The Planetary News Radio – Episode 6: Supernovae and Bipedalism in Humans

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 6. Some good news. This podcast is now available on the iTunes store and the Google Play Store. Granted, I know I don’t have a lot of listeners right now, but if at some point in time in the future, a future listener finds this recording they can now use iTunes and Google to listen to other future recordings. So that’s good for future people. What about past past people, or past hominids? Humans being a group of apes that walk upright consistently specifically, really, modern humans and their direct ancestors that are not chimpanzees. There’s an article in the news, or several articles about a recent study done on hominid evolution, [specifically, on the evolution of bipedalism (walking upright)].

The evolution of walking upright is always a controversial topic, along with most of the topics in human evolution. Intelligence, bipedalism, opposable thumbs for being a very generalised species in terms of diet and living conditions. Humans have a couple or really multiple, very specific adaptations. They give us an advantage, bipedalism, being one of those intelligence being another one. Although intelligence is more recent than bipedalism. That’s a common misconception that humans intelligence is linked with bipedalism. It really isn’t. The first Hominins that walked up-right didn’t have larger brains than chimpanzees, or rather, the shared common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans had a brain the size of a chimpanzee, but bipedalism was important. We don’t know why, [and scientists] struggle to understand why. There’s lots of theories. Some of them makes sense. Some of them don’t. Some of them make more sense than others.

For example, the need to see over tall grass is obvious, and it seems important. The question is, “How strong of a driver of selection would that be”? Is that enough to basically create a whole new lineage of hominid? I think a more interesting theory [for a strong driver towards bipedalism] is the ability to carry things, because if you’re quadrupedal, in order to walk, you can’t carry anything. You might be able to lumber along with one thing in one arm, like a gorilla. Gorillas can carry a child or some food in one hand while lumbering along with the other hand, like people, and maybe they can do brief bouts of bipedalism. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and a lot of monkeys can walk bipedally for something out of time. Usually, when they’re doing that, they’re either doing a threat display, they’re about to fight something or trying to scare another animal, trying to make themselves look bigger, or they’re carrying something (food or a baby). So I think, in terms of strength of [natural] selection, historically, that’s been a really good theory. And you see the evolution of opposable thumbs going in line with bipedalism, and then the enlargement of the brain is later.

So, really, humans are these apes that got really good at carrying things. Now, in the news today, there’s a trending article, and so why am I talking about this? So there’s a new theory that supernova could have made humans walk up, right, study says. And so I’m going to read the title of the article. “A massive supernova could have made humans walk upright”. Okay, How so? Let me read another title. “Walking upright evolution of bipedalism linked to supernova”. In new theory, this is very attention grabbing again. Ironically, what is the attention grabber here? Space. Supernova. A giant explosion in space. Let me read another another title. “Exploding stars led to humans walking on two legs, radical study suggests”.

Now let’s say that I stopped there and I didn’t read any of these articles or keep reading titles. And I just left with the idea that a star made humans walk upright. How could that be? I can’t imagine how that is possible. My first instinct is that what they’re trying to say is that people wanted to look up at the star and that’s why they walked upright. That wouldn’t make sense. There’s not enough selective pressure for that to be the case, so right off the bat, because of what I know about evolution, I dismissed that idea, and this seems like fake news, maybe, or just bad reporting.

If we keep reading [though, we eventually see a useful title], “Ancient supernova prompted our ancestors to walk upright to avoid forest fires”. Well, now I’m interested because that is something I didn’t think of, and it has a strong selection pressure because in order to avoid fires, that’s a life or death scenario. So in terms of natural selection, that makes a lot of sense. Natural selection, avoiding forest fires. That’s plausible. That’s strong. So I like this idea. I’ve only read the headlines. So how could supernova cause forest fires, though? Just using my own knowledge of physics and science, and ions were mentioned one of the headlines. Something about ions. So I suppose when a supernova happens and sends out a blast of radiation, material, solar dust, and in that material are ions, charged particles. When those particles get to the earth, they get through the atmosphere and they impact on the surface of the Earth. How did they cause forest fires? My suspicion is that the charged particles don’t actually cause fires themselves.

How can ions cause forest fires? I suppose if you had a stream of charged particles impacting on a forest they might do a couple things and my sense is that what it could do is make that forest drier, more brittle, and so maybe it’s increasing a fire risk. And so what you’re what you’re experiencing is a landscape altered by the supernova, causing increased fire risk. Now, [in terms of selective pressures], not only do you have the benefit of being able to carry things, giving you an immediate benefit, you have the pressure of avoiding fires, and so between avoiding fires and carrying food that could help explain why bipedalism evolved so quickly and recently, relative to the entire evolutionary history of primates, which is around 40 to 50 million years. True bipedalism only evolved recently.

Now this does become problematic because there are other vertebrates that evolved bipedalism, the obvious case being dinosaurs and birds. So the question is, do we think that bipedalism could only be caused by forest fires? Are there other reasons that animals could evolve bipedalism? Let’s think about this logically, we know the dinosaurs evolved bipedalism and that they did not have opposable thumbs. So, in other words, dinosaurs weren’t carrying things yet they evolved be bipedal. So we have two reasons. We think, bipedalism evolved 1. To carry things and 2. To avoid forest fires, and we know for a fact the dinosaurs didn’t need to carry things. So we know that bipedalism must have evolved for at least one other reason then we suspect, which means that it might also evolve for many other reasons, sort of like the Drake hypothesis with finding life on other planets. If we find life on even just one other planet, the probability of finding life on many other planets increases exponentially. So how strong is this theory [of bipedalism]? Well, we’ve already proven that there’s other reasons why things could be bipedal because the dinosaurs are bipedal [not all bipedal dinosaurs] lived in forests, so they couldn’t have been avoiding forest fires. So now we know there are other reasons that animals could evolve bipedalism. So what does this mean for this theory? What does it mean for dinosaurs?

