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Benefits of living your life by science

We live in interesting times. “Interesting” often being downright disheartening, as we have a society in the US that seems to be embracing the future depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The same US that used to lead the world in innovation and science now has about 40% of the population who shows outright disdain, if not hatred, of “experts”, including science. I could go on…and on…and on…and on…on this topic. But I’ll turn that conversation to how science has benefits in so many aspects of life.

That includes birding! As someone who has been a birder and a bird photographer for 20+ years now, I realize that technical photography skills are a very small part of successful bird photography. The big challenge is getting close enough to a bird! That means knowing when, and where birds will be, and how that species normally behaves. Science can help with all three of these!

I had an absolutely, incredible, spectacular day birding today. It was a drippy, gloomy, dreary day, a day where normally I may not have even left the house. However…SCIENCE told me to leave the house!! Two days ago…Cornell University’s “Birdcast” predicted that the night of May 15th/16th would be a heavy migration night with birds arriving in eastern South Dakota in high numbers. I’ve learned to really trust the Birdcast predictions, particularly after a few events last year where the forecast immediately preceded some absolutely spectacular birding. So what did the forecast predict?

Cornell BirdCast - Migration Forecast for May 15-16.
Cornell BirdCast – Migration Forecast for May 15-16 (Issued 2 days in advance)

I headed out this morning before dawn, arriving at Newton Hills State Park in search of warblers and other migrating birds. Unfortunately, the rain arrived shortly after I did! It was extremely frustrating, as I could SEE many birds moving about in the forest canopy, but with the early hour, the clouds, and rain…it was difficult to see them well enough to identify them. I did bird for an hour or so, and did have a good time, identifying over 50 species. Normally a great time, but with the slight rain continuing and making photography difficult, I started to head home.

As I drove back home, the rain started to lighten, and eventually stopped. As I got within a couple of blocks from my house, I thought…SCIENCE! By god, that BirdCast hadn’t let me down in the past! I thought I’d try one more place while the rain held off, and ended up at Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 3-4 miles from our home. It’s a place where I’ve had decent luck before, but it’s never been as “hot” as Newton Hills.

That changed this morning! THANK YOU science, and thank you BirdCast! There’s one trail I normally take at Beaver Creek, which takes perhaps half an hour at most. Instead, I ended up walking around for nearly 2 1/2 hours. Almost one hour of that was sitting in one spot! There’s a ridge with a steep bank, where you can walk along canopy or mid-story of the trees growing in the ravine below. It’s been a place where I’ve had good luck before, but nothing like this! As I watched, wave after wave of birds were moving through the forest canopy, including…Warblers! The highlight of spring migration!

In 20 years of birding, I had yet to get a good photo of a Blackburnian Warbler. That ended today! I saw two here, both of whom were uncharacteristically cooperative for the camera. In total, in that 2+ hours, I saw 16 different Warbler species! A terrific day, and one that would have turned out very differently if I’d just looked out the window in the morning, had seen the rain and gloom, and stayed home.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Blackburnian Warbler May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart
Setophaga ruticilla
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
American Redstart May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher 
Empidonax minimus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Least Flycatcher May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson's Thrush
Catharus ustulatus
May 16th, 2020
Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota
Swainson’s Thrush May 16th, 2020 Beaver Creek Nature Area, South Dakota

COVID-19 — ENOUGH of the anti-science bullshit

COVID-19 - Testing vs. Political Lean

I said a while back that I was going to try to avoid blogging about anything not related to birds and birding. There’s enough crap going on in the world since, oh, January 2017 to keep me occupied with multiple daily blogs if I wanted to, but I’ve been trying to, you know…stay sane.

Well, I’m about to break that oath, and talk something that’s definitely not bird related. We’re a good month into the worst of the COVID pandemic, and people are shell-shocked, and some are increasingly desperate. I get it. I understand the massive, Depression-level impact on the economy. I know there are a lot of people hurting, and I’m extremely sympathetic. I’d do whatever I could to help these people. But what I also know is that this has brought out a WORLD o’ ugly. Many Americans are soldiering on, pitching in to help where they can. Others are literally willing to sacrifice the lives of their fellow Americans, all for the sake of a paycheck.

As a human being…that’s damned tough to deal with. One thing that’s absolutely killing me right now though…the damned STUPIDITY and anti-expert, anti-science reaction to what’s happening. It all came to a culmination today with some idiot (on Facebook) who started bashing scientists and “stats men” for the (perceived) inability to perfectly predict the spread of COVID, and the trends over the coming days and months. This person made fun of weather men first, with a dig that COVID “stats men” make even weathermen’s predictions look good.

Yeah buddy…FUCK YOU. I’ve had it with the anti-science attitude in this country. There’s a fucking reason the US has by FAR the most cases in the entire world, and the most deaths. It’s the anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-expert attitude that’s fucked up the country, not just in the last 3+ years, but going back at least a couple of decades now.

People like this DO KNOW that the only way we’re getting out of this is THROUGH SCIENCE!!?!?? FINDING A CURE and/or TREATMENT!??!?! Anyway…here’s my response. I’ve just had enough of this kind of person.

The weather is a physical phenomenon. A lot of variables, but there are immutable, physical laws you can model. As hard as it is to model the weather, modeling this is orders of magnitude more difficult. COVID may be caused by a virus, but the spread and control is controlled by the actions of people. Blaming a “stats man” is ridiculous, as every scenario from every model has been just that…a scenario IF people behave as expected, or as they should. There are low scenarios, and high scenarios. And surprise…when people act according to the assumptions in the scenario…the models are pretty damned good.

Hint…People don’t do that. They don’t act as expected. They act in ways that are impossible to model (people ignoring the science, for one). So blame 1) a government (at many levels) that twiddled it’s thumbs and still hasn’t done a consistent job in reacting, and hasn’t done what they would be expected to do, 2) idiots like Governor Kristi Noem who play politics and ignore the scientists, despite hosting the biggest individual hot spot in the country, 3) people who are perfectly happy sacrificing other people for the sake of a paycheck.

Even a cynic like myself wouldn’t have foreseen so many Americans being so willing to allow the death of their fellow countrymen. Sorry, but blaming “stats men” and their models is BS. The whole anti-science spin is especially ridiculous given the ONLY thing that’s going to save our ass are the scientists working on treatments and a cure.

NOTE ABOUT GRAPHIC ABOVE: The graphic depicts Coronavirus testing frequency by state, vs. how that state voted in the 2016 election. In short…if you live in a blue state, consider yourself fortunate because you’re statistically much more likely to be tested. 10 of 13 top-testing states are Blue. 10 of 13 bottom-testing states are Red.

The science behind a bird fallout…there’s an app for that!!!

Birding the Sioux Falls area in April and the first half of May was…sloooooooooooooowwwww. With the late cold weather and snow, and continued wet spring precipitation, there was certainly plenty of water around (and there still is). But shorebirds were very slow all spring near Sioux Falls (perhaps just spread out?). Sparrow migration was utterly spectacular in April, but other songbirds? Once the sparrows left, it seemed like there weren’t any other songbirds filling the void. Certainly not warblers, which were few and far between for much of May. With the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) meeting in Brandon on May 17-19, and with an incredibly wet forecast, the prognosis for good birding wasn’t great.

And then a funny thing happened…songbird migration ended up being utterly spectacular that weekend. The birds seemed to have arrived overnight, with warblers galore, and plenty of other songbirds as well. I personally had a 20-warbler day that Saturday (the 18th), and that’s with me whiffing on a few species that others saw in the area. It was one of the best, if not the best, warbler and songbird days I’ve had here in the 20 years I’ve been birding.

So what happened? As a scientist, I say LET’S CHECK THE SCIENCE behind it! You know how they say “There’s an app for that?” Well there’s also typically a scientific explanation behind…everything, if you look hard enough. That’s certainly true in this case.

For one, let’s check the weather radar for the overnight period from Friday, May 17th through Saturday May 18th. The weather that Friday was cloudy and rainy, driven by a low pressure system and a slowly moving front moving northeastward out of Nebraska. With the system predicted to generally stall over our area for the weekend, the forecast was bleak.

May 17th, 2019 - Weather Map
Weather map on 6:00AM (CST) on Friday, May 17th, showing a stalled to slowly moving stationary front just to our south. The forecast was for the low pressure system in Colorado to slowly move northeastward, bring showers and thunderstorms to the region for Friday night and into the weekend.

