Saturday, June 03, 2006

Comforts of credulity

I was driving about this afternoon minding my own business when Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer snuck on to the radio (“again,” believe I heard him on AirTalk just the other day). He had a limited amount of time to say a limited number of things I agree with. The topic of the discussion was the Skeptics Society conference (The Environmental Wars) going on at Caltech this weekend. Shermer was asked what the dominant topic of debate would be, and responded: “global warming.”

This was spoken not in the sense of there being controversy as to whether the climate is warming or not but rather as to the cause of climate change. Shermer assures us of controversy on that point, and I’m not anyone to deny that, generally. However, he rambles on about how the climate naturally warms and cools, the host obligingly responds “yes, we heard this week how the poles were like Miami,” and Shermer approves, noting that indeed the temperature was significantly higher than present without the assistance of SUVs, ~55 million years ago.

They refer to recent headlines regarding Moran et al. (2006), a new study published in Thursday’s issue of Nature concerning the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), ~55 million years ago. The still-controversial PETM has been previously attributed to catastrophic methane release from marine clathrate deposits, leading to greenhouse gas buildup and global warming. There are some inconsistencies to resolve concerning this theory. A recent study evaluated shoaling of the carbonate compensation depth (enhanced carbonate dissolution resulting from acidification of the oceans), arguing that the amount of carbon released to the oceans is larger than would be consistent with a methane source (Zachos et al., 2005). What is clear is that substantial warming took place contemporaneously with substantial carbon input to the oceans and atmosphere.

With the fact in hand that the climate was substantially warmer at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary without anthropogenic input, the implication of the radio discussion that caught my attention was that such events in the past imply doubt concerning causes of modern warming. However, this conclusion does not logically follow from the interpretation of the past record. There is no mechanistic connection between the PETM and the present trend of global warming. Scientific evidence is clear on the question of the derivation of modern perturbations to the carbon budget. Modern buildup of carbon dioxide is due to human activity, not to the destabilization of methane hydrates or any other feasible mechanism for the PETM event. The PETM example is not at all encouraging for our purposes… a greenhouse earth in which the polar caps are wholly removed is a catastrophic scenario beyond the direst of present forecasts. This example does not provide any rational basis for disputing anthropogenic global warming… nor does any example of past climate change that lacks relevance to modern forcing of climate. Simply asserting that modern warming may be natural given variability in the past is not the province of skepticism, but rather a declaration of credulity.

As an aside, Chris Mooney is participating in a debate at the aforementioned conference (discussed here and here), and I expect he will have an interesting report on the proceedings worth reading, by and by.

Moran, K., Backman, J., Brinkhuis, H., et al., 2006, The Cenozoic Palaeoenvironment of the Arctic Ocean, Nature 441, 601-605.

Zachos, J.C., Rohl, U., Schellenberg, S.A., et al., 2005, Rapid Acidification of the Ocean During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, Science 308, 1611-1615.

Update: In fairness to Shermer, it appears he is a recent global warming convert, so one might generally assume that he does not consider the debunked argument above to be compelling, but it's odd contrasting his newsletter statement with the NPR Weekend America appearance. Shermer singles out a presentation from Al Gore in convincing him of global warming, yet on the radio criticizes An Inconvenient Truth for implying a lack of controversy.

Chris Mooney has also posted brief comments on the conference.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Kennewick Man and Social Mores

I was intrigued to spot an article regarding Kennewick Man in the science headlines the other day. Others may likely comment on the skeleton in an anthropological context more effectively than I can, but I feel that it represents an underappreciated battleground of the clash between science and culture and the clash between science and religion. Far from being old news, Kennewick Man and the legal case behind it represent the basis behind active legislation meant to expand the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to the detriment of scientific inquiry.

The Tri-City Herald timeline on this matter is a handy resource (even a few early spots are somewhat bizarre… marking the birth of Jesus just might be a particularly Christian conceit and their date of 24,000 BCE for the first colonization of North America is a bit early, as far as I am aware). The short version: a ~9200 year old skeleton is found on the banks of the Columbia River in fall of ’96, with disposition of the remains accordingly the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and subsequently the Department of the Interior. A lengthy legal battle follows involving a group of scientists who sue to be allowed to study the skeleton, while several Native American tribes (and one Norse revivalist group, though they did not fight scientific analysis) lay claim to Kennewick Man. Both the Army Corps and DOI at certain stages side with the tribes. In 2002 a judge rules in favor of the scientists, and in 2004 a court turns down a government appeal, and the remains are made open to further investigation.

