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.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Introducing a New Philosophy: Real Ecology

As of this week, it is official. Trump has declared that we will part ways with the rest of the world and produce as much carbon dioxide as we possibly can. Far from just permitting coal and oil, he is encouraging it, even demanding it. The United States is going to pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as possible and happily watch the environmental consequences wreak havoc on the Earth. Trump is delusional and sees Himself as the Great Messiah presiding over the End Times, which he is trying to create as rapidly as possible, in this way as in many others. I think He will enjoy watching the rest of the world, as well as many Americans, suffer.

This seems to be the appropriate time to announce a new philosophy. In 1972, Arne Naess started the Deep Ecology movement, which said that humans had no more rights than other species. He and others who followed him were careful to not seem anti-human. It is now clear that this movement did not go far enough.

Here follows the first draft of the Real Ecology view of the future.

I.                The human species

A.    Good and evil. Evolution produced a human species with amazing intellect but with a nature that consists of both love and hate, both altruism and a desire to massacre fellow humans, especially those of a different ethnicity. Human history has always consisted of both and always will. However, the hate and massacre component has always been predominant. In the past, notably evil people could cause only local destruction. Ivan the Terrible massacred an entire city (Novgorod) but was unable to massacre an entire people. Hitler massacred millions but only in Europe. Now evil people have the ability to cause worldwide destruction, because of our technology. They will, and the good people will be unable to stop them. There is utterly no hope for a peaceful human future.
B.    Environmental destruction. Humans, all over the world and throughout time, have caused environmental destruction, and always will. This destruction will continue until the ecosystems of the Earth become unsustainable, which will be followed by the collapse of civilization except in isolated places. Environmental destruction has almost always occurred as fast as it possibly could. In a few instances, as with the life of Wangari Maathai in Kenya, individual heroes and heroines have inspired widespread progress, but these examples are far too few to make any difference in the overall trend. The only thing that has slowed environmental destruction has been economic collapse. Humans have destroyed as much of the Earth as they could economically afford to.
C.    Religion. Humans are unique in having religion. The main process of religion is that leaders claim that God has given them permission, even commandments, to oppress and destroy all people whom they consider heretics, and to destroy as much of what they consider to be the Creation as they possibly can. The good side of human nature makes it difficult to actually kill a person; but because of religion, it is easy to kill a heretic. In fact, religion is the most potent force that creates a widespread sense of glee at inflicting suffering on entire heretic populations. The number of religious people who revere God’s creation and, out of respect for God, and for the good of other people, wish to maintain the ecosystems of the Earth will not only be outnumbered but wiped out by the dominant religious oppressors. Though not the only such religion, Christianity has been the most destructive religion in human history on a global scale. Religious leaders decide what they want to do, then claim that God wants them to do it; in effect, they are blasphemously using God, should one exist, as their tool. Nothing short of the extinction of this form of religion can change the inevitable outcome of misery and destruction.
D.    Science. Humans are unique in having science, but it has always been and will remain an insignificant component of human thought and action, except insofar as it contributes to the technology by which humans oppress and destroy one another and the Earth. Science has revealed the genetic unity of the human species; but, particularly when inspired by religion, humans have created as many barriers as possible, whereby they justify the destruction of other humans and the habitats on which they depend.

II.              The United States

A.    The United States is the most powerful country that has ever existed. Acts of good or evil committed by the United States have determined the course of world history starting in the second half of the twentieth century, and will continue to do so. The United States has the ability to destroy the human and natural world.
B.    The leaders of the United States, with the support of approximately half of its people, have made the decision to impose their will on the world, even if it means the destruction of that world. These leaders, particularly those who have sworn loyalty to Donald Trump, believe that they will remain safe and prosperous even in a world that they have shattered. There are a few Republican environmentalists, but they are irrelevant in their Party. The United States produces the most carbon emissions per capita, but will suffer fewer consequences of global climate change than most other countries. American leaders have decided that they will intensify this situation.
C.    Accordingly, the United States will prove to be the greatest force for evil in the history of the world and will lead the world into destruction.
D.    Other countries should not attack the United States, which has a military and a nuclear arsenal larger than those of the rest of the world combined, or attempt to change its chosen trajectory. This would be futile, especially as long as it remains under the leadership of a delusional man who does not recognize the constitutional limitations of presidency. The United States will destroy itself. With appropriate preparations, the rest of the world can contain the damage to a certain extent. The rest of the world should prepare to fill in the vacuum that will be left by the inevitable collapse of the United States.

