A joint NASA/Library of Congress symposium held today in Washington DC asked:
Will human civilization on Earth be imperiled, or enhanced, by our own world-changing technologies? Will our technological abilities threaten our survival as a species, or even threaten the Earth as a whole, or will we come to live comfortably with these new powers?
I wasn’t able to listen to the webcast discussion, so I’m keen to see any forthcoming coverage in the blogosphere or mainstream media. The assembled panels seem to have explored themes at the center of a larger debate on Anthropocene era.
For another perspective on science’s impact on civilization, head over to Slate’s terrific special series on human longevity by Laura Helmuth.
This open letter to President Obama from Maria Rodale is the sort of low-hanging fruit that I try to avoid. But I give in to temptation every now and again when the author is someone widely admired within the U.S. food movement and a prominent environmental voice. (In the letter, Rodale identifies herself as “the CEO of the world’s leading health-and-wellness publisher and the granddaughter of the founder of the organic movement in America.”) To truly grasp the comparison she makes between Syria’s murderous regime and multinational agricultural and biotech companies, you have to read this lengthy excerpt: Read More
Mark Lynas detonated a stink bomb on Twitter today:
Imagine an ‘anti-science hall of shame’ w. climate deniers & anti-GM activists side by side. e.g. Seralini vs Pat Michaels? Nominations?
— Mark Lynas (@mark_lynas) September 5, 2013
When a science-minded crusader in India was murdered in August, it made international headlines. As the New York Times reported:
Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world.
If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.
He had done this for decades, incurring the wrath of Hindu hardliners and other religious groups in India. Dabholkar’s killing, the Times wrote, “is the latest episode in a millenniums-old wrestling match between traditionalists and reformers in India.”
The episode also highlights an ongoing larger clash in the developing world between age-old customs and modern-day attitudes about everything from mental disorders to gender rights. No issue has exemplified this divide more than that of vaginal circumcision of young girls in Africa, a brutal, agonizingly painful rite of passage enforced through socio-cultural norms. In the West, the practice has come to be known as genital mutilation.
Personally, I view this practice as barbaric and am horrified it is still so deeply embedded in some societies. Many share this view. But I’m also aware that such blanket condemnations are perhaps not the best way to effect change. As Erin Crossett has observed of families that still adhere to this custom:
Mothers love their daughters and fear they will be ostracized unless they are cut. Many are unaware of the immediate and long-term health risks and simply want to allow their child maximum options for marriage. By recognizing this fact, that these women love their daughters and are acting out of convention, Western aid and development practitioners can abandon their patronizing post-colonial attitude and instead foster a dialogue with education as a focal point.
The treatment of the mentally ill in developing countries is another issue that also requires a culturally sensitive approach. Read More
In this video, Matthew Hurteau—assistant professor of forest resources at Penn State University—explains how warming temperatures, prolonged drought, and a century’s worth of fire suppression policy are “priming the system to make it more flammable.
Climate Desk produced a longer, more detailed explainer earlier in the summer titled, “How climate change makes wildfires worse.”
While I wouldn’t discount climate change as a factor, it’s highly arguable whether global warming should be highlighted as a major driver of western wildfires. Read More
One of the maddening aspects of the GMO discourse is the conflation of industry concerns with science. The biggest example, of course, is the way Monsanto has become a proxy for anti-GMO sentiment.
True, this dynamic is not unique to biotechnology. Debates on pharmaceuticals, energy, and agriculture revolve around multinational companies that are stand-ins for Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Ag, respectively.
The problem comes when bad science and fear-mongering get bundled with legitimate skepticism of industry. We’ve seen this play out notoriously with the anti-vaccine movement. Unfortunately, the same mashup has become a major feature of GMO debates. What’s infuriating is when people who should know better still perpetuate the science/industry conflation. Read More
Why do people turn to alternative medicine? After posing this question last year, Steven Novella said it’s not because western medicine is failing. Rather, he explained,
many people have personal experiences with illness and health care, and personal experience can have a powerful influence on our beliefs (even if we are generally science and evidence-based in our thinking). We are apparently hard-wired to find anecdotes compelling, and nothing is more compelling than our own personal anecdotes.
Just for kicks, take a guess when Michael Specter wrote this in the New Yorker:
If the politics of genetically modified food has never been so anguished, the scientific prospects have never seemed more promising.
The answer and his superb piece can be found here.
Consider: Since his article appeared, the angry politics of genetically modified food has turned even uglier and the scientific prospects continue to tantalize us.
I got to thinking about this after reading Amy Harmon’s article on Golden Rice in yesterday’s New York Times. Not surprisingly, GMO opponents responded scornfully. Some thought leaders and journalists were taken aback.
As far as explainers go, I thought this Guardian piece discussing possible links between climate change and extreme weather was pretty good. What’s interesting to me is that it was written by Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. It’s part of a larger Guardian series called, “The Ultimate Climate Change FAQ.”
Let’s leave aside the questionable decision to let a PR person author an important article on a complex climate science question. Read More
Many people lament the sulfurous climate change discourse, myself included. At this point, the well is so poisoned that I find myself increasingly avoiding the topic. Most of those who read this post already have a strong opinion on climate science. Anything I write is automatically viewed through a skewed lens.
True, none of us are blank slates; we all have predispositions and biases. And yes, other highly charged topics, such as GMOs, are also filtered through a political or ideological lens. But climate change has become a sport where the most passionate followers belong to one of two opposing teams that really, really hate each other. If you want to participate without joining either team you will always find yourself being harangued or yelled at by affiliated members of one team, because anything you say on climate change will be viewed as ammunition for the other team. Even something as innocuous as the name of a blog gets caught in the maw. There is no neutral ground. You are either an ally or an enemy. Read More