Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Dangers of Skepticism without Perspective: Thoughts on Merchants of Doubt

“Hearing ‘both sides’ of an issue makes sense when debating politics in a two-party system, but there’s a problem when that framework is applied to science. When a scientific question is unanswered, there may be three, four, or a dozen competing hypotheses, which are then investigated through research…Research produces evidence, which in time may settle the question…After that point, there are no “sides.”  There is simply accepted scientific knowledge.  There may still be questions that remain unanswered—to which scientists then turn their attention—but for the question that has been answered, there is simply the consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter.  That is what scientific knowledge is.” (Page 268) – Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt illustrates the value of knowing the historical perspective in which debates are being framed. Ideally, we know history to understand the landscape of the present, as well as a means of avoiding past mistakes, if humans are indeed capable of learning from our mistakes. The text was dense and detailed, but the authors lay out compelling evidence to illustrate how doubt of scientific consensus has undermined timely action to protect human and/or environmental health.  This seems like a must read.
One of the struggles I had while reading this book was about the potential for bias. It was clear to me early on that my conservative friends and/or family members, no matter how interested in these issues, would not be interested in reading Merchants of Doubt. The book is a clear indictment of blind & absolute faith of the free market, a view held by some conservatives, which appeared to influence the motivation of scientific “experts” (who although experts in some fields were not experts in all the fields they appeared to meddle), which led to either complete loss of perspective or outright lying.  Conservative administrations and politicians are the ones that are directly implicated in generating doubt where the scientific reality is much more certain. Does the implication of the “conservatives” make the book biased? In the end, I concluded that the authors were objective—they provide persuasive evidence (with sometimes exhausting detail) that key players intentionally misled the public and waged a scientific battle outside of science, which led to political inaction and public confusion over the real state of knowledge.  The approach of the doubt-mongers, which started in the 1950s, has also provided enough examples and enough time to show that in each of these cases that the doubt they sowed was in fact unjustified—not a seed that should have grown & flourished, but actually a stone. So while I do not expect conservatives to like this book, I wonder if it can be countered with evidence that can withstand honest scrutiny.
This book reframed for me why these false scientific debates, funded ultimately by industry, take root in society.  The book suggests that it’s not only personal financial gain for the business people, politicians, and the few scientists involved--although money is clearly there at the root of the issue—but also the idea that anything less than full free market support is the first step to the slippery slope of Socialism (arguably, in this country, the path to Socialism would be an uphill battle—not an easy slide). I grew up in a very conservative household, arguably “hawkish” in the words of Oreskes & Conway, so I can kind of understand that concern, even if I do not consider it particularly rational.  What I cannot understand is how scientists, many of whom had been accomplished in their field of expertise, could pose as experts in other disciplines where they were clearly not and (or) then mislead or confuse the public about the state of knowledge—simply because they disagreed with the obvious implications of the data (which may mean warning labels on cigarettes, limited public smoking, regulations on emissions).  We cannot have the correct conversations as a society if people are actively working to misrepresent the science—doing so seems criminal.
A true conservative approach would be one that ensured that the natural resources and biodiversity of the planet would be preserved for “the greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time,” in the words of Gifford Pinchot. Applying skepticism without perspective—by a failure to account for the available data—is not the path to a free society, but it is a very dark path and one that we cannot afford to travel. In any case, we should all be carrying our flashlights. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Voice in the Wilderness: Thoughts on Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway

He [John] said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. --John 1:23

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. –Matthew 7:15-20

Merchants of Doubt starts with the science and scientists of the tobacco industry and follows it/them through their involvement in national defense, and the acid rain and the ozone layer science (and debate). This has me thinking biblically.  While reading these first four chapters, I cannot help but think of the confusion that these apparent false (science) prophets have contributed to the discussion and the role they’ve played in the public distrust of scientists.  There are people (in my family for starters) who hear a scientist speak on a topic like global warming who are outside of the general scientific consensus and they view her or him as a voice in the wilderness, someone who speaks the TRUTH that the other scientists fail to see.  The voice in the wilderness is viewed as someone ahead of the curve, who fights against the status quo.  Certainly, there have been scientific voices in the wilderness—the Galileos and Darwins—who have uncovered a scientific truth that was in contrast to prevailing views, including the prevailing scientific views. Oreskes & Conway clarify that many of the scientists that argued smoking was safe, acid rain wasn’t a problem, and the ozone hole was natural were false prophets—in many cases, the same false prophet continued to be on the wrong side of the debate, which suggests either their perspective was faulty or they were deliberately lying in some cases. (Why is it that Americans especially appear to love the person who is an underdog in their scientific interpretation?)

But, false prophets should be detectable by their fruit.  Many of the scientists highlighted in the text who were false prophets had prestigious scientific credentials—scientifically, they were hot stuff.  Big trees.  But oh their fruit!  How is a regular person supposed to know?  There are so many areas in life where I am relying on experts—I do not have time (or the will) to investigate every health, political, and social claim that is put forth.  And, I suspect, I am like most people. I may miss a few wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The success of delusional or dishonest scientists counts on a public that is disengaged, that will not investigate their sources, and that would rather believe things are fine so that they do not have to change (and that is willing to be deceived). How do others who are honest with a clear sense of reality set the record straight?  It is clear that people need to consider whether a scientist has a clear financial conflict of interest—it should be a sign to listen very carefully, and it never hurts to follow the money. How plausible is it that a scientist may be being paid for their opinion or interpretation??  An interesting point is made that regular ole academic scientists also have a potential conflict of interest because they may be seeking fame and ways to bolster their likelihood of getting grants by opposing the voice in the wilderness.  And there is some truth in that, which is why it is probably an effective approach.  However, the opinion of a scientist at an academic institution is of little difference to the university—we will not get fired for interpreting the data in support of acid rain as a problem or not. (Perhaps we should be trusting the scientists without funding who can do research on a shoestring.)  But at the end of the day, the evidence should be the guiding light. Everyone has some degree of conflict of interest (we can still argue that financial conflicts of interest where an individual’s professional opinion could be biased by the fact that their employer has a vested interest in the professional opinion s/he expresses is the most insidious type of conflict of interest), but the data should be the source of our understanding.

This book so far highlights for me why scientists should draw a strict line on advocacy.  When you cross the line into advocacy, the science itself can be viewed with more doubt and it compromises the ability for our society to decide what we care about.  Better to not have an agenda beyond providing the best data and interpretation of the data that you possibly can.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Living on the New Pangea—Thoughts on Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (pp. 148-269)

“From the standpoint of the world’s biota, global travel represents a radically new phenomenon and, at the same time, a replay of the very old.  The drifting apart of the continents that Wegener deduced from the fossil record is now being reversed—another way in which humans are running geologic history backward and at high speed.  Think of it as a souped-up version of plate tectonics, minus the plates.” (p. 208)

The latest reports of a discovery of yet another new species of hominids, Homo neledi, is a reminder of how our group of primates almost didn’t make it.  It also makes me wonder what it is about us (Homo sapiens) that preserved us—perhaps it is the madness gene that Kolbert speaks of.  But survived we have, and we continue to consider ourselves very clever with our technology, cars, and spaceships. (I suppose we are clever.) While cultivating our cleverness, humans have also become the taxi service of biodiversity. While reading The Sixth Extinction, I can’t help but think that while the phenomenon of mass extinction clearly sounds horrific, there is also a sense that this is nothing new. Life will go on, even though we are currently in a god-like position of deciding, at least to some extent, how life will proceed. The species that will form the evolutionary foundation of the recovery following the sixth mass extinction event—a recovery that will require tens to hundreds of millions of years if the last mass extinctions tell us anything—are currently being selected for by chance and happenstance, as well as human whim.  Extinction is an old story, it’s just the characters have changed: It’s Tony and Maria instead of Romeo and Juliet.  Both plays were good, and the new one even had music, which is arguably an improvement in the situation.  Maybe things will be even better on New Pangea. 

The New Pangea.  It is an intriguing idea.  It doesn’t mean we lose all diversity. Connected places can maintain high diversity because of variation in the connected habitat (think about the life forms from Canada to the tip of South America).  But it does mean that our introductions lead to new interactions with outcomes that are not entirely clear. Species have always moved other species with themselves when they travelled, although perhaps less consciously. It would be surprising if we didn’t take other life forms with us by chance (parasites & pathogens, the occasional seed stuck in our hair or on our trousers) or by planning (gotta eat). I am intrigued by the tension in the book between what is natural and what is unnatural in this telling of the troubles of the current times. If we were scientific observers of the human species, I’m not sure we would cast the biodiversity crisis in quite the same light (a moral dilemma).  We are doing what individuals of any population or species do—looking out for ourselves as well as those in our group, since sociality has been selected for over our evolutionary history. Part of looking out for ourselves should include the health and sustainability of our environmrent, since failure to do so could be a game changer for us. But it’s hard to associate our individual actions, many of which seem benign, with the cause of the real and large problems facing life. Kolbert even incriminates us in the biodiversity crisis in the very act of buying and reading her book—sincere & high minded folks, we too are implicated. Damn it. And still, I would buy this book again.

Redistributing biodiversity in our travels and trade is arguably natural, but it is not without consequences. Kolbert offers many examples of the outcomes of bringing continents together in our modern way:  White-nose syndrome in bats which appears to have a European origin; amphibian chytrid fungus coming out of Africa; the Asian long-horned beetle from China; the emerald ash borer from Asia; chestnut blight from Japan; and the list goes on. The changes that happen relatively quickly lead to us growing up thinking that a forest devoid of chestnuts is normal, the ways it’s always been. So, the baseline has shifted—it is shifting. We will inevitably find ourselves living with less diversity on the New Pangea. Our insistence in transporting plants and animals half-way around the world results in the movement of parasites and pathogens.  Planting our yards with exotic species [like most grass for starters!] dramatically alters many of the surrounding natural ecosystems, often favoring exotics or “weedy” species like deer. Introduction of exotic animals has led to collapses in diversity in some cases. Darwin would have been so confused if the world’s diversity had been configured the way it is today.

