Today is Earth Day, and many folks will be out marching for science. There are lots of reasons one might do this–provides the grist for technological advance, allows for finding ways of living longer and better, etc–but GG would like to explore a different tack.
GG was recently in Ireland, and at geologic sites like Giant’s Causeway and the Cliffs of Moher he looked for books on geology in the visitor center stores. There was one rather generic book on deep time at Giant’s Causeway (with a cover shot of the Grand Canyon) and nothing at the Cliffs of Moher. There were, on the other hand, fistfuls of books on Irish history, most of which dealt with events nowhere near the places where the books were being sold. This is hardly unique to these places, but it is sobering. Here are landscapes–geological landscapes–that people have travelled some distance to see, and there isn’t enough interest for there to be even one book specific to the place?
The point? People seem to gravitate to history books but avoid science books. Science books, it would seem, are too heavy for casual reading. Many of the marchers today may feel science is important, but you wonder if they would pick up a science book while on vacation. Now perhaps this reflects a certain inability of those writing science to author accessible books (but there are some really excellent science writers out there), but it might also mean that folks feel that science is best left to scientists. Just give me my smartphone, thanks, and make sure the plane gives me a smooth ride home and all is good.
Science can be more though than just the mechanism by which we find our way to new and better gadgets. It can also provide the same kind of insights into the human experience that we seek in art and literature. But by limiting science to an academic pursuit, the public misses out on this facet of the scientific enterprise.
This is why GG wrote The Mountains that Remade America. The book fuses human history with geological history, so in some ways it is a bit deceptive–here is some nice tasty history, and oh by the ways, there is some geology here too–try it, just a smidgen, and you’ll get a bit more yummy history. Who we are, why we do things some ways, how we live in others is rooted in the geology of a region, but this aspect of history is buried in most of those history books cluttering visitor center shelves. Hundreds of books address the California Gold Rush. Few if any consider how the gold got to be there–or that the presence of different kinds of gold deposits dictated how the rush would affect later history. Or consider how John Muir’s idolization of empty landscapes might have been different had he been tramping in the Rockies with Indian settlements all around instead of the High Sierra where occupation was purely seasonal.
So today, as many trumpet how important science is as a practical matter, don’t forget that science is a human endeavor, and there is real gratification in learning the origin stories that make us what we are.
GG doesn’t really need to review such a prominent movie (particularly a movie that was based on a non-fiction book that hadn’t even been published when they were filming), but there are some points he’d like to make (aside from recommending both movie and book).
The movie focuses on one particular moment in time for the black women computers (yes, it was a job before it was a machine) of Langley around the time of the Mercury program. As such, the movie rearranges many of the events documented in the book into a shorter timeframe (for instance, Mary Jackson’s long hikes to the segregated bathroom in the early 50s-and her angry tirade leading her to work in the wind tunnel group-were transferred to Katherine Goble in 1961, who had in fact ignored the absence of a Colored bathroom in her building by simply using the nearest available women’s room). It also seems to amplify the racial tensions within Langley (especially with the supervisor of the white female computers and the flight engineering group) compared to the book’s broader view of Langley as more of a refuge from the Jim Crow Virginia these women lived in outside of work. These cinematic choices are not bad, and the movie does more or less convey the barriers the women faced and overcame. This does make the movie more coherent than the book, which probably needed a bit more development time, because the narrative thread in the text gets tangled from time to time. So it is a feel-good movie about the unjustly oppressed getting at least some justice based on a groundbreaking book that is long overdue.
GG’s point is that this is also a cautionary tale, and this is clearer in the book than the movie. The book (unlike the movie) addresses the educational barriers these women faced, both in being black and female in the south. By focusing on the few who had the combination of luck and skill to succeed, both the movie and book bury the fact that this means there were many others with less luck but, probably, equal skill whose contributions were never made because of discrimination. A point too rarely made is that discrimination not only hurts those discriminated against, but it denies the rest of society the contributions those victims could have made. And although the overt legal discrimination of the past is gone, the continued dearth of minority faces in science in general and in the earth sciences in particular suggests that some styles of discrimination remain. Because of that, we are poorer as a discipline.
Well, GG is hoping that AGU gives him an opportunity to move back into science discussions, but one last thing (let’s hope!) from the election before we make that move. Professors are always looking for lessons in the real world to carry to their students, and GG thinks there is a pretty good one in Trump’s victory. We might someday thank Donald Trump for the campaign he ran, not so much for the policy outcomes but for the lesson that the American republic is not immune to demagoguery.
Many op-ed types wrote immediately after the election that disappointed voters should not equate Trump’s victory with Germany in 1932, when Hitler was elected to the post of Chancellor. They claimed that the U.S. had far stronger traditions and rules against the kind of arbitrary power Hitler eventually used. GG sort of agrees, but for different reasons. While we might have things like the Constitution and more than 200 years of tradition, we also have in the Presidency the kind of power that Hitler did not have until Hindenburg’s death in 1934. No, the telling difference is that the demagogue Hitler had truly evil intentions, hatred and revenge stoked his ambition; the demagogue Trump seems to have been mostly motivated by narcissism and might well have started his campaign as a means of getting free press for his businesses (heavens knows there were times his campaign stops seemed more like infomercials for a Trump property).
