Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Death of Expertise, a rant by Tom Nichols

Democracy means that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” This is the classic quote from Isaac Asimov. This is the point from which Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security at the U.S. Navy War College, begins his book The Death of Experience. Nichols advanced Asimov’s point by adding such statements as “The United States is now obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance” and “we’re proud of not knowing things” (emphasis his).

This situation pisses me off as much as it does Nichols. An important example is the science of global warming. Anybody with a little bit of education, or no education at all, can simply claim that there is no evidence for global warming, when in fact there is. I have written before about how a certain Republican Congressman said he has never seen any evidence for global warming; there were piles of scientific papers on the table next to him that provided the evidence, but he simply did not look in that direction. My own study of global warming, which examines the budburst times of deciduous trees, has over 4000 lines of data. My countless hours of research mean no more to many people than someone’s antiscientific opinion not only based on a lack of evidence but even a lack of even looking up from the table. Somebody with no data at all can simply call me a liar (this has happened).

Another point that Nichols makes is that educators such as myself assume that if we explain things to people, they will believe us. But greater access to information has led to greater, not less, ignorance in the general public. Do you think that the Earth is the center of the universe? You can find a website that confirms your opinion. Really. But if we educators assumed that we cannot change people’s minds by informing them, we could hardly drag ourselves to work in the morning. I’d rather stock a produce shelf at a store (which requires intelligence, by the way) than to do work that is as meaningless as Nichols implies.

But very quickly Nichols’s book degenerates into a rant. He must be the most cynical professor on the planet. Here are some examples.

Nichols says that college is not about education anymore, but about pleasing the clients. We professors want the students to have a good time, even if they learn nothing. College cash flow depends on this. If colleges told half of their students that they had no business being in college, then all institutions of higher learning except the Navy War College would, I suppose, have to close its doors. But I consider this position to be extreme. It is true that I entertain my students, but I also give challenging exams. I firmly believe that students learn better when they enjoy the course. If they hate the course because the professor is cynical (not naming any names here), they will have irregular attendance, will not study, and will not complete assignments. My biology labs are full of laughter but also of learning. When I walk past the lab rooms, I see that this is also true of the labs of my colleagues.

Nichols says that many students can get good grades in courses by simply “exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide for a set number of weeks.” I was expecting Nichols to provide some data to back this up. He doesn’t even provide anecdotes, except one or two in the notes at the back of the book. Most of his references are like-minded screeds.

Nichols says that colleges have been bloated with majors that are meaningless and a waste of taxpayer and private money. He refers to this as “majors that shouldn’t exist.” Name one! He doesn’t. The long-standing joke is underwater basket-weaving, but it is a joke because no such major exists.

Nichols says that many little colleges have turned themselves into universities by adding meaningless graduate programs. Once again, name one!

Nichols implies that colleges are black boxes from which students emerge with degrees, and that a prospective employer cannot know whether those students have learned anything in college or not. He literally says this is academic malpractice. But he ignores two important processes that he must know about. The first is accreditation. Any college that had worthless programs would risk losing their professional accreditation and, as a result, their students’ access to financial aid. Everyone recognizes an unaccredited “diploma mill,” or at least they should. The second is transcripts. How can an employer tell which graduates are good and which are mediocre? Look at their transcripts! If the student got a lot of bad grades, then the employer has no right to complain if they hire a bad employee.

I teach biology, and even Nichols admits that the sciences are challenging for students. But he implies that students turn away from such challenging majors and instead go for the easy majors. There are two problems with this assumption. The first is that they usually don’t. I just saw the enrollment report for September 2017 from our university registrar, and biology is the number one identified major for incoming freshmen. Nichols may be right that many freshmen with undeclared majors might drift into a meaningless course of study. And as a matter of fact, our university provides a “general studies” major for these students. Any employer that hires a general studies major and expects him or her to know how to fly a plane has no right to complain. But most students choose challenging majors such as biology. Which brings me to the second point. What exactly are these dumbed-down (a term Nichols uses, as do many others) majors? Just last night at the supermarket I ran into an art student I remembered from a laboratory I taught. He does not sit around making papier-mâché bunnies or something. Our art program is rigorous and he would not complete his studies if he was lazy, at least not with good grades. He told me how busy he was with art shows and juried competitions. And I teach at one of these little rural universities that Nichols implies strongly should have just stayed a little college.

