Field of Science

Why I'm Marching for Science

Saturday April 22nd 2017 is Earth Day. It is also the day chosen for the March for Science. I was thinking about traveling to Washington DC to march, but will most likely be marching in Minnesota in the Twin Cities march (@ScienceMarchMN).

There are numerous reasons why I'm marching. The most obvious reason for me is that science has been under a constant attack by republicans the last few decades, and these attacks reached a tipping point for me in the last election. Anti-science viewpoints do not know party lines but democrats have not been a constant opponent of science, disparaging scientists, scientific agencies, education, etc. If the previous two statements have your face turning red and mental spittle flying, then there's little point in reading further even though what I want to express in this essay is not specifically a republican/democrat comparison.

I want to suggest that if, as a nation, we have decided that science is the enemy, that we don't need to hear from any more experts, that we make our own reality, then its time to close up shop. We can unequivacolly state that we no longer want a more perfect union, we do not want to promote the general welfare or provide for the common defense, nor are we interested in our posterity. We can still have a government that makes, executes, and interprets law, but let's not kid ourselves that we care about the mission statement outlined in the Preamble of the Constitution of the USA.

Why do I say this? It seems that I'm linking our system of government and science and if so is that appropriate. I think it is. As a student of public education, a few decades removed, I remember learning about the Enlightenment and how Enlightenment ideas and thinking influenced the founding fathers. For those who may have forgotten, these ideas were a focus on reason, logic, science (as it existed at that time), etc. as a way to improve our lot in the universe. Enlightenment principles led to things like the Preamble. Don't take my word for it, you can read what the framers thought by reading The Federalist Papers.

Our government was founded on the idea of rationale policy and governance, on the use of logic and honest debate to inform decision making, on science to explain what was true and what was not. If we have decided as a nation that allegiance to party is more important than making informed decisions, then why waste time pretending we care about our system of government anymore?

I've spent some amount of time thinking about why this concept is so difficult and anathema to many people. I think in part it is because when we think about 'logic' or 'rationality' or 'science', we think these are simple terms easy to understand. Kind of like we all went to school, so we all feel like we understand a teacher's job. Let's take the example of 'logic', that should be easy. The fact is many books have been devoted to this topic and many more will be. When I say logic, probably a lot of people think along the lines of:
If A=B and B=C, then A=C
This is true and this is logic, but it's logic at its simplest.

How about another example many people are familiar with that may not be so simple.
You see a train coming down the line and it is going to hit and kill five people, you can flip the switch so the train goes onto another track, but it will kill one person there. What do you do?
Simple? How about...
You see a train coming down the line and it is going to hit and kill five felons, you can flip the switch so the train goes onto another track, but it will kill one person there. What do you do?
Simple? How about...
You see a train coming down the line and it is going to hit and kill five white girls aged 14-15 but they are felons, you can flip the switch so the train goes onto another track, but it will kill one person there. What do you do?
Simple? How about...
You see a train coming down the line and it is going to hit and kill five elderly people, you can flip the switch so the train goes onto another track, but it will kill one child there. What do you do?
We can go on and on. Some people will not flip the switch in the first case, because that would in fact make them the murderer of one person, although they saved five. Others would say they'd flip the switch in heartbeat in that example, but then what happens in the latter examples. I say the first case is a logical decision because the needs of the many (5 people) outweigh the needs of the few (1 person). In this case, I'm making it a simple numbers game. In the subsequent examples, I'm including information that may impact the value of the people in question such that the raw numbers may not matter as much. Speaking of value, what if in case 2, I point out they were non-violent felons, would your choice change?

Let's get back to science. Science requires logic, but it is more than logic as science requires observation, making inferences based on these observations (aka hypotheses), conducting experiments, and then interpretation of the data, and repeat. Both making inferences and interpreting data requires logic but also requires creativity and imagination of possibilities.

Our legislators need to write laws to accomplish the mission statement described in the Preamble. The world is a dynamic place as is society so we constantly need new laws. For example, we need a new budget every year, there are problems that need to be solved, etc. How are laws written? This is where science plays an important role.

Let's say people who lived in communities in the 1950s downwind of nuclear test sites got cancer at a much higher rate than people living elsewhere. First, this is only discovered serendipitously because doctors in these areas see more cases of cancer than they expected based on their training (that's because by and large people don't move too far). One possibility is that the training was shoddy, so the doctors call colleagues who work elsewhere and learn that their colleagues find cancer at a rate they learned about in medical school. This seems like a real problem, so now some epidemiologists are called in to look more closely at the situation and they find that after controlling for other factors, like diet, age, etc. people downwind of nuclear testing sites are in fact much more likely to come down with cancer. Congress is mobilized, there's a problem that needs solving.