III.            A green future

A.    Nature has always recovered profusely from human activity. It always has and it always will. Jungles grow over ruins. Wild plants and animals have even returned to the area damaged by the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl.
B.    The human species may or may not survive, but human civilization certainly will not.
C.    Therefore, there is nothing to worry about regarding the ultimate future of life on Earth.

IV.            How should we live?

A.    As individuals and as nations we must live responsibly on the planet, because this is the right thing to do. It is consistent with the good part of human nature, even though it is inconsistent with the evil part. Those of us who live in a way that shows love to our fellow humans and all other species do so because we believe it is the ultimate joy.
B.    But we do not need to worry. Nothing we can do will prevent greedy and religiously delusional people from nearly destroying the Earth. We recognize that no amount of enlightened ecological economy, no amount of love, can prevent world catastrophe. And no amount of destruction can prevent the ultimate recovery of the post-human Earth.

Though cynical, this manifesto is no more negative than the facts demand.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Darwin, A Good Man

Many fundamentalists depict Darwin as some kind of monster. But, as explained by French scientist Pierre Jouventin (in his book The Hidden Face of Darwin), this cannot be true, because Darwin was a good man. First I give the quote in French, then a partial translation.

“...loin de conseiller l’abandon ou l’élimination des plus faibles, il allait jusqu’à encenser une civilisation où l’on protège “les idiots, les estropiés et les malades”! Darwin ne se contentait pas de l’écrire, il pratiquait quotidiennement la charité chrétienne sans pour cela croire au paradis comme son épouse. Les témoignages et les biographes concordent pour reconnaître que c’était un homme de bien, bon fils, bon époux, bon père de famille, ami fidèle et tolérant (comme l’il a montré avec Wallace et Fitzroy pourtant opposés à ses idées sur l’évolution de l’homme), préférant ses enfants et ses recherches aux honneurs et à l’argent, aimant passionément la nature, les plantes et les animaux, un être extrémement sensible qui a abandonné ses études de médecine pour ne pas voir couler de sang, assister aux dissections et entendre crier les patients, ému par les misères et les souffrances du monde humain aussi bien qu’animal.”

“Far from counseling the abandonment or elimination of the weakest, he went as far as praising a civilization in which one protects “idiots, cripples, and sick people”! Darwin did not content himself with writing; he practiced daily the Christian charity without believing in paradise as did his wife. Researchers and biographers agree in discovering that he was a man of good, good son, good husband, good father of the family, faithful friend and tolerant (as he showed with Wallace and Fitzroy even while they opposed his ideas about human evolution), preferring his children and his research above honors and money, loving passionately nature, plants and animals, a being extremely sensitive who abandoned his studies of medicine so that he would not have to see blood flowing, or assist at dissections, or hear the cries of patients, touched by the misery and suffering of the human as of the animal world.”

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Simple Message, But One That Trump Cannot Understand

Here is a short entry. I just sent this message to the White House where I know it will never be read, or if it were read, would not be understood.

“I know that nobody ever reads these letters, so even if I had Russian state secrets to reveal in them, they would go unnoticed. Well, I have no Russian state secrets, but I can tell you something that is really going to help the Russians prevail over us. It is global warming, which you refuse to admit and refuse to do anything about. Global warming will enhance Russian agriculture. They will have longer growing seasons, and they will be able to grow wheat further north. Meanwhile, it will harm American agriculture. Global warming, to which America is the principal contributor, will boost Russian agriculture while harming ours. There are a few setbacks for the Russians—the heat wave and drought of 2011 caused Russia to suspend its wheat exports—but only temporary ones. So, thanks to global warming, America may soon be buying grain from Russia. Thanks a lot, Trump.”

Friday, May 19, 2017

How Religion "Advances"

Today it is relatively rare to find racist Christianity. Nowadays, fundamentalist megachurches proclaim that members of any race are equally invited to donate money to their coffers. But it wasn’t so long ago that many white fundamentalist Christian groups did not want to associate with members of other races.

