I find out about these things at the last minute…

There’s a convention going on this weekend, right here on the Morris campus? I may swing by, briefly. Briefly only because I hate to intrude on student events…but it sounds fun.

Cougar Con

Cougar Con is the Morris Fan Convention where we invite students to come and share their love of TV shows, movies, books, video games, and the list goes on. We have some games ready for you to play and show off your knowledge of popular fandoms. There will be a few showings of some movies and there will be a dance.

Apparently they had one last year and I missed it completely.

Someone needs to start a foundation to help victims of Physicist Syndrome

William Happer is a distinguished emeritus professor of physics. His specialty is optics and spectroscopy, but he’s got Physicist Syndrome bad — he thinks he’s an expert in everything to the point that he can disagree with distinguished professors in other fields, on their specialty. Yes, he’s that kind of idiot.

And he’s being considered for the position of Science Advisor to Donald Trump. Are you surprised? Trump’s chief skill seems to be in ferreting out the worst people and elevating them to positions where they can do the most damage. If you’re wondering why Trump is at all interested in this crank professor, it’s because he’s already been bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

William Happer has accepted funding from the fossil fuel industry in the past. In a Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide, Peabody Energy paid him $8,000 which was routed through the CO2 Coalition.

In 2015 undercover investigation by Greenpeace, Happer told Greenpeace reporters that he would be willing to produce research promoting the benefits of carbon dioxide for $250 per hour, while the funding sources could be similarly concealed by routing them through the CO2 Coalition.

But make up your own mind. Here’s an interview with the sublimely confident Dr Happer. Let’s start with something I can agree with.

Well, I guess where I see the big problem in our country is science illiteracy in the general population. If I were King, I would figure out some way to get better science teaching into the schools, you know, K through 12, and especially middle school and high school. It’s a disgrace that people get out with high school degrees knowing as little as they do. And I think it’s getting worse. I think it was much better in the ‘30s than it is today. And teaching makes a difference.

I often tell the people this anecdote — I once asked Edward Teller [a key architect of the hydrogen bomb] how it was possible that there were all these Hungarians, you know, there was him and Eugene Wigner and Szilard, von Neumann — a real constellation. They were all about the same age, and made enormous contributions to science. It was easy, he said. We all had the same high school teacher in the Fasori Gimnázium in Budapest. So there’s an example. Whoever this teacher was deserves a medal, you know. Nobody pays any attention to him. But at least in Hungarian society, teaching was an honorable profession, so that this really good guy — probably better than most university professors — produced this galaxy of stars. So I think we should seriously think about improving general education.

Oh man, yes. There was one teacher I’d name as extremely influential in getting me to pursue a career in science — thanks, Mr Thompson, and that chemistry class my junior year in high school. I think we all know of strong teachers who confirmed our commitment to do this thing…we here at the college level are mainly dealing with young men and women who’ve already made up their minds. We should pay public school teachers more, don’t you think?

But then he mounts his high horse.

I don’t know. First of all, just the term denier to someone like me is extremely offensive because it’s carefully chosen to make me look like a Nazi sympathizer. And you know, I dodged Nazi submarines when I was a kid [on a ship carrying immigrants to the United States] and my father fought against them and my mother worked on the Manhattan Project, and I found it profoundly offensive, you know, and many other people feel the same.

I think toning down the rhetoric would help a lot. And it has been very uneven — for example under the previous eight years the President and secretary of state kept talking about the deniers, you know, about the baskets of deplorables, the knuckle draggers, the Neanderthals. That was me they’re talking about.

I don’t think it was the anti-Nazi science kook they are talking about. It’s the, you know, Nazis. Literal Nazis. The people who do Nazi salutes, talk about white supremacy, and voted for Trump — the guy considering you for science advisor. I’m more than a little tired of indignant people who profess their contempt for Nazis while embracing the political party that counts on Nazi/racist support to get elected.

But also it’s impossible to take his concerns about toning down the rhetoric seriously when he just said this:

“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”

But even worse is the simplistic crackpot science he is peddling.

