Rachel Carson vs. Men of Industry

The New Yorker has a wonderful story about Rachel Carson which points out that we ignore most of her writing. She’s most famous for Silent Spring, which of course I’ve read, but much of her prior work was about the sea and the shore, which I have not. I guess I’m going to have correct that deficiency.

It also fills in many biographical details about her life, which was full of family responsibilities and struggles. My respect for her keeps going up and up.

I have to highlight one detail, though. After Silent Spring, this quiet, private woman who was dying of cancer (and refused to mention it in public), was savagely targeted for harassment by the American chemical industry. Remember this if anyone tries to tell you that science is not political.

“What she wrote started a national quarrel,” “CBS Reports” announced in a one-hour special, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” in which footage of Carson was intercut with footage of government and industry spokesmen, to create a de-facto debate. (Carson refused to make any other television appearance.) In the program, Carson sits on the porch of her white-railed house in Maine, wearing a skirt and cardigan; the chief spokesman for the insecticide industry, Robert White-Stevens, of American Cyanamid, wears thick black-framed glasses and a white coat, standing in a chemistry lab, surrounded by beakers and Bunsen burners.

Whoa. Caricature much? White coats & beakers, the trappings of scientism. I am amused, and appalled.

White-Stevens questions Carson’s expertise: “The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring,’ are gross distortions of the actual fact, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field.”

Carson feigns perplexity: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”

White-Stevens fumes: “Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.”

Stop right there. White-Stevens is simply wrong — that is a horrifying attitude to take, that rather than existing as a part of nature, humans are responsible for controlling nature. I can’t imagine any modern biologist taking White-Stevens position, in part thanks to Rachel Carson.

You can now watch the whole 1963 program, thanks to the intertubes. It’s not a pleasant experience: there’s a train of expressionless, somber white men all positively asserting that all of the chemicals they’re spraying across the landscape are harmless, that they have been thoroughly tested and do no harm to people at all, which is not particularly reassuring coming from people who think all of nature is to be brought under their control.

Watch for the scene where White-Stevens is lecturing at a lectern, and the camera pans to the audience…which consists entirely of men in crewcuts, white shirts, and/or ties. There are also scenes where the defenders have to reluctantly admit that widespread pesticide use sometimes damages the environment — they talk of streams full of dead fish, and one says that he’s seen the elimination of 80% of the wildlife in some areas. Watch the whole thing and it gets more and more clear that the overuse of pesticides has led to serious effects on animals at concentrations far lower than the industry endorses. White-Stevens does not come out of this looking good.

Rachel Carson, on the other hand, is magnificent. She doesn’t get enough air time.

Note that this was all before the EPA was established, which the current administration is trying to destroy.

Us Soy Boys should be relieved

It’s an odd thing how some people are scrabbling to invent markers for maleness, as if it is the sole defining feature of their existence, and yet must be constantly validated with sciencey affirmations of invisible phenomena. So we get statements about the utter certainty of the Y chromosome being the definitive factor in being male, from hordes of people who’ve never seen their own karyotype, some small fraction of whom might well have curious chromosomal abnormalities. Will it change who they are if a variation is found? No, not at all. We live in a fairly modest culture, too, and yet we want to declare possession of a penis to be the one great truth behind masculinity…yet I’ve never seen any of your penises, nor have you seen mine. We make demeaning jokes about small penises, but we don’t actually inspect them.

There’s another invisible attribute I’m seeing touted as important to your masculinity: testosterone levels. I’ve seen the silly commercials that try to sell supplements to correct that bane of men’s lives, Low T.

Well, that’s blatant. I better buy me a case of them there pills, lest I suffer the pity of a woman.

The thing is, most of us don’t know what our testosterone levels are. I get twice yearly checkups and get tapped for buckets of blood, and I’ve got reports on levels of triglycerides, HDLs, LDLs, CPK, all that important stuff that matters if you’re concerned about heart disease, but darn, they never bother to check my T levels, and I always forget to ask. Except for certain serious extremes, T levels don’t matter that much, and they certainly aren’t a major factor in that indefinable thing called “manliness”. I also note that half the population seems to function just fine with incredibly low T levels.

But now you’ve got shady companies trying to sell you supplements, and to them it’s really important that you consider T levels vital. The latest round of silliness from the alt-right has them accusing SJWs of being “soy boys”, that consuming products containing soy reduces their T levels. They don’t know! Testosterone levels vary within populations, to no obvious discernible effect, so it amounts to one group of people sneering at another group of people over their blood chemistry in complete ignorance of what it actually is. I feel like the only rational response in such an argument is to whip out a rubber strap and a syringe with a wicked sharp 21-gauge needle and offer to take a sample.

