Category Archives: Science

The Wizard and the Prophet: ¿Por Qué No Los Dos?

Charles Mann’s book, The Wizard and the Prophet, is a remarkable biography of two men who each believed he had the best way for the world to avoid a “wrenching global catastrophe” in the next century:

  • Agronomist Norman Borlaug, The Wizard, believed that science and technology, properly applied, can help humankind produce enough of what the world’s population needs to survive.
  • Ornithologist William Vogt, The Prophet, believed that humankind must drastically reduce consumption to avoid overwhelming the planet’s ecosystems and becoming extinct.

Cataloguing in excruciating detail the pioneering work and influential writing of Borlaug and Vogt, Mann mostly paints their efforts with great contrast, pitting the scientists and their followers against one another: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment,” Mann says. “Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet.”

But he also admits, “Wizards and Prophets are less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum. In theory, they could meet in the middle. One could cut back here à la Vogt and expand over there, Borlaug-style.” When Mann offhandedly allowed, “Some people believe in doing just that,” I thought, Wait, what? Umm…yeah! ¿Por qué no los dos? Why not both? How does maximizing access to food, water, energy and air conflict with being responsible about using them?

In his quest, perhaps, to sharpen the debate by focusing on the priorities of each man’s efforts and the needlessly partisan passion of their followers, Mann colors their work as mutually exclusive and impulsively casts aside the suggestion that they could complement and enhance one another. He says, “People who back Borlaug and embrace genetically modified, hyper-productive wheat and rice won’t follow Vogt and dump their steaks and chops for low-impact veggie burgers.” Huh?

Biologist Lynn Margulis, to whom Mann refers at numerous points in the book, insisted that it is the fate of every successful species—including humans—to wipe itself out. And so she believed, according to Mann, that both Borlaug and Vogt were wrong to think they could stop us from destroying ourselves.

But Mann ultimately clings to the hope that, whatever approach or combination of approaches wins out, the human species will be able to maintain its success indefinitely. He insists that “Wizards and Prophets…both assume…that human beings are special creatures who can escape the fate of other successful species.”

Mann hopefully cites recent progress in freeing slaves, empowering women and reducing violence and asks, “Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use [our] talents and…resources to draw back before the abyss?”

Having insisted that The Wizard and the Prophet is “a book about the future that makes no predictions,” he ends with a vague fear. “It is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right,” he says, “and get this one wrong.”


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Thinking Like a Scientist?

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing

The hype surrounding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education—which claims to develop the skills “to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information”—has created a false dichotomy between these and other fields, and led to the contention that “the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford.”

English professor Aaron Hanlon contended that, “Core analytical methods useful to all knowledge workers” are appropriate for everyone, not just scientists. He insists, “Being inquisitive, weighing the quality and ideological bent of evidence, and changing our minds according to the evidence is not ‘thinking like a scientist.’ It’s the ‘core’ method of humanistic study.”

And according to Elizabeth Minkel, of How We Get to Next, the idea that science is superior because it “comes from a place of pure objectivity is a commonly held assumption—and dangerous one.”

Indeed, warned science writer John Horgan, science’s desire for certainty can become a trap. Socrates said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing,” and the humanities:

  • give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism
  • are subversive
  • undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific
  • remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves
  • tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways.

“This skepticism,” Horgan said, “is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be.”

“Science is becoming increasingly dogmatic and arrogant in our era,” according to Horgan, “which is why we need the humanities to foster a healthy anti-dogmatism.”

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Work for Truth

Galileo's 'somewhat shriveled, spindly finger' preserved in the Galileo Museum in Florence

Alice Dreger, a medical social advocate and bioethicist, titled her book Galileo’s Middle Finger for the actual digit preserved in the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. She considers it a symbol of “Galileo’s contentious nature, his belief in the righteousness of science, his ego, his burning knowledge that he and Copernicus were right.”

In GMF, Dreger describes the necessity of insisting on empirical truth for the establishment of justice:

The activists who founded the United States—the Founding Fathers—understood the critical connection between freedom of thought and freedom of person. They understood that justice (freedom of person) depends upon truth (freedom of thought), and that the quest for truth cannot occur in an unjust system. It’s no coincidence that so many of the Founding Fathers were science geeks. These guys were rightly stoked about the idea that humans working together had it in their power to know and to improve the world—scientifically, technologically, economically, politically. These were men of the Enlightenment who had broken through dogma into a fantastic new vision for humankind: crowdsourcing. No longer would knowledge and power flow from top down, following archaic rules of authority and blood inheritance. In science as in political life, the light of many minds would be brought to bear to decide together what is right and is just. In such a system, a man arguing for a new vision of the universe could never be arrested merely for the argument, no matter how much it threatened those in power….

If we have any hope of maintaining freedom of thought and freedom of person in the near and distant future, we have to remember what the Founding Fathers knew: That freedom of thought and freedom of person must be erected together. That truth and justice cannot exist one without the other. That when one is threatened, the other is harmed. That justice and thus morality require the empirical pursuit….

As Dreger insists, “If you want justice, you must work for truth.”

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The Hunting of a Man

In Emile Gaboriau’s The Widow Lerouge, considered by some to be “the first detective novel,” amateur detective Père Tabaret gushed about the thrill of solving a crime:

“I shrug the shoulder when I see a foolish fellow pay twenty-five francs for the right of hunting a hare. What a prize! Give me the hunting of a man! That calls the faculties into play, and the victory is not inglorious! The game in my sport is worth the hunter. He has against him intelligence, force and cunning. The arms are nearly equal. Ah! if people knew the excitement of these parties of hide and seek which are played between the criminal and the detective, everybody would be wanting employment at the bureau of secret police.”

But for the last 50 years, despite steady advances in forensic technology like DNA profiling, digital fingerprint matching and bullet fragment analysis, the percentage of US homicide cases that are solved has been decreasing, from 90 percent in 1965 to 64 percent in 2012.

Three reasons are typically given for this change:

  1. A shift in the profile of the typical murder
  2. A decline in the resources devoted to crime solving
  3. Worsening relationships between the police and the public

During the 1960s and ’70s, “crimes of passion,” where the victim knows the killer, accounted for about 70 percent of US homicides. Some criminal investigators claim, however, that an increase in drugs and gangs means the crimes now more often involve strangers and are thus harder to solve than those between family members or friends. A fear of retaliation can also make witnesses to these crimes reluctant to cooperate, according to a study by three FBI researchers.

Others point to decreased emphasis on the police work needed to solve cases. “The crime waves of the 1970s and ’80s pushed police departments toward prevention strategiesbroken-window patrols, more officer visibility in high-crime areas, stop-and-frisk—and solving crimes became secondary,” according to Michigan State University criminologist David L. Carter.

Decreasing the initial response time and raising the number of detectives assigned to solving a case can lead to more homicide arrests, according to a 1999 Maryland study. But cuts in municipal budgets have made many cities unable to reduce investigators’ homicide investigation caseloads to manageable levels.

Additionally, mistrust of the police and a corresponding unwillingness to cooperate with investigators can make the new forensic techniques less effective. Houston police Sergeant Mike Peters insisted, “Technology is great, but it’s the ability to get people to talk that’s important. That solves cases.” As the author of the definitive manual on homicide investigation said, “If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us.”

Data compiled by the Murder Accountability Project points to a clear correlation between the number of crimes that are solved and the number that are committed. It shows that in cities where the percentage of crimes solved is above average, the murder rate is just over half that of cities where the percentage solved is below average.

What would it take to imbue more police departments with Monsieur Tabaret’s excitement for the pursuit of criminals and to convince their communities that, indeed, they are pursuing justice?

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Getting Better, VIII

If you’re feeling despair about the fate of humanity in the 21st century, you might want to reconsider

I won’t go as far as the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who said that “2017 was the best year in human history,” but I’m all about celebrating these items from Future Crunch’s 99 reasons 2017 was a great year:

  1. Cancer deaths have dropped by 25% in the United States since 1991, saving more than 2 million lives.
  2. Premature deaths for the world’s four biggest non-communicable diseases­—cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory—have declined by 16% since 2000.
  3. Global deaths from tuberculosis have fallen by 37% since 2000, saving an estimated 53 million lives.
  4. Nearly 1.2 billion people around the world have gained access to electricity in the last 16 years.
  5. The United States’ official poverty rate reached 12.7%, the lowest level since the end of the global financial crisis. And the child-poverty rate reached an all time low, dropping to 15.6%.
  6. The cost of solar plants in the United States dropped by 30% in one year.
  7. Solar energy is now responsible for one in every 50 new jobs created in the United States, and the clean energy sector is growing at 12 times the rate of the rest of the economy (24.5% since November 2015).
  8. JP Morgan Chase said it will source 100% of its energy from renewables by 2020 and will facilitate $200 billion in clean financing through 2025.
  9. Between 1990 and 2016, Europe cut its carbon emissions by 23% while the economy grew by 53%.
  10. The gender pay gap in the United States has narrowed from 36% in 1980 to 17% today. For young women the gap is now 10%.