Now, I feel more curious about why dinosaurs evolved bipedalism. Now that I’ve thought about this through. So what else is inherent to bipedalism? Something about bipedalism, that’s shared between primates and dinosaurs, that doesn’t involve a forest doesn’t involve carrying things. What do dinosaurs and apes have in common? Well, apes don’t have tails. Dinosaurs do have tails. So it’s not a tail. They have a torso, a head, and a neck. They’re both social. That’s interesting. Dinosaurs and apes are both social animals. We know this because find evidence of nesting behavior with dinosaurs. So the origin of bird nesting [probably originated from their therapod dinosaur ancestors]. We know dinosaurs have a lot of vocalization adaptations, [for example in hadrosaurs where] we’ve found the enlarged nasal passages [that most likely were used for either mating or herd control].

[Both primates and dinosaurs are social, so could there be a social reason for bipedalism?]. [Maybe yes, if there were some social benefit to bipedalism]. Could a dinosaur communicate just as well if it were bipedal. [Take hadrosaurs for example again]. Hadrosaurs are vegetable eaters, not a carnivore. A hadrosaur does have some decently sized arms. It actually can get down on all fours, so hadrosaur can go back and forth between quadrupedal and bipedal. It’s not like a T. Rex. A T. Rex has almost completely lost its arms almost down to just little tiny fingers, so T. Rex cannot be quadrupedal. Hadrosaur can. So what’s the advantage there? Well, if a hadrosaur is dependent on eating plant material, some of that material might be from a marsh or a swamp. Some of that material might be from a tree. So if you’re bipedal you can stand on your two legs, you can reach up and get higher branches. You can reach down and get algae from a swamp, and you don’t need arms to do that. You just need a mouth. So the hadrosaur shuffling through a swamp [can reach food from the ground, like algae, and branches from trees, by standing on its hind legs].

So what about humans? Makes sense. Food. If you’re foraging for food, you need to be able to reach up, to find more fruit and reach down find roots and vegetables. [It gives animals an option to reach higher or lower places without having to grow an extended neck like a Brontosaurus or Giraffe]. So there’s a new reason to bipedal: Reaching food. I like that. So this is an example of how I like to solve evolutionary problems. We have the question initially – Is this a good hypothesis? Humans avoiding forest fires. That makes sense. It seems possible. Is it the only reason that humans evolved bipedalism? Probably not. It’s probably one of five, or more, major reasons. And I’m just guessing that because I know I talked about three [hypotheses] here. And so there’s probably more that we don’t know about that we haven’t thought about. So that’s the thing with evolution, there’s usually multiple reasons why things evolved, and so this is not a criticism [against this particular evolutionary hypothesis].

I did find that information about the forest fires from the titles, but about four out of five of the articles did not mention the fire. They just mentioned the supernova, and so it’s a little misleading in terms of a headline, but it’s not really purposely misleading. So I wouldn’t call this fake news. That’s just sensationalism. So sensationalism isn’t that bad. It gave me something to talk about it [and explain how using the scientific method can be applied to determine how plausible an idea is without doing any extra research]. I hope you enjoyed this talk. That’s Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio signing out. Thanks for listening. Have a good day.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 5: Fear and Censorship in Scientific Communication

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode. The date is May 30th. It’s a cloudy day in Corvallis, but not raining. Enjoying the temperature. [Let’s talk today about] popular science and censorship. So a great example of censorship in science recently has been climate science. And this is it’s kind of scary how well accepted it is that the censorship is occurring. Strange things like purging the word climate from government documents put out by environmental agencies. So it’s very strange to experience, a blatant, systematic censorship like that by the government, well, specifically by the Trump administration. Attempts to quantify that [censorship] and paint a picture of how widespread that actually is are even more disturbing. I’m looking at an article here that counts the number of times that federal departments and agencies were involved in an act of censorship and sense put out by a group, Columbia Climate Law. So I don’t know if that’s associated with Columbia University or what that is. I haven’t really researched it. I’m just looking at a Scientific American article here, but before I talk about those numbers, let’s talk about my own personal experience with censorship [link to Columbia Climate Law Silencing Science Tracker].

When I was a graduate student, I worked in environmental genetics and the agencies that were interested in environmental genetics were sanitation departments and water districts, at least for the ones that I worked for. More broadly, the U.S. Geological Survey was interested in environmental DNA (eDNA) as a way to track fish or aquatic mammals or other vertebrates. And so I spent a lot of time working on informatics methods to identify species using genetics. And this was really one of those projects in science, which happens quite a bit where we all think we have a really good idea of what is going on. We have a hypothesis. We can test a hypothesis, but maybe it’s something that we’ve already known for years. And so when we went in to test the hypothesis that using genetics to identify species improves are our ability to identify a pollution in a stream, we were reasonably confident that this would be the case, and so it wasn’t really expected it not to be better. It was more of the question, “Could we do it?” And so a lot of what we did were methods studies, and so really, it was developing a method to apply this theory that we already thought would be good.

