Disrespecting Science


W.J. Astore

I grew up on science and the American space program.  My favorite character on “Star Trek” was Mr. Spock, the eminently logical Vulcan science officer.  I loved physics in high school and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering in college.  Later, I got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology, especially as these subjects relate to Christianity.

Suffice to say I have a deep respect and a fond affection for science.  That’s why it pains me to see the U.S. government taking positions against science, and specifically against global warming/climate change.

What disturbs me (among other things) is the denial of facts — the disparagement of science — by high officials in our government.  Denying global warming is like denying evidence of evolution.  People do the latter as a matter of faith — they take refuge in Creationism and Biblical literalism, partly because it’s easier, partly because they’re “true believers,” partly because they don’t trust experts, and partly because it’s flattering to their own self-image as being made in the image of God.  And there are certainly ministers within Christian sects who encourage their followers to reject science — it’s one way for these ministers to bolster their own authority.

The denial of the science of global warming is for some of the same reasons (it’s easier, lack of trust in experts) but largely due to capitalism and the desire for profit.  The ministers of capitalism are not about to cede authority to scientists, not on this issue at least.  There are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, and who wants to leave it there when there’s so much money to be made in extraction?  Damn the long-term costs to the environment and to vulnerable peoples worldwide — full speed ahead on short-term profits!

But as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, the global environment won’t be deterred by our denial of facts.  Environmental blowback is guaranteed — and will grow increasingly severe — as long as our government continues to ignore or downplay the high costs of burning fossil fuels.

In the aftermath of Sputnik and in the context of the Cold War, our government pushed science as a bulwark to democracy and freedom.  Now that same government is disrespecting science in the name of profitability and economic competitiveness.

As Mr. Spock might say, dissing science is not logical.  Nor will it end well for ourselves or our planet.

Charles Darwin Has Much to Teach Us About War

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

W.J. Astore.  Also at Huff Post.

America’s thinking about military action is impoverished. The U.S. military speaks of precision munitions and surgical strikes, suggesting a process that is controllable and predictable. Experts cite Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz for his axiom that war is a continuation of political discourse with the admixture of violent means. Here, military action is normalized as an extreme form of politics, suggesting again a measure of controllability and predictability.

But what if war is almost entirely imprecise and unpredictable? What if military action and its impacts are often wildly out of line with what the “experts” anticipate? In fact, this is precisely what military history shows, time and time again, to include recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. military action essentially acts like hammer blows that upset the state of nature within the complex ecologies of societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. These blows ripple in unpredictable directions, creating new states of nature that change the ecologies of these societies in fundamental ways. They further generate fault lines that are often contrary to U.S. goals and interests.

Charles Darwin can lend a hand in explaining why this is so. Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution with its idea of “the survival of the fittest,” although Darwin did not use that term when he originally published The Origin of Species in 1859. Indeed, Darwin’s view of evolution was highly complex and multifaceted, as befits a man who studied the natural world in great detail for his entire adult life.

In an earlier, unpublished version of his masterwork, Darwin employed a complex image, known as the “wedge” metaphor, to explain interactions within the natural world that led to species extinction. Here is the way Darwin described “The Struggle for Existence” in his Notebook prior to The Origin of Species:

Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten‐thousand sharp wedges, many of the same shape & many of different shapes representing different species, all packed closely together & all driven in by incessant blows: the blows being far severer at one time than at another; sometimes a wedge of one form & sometimes another being struck; the one driven deeply in forcing out others; with the jar & shock often transmitted very far to other wedges in many lines of direction: beneath the surface we may suppose that there lies a hard layer, fluctuating in its level, & which may represent the minimum amount of food required by each living being, & which layer will be impenetrable by the sharpest wedge.

In his model of the face of nature, Darwin showcases the interconnectedness of all species, together with the way in which changes to that face (the hammer blows) favor some species (wedges) while forcing out others. The hard layer, which represents the minimum amount of food for all, and which Darwin says cannot be penetrated, suggests an ecology that will continue to sustain life even as some species (wedges) are forced out and die off. The face of nature constantly changes, some species perish, but life itself endures.

How does Darwin’s wedge metaphor apply to military action? Consider, for example, U.S. airstrikes in the Middle East. They are the hammer blows, if you will, to the face of nature in the region. The wedges are various groups/sects/factions/tribes in the region. The U.S. believes its hammer blows will force out “bad” wedges, driving them toward extinction, which will ultimately improve the prospects of “good” wedges, such as so-called moderates in Syria. But what if U.S. blows (airstrikes and other violent military action) are driving radical sects (wedges) more deeply into the face of nature (in this case, the face of politics and society in the Middle East)? What if these radical sects, like Darwin’s driven wedges, are forcing out rival sects that are more moderate? What if the “jar & shock” of these U.S. military hammer blows is being propagated throughout Middle Eastern societies and Islam in ways that are as unpredictable as they are long-lasting?

