming effortlessness, as in the Gran Partita.

Sometimes the narrative form in music is completely overt. Each of Antonín Dvořák’s symphonic poems (such as The Water Sprite, The Golden Loom, and The Wild Dove) tells an intricate folk tale, usually grisly. I love them!

The first chapter of Genesis is a song. It has six stanzas for the six days of creation. Each stanza ends with a refrain, “and there was evening, and there was morning, another day.” Creationists, by forcing it into a literal meaning, have killed its beauty. I even rewrote Genesis 1 into a form that fit the tune of Oh What a Beautiful Mornin.’ (“The creation of Earth is like music, the creation of Earth is like music...” and “It’s such a beautiful cosmos, you’d better keep it that way.”)

The middle of the twentieth century was a time of embarrassment for classical music. Composers, usually working on university faculties (hence this music is sometimes called “academic”, suitable only for study and not for enjoyment) and having very few listeners, wrote music that was deliberately formless and void with darkness over the face of the deep, as in Genesis 1:2. In most cases they didn’t even have tunes. Students, including me, were made to pretend to like them. I could list some of the pieces and composers, but you almost certainly have never heard of them. They have become extinct, except when some musicians drag out the fossils and play them for audiences that endure them. Nobody goes around humming them. Today much of that pretense has been abandoned in schools of music. These pieces of “academic” music just leave the listener feeling confused. Music does not have to end with a bang, but it should end at some sensible spot. This is why most people, in thinking about the early twentieth century, can name only composers like Hindemith, Gershwin, and Joplin, who wrote tunes. What’s there not to like about the March at the end of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses? But “academic” composers looked down on Hindemith, especially since he insisted on sending every movement on a nice chord.

Science is stories. Literature is stories. Music is stories. We cannot not think in stories. We cannot not feel in stories.

This is only one reason that the vast story of evolution resonates less with the human spirit than does creationism. Evolution does not have a narrative arc. I tried to give it one in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, but it just didn’t match up to Genesis 1 or to Adam and Eve (Genesis 2). Ursula Goodenough tried it too, with even less success than I.

Science needs as much interesting narrative as it can get, but not at the expense of reality. I am particularly annoyed by the sound bite at the beginning of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, in which a woman says, “We have to believe in impossible things.” No, we don’t, not even (as Lewis Carroll wrote) five impossible things before breakfast. If we let the narrative dominate, then science is as useless to us as religion. This is not, however, likely to happen.