Earth as seem from Stephen Hawking’s rear-view mirror.

Stephen Hawking has been asking a proper question: How much time do we (humans) have here on Earth?

His answer is uncertain, and in fact has been a moving target, but can be summed up like this: not much! (and – maybe less and less, the more he thinks about it).

His suggested response option is by contrast definitive – and perhaps not the one you and I might prefer: time to leave!

Surely worth some discussion.

ICYMI, here’s some background, excerpted from a May 5 article by Peter Holley published on the Washington Post website (only one of many carrying the story, off and on over several months; you can find more material elsewhere on line):

In November, Stephen Hawking and his bulging computer brain gave humanity what we thought was an intimidating deadline for finding a new planet to call home: 1,000 years. Ten centuries is a blip in the grand arc of the universe, but in human terms it was the apocalyptic equivalent of getting a few weeks’ notice before our collective landlord (Mother Earth) kicks us to the curb. Even so, we took a collective breath and steeled our nerves. So what if there’s no interplanetary Craigslist for new astronomical sublets, we told ourselves, we’re human — the Bear Grylls of the natural order. We’ve already survived the ice age, the plague, a bunch of scary volcanoes and earthquakes, and the 2016 election cycle. We got this, right?

Not so fast. Now Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist turned apocalypse warning system, is back with a revised deadline. In “Expedition New Earth” — a documentary that debuts this summer as part of the BBC’s “Tomorrow’s World” science season — Hawking claims that Mother Earth would greatly appreciate it if we could gather our belongings and get out — not in 1,000 years, but in the next century or so… “Professor Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive,” the BBC said with a notable absence of punctuation marks in a statement posted online. “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious…”

…Some of Hawking’s most explicit warnings have revolved around the potential threat posed by artificial intelligence. That means — in Hawking’s analysis — humanity’s daunting challenge is twofold: develop the technology that will enable us to leave the planet and start a colony elsewhere, while avoiding the frightening perils that may be unleashed by said technology. When it comes to discussing that threat, Hawking is unmistakably blunt. “I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC in a 2014 interview… Despite its current usefulness, he cautioned, further developing A.I. could prove a fatal mistake. “Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever­ increasing rate,” Hawking warned in recent months. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

Whew! A heavy lift.

Perhaps not surprising that Mr. Hawking should be the one to raise this question and suggest this path forward. He’s hugely bright – brilliant. And he’s used to thinking big-picture – cosmos, universe, origins, possibilities. He’s also British; they’re the folks who (just barely) brought us Brexit (and inspired all the other “exit” tropes).

For all sorts of reasons, we’re right to fret that our time here on Earth might be limited – that the Anthropocene, like the Holocene and Eocene, and every other “cene” before them, will someday come to an end, making it necessary for us to leave the scene (sorry, couldn’t help myself). And that requires some thought and effort be given to ways and means.

But only some thought. The vast bulk of thought and effort, the priority, should focus on buying time here – to extending the habitability of Earth. Buying that time, and how to go about it, have been central theses of this blog, going back to 2010, and the 2014 book by the same title.

To restate some of the core ideas: First, seven billion of us are not leaving the planet any time soon. That opportunity (and its associated risk) is going to be left to at most a privileged handful. Fact is, the current and future level of effort contemplated by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson might be about right, if we throw in an increment at NASA (the Chinese look to be adding more as well). The rest of us ought to be focused like a laser on the threefold problem of managing the Earth as a resource, threat, and victim.

That translates into “buying time” – a problem with several elements. Let’s look at three.

First, and simplest: estimating how much time we have. As Mr. Hawking’s thought process reminds us, that is not a single problem, but multiple ones: How much time until the first significant asteroid impact? Until some terrorist act or cold-war-type global power struggle triggers a nuclear holocaust? Until we run out of the supplies of yttrium or lanthanum or praseodymium or neodymium or any of the rare earths we need for today’s IT? Until we run out of food or water? Until a virus goes globally out of control? Until the sheer weight of thousands of environmental insults renders the planet uninhabitable? Until some cyber-catastrophe our relations with each other become so toxic that life is no longer worth living? The problems are legion, complex, and interconnected. Which are most urgent, and why?

Second, and more daunting: thinking through the options. How to buy time – an extra day, or year, or century? Investigating: how can economics and substitutability help? New technology? New lifestyle? What are the choices? What is the cost of each? How much time does it buy? What are the implications for the other timelines? Thinking in terms of triage: what must be done now? What can wait? What challenges look hopeless based on what we know now?

Third, and most expensive and demanding in terms of level of effort, taking action. That doesn’t demand reaching consensus on what to do (too difficult in today’s world, and actually dangerous given the risk of making bad choices), but vigorous exploration of diverse approaches, paying attention to early detection of success and failure.

A few closing comments (maybe more than a few).

First, we’ve seen this movie before. The ozone hole. Acid rain… ________(write-in your favorite here). And just as each version of Star Wars or X-Men tops its predecessor in scale and sweep, so it is with Living on the Real World. The climate challenge that has the world in its thrall today is far more imposing than these prior concerns. But this Buying-Time problem is larger still. As Stephen Hawking notes, it’s truly existential.

Second, perhaps the biggest advantage Buying Time holds over E(arth)xit is global involvement. E(arth)xit fully engages the skills of a mere handful. Perhaps the richest 0.1%. (The money has to come from somewhere). “Rocket scientists.” They’re needed to make the venture physically possible. A few biologists. After all, the solar system’s options (the most within-reach) are hardly Goldilocks planets; they’ll require quite a bit of plateary-scale tinkering before they’re well-and-truly habitable). And social scientists, addressing questions of how we choose those who will “boldly go where no one has gone before,” versus the seven-going-on-nine billion of us who will stay. (In the Brexit terminology, “leave” versus “remain.”). All the social science says that social risks of such extended high-stakes space travel outweigh the other threats.

All that may sound like it adds up to a lot of people. But most of the seven-going-on-nine billion of us will be bystanders, spectators. We won’t be participants. And we’ll be unhappy, critical spectators. We’ll see most of the resources – including the world’s intellectual resources – tied up in the support of a few rather than solving real-world problems of hunger, poverty, jobs, health, and more. If most of us are critical, unhappy, some will be dangerously so, sabotaging the effort in ways ranging from hacking to acts of terror.

By contrast, Buying Time calls for full global engagement, action-in-place. There are no spectators. Everyone is a participant.

Years ago, Robert Townsend, the head of AVIS, the rental-car company, wrote a little management book entitled Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. The tone was tongue-in-cheek, but contained a few pearls. One was that it was better to make sure all the managers were overworked; then they wouldn’t have time to notice they were being treated unfairly, or to criticize each other, or to complain that they deserved greater responsibility, etc.

There are parallels here to the “climate-change-movie.” Mitigation approaches – hitting the CO2 off-switch – are necessary, but as we’ve seen, leave most people uninvolved, and many, as we’ve discovered to our cost, critical, some harshly so. By contrast, and as a complement, climate adaptation is more necessarily place-based, exploratory – and it draws more people in. Instead of criticizing each other, you and I are free to pursue our own better ideas. A far more productive use of our time.

Third, and finally Buying Time has a track record of success. Century after century, and in arena upon arena – food, energy, water, transportation, waste management, global ingenuity has successfully bought time. We know how to do this.