It is even rarer to find Christians who insist that the Earth is the center of the universe. The only example of which I know is But it was not very far in the past that churches all insisted on geocentrism as a fundamental belief.

In these and in many other cases, the advances in belief—advances toward racial harmony and a scientific understanding of the universe—were the result of forces and processes that were not inherently religious. After slavery was abolished, people began to gradually realize that people of other races were fully human and deserved the same rights as one’s own race. Partly this was due to the utter failure of supremacists to find scientific verification for their beliefs, but mainly, I believe, because more and more people became acquainted with members of other races and discovered, usually pleasantly, that people they might once have disdained were actually nice, ordinary people. In many cases it was devout people who led the push toward racial harmony—and there is hardly a better example than Martin Luther King Jr.—but it was not religion itself that led these advances. None of the leaders, or followers, of racial integration re-read their Bibles and discovered, “Holy Moley! Right there is a verse that we’ve been overlooking for two thousand years.” The Bible did not change. There were, or so the fundamentalists claim, no new revelations from God. The advances in racial harmony, inside and outside of churches, came from accumulated experience which most religious groups have now acknowledged. Reason and experience led the way; religion followed.

It is clear that the conversion of religious people to heliocentrism occurred because science advanced, and religion followed.

Science, experience, and reason are the head of the animal of society; religion is the tail, sometimes wagging, sometimes dragging.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Flicker of Hope for the Future

On May 13, I joined with some volunteers from Up With Trees, a Tulsa organization that plants and maintains trees, mostly on public land in cooperation with the city government. This organization applied to Americorps, the federal entity that coordinates many different volunteer efforts. Americorps approved their application and sent about eight young Americans to help Up With Trees in city-wide tree maintenance activities for three weeks. On May 13, the young people (who received room and board, and a small stipend) helped Up With Trees prune and mulch the trees in a municipal park in the Greenwood district of North Tulsa. It was a perfect spring morning and I could not have been in a better place.

Nor could I have been with better people. These young people came from many places such as Montana, Iowa, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Jersey. Some had just graduated from high school, some from college. Two of the college graduates majored in political science and wanted to have some environmental influence on government policy. Politicians spend their time saying ridiculous things to get people to vote for them, but when work has to be done and done right, they (we hope) rely on their advisors, among whom these two young women may eventually number. One was a child psychology major, who had never heard that there was such a field of study as environmental psychology. A human habitat that includes trees makes people feel better and heal from injuries faster. Planting trees produces measurable social benefits. And then there was the young woman, just out of high school, who wanted to study both engineering and art, because she wanted to produce sculptures that produced energy, for example artistic wind turbines for municipal parks. It is on this kind of creativity that the only hope of our future rests.

Tree work is far from the only thing that the Americorps students are doing. They also help low to moderate income people prepare tax returns and provide activities for school children. Their next stop, after Tulsa, is Ferguson, Missouri, where they will help kids, many of them from families that feel that the dominant white culture is oppressing them. They need to learn positive responses, to help their communities, rather than to create an expensive and dangerous law enforcement problem.

I was glad to spend a relaxing morning with these students, to hear their stories, and to let them know that scholars such as myself take their aspirations seriously and appreciate their devotion to making the world better.

This is the American model of improving our shared public spaces: the federal government allocates money to young people to work for the public good before entering their careers. It is money well spent. The French model, based on my limited observations last summer, is a little different. There, the government uses a great deal of money to hire people to do all the work in shared public spaces. I watched a team of five government employees in Strasbourg cutting away weeds from cracks in sidewalks and streets. I think the American way is probably more cost effective. But there are politicians in America who think that any spending on the public good is a waste of money. These opponents of the shared public good are undermining the future of America. Americorps students are doing a lot of good for not much money. A degenerated park in North Tulsa, or disaffected youth in Ferguson, can be costly problems. If politicians would only look past the economics of campaign donations and see that supporting public service is an inexpensive way to accomplish essential goals.

The students in the Americorps group had many different goals in life, but just one purpose: to make America better.