Darwin’s complex wedge metaphor should make us think more deeply about the results of blows to complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems. Using military strikes in an attempt to destroy “bad” wedges may have the very opposite effect than the one intended. Instead of being destroyed, such wedges (such as the Islamic State) are driven deeper into the ecology of their communities, helping them to thrive, even as they send out vibrations “in many lines of direction” that harden the new ecology of the region against U.S. interests.

What, then, to make of Darwin’s “hard layer” in his wedge metaphor, which varies in its level but which persists in that no wedge may penetrate it? The “hard layer” represents that which all wedges can’t do without. All species are dependent on a source of food and energy, a source of sustenance to sustain reproduction. Darwin notes that the hard layer fluctuates, and though he doesn’t explicitly state it, those fluctuations must also act much like blows, displacing some wedges while favoring others with effects that ripple across the face of nature.

Rise or fall, the “hard layer” persists, meaning life on earth persists, even as individual species perish. Darwin explicitly states that no wedge can penetrate the hard layer, but here his metaphor breaks down when we consider humans as a wedge. Because humans can and do penetrate that layer. As a species, we do have the capacity to damage, even to destroy, the hard layer of nature upon which all species are dependent. We’re the killer wedge in the wedge metaphor.

Politically speaking, piercing that hard layer in the Middle East would be equivalent to igniting a new Crusade that leads to world war, one involving nuclear weapons or other forms of WMD. Devolution in place of evolution.

Of course, one shouldn’t push any metaphor too far. That said, Darwin’s “wedge” metaphor, in its imagery and subtlety, is more useful in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of military action than analogies that reduce war to exercises in precision surgery or power politics.

William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and former professor of history who edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

Creationism and Global Warming Denial in the USA — Updated

Creationism is bunk, though the idea of riding a dinosaur is cool
Creationism is bunk, though the idea of riding a dinosaur is cool

W.J. Astore

I grew up learning biology the old-fashioned way, i.e. by learning all about evolution and Charles Darwin.  I was also raised Catholic, where my priests explained to me that there was no conflict between evolutionary theories and Christianity.  The story of creation in Genesis, they explained to me, was meant to be read allegorically.  It wasn’t necessary to believe that God literally created the earth in six days, or that He created Adam from the dust of the earth or Eve from Adam’s rib.  What mattered as a Catholic was Christ’s two great commandments about loving God and thy neighbor.

The growing popularity of creationism and literal readings of the Genesis story sadden me.  Galileo taught us four centuries ago that the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.  Yet people want to invest the Bible with literal authority in all realms of life.  Should we start stoning adulterers again?

The growing popularity of creationism (and an aversion to challenging it) is an American version of Lysenkoism.  OK, creationism is not damaging crop yields, as Lysenkoism did in the Soviet Union.  And those who oppose creationism are not being exiled or imprisoned, as opponents of Lysenkoism were in Stalin’s time.

It’s true that creationism may not influence how real science is conducted in the U.S.  Yet at the same time, it does influence how science is taught in American schools, which is serious enough.  It also serves to discourage scientists from speaking out.  Aware of the highly politicized nature of debates about evolution, many scientists decide it is best to stay out of the public sphere.

But this reluctance to engage extends to issues that are far more pressing to our survival, most especially the issue of global warming/climate change.  Too many scientists, I believe, decide to remain above the fray.  They exempt themselves from public debate, which they see as too messy, too politicized, too time-consuming, and too demeaning.

By staying out of the public debate, scientists are making a political decision: they are ceding much of the public sphere to the evolution deniers (creationists) or global warming deniers.  Such deniers, whether they know it or not, are most definitely facilitating the interests of powerful corporate/state entities with trillions of dollars yet to make in the continued burning of fossil fuels.

Creationism is not real science, but it plays well with Biblical literalists and those who resent or who are afraid of intellectuals.  Global warming is real, but denying it plays well with those who have much to gain from our gas-guzzling lives of unbridled consumption.

Whether it’s creationism or global warming denial, the risk of politicized science in America is more serious to the earth’s ability to sustain life than Lysenkoism ever was.

Update (9/29/2013): The New York Times reports that more than 20 percent of the selection committee for biology textbooks in Texas consists of Creationists.  Texas, like California, is a huge market that drives textbook content for the remaining 48 states.  Those who are Creationists (and global warming deniers as well) say they simply want more “critical thinking.”  But the community of science is neither an encounter group nor a Bible study class.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence that life evolved on earth over billions of years, and also that human beings are contributing to global warming.  To question this on religious terms is to mix faith with fact.

I’d also point out that many evangelicals and Catholics in the past have had no trouble reconciling evolution with Christianity.  They are thoroughly reconcilable.  Today’s Creationist movement is about politics and power; it is not about evidence, and it is certainly not about science.  Nor is it really about faith, since evolution doesn’t threaten Christianity.

To paraphrase Spock, there is nothing logical about Creationism or global warming denial.  For an explanation, you must look to human emotions (distrust of elites), prideful ignorance (don’t you tell me what to believe), and the interests of those who have much to gain from acts of denial.