So E(arth)xit merits some thought, some effort, considerable effort. Stephen Hawking is on to something. A complete strategy requires it. But the world attention should be on remain: sharpening up our estimates of how much time we have and why, identifying our options for buying time, exploring those, quickly detecting and sharing early signs of failure and success – and daily celebrating every bit of progress on the latter.

In this scenario, each of us matters. Each is essential. Time to step up and play our indispensable part.

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The Spirit of Margaret Davidson.

1When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel…

7Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”

11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.

13 Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

15 The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. – 2 Kings Chapter 2 – excerpts (NIV)


(In the argot of her native South) Margaret Davidson passed on this week.

This from Russell Callender, Assistant Administrator for Ocean Services and Coastal Zone Management, in a letter to NOAA National Ocean Service staff reprinted here in its entirety:

It is with profound sadness that I share with you the news that our beloved colleague, Margaret Davidson, has passed away following a long illness.

Margaret was the greatest visionary I ever had the pleasure to meet—and she was a visionary who took action. When she spoke of “now,” she meant two to three years down the road because she was always thinking that far ahead of the rest of us. She was a mentor, confidant, and a friend to me and to many other in the global coastal community.

Margaret Davidson had been an active participant in coastal resource management issues since 1978, when she earned her juris doctorate from Louisiana State University. She later earned a master’s degree in marine policy and resource economics from the University of Rhode Island.

She also served as special counsel and assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice and later as the executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium.

Margaret joined NOAA as the founding director of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center (CSC), where she created a customer-driven organization that accelerated the use of technology, tools and skills required to make informed coastal economic development and ecosystem management decisions at all levels of government. She then served as acting director of the Office for Ocean and Coastal Resources Management when that office and CSC merged to form the new Office for Coastal Management. As the reorganization received official approval, Ms. Davidson took on the challenge of establishing a newly created position as the NOAA Senior Leader for Coastal Inundation and Resilience.

Margaret served on numerous local, state, and federal committees and provided leadership for national professional societies. She focused her professional work on environmentally sustainable coastal development practices, the reduction of risk associated with extreme events, and climate adaptation.

During her illustrious career, she was a Fulbright Fellow, American Meteorological Society Fellow, Gilbert White Fellow, and Zurich Fellow for Climate Adaptation. Davidson also served as the acting assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service from 2000 to 2002.

Margaret was the consummate networker, with a mind that served as an encyclopedia of existing and potential partnerships. She was gifted in recognizing and capitalizing upon common goals, and she never took her eyes off of the importance of community engagement in protecting coastal resources around the nation. Her life and career will cast a long shadow for those who follow the trail she blazed in coastal zone management.

There will never be another person like Margaret Davidson. We can only honor her memory by carrying on the legacy she established.

Well and truly said! Assistant Administrator Callender got it precisely right. His letter provides a factual account of Margaret’s illustrious career, with full heart, but also a bit of understatement. Might be worth fleshing out some of the best bits:

“Long illness?” True, but Margaret didn’t just quietly suffer. She engaged cancer in a titanic struggle, living not months but years longer than medical experts had predicted. Throughout, she showed levels of energy, poise, even cheer, laced throughout with signature-Margaret-Davidson frankness. She was the winner, not the illness, in ways that will be everlasting encouragement to us all.

“Visionary? Margaret had vision all right, but she also had “execution” in her DNA. That’s a rare combination. Most mere mortals have one but not the other. Whether Margaret came around to our offices, or spoke to us in a crowd of 500,  when she said, “I have a dream…” you and I knew that dream included actual work that we were going to have to do, actual steps we would have to take, actual follow-through that she’d check the next time she would pass by.

“Illustrious career?” Hers was illustrious indeed, but it was nowhere near so widely on display as it might have been. Too often the world lacked the courage to give her some of the roles for which she’d volunteered. She applied for several senior leadership positions across the national landscape but was turned down because she lacked a conventional science credential. What she offered instead was far rarer, and potentially far more valuable – a true customer-orientation. She saw federally-funded research institutions as legitimate to the extent they were meeting national needs and providing tangible, on-the-ground societal benefit. Wherever she found herself, she worked night and day toward this end, and she constantly exhorted those around her to do the same. It’s not hard to imagine that had she been given greater purview, that climate research and services – to name just one example – might today be viewed more favorably by leaders and publics across the political spectrum.  But in the event, most institutions shied away from committing to such a sea change.

With one exception: NOS and NOAA. And as Russ Callender captured so well in his letter, Margaret played a major role in personifying both inwardly to NOAA and to the outside world that all of NOAA was not just science-based but customer/service driven. We all believed it because she modeled it. We all benefited because it was the right thing to do.

“Consummate networker?” Again, the words are right but the reality was far more vigorous. They fail to capture what Margaret accomplished, early on, through peripatetic travel and unstinting face-to-face efforts, and even to the end, when travel was no longer a possibility. One day the history books will recount American- and world triumphs over sea-level rise, coastal degradation, and more. Margaret’s role may only be imperfectly acknowledged, but it will always remain real.


Russ closed this way: There will never be another person like Margaret Davidson. We can only honor her memory by carrying on the legacy she established.

Spot on.

Which brings us to that Old Testament story of transition – from the prophet Elijah to his successor, found in 2 Kings, Chapter 2. In that story Elisha asks for, and receives, a double portion of Elijah’s spirit – the portion due in those times to the eldest heir.

None of us got to see Margaret taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. She leaves no single successor. But she leaves something breathtakingly better, a small army of folks who recognize the truth and appropriateness of Russ’ words. Together we can carry on the legacy she established.

She wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less – and she’ll be checking up on us the next time she passes by.

Margaret, we’ve got this.

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Social (science) notes from all over.

(With apologies to – and continuing admiration for – The New Yorker, which for decades had a column by this name.)

While our backs have been turned, social scientists have been working on cool stuff. A sample, in no particular order, and making no claims for comprehensiveness, or timeliness for that matter – there’s a lot more out there, and most of my reading is remedial.

Starting with economics, and an article from the April 20th print edition of USA Today:

Many cities around the country will celebrate the 47th Earth Day on Saturday by highlighting their recycling programs, but the industry is grappling with a dual threat: The value of recovered waste products has plummeted over the past five years, and the amount of effort required to extract them has risen.

A study by Rob Taylor with the State Recycling Program in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality estimated that the average market value of a ton of mixed recyclable material arriving at a recovery facility in the state dropped from just over $180 in early 2011 to less than $80 at the end of 2015. That value has since rebounded a bit, Taylor found, to a little over $100, but it still leaves the industry struggling to extract profit from the millions of tons of recyclable material Americans throw away every year.

There are a host of reasons for the decline in the recycling market, ranging from global trade policy to the decline in newspaper readership, said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Much of reclaimed American waste is shipped overseas, but China erected new limits on imported waste in 2013. In other nations, “there has been a decrease in demand for that material as growth rate in foreign countries has leveled off,” Biderman said. Low oil prices have made it cheaper to produce new plastic bottles, so manufacturers don’t have as much need for reclaimed plastic. In addition, packaging producers have figured out how to make bottles and cans thinner, so they don’t need as much raw material.

And as the circulation for print newspapers has plummeted, the recycling industry has lost both a massive customer for reclaimed paper fiber and a huge source of incoming recyclable material.

Across the recycling industry, “what was once a valuable commodity five years ago is less valuable now,” Biderman said.

The change is perhaps most dramatic for glass. In most American cities, the glass bottle you toss in the recycling cart is essentially worthless, and if it breaks, the shards may make the paper in a mixed cart worthless as well.

“We work hard to keep glass in the system because it is an iconic recycled item,” said Keefe Harrison, CEO of the Recycling Partnership, a non-profit committed to improving recycling programs nationwide. But “it has very minimal market value because it has to compete with sand,” which is the raw material glass is made from. Some municipalities have simply stopped collecting glass in their curbside recycling programs. Santa Fe overhauled its recycling program this month and said it would no longer collect glass from households. Residents are being asked to take their glass to four drop-off centers around the city.

The Elkridge facility sorts a lot of glass, Mike Taylor said, but it “doesn’t add value” to the waste stream. “You can’t move it long distances without paying hefty freight rates,” Taylor said, so “it’s a negative-value material for us at the processing facility by the time you separate it and then try to truck it three or four or five hundred miles to get it to a market.”

Much reclaimed glass ends ground into a kind of gravel that can be used in road construction or other industrial projects.

When cities launched recycling programs in the 1980s and 1990s, the theory was that the revenue from the recovered materials would offset the costs of collecting and separating the waste, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Kevin Miller, recycling manager for the city of Napa, Calif., said “we get back about 20%” of the costs of collecting, sorting and shipping materials.

Miller and environmental advocates point out that recycling has other economic benefits, such as reducing the use and cost of landfills and reducing the need for harvesting virgin materials.

But the burden of paying for it falls on cities — or residents who pay for the trash service — because the U.S. has not followed the path of many European countries of requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal or recovery of their products and packaging.

Then there’s this material from the February 25th– March 3rd print edition of The Economist, in a cover story entitled Clean Energy’s Dirty Secret: Turns out that decades of subsidy-driven growth in wind and solar power is resulting in lower costs. Great news! That means that in the long term, virtually all electrical energy can and will be derived by these clean, renewable means. However, at the same time, this success is creating barriers to deployment of capital in the markets that threaten to impede the needed transition. Fossil-fuel, hydroelectric, and nuclear power plants are still needed at the moment, yet every day their expense relative to their utility decreases, reducing return on the investment. What’s more, renewables not only lower prices but reduce commercial demand, as potential customers shift from purchase of electricity to kit on rooftops and in backyards that take them off the grid. The article notes solving this requires “changing the way the world buys, sells, values, and regulates electricity to take account of the new means by which it generates it… how this [process]leads to anys system that all can rely on – and who pays for the parts of it that are public, rather than private, goods – remains obscure. The process will definitely be sensitive to politics… progress may be slow and fitful… it could stall.” The challenges that await promise to be far greater than those we’ve surmounted to date.

Whew! Once again, economics affirms its right to the title of dismal science. And even as economists conceptualize paths forward for recycling and renewables, the task remains for the business community, the financial sector, and the public to bring them to fruition.

Which calls to mind these two book reviews in the April 8th-15th print edition of the The Economist:

Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought. By Andrew Lo. Princeton:

ECONOMISTS have been accused of “physics envy”, an obsession with constructing precise mathematical models instead of studying the real, messy, world. But a new book suggests that economists have been looking at the wrong science; they should have focused on biology.

The idea stems from the school of “behavioural economics” which observes that humans are not the kind of hyper-rational calculating machines that some models rely on them to be. As a result, markets are not always “efficient”—accurately pricing all the available information.

When Andrew Lo was a young academic, he presented a paper at a conference which showed that one of the key assumptions of the efficient market hypothesis was not borne out by the data. He was instantly told that he must have made a programming error; his results could not possibly be right.

Mr Lo, who is now a professor at MIT, has spent much of his career battling to steer economics away from such narrow-minded thinking. His grand idea is the “adaptive markets hypothesis”. The actions of individuals are driven by intellectual short cuts—rules of thumb that they use to make decisions. If those decisions turn out badly, they adapt their behaviour and come up with a new rule to follow.

The theory is bolstered by experiments that show how humans make decisions. Psychological quirks include an unwillingness to take losses and a tendency to make patterns out of random data. These traits may once have been useful in evolutionary terms (that rustle in the bushes might not be a predator, but better safe than sorry) but are less helpful when making financial decisions.

In a word, economics – a social science – no less than meteorology, or physics, is itself informed by social science, and, like the physical sciences, could perhaps stand a bit more of it.

Then there’s The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. By Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. Riverhead.

DO YOU know how a toilet works? What about a bicycle, or a zipper? Most people can provide half answers at best. They struggle to explain basic inventions, let alone more complex and abstract ones. Yet somehow, in spite of people’s ignorance, they created and navigate the modern world. A new book, “The Knowledge Illusion” sets out to tackle this apparent paradox: how can human thinking be so powerful, yet so shallow?

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, two cognitive scientists, draw on evolutionary theory and psychology. They argue that the mind has evolved to do the bare minimum that improves the fitness of its host. Because humans are a social species and evolved in the context of collaboration, wherever possible, abilities have been outsourced. As a result, people are individually rather limited thinkers and store little information in their own heads. Much knowledge is instead spread through the community—whose members do not often realise that this is the case.

The hive mind, with its seamless interdependence and expertise-sharing, once helped humans hunt mammoths and now sends them into space. But in politics it causes problems. Using a toilet without understanding it is harmless, but changing the health-care system without understanding it is not. Yet people often have strong opinions about issues they understand little about. And on social media, surrounded by like-minded friends and followers, opinions are reinforced and become more extreme. It is hard to reason with someone under the illusion that their beliefs are thought through, and simply presenting facts is unlikely to change beliefs when those beliefs are rooted in the values and groupthink of a community.

The authors tentatively suggest that making people confront the illusion of understanding will temper their opinions, but this could have the opposite effect—people respond badly to feeling foolish. Messrs Sloman and Fernbach show how deep the problem runs, but are short on ideas to fix it.

“The Knowledge Illusion” is at once both obvious and profound: the limitations of the mind are no surprise, but the problem is that people so rarely think about them. However, while the illusion certainly exists, its significance is overstated. The authors are Ptolemaic in their efforts to make it central to human psychology, when really the answer to their first question—how can human thought be so powerful, yet so shallow?—is the hive mind. Human ignorance is more fundamental and more consequential than the illusion of understanding. But still, the book profits from its timing. In the context of partisan bubbles and fake news, the authors bring a necessary shot of humility: be sceptical of your own knowledge, and the wisdom of your crowd.

Whew! All this while our backs have been turned. Worldwide, social scientists continue to churn out insights such as these, reminding us constantly that our thinking is powerful, but shallow.

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Science and politics? Vive le différence!

politicians and scientists have a shared interest: good data.

The other day an alert LOTRW reader (thank you!) passed along this link to an April 26 post by Brad Plumer on Vox. In this article, entitled A Cold War theory for why scientists and the government have become so estranged, Mr. Plumer starts out this way:

These are dark times for science — or at least that’s what we keep hearing. President Trump is pushing to slash research budgets. Republicans in Congress are harassing climate scientists. Vaccine skeptics are clogging the airwaves.

 Indeed, a big reason why tens of thousands of scientists rallied in cities around the country last weekend was to counter what they see as “anti-science” attitudes taking hold in the United States — particularly in the US government. The March for Science, according to organizer Jonathan Berman, a biology postdoc at the University of Texas Health Science Center, sent “the message that we need to have decisions being made based on a thoughtful evaluation of evidence.”