I see the CO2 as good, you know. Let me be clear. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing. It’s just incredible when people keep talking about carbon pollution when you and I are sitting here breathing out, you know, 40,000 parts per million of CO2 with every exhalation. So I mean it’s shameful to do all of this propaganda on what’s a beneficial natural part of the atmosphere that has never been stable but most of the time much higher than now.

You know what else I’m pumping out as I sit here? Water. It’s just oozing out of my pores, evaporating out of my breath. Water is good, right? So more of it would be better. Let’s dump Happer in a big vat of water and let him paddle there, bathing in the life-giving fluid.

Another natural product of my metabolism is urea. I’m going to be even more generous and suggest that he be immersed in a vat of urine. More is better, always, right? So water plus urine has to be an improvement. Also, plants love water, and they love nitrogen. Therefore, it’s even more beneficial and natural.

OK, I forgot. He also likes gasses. We’ll top off the vat with pure, natural, healthful CO2. It’s a win:win!

I would like to remind Dr Happer of an old familiar (and true) phrase: the dose makes the poison. No one is going to deny that CO2 (and water, and nitrogen) are necessary components of a healthy atmosphere for life as it exists on earth. But we need balance in all things: just the right amount of carbon and nitrogen and water, balanced dynamically in cycles of renewal and reuse. That’s how we maximize growth in a sustainable way. Happer thinks throwing the balance out of wack is just as good as a balanced cycle. That ain’t gonna work.

Furthermore, he denies all the chaos and disruption as we roll our atmosphere back to the state it was in during the Carboniferous — which was admittedly a very nice environment for the plants and animals adapted to the Carboniferous, but probably isn’t as favorable to a species that evolved out of the ice ages.

He also ignores the possibility that we have no check on a runaway greenhouse effect — there is no guarantee climate change will stop at a swampy, hot, carbon-rich Carboniferous. I don’t think we’re predicting a roll-back to the Hadean, but it doesn’t take much change to make human life uncomfortable and possibly untenable.

Ultimately, though, his problem is that he’s not as bright as he thinks he is, and that he has a limited, one-dimensional view of geophysics, ecology, biology, and climate…yet, as a victim of Physicist Syndrome, he still thinks his narrow perspective trumps that of geophysicists, ecologists, biologists, and climatologists. That makes him a perfect Trump advisor, although it may chafe when he discovers that Trump thinks he’s even smarter than physicists.

Yet another TERFy oversimplification of reality

One does have to wonder if gender feminists and transgender activists are undermining science. One does, I guess, if one is going to properly apply critical thinking to these question. Unfortunately, that article by Debra Soh doesn’t seem to be interested in doing that, but instead on throwing around mischaracterizations of her critics. She fully embraces a tactic that Steven Pinker used in his book, The Blank Slate: let’s accuse those damnable “blank slaters” of believing that genes and biology play absolutely no role in brain and behavior, so that every bit of evidence that brains are made of meat refutes the cartoon extremists he is babbling about. He could have gone further, you know, and argued that the “blank slaters” believe that the skull contains nothing but cotton candy and whipped cream and meringue, so that any photograph of a brain in a bucket is a thorough disproof.

Debra Soh does the same thing. Let the strawmanning begin!

Gender feminists — who are distinct from traditional equity feminists — refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain, and instead promote the idea that sex differences are caused by a socialization process that begins at birth. Gender, according to them, is a construct; we are born as blank slates and it is parents and society at large that produce the differences we see between women and men in adulthood.

No. See, this is the difficult thing about dealing with these people: they immediately make a stark dichotomy, trying to pretend that one side, theirs, recognizes the importance of biology to the human mind, while the other side simply denies any role at all by biology and genetics. It’s annoying. I just have to say that the nature:nurture debate is fucking dead, that all influences are significant and inseparable in generating the complexity of the organism, and that these people with an inflamed notion of the black and white nature of the contributions to development belong back in the 19th century.

