Bare Bones Biology 108 – Scientific Communication

Today we’ll hear from Elizabeth Daut, who is a PhD candidate with the Applied Biodiversity Science program at Texas A&M University. She and several other students are working on a project to improve scientific communication.

I am part of a program called Applied Biodiversity Sciences. As part of this program we are working on this project to really integrate different components of the biodiversity conservation community, and help foster communication and collaboration across the different disciplines that are directly involved with conservation or even somewhat remotely involved. The objective is to provide the information that scientists may need that the public may need, foster those links to help develop interdisciplinary projects.

It’s an interesting problem that we have. The communication issues between scientists and nonscientists; but then also between scientists and other scientists. And there are many reasons. One is that scientists are innately drawn to nuances, the details of their research, the nitty-gritty information. They’re searching for discrete answers. And when they try to explain their results to the public, they go straight to the small nuances, versus painting the big pictures in broad strokes, which is easier to understand.

Another issue is that scientists are often reluctant to promote their research. One of the axioms of science is that of maintaining your objectivity, and once you put in opinions or subjectivity, then it’s almost as if that scientist will lose credibility within the scientific community. So there’s this real reluctance to speak out and to speak directly with the public. So it’s a combination of problems of why there is such poor communication between scientists and the public, but it’s not only problems between scientists and the public, but between scientists and other scientists of different disciplines.

This is a real issue, particularly when you are looking at big problems that are affecting society, that are affecting the globe, like climate change or conservation issues. These are problems that need scientists from all different disciplines to try to solve some of these problems. What we’re finding is that scientists in one discipline, for example conservation biologists or conservation scientists, don’t communicate with social scientists, who may be able to understand the public and society and give insight as to why some of these conservation problems exist at the social level.

What we’re trying to promote, is this increased communication and collaboration among different scientific disciplines. It’s almost as if they need to learn the language of the other scientific discipline.

The best medium to do such communication is on the internet, and what we’re suggesting is to host an on-line platform, a hub, that can foster communication between different disciplines for the benefit of the environment, of biodiversity conservation, and really encourage collaboration and understanding among different scientific disciplines and nurture collaboration in the conservation community.

Bare Bones Biology 108 – Scientific Communication
KEOS 89.1 FM
Audio may be downloaded here
Or at http://www.BareBonesBiology.com

Bare Bones Biology 070 – Levels of Organization Again

I’ve done more radio spots on levels of organization than any other one thing, because I think it’s the most important and most neglected law of nature that we know about. The concept has two halves. The first half is that the higher levels of reality are made from combinations of simpler levels.

A simple example would be a pie, that is made of whatever pies are made of. Pie is pie. One level of reality. It is not even flour plus salt plus sugar plus – whatever. It’s made from all those things, but it is a unique and different entity from any one of them or all of them added up. That’s the first half of the concept.

The second half of the concept is that different levels have different characteristics, and also different needs. A mob of people has some characteristics that are different from all of the people in the mob, all added together, or any individual. The mob may have different emotions than its members would have individually. And it may have some different needs. I remember when I stood up for however long on the student side of an Aggie football game, and I’m very certain that group had different characteristics than I as an individual had. And different requirements.

Requirements for well-being are also different, one level to another, of living things. What is healthy for a parasite might not be healthy for the host that it’s living on or in. What makes people feel good might be bad news for the environment, but then the people require the environment for their own well- being. So the bottom line is we can’t have everything we want. If we do get what we want, the results may be a disaster for someone else. This gives rise to moral dilemmas of the tragic kind. What to do when all the options cause pain for someone else – whichever level we choose has tragic consequences for some other level. Or if we decide not to choose that also has its tragic results.