Time will tell whether Trump’s Presidency is a success or not, but he has established a blueprint for those with more malice to gain control of government. Lying, expounding on conspiracy theories, name-calling, fear-mongering are all in the playbook. All of this has kicked around at times in American history, but never to the point of this level of success. The question for America will be, how do we respond? Do we continue down this road, eagerly eating up the most salacious rumors that appeal to our gut, thinking the worst of some of our fellow citizens? Or do we find out how to reward leadership that acknowledges reality and makes promises that can, at least, be guiding stars for policies when in office?
If we inoculate ourselves against false news and rumor, if we determine to marginalize the aluminum-foil-hat tendency both in the public and in ourselves, we might have reason to celebrate Donald Trump, not necessarily for what he does as President but for what he taught us as a candidate. If not, we will rue the day others learn more from Trump than we have.
Remember when this was a funny introduction to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update?
“I’m Norm Macdonald, and now the fake news”
Not so funny today.
There are two different things today: the fake news isn’t funny, and a lot of people (apparently, at times, including the President-elect) don’t know it is the fake news. Consider a Trump surrogate’s statement that “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Or BuzzFeed’s analysis indicating that more fake news than real news was passing through Facebook prior to the election. Or the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology tweeting forward a Briebart story claiming that global temperatures have plunged. Strong indications of foreigners creating and amplifying false news with an intent to do damage are worrying.
Part of this is the fracturing of news sources. There is no successor to Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America.” The blurring between news and entertainment long ago has led to the embarrassing situation where viewers of a comedy show might be better informed than those watching a news channel. People often can’t figure out who is telling the truth, so they give up and just listen to the voices that say what they want to hear.
As a scientist, this is terribly distressing. There are indeed facts, many of which are crucial to understanding and choosing between different policy choices. Now some of what we are seeing is a return to what we had more than a century ago, when yellow journalism distorted or fabricated the news; such behavior was capable of driving the nation to war, an outcome fatal to many soldiers in the past but potentially fatal to civilization today. “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” was said more than 300 years ago by Jonathon Swift and variants of “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on” has made the rounds for more than 150 years. But, you know, there were facts and there were lies, and now we are being asked to accept that neither really exist anymore.
This is pure crap.
This mindset is so contrary to science, so contrary to the creation and execution of any plans, whether they be business plans, holiday plans, or government initiatives, that it corrupts anything it touches and must be fought. So, some suggestions, though GG guesses readers of this blog hardly need them. Feel free to pass them on.
Subscribe (meaning paying money) to some news organizations that practice actual journalism (you know, the one where there is checking on multiple sources, etc.). Dead tree or virtual, makes no difference. You can pick from left-leaning and right-leaning publications, from local news organizations to international ones, from specialty journals to general news outlets. If the money isn’t there, real journalism won’t happen. You can also support sites like factcheck.org and politifact.com. (Factcheck has a special science check section). Yes, GG pays for three daily newspapers (local, regional, national), two weekly newsmagazines and two monthly specialty magazines.
Challenge your representative(s) in government when they are promoting lies and misinformation. Demand that they support the freedom of the press. Congratulate them when they do stand up for facts.
Avoid forwarding click-bait stories or email rumors without checking them out yourself. Snopes.com is one excellent place to check on these. Don’t succumb to the “I will educate myself through Twitter (or Facebook)” notion advanced by a Trump voter in Boulder; social media is great for learning about friends’ activities but an ill-considered source for actual news. If you can verify that the information somebody has sent you is wrong, send back a polite note with the links to information showing how the meme is incorrect.
Read real journalism that challenges your world view. Be curious while remaining skeptical.
We stand on a pair of precipices. Nuclear war, while distant now from minds accustomed to a post-Cold War globe, can end civilization in minutes. Mindless nationalism has fueled avoidable conflicts between countries before. Global warming might or might not cripple civilization, but it is hard to see how increasing droughts, increasing extinctions, ocean acidification and rising sea level will not provoke conflict. The denial of facts makes it easier to assert a cause for war or a denial of any need to change behavior or incentives. Denial of facts, in essence, prevents intelligent reaction to the world we all inhabit. You know, that world the fake news tries to hide from.
Recently The Daily Show had their correspondent Jordan Klepper talk with some Trump supporters and his discussions led him to ask them “What would Donald Trump have to say for you to change your mind about supporting him?” Many answered that there wasn’t anything he could say that would change their minds. Arguably you could have done something similar with the most rabid of Bernie Sanders’s supporters, many of whom still deny that Clinton greatly out-polled Sanders in the primaries, so this is not necessarily a right wing/left wing kind of thing. Unfortunately, the same lack of logic seems present in confronting issues like climate change, GMOs, and vaccines.
Why bring this up here? Because there should always be the possibility that there is evidence that could change your mind.That is arguably the part of the “scientific method” that everybody should learn. Admittedly at times it can be hard to put a pin in what, exactly, it might take to overturn well-established theories. For instance, what would it take to toss geological history as we now understand it and accept Noah’s Flood as literally true and the cause of all the geology we see? It is hard to comprehend the full list, but for starters there would need to be strong evidence that radiometric dating is wrong, that interpretation of geological facies is wrong, and that you can create angular and buttress unconformities with unconsolidated sediment. However, at the cutting edge things get tidier. What would it take for GG to believe that the High Plains rose in the past 5 million years? Perhaps a mechanism with relevant observations to support it. The development of a robust paleoaltimeter showing such a result. Maybe there is a way to show that incision of the High Plains cannot be the product of changes in climate.
If close-mindedness is a problem when it affects voters, it is an absolute plague when it infects legislators. The idea of a representative democracy is that the representatives will take the time to fully evaluate the relevant facts before deciding on a course of action; since it is their job, they should be able to understand issues more completely than their electorate. Ideally they should be able to communicate back to their electorate why they might be voting differently than their voters back home think they should vote. (Does this happen at allanymore?). In such a world, we would not be seeing arguments about the existence of human-caused climate change, we would be seeing arguments on how to address it (How much should we rely on natural gas as a bridge fuel? Should nuclear energy be a part of the mix? Is there a role for carbon capture? Carbon tax, or cap and trade?). Those kinds of arguments are quite amenable to compromise; denying factual evidence, on the other hand, is a stonewall.
And so, perhaps, one of the things we in the scientific world should emphasize is that we do change our minds when the evidence demands it.That, perhaps, is the greatest good we can do for the public at large, more than any research finding we might make.
Awhile back Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School came and spoke at CIRES here at CU about how opinions on a politicized topic like global warming tracks more with political identity and actually can harden with greater scientific literacy. It is a depressing feeling as most of us feel that the cure for people not agreeing with the science is to get them to understand the science; instead it seems that the ones best equipped to reconsider their opinion use those tools to justify their opinion rather than reconsider it.
So it is with something of a sigh of relief that some recent work by Kahan and colleagues points toward a crack in the facade of denying the science (thank you, BBC for noting this). Adding to their previous measure of scientific literacy, they created a measure of scientific curiosity. This in and of itself is rather innovative, but then they find that members of both liberal and conservative tribes are more open to considering evidence against their tribe’s opinion if they score higher on the curiosity scale.
Unfortunately this is a somewhat secondary effect. While scientifically curious conservatives are nearly twice as likely to think global warming is mostly due to human carbon emissions, this is still only getting from 20% to 40% while political affiliation is a far stronger predictor of an opinion. Still, this points to the people on the opposite side of the political fence you have the best chance of convincing. In a sense, you are looking for people who like to have their world view challenged.
Of course Kahan et al. note that this is a pretty early part of this kind of research and so the results might change, but it is certainly intriguing. It suggests that if we worry more about encouraging students to look for stuff they don’t believe in, we might get a public more capable of absorbing new results from the scientific community.
OK, while pondering the bizarre motivations for evil alien monsters (must…destroy…schoolbus…which can dodge plasma blasts even as fighter jets cannot), GG wondered, why would any alien civilization want to conquer or destroy Earth?
Arguably the most likely reason would have something to do with our biosphere. Maybe there are cool new medicines to be found–the cure for some intergalactic plague. Or maybe they really are into zoos (hmm, didn’t Kurt Vonnegut go there?). Our biosphere is presumably highly unique and probably pretty rare (current enthusiasm for planets possibly harboring life not withstanding).
Not knowing anything about alien ecosystems or diseases or the like, can’t really go any further. Is there anything else special about Earth? In the past, movies and some science fiction have used the water on Earth as a main motivation (see Oblivion for a recent example). But water is simply hydrogen–which is widespread–and oxygen, which is also pretty common. If you have the muscle to move spaceships all over the place, making water is probably not that hard to do.
Oddly enough, one possibility is one that feels more like motivation for a spy movie and not for some extra-terrestrial invasion: gold.
Now gold on Earth isn’t the most common thing, but the funny part is that there is a lot more of it near the earth’s surface than you’d expect. If you make Earth by condensing all the material in the solar nebula at about this distance from the Sun, you kind of expect the gold to all end up in the core [woo-hoo! Another motivation for a movie about the core–travel there to get gold!]. Although this difference might be related to other elements present in early Earth and issues with experimental simulation of the partitioning of gold between core and mantle, if this is real, a decent proposal is that things like gold and iridium were emplaced on the earth’s surface in the Late Heavy Bombardment period just under 4 billion years ago (a review of much of this can be found here; a popular science story here and a 2011 Nature article providing observational support is here). What this might mean is that the earth might be uncommonly rich in metals like gold. And if our solar system were unusually rich in gold to start with (the production of gold in stars requires either supernovae or even more exotic events), we might be quite unusual. So maybe a good ET movie might combine sci-fi and a Ft. Knox heist….
Of course you’d have to have some big reason for wanting gold (hint: probably not to make coins with). But gold is exceptionally malleable and resistant to corrosion; it is also an exceptional conductor. Perhaps there is some kind of gold-based superconductor out there (so Earth could be Avatar’s Pandora for some other species).
GG will wait for that call from Hollywood….