Gender is a construct built around probabilities in the disposition of traits associated with sex; most of the stereotypes are nothing but cultural impositions. There is no biological basis for girls wearing dresses and having long hair; boys don’t have a genetic predisposition to wearing pants and having their hair cut shorter. But there certainly are biases in brain development generated by hormones, for instance, biases that can also be overwhelmed by cultural influences. Could girls have a lesser potential for doing higher mathematics, on average? Maybe. But the evidence isn’t available, because social constraints have discouraged women from pursuing math for generations. Women could be better, on average, than men at math, but we wouldn’t know it because of all the baggage they’ve been forced to carry.

By the way, she does include a link to her claim that gender feminists refuse to acknowledge the role of evolution in shaping the human brain — again, I don’t know anyone who would make such an absurd claim, but it’s a staple of the kind of false characterization constantly perpetrated by the biological determinists (see? I can use misleading labels as well as they can). You might imagine it would be a link to some feminist claiming that brains are made of cotton candy and whipped cream and meringue, but no — it is to an evolutionary psychology journal article that also claims that feminists fails to consider evolutionary accounts of psychological sex differences. No evidence given.

I will tender the hypothesis, however, that gender feminists have evolved to avoid circle jerks.

Let us continue to see the caricatures drawn…

The idea that our brains are identical sounds lovely…

What? Why? I like the fact that people are different. And also, I don’t know anyone who argues that all brains are identical.

but the scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Many studies, for instance, have documented the masculinizing effects of prenatal testosterone on the developing brain. And a recent study in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports showed that testosterone exposure alters the programming of neural stem cells responsible for brain growth and sex differences.

Yes, yes, we all know this. These facts are only relevant if you’re arguing with your cartoon feminist who thinks brains are not influenced by genes or hormones.

Gender feminists often point to a single study, published in 2015, which claimed it isn’t possible to tell apart male and female brains. But when a group of researchers reanalyzed the underlying data, they found that brains could be correctly identified as female or male with 69% to 77% accuracy. In another study, published in 2016, researchers used a larger sample in conjunction with higher-resolution neuroimaging and were able to successfully classify a brain by its sex 93% of the time.

Warning sign again: she doesn’t link to that single study which we often point to. I don’t think I’ve ever pointed to such a study. I participated in a histological study of mouse brains way back when I was a student, and we found a measurable, statistical difference in the size of cells in a certain area of the brain between males and females. The curious thing is that I spent month staring into a microscope measuring sections — I was the data collection grunt — and at no point could I have sexed a mouse brain from looking at it. I did trust that the statistics were valid, though.

So I’m a bit doubtful about their claims of accuracy. I believe there are statistically detectable differences, but that they’re not as absolute as claimed.

But even if as accurate as claimed, there’s a problem. Even if you can classify a brain successfully 93% of the time, what about the other 7%? Those ambiguous brains? What do they mean? When the estimates of the size of the transgender population range from 0.3% to almost 0.8%, saying that your magic MRI machine has a wobble of 7% leaves a lot of leeway.

Further, I would not claim that the 0.8% is embedded somewhere in that unclassifiable 7%; I suspect a lot of transgender individuals, when scored by the anatomical metric of their brain, just as if we scored them by their genitals, would be ranked as solidly male or female…on that one metric, which says nothing about how their brains function. What are you going to do, deny that someone’s sexual orientation is valid because their nucleus magnocellularis lit up on one MRI reading?

That’s the whole problem with this approach: deny the whole because of your interpretation of a part. You have a Y chromosome, therefore you are male. You have a vagina, therefore you are female. You like football, therefore you are male. Your brain has this particular shape, therefore you are female. It’s ridiculous. Just the fact that there are a thousand easily measured parameters for gender, and they are only loosely correlated with one another, ought to tell you that trying to find the one, single, infallible metric is a fool’s errand.

Soh has more shoehorning to do, though.

In my experience, proponents touting the “blank slate” view are willing to agree, in private conversations, that neurological sex differences do exist, but they fear that acknowledging as much publicly will justify female oppression. This is backward. As it stands, female-typical traits are seen as inferior and less worthy of respect. This is the real issue the movement fails to address: Nobody wants to be female-typical, not even women.

Wrong again. There are no “blank slaters”. There are people who will publicly assert that there are both cultural and biological elements to sex and gender — they’re not going to whisper that as a dirty secret to you in private. And the claim that we see female-typical behaviors as inferior is false. What is objectionable is the belief, so blithely taken for granted by people like Soh, that you can tell someone what is typical. No one wants to be female-typical, as defined by the determinists, because they stuff that definition with a lot of crap, so that they can have it both ways: If you’re typical, you’re weak, passive, a good help-meet to your spouse; but if you’re strong, assertive, and independent, you’re not typical, that is you are bad at being a woman. You cannot win.

Unlike gender feminists, transgender activists firmly believe that gender is a biological, rather than social, reality — but of course they don’t believe that it’s necessarily tied to sex at birth. They also believe that gender identity is quite stable early on, warranting a transition not only for transgender adults, but also young children who say they were born in the wrong body.

I give up. Has this person actually talked with any transgender activistås? Because they’ll have a range of perspectives, and will almost always recognize that these issues are complex — there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all formula for how people manage their gender identity. Yet here is Soh, acting as if they’re a uniform ideological bloc. It’s dishonest and demeaning.

But then, this kind of dishonesty is exactly like what comes out of right-wing think tanks: cast doubt on the complexity of the real science, while insisting that their bogus, overly-simplified version of reality is the True Science. We also get that from creationists, claiming the scientific high ground while puking up total bullshit. That’s what makes these kinds of claims galling:

Distortion of science hinders progress. When gender feminists start refuting basic biology, people stop listening, and the larger point about equality is lost.

Yes, Ms Soh, distortion of science hinders progress. So stop doing it, OK?

You also punch yourself in the face when you try to imply that gender is merely basic biology. It’s not. It’s advanced and complex neurobiology, psychology, and sociology, and it’s your reductive attitude that it’s simply biology that is the grandest distortion of science.

I guess this is a Valentine’s Day story

It’s about snails looking for love.

But I just have to intrude rudely and mention that handedness in snail shell coiling has been studied for a long time, and we mostly know the answer: the direction is specified by a maternal effect gene, so what matters is the genotype of Jeremy’s mother, not Jeremy’s phenotype. Jeremy and Lefty are almost certainly heterozygous, the product of a homozygous left-coiling mother and a mate who was almost certainly (because this is a rare trait) homozygous for the right-coiling allele, and because they carry the right-coiling allele, all of their little baby snails will be right-coiling. He’s going to have to look in their grandchildren to find more left-coiling snails.

Technical details of the genetics aside, it must be frustrating to have to take chirality into consideration when trying to mate. Imagine a world where being left-handed makes sex with right-handers require all kinds of twisty gymnastics to line the bits up just right.

How do we clean up this administration?

General Wackjob Flynn has resigned overnight, and now new old untrustworty people are being considered for the job of national security advisor; David Petraeus among them. Hey, didn’t he resign under a cloud, for sharing classified material with his mistress? He sounds perfect for the job.

We have a crisis here. The president is manifestly incompetent, he is surrounded by malevolently incompetent advisors, and we don’t seem to have a way to extract him from office. The Electoral College was supposed to be a mechanism to block unsuitable candidates before they took office, but that was exposed as a sham. There is supposed to be a way to trigger impeachment proceedings, but the other branch of our government, congress, is packed with cowards, lackeys, and lickspittles who are going to block any action on that front…and even if they chopped off the head of this monster, there’s a line of succession packed with incompetents.

We’re under the clock. A noted historian says we have maybe one year to fix this predicament.

The marches were very encouraging. These were quite possibly the largest demonstrations in the history of the US, just in sheer numbers on one single day. That sort of initiative has to continue. The constitution is worth saving, the rule of law is worth saving, democracy is worth saving, but these things can and will be lost if everyone waits around for someone else. If we want encouragement out of the Oval Office, we will not get it. We are not getting encouragement thus far from Republicans. They have good reasons to defend the republic but thus far they are not doing so, with a few exceptions. You want to end on a positive note, I know; but I think things have tightened up very fast, we have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less. What happens in the next few weeks is very important.

To stop an onrushing tyranny, we need to check presidential power. How? At this point, we shouldn’t be intimidated by the ugly line of succession, because I think it’s more important to send a message that presidents don’t get to be dictators…and that they ought to be competent at doing their job. (That last requirement ought to send a chill down the spines of every Republican, which may be why they aren’t doing something about the rogue gossamer-haired sphincter running amuck in the White House.)

So what are we going to do?

Clear and present danger

Jebus. All it takes to be qualified to participate in discussions of national security with our Resident* is to cough up for a $200,000 membership to Mar-A-Lago? I’m out. I can’t even imagine having that much money, period, let alone be able to throw it away on a country club. But at a dinner with the Japanese president, the American Resident* basically invited everyone at the table to peer at incoming information about a North Korean missile launch. Suddenly, I’m sure, every foreign intelligence agency has perked up at the idea that they can get access relatively cheaply, just by paying this old clown for the privilege.

I am kind of terrified. Didn’t we just have an election where the far right was shrieking about Clinton’s email server and the possibility that spies might compromise its security? I wonder how much it would cost to buy an email account on that server.

And then, christ, one of the hack fat cats and Trump supporters took photos and bragged of having hung out with the security guy carrying the nuclear football. Said hypothetical spy who bought his way into Mar-A-Lago can now look forward to snatching access to the biggest weapons system on the planet, or at least stealing it to prevent a response.

This is totally bonkers. I’m not normally one of those paranoid doomsday-preppin’ kinds of kooks, but maybe I should start pricing guns and giant tubs of survivalist chow.

Nosferatu! <crosses self>

I do not believe in the supernatural, but the evidence is growing that the Trump regime is so desperate for support that they are raiding graveyards — probably Nazi graveyards — to dig up the undead and prop them up on a stage. Case in point: look into the dead eyes of Stephen Miller. He’s horrifying.

He even appalls Joe Scarborough. I think we’re going to have to invade the White House with buckets of holy water and wooden stakes and torches sometime soon.

But…who is going to the stars?

possums

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an excellent essay on generation ships — the science-fiction concept of building starships designed to take hundreds or thousands of years to fly to their destination, with generations of people living within them — and summarized all the physical, biological, and ecological problems with them that would ultimately doom such a project to failure. His conclusion is that “Earth is our only home”, which sounds depressing if you look at it one way, but really shouldn’t be, if only we could stop trashing the place.

I agree completely with that essay.

Now Kameron Hurley has written her own excellent essay in response, pointing out that there is a path towards making them viable again. I agree completely with this one, too.

If we figured out how to jettison ourselves from the Earth, we can figure out how to alter ourselves to traverse the incredible distances between stars and even galaxies. And here, then, is the difference in ideas that drives my writing as opposed to that of many other science fiction writers. I understand that space travel and expansion is just as much about altering ourselves, our attitudes, our social structures, our very biology, as it is about altering the places we choose to live.

The one problem is that word “ourselves”. Who are “we”? As Hurley says, the only way this works is if we are plastic and willing to change who we are, adapting to radically new circumstances. We can’t expect to simply put New York in a bubble and lift it off the planet — New York in space is a completely different beast from a New York planted firmly in the BosWash corridor with harbors and airports to connect it to everywhere else. The life of the city would have to change utterly.

The Puritans left England in their ships to preserve their way of life. It didn’t work. It changed everything about them in ways they could not predict, and I suspect that if we could go back in time and show the Puritan emigrants a picture of what America would become and how their descendants would live, they would react with horror and decide that there is no point in leaving after all. If your goal is to shelter your identity, your way of life, and the lives of your children, packing up and moving to a wildly different environment with unpredictable elements is probably the very worst idea you could have. If you want to define “ourselves” as a body of beliefs and ideas, well, sorry, those are extremely fragile and tend not to survive in new environments without some major transformations.

