Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Consider the lilies

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus, many of which were later condensed into a single Sermon on the Mount, is to “Consider the lilies of the field.” It is Biblical passages such as this that are a much more fruitful source of dialogue between science and religion, rather than haggling uselessly about whether the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

The lilies to which Jesus referred were the wildflowers that blanketed the Galilean hillsides briefly in the early spring, before withering away in the summer—just as they still do in the Middle East and other similar climates such as that of California. As a botanist, I really like this passage. Many of these spring wildflowers are, in fact, lilies.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then forget about them, or to walk past them while you are looking at a scroll or a cell phone. You have to stop and look carefully at them. They are so small that you will probably have to get down on your knees to do it. You will have to pull one of them apart to see the full glory of their structure hidden inside. When you do so, you will find Jesus’ promise fulfilled: “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” That is, the most amazing creations of humankind cannot compare with even one of thousands of short-lived flowers.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then believe whatever your preacher says they should look like, but to consider what they actually look like. But there are millions of fundamentalists (not quite all of them in Oklahoma where I live) who will believe whatever their preachers say, even regarding things they could easily go and look at for themselves. These deluded followers will not even bother to read the Bible, about which they actually know very little, for themselves, but just believe what the preachers tell them it says.

Jesus did not say to ignore the lilies of the field while driving your tractor or four-wheeler over them, or while pouring chemicals on them, or while paving them over or peeing on them.

I recommend that you actually get down on your knees to look at the flower, rather than picking it and holding it in your fingers. By picking it you have already vanquished it and made it into a thing, an expendable resource, rather than a living being with which you share the world. Pick it only if you are dissecting it for closer study.

I like to believe that if people who consider themselves Christians will actually get down on the ground and look at a wildflower, this will begin a cascade of consequences that will make them start thinking for themselves rather than just believing their preachers. This is important since some preachers, most famously Pat Robertson, tell them that God wants them to believe everything that Donald Trump says. How can you worship Donald Trump once you have looked closely at the intricacy of a flower?

In case you missed my video on this topic, see it here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Is There Any Hope for the Climate Future?

As I have previously written (see the Real Ecology Manifesto at this permalink), I believe that there is no hope for the world to avoid climate catastrophe, from which the human species will survive, but human societies will not; and from which the Earth, even though minus many of its species, will recover. Nevertheless, I also believe that we need to live in such a way that, as individuals, we do the best work we can at avoiding this catastrophe. That is, even if there is no hope, we can feel that we have lived in the right way (and we can stand before God, if there is one, in the knowledge that we have done the best we could).

We cannot do this if we know our actions to be utterly futile. But what if I am wrong, and there is hope? Or, what if the good things we do will reduce the intensity of the inevitable catastrophe? What we need is some good news, even if the news is not good enough for us to be fully optimistic. But this news has to be factual, not just a fleeting hope.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (which consists of citizens who want to effect federal-level policies that will reduce the risk of climate catastrophe, and who know that the apostrophe belongs at the end of the word citizens’) had an online national meeting today, in which Drew Jones, the co-founder of Climate Interactive, gave us some reasons to be optimistic. I happen to believe these reasons are not good enough, but they are verifiably true. I hope that I am wrong in my cynicism, and if I am, these will be the reasons. Here are some of them.

  • While Trump has pulled America out of the international climate accords, many cities and states have declared their intention to follow the Paris guidelines. More than half of Americans live in cities or states (or both) that have declared their willingness to cooperate with the rest of the people in the world by reducing carbon emissions.
  • World carbon emissions have actually stabilized in the last three years, after decades of not only increasing but accelerating. In 2013, global carbon emissions increased by 2.0 percent over 2012; by 1.1 percent in 2014 over 2013; and actually decreased by 0.1 percent in 2015, compared to 2014, in a report prepared by the Netherlands for the European Union. It is not enough to just stop increasing our carbon emissions, but this leveling-off of carbon emissions has happened seldom since records have been kept. Meanwhile, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (not the same thing as carbon emissions) continue to increase, from 405 ppm in 2015, to 409 ppm in 2016, to 413 ppm in April of this year.
  • As of today, the Climate Solutions caucus in the U. S. Congress, in which members of both parties agree to do something to reduce carbon emissions, has 24 Democratic and 24 Republican members. (Anyone who joins needs to partner with a member of the other party.) Of course, these few Republicans are easily ignored by the leadership of their party. (John Huntsman said “Call me crazy, but I believe what the scientists say about evolution and global warming.” Guess what. His party called him crazy!) But at least a few responsible Republicans exist!
  • China’s use of coal has declined slightly.
  • The Paris Agreement still has 194 signatories even after the United States has pulled out.
  • Perhaps the most important point is that long-term social change looks impossible until it happens. For example, state bans on interracial marriage seemed like they would never be lifted until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision that interracial marriage must be permitted. If you were a black person in South Africa in 1985, it might have seemed that apartheid would never end, but within a decade it ended. A social consensus that we must do something about global climate change is building, and could quickly become the norm. As Gandhi said, “First they will laugh at you then they will ignore you then they will fight you then you will win.”

I must point out, though, that social change doesn’t always work. As explained by Peter Watson in The Great Divide, a quixotic attempt to summarize all of world prehistory and history, human sacrifice used to be the norm in all known prehistoric societies. In the Old World, in separate locations, human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice and finally by the elimination of physical sacrifice, as religious awareness grew. In the New World, however, human sacrifice grew at a dizzying pace, so that the Aztecs carried out entire wars just to get sacrificial victims; they captured tens of thousands of victims each year, cut their hearts out, threw the hearts in a bowl, tumbled the bodies down the pyramid steps, and made stew out of the bodies. There was a brief attempt by one Mayan leader, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, starting about 968 CE, to bring the vicious cycle of human sacrifice to an end. But he failed. Human sacrifice ended only with the conquest of the Aztecs by the equally brutal Spaniards—brutal, but at least they didn’t carry out human sacrifice.

I will add one of my own to Drew’s list. The other major economies of the world recognize that Trump’s refusal to cooperate on climate issues makes America an outsider. Some of the G20 nations now refer to the group as the G19 + 1. It is possible that international pressure will make enough people rethink their position and at least cooperate with the rest of the leading nations of the world. This is extremely unlikely; I think America will cooperate with the rest of the world only if forced to do so. But, again, I hope I am wrong.

What will NOT happen is that Christian Americans will suddenly feel the Spirit of God calling them to show love to their fellow humans and to God’s Creation by preventing climate catastrophe. Some Christian Americans feel this way; most do not, and are in fact furious at their fellow Christians who do. To wait for this to happen would be like waiting for a decomposing bone to turn back into a cow.

Join with me in trying to make the world a better place for everyone, even if this effort fails, and just in case it succeeds!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Patriotic Message

At least, as close as I ever come to one anymore.

It is difficult to be patriotic anymore. The word “patriot” is loaded to mean conservative; to mean Republican; to mean “follower of Trump.” Even though I was born an American, and my Native American roots go back ten thousand years, I do not feel as though I am a real American, because I do not sing “Praise the Lord!” after every Trump tweet.

I consider the American flag, the one that we are supposed to wave and fly today, to be an embarrassment to the world. It used to be something positive, back in the days when Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize. But today the American flag merely proclaims Trump’s ego to the entire world. Trump proclaims “America First” to the world. Not too surprising; all countries put themselves first. But what Trump means is “America Only,” that is, America will make all of its decisions as if no other countries exist except to be our markets, our sources of raw materials and cheap labor (so long as they don’t come here). He pulled us out of the Paris Accords and implies that NATO consists mostly of freeloaders. He is insulting everyone he can think of and seems to think that, if it were America vs. the rest of the world in a conflict, we would win.

