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.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Three.

And the little son of a birch looked up and said, Daddy, tell me an understory.

Why do we love stories? I here suggest that our brains evolved that way, at least since our evolutionary lineage, Homo sapiens, became distinct from the other ape lineages.

The natural world can be a brutal, frightening place. It is full of predators, poisonous critters, diseases, droughts, storms. And, most of all, other human tribes who want to claim our hunting grounds as their own. Humans have fought over hunting grounds since prehistory, and as late as 1755, when the Cherokees fought the Creeks over the hunting ground at Taliwa, now part of Georgia. My sixth great grandmother Nanyehi was the Cherokee war hero in that battle.

To fight a battle, a tribe needs a military leader. Often, tribes have distinct war and peace leaders; traditional Cherokees had a war chief and a peace chief simultaneously. If the military leader brings about a victory, he brings the news back to the tribe and relates it in a narrative format, in which he is the hero, supported by his loyal followers, and in which victory was not due to luck but to the prowess and skill of the warriors, especially him, and to the blessings of their gods. And he (or she) might bring back physical plunder to share altruistically. This is the most visceral form of narrative.

In the ensuing time of peace, guess who gets the most resources and the most reproductive opportunities? Why, the military leader (war chief) and his top aides. That is, the leader who not only won the battle but could tell a story. All in the tribe who bought into the story stood a better chance of getting resources and reproductive opportunities. The genes for brains that not only were capable of, but craved, the narrative form spread in the population. Making sense of the world, especially in the form of religious narrative, might have been one of the major selective forces that resulted in the particular form of human intelligence that we have.

And the myth must be about an individual, not a collective. Even when the Soviets tried to champion stories about heroic collectives of peasants against the bourgeoisie, they had to create individual heroes; and Stalin was only too happy to assume the role of hero himself.

As I will explain in my forthcoming book tentatively titled Scientifically Thinking, due out in 2018 from Prometheus Books, the human brain did not evolve to reason, but to rationalize; not to see truth but to create it, so as to manipulate other people. Natural selection favored brains that were delusional. Not too delusional, but sometimes pretty close to it, as when religion causes some people to follow a leader to senseless deaths. We cannot jeer at the Jonestown cult, because their brains were not too different from ours. We evolved from the tribes that followed their leaders to the deaths of many in the tribe, but from which enough survived to enjoy the spoils of war and to reap the fitness benefits from it. This may have worked well enough in the past, but today our population and technology has grown so much that this kind of thinking threatens our survival. Having an ape brain couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The scientific method can unleash our minds. But you can see the kind of uphill battle we face.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, Part Two.

As I said in the preceding entry, scientists need to tell visceral, compelling stories if we are to have any chance that the public will notice the Truth that we Reveal. We have yottabytes of information about global warming, but Senator Jim Inhofe can simply say that God told him there is no global warming, and that settles it. (He vaguely refers to the Bible for support, but misquotes it.) We scientists are the Revealers of Truth, at least as much as any group of humans can be. We need to get our story out. This is part of the message I get from Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have a Narrative, which I introduced previously.

But how can we get a compelling, visceral story out of global warming?

The best stories have a single protagonist and often a single antagonist, good vs. evil. It is not as successful if you have a whole population of protagonists or antagonists. Stalin said that the suffering of an individual is a tragedy, while the suffering of a multitude is a statistic. He knew a thing or two about causing such statistics. I remember a church play when I was a teenager in which two girls were chattering away while a boy was agonizing over the suffering of the world. When he said, “My grandmother died,” the girls immediately stopped chattering and came over to comfort him. Then when he said, “Not really, but a million other grandmothers died,” the girls went right back to their chattering.

The protagonist need not be perfectly good or the antagonist perfectly evil, but they need to be there. But with global warming, the protagonists are the thousands of scientists and environmentalists who are trying to lead the world toward an atmospheric carbon balance that will avoid catastrophe. And the antagonists are everybody, including many scientists, who simply consume too much energy, directly or indirectly, by driving vehicles that are bigger than they need to be, using the air conditioning more than we need to, etc. Corporations are also antagonists, but they are responding to our demand. Oil companies could not make money if we decided we don’t want to burn as much oil.

