Why I plan on attending the March for Science

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I wrote last time how I probably won’t be attending the People’s Climate March. The event seems more political than science based, plus it focuses on a ton of other issues that in my opinion have nothing to do with climate.

I’m pleased to say that from reading the stated goals of the March for Science, this event appears to be just the opposite. The organizers have focused on science itself and outreach to the general public. This is a far cry from a couple of months ago, when the stated goals of the March for Science included things like worker’s rights and immigration reform!

Not that those issues aren’t important, but they aren’t scientific issues. I make a point in my classes to tell people that as good as the scientific method is, it doesn’t always work for moral, ethical or political issues — for those, you need other ways of looking at things. I don’t see this as a bad thing, it just means scientists have an opportunity to work with people from other fields, including social sciences, humanities, law, religion, etc.

I covered some of these issues in my first blog post. I want to see scientists of all political stripes represented here.

I’m under no illusion that we won’t see leftist politics on display at the march itself. I see at least three reasons for this:

  1. The event was planned after Trump won and is at least partially in response to his administration;
  2. Many scientists, especially in the environmental field, which I expect to see prominently featured considering this takes place on Earth Day, depend on public financing and have a vested interest in big government;
  3. Perhaps paradoxically, the more educated someone is, the less likely they are to see the downsides to liberalism/socialism.

The first point doesn’t bother me at all. Although I still support president Trump, if his election manages to bring more attention to science that can only be a good thing. (Maybe I’ll do another post later on why an environmental scientist voted for Donald Trump).

The second part is a consequence of how science is funded in this country. I would love to see a discussion on the merits of public vs. private financing of science and the advantages to either approach. (One big advantage to private funding is that no politician can decide to delete your data or suppress your findings). Based on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think this discussion is likely to take place at the March for Science. But that’s OK with me, I don’t expect to get everything I want at one event.

For the third part, I’m not sure what can be done about this — I don’t meet many scientists who have a strong interest in evaluating the pros and cons of socialism, at least not in my field. Most of my colleagues plan to work for universities, the government or NGOs anyway, so it’s easy to see private business as the enemy.

I don’t mind hearing liberal viewpoints so long as other opinions are not being silenced, and from what I’ve read so far it looks like the organizers have made an effort to make this event inclusive to everyone. I don’t think scientists have ever had their own day on Washington and I hope this can be a first step toward bigger and better things in the future.

There’s still a few things that seem out of place to me (for example, the United Auto Workers are listed under Partners, plus they’re still including 314 Action, which has a history of plagiarism I’ve documented here and here.) But, so far this seems to be about as good as I could have expected for a march designed to appeal to as many scientists as possible. I look forward to Marching for Science!

Why I won’t be at the People’s Climate March

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I’ll preface my remarks by saying that I firmly believe climate change is real and that humans have played a role in the slight warming trend we’ve seen over the last few decades. To me, the science is settled on whether or not climate change is occurring. (What we should do about it, on the other hand, is something still open for debate and I hope more people will work to come up with creative policies that can be beneficial today and for future generations).

I think it’s great we’re going to have so many people meeting up in Washington D.C. next month to discuss this issue. Based on what I’ve seen so far however, I probably won’t be among them.

I Googled the event to learn a little more about it and came across the following page: https://peoplesclimate.org/#about. Clicking the link to “read more”, brings up a list of reasons why people will be marching. Here is my analysis of each issue:

On the 100th Day of the Trump Administration, we will be in the streets of Washington D.C. to show the world and our leaders that we will resist attacks on our people, our communities and our planet.

Right away, the organizers have shown their hand that this will be a political event, by tying the timing to the Trump administration. I am not saying anyone has to like the president, but this alienates the millions of people who voted for Trump and still support him (many of whom are just as concerned about the environment, by the way).

Next, the text strikes a dark tone, talking about resisting attacks. What attacks have been carried out, and by whom? Who are “our” people? To me, this reads like the start of an “us-against-them” manifesto. At the very least, the organizers could have included specific examples of these attacks and who “our people” and “our communities” refers to.

 We will come together from across the United States to strengthen our movement. We will demonstrate our power and resistance at the gates of the White House. We will bring our solutions to the climate crisis and the problems that affect our communities to our leaders in Congress to demand action.

We invite you to join the Peoples Climate Movement on Saturday, April 29th as we march to:

  • Advance solutions to the climate crisis [that are] rooted in racial, social and economic justice and committed to protecting front-line communities and workers.

What exactly does this mean? I’m not sure what “racial, social and economic justice” would look like. Maybe these are good goals, but without any context I have no way of knowing — all I see is a side issue, separate from climate.

As for front-line communities and workers…. I’m guessing people working in industries likely to be affected by climate change? If that’s the case I think it’s a good point, I think any climate change proposal has to include a human dimension as well.

  • Protect our right to clean air, water, land, healthy communities and a world at peace.

An excellent point and one I fully support, taking into account ecosystems and human communities. I wish the entire list read like this.

  • Immediately stop attacks on immigrants, communities of color, indigenous and tribal people and lands and workers.

Okay. I have no idea what this refers to. Of course, I agree no one should be attacked. But I’m not following the connection to climate science (if anyone reading this has specific examples, please post them.)

  • Ensure public funds and investments create good paying jobs that provide a family-sustaining wage and benefits and preserve workers’ rights, including the right to unionize.

Once again, I don’t see any connection to climate. The only reason I can guess this is included is that several unions are listed on the steering committee. I also think the first point is debatable — where is the evidence that public funds are better at creating jobs than the private sector? This is a distraction at best.

  • Fund investments in our communities, people and environment to transition to a new clean and renewable energy economy that works for all.

I guess this one is pretty benign, since anyone can already choose to invest their money in renewable energy today. I’d actually be interested in learning what investment opportunities are available in this sector.

  • Protect our basic rights to a free press, protest and free speech.

Yes, I agree 100%  — but again, what’s the connection to climate? Are there examples of climate-related speech being repressed in this country? If so, please post them!

What I’d like to see, and at this point I may have to plan it myself, would be an event that focuses primarily on climate, the science behind it and the effect of climate change on human populations and biodiversity. Overall, there are some good points here and I’d probably find a lot in common with at least some of the attendees.

But I think there is plenty of evidence for anthropogenic climate change to make a strong case based on the science alone, without bringing in the politics of divisiveness or trying to scare people by talking about being under attack.

Unfortunately, I fear this kind of language is only going to further alienate people who might otherwise agree with goals of conservation and environmental protection but not the more extreme aspects of this event. In some ways it feels like the conservation movement is being hijacked by fringe radicals. I understand some politics is inevitable, but why make it the focus of the march? Can anything be done to bridge the divide and bring people together in support of a common cause?

Eel smuggling and the press mixes up its eels

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Photo credit: The Sun

Meanwhile, in Europe — a smuggler tried to bring 600,000 European eels (Anguilla anguilla) onto a plane. They were at the glass eel stage, where the fish are less than 15 cm in length and translucent, hence the name “glass eel”. Full story here: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2997674/slippery-smuggler-caught-trying-to-sneak-600000-live-eels-on-to-a-plane-in-a-haul-worth-1-2million/

Why would someone try to do this? Well, all those eels are worth approximately approximately $1.46 million dollars! These fish are incredibly valuable both economically and as part of the ecosystem, but unfortunately their populations have crashed as a result of overfishing, dams, parasites, habitat degradation, climate change and other reasons.

As is sometimes the case with the mainstream media, The Sun manages to mix up two kinds of fish with a completely unrelated video of an electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) filmed in Brazil. While these species may have a similar common name, they are actually not that similar, with the European eel being in the order Anguilliformes and the electric eel in Gymnotiformes. An electric eel is actually classified as a knife fish and is not a true eel. Anguillid eels cannot use electricity to find or attack prey.

If you like this post, you are welcome to join my Facebook group, where I post weekly updates on eels.

More examples of plagiarism from 314 Action

Earlier today, I went over the gun violence page on 314 Action.org and showed that two paragraphs were copied verbatim from other sources. Little did I realize, that was just the tip of the melting iceberg! (Note: while compiling this post, 314 Action took down their Issues page in a desperate attempt to hide their plagiarism. But I saved everything and will discuss the changes below.)

Two paragraphs on their climate change page were lifted from a 2007 Climate Change and National Security Report by Joshua W. Busby.

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They skip around a bit to remove the part where the NSS was quoted and omitted the first sentence of paragraph two, but otherwise the text is exactly the same. (This is from p. 13 of Mr. Busby’s report, should you wish to verify it on your own.)

Next, here’s their page on education.

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The first part of this paragraph was copied, albeit with the reference to Sputnik removed, from “How Sputnik Launched Ed-Tech: The National Defense Education Act of 1958” by Audrey Watters, published on June 20 2015:

One year later, in 1958, Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, a cornerstone of his administration’s response to Sputnik. The law helped reshape education in the US with a massive influx of federal dollars.

Further down on the page, we find a section on evolution:

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The first part and last parts of the first paragraph are lifted verbatim from a page on Berkeley University:

Evolution is essential to our curriculum and to scientific literacy. Imagine teaching social science without teaching history; students would lack perspective on events going on today. Similarly, to understand the big picture of biology, students need to understand life on Earth in terms of its history and its future — the changing life forms and ecosystems that have arisen and changed over billions of years, as well as the mechanisms that have brought about those changes.

The middle of the first paragraph and the second paragraph come from The National Center for Science Education:

First, it is the fundamental, unifying theory that underlies all the life sciences. It has formed the basis of productive and active research for over 140 years and continues to do so.

Critical thinking is an important component of a good education. Critical thinking about evolution must start with a solid understanding of what evolution is and how contemporary scientists understand it.

It’s a shame they didn’t quote the entire paragraph from the NCSE, which ends with a discussion of hucksterism…it would have fit so well here!

The third paragraph again comes from Berkeley:

As is true of any subject, to teach evolution successfully, teachers need to be prepared with a conceptual understanding of the topic and with effective curricular strategies. Teachers that develop a depth of knowledge beyond what is actually expected of students will be able to confidently adjust instruction in response to students’ needs and inquiries.

Finally, here’s an excerpt from the page on energy.

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Comparatively speaking, this one isn’t too bad, with only a couple of sentences lifted from Fusion for Energy:

Nearly 2000 scientists and engineers are currently working on a broad range of fusion R&D projects in more than 20 laboratories, including JET. Fusion energy has the potential to provide a sustainable solution to European and global energy needs.

This one isn’t even an exact copy, maybe it would have been OK if they’d included a citation. But of course, they didn’t.

Now, what makes all this really funny to me is that after I posted to Twitter about their pages on gun violence and climate change, they decided to take down the Issues page entirely!

Here’s how the old site looked, with “Issues” across the top:

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And here is the new one!

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Right down the memory hole! George Orwell would be proud! But that’s OK. Here’s a zip file containing the original climate page so you can verify everything for yourself. (BTW to 314 Action, remember that if you want me to take that file down, you will have to admit it’s your content).

Be sure to read their Board of Advisors page to learn just who is behind this group. They include one Shaughnessy Naughton, a failed political candidate, Michael Mann, who has been involved in plagiarism before, and Joe Trippi, who ran the campaigns of notable failures like Walter Mondale, Howard Dean and John Edwards. The organization also says they will support only Democrat scientists running for office, which leads me to believe that perhaps this group is just another front for the Democrat party.

Whatever the case, there’s no place for plagiarism in science. Above all else, scientists must maintain integrity. 314 Action has shown they have none. Even after I posted two examples of their dishonesty, they have issued no apology, no acknowledgment of their behavior, nothing but quietly removing the plagiarized content without explanation. Scientists deserve better.

Why I’ll never support 314 Action

There’s a movement afoot for scientists to run for public office. 314action.org (meant to represent the first three digits of Pi) describes itself as a non-profit founded by members of the STEM community, grassroots supporters and political activists. Its stated goals are:

  • Strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials;
  • Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy;
  • Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.

Sounds great! I can’t wait to run for office. I’ll trade my days of doing research, writing and teaching for a meager salary for raking in big bucks from wealthy donors all the while railing against waste, fraud and abuse.

In the debates I’ll accuse my opponents of being creationist Luddites who have been part of the War on Science since Galileo. Any response will be dismissed with “are you a scientist?”, because it’s clear that only those who have worked in the Ivory tower of academia have the real world experiences and common sense necessary to lead this nation.

In the statistically improbable event my campaign fails, I’ll accept a position on the Fox News Channel or talk radio as the token scientist and get paid to argue with people.

….Unfortunately I have a few concerns about 314 Action’s approach. First, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not convinced “more public funding” is the way for science to go. Whenever the government gets involved, they will control what gets funded and what doesn’t. Do you believe the committee doling out government grants will be immune from bias and political pressure? What will prevent them from funding only those scientists whose views they agree with?

Second, and this is the much bigger problem, this site is run by a plagiarist who copies the words of others with no attribution. Since citing your sources is one of the most basic aspects of science, I suspect 314 Action may be the work of paid astroturfers masquerading as scientists. Here’s an example, from their page on gun violence:

Edit: After I posted this, 314 Action took down the page to try to hide their plagiarism! Fortunately, I took some screen shots 🙂

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With approximately 30,000 men, women and children dying each year at the barrel of a gun in elementary schools, movie theaters, workplaces, houses of worship and on live television, the United States faces a public health crisis of gun violence.

This was taken word for word from the statement by the American Medical Association after the Pulse nightclub massacre:

“With approximately 30,000 men, women and children dying each year at the barrel of a gun in elementary schools, movie theaters, workplaces, houses of worship and on live television, the United States faces a public health crisis of gun violence,” said AMA President Steven J. Stack, M.D.

If the author of that post were a student in my class, he or she would find him or herself on a trip to the Honor Court. If I did that, I’d lose my job. Worse, the claim is misleading at best. Out of those 30,000 deaths, 21,334 were suicides.

Wait, where did I get that number? It must be an NRA talking point, right? Actually, I took it right from the CDC website. But how can this be? According to 314action.org,

The CDC studies several forms of violent activities, including child abuse, youth violence, suicides and sexual assaults, but the organization does not collect data on gun violence due to legislation dating to 1996 that prohibits research funds from being used “to advocate or promote gun control.”

Once again, this is a plagiarized quote. It’s taken word for word from an article in The Wire, published on December 17 2015 by Tom Waring. If I plagiarized twice in my profession, I’d never work as a scientist again.

But is this even true? Can the CDC really not research “gun violence”, a misleading term since violent acts are committed by human beings, not inanimate objects? Of course they can, here is a map from the CDC on firearm mortality by states.

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What is the CDC barred from doing? The answer is in the last part of the sentence, “to advocate or promote gun control.” A government agency can’t advocate against a Constitutionally-protected right and for good reason. The Bill of Rights was written to place limits on the federal government to prevent exactly this kind of behavior.

I could go on debunking more of their claims, but I think you get the point. I know many of my friends in science want to become more politically involved. But don’t be fooled by phony sites like this one.

Marching for Science

Scientists are getting a march of our own! Finally! From http://www.scientistsmarchonwashington.com/:

“There are certain things that we accept as facts with no alternatives. The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action. The diversity of life arose by evolution. Politicians who devalue expertise risk making decisions that do not reflect reality and must be held accountable. An American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.”

That all sounds good. What scientist could argue with that? Certainly not this one! But here are a few other things that I’m wondering if the organizers and marchers will be willing to accept as facts:

1. Life starts at gastrulation.

An organism composed of cells, undergoing metabolism, capable of responding to external stimuli and undergoing mitotic cell division fits any definition of life I’m aware of. (On the other hand, whether or not this life should be afforded personhood and rights is more of a question of ethics and morals, which the scientific method is ill-equipped to handle.)

2. You can’t pick your sex.

Humans have sex chromosomes, an X and a Y. The genes on the Y chromosome determine whether or not you will develop as a male. (In the rare instance you find a female with a Y chromosome or a male with two Xs, it just means that section of the Y chromosome broke off and re-attached to an X during meiosis). “Gender identity” is not a scientific concept.

3. GMO foods are still safe.

There are plenty of reasons not to like GMO products, such as biodiversity loss, risk of crossing with wild organisms, etc. But the food products themselves have never given anyone cancer.

4. Barack Obama is not a scientist.

In December 2016, Scientific American claimed Barack Obama wrote the year’s most talked about science paper. He didn’t. His paper, published in he Journal of the American Medical Association was not a science paper, because it did not use the scientific method. Obama collected no data. He had no hypothesis. He ran no experiment. He had no results to discuss. Obama’s article was a thinly disguised promotion of the Affordable [sic] Care Act. The JAMA board should be ashamed of themselves for publishing this.

If you’re not upset with JAMA for publishing Obama’s propaganda, ask yourself honestly how you would feel if Donald Trump started publishing in academic journals to support his policies.

5. Science is not a democracy.

No, I don’t care that 97% of climate scientists believe in climate change. That number didn’t even come from a survey of scientists, it was just someone’s analysis of published papers. Either way, it doesn’t matter — that is not how science is decided. Nature does not care what you believe.

I could have gone on with many more examples. My point is, it’s not just the new administration who scientists should be concerned about.

Who should fund science?

I’m concerned that the March for Science seems to focus on increasing government funding of science. Is this really the road we want to go down? If the government gets a monopoly (or near monopoly) on funding scientific research, won’t it be easier than ever for the government to cut funding to projects or scientists it finds disagreeable? Is it possible that private funding of science could reduce the risk of having a small group of politicians being in a position to pick and choose what gets funded?

I realize the above point will be controversial. But maybe it’s time to think outside the box for science funding. At the very least, can we agree that publicly funded research should be made open access, so there’s no risk of the government deleting it? NASA, USGS, NOAA and many other agencies have already posted huge volumes of information to the public, I hope other agencies can follow suit.

An alternative?

Or maybe, there could be a march that isn’t about government policies at all? A poster on Reddit had this brilliant idea:

Idea: why not make this family friendly? Invite NASA and other organizations to have activities, run science experiments, have telescopes (in the evening), and maybe plant a tree?

This is an idea I’ll support 100%. Such an event could make science fun and accessible to everyone, especially young people who might be thinking about a career in science. Maybe there can be multiple events, for science outreach and a debate on science policies?

Either way, I am happy to see scientists getting their day on Washington. I just hope this can be open to scientists and people across the political and ideological spectra.