Not everything is bad in America. So far, we still have laws that restrain even The Donald from grabbing absolute power. And, to me, the principal cause for faith is that many, perhaps not most, Americans remain good people. This includes the younger generation. When I think of my daughter and son-in-law, both of them powerful forces of good that make the world better for everyone around them, and their friends, who are also good people, and of my better students, or my fellow scientists, I feel good about the future. The feeling doesn’t last very long, however, since such people are not abundant. But since the future will not be improved by my worrying about it, I prefer to focus my attention on the good people whom I know.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Not a Scientist

According to Dave Levitan, author of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, it was Ronald Reagan who first used the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but...” and then proceed to make outrageously false statements that were easily disproved by scientific evidence. The plague of false statements has proliferated until now politicians, almost all of them Republicans, seem to feel obligated to tell lies and pretend that they are being scientific in doing so.

Politicians, like most other people, can be forgiven for not understanding science. It can sometimes be very complex. But what any reasonable non-scientist would do is to trust scientists to understand science. It is reasonable for politicians and others to demand to see some evidence, and I think scientists are obligated to provide evidence. I present evidence to my students and readers all the time. But once this is done, the non-scientists should at least acknowledge that the evidence has been presented. It would really, really, really bother me if I made a statement outside my field of expertise, only to discover that 99.9 percent of the experts disagreed with it. But this never seems to bother Republicans.

Levitan goes through lots of examples of Republican politicians lying and trying to cover it up with the appearance of scientific fact. He classifies the examples into a small set of patterns. I mention just six of them.

One of these patterns is cherry-picking. In global warming, a Republican can pick the warmest year in the 1980s and the coldest year in the 2000s and point out that the temperatures are not very different—deliberately ignoring the fact that all the other 1980s temperatures were cooler and all the other 2000s temperatures were warmer. It’s like finding a seven-foot-tall giantess and a four-foot tall male dwarf and saying that women are three feet taller than men.

Another pattern is to ignore the follow-up. For a while, the so-called Climategate scandal circulated around the conservative pseudo-media. When the news first came out, there was the possibility it might have been true. Subsequent investigations have shown, however, that there was no scandal at all. But Republicans still talk about it as if it is true.

Yet another pattern is to praise scientists and then, behind their backs, undermine them. Many Republican representatives have praised NASA then said that NASA’s climate data are false.

Yet another pattern is for the politicians to claim that if we do not know everything about a subject, then we know nothing about it. Republicans demand absolute certainty about every aspect of climate science—every ocean current, every glacier, every local slight variation of temperature—or else we can say nothing at all about climate science. This is, of course, hypocritical, because these same Republicans make statements about things regarding which uncertainty remains, in fact, they make stuff up without any evidence at all.

Yet another pattern is for Republicans to make fun of anything they do not understand. Following the lead of Sarah Palin, they love to make fun of biologists who study fruit flies. What Republicans deliberately ignore is that fruit flies have many of the same genes, and mutations in those genes, that we do. Biologists can study the effects of those mutations in fruit flies, which have two-week life cycles and regarding which there are no ethical concerns. There is an autism-related mutation in fruit flies. Fruit flies don’t get autism, but we can experimentally study the gene in them, which we could not do in humans.

The last category that Levitan considers is the straight falsehood, in which a politician just makes something up. His first example is Todd Akin saying that a woman’s body can spontaneously abort a fetus that resulted from rape, and that therefore abortion laws should not contain any exceptions for rape—since rape pregnancies simply do not occur. But I think Levitan missed something here. Todd Akin must have heard, somewhere in a biology class in which he was half asleep, about what biologists call the Bruce Effect. Some mammals, such as mice and monkeys, are, in fact, able to abort unwanted fetuses. In geladas, for example, when a female is taken over by a new dominant male, her body aborts fetuses that were fathered by a previous dominant male. This must have been what Akin was thinking about, only it does not happen in humans.

Of course, there are examples of Republicans just making stuff up. Mike Huckabee (who fancies himself a highly ethical Preacher of the Gospel) said that a single volcano can produce as much carbon dioxide as a hundred years of human activity. In actuality, the biggest recent volcano, Pinatubo, released 0.05 gigatons of carbon; but human activity releases 10 gigatons per year, that is, 1000 in a century. Huckabee’s numbers were off by a factor of twenty thousand. But, if you are a preacher, who’s counting?