Some publications had represented data that would suggest using genetics to identify impacted streams. I shouldn’t just say polluted streams, [but streams] that were impacted by either human modification or by pollution or something like that, and it did make sense that genetics would improve our ability to do that because the way that we identify those streams, the way that was historically done was to identify species by looking at them visually. And so we know that some percentages species, especially insects, cannot be identified visually. So we knew there are more species out there. And so the idea was that if we’ve confined more species, then we’ll have a more sensitive tool. So it wasn’t really a question of, well, this will be better. It was more of a question of “How much does it cost? And can we do it? Is it practical?” And so we set out to answer those questions at the group that I was working for, and so I spent about three years working on that project. But every time we found a example where we would find more species or find specific species at different sites, this was always ignored. And so we thought that we had done a good job developing a tool that could improve our ability to detect human impact in the environment, but this was ignored by the supporting agencies of our group.

Not really ignored [outright], but ridiculously high standards were put on us, much higher than other studies. So everything was scrutinized. Money, sensitivity. Any mistake was highlighted. And so it’s overall if you add up everything. This was an act of censorship, and so individually the acts were not censorship. In other words, nobody ever said, “Oh, you can’t publish that result”. All right. Nobody has ever told me you cannot publish that result, however, I have had results that were scrutinized not because not for their scientific validity but for their philosophical impact. So we had many empirically correct results that suggested this would be a better method, and those results were ignored for philosophical questions. So I have experienced censorship and it was government censorship, and that was during the Obama administration. But this is not unusual in biology. Biology is one of the most censored scientific fields in modern times because of the philosophical component, because of the way that it makes people feel uncomfortable about their [world view].

It was not surprising to me that that study did not take off or that those methods were not implemented. And as far as my knowledge, those methods that we were developing are still not implemented by the United States government routinely. Now, there is one thing that has been implemented, and that is the use of eDNA. In that case, the cost of benefit argument worked in favor of the science.The ability to go out and collect a sample of water from a stream and be able to know what species of fish are in that stream based on the DNA and the water is a very powerful analysis because it can be done relatively inexpensively. Now the question is, well, why do you want to know what species are in the stream? And the second question is, Do you need to know how many? Because there’s a very specific limitation of the technology in genomic sequencing. And so the same technology that’s used to sequence a genome is the one that will be used to sequence water to identify DNA in that water sample.

There’s a limitation of that [genomic sequencing] technology that makes it very difficult to determine the abundance, the original abundance of the animals that created the DNA, and so the challenge of the eDNA work was to be able to determine abundance from the sample, and that has been worked on four years for five years now. eDNA is being implemented by the U.S. Geological Service in the United States. And so that’s a federal government agency acknowledging the usefulness of genetics for environmental monitoring. Now, as I read the article that I just read, the conclusion of the article is that developing this on a wide scale would be cost prohibitive. So again, is that an act of censorship? By saying that this technology that allows you two very quickly and rapidly assess the community structure of a stream using genetics is to cost prohibitive? Maybe, Maybe not. I don’t think so. I don’t believe that that is true [that it is more expensive]. The sequencing technology, the cost of DNA sequencing is almost negligible for the amount of sequencing [needed to conduct a routine stream sample]. So really the cost here it would be the labor to conduct the analysis. And so then the question is, what is the labor cost to conduct a genomic analysis versus the labor cost to conduct a visual analysis? And so when someone says that is to cost prohibitive to conduct genetic analysis, you’re saying that it costs more for someone to go out and collect a bottle of water from a stream and put it in their car and drive back to the lab or collect 10 bottles of water and put him in there in a in a cooler and drive those back to the lab later in the day, that it cost more to do that than it does to send a team of 20 people out to count fish visually in a stream. And not only that, but that the extra information gained by doing the genetic analysis is not useful at all has no monetary value.

So that’s what the federal state governments will say, is that genetic testing is to cost prohibitive. And so, let’s see. Let’s look at numbers here that have been published by this group. 51 Instances of Censorship in the Environmental Protection Agency, 35 by The Department of Interior, 25 of the White House, 17 by Health and Human Services, 16 by The Energy Department, 6 at NASA. [The reason] for these [censorship acts] could be science is told they can’t talk publicly, studies discounted in policy making budget cuts for scientific research programs, removing scientists visit from positions limiting the teaching of theories, self censorship, the research hindrance. So the censorship that I experienced would be classified under was self censorship by the scientists that I was working with because they all knew what not to say to avoid budget cuts. [Ultimately, that] research program was defunded.

[Listing types of censorship from the article]

We could not get funding, to research genetics. Some forced personnel changes were experienced that might have been considered censorship. [I didn’t see any] overt interference with education. That’s something you would expect to happen, [for example], at the EPA. [If I wanted to] put out a pamphlet or informational document on environmental DNA and [some authority in the] government said, “Well, you can’t put that out” or if I wanted to put out something on climate change and the government said, “No, you can’t do that”. Well, [we were never specifically told not put out educational materials]. So we tried, and spent a lot of time trying to educate people about [environmental] genetic testing. And so then it became apparent, though it didn’t matter how much people understood they were. Still, there was still a fear of the technology. And so in some cases you didn’t need to censor it because the people who would be making the decisions about money we’re so already inherently biased, and were already afraid of the implications, or just didn’t know just didn’t understand the implications [of adopting the technology], even if we tell them “Look, these are good implications for science, the scientific method will let us improve our current systems”. It didn’t matter. They’re afraid. And so fear is a big driver of censorship, and fear is a human is part of humanity.

