Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gloom and Doom from the happiest country on Earth

I will say first that I find it difficult to imagine any rich modern country taking climate change more seriously, or being more eager to take concrete actions to oppose it, than does Denmark. Danish individuals, society and government, including every political party, acknowledge the reality of anthropogentic climate change and the very real dangers it poses to (very flat) Denmark and the world. Danes know that Denmark is too small for a drop in its emissions to make much of a difference, but they seem more than willing to do their part by reducing energy use, subsidizing alternative power sources (etc.) and applying what limited diplomatic influence they have. Denmark is economically comfortable enough to really invest in these things and has both a highly functional government and a populace willing to implement the policies that their leaders decide upon. I am sure there are people in Denmark who disagree, but I haven't met (or even heard of) them. Unlike most countries, they have made their emission reduction targets law (although how such a law is enforced is unclear to me).

Because of the above, not despite it, Denmark convinces me that humanity will rush headlong into global ecological disaster. I say this because if any country has the willingness and ability to implement the policies needed to avoid disaster, it is Denmark, and they are not there. For while Denmark invests in weaning itself off fossil fuels, it also invests very heavily in the fossil fuel industry, notably North Sea oil and gas exploration. The Danish government surely believes, probably correctly, that the will does not exist in the populace to give up on the profits of involvement in the scramble for hydrocarbons. So while Denmark is trying hard not to burn those fuels here in Denmark, it is trying hard to sell them to someone else who will burn them, doing every bit as much to submerge the Danish lowlands (aka Denmark). Danes know this, but like the rest of the world (I'm looking at you Canadian Tar Sands) they seem to feel  (again probably correctly) that if they don't do it someone else (Norway, UK, etc.) will.

So I can imagine a possible future in which all countries have become as convinced as Denmark is that humans are hurtling into climate disaster and need to hit the breaks, and that would be great, but I have trouble imagining that even in such a world this peculiar form of the tragedy of the commons would be escapable. As long as there is demand for fossil fuels, there will always be others who will extract and sell them because if they don't do it someone else will. And there will always be countries who, even if they fully understand the global situation, need inexpensive fuel and will burn those hydrocarbons. And as long as that is the case, no amount of individual turning down of heat and biking to work is going to make a big enough difference to matter. The problem is structural and that structure is disastrously profitable.

Unless, of course, and this is me looking for that ray of hope, other sources of energy rapidly become so much cheaper than fossil fuels that there is just not much profit to be made in extracting oil, coal or gas. In which case, we will be able to say that all those solar panels installed in the gloom of Denmark were not in vain, but were a vote of confidence and a wise subsidy for the development of alternative energy

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A strange sort of consolation

Last year about this time I was working feverishly on a grant application to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the National Institutes of Health. The specific grant I and my collaborators applied for is called an R21 (Exploratory/Developmental); it is sort of a starter grant for people who need money to do the background work to develop the proven methods and concepts you need to apply for their main type of grant, the R01. We submitted the application last winter, and got the fairly positive feedback from the scientific committee in the summer. They ranked it as being in the top 13% of applications in terms of scientific merit. Not wonderful, not terrible. By far the best (I am told) of the R21s reviewed by this particular scientific committee. This roughly means that if they funded 13% of the applications (all R##s combined), we would likely get funded.

In the fall we heard that our application had undergone final administrative review, but we didn't get any yea or nay answer until January, after the grant would have started, when they told us that we wouldn't get the grant this year but please improve a few things that the reviewers complained about and resubmit.

In preparing the application last year, I read a blog post saying that applications for R21s and R03s (another smaller grant) were pretty much a waste of time. The way the review process works, they are in direct competition with R01s, which are by their nature more mature projects, and are given 12 pages instead of 6 to make their case. Less money+less space+less mature project= very small chance of a small payoff was the argument. We decided the type of work we were proposing was exactly what the R21 was intended for, and was exploratory/developmental enough to have little chance at an R01, so we would go ahead and just try to beat the odds. (He may have run out on his last three wives, but surely he'll change for me!)

Even this rather fierce looking hawk wouldn't have gotten an R21

As of the beginning of this year, and as of now, all US federal agencies don't know what their budget for the current year is. What do you do when you don't know if you have money to spend? You don't spend it. So it turns out the NIA funding rate for R03s and R21s for this years is a whopping 0%. Yep, every single application for those types of grants was rejected. Some R01s were funded, but not so many. I try not to think of the absurd amount of time I put into writing my 0% chance of success application. We won't be resubmitting our R21 grant this year, and I don't plan to submit more applications to NIH in the near future. I do hope Congress gets their act together some time soon. There are an awful lot of American scientists in Europe these days.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Letter to the Committee on Science

Dear Committee on Science, Space and Technology,

I would like to offer you my perspective as an American scientist currently working oversees. I work with scientists from all over the world, and frequently encounter the stereotype that Americans are willfully ignorant and prone to rejecting established scientific facts. Efforts to argue against this view are made nearly impossible by the frequent counter-factual statements made by America's political leaders, including those whose jobs specifically call for some understanding of science, such as those on science committees. While Rep. Akin has shown himself to be a particularly questionable choice, his membership demonstrates that no particular knowledge or understanding of science is expected of committee members. Indeed, it would appear that a significant number of committee members have repeatedly demonstrated a strong antipathy towards science.

This is an embarrassment for our great nation, and tarnishes the reputation of American science and education. I would like to suggest that our political leaders in general, but members of science-focused committees in specific, harm the USA when intentionally ignoring, misunderstanding or inventing scientific facts. This is because good policy can't be based on false knowledge, but also because our country is made to look like a bunch of fools. As such, I would suggest that some knowledge of science should be a prerequisite for membership in a science committee. The dim view that many in America and around the world currently take of your committee could perhaps be improved by removing one of your most glaringly ignorant members.

Dan Levitis

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The boundries of personhood

A group of academics (psychologists, ethicist, biologists etc.) have recently endorsed a statement arguing that dolphins and whales do deserve the rights of humans, based on their intelligence, self-awareness, individuality, sociality and so forth.

 A curmudgeonly old man, who was an environmentalist but hated that he was because he didn't like to be associated with hippies, once opined to me as follows on this topic, only in much more colorful language: We can't start treating whales as though they have the same rights as humans, because if we give those rights to whales, we have to give them to apes too, and if we give them to apes pretty soon we'll be extending them to monkeys, and pretty soon antibiotics will be outlawed because they violate the inalienable rights of infectious bacteria.

I have mixed feelings about slippery slope arguments generally. Letting even minor instances of objectionable predilections (sexism, racism, etc.) slide really does seem to be a problem, on the principle that once people are used to these sentiments going unchallenged, they will feel freer to get more egregious. But we can and frequently do make different rules about the treatment of different categories of animals, and there is little likelihood of the rules that now apply to the study of chimpanzees being extended to include studies of bacteria, let alone infections. My research with live animals legally requires no review by any ethics board because I am working with invertebrates. Back when I studied birds, I needed committee approval just to go out in the woods and watch birds for scientific purposes, and my friends who study humans have sometimes had to get such approval just to reuse preexisting published and publicly available data on long-dead populations.

The fact of the matter is that we can and do make arbitrary decisions, often influenced by scientific knowledge but also influenced by emotional predilections, about who and what deserve what rights and protections. Before the US Civil War, southerners quibbled with the evidence that slaves were fully human, but more fundamentally they didn't admit that this implied that they deserved the same rights as other people. These days, American conservatives tend to want to extend the full rights of personhood to fetuses, embryos and potentially fertilized eggs. American liberals often want to extend these same rights to smart charismatic non-humans. Each side sees the other as both ridiculous and morally bankrupt. The difference underlying these wants are philosophical, moral, ethical and political, sometimes economic, but not generally founded in disagreements on scientific fact. Those factual disagreements usually follow, as each side looks for ways to justify its conclusions. I don't expect cetaceans will ever be granted the same rights as humans, but as we learn more about their mental and emotional lives, I do think it will become harder to treat them little different from large endangered fish. In other words, I think we will go part way down the slope.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween, diversity, and the left-leaning scientists

The popular view that scientists tend to be politically liberal has, despite the many counter examples, a pretty good basis in fact, at least as a trend. I don't want to give the impression that I have no conservative colleagues (I have several) or that these people are ostracized (they aren't), but simply that they are in the minority. None of them perhaps would pass a Republican purity test, but they certainly wouldn't pass the Democratic purity test either.

One could easily suggest several possible reasons for left-lean. The liberal might say that scientists are people trained to think carefully about ideas, and liberal ideas stand up to careful thought better than their conservative counterparts. She could add that conservatives, particularly the United States, tend to engage in a great deal of anti-intellectualism, which is not a good way to win the support of scientists and that conservative leaders and movements twist scientific conclusions and ideas more frequently and more disastrously than do liberals. A conservative could argue that as a big-spending liberals tend to support science funding, scientists have a direct interest in supporting liberals. I think all of these things are at least sometimes true.

Another hypothesis occurred to me last night during our Halloween party. Looking around our apartment, I saw not only several Americans (tiger, mime, fisherman, pirate, little girl/trick-or-treater, scarecrow, frog, Dorothy, lumberjack, but no tricorn hats) and Germans (lizard, clown, flapper, schoolgirl, bus stop, Little-Red-Riding-Hood, ninja, and a little boy dressed as a little boy), but also friends from Italy (a mouse and a mummy), Hungary (bank robber), Austria (ghost and witch), Australia (tin man and geisha), Poland (burglar, witches and a ghost), Latvia (witch), Spain (ghost and sorceress) and Finland (clown, penguin, bear and ladybug). We had 34 people from 10 countries, and had invited people from at least a dozen more (Japan, Taiwan, China, Mexico, Brazil, the Netherlands, Denmark, England, Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey and New Zealand). This sort of national diversity is common at gatherings of Institute researchers. I had a similar experience at Berkeley, with colleagues from all over the world.

Conservatives in many countries are nationalistic, or at least view the traditional ways of doing things in their part of the world as best and most correct. So perhaps the conservative hoping to build a career in science finds herself in many uncomfortably international situations, where her assumptions are challenged or potententally unpopular. If so, such people may tend to either revise their opinions (or pretend to, which often eventually leads to an actual change) or avoid such situations. Such avoidance would make a successful career in science difficult, at least at the prestigious institutions which tend to have international research staff.

The Ivory Tower's relative lack of political diversity may partly result from its high demographic diversity. It is hard to condemn witches when your living room is full of them.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A fallacy in need of a name

At a party I attended earlier this year, one particularly vehement guest announced that, "Russia was justified in bombing civilian targets in Georgia because Georgia had killed ethnic Russian civilians in South Ossetia." I pointed out to the vehement fellow that neither Russian law, nor Georgian law, nor international law, nor moral reason allow for collective capital punishment based on ethnicity or nationality, and therefore of course it doesn't make any sense that if the Georgian military killed ethnic Russian civilians, the Russian military is allowed to kill Georgian civilians. Unable to refute this logic, he switched to another argument, using the same logical fallacy, claiming that we as Americans cannot object to the behavior of the Russian government, because the American government has killed so many civilians in so many countries. When I pointed out to him the possibility that the Russian and Georgian and American governments may all, simultaneously, be culpable for their own actions, and that we need not be apologists for any war crimes, despite the multiplicity of criminals, my wife suggested it was time we leave the party. This was a very sensible suggestion, so we did.

I've recently written about the importance of having names for common logical fallacies, and this got me wondering what the name for this guy's fallacy is. It is an extremely common one, and is in no way original to him. The fallacy is this: assuming or implying that if one side in a debate/argument/conflict is wrong/guilty the other side is therefore right/justified. This most often comes up in moral contexts, where the misdeeds of one party are used as a defense for the misdeed of the other party, but is also used in the context of disagreements about fact. For example when it comes out that an evolutionary biologists was wrong about anything, creationist make the leap to this being proof of Creation, rather than simply a flaw in the thinking of a biologist. One side is wrong, so the other must be right, even if the flaw is immaterial to the disagreement. Similarly, it is common in interpersonal disagreements to hear one party respond to an accusation of misbehavior only by pointing out a misbehavior of the other party without ever replying to the statement about their own behavior. This often goes well beyond "two wrongs make a right" to "my behavior is necessarily right because yours is wrong." This is also distinct (and almost opposite) from the idea of moral equivalence. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, some people argue that the crimes committed by supporters of the two sides are morally equivalent, and therefore neither side can be held responsible. Each side often responds to this nonsense with the counterfallacy that our behavior, whatever it may be, is justified by their crimes. They are criminals therefore we are just. I would tend to assume that each party or individual is responsible for its own actions, and whether or not the crimes are equivalent is morally irrelevant.

So this raises three sets of questions for me:

1. What is this fallacy called? If we want to describe a response as following this pattern, how should we refer to the pattern?

2. Why do humans do this so freely? On some deep level are we programmed by evolution to use this type of rationalization? Is this culture specific, or do all humans do this?

3. Why is this particular type of illogic useful/successful in arguments? Perhaps it is particularly effective because it allows one to move from being on the defensive to being on the offensive, to accuse rather than excuse (or to effectively do both at once)? Or maybe it is just very hard for people to find fault in both sides of a conflict at once, so by making them see the fault in the other side you make them forget about the fault in your own?

I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts on this, particularly what this type of fallacy should be called, or if it already has a name. I've checked Wikipedia's list of fallacies, and it ain't there.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The right's next big scare tactic

My office mate occasionally organizes a movie night, showing something or other that people at the Institute might want to watch in the seminar room. When he heard that there were two movies, called Demographic Winter and Demography Bomb, he figured they would be of interest to an Institute full of demographers, and he got a copy of the DVDs from somewhere.

Twenty or thirty of us came to watch. Now Demographers are a pretty staid crowd, but by ten minutes in people were chuckling, and within a half hour there was full-bellied, breathing-difficulty, rolled over in pain laughing going on. Clearly, people who actually think about demography were not the target audience.

These two documentaries, are based on the premise, which they take intensely seriously, that humanity (or at least the white section thereof) is at risk of economic ruin, political chaos, pain, suffering, homosexuality, the death of the traditional family and ultimate and total extinction because of a population control conspiracy by the UN, the EU, the Ford Foundation, Democrats, Liberals, Communists, UC Berkeley, Charles Darwin, Malthus, W.E.B DuBois, Gloria Steinem, Big Gay, Nazis, Feminazis, and most of all Paul Ehrlich. Dr. Erhlich, a professor at Stanford is a favorite punching bag of the right because he made many and varied dire predictions back in the sixties and seventies, and like most prolific prognosticators, many of his forecasts were wrong. His 1968 book, The Population Bomb, is identified as the driving source behind the idea that overpopulation might be a problem. In it he made various overly pessimistic predictions about the rate of population growth and the rate of food productivity growth, and concluded that we would see mass starvation of hundreds of millions of people by the 1970s or '80s. That this didn't happen is taken as proof that there are no possible ill effects of overpopulation, and that in fact humans are now heading toward population decline, which will by the end of the century see an under populated world dominated by geriatric patients, Muslims and Latinos. The same three or four animated graphics are shown incessantly, demonstrating that "westerners" (i.e., white people) are going extinct. "By the end of the century, there may not be any actual French people in France." They string together statements from representatives of various Teabagger interest groups and wildly out of context statements by academics (often repeating the same clip of the same academic to make it seem like they are agreeing with two very different ideas) with alternatively faux-reasonable and openly snarky narrators. The failure of the US auto industry, the housing bubble, immigration, homosexuality, terrorism, crime, feminism and the excesses of Wall Street are all shown to be symptoms of insufficiently rapid population growth. Demographers from all over the world hooted and guffawed and thought it was just the funniest damn thing they had seen.

Now like most vehemently presented lies, there is a grain of truth to the hysteria behind the movie. That grain is this: some, but not all, population forecasts predict that world population will cease growing some time around 2050, and may gradually decline for some decades thereafter, falling from maybe 9 billion to maybe 8.5 billion by 2100, and in the mean time the ratio of older people to younger people will temporarily increase. (Forecasts any further out than that are beyond the realm of speculation into pure fantasy, but one thing we can say with high confidence is that no population is likely to just stop breeding and go extinct.) This will pose some serious issues we need to think about over the next few decades. (I've written about this before, here.) Our markets, as currently structured, assume continuous population growth, and we don't yet have very clear ideas about how we need to adapt to population decline if it happens. Having lots of old people per working adult is a problem if you assume that it takes the same number of working adults to take care of each old person, and ignore that their will simultaneously be fewer children for those adults to take care of. The problem with the argument, even if you take out the hysteria, conspiracy theorizing, snarkiness, smear tactics and brain-washing techniques, is that overpopulation has known, current and disastrous consequences (see "Collapse" by Jared Diamond for several hundred pages on that, also a significant portion of the articles in Population and Development Review or Conservation Biology). I have never met a demographer who argues the problems of population decline are likely to be worse than those associated with population growth, or with trying to maintain a planet with more than 9,000,000,000 people on it. Second, I've never heard any demographer suggest that the cause of the eventual decline will be anything resulting from any policy of population control. Rather, educated, urban, mobile populations (and especially educated women) have fewer kids later in life, and that slows population growth. As the educational level and economic mobility of the world's women improves, and as people continue to move to cities, they will tend to reproduce less, no matter what the UN or Professor Ehrlich tells them. The clergy also have relatively little influence (see Italy).