As Kristof said, when people scream about all the things going wrong, “let’s not miss what’s going right.”

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Sisters of the Sun

Henry Draper was a physician, but his passion was astronomy. At age 36, he left his positions as professor and dean of medicine at New York University to spend more time working in his observatory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

On Henry Draper’s death in 1882, Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering informed Anna Palmer Draper that he intended to carry out her husband’s desire to photograph and classify the stars, and she agreed to support and fund the work. As a result, the observatory’s largely-female staff became pioneers of astrophotography, spectral analysis, and astrophysics.

Dava Sobel’s book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, describes how night after night and decade after decade, the women exposed glass plate negatives, capturing a spectrum for each star in the telescope’s field of vision by placing a prism in their telescopes. Annie Jump Cannon grouped the stars in their hundreds of thousands of photographs according to the character of each one’s spectrum and classified them into seven types designated by the letters O, B, A, F, G, K and M.

The 2014 television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey told of the Harvard women, as well, focusing on Cannon and Cecilia Payne in part of its eighth episode, Sisters of the Sun. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson emphasized not only Cannon’s classification system, but also—more than Sobol—the opposition initially provided for Payne’s important addition to it.

When Payne—an expert in theoretical and atomic physics—migrated from England to the United States in search of academic opportunity as a woman, she joined the Harvard team of researchers—now under director Harlow Shapley—and provided insight into the meaning of Cannon’s categories. Payne determined that, without knowing it, Cannon’s system had classified the stars from the hottest to the coldest.

By analyzing the chemical composition and physical state of the stars, Payne discovered that the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium; unlike on earth, all the other elements were present only in trace amounts. This contention was so stunning that it was initially disparaged by Princeton University professor Henry Norris Russell, the dean of American astronomers at the time, and Payne backed off the central claim of her thesis. But four years later, Russell affirmed that Payne was right.

Cosmos used this delayed acceptance to make a strong point about the uniqueness of the process of scientific discovery: “The words of the powerful may prevail in other spheres of human experience,” Tyson said. “But in science, the only thing that counts is the evidence and the logic of the argument itself.” Payne was quoted as saying, “I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to authority when I believed I was right. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”

The overriding impression of Sobol’s account of the work at Harvard Observatory is of passionate curiosity in the face of staggeringly tedious work which achieved a number of significant scientific discoveries:

  • By Henrietta Leavitt:
    • The brighter the magnitude of a star, the longer the period of its variation. Known as the period-luminosity relation, this became the fundamental method for determining the distance to a star.
  • By Harlow Shapley:
    • The universe is not centered on the sun, is magnitudes bigger than previously thought, and contains many other galaxies besides the Milky Way.
  • By Cecilia Payne:
    • The ratios of hydrogen and helium in the stars is a million times higher than on earth.
    • The stars are similar to one another in chemical composition, but vary in temperature.

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Getting Better, VII

From Future Crunch: Storms, Earthquakes, Fires and Floods Aren’t Nearly as Dangerous as They Used to Be.

It’s easy to exaggerate the frequency and magnitude of events that have happened recently.

Tragically, almost 10,000 people died in 2016 in natural disasters around the world. Yet that number almost surely would have been much greater without the development and implementation of better early warning systems, GPS, mobile phones, television, radio and the internet.

Just 50 years ago, twice as many people typically died in natural disasters as do today, and a 100 years ago, twenty times as many:

The number of people being killed by natural disasters has declined over the last century despite about five billion people being added to the planet; this is because the human race is a lot better off than we used to be:

  • More people in the path of a hurricane are able to evacuate in time.
  • Wildfires aren’t the mortal threat to entire communities that they used to be.
  • Services like water and sanitation, shelter and food are restored more quickly after a disaster, in the US and poorer countries.

Death tolls from natural disasters in Africa and Asia are still higher than in the West, but they’re far lower than they used to be.

Fewer people die in natural disasters than ever before. It’s important for us to acknowledge that, and celebrate it. Humanity does get things right sometimes.

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