Interview: Why Evolution is True with Jerry Coyne

Evolution is True

Following on from my last two guest posts—The Insanity of Biotech by biochemist Paul Little, and Why I’m Through with Organic Farming by farmer Mike Bendzela—is this Q&A with evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne who wrote the marvelous book, Why Evolution is True, and writes (extremely frequently) on his blog of the same name.

Evolution is one of those touchy subjects in the public sphere now (mainly in America) and I devote a chapter to debunking some of the more common myths surrounding the most important theory of the last 200 years in S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism. But, given that I’m not an evolutionary biologist, I decided to steal some credibility from Jerry A. Coyne with this interview. Enjoy the read, and I hope that you, like me, learn something new.


Fourat: Hi Jerry, It’s nice to meet you.

Jerry: Likewise.

F: I’ve been following your blog for some time now, ever since I got there by reading your post about religion and societal dysfunction, and I’ve been reading ever since. I find it great that someone from academia actually speaks with such candor. I feel it’s sorely missed in other parts of the academic sphere.

J: I’m old, so I have nothing to lose. Jerry Coyne

F: Fair enough. I just finished reading your book last christmas, Why Evolution is True. I actually thought I knew quite a lot about evolution until I read your book, and then I realized how much I didn’t know.

J: Well, I guess that’s good, not your ignorance, but the fact you learned something.

F: So, the main thing that I’ve noticed really with science is that people have a huge misconception about what it really is. They don’t know how scientists work, they don’t know why scientists are confident in facts and theories. So, if someone were to ask you the question; why do scientists believe—or understand—certain things that the public doesn’t really get. How would you respond?

J: Well, the public is fairly confident with most of the results of science. The things that they don’t get are the things they are opposed to on philosophical or religious grounds like evolution or cosmology. They get medicine; I mean, a lot of medicine is based on scientific research. So, I think, that to the extent they don’t understand science, they don’t understand that a scientific consensus is more than an opinion. That it actually comes from research, replication, review—that kind of thing. So, in the case of evolution, the most common opposition is that it’s only a theory, which comes from the lack of understanding from what we mean by scientific theory. I’ve often gone back and forth on the idea of whether or not you should give kids education not in science, but in critical thinking, and that would make them more understanding and accepting of science. But, I’ve just recently learned that courses like that don’t seem to work very well, so I don’t know what the solution is.

F: Is there any empirical data to suggest that courses like that don’t work very well.

J: Yeah, well, I saw some post on a website the other day that mentioned that, but I didn’t take note of the link. I know that one of my friends teaches a class in science vs. pseudoscience, which he finds extremely successful, so, I don’t think in principle those courses should not be successful. Everyone says this is the kind of course we need, but I’m not aware there are many such courses.

F: That might be something that needs to be looked at. So, in evolution, as in all sciences, there actually are debates between scientists on the details, and, of course, outsiders usually conflate these debates as saying the theory is crisis, but its not. What are the parts of evolution that are being debated between scientists; not that as evolution occurred, but how it occurred.

J: Well, there are lots. The part that everyone agrees on, let me underline in the beginning, is that evolution happened, it took billions of years, the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and life has been here for at least 3.5 billion; that there is common ancestry of all forms of life because there is a branching bush of life, and that, in terms of the adaptive character of life was produced by the process of natural selection. So, those are the bedrock foundational principles of modern evolutionary theory, and those have not been called into question.

But, even Darwin was wrong on some of his predictions. He got genetics wrong, so it’s been evolving ever since, and we know a lot of things now. We know, for example, that birds evolved from dinosaurs, which Darwin didn’t know. We have a pretty good idea of the relatedness of living things and where they fit into the tree of life. The things that are being argued about are, does selection work in groups or individuals? That’s a big thing that E.O Wilson thinks group selection is the best explanation for human sociality. I came down on the individual selection side of that, but it’s still an unresolved debate.

A big one is how did life start. Many people don’t consider that a part of evolutionary biology, they consider evolutionary biology what happens once you get a replicator, but abiogenesis is a big unknown right now. We know life started once, we know roughly when it started, we don’t know the precise mechanism and we may never know, but at least we can approximate it.

There are questions about why there is sex, I mean, there is a profound disadvantage to having sexual reproduction. You lose half your genes if you mate with someone else as opposed to producing yourself. There are a lot of theories and some suggestions but no general consensus, but since sex is ubiquitous, then, explaining that would be really a good thing to do. Sexual selection and how it works, why males are ornamented and females are not; we have an idea of the basis of that because males don’t invest as much in their progeny, but it’s very hard to test those theories. There’s controversy about that. Actually, I wouldn’t call it controversy, since there aren’t people mad at each other.

F: Academic debate…

J: Yes, it’s academic debate. It’s not really acrimonious or anything. And, of course, one of the biggies is the evolution of consciousness, which is something that has eluded us, but I don’t think it will forever. Evolutionary psychology, how much of our present behaviour is caused by selection pressures that operated on our ancestors, so those are all debated questions that are unresolved. All these, in principle could either be solved or we could make substantial progress in.

F: So, in my book, I am trying to dispel a few of the myths of evolution. There are many facts in evolutionary science that are twisted and interpreted this way and that to support the Intelligent Design hypothesis and creationism, but what facts can’t be twisted or interpreted.

J: That’s a good question. Creationists are like theologians—in fact, they are connected through religion. There is nothing, there is no observation, I think that theologians or creationists cannot interpret through the lens of some kind of design. Never the less, there are things that they have trouble with, and, one of those, as I point out in my book, is the evidence of biogeography. It’s very, very hard to interpret that as creationist, and I still have not seen a definitive creationist interpretation of the kind of evidence that Darwin discovered of the distribution of plants and animals. I mean, why are we finding fossil marsupials in Australia; because they actually evolved in Europe or N. America and went through S. America to Australia. They happened to get there, and that’s why Australia has so many marsupials. The prediction was that they had to get to Australia somehow and, based on what we knew, Australia was connected to S. America through Antarctica, so the prediction was if marsupials transited from S. America to Australia, and sure enough, they found fossil marsupials in Antarctica not that long ago.

F: That’s amazing.

J: Yes, it’s a very predictive theory. There is no other theory, especially not one based on a creator unless you posit a creator who created things to make it look as if animals had moved and evolved, i.e., a trickster creator.

F: That doesn’t seem very omni-benevolent.

J: Yes, the other evidence is some of the fossil record, the finding of the intermediate whales. When I was in grad school, we knew that reptiles had ancestors to mammals—which, by the way creationists don’t address. And now we have an even better fossil record because we know that birds evolved from dinosaurs. So we have dinosaurs that can’t fly just at the right time, after the dinosaurs are already there and before we have modern birds. Same thing with whales, we see this whole intermediate group of whales about 45 million years ago, we have their ancestors and this whole series of animals losing their hind limbs, having their nostrils moved on top of the head, developing flippers, losing their ears, and not only do we have the fossil sequence, but it occurs in exactly the right time. The things with less hind-limbs occur more recently, so it’s hard to deal with that. Creationists just blather, but the fossil record is clear; the finding of dead genes is another. Why, in our genome, do we have all this DNA that doesn’t code for anything? Because they were once active genes that have been rendered inactive by mutation. I don’t know, I suppose if you were a creationist, you could say it happened during the fall. But if you posit a scientific explanation of biology, which even creationists are wont to do, and that’s what intelligent design is all about, trying to be scientific, then, you really come up empty trying to explain why a designer would act in such a way that exactly mimics evolution. So, you know, those are the big things, the fossil record, dead genes, and biogeography are things that creationists have an extremely tough time with.

F: It’s funny, before I read your book, it had been some time since school and evolution in science class. I kept hearing this claim, there are no transitional fossils, the missing links are not there. While I still of course believed and understood evolution, as soon as I read your book, I realized that the fossils actually are there, it’s not so much as their not dealing with them, they’re just denying that they exist in the first place, hoping that they will eventually go away. If they shout loud enough, people will just assume it, as happened to me though I still got evolution. It’s just fact-denying.

J: Yes, creationists tend to not listen, because if they would listen, they’d give up creationism and become evolutionary biologists, so they maintain creationism, and remember, this is all religiously based. If you have a religious opposition to evolution, it’s only two ways to go: you maintain it, where you have to dispel every bit of evidence that science comes up with, or you try to harmonize it like the accommodationists do. And that’s been very successful with many people. So, in terms of the fossils, if you have any interest in learning for yourself, there is a lot of stuff. My book is just the start, Donald Prothero’s book, Evolution: The Fossils Say Yes is magnificent. But, I mean, the fact is most people don’t want to investigate that. They either don’t have an interest in science, or they don’t listen to the scientists, they listen to their preacher, or they’re blind. Remember that, at least in America, 64% of Americans say if science came up with a fact that contradicted one of the tenets of their faith, they would reject that fact and keep their faith. So with that kind of attitude, would progress can you make?

F: Yes, I saw your statistics recently where you show that only 16% of Americans accept purposeless evolution by natural selection. Where do you think this is going to go in the future, do you think it’s going to get better?

J: There’s been an uptick to about 20% in the last decade in the naturalistic worldview. But, given that it starts so low, it’s not much of an actual percentage increase, it’s a couple of percent, but it’s only going to increase as fast as religion goes away. My view is that, you can educate people until their blue in the face about evolution; that’s what I tried to do in my book. You can lead them to the facts, but you can’t make them drink, and the reason is because they’ve already drunk at the well of religion. So, that’s why I’ve become more atheistic about religion in my old age, because I think that’s the thing that needs to go away before people start accepting evolution. Every creationist in the world is motivated by religion. I only know of one out of hundreds of thousands that is an atheistic creationist. So it’s always from religion, and religion gives these blinkers that stop you from receiving the facts. I think that acceptance of evolution is only going to increase in our country, the US, as fast as religion goes away. That’s why the US is so resistant to evolution, and why countries like France, England, and Scandinavia accept it a lot more—because they’re less religious.

F: And it seems to be in the last ten years that the none’s are the fastest growing demographic in America, so it would seem to be that acceptance of evolution should get better.

J: But it’s going to take a while because it will take a while for religion to loosen its grip. Certainly, not in my lifetime. It took a couple of hundred years in Europe, but because its happened in Europe, I’m confident because A: We know its happened, B: Those societies are fine, they’re not dysfunctional, in fact, they are better than American society, and C: I just see this march, from Stephen Pinker’s book, to increasing secularization and enlightenment in the world, and eventually, we won’t need religion anymore. I think it’ll happen.

F: Is that the Better Angels of our Nature?

J: Yes, he doesn’t talk much about the rise of atheism, but he shows that there has been an increase in morality. That’s his thesis. An increase in morality and rationality, the latter probably causing the former. And, with an increase in rationality comes a decrease in religion, which is profoundly anti-rational. I think it’s going to happen, though we might not be around to see it.

F: Well, I hope I am!

J: Well, if that happens, then we won’t have a problem with creationism anymore.

F: I look forward to that day. But, take me back to this atheist creationist. How does that compute?

J: There’s only one that I know of and that’s David Berlinski. Oh, there’s Thomas Nagel. He’s not an creationist—he just published a book—but he’s a philosopher in New York. I don’t think he’s an creationist but he embues evolution with some teleology and the book is execrable. I’ve read a part of it now and it’s been reviewed by evolutionists very negatively. So, I wouldn’t call him an atheist creationist, he’s an atheist; I’d call him an atheist teleologist because he doesn’t believe that there is necessary supernatural origin of things. So there is a few of them, but anybody who knows about activist creationism throughout the world, not only in the English speaking world but in Islamic countries like Turkey, knows it always come from religion. They just don’t like materialism.

F: It seems to me his thesis is that because science and natural selection by random mutation hasn’t yet understood consciousness, that evolution must be wrong. It seems to be a very short-sighted viewpoint.

J: That’s the god of the gaps argument. I mean, consciousness is the hard problem, but, everything we are learning about neuroscience tells us the mind is the brain and consciousness is part of the mind. The mind is what the brain does, as Steve Pinker put it, and consciousness is part of what the brain does. You can eliminate consciousness—I had a sinus operation a couple of years ago that got rid of my consciousness by putting a mask over my face, and they bought it back. Clearly, it’s a materialistic process and once we know that, we can start figuring out how it works and how it evolved. That’s going to be a long time to come but to say that because we don’t understand it now, is just the god of the gaps argument. Who was it, Robert Engelson who said “What we know is science, our ignorance is god.” We’re ignorant about consciousness, but look at the whole history of things that used to be impugned to god when we didn’t understand it. Newton thought that god pushed the planets around, kept them in their orbit. Before there was Darwin, God made the animals and plants, because we couldn’t conceive of how that could happen otherwise. So the best view when faced with a problem like consciousness is not to say there must be god, or there must be some teleological force that we don’t understand, it’s to say let’s work on it for a hundred years and see what we get. I’m absolutely confident that within the century, we’re not only going to know how consciousness works, we’ll be able to reproduce it, maybe in artificial intelligence.

F: That will be amazing. I know some futurists think your prediction is wildly conservative. Some say as soon as 20 years.

J: I doubt that. Neuroscience is a very, very difficult endeavour, and consciousness is a very slippery phenomenon.

F: It’s amazing that people haven’t caught on to the fact that when we don’t understand something, you don’t say something else did it, you just wait a little while longer for someone to discover it. If critical thinking classes ever come out on a wide-scale, this should be the main thesis, if you don’t understand something, don’t make up your mind beforehand.

J: Yes, and you certainly don’t say that God did. I just read a book by Carl Giebersan who is an evangelical Christian who paired up with Francis Collins, the most powerful scientist in America and head of the National Institute of Health, they wrote a book about reconciling Christianity and evolution, and in there they caution against this God of the Gaps argument. They say, look folks, don’t just say that God is ignorance, because science has made such progress, and then, in the last sections of the book, they use the fact that we don’t understand how human morality got there, and the fine-tuning of the Universe, those annoying physical principles, as evidence for God; so they violated their own dictum.

F: Cognitive dissonance.

J: Yes. I mean, if you’re going to find evidence for God, it’s not good to do it by saying we don’t understand something, therefore God did it. You need to give positive evidence for God, and not negative evidence. I’m just reading a book on that now by a philosopher called Philipse, God in the Age of Science. It’s probably next to Hoffman’s book, Critique of Philosophy and Religion. This is the best book on refuting religion that I’ve seen in the last couple of years, he is a Dutch Philosopher and it’s extremely thorough. He says what I just said, that you can’t find God in the gaps and you need to assert positive evidence for God and what is that positive evidence; and then he shows than there isn’t any.

F: I’ll put that on my reading list. [I still haven’t read it, it’s a $62 book!]

J: It’s a tough slog, but it’s well repays your effort.

F: You obviously deal with creationism quite often. I even watched a documentary featuring yourself, which took 5 creationists through California showing them all the evidence for evolution, so, what is your favourite argument against evolution that has no value?

J: The flood, I suppose. If you can explain the flood, then you have to be a creationist. That’s so easy to dismount, but you can see from that video that you can’t even make any headway with a real creationist. That was my part in that program was to argue with the creationist about the flood, but you know, four out of the five of them wouldn’t bend.

F: And one of them cried…

J: Yeah, I taught a class in the University of Maryland on evolution vs creationism. On Monday, I would lecture as an evolutionist on things like radiometric dating; then, on Wednesday I’d come on, and because I knew the literature so well, I’d argue as a creationist, and tell them “Everything I told you on Monday was completely wrong, Here’s the facts.” And the students would be completely confused. And on Friday we’d sit down and discuss them. You know, they would be confused but the thing that really turned their minds around eventually was flood geology, because it’s so ludicrous to think that the sorting of animals and plants in the fossil record is due to a flood incident. To think that there wouldn’t be a few humans washed down into the Cambrian; why the whales stay on top with the other mammals instead of at the bottom with the fishes. It didn’t make any sense, so at that point the students started realizing that this is all a put-up job by religion and at the end of the class, a lot of the creationists had come around to evolution because of that argument, but none of them had gone the other way, so I was quite pleased with that.

F: That’s amazing, it just goes to show you can educate people, and that evolution is falsifiable. I keep hearing that Karl Popper quote that evolution is not falsifiable, so therefore bladdy blah blah.

J: Yes, Popper changed his mind on that. Eventually, later on, he come around to realizing that evolution was falsifiable. And, I have a list in a talk I gave of 10-15 things that would falsify evolution, so, it’s definitely falsifiable; there’s lots of observations that could show it to be wrong; we just haven’t seen any. That’s why I say it’s true in the scientific meaning of the word.

F: What are some of those things that might falsify it?

J: The first one is fossils in the Cambrian, lack of genetic variation, and any adaptation in one species that evolved for the use of another species. There’s a whole list of them. You could make these observations but they haven’t been made. Evolution is true in the scientific sense in that it’s accepted so wildly and there is no contradictory evidence, so you have to be perverse to reject it. That’s Stephen J. Gould’s notion of scientific truth.

F: Has there ever been an argument against evolution that stumped for longer than a few minutes?

J: Well, there have been facts, no arguments because I’m familiar with them, but when I started out my career, there were all these facts that creationists, like Dwayne Gibs, would throw at you, and, because, as a scientist you have one field, you’re not an expert in physics, so you couldn’t easily answer them. But, they were never obviously convincing. One of them found a living snail whose shell was dated at 15,000 years ago, so how can you trust radiometric dating; it’s crap was the implication there. But I found out that the snail had been eating limestone, and the limestone incorporated itself into the shell and the date come from the ancient material that it incorporated into its body. Nowadays, there’s nothing that I can hear that stumps me for more than a few minutes. That’s what the internet is great for. There’s all these websites with refutations of creationist arguments in them.

F: Yes, but few people actually check those websites. More people end up on a theologian’s website or a creationist website than a science website.

J: Yeah, maybe.

F: Well, thank you very much for your time. I do have one last question however. Where do you get all the time to write? You write blog posts every single day.

J: I do it between 6am and 8am. I get up about 5am, which I normally do anyway. Get to work by 6am, then I have a strict regiment where I write from 6am to 8am, all the post for the day, and I’ll just post them. Occasionally, something will strike me and I’ll take a few minutes to write a post and put it out. I got to do my day job as well so, doing a blog, or website, has opened a lot of doors for me, I’ve gotten a lot of people, gotten a lot of invitations through writing that blog that I haven’t got through academia, and it gives me a chance to work out my ideas on religion and stuff. I have a very good group of commenters who criticize me, they’re very smart. I’m glad I do it, it just makes life a little bit hairy.


All in all, I hope you learnt a little about evolution, why it’s true, and if you still have doubts, make sure to check out Jerry’s book, which is a very informative and easily laid out read. He goes in detail (thankfully, entertainingly) on the evidence for evolution and why that evidence can only be interpreted in one way: evolution is true. Thanks for reading.

P.S. I’ll still be giving out free copies of Random Rationality to anyone who emails me his or her S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism receipt, until my next post as I’ll be going back to my regular postings. Don’t ask me when my next post will be, could be tomorrow, next week, or next month. It’s as random as the subjects I cover, so if you want both books for a buck, get S3 now. What do you have to lose? At the very worst, you’ll learn some science.

Guest Post: Why I’m Through with Organic Farming

Why im through with organic farming

Following on from my last guest post, The Insanity of Biotech by biochemist Paul Little, Mike Bendzela is the author of this guest post. These guest posts have been tangentially exploring similar subjects I have in my book, but in different directions; and this post explores organic farming. In S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I lightheartedly tackle the naturalistic fallacy and use some bad (and funny) statistics that purposefully confuse correlation with causation, intending to teach a lesson. As I was writing the book, Mike Bendzela reached out to me with his organic story that sprouts off from that Correlation chapter, and it is a supremely informative read. (A bit long, well worth it, and you’re used to long articles from me anyway.)


Why I’m Through with Organic Farming

by Mike Bendzela of Dow Farm Enterprise

It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you;

you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”

Jesus of Nazareth

For twenty-five years I was a self-styled organic gardener. I say “self-styled” because I didn’t need certification as I wasn’t marketing produce. And by “organic” I mean “too lazy and cheap to buy fertilizers and pesticides.” So I maintained a perennial compost heap and harvested the produce the insects didn’t eat. We ate the leftovers.

Then there was the cheating: The first year that I grew potatoes, I had zero Colorado potato beetles. The second year, I had a jar full. The third year, I had a continent’s worth and had to nuke them with Rotenone dust. I decided to stop growing potatoes for a while.

“But,” the organic people would say, “Rotenone is an organically-approved pesticide.” [Fourat: Fun fact, rotenone is just as toxic as DDT.]

Which leads directly to my point:

The older I get, the more I like food, the more I hate bullshit.

A season in hell

In July of 2010 four of us started Dow Farm, named after the ancestral owners of the land we farm. We would be a small market farm and CSA, the trendy “Community Supported Agriculture,” but we’d just call it a subscription club. Save the Syllables.

I was still working at an organic farm, learning the central pleasures and evils of farming at a scale larger than gardening. Helping to run Dow Farm would mean having to quit this summer job that I really liked and probably taking a significant hit in the wallet for a while.

Would we be certified or not? Certification is a three-year process, the materials are more expensive, and the methods are more labor-intensive. These stresses of organic certification come on top of a central fact of life for Maine farmers: The weather around here is just awful.

The crap we had to endure in 2011 just to get plants into the ground six weeks late meant that if we were going to limit our options to “organically-approved” ones, the reasons had better be good. I decided the best way to research the value of gaining certification was to go to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) website, and read the “fact sheets” and the manual.

I found the philosophy of the organics movement to be a barrel raft covered in loose planks. In trying to justify their beliefs, they pile on the claims (planks), each of which rests on a different assumption (barrel). And when one claim is questioned, they simply jump to another plank on the raft and try to hold it all together. Sadly, for the investigator, dismantling a raft of claims requires a crew of rebuttals.

It took awhile for all those planks to be yanked away from me, one by one, and for the barrels to disperse and sink.

The origins of the “organic” vs. “chemical” false dichotomy

In the early 19th century, “Vitalism” reigned. This was the belief that certain materials could only be produced through a mysterious “vital force” in living organisms; hence, “organic” substances were those derived from organisms and their products. Then a German scientist, Fredrick Wöhler, synthesized urea, a component of urine, in a laboratory without having to pee in a bottle. Goodbye Vitalism.

These “mysterious” materials turned out to be the results not of a vital force but of the properties of good old carbon. So the term “organic” came to describe the chemicals based around the carbon atom.

The organic farmers parted ways with the organic chemists around the turn of the century, with “organic” gaining positive connotations and “chemical” negative ones. This commenced with the German mystic Rudolph Steiner and his “Anthroposophic” movement, which includes “biodynamic” farming, a school that believes the farm should be seen as a “holistic” organism that needs to be balanced with various astrological forces. Some ways of achieving this “balance” include shunning “synthetic chemicals” and burying manure-stuffed cow’s horns to focus cosmic energy into the earth.

Today we have the government-sanctioned term “organic” to describe a veritable Leviticus of “Allowed” and “Prohibited” practices that are put into place to ensure that a farm is, well, organic. The term now conflicts with the scientific, chemical definition in just about every way.

For example: a chemically organic, naturally-occurring pesticide produced in Kenya, pyrethrum, is declared “organic” even though it decimates bees, but a likewise chemically organic pesticide native to the North America, nicotine sulfate, is not “organic.”

A synthetically produced, chemically organic fungicide, Captan, is declared not “organic,” but the synthetically produced, chemically inorganic fungicide copper sulfate is declared “organic.”

Go figure. Nowadays, if someone asks if our food is “organic,” I say, “Sure, it’s carbon-based.”

Mother Nature, Bad Parent

Not only are absurdities uttered with a straight face, contradictions are simply codified as “standards.” A central fault of organics is the Naturalistic Fallacy, the belief that substances derived from nature are better than those created by humans. Well, sometimes, anyway. Maybe not.

The USDA’s National Organics Program, which began with an Act of Congress in 1990, articulates the fallacy this way:

“As a general rule, all natural (non-synthetic) substances are allowed in organic production and all synthetic substances are prohibited. The National List of Allowed Synthetic and Prohibited Non-Synthetic Substances, a section in the regulations, contains the specific exceptions to the rule.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, natural substances are OK, unless they’re not OK; and synthetic substances are not OK, unless they’re OK. One can only stand in wonder at how high the manure has been piled in this case, all the way up to the United States Department of Agriculture, in fact.

Allowed Synthetics” are rationalized this way:

(1) The substance cannot be produced from a natural source and there are no organic substitutes

(2) The substance’s manufacture, use, and disposal do not have adverse effects on the environment and are done in a manner compatible with organic handling….

In other words: Mother Nature doesn’t always provide us the protection we need to farm successfully. In fact, She regularly supplies pestilence, disease and infection. If you’re an orchardist, the fungi are your mortal enemy and you have to spray fungicides or your orchard is doomed. So please just be careful with that copper sulfate, which can accumulate in the soil and cause organ damage if ingested.

How about if all farmers agree to use any substance, natural or synthetic, in a way that minimizes adverse effects on health and the environment? In other words, follow the doggone label.

Teh pesticides!”

Something I read on MOFGA’s website, a “Pesticides Quiz,” really bothered me:

“The EPA performs toxicity tests on pesticides prior to registration.

False: Toxicity tests are performed neither by the EPA nor by independent laboratories contracting with the EPA. Pesticide manufacturers provide the data that the EPA bases its judgments on. There is an inherent conflict of interest between EPA’s need for unbiased data and the manufacturers’ need for data that show their products are not hazardous.”

How does a lay person check out such a claim? I Googled “Pesticides” and “Maine” and got Maine Board of Pesticides Control as the top hit. I called the number there and got Dr. Lebelle Hicks, Toxicologist. Dr. Hicks seems delighted to have a real citizen asking her questions.

Summarizing her reply to the scary MOFGA claim: It is true only as far as it goes. But it’s not the EPA’s job to test the compounds that manufacturers wish to market; that would mean taxpayers paying for the testing of products that the corporations will profit from. It is the EPA’s job to set the tolerances for residues and to review the data submitted by the manufacturers according to strict guidelines. Laboratories contracting with the manufacturers perform such tests.

This conversation came sometime after a discombobulating experience I had while working at the organic farm: I was required to attend a workshop upcountry to be certified . . . as a pesticides handler.

So a group of us drove up to MOFGA’s fairground, where the MBPC’s Gary Fish, Manager of Pesticide Programs, gave us a PowerPoint on how to read pesticide labels and how to follow what’s written on them. Calling this an instance of “cognitive dissonance” is putting it mildly. It’s true:Organic farmers use pesticides and they have to follow the same laws as non-organic farmers. No amount of special pleading (“But they’re natural!”) negates this fact.

At Dr. Hicks’ advice, I eventually studied for and received a private pesticides applicator license in Maine. This year, in spite of the weather, we have had the best apples, ever.

GMOs? OMG!”

From MOFGA’s manual:

Genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) is a synthetic process designed to control nature at the molecular level, with the potential for unforeseen consequences. As such, it is not compatible with the principles of organic agriculture (either production or handling). Genetically engineered/modified organisms (GEO/GMOs) and products produced by or through the use of genetic engineering are prohibited.

This prohibition is articulated by the NOP as well:

A variety of methods to genetically modify organisms or influence their growth and development by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and are not considered compatible with organic production.

Question: As one of the partners of Dow Farm daily injects himself with insulin that is produced through recombinant DNA technology, does this mean he can never consider himself an “organic” farmer? (Not that he cares at this point.)

The idea that “the principles of organic agriculture” do not “control nature at the molecular level” and do not have “the potential for unforeseen consequences” is a classic instance of the one who judges the gene splice in another’s eye while not seeing the cloned apple tree lodged in one’s own eye.

The anti-GMO crowd simply cannot separate their loathing for a specific corporation, Monsanto, from the science of recombinant DNA technology. Presumably, because “Monsatan” is Bad, the papaya farmers of Hawaii should cut down their groves of trees engineered to resist ring spot virus, beta-carotene-fortified Golden Rice should continue to be withheld from children who will go blind from Vitamin A deficiency, and GE vaccines should be flushed down the toilet.

Plant pathologist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer R. W. Adamchak, have done an admirable job in their book “Tomorrow’s Table” arguing that the aims of genetic engineering and organic farming are not necessary at odds. They believe the two can coexist.

However, such a prospect brings to mind the words “snowball” and “hell.”

If it quacks, it’s probably organic

In the Fall of 2000, I got to experience a weekend at the Common Ground Fair, MOFGA’s agricultural event, as a helper at some friends’ farmers market booth. People drive in from all over New England to eat organic spelt crepes, experience organic aromatherapy, and buy twenty-dollar-a-pound organic seed garlic.

MOFGA had just moved to their beautiful new digs in Unity, Maine, and it was enjoyable roaming the grounds between shifts to watch fields being plowed with teams of horses; to gawk at produce and price tags; and to hear lectures on how bio-dynamic beekeepers care for the “bee soul.” Hilariously, coffee vendors not permitted on the fairgrounds hang around outside the gates like ticket scalpers. They do a brisk business pre-caffeinating fair goers addicted to this 100% natural substance.

I caught sight of something called The Whole Life Tent. Entering, I was amazed to find myself surrounded by Reflexologists, Naturopathic Doctors, Homeopaths, Reiki practitioners, and other “modalities” by which one may become “moral, united, integrated, and balanced.” I was unsure what any of this had to do with agriculture.

To my dismay, I realized that what the panoply of fried dough, stuffed animals, and monster trucks is to Maine’s largest commercial fair, the Fryeburg Fair, the whole raft of alternative medical scams is to the Common Ground Fair—a necessary evil to get non-agricultural types to attend. Only much later, when I opened the manuals, did I discover that this disorder is not limited to the fair grounds.

Both MOFGA and the NOP make it clear that livestock must not be subject to the “routine use of synthetic medications.” Antibiotics cannot be used “for any reason.” And yet:

“Producers are prohibited from withholding treatment from a sick or injured animal; however, animals treated with a prohibited medication may not be sold as organic.”

So an animal treated with appropriate medications is thereby rendered unclean.

OK, whatever. There are other ways of treating your animals that pass “organic” muster, according to “Raising Organic Livestock in Maine: MOFGA Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients.” In case of mastitis, for instance, you could have the cow take “garlic internally, 1 or 2 whole bulbs twice a day” or put “dilute garlic in vulva” (using Nitrile gloves made in Thailand, one hopes). Then there are the “Homeopathic remedies, Bryonia, Phytolacca,” and other letters of the alphabet.

However, you must not use Bag Balm for any reason whatsoever.

Go organic”: slander a farmer

At Maine’s Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January, we got to mingle with other farmers, big and small, and to attend workshops on combating pests and Internet marketing.

In the Exhibition Hall, I found myself standing behind two young women in wool grilling a commercial apple orchardist about his spraying practices. He was trying to explain to them that he kept both “organic” and “conventional” plots and that the “organic” trees actually needed to be sprayed more often because of the transitory nature of “organic” pesticides. This increased his costs in both chemicals and fuel, which was reflected in the price of his apples. The women then sidled off to another booth. I asked him if they “got it.” He issued a flat “No.”

I had just published an editorial on the remarkable irony that MOFGA, the group that itself defined the sharp divide between “organic” and “conventional” farmers, was complaining about feeling excluded from an event at the show. This event, called “Convergence = Sustainability,”was billed as “bringing all farmers together to talk about common issues.” It was apparently not enough that an entire day of the show was called “MOFGA day.” They seemed to want “conversion,” not mere “convergence.”

In response to the Convergence = Sustainability flap, MOFGA published an editorial with the following contemptible passage:

Why would organic growers and consumers want to converge with conventional agriculture, as the title of a Maine Agricultural Trades Show session, held in January, suggested? Craving the Organophosphate-Arsenic-Laced Special for dinner?

There seems to be no limit to the calumnies organics advocates will heap on non-certified farmers. Maine’s organic guru Eliot Coleman derides non-organic farmers as “chemical farmers” who supposedly believe that “nature is inadequate.” He rehashes the 19th fallacy of “chemical” versus “biological,” dismissing the whole agricultural discipline of plant pathology as “plant-negative.”

Members of the Organic Consumers Association also employ the derisive term “chemical farmers” in their screeds. They even come right out and say that local foods not “organically-produced” are unsafe and that consumers should shun their local farmer who is not certified organic. Their modus operandi is to frighten people into buying organic.

Non-organic farmers and feedlot operators are literally poisoning us and our children…”

The belief armor of such ideologues is so strong that the concept of “dose” doesn’t penetrate. Organic devotees endow “pesticide residues” with seemingly supernatural powers of corruption while simply ignoring the fact that our diets are full of poisons. To them it doesn’t matter, as Bruce N. Ames and Lois S. Gold have shown, that “99.99% of the pesticides humans ingest are natural.”

It doesn’t matter that fungicides protect us from one of the most potent carcinogens known, aflatoxins produced by molds; what matters are the hypothetical effects of micro-grams of fungicides found on apples, as promulgated by such organizations as the execrable Environmental Working Group.

It doesn’t matter that another potent carcinogen, benzo(a)pyrene, is ubiquitous in cooked foods. Instead of considering, by twisted “organic” logic, that this morning’s hot coffee and toast is a cancer cocktail crossing her placental barrier, a pregnant mother propagandized into being afraid of non-organic food will strap her babies into car seats and drive miles to avoid “chemical” farmers and their products.

Surviving the end of oil, organically

The last plank of the organic barrel raft to be removed unceremoniously from my grasp was the “sustainability” claim. In spite of what I knew were absurdities in the organic movement, I still believed that organic farming would be the only option left to us in a “post peak oil world.” Oil-based farming was clearly unsustainable; as oil becomes rarer and more expensive, we will have to find more sustainable ways to farm, and organic is waiting in the wings to save the day.

I accepted that peak oil was imminent, if not here already, and that this would mean the disappearance of “industrial,” “petroleum-based” agriculture, along with the wholesale decline in the accoutrements of contemporary civilization (i. e. well-stocked supermarkets). But having followed the alleged End of Oil for almost a decade now, I’ve amended my position to “maybe,” even “I don’t know.”

The peak oil “collapse,” always just around the corner, never seems to happen. This doesn’t mean “peak oil is a myth”; rather, it means the catastrophic effects have been over-sold, sort of like the media-hyped “comet of the century” Kohoutek in the 1970s, which fizzled out.

Besides, it doesn’t follow from the decline of oil that organic farming will rise. Organic foods have always been more expensive to produce, even in a regime of low oil prices, than supposedly “oil-based” foods. Organic farmers have fuel bills, too, and they are virtually addicted to plastics, so in the predicted expensive oil future, organic prices will continue to outpace conventional prices.

It doesn’t even follow that organic methods are more “sustainable” than “conventional” ones. My deconversion from this last plank of belief has been preserved for posterity in an exchange with Robert Carroll of the Skeptics Dictionary, under his entry on “organic (food and farming).” He says:

“…the problems we will face will probably be exacerbated if we went totally organic. Think of how much more land we would have to use to feed the world’s population. Where is this land going to come from? Clear-cutting rainforests?

…organic farming could feed the world if population stopped or receded, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Conventional farming of genetically modified crops may be the only hope for feeding the billions more that are likely to be added to world population within the next 50 years.”

The alleged “sustainability” of organics for a “post oil future” is an instance of an ideologically-based movement co-opting a genuine issue (“peak oil”) and casting it in apocalyptic terms in order to make salvationist claims for itself.

The end of the matter

In the end, there is nothing particularly wrong with the methods sanctified as “organic”—the food produced is as good as any other food—but it turns out that just about every other utterance that issues from the organic movement and its acolytes is an absurdity, a contradiction, a misrepresentation, a slander, or a fib.

I phrase the Jesus quote at the beginning this way:

“It’s not what goes into your pie holes that’s the problem. It’s what comes out of your pie holes that’s the problem.”

So if you currently buy your fresh produce from your local organic farmer and you really like it, continue to do so. Just tell them to cut the crap, along with their prices.


All in all, a fantastically, informative read. Just as we should be wary of Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Government when they assert, by fiat, that so-so equals bladdy-blah, so should it be of Big Organic when they assert their methods use no pesticides, less-intensive pesticides, is automatically better because it’s au naturale (wild almonds anyone? They contain cyanide), or, any other contradictory occurrences. I believe Rob Hart has said it best: “The world has changed. We don’t live anything like our ancestors. We don’t work like them, talk like them, think like them, travel like them, or fight like them. Why on earth would we want to eat like them.”

Thanks for the guest post Mike. And don’t forget, if you buy S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism, I’ll give you Random Rationality: Expanded free (which cost 3 times as much). Just email me your receipt (you’ll find my email at my author website). Thanks for reading.

S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism

I have just released my second book, S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism. It goes for $0.99 on Amazon. Here’s the blurb:

“Does Homeopathy work? Are GMOs dangerous? Is climate change really happening, or is it a hoax as claimed by many? This book will help you navigate the twisted shores of pseudoscientific territory and cut through the nonsense to find the good science.

I’m Fourat, and I think good, peer-reviewed, replicable science should be the pride of humanity. Yet, for some reason it’s not. Join me on this mini-adventure as I help you navigate the confusing, jargon-filled, and treacherous arena of science and the outfits trying to coat themselves in its respectable veneer. By the end of this book, they won’t be able to hide their nonsense from you any longer.

Learn why homeopathy is wrong, climate change is happening, vaccines are safe, western medicine is doing us just fine, why evolution is true, among a few others. Find out what makes good science good, and pseudoscience pseudo. The success of science should be one of humanity’s proudest achievements, but, somehow it isn’t. Explore the bad and the good on this little journey, and have fun while you’re at it.”

The Art of DifferentiationHere’s the link one more time, and if you do buy it, and like it, or not, please consider leaving a review. Either way, it helps. Either by helping me write a better book next time, or helping me sell more books this time. Over the next week or two, I’ll be putting up a guest post from a biochemist and then a Q&A with an evolutionary biologist, both of which complement a few of the subjects I tackle in the book. Stay tuned.

And, lastly, thank you to my subscribers. For the life of me, I don’t know why you all listen to me, but apparently some of you do and that makes me happy. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing. You guys are awesome. Special thanks to John Zande who runs a marvelous blog writing sketches on atheism for his enormous help in proof-reading the first crappy drafts of S3. Many thanks go to Ryan Culpeper, who writes on history and religion with alarming clarity, for providing an early review. Also, Rhys Chellew, who writes on everything under the sun, for fact-checking the science and correcting me in multiple arenas; I don’t think I’ve ever met a mind that works so fast and knows so much. And to the enigmatic physicist David Yerle who, in a sense, peer-reviewed my book and set me straight on a few occasions too. Of course, where would I be without thanking my awesome girlfriend who, at critical moments, boosts my confidence to continue writing on tough days, thanks love! And again, thanks to all my readers. Though I don’t say it enough, I really do appreciate that you’re here.

P.S. If you buy S3, and email me your receipt (which you can find on the contact section of my author website), I’ll give you Random Rationality: Expanded (which actually costs more, but hey, I couldn’t think of a good reason why I shouldn’t).

Random Rationality is Back

A Rational Guide to an Irrational World

The 2nd edition of my e-book, Random Rationality: Expanded – A Rational Guide to an Irrational World has just been released on Kindle for $2.99. Some key features differentiating it from the 1st edition:

  • Every chapter has undergone a makeover with a total of 24,000 words added, making it 63,000 words now.
  • Corrected several facts – my favourite correction is that the Universe is now 13.82 billion years (though there was no way for me to know the age of the universe in the 1st edition, so this is more of an update). Some other facts I reported were genuinely wrong and I have corrected as many as were bought to my attention and I’ll write a future post on which ones they were if I can find my notes. The ones I remember off the top of my head are that the global debt-to-GDP ratio I quoted was actually representative of only the top 10 western governments (the real updated global figure being about 1.5 to 1 instead of 3.5 to 1).
  • The book benefitted from many of my subscribers having a dig at each chapter as I published them all online soliciting constructive criticism (notable contributors include John Zande, RL Culpeper, Allallt who have made the book immensely stronger – thanks to all who participated and helped out)

What hasn’t changed is the format: 22 chapters, 7 sections; 22 divided by 7 is equal to 3.14 crudely equaling Pi (π). Pi is a mathematical constant; mathematics is the language of science; therefore, using simple logic, Random Rationality is the literal word of science. (This will stand until proven otherwise–which you shouldn’t try to do if you are reading this).

As before, the book is not DRM’ed. That means you can read it on as many devices as you want with no restrictions, and share it freely with your friends. Thank you for being a subscriber, reader, or random visitor to my blog. You can buy it here, or smooch it off someone else who has bought it since it’s not DRM’ed. If you leave a review, however honest, then this rambling idiot will love you even more. 

P.S. Since I signed up for the Kindle KDP program, I will be promoting it on certain days for free, so if you’re patient, you may be able to nab it free of charge.

Fear of Fission

nuclear power safe

So, here is sub-chapter #3, of Chapter 1, Science, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process of my book, Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Sub-chapters #1 and #2, can be found here and here. I made the mistake of not throwing up the Introductory chapter online, so I’ll take a brief paragraph to describe the overall narrative of the book. The book takes twenty seemingly random subjects, attempting however poorly, to thread them together. In the process, attempting to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a very macroscopic worldview, as the whole book fits into two-hundred pages, but it aims to tickle the intellects of people just enough so they may go on to study more in-depth the subjects of their liking. The narrative really tries to inspire the abolition of thinking in isolation, i.e., we so often talk, discuss, and debate topics in isolation and assume that the same points prevail in the real world where nothing exists in isolation: such as the relationship between science and religion/society, fission with politics and economics, technology against government, and how they subtly, sometimes drastically, affect each other.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.

Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.


FEAR OF FISSION

 There was a dream once, of atomic energy. It is as yet, unrealized. Our current energy portfolio, primarily consists of about eighty-eight percent coal, oil and natural gas, with nuclear power just shy of five-percent, and renewable energy making up the rest.

We will probably be using coal, oil, and natural gas for a while to come, especially natural gas as it is being found everywhere in huge quantities, but they should have started phasing out decades ago. Though because of our short-term irrational fear and hatred of things we do not understand, the safest, cost-competitive energy source, nuclear fission, was never given legs to stand upon.

We all know that coal, oil and gas are pollutants: the first two much more so than the third, so it is an environmentally favorable trend that so much gas is being found, as it will result in a downward trend of pollutants from the prior two. Though even natural gas pales in comparison to the safety and efficiency of nuclear power, which we shall see now.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”  ~ Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Sociologist)

 

First off, let’s look at some overlooked statistics of our current energy sources at 2011 usage levels:

  • Coal, which comprises 30.3% of world energy: causes 161 deaths per TWh (Terra-watt hour)
  • Oil, which makes up 33.1% of world energy: thirty-six deaths per TWh
  • Natural gas, 24.8% of world energy: four deaths per TWh
  • Nuclear power, 4.9% of world energy: 0.04 deaths per TWh

 

For every twenty-five TWh of power generation, one human death will occur because of nuclear energy, compared to 3,220 for the equivalent amount of energy from coal, 720 from oil, and eighty from natural gas. Yet, every time there is a nuclear accident, there is a global outcry to shut them all down. Even though they are, by far, the safest means of generating power and the cleanest, in relation to immediate environmental degradation and climate change, which are somehow always overlooked.

Since the first nuclear reactor in 1952, there have been only six accidents that resulted in a loss of human life; seventy-one people died as a direct result of these accidents. Compare that to the triumvirate of coal, oil and gas, which are linked to the deaths of 4,020 people for every seventy-five TWh. Coal, all by itself, kills around 24,000 people in the USA per year. And yes, eventually four-thousand people may die as a result of Chernobyl in the next twenty-years, which is an increase of one-percent compared to other spontaneous forms of cancer. But the biggest nuclear catastrophe in sixty-years, killed fewer people than one single year of coal in one of the most developed nations in the world—keeping in mind the distinction between ‘four-thousand people may die’ and ‘twenty-four thousand people die every year’. The data, when expanded worldwide indicate that coal-related deaths are at least one-million people per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Of course, the nuclear accidents that do happen grab so much attention that we are irrationally coerced into a state of fear. But let’s critically examine the three biggest nuclear accidents of recent history without the scepter of hysteria influencing our collective amygdala: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. The reasons for the disasters were: human stupidity, human error, and human arrogance respectively. Notice that none of them are technological in nature.

In dressing down Chernobyl, I prefer instead to quote an article from Cracked Magazine, titled ‘The 7 Most Mind-Blowing Places Science Has Discovered Life.

 “The lesson of Chernobyl is that the most dangerous substance in the world is human stupidity. If everyone who whined about nuclear technology actually understood it, the world’s average IQ would increase by 50 points. When idiots drink and drive and kill thousands, we don’t ban cars. But when idiots run emergency shutdown tests with an untrained night crew without telling the designer of the reactor or nuclear authority scientists, then deliberately drive the reactor into the nuclear equivalent of balanced on tiptoes on a stool perched on a stepladder on a table…made of plutonium, suddenly all nuclear power is evil…

 

 The events of Three Mile Island were somewhat less extravagant in comparison. What transpired was an obscure mechanical gauge failure that became compounded by a lack of training. The operators’ manually overrode the automatic cooling system—Why this is even an option befuddles the non-nuclear engineer in me—because they mistakenly believed there was too much coolant—nor can I see what’s wrong with this—which turned an otherwise fixable event, into the ‘disaster’ that hurt no one and killed nobody. The problem was correctly diagnosed and subsequently fixed upon the arrival of the next shift, whom spotted the odd readings the dashboard was giving, and having the proper-training, began reversing the situation. Overall, people living within five-miles of the reactor, were exposed to no more radiation than one would receive on a commercial flight. 

 

 The Fukushima plant in Japan, which underwent a reactor meltdown in 2011 is over forty-years old, and was built with fifty-year old technology. The owners knew what the plant’s shortcomings were and were even told by the courts and the government to fix them. To make matters worse, TEPCO, had a record of changing the layouts of the cooling systems without bothering to document them. So when the tsunami hit, the previous plans had the utility of soggy toilet paper in finding out what was happening. Only through sheer incompetence did the Fukushima reactor fail, using decades-old technology that has since been surpassed, and only alongside the naive human thought, ‘it’ll never happen here,’ compounded by ignoring the law, and the docile Japanese culture.

 

 A report released by the mouthful of a commission, the aptly named Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, confirms that thought.I will highlight the opening salvo, “The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture.” And then there’s this little nugget a little later on, “Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented…” End of discussion you’d think, but alas. A few months later, Germany announced they were shutting down all of their nuclear reactors by 2022.

 The reasons for our three meltdowns are, as mentioned, primarily human error. Not an inherent danger in nuclear fission technology. Nuclear reactors are among the safest, most secure facilities in the world because engineers know to build them that way. It’s the managers, governments, and the presidents that end up breaking things, and the people are induced by a frenzied-media into blaming the reactor as a scapegoat to sleep better at night, which politico’s then go on to exploit for votes, and ever the cycle continues. And as a result of all this, nuclear power was never given the stage it deserved. So the market did what it does best. It routed around this obnoxious intervention, in the process increasing oil, coal, and gas power generation to feed our increasingly energy-hungry ways, because renewable energies were not yet cost-competitive. All of which come with the added bonus of pollution, disease, millions of deaths (per year!), resources wars, and the destruction of our environment which will results in tens of millions of more deaths…all because of seventy-one deaths and a few weeks of media coverage.

 Even the second point that a lot people, and environmentalists are especially guilty here, make against nuclear power—the storing of dangerous hazardous material that stays radioactive for thousands of years—is a moot point. Radioactive waste is stored in highly secure vaults underground, in mountains, or other equally secure areas with no immediate effect on the environment or to us. With the eventual mastery of nanotechnology sometime this century, it will cease to be a point at all. We will be able to sub-atomically rearrange the atoms that make the waste radioactive and render it inert and harmless, but more on that later. And even were that not the case, wouldn’t having the waste stored and put away for 10,000 years, out of sight and harms way, be better than pumping far more waste directly into the atmosphere—and into the lungs of every person, animal, and plant—as we do now with coal, oil, and gas? And causing irreversible climate change to top it off…Yeah though.

 

The folly of fearing fission, over coal, which powers thirty-percent of modern civilization:

  • A 1,000 MWh (mega-watt-hour) of nuclear fission generates twenty-seven tonnes of radioactive waste per year, stored out of sight and harms way—in some cases, ninety-seven percent can be reprocessed so only, leaving three-percent (1,500 lbs) needing storage. The same amount of power from a coal plant generates eighteen tonnes of radioactive waste spewed directly into the atmosphere, while also vomiting forth 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 400,000 tonnes of ash, 10,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide (acid rain), 10,200 tonnes of nitrogen oxide (smog), 720 tonnes of carbon monoxide(toxic), 170 lbs. of mercury (extremely toxic), 220 lbs. of arsenic (poison), and 114 lbs. of lead (toxic)
  • Between 1970 and 2008, there were 1,686 accidents that killed more than five people at coal power stations. On the nuclear side, only one
  • One TWh of nuclear energy releases 30 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. An equivalent amount of power from coal releases 1,290 grams (forty-three times more)
  • Uranium provides sixty-thousand-times as much energy per kilogram compared to coal. One kilogram of uranium will power a 60-watt light bulb for 685 years. An equivalent amount of coal will power that same light bulb for four days

 

 Nuclear power is, in the popular vernacular of the green movement today, exceedingly efficient, needing sixty-thousand times less units—or eleven-thousand less if measured against crude oil—for an equivalent amount of energy. It can, should be, and always should have been part of our energy portfolio. It is much safer and cleaner than the other forms of energy we use today, all the while, having no short-term ramifications to the environment, and manageable, trivial almost, long-term ramifications, along with a proven economic record. 

 Another disconcerting fact is continued government interference, initially stemming from the Manhattan Project, but really exacerbating the situation throughout the Cold War, has greatly and destructively cemented uranium as the fissile material of choice in nuclear fission reactors, as opposed to thorium, which shares many of uranium’s beneficial characteristics and none of its ugly ones:

Thorium’s Advantages:

  • It is four times more abundant in nature
  • Produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste
  • Cannot sustain a continuing nuclear chain reaction, so fission stops by default in any emergency that shuts down the power, I.e., Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima would not have happened
  • Generates more energy per ton and its enriched material cannot be used for a nuclear bomb
  • Does not require enrichment, therefore usability is 100% of the isotope as it is found in the ground, compared to 0.7% for uranium, which must be enriched to U-235 (which can then be enriched to P-239, i.e., main ingredient of an atomic bomb)
  • The supply will not be exhausted for a thousand years at today’s energy levels

 

 Thorium reactors are finally beginning to catch on, with India leading the way, but the technology is still in its infancy. Norway has recently started a four-year trial of a Thorium reactor to work out the economics and make the theoretical efficiencies into practical realities. Were it not for the destructive nature of our species, the Manhattan Project, and the subsequent Cold War, we would probably already have clean, abundant, cheap, and safe energy, with no climate change. Imagine that. 

 This chapter has barely begun to scratch the surface on nuclear energy, without even mentioning ongoing nuclear fusion research, which aims to replicate the energy source of a star, the ‘perfect’ energy source. There is also the traveling wave reactor that aims to use the ninety-nine percent of waste left over from a normal uranium fission reactor, which Toshiba is aiming to have in production by 2014, financed by Bill Gates. It is just a taste, a mind-opener, and a realization that a future is possible; it can be bright and it doesn’t need to revolve around hydrocarbons or the destruction of our environment.

 

We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.” ~Unknown

Infinite Frontier

So here is sub-chapter two, which is part of Chapter 1, Science, of the Random Rationality rewrite. The book is called Random Rationality, so it won’t start making sense until a ways in, so don’t be worried if you see no relation to the first chapter, which can be found here. Would greatly appreciate any feedback, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you share the same love of space as I do; consider signing the petition for increasing NASA’s budget here, or if you’re American, here. Enjoy the read.

 

regards

Humble Idiot


Infinite Frontier

In 1903, the Wright brothers were the first human beings to fly in a heavier-than-air machine, flying their garage-made contraption a total of one-hundred-twenty feet. Sixty-six years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, traveling 828,752 miles, or an increase of 3,704,811% in total distance travelled over and above the Wright brothers’ historic virgin flight. We stopped pushing this boundary in 1972, relegating ourselves to an earthly existence, though occasionally venturing out to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). That, I and many other space enthusiasts, believe was a mistake.

Let’s play a guessing game extrapolating out the exponential progress from 1903-1969. Accounting for the one-third less time we’ve had, since that sixty-six year period, and assuming that the increase in distance travelled due to technological advancement relative to that sixty-six year period is lineal—which it more than likely wouldn’t be. We may have been able to travel 2,413,740% farther than the distance Apollo 11 travelled to get to the moon relative to the Wright brothers’, or approximately 2,012,051,840,341 miles, as the crow flies—or space monkey floats. That’s beyond Pluto…though it wouldn’t get us to Pluto due to the zigzagged nature of space travel (flying around planets using their gravity to slingshot around giving a free speed boost to the spacecraft).

While the number I just came up with is about as valuable as monkey excrement, it’s only meant to make you think big, space big.

Had we continued with the frantic pace of research and development that started in 1957 with the launch of the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, into orbit by the USSR, there is little doubt that there would be footprints on Mars, though they wouldn’t last long, as Mars actually has weather unlike the moon.

Perhaps we would have created different means of interplanetary transportation, and the exponential rise of technology would have propelled us ever forward, creating unparalleled economic growth in its wake. Instead we got the moving around and creation of electronic zero’s on computer screens on Wall Street.

We could have potentially mined asteroids by now, which are chock-a-block full of yummy resources that we want and/or need. Even a relatively small asteroid a mile across has approximately $20 trillion of resources. That’s one-third of 2011 world GDP in one little space rock, and billions of these rocks are just floating around between Mars and Jupiter.

So why did we stop pushing the space frontier? Why did we stop going beyond LEO in 1972? Well, we stopped going for geopolitical reasons. A travesty of politics—beginning the main theme of governmental shortsightedness this book will continually find itself in the midst of.

Throughout the entire history of Homo sapiens, an epoch of some 200,000 years, we have continuously pushed the final frontier. Expanding outwards from the Rift valley in Africa, we pushed into the vast expanse of the Mideast, then to the wetlands of Asia and to the extremes of Europe, making a final push to the lush Americas, and the remote Oceania. Overcoming our limitations and exploring the frontier is a quintessential aspect of human nature.

The frontier need not always be physical either. When we stopped exploring geographically outwards; we started downwards, inwards, and upwards. Downwards into the rocks to determine the age of the Earth and all manner of fossils. Inwards into our bodies to extend both the length and quality of life. And upwards into space to explore our place in the cosmos. 

We found fossils of ancient monsters, exploited the Atom, discovered mathematics, geology, medicine, and physics. In the process expanding our mental horizons, which allowed us to make sense of our little corner of the Universe, and it just so happens that the pursuit of such endeavors made life better for everyone in the process.

Thankfully we haven’t stopped expanding our mental frontiers. We stopped long ago pushing its sister, the physical frontier, and who knows what insights and discoveries we have missed out on as a result. 

Political expedience should not be a factor in discovering new—or more—knowledge. Neither should naïve thoughts that we have too many problems down here to go exploring up there, otherwise we’d never have left Africa! We need to access such endeavors objectively and with standards, though even that has its shortcomings. Nobody could have foreseen the implications of discovering the atom, and the scientist who discovered it, when pressed, would have been unable to properly articulate a satisfactory answer, yet out of the atom came nuclear power and the atom bomb. Out of Quantum Mechanics (QM), came integrated circuits and information technology, and now thirty-five percent of the US economy exists because of QM. Out of Einstein’s relativity, we discovered the means to keep satellites in orbit in tune with equipment on the ground (GPS). Problems down here are often solved by problems up there! When the Hubble Telescope had a malfunctioning mirror, scientists had to make do with observing a blurry Universe, but in the process, they created image-processing algorithms to clear up some of the blurriness, which was later used in mammograms down here on Earth, allowing earlier detection of breast cancer, potentially saving the lives of millions of women. Because of a mistake!

Be that as it may, did problems in the motherland stop Christopher Columbus, Captain James Cook, or Marco Polo, from exploring and discovering new sections of the Earth. It certainly didn’t stop the Iraqi and Syrian farmers who left the Fertile Crescent ten-thousand years ago due to over-utilization of resources and travelled to modern-day England and everywhere in between? (Eighty-percent of the current British population are descended from those Iraqi and Syrian farmers) 

 No, the problems of their time didn’t slow them down, but spurred them on, and possibly helped to alleviate their problems. For example: 

  • Need more efficient shipping routes, sail the seven seas, map the coastlines, create maps, and plan better next time (We then went onto invent GPS, cars, ships, planes, and meteorology)
  • Old World becoming stagnant, cross the Atlantic and start the New World, which eventually went onto become the dominant financial and military superpower of the world
  • Minerals and resources becoming more expensive and/or scarce, mine deeper or farther away using new techniques and technologies

New, useful and beautiful things are always discovered when pushing that final frontier ever farther; therein lays its significance and the crux upon which our seven-thousand year old civilizations stand. Without it, we are cave dwellers, rendering the 1.6% genetic difference separating us from chimps nothing more than an unnecessary and wasted gift. It’s that mix of new problems in the face of old ones that forces upon us a different mode of thinking, along with practical experimentation that can then be taken back to society, allowing for its economic or geographic expansion. This is the foundation of human prosperity, where new processes, tools, social orders, and technologies spring forth as a result of new understandings. Without this engine of discovery and growth, history has shown us time and time again that society rots from the inside out and empires crumble. You can only coast on the achievements of your forefathers for so long.

 Why do all empires decline? Every single empire in the history of civilization has fallen from its peak due to a failure to anticipate change, and the propensity of government to maintain the status quo—a lesson to be learned in today’s heated political climate. To anyone afraid of change, history shows us that those who fear and push back against economic, scientific, and social change are on the losing side of that battle almost hundred-percent of the time. What are you pushing back against today?   

 It’s not religion, communism, monarchy, government, or any other factor of society that drives this innate human desire to discover—in point of fact, they are its antithesis with their desire for the status quo. It is change that is the instigator, and nothing forces change more than the unknown.

 Our final frontier, if you can call it that, since it is infinite, is space. We’ve conquered LEO, with the manned International Space Station, but we must not stop there. We should aim for permanent habitation of the moon and its exploration, which is chock-a-block full of helium-3—which will became necessary with nuclear fusion technology coming online in the coming decades. We should aim for capture of an asteroid, landing a person on Mars to establish humankind as a multi-planetary species, and have a back-up of Earth’s biosphere in case of a calamity, and then march, actually coast, ever forward. 

 Space doesn’t end. It is infinite and at each turn, there will be a blessing in disguise, maybe in the form of new resources, vast energy reserves, or new scientific understandings expanding our view of the Universe. And who knows, perhaps life, maybe even a sentient alien race. But we are guaranteed something, and the human race as a whole will be the benefactor. 

 This is not to say there will be no risk. Crossing the road entails risk. Getting into a car entails risk, but the rewards will far outweigh the risks, especially in our desolate solar system.

 Space has untold riches just waiting for us. We could diversify our eggs and sperm out of the proverbial single basket that is Earth, thereby increasing the chances of long-term human survival in the event of disaster. The technologies that we would invent to survive in space would be applicable to all our problems here on Earth, and it would greatly accelerate the day we live in a sustainable economy that doesn’t destroy the fragile ecosystems of our small home.

 Through our exploration of only a small section of space, we have already invented technologies that have served a multitude of needs down here at ground level:

  • More nutritious infant formulas that allow a better quality of life for those infants unable to be breast-fed
  • UV sunglasses protecting our eyes from harsh sunlight
  • Memory foam used in helmets and prosthetic legs, saving countless lives and treating injuries
  • Camera optics used in a third of all cell phone cameras capturing life’s beauty
  • Digital imaging techniques such as CT scans and MRIs, potentially saving the lives of thousands, if not millions
  • GPS and weather forecasting, allowing the efficient transportation of goods and people worldwide, increasing the quality of life of billions
  • Smoke detectors that have saved countless people from horrible deaths
  • And 1,723 other inventions that NASA has catalogued with the addendum that this list is far from exhaustive

Space exploration is the most awe-inspiring work that can be undertaken by humankind, simultaneously inspiring a new generation into becoming scientists and engineers instead of bankers and insurance salesmen, and expanding economies and horizons in a real sense. The understanding it brings fosters human innovation in a way that benefits all of humankind, not just those living in the void of space.

 Thankfully, private companies are stepping up to the plate in droves to take over where once government solely had the means. In 2012, SpaceX successfully launched a private spaceship and docked with the International Space Station twice. Another new company, Planetary Resources, has been formed to mine asteroids sometime this decade or next. Last;y, the newly formed company, Golden Spike, is offering tickets to goto the moon for $1.5 billion by the end of this decade. Though the niche they are creating is yet a delicate newborn that needs support. 

 

Exploration is the most sublime expression of what it is to be human, and space exploration is the ultimate expression of this humanity.” Elliot G. Pulham and James DeFrank

How, Not Why…

So, I’m re-writing Random Rationality. After taking a break of several months. I went back and reread it, and realized how sloppy it was. Not much of a surprise really. It was my first book, and I’ve only been writing for a year. But there was many cases of sloppy reasoning, poor word-choice, and unexplored avenues of supporting examples. So I went back and cleaned up as much of that as I could, adding almost sixteen-thousand words in the process, taking it from thirty-eight-thousand words, to just shy of fifty-four-thousand words.

Today, I just finished the first draft of that rewrite, and I wanted to try something new with the editing process. I am going to upload one chapter every second or third day, and gauge the readers response (if any), and take what actions may be required in light of any response, be they spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, or outright errors. If anyone wants the full MOBI, ePUB, or PDF to read it at their leisure in exchange for constructive criticisms, just leave a comment and I’ll gladly send it over—if you also live in the USA, UK, or Europe, I’ll mail you a paperback, when it’s finished, as thanks for your constructive criticisms.

Here is the first chapter of the book, How, Not Why. I’d gladly appreciate any reader input and criticisms. Thanks!


How, Not Why

There are how questions and why questions. A why question presupposes purpose and therefore agency. The history of human ignorance, has had come with it, the describing of that which we were ignorant of at the time with unwarranted purpose, because we did not understand the how. Nothing in the relatively short history of modern science has given us any reason to believe that our ancestors were correct in placing the why before the how in any age, object, or process. This is the story of the universe, the how, as best we know it. Our understanding of the first second of the universe falls under the purview of speculative (theoretical) physics, but onwards, is empirically based in observation and experimentation (in particle accelerators, telescopes et al).

Approximately 13.72 billion years ago, a singularity exploded creating space, time, matter, and anti-matter. Neither space nor time existed before the Big Bang, so asking the question of what came before the Big Bang is akin to dividing by zero. The matter and anti-matter, being each others polar opposites, annihilated each other on contact (because they have opposite charges). Luckily for us, there existed a one in one-billion surplus of matter over anti-matter, so when all was said and done, there remained one-billionth the amount of the created matter, whence all the gas, stars, planets, and life that we see around us, came.

The instigating factor in the singularity, was a quantum fluctuation, which created a positive energy input into a system of net energy zero. We know today that the net energy of the Universe is zero, and energy cannot be created or destroyed, except to accommodate a total energy of zero (i.e., we cannot create energy, but the Universe seemingly can), and space expanded to accommodate the negative energy to counterbalance the created positive energy, and thus began entropy, and the arrow of time.

Succeeding this explosion (for lack of a better word, though it was amazingly hot; billions of degrees), the Universe expanded exponentially. The process of expansion in the first second is called Inflation, during which the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. During the inflationary period; hydrogen, helium and lithium were created in the intense heat which instigated Nuclear Fusion (more on this soon), in descending quantities of seventy-seven percent, twenty-three percent, and trace amounts of lithium. Also, tiny quantum jitters (particles that pop into and out of nothing, and which instigated the energy imbalance that began the Universe) were magnified during the expansion from subatomic to macroscopic, in the process creating imperfections in the fabric of space-time that allowed gravity to take hold and shape the Universe. We can see these imperfections in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR), which is how we know they happened.

As the Universe expanded, the heat dissipated and it cooled, and as time passed, matter started attracting matter via gravity, made possible due to the aforementioned imperfections in space-time. Everything that exists: stars, planets, us, exist only as a result of those imperfections, otherwise the Universe would have been formless (everything would have pulled on everything else equally and thus nothing would have changed). With time and gravity, clumps of gas began forming. Floating in the gaseous ether, they swirled and formed into ever-bigger clumps, and just like rubbing your hands together in the cold of winter generates heat, so do trillions upon trillions of gas particles rubbing, moving, and banging into each other.

The larger and more voluminous a gas-clump became, the more gravitational pull it exerted on other free-floating gas and gas-clumps nearby, and the faster and hotter the gas within it swirled and whirled; each cycle only reinforcing further gas accumulation and heat. Eventually, this frictionally derived heat reached a critical temperature and nuclear fusion occurred; the process by which two atoms are smashed together at such speed and energy, that they are joined and a new element is created.

At this point, the clump of gas becomes a star and begins using its gas as fuel. Hydrogen fuses into deuterium. Two deuterium atoms fuse to make helium, which fuses into carbon, which when combined with helium, fuses into oxygen (for stars the size of our sun, fusion stops here), into magnesium, neon, and so on until iron is made; a by-product of this fusion reaction is electromagnetic radiation, a small sliver of which we perceive as light and feel as heat: the entire energy of everything on this planet (except for the deepest valleys in the oceans) is derived from the fusion reaction in the Sun, ninety-three million miles away. As each star moves onto the next element, it’s temperature slowly rises—one billion years from now, our sun will be too hot for life on Earth.

This goes on for many millions or billions of years: the star creating new elements, inching down and across the periodic table. Once iron is made, the star has just about reached the end of its life, as it cannot use iron as fuel. As the buildup of iron continues, gradually, the gravitational inward pull of the star’s mass (accelerated by the iron creation) begins to outweigh the outward push of it’s weakening fusion reaction (decelerated by the iron creation), and suddenly it collapses in on itself in stages, breaking the balance of forces that kept it in equilibrium. At each stage, the core becomes hotter and it creates new elements, until finally, if the star is massive enough, it will collapse so violently inwards that it subsequently explodes outwards seeding the Universe with its elements in what is known as a supernova. The resultant fireworks can, for a few weeks, outshine galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars.

On a side note, it is in supernovae that the heaviest elements are created; gold, palladium, uranium, etc. They came from a fireball burning at one-hundred-billion degrees. And if the star is even bigger, a black hole is created, where the entire mass of the star is compressed into so small an area during the implosion that the laws of physics, space, and time itself actually break down. Nothing, not even light itself, which travels at 300,000,000 meters per second, can escape its gravitational pull.

This process repeats ad infinitum until the ninety-two naturally occurring elements are created and flying every which way across the Universe, seeding the next generation of stars, which, in turn, plant the seeds for planets and galaxies to pop into existence, alongside the dinosaurs’ worst nightmare, the asteroid.

Turning the story toward a more personal nature. At this juncture, free-floating gaseous matter meandering through the Universe, in a corner of an otherwise normal, but old spiral galaxy, began coalescing into dust, ice, rock, and metals, co-mingling in this similar process around a newly formed yellow star, from which the planets, our one among them, were born.

More asteroids and meteors, not used in the planetary formation process, but still gravitationally locked in the Sun’s gravity well, zip and shoot around the place, seeding these new planets with elements, and eventually with the required puzzle pieces of life, amino acids—the building block of proteins. In Earth’s case, one among many, theories is that a meteor carrying amino acids landed here on Earth, and in the ensuing millions of years (these building blocks of life  have been found in the core of uncontaminated meteorites), these amino acids mixed with lightning and volcanic activity on a young, violent Earth and became organic matter, which (mysteriously and the search for an explanation is ongoing) went on to become single-celled life. After a few billion years of this mindless tedium, a single bacterium in an involuntary act of self-sacrifice, allowed itself to be swallowed up by another single-celled creature called an archaea, and became the first multi-celled organism (we can still find the genetic sequence of that little bugger in our own genetic code). Many trillions of evolutions later; here there be lions…and humans.

It took almost a billion years from the creation of the Earth to single-celled life, then another three-billion years to Homo sapiens: not coincidentally a carbon-based life-form. Carbon also happens to be the most chemically active compound in the Universe, so no surprise there. The four most common elements in the universe are in order: hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon. The four most common elements in your body are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen (seventh-most common). We are, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, “extreme expressions of complex chemistry.

That’s it—that’s how it all started.

A few things have been left out for simplicity’s sake such as dark energy, dark matter, the finer points of planetary formation, and natural selection by random mutation, but the core of it is the gist of it. These extra details fill in the blanks in-between some of the events just told, but the story told without them is much easier to digest, process, and remember.

“Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” ~Richard Feynman (Theoretical Physicist)