The Importance of Context in Science!

OK, this one is just STUPID: Antarctic Icebergs Caused Huge Sea Level Rise 14,600 Years Ago

Here’s the first two paragraphs, beyond which few can be counted on to read:

A new study reports icebergs breaking off Antarctica caused rapid sea level rise 14,600 years ago.

A study published May 28 in the journal Nature reports that the Antarctic icebergs may have caused rapid sea level increases. The researchers identify eight events of increased iceberg numbers from the Antarctic ice sheet, happening between 20,000 and 9,000 years ago. The largest influx of icebergs, which happened 14,600 years ago, resulted in a sea level rise of 6.5 feet over 100 years. The study provides the first direct evidence for historical, significant melting of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Where to even start? How about:

– you mean, as the last glacial period was ending, not only did Europe, Asia and North America lose hundreds of thousands of cubic miles of ice into the sea, but Antarctica did as well?  Well, I’m flabbergasted!

– I’d love to see the ‘direct, historical evidence’ going back 20,000 years, Who were these great paleo-historians, and in what language did they write? Maybe they included photographs – that would be nice.

– these historic Antarctic icebergs, as recorded by Oog the Remarkably Precocious in an epic series of reports scribbled in ocher on strips of birch bark and mammoth hide, contributed 6.5 feet of sea-level rise during the last de-glaciation? That’s out of the 394 or so feet the sea has risen over the last 20,000 years? Ok, then.  One hopes all those coastal cities managed, over those 11,000 years, to move their yurts an extra 7′ higher than they would otherwise have moved them based on Cro-Magnon settled science.

Unfortunately, I did read the rest of the little article. It doesn’t get any better. Instead, here, we manage to include breathless news of a terrifying sea-level rise of 6.5 feet in the first paragraphs without mentioning that this was in addition to a much larger rise due to the melting of the ice sheets in the northern hemisphere.

Sheesh. The real take-away: the sea level might rise significantly over the course of a century. Keep that in mind when building your coastal cities. Also, Yellowstone might blow, a cubic mile of steep island might fall into the sea, an asteroid might hit – all these things have, like ice sheets melting, happened more than once, and, had there been any people around, would have caused hardly imaginable death and destruction.

Anything that has happened is possible – Aristotle

It’s a dangerous world out there, Frodo. But in general, you’d be better off, risk-wise  getting a little exercise and  refusing to vote for candidates that promise some flavor of free lunch, than worrying about gigantic disasters that happen, when they happen, no matter what you or anybody does.

No Sense of Irony in Science!

Slate reports:  SETI to Congress: We will find alien life within 20 years. To which one can only reply: huh?

Let’s recap: so far, the evidence for life of any kind originating anywhere other than earth is, rounded to the nearest 8 decimal places, 0.00000000. We look around our own planet, and – nope, no evidence. We look at the moon and other planets in the solar system and – nope, no evidence. We scan the skies with expensive telescopes of various kinds for several decades and – nothing there, either.

If only we could find even *1* non-terrestrial life form!

I would be as excited as anybody – thrilled, even – if it turns out that there’s life on other planets. How cool would that be? If we could get our hands on some, we could check for DNA. If the DNA or DNA-equivalent turned out to use the same base components as ours, we’d have a clue as to how life might arise through actualization of potentials in dead matter. If it turns out to be much different than ours, we’d need to dig deeper.

For starters – the questions raised by non-terrestrial life would become the topic of science for decades to come. As it is, a mechanism by which dead matter become alive under its own power is just assumed – we haven’t found it, and we sure can’t do it.  (And even if we did, *we* represent an already-living power, so we would not have proved what we set out to prove. But that argument is a ways down the road, if it’s even someplace we can get to at all.)

At one point year ago, I read a bunch of Buckminster Fuller. It was a fun ride, until he lost me: at one point, he made the argument thus: since the top speed at which a human could travel had increased exponentially over human history – run, ride a horse, take a train, drive a car, fly a plane, fly a jet, ride a rocket – he thought it likely that people would be able to travel faster than light by now. All you have to do is look at that nice hockey-stick graph, and plot it out, and – boom! – we’re warping off to Vulcan in the 1990’s.

Or not. Predicting what we will discover or invent is a different game than predicting how a given technology will develop over time. In the latter, you start with actual things and try to see how they might work out; with the former, you start by pretending what is unknown is known, and assuming that unknown stuff has whatever characteristics are most conducive to whatever fantasy one would like to imagine. Great for Science! and other SciFi, not so great when proposed as real science.

Mix in some politics, and you’ve got a real horse’s stable floor. SETI is stuck with asking for money from government to fund an attempt to verify a particular theory. This theory, if true, regrettably has no prospects for short or mid-term economic payoff that are anything different than proposing we start digging in my back yard to find El Dorado – it could happen, but there’s no reason to suppose it will. And, regrettably, SETI doesn’t (yet) supply large numbers of jobs in large numbers of congressional districts.

What to do, what to do? How about we gee-whiz ’em? Why we expect (in the sense of hope against all evidence) to discover something new – extra-terrestrial life – that has yet never been discovered despite thousands of man hours and millions of dollars spent looking – within 20 years! Yes, just outside the reasonable range for most of our working lives, way after the voters can be expected to have moved on from this particular batch of elected officials, and way way after anybody will remember we said this, we think we will have discovered warp drive! Oops, I mean ET.

