Science and ‘Scientific’ Education

When I’m cruising through my giant pile of education history books, the pernicious phrases  ‘scientific’ education and ‘scientific’ schooling keep popping up.

That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Brief recap of the use of the word science: The ancient use of words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ referred to the systematic and logical exploration of a topic. Only later did the ‘scientific’ method arise. Science in the original sense was developed from fragmentary origins by Aristotle into the method of inquiry he used, for example, in the Physics.

Aristotle’s standard formulation of his approach: we start with what is most knowable to us and move toward what is most knowable by nature. As with much Aristotle, this is stating an obvious, simple thing: if you want to know about, say, horses, you start with the actual horses at hand – most knowable to us – and move toward the generalized knowledge of horses as a genus – more truly knowledge. Aristotle will use examples like ‘four-legged’ to describe the sort of thing we’d learn from the horses at hand. We’d conclude that having four legs is natural to horses in general. Stuff about horses in general is more knowable by nature as follows: a particular horse may be brown and unusually skinny and short, but once you know enough individual horses, by the miracle of the human mind, you can understand something about horses in general. Horses can be many colors and sizes (but not all colors and sizes!) but all of them have 4 legs and eat grass.

Image result for weird horseWhen applied in this manner to natural objects, Aristotle’s ‘scientific’ approach is not much different in nature than what modern hard (read: real) scientists do, including the part about where all conclusions are conditional: given the horses we have looked at are really representative of horses in general, and that we’ve perceived what we think we’ve seen correctly, then horses are of such and such nature. Aristotle would have never asserted that what he knew about horses rose to the level of certain knowledge, such as can be achieved in mathematics and logic. But it was interesting, and not unworthy. Aristotle didn’t care much that it was also useful – the tamer of horses better know what horses are like! And the city-state needed horses! – that came later with the likes of Francis Bacon. To Aristotle, the satisfaction of knowing something was the short term reward; the goodness of cultivating one’s mind and the excellence that results from such cultivation were the long term benefits. Making a buck, not so much.

To get from Aristotle’s approach to modern science, three things were missing: experimentation(1) – the idea that one could tease out knowledge from nature by making it jump through carefully controlled hoops; math – the idea that many of the relationships so teased out could best be expressed through numbers and formulas; and motivation – that whole ‘conquer and subject Nature to Man’s will’ thing. The Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon is often credited with adding experimentation in the 13th century, although this is disputed (historians love to view the ancients through modern biases – see? Bacon was advanced – like us!). Be that as it may, Bacon’s writings pointed in the direction of  the increased importance of careful observation of the natural world as a way to knowledge. (His contemporary Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar and scholar, whiled away some of his time making careful observations and drawings of plants – much like Darwin 650 years later – so the successful ideas again prove to have many fathers.)

Once experimentation and math got added to the mix over the next couple centuries, and people like Francis Bacon (the bring-home-the-bacon Bacon, as it were) promulgated the dogma that the purpose of science is to be useful (2), we’d reached both what we’d recognize as the the modern scientific method – and a great divide.

Without the math and especially experimentation, and, for really modern science, without the need for discoveries to prove themselves useful and profitable in the real world, science could trundle along including any number of subjects and approaches. Many things might be thought of a science, loosely speaking, in the old sense of something thought about rationally and systematically, that are not at all science in the current sense.

On one side of the divide, then, we have science in the full modern sense of the term – a body of knowledge that was teased out by careful experimentation, generally expressed at least in part through mathematics, and which has proven useful in some sense. This usefulness may merely be as an aid to further understanding (such as astronomy or even Darwinian evolutionary theory) but most often it means cold hard cash. Maxwell’s equations are used to make sure the lights go on when you throw the switch; Einstein’s discoveries are used to give you your correct location when you use the GPS function on your phone. And people have made a lot of money making use of that science, and we are all better off for it.

Sorry (slightly. Very slightly) if I’m bursting any bubbles here: Systematic, mathematic and profitable. That’s the science to which we owe allegiance. Pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake is lovely stuff, I am a fan, but the crass truth is that we’re never as sure about the claims of science as we are when somebody puts it into practice – and nothing motivates that like cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, there is a form of envy? Ambition? Greed? that compels some people to put on the sacred lab coat of science and claim that their pet ideas are science, even if there’s no systematic, replicable experimentation behind it and no one has challenged or is even allowed to challenge their ‘discoveries’. They then claim their ‘science’ is owed the same allegiance we pay to the science behind all the wonderful tech and gadgets that have given us, among other things, cars and phones, clean water, lots of food and long lives. Some – Freud, for an egregious example – wanted to be famous SO BAD that they just make stuff up and call any who object bad names. Others – their name is Legion – infest our colleges and schools so that they can inflict their ‘insights’ unchallenged on callow children. No systematic, repeatable experimentation? No solid math?  Nobody making the world better by applying these discoveries? No science, no allegiance owed.

Phrenology springs to mind as an historical example – serious people worked up what they took to be a serious scientific theory about how different areas of the brain created or controlled ‘propensities’, higher and lower ‘sentiments’ and so on. Phrenologists had theories about how the physical configuration of the skull could tell us about the mental condition of the brain inside it. They had all sorts of case studies, after a fashion, which proved their theories to their satisfaction.

The idea that you’d need careful definitions and double-blind, controlled studies preferably conducted by non-believers didn’t really seem to occur to fans. As is so often the case with complicated ideas about human behaviors, it would be difficult if not impossible to concoct an experiment that illuminates phrenology’s claims. How does one define a propensity, say, such that anyone could do a double-blind a study  to shed light on what sort of correlation, if any, exists between skull shape (or brain configuration – there were different flavors of phrenology) and such a propensity, as compared to some other propensity? One can imagine an ‘instrument’ of some sort by means of which one person could gather information about subjects and some other person could judge from that information to what degree any particular subject had this or that propensity, and then other people could survey their craniums (inside or out or both, I suppose) and someone else could attempt to correlate skull/brain topography to various propensities – but nothing remotely like this was ever done, as far as I can discover with the minimum amount of research I’m willing to do for a blog post. Way too much work, I imagine, for the armchair pseudo-scientist.

All the foregoing is to simply show that the term ‘science’ in the modern world is used equivocally. There’s the science that’s *hard* in at least 2 senses of that word, the science that leads to the tech that leads to better living (or at least works!). Then there’s the ‘science’ that is a combination of wishful thinking and browbeating and child abuse (telling self-serving lies to 18 year old under pain of expulsion from at least the cool kids club and maybe college itself isn’t abuse?).

Which brings us to today’s point:  There is no science behind ‘scientific’ schooling. No careful studies were ever done showing that grouping children by age and feeding them all the same instruction at the same time regardless of what those kids already knew for hours and months and years on end is better than any other approach or even works at all. (3) No studies were ever done showing that this approach succeeds better than any other approach or even no approach at all. There’s no evidence to show compulsory graded schooling yields better results than 1-room aged mixed schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling or any other approach, for that matter.

There is NO science behind the modern schools. None. Nada. It’s ‘science’ in the same way Freud’s ad hominem harranges and phrenologists’s pretty diagrams are science. In other words, not science at all.

Modern schooling does demonstrably work considered as a tool for the destruction of the families and communities that might oppose the total state. There’s some science behind that idea, although not generally expressed in those terms.

  1. I’m saying experiment for the sake of brevity. Please include ‘careful, replicable observation’ under ‘experiment’ in this sloppy blog post. Yes, astronomy can be a modern science.
  2. Through the expedient of making scientists like Bacon rich and famous. Or maybe I’m seeing things through my modern biases?
  3. For example: control for parents: if a child has successful, happily married parents, does modern school contribute anything to the likelihood of that child’s future success? Similarly, if a child has a single drug-addicted parent and lives in squalor and neglect, does school help? Intervention might help – but is school the best or even a workable form for such intervention? Inquiring scientific minds would like to know.

On Progress and The World as Grass

Two interesting posts from two of my favorite regular blog reads:

Mike Flynn says:

“We often hear that the rate of progress is accelerating. Change is coming faster and faster. Things that were once pooh-poohed as “slippery slope fallacies” only a few years ago are now spoken of as inevitable and well-established. We are building something new, we are told.

“Yet a building being constructed does not move faster and faster. A building collapsing does, as it accelerated under the force of gravity.”

Brian Niemeier says, among other things:

There’s another, more sinister aspect to this phenomenon that heightens the already disorienting experience of learning that the Weird Al single you’d meant to buy on release but kept putting off is now old enough to drive–like children born on September 11, 2001 are now. It’s an empirical fact that Western pop culture–and even Western technology itself–has remained largely static since the late 1980s.

Submitted for your consideration:

  • The last two generations of iPhones have had no new features.
  • The celebrated iPod performed the same essential function as a 1970s Walkman.
  • Movies and TV are dominated by sequels to film franchises and adaptations of comic book story arcs that first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s.
  • Nintendo is still the biggest name in video games, trading on IPs it established in the 80s.
  • In terms of ordinary street clothes, popular fashion hasn’t changed substantially since the 70s. You could zap the average American twentysomething dude back to 1988 right now, and no one would bat an eye, except perhaps to comment that he looked like a slob. There would be no Marty McFly-style gaffes, e.g.: “Hey kid, you jump ship?” “I’ve never seen purple underwear before!”
The issue is bigger than a generation of kids raised on Nickelodeon turning 40. As the 21st century lumbers out of its infancy, we find that the music-makers can only sample Vanilla Ice ripoffs of Queen songs; and the dreamers can only dream of the lifestyle their parents took for granted.
We’d better get some new dreams.
I commented on these thoughts, respectively:

Good image. Also, from working in the software industry: progress almost never means coding, or more generally, the stuff you can see happens as a result of the real progress, but is not progress in itself. Almost all the progress happens before there’s anything to show for it.

Two wildly different examples: in my industry, meaningful progress happens during the ‘thought-smithing’ stage, where sharp people figure out what’s really going on, what’s really necessary. Ideas and processes crystalize. THEN, if you’re lucky and did a good job, coders code, and there’s software to look at. But coders code and produce stuff to look at all the time – it’s called ‘shelfware’, beautiful software nobody wants, so it sits on a shelf. Conclusion: the software itself isn’t where things got made better.

Second, in honor of the upcoming feast of St. Scholastica, a lot of real progress was made more or less unintentionally when the great Benedictine monasteries were built. The Rule of St. Benedict and the motto Ora et Labora ARE the progress – they ALLOWED the monasteries to spread, thrive, and change the world through being consistent pillars and sources of stability, civilization and technological development. It was almost like having a cultural mom and dad, who, just by being there and not budging, allowed the kids to grow up more confident and optimistic.

Corollary I: few people ever see where the real progress is made, they only see the results of real progress and imagine those results are causes rather than effects.

Corollary II: What people most tout as progress probably isn’t – which I suppose is your point.


Your point about new gadgets is good. I suspect the number of ways people can be distracted is not all that flexible, so a cool gadget that really hits the spot has nowhere to go. Technologically speaking, phones, games, movies can only improve on the margins.

Look at the new gadgets people seem to be pining for: robots (especially sexbots!) do DO anything really different, just free up more time for? New gadgets? Flying cars are called ‘airplanes’. Otherwise, we want *better* books, phones, games, movies – the same things, only better. Real progress in most ways we spoiled consumers define it has come to a halt.

Hegel and by extension all other believers in Progress as a sort of benevolent force at work in the world hang their faith on the very evident material progress made over the last 250 or so years. In his Logic, Hegel in fact asserts that it is obvious traditional logic needs to change (in the sense of be destroyed) as it alone among the arts and sciences has remained ‘unimproved’ since Aristotle. He sees Progress at work in the world, and anything not progressing as being, as the cool kids say, On the Wrong Side of History.

A story told by Feynman springs to mind: he was once on a scientific junket of some sort to I believe Brazil, and was asked about the problems of the poor and if science had anything to offer. The specific example was how slum dwellers needed to march down a hill for a long ways to reach potable water, and then haul it back up to where they lived.Feynman points out that all the technology, all the science needed to solve this problem existed and had existed for decades or centuries: run a pipe up the hill and put in a faucet. Whatever the reasons for that simple solution not having been done, science wasn’t it.

The Antikythera Mechanism. A beautiful dead end. ‘Ahead of its time’ – whatever that’s supposed to mean!

In a similar way, most of what we see as progress day to day is application of technologies developed years earlier. And, worse, it’s almost all fluff – unless you need cutting edge medical care. Even then, chances are the cutting edge is built on ideas that have been around for decades. Our TV and phones and cars are marginally better than they were 10 or 20 or 50 or a hundred years ago – but they serve the same purposes, and the new improved versions have improved our lives little – unless we measure improvement in gadgets.