But now that the lie is out there, no matter how laughable, it is a convenient tool for anyone who wants to argue against population control measures, family planning, contraception, feminism, etc. A friend pointed out to me a post on The Weekly Standard's blog stating that, "the discussion in demography circles isn't 'How do we cope with two extra China's?' Rather, it's "'How do we manage one of those extra China's disappearing?'" Living in a "demography circle," I can report that the Weekly Standard's unnamed source for that statement is a made-for-Fox-News propaganda special called "Demographic Winter" and its sequel (which borrows numerous lengthy sections from the first part) called "Demography Bomb." Type "population decline" into Google blog search and up come numerous posts on conservative blogs mumbling the same point.

So while my international colleagues were laughing their lungs out, I was exchanging dark glances with the only other American in the room. To those not familiar with the propaganda machine of the U.S. far right, the movie was pure, bizarre, hilarious fluff. Man-eating purple platypus stuff. One of my colleagues later asked me, "Republicans aren't idiots right? So they do not take that [compound expletive] seriously. Maybe a few nutballs? This is a joke?" But to me, it was clear this was yet one more battle being opened in the American right's war on science. As long as one is denying evolution, climate change and the moon landings, may as well claim that demographers don't see any possible drawbacks to overpopulation, and in fact that population collapse is just around the corner.

Expect to hear more of this particular lie in the years ahead. As the right touts the four biologists willing to deny the possibility of evolution, expect them to repeatedly trot out the few demographers willing to pretend that humanity's very existence is threatened by population control.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Emails from the Chancelor

UC Berkeley is having a bad day:

From: Robert J. Birgeneau, Chancellor
to "Academic Senate Faculty, Staff, All Academic Titles, Other Members of the Campus Community, Students,"
date Fri, Nov 20, 2009 at 9:02AM
subject URGENT: Wheeler Hall

The campus police are working to resolve a protest action that is occurring in Wheeler Hall. Staff, faculty and students who would normally be working in Wheeler Hall are asked to remain out of the building until further notice. Employees who can contact their supervisors should talk to them if possible to determine whether telecommuting or relocation to another work area is an option. Those in the building right now are advised to leave until the situation has been resolved.

Employees who remain on campus may check in at Dwinelle Plaza at 10am. for further information.

Thank you to all of the members of the campus community for your patience in this matter.

And at 10:42AM California time:

Campus police continue to work to resolve the protest action at Wheeler Hall. Campus police are striving to end the occupation of Wheeler Hall with the safety of our campus community, including all those involved in this action, as an uppermost priority.

Wheeler Hall will remain closed until further notice. Instructors who teach in Wheeler Hall will be contacted shortly by e-mail.

And at 11:30 local time:

Approximately 200 protestors are continuing to demonstrate on the south side of campus in the area around Wheeler Hall. Wheeler Hall is occupied by protestors and the building remains locked.

All classes at Wheeler are suspended until further notice and employees who work in Wheeler Hall are advised that they should plan on not being able to enter the building for the remainder of the work day. Employees should confirm alternative work arrangements with their supervisor, as possible. Instructors who teach in Wheeler Hall are being contacted by e-mail.

Fire alarms have been intentionally set off in several buildings including Barrows, Dwinelle, and Sproul Hall. The fire department is verifying that these are false alarms and will allow people to reenter buildings when it is safe to do so.

The safety of our campus community, including those involved in this protest, are an utmost priority of our police as they work to resolve the situation.

Thank you to all members of the campus community for your continued patience in this matter. Please check for updates throughout the day on the Berkeley home page

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Demography of Islamic Extremism

The size of any population is determined by births, deaths, immigrations and emigrations.

Change in population= Births-Deaths+Immigrations-Emigrations.

This is one of the first facts mentioned in any class or text on demography, and is so obvious that we often simply take it for granted. But like many concepts which are obvious in context, this can be easily forgotten.

I am thinking here particularly of the population President Obama refers to as "Islamic Extremists." What determines the global population of these extremists? We can assume that no one is born as a violent extremist, so it isn't births. The Bush administration tended to assume the population of extremists was a declining stock, whose numbers would be determined primarily through deaths. We saw how well that worked out. What the Obama folks seem to understand, and what I believe to be the goal of much of the US's redirected foreign policy and rhetoric, is that the number of violent extremists in the world is determined primarily through immigration (recruitment) and emigration (defections, retirements, going homes, laying down of arms).

Let's assume, again that no one is born a violent extremist. Let's further assume that 1% of the world's 1.5 Billion Muslims have the backgrounds and personality traits such that the proper circumstances could push them to violent extremism. We estimate 15 Million potential extremists. What proportion of those will turn to violent extremism at any one time? The answer is clearly a very small. Depending on how we define our terms, maybe there are 150,000 violent Islamic extremists in the world today. That is if we add together the Taliban forces, al Qaeda, al Shabab, Hamas fighters, Hezbolah fighters and so forth. It is a rough estimate, but will do for now. We estimate that 1% of 1% of the worlds' Muslims are violent extremists.

What if, instead of 1% of potential extremists becoming actual extremists, 2% were? Then we double the number of extremists, to 300,000. If only 0.5% of those with the potential for extremism experienced circumstances causing them to act on that potential? Then we have 75,000 extremists, and our problem of eliminating extremists is half solved.

Nothing the US does is going to kill 75 thousand extremists, or 150 thousand extremists. Not that the US military isn't still trying to kill as many violent extremists as possible, but we seem to kill maybe five thousand a year, if we are lucky. Let's look again at our equation and start plugging numbers into it.