Why 20 years? Why not 2 or 200? Well, when one’s predictions are not tethered to any facts whatsoever, you might as well make them match what is most convenient for the purpose at hand.

Not that real scientists would stoop to sensational manipulation in order to get their pet project funded. No, this is Science! Shut up, sit dawn, and do as you’re told!

Would it be mean-spirited to accord all Slate articles exactly the level of trust this particular article deserves? It would be simple prudence.

As always, I blame Sagan. This time, it’s even demonstrably his fault.

Graduation Season

Thomas, our middle son, did his thesis defense yesterday for his high school diploma. The thesis is the same for all candidates from Diablo Valley School: I have prepared myself to be an effective adult in the larger community. It’s a little different from what you see in colleges, as the ‘committee’ consists of all the students, staff and parents (the automatic members of the “Assembly”) and at-large community members voted in by the Assembly.  Guests and the candidate’s immediate family members are not permitted to ask questions; anyone else can ask about anything. Diplomas are awarded based upon the approval of 2/3 of the Assembly, determined by secret ballot.

The candidate writes a paper, usually about 3 to 10  pages long, which is emailed to the Assembly members. Sometimes, the papers are read aloud at school for the benefit of the little kids.

What happens is pretty interesting: often, I think in reaction to how tense things can get, the kids will ask silly questions – but these are often quite revealing of how the candidate can think on his feet, and how he relate to the other students. Over the years, a series of such silly questions have become so standard that the candidates sometimes try to outdo each other with witty answers:

Q: What Disney princess would you be? All-time best answer from a few years ago: Shrek.

Q: You’re on a hill; there’s a tiger up the hill from you, and a tiger down the hill from you – what do you do? All-time best answer I’m giving to my son from yesterday: Since I wouldn’t go walking in tiger-infested country unprepared, I’d pull out my double barrel (he names a specific make and model) shotgun and take out the tiger uphill. Then I’d turn to the tiger downhill, and say: In all the excitement, I don’t remember if I shot one barrel or both.  So you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

Q: If you had three wishes, with the usual caveats, what would you wish for? Again, gotta give it Thomas: according to an old story, a magic talking fish offered three wishes. The man thought and though, and asked for a strawberry milkshake. The fish thought that was aiming pretty low, wish -wise, and said so. The man considered his second wish while drinking his milkshake, then asked for another milkshake. This outraged the fish, who pointed out what a fool the man was being, how stupid it was to waste two wishes on milkshakes. So the man wished for a talking fish sandwich.

Not our graduates.

The other questions tend to be more serious. Sometimes, the kids ask very pointed questions, such as how a candidate was supposed to act like an adult now when he couldn’t even clean up after himself at school – a question none of the adults would know to ask. Kids can be brutally honest in a way their parents wouldn’t dream of being.

Once, over the last 15 years, a candidate just froze up – the poor kid couldn’t answer any questions. A couple times, we’ve had kids take rather bilious stands against common sense. In such cases, the Assembly seems to vote based on having known these kids for years, rather than on how well they defended the thesis. Sometimes, kids don’t get diplomas.  Often, achievement in academic subjects doesn’t come up at all.

I could hardly be more pleased with my son’s performance yesterday. He chose to downplay the usual ‘what are you going to do now?’ issues in favor of the long-term goal: he wants to be a dad, and sees that as much more important to being a successful adult than what one does for a living. So he wrote and spoke on love as an act and not just a feeling, and how that applied to children. In the defense, he referred to St. Louis de Montfort and St. Therese of Lisieux.

This is not a Catholic crowd. His immediate family are likely the only people in the room who have heard of these writers. Yet his answers were so well thought out and clear, and not at all defiant, that maybe somebody heard something they wouldn’t otherwise have heard.

Thomas’s short term plans: work as a fencing instructor at the fencing academy down the street where he’s been a student for years; take some classes at the local JC, and apply to Thomas Aquinas College for the 2015 school year.

How Time Flies: Liturgical Music Edition


The building of the pyramids was more distant history to Cleopatra than she is to us.

More recently:

Civil War to now
From when Lee surrendered to Grant until sneak attack on Pearl Harbor is 3 years longer than from Pearl Harbor until supposedly sane people argue over whether or not it’s a good thing for a privileged, spoiled young woman to get naked while swinging on a wrecking ball.

More to the point:

Cole Porter to College Drop
In 1934, Cole Porter, a witty, talented and highly trained musician, was cranking out pop music that few serious musicians took seriously; in 1974, a bunch of amateurs of limited talent took over liturgical music in the name of ‘giving the kids what they wanted’; in 2014, what the kids want is evidently unmusical ‘songs’ that use obscenity to mock the very idea of education. Perhaps this is not mere coincidence?


To put this in perspective: Consider the top pop songs of 1974:

1974 hit songs

I was 16 in 1974. I can hum most of these songs to this day. (This was the year before I pretty much gave up on listening to pop music on the radio. The reason should be obvious.) As evidenced by the presence of these songs on the Billboard Top 100 chart, actual Americans parted with actual money to own these songs. For example, the totally forgettable bit of doggerel (perhaps the French original was more felicitous) married to a pre-school level tune Seasons in the Sun sold over 10 million copies.

More representative of the times would be Midnight at the Oasis“, a ditty about seduction in the desert that was rumored to have resulted in more illicit sexual encounters than any other song of that period. (Things have improved to point that, now days, nobody understands what ‘illicit’ means.)

Two things can be said for every song on this list without any fear of reasonable contradiction:  None of them are in the style of any St. Louis Jesuits tunes, and that every one of them is vastly superior, musically, to anything the SLJs wrote**.

Some sticklers might point out that there are 2 John Denver and 1 Jim Croce songs on this list, and that they represent the ‘folk’ style of “Neither Silver or Gold”.  This assumes the listener is effectively deaf. While Croce and particularly Denver are by no means great songwriters (like, say, Cole Porter or Paul McCartney), they are serious and accomplished to the point where their ‘style’ is so much more sophisticated than what the SLJs did as to be qualitatively different. Now, if Peter, Paul and Mary had a song on this list, that might work – even though they were much better musicians, they were closer to the SLJs than to Croce.

But Peter, Paul and Mary are not there. There isn’t a folk song of the kind the SLJs attempted to ape anywhere on the list.

Why is that? you might ask. Simple: the brief ‘folk’ infestation* was all but over 10 years prior, when Dylan started plugging in his guitar. Kids weren’t all that fond of ‘If I Had a Hammer’, when you come right down to it, and abandoned that style in droves once they had any other options.

So, here’s the point, which point has galled me lo these 40+ years: by the time the St. Louis Jesuits took over the world of liturgical music, no actual kids listened to folk music. The people who had listened to it were now in their mid to late 20s at the youngest. The kids who were kids in 1974 didn’t want folk music – that was what the SLJ thought they themselves wanted when *they* were kids (largely, one uncharitably supposes, because they could play it with the 5 and half guitar chords they had mastered at that point.) The kids probably had no opinion about what we wanted for liturgical music – as if what the kids want is the only or even an important consideration.

We were lied to. Mr. Hippie Ex-Seminarian and Sr. Moonbeam inflicted their idiotic ideas on us with no regard to what we wanted or – more important- needed, robbing us in the process of any connection to a greater Catholic world, and – visions of millstones dance in my head – chasing off most of 3 entire generations of Catholic kids, and crippling the rest.

Back to the fun timelines: in 2014, 40 years after the St. Louis Jesuits and *50* years after folk music effectively died as pop music, we still sing ‘contemporary’ ‘folk’ music, the label given to quasi-heretical doggerel set to infantile tunes meant to defeat any actual thought and rub out any blossoming of musical taste in us and our children. It’s reached the point where anyone who favors reverent, musical and theologically orthodox or even merely coherent lyrics is viewed as some sort of fuddy-duddy or reactionary.

Yet – what we call ‘contemporary’ music is as relevant to us now as the 1930’s music was to us then, back in 1974. Imagine if someone had brought a swing band into the sanctuary in 1974, telling us all the time that they were just trying to be ‘contemporary’ – that’s exactly what the current ‘contemporary’ music is doing to us now! (Of course, the people in swing bands could actually, you know, play. And read music. And people paid to hear them. How long do you think the OCP stable could pay the bills if they had to tour for a living? Not workshops – gigs. Not sales to parishes – sales to people with real discretion as to how they spend their money.)

Just because the aging nuns and ex priests and Protestants writing our songs are still alive doesn’t make what they write ‘contemporary’ in any sense that making a buggy whip today makes surreys contemporary. Can we just call it ‘hippie music’? actually, that’s it – from now on, in the name of eschewing Orwellian euphemism, I’m calling that style ‘aging hippie’ music. Imagine:

“No, I think I’ll go to the 5:30 p.m. Aging Hippie Mass.”

“So, ‘Be Not Afraid’ is your favorite aging hippie hymn?”

“Wow, you mean the St. Louis Jesuits are still *alive*? I thought all those aging hippie songwriters dies out with tie-dyed bell bottoms.”

Yes, I’ve been in better moods. Why do you ask?


* In the immortal words of Tom Leher: the reason folks songs are so bad is that they were written by the people.

** Yes, “Spiders and Snakes” is actually musically superior to anything the Jebbies wrote. No, really.

Cardinal O’Brien’s TAC Commencement Address

Was thinking this address deserved more attention (and Marcel agrees). It was refreshing, if not unexpected, to hear a commencement address that wasn’t all ‘the world is your oyster’, ‘seize the day!’ ‘you can do anything’  claptrap. Instead, Cardinal O’Brien laid out what was expected of students who might be viewed as hot house flowers – special cases, specially trained in beauty and truth, in a physical and spiritual place isolated from the ‘real’ world – or might be viewed as special ops forces.

In being formed by the unique education offered here at Thomas Aquinas College, you have been formed for a mission: and that mission is nothing less than the rescue of the civilizational project of the West.

“Go, and save Western Civilization” – now, there’s a project worth commencing. Much more inspiring than “Go, follow your butterfly dreams.”

The Armed Forces does in fact have Special Ops chaplains. For the time being, at least.

For Thomas Aquinas College, which seeks to train young minds in the classics of Western civilization and does so in an authentically Catholic spirit, is a school which appreciates that Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome are the three pillars of Western civilization — the civilizational heritage of which you, the class of 2014 are the heirs and trustees.

Thus His Eminence lays out the subject of his talk, the unity of faith and reason in a civilization governed by laws.  The whole speech is short – I only cherry pick here to entice you to read the whole thing. Of Jerusalem, Cardinal O’Brien says:

Jerusalem: From biblical religion, the West learned the crucial lesson that our lives are not cyclical repetition or chaotic happenstance. Rather, the Bible taught the West that our lives arein via, “on the way,” a journey, a pilgrimage, with an origin, a design, and a destination. The origin is God, creator of heaven and earth, and the destination is the Kingdom of God, in the wedding feast of the Lamb, of which St. John wrote in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation.