Or, I suppose, we could just have some medical professionals do a clinical assessment of the effects of testosterone. Oh? It’s been done?

So researchers set about designing the Testosterone Trials: double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials—the gold standard in medicine. They went looking for thousands of men over 65 with low T and at least one of its supposed symptoms. When the first findings came out in February 2016, one thing stood out from the start: Of the more than 51,000 men who had been screened, fewer than 15 percent had testosterone levels low enough to be enrolled, even after the researchers relaxed their testosterone threshold. The widely held idea that low T is rife among older men seemed to be a myth.

All told, the studies found that T did not improve men’s physical function or vitality. Nor did it help with age-related memory impairment. It did help with anemia and bone mineral density. It increased sexual desire and activity, but the effect was modest; men were better off using Cialis or Viagra. The most worrisome findings came from a study on cardiovascular risk: In men with certain risk factors, T accelerated coronary atherosclerosis, possibly increasing their chance of heart attack.

If you want to argue with this, I’m going to accuse you of having low aldosterone levels. Or was it cholecystokinin? One of those things neither of us ever bother to actually measure, anyway.

A fine demonstration of unpredicted consequences

Global climate change has freaky outcomes. I wouldn’t have predicted that warming Minnesota would freeze septic tanks.

Frozen septic systems are emerging as an unexpected consequence of climate change in Minnesota — one that is bedeviling homeowners across the state and could soon cost taxpayers more for the repair and maintenance of fragile rural roads.

The cause is a dramatic long-term decline in insulating snow early in November and December. Combined with still-freezing conditions, that drives the frost line deep underground — well below septic pipes and drain fields.

So climate change → less snow → frost line goes deeper → frozen septic tanks → more septic tank pumping → heavier traffic on rural roads → rising road repair costs.

What other unforeseen effects are going to hit us in the future?

Jobs! Biology jobs!

Look, gang, the University of Minnesota Morris is hiring biology professors! Two of them! If you meet the requirements and are looking for a position at a small liberal arts university that greatly values teaching, here’s your opportunity!

We’re looking for someone to teach microbiology/biochemistry, and someone to teach cell biology. You’ll also be expected to teach an interesting elective or two, which we can discuss. Here are the descriptions for the two positions:

Full-Time, Multi-Year Position in Biology

Required/Preferred Qualifications:
Required: Candidates must have a Ph.D. in biochemistry or microbiology, or a closely related field by August 20, 2018. Experience and evidence of excellence in teaching undergraduate biology is required. (Graduate TA experience is acceptable).
Preferred: Preference will be given to applicants with experience teaching courses similar to those attached to this position. Ability to supervise undergraduate students in summer research is also valued.
Duties/Responsibilities: Teaching upper-level undergraduate courses for majors in biochemistry and microbiology, both with labs; our introductory Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution and Development course for majors; contributing to other courses that support the biology curriculum; and sharing in the governance and advancement of the biology program.

Full-Time, One-Year Position in Biology

Required/Preferred Qualifications:
Required: Candidates must have a Ph.D. in cellular biology, or a closely related field by August 20, 2018. Experience and evidence of excellence in teaching undergraduate biology is required. (Graduate TA experience is acceptable).
Preferred: Preference will be given to applicants with experience teaching courses similar to those attached to this position. Ability to supervise undergraduate students in summer research is also valued.
Duties/Responsibilities: Teaching undergraduate courses for majors in cell biology, with labs; our introductory Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution and Development course for majors; contributing to other courses that support the biology curriculum, including an upper level elective; and sharing in the governance and advancement of the biology program.

And this is some general boilerplate and the specific application instructions.

Program/Unit Description:
A distinctive undergraduate campus within the University of Minnesota system, Morris combines the benefits of an intimate, student-centered residential liberal arts education with access to the resources and opportunities of one of the nation’s largest universities. The University of Minnesota, Morris is a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) and provides students with a rigorous academic experience, preparing them to be global citizens who value and pursue intellectual growth, civic engagement, intercultural competence, and environmental stewardship. The student body of nearly 1800 is supported by approximately 130 faculty members, a student/faculty ratio of 14:1. The Morris campus is the most ethnically diverse in the University of Minnesota system, with 28 percent US students of color (19 percent of whom are American Indian students) and 11 percent international students.