But maybe here we have the kernel of a good story here. Let’s start building a plot. The antagonists are two gray-haired men who just happen, by merest chance, to resemble the Koch Brothers, mega-giants of the oil industry. And in their bored-room, they are depressed, because they have seen all the economic analyses that show that demand for oil is decreasing even while most economic growth and jobs are in wind and solar. Renewable energy is good for the economy, but not for them. Oh, wait, this is getting good. Into the bored-room comes the daughter-in-law of one of the men. She cries as she sees the charts on the smart-boreds. (I can do even better. Got it!) She is holding their little granddaughter. She says, Daddy, you promised me that oil was the key to a golden future for our family, but all around me I see climate disasters, and I just know that my daughter, your grand-daughter, is going to grow up in a cataclysmic world of climate disruption. Oh, Daddy, how could you do this to me? To her? Then, of course, you need the morally-conflicted son who finally decides to leave his high-paying oil job and join Earth First! and sabotage bulldozers. And then...

You get the point. You can see why this kind of fiction might never get published and would never become a movie, since there is so much money and political power (are there any politicians who are not wholly dependent on industry money?) against it. Now, meanwhile, there is a protagonist. A climate scientist who just happens to look like Michael Mann is driving out in the countryside at night, headed into New York City where he is going to fly, at the last minute, to France, where he will be warmly embraced by President Emmanuel Macron, who has invited American climate scientists to move to France (this part is real). He has just said goodbye to his father, who happens to look like James Hanson. But, in a scene that I am shamelessly stealing from the movie Silkwood, somebody forces his car over to the side of the road...

At the last minute, it is the son of the oil magnate who rescues the climate scientist...

This would be a dangerous narrative to promote. Corporations would not like it one bit, and when they don’t like something, watch out. We are, therefore, left with the complex, less visceral narrative, not just because of oil industry money, but because the oil giants are not the only antagonists.

The climate denialists could come up with something similar. A novelist and screenwriter could come up with an evil, secret organization of environmentalists who want to kill the one, heroic climate scientist who knows the truth that global warming is a hoax. The evil environmentalists drive around in blue Priuses looking for their victims. The Antarctic ice isn’t really melting; it is the evil, evil scientists who cause the glaciers to fall apart by blowing them up with bombs. And the evil, evil scientists also issue false weather reports so that families with smiling, playing kids will have picnics in river valleys all unaware that a gigantic rain event is going to flood them to their deaths, over which the scientists will drool in glee. Of course, this kind of book is so stupid that it couldn’t get published.

Wait. The above paragraph is pretty much a summary of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear. Millions have read it and think it is pretty much a true picture, with the names changed to protect the guilty. But while oil corporations could sue the ass off of anyone who would write the first novel idea I proposed above, even with the names changed, who has ever sued Michael Crichton for his novel? At least, a Google search turned up nothing. And he’s dead now.

The narrative that the oil companies are spreading is:

  • The oil companies aren’t in it for the money. Oil executives make thousands of times more money than any climate scientist, but this does not, of course, color their perception. They are totally free of the love of money.
  • The oil companies want to make the future more secure for you, your children, and your grandchildren. They could not possibly be sacrificing your future for short-term gain.
  • The oil companies are the only ones who can save us.

With this kind of narrative, you can see why scientists like Michael Mann get death threats. People who buy into the oil company narrative see climate scientists as, practically, killers.

You can see the problem. Climate science explains things, while denialists simply accuse everyone else of being evil. The denialists have the thriller-story.

