SUNDAY, April 23, 2017

March for Science

Some people are for science

Eric Lee, A-SOCIATED PRESS

TOPICS: MARCH OR RALLY, FROM THE WIRES, SCIENCE CANT

TUCSON (A-P) — I went to the March for Science yesterday and this is just a blog-type offering that may be of interest to some. It was the largest political event I've seen in Tucson, probably because I tend to avoid them (I did live in FDR Park in Philadelphia during the DNC 2016 and observed the protests—biggest day 5,000. Current estimate of Philly March for Science at 10,000). With the University of Arizona and Raytheon as major employers, there are many science supporters in the area, some of whom believe in political solutions and curry public support for funding. I wasn't going to make a sign. I was planning to 'go observ'n matters', but when I woke up that morning I wondered why I should go. Why? Just because I have a lifelong interest in science as a way of knowing?

The basic message was a given, that science is good and the public should support (fund) it. Too many scientific results cannot be reproduced. Someone has to be cranking out irreproducible science, and funding research serving special interests is problematic as published results tend to favor those paying for them. Most science, pre-twentieth century, was done by amateurs with the era of professional science being a mixed blessing. Industrial society values science for the milk and cheese and profit it brings, and not as merely a way of finding things out for no profitable reason apart from the hope that 'pure' research will enable unimagined profits someday. As Voltaire concluded, we need to tend our garden, weeding vigorously.

Some people get up and want to read the sports page or business section, or view current events. I read science news daily, when possible, instead—rarely doing more than scanning the headlines of current events so I can understand what others are talking about that they think matters. So I'm a fan boy of science as a way of knowing, of figuring things out, but does that mean I'm 'for science'? Depends on what you mean, so define science. That seems like a necessary starting point, so I envisioned a sign reading 'Define Science'. Good start, but maybe boiling it down to two alternatives that matter would be helpful. So that suggests science as a way of knowing and science as a way of using knowledge to do something others are willing to pay you to do. I favor science as a way of knowing, it may be a genetic defect—and I've never been paid to think about or do science.

The two ways to take an interest in science are different and not entirely consilient. Some would rather know, without regard to what they want or what benefits them. Others have an interest in and aptitude for science and seek to parlay that into a career or other furtherance of self-interest. Why? Well, because they are normal clothed apes other than being a bit more clever than average. Science becomes a way of getting what they want, and truth is okay, nice, but not alway the main concern. So I made a 22" x 29" sign and if I'd had time to print it would have looked like this:

So too many words, rather lame, not clear, not funny, and no time to refine. There were a lot of signs. I didn't speak to anyone about their's; nobody commented on mine. It was a rally for science, so I wanted to bring up some awkward concerns since critical thinking goes with what everyone present was so enthusiastically for. Question number one states my bias, and no interest in number two.

The third question fails to be clear. Most scientists, concerning matters within their field or specialty, would rather know than believe, because that's what the sub-SYSTEM of science tends to select for, so a 99% would be a reasonable figure. What I was thinking about, however, is the percentage who, across the board in matters of science, politics, religion, history, current affairs..., would rather know than believe as dominate concern, which has nothing to do with self-interest. Those for whom science serves their self-interest, predominately in ways that matters to them, fall into the last percentage as one can be rewarded only by serving the SYSTEM that serves humanity's interests unless one is up for a life of crime (defined as behavior that does not serve the SYSTEM but harms it) or one is okay being homeless or otherwise living a marginal life on the periphery. Go to any big city. Consider the high cost of living there most pay. How do they pay? They serve the SYSTEM.

Oh, and my guess as to percentages? For three, I'd go with 5% because I'm feeling ebullient today, leaving 95% for the next group. Even academics with tenure got there by serving the SYSTEM and old habits may die hard. An academic is free to succeed within the sub-SYSTEM of academia, which selects against views that question the SYSTEM's legitimacy. Ted Kaczynski was able to teach math since he had a PhD in it, but not to express his other concerns other than as an aside to those who probably didn't want to hear them, and so others tended to marginalize him. He couldn't tell students what they didn't want to hear, at least not very often, and would not have made tenure even if he could have willingly served the SYSTEM other than to make enough money to buy land in Montana. He was free only to publish in marginalized newsletters whose few readers mostly wouldn't have liked the implications of what he said (so he didn't bother).