Friday, May 12, 2017


I just posted a Darwin video about hagfishes. They are disgusting but also are beautiful examples of evolutionary adaptation. Let creationists work on that one.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Emmanuel Macron's video

In just the few moments since I posted my last essay, I encountered this video in which Macron specifically invited American climate scientists.

Go East, Young Man

Horace Greeley famously urged young Americans to go west. But my advice to young academics is to go east.

Unless personal ties totally prevent you from going there, China would probably be a wonderful place for young American scientists. In two recent issues of Science magazine (9 December and 16 December, 2016), China bought huge advertisements to tell you young American scientists how much they want you. They bought 72 pages of some of the most expensive advertising in the magazine world to invite you. This is in addition to the numerous smaller advertisements about which I reported earlier this year. Though they did not say so, it is clear that they are capitalizing on the hostility that American scientists are receiving from the Trump Administration.

France has made their call even clearer. At the head of the news section in the February 10, 2017 issue of Science, there is a quote from Emmanuel Macron, who is the new president of France. Macron issued a “solemn call” to American scientists. He said, “From next May, you will have a new homeland: France.”

The American federal government, and numerous state governments (such as Oklahoma, where I live), scientists are considered to be liabilities and even mildly dangerous. A law that its sponsors intended as a way of rescuing students from evil scientists narrowly missed passage in the Oklahoma House.

Personally, I just want to hold out until retirement. But for those of you younger scientists who have a little career flexibility, consider accepting an offer from a country that wants you.

Friday, April 28, 2017

An Open Letter to the NRA

To: Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association

Today, April 28, 2017, you made a statement at the National NRA meeting to the effect that “academic elites” were one of the three most dangerous threats to the safety of the United States of America. The others were political and media elites. I am an academic, and you must therefore consider me to be a direct threat to the United States. In particular, I am a scientist.

I realize that you did not actually say that your followers, unrestricted by firearms legislation, should actually start shooting us academics. But clearly some of your followers must have assumed that, at some unspecified time in the future, it might be necessary for them to take up their precious firearms against people like me. Since you verbalized no restrictions on your condemnation of academics, and offered no qualifying statements, I can only assume that you have given your followers permission to be ready to start shooting scientists and other academics at a time of their choosing and with their own judgment. If this is not what you meant, you should have clarified it! I realize that you and other NRA enthusiasts do not plan to violate laws by shooting us, but at some future time of social disruption, there appears to be nothing to stop you from doing this. Some of your followers may think that, if the government cannot protect us from those academics, then we might have to ourselves.

I realize that you envision a future in which those whom you consider to be the enemies of the United States will be swept away by those whom you consider to be patriots. And I assure you that I am planning, at some point in the future, to leave the United States so that you and your wild followers can exercise control over it as you see fit. With many of us academics leaving the country, there will be a massive brain drain, of which Europe, China, Japan, and many rapidly developing countries will be the beneficiaries. Right now China is buying expensive advertisements to invite us to move to China. You don’t want us; you have guns; we get it. I only ask that you give us a little time so that we can exit in an orderly fashion and in a manner that does not disrupt our lives too much. With viewpoints such as yours being so prominent, and having the complete support of the President, it is inevitable that there will be an exodus of academics; we just do not want to be refugees.

For reasons that are obvious, I am not signing my name to this letter.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

An Earth Day Science March in Tulsa

Around the country, scientists and citizens celebrated Earth Day by joining in a March for Science. There were hundreds of such events. In Oklahoma, one of the most anti-environmental state (especially on the government level, but also on the citizen level), there were two, and one of them was in Tulsa today.

It was exactly the kind of Earth Day that one of our senators, Jim Inhofe, one of the world’s most famous climate deniers, would have considered to be a sign from God. After months of record-breaking high temperatures in Oklahoma, including January temperatures in the 90s, the weather suddenly became chilly. Yesterday brought heavy rains and today it reached a high of 52. Inhofe would have said that God meant this as a message to us that Inhofe’s anti-global-warming message is divinely-inspired. Where is global warming now, he would ask. He would, however, look around in vain for a snowball to throw as he once did on the Senate floor the way he did a few years ago.