I stated earlier that this case remains relevant to pending legislation, and to follow this line of thought we need to fig into the court ruling. Central to the 2002 decision from Judge John Jelderks was rejecting the definition of “Native American” used by the DOI to justify repatriation to the Tribes under NAGPRA:

As noted above, NAGPRA defines "Native American" as "of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States." § 3001(9) (emphasis added). Giving the "plain language" of this provision its ordinary meaning, use of the words "is" and "relating" in the present tense requires a relationship to a presently existing tribe, people, or culture. This is consistent with the Act's definition of the term "sacred objects" as meaning "ceremonial objects which are needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present day adherents." 25 USC § 3001(3)(C) (emphasis added).
From this consistent use of the present tense, it is reasonable to infer that Congress intended the term "Native American" to require some relationship between remains or other cultural items and an existing tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous.

The original basis for calling the remains “Native American” under NAGPRA was solely based upon geography and antiquity, as no profound cultural affiliation can be made between Kennewick Man and modern day tribal entities. Jelderks pointed out that such a position would logically require even 12,000 year-old European remains discovered in the U.S. to be regarded as “Native American,” and that Congress would not have desired such an “absurd” application of the law.

The appeals court in 2004 agreed:

The text of the relevant statutory clause is written in the present tense ("of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous"). Thus the statute unambiguously requires that human remains bear some relationship to a presently existing tribe, people, or culture to be considered Native American.

This brings us to the topic of the Native American Omnibus Act of 2005, introduced in the Senate by John McCain, passed in committee and scheduled for debate (and apparently a low priority for Senate leadership to push through – I wrote a concerned letter to Senator Maria Cantwell’s office well back last year, but the sluggishness of the legislation is not particularly encouraging, given the law is closer to passing than we should be comfortable with). The relevant section is as follows:

Section 2(9) of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 U.S.C. 3001(9)) is amended—
(1) by inserting ‘‘or was’’ after ‘‘is’’; and
(2) by inserting after ‘‘indigenous to’’ the following: ‘‘any geographic area that is now located within the boundaries of’’.

This is a direct modification to the text cited in Jelderks’ ruling, with the rather plain intent to construct the law to explicitly state that remains such as those of Kennewick Man are subject to NAGPRA. This is not the first time this attempt has been made, as Senate Bill 2843 back in ’04 made quite similar changes. It also will likely not be the last time such modifications are proposed, and we are fortunate to have a number of people keeping a close watch on such legislative issues and causing a stir when the law might otherwise slip in under the radar. It remains more than worthwhile to contact your representatives in Congress and state concern regarding this issue, a somewhat less publicized assault on science.

But then, I’m getting ahead of myself. I find this situation compelling as a matter of choosing the proper balance of science and cultural respect. NAGPRA is (in my opinion) a good and necessary law. Restitution of cultural belongings to Native American tribes is the ethical responsibility of researchers in archaeology, and also the civic responsibility of our government in light of tribal sovereignty. The debate over the specific example of Kennewick Man is reminiscent, however, of other fights in the culture wars. Take, for example, the statement of Armand Minthorn, member of the Board of Trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation:

If this individual is truly over 9,000 years old, that only substantiates our belief that he is Native American. From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.

We also do not agree with the notion that this individual is Caucasian. Scientists say that because the individual’s head measurement does not match ours, he is not Native American. We believe that humans and animals change over time to adapt to their environment. And, our elders have told us that Indian people did not always look the way we look today.

Some scientists say that if this individual is not studied further, we, as Indians, will be destroying evidence of our own history. We already know our history. It is passed on to us through our elders and through our religious practices.

Minthorn is factually wrong, but his statement is a declaration of immutable religious faith, a position we can’t hope to change by reasoned debate. I do not even necessarily voice this as a criticism, religious faith held privately and not imposed against rational society is not something I wish to destroy. Our legal responsibility in this matter has been clearly articulated by Jelderks. The compelling question in my view is whether, in light of ethical and civic responsibility, we should not give tribal entities full license to such artifacts—their somewhat dubious personal claims being nevertheless superior to mine. The practical application of such a policy would be problematic—the unspecific cultural affiliation of early North Americans raises issues as to which tribe would have the most valid claim. The likely answer is that while the people we understand to be “Native Americans” may hold claim to such ancestral remains, no single tribal entity could possibly say the same. We therefore are obliged to weigh that claim of ethnicity against our own interests and obligations. I don’t necessarily know that curiosity is excuse enough. It falls on us all to decide whether the search for knowledge itself is a societal more. That question, in fact, is central to many of the issues facing science and policy—part of the rationale behind public funding of research. We have made the search for objective knowledge a positive social value. We should continue to do so, even if it makes Armand Minthorn somewhat uncomfortable.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

“They move very easily through Pleistocene alluvials”

“… the dirt”

When I spend time ranting about bad geology movies I may as well give some time to the good moments for geoscience in American cinema… or, failing that, discuss the redemptive, amusing bad moments. Tremors may be the best movie out there we can claim for our field, which is fairly illuminating regarding 1) my appreciation for lousy movies and 2) the fact that the best movie I can claim for my discipline is a cheesy horror B-movie starring Kevin Bacon. The sole claim we have to it would be that the key heroine is a geologist (or, quoting the movie once again “seismologist, actually”), played by Finn Carter who acts the role with much-appreciated credulity, delivering many of the best lines in the movie (well, those not delivered by the grotesquely exaggerated survivalists).

The central theme of the movie is the sudden appearance of wormlike subterranean monsters dubbed “Graboids” (one pauses briefly to honor Frank Herbert for coming up with his sandworms 25 years before Tremors came out) in an isolated Nevada desert town, “Perfection.” The main conflict of the movie is, predictably, the avoidance of being eaten, and I can hardly claim that Tremors is at all inspiring regarding science. The title quote above and “we just stay where they can’t get us—on these residual boulders” are potentially the best lines calling for alleged scientific authority.

Or perhaps the exchange: “Where do they come from?”
“These creatures are completely unprecedented!”
“Yeah, but where do they come from?”

Pure gold.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Science and Public Relations

I did say “a few interesting perspectives on science education,” they simply could not be encompassed in a post largely devoted to bemoaning the misleading character of Discovery Institute commentary. Along with the Time magazine article, we had a second story come up with an interview that has been kicking up blog commentary in the typical incestuous manner of the online scientific community. In a complementary vein to my Science and Cinema rant, Flock of Dodos documentarian Randy Olson sent in advice to Carl Zimmer’s blog The Loom entitled “Ten Things Evolutionists can do to Improve Communication.” His comments might be summed up as “be charismatic, speak to the level of the audience, expand your audience, and don’t disregard the importance of public relations.” I, and most everyone else, find a hard time disagreeing with that general message but personally I consider it, as stated, somewhat overwrought.

PZ Myers over at Pharyngula commented at The Loom and also posted the following on the subject:

Don't tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up—I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there's grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood cartoon science, to people.

John Lynch at Stranger Fruit:

Look, I agree that scientists could do a better job communicating their ideas. I don't, however, agree that Olson is correct in his suggested method.

PvM at The Panda’s Thumb with a different take:

Randy Olson’s suggestions, which are excellent in many ways, should not be seen as an indictment of those who are teaching and presenting these materials but as tools to help reach one’s audience more effectively and efficiently. In the older days, the orator was highly skilled in using his knowledge of the facts as well as of his audience to effectively communicate his arguments. In present days, much of the skills of oration have been lost.

Now wait a minute, guys… you’re all correct at the same time. The implementation of Olson’s advice, in my humble opinion, should not involve a universal effort to change the behavior of the scientific community, but rather add to the existing structure of science education as it presently stands. I do not find Myers or Lynch teaching to a well-informed audience to be a failure on their part to any extent. Olson’s advice serves best not as a personal admonition but rather a criticism of the dearth of scientists in place to take on the role he suggests of serving to bring science to the layman and present it in appealing cultural context. The scientific community is not and should not be fundamentally devoted to public relations, but collaboration with mass media is a means of reaching the public that should hardly be rejected. However, while scientists may seek to increase accessibility to well-articulated research in evolution or any other subject directed to a lay audience, and work through existing channels in the popular print media (fiction and non-fiction alike), improving the portrayal of science in the visual media is a necessary adjustment from the entertainment industry, not from the scientific community. There must be people in place seeking to market science well to as substantial a lay audience as may be reached, and I would applaud Randy Olson for putting himself in that position.

