in We the People Series

Measurements

Getting more scientists into Congress has become a necessity of our time.  Too many of our lawmakers are not making any sense. We need people who make evidence-based decisions that are outcome-driven and measured by a performance from day-to-day and century-to-century.

Rex L. Curry

There are many origins of human progress. One of them is how willing we are to being persuaded to act in our own interest. Sharpened stones and sticks, fire, and the wheel are on the early list, but the primary source of human advancement today comes from the ability of scientists to explain phenomena in ways difficult to vary. The political nature of our survival is changing.

With both excellent and poor results, improvement in the world is due to a verb, science. When Richard Dawkins author of The Selfish Gene (1976) criticized, Lovelock’s Gaia principle as a failure because it suggests the earth has a cause or a purpose, he got support from the non-theist community. Scientists such as Dawkins will accept ideas of God or Gaia as metaphors for profound mysteries, but only in the same way, they would admit to thirst or hunger. The aggressive acquisition of knowledge for survival requires a far higher footing than metaphors for the unknown.

As a measure, the law has done what it can to expose its deficiencies from a local magistrate to a Supreme Court Justice majority.  The necessity of science to become political managers, act in defense of science, and on behalf of society is apparent, but slow to arrive to persuade. Speedy persuasions are not in the nature of this profession. The need for a more extended view of things to be done whether in urgency or over the next century or more from today is crucial. Here is why.

Modern legislation requires science to solve problems. It now needs it to be politically persuasive. Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) examine a long list of modern social concerns from nuclear weapons to food and energy. However, exposing inappropriate political interference is needed to get science out of the crisis news cycle. UCS’s Michale Halpren is director of the Center for Science and Democracy. This center’s analysis provides fuel for the new kind of talent Shaughnessy Naughton of 314.Org is hoping to find.  Naughton and her team have excellent methods for putting the principles of science to work in politics. With the help of people from STEM backgrounds, its mission is to find and elect scientists to political offices in preference to lawyers. 314 Action’s national networks of pro-science advocates are organizing to combat notorious attacks on fundamental scientific understanding. The need for leaders that will advocate for evidence-based reasoning is a priority for one reason.

Extended problems such as pollution are subject to clinical analysis, and those associated with climate change require continuous outcome-driven policies designed to meet performance measures. To achieve this end, the political dialogue will shift from the visionless debate over resources needed to protect the public. The resources argument is driven by the unethical behavior of those who prefer corporate-survival hype.  Evidence from industries in big tobacco, pharma, and fossil fuels is overwhelming.

Leaders in the U.S. Senate, House, State Executive, and Legislative offices who express unwillingness to recognize science as a concluding arbiter require exposure. The name “314.org” elicits a well-known scientific formula for determining the area of a circle – Pi. The  “Under the Scope” project of 314.org aims at the anti-science members of Congress by analyzing votes against the facts and data to promote anti-science policies. The open-ended discovery of knowledge is a counterinsurgency effort aimed at the non-scientific community. The rise in questioning authority and distrust of empirical evidence has never been more critical.

Giant flows of new evidence prove political leaders are highly unreliable sources of knowledge. The explosion of new instruments for the measurement of phenomena in every field makes the availability of an ever-lengthening chain of cold digital reasoning a matter of record. The capacity of science to test and disprove conjectures continues, but all of this remains in a world filled to the meniscus with adjustable explanations and versions of fact in which misinformation is used as an obstruction strategy. A fact-sloppy world is not a place to solve problems, especially when the tools are in hand for a firm, high-impact daily actionability in one-hundred-year as well as microsecond cycles.

Last Chance to See

In Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams (writer/artist) and Mark Carwardine (zoologist) describe the journey to see wildlife before conceivable extinction. In an introduction to their book, Richard Dawkins noted that all living things are genetic cousins; some are just more distant than others, so if one unique part of the global biomass slips into nothingness, so does a part of all of us. In this view, Doug and Mark’s journeys are not about species extinction; they are about the problem of not knowing that the species ever existed.

We acquire knowledge of life on earth and the physical universe by testing to disprove hypotheses. Demanding improved flows of information establishes a balance between valid data and theories. Here we come to the central problem of science.

What do we do when what we think we know needs to be disproved continuously?

The exponential nature of knowledge in the world is concerning. One of those expansions draws from Darwin’s initial findings to the completion of the first Genome Project. The ability to communicate this knowledge widely adds complications as it spreads the demand for evidence. Defining the genetic structure of evolution has been ongoing for a half-century, and the findings continue to be astounding throughout the debate on Dawkins.

One Chance

A change in one cell can also produce grave disadvantages, examples would be HIV and Covid-19. Nevertheless, every variation of the DNA code in cells adds depth to the design of instruments for storing data for knowledge of life. The diversity of beingness builds in these genetic pathways’ toward infinity, and the storehouse is human curiosity plus machine storage.

Perhaps the best example is the evolution of sight. The evolutionary advantage derived from responding to light energy is evident in a vast array of species and from unicellular eyespots to vertebrates with image-forming eyes. Seeing and the relationship to HspB5 (a heat shock protein) to the genetic code for alpha-crystallin reveals the full spectrum of sunlight became a force in species diversity.  The evolution of sight is complicated, so for the curious, it is described here. Joshua Harvey details the 500 million year story of the human eye.

Another Chance

Normal atmospheric pressure at sea level translates to about 14.7 pounds per square inch. In the big January 2018 storm hitting the northeast, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) explained a new metric named bombogenesis. With the growing interest in connecting climate change with evidence provided by big storms, a key element will be to understand the rate of change in atmospheric pressure. Typically, big winter storms are nor’easters or winter hurricanes. The “bomb” metric puts the rate of change in the spotlight when the barometric pressure drops 24 millibars or more in 24 hours. On January 3, 2018, at 9:51 AM, the pressure was 1027.0 and at the same time on January 4, the pressure was 996.2, a 30.8 drop.   A January morning can begin as cold and fair and by the next morning 20 inches of freezing snow and fog. (Table)

A Billion Other Chances

Viable routes to millions of discoveries share a common theme. In the explanation of phenomena, all of them tease out the elements that are easy to vary. A mathematical and observational components’ variability provides proof of insufficient data, ineffective thinking, and the lack of a testable hypothesis. In The Fabric of Reality, the quantum physicist David Deutsch promotes the “above all” practice of using two principles: problems can be solved because problems are inevitable. He offers one reason useful for every inquiry. Precautionary principles or practices that cannot avoid the unseen and the challenges they cause are hypothetical and rare, if not impossible, to implement.

The questions and procedures that might lead to solutions remain unknown until it is too late. And evidence of impact on the Earth led to questions such as, are asteroid materials of value? On the other hand, and for decades, measurements of a slowly rising global sea, melting ice sheets at the poles linked to the human conveyed gases into the atmosphere remains an annoying controversy in the scientific community due to non-scientific reasons. The losses of both Antarctic and northern ice sheets across Canada and Greenland and the Russian tundra to the North Pole are facts. They connect to anthropogenic warming. The science links these facts to temperature and it is a question of well-funded analytical rigor.

As sea-level rise continues, the science suggests it is unlikely to become critical before 2100 (defined as 6.6 to 16.4 feet). The probability is set toward the unstoppable motion of ice into liquid in the coming decades. Still, there is only a slight chance that it may have become unalterable in the analysis. Unknowns are just that, unknown.

What do you do when the stakes involve the displacement of over a billion people?

The argument for increasing urban density and resilience is a reaction to the problem of temperature and less so the issue of global warming gases. Rising temperature is the “ugly fact,” it is the asteroid, in the otherwise beautiful theories of climate change. While science may argue methods for managing “atmospheric gases” for decades, it could also peer review the fabric of our reality into neatly defined tipping points of chaos.