This notion of life as journey or pilgrimage has been crucial to the forward thrust of Western civilization, its orientation toward the future, and its striving to improve the human condition. Life as journey and pilgrimage is never dull and never boring; life as journey and pilgrimage is always an adventure. And if so many of our contemporaries seem, today, dazed and bored, perhaps that’s because they have paid insufficient attention to Jerusalem — to the biblical foundations of our civilization.

And perhaps, in your families and professional lives, you can do something to remind the world that biblical religion liberates human beings in the deepest meaning of human liberation.

This notion of human liberation as the (intended) fruit of a belief in One God, Father All Mighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth is reflected in the ancient and noble understanding of freedom, an understanding that the modern world has cut in two. For we have disposed of the larger and more primary piece for the sake of the easier, ephemeral, lesser piece. Freedom is first of all freedom from your passions. If we do only what we desire with no understanding, we are already slaves, indeed, animals, no matter how much ‘freedom’ our society gives us in which to be slaves. But we hold this truth to be self-evident: that the highest, indeed the only, freedom is to do whatever we want whenever we want.

As an aside, this view also removes any possibility of dignified labor, of freedom through working for an end. Why should a father work to support a family if he’d rather be playing video games? It ultimately destroys any possibility of a true and deep relationship with any other human being, as it would be tyranny to have to love someone when we didn’t feel like it.

The section on Athens referred to here covers the notion of One Truth accessible to human reason. Revisiting the final paragraph of this section:

And in a culture that is increasingly confused about the truth of things, be, like John Paul II, witnesses to the truth: the truth that there is more than “your truth” and “my truth,” the truth that there is something properly called “the truth,” and we have access to it by our reason. There are other avenues to truth, of course: but it will be the task of your generation, tutored by the Pope and saint who wrote the encyclical Fides et Ratio, to remind the West that reason is part of our civilizational heritage, and that the Catholic Church is the great institutional safe-deposit box of reason in the 21st century West.

Discovering, as, for example Chesterton and John C. Wright discovered, that the Church really is the ‘safe-deposit box of reason’ is mind-blowing in the extreme, too much so to have much of a chance of getting through to many people. His Eminence didn’t go there, but I will: how about we, the educated Catholics of the world, go down to the bank and take Reason *out* of the safe-deposit box and use it on the world? The metaphor breaks down, of course, in that Reason can be both used and kept safe – perhaps it is only kept safe by being used?

Finally, the section on Rome, expressing a connection perhaps, oddly enough, least familiar to educated Catholics:

Rome: From Rome, and from great figures like Cicero, who through your studies have become your traveling companions on the pilgrimage of life, Western civilization learned that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force in the exercise of arbitrary power. That lesson has to be learned in every generation. But in learning it, we recapitulate the lessons learned, not without cost, in the Roman forum and in the building of a law-governed polity that once ruled the entire Mediterranean world.

As that Roman lesson about the superiority of the rule of law worked itself out in the Christian Middle Ages, other ideas were added to the mix: that there is an inherent sense of justice in the people to which just government must attend; that consent is essential to just governance; that positive law must be tethered to the natural moral law if law is not to decompose into an instrument of tyranny. Pope St. John Paul II reminded the West of these truths in his social magisterium; and it must be your care and concern to be witnesses to these truths in your lives as citizens.

The rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force. Except when Congress fails to act, in which case Mussolini must, as the representative of the will of the people, act regardless of the law. Right? Because the will of the people as understood by the best and brightest is a higher, if undefined and exquisitely flexible, law.

What could possibly go wrong? One hopes a classics education, where Cicero becomes one’s traveling companion, will at least make such arguments sound alarmingly familiar.

Wonderful talk. Do read the whole thing.  It brought to mind my go-to guy for modern thinking and politics: Callicles, who sums up modern thought and modern politics 2500 years ago when he says: virtue is the power to harm your enemies, reward your friends, and fulfill your every desire. Once Jerusalem is stripped away, and reason crumbles, and law becomes whatever the tyrant says it is, virtue comes to equal ‘freedom’. How can it be virtuous to do anything you don’t want to do? And Callicles lays out exactly what that freedom means.

One final thing: the student address, delivered by  Felicity Seeley, is also worth reading. Here’s a taste:

After all, to hold truth means to hold it in the depths of our souls, not just the surface of our minds; to believe Truth means trusting it with our whole being. To do this, we must show our thoughts and bare our insecurities out loud in class. If we’re supposed to let Truth inform our souls and build our worlds, we must be invested in it, and, as we said before, we must not be afraid to look silly.

We are certainly invested in the classroom. Here’s a common example: Descartes says something extreme or silly, or even extremely silly; it might not affect us much. But as soon as one of our peers disagrees with us, even slightly, it’s nearly impossible to let it slide. I don’t think it’s because their mistake would ruin our ability to believe and understand the Truth. It’s because we have discovered that their world is false, that they hold something in their souls that differs from us.

We all find this distressing. For some reason, we can’t shrug it off and say, “Well, let So-and-so be wrong.” I think this has to do with friendship. When we grow closer to someone in friendship, we share more and more of ourselves, our picture of the world and its effects on our souls. The more we share of ourselves, and the more we understand and become like the other person, the more we grow in love and friendship for them.