In the meantime, we’re in the position of increasing the exposure of our best advocates, past and present. Some of the best lecturers I’ve heard (one, unfortunately, only through recording) are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Alley. Attending a presentation from Lonnie Thompson is a fair treat. In the evolution-ID debate I have frequently appreciated hearing/reading what Kenneth Miller and H. Allen Orr have had to say. It falls upon the general scientific community, as it always has, to do good, illuminating research and to teach their students as best they can, and support those few who can speak to the public effectively. Certainly, part of the solution to our PR lament may be to point out the finer moments of PZ Myers, John Lynch, or even Randy Olson.

Shilling for Intelligent Design

I ran across a few interesting perspectives on the nature of science education in the U.S. since the posting of my rant concerning science and cinema. The first is a classical-play-in-political-rhetoric post up at the Discovery Institute Blog concerning a Time magazine article on science policy in the U.S. There some very good comments within the article, e.g…

In fact, says Robert Birgeneau, a physicist and chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, it already exists, if only we would recognize it. "We have a different kind of war, an economic war," he says. "The importance of investing in long-term research for winning that war hasn't been understood."

The fundamental point of the article is to address policy towards science, not its instruction, and the degree to which public support of research and development is declining relative to other countries. Casey Luskin, author of the Discovery posting, quotes this passage:

Some critics have tried to put the blame for the U.S.'s scientific decline on President George W. Bush, citing ... his statements in support of ''intelligent design' as an alternative to evolution..."

Wait, let’s try that without ellipses…

Some critics have tried to put the blame for the U.S.'s scientific decline on President George W. Bush, citing his hostility to stem-cell research, his downplaying of global warming, his statements in support of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution, and his Administration's appointment of nonscientists to scientific panels as well as its alleged quashing of dissenting scientists.

Certainly Discovery has a valid reason to single out Intelligent Design in the passage, but not to the exclusion of significant context. Luskin follows the block quote by stating:

Yet given that intelligent design isn't being mandated in a single district in the country, I'm pretty sure these critics are just blowing smoke. A much more reasonable observer would say, "if there's a problem in science education in America today, then wouldn't it stand to reason that the problem is being caused by the status quo?" The status quo includes the fact that in the vast majority of districts across the U.S., evolution is taught in a one-sided, pro-evolution, and dogmatic manner without any mention of dissenting views.

We might observe that the “critics” in question are not commenting upon science education but rather the popular perception of science as it impacts public financing of scientific research. We should further observe that blaming any decline in education upon the “status quo” is a logical leap for which Luskin has little justification, having failed to evaluate any particular trends in the teaching of evolutionary biology to putatively correlate with anecdotal evidence of poor education. We must finally observe that Luskin’s comment concerning “dogmatic” teaching of evolution is a grotesque strawman.

None of this should necessarily come as a surprise… Luskin goes on to imply that this decline in “education” is unlikely to be addressed by role models such as biologist Kenneth Miller, selectively quoting him thusly:

“I think the most destructive part of the disclaimer that’s on the textbooks in Georgia, is the last sentence. And it says something to the effect that students are urged to study this material carefully, critically examine it and consider it with an open mind.”

PvM over at The Panda’s Thumb quickly responded to the Luskin post, pointing out that the full quote from Miller reads quite differently:

And finally the destructive part of the disclaimer that is on the text books in Georgia is the last sentence and it says something to the effect of that students are urged to study this material carefully, critically examine it and consider it with an open mind. Now think about what this means to a student. It means to a student that you’re supposed to do this to evolution but that every other topic in that book need not be critically considered or examined with an open mind. We are telling that we are certain of everything within science except for evolution and I can’t think of a worse policy in terms of scientific education and unfortunately that is what the Intelligent Design Movement has led to. A lot of bad teaching a lot of bad ideas about science.

Luskin subsequently altered his blog entry to include the full quote and altered his comments to reflect the changes, without offering any particular explanation why the omission was made in the first place. We might hope that he simply excluded the context of the quotes and twisted their meaning inadvertently.

How did he put it earlier? “A much more reasonable observer” would conclude that eliminating the context of the Miller quote and skewing the criticism of Bush cited in the Time article to allegedly comment on education rather than economic policy are not mistakes that can be made by accident, particularly when the effect of the changes is to make ID critics appear somehow less reasonable than they are. This sort of political gamesmanship is not uncommon in policy discussion, but when Discovery passes itself off as a font of reasoned scientific debate, the deliberate omission of context speaks towards a troubling hypocrisy. The DI cannot credibly advocate open and reasoned criticism of biological science while knowingly distorting what science is or what scientists claim.

This brings to mind a thought I’ve had concerning the evolution/ID debate—those who advocate ID from a position of credulity in the truth of creationism are not going to be swayed by evolutionary science. What troubles me are those who take the DI’s attempt to appear to be reasonable at face value, and who parrot the criticisms of evolutionary biologists as if they were conventional wisdom (“Evolution education is dogmatic,” “evolution is inherently atheistic,” “irreducible complexity refutes evolution,” etc.). It seems to me that there are two approaches to resolving the acceptance of this misinformation. The first is to present the truth as clearly as possible, something biologists are doing fairly well. The second has not been put into practice as much, perhaps, as it should be: document the pervasive dishonesty of the ID messenger.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Science and Cinema

As I sit here watching The Core I’m obliged to question whether there has ever been a science movie that truly manages to inspire interest in the field. Hollywood tripe of the persuasion of The Day After Tomorrow, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Armageddon and Deep Impact is suitable for amusement but hardly as an inspiring depiction of physics, geology and climatology. CSI has created enough of a cultural fascination with forensic science that students are inspired to learn more about it, juries are beginning to have unrealistic expectations concerning the efficacy of forensics, and criminals are wizening up. Surely pop culture can discover a more effective spokesman for climate science than noted late night radio conspiracy theorist Art Bell? (responsible in part for the travesty of Day After Tomorrow). I am not one to ever claim that there’s no place for fluff movies. An evening sipping a g&t and chuckling at the absurdities in The Core can be rather relaxing, particularly in the company of other geology nerds who catch the nonsense lines. However, part of the declining scientific literacy and interest we see in the U.S.A. these days is derived from popular depiction. We have an obligation not only to instruct the general public regarding our work but also to inspire them, as we know better than anyone else what is fascinating and wondrous in our fields.

Michael Crichton lost a great deal of respect in my view when he strayed off into the realm of poorly-conceived global warming skepticism, but in my personal experience, the book and movie The Andromeda Strain suits the purpose of sparking interest in science quite well, for a particular reason. To inspire interest in the science, the medium involved must inquire into the science rather than blandly state a conclusion. Some conflict must be resolved by scientific discovery to make research itself a subject of interest. This particular construction of the plot is notably absent from the films mentioned above, yet is characteristic of CSI. In The Core, science is a frequently discarded plot device only serving as a distraction from typical disaster movie fare. The science, where it appears, is only offered as an explanation for how a standard moment of suspense has come about, and perhaps that is the reason why the science is grossly inaccurate. Andromeda Strain, on the other hand, poses the problem of a scientific discovery/resolution as central to the resolution of the conflict central to the plot. If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, I highly recommend it.

The central message we must gather from all this is that pop culture must view science with curiosity or as a problem to be solved to be effective in inspiring the general public. We are unlikely to see such behavior when “science” movies and television are constructed by those who seek to convey a moral message (Day After Tomorrow) or fit a worn-out cinematic formula (The Core).

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

An Introduction

The photo above depicts this young blog’s namesake, the “wormy” intergrowth of feldspar and quartz that is referred to as myrmekite. For the petrographically unititiated, I should explain that a chunk of rock may be attached to a glass slide and ground to a thickness of ~30 microns, at which point the character of the transmitted light when observed with a petrographic microscope is diagnostic of the minerals present. The above “photomicrograph” is of a sample gathered from Granite Falls, Minnesota, where we observed evidence of a basaltic dike injected into a granitic pluton that was not fully cooled. This resulted in some melting of the already-crystallized granitic assemblage. The observed myrmekite rims a grain of alkali feldspar, which partially remelted in response to the nearby injection of hot basaltic magma. The resulting melt, upon cooling, simultaneously crystallized quartz and albite, leading to the beautiful texture above. This might serve as a reminder not to take granite at face value (geologists will note my avoidance of the obligatory pun), but rather to hammer and saw at it until you can appreciate its inner beauty.

I could explain that myrmekite is intended to evoke my writing style, in a space devoted to the complex interworkings of science, politics and culture, or I could simply own up to the fact that I consider petrography quite fascinating, the picture quite attractive, and the name kinda catchy. I hope, as you get to know me, I might say the same of myself and my writings. This blog will concentrate upon the topics of science in general, geology and biology in particular, and how they may cross over into public life from time to time. I may be opinionated… I may be informative and correct or I may (shudder) be wrong now and again, but in either event, enjoy yourselves!