What we do, at our university and almost all others, is to give students a chance to succeed—or to fail. We do not tell them at the outset that they should just give up and go get on welfare or something.

Occasionally, as Nichols correctly points out, somebody who is intent on misinforming the public in order to get money or influence will graduate from college, or even get a Ph.D., and then go out and lie to people while citing their Ph.D. as evidence that they are telling the truth. But what can you do about this? A young-earth creationist named Kurt Wise got a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard, from no less a scientist than Stephen Jay Gould. But he kept his religiously-based antiscientific views a secret. Now Dr. Wise is out there telling everybody evolution is a hoax. Another creationist, a Moonie named Jonathan Wells, also got a Ph.D. while pretending to not be a Moonie. But is this the fault of educators? God forbid that a future terrorist should ever complete a course of study at the Naval War College or take a course from Nichols—I suppose it would be Nichols’s fault! One of the best students I ever had in my evolution class was a young-earth creationist (and valedictorian) who can now claim that she got her biology degree while keeping her brain intact from contamination by scientific evidence. But this is not my fault. For me to have rejected her would have been, as I understand it, against the law.

I had to stop reading this book on page 90. But before I did, I checked the index for accreditation and transcript, which were absent. The publisher, Oxford University Press, is usually careful about selling accurate books, but this time they dropped the ball.

Friday, September 15, 2017

New Video: Darwin kicks!

You always knew that Darwin was a sh*tkicker, but here is the proof! Charles Darwin helps persimmon seeds, previously transported by a raccoon, to disperse. See this link to the Darwin YouTube channel.

Just Under the Surface

In the current political climate, where Christians consider Nazi racism to be one legitimate viewpoint even if they do not themselves embrace it, it is certainly possible to believe that the time is not far away when conservatives will institute an evil reign of terror. It seems unlikely that this will happen, but could Germans in 1933 have guess what Hitler would do? And he did it because they let him.

We are surrounded by nice people all day every day. But occasionally we get glimpses of the evil that hides in human nature and which can come out under the right circumstances. Here are some examples.

First example. I had a student a few years ago who was very smart and dedicated, and very nice. Strange topics sometimes come up in individual conversations during laboratory sessions. For some reason, some of us were talking about Vlad the Impaler and this student, with a straight face, made the case that he deserved to be the national hero of Romania. This student, so nice on the outside, harbored at least this bit of evil in her heart. If she should ever in a future dictatorship be in a position to make decisions about what to do with political dissidents, such as myself, what would she do? I doubt she would come up with the idea, but I also doubt she would resist it if a future dictator liked the idea of impaling his enemies.

Second example. In Durant, Oklahoma, a white man who identified himself as “Goofy” went on a verbal rampage against all Mexicans, and said that World War III is going to begin right here with whites against immigrants. Most white people do not feel the way he does, but there must be at least a couple of million people who do and who can cause an immense amount of terrorism once they get started. All they need is some event that will unleash their currently latent fury, like (in this case) hearing a woman speak Spanish on a cell phone. (The woman has been in America legally for 40 years.).

We all have evil in our hearts; evolution has made human nature both good and bad. While altruism is part of human nature, we must understand that we are altruistic only toward those people whom we consider to be inside of our group. Slowly through history we have expanded the boundaries of what we consider our group to be. To many people, altruism extends not only to all humans of every race, but to higher animals, to trees, etc. But there are millions of people who still consider other races to be outside the realm of altruism and therefore not deserving even the simple decency of being allowed to live.

Even a small terrorist minority can ignite the worst elements of human nature and cause a wave of terrorism. Let’s hope (stupidly, perhaps) that this does not happen.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Evolution of Language...and Manipulation

What are the evolutionary purposes of language? Most people would, without further thought, assume that the principal purpose of language is communication of information. That is, indeed, one of its purposes; but, I believe, it is a secondary purpose. The primary purpose of language is social interaction: to influence others to do what you want them to do, to create a good (or bad) impression of yourself in the minds of others, to identify yourself as a member of their particular group.

