Science, Civic Life and Religion

A nice article in the New Yorker by Lawrence Krauss, motivated by the Kim Davis refusal to grant marriage licenses because her religious faith forbids it.

I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered “sacred.” Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.

More on Krauss

And as to the First Amendment, which Davis and her team of lawyers is basing her claim on, seems they know neither how to read, nor to accept decisions over several centuries which speak directly to her argument.

“Freedom of religion means freedom to hold an opinion or belief, but not to take action in violation of social duties or subversive to good order,” In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the Supreme Court found that while laws cannot interfere with religious belief and opinions, laws can be made to regulate some religious practices (e.g., human sacrifices, and the Hindu practice of suttee). The Court stated that to rule otherwise, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government would exist only in name under such circumstances.”[27] In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), the Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Free Exercise Clause to the states. While the right to have religious beliefs is absolute, the freedom to act on such beliefs is not absolute.[28]  See more Right  Here.

Short Term Thinking in a Long Term World

Eduardo Porter, business columnist for the NY Times (and always worth reading) tells us the deferred gratification discipline that made modern capitalism such a force is falling apart.

… talk to a scientist in a research lab almost anywhere and you are likely to hear that the edifice of American innovation rests on an increasingly rickety foundation.

Investment in research and development has flatlined over the last several years as a share of the economy, stabilizing at about 2.9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2012, according to the National Science Foundation.
That may not be far from the overall peak. But other countries are now leaving the United States behind.

And even more critically, investment in basic research — the fundamental building block for innovation and economic advancement — steadily shrank as a share of the economy in the decade to 2012, the last year for which there are comprehensive statistics.

The trend poses two big challenges. The first concerns government budgets for basic research, the biggest source of financing for scientific inquiry. It fell in 2013 to substantially below its level 10 years earlier and, as one of the most politically vulnerable elements in an increasingly straitened federal budget, looks likely to shrink further.

Of course this would have been made clearer by removing the passive voice.  It didn’t just fall.  It was deliberately and consciously cut by a  determined sector of congress, almost entirely Republicans…”

The second, equally important, challenge regards the future of corporate research. Evidence suggests that American corporations, constantly pressured to increase the next quarter’s profits in the face of powerful foreign competition, are walking away from basic science, too.

And again pressured by whom? Actual pressure, or imputed pressure?  The following is more specific:

Corporate executives, their compensation tied overwhelmingly to short-term gains in the market value of their companies, may be responding accordingly.

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How Was Life Almost Wiped Out on Earth? Acid Oceans

One of the symptoms of rising CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing acidity of the oceans. Measurements have shown such a rise for several decades now, leading to coral die-off, changes and diminishment of fish spawning. Now, we begin to know how bad it could become.

Acidic oceans helped fuel the biggest mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, a study says.

The Permian-Triassic mass extinction, which took place 252 million years ago, wiped out more than 90% of marine species and more than two-thirds of the animals living on land.
Its causes have been much debated.

Now, studies of rock in the United Arab Emirates, which were on the ocean floor at the time, are providing a detailed record of rapid changes in ocean acidity — linked to massive volcanism in the Siberian Traps. Massive amounts of CO2 can not be absorbed by the atmosphere alone so much is ‘dumped’ into the oceans, leading to acidification too rapid for marine life to adapt.


“This is a worrying finding, considering that we can already see an increase in ocean acidity today that is the result of human carbon emissions.”

It’s not just geology, folks.  It’s the future.

“Natural” Means What, Exactly?

Timothy Eagan brings a valuable addition to the rising discussion about vaccinations. The doubts raised about them come from a perplexing behavior in this land of boasted individualism: we often don’t think through and evaluate as best we can. We do what those around us do. In a herd mentality, the glue of which is narcissism, the first line of defense against a threatening world is people like ourselves. If people like us tell us something, with energy and certainty,  it must be true.  Those who sow doubt will lose the protection of the believers. The belief against vaccines is the flip side of the coin of belief in all manner of untested, unproven and unknown “natural” cures.  Those who entirely distrust big pharma and big government swallow claims and “dietary supplements” of equally big industries with equally big war chests and armies of lobbyists.

“If you want to know how we came to be a nation where everyone is a doctor, sound science is vilified and seemingly smart people distrust vaccinations, come to Utah — whose state flower should be St. John’s wort. Here, the nexus of quack pharma and industry-owned politicians has produced quite a windfall: nearly one in four dollars in the supplement market passes though this state.

We’re not talking drugs, or even, in many cases, food here. Drugs have to undergo rigorous testing and review by the federal government. Dietary supplements do not. Drugs have to prove to be effective. Dietary supplements do not.

These are the Frankenstein remedies — botanicals, herbs, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, dried stuff. They’re “natural.” They’re not cheap. And Americans pop them like Skittles, despite recent studies showing that nearly a third of all herbal supplements on the market may be outright frauds.”

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Marin County Makes the Daily Show!

Use the Earth to Help the Earth

In these days of summer, good news is extremely hard to come by.  There isn’t a corner of the earth where murder, by the hundreds, is not a popular activity, not just ignored but applauded by many who are standing out of harm’s way.  So it is nice to turn to one small signal of sanity, actually two.

1] The wet suit, which has received positive reviews from users ” …  is made not from conventional, petroleum-based neoprene but from a natural rubber derived from a desert shrub.

Guayule Flowers

Guayule Flowers

Patagonia executives are … convinced that the many years of development and testing they have supported have resulted in a revolutionary material that will wind up not only in wet suits but also in everyday items like sneakers and yoga mats.

2] But … only a few of those products will bear the Patagonia name. Instead of holding the manufacturer of the rubber, Yulex, to a yearslong exclusive contract, Patagonia is encouraging its competitors to use the product, hoping to see its use grow and drive down the price. Other wet suit and athletic apparel companies have shown interest …

It turns out it’s not easy to do good as a corporation.  In fact the incorporation documents have to specifically define public good and how it aims to do it.

Patagonia  became a benefit, or B, corporation, one of an estimated 900 in the United States. This form of incorporation, permitted in 26 states and the District of Columbia, requires executives to take into account not just how decisions will affect profit and shareholders but also how they will affect the public, generally defined as society or the environment. Though the rules vary among states, companies must produce an annual benefit report to demonstrate how they are adhering to the mission.

Good for them and really good for pushing a non-fossil fuel solution to the production of many common items in the today’s world.

Of course, the thing to watch out for, which we should all be aware of finally, is the danger of industrialized farming and corporate mono-culture, stripping out food crops, or more jungle cover, to jump on the bandwagon.  Bridgestone, one of the world’s largest users of rubber, is doing its own R&D.

NY Tmes: Cardwell

New Biomass to Electricity Conversion

All I can say about these new technologies of energy is, they’d better hurry!

… researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new type of low-temperature fuel cell that directly converts biomass to electricity with assistance from a catalyst activated by solar or thermal energy. The hybrid fuel cell can use a wide variety of biomass sources, including starch, cellulose, lignin — and even switchgrass, powdered wood, algae and waste from poultry processing.

The device could be used in small-scale units to provide electricity for developing nations, as well as for larger facilities to provide power where significant quantities of biomass are available.

Debating Cause of Climate Change is Moral and Scientific Equivalent of Debating Gravity

A Republican, a meteorologist and a business owner weighs in on Climate Change and the deniers>

To the heart of your question, why don’t more climate scientists enter into the public debate? Because the debate is over. It’s the moral and scientific equivalent of debating gravity. The experts have spoken, and because a very small minority of stakeholders and shareholders don’t care for the implications there is vociferous push-back from certain special interests. I worked in television news for 35 years. Mainstream media likes a good on-air food-fight, a protagonist and antagonist, shouting at each other about their worldviews. It attracts curiosity and eyeballs – it’s ultimately good for ratings. But it’s a false equivalent, and it’s a terrible way to conduct science. We put a handful of (paid) climate skeptics and industry lobbyists on a stage with thousands of the world’s leading climate PhD’s, and think this is somehow serving the public interest? It’s not. It’s creating more confusion, more delay and more denial, as viewers and readers pick and choose their reality as easily as changing channels on their TV or grazing over their morning horoscope. I can absolutely understand why more professionals don’t want to subject themselves to inane banter with science-deniers.

Scott Mandia via Open Mind

Why Cooperation is More Evolved

In the hey-day of neo-Darwinian admonishments to compete or die the anarchist Peter Kropotkin wrote an intelligent and observationally based rebuttal called Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.  “Sociability” he said “is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”  111 years later science is showing how important co-operation is in the evolution of species.


I’m not sure ‘generous’ is the right word here.  Co-operation seems right to me, however:

“Ever since Darwin,” Plotkin said, “biologists have been puzzled about why there is so much apparent cooperation, and even flat-out generosity and altruism, in nature. The literature on game theory has worked to explain why generosity arises. Our paper provides such an explanation for why we see so much generosity in front of us.”

… “When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous,” Plotkin said. “It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.”

“We find that in evolution, a population that encourages cooperation does well,” Stewart said. “To maintain cooperation over the long term, it is best to be generous.”

Science Online

Anti-vaccine-preaching Texas megachurch linked to measles outbreak

This is the way things ought to turn out — that those who live by ignorance are bitten by it.

 11 of the 16 measles cases had been linked to church attendees.

The pastor, against her father’s preaching, threw some information at the congregation

In a marked shift in the church’s message, Pearsons went on to inform the congregation that the church was setting up free vaccination clinics, and urged those who chose not to participate to voluntarily quarantine themselves at home for two weeks.

Now if only massive hurricane and wild fires would only hit those who didn’t believe the climate was changing….