This is the same problem that almost any scientific topic has. Take diabetes. (You can have it. I have it, not too badly yet.) How can you tell a story that has a single protagonist and single antagonist? You cannot start a story with someone suffering multiple amputations or something; that would be too depressing. It would be better to start with someone who has just experienced his first, and frightening, diabetes-related event. He’s driving along in the country, and he happens to look like me, and drive a car like mine (a bright green Prius), and he suddenly starts going blind and has to pull over and park. It isn’t really blindness; it is an ocular migraine, in which a small gray circle like a solar afterglow spreads across the whole field of vision, breaking the visual information apart into twinkles and scrambling it. In fifteen minutes it is all over, the man’s vision has returned, but he realizes he should have taken the earlier warning signs more seriously. This is scary without being depressing.

But the antagonist? What would it be, a pancreas? Or would it be...ah, I’ve got it. The antagonist could be a pharmaceutical corporation that wants to charge one hundred billion zimbabwean dollars per pill for something you have to take twice a day. The protagonist is a botanist who studies a rare species of tree that has a phytochemical that can control diabetes, but the pharmaceutical companies know about it and are hunting him down to get him from threatening their multibillion dollar glucophage and insulin industry. Now, I wonder where that idea came from? Actually, I discovered a plant extract that kills bacteria, and a small pharmaceutical company was investigating it, but a big company bought them out and stopped the research. I imagine that it was because the chemical in my extract remains active even at high temperatures and after sitting on a desk and drying out for months, and would thus be very cheap to transport onto the battlefield and into the jungles... But, of course, I do not know any of this.

My point is that the only way to make major scientific topics such as global warming or diabetes into gripping narratives would be to do things like this to them. Or maybe some very creative person could come up with a middle road between boring and overdramatized that would work. We’re still waiting for that to happen, and it can’t happen soon enough.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Earth, We Have a Narrative, part one.

Humans have an instinctual love of the narrative arc. The narrative arc, in which a protagonist confronts problems (including his own problems) and eventually solves them, is as ancient as human language. People have always been telling stories ever since our brains were large enough to do so. Maybe Homo ergaster, whose Acheulean stone technology remained unchanged for a million years, had no imagination; but Homo sapiens certainly has had imagination for the last hundred thousand years or so. We cannot not tell stories about everything all the time. That’s the way our brains work. We know this because the earliest writings, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and all the stories in the Bible, already had the narrative arc form, implying that the form existed prehistorically. In a later essay, I plan to speculate on how and why the narrative arc (or the Joseph Campbell hero story) evolved in human brains, and I mean evolved.

Scientific research, also, consists of a narrative arc. This is why the stories about the Earth, which scientists investigate and communicate, should be so gripping and fascinating to the human imagination. But science has particular problems. First, many scientists are so focused on the details of their work that they simply provide a list of facts, which may be interesting to them but which may be meaningless to almost everyone else. Second, much of what we scientists study is complicated and depends on knowledge that a lot of people do not have. Every bit of scientific research is already a story, but scientists can get through to everybody else more effectively if we embrace the narrative arc mindfully rather than stumbling into it imperfectly.

Protestations of impartiality aside, scientific journals, especially the major ones, tend to publish the research with the most interesting stories. I am completing a research project the conclusion of which is, “Insects eat post oak leaves, more in some years than others, and more on some trees than others, for reasons we do not understand.” Not enough of a story for a major journal; there is a place waiting for it in a minor one, however. Even within the major journals, people read and remember the good stories. Think of the most famous articles in the journal Science. The article about ants walking on stilts and stumps to find their way home; the one about hummingbirds preferring flowers that have been genetically altered; the one about how spiders can scare grasshoppers into shitting out less nitrogen simply by being there (with the spider mouthparts glued shut). Those are certainly the ones I remember. The ones about “this is the number of gigatons of carbon that are fixed by the world’s forests” etc. are valuable, even monumental; I read and cite them, but they are just not gripping stories—sorry, Chris Field. When I eventually publish my article about how warmer winters are causing some species of deciduous trees, but not others, to open their buds earlier in the spring, I think that will be a good story, although I cannot compete with the ant guy.

Science journalists and filmmakers have known this for a long time. In the famous PBS series about Evolution, the first episode, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” explained the evidence and process of evolution; but they did so alongside a re-enactment of how Darwin came to realize what was going on. It remains one of the best historical movies I have ever seen, as well as a great science film. Another episode, “Evolutionary Arms Race,” tells about the escalating coevolution between predators (or parasites) and prey. But they do this by showing the process of discovery used by Edmund Brodie Jr. and Edmund Brodie III to reveal why certain species of newt were thousands of times more toxic than would be necessary to kill almost any predator, showing them at work in the field and the lab. The episode also told the story of the man who discovered the delta-32 deletion in the CCR5 white blood cell protein, and FIV endogenous retroviruses in wild cats. There were also two very touching stories from Russia: one of a prisoner who had multi-drug resistant TB, and one of a nineteen-year-old woman, on leave from medical school, who had it also. “I’m only nineteen, I have to be hopeful,” she said. The writers of the episode had my students’ hearts in their hands with that one. The series aired in 2001. I keep hearing back from former students about these episodes that I used in class. Now that was some real science education.

To survive, scientists have to convince the general public that what we are doing is not only true but valuable. Often, we fail to do this. If the public tunes us out, we don’t have a chance. We need to have a clear, simple narrative in order to communicate with them. Of course, it’s not all our fault as scientists. We have an important and true story about global warming. It is not entirely our fault the public is not grasping it. It is also the millions of dollars that the oil companies are spending to create misinformation campaigns, at least in America. This appears to not be a problem in Europe. Maybe nearly all Europeans accept global warming because their scientists are better storytellers, but I suspect this is not the case. It is the oil and coal money. But, to do what we can, we scientists have to tell gripping, visceral stories, not merely interesting ones.

Humans also have a limited attention span. I know I do. And I have the visceral feeling that the introduction I just wrote is already long enough to be a blog entry by itself. Tune in next time to see me tackle the problem of the narrative of global warming.

Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Make a Professor Feel Stupid

I am preparing to teach my first online course. I am using the LearnSmart system from McGraw-Hill Publishing. It is for a science course with laboratories. I wanted to go through the lab activities myself so I could tell the students how to navigate the system, where to click, how to submit their answers, etc. But I found that I was unable to figure the system out myself, nor were the technical support representatives with whom I have been on the phone for two hours.

Warning: If you are not an educator, you will find this very boring. Please check back later for a more interesting blog entry.

About three hours ago, I started going through the first laboratory, “metric measurement.” I clicked on module 1, “length.” There were three other modules. In module 1, I had to use the mouse to drag a ruler across some circles and measure their diameters in centimeters. Perfectly easy. I had to put the answers, one by one, in a notebook, minimizing the notebook each time. When I was finished, I had to decide whether to click on “more” or “back to simulator.” I clicked on “back to simulator,” and the program sent me back to the beginning, so I had to measure new circles all over again. This time I clicked “more” then “finish,” and the computer lavished heaps of praise on me for being able to measure things with a ruler. I did the same thing with the measurement of a humerus bone, which was harder because you have to get the perspective correct. This is easy in the real world but difficult on a computer. But finally I got this right. I had to start over a couple of times, which means I measured those circles three times and the humerus twice. I also answered all the questions about “how many centimeters in a meter” etc.

I got a 100% on all the components of module 1. Whoopee! I am now at the level that I was in 1972. I am ready to go on to module 2, “weight.” But I cannot. The screen only told me how smart I was in module 1, but not how to get to module 2. I called customer support for the fourth time and asked. In order to help me, the representative had to try to do the entire lab himself. So he had to measure the circles and the humerus and answer questions about the metric system. I had to wait a half hour while he was doing this. The representative wanted me to allow him access to my computer through a Cisco Webex Remote Support Session to do this.

Since I had a half hour wait on the phone, I decided to write this essay, and I inserted a flash drive. All of a sudden the computer was unresponsive to anything else except Cisco. The computer acknowledged the flash drive I inserted, but said it had no files. The same was true of all other flash drives and ports. When I told the representative what had happened, he had to shut the whole session down and work on it by himself and just tell me how to finish the lab. Afterward I had to call the university computer support to remove the Cisco software that had disabled my computer. The Cisco software itself had no “uninstall” feature.