We always have a tendency to fear the unknown, and that is part of what being a scientist is: Knowing that the unknown is scary. Particle physics is potentially scary. Genomics is scary. All of these things have impacts that we don’t understand. We don’t know how CRISPr gene modification is going to affect humanity in the next 10 years. We hope that it’s used for good, but it could be used for bad. We don’t know how particle physics is going to affect us in the next 10 years. If we discover a new particle that could modify gravity, that would be amazing. It could be terrifying. We don’t know. We don’t know enough about subatomic physics to conjecture what will happen with the development of new technologies. So does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Should we not investigate neutrinos because we might develop anti-gravity technology? No. I and so that’s why being a scientist is being an adventurer because it’s an adventure. We don’t know where genomics is going to bring us, but we should explore it.

So while fears a big part of, human nature, so is exploration. And so when you have a government entity, the highest levels of the government, continually systematically censoring good science, that’s a problem. And really, this is hindering not just the United States but the entire planet. All of humanity is going to suffer because of the censorship, the anti-science climate in America, because we are the greatest, well, we’re the largest producer of scientific research still, to this day, out of all the countries that produce science. We have a responsibility to conduct the scientific method in a way that is open and fair. And so again, I’ll link back to how I’ve talked about moral consistency. It’s difficult for us to criticize China for its government, censoring its citizens, controlling its science, when we’re now doing the same thing here. So I don’t view the Trump administration as taking a different stance then the ruling administration in China in terms of science censorship. Now, sure, China’s more ingrained. They have the great firewall. They have control over Google in that country. But arguably the United States has a very be strong control of the entire Internet.

While the censorship isn’t [exactly] the same [between the US and China], It’s potentially as effective. So if you have a scientist in the United States who’s the top researcher in climate, and they are barred from speaking at a international scientific conference, then you have effectively stopped the transmission of that idea. And that’s the same thing that China is doing, stopping the transmission of ideas, or at least controlling the transmission. I’m sure that within China ideas are shared freely, and so the scientific research that is being done there is probably very advanced [regarding what’s] known within the country, and what’s published outside of the country is probably much more [limited/controlled]. These are different types of censorship, but, I imagine, that in some ways a scientist working for the government in China almost has more freedom. They’ve given up their ability to transmit ideas internationally, but China is very well aware of the fact that they have a climate problem. And so I imagine that the ruling class in China is very concerned about pollution and, I can imagine that a scientist working on pollution in China is potentially very highly regarded. Their work, if successful, might not be published broadly, at least not initially, because they’re very competitive and they want to use that within the country to promote the ruling class [first].

Whereas in America you see something almost worse, because now you’re telling a scientist you cannot tell anyone about your work. You cannot even tell your friends, and to me, that’s scary. If I can’t tell my friends about genetic testing, that is scary. If I can’t talk about but something that I believe is an empirical fact on climate, that’s scary. And so the regime that is in charge of the greatest scientific producer of scientific work in the history of the Earth is conducting a scary level of censorship. And I’m not trying to scare people by saying that, I’m using an emotive term, and what I mean is that we should be aware that that’s what’s going on. While I have never been barred from a scientific conference, I can imagine what it would feel like to be barred from a conference. I have been questioned for ideas that are well accepted in the scientific community. But again, I’ve never been personally barred from a conference. And so the conclusion here is censorship in the United States. It’s disturbing. I don’t know if I would use the word scary. I suppose I could, it depends on how you you feel about the year 2050. If you plan on being alive in the next 30 or so years, I would say that climate change could be scary. It should be. You should have a healthy, fearful respect for what could happen to the Earth in 30 years.

I think that think the presence of censorship is scary. So I think we should allow ourselves a little bit of fear and use that as motivation. And so maybe that’s the conclusion here is censorship should motivate us, and that’s what motivates me. So this project, aside from all the other things that I’ve talked about, this is a project about censorship as well, and so hopefully I will not be censored. Hopefully, my ideas are relevant, valid, and not censored, but maybe, hopefully my ideas are worth being censored because someone has to take a stance, and a lot of government employed scientists are not in that position. So that’s also kind of where I see is my position is, that since I’m not employed by the government, I can’t really be censored. It would be difficult for the government to censor me. In other words, I’m not going to lose my job over this podcast. This podcast is my job. So that’s my goal. To say what I think scientists can’t say in America. I want to be the voice of people that are being censored. So, if what I’m saying is something that’s worthy of being censored, that would make me proud.

[On that note,] I will sign off for the day. This is Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio, and I hope you enjoy this podcast. Thanks for listening.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 4: Logical Consistency and Science Driven Policy in the US

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 4 with your host Bryan White. It’s a beautiful day here in Corvallis, Oregon. So where are we at today? I want to talk a little bit about news. I’ve been talking a lot about projects. Today’s news topic is agriculture and agriculture is a science today, so it falls under the category of science news. So what’s going on in agriculture? America has an interesting relationship with agriculture. I suppose it’s one of our biggest industries, one of our biggest export industries. Historically it’s been something that’s really driven the growth of the American economy. Agriculture is central to the success of the American economy, the development of the economy, and feeding its own people who live here and feeding people around the world.