This is the principal reason that there are languages, plural. Each “tribe” even today has its own language. These languages are much more complex than they have to be, and the main reason is that if you cannot master the complexities of the language and its pronunciation, you are probably an outsider.

But even within a society, language is primarily a tool of social interaction, and often of manipulation. We can see this in the current eruption of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiments in the United States. The use of these terms would prejudice a reader against them, and I would avoid them, except that the right-wing extremists are proud of them. Some of them carry Nazi flags, and the others allow them to.

1.      When a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, President Trump vacillated between condemning neo-Nazi activities and considering them to be merely part of the spectrum of political opinion. At no point did he or any other member of his administration call this an act of terrorism. But it fits all definitions of terrorism. The terrorist was not targeting a particular individual with his car; he was attempting to create terror among the people who were protesting against the white supremacists. And he used deadly force. If he had been Muslim, he would have been instantly branded as a terrorist. The selective use of the word “terrorist” against Muslims but never using against white Christian extremists is a clear use of manipulative language.
2.      The white supremacists call their cause and their rallies “free speech rallies” rather than neo-Nazi or white supremacist rallies. By getting millions of people to use this term for their activities, they project the message that, “You can’t possibly be against free speech! So you have to allow us to shout out our hatred against our fellow citizens.”

Technically, they have the legal right to say whatever they want to, so long as they do not incite people to violent action. But they are evil. We cannot allow them to depict their actions as mere defenses of free speech. All of us who are not aspiring Nazis must keep calling these people, and all who sympathize with them or speak out in their defense, what they are: the modern defenders of Adolf Hitler.

Some conservatives have tried to excuse the terrorist by saying that he had suffered abuse as a child. I have no opinion about this. But a black man could not have used this excuse.

Hitler himself was a master of language manipulation. (He wasn’t a master of much else. His leadership was disastrously delusional and destructive for his own German people, for example.) Most of us think of the phrase “Deutschland über alles” (Germany over all) as being Hitler’s phrase for world domination. But it was originally used to unite the German kingdoms (such as Saxony and Bavaria) into a single country: Germany was more important than its constituent kingdoms. Hitler stole the phrase and all the sympathy that went with it. Also, if Hitler had publicly proclaimed that he planned to slaughter millions of Jews, if he had called it an attempt at extermination, he would have had much less support from the German people. But he called it a “solution,” and who wouldn’t be in favor of this? A person is as likely to support a “solution” as “free speech.”

Political conservatives hate, viscerally hate, our modern language practices in which we attempt to counteract the racism of the past. They call it “political correctness,” which implies that anyone who does not use racist terms is doing so only for political influence. Our use of “black” instead of “nigger” can only mean, to conservatives, that we want political power; they think it cannot possibly be because we want to show respect and love to people who people who have been oppressed and slaughtered in the recent past. Conservatives want to refer to what happened in Tulsa in 1921 as a race riot, implying that black people were doing the killing and burning. In reality, it was a white mob hunting down and shooting blacks. Prominent Tulsan and KKK member W. Tate Brady was pleased to see a black man being dragged behind a car with a noose around his neck. It is not “political correctness” that makes us refer to the 1921 incident as a massacre or as an act of terrorism rather than a riot. It is a desire for truth, and to try to make up for the white massacre of blacks in the recent past.

To test the hypothesis of “language exists largely for manipulation,” all we need to do is see the spectacular failure of invented languages. Esperanto was invented to create world peace under the misguided notion that a common language will prevent miscommunication. But liars can lie in Esperanto. Charles Bliss created a system of symbolic communication that, he believed, would prevent language from being manipulated. He printed up six thousand copies of his book and sent them to government and other leaders all over the world, and got no response whatever, until some nurses noticed that this system might help children with cerebral palsy, who cannot communicate what they are thinking, to connect with the world. Bliss’s system thereby escaped extinction. But soon it was being used, not in place of other languages, but as a way of learning them, leading right back to the manipulation that Bliss, an escapee from World War Two, hated so much.