But despite the chill, hundreds of, maybe a thousand, people came out for the march at Fred Johnson Park, at 61st St. and Peoria Ave. First we all gathered in a large circle and held hands around Johnson Park. A drone photographed us from overhead. (It was not a government surveillance drone.) A musician sang This Land is Your Land, which as a biodiversity ecologist I always found puzzling: the land belongs to all the species, not just to humans. Some of the verses of this song are borderline socialism, and were sung originally by Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma native of whom this extreme right-wing state pretends to be proud. Then we crossed Riverside Dr. (legally) as passing vehicles honked in support (I think; at least some of them waved) and walked in a loop.

For me the best part (aside from seeing many old friends and making new ones) was the placards that people made for themselves. Such creativity! The independent thinking that went into them contrasts sharply with the mindless uniformity of Trump posters. The only element of uniformity was that many Planned Parenthood supporters carried the same posters. But here are some of the placards that I saw:

“Got plague? Yeah, me neither. Thank a scientist.”
“There is no Planet B.”
“Science already made America great.”
“You are the result of 3.8 billion years of evolutionary success. Act like it.”
“Patriots love science.”
There was even a dog with a cardboard poster that said Bark Bark Bark.

Here are some photos of placards.

Another important theme was that women should be encouraged to be science leaders. One young woman carried a placard with a quote from Rosalind Franklin. And another carried this poster:

Environmental protection is a big issue in Tulsa. Terry Young, who was Tulsa Mayor from 1984 to 1986, told the story of Helmerich Park, at the corner of Riverside Dr. and 71st Street, a place that my wife and I pass often on the walking trail. We always see a lot of people using the park, including a lot of volleyball players in the sand court. It is one of the places Tulsa can be proud of. But apparently, according to one speaker, the city council met one night and simply declared that the park was not being used and that it should be sold to a developer. The publicity for this sale claimed that the land would be used for an REI outdoor recreation store. As it turns out, the developer planned a mall—one of many new malls in Tulsa—including five acres of asphalt parking. Former Mayor Terry Young is involved in two lawsuits against this development. He decried the ascendancy of ignorance in our national thinking. And yet, ignorance can be a good thing. Scientists admit ignorance but then set out to make discoveries to counteract the ignorance. As Alan Alda, an actor turned science activist, said, “Ignorance is a wonderful thing with curiosity attached to it.” Young pointed out the problems with this decision included the following:

  • The rationale for the sale—that the park was not being used—was patently false.
  • The taxpayers, whose money bought the park in the first place, were not consulted about this sale. Even though the city is the owner and the city can do whatever it wants with its money and the taxpayers have no right to complain, the taxpayers feel tricked by this decision. The city can do whatever it wants but the citizens can also vote however they want. And the voters do not want a “we’ll do whatever the hell we want with city land” government.
  • Private donations were used to purchase the park land. The donations were for the park, not for the city’s general fund.

There have been successes. The Carrie Dickerson family led a campaign to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant at Inola, northeast of Tulsa. The reasons were not just the usual concerns about nuclear waste, but also about how the reactor would have required immense amounts of water, a resource of which Oklahoma periodically runs short. They won! But we cannot assume that successes will continue.

I want to thank the organizer, Nancy Moran, who must have worked tirelessly on almost nothing else except this event. And she is organizing another event, the Climate March, next week, also here in Tulsa. It feels good, really good, to know that there are so many of us, even though we are a minority, who care about what we are doing to the Earth, which conservatives pretend to believe is God’s Creation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Little Victories: Conversion of a Climate Skeptic (Guest Essay)

I am happy to post a guest essay from my botany student Matt Spears! It is his story of how his father finally came to admit that humans are causing global warming. I think it is interesting that his Dad’s reasons for rejecting global warming previously had more to do with political identity than with an understanding of science. Working against science denialism is an uphill fight but we can be happy for little victories!