It turns out that to continue the lab, you have to click on a dull gray “overview” icon, and then make sure that you do not move your mouse more than a half inch to the right as you scroll down. Of course, there are no instructions telling you that this is the way to do it. All you can do is to call the help line, and it will take them an hour to figure it out. That is, a half hour of the representative working on it alone after a half hour of working on it with me.

Once I finally started module two, the instructions were to get a spoonful of salt and measure its weight in a beaker on a balance. Sounds simple? But the instructions do not tell you that you have to drag the spoon to the salt container, then click on it to fill it with salt, then drag it to the beaker. If you add the salt without having written the beaker weight down first, you cannot remove the salt, you just have to start over. And when you measure volumes (Module 3), you have to use the precision that the computer expects, or else you are wrong and have to start over.

This session was just an exercise in when and how to click and drag, rather than to learn metric measurements or how to make and interpret them. There are no instructions, therefore your grade reflects only how well you can guess the way the software works. How do you get salt from the container to the beaker? The instructions just say to transfer salt from the container to the beaker, not how.

I can imagine the frustration of a student paying almost $300 for a textbook with online labs, and then being unable to complete the labs because the publisher provides no instructions. I cannot help them, because the publisher does not give me any more information than it gives the students. All I can do is to tell the students to call the help line, and tell them that if they try to do the lab and it doesn’t work right, I will give them full credit anyway. Which means some of them can just claim that it didn’t work and get full credit. Which means no actual education took place.

I have been teaching for thirty years and suddenly I feel very, very stupid. But at least I am no more stupid than the company representatives. The only people who benefit from online courses are the CEOs of the publishing companies.

But guess who the students will be upset with when something doesn’t work. The CEO will never even hear their complaints—but only rake in their money.

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.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Dinosaur Trackways on the Blank Slate of the Mind

The last couple of days, I have had the privilege of working, again, with Glen Kuban down in the bed of the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas (Dinosaur Valley State Park). Usually we work alone, or with a couple of other people, but this time there was a little crowd. A BBC film crew brought their cameras and even a photographic drone to get video footage of the dinosaur trackways, which I have written about numerous times previously in this blog, for example here). They also came to interview Glen, who has worked on these tracks (and knows each footprint by name) for 37 years, and he will not get some worldwide recognition for the work he has done. Congratulations, Glen! You deserve it.

Watch for the BBC video when it comes out. It will be called Rediscovering T Rex. The trackways in the park are not T. rex, but there are very few verified footprints of T. rex. But in the Paluxy river bed you can see long trackways of Acrocanthosaurus, which was similar to T. rex in many ways. The BBC does not yet have an American distributor for this video, so far only Canada and France, but I’ll bet that within a year or so you can find the video on Amazon or your local library.

I have posted a YouTube video of Glen and the film crew, if you want to experience what it was like to be there.

We were at the trackway site that was made infamous in the 1970s-era creationist movie Footprints in Stone, where creationists claimed that human footprints overlapped dinosaur footprints, thus proving, they claimed, that the entire evolutionary timetable of Earth history was wrong. The evidence of human footprints in 110-million-year-old mud (now limestone) was skimpy and some of it faked. Most creationists, even those who have not publicly disavowed the “manprints of the Paluxy,” pretty much ignore them. The son of the producer of the creationist movie, when he discovered that his father had misled his viewers about these footprints, destroyed all remaining copies of the movie. There was no discussion of this uniquely American controversy with the BBC crew, even though they knew about it, because it is such a dead issue even among creationists; certainly European viewers would wonder why anyone took so much as two breaths to talk about the supposed man-prints.

But there are still passionate creationists, mostly in the Glen Rose vicinity, who believe that the supposed man-tracks are real and that they prove that not only are all evolutionary scientists wrong, but even most creationists. They are a crazy little cult. They still have a museum right near the state park, although it appears to be on the skids and is now only open two days a week. I have posted essays in this blog about the Mantrack cult in the past (for example here). The state park personnel who were with Glen, me, and the BBC crew told me that this little cult has so effectively spread the hoax that lots of visitors still ask them how to find the man-tracks. It gets pretty intense sometimes, and rather than to create a confrontation, the park personnel sometimes have to simply walk away or busy themselves with some other park visitor.