Speciation often occurs in isolation, and in a connected world that is slowly becoming homogenized as species interactions play out, it is hard to see how diversity will be maintained in a world overflowing with people.  Although, as Kolbert points out, evidence suggests that the megafauna were vulnerable to small bands of people. So maybe the success of humans 200,000 years ago set in motion this sixth extinction event—maybe the fate of biodiversity was written long ago.  But still, hope *is* the thing with feathers, as both Emily Dickinson & Elizabeth Kolbert suggest. I am waiting for our frontal lobes to lead the way.  We have the capacity to make things better, but how this unfolds is really anyone’s guess. 

PS I love this book.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Rarity of Extinction--Thoughts on Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Part I; pages 1-147)

As biologists we are trained to recognize that extinction is a natural phenomenon—that ~99% of the life that has evolved on Earth has passed away to leave either no trace, or if we are lucky, a commemoration of their existence in the fossil record.  As conservation biologists, we are aware that the current extinction rate is 100-1000X the background extinction rate—and a central goal of conservation biology is to conserve the biodiversity that remains—but what Kolbert (2014) has made me consider is how many extinctions we should expect to see in our lifetime.  Kolbert says “From Darwin’s premises, an important prediction followed.  If extinction was driven by natural selection and only by natural selection, the two processes had to proceed at roughly the same rate. If anything, extinction had to occur more gradually” (p. 55). We shouldn’t expect to see, perhaps, even one extinction in our lifetime, yet the reports abound. (And to think that two centuries ago, the very notion of extinction barely existed!) Of course, the background extinction rate goes out the window in mass extinction events.

Kolbert opens the door and welcomes everyone to the Anthropocene just on the edge of the sixth extinction event, an event that has already began to unfold. Come on in.  Have a seat and watch the consequences unfold. Humans, despite our frontal lobe development, seem to show limited capacity for foresight, leading to extinctions through both direct and indirect means, although both routes may be unintentional. What leads me down the path of despair, if only briefly since there is no time for despair, is our past record for driving once common species to extinction.  In “The Original Penguin,” Kolbert points out that the Great Auk had a wide distribution in the Northern Hemisphere ranging “from Norway over to Newfoundland and from Italy to Florida, and its population probably numbered in the millions” (p. 57-58). We hunted without foresight that millions could turn into a small remnant population, left to the vagaries of small populations until they were a single nesting pair and then collected for a “gentleman” who wanted it for his collection in 1844 (p. 62). (Why does she not call him a fool [edited for polite blogging]??) Are we more enlightened today with better technology and knowledge of what is happening beyond our own home range? Theoretically, although this knowledge barely helps the elephants and black rhinos.  The enlightened many who may wish to protect species that are rare is undermined by the cheaters—the poachers who will come in to take what is rare and, therefore, valuable—although their measure of value is limited to a price tag and the risk of poaching is often not great enough to impede this activity.

If our direct actions that lead to small populations (if not outright extinction) cannot be adequately curbed—this should be the low hanging fruit—then how can we hope to manage our actions that indirectly put biodiversity at risk—actions that increase greenhouse gases that warm the climate and increase the acidity of the oceans?  Ugh.  Bleh.  No idea.  What Kolbert does brilliantly in this book, it seems to me, is to 1) establish a framework of how life has changed on earth over millions of years—with each mass extinction event appearing to be a result of different phenomenon; 2) lay out our historical understanding of species loss; and 3) clarify how humans have set the stage for another dramatic shift, all by ourselves—no asteroids needed.  Maybe a human-mediated mass extinction event won’t lead to the worst day on earth, the way the asteroid hit at the end of the Cretaceous period did—but it seems less than ideal and currently unavoidable (although we can avoid the worst outcomes). Kolbert’s writing is beautiful, even as she horrifies—I’m waiting to see if she offers a path through the mess we’ve created and I’m wondering how many people we need on the path to reach the best possible future.

Conservation Books "To Read"

My list of books "to read" is getting out of control and it seems easy to let that be low priority, even though reading a good book is *the best*. So I had the genius idea of recruiting some graduate students to take a seminar where we read and discuss some of the recent conservation literature together. We've got six exciting non-fiction books on our agenda to explore how to communicate with the public and to explore some general issues in conservation biology.  We are all blogging about our reads--books & blog links below--we would love to hear the non-fiction conservation books for the public that you have loved.  

Texts in Order of Class Discussions

1) Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

2) Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

3) Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

4) Mooallem, Jon. 2013. Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

5) McKibben, Bill. 2013. Oil and Honey.

6) Steingraber, Sandra. 1997. Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.

Individual Class Reading Blogs

Brentrup, Jennie: