Friday, October 5, 2012

Thank You, Ms. Carson

Next Monday, my graduate seminar wraps up its discussion of Silent Spring and related topics.  They have been a great group--excited about discussing the issues of today and comparing them to Rachel Carson's issues and assessing how she reached out to the public to raise awareness and concern through a number of different literary techniques.  I have been inspired by our discussions and readings, and of course by Ms. Carson's text itself.  I have more to say about the final chapter, but for now I wanted to leave you with her last words in Silent Spring:

"The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.  The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science.  It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth."  --from "The Other Road"  R Carson 1962

Thank you for your insight, passion, and reason, Rachel Carson. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Carnivorous and Herbivorous Environmentalists

                “You cannot be an environmentalist and eat meat.”  This was the first sentence uttered by a guest speaker for the Environmental Action Group at Furman University back around 1993 when I was an undergraduate. We were shocked and dismayed.  HORRIFIED!  Not the best opener for a bunch of young adults born and raised in SC, a state as red as a prime cut of beef.  But her comment was provoking—I had never made the connection between my concern about the environment and my diet, although in retrospect the connection seems obvious.  My friends and I decided we’d try a semester without beef and see what happened.  For me, it was not a big deal.  Two years later in graduate school I was taking a conservation biology class and somewhat spontaneously decided to go meatless for a six month trial.  See what happened and how it felt.  And it felt fine.  My friend ordered me a subscription to Vegetarian Times and I was sucked into the propaganda of vegetarianism and never looked back or, at least, not often. 
                I don’t usually talk about the reasons that I became a vegetarian, because it could make me seem like I think I’m an environmental martyr; however, my life would give people plenty of reasons to point out that I have room for improvement:  my addiction to the bath tub, my love affair with air conditioning at the slightest hint of humidity, my tendency to drive short distances for the sake of time.  I could go on, but it pains me to point out my short-comings, so I will stop there.  But giving up meat was one of those things that just wasn’t a big deal.  I decided that 1) if I had to kill my own food, I probably wouldn’t do it, so maybe I should stick to vegetables; 2) it was easier on my rather slim pocketbook; and 3) there were environmental reasons for eating lower on the food chain (more on that below). 
I don’t think everyone has to give up meat completely (I live with an opportunistic carnivore), even if I think all folks could try some vegetarian meals out during the week.  Meat’s not mandatory at the dinner table.  Sure, if you eat octopus (they’re too smart to eat) or a pig (delicious, but again, too smart) or a carnivore (we need them to keep the herbivores in check), I might feel the need to mention how I saw a pig play a song on horns on Letterman or how the wolves of Yellowstone are the cat’s pajamas.  And, if you order farmed or Atlantic salmon when I’m around I may mention how daring it is of you to accumulate mercury so willingly. Wait, maybe I am a martyr!  If, a bad one.  I have been known to eat (and enjoy) chicken without comment when visiting friends for dinner and it was the meal they had prepared for my visit, and I went through a year of occasionally eating Alaskan salmon, which is allegedly a sustainable fishery. 
It’s fine to eat meat, but there are a couple of reasons that make sense to eat lower on the food chain.  One is basic energy transfer through food chains.  Eating lower on the food chain means you can feed more people.  Mammals are not very efficient at gaining mass, because most of our energy is burned up maintaining our body temperature, so we tend to be between 1-4% efficient, the Hummers of the animal kingdom.  (I must be at the high end of mammal efficiency.) So a warm-blooded mammal that eats plants will use about 1-4% of the energy it takes in for growth and reproduction; most of the energy used for metabolism is lost as heat and isn’t available for other links in the chain.  A mammal carnivore will use about 1-4% of the energy it takes in for growth and reproduction and again, most of the rest of the energy is burned up in metabolism and lost as heat. So, if we think in terms of Joules of energy, then 10,000 Joules of plant matter could build 100 Joules of herbivore matter (assuming 1% efficiency, for the sake of easy math), which could support 1 Joule of carnivore.  If you are the carnivore in that scenario, the initial 10,000 J results in 1 J for you, because there is the middle man, er, cow—the herbivore.  But if you are the herbivore, then it is 100 J for you--no energy loss through that middle man.  So the same amount of energy in the plant matter can support 100X as much herbivore as carnivore.  So, if you want to make the most of the energy at the base of the food web, eat plants.  If all humans were vegetarians, the carrying capacity of the earth would be greater than if all humans were carnivores. 
Today in my Silent Spring graduate seminar, the students selected some papers on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and some of the environmental impacts of this type of animal farming, as well as some footage from the movie Food Inc.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2006) found that animal agriculture results in more greenhouse gas production than the transportation sector—so raising meat isn’t doing anything good for us in the climate change department (not to even mention that forests, our carbon sinks, are cleared for cattle).  And CAFOs produce huge amounts of waste that can contain antibiotic resistant bacteria, all of which can end up in local ecosystems.  There have been a number of documentaries and books that address these operations, their impact on the local environment, and the psychological impacts they have on people who work there.  Most people would probably be disturbed to see footage of the conditions under which their meat is raised.  Eating meat isn’t inherently cruel, but changes in practices have made the conditions inhumane. 
To conduct research with vertebrates, you have to meet federal animal care guidelines and the bar is set high to minimize or eliminate suffering; it’s unclear why the bar is set so low for animals that are being reared for food.  These animals may be bred to be food, but that does not mean that they should be left standing in their waste unable to move or breathe fresh air.  My grandfather had cows on his land; their fate was sealed at birth, just as a cow in a CAFO, but until that final day, my grandpa's cows lived a good life in the open air grazing on the grass of the field.  This seems much more compassionate to the animals, the workers, and the environment in the surrounding areas.  And, certainly, there are options to seek out meat that is grown locally and humanely.  Hunting is another option—deer, squirrels, or rabbits living their lives in nature as they were meant to until the fateful hour when they are preyed upon by the human hunter, a part of nature to the very end.  
Your trophic position, herbivore or carnivore, is not a decision that has to be black and white.  But there are environmental benefits to embracing shades of gray (or green).  There are reasons that we should treat all living things with respect for the miracle that life is, and it’s hard to see that current industrial farming is doing that.  For me, a vegetarian diet is something I do because it is easier on my conscience, and there are many environmental benefits.  But, there are many solutions to environmental problems, not just one, and we can each contribute where it makes sense for us because you can be an environmentalist, whether herbivorous or carnivorous. 

The Trouble Is

I wanted to share with you a passage from Silent Spring.  In the margin by this text I wrote "Love," because love it I do!

"The trouble is that we are seldom aware of the protection afforded by natural enemies until it fails.  Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.  So it is that the activities of the insect predators and parasites are known to few.  Perhaps we may have noticed an oddly shaped insect of ferocious mien on a bush in the garden and been dimly aware that the praying mantis lives at the expense of other insects.  But we see with understanding eye only if we have walked in the garden at night stealthily creeping upon her prey.  Then we sense something of the drama of the hunter and the hunted.  Then we begin to feel something of that relentlessly pressing force by which nature controls her own.”  –Rachel Carson in “Nature Fights Back” in Silent Spring 1962

Monday, September 24, 2012

Silent Spring as a Spring Board for Scientific Discussions Today

Carson & wildlife artist Bob Hines looking for specimens in 1952. 

                In “The Human Price” and “Through a Narrow Window” of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson details the potential costs of pesticides to human life—effects that can be lethal, but are more often sublethal through changes in fertility, biological processes, or genetics—the very foundation of our own person biology.  I was struck by how Carson takes complex processes, like the role of mitochondria in powering the cell or the function of the liver, and laid them out clearly and beautifully.  Sometimes in communicating science to the public, we are advised to cut to the basics and keep it simple.  It’s not bad advice in many cases, but it is possible that some of the disconnection between complex processes (like global climate change) and public perception of the issues becomes clouded by oversimplification.  People can understand complex processes if it is explained clearly--and a little flair never hurts. 
                In these chapters, Carson turns from a weight of evidence approach laden with melodramatic and emotional language, to a thoughtful, scientific approach that does not lose its readability.  I can understand her use of histrionic language, given the widespread use of pesticides without a clear or contemplative plan resulting in exposure to wildlife and humans with the potential for large, long-term costs.  But the clear explanations in these chapters, the explanation that scientists are still continuing to understand how cellular structures like the mitochondria work and about the biochemical effects of pesticides exposure on biochemical approaches, it becomes a powerful, objective argument for using pesticides sparingly when necessary because of the potential for a ramification of effects in food webs and in individual bodies.
                When I started rereading this book with a seminar of graduate students, I expected to feel more cynical toward the text and Rachel Carson, but instead I find that I am just crazy about her and in awe of the strength of her argument in conveying scientific information to a general public.  Could the world have been blessed with a better advocate at the time?  She had a strong scientific background, she had spent years righting up reports and brochures for the public with the US Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish & Wildlife Service), she had written three other books which established her as a naturalist and a writer, and she was not working for any agency at the time which freed her to use her scientific knowledge to evaluate the information available and advocate for change and a better path.  And as I read these chapters in particular, I cannot help but think of the woman struggling with cancer and the treatments that were failing her; it is no wonder these pages are filled with urgency and passion, as well as a steady gaze on what science and observation have revealed.  
                “It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster” (in “The Human Price”).  As we as scientists and non-scientists struggle with issues like global climate change that can have long lag times like the impacts of some pesticides, Carson’s book serves as a reminder that an effective, logical, and yes emotional argument can turn the tide of public perception that results in needed federal changes to protect human life and natural life, on which our own lives are intricately tied.  Looking back 50 years ago to her text may serve as a useful guide for forging the way ahead with effectively conveying science to the public in a way that serves the public and puts the best scientific knowledge to use.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Feed the Birds

     “And No Birds Sing” in Silent Spring details the widespread spraying by the US government for Dutch elm disease to target the beetles that spread this pathogen.  Spraying that was so persistent and extreme that in attempts to eliminate this one species of beetle to save one species of tree, a multiple of birds, insects, and mammals were sacrificed.  And then there was the intensive chemical campaign to eradicate the fire ant, an invasive species whose impact appears to be relatively minimal.  It is a heartbreaking chapter in the book and in our history, and a reminder of how unthinking we humans can be in pursuit of a goal, even if that goal is just a bee in a bonnet.  Carson concludes that “not even the return of the birds may be taken for granted.”  In the face of horrible things, whether past or present, perhaps some small token of kindness if repeated often enough repays a debt.  I left the couch and any depression that could have seized me, and made for the bird feeders with buckets of seed.   I have neglected them and in summer, I don’t mind, since they have a variety of foods and seeds to choose from.  But, I couldn’t leave them without a few seeds after reading three chapters in Silent Spring. I enjoyed watching them eat their breakfast while I ate mine this morning, and I gave thanks that we were all here to enjoy this lovely end of summer day. 
     I do wonder, what would happen if we completely laid off the pesticides for a year…a sort of new year’s resolution for 2013.   I know it will never happen.  I’m just not sure that the long-term gains are worth it, and it would be interesting to see what the differences amount to.  We subsidize farmers not to farm so that the price of a crop will not drop.  We pay for pesticide clean-up.  We no doubt pay for healthcare costs associated with increased risks associated with some contaminants, like reduced fertility, immune disorders, cancer.  At the EPA atrazine Scientific Advisory Panel on which I served this last summer, the agricultural sector was there in support of the herbicide.  They highlighted that it had been used safely for fifty years and that the application rate had been reduced significantly over that period.  One panelist asked if they saw a reduction in production with the reduction in use, and they said they had not.  The high estimates of yield increase for atrazine are around 9% increase, but 4-6% increases are more common estimates.   Is that worth the risk of widespread application for a contaminant that sticks around for months?  There are many studies showing impacts at expected environmental levels on reproductive systems, suggesting some species are sensitive to this herbicide.  Maybe the risk is worth it, but it also seems possible that people want to keep using it because they always have, rather than the fact that it’s a making a large difference.  There are other tools though, like heterogeneous planting, allowing natural predators to eliminate pests, and pesticide use as a last resort.  I’d be much more comfortable in a world where we were more cautious about pesticide use than we are today, even if I was 4-9% hungrier.  (But I'm not saying people should starve...pesticides before starvation!)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Needless Havoc—Wouldn’t it Pay to Learn from History?

                At the end of the chapter “Needless Havoc” in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asks “By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?”  She was speaking, of course, about the use of pesticides in a way that does not balance the benefits with the costs.  So, yes, Japanese beetles may be an invasive nuisance, but does that mean we use a broad-scale insecticide to take the beetles out, if it also results in loss of life to birds, mammals, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates?  Probably to most of us, that seems disproportionate, especially given that Japanese beetles do not cause mass destruction in their wake; but, dieldrin, as well as other toxic chemicals no longer on the market, was used for that purpose and apparently did wreak needless havoc on the network of nature that shares similar biological processes that made them all susceptible to the contaminants.  Killing other life forms, should always give us pause, and we should always carefully consider the negatives with the positives, and whether it’s a necessity or an indulgence. 
                Reading Silent Spring makes me breathe a sigh of relief over how far we’ve come in 50 years.  During my 40 years, I remember trucks driving through my childhood neighborhood spraying pesticides for mosquito control, something that still continues in coastal SC today with concerns over West Nile Virus.  No one ever asked us if it was okay or let us know when the truck was coming through, and I don’t remember that it stopped us from playing in the yard.  But, at least it didn’t cause birds to fall from the trees and convulse violently, as the early pesticide use described in Silent Spring did.  So, even if we are still waging a war against life today, we are waging a more humane and perhaps more balanced war. 
                However, even with that sigh of relief, you also have a few groans as you find issues mentioned by Carson that are still not resolved, like the role of industry money in influencing science.  Science is a pursuit that is meant to be amoral and objective.  Can industry even do science if they have a goal that is based on finding a desired outcome?  Perhaps they can, but to use their science in determining regulatory standards seems asinine, although that is exactly what we do in this country.  In studying pesticides, I have been surprised to find both positive and negative impacts of pesticides on aquatic communities.  I do not have a desired outcome; rather, my goal is only to understand what the outcome means for populations in nature that may be exposed.  However, there’s a lot more money coming from industry than any of the federal granting agencies to examine effects of pesticides—but with industry collaboration, researchers give up their objectivity and (in many cases) control of their data, resulting in science that loses its objectivity. 
                But still, I was feeling pretty good about the state of things today by the end of Chapter 7 of Silent Spring.  And then I started reading some articles on hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, which made me wonder if we ever learn from history.  Or do we learn from it, but we just don’t care if there’s a buck to made?  The Safe Drinking Water Act apparently excludes fracking from regulation by EPA (Kargbo et al. 2010), allowing liquids used in fracking to continue to be trade secrets.  There are some studies indicating water contamination, fish kills downstream, and waste water treatments that aren’t able to effectively clean the water; but, there’s limited research and work addressing the potential problems. Why don’t we work on understanding the consequences of the risks BEFORE we start drilling?  Instead, the public is being assured by the industry and to some extent the government and government agencies that fracking is safe.  Well, thanks, folks, but we’ve heard that one before; and, if we’ve forgotten where that path can lead, a read of Rachel Carson’s magnum opus will make that mountain-stream clear.  Maybe fracking is safe—in which case, contents in the “trade secret” formulations should be revealed so that research can more easily follow, and funding to support ecological studies can ensure more easily.  Maybe it’s not—in which case we can expect the industry to hold out revealing anything and suppressing or harassing anyone who has evidence to suggest different.  (This American Experience’s show “GameChanger” addresses issues associated with fracking in their usual engaging way.) 
                It’s no wonder the public has lost its confidence in science.  We’ve allowed science conducted by objective scientists to be placed on a level playing field with scientists from industry who have specific outcome goals and financial ties to the products.  This is no different than 50 years ago, but it desperately needs to change for sake of science, for the sake of the public, and for the sake of the environment.   Shouldn’t we learn from history?  Of course we should.  But, apparently, truth doesn’t line the pockets of industry.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Scientists for the Party…That Supports Science and the Environment

Like many of us, I have been mildly obsessed with the presidential campaign.  Along these lines, I have been pondering about whether people whose major issue is the environment and science that supports understanding our world really have much of a choice in this election.  If “science and environmental issues” are your voting priority, are there really two choices?  Supporting good environmental stewardship is apparently enough of a joke to one party and its following that their nominee, Mitt Romney, will say at the Republican National Convention “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans to heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family.”  This plays to the “climate science is a hoax” crowd, and seems to miss the point that all of our well-being is intimately tied to the planet from extreme weather events to our health and food.  

Imagine a country where the political parties had scientific debates about the best ways to solve the problem of climate change, supporting renewable sources of energy, or environmental issues associated with fracking and drilling for oil using the best available science rather than whether or not climate science is valid or a hoax or why we shouldn’t invest in renewable energies (not to even mention whether evolution is valid!).  How we deal with issues—what the policies should be—is definitely complicated and requires balancing many variables, and politicians would have a lot to debate there.  Coming to conclusions about *what is going on* from the best available science is typically a lot more straightforward.  If you lay out and evaluate all the data, then you should be able to come to a general consensus based on the data, as climate scientists have done.  If new data contradicts the consensus, the framework has to be reevaluated—this is the way science works from evolution to astronomy.  In good science, there is no cherry picking of the data. 

The group Science Debate has been advocating for our elected officials to have a, you guessed it, science debate.  So far that has not been a priority for either party, although the presidential nominees have agreed to answer these questions in writing although only two congressional candidates have.  Why?  Do they not know enough about science to have this debate?  Do they not believe the public knows enough about science to evaluate such a debate?  Do they not think science and what it is telling us about the world is as important as the economy or foreign affairs? Do they realize a debate would make political cherry picking of the data more obvious?

Using the best available science or being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to be the MO of one party, and in the past it hasn’t been.  Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton have all made positive environmental and scientific impacts during their administration.  Democrat or Republican shouldn’t matter when it comes to supporting science and using the data responsibly.  But right now it seems to, and there is a high price to pay when a party that doesn’t support science or use its results responsibly wins elections.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Silent Spring, Read Along

In just about a month, Silent Spring will celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Fifty years ago in 1962, gas was $0.28 per gallon, Marilyn Monroe died, the Beatles were singing “Love Me Do” and people did, the first black student James Meredith was registering at University of Mississippi, and John F. Kennedy was the US president.  That was a while ago, and before my time.  But, as I have started rereading Silent Spring (the first time for me since graduate school in the mid-90s), it is striking how relevant the text is…still during the 2010s when we have our first black US president as well as Lady Gaga, whoever she is.  
                Silent Spring is relevant, but life today is also so much better than it was at the time of Carson’s writing—makes me so thankful that she put fingers to typewriter.  Thank you, Rachel!  Today we do have environmental problems, but our neighborhoods and farmlands aren’t being sprayed (without our permission or knowledge to boot) with DDT or dieldrin.  We have not seen birds or livestock suffering neurological toxicity and perishing before our very eyes.  Our contaminant issues today are much more subtle.  Pesticide application and contamination are at least a little more thoughtfully approached, not to mention regulated. 
In the first four chapters, Carson makes the point that “The chemical war is never won,” (Ch 2) because pesticide application will select for resistant strains leading to a cycle of greater outbreaks and then greater chemicals.  In other words, we set the stage to see evolution in action.  We could learn from nature by diversifying our agricultural activities so that we can employ nature’s safe guards:  natural predators and heterogeneous environments (rather than homogenous landscapes) that prevent pests from increasing to levels that lead to devastation on crops.  She also made the point that the increased yields with the use of pesticides leave us not only with contamination, but also overproduction:  too much food, which leads to the government paying farmers not to farm some areas and lower profits from abundance.  It does seem at some point, a good cost-benefit seems necessary.  For instance, the herbicide atrazine’s use apparently increases yields 4-9%.  Given that atrazine has been found to affect reproductive systems and behaviors in numerous species, it does make you wonder if that amount of increase in yield is really worth the tradeoffs.  Well, it makes me wonder anyway. 
But, Carson isn’t against using pesticides period, end of story; rather, she indicates that “control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects” (Ch 2).  How thoroughly sensible: reality, yes.   So, I wonder what Carson would make of the continued use of DDT in efforts to fight malaria.  The Stockholm Convention seeks to eliminate a number of chemicals from use, including DDT, but it currently has exemption for use in malaria control.  There are pros & cons to this, which are nicely outlined in a review by van den Berg (2009).  He recommends using an integrated approach of nonchemical and chemical methods as necessary to combat the problem.  DDT in this case is applied within the house to kill mosquitoes that carry malaria.  It is a tough call—malaria can be lethal, but there are environmental and long-term health risks to DDT.  But, people need something to take care of the most immediate threat, in a way that balances the long-term risks.  Other pesticides that are “safer” offer some options, but there are issues with resistance as well as greater cost in some cases.  Others from the non-profit Africa Fighting Malaria suggest that DDT is THE answer (Tren & Roberts 2009).  I think Rachel Carson would favor assault on multiple fronts, including pesticides when outbreaks were severe, but also efforts to reduce mosquito habitat as possible and access into houses.  DDT though, from what we know of it, seems like a last resort and definitely not the only solution.  Would Rachel Carson have ever guessed we’d still be discussing DDT 50 years later?  Ah…progress!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Sense of Wonder for the Common

Photo by Jim Richardson, from National Geographic
This semester I’m hosting a graduate seminar on the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring, a book credited with starting the modern environmental movement.  I read the book in graduate school and was amazed by how relevant the book was decades later, and am interested to see how I feel about the book that I’ve been in science a little longer (and maybe a little more grouchy and cynical).  I’m devoting some time this semester to learn as much as I can about Rachel Carson the person and her work.  Looking for a little inspiration!

I started with A Sense of Wonder.  Have you read it…or do you already have enough of a sense of wonder that it always seemed like an irrelevant read?  I have a sense of wonder, but sometimes I leave it in my back pocket.  Living with a little person helps me pull it out daily, however.  Little people do seem to live in a chronic state of wonder, where everything is new and worth devoting at least a little stare time to.  And this book is definitely about cultivating a young person’s stare time so that they maintain a steady state of wonder throughout her/his lifetime. 

My favorite passage in the book was about Rachel Carson, or Rachel as I prefer as we become intimate friends, and a friend taking a walk to an area by the waters of a bay to watch the night sky.  She says, “I have never seen them more beautiful:  the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. “  And then she goes on “It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation; this little headland would be thronged with spectators.  But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.” 

The beauty of the common.  What is it about our species that we fail to appreciate something until it is rare or scarce?  We are a strange beast and as much as we all benefit and love technology, it does seem to isolate us from the natural world.  I hope you see something common and beautiful today…I hope you stop and notice.  On my walk this morning I saw three fawns (three!) and a doe.  Deer may be common, but it is so lovely to see them carrying themselves on those thin leggy stalks, so lovely to take in for a moment the wild world around us.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

In Short There's Simply Not a More Congenial Spot

Last week I was an ad hoc member of a Scientific Advisory Panel at EPA for a chemical that has been reported to alter reproductive endpoints in amphibians.  It was an interesting experience, and I’ll have more to share in the coming weeks, but one unexpected outcome was that it made me very, very, very grateful that I work at a university…oh, Camelot of employers.    

More than one day of the meeting involved listening to public comments, and the company that makes the herbicide had the majority of that time.  We listened to the company and its scientists (or the university scientists it funded) provide arguments for their evaluation of the situation—often times reexamining the models developed by EPA scientists and interpreting the data available literature in, well, their own way.  We also listened to EPA scientists clarify their approach for arriving at safe environmental levels, as well as why we should or should not be concerned about effects on aquatic vertebrates.  The company had some points that were valid.  EPA had valid points.  And then they had to listen to the scientific advisory panel, which was probably less interesting to them than the comments they made were to me.  But the panelists had their own valid points.  Lots of talking and lots of listening.   Very exhausting.  Very interesting.

But the bottom line is that there are lots of great things about academics, which benefits scientists personally and the public at large.  (On the downside, many university scientists are not rich…but my father would argue that such things build character.)  First, academics can (and often do) say anything.  Academics have the freedom to be honest (and verbose) and really lay it on the line.  Do you think someone’s scientific approach is questionable or flawed?  Alas, then you can just say so and there’s really no one to answer to.  Your dean, departmental chairperson, and colleagues don’t really care if you express your scientific opinion—in fact, they may want to chat more about it and evaluate it themselves and come up with a cool experiment as a follow-up.  If you work in industry or are funded by industry, then whoever provides your bread may have some (or a lot) of sway over what you say publicly; and, even if the industry does not influence what its scientists say, there will always be the perception that they could.  Someone working for or being funded by a company loses the appearance of being objective and unbiased.  EPA scientists could be limited by their employer as well (or direct supervisor); and with changes in administration, the extent to which the scientists can express themselves can also change.  EPA may even suffer from a similar (but opposite) problem of public perception that industry is plagued with—the perception of bias:  EPA employees as tree huggers likely to make something appear worse than it is.  (Although, I must say that there was very little tree-hugging, or frog-hugging, on the issue I was involved with.)   

Second, as an academic on the panel evaluating the literature and the white paper put together for the panel, I had no vested interest in the outcome, which aids objectivity.  EPA has spent months (maybe years) putting together models to evaluate safe environmental levels and writing up the paper and appendices to clarify how they arrived at their conclusions.  If I was involved into anything that had appendices up to “Appendix N” I would definitely want things to go my way and wouldn’t want to have to be involved with any more appendices related to the topic ever again.  Industry is profiting from the market of their pesticide, so they have a vested interest in keeping it on the market at maximal rates.  Industry can cherry pick the data and develop models that suit their interests, and even believe they have been more objective than Spock himself.  As a scientist who never had an appendix past C, I could honestly care less if the chemical involved has an effect or not—the only thing I honestly care about is arriving at a scientific valid conclusion that nears the truth.  Because there is a truth—the chemical does or does not have effects that are biologically relevant at given concentrations—my only goal is that we arrive as close as possible to that destination.  Then it’s EPA’s job to decide how concerned they are about the potential effects and what they are going to do about them. 

A third reason to love academic life is that university scientists can do the research they want to do!  My lab is currently severely lacking in funds, but we can do a lot of things on a shoestring and are doing so.  No one tells us what we should be interested in or what we should examine, and there is great thrill in that which may not always be enjoyed by government or industry-funded scientists. 

Fourth, the situation of regulation is complicated, and as a scientist from a university, I can evaluate the data and express my opinion on what the right step is, but it cannot be easy to have to implement the change (EPA) or to have change implemented on one’s own livelihood (Industry).  The academics may be the marriage counselors in the whole process…at the end of the day, we walk away, but a lot of the hard decisions and work have to be done by others, and you just hope they have the courage and strength to take any good advice that was offered.

So, in the end, I am so happy to be home and I feel so enlightened and exhausted by the experience of seeing a small slice of the way the regulatory process works.  And, even better, I left with quite a few new ideas for experiments.    

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fool Me Twice

               One of the reasons I think science rocks is because the conclusions are based on evidence.  I can be completely gullible in a regular non-data-based conversation, and I always seem to be a sucker for the pathologically lying friend.  But, science is a reliable friend that allows you to check up on the data, question the circumstances, and retest.  Well, data is nice—wonderful even, but one could argue that there are poorly designed experiments that could give spurious results.  That’s true, but that is not data that would hold up and stand the test of time.  There’s peer-review by the scientific community, which happens before anything gets published and which catches most of the experimental design flaws and can stop a publication dead in its tracks.  And, there’s a community of scientists who should be able to replicate your experiments—studies must be repeatable if the conclusions are to be believed.  Scientists know that “belief” should never be required in a conclusion, but rather evidence is.  We scientist do not “believe in” climate change or evolution—rather the available data support the conclusion that climate change is occurring and that evolution has shaped the diversity of life on earth. 
                ShawnLawrence Otto published a book in 2011 called Fool Me Twice:  Fighting the Assault on Science in America, and I read it with great interest because I’m intrigued by the debate that seems to be on-going in America regarding science, currently global climate change and evolution (as always it seems).  This book offered a lot of insights as to why some people may be wary of science, like the use of science to create weapons of mass destruction.  And why people may not view scientific conclusions as solidly as scientists do, which Otto proposes is a result of an educational system that has promoted viewing the world from different perspectives with no real “truth.”  In contrasts, science revolves around attempts to uncover and reveal Truth.  If people do not believe that there is such a thing as “the truth,” only different ways of perceiving the world, then no wonder science is taking a beating in politics and the media. 
                There were a couple of points he made that I am going to carry forward with me.  One, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 1987 decision to abolish the “fairness doctrine” which resulted in Otto’s words of “severing one of the last ties to a common public foundation of knowledge and its cousin, the carefully researched public record that journalists had worked for sixty years to build.”  Broadcasters were then no long required to present balanced news coverage, resulting in a new era of yellow journalism that allowed the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox news, which has had a huge impact on the impression of science by the public.  Otto also holds scientists accountable for becoming disengaged with the public, which has allowed a lot of debate to continue without a strong scientific foundation.  He’s totally right about that.  We scientists need to figure out what role we can play in helping with scientific literacy.  Even though we ecologists are seldom pale, we could still stand to step out a bit more.  He also suggests that scientists should be reaching out to churches, which is completely interesting, isn’t it?  Scientists certainly share a range of religious views, like the non-scientific community, but there are few who are engaging with congregations in a way that could be beneficial to scientific understanding.  And I am totally guilty of this, as a religious person that goes to a church where a disturbing portion of the congregation seems more likely to visit the Creation “Museum” right down the road than to ponder the awe-inspiring interconnectedness of life on earth that arose through evolutionary processes. 
                So, I think you should read this book too and see what you think about it.  There is a lot to think about and I’ve only touched on a few of Otto’s points.  As the best books do, it has me thinking about the world in a new way and also contemplating some different ways I can interact with people.  It’s even got me thinking I need to visit the Creation Museum and take some notes on what the creationists think is so astounding that it could only be heavenly created—so at least creationists and scientists are all awe-struck by this dazzling world, and that is potentially common ground where we can start a dialogue.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Humans and their Tall Tales of Snakes: Science to the Rescue

                Snakes.  Personally, I am quite found of them.  I like the large venomous ones that have a built in rattle.  I like that they can periodically refresh themselves with a good skin shedding that keeps them looking as young and vibrant as ever.  I like how their scales cover their surface like a roll of sequins.  Snake fondness could be the next fad with a little help from everyone, and science can help.
                I was just reading a study called “Defensive behavior of cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus)” by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas and am reminded how we scientists can put myths to the test quite literally.  It’s one thing for snake lovers to say that people shouldn’t worry about venomous snakes and how unlikely they are to actually bite a person.  But people seem very confident that venomous snakes, in particular, are prone to chase a person down for a little venom therapy, just for funsies.  Sure, we can say “Approximately 8000 of the 310,000,000 people in the US will be bitten by a venomous snake—or ~0.026% of the population.” Or that “There are typically 12 or fewer deaths in the US per year for venomous snakes, or ~12/310,000,000, which is 0.0000039% of the population.”  Or even in our most confident voice “In contrast, there are roughly 40-50 deaths by lightning strike and 90 deaths by motor vehicle crashes each year in the US.  Come on people, evaluate the risks properly.”  But, nothing is quite as convincing as a nice hypothesis-driven study.  And, the study by Gibbons & Dorcas (2002) suggests that you are most likely to be bitten (and therefore in some unlikely cases die) by a venomous snakebite if you pick up and harass the snake.  So, I had to share the data:

                They had three treatments:  1) stand beside a snake (in snakeproof boots) while touching its body; 2) step on the snake midbody without injuring the snake; or 3) pick up the snake midbody with a pair of snake tongs that look like a human-hand and arm.  (Would love to see a picture of those, personally.)  And these (above) were the results they found.  Most of the snakes that bit were picked up with the human-like hand and had also been stepped on—so the more harassment, the more likely the snake was to bite.  Even still, 60% of the snakes did not bite when picked up.  None apparently chased the researchers when they were done with the study.  NONE! 
                So, if you do not want to be bitten by a venomous snake, then do not harass them or pick them up or kill them, just stand back and admire them.  Every living creature could use a little more admiration.  Myself included (husband, are you listening?). 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Just a Couple of Nice Days in the Field

We are having such gorgeous weather in wild & wonderful Ohio this week.  (I know weather is the stuff of old people, but I turned 40 this week and, therefore, must speak of gorgeous blue skies.)  Yesterday, I was out with my herpetology class looking for, well, herps, of course.  There’s a good crop of herpers in this group (too bad they are not reading this, because I’m sure that comment would give them a warm, fuzzy feeling).  We saw a few lovelies including the southern two-lined salamander, which we saw in all sizes, small larvae to big and chunky adult.  Such a lovely surprise to turn over a rock and find a salamander or snake.  Of course, we are turning rocks over for this very reason, but it’s still kind of like buying a lottery ticket…you don’t win every time. 

We also found a few snakes under some of those rocks—queen snakes and small northern water snakes.  A number of snake whisperers in class this year that seem to find them no matter where we are, but these were all hanging out at the water’s edge. 

Today I was out in the field for a bit checking my terrestrial pens. Notice anything?

I raised these northern leopard frogs from tadpoles in ponds and then placed them in these terrestrial pens.  As tadpoles, they were exposed to an insecticide at 2, 4, 6, or 8 weeks after hatching and we’re following them in the terrestrial environment to see if there are long-term effects from early life exposure.  The pens are only about 6 feet by 6 feet, but these frogs are hiding Houdini’s in the grass.  I’ll hop into a pen and see a frog, but I think they have a secret hidey-hole or two.  Fortunately, there’s one nice big hidey-hole, which we elegantly call “the central pit,” and when they are in there I can catch them better than a frog can catch a fly.  Aren’t they gorgeous?  This is the last part of a very long three year study, which has had more than the normal numbers of snags.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for something really, really, really interesting.  However, even if it’s really, really, really not interesting, they still had me out on a nice 60 degree F day working my Jedi reflexes to catch these lovely beasts.  Science is good!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Your Inner Fish, My Inner Fish

Finished a good science read this morning by Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish:  A Journey into the 3.5-billion-year History of the Human Body.  You should check it out.  Shubin’s the guy who discovered Tiktaalik, the missing link between fish and tetrapods.  Here’s a picture of that beast:

 I know, Tiktaalik is quite a doll.  Paleobiology-types were so excited about this fishapod because it had a wrist and a neck, as well as a number of characteristics associated with amphibians, the first tetrapods, likes a flat head with eyes on top of the head.  But, Tiktaalik is still very fish like with its fins and general fishiness.  Your Inner Fish starts out with Shubin’s stories about the discovery of this and other fossils and how paleontologist use geological maps to make educated guesses about where they might find certain types of fossils.  Good field stories.

Shubin makes connections between the limbs and hands of all tetrapods with their earliest fish ancestors.  He covers the connection early biologists make in the 19th and 20th century between life forms based on studying embryonic development.  And he brings us to the amazing discoveries (and potential for discoveries) in the molecular age—how you can find genes that build bodies in mammals in a very similar form in all sorts of other animals and even choanoflagellates, our protist ancestors.

Some of my favorite things from the book:  Teeth appear to have arisen before skeletons and the first skulls were very tooth like.  He called this an “inconvenient tooth,” which I think you’ll agree is hilarious.  Our earlier ancestors had gonads by their heart (like sharks today), but they have since traveled to the nether region, which causes some problems especially for males who are more susceptible to hernias thanks to the gonad’s peregrination.  The end of the book talks about how the design of the early ancestors that has been tinkered with over time causes some design issues.  There are more than a few good pieces of information to have in your toolbox next time evolution comes up with your fundamentalist relations who try to deny the fish (and sponge) within. 

If you haven’t picked it up, it’s worth a read.  My intro biology students should love it and it made me wonder if Shubin’s book might be the preferable way to cover animal diversity.  Also a must read for med-types!  Shubin has some nice descriptions of nerves leaving the skull and explaining why they wend the way they do.  The interconnection between our lives and the lives of all biodiversity are pretty awe inspiring, and Shubin’s book definitely turns on the awe-o-mometer.