Sometimes I ponder these dilemmas while driving. The other week, while I was driving home from Dallas, I heard Diane Rehm interview Eric Felten about his new book called Loyalty, the Vexing Virtue. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was excellent and spot on. Nobody used the term levels, but that’s what they were talking about, even though Diane Rehm and Eric Felten used different levels from the examples I usually use. I usually talk about the individual, the population, the corposystem and the ecosystem. They talked about, in their discussion of the book, the individual, a friendship, a marriage, a family, an employer, a community, and a country. These are levels of organization, and the same sorts of difficult interactions occur.

Some of their examples, you can be loyal to your friendship, or to your friend, or to yourself, but not always to all three. David Kozinski’s brother had to choose between reporting his brother to the police or letting him continue to terrorize the community.

There is always tension among the levels of organization of living things. Eric Felten believes this is a “tragic flaw.” I think, on the contrary, the various kinds of tension within and between the levels of biological organization help to maintain the natural balance of life. Life might not be possible without this balanced disequilibrium. Levels are an essential element of the resilience that is necessary to the survival of all living things, individually and together.

Download audio at http://www.barebonesbiology.com

Bare Bones Biology 053 – Winning is an Emergent Property

For me, the concept of emergent properties (Bare Bones Biology 017, FactFictionFancy-How Can we Know so Little, is critical to understanding our human power inside our living and nonliving environment. And this is important because any living thing needs to understand power relationships to stay alive. How much personal power do I have? How much power is attributable to God? Or to the Ecosystem? These relationships are very fundamental, and if we mis-interpret them we may end up on our keesters. Or extinct. Or just miserable wanting our world to be something it can not be.

If we truly understand the reality of emergent properties — that is, if we appreciate the fact that all of our physical reality is the result of a complex combination of factors — causes and effects — then there is no such thing as a winner. Or even a hero.

Ho, indeed, big jump there, but how can there be a winner if the individual who won was not individually responsible for the win? For example, I once won. I won a court case. I can give you a list as long as your arm of conditions and people and coincidences without which I would not have won, no matter how good the cause and no matter how diligently and skillfully I worked.

I noticed this disconnect in our thinking, between the concept of winner and the reality of complexity, while struggling to make sense of our American idea that “everyone can be a winner,” that I saw on a schoolroom wall. I have been one, and I don’t think so. Or maybe someone has changed the meaning of the word – winner. As I understand American English, a winner is someone who won something by using her own power or skill. In order to win something, the winner has to beat something. Usually what she beats is other people. Just look around. I think there must be at least ten or fifteen losers produced in our culture for every winner. How can we believe that everyone can be a winner with something like 1/5 of our population under the poverty line? That can’t be winning, and I don’t think anyone is actually counting the losers. A lot of losers are over the poverty line – way over the poverty line.

During my lifetime this tendency in our culture has increased dramatically, as has our delight in blaming each other for whatever happens that we don’t like. We shout the praises of the winners, and blame the losers for their losses, because we believe we all are personally in control of own wins and losses. It’s not true. Every win reflects a complex history of interactions, most of which we don’t personally control. And so does every loss.

If you want an example of the absurd extremes this can reach – just look at the Congress of today where everyone is assuming his own omniscience, and is busy blaming everyone else, and nobody is willing to work toward the solution itself, because it is really complicated and would require cooperation among the millions of parts that must fall into place in the right way to reach an emergent solution.

Interestingly, this morning news reported that the imprisoned sons of Mubarac are unable to comprehend what it means not to have a cell phone in jail, so the reporter said. I guess they thought their power was an innate and immutable part of their personal makeup — stronger even than the laws of nature. It’s not. The only power we really have is our good luck plus our understanding of the merging facts and processes, and the probable consequences of the choices we make. The very most that we can ever accomplish is to focus the threads of cause and effect toward a goal. We have everything we need right now to align our human presence with the physical realities of the world we live in — except we don’t have the will to define our common goal and then go for it.

Bare Bones Biology 053 – Winning
KEOS radio 89.1, Bryan, Texas
Transcript at factfictionfancy.wordpress.com
Audio at http://www.BareBonesBiology.com

Permalink URL – http://barebonesbiology.com/bbb053-winning-mp3