Change in population= Births-Deaths+Immigrations-Emigrations.
Change in population= 0-5000+Immigrations-Emigrations.

Let's plug in numbers for the two scenarios we outlined above.

Change in population= 0-5000+150,000=145,000
Change in population= 0-5000-75,000= -80,000

The number of extremists killed is largely irrelevant in these two scenarios. If we kill 15,000 instead of 5,000, we end up with
Change in population= 135,000 or -90,000

The potential fluxes through immigration and emigration are just so much bigger than the number we kill. Nor are these numbers necessarily independent. One can easily imagine that if brother A has the capacity to be a violent extremist, brother B is more likely than average to have the same capacity. Killing A may increase deaths by one, but it may also increase immigrations by one. If there is a brother C, it may increase immigrations by two.

The point of all this is to say that the most effective way to manage the population of violent extremists is decrease their recruiting and increase the number of their colleagues who go home. Killing them is useful in limiting the damage they can do, reducing their moral and providing alternative opportunities to those who could join them. But the number killed is far less important than the effect that that killing has on recruiting and defections.

I could get into a long discussion of what I think will ultimately influence that (Immigration-Emigration) term, but I won't, as that would stray too far from anything I have any scientific basis for considering. Rather I will simply say that I think the US government has finally caught on that the conditions determining (Immigration-Emigration) are far more important than the number killed, and I think this is a key insight.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Public Science

The government, in its many forms, funds a large portion of academic science. This has given many people the idea that taxpayers should have access to the output of that science. But in many cases the output is a publication in a subscription journal, which non-subscribers don't have digital access to. Somebody up and said, "Hey, we paid for that research, we want access to it." So NIH has reached understandings with many of the corporations that publish scientific journals saying that if an author was funded by the NIH while working on any part of a paper, the journal has to make that article free to the public, even if the rest of the journal is subscription only.

This works out great for me. My fellowship is through National Institute on Aging, part of NIH. So any journal article I publish while I am on fellowship, or based on data I gathered while on fellowship, can't be hidden from the eyes of non-subscribers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rep. Boehner, Ludite

This morning on NPR, I heard an interview with Rep. John Boehner, the House Minority Leader. When asked about his reservations with President Obama's stimulus plan, he responded by saying that some of the spending did not seem wise to him.

"Remember, the goal of the stimulus package is to preserve jobs and help create new jobs in America," Boehner said. "And I don't know how giving NASA $400 million to study global warming is going to meet the goals."

It occurs to me to wonder if perhaps Rep. Boehner has so little conception of how science works that he truely doesn't know that when money is spent to study a problem, that money goes into the economy. NASA does not simply trassubstantiate the money into knowledge about global warming. NASA employs thousands of Americans on problems such as these; NASA contractors employ many thousands more. NASA advances technologies that help create new jobs.

My guess is that Rep. Boehner knows all this. It seems likely that Rep. Boehner knows that engineers and scientists are being laid off along with workers in almost every other field. Rather, I suspect the congressman is simly trying to rally his political base by warning them that the government is spending money on a problem they have been trained to think is a liberal hoax, global warming.

Which shows a certain level of consistency. Rep. Boehner is as derisive of the conclusions of science as he is ignorant of the process by which we reach those conclusions.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Whose next?

Of the thirteen students working with me in on rotifer work, only one is white Christian heterosexual male. This never occurred to me before yesterday, when we were sitting around the lab, talking about the fact that should Obama win, he would be the first POTUS who was not a straight white Christian man.

I asked my students if they thought, now that we were getting a non-white president, we would have a female president, a non-Christian president or a homosexual president first. Some said we would have a woman soon, others said America would elect a Jewish president before a woman. Everyone agreed that there is still too much bias against homosexuals to have an openly gay president any time soon. I asked them if they thought Americans would ever elect a scientist as president. They all said no, and a couple of them said that was probably a good thing.

Three of my students a naturalized citizens, and therefore are barred by our constitution from running for president. But the other ten, in my opinion, should all have equal shots at the White House. The fact that they are all science students studying evolution at Berkeley means that this chance is zero is bearable, so long as it is an equal and unbiased zero.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Editorial of Science: No More Years

My work on the evolution of aging got started on the basis that the National Institute on Aging is better funded than almost any other non-military research branch of the government. Older people vote, politicians and administrators tend to be older, and our population is getting older, so we offer funding to researchers who will work on issues relating to aging. I happen to also find the topic fascinating, and think it raises wonderful evolutionary questions, but I would not have ended up pursuing it if there was no funding available. America cares about aging, so I study it.

In many ways, this is how it should be. If you hire a doctor or a lawyer, you are likely to have some specific benefits you are willing to individually pay for. Remove the cancer, fight the charges. When society hires an academic researcher, individual level benefits are likely to be few or far off, but society expects societal returns. Those who funded early research into the nature of electricity did not anticipate the particular technologies we enjoy based on that work, but they correctly predicted it would somehow be very useful to society.

Few objective observers could deny that for much of the twentieth century, American science and technology greatly outpaced most other developed countries, and much of our economic, military and diplomatic power was derived, at least in part, from this technical prowess. America was one of the best places to do science, and this drew many of the finest scientists from around the world to move their activities, and their intellectual contributions, to America. Einstein is one obvious example. The term "brain drain" was invented in part to describe the mass movement of scientists and academics from other countries to the US. The US government not only invested heavily in science, it valued science, honored scientists and encouraged its citizens to see scientific progress as vital to our national future.

How things have changed. Several of the most promising young American scientists I know have moved to other countries, because the US is no longer competitive in funding or respecting science. Why study evolution in the US when New Zealand will pay you more and take your work more seriously? Why work on alternative energy technology when Canada or Germany will give you many times the research funding and implement your advances more quickly? Scientists follow the priorities of their society, or they move to another society.

