Tag Archives: Science

The Animal Awards: This year there are 50 winners!

The Ice Lover Award goes to the Polar Bear, the Crafty Hunter Award goes to the Tiger, and the Terribly Tall Award goes to the Giraffe, as usual.

This new coffee-table format kids book, The Animal Awards: Celebrate NATURE with 50 fabulous creatures from the animal kingdom, by Martin Jenkins with illustrations by Tor Freeman*, is a rollicking riot of excellent information about (fifty) animals, with fun illustrations.

The ceremony is about to begin. Roll up, roll up, roll up! The ceremony is about to begin so prepare to be amazed. We’re here to celebrate the crème de la crème of the animal kingdom, and shine a spotlight on the finest achievements and unique qualities of some special individuals. Among others, we will be awarding prizes to the fastest, the oldest, the strongest, the smelliest, the tallest, and the longest. We have some unusual prize winners and some quite scary ones, too. As we run through our short lists you’ll have the privilege of meeting our esteemed guests from dangerous, frogs to organised ants, to spiders that have devised all sorts of strange and admirable ways of catching their food. It’s been a really difficult job choosing winners but we hope you approve and find plenty to marvel at in this beastly line-up of champions. Now put your hands together and clap! The Animal Awards is about to begin…

Tor Freeman is a London-based illustrator. In 2012 she was awarded the Sendak Fellowship. In 2017 she won the Guardian Graphic Short Story Prize. Her books include the Digby Dog and Olive series.

Martin Jenkins is conservation biologist and children’s writer. His jobs have varied greatly: “I’ve been an orchid-sleuth in Germany, a timber detective in Kenya and an investigator of the chameleon trade in Madagascar.” His titles include Emperor’s Egg, winner of the Times Junior Information Book of the Year Award, Can We Save the Tiger, winner of the SLA Award, and Gulliver’s Travels, winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal. He lives in Cambridge and London.

Some excellent books for kids just in time for the holidays

But they are not holiday books, and they cover a range of ages.

Be Brave, Be Brave, Be Brave: A True Story of Fatherhood and Native American Heritage* by Native American author F. Anthony Falcon comprises the thoughts of the author about what lessons he would pass from his heritage to his son.

There is also a Hurricane. This is a large format picture book with text to read to a young one, mainly. Adults will enjoy the read as well.

Copycat Science and Nature’s Light Spectacular are two books I have already reviewed. They are excellent, highly recommended, and I’m putting this reminder here to remind you now that ’tis the season to give your covid-quarantined friends and relatives with kids a nice book.

For littler kids just learning to read and spell, The B on Your Thumb: 60 Poems to Boost Reading and Spelling by Colette Hiller* is a clever expose of the irony of letters and words designed to help kids spell in this zany, crazy, language called English.

Continuing along on the theme of words, since your first kid ate the last letter book, consider a newer version, printed on heavy card stock and with no sharp edges, ABC for Me: ABC What Can I Be?: YOU can be anything YOU want to be, from A to Z by Sugar Snap Studio* adds adventure and diversity to this genre. Each entry (I think there are about 26 of them) is a person in a profession, such as “Game Developer” and “Helicopter Pilot.”

All of these books are solid works of printing, colorful, excellently illustrated, well composed and written, and fun.

Super Cheap Super Science eBooks

For some reason there is a sudden avalanche of of inexpensive (most $2 or less) of kindle science books that are good, and a couple of other not so science books that also happen to be good and on sale. Without further ado:

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Anil Ananthaswamy. Sais to be “A thrilling ride around the globe and around the cosmos.” —Sean Carroll.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018 (The Best American Series ®) edited by Sam Kean. An amazing diversity of topics, including politics of and in science.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that “the longitude problem” was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day-and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives and the increasing fortunes of nations hung on a resolution. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution-a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land.

Out There: A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter, and Human Space Travel (For the Cosmically Curious) by Michael Wall. In the vein of Randall Munroe’s What If? meets Brian Green’s Elegant Universe, a writer from Space.com leads readers on a wild ride of exploration into the final frontier, investigating what’s really “out there.”

Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto by Alan Stern. Called “spellbinding” (Scientific American) and “thrilling…a future classic of popular science” (PW), the up close, inside story of the greatest space exploration project of our time, New Horizons’ mission to Pluto, as shared with David Grinspoon by mission leader Alan Stern and other key players.

