Goodbye, Kiribati

It’s a triumph of hope over reason, and that means the residents of the Kiribati Islands, an archipelago of tiny islands with an average altitude of 6.5 feet, are doomed. They’ve got faith, you know, but one thing they haven’t got is any reason. NPR reports on their dire situation as the waters slowly rise and the climate changes:

“I’m not easily taken by global scientists prophesizing the future,” says Teburoro Tito, the country’s former president and now a member of Parliament.

Tito says he believes in the Biblical account of Noah’s ark. In that story, after God devastates the world with a flood, he makes a covenant with Noah that he will never send another.

So while Tito does acknowledge that global warming is affecting the planet and that he has noticed some impacts, he says rising sea levels are not as serious a threat as Tong and others are making them out to be.

“Saying we’re going to be under the water, that I don’t believe,” Tito says. “Because people belong to God, and God is not so silly to allow people to perish just like that.

Tito is not alone in his views. Of the more than 90,000 people counted in Kiribati’s last census, a mere 23 said they did not belong to a church. According to the most recent census, some 55 percent of citizens are Roman Catholic, 36 percent are Protestant and 3 percent are Mormon.

As a result, many are torn between what they hear from scientists and what they read in the Bible.

That’s just sad. They’re sure they’re safe because God doesn’t allow people to die for stupid reasons…but people do die for stupid reasons all the time.

The new phrenology

Morphological variation is important, it’s interesting…and it’s also common. It’s one of my major scientific interests — I’m actually beginning a new research project this spring with a student and I doing some pilot experiments to evaluate variation in wild populations here in western Minnesota, so I’m even putting my research time where my mouth is in this case. There has been some wonderful prior work in this area: I’ll just mention a paper by Shubin, Wake, and Crawford from 1995 that examined limb skeletal morphology in a population of newts, and found notable variation in the wrist elements — only about 70% had the canonical organization of limb bones.



I’ve also mentioned the fascinating variation in the morphology of the human aorta. Anatomy textbooks lay out the most common patterns, but anyone who has taught the subject knows that once you start dissecting, you always find surprises, and that’s OK: variation is the raw material of evolution, so it’s what we expect.

The interesting part is trying to figure out what causes these differences in populations. We can sort explanations into three major categories.

  1. Genetic variation. It may be the the reason different morphs are found is that they carry different alleles for traits that influence the developmental processes that build features of the organism. Consider family resemblances, for instance: your nose or chin might be a recognizable family trait that you’ve inherited from one of your parents, and may pass on to your children.

  2. Environmental variation. The specific pattern of expression of some features may be modified by environmental factors. In larval zebrafish, for instance, the final number of somites varies to a small degree, and can be biased by the temperature at which they are raised. They’re also susceptible to heat shock, which can generate segmentation abnormalities.

  3. Developmental noise. Sometimes, maybe often, the specific details of formation of a structure may not be precisely determined — they wobble a bit. The limb variation Shubin and others saw, for example, was almost entirely asymmetric, so it’s not likely to have been either genetic or environmental. They were just a consequence of common micro-accidents that almost certainly had no significant effect on limb function.

When I see variation, the first question that pops into my head is which of the above three categories it falls into. The second question is usually whether the variation does anything — while some may have consequences on physiology or movement or sexual attractiveness, for instance, others may really be entirely neutral, representing equivalent functional alternatives. Those are the interesting questions that begin inquiry; observing variation is just a starting point for asking good questions about causes and effects, if any.

I bring up this subject as a roundabout introduction to why I find myself extremely peeved by a recent bit of nonsense in the press: the claim that liberal and conservative brains have a different organization, with conservatives having larger amygdalas (“associated with anxiety and emotions”) and liberals having a larger anterior cingulate (“associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life”).


I don’t deny the existence of anatomical variation in the brain — I expect it (see above). I don’t question the ability of the technique, using MRI, to measure the dimensions of internal structures. I even think these kinds of structural variations warrant more investigation — I think there are great opportunities for future research to use these tools to look for potential effects of these differences.

What offends me are a number of things. One is that the interesting questions are ignored. Is this variation genetic, environmental, or simply a product of slop in the system? Does it actually have behavioral consequences? The authors babble about some correlation with political preferences, but they have no theoretical basis for drawing that conclusion, and they can’t even address the direction of causality (which they assume is there) — does having a larger amygdala make you conservative, or does exercising conservative views enlarge the amygdala?

I really resent the foolish categorization of the functions of these brain regions. Courage is an awfully complex aspect of personality and emotion and cognition to simply assign to one part of the brain; I don’t even know how to define “courage” neurologically. Are we still playing the magical game of phrenology here? This is not how the brain works!

Furthermore, they’re picking on a complex phenomenon and making it binary. Aren’t there more than one way each to be a conservative or a liberal? Aren’t these complicated human beings who vary in an incredibly large number of dimensions, too many to be simply lumped into one of two types on the basis of a simple survey?

This is bad science in a number of other ways. It was done at the request of a British radio channel; they essentially wanted some easily digestible fluff for their audience. The investigator, Geraint Rees, has published quite a few papers in credible journals — is this really the kind of dubious pop-culture crap he wants to be known for? The data is also feeble, based on scans of two politicians, followed by digging through scans and questionnaires filled out by 90 students. This is blatant statistical fishing, dredging a complex data set for correlations after the fact. I really, really, really detest studies like that.

And here’s a remarkable thing: I haven’t seen the actual data yet. I don’t know how much variation there is, or how weak or strong their correlations are. It’s because I can’t. This work was done as a radio stunt, is now being touted in various other media, and the paper hasn’t been published yet. It’ll be out sometime this year, in an unnamed journal.

We were just discussing the so-called “decline effect”, to which my answer was that science is hard, it takes rigor and discipline to overcome errors in analysis and interpretation, and sometimes marginal effects take a great deal of time to be resolved one way or the other…and in particular, sometimes these marginal results get over-inflated into undeserved significance, and it takes years to clear up the record.

This study is a perfect example of the kind of inept methodology and lazy fishing for data instead of information that is the root of the real problem. Science is fine, but sometimes gets obscured by the kind of noise this paper is promoting.

I have to acknowledge that I ran across this tripe via Blue Girl, who dismisses it as “sweeping proclamations about the neurophysiological superiority of the liberal brain”, and Amanda Marcotte, who rejects it because “This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves.” Exactly right. This kind of story is complete crap from the premise to the data to the interpretations.

Back to the debate with you!

A few days ago, sent you off to vote on a debate on genetically-modified crops, a debate that has continued onwards.

We didn’t quite pharyngulate this poll; it has gone back and forth, and now the anti-GMO forces have a pretty good lead. One reason that we didn’t pound it into the ground is that there was some dissension here, even — I think a fair number of the people who read about it here went off to vote for the antis. And then, also, I’ve learned that the anti-GMO gang organized their own opposition (which is perfectly fair!), which I suspect voted with much more unity than the gang from here.

Anyway, I have obtained some top secret email from the organic gang’s mailing list, shown here for your amusement:

The Economist has a GM debate sponsored by BASF: “This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory.”

We’re currently losing and the debate rounds up in the next 48 hours.

Please vote now and vote NO – and tell everyone you know to do the same.

Message from Phil Chandler

Please – show the GM industry what you think of them with just one click – no signup, name or email needed – just go here – and vote AGAINST the motion.

I suspect this has been worded in an attempt to ask a ‘soft’ question, which sounds harmless, so that people will be fooled into agreeing with it. But the fact is that GM and sustainable agriculture are NOT compatible, or complementary, as the very presence of GM in an open space means that organic and other non-GM crops will inevitably be contaminated. This is happening wherever GM crops are grown, and is well-documented. American farmers who were sold on GM ten years ago are now turning against it – listen to my podcast at for evidence of this.

Don’t be fooled by industry propaganda: GM crops are TOTALLY INCOMPATIBLE with sustainable agriculture.

This is not a definitive survey, but it is run by The Economist and will be used by the media as ‘evidence’ one way or the other.

So please, if you care about keeping our food and our bees GM-free – VOTE AGAINST THIS MOTION – – they don’t need your name or email address, and it only takes a second.

Phil Chandler

I’ve found the comments even more entertaining. There’s lots of nonsense like this:

Science and nature are two parallel things. There is no comparison between sustainable Agriculture (SA) and GMOs. In SA production of food is almost natural. There is no destruction of nature and the environment remains clean. GMO is a science which tampers with biodiversity and eventually breaking the environmental cycles. The world doesn’t need food produced using science rather it requires food produced using natures own ingredients.

You might want to revisit the debate and notice who is backing up all their arguments with citations of the peer-reviewed literature, and that most of the opposition to GMOs is coming from people who have this bizarre view that science is unnatural…that is, science up to the level that they are currently using is natural, but anything beyond that, anything newer, is somehow destroying nature.

I doubt that, Douthat

Ross Douthat proposes an explanation for why Republicans are so wacky on climate change. He points out that there’s a strong strain of climate change denial in the American public, one that’s also present in other countries.

What’s interesting, though, is that if you look at public opinion on climate change, the U.S. isn’t actually that much of an outlier among the wealthier Western nations. In a 2007-2008 Gallup survey on global views of climate change, for instance, just 49 percent of American told pollsters that human beings are responsible for global warming. But the same figure for Britain (where Rush Limbaugh has relatively few listeners, I believe) was 48 percent, and belief in human-caused climate change was only slightly higher across northern Europe: 52 percent in the Czech Republic, 59 percent in Germany, 49 percent in Denmark, 51 percent in Austria, just 44 percent in the Netherlands, with highs of 63 percent in France and 64 percent in Sweden.