(Beginning of guest essay)

My 70 year old father considers himself a conservative.  He calls me a liberal.  I am 31 now, but when I was about 18 years old I began to learn about things that at the time “blew my mind.”  I was learning about things I had never heard from my parents.  I was so excited to share these new ideas with them, but quickly discovered why my parents never talked about these things.  My dad called my new realizations about the world, which included global warming, “horse shit” and no matter what evidence I presented to him I was wrong.  It used to make me so angry.  It seemed like all of our time together consisted of arguments, but I was young, full of energy and very passionate so I persisted until years later when I got tired and gave up trying to get through to him.  I read a study where “permanent” changes were observed in the brains of people who would play violent video games every day.  My dad listens to conservative talk radio and watches FOX “so-called” news every day so I assumed that, for the most part, he has literally been brain washed to only believe what the talking heads of conservative media tell him.

Two weeks ago, while I was at my parents’ house, I saw a flyer about a discussion on climate change that would be held at a popular local bar.  The flyers were passed out at the Rotary group he attends every week.  I couldn’t believe that in my very conservative home town of Sherman, Texas a discussion on climate change was happening outside of a college or university and, most of all, my dad had brought home the flyer.  He agreed to go and met us there at the bar.  Two professors from the environmental science department at Austin College and the head meteorologist at the news station KXII were there to answer questions that those of us in attendance would ask.  It was obvious nearly everybody there already understood global warming, but there were two whom I recognized that did not.  One of those was the owner of the bar who made a short rant about his freedom to do whatever is in the best interest of business.  I just happened to be in the rest room for that and only heard the end.  After a couple of pints I began to chime in with comments and my dad followed.  He didn’t have much to say and was really just there to listen.  The speakers were all very thorough in their explanations of global warming.  It couldn’t have been any clearer to all of us who attended, no matter what our views had been walking in there, that global warming is real and our actions are making it happen at an alarming rate.

So, on the way home I called my mom to tell her all about it.  While we were talking I heard a click like somebody else was on the line.  My mom said it was my dad.  I said “Dad, what do you think?”  He replied “We’re doing it.” That’s all I needed to hear and I guess that’s all he needed to say because he just hung up.  I almost couldn’t believe it after all these years.  I want to gloat and tell him I was right all this time, but I know better.  Now, I hope he realizes that it’s not me who’s full of shit, It’s Bill O’Reilly.

(End of guest essay)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lord, Liar, Lunatic...or Lourdes

Here is a thought for Easter from a scientific viewpoint. Was the resurrection of Jesus an illusion? I’m not saying that it was, but this question gives us an interesting opportunity to compare the process of science with the process of religious faith.

A famous fundamentalist evangelist of the 1970s was Josh McDowell, who was well known for turning the piercing light of logic upon the Christian religion and proclaiming that its fundamental tenets had passed the test of credibility. That is, he acted as if he was being scientific about it. Most famously, he posed the question of Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus was not Lord, then He must have been a liar, for He claimed that He was, or a lunatic, for believing Himself to be. Lord, liar, or lunatic—a catchy phrase.

Catchy but wrong. If, in fact, you can eliminate the liar and lunatic options for Jesus, then the only possible conclusion is “Lord,” which is true only if McDowell considered all the possibilities. But there is a fourth possibility: the resurrection was an illusion, which people wanted so badly to believe that their minds created the beliefs.

This does not mean that the early Christians, or their successors, were lunatics. Perfectly normal people can have illusions; they become lunatics only if the illusion overwhelms their common sense ability to function in society. Because nearly everyone is vulnerable to bias and illusion, scientists use certain safeguards, such as the use of controls and specifying exactly what your dependent variable should be, in order to keep from falling into this all too human trap.

I will use a couple of examples from the Catholic Church, which is actually less prone to illusion than many fundamentalist sects.

First, consider the “miracle of Lourdes.” In 1858, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes in southern France. Not once, but eighteen times. Two of the things the Virgin told her were, first, that she (not just Jesus) had been immaculately (asexually, presumably through mitosis) conceived, and second, that if believers would dig a hole at the base of the grotto they would release a spring of water that would have healing properties.

Consider the claim about the immaculate conception of Mary. Some people say that this had to be revealed by the Virgin herself to Mlle. Bernadette, because Pope Pius IX had not declared this doctrine until 1854, only four little tiny years before Mlle. Bernadette’s visions, and during those four brief years Mlle. Bernadette could not have possibly heard about it. Of course, she most certainly could have known about it.