During the rally I walked around wearing my 'Sustainability 101' sign when not solar cooking dinner and reading. An early speaker mentioned three signs he thought merited recognition, so I took notes. The signs: 'Let's Make America Smart Again', 'No Science No Beer', and 'I'm a Science Educator: What's Your Superpower?' Okay, cute and feel-good clever, but all three literally not true. There is no compelling evidence that America is recovering from collective brain damage (before Trump only 18% think the Sun orbits Earth, down from 25%, and more Americans are secular freethinkers than 50 years ago...), or that there was no beer before science, or that teaching anything is other than what humans do. This got me to paying closer attention to all the other signs, and, well, none of them, read other than as feel-good, pro-science, clever ape political chest-beating, had any real content or referenced any.

I did go over to the Students for Sustainability table wearing my sign. Any questions I had would be answered. I loitered for some time and asked if the student had read the book who's name I pointed to. No, but he said he'd look into it. Later on two other students were at the table so I stood about and finally asked both if they had read the book. 'No', and they started talking to one another so I left as my question had been clearly and fully answered. I'm guessing they had enough to read.

I tried to listen to the speakers, but it sounded like more of the same chant and cant. Just relentless feel-goodery. It was the same as all political cant, just 'for science' instead of whatever other cause or special interest the gathered may favor. I'm about as sciency as they come, but I could be wrong, and claiming that you support 'facts' to the cheering multitudes doesn't mean that you think that the best-guess offerings of science should be the basis for decision making at all levels within the SYSTEM. Some might initially agree, but would be horrified when the implications became manifest, e.g. that democracy is only good for deciding matters of taste. I had to remind myself that it was a political rally favoring a cause and that not all who support science would be attracted to political cant-as-usual even if it favored science.

After the 'March', while most were leaving, one person asked me what 'Sustainability 101' meant. I said it was the subtitle of Al Bartlett's 'Arithmetic, Population, and Energy' lecture. While we were talking someone wanted us to support their cause to protect racial minorities from being targeted for harassment or death. This implies a claim that they are and he asked, with interest, for references. If the SYSTEM is targeting black lives, then that would matter and evidence would be of interest. The activist could 'see where you are going with this' and left. The guy was wearing a 'Physics' shirt and was likely a University of Arizona student. If evidence had been referenced, I'd want to check it out and so evidently would he. His tenor of mind was of the 'would rather know' variety, and I was pleased to see it. He had to be off and I mentioned Bartlett had been professor emeritus of physics. He is likely to remember the name, my reference, and look into Bartlett's claims. I definitely would like to believe he will because Bartlett's claims merit consideration. But I could be wrong.

I hadn't brought the book I'm reading, thinking the speakers would say something of interest, but if all the speeches were transcribed and one just focused on the words, there was nothing said, the feel-good words, words, words were content free at best. Many of the spoken platitudes were clearly false, like the signs, if thought about. I had to find an alternative so I started rereading Demystifying Sustainability. William Rees (originator of 'ecological footprint' concept) is like the real deal. A veritable voice of sanity that I was feeling such a need for. The contrast of his words and what came out of the loud speakers was reviving, clarifying the mind wonderfully. I wondered what it would be like if a real scientist were to speak as a mind informed by real science interested in real solutions. I parsed the words from his Foreword into the needed voice of reason to tone down the political cant. Here's what he said (as imagined based on his Foreword—not word for word, but close):

The facts are that humans have a limited grasp of reality. We have, over the last half-century, agreed to deny reality. Our species is still evolving, is unfinished and improvable — but still subject to the demands of natural selection. Our putative grasp of reality bears on our prospects for sustainability, species survival, and you should be worried!

Three indisputable facts frame the analysis. First, since the dawn of agriculture, humanity's material and cognitive relationship with the rest of the natural world has become increasingly dysfunctional. The accumulating scientific evidence shows that humanity is now on a collision course with biophysical reality. Second, Homo sapiens has the high intelligence, analytic ability, organizational skills, and material resources needed to avoid catastrophe (Okay, this one is not a fact, but a hopeful conjecture that could become fact); third, despite such abilities, the global community, which includes scientists, has failed utterly to take the necessary evasive action. On the contrary, world leaders in resent decades, in apparent denial of the evidence, regularly unite in a vigorous chorus of 'steady as she goes'. Trump is just a continuance of business-as-usual, democracy at work.