The weather system did move northeasterly through the afternoon and evening, triggering storms both along the trailing warm front to the south through Nebraska and Kansas, as well as more unsettled weather wrapping around the low pressure system. Moderate to strong northeasterly winds were found behind the low pressure system, but in front of the low were southerly and southeasterly winds…including in the area around Sioux Falls. It took until daybreak for the low pressure system to reach the Sioux Falls area, basically sitting directly over the region. But from the previous evening through daybreak on May 18th, an area from Sioux Falls, southward into extreme eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa and Minnesota were subject to south and southeasterly winds.

Surface weather map at 6:00 AM CST, showing the low sitting almost directly over Sioux Falls. But all night long, the counter-clockwise winds around the low funneled southerly and southeasterly winds through an area from far eastern South Dakota, and eastward into Iowa and Minnesota.

Given how slow the migration had been all spring long, the birds had to be…somewhere. But where? How could science have explained the fallout of warblers and other birds that weekend? The weather map and the southeasterly winds provide one clue, but the other is provided by weather radar itself. Since the 1950s, it’s been understood that weather radar could potentially identify features in the sky other than the weather…and that includes birds. There’s even a term for it now…Radar Aeroecology. A 1956 paper by Bonham and Blake discussed the radar echoes provided by both birds and flying insects. While research continued in the decades since, it’s only recently that the information has been made available for a birder’s benefit.

The animated map below shows national-scale radar returns for the night of May 17th. The advancing low and front, and associated precipitation, can be seen as it moves out of Colorado, through Nebraska and into South Dakota. But what of the radar returns in the eastern half of the country? Those are birds…birds taking flight just after sunset to resume their spring migration northward. You can identify the “bloom” around each radar location shortly after sunset, with the blooms appearing east to west as the sun sets. Where are the heaviest migration “blooms”? Look at the radars lighting up after sunset in the Midwest…St. Louis…Des Moines…other radars in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa depicting heavy densities of birds taking flight.

Radar loop from approximately 6:00 PM (CST) Friday, May 17th, 2019 through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th, 2019. The areas south and east of Sioux Falls show a clear, very strong signal representing heavy migration of birds taking flight that evening.

But how can we translate those radar echos to where the birds are moving? In recent years, Cornell University, in partnership with multiple academic institutions, have developed “BirdCast“. They have developed algorithms that use weather radar returns to quantify the density of birds, while using short-term weather forecasts to project likely movements. The resultant “BirdCast” provides a 1- to 3-day look on likely bird migration hotspots.

The animated map below provides a depiction of estimated bird migration traffic that night. Ahead of the advancing front, southerly and southeasterly winds were favorable for migration, particularly as large densities of birds were already stacked up from the previous days and weeks. Sioux Falls was on the western edge of this migration hotspot, a beneficiary of favorable weather patterns bringing in birds from Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Birdcast depiction of migration traffic rate (bird density) and directional movements, from about 6:00 pm Friday, May 17th, through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th. with northerly winds and lower bird densities in the western Great Plains, very little bird movement is noted. However, ahead of the advancing front, extremely high migration densities are noted from Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa radar sites, with southeasterly winds pushing them northwestward…towards Sioux Falls. The solid lines represent the advancing sunset (red) and sunrise (yellow).

The map below depicts the situation that occurred throughout much of the first half of May. Prevailing weather patterns and storms, along with the cool weather, kept birds stacked up to our south and east, with a very slow spring migration to this point in South Dakota. The week prior to the big Sioux Falls fallout, birds were so far south that the Houston area birders declared a “Lights Out” period from May 9th-12th to avoid confusing the mass of migrating birds. But they had a long ways to go to get to South Dakota.

Houston Audubon "Lights Out" for May 9-12
Image from the Houston Audubon site, calling for a “lights out” period from May 9th to 12th. Heavy migrations were predicted the week before the Sioux Falls fallout…but FAR to our south and east.

The result of the changing weather pattern…an absolutely spectacular weekend of birding in the Sioux Falls area the weekend of May 17-19, particularly as the forecast deluge mostly fizzled out. I admit that even I as a scientist was somewhat skeptical of the Cornell BirdCasts. But after the events of that weekend, count me as a firm believer!

Here are some photos of the spectacular birds of that weekend:

Scarlet Tanager - Piranga olivacea
Scarlet Tanager – May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
Magnolia Warbler – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
Henslow’s Sparrow – May 19th, 2019 – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. Great weekend of birding overall, AND a lifer? I’ll take it.
Great Crested Flycatcher - Myiarchus crinitus
Great Crested Flycatcher – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Flycatchers in general seemed almost non-existent, prior to this weekend.
Mourning Warbler May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Not a great photo, but Mourning Warblers are a species I see occasionally, some springs. On May 18th, I ran into probably a dozen at Good Earth State Park.

South Dakota State Guts Research – Polishes Turd with Statement

Replacement SDSU Staff

There IS a strategy behind the SDSU collapse of support for the GSCE program. World-renown researchers Wimberly, Roy, Hennebry, and Zhang have reportedly been replaced with these “new and improved” alternatives.

Clear not all politicians stick with politics. Some obviously branch out in other lines of work…say…working for South Dakota State University’s Division of Research and Economic Development. A few weeks ago the entire research staff of SDSU’s Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE) quit, after being fed up with budget cuts and a seeming disinterest from SDSU in supporting the center. GSCE immediately went from being literally one of the world’s premiere research centers for remote sensing and geospatial sciences, to an empty husk with no staff.

Today, SDSU’s Divison of Research and Economic Development sent out the statement below.

University Community –

 

The purpose of this correspondence is to inform you of some changes within theGeospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE). Beginning August 22, the GSCE will move from the Division of Research and Economic Development to the Department of Geography in the College of Natural Sciences. The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy, a deeper integration within our university budget process, and provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center and its host college and department.

 

Additionally, Dr. Bob Watrel will serve as the center’s acting co-director.

 

The center will continue to serve as a hub of excellence in geospatial science research and research education. The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists, educators and decision-makers. We will continue our valuable partnership with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

 

The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research. To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity. We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision of being a premier land-grant university.

 

Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.

 

Division of Research and Economic Development

Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Other than the content of the statement, one question that immediately comes to mind…why is the “Division of Research” linked with “Economic Development”? It’s not exactly a surprise to me in today’s political climate, certainly not in South Dakota. But it DOES highlight the emphasis of what SDSU seemingly wants to focus on…research related to economic gain to South Dakota itself. Hence the reported frustration from SDSU president Barry Dunn with all the GSCE work that covered areas outside of South Dakota.

But back to the statement itself…how does one interpret this jumble of alphabet soup? This collection of buzzwords and catch phrases that have an uncanny knack of using as many letters as possible to say absolutely…nothing.  In case you aren’t fluid in this language, here’s an interpretative key:

  • “The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy.” – Interpretation – SDSU HAS no research strategy but we’re polishing this turd the best that we can.
  • “…a deeper integration within our university budget process” – Interpretation – Nobody is safe from our reckless budget cutting, not even world-renown research centers that are self-sustaining and bring a massive reputation boost to SDSU.
  • “…provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center...” – Interpretation – All the research success of the center has walked out the door, and thus it’s quite easy to “integrate” what remains.
  • The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists.” – Interpretation – We’re encouraging “future scientists” to pursue other careers, as we no longer have any science staff to provide a quality education.
  • The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research” – Interpretation – We were caught with our pants down here. We cut budgets and are now paying the price. We have no strategy moving forward.
  • “To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity.” – Interpretation – HEY!  LOOK OVER HERE!  SHINY DISTRACTING OBJECT, BIG DOLLAR NUMBER!! We just lost the most visible research entity at the University but are trying to emphasize what we USED to do to support research.
  • “We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision...” – Interpretation – We are committed to continue cutting budgets despite the risk to students and the reputation of the University.
  • Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.” – Interpretation – Alumni…please continue to send donations to SDSU or we’ll continue hamstringing research at the University.

Perhaps the only sign of any intelligence in this entire word salad…whoever wrote it wasn’t even willing to sign their name to this obvious turd polishing.

 

Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.  It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.  In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.  Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.  The result of the drop of support?  For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.  That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?  It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.  To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

Scientists are Assholes

I’m a scientist. I’ve been in my field for over 25 years, employed at the same place for the vast majority of that time. I’ve got a many peer-reviewed journal publications, and have been around science and science publishing long enough to realize that…

Scientists are assholes.

Scientists have egos. I think for any successful venture, including scientific research, you HAVE to have a healthy ego, a confidence in your own capabilities, and a confidence in what  you’re doing. But underlying the “confident” form of ego is the seedy underbelly of scientists acting like assholes.

The New York Times posted a wonderful piece that focuses on social psychology, but the same general storyline could have played out in any of the sciences. In short, a young scientist published an article in 2010 that summarized one piece of her research. That led to notoriety, and even a 2012 TED talk that become one of the most widely viewed talks ever. After basking in the glow of the work for a short time, other researchers began to question her methodology, and question her results. Even worse, it got personal, with scientists and science bloggers taking the young woman to task, making unfounded and hurtful accusations. In short, the young woman DARED to experience success…which triggered a backlash from other scientists, a group of human beings that love NOTHING more than to tear each other down.

Scientists are assholes. At least there’s a segment of the profession that act in this manner. Many of them have built careers not on perfecting their own new, original research path, but instead by tearing apart the work of others. Even in my own field, there are scientists who I am only aware of because of their published “bakeoffs”, assessing the collective work of OTHER scientists, and meticulously picking through the work to find (perceived) flaws.

Given my cynical nature, it’s not like being an asshole is restricted to the field of science. So why devote a blog post to trashing my own profession? To make a point about climate change science. Climate change skeptics are nearly ALL politicians…talking heads…pundits…but very rarely, actual scientists. Even the majority of “scientists” who do attempt to discredit climate science are not climate scientists themselves.  Most often they are from another field. The pool of real climate scientists that are skeptical that 1) the climate is warming, and 2) mankind is at fault is TINY.

Scientists are assholes. And yet among scientists, climate change discord is remarkably absent. In a profession where ego and competitiveness are sometimes out of control, I can think of no better evidence of the sound scientific basis behind anthropogenic climate change. IF there were any speck of credible evidence that the climate isn’t warming, or that mankind’s activities aren’t the primary cause, stories such as the one provided by the New York Times would be rampant. Scientists would be eagerly ripping apart each other’s work, trying to discredit not only the research, but the researcher him/herself.

 

Actually, NO, Trump supporter…we can NOT be “friends”

Unfriend - FacebookLast week I got a direct email at work from someone I had unfriended on Facebook several months ago.  She (finally) noticed that I had unfriended her, and seemed a bit bewildered why I would do so after so many years. She was someone who was a friend / buddy while in high school and early into my college years, but someone I’ve not otherwise seen or communicated with over the last 30 years (other than Facebook). Over the time we were Facebook “friends”, it was obvious that our political beliefs were vastly different, but any political posts or comments to each other weren’t antagonistic or inappropriate.  However, late in the campaign her behavior  took a nasty turn, and the transformation was complete after the election was over.  It was a shocking and abrupt change in behavior that I also noticed with other “friends”, who now seemed empowered by the Trump election. It wasn’t acceptable, and I unfriended her.

As a result of last year’s political campaigns and the aftermath, my “friends” list on Facebook is decimated. I literally have half the Facebook friends now than I did when 2016 started, with some “unfriend” actions taken by others, but most taken by myself. None of these were people I actually physically interact with (which as my wife brings up…why were they Facebook “friends” in the first place?). They were nearly all old high school classmates or other acquaintances I haven’t seen or talked to for many years / decades, such as the old high school friend who contacted me through email.  The reasons I unfriended so many?  Their disgusting posts during and after the campaign.  The easiest choices?  The racist posts.  When 4 former high school classmates shared and joked about a cartoon showing Michelle Obama as a gorilla? A pretty easy (and fast) choice to immediately unfriend them. Other reasons were across the spectrum, as shown below, but were all because of online conduct and posts that any “friend” of mine simply would never dream of. It doesn’t matter if you’re an old, distant acquaintance, or if you’re one of the people closest to me today, there are certain lines that are unacceptable for any “friend” to cross. The former high school friend crossed that line, but it goes beyond just her. Frankly it’s ANY Trump supporter.  Some may howl and scream at some perceived lack of respect for other viewpoints, but I’m sorry, if you support Trump and his policies, we simply cannot be “friends” in any way. Why, you ask?

Let’s start with item number one…bigotry and racism.

If this past election revealed anything about our nation, it’s that there are still some incredibly deep racial divides. Trump did the unthinkable…he actually CAMPAIGNED on a platform of racism, something no other politician dared to try.  And sadly…it worked.  Analysis after analysis show the same thing… no driving force was a better predictor of a Trump vote than a person’s racist or bigoted attitudes.  I have ZERO tolerance for bigots. Supporting and actually electing an open bigot to the most powerful position in the world?   From the treatment of immigrants, intolerance towards any religion other than Christianity, and an open war on LGBT rights, Trump and his supporters have shown a shocking degree of bigotry that many thought was in our past after the Obama election. If you support this man, you’re supporting hate. I’m sorry, but that’s not something that I could ever overlook.  It was shocking how many Facebook “friends” (again, many former classmates who never left southeastern Nebraska) I cut based on an outpouring of bigoted comments over the last year.

Item number two — Attitudes towards helping those in need.

This is the issue highest on my mind at the moment, and the reason I’m writing this blog post to begin with, given that today Republicans are about to pass “health care” legislation (more accurately referred to as tax-cut legislation for the wealthy) in the House.  20-25 million Americans will simply lose coverage, while the sick, the elderly, and needy will effectively lose health care access after being priced out of the market. No other developed country uses a health-care system based on corporate profit. No other developed country fails to cover the health care needs of its citizens.  No other developed country bases the quality of your health care on your ability to pay. I have a son with Type-1 diabetes, a disease we’re managing rather well, but a disease he’ll be grappling with for the rest of his life. The REASON we are managing it very well is because we’re fortunate enough to have 1) good insurance, and 2) a level of income that allows us to utilize the most advanced treatment regimes that have been developed. Given that good blood sugar control is LIFE for a Type-1, with drastically lower chances of complications (eye and kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, nerve damage) as blood sugar control improves, having access to the best treatments available literally means a much longer, healthier life.  While we’re fortunate, other families facing Type-1 diabetes are not.  Some simply can’t afford an insulin pump.  Some can’t afford a continuous glucose monitor that constantly reports blood sugar levels.  Some can’t afford frequent doctor visits.  To put it simply, Type-1 children whose families can’t afford quality care will have much harder lives, with more health complications, and a much shorter life span.  Children are DYING sooner than they need to, because of the basic greed and selfishness of Americans who value their own short-term prosperity above all else.  If you’re a Trump supporter, if you’re someone who believes health care should be more of a personal burden and responsibility rather than a shared societal responsibility, I’m sorry, there is NO way I can call you a “friend”. It’s a direct slap in the face to a father with a Type-1 child.  It’s you telling me that all you care about is yourself, that helping the sick and the needy isn’t something you want to be bothered with. It’s an issue that goes FAR beyond health care, as the Trump / conservative ideology simply refuses to recognize that there’s a societal, moral IMPERATIVE to help those in need.  It’s a shocking indictment of the basic greed and selfishness of Americans.  “Friend”? I think not.

Item number three — Attitudes towards science, towards logic and reason

I’m a scientist.  I monitor, assess, and predict changes to our earth’s landscape. The very real, observable, and predictable impacts of climate change are a big part of my life’s work. More than that, my very persona and belief system is based on logic, and reason.  The Trump movement is a threat not only to climate change, not only to science, but to logic and reason itself. When Trump says climate change isn’t real, it’s a lie, and he knows it. When Trump states the GOP health care bill will lower costs, cover more people, and cover pre-existing conditions, it’s a lie.  When Trump states that he lost the popular vote to voter fraud, it’s a lie.  Trump supporters have no use for fact.  They have no use for evidence, for data. They have no use for reason, for logic. In a shocking (and disgusting) recent poll, 80% of Trump voters say they believe Trump’s lies are less important than “fake news” distributed by mainstream media. Only 3% (!!!) believe Trump’s own lies are the bigger issue.  The poll question itself irritates the hell out of me, as it presents Trump’s lies and supposedly false media coverage as equal choices in the eyes of poll participants. They’re not. There’s simply no question that climate change is occurring, and we are the primary cause.  They’re simply no refuting the fact that the new GOP health care bill will cover fewer people and hurt the sick, elderly, and poor.  There’s simply no refuting the fact that Hillary convincingly won the popular vote and there was no widespread voter fraud.  We have evidence, we have data, we have analysis that disprove the Trump assertions, yet his mindless followers continue to believe everything that’s spoon-fed to them by the Trump administration. I’m sorry, if you support Trump, if you are a climate change denier, if you think of scientists as “elitists” rather than dedicated professionals who devote their lives to serving humanity?  You’re not my “friend”.  You’re effectively calling my career, and indeed my entire LIFE, as the “lie”, rather than confronting the evidence right in front of your eyes and reconsidering the Trump positions.