We sort of expected that some members of this cult would come and try to disrupt the BBC filming. This did not happen, however, perhaps because there were a half dozen park employees on the scene. This track site is hard to find but the cult members, some of whom own adjacent land, can get there. They act as if they also own the river bed, and have in the past tried to keep Glen from studying the tracks. Actually, the river bed belongs to the state of Texas.

But one of the cult members came by, claiming that he was taking photographs for the City of Glen Rose. I very much doubt that the city government actually sent him, however. They might have posted some of his photos in the past, but he was acting in no official capacity. Of course, this man, whose name I forgot, and just as well, started going through his little speech about how belief in the man-tracks took less faith than belief in what he called “strict evolution.” Glen had told me beforehand almost verbatim what this little speech would be. It is as if the cult members are programmed to give their little speeches, and they will not respond to anything you say. They act as if they are brainwashed.

But that was not actually the precipitating event. The man started by saying that a cold front was coming through this weekend, and that it would only be about 92 degrees instead of the normal 97 degrees. This, he claimed, disproved the entire science of global warming. As I am one of the climate scientists that Donald Trump hates and Emmanuel Macron loves, I had to point out that this was an invalid conclusion. Global warming does not mean that temperatures never decrease; it means that they increase more, and more often, than they decrease. Well, this was all the cue he needed to self-identify as a right-wing extremist (or words to that effect; I did not yet so label him) and launch into his speech.

This man went on to comment on the fact that paleontologists have stopped using the genus name Paluxysaurus and started using Sauroposeidon instead. This shows, said the man, that scientists are wrong about this and, why not, everything else also. But changing names of organisms reflects the ongoing process of coming to better understand the evolutionary history of the organisms. And, of course, science advances because scientists make mistakes and then learn from them, something that religious cults almost by definition cannot do. Cults believe themselves to be directly inspired by God, and to admit one mistake totally undermines their reason for being.

I wish to make two points from this. First, the religious fundamentalists are now attacking all of science and education on two fronts. Formerly, they focused all their attention on evolution. Now, they also consider climate scientists to be servants of Satan. This is why scientific and educational organizations, all the way from national and international organizations such as the AAAS and NCSE to local ones such as the Oklahoma Academy ofScience and Oklahomans for Excellencein Science Education, of both of which organizations I am a past president, disseminate as much information about climate science as about evolutionary science.

The second point explains the title of this essay. The lumpy limestone of Dinosaur Valley State Park has proven to be one of the most creative blank slates upon which a religious cult can write its own version of the history of the universe. The dinosaur footprints are real enough. The supposed man-tracks are incomplete dinosaur footprints. On some of these prints, the dinosaur toes have eroded away. On others, the creationists have deliberately ignored the dinosaur toe prints. Early creationists film footage and notes show clearly that they knew the dinosaur toe marks were present. In a few infamous instances, creationists have even carved human toes on the dinosaur prints, or carved entire fake human footprints in the limestone. Rather than getting insights from the evidence in the limestone, they have used the limestone as a blank notebook on which to write their own version of reality, a version not even shared by most creationists.

It is unclear whether these cult members are dangerous. Of the hundreds of videos I have posted on my Darwin Youtube channel, the only ones on which rabidly angry comments have been posted were those in which I showed Glen Kuban at work in the Paluxy riverbed. A couple of times I have wondered whether to report these creationists to the FBI, but their comments were just short of personal threat. Of course, there were atheist comments also, which insulted the creationists. The creationist comments did not threaten the atheist commentators, Glen, or myself with any violence; they merely hoped that God would rain down fire and brimstone from the sky to destroy us and our children, that’s all. The blank pages of limestone on which this cult writes its version of reality includes at least the hope that everyone who disagrees with them will be destroyed.