Bare Bones Biology 156 – Nice Speak

The story of my life: Chapter One, I grew up; Chapter Two, I majored in Biology/Genetics/Evolution; Chapter Three, I had a great teacher, Dr. Salt, at UC Davis, who caused me to realize the relationship between human overpopulation and war, starvation, and all the other ills that are now converging upon us; Chapter four I quit science after agonizing for months, trying to decide whether or not it is unkind to tell people these facts of real life. I decided it was. It never occurred to me, until I saw it happening, that my fellow Americans would permit a bunch of crooks to take control of the world food supply and expand the world population so they could take over our governments. Chapters five, six and seven, I returned to science, was successful, and eventually realized why democracy does not work unless the people understand the facts of life and discuss them together. Isn’t that what the “greatest generation” was fighting for?

130623-Fire-ASC_3883RLS+sAnd now I must repeat myself, what I’ve been saying on this program for three years, because the shortest distance between here and there is to start listening to each other, studying, and discussing the issues that face us today as a result of human overpopulation ( Nothing will resolve itself if we continue the modern nice-speak (or any of the many other techniques when they are used to prevent discussion), and then continue each person doing her own thing, on the theory that everyone has a right to her own uninformed opinion.

Nobody has a right to cause harm to the community of Life, regardless of what they believe themselves to be doing. The only way to change a human cycle of behavior – or any biological cycle — is to cut the cycle. That’s why good discussion is essential. First we must see the cycle and then we must modify our behaviors. Nobody sees everything; the cycle cannot be cut by each individual person trying to prove that he personally knows all about the cycle. That turns human control over to evolutionary control and the wheel turns round once again to repeat the past interminably. The only way to change the cycle is by pooling our knowledge of it. Otherwise we doom ourselves to repeat the cycle by focusing all our own energies either on promoting or fighting against the little bit of it that we understand and so pushing it around one more turn of the wheel of divide and conquer.

So this is what happens instead of discussion. If I say to you that I believe population control is the only viable solution to our root problem (the actual cause of the illness without which we cannot cure the disease). What do you say to me? Usually it is one of these things: a) “I disagree;” b) “Let George do it,” which means, “I’m doing something more important than you are, and I don’t want to stop doing that to engage in population control, which is not nice and about which I am not concerned and know very little”; c) ”How would you control the problem without also doing something so appalling that I won’t even think or talk about it?” (I’ll answer that one because of course it is the problem — but it’s not a reason to not talk about it. We are communally already doing something even more appalling by not taking appropriate action; d) “Nobody would give us money if we talk about population control;” e) (well, that’s a partial list, and that’s only the people who do agree that we need to stop the growth. The other side has even more vigorous replies.)

130622-canyon-ASC_3624sTHOSE ANSWERS ARE NOT DISCUSSION, they are attempts to avoid discussion. Of course everyone has said or thought those things, but unless you actually state your reasoning and then are willing to carry forward the discussion, those answers are not discussion; they are attempts to avoid discussion. And there is no point trying to discuss a real communal issue with someone who only cares about his own.

None of those are even a right answer if we seriously want to resolve the problem. The answer is WHY? Or if you already know why, the answer is HOW? The answer is NOT “Everyone has a right to his own opinion.” And the answer is not to complain about how a thing is said — so long as it is focused on the problem and is not abusive (meaning that people are actually listening to the other and trying to understand and respond) — but to complain if discussion is not permitted, usually because some believe themselves to have the only answer and are not interested in the fact that there are many implications of ANY problem, and nobody knows all of them. Either we pool our knowledge or it’s divide and conquer time again and the cycle repeats itself as it has done for a couple of millennia at least.

I am saying the glass is equally as much half empty as it is half full, and that is how Life stays alive. By delicately balancing itself just on the edge of death, between full and empty, and if we continue to unbalance it, we, and possibly it, will crash in this generation or the next, because we have pushed the wheel as far as it physically can support us. If we believe only in the nice things (or for that matter only in the nasty things, or only in one thing, whether or not it is true), then we are easily manipulated, and we have very little long-term power to help balance the scales of our own lives, or of Life itself, no matter what we believe ourselves to be doing.

This is Bare Bones Biology, a production of and KEOS radio, 89.1, Bryan, Texas. For a podcast of this week’s program, go to

Bare Bones Biology 004B – Power of Science

The great power of basic science is that it lets us spend our time doing things that are more useful than fighting about our personal opinions. We can use the elegant immutable facts of life to make technologies, and then we can use the technologies to do something good that we otherwise couldn’t do.

But is that what we usually choose to do? More often, after we have powerful technologies, our heads swell up until we believe our power is the same as wisdom and our opinions are the same as facts. Now that’s just silly, but that’s what some people think. And then we start to fight, we call it debating, about whose opinion is more important. And by that time we are in more trouble than we were before we had the power. Nobody’s opinion is as powerful as an immutable fact, because we can not change the facts.

A fact is a reality that doesn’t change. The most important thing we need to know about science — it’s a method to figure out what is the difference between a fact and an opinion. And it does this by physical measurements. Science is the study of measurable facts using the scientific method. The whole point of the scientific method is to prevent personal opinions from influencing our evaluation of the measurable facts.

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An opinion is not any of these things. We do have the power to change our opinions, and in my opinion we should consider our opinions with great care, first on the basis of the facts we must deal with and then on the basis of good choices that reflect our positive human values.

Fighting over facts is like those gorgeous fighting fish that have long trailing fins and all sorts of colors from red to blue, and they live in little aquaria. One fish lives on each side and they are divided by a pane of glass. Apparently the fish believe they are more powerful than the glass, because they never stop fighting to get through the glass so they can tear each other to shreds. They spend their whole lives doing this, and then they die.

That’s very romantic, and I suppose it’s fun if you like nothing else more than you like fighting, or if you think winning is more important than anything else in the world. I don’t. I think winning is mostly a way to hurt other people while pretending you did something good, because whenever you win, everyone else loses. And that makes them mad. Pretty soon everyone is mad at everyone else, and looking for something to fight about, even if it doesn’t make any sense, acting like a bunch of fighting fish and never accomplishing anything more useful than proving we can do something better than somebody else can do it. Well, everyone can do something better than someone else, so what does that prove?

I can accomplish my goal better if I know the difference between the things we know to be facts, and the things we know are not facts, and the things we don’t know. So science is about facts. Technology is also about facts, but technology is not basic science. Technology uses scientific facts to make things to sell or to use. It’s too bad so many people are confused about this, because the difference is as big as the difference between God and man. God made the unchanging facts. We use basic science to study the facts. We use technology to make things to play with.

It’s not much different from a chimpanzee using a stick to dig food out of a hole. God made the tree, the chimpanzee broke it into a stick to use for a technology, but the chimpanzee did not make the tree and he cannot change the way trees are made. Neither basic science nor technology can change the facts, but science can help us to understand them, and technology can help us to do good things without causing harm.

Or not. Our job is to choose.

The podcast of this post may be downloaded at:

Bare Bones Biology 098-Climate Change-What Can We Do?

The ecosystem is not a democracy. Neither is it a matter of opinion, nor can we match its power. Not in our wildest dreams. The ecosystem – whatever it is – it is a factual reality. Just look at the veins in your hand. Then look out the window. Then remember where your food, water and air are created – no, not in the supermarket – the ecosystem. It’s a fact that the ecosystem is constantly changing in response to its interactions among all the factors that make up its existence. My critics and their grandchildren will not be at all happy about our choice to continue destroying the climate that the ecosystem created, that has been our cornucopia of life.

So to round out this series on climate change, I want to play some quotes. Here is a short one from an activist at the climate talks that recently took place in Durban, South Africa. Amy Goodman is interviewing Kumi Naidoo on Democracy Now (the only good coverage of the talks that I know about, see dates 12/05/2011 and 12/06/2011 as part of the series).

“the problem is that the level of ambition and the level of urgency in these talks do not match what the science is telling us to do.” He means the science tells us the problem is urgent.

Climate change is just as real as overpopulation, and if you know a few facts (facts are realities that aren’t about people and people can’t change them, like gravity for example) if you know a few facts, then climate change will be as common-sense as my story about overpopulation. The one about putting a cow and a bull in a pasture with plenty of water, and never feeding them any hay and see if they eventually have a population problem. Or a resource problem, which is nearly the same thing. Common sense.

“The greatest challenge for Burma and the countries of the Arab Spring, as well as all peoples who hope to enjoy the flowers and fruits of their endeavors in 2012, will be to bring wisdom to bear on passion and power, and to create a blend of the two that is both effective and wholesome.” Aung San Suu Kyi

This is Harvard Professor E. O. Wilson on Earth/Sky

“Biology is going to be crucial also in feeding the world. We’re about to run out of water, and we’re running low on arable land. And we’re just now reaching 7 billion people on earth, and we’re not going to slow down or peak until somewhere in the vicinity of 10 billion, the most recent projections indicate. We don’t have enough water in enough countries to feed all those people and to restore soil to arable condition. And then there comes the matter of saving the rest of life, which is a major concern of mine. We’ll have to do a better job of exploring the natural world and figuring out how to carry it through what I like to call the bottleneck of the 21st century, when we go through the population crunch and use every bit of information – science based — that we can get, to make that journey through with the least amount of damage to the world.”