But that’s been changing in the last decade or so. Agriculture has more [uses] than just feeding people. Now, for example, we have renewable resources like ethanol, you’ll see a drive towards growing some crops that can both be used as food and also converted into ethanol fuel. And there’s some crops that can be used only for ethanol fuel. So we see farmers now having to make decisions. Do they grow a crop that will feed people, feed themselves? Will they grow a crop that can only be sold for fuel, or will they grow something that could be both? Like corn, corn can be used as a food, and it can be converted into bioethanol. Switchgrass, which can’t really be eaten but could be used maybe industrially as well, can [only be used for fuel]. So it’s a very complex decision process that farmers have to go through when they make a decision on what they will plant for the season.

Another example is soybeans. Soybeans are an amazing crop. They could be used for food and industrial purposes, but they’re not only just human food, they’re food for animals. So the decision to plant soybeans is generally a good decision. We know based on market supply and demand information about how much total demand there will be for soybeans between either people, industrial, or agricultural purposes, and so farmers could decide what crop they want to grow, or what [set of crops they] want to grow more of each season based on market information, and that’s great. That’s how a business should be run. And that continues today, with America being a leader in agriculture. Now that could become problematic if farmers begin to make decisions that are not based on market information. And so, for example, if a farmer knows that he or she will make a certain amount of money for growing soybeans, no matter what, whether or not those soybeans are sold or used by anyone, then that farmer has an incentive to grow soybeans because they know at a minimum they will make this amount of money.

Now they could choose to grow something else. They could choose to grow corn this year as their primary crop, but they might lose money because they might not be able to sell off the corn, and so they could instead take the safe bat and say, “Well, I’m going to grow soybeans. I know that the government will reimburse me if I’m not able to sell my crop or my crop fails”. And this is generally how farm subsidies have been working for decades since the Great Depression. America has a system in place to support its agriculture industry, and that’s great. That’s fine. I think the issue that I would take on this matter is a logical consistency issue. And so, really, what a farm subsidy is is a type of socialism. You have the government stepping in and saying that regardless of market, you will make this amount of money. And so then that is not capitalism, that is socialism.

The absence of an economy based on market information would, by definition, at a minimum, not be capitalism. It could be something else. It sounds to me like socialism. It’s not communism because farmers still are independent. They have the option to grow something else. They’re not being told what to grow by the government. They’re not working for the government. They’re simply receiving a subsidy, a reimbursement the same way that a individual might receive a reimbursement for health care from the government or a reimbursement for food or welfare or education. And so all of these things, when we reimburse people from the government, we perform a redistribution of wealth act, and that is a type of socialism. So I would make the argument that the agriculture industry in America is highly socialized, and we see that continue regardless of the administration that is in the White House.

So that’s where my issue would arise. And I’ll say this as many times as they can. My stance on politics will always be moral consistency, so I’ll criticize any side of the political spectrum for being morally inconsistent. And so farming is a great example where I see moral inconsistency because you have a very right wing administration continually criticizing left wing principles like socialism while at the same time engaging in socialism.

That is what I define as moral inconsistency, or at least logical inconsistency. Moral suggests there would be a right or wrong, certainly it is a logical inconsistency to support socialism on one hand and deny it on the other on the principle of it being socialism. In other words, if I go out and I say, “Well, I’m not going to support a thing because it’s socialism” and then I support some things that are socialism and some things that aren’t, at a minimum, [I would be] logically inconsistent. Potentially, I’m morally inconsistent.

Another example, there would be oil drilling. If I say that my goal is to preserve and protect the environment, and then I go and I engaged in the act of extracting oil and gas from beneath the earth, thereby causing damage to the environment, I am again, at a minimum, logically inconsistent, potentially morally inconsistent because I’m saying my goal is to do something good. I want to protect the environment. And on the other hand, my goal is to do something bad, and destroy the environment. It’s an empirical fact that engaging in extracting industries causes permanent damage to the environment. That’s a empirically logical inconsistency. And again, this is regardless of political spectrum. Extracting industries continued under the Obama administration. Certainly they might have been more limited, less lands might have been opened for oil leases and more lands might have been protected. But the existence of an extraction industry still persists in the United States, and so the collective moral conscience of the United States is inconsistent, and that’s okay. That’s a struggle like the civil rights movement has been a struggle and will be a struggle, so being morally consistent will always be a struggle with humanity.

Now you could go the other end of the spectrum and say, “Well, the Nazis were morally consistent”. Their morals were terrible, but they were consistent. And so that’s scary.c Hopefully we don’t have those types of things happen. So I have to be careful of my own consistencies, right? So if I define something that’s good as being something that’s morally consistent, well, then potentially a fallacy could occur there, which would lead my own logic to determine that the Nazis were good, and yet it is uniformly acknowledged that the Nazis were bad. If I say something is good, if it’s morally consistent, that would only be under the condition that the moral itself is good. And that would lead me as the person making that judgment to have to make a moral decision. And so I have to decide in the example of the environment two things. One, I have to decide – Are my views consistent? Is my worldview consistent in my applying logic consistently across the board.  And [the second decision is], are my morals good.