 But this raises the obvious question: Was the United States ever pro-science? Was there a golden age? And if so, why were things so different then? What’s changed?

 Mr. Plumer then cites a 2008 paper by Henry Lambright, and a conversation with the author, which starts out this way:

One of the more compelling responses I’ve seen to this question can be found in this 2008 paper by W. Henry Lambright, a political scientist at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. To simplify a bit, he argues that the glory days of US science were an artifact of the Cold War and the arms race against the Soviet Union. That era has long faded, but if scientists want to bring about a new golden age, they should study that history closely. Because it contains some valuable lessons about how politics drives public attitudes toward science — and not, as is often assumed, the other way around.

When I called Lambright to talk about the politics of science in America, he started off with a simple but provocative point: There’s no inherent reason why scientists and politicians should get along. “There’s just not a natural alignment between the two communities,” he said.

 Politicians, after all, have a very different job than scientists. At least ideally, scientists seek only to uncover objective truths about the world. They follow a strict methodology, explicitly meant to filter out values, biases, or preconceptions that might color their research. Politicians, by contrast, must grapple with conflicting values and interests. Adjudicating those disputes is the whole job, and most such disputes can’t be resolved by scientific facts alone. So, not surprisingly, the two communities don’t always see eye to eye.

 During World War II, circumstances conspired to push the two camps into alignment. New science-based weapons — most famously the atomic bomb — aided the US in the war. Afterward, Vannevar Bush, the wartime science leader, convinced Congress that all those technological advances they admired so much were made possible by foundational scientific research conducted long before the war. If policymakers wanted to see more such advances, they should fund more basic research and stay out of scientists’ way.

[The shorthand? A social contract between scientists and society that goes like this: “Give us lots of money and don’t ask too many questions, and one day you’ll be glad you did[1].”]

Mr. Lambright’s argument is that so long as science contributed to a bipartisan need to win the Cold War, it prospered. But as that threat went away, no similarly universally-shared national need came along to replace it. As a result, support for science became politically contentious. Climate change was a particularly virulent example, but even when it came to another universal desire – healthcare – stem cell research proved similarly divisive. Science increasingly comes into conflict with the values of one or the other party.

What about going forward?

[Achieving a needed] public consensus won’t solely be driven by scientists,” Lambright says. “It may have to be driven by external events, or by politicians who are leading on the issue. They’ll have to connect it to issues that people care about, like national security or economic security. And it may take some time.”

Some closing comments:

To begin, the central premise of LOTRW, both the blog and the book, is that the issue that people care about is the universal, moment-by-moment human need for adequate, reliable, inexpensive, sustainable supply of food, water, and energy, while minimizing vulnerability to natural hazards and minimizing degradation of essential ecosystem services. This requires attention to both innovation and infrastructure[2].

This is not a new thought. The framers of the U.S. Global Change Research Program had this in mind in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when they framed the program as global change versus climate change. As individuals and as a community, we scientists made a mistake in straying from that distinction and settling for a focus on climate alone. The particular phrasing is neither artful nor charismatic – that needs some work – but substantively it’s in the right direction.

Second, the challenge posed by differences between the political and the scientific mindset need not be as difficult or prove as elusive as messrs Lambright and Plumer intimate. It’s a challenge that billions of us solve every day without breathing hard – in marriage[3]. Marriage contains a common goal – not national security, but another end we desire equally strongly, namely the desire to be in relationship – that neither partner can achieve alone. As a general rule, both partners want and work toward, generally successfully, despite major dissimilarities in approach and thought. We have an expression for it:

Vive le différence!


[1] An LOTRW-based framing of the late 20th-century social contract between scientists and society; you can find this here and here.

[2] Every word in this passage matters.

[3] Apologies: for brevity, this term is used here as a shorthand to apply to all close, enduring partnerships and relationships.

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On-site reflections on the March for Science – and on “community.”

“Scientists are a community of scholars engaged in a common search for knowledge.” – line (as I recall it) from my ninth-grade science textbook[1]

Yesterday had a lot of moving parts around our household, but a time window between noon and four o’clock allowed opportunity to hop on the Metro and for a couple of hours be a small part of the March for Science. To be at such an event is to enjoy a wonderful immediacy, involving all the senses, but at the expense of losing the bigger picture – something like the experience of a cork being flung here and there by big waves on an active ocean. (That bigger picture was captured well and truly by Washington Post reporters.)

Some of what (your cork-on-the-scene) saw and heard:

“Communogenesis:” in an analog to storm formation, this is how communities, tribes (the idea of we-they) get formed, strengthened. Shared experience and identity, bonding – it was all happening there. Even on the Metro ride downtown it was easy to spot the marchers versus the regulars – based on dress, signage, group size, and chatter.

The walk from the Metro station to the venue revealed four other already-formed, well-established communities: (1) Street vendors. Everywhere it would prove as easy to get the coveted tee shirt commemorating Earth Day and the March for Science – or an umbrella or poncho – as it is other places and other days to get Washington Nationals or Capitals shirts and caps. (2) Food trucks. They seemingly occupied every foot of curb near the venue. Queues were long. (I could move past these as my concerned wife had thoughtfully provided me enough food and water to last for two days, not two hours.) (3) Police. They were everywhere, focused on enabling the special events to proceed and co-exist with the ordinary weekend business of downtown DC – those who were downtown for other reasons ranging from work to tourism. It wasn’t always easy or smooth. At 14th and Constitution one pedestrian tried to cross against the police officer’s instructions. The officer didn’t just let it pass, but instead restrained the man, who then struggled, resisted, protested. Immediately a swarm of other police on motorcycles moved in. Interestingly, the few vocal voices at the intersection appeared to side with the police – apparently recognizing the need to deal with both motor and pedestrian traffic in a balanced way. (4) Suppliers of port-a-johns. At some points, seeing the lines of these arrayed over the Mall, it was possible to think they outnumbered the marchers.

Key point? All these communities are (like scientists themselves?) agnostic. They care less about the purpose of any large crowd than the management and service of it.

Our threefold relationship to the Earth: Those food trucks served as a reminder that Earth is a necessary resource – a resource each of us needed moment by moment. The rain drove home the reality that Earth is both a resource (DC is experiencing what residents consider a bit of a drought, though minor by western standards) and a threat. But the Earth was also victim. The very throng attempting to pay it homage was at the same time doing it harm. The Mall was a sea of mud and mangled grass, torn up by the trampling around of the crowd in the rain, disfigured by the fencing and tented checkpoints etc. set up for crowd control and security. This coming after last year’s lengthy and expensive restoration of the Mall to make it worthy of the nation’s capital. (Impossible to tell what damage was due to this March itself or the women’s march of a few months back.)

Messaging/Signage. As journalists have noted in numerous reports over all media, scientists have distinguished themselves with clever signage and tee shirts. You can find a sample –only one of many – here. I’ll just add a couple, starting with my (admittedly parochial) favorite:

photo by Maureen Spagnolo

This is the brainchild of and proffered by Dr. Laurie Geller, who is the senior program officer providing adult supervision for our National Academy of Sciences committee working on (not the exact title) a social and behavioral science research agenda for the Weather Enterprise. Dr. Geller reminds us that both meteorological science AND social science are needed to bring about not just the forecast but also the near-universal awareness.