Understandably, in the infinitely tortured world of Republican political thought, there are examples that may not fit into any of Levitan’s categories. One example that he did not (as I recall) mention comes from Michele Bachman (whom he did mention in a different connection.) She said, in 2006, that we should not worry about global warming, or any other environmental issue, because Jesus has already saved the world. You will notice that Bachman did not say, “Don’t worry about terrorism; Jesus already saved the world,” or, “Don’t worry about the economy, Jesus already saved the world.” She used—deliberately—a line of reasoning that she would not use in other contexts.

The only problem I have with Levitan’s book is that it is too timid. The Republican politicians he cites are not merely making mistakes, or bending the truth, or even merely lying. You can pretty much summarize the entire Republican position as, “I’m not a scientist, but I don’t need to be, because God has made my brain infallible and utterly incapable of error, so I can just make stuff up and God is obligated to make it true.” Republican politicians do not merely mangle science. They are blasphemers who consider the possibility that they may be wrong to be as unthinkable as God Himself being wrong. Of course, if Levitan had said this, the publisher would have rejected it. (Maybe Levitan tried and had to back down.)

Republicans have guns and consider themselves to be incapable of error even after thinking about something for only a few seconds. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why I Will Not Talk with a Climate Change Denialist

That is, if I can reasonably avoid it.

I live and work in Oklahoma, the hotbed of creationism and climate change denialism. I feel like I am a missionary in a hostile tribe just because I accept scientific evidence. I am, for the most part, personally reclusive about my knowledge of evolution and climate change. I, of course, am quite clear about them when I teach and write, but I seldom engage in discussion about them with people who disagree. The only neighbors who know my views are those who have first declared their similar views to me.

I tell everybody I can about botany, the science of plants. But the reason I seldom speak in person about the sciences of evolution and global warming is that I will almost certainly experience personal attack if I do. Today, I joined in with other activists at an information table outside a farmer’s market to tell people about global warming. This is something I have not done before and probably will not do again. Most of the people who went by were supportive, to varying degrees. This is something you might expect from the visitors to a farmer’s market. But there was one climate change denialist who decided to subject me to a barrage of lies and tried to make me feel like I was a force of darkness and repression.

Okay, I started it. A man and his wife and baby were leaving the farmer’s market. Our information table was not within the market itself, but in the lawn of a nearby church that had specifically invited us to be there. I spoke first. I said, “Thank you for coming to the Farmer’s Market. By doing so, you have helped to reduce your carbon emissions, because you have bought local produce that has not been trucked across the country for thousands of miles.” I thought this was a positive thing to say.

But this was when the man decided to launch his attack. He said that there has been no global warming for the last ten years. I told him that my own research has clearly demonstrated global warming over the last twelve years. (I will present some of my data in another essay.) He simply said that I was lying and had made all of my data up.

But he did not stop there. He said that the government must have paid me thousands of dollars to do my research, and that I was being paid to say that global warming was occurring. I told him that I had done my research entirely for free. I would have told him that I gathered my data about budburst dates in deciduous trees by simply writing them down almost every day for two months each of twelve years, something that required no money. But I didn’t have a chance to do this. He just called me a liar again.

Next he said that Barack Obama was an evil man, a liar, and a hypocrite because of all the fuel that he burned in Air Force One to go to Paris to sign the climate agreement. Of course, when Trump uses a lot of jet fuel to fly to his personal vacation resorts at taxpayer expense, it is just fine. According to an AP report by Chad Day, published last month, “Flying Trump to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One twice cost at least $1.2 million.” The report continues, “...documents made public Thursday by Judicial Watch are some of the first to put even part of a price tag on Trump’s frequent visits to his Palm Beach, Florida, club. The numbers reflect only the costs associated with the president’s plane, Air Force One. Not included are expenses for Secret Service protection or support vehicles provided by the Department of Defense, which must be airlifted into place.” This is just fine, according to Oklahoma Republicans, but Obama flying to Paris to sign the climate agreement was evil.

Why did the man criticize Obama flying in Air Force one? The key was that the man called Obama a hypocrite. You see, the reasoning seems to go like this. Democrats say that burning unnecessary jet fuel is bad for the climate. Republicans, however, say that they can burn all the jet fuel they want for any reason whatsoever. Therefore, if a Democrat ever burns any jet fuel at all, it is hypocrisy. For Republicans, however, it is not, since they say it is not a problem. This is like a thief saying that it is okay for him to steal money, but not okay for a person who disapproves of theft to do so.

So the only time a denialist will so much as listen to someone who disagrees with him or her is if that person lives in a hovel and is not responsible for any carbon emissions. Well, I don’t quite live in a hovel, but I am very frugal in my energy use. I didn’t get a chance to tell him this, but if I had, I imagine he would have called me a liar, just as he did regarding my research.

The man also claimed that, unless every other country in the world becomes perfect, the United States should not try to do anything at all. We will be, if he and Trump have their way, be the very last country in the world to reduce our carbon emissions. So much for America being a leader.

The man’s final attack was to say that environmentalists wanted to keep Africans poor and diseased and miserable because we want them to not have any electricity, any at all. This is, of course, not true, but I didn’t have a chance to say this. Another person who was with me started to say it, but the man refused to listen to it. We tried to tell him that locally-generated solar and wind energy makes electricity more accessible to rural African villages than would building billion-dollar power-plants, precisely because it would save the expense of thousands of miles of transmission lines from point of production to point of use.

I did get a last few words in to the wife with the kid. She told me she came to the market for safe food. I said that, even though we disagree, she was part of the solution to the climate problem. What she was doing was good for more reasons than she had known. I think she might have been inclined to agree with me on that one point—I sensed a distinct lessening of tension—but I think she did not want her husband to see her agreeing with me about anything.

There are some evolution and climate change denialists who are reasonable people, not necessarily in their approach to the information but at least in their approach to me. There are denialists who will not call me an evil liar. But they are rare enough that I think I will just stay away from any personal discussions on these subjects.

I think it is about time for this old missionary to retire. At some point, it is time to move to some place in which one is not constantly in fear of personal attack. France looks like a pretty good place, especially since the new prime minister has specifically invited climate scientists such as myself to move there. As explained above, if you accept science in Oklahoma you are subjected to the same kind of verbal attacks as black people were throughout the South in the pre-civil-rights era. If I had been black in the 1950’s and France had invited me to come, I would have taken the invitation very seriously.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Did Lucretius Foresee Natural Selection?

Historians of science often point out bits and pieces of philosophy from the ancient world that were possibly ancestral to modern science. It is not hard to find ancient philosophers who believed in an ancient world that has changed over time, which is a rudimentary form of evolution. But perhaps Darwin’s main contribution to science, and one that took a lot of his fellow scholars by surprise, was natural selection. As Daniel Dennett has pointed out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, natural selection brings the world of chance and the world of order together into perhaps the most powerful idea that has emerged in the history of human thought. For those of you who do not know what natural selection is, it occurs when replicators (such as organisms or ideas) have heritable diversity, and then some of them replicate more than others.

I ran across one possible precursor of the idea of natural selection in De Rerum Natura by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. His view of the universe most closely resembled that of the atomists, although he did not use this term. He believed that these atoms, or elements, or particles came together to form everything that we see in the world. But there was no divine hand assembling them together into the right or the best forms. Instead, they came together at random. Some of these random assemblages worked better than others. This would, in fact, be an ancient statement of natural selection. Lucretius did not say it quite this clearly, but…see what you think. Lines 1025-1031 of Book One of De Rerum Natura reads, referring to atoms, “…but in numbers vast, shifting now here, now there, throughout the whole, harried by blows relentless down the course of endless time, trying now this now that of motion and of union, they at last come into patterns such as those whereby this world of ours is built…” In Book Two, Lucretius says that because atoms came together to form great things in our world, they might also have done so in other worlds, and done so differently. Whether this is just a Star Trek view or a multiverse view, I cannot say, but it is an example of a rudimentary form of this idea almost two thousand years before Darwin made it explicit.

I am nearly certain that Lucretius’ ideas had little influence on the development of science. His manuscript was almost literally an example of the cliché of the last copy being saved from the kindling pile. But the strength of the idea may be illustrated by the fact that it occurred independently in more than one great mind.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Alas, Hugh Macmillan

When I took up my first, temporary, full-time faculty position (at The King’s College in 1987), I discovered some fascinating books in the library. They were exactly what I wanted to read at the time. I was (and am) a botanist, and I was also an enthusiastic evangelical Christian. (My religious views are now less specific.) They were the writings of a Scottish minister of the Free Kirk (Presbyterian) of Scotland, who was also trained as a botanist. Hugh Macmillan (1833-1903; he lived the perfect Biblical lifespan of three-score and ten)  wrote numerous books in which he saw the signature of the Creator in every aspect of the cosmos, especially in the botanical world. To him, a forest was not just a forest but a cathedral of God, and an alpine meadow (the subject of his first book, First Forms of Vegetation (first edition 1861)) was not just little plants but living creatures who defied the harshness of their environment to create green beauty. It was not just his love of God and of plants that attracted me to read book after book of his, but his passion for seeing blessings arise out of adversity, a subject on which I wrote two articles for the American Scientific Affiliation (1987 and 1989. I have seldom read books with such pleasure as I experienced from reading Hugh Macmillan. I wanted to write a biography of him, something that has apparently still not been done; I even got a grant from The King’s College Alumni Association to partially cover the costs of travel to Edinburgh to look for his biographical information (a grant that I ended up not using).

His books, which were widely published and translated into several languages, included:

  • The Ministry of Nature
  • The True Vine, or, The Analogies of Our Lord’s Allegory
  • Sabbath of the Fields
  • Two Worlds are Ours
  • The Clock of Nature
  • The Spring of the Day
  • Gleanings in Holy Fields
  • The Poetry of Plants

There is much to like in Macmillan’s approach to the natural world. He wrote a whole book about The Sabbath of the Fields, which is an ecological commandment in Exodus, inseparable from the much-vaunted Ten Commandments, to let agricultural fields rest and recover their fertility every seven years; a commandment totally ignored by today’s Bible-waving fundamentalists. Two Worlds are Ours referred to the Bible and to Nature, from both of which humans can gain inspiration. In The Clock of Nature, Macmillan noticed the seasonal patterns of organisms, a science now called phenology, which is one of my areas of expertise; and of which Rev. Gilbert White had written in the late eighteenth century in The Natural History of Selbourne, which was one of Darwin’s favorite books. Perhaps most importantly, Macmillan for the most part steered clear of the evolution controversies that attended the publication of Darwin’s works. He was also so observant and thoughtful, very much like Darwin, and very different from the broad sweeping generalizations of Herbert Spencer. Of course, Macmillan fell into a few traps, which is nearly inevitable since scientists must use the best information available, even if this information turns out to be false. Macmillan quoted Job 38:31 in the Bible, in which God challenged Job, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?” To Macmillan, this meant that the Pleiades were the center of the universe which, he pointed out, astronomical observations had confirmed. Oops.

But the major flaw in Macmillan’s approach was that he forced Christian beliefs upon the natural world. Unlike the prevarications of modern creationists, Macmillan’s statements were not demonstrably false, except the Pleiades statement and maybe a few others. But he imposed all of them, rather than letting the natural world inform him. I was doing the same thing at the time I read his books, of course. Macmillan was happy, and so was I, in our shared and (unlike those of modern fundamentalists) harmless delusions. It is therefore with sadness that I must say that the entire opus of Macmillan’s natural history writings was wrong. Gloriously, beautifully wrong.

But that does not mean his life was wasted. As a leader in the Free Kirk, he did a lot of good things and spiritually nourished a lot of people. Though diluted by the passing of over a century since his death in 1903, Macmillan’s influence might yet be felt in people whose lives he made better.