Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Seeing peace

Though I am grateful for so many things in my life, one virtuous emotion I have felt little of lately is peacefulness. Even when things are quiet, I hear an internal hum of restless activity. This chronic sensation of speed, pressure, and productivity is heavy and sticky.

I say yes easily and probably move too much. Sometimes I feel my life depends on making a deadline or taking on another project. This is fantasy and bad fantasy at that. Life would go on if I slept through the day. Life would go on if my computer wouldn't boot.

Though I carry this world of worry and reminders wherever I go, I am surrounded by peacefulness. The dust on the moulding and the bare wires that silently feed the bulb on the wall do not move or hurry. The creak of the hinge on Caspian's door and the guy lines on the dead spider's web out the window do not know how many tasks are stacked for tomorrow. The problem is not a lack of peacefulness, it's my inattention to seeing peace.

A February a few years ago in Fairbanks on my bike, I saw a woman standing beside her car on the shoulder of Chena Ridge. It was 9 am and the sun had just begun to glow in the southeast. She had stopped her rush and was standing in the dry cold Boreal morning, taking pictures of sunrise. When I got to my office, I told my friend Allison about the pictures, and asked if she thought having a camera all the time in our pockets makes us notice more of less of the beauty around us. She said it helped her notice more and that she now looked for truth in her dog, child, or ski boot that she hadn't thought to before.

Clearly, our devices can take us away from peace, but they can sometimes help us see it. I do see peace in some of the pictures and videos I've taken. Sometimes it's peace I intentionally tried to net with my megapixels. Other times, it's peace that crept in without consent. Here are a few (feel free to add your own).

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Gods and in the image of God

The paradox, in a nutshell, is this: humans are grown so powerful that they have become a force of nature - and forces of nature are those things which, by definition, are beyond the power of humans to control.
-Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
-Genesis 1:26-27

Don't worry, this post isn't a plea to care about the planet. I figure you are burned out on being told the world is going to pot and it's your fault. This post is about our godlike power as a species and our collective impotence. 

I know you don't have any particular reason to trust me. I’m a Mormon ecologist so whether you are skeptical of environmentalists and government-funded science, or if you break out in hives at the mention of organized religion, I’m bound to push at least some of your buttons. But if you can turn off what you are supposed to believe for a few minutes, I promise not to tell you what to do with the environment or your soul

The following are facts. Not model predictions or bent statistics from a press release. These are observed changes wrought by the communal and cumulative power of human activity.
  1. Humans have plowed, paved, burned, or built 75% of the earth’s ice-free land.1 
  2. The combined weight of humanity (anthropomass) is tenfold greater than all land vertebrates, and our livestock weigh more than twice what we do. This means that we and our domestic animals account for 98% of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians on earth.2,3
  3. Human agriculture, resource extraction, and construction move approximately 20 times more dirt, rock, and soil as all natural processes combined, including rivers, glaciers, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.4
  4. The combined effects of habitat loss, invasive species, and direct human consumption has increased the extinction rate 1,000 times over background. We drive 2,000 to 10,000 species to extinction every year.5–7
  5. Air and water pollution cause approximately 12.6 million deaths a year (34,500 people every day), primarily due to premature heart failure, respiratory disease, and neurological disorders.8,9 For context, 1.3 million people die annually from car crashes, 55,000 from war, 40,000 from natural disasters, and 9,000 from terrorism.10–13
A few springs ago in May, my friend Sarah talked to me about God while we were dragging permafrost cores back to camp on the North Slope of Alaska. She tactfully told me that it seemed incredibly self-centered and irrational to believe in an anthropomorphic god. In her opinion, this kind of belief was evidence that man had created god in his image, not the other way around. She also worried that an anthropomorphic god encouraged exploitative relationships with the earth and other creations, since it gives humans special status. It does seem implausibly convenient that the creator of the universe just happens to look like us.

Before and since that interaction with Sarah, I've been asked versions of this question by believers and nonbelievers. While I see how belief in an anthropomorphized god could predispose us to some forms of environmental negligence, I’ve come to hold that this exceptionalist theology also carries fundamental truth about our relationship with the earth, whether or not you believe in God.

When God described the creation to Moses some 3,500 years ago, the prophecy that man would dominate the earth must have seemed laughable. Even Moses didn’t buy it initially, responding, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” There were eight million species on earth at that time, and Homo sapiens was not on anyone's short list to become the top dog (so to speak). A slow-reproducing primate with no particular gifts in strength or speed, we didn't have any claws or teeth to speak of, and we'd given up the safety of the trees. There were no ecological or evolutionary reasons to believe that we were exceptional or more like God than any of the other creatures.