OK, let’s provisionally accept that. Where Douthat goes next, though, is weird; he argues that it is an advantage of our political leaders in the US that they are more representative of the electorate, and that our politicians are simply tracking polls to win votes.

It’s all nonsense. Kooky right-wingers like Inhofe and Angle and Miller and Rubio and on and on are not canny, cunning politicians who are cynically following the wishes of the people — they are True Believers, ideologues who promote, rather than merely follow. What it really indicates is that Republican voters are willing to put morons into office, while voters in all those other Western nations retain some dignity and insist on a louder hint of credibility in their representatives.

It’s also not true that the Republican leadership better reflects the popular consensus. “97% of climate experts agree humans are causing global warming, but 97% of GOP Senate candidates disagree.” What it actually tells us is that Republicans are more willing to charge off into the fringe than the general electorate.

And most importantly, climate change is a scientific issue, one that has an evidence-based answer, not something that can be swayed by popular opinion. It is not a virtue to to obey the whims of an ignorant populace to pursue a position contrary to fact.

So that’s why Koch funded a major evolution exhibit

I was mystified why Chief Teabagger David Koch would invest so much in a Smithsonian exhibit on human evolution — usually those knuckledraggers object to people putting their ancestry on display. An explanation is at hand, though: his big issue is denying the significance of global climate change, and the exhibit is tailored to make climate change look like a universal good.

There are some convincing examples of the subterfuge being perpetrated. There is a big emphasis on how evolutionary changes were accompanied by (or even caused by) climate shifts, which evolutionary biologists would see as almost certainly true, and so it slides right past us. But, for instance, what they do is illustrate the temperature changes in a graph covering the last 10 million years, which makes it easy to hide the very abrupt and rapid rise in the last few centuries. They also elide over an obvious fact: we’d rather not experience natural selection. Climate change may have shaped our species, but it did so by killing us, by pushing populations around on the map, by famine and disease, by conflict and chaos. Evolution happened. That doesn’t mean we liked it.

I suppose it wouldn’t leap out at an evolutionary biologist because it is true: there have been temperature fluctuations and long term changes that have hit our species hard, and nobody is denying it. However, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that we should therefore look forward to melting icecaps and flooding seaboards and intensified storms. It’s probably also worth pointing out that our technological civilization is certainly more fragile than anything we’ve had before. The fact that we could be knocked back to a stone age level of technology without going extinct is not a point in favor of welcoming global warming.

Now we have a new question: how did this devious agenda get past the directors of the Smithsonian?

UM backs down

Those must have been some interesting meetings: the University of Minnesota administration was trying to suppress an environmentalist documentary about abuses of the Mississippi river, but every faculty member I’ve heard from on this issue was a bit outraged by the censorship…and now, the university has backed off, and the movie will be screened on 3 October at the Bell Museum. If you’re in the area, stop by and watch it!

Gagging the Mississippi

The Mississippi is a mess. I live in the agricultural, rural upper midwest, and one of the nasty surprises lurking beneath the rich green fields is that the rivers are ugly stews of fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides from agricultural runoff. We have data that it hurts people, too: premature births and birth defects show seasonal fluctuations that peak for children conceived in the spring and summer, when the chemicals are being sprayed into the air and are dribbling into the streams. The villains are agribusiness and overproduction and the corn ethanol boondoggle and horrors like the fecal lakes associated with swine farms. Louisiana’s environmental problems are partly the product of Minnesota’s toxic largesse.

It needs to be known. The Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota has been producing a documentary called Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story for the past several years, and it was supposed to have its premiere in October.

The documentary has been indefinitely postponed. Somebody doesn’t want you to see it.

Who, you might wonder, could have shut down the UM’s movie? It was the university itself. They claim it was for further scientific review, but by all accounts, this movie has been rigorously vetted throughout, and that explanation just doesn’t hold up. The other disturbing fact is that the source of the pressure seems to have been University Relations, a department not known for its attention to scientific rigor, but with a mission of responding to community interests. We’re a land-grant university, by the way, in an agricultural state.

Karen Himle is Vice President of University Relations, which is the office that determined the film needed “scientific review.” She is married to John Himle, president of Himle Horner, a public relations firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. The Council is a strong proponent of ethanol and industrial farming, both of which are critiqued in the film. John Himle was also president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council from 1978 to 1982 and his organization currently serves as a “member” of the Council.

The University’s “conflict of interest” policy was called into question last year by the Minnesota Daily, which also cited Karen Himle’s summary of her outside sources of income as including Himle Horner and Nebraska farmland crops.
While Himle Horner’s client records are not public (something that has drawn the ire of some in the community as former co-owner Tom Horner is running for governor), Himle Horner was still representing the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council as recently as this summer.

So who is calling the shots at the University of Minnesota? Academics and scientists with some intellectual integrity, or lackeys of big business who care most about short-term profit, no matter the cost to the environment and public health?

Don’t bother answering, I know what the answer will be.