Runner-up from my own photos of the event might be this one:

which (totally abusing the argot of wine connoisseurs) might be described as “complex, intellectually satisfying, with earth elements that give way to hints of politics.”

Honorable mention among my photos goes to:

Which is self-explanatory, and spot on.

ICYMI: couple of journalistic reflections on the March: a nice Washington Post piece yesterday by Michael Rosenwald wondering how the Founding Fathers might have reacted to a March for Science. Mr. Rosenwald accurately notes that science and politics weren’t at loggerheads back then. And Megan Mullin reflected on risks that the March might further politicize science.

A final thought: Both President Trump and House Science and Technology Committee Chair Lamar Smith issued Earth day/March for Science statements. Both drew flak. But no matter how tempting that response, scientists might better invite political leaders, and the public to join a process whereby we all see ourselves less as contending communities engaged in confrontation, and more as “a (single, unified) community… engaged in a common search for knowledge” – in the spirit of everybody’s ninth-grade science book.


[1] This scientists-as-community ideal would later motivate a graduate-school decision to switch fields, from physics to geophysical science – one of the most felicitous decisions in my life, as I described in Living on the Real World.

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Before leaving the topic of “defensiveness” for good…

“And, as you drive, it will also use all the negative energy from your arguments.” Hafeez, New Yorker 2015

… one last, brief set of thoughts for scientists on the eve of tomorrow’s March for Science and Earth Day.

This post is triggered by an article by Tim Requarth in Slate (a tip of the hat to Fred Carr, a former AMS president, who caught the article and forwarded the link along). The article focuses on scientists’ obsessive infatuation with the knowledge-deficit approach to argument – that “if the public knew what we know about ________ (fill in the blank; climate change is a popular choice here), they wouldn’t be thinking what they’re thinking or doing what they’re doing…”

Mr. Requarth’s article merits reading (and re-reading) in its entirety, but a brief excerpt:

“…Many scientists hope that by doing a better job of explaining science, they can move the needle toward scientific consensus on politically charged issues. As recent studies from Michigan State University found, scientists’ top reason for engaging the public is to inform and defend [emphasis added] science from misinformation.

 It’s an admirable goal, but almost certainly destined to fail. This is because the way most scientists think about science communication—that just explaining the real science better will help—is plain wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong that it may have the opposite effect of what they’re trying to achieve…”

Mr. Requarth cites and summarizes Dan Kahan’s[1] research, choosing this bottom line:

The takeaway is clear: Increasing science literacy alone won’t change minds. In fact, well-meaning attempts by scientists to inform the public might even backfire. Presenting facts that conflict with an individual’s worldview, it turns out, can cause people to dig in further. Psychologists, aptly, dubbed this the “backfire effect.”

He then concludes:

There’s a certain irony that scientists, of all people, know so little about, well, the science of science communication…

Randy Olson captures this same set of ideas in his remarkable book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. He speaks in (often earthy) language about the importance of appealing to the gut rather than the head. A considerably longer read, but still worth your time.

Still unconvinced? Coca Cola provides a cautionary tale, from another realm.

You could argue that little in all this is actually new – that the ancient Greek rhetoricians already saw it this way, two thousand years or so ago, offering variants on this message:

First win the audience; then win the argument.

So enjoy Saturday’s March for Science: outdoors in spring weather, with friends, part of a huge crowd, looking and laughing at clever placards and great tee shirts, feeding off the energy of the group, tweeting and messaging – what’s not to like? But try your best throughout the day to keep your talk pro-science and positive, not political and negative. And when the March is over, reflect on the serious business ahead for science. We have to win the hearts and minds of the audience – political leaders and the public – before winning any argument. In a word, we have to (respectfully) court them.

The bad news? After digging ourselves in a hole for the past few decades on contentious issues ranging from vaccination to climate change by acting in full-scold mode, such courtship will take a while.

The good news? “Giving the facts,” as we’ve done for years, but now with an admixture of courtship thrown in? (Using the five languages of love) Acts of service? Gifts? Words of affirmation? Quality time? Physical touch (maybe a bit problematic; let’s replace that with face-to-face)? All that not only promises to be more effective; it looks to be a lot more fun.


[1] Mr. Kahan has so much wisdom to offer, I didn’t want to pick and choose. Follow the link and make your own selection of starting point.

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Celebrating – not defending – science and scientists.

Air pollution? An unintended consequence of population growth and economic success, contamination of U.S. air (as well as water and soils) was becoming daily more evident throughout the 1960’s. The establishment of NOAA and EPA in 1970 by President Nixon and the Congress was an important milestone in the national effort to turn things around. The half-century since has seen improvement – perhaps less than we could have hoped, but maybe more than we might have expected. The entire American public pitched in: recycling; making more effective use of resources and switching where possible to renewables; developing local, state, and federal regulation. Significantly, science and technology of every sort contributed to the cleanup.

Much to celebrate! But we’re fighting a more insidious form of pollution poisoning today’s atmosphere that can’t be cured through science and technology alone: defensiveness.

Defensiveness? Fact is, there’s just too much of the ugly stuff all around us, with an outlook for still higher levels – concentrations that could be hazardous to individual and national health and well-being. That matters this weekend, because with Earth Day and the March for Science coming up, if we’re not careful, you and I risk adding more of that noxious effluent to an already burdened environment.

Defensiveness is a choice. It can even be argued that our psychological predilection for defensiveness is so strong that it gives rise to our national divisions, not the the other way around. In the language of air quality, you and I are all too readily inclined to be sources of defensiveness. Give in to that temptation, and we’ll add to the national burden.

Or we can choose to go in another direction. If we do the latter, it’ll often require that we be more than passive observers. We’ll have to be sinks for defensiveness – that is, absorb much of the defensiveness we encounter instead of exercising our natural inclination (and even foregoing our right) to push back.

Easier said than done! How might we do our bit to turn Earth Day and the March for Science from defensiveness to celebration? Multiple approaches are available to us. You are free to choose the one that feels most natural.

One proposal? Give thanks.

This suggestion is rooted in reality, and in example. First, the example. If we look across the suite of national holidays, we discover that all of them build unity through gratitude. We’re thankful for the New Year and the chance it brings for a fresh start. On Martin Luther King Day, we’re thankful to the man (and the men and women) who did so much to bind up the nation’s racial wounds. Come February, we’re thankful for all our presidents, but two in particular – the first, who through his personal integrity set the country on its present course, and the sixteenth, who dedicated his life and ultimately gave it to preserve the Union. Each July, we remember to be grateful for our independence and freedom, and in May and November we honor the men and women in our military, especially those who gave their lives to keep us free. And so on. November’s Thanksgiving itself embodies this idea not just in spirit but in its very name.

As for the reality, both scientists and the larger American public have reason to be grateful.


The most important decision in life is our choice of parents[1].

Are you a scientist living and working in America? You can come up with your own better, more extensive list, but here are some reasons to be thankful. Very few of us can say we clawed ourselves to where we are despite adversity of every sort. For almost 100% of us our circumstances have been the exact opposite. Chances are almost 100% that those parents we “chose” happened to be in a small minority of the world’s most favored. We were born here or our parents moved us here. They instilled in us a respect and love for learning. They had or worked for the means to educate us. Their DNA mattered.

Some scientists can (and perhaps too often) do claim to be super-smart. If so, you owe your parents for that! The rest of us are more ordinary. We owe a great and daily-mounting debt to not just to our ancestry but also to encouraging teachers, accommodating bosses, generous colleagues, gracious sponsors, the kindness of strangers.