Applying Deutsch’s and his colleagues’ extraordinary scientific discipline requires redirecting. Theories of parallel worlds may be fascinating but unhelpful. It would be far more supportive for the community of scientists to develop full knowledge of the cities we share now with ways that will persuade the whole world to change.

Start Button Pushing

The button string of agency logos above represents multiple agencies attempting to connect “the dots.” The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, often referred to as the Supreme Court of Science, described Climate Change and its dangers as a “settled fact” in 2010. In the 2014 report, specific impacts on a region, such as a significant increase in precipitation, connect more dots. The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) is anticipated in late 2018 will connect even more. Climate impacts quantified by region and season will drive direct hands-on action. Therefore the subtlety in the added detail will not (or should not) be lost on city and state climate analysis organizations or first response agencies. Directly or indirectly, the additional data will enhance localized reactions to and preemptions of specific events. The range of detail now available marks ranges, from the upward trend of “heavy downpours” by counties in Iowa to the dots connecting the impact of drought, followed by big fires, heavy participation, and mudslides in the canyons of California.

The discovery of sustainable human settlement ecosystem relationships in the Anthropocene era is well underway. Encouraging climate scientists to engage the practice of testable theory engineering will be more difficult but advances made by the more practical stepchildren of Climate Change in the name of resilience. A diverse and adaptive set of urban settlements worldwide already demonstrate the practice of urban resilience and their trial and error relationship to a rapidly changing global ecosystem. Farsighted investments in urban places are well underway to make them “climate-proof,” Like temperature, they are available as measures of effectiveness accompanied by several instructive cautions.

The exact location of these places and the population protected have begun to exhibit the political structure of a “them and us” crisis. The central non-scientific problem is distinguishing between the unseen hazards of survival by location. As physical entities, these places can be socially and economically diverse. They can be resilient and unique laboratories of the sustainable ideal, vast BTU storehouses, exemplary centers of learning, and without a huge change in political outlook, little more than a few caves sheltered from the misery of the humans left behind.

When problems are just questions to which we want or need answers, but when the answers are known, and a pathway forward is clear yet impossible to implement, the questions tend to get labeled as evil or wicked.  Examples of the “not enough” type of problems would concern public education, safety, food and water security, and general assurance of well-being through governance, accountability, and transparency. Examples regarding the “too much” type of problem are corruption, poverty, religious conflict, and large/small-scale warfare. Complex phrases such as Global Climate Change describe combinations of “too much, not enough” questions. The destruction of natural resources, viral pandemics and extreme weather, thermonuclear war is anxieties without containment; they are sloppy expressions wrapped in cloaks that encourage nervous intolerance, claims of injustice, and many proofs of inequality. The solution is simple but impossible to implement without an intensified global awareness. Put every combination of the human condition into one boat or one well-contained set of urban places and the choice is evident – fix it or sink.

From the pale echo of evening light, from the big bang to the stuff of stars that we are now, the capacity for measurement has only managed to imagine a tiny part of what creates the space that allows “matter” to exist. The enormity of cosmological physics aside, the ordinary observer can walk away from the theories of dark matter and energy with one useful fact. If only 10 percent of the physical universe is available for measurement, why is our existence in such a tiny part of it so completely unknown? Could it be that the answers to it all are here, in our own backyards?

Science begins with the unseen and grows with the unknown, but given the promise that the revelations of science can continue indefinitely, we face one flaw, an unlikely continuation of intellect in the absence of habitable earth and where the luxury of inquiry is redefined by the necessities of survival.

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  1. CE and Ho-Hum – Keep Democracy Real

    […] The Union of Concerned Scientists is an international group aimed the planet’s most pressing problems and backed by sound scientific analysis. This organization has responded well to growing resistance to decisions based on political calculation and corporate hype.  Evidence came soundly in when results of the 2018 mid-term election added ten new scientists to Congress and all seven scientists endorsed by 314 Action who were up for reelection won their races as did seven other, other incumbent scientists.  (More on the Union and 314 is in Media & Measurement) […]