Here's where science and politics separate. There are many issues and repercussions involved here. A law could ban nuclear testing within 50 miles of downwind communities. Is that sufficient distance? We could change the law to make it 500 miles, is that even possible? A law could ban above ground testing, would that prevent the problem? It would if the problem was aerosolized radioactive compounds, but not if the cancer was due radioactive compounds seeping into the water supply. Or we could attack the epidemiologists for being in the pocket of big-antinuke with an agenda trying to get rid of jobs on nuclear testing facilities.

Look at what happened with the smoking-lung cancer science. It took decades and hundreds of thousands of lives before the cigarette companies agreed that smoking causes cancer. The list can go on and on. 

Legislators have a difficult job and we should elect the best and brightest and bravest. If based on scientific studies, it is shown that a new yet inexpensive chemical used on farms kills shrimp, what does a legislator do? If they propose a law banning the chemical, an entire industry and all the employees of said company are out of work. If you don't ban the chemical, the shrimpers on the coasts will be devastated. Maybe you propose banning the use of the chemical near estuaries near the coasts, but this puts farmers in those regions at a disadvantage to those who are not near these areas. Here's where bravery comes in, is a legislator in Iowa going to consider the shrimpers, the industrialists, or the farmers? What about the Mississippi legislators?

Science can tell us much, but it cannot necessarily tell us policy. In the shrimp example, science will also tell us that shrimp are a primary food source of many fish and ultimately mammals. If the shrimp fail, the fish fail and the whales fail, if the fish fail the seals fail and the sharks fail. The impact is not limited to shrimp. Of course if farm costs go up, food prices go up which means less spending on other areas across the country. Making policy is difficult, there are very few, if any, truly 'everybody wins' scenarios. The question I expect politicians to be able to answer is 'why did you vote the way you did?' I expect a politician to explain the pros and cons of their choices and if they can't articulate both the good and bad and back those claims up with data, then what good are they? We might as well make decision based on our guts or 'common sense' whatever that means.

This is why I march for science. Many politicians are ideologues, chickenshit, or both. The worst are the chickenshit ideologues, which represents much of the republican caucus. These are the folks who want a specific policy to go through, kind of a 'we are going to throw the switch on the train track' regardless of the scenario. When scientists point out that there are two people on the track now and 50 young adults on the other track, politicians attack the scientists or the data. Companies that can make money off switches that change tracks can pay 'scientists' to suggest the possibility that maybe there aren't 50 people on the other track because its tough to tell the difference between 47 and 50 and therefore any other number. I 'March for Science' because the legislators in Congress applied for and advocated for a difficult job and they are deciding en masse they don't want to do their job or at least not be held accountable for what they do. They are often not the best nor the brightest and are generally not the bravest. They are too scared to make a decision that may hurt their constituents even if it benefits the greater good, so they lie, obfuscate, and attack those who point out the problems in order to get reelected. A brave legislator tells the farmer that they voted to ban the chemical because it adversely effects shrimpers and so many others; an honest legislator tries to offset the hit the farmer takes through tax credits or other mechanisms. Our legislators* do not.

So as a citizen of the USA, a father, and a scientist, I will march because science is essential for the government to make effective policy and to be held accountable for that policy. I march because I want our representatives to be honest, I want them to be accountable to the people who voted for them and able to defend decisions that in the short term may hurt their constituents. If you are too scared to do the job, do something else. Most people are reasonable and if you explain why a hurt is happening and can explain how you are dealing with that hurt, you will get much in return. When you act like your constituents are petulant children, you can't be surprised when they act that way.

*there are a few, very few, exceptions.

Myths of Evolution: I

I 'belong' to a Creation-Evolution debate group on Facebook. Probably 'follow' is a better word than belong. My reason for joining was to see what arguments were given from the other side in the hope that I would see some nuanced discussion/rationales for creationism. Of course, what I see is the general troll-level argument you get on any website. Essentially the Ken Hamm approach to science and biology. It being the internet, I am not surprised and don't generally participate (hence the 'follow' as opposed to 'belong'). Hell, I'll even admit to providing troll-master-level responses to some creationist posts, albeit with you know data and shit.

My ultimate goal in joining this group was to hear from the other side and potentially use that as a jumping off point for some posts where I could provide some information for others who may have the same questions or be thinking along the same lines. Because the Facebook posts are essentially the equivalent of 30 year olds living in their parents' basement complaining about Lady Gaga's stomach during the Super Bowl halftime show, this goal hasn't come to fruition from my end. Still I saw this recent post which made me cringe from the potential waste of a young mind. Also, it reminded me of the culpability of teachers and scientists who teach a linear version of the history of life. Here's the post and associated picture (the picture is fairly well known):
It seems finding evidence against evolution is child's play. One of my friends told his young daughter that some people believed we evolved from apes, and her immediate reply was, why aren't there still ape-men today?

Sadly, if the story is true a father lost a teachable moment and my experience is that those don't come around as often as you might expect. Anyway let's break this down:
  1.  'It seems finding evidence against evolution is child's play.' Sure, it seems like finding evidence is child's play, but reality doesn't work like that. It seems like the earth is flat. I bet if you ask an uneducated child to draw the earth, they would not draw a sphere unless they were taught is was a sphere previously. It seems like a volume of water wouldn't be larger when it was frozen, but I wouldn't but a full glass of water in the freezer if I were you. It seems like the sun moves across the sky not that the earth is spinning beneath it. Actually finding examples that discount the 'seems' approach to understanding the universe is in fact child's play.
  2. 'some people believed we evolved from apes' Hell, let's go all the way and say some people currently believe we evolved from an ape-like ancestor. It's not a past tense kind of thing. Some people believe a male was specifically created by a god ~6000 years ago and a woman was cloned from his rib (apparently without a Y chromosome). I would be more comfortable if I could write it as 'Some people believed a male was specifically created by a god ~6000 years ago and a woman was cloned from his rib.' I left off the snarky part because this is now a historical comment and I'm not going to call out people who didn't have the benefit of current knowledge.
  3. 'her immediate reply was, why aren't there still ape-men today?' I don't have a problem with this question being asked, although I highly expect that either the question wasn't asked this way or that the set up was different (shorter version: I believe the entire story is a lie). The fact that the daughter said 'ape-men' when the premise never uses the term suggests it is fabricated or at least embellished. Regardless, let's say she asked this question or one very similar. This should not be the end of the story but the beginning of the story. As a father, teacher, even simply a member of the human species, I would redirect her and use it as one of those infrequent teachable moments. For example, 'that's a great question, but maybe we should back up and ask why some people believe that'. This of course requires some honesty and openness on the part of the father, which based on the post is not apparent. Essentially if we want to obtain more knowledge about the universe as it exists, we need to ask for evidence and to evaluate it. In the absence of time or energy, we should in fact defer to experts who have had the time and energy to ask for, evaluate, and potential obtain the evidence.
Second, the picture is objectively factually wrong. There are m(b)illions of humans (shown on the right). Of course the default human is a white man, because of course it is. However, there are not millions of the ape-like ancestor on the right, because they are all dead. The picture suggests we evolved from modern species still in existence, which is not how evolution works. This is why you don't get to have Sunday dinner with your great great great grandmother, she's dead. But you can have Sunday dinner with you cousin 5 times removed.

Here is a more accurate picture:
 (Tangent: there are not millions of chimpanzees left, there's much less than a million, there are not a million of all the non-human apes (chimps, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans) combined on the planet, this is a sad.)
Third, there is blame to lay at the feet of scientists, teachers, publishers, etc who at least subconsciously promote the viewpoint shown in the first picture. For example, a google search for 'evolution' reveals a majority of pictures like:
From the Front Range Forum
Searching for 'diversity of life' shows most pictures similar to this one:
The issue is that evolution in these panels is shown as a linear pathway from one form to another culminating in humans. We are amazing organisms, but are we any more amazing than a moss, which can harness the light of the sun to pull carbon dioxide out of the air to make food? Are we so much better than bacteria that can breathe rocks? We are not the culmination of evolution, all other life is at at least as evolved as we are. A strong argument can be made that most organisms are more evolved than we are as they have much shorter generation times and thus reproduce faster than we do.
The rebuttal picture I included is much more accurate because it shows that modern chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor. Based on general looks, the common ancestor may compare better to the chimpanzee, but both the chimpanzee and human are as distantly related to this common ancestor as you and your sibling are to your great grandmother.  (In fact, we can make that  picture more accurate by including another branch coming off the lineage leading to the chimpanzees that ends at the bonobos.

If you're going to discuss evolution and try to explain it to others, please use branching trees, especially those that do not implicitly suggests humans are the most evolved (at the pinnacle of a tree or at the edge). Here's a great example of a tree showing human evolution:
A less egocentric view of evolution
(I know humans are at the top, but notice the y-axis is a timeline. The things at the top still exist, the chimpanzees and humans, the organisms further down are extinct.)