And, not science but still cheap right now:

The classic Texas: A Novel.

Eleanor: The Years Alone

He, She and It: A Novel by Marge Piercy.

Conflict of Interest in Science

There is a great deal of overlap and integration between government agencies, private corporations including Big Pharm and Big Ag and Big Whatever, university and other research institutions, and the scientist and others who work in these places.

This topic is addressed in the latest episode of the science podcast Ikonokast, which also includes details about a recent minor scandal involving GMO research and squirrels. And maybe bears.

Check it out: Episode 22 – Ethics, Conflict of Interest, and Science

Weather, Climate Change, Influenza, and Wizards

Attributing major weather related disasters, such as the current wildfires in California or the recent heat waves in Japan, to climate change is a little like attributing deaths due to respiratory illness to influenza.

Before going further with that concept, let me be clear: Those extreme weather events are highly unlikely to have happened had there been no global warming. Not only does global warming increase the chances of those events happening, but also, in some cases, without global warming it would be almost impossible for certain events to occur. Warming of the planet due to the human release of greenhouse gases has quantitatively changed key aspects of the Earth’s weather system so extremes in one direction (like heat, stronger storms, flooding, etc) are more common and more severe. It also appears that human caused global warming has qualitatively changed the climate so things happen now that would simply not have been a thing in the past, or that would have been very rare indeed.*

The comparison between the flu and global warming is not an analogy. Or it wouldn’t be a very good one, in any case, assuming a good analogy takes a concept you are very familiar with and points out parallels between that system and some system you understand less. Indeed, I assume you understand the idea that a warmer world makes for more heat waves pretty clearly, and at the same time, I’m pretty sure most people don’t actually know how we even know how bad a flu season is. I don’t assume everyone understands influenza, so I know I did not just hand out an “aha!” moment by which a greater understanding of climate change will result.

It is, rather, an imperfect but serious comparison that helps us understand a third concept: why fighting over attribution of climate change, in the press and the beer halls and on the street, is stupid and bad.

Did you know that every flu season in the US, a lot of people get the flu, and some of them die? I’m pretty sure you did, and the reason you know is that you learned it on the news, or from your friends, or in health class, or by reading a book on the flu. No one disputes it. Even Fox News says it is true. You won’t see Trump tweeting in all caps about how it doesn’t actually happen.

But what you might not know is that it is the epidemiologists who tell us this, and give us important details such as “we are having a bad flu season” or “the flu hasn’t really arrived in Ohio yet but it is coming” or “other than long term care facilities, where it is still a problem, this year’s flu season is mostly over” and such, don’t directly observe the flu’s spread across the landscape. They are, rather, attributing an easily made observation to a specific cause, in a way that is conceptually similar to how climate scientists attribute wildfires and such to the human release of greenhouse gas. The methods are different, and the climate scientists have the upper hand on their data. While epidemiologists looking at the flu only actually directly measure the presence or effect of influenza in a small number of cases, climate scientists have thousands of measurement points taking data every hour, satellites, and all sorts of other probes.

When someone dies of influenza, we usually know that because there is an autopsy or some other carefully made observation in a hospital. When someone is put in an intensive care unit because of influenza, we usually know that. When a privileged wealthy suburban kid gets a really bad case of something, they will often get tested and then we’ll know for sure if they have the flu, as opposed to some other thing. But when most people get all those symptoms we think of as “the flu,” we never really know what they had, and it is simply true that during the flu season, there are a lot of other things going around, and only a percentage of people “with the flu” are actually infected with influenza.

But, it turns out that when influenza spreads through a population, the relatively small scale sampling that government epidemiologists do picks that spread up, and allows for reasonable estimates of what kinds of virus is out there, how sick it is making people, and a rough estimate of how dense the disease is on the landscape.

Meanwhile, schools keep track of kids being out sick, and hospitals and clinics keep track of who is complaining about flu like symptoms. So, epidemiologists (and I’m oversimplifying here) combine information they have from direct observation of actual influenza infection with information they have on “flu like symptoms” appearance and other indicators of general public health, with carefully developed and continuously refined modeling and statistical analysis. They then attribute a certain percentage of the flu like symptoms to the actual flu, not on a case by case basis but on a population level, by state and across the country, using science.