Now this is a tricky decision, and potentially a dangerous decision. If I wanted to remain completely objective, then I would never make any moral decision ever, or I would never acknowledge anything moral, good or bad. Making a moral decision inherently forces you to choose a side on an argument, and so I have to decide what is good. And so my question would be, “Why do other people not also decide that protecting the environment is good?” What you have in this scenario is you have two things. One, you have moral consistency and the other you have moral direction, so moral direction is important. So in the case of the extraction industries, what I see with the right wing is two flaws. One, I see a moral inconsistency. I see the official platform of the Republican Party being that their goal is to promote and protect the environment. And at the same time I see their official goal to be to expand extraction industries. And those two things are empirically in opposition to each other. It is cognitive dissonance, and then, on the other hand, I also see moral direction. So I see the decision to increase extraction industries as a bad moral. So I view that as being wrong.

Now on the other side, I look at the left platform, say, for example, of the Obama administration. I see the morally inconsistency of the continued persistence of extraction industries. Another was Obama didn’t come in and say, “Well, I’m president now. Hydraulic fracturing is over.” The Democratic Party has the problem of moral inconsistency, the same as the Republican Party. However, I see the moral direction as being good. I see that Obama would be in opposition to the expansion of the extraction industries if it were up to him. So his own moral decision is that expanding extraction industries is wrong. However, given this constraints of the American political system, it is impossible for him to take the position that extraction cannot continue. Potentially, the American economy would collapse due to the lack of oil. So that’s a moral decision as well. That’s a utilitarian decision.

Well, [we know that] extracting oil is wrong, but we cannot stop because our lives depend on it. And so then looping back to agriculture. [We might] view the subsidization of agricultural products based on the whims of a political party as potentially wrong, or at least I view that is wrong. In other words, a sophisticated market analysis is not guiding the growth of food in America. Under a utilitarian perspective, we cannot stop the status quo because it would be too disruptive to the industry. So I understand that. So what’s the take home here? Well, if we had a way of presenting evidence based market analysis of what crops were needed to grow and present it in a way that was factual and scientific, and could be debated, but that ultimately an evidence based decision would be made that all sides of the political spectrum could agree on, then we wouldn’t have this problem.

In other words, right now we’re trusting the whims of an unknown. Again, the take home is moral consistency, [logical consistency], and moral direction, and [trying to look at] political events in an objective fashion. And so how do you do that? You use the language that I’m using, which is to talk about consistency and direction [- a framework]. And so the point of this is not to simply criticize the right because they’re the current administration, and the point is to not say that the left could do a better job. The point is to look at what’s happening right now in an objective fashion and learn from what is happening. What we might see now is a surplus of soybeans, for example, in the next year, and so we might see farmers having to destroy crops because they can’t sell them and then be reimbursed for those crops. And then we might see later in the same day, the administration that reimbursed those farmers for destroying crops, we might see the same administration reduce reimbursements for education and health care. And so when the inconsistency becomes apparent in that way, then we can talk about making progress in the American political system. And that’s my goal.

Ultimately, integrate the scientific method and the political method, and that should happen in voting and in the way that these types of economic decisions are made. And I’m not an economist, but I do know a thing or two about the scientific method, and so we’ll talk more about that theme again. I suppose these first few episodes are introducing themes and sort of the way that I will talk about things. Again, I hope this was interesting. Kind of getting a little more into my own personal thoughts on politics, and the way that I approach politics, being a scientist and trying to remain objective. So again, if you have questions, I have a Discord now, which is a chat. Yeah, and there will be a link to that on the feed, and I also in creating a Patreon so that I will be able to have support for this effort. So if you’d like to support me, if you’d like to ask questions or talk, visit the links in the feed and yeah. I hope you enjoyed this and enjoy talking about science and politics. So have a good day. That’s Bryan White signing off with the Planetary News. Bye.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 3: Space as a Visual Science

Hello and welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 3. The date is still May 26th. I recorded an episode a little bit earlier today, and it’s so nice out that I could not resist traveling to a park and recording another episode. The weather is just amazing here in Oregon today, and so I’m in a good mood and ready to talk about science. So where was I [at the end of last episode]? The the other [topic] is actually a really important point that I’ve been developing for awhile. So at the end of last episode, I mentioned Space Science is a very popular science in the news. And so the question is, why is space so popular? And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and these are my thoughts.

One of my thoughts is that space is very visual. Astronomy is very visual, and it always has been. If you think about it, astronomy is probably one of the oldest real sciences. Maybe the first real science mixed in with physics. If we consider that Isaac Newton was one of the true founders of the scientific method, not necessarily science in terms of understanding the natural world, Aristotle being one of the first people to record his understanding of the natural world in a way that was meaningful to other people. Aristotle, Euclid, those types of early natural science philosophers. However, they didn’t really employ the scientific method. So we think of Isaac Newton as one of the first people to employ the scientific method along with Galileo in that [meaning of the phrase “scientific method”]. Astronomy was at this focal point.

Biology [might also be thought of as one of the oldest sciences], while something that Aristotle focused heavily on, and Plato thought a lot about the philosophy of biology. Biology was not really conducted in a scientific manner probably until around Darwin’s time, so astronomy and geology were becoming rigorous sciences and chemistry much earlier than biology. But again, and, that’s part of my idea, is that astronomy is so popular because it is a visual science and that this is tied in with human evolution.

And so humans are a very visual species. We have color vision. A lot of mammals don’t have color vision. We don’t necessarily have very good distance vision, but we have very good 3D vision. We have lots of things that can help us see depth perception. We have very good depth perception. Our eyes are focused forward, which would make us in line with predator vision like a dog or a hawk, as opposed to, say, a cow or a goat whose eyes are on the side. Humans are very visually orientated in terms of their biology. And so this is obviously something Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are always talking about – looking out at the stars is something that humans have done for thousands, if not millions of years. And it’s part of our nature. It’s part of our biology. It’s part of how our brain evolved. We evolved with the stars. We evolved with fruit. We evolved having to identify food using color. Using depth perception, too, we evolved in the trees – we had to be able to judge a leap.

