The Left Must Find Its Way Back to Science

With President Trump committing himself to reversing most, if not all, of Obama’s progressive environmental policies and having pulled out of the Paris Accords, I think it is imperative that the Left take a fresh, evidence-based look at their boogeymen. The Right may have their climate change and evolution denial, but the Left holds onto their fears of GMOs, conventional agriculture, and nuclear power as if they were afraid to lose them. The civilizational knife-edge we find ourselves atop of, as well the pushing and shoving Trump is adding, demands that the Left right their wrongs. Apparently, the Left is the party of science, and while that has always been a stretch, there’s no better time to make it so.

With the departure of the world’s second largest emitter from the first worldwide accord that attempted to limit climate change to within 2 degrees Celsius above baseline, that means that the rest of the world has to pull up its sleeves to compensate. To get started there are some some low-hanging fruit, and there’s no lower-hanging fruit than to re-evaluate that which is already here and doesn’t require large investments or are far off in the future. I propose we start with the following three sacred cows of the Left, as they have large benefits to climate change avoidance.

#1: Nuclear Power

Yes, we should go full steam ahead on solar power, wind power, and other renewables, and yes, we should combine the above, when possible, with battery power to provide power at times when the Sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. However, that does not mean we should throw all our buckets in with just those fancy new stuff. All carbon-free power sources should be on the table to get us all the faster to where we need to go. Nuclear, therefore, must be on the table.

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The ‘Right to Know’ is an Imposition

Over at the Genetic Literacy Project, there was a delightful article recently written by Jane Palmer on the GMO labelling campaign. As many know, it was recently defeated in Colorado 55% to 45%. In this article, Jane writes what may be the most lucid, at least to my eyes, sentences that aptly sums up the implications of the Right to Know movement. For context, Jane was once for labeling, and over the course of the article, she shares how she started to doubt the proposition, and eventually change her mind. Here it is:

“I realize that my ‘right to know’ might affect someone else’s ‘right to choose’, or even worse their ‘right to eat.’”

That is a wonderful distillation of the potential consequences of what might occur if a Right to Know campaign actually wins. There are precedents too: in Europe, when legislation required GM food to be labelled, Europeans subsequently disavowed their purchase. Consequence: food companies simply swapped their GM ingredients for more-expensive non-GM ingredients. Those who cheer such a change are invariably of the 1% of the food movement for, as usual, those who bore the brunt were the poor. Suzy do-gooder could afford the increase in foodstuffs (if she wasn’t already shopping organic to begin with), the average Jane on the street suddenly has less money for her children’s daycare, transport, insurance etc.. This is a serious concern those higher up the social ladder are often oblivious too.

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War and Food

I recently finished reading Robert Greene’s marvellous book, The 33 Strategies of War. The book is essentially a 33 stage journey in destroying your enemies on the battlefield, politics, the office, and other scenarios as explicated in the book and explained via fascinating historical example. As I was reading this delightful compendium of strategy, history, bloodshed, and intrigue I couldn’t help but think that a lot of the strategies seemed strangely familiar. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself, “last time I checked I wasn’t a warmonger.” Yet, with this strange sense of deja vu, and due to the absorbing nature of the material, I continued reading…until, at last, it hit me. About halfway through the book I realised that “I didn’t know these strategies, I had seen these strategies…” From where is a very good question? From the anti-GMO brigade.

War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society.” ~ Robert Greene

At first, that struck me as an odd realisation. Yet the similarities in tactics and strategy were just too uncanny…the pieces just…fit, and continued to fit as I progressed. And I remembered that, often times, the antis proclaim themselves as waging a war so it’s not much of a leap, then, to using the strategies of war. It is interesting to note that a recent study published in the Environmental and Development Economic Journal of Cambridge early in 2014 calculated the lost life years due to opposition to genetically modified golden rice (Wesseler et al, 2014). All in all, it estimated that 1.4 million human life years have been lost as a direct result of anti-GMO opposition. Collateral damage?

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Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

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Why Google Glass Shouldn’t Lose the Camera

Google Glass

Over at Cult of Android, Mike Elgan has made the case that Google Glass should lose the camera due to the some of the public’s discomfort with its big brotherly implications. (Read his post here.) It is obvious from the title of this post that I disagree with him, but let me first summarize his position, starting with what he and I both agree on, followed by what we disagree on, and finally, my conclusion on how to fix it.

We both love Glass. We both love the camera that comes with it. I’ve done things on Glass that, while possible on a mobile phone, make it so simple, so effortless, and so much more fun, both for myself and those around me. Elgan makes the point that all the fuss over the camera is distracting from what Glass really is: “The problem is that the existence of Glass’s camera is distracting everyone, and causing the public to completely miss what this technology is all about.” Yep!

He also correctly points out that glasses with camera functionality have been around for yonks; devices in which mostly the camera is practically invisible—unlike with Glass. Still, Mike’s point is correct: the fact that Glass has a camera coupled with the fact that a person not familiar with Glass will not know when it is recording makes people nervous. But, it is not the camera itself; it is rather that the camera is pointing where ever the wearer is looking, and in almost every case, in that direction will be a person—potentially—unaware.

Continue reading “Why Google Glass Shouldn’t Lose the Camera”

The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science eBook

I’d like to announce that my project at which I’ve been working on since April has finally sprouted its wings and made its way into the digital ether. The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science features chapters from the likes of plant geneticists, plant pathologists, molecular biologists, farmers, professors, journalists, renowned authors, a couple of bloggers and even a historian. The subject matter tackles fear-mongering, gene commonality between species, knowledge discrimination, how GMOs reduce farming inputs, the myth-making ability of the human brain, and many more.

Lastly, I haven’t mentioned the best thing about the eBook: It’s FREE. You can download it for Kindle, Nook, iOS, or as PDF here at Smashwords.

I have an upcoming guest post at Genetic Literacy Project which should come online later today. In it, I’ll be discussing the role of the authority in an argument from authority, specifically when it comes to arguments of the scientific type in promotion of The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science. In the meantime, there are two reviews below. And, if you’d like to share the pro-science message, click here to tweet about the eBook.

Get The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science for free

“I enjoyed the synthesis provided by “The Lowdown on GMOs According to Science”. Janabi recombines writings from researchers, farmers, former anti-GMO activists, science writers, and consumers into an operon that expresses a lot of great information about genetically-modified organisms. It’s hard to find this level of quality discussion on this topic around the internet, where murky misinforming fearmongers overwhelm the discussions.

Scientists, farmers and folks who had the drive to learn more about the issues provide a variety of perspectives on GMOs. Their grasp of the historical context, the present directions, and the current and future benefits will help anyone to understand why GMOs are tools that people who have experience with them *want* to use.

The writers here use their own experiences, their years of work, and their own due diligence to assess the issues. They explain the framework of misinformation and how it clouds attempts to see the facts. And it might be a perspective you haven’t heard much before. Overall it is a compelling plea for people to look at the real evidence and decide.”

~ Mary Mangan, PhD (Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology), President and co-founder of OpenHelix LLC

“The use of biotechnology in agriculture is a topic you hear  a lot about these days: farmers in distant regions of the world, looking to improve their yields, receive two versions (this will save you/this will poison you); voters in conditions altogether more comfortable than those small holder farmers weighed down by debt, are driving up to vote on whether products should be labeled to let consumers know they were grown using biotechnology. All of this and more is contained in 3 letters GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). But what exactly does this mean? To anyone advocating for food policy issues, the superficiality of information (or, in some cases, complete misinformation) which form the basis of debates on GMO are held is worrisome.  So I am happy to be the bearer of some good news: “The Lowdown on GMOs: According to Science” is here and is going to be an excellent source of information for anyone seeking to learn more about this issue.

The book is put together with articles from a range of experts in this domain: molecular biologists, Alan McHughen and Kevin Folta; plant pathologist Steve Savage and plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar, among others. The scientific viewpoint, often so frustratingly opaque to those of us who were relieved to be done with science on high school, is presented here in clear terms and the reader can come to their own conclusions.

Also interesting are the accounts of the journey of those who started out as skeptics but after doing the research became convinced by the actual facts to support the use of biotechnology in agriculture. This is especially useful because it resonates with those of us who may still be educating ourselves but feel intimidated by all the noisemakers into taking up a hasty position. This perspective is a nuance often lost in the noisy and often vicious debates that characterize this topic. It also helps that one of these journeys is that of Mike Bendzela who is a farmer. That farmers’ voices are not heard often enough in the food debate is something I have often blogged about. You may think you know all that is there is to about Monsanto, but after reading Brian Scott’s views on using Monsanto’s products on his farm; you might look at the picture differently. Of particular note is the piece by Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmentalist who recently changed his viewpoint and came out in strong support of GMOs. 