Update, May 16 & 17, 2014: Trip to TAC

1. Spent Friday & Saturday at Thomas Aquinas College. My beloved wife had wanted to attend the graduation of Andrew’s class – we received a number of invitations, one from the college, and several from Andrew’s classmates. So we all went down, all 6 of us.

The trip and the graduation ceremony were beautiful and inspiring. More below.

2. In a little over 40 years, TAC has gone from a meadow in the foothills and some portable building to about as pretty a campus as you can imagine:

This chapel, designed by Duncan Stroik of Notre Dame, is a jewel:

It’s that whole Truth and Beauty thing incarnate.

3. Was musing on our 6 hour drives both to and from, that if someone wanted to understand or at least get an overview of California, a good start would be to drive state highway 101 from L.A. to Eureka. You start in Hollywood, with a view of downtown; wind past both ends of Mulholland Drive and off into suburban foothills. Next, you snake past the beaches of Ventura and Santa Barbara, with glimpses of agriculture and the Channel Islands. Wind up toward San Luis Obispo through more scrub-covered mountains, back down to Pismo Beach and its sand dunes, then back into the interior eventually entering the Salinas Valley (of East of Eden fame) after passing oil fields – it has been said that the value of the oil extracted from California each year is greater than the value of the gold extracted over all of the state’s history.

And the value of the agricultural output dwarfs that of oil. The Salinas Valley is a fraction of the size of the Central Valley, yet contains mile after mile of some of the world’s most productive farmland. After a few bucolic hours, the highway exits the valley, passes through another agricultural area, then winds through a spit of the coastal mountains, through pine and eucalyptus forests, then back into the garlic farms near Gilroy (what’s left of them – they now import garlic for the annual Garlic Festival) and into the southernmost suburbs of Silicon Valley.

The produce of *this* valley is only as green as VC money, although a few orchards remain on the fringes of the ubiquitous technology parks and ‘campuses’. A few quaint suburbs later, and the road segways into San Francisco along Van Ness and Lombard and along the Marina. Cross the Golden Gate to Marin, which contrasts a dangerous amount of quaint with some rugged cliffs and mountains.

Agriculture resumes at Novato, although food is gradually losing out to suburbia there. Past the cows through the hills past Santa Rosa, and into Sonoma Valley wine country, the Russian River, and, once past Cloverdale, back into the rugged mountains full time. By Myer’s Flat, the road winds through the old growth redwoods and on up to Eureka, a Northern California coastal town with a very different spirit and feel from the balmy beaches of Santa Barbara.

Once you’ve done 101, then you can take the 89 down from Tahoe, to 395 down the eastern side of the Sierras, then on to 190 through Death Valley and up 127 to Interstate 15 – and you’d still need to see the interior mountains of the north, with their series of volcanoes, as well as the huge southern deserts, Yosemite, and the beaches of San Diego – and that would complete your survey class, part one.

California is mostly mountains and deserts, with huge areas of agriculture. The vast majority of the people live in the L.A., Orange and San Diego areas – on under 10% of the land area.

4. But I digress. While attending events at TAC, a number of the graduates came by to talk with us. They were charming, clean-scrubbed and serious. Not grim or anything, but serious. One young couple, preparing for their wedding at the school chapel in a couple months, mentioned that 3 of the graduates are going down to Phoenix to teach at a Catholic grade school being revived by Bishop Olmsted. This brought to mind this post – after the pope has restocked with orthodox bishops, and those bishops have replaced the seminary heads, and started to phase out the crazier priests, then the next step is to reform the schools.

To do that, they need smart, educated and devote teachers – which TAC is well positioned to supply.

5. Edwin Cardinal O’Brien gave a wonderful address. His Eminence took the occasion of the Pope and the Greek Patriarch making a joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem to highlight how inseparable Jerusalem, Athens and Rome are in founding and sustaining Christendom, otherwise known as Western Civilization. Here’s the Athens part:

Athens: From classical Greek philosophy, which lives here in Santa Paula as it lives in few other American institutions of higher learning, Western civilization learned that there are truths embedded in the world and in us, and that men and women can arrive at those truths through the exercise of reason. That confidence is at the root of our convictions about the natural moral law, as it is at the root of Western science.

You have learned here, I’m sure, that reasoning is hard work. But I expect you’ve also learned that the exercise of reason can be exhilarating. Love lifts us out of ourselves; so does learning. As heirs and trustees of the tradition of Athens, my hope for you is that you will all be lifetime learners, who never tire of stretching your minds, as I pray you will never tire of opening your hearts.

And in a culture that is increasingly confused about the truth of things, be, like John Paul II, witnesses to the truth: the truth that there is more than “your truth” and “my truth,” the truth that there is something properly called “the truth,” and we have access to it by our reason. There are other avenues to truth, of course: but it will be the task of your generation, tutored by the Pope and saint who wrote the encyclical Fides et Ratio, to remind the West that reason is part of our civilizational heritage, and that the Catholic Church is the great institutional safe-deposit box of reason in the 21st century West.

Brings a tear to me eye, it does.

6. Of course, it was sad, too, seeing all the young men and women graduating without our son. The class did choose Kentigern as their patron saint – Andrew went by ‘Kent’ while at TAC, for the simple reason that there were too many Andrews, and Kentigern is his middle name – and dedicated the graduation to his memory.

I’ll update the Memorium page with details at some future date.

Village Church

Had one of those odd conversations. Well, really, the conversation wasn’t so odd, but the timing was.

Our family has been giving a lovely young man a ride to  Mass in recent weeks. He’s from Germany, but his family went first to France, then to the US seeking educational freedom. I started to apologize for the ugly architecture of this particular multi-useless room/hotel convention center exhibit hall style church building to which we were heading for Mass. One thing lead to another, and soon he was telling me that, while in France, they lived 45 minutes from a village church begun in the 4th century and built over the course of centuries by a team of 5 workers – that was all the manpower the tiny village could devote to it. He added that you could see several different styles of building, as the different builders contributed what they could and were replaced by later builders with different tastes.

A semi-randomly chosen French village with church.

He added that there was nothing special about this church besides its very ancient age – every village had its church, but most were built in modern times – you know, the 15th century.

So, unsolicited, I got first hand confirmation of several of the points I was making in the posts on the nation state fetish. We urban and suburban Americans spend our money on our own house and other lifestyle accouterments. The people of that French village spent their time and money on a building that wasn’t completed until the people who started the project had been dead for a couple centuries.

Once talked to a man in our town who planted a valley oak on his property.

Valley Oak
The picture doesn’t do valley oaks justice. These are huge, spreading trees twice a wide as they are tall. When we were house hunting 20 years ago, we looked at a house with a valley oak in the back yard – it covered the entire back yard, half of each back yard in the adjoining lots, and reached to the far side of the street behind.

He figured that his grand kids would enjoy it – valley oaks live for 600 years or more, and take about 50 – 100 years to get really big. Another man I met once, when he gave me a ride back from getting my car serviced, was a great-grandfather. He and his brothers had bought adjoining houses on a street here in Concord many years ago, Over the years, whenever any houses on the street became available and they could swing it, they bought it, too. 4 generations of this family now live on the same block in this nondescript suburb.

Perhaps what I see and find compelling in villages still lives in men such as these.

What, Exactly, Am I Supposed to be Denying?

Here’s a cool set of graphs, from the Oracle Wikipedia:

File:Vostok Petit data.svg:

These represent an analysis of the Vostok ice cores, drilled at Vostok Station in Antarctica about 1996. This is cool stuff – by analyzing the layers in the ice cores, which are reasonably presumed to be laid down in nice identifiable layers year after year, we can get a look at temperatures, CO2 content and dust concentration over the last 400,000+ years.

The current ice age started about 2.6 million years ago. Based on the evidence in the Vostok ice cores, other ice cores as well as a lots of other geological data, it is believed that the current ice age follows a pattern, with alternating long periods of cold and ice, punctuated by comparatively short periods of warmth and little if any ice. In the graphs above, note how, about 125,000 years ago, temperature in Antarctica were warmer than they are now; CO2 levels were comparable.

The curious part here is that scientists are of course eager to compare the Vostok ice cores to those gotten from Greenland. There’s a problem, though: When you drill ice core in Greenland, in many places, right around 125,000 years ago, you run out of ice – you hit the frozen remains of forests and grasslands.

The only reasonable conclusion is that, around 125,000 years ago, much if not all of the Greenland ice cap was gone – melted, slide off into the sea as icebergs, evaporated – in any event, not there. Grass and trees don’t grow on ice.

Now, the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet ends somewhere before 400,000 years ago, and, as far as I’ve read, they’re not sure when, exactly, the last ice-free period of Antarctica occurred. Maybe the ice at the bottom gets squeezed out, somehow, by the miles of ice above it, or melts and flows out as rivers into the sea. Or, maybe, Antarctica itself was free of ice around half a million years ago. As far as I know, nobody knows.

So: let’s take a look at who is denying what.

Is the climate changing? Of course! All evidence suggests it’s changing now, because all evidence suggests IT NEVER STOPS CHANGING.

Is it getting warmer? SURE! And, based on the actual physical evidence of the ice cores,  it’ll most likely continue getting warmer – until whatever made the previous 4 inter-glacial periods end makes this one end, too. May have already started to happen, based on the last 20 years of data.

Is man’s activity contributing to climate change? SURE! I would reasonably suppose every activity on the face of the planet and under the seas affects the climate. For example, you can only get CO2 in the atmosphere if there’s O in the atmosphere – and something like 80% of the oxygen in the atmosphere got there because of all the plant plankton in the ocean.  So plankton are affecting the climate big time, probably a lot more than people are. But we do everything from burning oil to cutting down forests to planting crops – we would have to have some effect. How much is open to question. Not a super lot, based on the how much background variation is already present, as evidenced by those ice cores.

Note, however, that people only started putting possibly significant amounts of carbon into the air about 150 years ago – yet, the pattern of higher temperature evidenced by the Vostok core analysis shows the current cyclical warming period began about 12,000 years ago – when our ancestors were presumably living in caves and dressing in Mammoth pelts. To say nothing of our non-contribution to the previous 4 interglacial, which seemed to get on with it without our help, or even presence, at all.

If growing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere depended on human activity, then what caused those previous spikes, corresponding to when things got warmer, ice melted, and forests grew in Greenland? The only rational, scientific, evident based conclusion is that something other than human activity is responsible for virtually all the CO2 build-up in the atmosphere over the last 10,000 years, just as something other than human activity was responsible for the previous build-ups, when there were few if any humans around. Now, if the spike were, say, twice as high as all previous spikes, then we’d need to search for a new, or at least different, cause. But since it looks to be in line with every other previous spike for which we have any real evidence – well, there is no reason to suppose a new and different cause for something that is neither new nor different.

Are the ice sheets and sea ice melting in the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica? Are glaciers retreating? OF COURSE! And, one might add: thank God! Because – follow this closely – once they stop melting, this interglacial period we’ve been enjoying for the last 10,000 years or so is almost sure to be over. And whatever horrors we imagine might happen from global warming, they pale when compared to a return to glaciation. However unpleasant having coastal areas flooded and agriculture disrupted, those things are not nearly as unpleasant as having Canada, the upper Mid-West, Scandinavia, most of England, Northern Europe and parts of Russia buried under a couple miles of ice. Disruption doesn’t begin to describe what that would be like.

Since some or all of the Greenland ice sheet disappeared during the last interglacial 125,000 years ago, it should hardly be surprising if it’s melting now. Same goes for the West Antarctic ice sheet – on what basis should we expect it to stay the same? It’s been around for half a million years or more – we’ve been seriously studying it for maybe 75 years? We don’t have satellite data for the tens or hundreds of thousands of years we’d need to establish a baseline against which to compare the last couple decades. So, scientists are sure we’ve past the point of no return, and, in a worse-case scenario, global sea level will rise 10 feet over the next 200 years. That’s 0.6 inches a year. More practically, low-lying coastal areas have 8 – 10 generations in which to move to 10′ higher ground or build some dikes – worst case. The most pessimistic non-fear-mongering estimates for how long it would take the Greenland ice sheets to melt and raise sea levels 20 feet is around 2,000 years. So, worst case, we have 8-10 generations within which to move our low-lying coastal settlements far enough inland to accommodate 12′ higher sea levels.

This is certainly something to be aware of, but hardly something to panic over. How many cities are more than 200 years old? Within 200 years, we’ll need to rebuild 90% of the buildings in any event – how about we rebuild them further inland?

This leads into a bigger problem: since climate is weather over time, one must establish, at least tentatively, somehow, how much time is enough time. In other words, just over the 2,000 or so years for which we have human records, the climate has fluctuated. We don’t even remotely understand why – we’ve got a few ideas, but hardly a good solid testable theory. Those ice cores mentioned above suggest it fluctuated a heck of a lot more over half a million years. Geological evidence suggests that even the ice ages are themselves fluctuations – the earth has been (probably) an ice ball for hundreds of millions of years; for other millions of years the seas around the equator seem to have been too hot to support macroscopic life. How big a time frame would we need to understand in order to sufficiently model the factors that create climate enough to make confident predictions?  A million years is probably not enough; a century and a half is laughable; 50 years would be a joke, even if the predictions for the last 2 decades had been correct. That’s just not enough time to get a grip on forces that act over thousands and millions of years – which, given the kinds of long-term cycles we actually have physical evidence for, is the range we’re talking about.

It’s a truism that weather forecasting converges with Almanac-level general trends any more than three days out. In other words, if you substituted ‘it will be spring’ for days 6 – 10 in a current 10 day forecast, you’d get as close, generally, as those advance-degree-awarded, satellite and radar deploying meteorologists. Not to knock what those people do, but rather point out how hard it is. Climate forecasting is even harder. The only reason anyone should ever believe a climate model is if predictions made using it come true. Specific, measurable predictions.

Conclusion: I’m not denying anything for which there is any evidence. (Note: model output is not data. Repeat that to yourself as often as is necessary to free yourself from that stupefying, superstitious delusion.) What I’m denying, if I’m denying anything at all, is the sense of doom and panic that is wildly out of proportion to the actual evidence. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather we spend our time and money installing state-of-the-art sewage and industrial waste treatment facilities everywhere on the planet, and then studying the ocean until we know what’s there, what it does, and how we can keep it nice for ourselves and our descendants. Because, after all, if we’re not taking care of the biosphere to keep it nice for ourselves and our children, why would we care at all?

Science! She’s Tidied Up and I Can’t *FIND* Anything!

Several times here, we’ve discussed the bifurcation of Science and Philosophy, for example, here. From at least 1250 until about 1530, an educated European knew, if he knew anything at all, that all truth is one, in the sense that the Truth is One. Therefore, we, to paraphrase St. Charles Borromeo, would rather believe that we’d always misunderstood Scripture than doubt the plain evidence of our eyes.*

Then, along came Luther and the Reformers who needed *desperately* for this not to be true, because they needed to claim the primacy of Scriptural truth as they saw it over anything man could come up with – not only natural science, but history, logic, reason, and most especially the confluence of those disciplines in Philosophy. Thus, the weird silence of post-Reformation philosophers (except for the occasional snide dismissal) on Thomism, the type and apex of the perennial philosophy’s insistence that all truth is one.

A man who imagines himself as a teammate of Galileo’s and Newton’s, when in fact his attitude towards the truth puts him squarely on the team which includes Luther, Hegel, and the local Bible-thumping fundie.

So, it is sad but not surprising to read this, via the Statistician to the Stars, tamer of horses, about our current model for lying for the sake of noble end:

[Tyson says] undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”

…He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

The important thing is for students to learn to bow before the man in the Sacred Lab Coat of Science! It just won’t do to have the little people trouble their logic and reason infested heads over whether, you know, the claims being made in the name of Science! are, in fact, true or even if such claims could possibly be true in any rational scientific sense. Because then they start acting like you, the scientist wielding the holy Erlenmeyer Flask of Truth, owe *them* an honest account. That simply won’t do, not when we’re about to destroy the world** if we don’t act NOW on what the spokesdroids of Science tell us to do!

I’ll throw Tyson a bone: insofar as modern college students are much more likely to be exposed to ‘philosophy’ as created by Hegel, Marx and their evil, evil spawn, he’s right to warn them off. And I’m actually on board with efforts to formalize the de facto split in our universities between those subjects that can in theory be validated by experience, and those that cannot – all natural sciences fall into (or should fall into) the first camp, while the various studies wherein the deconstructionists and Marxists and Freudian lurk belong elsewhere, where their stench need not be smelt.

* One effect of this proposition that is perhaps not obvious is that it not only does not demean Scripture in any way, it *protects* Scripture from a teaming swarm of bad heuristics. Calvin said that the truth of Scripture is not vouchsafed by any reason or logic, but directly by the Spirit. Effectively, reason and logic and the evidence they depend on can be, MUST be, ignored when they contradict or restrict in any way this week’s plain sense of Scripture according the Reformation flavor of the month. This is, in fact, what happened – but, applying Calvin’s principle again, we can see that we must ignore history as well when it is used to challenge our interpretation of Scripture.  Here, we have the Church saying, on the contrary, God writes His Truth in all His Creation, so that there is an essential harmony between what can be known through the senses and what can be known only by revelation. Thus, Albertus Magnus and any number of his followers trained at the great medieval universities could happily study anything they came across in Nature without fear of any threat to their faith – indeed, the expected and found deeper faith in the knowledge of the world.

** for all values of “world” = “grant money”.

Note: for those souls for whom is is unclear: in the titles to these Science! essays, I’m working my way through the lyrics to the classic Thomas Dolby song “She Blinded Me with Science!”  It’s poetry in motion.

Science! Good Heavens, Miss Yakimoto!

1. NASA hopes to put greenhouse on Mars

Psst –

Biosphere 2 suffered from CO2 levels that “fluctuated wildly” and most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died. Insect pests, like cockroaches, boomed. In practice, ants, a companion to one of the tree species (Cecropia) in the Rain Forest, had been introduced. By 1993 the tramp ant species Paratrechina longicornis, local to the area had been unintentionally sealed in and had come to dominate. 

How about we put that greenhouse in Antarctica, or the bottom of the ocean? Those places are both much more hospitable and lots closer. Then, once we get those working right, we can try, I dunno, the moon? THEN, once we’ve actually validated the ever-popular scifi concept of an entirely closed-system (well, except for sunlight) greenhouse in space, then we build one far, far away on Mars, where problems are likely to be fatal. Or I guess we could train settlers to eat cockroaches and ants. And this is before the people involved start losing their minds… 

File:Snodgrass common household roaches.png
Hey, look! A five course meal!

I had a terrarium as a kid, once, in 6th grade, sealed up as tight as I could make it. Within a few months, everything in it big enough to see with the naked eye died, except for the earthworms. Got me some sludgy mud and big ol’ earthworms by the time I gave up. Fed the worms to my frog. Many years later, I was amused that Biosphere 2 had somewhat similar results.

Has anyone ever run a successful long-term, large scale (or any scale) closed-system greenhouse/terrarium experiment? One sufficient for a breeding group of people to live in? I’ve never heard of one. Perhaps we should do so, before we start hollowing out asteroids, giving them a nice spin along their long axis, and then dumping plants, wildlife and people inside and fusion-powering them off to the stars. Or building one on Mars.

Can’t help but wonder: perhaps the smallest scale a closed-system greenhouse works for meaningful lengths of time is planetary. Maybe closed means ‘except for solar and cosmic radiation, and occasional asteroids and comets, if it’s going to work. Maybe occasional 300 million year long ice ages or a freakishly large moon are required? Only way to find out is to, you know, build one.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d be as thrilled as the next geek if we were able to pull off an artificial earth on Mars or inside some giant spaceship or asteroid. I’d just like to see a proof of concept first.

2. Stand-up Comic with a Degree in Mechanical Engineering Debate Some Woman With an Art Degree About Global Warming. The quality of our public discourse never ceases to amaze.

3. Glaciers are melting. Kudos for the relative lack of panic-mongering in this article. However:

During interglacials, such as the present one, the climate warms and the tundra recedes polewards following the ice sheets. Forests return to areas that once supported tundra vegetation. 

So it seems we needn’t be surprised that glaciers are melting, as this seems to be a feature of interglacial periods (hence, the name). Now, it would be prudent to plan for the decrease in fresh water supplies in those areas where glaciers both supply that water and are likely to disappear. And there may be a lag between when the glaciers disappear and the earth’s crust rebounds from the distortion having those glaciers causes, thus roughly neutralizing the presumed increase in sea level. We’d need to keep an eye on that, although prudence would also dictate attention be paid to the coastal areas that are sinking as a result of the mantle rebounding from the distortions caused by massive ice sheets. 

File:Post-glacial rebound in British Isles.PNG
England, which was largely under an ice sheet up until about 11.000 years ago, is both rising and sinking, so that sea level changes at any one spot on the coast don’t tell you much about overall sea level. When Finland lost its ice sheet, most of it was briefly shallow seafloor. Now, not so much.

4. In today’s “Help! Help! Somebody throw me a copy editor!” moment:

A giant carnivorous dinosaur apparently possessed an enormous power to heal its broken bones, thanks to new findings revealed by powerful X-rays, researchers say.

OK, so – these ‘enormous’ healing powers were due to new finding revealed by powerful X-rays? Sort of like the Incredible Hulk?