So when humans have created new languages for the express purpose of avoiding social manipulation, the new languages become the venues of social manipulation. This is an experimental confirmation of the hypothesis that languages evolved for social interactions, one important component of which is manipulation.

And there is nothing we can do about it, other than to keep using language in such a way as to try to counteract evil people from using their words to oppress others in their attempt to revive Nazi sentiments and make them palatable.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

You Have to See This to Believe It

Here is a photograph of the Barents Sea floor, where kilometer-wide methane blowouts have occurred as a result of global warming. Remember that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It appeared in the June 2, 2017 issue of Science.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Common-Sense Solutions and Win-Win Situations

Yesterday I heard an online presentation by Paul Hawken, a long-time expert on integrating environmental concerns (particularly carbon emissions) into economics. His theme, including that of his new book Drawdown, has consistently been that solving the global warming crisis doesn’t cost; it pays. In particular, he says that the most important things we can do are things we are already doing for other reasons, and things that will save us money in the long (or short) term. Although this book has been criticized (Science, 26 May 2017, page 811) for the questionable way in which the actual numbers were calculated (no one can produce an adequate numerical summary of the whole world economy), no one disputes the general conclusion. (I have not provided hyperlinks to the Science articles, which are only available to subscribers, even the news items and book reviews.)

Here are some particularly good examples that caught my attention.

  • One of his photos showed a Bolivian woman who lives on a floating mat of straw in Lake Titicaca. She had been heating her grass hut with a kerosene lamp, which poses an obvious fire hazard. She had just received a solar panel and was very happy. She was probably not thinking, “At last, I get to do my part in reducing global warming!” The solar panel helped her life and, incidentally, helped to reduce global warming.
  • Another photo showed cows eating kelp. Apparently, this helps them grow bigger because kelp is converted to animal mass more efficiently than is grass. The cattle produce more meat and less methane. Incidentally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Another point was that by reducing food waste, and by having a diet that is more plant-centered (contains less meat), we can feed more people and be healthier, a double win. Incidentally, it also means we will produce less agricultural carbon dioxide and methane. Hawken’s calculations do not include methane from landfills where the food waste is dumped.
  • Having more efficient cooking stoves in rural India will make everyone’s lives better, because the people (mostly women) will have to spend less time gathering firewood, and they will be healthier because their huts will have less smoke. Incidentally, this also reduces carbon emissions.
  • A lot of methane emission comes from rice paddies that are kept flooded (anaerobic) throughout the growing season. But by periodically releasing the water, the growth conditions become aerobic and the plants grow better. Incidentally, the aerobic conditions result in lower methane emissions.

One proposed solution to global warming is carbon sequestration, that is, to burn fossil fuels in power plants but then to scrub the carbon out of the effluent. This was, until very recently, an expensive process, using up to 30 percent of the electricity that the power plant produces. But recent technological advances have greatly improved the efficiency. You can read about one of these on page 796 of the 26 May 2017 issue of Science. Another idea, described on page 805, is to use the carbon dioxide itself, rather than steam, to turn the electrical generation turbine blades.

And the technological innovations go on and on. In California, scientists have improved on the efficiency of algal biomass production for fuel (see the 14 July issue of Science, page 120). We currently use corn biofuels in most of our gasoline, which is a government perk that corn farmers love, but corn biofuel does not reduce carbon emissions very much. We now have improved methods of cellulosic biofuel production, for instance in switchgrass. Switchgrass and other cellulosic biofuels can be produced without cultivation, and without fertilization, in marginal land, leaving the good farmland to raise food (such as corn) for people (see Science, 30 June 2017, page 1349).

But none of this matters, because the Trump Administration has removed all incentives for reducing carbon emissions. Just when we were about to meet the goals, the goals vanish. American ingenuity down the drain.

The best example of all was that allowing women in poor countries to have access to education and to contraception greatly improves their lives because they can then have fewer children (and provide more resources and attention to the (usually) two that they do have). Their lives are vastly improved. According to Hawken’s calculations (similar to those of Michael Bloomberg, J. P. Morgan Chase, and the World Bank), helping women in poor countries is the single most significant factor in reducing greenhouse emissions.

What’s there not to like?

