Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Flashback 6/30/02: What's Over There?

Sunday, June 30, 2002, 10:00 pm

What's Over There?

In "Crossing Open Ground," author Barry Lopez writes about an expedition of scientists on the Arctic Ocean. Their mission was to kill and analyze seals. Toward the end of the piece, Lopez wrote a couple of paragraphs that intrigued me...

As a journalist I have listened to biologists complain that their work is used by politicians to advance technologies they don't believe in. I've been with Eskimo hunters who are dumbfounded by what people say about their way of life, that it is barbaric because it includes the hunting of animals. And aboard the Oceanographer I heard officers speculate about the propriety of killing animals for science, and members of a deck crew wonder that any sense could be made of a churning mass of animals dying in a trawl net. In each of these moments you could hear someone struggling to grasp another's point of view, to assess it.

One can adopt any of several attitudes toward what took place between a scientific party and a ship's crew aboard a research vessel one fall in the Chukchi Sea, precisely because what happened was without design. You could be cynical and say that the atmosphere aboard ships is romantic. You could be circumspect and say it is naive to believe that any such goodwill can extend very far beyond the moment. You could be grave and say that beside the death of seals, let alone copepods in a Whirl-Pak of formalin, any notion of a redeeming introspection or ultimate value is an evasion, a gloss, worthless to consider. But in each of these ways you crush something precious, as precious as knowledge of the behavior of pi-mesons or the orders of human personality. And you deny something fundamental: our acts, the consequences of our seemingly dissimilar lives, are irrevocably intertwined.

I am struck by two notions here. The first is that scientists are those who spend their lives pursuing knowledge of a specialty far beyond what we as individuals know. The second notion is that it is important to strive to understand viewpoints that are at odds with your own (especially emotional ones).

Scientists often make the mistake of failing to examine their discipline in a manner that allows other to benefit. Conversely, those of us who aren't fortunate enough to be experts fail to take the time to delve into any scientific subject. We have a Discovery Channel knowledge of the world when we really should be striving for a Scientific American level of knowledge.

The result of this is that we become pawns in political struggles between preservationists and industrial concerns. Is global warming a problem or isn't it? Are we destroying ecosystems through overuse that we cannot replace? For most, the answer to these questions is on the tip of the tongue. Yes. No. Some find reasons to defend their position by reading the words of pundits or excerpts from scientists. These views are next to meaningless.

The real scientists doing the measurements, calculations, and observations cannot answer yes or no. To them, there are actions taken by people and consequences that range from more likely to less likely. There are consequences classified as "hardly likely" or "almost a certainty."

Government managers often make land-use decisions without the knowledge necessary to carry them out. It is not a certainty that they do this to appease friends in industry, although it happens. It is not a certainty that workload or lack of resources precludes the full knowledge to decide, although it happens.

It is certain that ideology is an irresponsible way to choose someone to run a government office. There is a great deal of irresponsibility out there. If we educate ourselves on the large issues such as global warming, logging, and mineral extraction (oil, gold, etc) and their impacts on the land and what that means to the people living on it, then we have the tools to judge our government leadership in a way that matters.

It also carries a scientific responsibility to look at the information in a true light without assuming that a given practice will be harmful or harmless by definition, whether we are talking about safety of our population via environmental or economic filters. Both are important. If a given practice must be curtailed, how will that loss of economy be addressed? In order to be taken seriously, any advocacy must provide a means to educate and provide alternatives.


To achieve the second notion to "reach for the alien shore" (as Neil Peart puts it), there must be a meeting of minds. Such a meeting is impossible when an atmosphere of anger and child-like simplicity is proferred instead of reason. Our current leadership in the executive and legislative branches have made careers in attempting to distill complex situations into simplistic ones. There is no such thing as "Us vs. Them" or "Good vs. Evil." Lo, love and hate are sometimes separated by only a gossamer thread.

Even distinctions of left vs. right or Republican vs. Democrat are dubious. From communism to laissez faire to feudalism to military dictatorship, each system is only as strong as its ability to eliminate power and wealth grabs and allowing the majority the opportunity to create a meaningful existence for themselves.

Now we find that even the borders between countries dissolve in subservience to these tenets. In a world where some make 15 cents an hour and others make 15 dollars per second and worldwide travel is possible, problems will result. When chaos breaks out at home, it is a devastating experience.

In a huge uncontrollable world, decisions must be made toward how to keep this suffering to a minimum. Is this a local, national, or international responsibility? What are the best and worst case scenarios? How long should the debate be before action is taken? Who takes the action? Is it administered locally, nationally, or internationally? Should it be done secretly or openly? What are the consequences of all of these questions?

In a country divided politically, we are weakened because we cannot answer these questions. A knee-jerk reaction, just like a knee-jerk response to a complex question will invite more chaos. A wedge is in place between people in our country. It is a wedge built on trying to make a complicated situation appear simple. It is a wedge that has made us weak.

By ignoring critics, the government has placed itself in a position of trying to tackle a problem without hearing all of the solutions. As a result, we have a secrecy born of embarassment at not knowing what to do. Decisions, made seemingly at random, have disastrous consequences. People are terrorized by terror alerts, but never educated on what the basis is or how to act (other than to call police). You can't call the police on a hijacked plane. You can't stop the triggering of an explosive without knowing how triggers work.

In our anger, we retaliated immediately. With too few troops, and trusting an untrustworthy "ally," we managed to permanently scatter a deadly enemy. We have forced them to change to more effective tactics. There was no thought before the action. We are probably going to pay dearly for it.

There were unheeded and unlistened to warnings from people all along the line. There is a continual disconnect at all levels of government that is always missing half the picture.

In the left vs. right world, there is the tendency to believe that all those on the other side fit a shifting panoply of criteria that are indicative of the side. This is simply not true. I know lefties who believe adamantly in the right to bear arms and conservatives who fight like hell to keep the salmon alive from year to year.

The bottom line is that it appears to be government and media who are best served by these dividing lines. For everyday people, their own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is what matters, and left to their own devices, we the people will choose the best tools for the task, whether they are free market, government controlled, or whatever does the job best.

The ideologues just need to keep up with us.


Dean Wormer said...


This paragraph sticks out for me-

Scientists often make the mistake of failing to examine their discipline in a manner that allows other to benefit. Conversely, those of us who aren't fortunate enough to be experts fail to take the time to delve into any scientific subject.

I guess my personal thing is I don't have to understand completely each and every scientific theorem before I can make an informed decision on it as long as I fully understand the process of SCIENCE itself, ie peer review, etc.

Most of the controversy that's arisen around science has stemmed from what's popularly called "pseudo" or "junk" science. Those terms seem to mean all sorts of things depending on what side of the political spectrum one's coming from but I would say that pseudo/ junk science is really science that tries to shortcut the normal scientific study and review process not science I personally might disagree with.

Info Geek said...

Thanks for sharing this again Snabby. I don't remember reading this the first time you posted it, but unfortunately your short essay could just have easily been written five hours ago instead of almost five years ago and it still describes our current situation very well.

I look forward to more of your past writings in the weeks ahead.

Don Snabulus said...


This paragraph sticks out for me-

I actually cringed a bit when I reread that paragraph and would now consider it to be factually wrong. Many scientists are actually professors, most of whom are eager to share their knowledge. There are also many scientists in industry whose job it is to derive market benefits from our collective knowledge.

Most of the controversy that's arisen around science has stemmed from what's popularly called "pseudo" or "junk" science.

It is not always easy to ferret that out though. Our state climatologist is a global warming skeptic, but he has the credentials to be a real climatologist so he can't be easily dismissed. Also, the nice folks on TV are not always forthcoming with their "experts" credentials and this makes it tougher.

Science is not about drawing social conclusions from data. It is about reproducibly studying reality. Scientists can and should have opinions on the consequences and they should be heeded, but those opinions, while based on science, are not themselves science.

Measuring global temperatures over time is science. Extrapolating current trends into the future in scientific prediction, but no conclusions can be drawn until a given time passes. Therefore, predicting the future is more an experiment than established fact.

With that said, if you are standing in a tunnel and a light is getting bigger and bigger, the smart thing to do is to realize a train is coming and you better get out of the way even though it isn't based on established scientific fact.

And, of course, the point of the article is how do we tread this terrain without reaching an impasse.

Don Snabulus said...

info geek -

Thanks for the thanks. It will lose its timelessness in late 2008 I hope. USA definitely needs someone to get past the diviseness.

Pa've said...

Scientists by their nature of being specialists in a field are often myopic and fail to grasp a picture of totality or to see how everything affects everything else.

Diversity in a democracy is key to worthy debate. If we all agreed on everything, we would not make progress.

Dean Wormer said...

"Our state climatologist..."

Only in his own mind.


Hypatia said...

I must admit I love the diversity of my snabby's mind. Kind of like Jamie Lee Curtis' character in "A Fish Called Wanda" who was attracted to guys w/accents, I'm addicted to guys w/brains (and snabby in particular!).

Thanks to Dean's wife, you've just been treated to a compeletly off-topic post!

Swinebread said...

One of the problems is that I think scientific ideas and concepts need to be explained using different modalities. I’m a visual learner so teach me the concepts visually; I’ll remember it that way. Others need a different mode. I’m not saying dumb it down, have different modes of presentation depending on the audience.

As to the noise machine use facts I guess.

Pandabonium said...

This is excellent food for thought. Thank you for posting it. I'm still chewing it over (like bamboo).

The Moody Minstrel said...

Man, were such an engagingly eloquent writer back then. It's kind of a shame that you lost the time and will to reflect like that.

Don Snabulus said...


I think scientists run the gamut like everyone else. My favorite geology professor (and geologist) was very active in his Lutheran church. Others I'm sure are very myopic in their views and fit the have-no-life anal retentive scientist stereotype.


Only in his own mind.
Governor Kulongoski delivered the smackdown on that one, eh? I'm making the popcorn for that controversy. Should be fun.


If I was Jamie Lee Curtis, I would give my self some wood!


We need more good visual stuff like the Cosmos PBS series and the Time-Life Planet Earth TV Series and books and less WWE Smackdown and screw-your-neighbor reality shows. In fact, my "Discovery Channel" analogy in the post is outdated because they are more about entertainment than education anymore.

PandaB (your new hip-hop name):

Chew away and thanks for all the excellent bamboo on your site like the piece on the Polynesian Voyaging Society progress and description.


Yeah, I've been too tired (work, work, work) and sad (li'l baby Chuck and my Mom's passing) the last couple of years to have much writing energy. I'm starting to get some of my mojo back finally and maybe I can talk about more than Kool-Aid again.

Wow! Thanks to everyone for their kind words. I am liking this Flashback thing because there are more people reading the site now than in 2002 and more diversity in our perspectives. I enjoy and appreciate them all.

Anonymous said...


I chuckled at the Scientific American adage. I found that even they fall from article I was reading allowed a journalist to report on "technology" and reinforce what is essentially junk science. He pedaled the same propaganda inserted masterfully a decade ago that it refuses to die. I put the magazine down in disgust. I hoped that they had researched their sources better.

Seymour said...

I think part of the problem with science is that its just gotten so huge.

There is no way anyone can keep up with all the research and extra and intra-disciplinary studies going on in real time in any of the major scientific fields.

We have reached a point where developments and discoveries exceed the grasp of Society to assimilate them, so we are at the mercy of a select few 'buffers' to organize and qualify what is or isn't of import.

Scientific knowledge is expanding geometrically, while our grasp of it staggers along with a few well mentioned blurbs in the local newspapers.

I really think it would be wise to formulate a cohesive strategy to understand what exactly we need from science in the next 2, 4, 8, 1012 years and what exactly has been delivered.