In his own piece, Fourat Janabi replies to the “Nature does it best” argument that the anti-GMO lobby is so fond of, pointing out that nature is full of experiments which created our diverse world; also drawing our attention to the fact that the Big Ag lobby is matched by a robust Organic lobby!. He also takes up the question of how to feed 9 billion people in a time of climate change and it is here that biotechnology is going to prove crucial. The use of biotechnology can increase yields, enable climate resilience and improve health outcomes through biofortification of crops. It is not the only or perhaps even the most important tool but it is a crucial one and throwing it away on the basis of misinformation and fear mongering would be a grave mistake.

The conclusion consists of an impressive list scientific bodies from all over the world that have found that biotechnology is no more risky than any other conventional breeding technology and is safe for human consumption; hopefully this book will convince many people of that point of view.”

~ Arpita Bhattacharjya, Formerly worked in developing Economic Policy for Agricultural and Rural Development

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RE: A Terse Explanation for the Finite Nature of Religion

religious reasoning

Both Heathen Heart and R.L. Culpeper have written a few posts between themselves discussing, and respectfully disagreeing on the endgame of religion. So now I’m turning it into a chain-mail of posts by adding my two cents (and that’s probably all it’s worth) in response to Culpeper’s post, linked here. It’s written as a comment, but I’m adding it here because I needed to insert links as references  and it’s also quite long (for a comment at least).

So you’ve made some great points in your post, and I’m inclined to agree with all of them. However, and forgive me for being blunt, I think they are rooted in the application of your considerable intellect only to the short-history humanity has had. The assumptions (or fundamentals) that have thus far, underwritten our societies, are changing and will soon no longer be relevant. To elucidate this, let me use an example of a friend who took a similar position but related to GMO foods.

She said that science (read: genetic engineering) has never produced a healthier food than what we can produce organically. In this, she is not wrong. But what was also implied was scientists will never ever produce a healthier food than nature, and this is false (if we set our minds to it, we’ll do it; history is replete with such examples: flight, telepathy (cellphone), space travel, breaking the sound barrier, and so on). Producing a healthier apple than nature merely requires the requisite knowledge and tools, both of which are coming online ever increasingly in abundance with each passing year. It’s just a matter of time, because if nature can do it, it means that it’s possible, and since evolution never produces perfect organisms, there is always a better way to make it. Ergo, one day, provided that research into GM food continues, then GM food will one day trump nature’s food.

So to relate that back to your example. Religion will never release its hold upon humanity. I’d like to modify your statement if I may. I think it should be written as “religion will never release its hold upon humanity while people remain uneducated, mis-educated, disease-prone, conflict-prone, and death providing the existential threat.”

So let’s tackle them one by one.

Global literacy is on its way down, thanks to the Internet, cell-phones, and increasing wealth (this trend is slow but progressing. Global literacy is 84%, while in 1990, it was 76%). Mis-education is a problem, but again, this is also getting better and you need only look to the western countries to see that as economic growth increases, societal dysfunction goes down, more kids are sent to school as a result, instead of having to help the family get food and income, and religious fervour drops as a result. (There was a recent comprehensive study that showed that religion, social stratification, and societal dysfunction are inherently linked, but which causes which is as yet unknown. Does society-wide religion cause economic inequalities, or does economic inequality increase religious fervor?  I think it’s the latter, but there is no way to conclusively show it is one over the other.) This somewhat tackles mis-education indirectly. A prosperous society is more likely to be a freer society. And a freer society is more likely to have criticism, debates, discussions, opposing and dissenting opinions, and this makes its way into the hearts and minds of its citizens.

Disease-prone: This is somewhat self-explanatory. 100 years ago, life expectancy was 47 years. It’s 78.5 today in the west, 89 in Monaco, and 83 in Japan. Chad has the lowest at 48.69, but that is higher than the entire global average of one century ago. More and more diseases are being combatted now (Hans Rosling has an excellent four-minute video of the rising life expectancy as a result of increasing wealth). But medicine, up until now, has been a hit and miss process. As Kurzweil says, we just found stuff that worked and kept doing it with very little understanding of the underlying biological processes at work. With genetic medicine increasing in cost-to-performance ratio ten-fold per year (5 times the pace of Moore’s Law in computers), it is getting cheaper to sequence DNA, understand the information processes that underly biology, and start implementing preventive medicine instead of reactive medicine, which is resulting in Lab on a Chip technology. (Soon, your cellphone will become your doctor and analyze your body on the spot. Pandemics will cease, health will increase, people will have more time to satisfy their own desires and study, and quality of life will increase. This tech is coming online this year. I wrote a post on the future of medicine and health here, and here is a short youtube video to show it in action.) Historically, life expectancy has increased 1-2 years per decade. But because biology is now an information technology, it will (and indeed does) increase exponentially (since 2003 when the genome was mapped), and within 10-20 years, life expectancy will be increased at one year per year. (Note, this requires no new technology, only the technology and understanding we currently have to continue along at a pace equal to, or greater, than Moore’s Law, and this is indeed happening and shows no sign of abating.)

Tackling conflict. According to Steven Pinker (everyone owes it to themselves to watch his 18-min TED talk titled: The Myth of Violence), violence has declined since the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the 20th century was the most peaceful century in existence, even accounting for WW1 and WW2. War is becoming less and less common the more the information about the conflict travels. We need only look at Vietnam here. The first war to bring the reality of death and destruction back to the general population. Needless to say, it was the most unpopular war in history, and look at the conflicts since then, unwaveringly smaller, and more sensitive to collateral damage. (I am not saying it has been roses and happiness since then, but there is a clear downgrade in the severity of conflicts in regions of the world where communication and information are abundant.)

Death is the big one and will undoubtedly remain the biggest motivator, but we must realize that even if no progress is made, progress against religion can be made. Just look at the Scandinavian countries, Australia, several other European nations, China, and Japan which are majority (or close to) agnostic/atheist. But be that as it may, progress towards the dissolution of death is well underway, and even starting to appear in the mainstream press. But for now, we must take it as an assumption that death will be forever removed as the inevitable curse it is. The other examples I have shown are in progress, so is death, but until global death rates hit zero (natural deaths, that is), the jury will be out.

You also mention political and economic inequality. I could write thousands of words on this, but to try to keep it brief. Technology is changing the human landscape and bringing people out of poverty. The book Abundance is a great read to really understand the dynamics. (And Rational Optimist so I’m told, though I haven’t read it yet but I will soon.) But, in the last century: per-capita average income has tripled (adjusted for inflation), food has come down in cost a factor of 10, shelter a factor of 20, transportation a factor of 100, and communication a 1000-fold. And in the last forty years, global poverty has halved while the population has doubled. So we are earning three times more, spending less on the necessities and learning/enjoying more than ever. These trends are actually accelerating (The Law of Accelerating Returns). While we are not out of the woods yet, the trends are clearly in one direction, and short of some calamity, should continue.

Concordantly, global religiosity is on its way down (59% are now religious, 23% are now a-religious, and 13% are atheists, with the none’s being the fastest growing, with the youth leading the way). (Who ever said young people were useless? It is only they that do reliably change the world. Of course, the logical conclusion is that if death is kept at bay, might things never change? The answer, for me, is no, as we tinker with our brains and augment our intelligence becoming in the process more wed to truth than to our cognitive biases as it stands now.)