Win-win and common-sense solutions almost never work because, while they are in the interests of almost everyone, they are not in the interests of political and religious leaders. Political leaders think only of how they can get more power or campaign contributions. And religious leaders (such as fundamentalist Christian and Muslim preachers) actively oppose birth control. The blindness created by and parasitized by our political and religious leaders will keep us from even doing the things that would make life better for all of us for reasons unconnected to global warming. Led by the United States, the world will plunge into a global warming nightmare.

Dieter Helm’s Burn Out (reviewed in Science, 19 May 2017, page 709) explains that our economy will shift away from fossil fuels unless, or even if, we actively try to keep it from doing so. I hope that the dedicated efforts of the conservatives does not totally prevent this from happening.

What hope can we have if, each day, we are relieved when President Trump has not yet started a nuclear war?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Intelligent Design vs. Writing a Novel

In summer, I have time to write novels. Maybe someday I will actually publish one.

Writing a novel is one of the closest experiences a human can have to being a Creator. The writer creates a world that must make internal sense, and in which something meaningful happens to characters about whom a reader can care. There has to be what one agent called a “redemptive arc,” in which the character’s struggles are resolved, even if the character dies. There has to be a balance; if I introduce some important force into the story, I have to have it as part of the resolution, and not leave it dangling. Perhaps most important, every scene must advance the plot in some way. Especially in today’s fiction market, there is no room for casual “asides.” (One famous example of an “aside” occurs in All the King’s Men, the novel about a corrupt governor in the early twentieth century, in which Robert Penn Warren inserted a totally unrelated story about adultery in the Civil War era.)

In three of my novels, I have imbedded a short story. In Edd’s Land, I imbedded Plantation Odyssey; in Nancy’s War, I imbedded Strangers in Green Hollow; and in Q’s the Name, I imbedded Seaside Alders. Each of the imbedded stories is a piece that was conceived as an independent novel but had no chance of surviving to term on its own. But I couldn’t just stick them in; I had to make them advance the main plot of the novel. In all three cases, I figured a way to do so.

In one of my novels, I realized that I needed to introduce the two main characters on page one. I had introduced one of them on page one, the other on page three; I realized this was a defective structure.

I also have a tendency to put in intellectual speeches, usually about religion and botany. But when I do so, I make sure they, too, advance the plot.

To have a careful structure that carries the reader along on a journey of understanding without confusing them or tripping them up or making them have to work hard to figure things out; most readers are tired, even the ones who seek understanding rather than cheap thrills. This is what it means to be a Creator.

But when you look at the universe, this is not what you see. I will give just one example. Genes of DNA (the genome) encodes the proteins that do the work of the cell. But in every case, the gene is broken up into fragments by introns, and separated by non-genetic DNA. As a matter of fact, the non-genetic DNA comprises at least 98 percent of the DNA in the cell! In some cases, as with the photosynthetic enzyme ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase, part of the enzyme is encoded in the nucleus, and another part in the chloroplast, before being assembled. It is a jumble of confusion. Nobody understands it. Nobody can look at the structure of genes and say, “Behold! Now I understand the mind of God.” Francis Collins tried, bless his heart, but it didn’t work. It looks like a Rube Goldberg apparatus. The only reason that gene expression works at all is that natural selection gets rid of any that do not work, and there must have been, over billions of years, a lot of failures. In addition, the genome contains lots and lots and lots of dead viruses.

In other words, God is either a Rube Goldberg, or is not a Creator in the fundamentalist sense.

Whoever “wrote” the genome of a typical human (or flatworm or tree) was not doing what a human creator does, giving it a logical or even comprehensible structure. The genome is more like a computer drive in which not only is the final document saved but also all of the fragments and editorial comments appear in the form of blockout print. Who would ever think of sending “John walked down the road This part is confusing. Why was he walking down the road toward isn’t it supposed to be towards? his destination Well where else would he be walking but his destination? Insert the scene from the beginning of chapter 3 here” to an editor?

The creation is not like a movie, even a bad one. It is like a movie in which all of the outtakes from the cutting-room floor are inserted at random places in the movie. No competent author would look to the genome for inspiration about how to write.