There is a spring from the grotto and it ejects enough water that people can go swimming in it. And millions have done so. The grotto of Lourdes has had 200 million visitors since 1860. Claims have been made that the waters cured nerve damage, cancer, paralysis, even blindness. The Catholic Church recognizes that many of these hundreds of claims have been delusions, but has certified 69 of them as genuine. We all know, however, about the placebo effect: almost anything can make you feel better, or even feel cured, it you sincerely believe it to be so. The placebo effect has long been the bane of pharmaceutical development. But the placebo effect works so well, especially if the placebos are expensive, that some scientists wonder if possibly the placebos should be used to unleash the body’s self-healing capacity. Numerous scientific studies have been conducted with the water from this spring, and no curative effects have been found.

The people who make pilgrimages to Lourdes (the second largest tourist spot in France after Paris) are not lunatics, but they are experiencing an illusion. The human mind, even a normal mind, sees what it expects to see.

Second, consider the “miracle of Fátima.” Based on persistent rumors, somewhere between thirty and one hundred thousand pious Catholics had gathered near this Portuguese town, fully convinced that some unspecified solar miracle was going to happen on October 13, 1917. They would latch onto anything out of the ordinary as a miracle. The people were watching the sun, many of them having smudged smoke onto glass to make solar filters. Some reported seeing the sun itself become a spinning disc in the sky, which careened toward the Earth and then zigzagged back to its original location. Others reported seeing multi-colored sunlight. Others saw both. Some saw nothing.

Since the sun is so big and so far away, this event could not possibly have happened any more than actual stars could fall from the sky the way the Bible says. So what did happen? The spinning and zigzagging could have been retinal after-images. Haven’t you ever seen these after glancing at the sun? Happens to me all the time, if I happen to look toward the sun and then away. What about the colors? Sometimes high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals can refract light into a rainbow of colors, even forming colorful bright blotches to either side of the sun. They may immediately precede a snowstorm. They are called false suns or sundogs. They can cause the appearance of three suns. I have seen them. If I had not studied the rudiments of physics, I might have considered them a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples might have wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was not really dead that their otherwise sane and normal minds played tricks on them. Christian apologists claim it could not have been an illusion because the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus rise from the dead. But it cannot be denied that they hoped He would. In one account, two disciples walked with a stranger, whom they did not recognize, upon the Emmaus Road. Only after he was gone did they “realize” that the stranger was in fact Jesus, but with a different face. This is exactly what a psychologist would expect to hear from someone who was experiencing an illusion.

The disciples weren’t crazy. They were just human.

Liar and lunatic are not the only alternative to Lord. There are two alternatives: Lord and Lourdes. Scientists never assume (or at least never should assume) that we have considered every possibility.

Friday, April 7, 2017

New video

I just posted a video about how fundamentalists misuse religion to attack the science of global warming. Wait until you see how I approached this subject, with Jim Inhofe and a Jesus finger puppet.

An Environmental Theme in American Literature: The Awakening Land

I recently finished reading Conrad Richter’s trilogy, The Awakening Land, which he finished in 1950. The three novels are about the settlement of Ohio: The Trees, about how pioneers carved out survival in a thick forest; The Fields, about how the pioneer settlements evolved into a little village; and The Town, how the little village became a major city in Ohio. The trilogy followed the life of a woman named Sayward (Saird) Luckett, later Wheeler, who grew up in a cabin but by the end of her life lived in a rich mansion. See a more detailed summary here.

At first, I was disaffected by what seemed to be the author’s approach. Sayward loved to cut trees down and to see others cut them down, for they represented a fearful primordial forest. (The primordial forest at the beginning of the trilogy, with leaves so dense that hardly any light penetrated throughout the forest, never actually existed. There were disturbances before the arrival of pioneers, especially fires set by nature or by the Natives.) Even into the second novel, she was glad to see the trees out of the way. But I should have known to expect something different before the end. Richter lived at a time when conservation awareness was beginning to grow in America. And sure enough, when Sayward was old, she realized that she missed the trees and the peaceful shade that they brought. She planted some trees by her mansion, some of the few trees in the city, and when she was dying she had her bed turned toward the window to see them. She regretted taking the land away from the trees: “Sometimes she wished she could give them back their land, for it was she who had taken it from them.”