So what can we do to help? Number one, find a way to provide birth control for every person who wants it on earth. Number two, work to provide a reasonable standard of living for those who are living. This will require dethroning the corposystem and the growth ethic in favor of a sustainable economic system. Number three, join together with other countries of the world and let them help us do these things. How do we do those things? In any way we can, so long as what we do does not cause more long-term harm than help. That’s practical, self-serving compassion.

Bare Bones Biology 098 – Climate Change-What Can We Do?
KEOS FM 89.1, Bryan, Texas
Audio download available later this week
here and at

Trackbacks and Recommended References:
Bare Bones Biology Ecology Handbook downloadable on lower right of this blog.

Bare Bones Biology 092 – Climate Change

I try not to be one of those snobby scientists. I know they exist. That’s why I try not to be one, and what do I get for it? Some of the politically active people who aren’t scientists try to prove that they know more about biology than I do. Perhaps I should think about them as snobby non-scientists. However, a knowledge of biology among non-scientists or other powerful people is really important. Likely it will make the difference between whether or not we humans have a future on this earth. And I’m speaking literally. But that’s not why I continue to try to make the information available. Extinction of the species is not such a big deal. I mean, who cares as long as I’m OK. The reason I keep writing these things is not about extinction. It’s about the amount of suffering that we are causing to ourselves and to others. We do not have the right to cause suffering for others.

So I gave him a book. If you want one, you can download it free on my website.

OK, I admit it, right now I’m thinking about one particular extremely snobby non-scientist, and you don’t know him, so I’m using him for an example of how to not solve problems. He didn’t understand a word of the book. That’s OK, nobody understands everything. Or more likely he didn’t try to understand it, and he also did not ask any questions about it; it wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. What he wanted was to kindly explain to me all of this biology stuff is only my personal opinion, and there is a debate about whether or not I am right about climate change. What debate? Me and Rush? Certainly no debate between me and other basic biologists. Some discussion, sure; no debate, and at least I read all that stuff about biology and understood most of it.

I mildly suggested to this fellow that he check the facts. Mine and his. I mean, it’s all there on the internet and in books and scientific papers, with the evidences. And his response? I quote: “I’m trying to teach you (that would be him trying to teach me) to THINK!” In all capital letters. He wants me to waste my time thinking about fake debates among people who have not even tried to read the evidences. Maybe he believes the ecosystem was put here on this earth to serve our needs and it never changes.

Look around you folks. It changes all the time, but only in response to physical cause- and-effect realities that are on the ground. The earth ecosystem does not care about anyone’s opinion. Opinions do not change anything except your mind. Sometimes. That’s why the facts are so important.

The ecosystem we live inside of was not put here on the earth. The ecosystem IS the living earth and all its parts. It is alive. That’s a definition of life. The ability to change in response to changing conditions. When it’s cold we shiver, because we are alive. When the living earth changes over time, the name for that change is evolution, and climate change is all about evolution.

Climate change is about life — biology, because this earth would not exist – but maybe I should define biology. I just realized you might be thinking about technology, or medicine, or physics, or physiology or biochemistry or even sociology or politics. Nuhuh. Biology is the study of life and how it stays alive. Biology is not physiology, which is primarily the study of humans, nor is it sociology, which is primarily the study of humans. All of those things we study are primarily the study of humans, as is anthropology and – well almost every study we do is primarily about humans and that is NOT ABOUT LIFE ITSELF. Because humans, contrary to the common perception, are not the center of life.

For about 500 years we have known that the earth is not the center of the solar system.

And neither are we.

These are two facts that will not change regardless of how anyone learns to think, or what anyone believes.

Bare Bones Biology 092 – Climate Change
KEOS FM 89.1, Bryan, Texas
Audio download available later this week
here and at

Recommended References: Bare Bones Ecology Energy Handbook free download on the lower right side of my blog.

What is a Fact? (the punchline)

Here is another “tweener” as I continue to “improve” the book. This comes under the category of “What is a Fact?” and is an answer to the common misconception that: “The facts keep changing.” Of course they do not — it is we who keep changing.

And we always think of the punchline the day after the discussion, as follows:

If the facts kept changing we could not have science and if we did not have science we could not have technology and if we did not have technology we could not have — well you know what all technology can do.