'Perception' is at the heart of the problem. Humans rarely perceive anything just as it is. From birth, every sensory input and social encounter a person experiences contributes to the formation of various cognitive filters through which that person interprets all subsequent experiences. Thus, two individuals with different family, social, or educational backgrounds and social groups, especially political identity, create their own 'realities'. Consider how many differing cultural narratives, tribal myths, religious doctrines, political ideologies, disciplinary paradigms, ethical frameworks and other worldviews exist to divide the human family. We humans are, by nature, story-tellers and myth-makers who collectively, selectively and subconsciously make things up as we go along. As evidence, recall the speakers before me and likely the ones to follow.

Sociologists refer to this process as the 'social construction of reality' but it can function equally as the 'social construction of mass delusion'. Each 'social construct' is a product of mind first birthed in words and subsequently 'massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by agreement among members of the social group who are creating the construct'. It is important to note that while 'what we know' may masquerade as reality: (1) all formal knowledge is to some degree socially constructed; (2) not all versions of 'truth' can be equally valid; and (3) many objects and phenomena (e.g. the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics) really exist regardless of whether or how people conceive of them.

Not surprisingly, there are myriad conflicting definitions of 'sustainability' and 'sustainable economic development', not to mention 'reality'. General system science informs us that we are a dependent part of nature whose societies and economies must be structured to reflect these basic biophysical facts to avoid human extinction. Human societies will learn to exist in harmony with the ecosystems that sustain them or else they too shall pass away. Ancient peoples learned, often the hard way, to think of the human-nature bond in terms of harmony, balance, reverence, sacredness, respect, custodianship, stewardship, beauty, and even love. A modern economy based on such values would necessarily mimic the 'steady-state' material cycles and energy flows through nature; humans would neither take more than ecosystems can produce nor discharge more wastes than they can assimilate on a continuous (i.e. 'sustainable') basis. An overriding principle would be the maintenance of biophysical life-support functions. It is hard to imagine an economy so conceived not being sustainable.

At the other end of the belief spectrum are the Anthrhopocene enthusiasts who argue that humans have transcended their lowly biological origins. By this construct, people are no longer part of, or dependent on nature, and owe no allegiance to the natural world. Such human 'exceptionalism' dissolves fear of climate change, the ecological crisis and resource shortages. Indeed, human ingenuity and technological prowess are the only resources that matter, infinitely capable of seeing us through any temporary set-back. Listen to the ebullient confidence of the late Professor Julian Simon (business administration):

Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature.... We have in our hands now — actually, in our libraries — the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.

Admittedly extreme (and arithmetically absurd—at 1% growth rate Earth's human population in 7 billion years, doubling every 70 years, would be 'Invalid input' per my calculator so I couldn't calculate how many more humans would be living on Earth than subatomic particles in the universe), such assertions nevertheless feed the widespread contemporary belief that humanity has freed itself from material bonds to the living Earth (emotional bonds never enter the discussion). Thus liberated, the global mainstream, which includes mainstream science, has fabricated a 'sanitised' version of sustainability that shifts the focus from harmony, integrity and caring to the cold mechanics of perpetual growth monitored by GDP per capita with occasional reference to 'carbon footprints', 'energy audits' and related forms of routine book-keeping. Alternative would be to use Odum's emergy accounting system, but most scientists, including ecologists, have failed to recognize Odum's 'better view'.

It doesn't end there. The operational platform for mainstream sustainability is corporate capitalism and its hand-maiden, neoliberal market economics. The neoliberal construct gives us a lifeless, mechanistic model of the economy concerned mainly with maximizing the efficiency and productivity of a 'self-generating circular flow of exchange value' (the flows of money back and forth between firms and households) and the accumulation of human-made capital. With remarkable conceptual sleight of mind, economists have thus constructed an abstraction of the economy that floats free from both the ecosystems within which the economy is embedded and the human community it purports to serve. Moreover, seeing the economy as a circular money flow with no attention to unidirectional energy and material throughput is akin to considering the human body as a circulatory system with no reference to the digestive track. One might as well ask an engineering student to accept that 'a car can run on its own exhaust'.

As telling, the ethical stance of neoliberal economics toward the living world is 'utilitarian, anthropocentric and instrumentalist....' It is utilitarian in that things count to the extent that people want them; anthropocentric, in that humans are assigning the values and instrumental, in that biota is regarded as an instrument for human satisfaction'. As final insult to reality, the model assumes that market outcomes are determined by rational individuals expressing fixed consumption preferences, where 'rational' is defined as maximizing personal 'utility'. The model thus reduces people to atomistic consuming machines devoid of family, community, sense of place and empathy toward the natural world. Ironically, the worldview that breathes life into mainstream economics sounds the death knell for ecological integrity. The only connection between mainstream economic theory and the living world is that perpetual growth remains the largest elephant in the room.

It should be easy for reasonable people to choose between competing visions of sustainability — but there is a complication. So-called 'post-modernists' claim that, since all knowledge is socially constructed there can be no objective reality; modern science, therefore, has no greater claim to truth than alternative ways of knowing. Indeed, extreme relativism would assert that lunacy and science have an equivalent grasp on reality.

This is dangerous psycho-babble. It is particularly nonsensical when the competing constructs pertain to concrete entities and real processes that exist apart from human imaginings. To be useful in addressing problems in the real world, 'words and concepts must be anchored in external reality'. Only climate catastrophe or some other massive ecological shock will be enough to discredit today's expansionary cultural narrative and force the world community to hit the re-set button to install a new OS. Will it then be too late?

More optimistically, if Mother Nature is extraordinarily generous, she may yet give science and protest politics enough time to nudge society toward an orderly transition. After all, humans remain uniquely capable of logical thought, of reasoning from the evidence and of using the results to plan ahead; and no other species comes close to H. sapiens' array of flexible mechanisms for cooperation in achieving common purpose. It helps that millions of people in the streets can be politically persuasive. What more does the world need to shed its fantasies, come to its senses and evolve a more viable global culture?

In the final analysis, nothing stands in the way of our species' survival but human nature — behavioral traits that were once robust have become maladaptive in the very environment they have helped to create, including verbal behavior, i.e. belief-based political narratives. If, in the crunch, primitive emotions, tribal instincts and culturally-programmed denial succeed in their defense of today's ecologically naive expansionist world-view, then nature's great unfinished experiment with high intelligence may well be shut down. We know from the implosion of previous civilizations that natural selection weeds out defective memes (units of cultural information) just as effectively as it does maladaptive genes (units of biological information). In short, if modern global society fails to 'demystify sustainability' and act accordingly, it may be just as unceremoniously 'selected out' as were the Sumerians, the Mayans and many societies in between. It's going to take more than calling for science to be better funded to grow the economy faster or to be better liked by the public. As noted, we, almost all us clever people, have agreed to deny reality.

Fifty years ago the public and their intelligentsia, including most professional scientists, slowly became aware that humans, despite the exuberant growth pulse they were living in that looked so on the up and up, where facing biophysical limits. It was a minority of scientists in the 1960s and 1970s whose names were associated with the warnings. They were marginalized, at best, and other scientists, a larger minority within the halls of academia, took note, but their concerns were not spoken loudly. A few entered the fray but succeeded only in increasing public and intelligentsia cognitive dissonance. To continue serving the prosperous (for a time) growth system, the 99%, including many scientists, needed to be distracted. Julian Simon was taken seriously. The intelligentsia needed to deny biophysical reality, and so The Limits to Growth was demonized, Garrett Hardin became an ecofascist who should be 'castrated with a dull aluminum spoon', and Odum's science was ignored outside and within academia as much as possible. Society is social media. The intelligentsia just do it in print and use bigger words. Scientists, on the whole, were not deceived, and occasionally warned humanity while seeking safety in numbers, but, per business-as-usual, the world ignored the messengers. Telling people what they don't want to hear is... well, what I'm doing now, so I'll tell you a bit more.

Post-truth is nothing new. It swept through the university systems in the 1970s in the form of postmodernism, and psycho-babble is alive and flourishing in other forms (e.g. gender studies) in many departments. To deny biophysical reality, it takes wordsmiths and heaps of wordsmithery. If you support science, let's go to the nearby university, ground zero for wordsmithing, and protest society's collective disinterest in real solutions secondary to ongoing denialism. Whenever someone offers another political solution, remember, you can always say, 'meanwhile the pace of planetary distruction will not slow' and almost always be right. Real solutions begin with understanding energy principles and making them central to decision making at all levels. Human rights won't matter if there are no humans to claim them.

In keeping with a need at such events to wax rhetorical, and maybe get people to shake their fists, I wrote the last two paragraphs, so Rees is innocent, though inspiring.



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