We evolved language, which is potentially related to the use of tools. So as we evolved fine motor skills to manipulate the world in front of us, we evolved language, and so even language is potentially tied to human’s ability to visualize. And so what’s happened is that astronomy and spaces so visual, so easy for us to see, that it resonates with people. And that’s good. I appreciate that. I love space. I love astronomy, even cosmology. Even things that we can’t see in space. We can imagine them. It’s easy for us to imagine a galaxy, and a star, and other planets because we’ve seen our own planet, we’ve seen Mars, the moon, and the sun. And so we know what planets in our solar system look like and we can imagine what planets in other solar systems might look like.

And so, you see the Trappist systems a great example, I think has five or six planets or so all rocky planets, but about the size of Jupiter Earth. So giant rocky planets much closer to their star than Earth. We can imagine them orbiting the star and we don’t have to be a scientist to do that. I am not an astronomer by training, but I can imagine seeing these planets all very close to each other. So imagine if instead of the [Moon right next to us, we had Mars instead]. That would be amazing. So we have this fascination with these star systems and space and travel, and that’s another human nature. To travel. We like to travel. And so space is a traveling science because we can see it, but then [we can] only imagine if we could travel there. Imagine if we could travel to the moon or travel to Mars or travel to the Trappist system.

Space just pulls at our natural emotions that we have as humans to travel, to journey, to adventure, and to beauty. We see these planets and we imagine them, and when you see an artist’s rendition of a planet that we’ve never seen before, it’s always very beautiful. Humans tend to conceptualize things, in an artistic fashion when we’re imagining them. And so space is also an art, or the visualization of it is an art on. Probably the greatest examples of that is the visualization of the black hole that was done for the movie interstellar. Some physics calculations were made or formulas were invented to understand what black hole looks like, and this has been going on for many years, and as we’ve collected more data, these models have gotten better, and now, with increased computational power, we’re able to produce this model that was good enough for Hollywood. And so it’s an art, and it’s beautiful when we look at it, when we think of imagining seeing a black hole, or at least from a safe distance, imagine seen what that looked like. The disc, the accretion disc around the black hole, reflecting light in all directions towards us. It sparks something inside of us.

So space is fascinating at so many levels for humans, and that’s good because it gets people excited about science. And I think that’s why you have people like Carl Sagan who were so successful because the science that they championed was easy for people to understand [at a visual level]. Now imagine trying to champion something that is not so intuitive. Maybe not so beautiful. Biology is [less intuitive at certain levels]. People can connect with animals on an emotional level. We can connect with [the idea of] a panda bear going extinct. We can connect with the polar bears going extinct, so humans can connect with biology. It takes some [work to understand the more] abstract concepts though. Evolution is an abstract concept, and you can’t see evolution happening. You also can’t see the formation of the solar system, but you can see the solar system and you can see rocks. And so in rocks, you can see the history of the planet, whereas in a polar bear I can’t see the history of its evolution, at least not easily. Not until maybe you look at its genome, and so within the genome you can see evolutionary history.

The genome is like a rock in the sense that it’s recorded some of the history and, like rocks, they lose pieces of their history is they go through processes, heating and deformation, under the earth. Genomes also lose information, although genomes lose information in a different way then rocks. When a genome loses a gene, it’s gone forever completely from that individual. You might be able to find remnants of it or in other species. And so piecing together evolutionary history becomes an abstract process similar to archaeology, digging and finding different artifacts in layers through time. And so archaeology is a good example of visual science that we understand easily. Again we understand artifacts, we understand history, and archeology, of course, is the study of humans. So we, [as humans], understand humans.

Archaeology lends itself well [to visualization], and so you see National Geographic, [which is] an extremely popular publication, and a lot of its focus when it comes to science is archaeology. You see Egypt, mummy’s, and things like that are always popular National Geographic topics. Undiscovered tribes in the Amazon. Things like that again. Visual. But let’s look it something less visual again. [For example,] Chemistry, chemical bonds. So understanding what’s happening at the nano-scale is less intuitive for humans.

Why think space science is so popular and why things like biology are not now [in the news]. So we see biology not as popular. And so the question, is, maybe that’s because biology doesn’t have a great human, [scientific] impact. Well, arguably a species, say for example, the existence of the species polar bears is probably as important as the existence of the Moon. Let’s think of the moon as a species and Mars as a species. And so if we lost the Moon, the entire Earth would suffer or at least change. We lose a lot of our things that are affected by gravity, like the tides and things like that, and our orbit around the sun could be altered, so losing the Moon would cause an immediate major impact on the earth. And we would notice that immediately. Losing polar bears, we might not notice immediately. However, the long term scientific impact of losing the species [could be great]. That means that we’ve lost that species’ genome at a minimum, and we’ve lost the genome in its native form. We’ve lost the animal. [Essentially,] we’ve lost what we can learn from a polar bear.

And so this would be the question I would pose to people. And I say, well, do you have nothing to learn from a polar bear? And if that’s the case, if you believe that humanity has nothing to learn from a polar bear, well, then that’s fine. Then let them go extinct. Why waste the effort to keep them alive if they have no benefits of humanity other than their own life and their own feelings as a vertebrate? Well, [in that scenario] then, that’s fine. The ones that are alive today let them live, the ones that will not be born because of climate change, well, they’ll never feel pain, so the extinction of the species is not important. But that is if the answer to the question “Do we have anything to learn from a polar bear?” is nothing. And I would argue that we do have something to learn from a polar bear.

At a minimum, we can learn how to live like a polar bear. And so you can ask a question: Well, why would you want to learn to live like a polar bear? Imagine all of the bio-molecules in the genome of the polar bear that [the animal] produces and humans, [or any other anima], don’t produce. And so imagine we understood 10% of [polar bear physiology] today, based on current technology, which is probably a generous estimate. Now you lose the polar bear and you say, “Well, okay, well, we have the genome in the computer. We can use simulations. We can understand some proteins”. You could understand how the polar bear made its skin and made its hair. And we might have 10% of the information of what a polar bear was today. And then we might say, “Well, okay, that’s good enough. We have some information about other bears. We can learn, you know, a little bit about genomics from bears”. And we might say, “Well, we’re happy with that. And it’s too bad you know, that the polar bears went extinct, but they’re not alive suffering”, at least so you could say that.

Or you could think about it in terms of the future of the human species and think over the course of the next 500 years, think of what we can understand with a more sophisticated understanding of genomics. So imagine we were still developing a technology that could give us a tenfold increase of the understanding of genomics, but that this technology did not develop until the next 100 years. And by the time this technology were developed, polar bears were extinct, and so are 1,000 other vertebrate species. And so we lost all of that data forever because this technology was not developed [while the animal was still alive]. And so my point is, we don’t know what we can learn from a polar bear. We don’t know what we can learn from bald eagles, or a red panda, or a regular panda. We don’t know what we can learn from these animals because we are still in the early phases of developing genomic technology and all of the other omics, proteomics, and things like that.

We don’t know what we can learn. And so there’s hidden secrets in all of these animals because biology is still, to this day, the most sophisticated producer of molecular machinery on the planet Earth. No human can create more sophisticated molecular machinery than a single cell. To do so would be to do so using a cell. So when we create sophisticated molecular machines we’re using cells or were modifying a cell. We have a lot to learn from cells, so we should keep as many different kinds of cells [alive] as we can in order to learn the most. And that’s [the core of] my argument for preserving biodiversity: Because we don’t know what we have to lose. We don’t know what we have to [gain], and so we should preserve as much of that as we can, and we should do that in the living organism.

In other words, an ark of [refrigerated] DNA is not enough. An ark of frozen DNA/tissue is not enough. We need the living animal alive to learn from it. My argument is – I don’t care if you don’t like polar bears. I mean, I don’t wanna hang out with a polar bear. I think they look nice. I think they’re fascinating creatures. I would not want to be in the same room as a polar bear because it would probably attack me. I mean, unless I was the zoo trainer, right? But in the wild, I would not approach the polar bear. You know, I have no interest in interacting with polar bears. They do their thing. I do my thing. However, from a scientific perspective, I want to learn from this animal in a controlled setting. [If you agree with this line of reasoning, then you’d agree] there is a benefit to keeping them alive.

So for me personally, keeping [polar bears, as a species,] alive satisfies two things. My own personal belief that I think they’re fascinating animals in their own habitat and so it makes me happy to know that they’re alive and well. And on the other hand, it allows us to study them and learn from them in the future when we have the technology to do so. This is where I depart from some people who you know want to live with animals and things like that. That’s not me. That’s not my argument. I’m not saying that you have to go live with the polar bears and love polar bears. Now I don’t say that because I do not love [polar bears]. I like them and I’m fascinated by them [from a scientific perspective]. But I don’t love them, not in the same way that I feel about human friends and family. And I’m not saying that people who do love animals in the same way they love humans are wrong or bad. I might feel that way about a dog. Certainly a dog is a companion that I could have a human type bond with. But I don’t think that everybody has to have a human level companionship with an animal just to support keeping that animal [species] alive.

I think a lot of the criticism of animal rights activists or leveled against animal rights activists and criticisms leveled against biologists and conservation biologist is [the critics] say, “Well, we don’t care about that animal. You know, I don’t love a wolf or whatever”. It’s like, well, you don’t have to feel the same way about a wolf that you do about a human in order to preserve it and protect it. We just have to recognize that not only are they a fascinating creature that deserves to have its own life without human interaction, but that also there is a human benefit to every animal. Every [animal] species, maybe not every bacterial species. There’s a trillion of them, if we can even define that bacteria have species, but certainly vertebrate species or fish species, jellyfish, any animal, potentially any plant, or fungus. All of these organisms can provide us another clue about evolution, another clue about how biology works, about how molecular machinery works, and so even a material scientist should be arguing for [preserving] biodiversity. Everybody should, because biodiversity is the true great wonder, not just of humanity, but of the Earth. And so, as stewards of the Earth, we should protect biodiversity, the biodiversity that evolved here that’s so rare. And so that’s my argument for protecting biodiversity. I won’t say anymore today, at least on that, and I hope you enjoyed [this podcast]. Please do you find time to send questions. I’ll try to have a link [in the feed]. I’ll try to have a way for people to submit questions and things like that soon. So if you are listening to this, maybe write them down and in future episodes, I’ll direct everyone to a link. So anyways, thanks for listening. That’s Bryan White sending off with The Planetary News Radio. Have a good day.

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