Real progress is messy, difficult and relies on changes of heart and mind more than any mere material invention. The Greek philosophers legendarily considered caring (much) for practical improvements to day to day life to be beneath the dignity of a real man. Practical progress of a sort was made in some arts, Archimedes is a legend himself – and then there’s the Antikythera Mechanism. But the outcome was not airplanes and moon landings, or even better plows and printing presses – it was constant internal bickering followed by conquests by the Macedonians followed by the Romans and jobs as tutors to their conqueror’s kids.

What the Greeks were missing was ‘why’. Certainly, they were brilliant, curious and ambitious enough to have accomplished so much – that made little material difference. It took the influence of Jerusalem and Christian Rome to provide a civilization with enough room, enough hope, to turn random intermittent ‘progress’ such as is characteristic of men whenever and wherever we live into a program, a communal effort.

If we are made in the Image of God, and the Heavens proclaim His glory, and the world is His handiwork, then applying our minds to understanding the world is a worthy activity. We can use that understanding to better serve our brothers and sisters. We needn’t accept the way things are. Christians are the only people who as a culture were not indifferent to the lives and deaths of the poor. Romans and Greeks, Indians and Chinese would have considered it an affront for a poor man to have the temerity to die on their doorstep; a Christian would be expected to see it as his own personal failure. Look what I  have done the the least of these!

Only if despair is considered cowardice and treason will we persevere in our efforts to help the needy. Only in a culture of hope and duty to one another can material progress become the norm. Such material progress is a side effect of a change of heart.

To the nihilist, relativist Progressive, technology is a tool of power, and science is a bother when it does anything but serve politics. True science, which is no respecter of men if it is science at all, is a threat to power. It follows where it will – and we can’t have that!

But we can have more and batter gadgets, and live an ephemeral life. Until we don’t.

Science! Nyet on Nye: And Hilarity Ensued

Which should not be surprising, since he’s a stand up comic impersonating a scientist.

So, SciAm, which, along with Nye and Sagan are favorite whipping boy here on this blog as egregius examples of overreach and propaganda masquerading as science, actually distanced itself from The Science Guy ™:

I shot back a nod, but then took a dig at SciAm itself.

Well, 4 hours and 40,000+ ‘engagements’ later, I can say I struck a nerve or two. On the one hand, there are those Science! worshippers incapable of or unwilling to see Nye and Sagan as the frauds they most certainly are. You’d need a little dollop of real science, a firm grasp on what it means to say ‘science has shown’ in order to come to grips with the fundamental dishonesty of those two clowns.

It is a testimony to the success of the Sagan/Nye/Tyson project that the number of people who can’t see this is Legion.

On the other hand, my first and subsequent tweets have ‘earned’ hundreds of ‘like’ and ‘retweets’ so far. I’ve gotten an ‘amen’ reply from a number of people. No mention of Nye (if you into real science, why bother?) but who share my sense of betrayal and frustration with SciAm.

Anyway, an interesting phenomenon. These exchanges will not have to have a very long tail to add up to several months worth of Twitter traffic – for whatever that’s worth.

Science!: One *Million* Dollars!

A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.

H. L. Mencken

(WordPress formatting Hell – unlocked!)

We will not here pile on to the current avalanche precipitated by political news proving Mencken’s point. Instead, let’s do Science!

I’d never heard of these folks before, just saw the headline and had to take it on. This is who they say they are:

About The Western Journal 

The Western Journal is a news company that drives positive cultural change by equipping readers with truth. Every day, publishes conservative, libertarian, free market and pro-family writers and broadcasters.

As Americans — and indeed, readers around the world — continue to lose trust in traditional newspapers and broadcast networks and their claims of objectivity and impartiality, The Western Journal is rapidly filling the gap as a trusted source of news and information. The Western Journal is staffed by an experienced team of editors, journalists and media experts who both recognize the stories that matter to everyday readers and provide a truthful and unfiltered view of current events.

Now, I would often give a pass to stories of the quality of the one we’ll be discussing below, not because such are not egregious examples of the Mencken quotation above, but rather because they are Legion and comparatively harmless. Not absolutely harmless, because they perpetuate the mindless Pavlovian expectation that we salivate ooh and aah at impressive sounding numbers and speculations passed off as facts as long as they’re associated, however tenuously, with Science!

The headline to the article, NASA Admits Valuable Asteroid Would Crash Entire Economy, Still Sending Retrieval Rocket, is so egregiously stupid that it’s hard not to laugh. The “experienced team of editors, journalists and media experts” have got to be kidding, right? NASA, collective bureaucratic feet no doubt to the fire, admit to the truth they’d been hiding: that an asteroid of all but immeasurable value would “crash entire economy” somehow – but they are nefariously sending a “retrieval rocket” nonetheless – unless, I suppose, we, the faithful readers of the Western Journal somehow can stop them! At this point, I think we need to appeal to the imperial senate to send Jedi to break the trade embargo. Or something. It’s only prudent.

But the ‘About’ quoted above says either ‘no, they’re serious’ or ‘deep meta-humor going on here’,  and I’m not quite buying the meta humor angle. One supposes there’s also the ‘false flag’ angle, where somebody’s goal is to discredit “conservative, libertarian, free market and pro-family” people by claiming to be on their side, then repeating Science! so stupid that only the appallingly ignorant would fall for it. Tempting to believe, but that’s a little hard to buy, as I’ve seen worse in, oh, Scientific American. So:

“NASA admits” – admits?

“valuable asteroid” – ya know, there are supposedly diamond stars out there, too – do we refer to them as ‘valuable stars’? Without, oh, factoring in the effectively infinite retrieval costs? Just curious. Now, an article on how technology is even now driving down retrieval costs for asteroids to some level where either they can be economically redirected to some more convenient orbit or mining operations could be set up on the asteroid in its current orbit AND we’ve got some plausible ideas on how we get stuff from the asteroid to the surface of the earth economically and safely – well, I’d eagerly read that article.

This is not that article.

“would crash entire economy”  – sure! Movies have been made on that topic – a 130 mile diameter asteroid could crash a lot more than just the economy! Perhaps the word ‘crash’ is infelicitous in this context?

“still sending retrieval rocket” – the nerve! Don’t those NASA people even watch the show?The scene: the dedicated and “experienced team of editors, journalists and media experts” have gotten NASA dead to rights, but just as they admit this asteroid they’ll be retrieving is a real threat to destroy The Economy, they cackle maniacally and declare: “and we’re sending the retrieval rocket anyway! MUAHAHAHA!”This is point where I’d like to say some headline writer got out of hand, the real article isn’t nearly this bad.But it is:

NASA has officially set a date for a trip to an asteroid that is so valuable it could collapse the world’s economy.

The mission is set to launch in the summer of 2022, and is planned to arrive at the main asteroid belt where the asteroid is located in the year 2026.

The asteroid named “16 Psyche” measures about 130 miles in diameter and is made entirely of nickel and iron.

Psyche is worth approximately $10,000 quadrillion, according to Daily Star. To put that in perspective, the world’s economy is currently worth $73.7 trillion dollars.

And so on. So: NASA is somehow going to ‘retrieve’ a 130 mile diameter chunk of nickle and iron from the asteroid belt, which, last I checked, is over a hundred million miles away at the closest. This chunk of nickle and iron is worth the staggering sum of $10,000 quadrillion, which is, let’s see, pulling out the calculator here, A LOT!!!

Related image
Luke: Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…more than you can imagine.  Han: I don’t know. I can imagine quite a bit.

I recently watched a little video about traditional African iron smelting. The team made the video to capture the techniques before the last people who knew how to smelt iron from ore died off. They mention in passing that about 60 years ago, a ship was driven aground and abandoned on the shore, and the Africans, being not stupid, started right in stripping the wreck and stopped smelting their own iron. Then, Japanese and Chinese showed up, and would sell them all the iron they could use. So, rather than draft the entire village to work their behinds off digging and hauling ore, chopping down a small forest for charcoal, hauling clay and water to build a furnace, then burning, pounding, fanning and sweating for hours on end all to get enough iron to make a couple hoes, hoes they could swap a piglet for – they stopped. Economics and all that.

Iron and nickel are quite valuable – when you have to make them yourself. Thanks to the miracle of the free market system, you don’t. You just buy them from companies that, through applied science and a couple centuries of effort, are willing to sell you nickel for under $5 a pound and iron for much less than that.But if you take those numbers, apply them to however much iron and nickel you calculate a 130 mile diameter sphere would hold, and – WOW! One *million* dollars! Or, it might as well be, given how well readers of the Western Journal (including me) are able to imagine $10,000,000,000,000.

Let us assume – dangerous, I know – that somehow NASA retrieves this asteroid so that the there’s so much nickel and iron on earth that it is effectively all but free. This will destroy the economy – how? Like how gravel pits have destroyed the economy? You know that virtually all you’re paying for when you buy gravel is the equipment and manpower needed to get it out of the ground, sorted and delivered. The rock ain’t worth much.

Unless all my money was in mineral rights to iron and nickel mines, I fail to see how this could possibly be a bad thing.The remainder of the article is untethered speculation, some by NASA scientists, among which are the idea that you could corner markets or solve all the world’s metal needs for ever. You need to squint a bit and cock your head just right to get anything like the click-bait headline out of it.Followed some of the links in the article to other equally confidence-inspiring sources, until the interesting stuff came up: it is not assumed that this asteroid is only iron and nickel, but rather that, as a possible planetary core (mentioned without comment in the Western Journal article) it would be rich in rare and valuable metals. That’s the interest: getting stuff that’s really rare and valuable on earth. What exactly ‘retrieve’ means wasn’t spelled out, but one would assume samples, if anything.

This introduction to the Western Journal has made it a trusted source for goofball click bait headlines. Science, not so much.

Science! Time Spent with Children

I think this qualifies as Science! because lots of people will decide it’s true and look at you funny (at best) if you disagree:

Parents now spend twice as much time with their children as 50 years ago. Except in France. From the Economist.

There are pretty charts showing time spent with children by mothers and fathers across decades and cultures, from 1965 to 2012. Also work University education into the mix. Nice smooth curves, too – that’s the way progress works, after all, it just smoothly moves us into a better future without any hiccups.

OK, let’s count the ways this is nonsense:

1. What does time spent with their children mean? Does it mean the same thing in France in 1965 as in the US in 1992 as in Japan in 2012? From family to family? How would you know this? Am I spending time with my children if the family sits down together for dinner? What if the TV is on at the same time? Does an hour at dinner with wine, conversation and manners count the same as an hour during which people come and go, watch TV or work on homework at the same time? And on and on. This issue alone renders the entire exercise meaningless.

2. What does University educated mean? Same thing in the US in 1965 as in Italy in 2012? How would we know? Is it self reported? Barber college count?

3. Methodology consistent across time and space? Double-blind observation on thousands of subjects validated against clearly defined categories?  (Not likely.) Or a variety of surveys relying on self-reporting by self-selected (those willing to take the survey) subjects? Or what? Because if you measure one group one way and another another way, all bets are off.

4. Self reporting biases: Are they dealt with somehow? Because I’d bet they’re in there. Do French parent feel like spending too much time with their kids makes them old-fashioned or otherwise looked down on by their peers? Did Danes come to some sudden realization after 1965 that the parenting methods of Lief Erikson lead to lopping off heads and slaughtering monks, which had lamentably gone out of fashion, so they switched it up? Or what?

And then you combine these issues, and you get more problems. Dads in the US, for example, have certainly been shamed into spending time with kids in traditional motherly ways since 1965. Having kids hang around while you chop wood or fix the Chevy – does that count? As much as changing their diapers or fixing them dinner?

I, for one, will be very skeptical of claims that modern moms and dads find more time to be with their kids than people in the bad old days. Getting horribly cynical here: They’re clearly taking time out from looking for husband #3 or drinking in the hookup bars with their buddies to arrange their days around custody schedules. Or maybe custody schedules are the sole drivers, here? I spend more net time with the kids and step kids because I’m stuck with one set while my spouse is visiting the other set? Does time spent in court or with lawyers count?

Seriously: nothing can or should be made of fluff like this. Therefore, one should expect to be accused of being anti-science if one rejects it.

Science! Zombie Ants & Rain

1. As readers of this blog no doubt recall, I have a deep and abiding interest in Nature, especially when it’s behaving in a blood-curdling, utterly horrifying way, such that it would make a slasher movie writer blanch. For purely scientific reasons, of course. Check here and here to whet your purely scientific curiosity.

Off hand, I don’t know what unspeakable horrors the innocent-looking carpenter ants have committed to deserve this, but check this out:

“How the Zombie Fungus Takes Over Ants’ Bodies to Control Their Minds.” As in:

Attacks of the Brain-Controlling Parasites | WIRED
This is a dead carpenter ant clinging to a leaf. That thing on its head is the fruiting body of a fungus. Said fungus infected the ant, took over its body, had it climb up high enough to maximize fungal growth and spore dispersion. Over an ant trail. It then converted ant-flesh to fungus and released its spores. The cycle repeats.

The subheading piles on thus: “The infamous parasite’s methods are more complex and more sinister than anyone suspected.”

Image result for count rugen
I’m sure you’ve discovered my deep and abiding interest in ants.

Okee-dokee, then. So Nature has produced, via, one supposes, the tender ministrations of Natural Selection, funguses that infect ants’ – oh, let’s just go there, cut to the chase – YOUR body, paralyze your mind so that you are reduced to a mute witness to your own long, horrid and painful destruction, causes you to shamble about for its own purposes – then devours you from the inside out, reducing your soft, Western-raised flesh to its own offspring – and then causes your body to sprout hideous protrusions to release them so that they may do the same to your loved ones. Got that?

More or less. I may have extrapolated a little. You  probably have nothing to worry about. For now. Sleep tight.

Here’s how the folks at the Atlantic put it:

When the fungus infects a carpenter ant, it grows through the insect’s body, draining it of nutrients and hijacking its mind. Over the course of a week, it compels the ant to leave the safety of its nest and ascend a nearby plant stem. It stops the ant at a height of 25 centimeters—a zone with precisely the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow. It forces the ant to permanently lock its mandibles around a leaf. Eventually, it sends a long stalk through the ant’s head, growing into a bulbous capsule full of spores. And because the ant typically climbs a leaf that overhangs its colony’s foraging trails, the fungal spores rain down onto its sisters below, zombifying them in turn.

For the sake of brevity, we will let pass the question of if ants have minds in any meaningful sense (It is part of the modern project to insist that minds and brains are the same thing. The insistence is instantiated via pretending there isn’t any question.). The reason these poor ants are back in the news (how are they ever off the news, BTW? Why aren’t there 24×7 cable and YouTube channels devoted to this? Has Capitalism let me down *again*?!?) is that there also exists in Nature the kind of researchers who will a) devote their lives to the study of this fungus; b) gather infected ant bodies in the jungle; c) cut these bodies up into 50-micron thick slices; and d) study said slices under electron microscopes until they have some idea exactly how the fungus works its evil magic.

Turns out:

Whenever Hughes or anyone else discusses the zombie-ant fungus, they always talk about it as a single entity, which corrupts and subverts a host. But you could also think of the fungus as a colony, much like the ants it targets. Individual microscopic cells begin life alone but eventually come to cooperate, fusing into a superorganism. Together, these brainless cells can commandeer the brain of a much larger creature.

But surprisingly, they can do that without ever physically touching the brain itself. Hughes’s team found that fungal cells infiltrate the ant’s entire body, including its head, but they leave its brain untouched. There are other parasites that manipulate their hosts without destroying their brains, says Kelly Weinersmithfrom Rice University. For example, one flatworm forms a carpet-like layer over the brain of the California killifish, leaving the brain intact while forcing the fish to behave erratically and draw the attention of birds—the flatworm’s next host. “But manipulation of ants by Ophiocordyceps is so exquisitely precise that it is perhaps surprising that the fungus doesn’t invade the brain of its host,” Weinersmith says.

In retrospect, that makes sense. “If such parasites were merely invading and destroying neuronal tissue, I don’t think the manipulated behaviors that we observe would be as compelling as they are,” says Charissa de Bekker from the University of Central Florida. “Something much more intricate must be going on.” She notes that the fungus secretes a wide range of chemicals that could influence the brain from afar.

So what we have here is a hostile takeover of a uniquely malevolent kind. Enemy forces invading a host’s body and using that body like a walkie-talkie to communicate with each other and influence the brain from afar. Hughes thinks the fungus might also exert more direct control over the ant’s muscles, literally controlling them “as a puppeteer controls as a marionette doll.” Once an infection is underway, he says, the neurons in the ant’s body—the ones that give its brain control over its muscles—start to die. Hughes suspects that the fungus takes over. It effectively cuts the ant’s limbs off from its brain and inserts itself in place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is right, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body. Its brain is still in the driver’s seat, but the fungus has the wheel.

(Note how we switch back to talking about brains without even pumping the breaks? That’s how moderns ‘win’ arguments – by pretending they don’t exist. But I digress…)

This article is so judgemental! The fungus is not ‘sinister’ or ‘malevolent’ or any other of the many harsh terms applied to it by the Atlantic writer. It’s just doing it’s thing – to ants we’d promptly wash away with bleach and rags if they set foot in our houses. Yet, here we are, all high and mighty! It’s stuff like this that separates the *real* nature lovers from squeamish posers!

Image result for captain picard
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Doctor, the sperm whale on Earth devours millions of cuttlefish as it roams the oceans. It is not evil; it is feeding. The same may be true of the Entity.
Dr. Kila Marr: That would be small comfort for those who have died to feed it. We’re not talking about cuttlefish; we’re talking about people!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: I would argue that the Crystalline Entity has as much right to be here as we do. 
Dr. Kila Marr:  Well then, step the hell right up to the front of the lunch line, Captain Cuttlefish! Don’t let me and my unevolved survival instincts slow you down. (mumbles: Pompous ass…)*

*may not be the canonical version of that dialogue. But it should be.

2. Finally got some rain. Over an inch and a half in the last 24 hours, which in California nearly qualifies as a epic storm. All in, for the season we’re a couple inches into our supposed average of around 17 inches. Good start.

For my part, I’m predicting another 1862 event, as discussed briefly here by Michael Flynn. Why? Well, why not? First, I heard somewhere that weather years, just like daily weather, tend to travel in packs – the best predictor of tomorrow’s weather is today’s weather; the best predictor of next year’s weather is this year’s weather. If it’s cold and rainy today, it’s more than likely to be cold and rainy tomorrow, and so on.

Thus, since the 2016-2017 California rainy season was EPIC! I’m going with predicting the 2017-2018 season will be MEGA EPIC!! Why let the Bible-thumper End Times dudes have all the fun? Seriously, let’s hope not, as California’s infrastructure, especially the dams, irrigation canals, water systems and aging levees (you knew California has a LOT of levees, right? No?) are in no way ready for it, and would probably be destroyed. So, no, let’s not – except I want to be on record having predicted it, just in case. Consistency, hobgoblins, and all that.

How it works: every few hundred years, the educated guesses go, that whole atmospheric river thing starts dipping into its major stash of steroids, and you get, using the 1861-1862 season for example, 43 straight days of pounding rain spread across the entire state. You get 250% of the snowpack, and many feet of rain on the western slopes of the Sierra. The Central Valley, into which ALL the rivers coming out of the western slopes of the Sierra drain, and which, in turn drains ONLY out the Sacramento River Delta into San Francisco Bay, turns into a giant lake. Over the century and a half since 1862, miles and miles of levees have been built in the delta, turning hundreds of square miles of wetlands into farmland – much of which is below river level, and all of which is below flood level.

Meanwhile, many urban water systems have been built along the river and delta – the one my house gets its water from, for example – that, should the river flood and the old, poorly maintained levees break, would be washed away, clogged up, or, when the flood water recedes, flooded with the salt water that is what makes up the bulk of the San Francisco Bay Estuary and which is currently held back from reaching the drinking water supply by those same levees. And SoCal gets a huge portion of its water via aqueducts that are fed, ultimately, from the dams in the Sierra – which are not likely to survive a megastorm.

Ugly. Just like the drivers this morning who honked at me, first because I did not close the two car length gap that opened up on the light change with sufficient alacrity, second because I had the temerity to change lanes into the space the honker had let open up in front of him – the nerve! Californians do not, alas, respond well to the traffic jams these early storm inevitably create.

Raw Data:

Just some quick links. Amusing stuff gleaned from Twitter, where Raw Data gets some comeuppance:


Found here

The above seems to be in response to this. Tiny changes either way in tiny states; large changes either way in big states. Per capita numbers might be more interesting, maybe not. Raw data is just that – raw.


Woman's Pay
Found here  

Raw data also tells you that Chinese American and Japanese American women, in general, make more money than white men, in general. Adding geography – Are Asian women more likely to live in urban centers? Or do many live among the white males of Appalachia? – or education level – Do Asian women in general get more education than white men in general? –  might recalibrate the numbers. Would be interesting. Inquiring minds would want to know.