Those who read the American press often hear about how America needs more scientists. But when I ask promising science majors why they are going into medicine or industrial engineering instead of science, they inevitably mention uncertainty about whether it is possible to make a decent living in science. Four years of college, two years of a masters degree and five years of doctoral study to qualify for a post-doctoral assistantship making $35K a year? No one smart enough to be a scientist thinks that's a financially desirable option. We can't have more scientists until we have more, and better paying, and better funded, and better respected, positions in science.

This national problem has gotten particularly bad over the past eight years. The right wing of the Republican Party takes a particularly low view of science. This is partly because they espouse a particularly anti-intellectual form of populism. In this view, normal people should only respect other normal people, and anyone who is too smart or too educated is not normal, but rather elite. The highly educated (who conveniently are overwhelmingly Democratic according to most polls) don't understand you and are keeping you down.
But the rightwing also dislikes science because science keeps producing answers that are contrary to the dictates of the far right. The far right knows that evolution does not occur, global warming is a naturally occurring hoax and trees are the primary cause of air pollution. The far right knows that Abstinence Only Sexual Education reduces pre-marital sex and teen pregnancy. The far right knows that homosexuality has no biological basis, that cities with more guns have fewer shootings, that we can drill our way to lower oil prices and that prayer is the most effective medicine. The far right knows that the lower our tax rates the higher our tax income. Science has the gall, the sheer pointy-headed elitist snobbery, to fail to support even one of these views, and to provide data directly contradicting most of them. The far right responds by treating science, and scientists, as somewhere between irrelevant and the enemy. Worse, under the Bush administration, there has been the consistent effort to bend, break or fabricate the conclusions of science to support every politically expedient fantasy. Research funding has been cut, science belittled and distorted and scientific reports edited, suppressed and distorted like never before.

This brings me to the current Republican ticket. John McCain has staked much of his campaign on the promise that drilling for oil in the US can bring down consumer fuel prices in the near future, a proposition one needs only simple arithmetic to disprove. Governor Palin is among the most anti-intellectual figures in her party, which is why the religious right so adores her. She strongly holds all of the fantasy-based, anti-intellectual views of the theocratic base. She has sworn to fight those who want evolution taught, those who want to do something about global warming, those who support sex-education policies that actually accomplish something and so on. Under a McCain-Palin administration, we can expect not only a continuation, but a strengthening of the Bush anti-science agenda. Should this happen the US faces a new brain drain, but in reverse. If science is not funded and not respected in the US, scientists in the US will have little choice but to give up science, or take their skills and knowledge elsewhere.
More immediately, and more importantly, we as a nation cannot afford to have another administration that so thoroughly rejects the foundational assumption of science: the best way to understand the world is by carefully observing it. The Bush-Cheney administration has consistently refused to allow observations of the world to influence their understanding of the world, or their strategies within it. Every sign points to a similar immunity to reality in any McCain-Palin administration. We can afford no more years of that.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Inching toward science

For as long as there have been science classes, creationists have wanted to teach creationism as science. And in many countries, including this one, they have often done so. In some countries, much more so than the US, they still do. But in the US they have suffered a long series of court defeats on the basis that creationism is religion, and not science, and therefore does not belong in science classes. And it often seems like a battle that can't really be won, because as soon as they lose one court battle they repackage and try again. But considering that history as outlined in this NYTimes article gives me a sense that while we will never convince them to give up entirely, in the long run they are gradually being forced to adopt positions with more and more resemblance to science.

At first, of course, they simply outlawed the teaching of evolution where they could. These laws didn't stand up in the courts, so they decided that creationism and evolution would be taught side by side. That didn't stand up either, so they came up with the bright idea of wrapping creationism in a thin film of scientific lingo and calling it 'creation science.' That didn't stand up to examination for very long either. Next they decided that rather than creationism painted science-color, they would have the nugget of creationism with many layers of scientific sounding text, language, calculations and books wrapped around it, and call it Intelligent Design Theory. No explicit mention of any particular intelligent designer, just a very selective use of scientific knowledge and concepts with the goal of concluding that evolution can't explain the universe, and therefore there must be a creator. Some of them even went so far as to acknowledge microevolution (the modification of existing forms) while still rejecting macroevolution (the accumulation of those modifications to the point that it seems to us to be a really different form). That, as you know, didn't stand up in court either. Partly their arguments made no sense, and partly there was plenty of documentation of the fact that they had started with a conclusion and worked backwards, making up results to support that conclusion, making up methods that would lead to those results and then trying to figure out what question they should pretend to have been trying to answer. In other words, they were demonstrably engaged not in science, but in fraud. But for all its repugnance, ID had the desirable property of getting the creationists to agree that they needed to make evidence based arguments, even if they then failed to do so. ID, exposed as the cynical lie that it is, is now dying from too much light. Thus always to imposters.

But creationists have too much faith in their own infallibility to give up and go home. So the Discovery Institute and its usual corral of quacks are designing a new and improved 'science curriculum' intended to highlight the 'strengths and weaknesses' of Darwinian evolutionary theory. I have absolutely no doubt that this is just the same spoiled sausage in a shiny new casing, but at least they have finally been forced to adopt a truly scientific casing. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of theories is what science is about. Now there are unscientific ways of going about it, and I have no doubt they will employ almost all of these, but the details of the curriculum can be challenged in court.

There are of course downsides to them having finally found a really scientific name to call their beliefs. They are adapting to the fact that their ideas are demonstrably not science by gradually phrasing them in a more and more scientific way. That may make it a little bit harder each time to prove that religion is still not science, and harder for the average person to understand exactly why it is not science. This time, instead of getting 'strengths and weaknesses' thrown out of the classroom entirely, we may have to fight item by item about what can be presented as a strength or a weakness, and how they can be presented.

But as long as we can continue to find judges willing to judge on the evidence (which I know is in some doubt), we will continue to win those fights. Religion really isn't science, and no matter how cleverly disguised will continue to not be science. We can explain the data without invoking non-scientific concepts like a benevolent omnipotent and omniscient creator, and they can't. So once the argument is on our turf, once they are arguing with us about what evidence and logic show, they can only lose. Not to say that it will be a sea-change. What we have accomplished to date is extremely incremental, and that will continue. But we are pushing them back, inch by inch, foot by foot, concept by concept. They will argue that the human eye is irreducibly complex, we will use data and logic to show that that is ignorant nonsense. The courts will be forced to rule in our favor. They will argue that the laws of thermodynamics make it impossible for order to arise from disorder. We will explain to the judges that this is true only in a closed system, with no input of order, and there will be a court ruling that says that their argument is not science. And on. And on. But as long as our country holds it together enough to continue having a judiciary that has to listen to evidence most of the time, and as long as the data and logic are all on our side, all they can do is stall, limit the rate at which they lose ground. And as that happens, they will be forced to incorporate more and more actual science into their arguments. Who knows, maybe some day they will be forced to admit to both microevolution and macroevolution, but continue arguing that their had to be a creator to get it all started. At that point, they will be in agreement with Darwin himself, who wrote in The Origin of Species, "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." This view is of course still not science, but if they can be driven back this far they will be rendered, in my view, mostly harmless.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Global Amphibian Declines call for frog costumes.

There are few, if any, taxa losing species diversity as quickly and thoroughly as the amphibians.


"Amphibians, a unique group of vertebrates containing over 6,200 known species, are threatened worldwide. A recent assessment of the entire group ( found that nearly one-third (32%) of the world’s amphibian species are threatened, representing 1,856 species. Amphibians have existed on earth for over 300 million years, yet in just the last two decades there have been an alarming number of extinctions, nearly 168 species are believed to have gone extinct and at least 2,469 (43%) more have populations that are declining. This indicates that the number of extinct and threatened species will probably continue to rise (Stuart et al. 2004)."

And this is almost surely an overly optimistic view. The thousands of species for which we have no data are not considered threatened, and an unknown number of others, likely in the hundreds, has gone extinct without ever being discovered.

Amphibian lineages that have existed for tens of millions of years are ending shockingly quickly. The factors that are killing off these ancient groups are all the works of humanity: pesticides, industrial pollutants, introduced species and diseases, habitat destruction and alteration and rapid climate change. There is no reasonable doubt but that we have driven the rate of amphibian extinction to several thousand times its natural rate. We could barely kill them off more quickly if we tried. Genocide is not too strong a term.

Amphibians are widely seen as indicator species. Healthy ecosystems have healthy amphibians. Indications are poor.

So to help raise (the currently abysmally low) awareness of the scope of amphibian declines, Iris and I have decided to walk Bay to Breakers wearing homemade from costumes. And we hope to organize a group of friends and colleagues to walk with us, similarly garbed. A costume recognizable as an amphibian, or even a shirt with amphibian pictures on it. Perhaps we will hand out informational pamphlets to people who ask what we are about. If you are interested in joining us, please email me.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Evolution is, in fact, a theory, not a fact.

I made my first post on Daily Kos this morning.

It was well received. Six and half hours after I posted, it, there are almost 500 comments, and more than 1400 people have voted in my poll.

Close to 1000 of those agreed with the statement, " Evolution is the only non-idiotic way to explain the data."

The text of the post was as follows:

I've decided to start my diarying with a couple of entries about evolution. I'm working on my PhD in evolutionary biology, and while I can tell most people here understand that there is no logical way to reject evolution, I thought it might be helpful to clarify a few important points about evolution. Those who reject evolution often use the inconsistencies in the understanding of those they argue with to "prove" that evolution does not make sense. So I'd like to see us all on the same page.

For those of you who reject evolution as a matter of faith, it is not my goal to convince you of anything. If you were open to being swayed by facts, reasons or logic, it would, by definition not be faith. If you like, imagine this was written in a fantasy realm in which evolution is real and your genetic code is 95% identical to that of a chimp. I don't want the comments section to turn into an argument about whether evolution is real or people on the other side are questionable. No one is going to change his mind on the topic.

With no further ado, I list insights about evolution after the jump.

I've decided to start my diarying with a couple of entries about evolution. I'm working on my PhD in evolutionary biology, and while I can tell most people here understand that there is no logical way to reject evolution, I thought it might be helpful to clarify a few important points about evolution. Those who reject evolution often use the inconsistencies in the understanding of those they argue with to "prove" that evolution does not make sense. So I'd like to see us all on the same page. For those of you who reject evolution as a matter of faith, it is not my goal to convince you of anything. If you were open to being swayed by facts, reasons or logic, it would, by definition not be faith. If you like, imagine this was written in a fantasy realm in which evolution is real and your genetic code is 95% identical to that of a chimp. I don't want the comments section to turn into an argument about whether evolution is real or people on the other side are questionable. No one is going to change his mind on the topic. With no further ado, I list insights about evolution after the jump.

1. A fact is the most trivial piece of science. A theory is the most complete.

"The average density of granite is 2.75 g·cm^-3," is a fact. Facts are important, but are the starting point, not the goal. To a scientist, theory is the entire body of understanding about a particular phenomenon, the best unifying description of all the relevant facts. Theory is the whole structure of knowledge. To say that "evolution is a fact" is like saying "the Himalayas are a stone."


Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution

Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975)
(see for a truly classic essay.)

Evolution is the central organizing principle behind biology. Without it, biology is a list of facts and equations, a series of observations. You can study the various types and formations of igneous rock, learn that pumice is useful for this and basalt for that, but without knowing that there was molten rock involved, your understanding would be pretty limited. This is very equivalent to trying to understand biology without evolution.

3. We are all highly evolved.

Because all organisms have evolved from a common ancestor, we all have as many years of evolution behind us. Bacteria, often seen as the least evolved, actually evolve a lot faster than we do. We see the traits that are human like as being "highly evolved." Yeah us! But when we do this, it is just chauvinism.
Evolution does not push towards any kind of subjective perfection.
In order to pass on its genes, an organism needs to be as good or better than the competition. It does not need to be morally or intellectually appealing. It does not need to be perfectly efficient or maximally beautiful. It just needs to be good enough to get past the competition.
The popular view of evolution is a progression from bacteria to squiggly guys to fish to lungfish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals to primates to great apes to Neanderthals to cavemen to us us US, the pinnacle of God's design! But wait, we are talking about science here, no supernatural explanations need apply. If we overcome our religious biases and our anthropocentrism, it becomes clear that the world's organisms are not striving to be us. Some populations evolve to be bigger, others to be smaller. Brains get bigger and smaller. Number of limbs increases and decreases. There is no direction to it. Every population just drifts towards whatever happens to encourage survival and reproduction in their peculiar environment at that moment. There is no force driving things towards being human like.
Because there is no direct to evolution, the term "devolve" is not one that has a biological meaning. See for a discussion of misunderstanding and misuses of "devolution."
A trait can be highly evolved, in that it has changed a great deal from the ancestral state (e.g. frogs have a highly evolved pelvis) but after billions of years, all organisms are highly evolved.

4. Biologist don't, and will likely never, agree how to define "species."

In a creationist world view, it is easy to define a species. The decedents of each pair of organisms that lived on Noah's ark form a species. Simple process leads to easy defining.

The problem is, looking at the diversity of life, we find much more complexity, much more messiness than can be explained through static, preordained species. A single "species" can have tremendous geographic variation. Oaks hybridize like mad. Salamanders that look like the same species won't interbreed, except in particularly wet years. Salamanders that can't interbreed with each other will both interbreed with an intermediate population. Some populations, through spontaneous mutation, spawn clonal populations that don't breed with anybody. There is a tremendous diversity of process.

Pity the poor taxonomist. Everyone expects a list of species, the laws are written around endangered species and migratory species, which means we have to decide what is a species, and what is not. If two populations interbreed only once every thousand years, are they one species or two? If two groups swap nuclear DNA but not mitochondrial, can they be considered separate? Can species be delineated based on ecological traits? On behaviors? What does the word species mean when applied to organisms that reproduce asexually?

There are literally hundreds of definitions of species supported by different biologists. And there is no one right definition; the underlying process that we are trying to shoehorn is so complex that every conceivable definition simply won't work in some cases. In order to applicable in all cases a definition would have to be so broad that it was applicable in none. No matter how much data we have, there is no final answer to how many species are out there, because no single definition can be applied. Nature is messy, and doesn't read our rule books.

5. Not all evolution is because of natural selection.

Biological evolution is the heritable change in populations over time. Natural selection is one extremely important factor in driving heritable change. But it is not the only one. In small populations, there is genetic drift. A trait that is in no way advantageous can increase in frequency simply because the two guys who happen to have that trait also happen to impregnate a whole bunch of females. Mutations in and of themselves constitute evolution. Basically, in order to avoid evolving, a population would have to be infinitely large, completely homogeneous, in a completely stable environment, under no selective pressures and without either a dearth or a glut of disadvantageous mutations.

6. Evolution is an ongoing process.

I often hear people say things along the lines of, "back in evolutionary times" or "when evolution was happening." Evolution is happening now. Humanity is currently evolving. Certain populations are increasing while other with different genetic backgrounds are decreasing. Change in genetic make up of the population over time is evolution. That is how geneticists define evolution. Humans are also undergoing selective evolution, and specific genes have been identified that are currently being selected for or against. Our genes for disease resistance are under particularly strong selection.

7. Evolution can act incredibly rapidly.

Spray a field with an insecticide. There are a million crickets in the field. 9,999,998 of them keel over. The remaining two survive because they happened to have a mutation that made them resistant to the insecticide. The male calls, the female comes, candles, moonlight. 100 resistant baby crickets. The farmer comes back and sprays again. Maybe half the crickets die. The remainder all carry the resistance gene. Repeat the process and the gene that causes resistance becomes more common with each generation. Pretty soon most of the crickets have not one but two copies of the resistance gene, having gotten one from each parent. The population has evolved to be resistant. This is also why we have antibiotic resistant bacteria. And why the Cane Toad, introduced into Australia, can now survive in habitats much drier than they could have a few decades ago.

9. Almost everything you have ever read about evolution in the popular press gets it wrong.

Populations do not evolve in order to achieve a certain goal. Biologists do not disagree about evolution any more than geologists disagree about tectonics. Individuals do not act for the good of the species (present company excepted, of course). Darwin did not coin, or like, the term "survival of the fittest." Our ancestors did not look like modern day chimps. We are not descended from the lungfish. There is no such thing as "adaption." Darwin did not base his theory of evolution primarily on Darwin's Finches. Darwin did not set out to form a theory of evolution. His main interest was barnacles.

Evolution is that heritable change in populations over time. There is no way for an individual to evolve. An individual can reproduce, or die, and contribute to the evolution of her species. But there is no biological evolution of individuals.

10. Darwin got some details wrong.

Darwin had no clear concept of genetics. Mendel sent Darwin a copy of his book. Darwin never opened it. Darwin made lots of wild guesses as to the mechanisms behind heredity, and some of those guesses lead him down dead ends. Modern biologists are awed by Darwin's genius, but we are not under the delusion that he had all the answers, nor are we simply accepting him at his word. Many of Darwin's guesses have been shown to be sound. Others have been shown to be flawed.

Tell me what you think. Let me know if you disagree with something, or want a source or more information. There will be some slightly more provocative evolutionary musing tomorrow.