Either way, we should be thankful.

Our circumstances include this: this is the best time in history to be alive – except for tomorrow. Thousands of years earlier – even as recent as one hundred years ago – the pace of scientific advance was relatively slow. Long dry stretches separated sporadic, isolated bursts of innovation. Today the pace of progress is invigorating, accelerating, self-reinforcing. Advances in one field fuel progress in every other. We enjoy tools of unprecedented diagnostic power for studying our natural and social world. Every day in science is an adventure.

And throughout U.S. history, our political leaders of both parties and our fellow Americans have paid for our education and the work we now do. This support has been sustained and generous – dating back to the establishment of West Point, the Survey of the Coast, the Lewis and Clark and other expeditions, the National Academy of Sciences, the Morrill Act, and more, leading up to World War II, and since then, the major science agencies: NSF, NASA, ONR, DARPA, NOAA, NIST, USDA/ARS, USGS, NIH, and others. For much of our history, and especially since World War II, Americans invested more than the people of any other country. (Only recently has that picture changed, and largely then on a percentage basis.) Other people, the majority of them making less than we do, and often doing less-enjoyable, more routine, and/or more physically demanding work, are paying us to do that science.

We owe both political leaders and the public our thanks.

Perhaps most of all, we should be thankful that scientific progress, and by implication the work we do, has never mattered more. National and world hopes for better health; adequate food, water, and energy; a high standard of living; resilience in the face of hazards; preservation of vital ecosystem services; public education – all rest largely on continued, accelerated, innovation. The greatest human desire is to make a difference –and our work counts.

Political leaders and the larger American public.

The Congress and the public, too, have reason to be grateful.

The investment – their investment – in science is paying off, big time. The invention of the transistor, by itself, has probably paid for all the science that has ever been done or ever will be done. The mapping of the human genome is transforming what it means to be healthy. New social science – understanding of human psychology and the behavior of social groups – has arrived even as we wonder why our individual lives matter and how we can make life more meaningful, and as our complex society of institutions, organizations, nations, and seven billion souls makes it imperative for us to understand how to function interdependently.

In particular, although preservation of the Earth and its ecosystems, the key concern of Earth Day, remains a work in progress, it seems increasingly realistic and rational to be hopeful – for two reasons. First, our comprehension of the environmental challenge – environmental degradation, habitat, biomass and biodiversity, the connections among them and their contributions to ecosystem services – is advancing rapidly. At the same time, we’re realizing that we don’t have to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s tools. Thanks to science, new tools are coming on line continually of remarkable power and reach. When it comes to Earth stewardship, sustainability, and the rest, our attitude can and ought to change from we’re-losing-the-battle to we’ve-got-this!

This isn’t true just for the Earth sciences. Across the board, the payoff from science, already extraordinary, is only just beginning.

Ich bin ein Berliner. – John F. Kennedy.

So, come April 22, whether scientist or public supporter of science and/or the earth and environment, let’s be positive about each other and the day. Let’s be thankful – especially for each other. And while we’re at it, perhaps we might realize that we are all scientists in a way. Let’s channel President Kennedy, who at the height of the Cold War electrified and energized Berliners with this simple statement. Any “we/they” distinction between scientists and others is artificial, unnecessarily isolating scientists from political leadership of every stripe and from the general population. “Science” is a pointy-headed word for “realist.” It’s only a question of degree. We might admit that the label scientist may be doing as much to unnecessarily and unhelpfully divide us as it does to help us.

On this Earth Day, and every day, let us celebrate together what it means to be living on the real world.


[1] Reading this post? Extra credit if you can find me a source for this. I know it’s not original with me, but when I google the expression, I find nothing helpful.

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Reflections on science, defensive behavior – and Easter. Part II. The good news.

(Physicist Tom McLeish’s quote and eleven others in a similar vein can be found on that well-known religious website – where else? – BuzzFeed.)

“…The best defense of science is pointing out all the positives we’ve accomplished…”John Plodinec

(In his comment to yesterday’s LOTRW post, John Plodinec made my speech! More below…)


As matters now stand, two April 22 events – Earth Day and The March for Science – promise something of a somber, defensive vibe. Such defensiveness feeds on itself; it’s self-perpetuating, self-defeating. And it’s far too evident in today’s polarized discourse. This growing negativism is bad for scientists, for political leaders, and the public – and indeed the world.

And it’s also unwarranted. Maybe it’s because Earth Day and the March for Science happen to be near Passover/Easter, but it feels as if we could all afford to be a bit more celebratory – and, by implication, a little less defensive.

To get a feel for this, let’s consider how far we’ve come. Circa 200 B.C., the state of science, the state of the Judeo-Christian faith, and the conditions and prospects of Mediterranean peoples left much to be desired. Those living back then might have been forgiven for a bit of cynicism and pessimism about both science and faith – not dissimilar from some attitudes today. Science of the time was founded on introspection vs. evidence. The physician Galen concluded the function of the heart was to heat the body. Aristotle had decided porcupines threw their quills. Most people, including Aristotle and others, were still doing no more than attempting to refine Empedocles’ centuries-old idea that matter was composed of four elements – earth, water, air and fire – along with some forces he called love and strife thrown in as responsible for mixing things up. Though Democritus had put forth an idea of small, indivisible fundamental particles he called atoms, it would be centuries before his idea would begin to take hold. (There was also this guy Eratosthenes – but we’ll come back to him in a moment.)

Talk about false facts.

So much for science. What about religion? In 50 B.C., the Roman Empire and its paganism were widespread and well. And to be a Jew about this time was to experience oppression of every form and degree. Start with the dictatorial Jewish state, itself under the thumb the even more odious Romans. Step out of line? You could expect cruel punishment – up to and including excruciatingly painful death by crucifixion. Jewish religious leaders themselves were often little better – carrying rigid legalism and hypocrisy to such extremes that their very name – Pharisees – became a metaphor epitomizing such behavior. The Pharisees were the most favored in this life; everything they taught made it clear they would also be the most favored in the next. People were waiting for a promised Messiah, who would come to improve things. But “improve things” meant military overthrow of the hated Romans.

Everyone was defensive.

What’s happened to science and religion since?

Let’s start with Eratosthenes. From Wikipedia, we learn that: Eratosthenes of Cyrene c. 276 BC – c. 195/194 BC was a Greek mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer, and music theorist. He was a man of learning, becoming the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria. He invented the discipline of geography, including the terminology used today.

 He is best known for being the first person to calculate the circumference of the Earth, which he did by applying a measuring system using stadia, a standard unit of measure during that time period. His calculation was remarkably accurate. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (again with remarkable accuracy). Additionally, he may have accurately calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day. He created the first map of the world, incorporating parallels and meridians based on the available geographic knowledge of his era…

 Eratosthenes was the beginning of a trend that would revolutionize science, and with it, the human prospect. In calculating the size of the Earth, he didn’t rely on introspection. He used a little math and a little experiment to guide his thought process. The idea would catch fire. Ever since, science has continued to prove self-correcting.

Fast forward.

In commenting on the previous LOTRW post, John Plodinec stated correctly that “…The best defense of science is pointing out all the positives we’ve accomplished…”

One little problem with John’s idea – it’s impossible to capture in just a few words all of today’s myriad positives. So I hope he’ll accept a friendly amendment. My plan had been to collect just a few samples from Good Friday’s news. The Washington Post reported (on the inside pages of the print edition) two breakthroughs: The first? a new application of the CRISPR technique. From the article:

The controversial laboratory tool known as CRISPR may have found a whole new world to conquer. Already the favored method of editing genes, CRISPR could soon become a low-cost diagnostic tool that could be used practically anywhere to determine if someone has an infectious disease such as Zika or dengue.

 CRISPR — which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — is basically a bacterial immune system that uses “molecular scissors” to snip away genetic material from invasive viruses. Early in this decade, researchers figured out how to exploit the natural system to craft a relatively cheap, remarkably easy-to-use technology for editing genetic codes almost as readily as using a word processor to revise a paragraph.

A second Washington Post article explained that a NASA space probe had detected conditions from volcanism on Saturn’s moon Enceladus that made it perhaps the Solar System’s most promising site for life outside Earth itself. And speaking of NASA, Berrien Moore and Sean Crowell, writing in The Conversation, explained how a NASA satellite will enable us to “watch Earth breathe” from space.

Meanwhile, this from the AMS Front Page blog, a bit of forensic meteorology:

A one-two punch inside intense Hurricane Felix in 2007 turned a NOAA hurricane hunter flight into a harrowing rollercoaster ride, causing the mission to be aborted. A study of the extreme event, scheduled for publication in the next issue of Monthly Weather Review, determined a small-scale vortex known as a misocyclone rotating within the Category 5 hurricane’s eyewall is likely what bucked the plane upward nearly a thousand feet before sending it plunging back to its original altitude in less than a minute. The feature is similar to what nearly crashed the same plane inside Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Just the merest sampling from an ordinary day in 21st-century science. There’ll be comparable headlines tomorrow. Were Galen, Aristotle, Empedocles, Democritus, and Eratosthenes alive today – were Galileo and Newton alive, for that matter – their jaws would drop to see where their work has led. Science has transformed from a frail, largely personal activity into a powerful, unstoppable, and largely positive society-wide force.

Science? Cause for celebration!

How about religion?

Enter Jesus into the world of Romans and Pharisees. Today the tendency for some is to consider that no such person ever existed, or, if he did, that he was at best a genial rabbi, a good teacher, not especially bright. But that would be unscientific. To the people of the time, he was very real, scarily and thrillingly real. He was the smartest person they’d ever seen – way smarter than the most educated Pharisees, confuting them daily. And he made extraordinary claims that were both comforting and terrifying – that he was the son of God; that when he was near the kingdom of God itself was very near; that He could offer love, peace of mind and rest that completely transcended the political and military powers and dysfunction and evil of the day.

He not only talked the talk but walked the walk. He acted with authority. He read thoughts and motives. He healed and cast out demons and quieted the winds and the waves. He despised and condemned hypocritical or legalistic behavior (i.e., everything Pharisaic) but he loved everyone – the most common, the outcasts – lepers, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, women, tax collectors (especially poignant this and every April), and even the Pharisees themselves. He never wavered from seeking their truest well-being.

And he was never defensive. Even as the Pharisees and the Romans grew defensive, seeing his message as a threat to their rule; even as they began the trumped-up legal process that would lead him to the cross, he never sought to evade or dodge or try to argue his way out of the coming danger. At his arrest and crucifixion, his few disciples scattered to the four winds.

Well, that ragtag of timid, unlearned disciples who fled at Jesus’ crucifixion – a few days later, they regrouped, changed into dynamic, fearless, untiring leaders – so energetic and committed that today one third of the world’s peoples identify with the name of Jesus.

What led to this transformation?

It wasn’t faith so much as the biological science of the time. Today, most of us lead lives in which death is compartmentalized. It happens off to the side, out of sight. But back then, death was public, part of everyday experience. Everyone was intimately acquainted with life and death, and was skilled at telling the difference between the two. The public had seen Jesus die. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus and hauled him down from the cross were paid killers, who knew what they were doing – and subject to crucifixion themselves should they botch the job.

So three days later, when the tomb was empty and Jesus walked among them, the disciples knew their lives would never be the same. They didn’t need to fear. They didn’t need to be defensive. And that’s why today we know we don’t have to lapse into defensive behavior – that each of us has within ourselves an unlimited supply of love, forgiveness, grace, positive energy.

Easter? Cause for celebration!

Come April 22, how can you and I model that – contribute to making Earth Day and the March for Science celebratory, rather than defensive and grim? What would that look like?

Some thoughts in the next post.

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Reflections on science, defensive behavior – and Easter.

Earth Day and the March for Science are coming up. The mood of both is somber, a bit defensive. From the Earth Day website:

Earth Day 2017’s Campaign is Environmental & Climate Literacy. Education is the foundation for progress. We need to build a global citizenry fluent in the concepts of climate change and aware of its unprecedented threat to our planet. We need to empower everyone with the knowledge to inspire action in defense of [Emphasis added] environmental protection.

Meanwhile, we read[1]: The March for Science is the first step of a global movement to defend [Emphasis added] the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments…Science, scientists, and evidence-based policymaking are under attack. [Emphasis added] Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate, and jobs at risk. It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted.

This defensiveness might well be unnecessary – and even if justified or provoked in some sense, will likely hurt us.

As scientists, we ought to be interested in the science of defensiveness. [Yes, that is a thing.] Here is a taste of what that science has to teach us [selected on a wholly unscientific basis – I’m providing excerpts from the first link I clicked on after googling the term, which comes from a Randy Conley blog, Leading with Trust. If you want, you can readily find peer-reviewed material to this effect.] that gives the flavor, provides food for thought. The connection to put-upon-scientists-and environmentalists-beset-by-politicians-and-the-world ought to be obvious, but I’ve injected commentary (the un-italicized text) just in case.

Significantly, the blog post is entitled Defensiveness is Killing Your Relationships:

Your defensiveness is killing your relationships and you don’t even realize it.

What? Me being defensive? I’m not defensive! YOU’RE the one that’s always defensive!

That’s a classic defensive response to a piece of feedback. Throw up a wall, rebut the statement, and accuse the other person of the same complaint. The sad thing is many of us react defensively without even thinking about it. In her book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, Cordelia Fine points out that we think other people’s bad behavior toward us is intentional, but we dismiss our own bad behavior as inadvertent, a mistake, or unavoidable due to circumstances out of our control. This allows us to feel morally superior to the other person while simultaneously protecting our ego from the possibility that we may actually be incompetent or acting like a jerk. [Whether self-identified scientists or political leaders, we can all recognize ourselves here.]

 The Causes of Defensiveness

People react defensively because they anticipate or perceive a threat in their environment, not usually because they’re just wanting to be difficult. Unfortunately, defensive behavior creates a reciprocal cycle. One party acts defensively, which causes the other party to respond defensively, which in turn causes the first party to raise their defenses even higher, and so on and so on. [Emphasis added. This escalation is the key risk for all of us.] Defensive behavior can be a complex and murky issue. For many people, their behavioral patterns stem from emotional, mental, or personality issues/tendencies developed over the course of their lifetimes (feelings of abandonment, inferiority, low self-esteem, narcissism, etc.).

Beyond the mental and emotional factors, there are types of behaviors that cause people to respond defensively. Defensive communication expert Jack Gibbs outlines six behavioral categories that create defensive responses in people:

Dogmatism – Black and white, I’m right and you’re wrong, either/or, and other kinds of all or nothing thinking and communication cause people to react defensively.