And almost nobody even knows that, and almost nobody really cares. We just want to know how bad it is, what the timing is, and that sort of thing. We trust the system to give us that information and it does. We know they know a lot more than we do about how do to this, and we are busy with other things. It would require some powerful derp to come up with a conspiracy theory about how the flu isn’t real. If anything, the average American has it backwards. People get really sick from a bad version of the common cold and claim they have the flu a lot more often than people get the flu and claim there is no such thing as influenza.

At present, thanks to a recent paper in Nature and some talk in the New York Times and elsewhere, we are seeing a lot of talk about attribution, the process of linking global warming to weather disasters. But I warn you that much of it is uninformed and somewhat misleading. For example, a recent article in a major science oriented magazine talked about attribution of weather events to climate change, and made the valid points that a) we can do that and b) yes, much of what we see happening in the area of bad weather is climate change caused. But that article missed a LOT of key information about attribution science, focusing, I assume for rhetorical reasons, on only one part of attribution science. Unfortunately the author chose the method of attribution that tends to underestimate the link between cause and effect.

I’m pretty sure the same thing would happen if we saw a major public discussion on influenza. You might learn a lot from reading the public literature, but you wouldn’t qualify for a Masters degree in epidemiology on the basis of that learning.

It would like a little like the famous Harris cartoon shown here. But instead of “then a miracle occurs” it would be “this part is complex so I’ll skip it.” And it is complex.

In climate science, there are a number of very complex problems that cause scientists to not be able to directly communicate to the average person what is happening. A great example is the understanding of “sensitivity.” Broadly speaking, this means just how much will global temperature change with a change in atmospheric greenhouse gas. This is incredibly complicated to figure out, and requires a number of assumptions that we are not totally certain about. However, the overall theoretical framework is solid and unassailable. But since some of the details have wiggle room, the actual numbers are hard to pin down. Then, once a reasonable range is produced, there is a fair amount of wiggle room as to when the change in temperature will be fully realized. The fact that it takes a certain amount of time is actually related to the fact that there must be a range of estimates, because rates of change are in some cases linked to how much change there will be. (Ie., methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, but it breaks down over years or decades. So “postive feedback” from methane can exacerbate warming and cause other systems to jump in and also exacerbate warming. But how much of this happens will depend on the rate methane is introduced and how fast it breaks down. And since much of the methane that is added to the environment comes form melting permafrost or warming Arctic seas that cover underwater solid methane, adding sea level rise can change those calculations … and so on and so forth.)

Skipping the complex step, or totally ignoring the more complex methodologies, has a benefit. This may make it easier to get the point across.

But it has a serious downside. It allows nefarious wizards to work their magic. This is an easy extension of Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We all assume, in this modern well informed world, that this law applies only to some other people in some other place or time where they don’t have radios. But it very much applies to us. If the details of the science are beyond comprehension if you don’t have the right PhD, or worse, left out of the conversation entirely because the author of the public literature doesn’t understand (or even know about) it, then nefarious wizards can swoop in and make up stuff that is based on equally hidden logic or method.

Scientists using science that includes methods hidden for the benefit of explanation** allows for anti-science actors to swoop in and manipulate that ignorance, manipulate that view of knowledge as the product of magic, and manipulate the weak of mind or give tools to those who prosper from the spread of willful ignorance. The nefarious wizards exploit almost unavoidably occult scientific method to control the deplorables and serve the purveyors of dark money.

I proffer the parallel cases of tracking flu seasons and attributing bad weather to anthropogenic climate change to point out that the difference in the debate about the two is a matter of nefarious wizardry. Next time you run into a climate science denier, not only check your wallet, but makes sure your defense against the dark arts skills are up to snuff.

*It is possible to imagine a world without hurricanes, if the oceans and continents were configured a certain way. In the modern configuration of continents and oceans, hurricanes are concentrated in specific areas of the ocean, and occur during certain time frames. When they occur, they tend to form in certain places, grow over a wide range of time frames, but usually not too fast, and they have characteristics that are determined by how hurricanes form and maintain in relation to the environment around them. Many of these features show signs of changing, or have simply gone off the charts already.

