The Weekly Blab
Volume 4, Issue 8—December 8, 2009
Word from SACS
In case you haven’t heard, SACS has reaffirmed SPSU’s accreditation for another 10 years. Thanks to the many faculty and staff who helped in the self-assessment and QEP processes, and special thanks to Becky Rutherfoord and Bob Brown, for spearheading our efforts.
A number of folks (and not just from SPSU) have sent me articles about environmental issues lately, with the recent theft/leak of emails from the University of East Anglia figuring prominently among them. For those who haven’t heard, someone either hacked into an email account (or emails were leaked) of some prominent environmental researchers at the University of East Anglia in England. The emails were troublesome at best, showing some willingness to manipulate data and to keep opposing viewpoints from being published. The writers of the emails say that they are being misinterpreted, folks who don’t believe in global warming say that this is a “smoking gun”, and the situation is serious enough that the university and journals are investigating. Another article on the subject is by no other than Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park fame), and entitled “Environmentalism as Religion”. And an excellent screed it is.
So—what to make of all this? We’d all like to believe that the scientific journals are above petty things, and that the peer review process keeps us all honest. While this is true in general, just about anyone who has published a few papers knows that strange things happen. Most are relatively benign—you get a reviewer who is a pain in the gluteus maximus, who wants you to cite some outdated paper of his/her own, or who wants you to change or add something irrelevant. So, you grit your teeth, do it, and move on. Occasionally, it’s something more serious—a paper is rejected as not being of sufficient interest, and subsequently one on an identical subject is published in the same journal by someone else. Reviewers trying to impose their own views, defend outmoded ideas, or trying to keep their “enemies” from publishing are not unheard of. The peer review process and the very nature of science (with its continuous reexamination of ideas) keep this to a low buzz, but the level isn’t zero. [I could point out the irony of politicians criticizing scientists for skewing facts, but I’ll restrain myself.]
Crichton’s article is more interesting to me. I think his general point—that environmentalism rises to the level of a religion for some—is true enough, and a fair criticism. Environmentalism has been beset by numerous Cassandras, each shouting “doom” and predicting massive destruction and death, for almost a century. In many cases they were either proven wrong or a technological “fix” was discovered. For many, environmentalism rises to a moral issue, but many of these “moral issues” have turned out to be technological challenges in disguise.
Having made a strong thesis statement, Crichton then proceeds to jump off the deep end by claiming DDT has not caused birds to die, that second-hand smoke isn’t a health hazard, that environmentalism has killed 10-30 million people since the ‘70’s, etc. Of course, he does not give any evidence for these statements. Can he possibly be right? Of course not—he’s guilty of the same thing about which he correctly has accused some environmentalists.
Let’s use DDT as an example. Is DDT benign? The balance of evidence says no. It is obviously harmful to mosquitoes and other insects (that’s why it was used), and is concentrated in tissues of higher species, so that it can accumulate to fairly high levels. It has been shown to be harmful to fish and birds, though the evidence of harm to humans is sketchy. So—should it be banned? Not so fast—it is a very effective agent against malaria, which is far more dangerous to humans than DDT. A responsible position might be that DDT should be banned for agricultural purposes (which was its major original use), but possibly used to eradicate malaria until better low-cost alternatives are found. Even this would be somewhat problematic, as some more recent research in South Africa (where DDT is still used to fight malaria) indicates it might be affecting sperm motility (and hence, reproductive ability) in people living in the area. It’s not a panacea in fighting malaria either—there have been outbreaks in areas where it is used. At the end of the day, it’s a cost-benefit analysis. The costs outweigh the benefits in some cases, and the benefits win out in others. Rachel Carson’s criticisms of DDT were certainly overblown in Silent Spring, but Crichton’s defense of it is also overblown. Most folks look for simple solutions, act like we could have a (nearly) perfect world if we’d only make the right decisions, and accuse those who disagree with them of all sorts of evil motives. In most cases dealing with chemicals and pesticides (and no doubt, many other things), it just isn’t that simple.
So, it seems that Crichton is a true believer after all, just of a different religion than many environmentalists. And like many, he can see the flaw in other peoples’ religions, but not his own.
The real answer, it seems to me, is to take doomsday pronouncements with a big grain of salt, use critical thinking when we examine the data, not throw huge amounts of money (or legislation) at remediating things that are only weakly understood, have greater nuance in our policies, and take prudent steps so that we don’t make things environmentally worse than they currently are. Of course meeting all those criteria simultaneously is probably impossible.
Last week’s trivia contest question #5 (see below) triggered the literary impulses of two of our faculty, who sent me Limericks for the occasion, before answering the question correctly. Bob Brown (IT) offered up:
Thirty days hath Septober
April, June, and no wonder!
All the rest have peanut butter
Except my grandmother,
And she has a little red tricycle.
Joel Fowler (Math) related one a little more on topology (written by Cyril Kornbluth)
A burlycue dancer, a pip
Named Virginia could peel in a zip;
But she read science fiction
And died of constriction
Attempting a Möbius strip.
Diversity in the Classroom
Hey—I know there’s more on this subject out there! Send in your examples of how you bring diversity issues into your classroom.
This Week’s Trivia Contest
It’s a new month, so this week’s trivia contest will deal with the months and years. A B.B. King CD from the Szafran duplicate repository goes to the winner.
(1) Since the prefix dec- means “ten”, why is December the 12th month?
(2) The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. Since 12 lunar months (of 29-30 days) are shorter than one solar year by about 11 days, what happens to those extra days? [That is, how does the calendar deal with this problem?]
(3) Why is Christmas celebrated on a different day by western churches (Catholic, most Protestant) than by eastern churches (Orthodox)?
And two hard ones:
(4) Our current counting of years (AD or CE) was first suggested by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, and not commonly adopted until the 9th century. What was used before that in western countries?
(5) One of the reasons that the former counting of years was abandoned was that the world was supposed to end in what corresponded to 500 A.D. A more recent “end of the world” was October 22, 1844, which was the date for the second coming according to the Millerite Christian sect. When the day passed without incident, how did they refer to that day afterwards?
Last Week’s Contest:
Last week’s trivia contest was on numbers and Math. Not surprisingly, the winners were from the Math Department. We actually had our first tie—Joel Fowler and Bill Griffiths take the prizes. Interestingly enough, every entrant knew the answer to #5, which tells me some interesting things are going on at math department meetings!
And two hard ones: