Articles

The anti-science movement

The Mesentery Organ

Did you ever learn about the “mesentery” organ in anatomy? I must say that until the story a month or two ago about scientists discovering the mesentery is, in fact, an organ by definition, I’d never even HEARD of it. It’s 2017…I find it absolutely fascinating that there’s so much we still don’t know. However, in a world of tiny smartphones that are more powerful than any computer that existed on the planet when I grew up, people generally take the world around them for granted. They’ve lost their sense of wonder. They’ve lost their appreciation for discovery, and for science. As a result…we get the anti-intellectual movement that seems so pervasive right now. As a result, we get a blithering idiot for a President, a man who spats the name “scientist” as if it’s a four-letter world.

I’m addicted to the internet. I read news obsessively.  I check the same websites multiple times each day, looking for the latest news and information.  That includes basic news sites, but it also includes various science websites, such as ScienceDaily, Phys.org, or some of the big journal sites such as Science or Nature.  I’m always fascinated to read about the latest discovery, the latest experiment, the latest medical trial, or other science-related information.

Evidently not everybody gets so jazzed about science and discovery. One site I check quite a bit is TheVerge, a site focused primarily on technology. They also have interesting science stories from time to time, and I recently read this article entitled “No Thanks to the New Science Thing“.  The author clearly isn’t a scientist…that’s fine…but I do find the article, and the lack of interest in science, to be a bit distressing.  It’s a microcosm of what seems to be happening to a broad swath of Americans, where science, where discovery and awe, are no longer an important part of what makes us Americans.

I “get” some of the sentiment in the story.  The author, Elizabeth Lopatto, focuses on a few science-related stories, beginning with a story of the discovery of “Zealandia”. Zealandia is a 5-million square kilometer area in the south Pacific that includes New Zealand and New Caledonia, but the rest of the region sits under the Pacific Ocean. Because of the geological characteristics of the area, it rightfully could be called a continent.  As the scientists state, “If you could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, then Zealandia would probably long ago have been recognized as a continent.”

The author of TheVerge story is having none of it. To her, the discovery of Zealandia would only potentially be of interest to geologists.  To her, because the new potential continent only is about 1/10th land, it’s NOT a continent, and the story of its discovery isn’t very exciting.  She goes on to mention other discoveries that don’t meet her standards for “scientific discovery”, specifically, the “downgrading” of Pluto from planet status, or the discovery that mesentery is truly a “new” human organ.  To the author, each of these stories are minor discoveries, not worthy of awe, not worthy of the general public’s attention.  To her, they are stories manufactured by the scientists themselves, and aren’t major standalone news stories.

What happened to the America that was caught up in discovery, in scientific achievement, in the simple AWE that comes with new knowledge?  The space race that captured the imagination of the world, the awe and wonder of watching Jacques Cousteau’s adventures (something I LOVED as a kid!), the excitement over the first Space Shuttle launches? What’s happened in the years since?  In a world where the combined knowledge of the entire world is just a keystroke away, have we become so completely numb to scientific achievement that we can’t appreciate discovery for the sake of discovery?

The existence of the mesentery, tissue in the intestinal area, has been known for centuries.  However, it wasn’t considered an organ by definition, until recent research on the tissue. I personally find it fascinating that there are still things we don’t know about the human body.  I find it fascinating we can find a whole new continent under the seas, in the year 2017. This author evidently doesn’t feel the same way, nor evidently do many Americans, given the anti-science mood from many of those on the right.

So here I sit on an uncharacteristically warm South Dakota winter’s evening, sitting at a desktop computer that’s a technological marvel, periodically checking my even more incredible tiny-computer-in-a-box in my iPhone, the warm glow of a LED lightbulb in the lamp by my computer, blogging about people who evidently have no appreciation for the marvels around them.  For me…PLEASE, scientists…tell me about the mesentery!  PLEASE…tell me about a new underwater continent that’s been found! PLEASE…tell me the reasons why you don’t think Pluto qualifies as a planet. I find it all quite fascinating.

And am also a little sad to see so little appreciation for science by so many of my fellow Americans.

How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Ssshhhhh….it’s classified

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrialization until today. We’ve gone from a baseline of 280 ppm to 404 ppm today, a level of atmospheric CO2 not seen in over 600,000 years. It’s irrefutable evidence of the impact man has had on the atmosphere and our climate. And now…evidently under the Trump administration, the level of atmospheric CO2 is classified information.

Science is in the news again!  Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life.  No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published  No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.

It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration.  Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights.  Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything?  It’s all good!  In place of the climate change and LGBT information?  Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.

Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well.  This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”.  It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity.  “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating.  Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.

Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”.  The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”.  EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”.  In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.

Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration.  I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message.  Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change.  Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:

National Park Service - Badlands Tweets

Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies.  The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from Salon.com notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:

A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.

Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.

The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent.  Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.

The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.

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