Lack of accountability – Shifting blame, making excuses, and rationalizing behavior leads people to raise their defense levels.

Controlling/Manipulative – Using all sorts of behaviors to control or manipulate people will lead to defensive behavior. No one likes to feel like they are being used by someone else.

Guarded/Withholding Information – When people feel like they are being left in the dark or purposely excluded from having information they should know, they are threatened and will react defensively.

Superiority – Want someone to be defensive? Then act like you’re better than him/her, lord your power, knowledge, or position over them and see how they respond.

Critical – A constant focus on catching people doing something wrong, rather than right, creates a climate of defensiveness. [Full disclosure? I’m personally guilty of all this. My guess, whether scientist or political leader, so are we all. If we’re honest with ourselves, we might recognize some of these tendencies, maybe even feel a twinge of guilt.]

How to Deal With Your and Other People’s Defensive Behavior

Dealing with defensive behavior can be complex and exhausting because it’s hard to separate a person from their behavior or the situation. And as mentioned earlier, some people’s defensiveness is so deeply rooted in their behavioral patterns that there is little realistic chance they will permanently change. However, there are some helpful strategies we can use to deal with our own defensiveness and that of others:

Re-frame the behavior – Rather than label a person’s defensive behavior as bad, understand it for what it is – defensive. Once you understand it as defensive, then you can explore why the person is feeling threatened and work to address the threat(s). One of the reasons we get so frustrated with defensive people is we try to deal with the behavior without addressing the threat that is causing the behavior.

Reduce the danger – Once you’ve identified the threat(s) causing the defensive behavior, work to reduce the perceived danger. Be moderate in your tone, even-tempered, empathize with their concerns, be respectful, and respond non-defensively to avoid escalating tensions.

Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence – Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Through self-improvement, counseling, training, or mentoring, explore the causes of your defensive behavior. What are the triggers that make you feel threatened? Having a better understanding of yourself will not only help you regulate your own behavior, it will give you better insight into the behavior of others as well.

Replace negative feedback with questions or offers to help – If you have to regularly deal with someone who reacts defensively, you’ve probably noticed that the slightest bit of negative feedback sets them off. Try replacing the negative feedback with a question or an offer to help. For example, instead of saying “Sally, you made a mistake on this report,” rephrase it by saying “Sally, I’m not sure I understand this section on the report. Could you help me figure it out?” Remember, a person acts defensively because he/she perceives a threat. Try to make the situation non-threatening.

Move from dogmatism to openness – The less people feel boxed in to either/or, yes/no, right/wrong choices, the less threatening the situation. Of course there are times where things need to be done a specific way, but if you approach the situation with a spirit and attitude of openness rather than “my way or the highway,” you’ll get a more open response.

Treat people as equals – Approach other people in a collaborative manner, looking for ways to help them win in the situation. Take time to identify and recognize their needs, discover what’s important to them, and validate their concerns.

Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. The opposite of defensiveness, openness, creates an atmosphere of freedom, growth, respect and trust. Identifying the root of defensiveness in our relationships, and working toward addressing and removing those issues, will help improve the overall quality of our relationships and the productivity of our teams and organizations. [All this feels like really good advice.]

Somber? Defensive? Viewed in this light, whatever the provocation, however righteous the cause, those reactions are not helpful – either in our individual relationships or when it comes to the wholly artificially constructed and unnecessarily confrontational scientist-policymaker divide. Social science is clear on this. To March for Science or observe Earth Day in a defensive spirit serves only to harden positions and make much-needed reconciliation, trust, and collaboration more difficult.

What’s the alternative? To frame and participate in both Earth Day and the March for Science in ways that can clearly (and only) be seen as celebratory. Seems like a big challenge. And there’s not much time to get in such a frame of mind! The next post will point to some motivation and means.

[Spoiler alert] Easter is involved.


[1] Failed the IQ test for linking to the March for Science website here; but google March for Science, click on the first link, and you’ll reach the text cited.

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How to increase long- and short-term risk to the American economy.

America and Americans are today blessed with the world’s largest and strongest economy.

Suppose you wanted to put that economy and that world standing at risk? How would you go about it?

Some argue that’s exactly what China is attempting to do, through a combination of currency manipulation and unfair trade practices. But that reasoning is likely flawed. Others suggest our efforts to lend other nations a helping hand through financial assistance or favorable trade agreements compromise our economy. Experience dating back to the Marshall Plan puts the lie to this latter argument. Some see a risk in heavy-handed government regulations. But the fact is our economy is remarkably free of the corruption and graft seen in other countries. Our environment is clean and over past decades has grown ever cleaner. The challenges posed by such aspirational regulations have inspired American innovation, leading to advances in clean energy technologies, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, agricultural technologies, improved water resource management, a robust financial sector, the strongest currency in the world and much more. We’ve not lost but gained a global competitive edge by this approach. European nations – individually, but also collectively, through the European Union – tend to see things in much the same way.

Speaking of the Europeans, nature itself imposes another risk. The first European explorers landing here initially expected a paradise on Earth. They had a latitude-theory of climate that held weather was favorable near the equator and grew more hostile at higher latitudes. Since Europe was generally at a higher latitudes than the colonies, it was a foregone conclusion that the Carolinas, Virginia, even New England would offer a more favorable climate than Europe.

Talk about optimistic! In the four hundred years since, we’ve learned the hard way that the Americas face punishing cycles of flood and drought, hurricanes comparable to those of the western Pacific, as many winter storms as northern Europe and Russia, a surfeit of violent thunderstorms, and a virtual lock on the world’s strong tornadoes. In short, we live with arguably the harshest weather regime on Earth. Here too, the greater risk has prompted greater innovation. Today our directly weather-sensitive economy such as agricultural production ranks among the world’s best. What’s more, every aspect of our economy is indirectly weather sensitive – every business, however high-tech or virtual, is subject to weather-related property loss of disruption. Even there, we’ve successfully minimized the risk over recent decades through clever risk management.

As a result, today our biggest weather-related risk is not the weather itself, but the risk that we’ll take our eye off it – that we’ll reduce resource commitment and attention to the community responsible for weather warnings. The insurance sector – property and casualty insurers, as well as reinsurers, understand this risk better than most. They’re basically in the business of redistributing risk, but at the same time seek to reduce the risk overall, through mitigation strategies such as better land use and building codes, and through reduction of repetitive loss. Not surprising, then, to find a leader in this sector leading a call for maintaining federal agency budgets. An op-ed published yesterday by The Hill[1] provides a recent example. (The Hill is an American political journalism newspaper and website published in Washington DC since 1994, with more than 24,000 print readers, giving it the largest circulation of any Capitol Hill publication.) The brief article merits reading in its entirety, but here is the bottom line:

…One of the basic underpinnings of our economy is the weather and climate infrastructure that supports the business community, the weather community and American citizens.

 Proposals to reduce the value of these programs at NOAA and NASA are contrary to promoting economic activity and the employment related to it. If we are to commit resources to infrastructure, we should be strengthening, not weakening, these programs that are essential to our daily lives, and the businesses we rely on for jobs and depend on as consumers.

 How do we increase the long- and short-term risk to the economy? We put the handcuffs on ourselves.


[1] Frank Nutter, the lead author took the initiative here, and shouldered responsibility for shepherding the process through; Mary Glackin and I were privileged to help out.


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