So in answer to your questions. I do foresee a world of equal economic opportunity. (I think politics is obsolete and will go the way of the Dodo in the age of Big Data we are entering into. It’s even said that the metric system will run out of numbers to quantify the amount of data we will have by 2020.) Equal opportunity for education? Yes, Massively Online Open Courses (MOOC) are ballooning in size. Needing only internet connections to take courses at MIT and Stanford, as well as whole new schools opening up such as and coursera that offer the information and teaching content of degrees, and they are starting to become recognized by universities and applicable for course credit. (It’s early days yet, but the trends are there and heading in the right direction. Soon, only an internet connection will be required. Two billion people have internet today; by 2020, it will be five billion, and soon thereafter, close to everyone.) A time when people will want to learn? This one is harder to be so confident on, but my gut realization is yes, and allow me to explain my gut (and subjective) reasoning for such an answer. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. I’m not content in not knowing, and though I have always been like this, I often never had the leisure or time or requisite knowledge to go out there and gather more knowledge. I get better at this every year, and continuously want to continue. Now, with a sample size of just one, I cannot confidently extrapolate this out to anyone else (though I’m sure I can to you), but I do think this is part of human nature; this innate curiosity. It requires we adequately provide for one’s basic needs, then education and wants, then the potential for self-actualization (Nietzsche’s will to power: superman). As we move forward into the future, we are becoming smarter (and the lag-time between the have’s and have-nots is halving every decade [Source: The Singularity is Near]), so it is only a matter of time before inequality becomes insignificant. Here, I’ll use the world ‘believe’. I believe that once the needs of most people have been provided, and they have been educated properly, and become more prosperous, religiosity will decline, and people will want to know more, and thus wed themselves to truth. Big Data will also elucidate the many mysterious workings of the Earth and our societies, as well as making it accessible to the public.

I recently read an article on the explosion of Big Data and the death of the theorist. Historically, when we wanted to find out more about the world; we proposed a theory, computed the results, and went to gather data by experimentation/observation to confirm or falsify that theory. This process is reversing. We are now generating so much data; science and scientific studies, tweets, facebook, blogs and webpages, planes, trains, and automobiles along with everything else that our computers programs can find, and pull out the theories and do science after the fact. This is great for two reasons. Firstly, less and less will get missed as a result. Before, if somebody wasn’t thinking about or trying to find out something, then the theory was missed, lost forever, or delayed, or when found often suppressed (we lost the knowledge to make aluminum for 1800 years because of Tiberius if I recall correctly, the Emperor of Rome). Now, with an army of AI’s whose sole job it is to pull it out the world’s information, we will learn that much more about the world. Pandemics will be a thing a past, resource depletion will be foreseen well in advance, known troublemakers will be spotted beforehand and terrorist attacks possibly stopped. (If you read the article, which I recommend you do, you will see that Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad could have been derived from publicly available information on the internet before hand to within 200km. Imagine the possibilities of stopping future attacks instead, which should do away with the politics of fear, and perhaps, even the CIA and military industrial complex.)

So, I think the future is bright (provided we can move fast enough on climate change and other vexing problems of urgent immediacy), and we can do away with religion, or at least, and perhaps more likely, relegate it to irrelevance, much as flat-earthism is today. There are also other interesting aspects which I do not have time to explore; such as the merging of humanity into a global mind, the technological potential of a universal fact checker (I recently had an idea to create a script that scours what you read on the net and highlights dubious/false claims. We don’t all have time to fact-check every claim we read, we are modified skeptics in that regard, but this is what we use technology for, to alleviate our shortcomings. Kind of like a modified Watson who will soon start informing and helping doctors in their diagnosis’ because the amount of info is expanding exponentially and a doctor can’t hold all that info in his head, so we’ll be using AI to augment their powers of diagnosis, and I see no reason why it will stop at just medicine. It will subsume all fields where knowledge is definitively known, and most likely provide probabilistic answers for other fields). But, I’m in a rush so I’m skimming. (If you watch any YouTube lecture by Kurzweil in the range of 45-60 minutess, you will immediately see where I’m coming from and I recommend that.)

Anyway, I don’t disagree with anything you said. In fact, I learn lots every time I read one of your posts. It’s only that the dynamics of our society, which still allow religious belief to be insulated from facts, truth, reason, and humanism are finite, and now that we are above the knee of the exponential curve, greater change will occur in ever-decreasing amounts of time. Lastly, I do not mean to make it seem so easy or underplay the consequences of any conflicts, local or global, of humanity. Merely, that it is becoming easier to understand, communicate, and tackle them, and this trend is becoming ever more pervasive, understood, and the means of production ever cheaper democratizing them in the process. There is a lot of work still to be done, a lot of people still needlessly die, and many more are unable to enjoy the comforts that many of us now enjoy. However, these problems are being more and more understood, tackled, and it will only become easier in the future.

This is, believe it or not, brief, and I have only explored them rather inadequately and quickly. But I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to write a counter-post; disagreeing or agreeing for whatever reason, and if need be, I can explain in more detail, any point I’ve inadequately expressed. Looking forward to hearing from you.