Nevertheless, God was right. It turns out we are exceptional. Our species now has dominion over the air, the earth, the sea, and all that moves within them. Believing that we are the image of God prepares us to accept that we are not just another species. What we do with that knowledge depends on whether we have understood what Voltaire, Spiderman, and Churchill have been trying to teach us: with great power comes great responsibility. If we don’t take our stewardship seriously, we could fall into the trap of believing that because we are exceptional, the rules don’t apply to us. As Dr. Gould said, “Look in the mirror, and don't be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.”14

Our situation is particularly precarious because our dominion of the earth is godlike in its magnitude but decidedly human in its unwieldiness. Our grip is strong but our control is blunt. Many people are in denial of one or both of these conditions, potentially leading to what I call selective belief in imaginary solutions. A few examples of this phenomenon:
1.     Humans are too insignificant to change the climate, but if we ever did, we'd be able to fix it.
2.     Communal action to prevent environmental catastrophe or conserve resources is politically impossible, but when things apart we’ll produce a technical solution on demand.
3.     If we hobble the economy to protect the environment we might stifle innovation that would have allowed unlimited growth and sustainability.

Last October, an acquaintance I’ll call Mr. Smith gave a particularly compelling example of believing in man’s exceptionalism but ignoring his limitations in an epic Facebook thread on whether we should regulate development to preserve habitat. He wrote:
For example. Cost of DNA sequencing is dropping exponentially. Costs per megabyte of data storage are also dropping exponentially. At some point (likely in the next 20 years) it will be economical to decode al the DNA of all the living organisms on the planet. Generic cloning of organisms will also likely be economical in the next 20 years or so. At which point we are one step from restituting any extinction events. This is a robust sustainable long term policy. It should have higher priority than many of the short term fragile policies currently espoused.

I’ve met many people with such beliefs, some from sloppy reasoning, some from willful denial, but most from missing the two lessons God taught Moses on Mount Sinai: you’re different and you’re in charge. The trick is remembering that we need to take care of the environment not only because we’ll get in trouble with God if we don’t (though we will), but also because our survival is completely dependent on maintaining the life-sustaining functions of the earth.

I know I promised not to tell you what to do with your soul or the environment, but a quick note about the goings on in DC. I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of terrorists, but anyone claiming to protect the safety and health of the American people while undermining the EPA and laws that protect our water and air is a barefaced charlatan. Since the year 2000, pollution has killed more than 1,400 times more Americans than terrorism—200,000 a year from air pollution alone.15 I don't care who the special interest is or whether you believe in climate change, our lives should not be for sale.

I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine. But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low. For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
-Doctrine and Covenants 104:13, April 1834, Kirtland Ohio

1.         Ellis and others. Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 586–606 (2010).
2.         Smil, V. Harvesting the biosphere: The human impact. Popul. Dev. Rev. 37, 613–636 (2011).
3.         Pelletier, N. & Tyedmers, P. Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock production 2000–2050. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 107, 18371–18374 (2010).
4.         Wilkinson, B. H. Humans as geologic agents: A deep-time perspective. Geology 33, 161–164 (2005).
5.         Sala, O. E. et al. Global Biodiversity Scenarios for the Year 2100. Science 287, 1770–1774 (2000).
6.         Mora, C., Tittensor, D. P., Adl, S., Simpson, A. G. B. & Worm, B. How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLOS Biol. 9, e1001127 (2011).
7.         Vitousek, P. M., Mooney, H. A., Lubchenco, J. & Melillo, J. M. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 277, 494–499 (1997).
9.         Brauer, M. The Global Burden of Disease from Air Pollution. in (AAAS, 2016).
10.       Golstein, J. Think Again: War. Foreign Policy (2011).
11.       Country Reports on Terrorism 2015. U.S. Department of State (2015).
12.       The plague of global terrorism. The Economist (2015)
14.       Gould, S. J. Life’s Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin. (Random House, 2011).
15.       Caiazzo, F., Ashok, A., Waitz, I. A., Yim, S. H. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmos. Environ. 79, 198–208 (2013).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What happened to the Never-trump Mormons?

A couple weeks before the election, I passed through Utah for a job interview. My mom and I visited my grandma in American Fork. We talked about her new nursing home, my cousins, and inevitably Mr. Trump. I asked her what would happen if he became president. She had been completely composed and calm up to that point, but on hearing my question, her aged frame erupted in a whole-body shudder.

"I can't even imagine," she said slowly but decisively. "I am voting for McMullin."

I grew up in Utah and during previous elections, it looked like Christmas in October, there were so many Republican signs and billboards. This year, walking around my childhood neighborhood in Orem, the only indication that it was an election year was a "Dump Trump" sign on the Thorne's lawn.

The most famous Mormon besides Jesus, Mitt Romney, had spoken out against Trump, and even Glenn Beck, the conservative talk-show-host-turned-Mormon said that no true Christian could vote for the man. Needless to say, on the flight back to France, I was excited and confident that Utah would reject an unacceptable candidate and go independent.

The day after the election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds came alive with posts citing exit poll numbers such as Pew's analysis on how the faithful voted:

"So much for all my NeverTrump Mormon friends. A higher percentage of Mormons voted for Trump than literally any other religious group."

"Mormons hypocrites crawled back in bed with the Republican party."

"I'm trying to forgive Utah right now. Even though, I know I have no right to be mad at them voting how they did. Your vote belongs to you alone. But I still feel disappointed."

I was disturbed that Trump won nationally and personally disappointed that he won Utah, but when I looked at the numbers, something else stood out to me. Mormons and Jews were the only two groups that moved away from Republicans relative to prior elections. They were the only two groups that responded to the Trump factor.

In the table above, the "Dem' change" column shows a 4 point uptick in the number of Mormons voting Democrat (25% in this election), which along with the 2% increase among Jews is the only shift to the left. That is dwarfed, however, by the "Rep' change" (not shown in the table), which is a 17% decrease. About 80% of Mormons voted for Bush and Romney (the only other elections reported) versus 61% for Trump. All religious groups except Jews and Mormons moved towards Trump, including Hispanic Catholics (go figure). Even the religiously unaffiliated voted the same as they did in 2012. The only two groups that statistically disapproved of the gratuitously offensive and flippantly dangerous antics of Trump were Mormons and Jews.

Trump still won Utah and still won the presidency (unless this is an extended dream) but a 17% shift in a demographic is a sea change. I wish we had done more, but hopefully this represents a movement away from party loyalty and towards thoughtful politics in Mormon circles.

There are more detailed splits in the the Fox News polls, which are totally worth a read. Spoiler alert, Hillary won 66% to 26% on "Has good judgement" and 90% to 8% on "Has the right experience", but Trump blew her away on "Can bring needed change" 83% to 14%. Also 70% of Americans support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

As an aside, today Trump announced that he may pick Romney for his secretary of state. First of all, I think it is a surprising sign of maturity that Trump would invite someone who had been so openly critical of him to his cabinet. Second, call Mittens a hypocrite or flipflopper if you want to, but I hope he accepts. Since only 26% of us think Trump has good judgement, I hope somebody sane can bring some stability to the Trump train.

I haven't spoken with my grandma since the election, but when I do, I'll thank her for being a part of the 17%.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

You say tomato, I say GMO

Between Istanbul, the Brexit, and Donald Trump, you might have missed the hot debate raging in the journal Trends in Plant Science on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Never fear, I am here to bring you up to date. The tiff started a few months ago when a Belgian team led by Stefaan Blancke published an article entitled "Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition"1. Blancke’s team addressed what they saw as a paradox. GMOs and other biotechnologies have revolutionized agriculture—simultaneously improving human nutrition and reducing environmental impacts of agriculture—but they are widely opposed by the public. Bernie Sanders wants them labelled, Jenny McCarthy wants them vaccinated, and the European Union has effectively banned anything that doesn’t have the genes it was born with (so to speak). If so many people from so many different backgrounds are skeptical, isn’t that good evidence that something isn’t right? Blancke and crew respectfully disagree.

They propose that one of the reasons GMO opposition is so widespread is because anti-GMO arguments happen to be intuitive and common sense. We are receptive to anti-GMO messaging because it is in line with our expectations and folk understanding of biology. GMOs seem unnatural (not what Nature/God intended) and disgusting (who wants to eat cornflakes with scorpion genes or chew tobacco enhanced with firefly juice?). While there is a large body of scientific evidence showing that GMOs are safe (in my favorite study they feed miniature pigs exclusively on genetically modified corn for a year 2) and despite economic evidence that GMOs could reduce malnutrition and poverty (1.4 million life years have already been lost over opposition to vitamin-a-producing golden rice 3), anti-GMO arguments make sense on a gut level and most of us conclude that biotech is dangerous and immoral.