Morris culture is characterized by an unwavering commitment to the liberal arts and undergraduate education as well as by the particular traditions it has developed in pursuing that mission. The community believes in the values of shared governance (embodied in its official policymaking body, an inclusive Campus Assembly), and it recognizes the heritage of its campus (which was founded as an American Indian boarding school) with a vigorous commitment to diversity. With a vibrant sense of community in and out of the classroom, Morris aims to integrate curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular aspects of the student experience, and it reaches outward to the broader community with collaborative enterprises, partnerships, and service-learning initiatives.

The University of Minnesota shall provide equal access to and opportunity in its programs, facilities, and employment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Morris values diversity in its students, faculty, and staff. Morris is especially interested in qualified candidates who can contribute to the diversity of our community through their teaching, research, and /or service because we believe that diversity enriches the University experience for everyone.

To request disability accommodation contact: UMM Human Resources, 320-589-6024, Room 201, Behmler Hall, Morris, Minnesota.

Application Instructions:
To apply for this position, go to the University of Minnesota Employment System at https://humanresources.umn.edu/jobs. The job ID# for the multi-year position is 323067. The job ID# for the one-year position is 323104. Please click the Apply button and follow the instructions. Applications must include a letter of application, resume, graduate and undergraduate transcripts, a teaching statement with evidence of teaching effectiveness, and three letters of reference. Supporting documentation may be sent to Ann Kolden, Administrative Assistant, at koldenal@morris.umn.edu, (320) 589-6301, or they may be sent to:

Biology Search Committee Chair
Division of Science and Mathematics
University of Minnesota, Morris
Morris, MN 56267-2128

Applications will be accepted until the position is filled. Screening begins April 16, 2018.

Inquiries can be made to Professor Paul Myers, Search Committee Chair, at (320) 589-6343 (myersp@morris.umn.edu).

Note the dates. We’re moving fast on these positions, and will start reviewing applicants in two weeks.

Note also who gets to organize this whole thing…so much work.

A useful guide for spring accidents

It’s early yet — the birds don’t seem to have started nesting yet, although I am starting to hear more of racket in the trees in the morning — but you should be prepared for the inevitable tragic accidents that will occur.

Quite coincidentally, I found this on my back porch yesterday.

It’s definitely feathered, and doesn’t seem to be in danger, so I guess I should have left it alone. Unfortunately, it is now occupying my desk.

The social media dilemma

Facebook is objectively evil. But at the same time, it’s so delicious. It’s like an evil donut that you can’t resist nibbling on, but it’s going to kill you in the end. I have friends on Facebook! It’s where I go to get my grandbaby photo fix! I have connections there!

But now I’m thinking I really ought to #DeleteFacebook. The arguments are annoyingly strong.

Some say, “I don’t want to stop using Facebook, I want them to change.” And that is wrong. Keeping up with your friends is good. But Facebook’s business and data model is fundamentally flawed. For you, your data is who you are. For Facebook, your data is their money. Taking it from you is their entire business, everything else is fancy decoration.

Others will say, “I need Facebook because that’s where my audience is, and my livelihood depends on that.” And it is true. But depending on Facebook is not safe in the long-term, as others have learned the hard way. Ever changing, opaque algorithms make it harder and harder to reach “your” audience. So even in this case it’s wise to look for other options and have contingency plans.

It would make it easier for me to leave if all of you would go, too, because it’s not Facebook I like (it’s evil, remember), it’s the people. We need an alternative, but the Zuck seems to have devoured them all. Is there something similar emerging from the non-corporate world, like Mastodon, the better Twitter alternative?

Friday Cephalopod: Female cuttlefish are conspiring together!

Oh, sure, you all hear about the bold dominance displays of male cuttlefish, and their camouflage, and the flashing color changes, but this is a new one on me. The females have a unique display, that they only show to other females (or to themselves in a mirror).

Here it is an a drawing: elegant, understated, quite nice.

What I find disturbing is that they do not display this signal to any other males — it’s like a secret code for the lady cuttlefishes only. What are they communicating? Are they talking about me? Do they have secrets no male is permitted to discover?

I bet it’s for the cuttlefish whisper network.

M. E. Palmer, M. Richard Calvé, Shelley A. Adamo (2006) Response of female cuttlefish Sepia officinalis (Cephalopoda) to mirrors and conspecifics: evidence for signaling in female cuttlefish. Animal Cognition 9(2):151-155.