Putting Science in its Place

Photo by Noam R

Although I might be described as a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, I’m about to say some things that are critical of science, which may be upsetting to some. It’s like those warnings on a movie or show: strong language, nudity, smoking, badmouthing science. So, before I lay into it, let me express some appreciation for what science does remarkably well.

  1. Science exemplifies careful observation—isolating confounding factors to focus on a particular interaction.
  2. Science follows a method that suppresses personal attachment to an idea: nature becomes the arbiter of truth.
  3. When it comes to elementary particles and fundamental physics, one can hardly do any better; although even an atomic nucleus is complex enough to defy exact treatment.
  4. Science advances by trying to tear itself apart, so that surviving notions are very strong.
  5. Because of science, we have a decent outline of how cosmology, evolution, and biophysical systems work.

It has its place.

But the very thing that makes science powerful is also its biggest weakness. It relentlessly pushes wrinkles aside, smoothing its zone of interest to the least complex system one can obtain for study. This is ideal when wanting to observe a Bose-Einstein condensate in isolation, or the genetic mechanism for producing a certain protein. Science also tends to dissect a problem (or literal critter) into the smallest, disembodied pieces—which then have trouble relating back to the whole integration of relationships between pieces. Other “ways of knowing” attempt to grapple with the whole, accepting it as it is and not applying reductionist tools.

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And Why is That Desirable?

Kid wants to know: why? why? why?

This is ultimately a post about values. More specifically, it presents a technique by which to get at people’s (or your own) values. Values are important, because they drive much of what we do: they form a sort of bedrock foundation for our actions, even if hidden from sight. When it comes to long-term consequences, some values produce better results than others. Modernity tends to have a fairly destructive set of values, in the end. I hesitate to call them bad. It is easy enough to see their innocent origin, but by consistently serving the more-than-human-world so poorly, they no longer serve humans well, either.

The technique explored here is childishly simple: just keep asking the same question over and over. The recipient of this treatment finds it annoying, partly because it forces them to think more deeply than perhaps they are accustomed to doing. How many repetitions of “why?” from a child do we tolerate before we throw up our hands and have no more answers? Embarrassingly few, typically.

In this case, the repeated question is: “And why is that desirable?” Primarily, I use this as a way to examine the values we ascribe to scientific knowledge. Years ago, I regarded science as an absolute “good.” What could be better? What higher achievement could humans point to than a scientific understanding of our world? In fact, the possible loss of this edifice is what disturbed me the most about the prospect of civilization’s collapse.

Some of that admiration will surely stay with me forever, but when I peel back layers of the onion by following the “why is that desirable” line of questioning, I find that scientific pursuit is often based on a core of human supremacy, or anthropocentrism, more politely. To see this, play the game yourself, or follow the examples below.

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The Intransigence of Now

Everybody has beliefs. Many are so deeply ingrained that we do not even recognize them as such. The most staunch scientist—who spurns belief in Santa Claus or God—still operates on a metaphysical foundation of beliefs about how the world works: e.g., that the scientific method is the only valid path to truth, and that unproven conjectures have little worth—and unprovable ones even less—even if quite possibly correct (and important). For instance, science can probably never tell us if animals experience emotions the way humans do, but isn’t it obvious by non-scientific interactions? Maybe some animals experience a sense of awe for natural phenomena, or notice the stars and wonder, or are more aware of their own mortality than we could ever know. Plants “scream” when attacked; will science ever deliver an understanding of what it is like to be a tree? How could it?

But I digress, already. This post is not about the narrow, literalist, and almost certainly incomplete metaphysics of science, but about the stubbornness of brains. People have a very hard time getting rid of some notions, or accepting something that runs counter to their assumptions. One might even suspect some “hard” wiring at play! Hey wait—people’s predispositions, personalities, and beliefs must indeed map to real neural connections in their brains (where else: we don’t use cloud storage!). Changing minds means down-weighting or destroying some connections and making new ones: not easy. Incomplete attempts often “repair” themselves back to something close to the original state, as beliefs are woven into so many offshoots as to be difficult to eradicate fully.

But neither is this a post about brain functions. Come on, Murphy, get it together! What this post is about is how intransigent people are, in general. After a few familiar examples, we’ll turn an important case: people have a very hard time seeing how unusual and temporary this moment is, it having lasted all their lives and more. The claim that most humans don’t appreciate the obvious temporary nature of modernity might seem as dismissive as the claim that animals don’t appreciate their own mortality. Yet some can, and that’s very important.

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Nothing, Without Bugs

Image by Ron van den Berg from Pixabay

A while back I wrote a post pointing out a way to see that animals are worth more than their weight in gold. The concept was cute, but not fully defensible in detail. Yet, the many orders-of-magnitude difference in market value of animals vs. their gold-equivalent value at least indicated that we might have something wrong, on the basis that we can’t live without the animals, but could live without gold.

In this post, I will follow a similar path to arrive at what I think is even a more stark result: that the economic value of arthropods (e.g., insects) is something like $10,000 per kilogram. To get here, we need to first preview the numbers.

Dry carbon biomass on Earth, from Bar-On, Phillips, and Milo; PNAS 115, 6506, 2018.

A look at Figure 1 in a 2018 paper by Bar-On at al. (reproduced above) shows that Planet Earth hosts 2.4 Gt (giga-tons) of animals, in terms of dry carbon mass. The largest block within the animal kingdom is arthropods (includes insects, spiders, centipedes, and crustaceans), at 1 Gt. Fish are nearly as big, at 0.7 Gt. By contrast, wild mammals are only 0.007 Gt, and wild birds are a comparatively tiny 0.002 Gt.

I have pointed out before that humans now vastly outweigh wild mammals, to the point that we only have 2.5 kg of wild land mammal mass left per human on the planet (presently plummeting). Note that this is a “wet” mass figure, whereas the numbers above are dry carbon mass (about 15% of wet mass).

The trends are falling fast: insect, bird, mammal, amphibian, and fish populations are losing ground to the tune of 1–2% per year, amounting to halving populations over a handful of decades [late addition: good article on subject]. Inevitably, then, extinctions are up a thousand-fold, and increasing. This is decidedly not good, and perhaps the most glaring sign that modernity is a literal dead-end path.

The approach here is to assume that Earth’s ecology would crash without any arthropods. The same might be said for fish, or birds, or any major group. Bugs (an informal catch-all substitute for arthropods here) are particularly attractive to me for this exercise because they are so crucial in terms of food for others, soil conditioning, pollination—and other services—that it is hard to believe other phyla could carry on without them. Evolution produces a complex interconnected web that cannot be expected to maintain its overall integrity if surgically plucked apart in this way—much as an organism cannot be expected to survive if completely removing any one of many key organs.

Therefore, no bugs, no humans. No them, no us. The same argument could probably be made for other phyla, producing slightly different quantitative results than what follows, but the same in spirit.

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