News from a Changing Planet — #14

As an intro, a friend and fellow Green-Democrat, Tatiana Schlossberg, sends out email updates. I re-publish them here for wider coverage. In this update, she addresses two important ‘issues’ – “Science as political identity, a wrong and dangerous concept” and “Policies and actions required of the incoming Biden Administration, based on available science”

by Tatiana Schlossberg, 27NOV20


“[I realize it’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday (what a world we live in, huh!?) but do what REI says, and go outside instead of shopping. Or watch Patagonia’s “Honoring the Mountains” ad and cry, just like I did yesterday! Help!]

“I read an article recently about two physicists who are attempting to demonstrate that nerve signals actually travel by mechanical waves rather than electrical impulses. Most of the other scientists interviewed in the article seemed almost incensed in their disagreement, but the two physicists are convinced that we’ve all gotten it all wrong. 

“One of the parts of the article that stayed with me after I finished it and stopped being able to remember the various arguments about ion channel proteins was this: that when scientists were first trying to figure out how nerves transmit signals between them, the only tool they had to measure the signal was one that measured electricity, not one that could measure heat transfer or a mechanical pulse. The tools we use bias us, and lead us to certain conclusions based on what we are able to measure. Which is not to say that nerve signals aren’t carried by electrical energy, but by measuring only electrical energy, scientists guided themselves to that outcome. 

“Most scientists and doctors probably take it as a given now that nerve signals pass by electrical impulse. Entire fields of medicine and pharmaceuticals are built around it. I don’t know that they’re wrong, but what if they are? What if the tools we’re using bias us towards certain outcomes? How can we be sure that we know what we know? How do we ever know what we know?

“Those questions got me thinking about one of the things that drives me craziest: when people talk about “believing in science” or say that they “believe scientists.” Why does this make me crazy? Because you can’t believe in science; science isn’t a question of belief. It is a demonstration of what can be known because it can be proved. Science isn’t magic, and science doesn’t have answers, if only we would just “listen to science.” People have answers because they use methods and explanations provided by evidence-based science.

“I know what people mean when they say it, and I get that it’s a shorthand for trusting experts and valuing expertise, or, more worryingly, it’s a statement of a political identity. But words matter! 

“Science is a method of inquiry; it’s a way of asking and answering questions about the world based on experimentation, data collection, observation and analysis. We should trust scientists to present their data accurately, and expect that others can reproduce their findings— that’s how the method works and how consensus is built. That’s how we discern facts or scientific truth. But the whole idea of the scientific method is to remove faith and belief as explanations. Scientists and philosophers in the Enlightenment Era who developed the method wanted to find out how to know things; for so long, the Catholic Church controlled knowledge — what it meant to know something, and what it meant to believe and what could and couldn’t be believed and thought. 

“But science, like anything made by people, is affected by their biases and prejudices and blind spots — what tools they have, what questions they ask, and how they read data and how they interpret it. All of those things are influenced by who they are, what tools they are working with, the cultures in which they perform their experiments. 

“We should listen to scientists because they know the data better than we do; they’ve conducted the experiments and analyzed the results. Scientists often speak guardedly, careful not to sound too certain about what their results mean for the future or what they might prescribe about human behavior. That’s because the results can change in response to more knowledge and more experimentation. To non-scientists, that can be frustrating. For those in the field, it’s necessary. It should also be necessary for us, too: we should want the best available information, but we should also hope that new lines of inquiry and new experiments will tell us more, and that more might be different from what we thought beforehand. 

“And now, we’re seeing in real-time what happens when science becomes a question of belief or an expression of a political identity. It can also become something not to believe in, something to be doubted. We now know more about the world than we ever have, and yet, millions of people around the country (and around the world) can be skeptical of the efficacy of wearing masks against an airborne virus and be treated seriously and get elected and re-elected to public office, where they are in charge of health policies! It’s like how people can say they don’t believe in evolution and prevent it from being taught in schools, and turn around and benefit from modern medicine — vaccines, covid-19 treatment, literally any aspect of modern medicine, all of which are dependent on the principles of evolutionary biology — and it’s fine!! It’s hard for me not to see that as, at least in part, a consequence of talking about science as something to believe in.

“(If you’ve made it this far, I apologize for the lengthy meditation and thank you for indulging my epistemological musings! I am grateful.)

“And obviously it doesn’t only matter for the pandemic. This is nothing new, but there have been and will be long-term consequences for climate change moving into the realm of belief, where a candidate for president can be asked if he believes in climate change, as if what he believes has any bearing on the reality of the situation. People always ask me how to talk to deniers. I don’t know, because those people live in a world where physics doesn’t exist, so then you get the problem of infinite regress: if carbon dioxide doesn’t create the greenhouse effect, then earth should be a barren wasteland, so how do you explain anything else?!

“Scientists have long since (since Eunice Foote published a paper demonstrating the greenhouse effect in 1856 and also John Tyndall…) provided clear evidence of climate change: what causes it, and what kinds of things need to be done to make the outcome less bad. Scientists will continue to collect data on just how bad, and what kinds of interventions will be the most effective. They will count and track and analyze and report. It’s up to politicians to figure out what to do with that information; it’s up to us to make sure they are making the right policies and actually following through.

“On that note, several (two) people actually answered the question of what they’d like to see me address here, and both said something “politics-y” (thank you Mr. Josh Tannen, esq.!). So here are a few policies and actions I would like to see from a Biden administration, in mostly a random order. (I’m not saying rejoin the Paris Agreement because that’s a given and you all know that one already!)

  1. “Ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons in air conditioners and refrigerators, which have a global warming potential (heat-trapping effect) thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  2. “Issue executive orders: reinstate the moratorium on new offshore oil and gas exploration; ban new oil, gas, and coal leases on public lands; require every federal agency to include climate change in its policies.
  3. “Halt the Trump administration’s expedited approvals and environmental reviews of fossil fuel infrastructure projects; revoke presidential authority for Keystone XL pipeline, Dakota Access Pipeline, and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota.
  4. “Re-establish the Climate Science Advisory Committee 
  5. “Impose stricter monitoring requirements and limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells.
  6. “Rewrite the CAFE (fuel economy) standards and give California back its waiver to write its own standards! 
  8. “Reverse the cuts to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National monuments, and the plan to allow for logging and road construction in Tongass National Forest
  9. “Rewrite the guidance for the National Environmental Policy Act, including restoring the consideration of the social cost of carbon
  10. “Address climate and environmental justice issues, starting with increased monitoring and mapping of pollution in disproportionately affected communities.
  11. “Invest a lot of money in renewable energy and battery technology 
  12. “Invest in frontline communities, and pursue a just transition away from fossil fuels by supporting those communities that will be negatively affected
  13. “Better FEMA flood maps 
  14. “Strengthen GHG emissions rules for new and existing power plants
  15. “Strengthen rules on mercury and toxic wastewater emissions from power plants 

    “You can find more good ideas here, here, and here.

“How’s that for starters?! Time to get busy, America! Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving with a lot of cranberries!

– Tatiana

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