An infographic from ecobayou.com on GMOs and "other facts worth knowing." I think we should close the borders until we figure out what is going on with papayas.

Nuff said surprised baby.

For example, consider the plight of the Enviropig. Researchers at the University of Guelph inserted some E. coli genes into Yorkshire hogs that let the pigs digest plant phosphorus. The modified pigs didn’t need phosphate added to their feed and they excreted 20-70% less phosphorus than unmodified Yorkshires. This was an important breakthrough because global stocks of rock phosphate are extremely limited (peak phosphorus is likely within the century and you can’t grow anything without phosphorus 4), and because nutrient pollution from pig excrement is a big problem in agricultural areas. After the initial gene treatment, the Envirpigs were raised normally for ten generations with no ill-effects for the pigs or the pig meat. However, after a decade trying to bring the piggies to market, it became clear that regulatory hurdles and cultural obstacles (nobody wanted to eat the unnatural beasts) were too great and the pigs were destroyed.

Based on an image search of "GMO foods" apparently syringes and food coloring are the main tools of genetic manipulation. I thought this image was particularly hypnotic from an article entitled OBAMA FIGHTS TO SPREAD GMO FOODS THROUGHOUT EUROPE.

But the point of this post isn’t to persuade you to stop worrying about GMOs and love Round-up-ready Russets. I’m interested in the clash of scientific ideas and egos. Enter Ivan Couée, a French researcher from my institute at the Université de Rennes. Couée found Blancke’s arguments simplistic and offensive and wrote a rebuttal entitled “Hidden Attraction: Empirical Rationality in GMO Opposition. 5” He accuses Blancke of framing the issue as a battle between rational scientists and the irrational public (kind of a non-starter in scientific outreach circles) and invokes the precautionary principle: a mix of “better safe than sorry” and “keep the cat in the bag” 6. Couée points out that many of the same arguments currently used by GMO proponents (feed the world’s hungry, reduce environmental impact of agriculture) were also used to justify widespread chemical fertilizer use during the “green revolution” after World War II. Nutrient pollution is now one of the most pressing environmental concerns (and the reason for my employment), second to loss of biodiversity but more urgent than climate change 7. Couée doesn’t actually say that GMOs are dangerous or bad, he just defends people’s right to be suspicious.

I know that percentages can be confusing, but I gotta think yellow squash and zucchini are getting a bad rep.

Blancke quickly riposted with my favorite feint in the whole exchange, “The Need to Understand GMO Opposition: Reply to Couée. 8” He explains that Couée sidestepped the issue of comparing the strength of the evidence of the pro and anti camps and goes on to say that the point of the original article was not to belittle the public’s position on GMOs, but to help scientists better understand why people don’t accept the science. He writes,

. . . we think that comprehending how concerns and beliefs about GMOs arise from untrustworthy sources facilitates, rather than impedes, the development of a conciliatory framework. In our experience, when scientists learn about the intuitive and emotive basis of public concerns, they do not put them aside as irrational. On the contrary, they tend to take a more lenient attitude towards GMO opposition, simply because they now better understand where it stems from and why it exists.

At some level, Blancke realizes that we have blown past the edge of science here. As with climate change and evolution, the problem isn’t with the strength of the evidence—public acceptance is limited by other factors (maybe some group therapy and a PR campaign). His goal is to help scientists understand the general public so they can frame their findings in a way that evokes trust rather than disgust. Feeding GMO corn to miniature pigs for another year isn’t going to convince people biotech is safe anymore than a shiny new climate model could convince skeptics that global warming is manmade. In fact there is a lot of evidence that no "traditional" interventions reliably change what people choose to believe (check out Konnikova's I don't want to be right).

And this is where we get to the all-important question: why do we believe what we believe. I think most of us believe our beliefs are justified by the evidence (otherwise we’d believe something else right?). However, I think that thinking this way overlooks how small our understanding is and how big the systems we live in are. There is no way we can have informed opinions of most the issues we are faced with. Our worldview is not the sum of consecutive rational considerations, we decide what is true with heuristic shortcuts and trusted information sources (family, friends, news outlets, social groups, religious leaders etc.). This is as true of scientists as it is of accountants or high-school teachers. As Bloom and Weisberg wrote in their 2007 article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science,”9

. . . rather than evaluating the asserted claim itself, we instead evaluate the claim’s source. If the source is deemed trustworthy, people will believe the claim, often without really understanding it. Consider, for example, that many Americans who claim to believe in natural selection are unable to accurately describe how natural selection works. This suggests that their belief is not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments. Rather, this scientifically credulous subpopulation accepts this information because they trust the people who say it is true.

And therein lies the beauty of Blancke’s argument (and Couée’s too). When you realize that your beliefs are built on the same kind of patchwork of evidence and trust as others, it is easier to accept alternative interpretations and perspectives. In the evidence-based model of public opinion, where you think strength of argument determines adoption, dissenting views are either threatening or frustrating (if your evidence is weaker you've got to change tack and if it's stronger than why don’t more people accept your position?). Understanding that our positions on GMOs, climate change, and evolution (not to mention virtually every other scientific or social issue) are primarily based on intuition and social dynamics takes the sting out rejection and makes you humble about your own beliefs.

A cool Pew Research Center study on differences in beliefs of the general public and AAAS scientists. The largest gap between scientific and public opinion was on safety of GMOs, where only 37% of U.S. adults responded yes versus 88% of scientists.

Intellectual humility doesn’t imply that all positions are equally valid or that it is impossible to compare the misinformation content of contrasting worldviews. Clearly not all evidence is created equal, and not all interpretations are equally justified. For me, intellectual humility means making room in your belief system for curiosity and wonder. Persistent curiosity prepares you to abandon incorrect assumptions and leads you to explore multiple dimensions of what is known, increasing the likelihood of an informed decision. Intentional wonder reminds you of how much we don’t know and helps you assess the strength of your conclusions. Intellectually humility makes you think twice before retweeting or sharing a link that promotes an opinion you are not qualified to evaluate. It reminds us that people will believe, or not, what we disseminate, based on our apparent trustworthiness, and that we are responsible for what we broadcast. Intellectual humility allows us to empathize and love people who see the world through a different frame. Like high-school debate, it lets you slip between belief systems, feeling out their coherence and blur, only to emerge more balance and complete.

But enough philosophizing! What does this mean about GMOs and the larger question of communicating scientific beliefs? Since Couée hasn't replied to the reply yet, I’ll let Dr. Blancke close this out with a couple paragraphs of counsel.

Even though individual people may not always experience a personal advantage by purchasing and/or consuming GMOs, it will certainly help to inform the public that, for example, (i) Biotech corn contains less mycotoxins and is thus healthier than conventional maize; (ii) herbicide-resistant crops require less tilling and, thus, improve the soil quality; (iii) Biotech crops enhance insect biodiversity; (iv) Biotech crops help reduce poverty in India, and so on.

Finally, our approach suggests that people who are genuinely concerned about the environment may intuitively adopt strategies that have the opposite impact on what they set out to achieve. GMOs can be a formidable tool in the realization of a sustainable form of agriculture. By leading people to choose the wrong adversaries and to urge policy makers to take counter-effective measures, negative GMO representations may indeed exert a fatal attraction.

Actually, I'll let the folks at unexplainedmysteriesoftheworld.com have the last word: "So does all of this tampering with the environment disturb you? After all, at least scientists are not creating human/animal hybrid creatures, right? Wrong. The truth is that human/pig hybrid creatures will soon be legally grown inside of the United States. This is being publicly announced and almost nobody is getting upset about it."

1.         Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. & Van Montagu, M. Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends Plant Sci. 20, 414–418 (2015).
2.         Chen, L. et al. Long-term toxicity study on genetically modified corn with cry1Ac gene in a Wuzhishan miniature pig model. J. Sci. Food Agric. n/a-n/a (2016). doi:10.1002/jsfa.7624
3.         Wesseler, J. & Zilberman, D. The economic power of the Golden Rice opposition. Environ. Dev. Econ. 19, 724–742 (2014).
4.         Elser, J. & Bennett, E. Phosphorus cycle: A broken biogeochemical cycle. Nature 478, 29–31 (2011).
5.         Couée, I. Hidden Attraction: Empirical Rationality in GMO Opposition. Trends Plant Sci. (2015). doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.002
6.         Arrow, K. J. & Fisher, A. C. Environmental Preservation, Uncertainty, and Irreversibility. Q. J. Econ. 88, 312–319 (1974).
7.         Rockström, J. et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009).
8.         Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. & Van Montagu, M. The Need to Understand GMO Opposition: Reply to Couée. Trends Plant Sci. (2015). doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.001

9.         Bloom, P. & Weisberg, D. S. Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science. Science 316, 996–997 (2007).