Item number four — A life built on hate

Basically a culmination of the prior items, I refuse to be “friend” to anyone who bases their life on a platform of hate.  Hate of people of “other” races. Hate of people of “other” religions. Hate of people of “other” sexual orientations.  Hate and disdain towards the poor, the sick, the needy.  Hate towards “elitists” and “experts”, those with knowledge, skills, and positions in life that you yourself don’t have. The Trump doctrine is based solely on the TEARING DOWN of others…not building a happy, healthy, prosperous society.  HURTING immigrants through cruel policies. HURTING LGBT people through discriminatory practices.  HURTING the “experts” through government-sponsored misinformation with an underlying political agenda.  What’s been proposed by the Trump administration to truly HELP people (other than those who are already wealthy?)?  It’s an agenda, a doctrine, seemingly built solely on revenge, hatred, and greed.

Facebook “friends”? These are the reasons I’ve unfriended you. In short…I have no problem with my well-reasoned conservative friends.  I have no problem with my well-reasoned Republican friend.  Trump supporters, you are anything but well-reasoned. I don’t need the hate, the bigotry, the callousness towards the needy, the abandonment of reason.

A day of sanity (no, not the science march)

 

3 very nice northern pike, just a perk on a great day with my son.

Today was the Science March, and we actually had a March in Sioux Falls. I didn’t participate. Ever since the election, I’ve been in a funk. Particularly living here in very “red” South Dakota, it’s hard to avoid the conservative mindset, a mindset where greed is good, helping others is bad, and,yes, science isn’t to be trusted. When your career is focused on trying to help people through science, and that involves assessing the impacts of climate change, it’s hard not to let America’s anti-intellectualism get you down. I’ve tried to do what little I can to fight back. I’ve stood up for science. I’ve let my voice be heard. But I just can’t keep letting it dominate my existence. Hence my decision not to march today.

Part of the reason also is based on my continuing battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome. It seems like every time I “solve” one issue, or at least learn to live with some fun symptom, another thing pops up. The dry eyes and resultant vision impact has been addressed with my scleral contact lenses, something that’s saved my career, my sanity, my spirits. But in the last few months the arthritis part of Sjogrens has unfortunately started to make itself known. It’s only minor right now, but I was hoping that part would never show up, because chances are it will just keep progressing. My hands/fingers are already feeling stiff at times, and my knees getting awfully cranky at times too.

As all of this had been going on, I’ve had to do some hard thinking about how I want to cope. The whole feeling-sorry-for-myself thing isn’t a great long term strategy! Neither is the negativity I’ve felt since the election. Put it all together, and today I decided to focus on what’s really important, and that’s not the Science March. It’s my son and family. So today was a wonderful day with my son!

We headed up to Lake Thompson to do some fishing. It’s a place we usually have some luck, but it’s 1 1/2 hours away. Today that drive was actually a blessing. I LOVE that my soon to be 14-year old son still loves hanging out with dad and being goofy. The drive up to the lake was filled with music!  And goofy singing and air guitaring along!  Another thing I love is how he’s taken to some of the music I love, and hence some of the tunes playing included AC/DC, The Beach Boys, Elton John, ELO, and Chicago.

The fishing was great as well!  We were actually trying to catch walleye, until the first big pike attacked my bait. All we had were light poles and 4-lb test line, and we had no steel leaders to protect the thin line from the pike’s sharp teeth. But after that first hit (and break off) we started using a long, thin Rapala crankbait, one where the pike would hit it and get hooked up, but where the line was away from the pike’s mouth. It certainly worked, and with plenty of open water and nothing for line to get caught on, we were able to just let the pike run for a while before bringing them in on the light line.

Scrambling on the rip-rap (rock) along the shore wasn’t fun at times for my increasingly arthritic knees, but the music on the way up, the silly conversations with my son, the excitement and sheer joy of seeing him land some really nice pike…for a while today, I was largely able to forget about the Sjogrens. I was able to forget about the political bullshit going on. I was able to forget that I live in conservative hell with bigoted, greedy people.

In short, I had a wonderful day, focusing on the most important things in life. A day well spent, despite missing the March for Science.

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

GOP House Passes Bill to Legislate Away Science

Endangered ScientistsSince the November elections, I have had exactly one day where my inner “chi” was restored to where it was before the election. I have a pretty damned low opinion about my fellow man as it is. That’s what happens when you’re a news junkie and you read about the stupidity and outright cruelty mankind displays on a constant basis. But last Friday, when the GOP imploded and TrumpCare spectacularly crashed, I felt temporarily at peace.

That peace was short-lived. I should have just stopped reading any news, there and then.  But alas, since Friday, the GOP seems to feel the need to reassert their testosterone-driven, fuck-the-truth, pedal-to-the-metal drive towards the destruction of our country.  Yes, there’s Russia-gate and the incredible corruption of a party more worried about elections than the country’s very survival.  There’s the blatant nepotism that flouts all traditional ethical standards in government, where we’re no longer bothering to pretend Trump’s family is playing a major role, and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are being handed official government positions. There’s another potential effort to derail Obamacare.  But when you touch my science? You’ve gone too fucking far, GOP.

The House today voted on a bill laughably called the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act.  Or just “HONEST” for short.  What the hell?  Why not? Why not call it that? The GOP has a constituency comprised of ignorant rednecks who believe anything they’re spoon-fed, so why NOT go ahead and label something corrupt and dishonest as “honest”?  White is black, black is white, up is down, who the hell cares any more?  The bill claims to reign in an “out-of-control administrative state” that (GASP!!!) DARES to use actual science in their decision-making.  SCIENCE!?!?!? Using it to actually make informed, logical decisions!??!?  SCREW THAT!!  We can’t have those uppity scientific experts telling us what to do!!!

Lamar Smith, laughably the head of the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, even dared to give a lecture about how to conduct science while touting this tremendous accomplishment:

“The days of ‘trust-me’ science are over. In our modern information age, federal regulations should be based only on data that is available for every American to see and that can be subjected to independent review,” he said. “That’s called the scientific method.”

Yeah, who wants to trust science, when you have corrupt, ignorant politicians like Smith to TELL us what the truth is?  The “scientific method” evidently is no longer based on objective analysis. It’s no longer based on empirical evidenced to support a theory.  The “Scientific Method” under Trump and the complicit GOP is to squeeze the life out of the science itself, and replace it with political ideology. The “Scientific Method” under the GOP is to replace “science” with “corporate profit” when making any kind of regulatory decision.

The GOP’s utter disdain for science, for TRUTH, for INTEGRITY, has become to be so absolute that we’re becoming desensitized to it.  The ignorance, the cruelty, the lack of awareness of what MADE America what it is…we’re becoming numb to it all. With the constant stream of absolutely ridiculous news coming out of Washington, stories such as this one get lost in the noise, yet it’s legislation like this that poses the greatest threat to our prosperity and well-being.  What makes it so devious is the presentation of the bill, as opposed to the content.  The concept that’s dishonestly pushed by Smith and others in the GOP? That we’re NOT using open, honest science in making decisions, and legislation such as this is needed to officially restrict what information is used to support regulation.

In reality?  Science is science.  It’s peer-reviewed by fellow experts in a process that ensures a self-regulation of the results. Scientists have egos!  Trust me, for many scientists there’s nothing more they love than to tear down the work of another scientist. If the science itself isn’t valid?  There will be a reckoning, from those with an actual understanding of the science.  If the science isn’t valid, it will collapse under the immense weight of the scrutiny it receives from others in the field.

This bill isn’t meant to make science more open and “honest”. SCIENCE BY DEFINITION IS OPEN AND HONEST.  This bill is meant to strangle federal science. This bill is meant to inhibit the use of science in driving regulation. It’s meant to throw so much red-tape in the regulatory process that it becomes effectively impossible for an agency like the EPA to regulate industry.

Ivanka Trump’s new “official” role?  Confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court? Another attempt to replace Obamacare?  Aggravating, damaging in the short term, but it’s legislative efforts such as this, proposed by WEAK, insecure, foolish little men like Lamar Smith that are the the longer-term danger.

“Weakness is what brings ignorance, cheapness, racism, homophobia, desperation, cruelty, brutality, all these things that will keep a society chained to the ground, one foot nailed to the floor”. – Henry Rollins

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