What about our biology? Look at the formation of the Panamanian land bridge and the exchange of North and South American fauna. We couldn’t possibly predict who the winners and losers would be, except, maybe, that there’d be a lot of losers. The grand champion of the invasion of North America was…opossums? Really? Come on. If they’d been sapient, those 5 meter tall phorusrhacid terror birds might have been pretty confident that they were going to kick ass and take over and rule two continents, but instead they all went extinct — as did the Astrapotheria, the Litopterna, the Sparassodonta, and other orders of big strong beasties — and it was the marsupial rat-thingies that thrived?

Hurley is exactly right that generation ships could be doable if we didn’t think of them as shells for people in transit and more as self-sustaining ecological islands cast off to grow and change, but then we have to change our notions of what constitute “us”, because for sure what arrives at a distant star a thousand years from now won’t be Americans, and may not even be recognizable as human any more. We could be building a bridge to Tau Ceti that delivers a chittering cargo of marsupial rat-thingies to a brand new world.

Is that acceptable? Is our vision of ourselves sufficiently flexible that we would consider planting a colony of unicellular eukaryotes on a distant planet to be a success? Would we be disappointed if we didn’t at least get mammals off-world, or are we going to insist on a primate exodus? We’re going to have to have an extraordinarly broad sense of identity for this all to work. Hurley seems to get that, I’d just wonder whether she’s gotten weird enough.

This was a concept I explored deeply in my novel, The Stars are Legion. Because certainly, we will change if we create and inhabit a living organism to which we are intrinsically tied. The Earth has shaped our evolution in every way, and our world-ships will no doubt do the same. Perhaps we’ll never be able to leave these ships. But propelling ourselves across the universe inside a self-sustaining world that can repair and reproduce itself solves the problems of distance and reduces the chance of ecological collapse, particularly if the worlds moved together as a legion and included independent layers of systems so that if one began to decline, another would rise. Think of it as naturally evolving back-up systems.

Exactly. People aren’t an ecosystem. It’s going to require establishing a complex, diverse assemblage of organisms to be self-sustaining, and everything will change year after year. And you aren’t going to be able to predict ahead of time how it will change, only that it will change. And the most fungible, protean, fragile elements will be the highest level bits, things like “societies”.

Those who arrive in the next star system, if they have created societies that allow them to change what we currently consider to be the intrinsically human foibles of war and strife and pettiness and bickering, will require time to adapt to a new environment. Consider how symbiotic parasites can chemically change and shape their hosts to suit them. Now imagine a ship is programmed to merge its flora and fauna with a new planet when it arrives, making the world-ship, now, into a living terraforming machine, a bacterial incubator that rapidly adapts the local environment to sustain its hosts. If symbiotic parasites can do this here on earth, why can’t we hurl something like it through space?

There are nightmares nestled in that idea.

Imagine you fill your ship with high-minded idealists, intellectuals and artists, and plan to export the very best of your culture to distant alien worlds…and by the time it gets there, it turns out that the best survivors are Republican neo-Nazis and televangelists.

Or it isn’t even people who last a thousand years in your starfaring arcology, and the survivors are all marsupial rat-thingies. But I repeat myself.

Try flipping the perspective, too. You’re having a grand time on an ecologically restored Earth, living in balance with all of nature, when a legion of ecological arks from an alien world arrive. They don’t want to exercise the cartoon SF prerogative of exterminating all humans or destroying Earth, they want to merge with us allow change to flow from the natural ecological and evolutionary interactions of diverse species. They aren’t going to kill us, no not directly, they’re going to give us an opportunity to adapt and change, like all good species. Never mind that these kinds of interactions are always catastrophic for some. We send probes up to the oncoming giant space island to figure out what we are going to face, and the astronauts look inside and say, “My god, it’s full of marsupial rat-thingies!”

Or Republicans and televangelists. But again, I repeat myself.

But I am looking forward to reading Hurley’s The Stars are Legion. Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.