Hurricanes have become more common, and stronger. There are eight main regions in which tropical cyclones (which includes hurricanes) form. The dates of the observations of each area’s most powerful storm (there are nine because Australia has a tie) are 1979, 1999, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2004, 2005, 2015, and 2016. A hurricane forming in certain areas is very rare. A hurricane in the South Atlantic is unheard of. In recent years we’ve had one South Atlantic hurricane, and at least one major storm formed in the part of the Indian Ocean basin where no one was expecting one to form. A hurricane limits its own growth by churning hot surface water into deeper cooler water is common, but recently hurricanes that do not to that because there are no deeper cool waters in that churning zone have happened several times in recent years. A hurricane that goes from “nothing to see here” to full on hurricane in one or two days is almost impossible. We thought. Now, rapid formation is more common, which is a big problem since it can take days for the current system to decide if there should be an evacuation, and to carry it out. A major quantitative shift in the hurricane system in the US is the change from the assumption of evacuation to the assumption of not evacuating in certain areas no matter how bad the storm is. That is a combined function of increased storm severity, decreased formation time, and unfettered thoughtless human development in certain areas.

**I do not refer here to methods hidden completely, hidden from other scientists, or the interested public. That is a separte issue, and is not very common. Pretty much all of the climate science is public and open, despite accusations from deniers of science.

Some books in the sciences pretty cheap

At the moment, all these are anywhere from free to two bucks. The Darwin books are always cheap, the others are probably temporarily cheap.

If you’ve not read The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, you should. It is always avaialable for next to nothing on the kindle, currently this version is 99 cents.

Concerning his autobiography–written when Darwin was 59 and originally published as the first part of “The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin” (1887)–Darwin explained: “A German editor [wrote] to me for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography. I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children. I have attempted to write the following account of myself as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.”

Darwin’s son Francis, who edited “Life and Letters,” stated: “My father’s autobiographical recollections were written for his children—and written without any thought that they would ever be published. To many this may seem an impossibility; but those who knew my father will understand how it was not only possible, but natural.”

The autobiography was reprinted in 1908 as a section of editor George Iles’ larger “Little Masterpieces of Autobiography: Men of Science.” This Kindle edition, equivalent to a physical book of approximately 24 pages, includes the complete text of that 1908 reprint.

(You can get The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection for free or a buck as well.)

Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is currently cheap, $1.99 in Kindle form.

Most of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday—in evolutionary time—when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years—a past that has mostly vanished—and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.

This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. Provocative, enlightening, and entertaining, The World Until Yesterday is an essential and fascinating read.

I’ve not read this but it looks really interesting and cheap at twice the price: Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916

Combining rich historical detail and a harrowing, pulse-pounding narrative, Close to Shore brilliantly re-creates the summer of 1916, when a rogue Great White shark attacked swimmers along the New Jersey shore, triggering mass hysteria and launching the most extensive shark hunt in history.

In July 1916 a lone Great White left its usual deep-ocean habitat and headed in the direction of the New Jersey shoreline. There, near the towns of Beach Haven and Spring Lake–and, incredibly, a farming community eleven miles inland–the most ferocious and unpredictable of predators began a deadly rampage: the first shark attacks on swimmers in U.S. history.

Capuzzo interweaves a vivid portrait of the era and meticulously drawn characters with chilling accounts of the shark’s five attacks and the frenzied hunt that ensued. From the unnerving inevitability of the first attack on the esteemed son of a prosperous Philadelphia physician to the spine-tingling moment when a farm boy swimming in Matawan Creek feels the sandpaper-like skin of the passing shark, Close to Shore is an undeniably gripping saga.

Heightening the drama are stories of the resulting panic in the citizenry, press and politicians, and of colorful personalities such as Herman Oelrichs, a flamboyant millionaire who made a bet that a shark was no match for a man (and set out to prove it); Museum of Natural History ichthyologist John Treadwell Nichols, faced with the challenge of stopping a mythic sea creature about which little was known; and, most memorable, the rogue Great White itself moving through a world that couldn’t conceive of either its destructive power or its moral right to destroy.

Scrupulously researched and superbly written, Close to Shore brings to life a breathtaking, pivotal moment in American history. Masterfully written and suffused with fascinating period detail and insights into the science and behavior of sharks, Close to Shore recounts a breathtaking, pivotal moment in American history with startling immediacy.

Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb by by William Lanouette looks interesting:

Well-known names such as Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller are usually those that surround the creation of the atom bomb. One name that is rarely mentioned is Leo Szilard, known in scientific circles as “father of the atom bomb.” The man who first developed the idea of harnessing energy from nuclear chain reactions, he is curiously buried with barely a trace in the history of this well-known and controversial topic.
Born in Hungary and educated in Berlin, he escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and that first year developed his concept of nuclear chain reactions. In order to prevent Nazi scientists from stealing his ideas, he kept his theories secret, until he and Albert Einstein pressed the US government to research atomic reactions and designed the first nuclear reactor. Though he started his career out lobbying for civilian control of atomic energy, he concluded it with founding, in 1962, the first political action committee for arms control, the Council for a Livable World.

Besides his career in atomic energy, he also studied biology and sparked ideas that won others the Nobel Prize. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, where Szilard spent his final days, was developed from his concepts to blend science and social issues.

Science Gone Awry, Science Haters Mailing Mailers

I’m currently reading Paul Offit’s Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, in preparation for an interview with him that I’ll be recording later this week. I’ll let you know about the interview, but at this time I can say that I’m very much enjoying the book. The publisher’s description:

What happens when ideas presented as science lead us in the wrong direction?

History is filled with brilliant ideas that gave rise to disaster, and this book explores the most fascinating—and significant—missteps: from opium’s heyday as the pain reliever of choice to recognition of opioids as a major cause of death in the U.S.; from the rise of trans fats as the golden ingredient for tastier, cheaper food to the heart disease epidemic that followed; and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.

These are today’s sins of science—as deplorable as mistaken past ideas about advocating racial purity or using lobotomies as a cure for mental illness. These unwitting errors add up to seven lessons both cautionary and profound, narrated by renowned author and speaker Paul A. Offit. Offit uses these lessons to investigate how we can separate good science from bad, using some of today’s most controversial creations—e-cigarettes, GMOs, drug treatments for ADHD—as case studies. For every “Aha!” moment that should have been an “Oh no,” this book is an engrossing account of how science has been misused disastrously—and how we can learn to use its power for good.

The story of opium reminds me of that movie, Very Bad Things. Remember that?

Also, I did a podcast, the guest rather than the interviewer (I go both ways), on Geeks Without God, which will be up on the 16h, here. I think that if you are a subscriber you can get it early, like, now. The interview was about the Heartland Institute‘s recent recent mailing of anti-science materials related to climate change, sent out to a very large number of teachers.

Minnesota March For Science

Just a little video and some pictures from today’s March for Science, Minnesota.

This one from the march route on the way to the capitol. Skip ahead to about 1:12 go get the best chant:


Another video, this one from The Hedge:

You don’t see this sign at many protests:

Mammals were welcome at the march:PHOTO_20170422_115032

And, now, Here is my extraordinarily well timed Facebook Live post

Minnesota March For Science

In which I interview Geoffrey Rojas, an organizer for Minnesota March for Science:

Books mentioned in the interview:

The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto.

The Meetup Information for the Atheists Bus is here. The bus is currently full!

The Minnesota March for Science facebook page is here.

I think the wether is going to be perfect marching weather.

On a related topic: Evidence for Democracy – Katie Gibbs on Science Resisting

March for Science

The March for Science is scheduled to take place April 22, 2017 in DC . Hashtag #ScienceMarch

Twitter account here.

Web site here, though not much there yet, this was JUST announced seconds ago.

Please note that they are accepting donations. Click through to the donations page to give a donation!

Alternate logo here:


To find out about other marches in your area, if you can’t get to DC, for now, look at March for Science “follow” list, here. They will be putting info up at a later time, apparently.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

It sounds a lot like two hands clapping, but quieter, because you can only do it by slapping your thumb against a couple of your other fingers and not to hard. This, of course, leaves open another important philosophical question. Is a thumb a finger?

A while back my friend Massimo Pigliucci took Neil deGrasse Tyson to task for, among other things, equating philosophy with asking the question, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That was a dig, of course, made in the context of suggesting that philosophy had no real utility, and that the real thinking was all about science, not philosophy. This seems to be a difficulty NdGT has, this thing with philosophy. I believe that when Neil was a child, in the crib, a philosopher came along and scared him. He does not remember this event, but ever since then, he’s had this idea that philosophy is a bad thing, a worthless enterprise. (Until recently, anyway, see below.)

And that would be of little consequence were it not for the fact that approximately 23.41% of people who are not scientists (or philosophers) who also love science believe whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson says. Much of what he says is, of course, wonderful and insightful and even inspiring. But, he is not always correct, and he is sometimes abysmally wrong. For example, when he says that GMO agriculture is exactly the same as traditional agriculture because we’ve been manipulating genes for thousand of years, he belies a misunderstanding of genes, plants, history, and GMO technology. We have been manipulating traits for thousands of years, not genes, and GMO technology allows us to move genes between organisms that we can not interbreed in the agricultural setting, thus providing potential opportunities heretofore unimagined. Equating GMO technology to prior traditional agriculture, in asking what can come of it, is like equating space travel to horse and buggy travel. Yes, there is a link, no, they are not the same.

By the way, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is not a question of philosophy. It is a K?an. A K?an is a question or statement posed as part of Zen practice designed to challenge a student or to represent a salient belief. Many are references to well known stories. Collectively they form the basis for meditation. They may be other things. I’m not an expert on that. What they are not, however, is philosophy.

A Zen K?an is a touchstone to Zen thought and belief. A philosophical question is one engendering enquiry about meaning, value, knowledge, reality, etc. but typically one that is not subject to direct scientific interrogation.

It is quite possible for a question or subject to shift between the scientific and philosophical realm (though not always retaining relevance). For example, the question “what am I really seeing when I look at something” was addressed by early philosophers such as Plato, and later became a matter of scientific inquiry. The founder of Anthropology, Franz Boas started out as a physical scientist looking into an aspect of this question (with sea water) but there were all these interesting Indians around and he shifted focus. Eventually physicists got on to explaining what happens when light illuminates something and we see it. Recently, I asked some physicists about the difference between light bouncing, reflecting, off a mirror like surface vs. any other sort of object, and I’m pretty sure we ran into the philosophical realm when the question came up, “is a photon that reflects the same photon after reflection?” It turns out that physicists can’t agree and/or don’t know, and then they seem to get a little embarrassed, then they claim it is a philosophical question. Probably not a very interesting one.

Philosophers may ask about meaning. A behavioral neurobiologist may also explore meaning, and actually pin down what meaning is physically without having a clue what meaning actually means. Meanwhile, a semiotician may come to understand meaning as a process and even a non-physical entity that can be measured and described, which makes that meaning not very philosophical because it is being directly observed scientifically, but a semiotician is a kind of philosopher, usually, and they don’t give up on their subject matters so easily. The field of “linguistics” sits astride philosophy and science in such as way that we, fortunately, don’t have to ask if a given question is philosophical or scientific so often. One might ask if the determination of a question being philosophical vs. scientific is itself a philosophical or scientific question. I’m pretty sure, though, if you do that, you’ve got a Zen K?an on your hands!

Anyway, this topic got Mike Haubrich and me thinking, a while back, that it would be a good idea to scientifically address philosophy, or get into some of the philosophy of science, to amplify Massimo Pigliucci’s comment born of his critique of NdGT:

I hope you can see, dear Neil, that it isn’t just that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but also that there is more active, vigorous, interesting, and intellectually respectable philosophy to be explored than you and some of your colleagues have been able to dream of so far. Please, keep that in mind the next time someone asks you about it. Or ask them to give me a call.

To which Neil replied:

“I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”

How very Zen of everybody.

Anyway, we address and update the question of science and philosophy, and what they may mean to each other, by interviewing philosopher Dan Fincke on Ikonokast. Dan is well known to many of the readers of this blog as an outspoken and active member of the Atheist community, with ties to the science and skeptics community. This is one of those interviews where I ask about three questions and the interviewee gives us a lot of great stuff, well sorted out and well said. You will not want to miss this interview. Check it out!

The Sciencedebate.org Presidential Debates and Questions

Sciencedebate.org has managed a seemingly impossible task. They developed 20 distinct (but often interrelated) questions about science policy, based on vast amounts of public input, and then got all four presidential candidates to address them. Congratulations to Sciencedebate.org. This is important, and I know that was not easy to do. The questions, and answers, are here.

Here are my reactions to the candidates responses for some of the questions.

1. Innovation. Science and engineering have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII. But some reports question America’s continued leadership in these areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains at the forefront of innovation?

Clinton acknowledges and outlines post World War II innovation and its payoffs. She links this innovation to education, and advocates for preschool and good K-12 in every zip code, which implies good schools regardless of socioeconomic status of the local school’s catchment. She seems to imply that one does both applied and basic research, because both pay of. She supports technology transfer.

Trump indicates that innovation is great. He makes the claim that innovation is a by product of free market systems, and claims that most innovation comes form entrepreneurs. He does support maintaining or raising taxes to fund science, engineering, and healthcare, in order to make Americans more prosperous.

Johnson insists that a robust economy precedes innovation. His primary policy recommendation to enhance scientific innovation is to reduce taxes, and calls for the government to step away from meddling with the true innovators, scientists, engineers, buisnes people, and hobbyists. He wants to dramtically reform the granting process, using as the exclusive means of determining grant worthiness the frequency of ideas in given areas at the grassroots level. So, he notes that even if it is apparent that we need research to stop a flu epidemic, if the majority of researchers want to address alcohol abuse then so be it.

He also intends to reform how universities hire and fund researchers, and the universities’ overhead system.

Stein claims that almost every part of her 2016 platform will cause positive effects in innovation. By reducing Pentagon spending, Stein will free up a lot of money for research and development, by transferring that money to millions of currently underemployed people, who will then innovate.

Clearly, Trump and Johnson want a mostly hands off policy, and neither shows much understanding of how research works. Also, Johnson claims he will do something a president can’t do (change the way universities handle overhead and grants).

Stein wishes to use a peace dividend, and that’s great. If we could reduce Pentagon spending and use that money for other stuff, I’m all for that. However, Stein did not appear to address the question of innovation specifically. Also, I’m not sure how transferring funds form the Pentagon to the masses produces the sort of outcome implied by this question.

Clinton demonstrates a nuanced and clear knowledge of the topic at hand, and pretty much wins this debate because of her support for both basic and applied research. First, she knows what they are, and recognizes these issues as, clearly, part of the question. Second, she recognizes the importance of basic research. I personally think we do too much technology transfer, an we’ve fetishized the role of spin-off businesses in research and development. I’d like to see us go back to a somewhat more, but modernized, system of funding public research, and letting the private sector benefit from it without stomping on the backs of private citizens with such chicanery as $600 epi pens. But that may be just me.

3. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and political discussion has become divided over both the science and the best response. What are your views on climate change, and how would your administration act on those views?

Clinton gives, probably, the best answer because it is both aggressive and reasonably specific and doable. She wants us to get to 50% non carbon by the end of her first term, cut waste, and make larger scale transport more efficient, right away.

She does not address the supply side of energy sufficiently, and needs to do so. In a sense, Clinton is lucky in this debate, because the only other candidate who took the question seriously, Jill Stein, is not one of the major party candidates.

Trump put the term “Climate Change” in quotes. That is an insult to sciencedebate.org, the other candidates, and to humanity. His answer is right out of the Bjorn Lomborg playbook, and deserves no further consideration from me at this time.

Johnson “accepts that climate change is occurring” as though that mattered, or gave him points. Of course he accepts that climate change is occurring. Good for you, noticing that. But seriously, we are far beyond the point, especially in the context of a science debate, of taking positions of climate change being real, bigfoot not being real, evolution being real, aliens not being real, etc. So, no, please. Otherwise, Johnson notes that the things that cause climate change are all good things, and we don’t want to get rid of them. But, the market place will take care of them anyway. And, anyway, other countries are going to be producing more greenhouse gas pollution so we can’t do much about it. So, no, bad answer, about as bad as Trump’s

Stein has a long and detailed list of proposals, mostly funded by cutting the Pentagon budget. The strongest part of her policy is that we need to adopt a major, New Deal level (she calls it a Green New Deal) approach to climate change, and jsut get it done. She ties her climate change policies together with environmental justice programs. She proposes the Paris Treaty, by not by name, but we already have that. She supports organic farming and related efforts which may or may not help with climate change, but are sort of off topic.

A good number of her policies are bogus, a good number are good, many are diluted by great sounding link ups to social justice and democracy and stuff, which I like, but which make the policies not arguable at the national level. I like the fact that she put so much out there, even if I don’t agree with a lot of it.

Only Clinton and Stein took this question seriously. Clinton’s answer is good but not enough, Stein’s answer is weak in many areas but has potential.

7. Energy. Strategic management of the US energy portfolio can have powerful economic, environmental, and foreign policy impacts. How do you see the energy landscape evolving over the next 4 to 8 years, and, as President, what will your energy strategy be?

The candidates’ answers on energy follow the same pattern as with climate change, so this can be brief.

Clinton: Details, doable, fairly aggressive, specific. Doesn’t sufficiently attack key supply side problems like pipelines and fracking.

Stein: Redirect funds and bring it to the people, and that should solve everything. On a more specific level, Stein addresses the supply side aggressively, ending subsidies, banning fracking, etc.

The other two guys: Something something something free market something somethings prosperity.

The same pattern emerges across most of the answers with all of the candidates. Stein is more idealistic, and plans to bring the resources to the masses (free school, everybody gets a job, etc) paid for by stealing form the rich (including the Pentagon) and redistributing to the poor. I fully agree with all of that. No one will win on that ticket. Stein also gave a pretty darn acceptable commentary on vaccines, by the way. The Facebook Memes about her being anti-vax are either overdone, or she’s moderated. Clinton provides the most professional answers, most doable, and consistently demonstrates that she knows a lot about the issues. I would hire her to be president, if that was a thing, but I’d sit down with her to adjust some details. But she would not need any training.

Tump and Johnson put most of their faith on the free market, entrepreneurs, and the mysteries magnetic properties of prosperity. I was not impressed by either of them.

What do you think? Read the questions and answers here.

Dragging America Into the 20th Century

“?There are two types of nation” a recent Nature editorial begins; “…those that use the metric system and those that have put a man on the Moon.”

Such a pro-American jingoistic statement must be deep British irony. Anyway, the editorial continues …

The reliance of the United States on feet and pounds, along with its refusal to embrace metres and kilograms, baffles outsiders as much as it warms the hearts of some American patriots. But it is time for the country to give up on the curie, the roentgen, the rad and the rem.

This is about measuring radiation. There are several ways of measuring radiation. This has to do with the different ways radiation can exist, and the different kinds of effects it can have. For example, one might want a measure of biological damage, in order to measure, control, document, and discuss exposure in work places or disaster sites. The American tradition for this particular measure is the “rad” but by a 1970s convention that the US apparently ignores, it is the sievert.

The editorial points out the confusion, sometimes meaningful confusion, that arose in the wake of the Fukushima multiple meltdowns, when the Europeans and the Japanese were using sieverts and the Americans all had to pull out their slide rules to convert between sieverts and rads in order to keep track of what was going on. The Nature editorial notes,

Yes, it is possible to use both sets of measures, and to follow the rem numbers with the sievert numbers in brackets. In practice, this is what many US regulatory agencies do. But it is simply too awkward. The Australian government has publicly criticized the US system for creating confusion.

In the middle of an international nuclear-radiation incident, should emergency-response officials huddled in a situation room really need to whip out their calculators?

As I was reading this editorial, I recalled the space robot that essentially crashed into Mars instead of falling into a nice orbit, because the American part of the team was not using the SI (International System of Unites) method of calculating the movement of the robot’s mass. It seems that confusion over units could cause much worse disasters than losing a single (and expensive) robot.

The editors of Nature had the same thought.

Remember NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost in 1999 when someone forgot to convert between imperial and metric units (even though they had plenty of time to check) — the spacecraft broke apart in the Martian atmosphere rather than smoothly entering orbit. Imagine if such an embarrassing error involved the life and safety of millions of people here on Earth.

Clearly, they have a point. The US nuclear industry resists this change because, they say, of cost. However, as Nature argues, it is already the case that the companies that manufacture equipment (and I’d guess software) for use in the nuclear industry already use both units, since they tend to be international.

The US should do this, and should go metric.