Even the choice of the title, The Awakening Land, implied that nature is asleep until humans roust it into usefulness. But perhaps Richter intended this to be irony.

Although beautifully written, the novels seemed primarily episodic. Some of these episodes were funny, and some were beautiful: the chapter “Rosa’s Rainbow” was one of the best short pieces I have read. The only overarching plot of the trilogy was that the forest gave way to human progress. There was no structural conflict to be resolved.

The third novel did have a major plot: the romance that developed over many years between Chancey Wheeler, Sayward’s youngest and sickly son, and the frail, quiet, and thoughtful Rosa Tench. Everybody but them knew that they were half-siblings. Rosa was born from an affair that Portius Wheeler, the father, had with a schoolteacher when he was the master. But the two young people knew only that the adults, for reasons not explained to them, condemned their romance. I found myself hoping that this would reach a satisfactory resolution. Rosa had to live with a poor family and never received recognition or even a single word from the rich Wheeler family. I was hoping they would invite her into their home. This did not happen. The resolution of this plot was gruesome and occurred well before the end of the novel, which, as a direct result of this, I did not want to read. Had I known what would happen, I might not have read it. But it remains a beautiful piece of literature and a testament to the development of the American attitude toward the land, which everyone except, at the end, the main character, assumed was progress.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Springtime in Oklahoma, or, Will Molly Eat It?

There were plenty of visitors to Robber’s Cave State Park on April 1. This is not one of the state parks that the Oklahoma government, in its desperation to cut everything except oil corporation subsidies and the budgets of the legislature and governor, plans to close. Just a few of the visitors came for the Spring Field Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences. Few, but appreciative.

We (faculty and students) were surrounded by nature. Oh, wait, not quite. The forests were mostly shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) and post oak (Quercus stellata). But the shortleaf pines have nearly all, at least in this part of the state, hybridized with loblolly pines, which have been planted for lumber and pulp production. And every bit of the forest has been affected by human impact, including fire suppression. But it was a nice spring day and we were seeing things that were almost natural. The oaks were just opening their catkins and unfurling a few baby leaves. Post oaks dominate the poor, dry soils of these mountains.

Gloria Caddell, at the University of Central Oklahoma, led the botany field trips.

We didn’t even get out of the parking lot before we found plants that were interesting in more than one way. Gloria explained how to distinguish the three species of violets and how to distinguish poison ivy from fragrant sumac. But I explained that you could eat violets. I convinced Molly, a student from my university (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), to try one. After she was finished looking at a black cherry in bloom, I convinced her to eat some fading redbud flowers too. Last of all, I got her to eat some greenbriar buds.

We explored different habitats within the park. Closer to the creek, we found red maple, bur oak, and black oak. At the edge of the water we saw a birch tree with its male and female catkins. The male catkins dangle from the branch behind the female flowers. This arrangement improves the chances that the pollen that comes to the female flowers is from a different tree rather than the same one. We also saw several wildflower species, some spectacular like the plains wild indigo, Baptisia bracteata.

Baptisia is one of the leguminous plants that produce nitrogen-fixing nodules, as mycologist Steve Marek explained. It is always good to have people from different areas of study together on the same field trip.

And, as always, leave it to Gloria to open our eyes to see the tremendous biodiversity of a trampled lawn in a picnic area. As future high school teacher Lainee Sanders discovered, there was not one but two species of buttercups in the picnic area. (The dog appeared to not care about the flowers.)

There were some high school teachers on the trip. Melissa Bates brought high school students from Oklahoma City. They looked closely at little Antennaria flower clusters, perhaps never having realized that there were boy antennarias and girl antennarias growing together.

You never know where you are going to find moss growing. We found some growing on an old glove, sporophytes and all!

Chad King, a botanist at University of Central Oklahoma, gave an evening presentation about dendrochronology. Tree rings are a storehouse of information about all the tree’s experiences, therefore about things such as climate and fire history. He displayed one of his specimens, a very old tree that had had an eventful life.

Almost everything we saw was something that could so easily have been overlooked if we had been hiking fast or jogging. We need these times of slowing down, looking closely, even nibbling, under the guidance of those among us who know a lot about hidden biodiversity.