And then of course you need to read the rest of the book. I’ll let you know when it’s available.

What is a Fact?

And a new discussion ensued at the Sunday Morning Domino Game during which several people claimed there is no fact (as I define it) or the “facts” keep changing, as according to their definition of a fact. So I got all het up and rushed home to change this section of the book in production (Bare Bones Ecology part one Energy). And insert it between the normal Sunday and Thursday Posts. Probably I’ll pop in another tomorrow as this led also to the change of the following section of the book.

What is a Fact?

Probably there is no good definition of a “fact,” and yet no other word suits. I will therefore refer to “measurable facts” for realities that can be measured and do not change. Measurable facts are, for example, the temperature of pure water at sea level when it freezes. Good science is based in measurable facts. For this reason, good science is predictive. We can trust that it is true within the parameters of the measurement. Airplanes fly because the technology (engineering) of airplanes used the measurable facts, for example gravity and the way air flows across the wings, that relate to flight. If facts actually keep changing, as I have been told, then airplanes would fly sometimes and not other times. Oh, well, of course they do but the times when they don’t fly, it’s not because the measurable facts changed. Maybe some emotion changed in a pilot. Emotions are realities, but they are not measurable facts.

People can use words to mean anything they choose, and the corporate media are happy to do this. The result — the common belief that facts “change all the time” is very damaging to our ability to survive in an environment that then seems like it is changing all the time. The statement is so common, and the example given seems always to be that the “earth was flat and now it is round.” The fact is — no matter what word we choose to use — facts do not change. Amusing, isn’t it, that the example given perfectly defines this. The fact is the earth is more or less round, not flat, and it never did change because facts do not change. It is human perceptions that change, and human perceptions do not control the shape of the earth. Which is a fact. Similarly, the facts that maintain the life of the ecosystem are not “changing all the time,” nor will they change to suit human perceptions. That’s why real science is so important to us. It is the closest thing we have to understanding real facts about the things we can not control.

Measurable facts are a critical component of the scientific method — therefore of science. It is important, even in everyday life, to understand the difference between the disciplines that rely on measurable facts — science, technology, engineering — and disciplines that use the methods of inquiry and persuasion that are part of the liberal arts, such as philosophy, religion and art including literature. Any person who wants to contribute to our resolution of social and biological problems will naturally want to be reasonably fluent in the problem-solving tools both of the liberal arts and of science, because they are different tools to study different “windows on reality”.

It is even more important that we not confuse a measurable fact with an opinion, lest we fool ourselves into believing things that are not true. For example, the advertising world abounds with claims that various commodities have been “scientifically tested.” Mostly, these claims are hogwash. Advertising. On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to evaluating measurable data, as the scientist tries to do in his professional life, we would be denied the pleasure and wonder of Shakespeare, Van Gogh, much of our knowledge of history and religion, and almost everything that we watch on television.

Rule of Law

I met a person from Kenya the other day. We had a long talk about leadership. It’s the first time I understood why the Kenyan former leader has been behaving as he does. Very strange to us, but he apparently believes himself responsible, and leaders are responsible to lead the people. He thinks he is doing the right thing. So that is all pretty complicated and it’s not us, but don’t we also do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Sometimes? Everyone does. That’s why “right and wrong” thinking is dangerous.

In fact, I think our entire country is descending into right and wrong “aint it awful” thinking. (Or if I just noticed it, I want to go back to when I didn’t know, but I think it started when the media decided to poll everyone’s opinion on anything, whether or not there was a valid opinion to have.)

Right and wrong is a matter of emotion. If we choose to maintain a rule of law, we need to deal analytically with legal and illegal, and we need to do it with input from as many experts as possible. Right and wrong thinking, and the concept that everyone has a right to his own opinion — these ideas some people take as permission for hate crimes. Torture. War. Hate crimes, torture and war are illegal, whether or not we think we have a right to behave in that fashion, and the reason they are illegal is not because of your opinion — or mine — it’s because of the collective wisdom of several hundred years of human experience.

The whole point of rule of law is to avoid that kind of thing.

Don’t forget it is the rule of law that has made America the most powerful country in the world. And the only people who can save the rule of law is us. And we have been losing it.

The Power of the Right Word

While most scientists struggle to find words that mean exactly what they want to say (and that’s not easy), we still have politicians struggling to find words that do not say what they mean.

I guess political people think they gain some kind of power by being deceptive? Or maybe it’s the difference between short-term power and “maybe we should think what we want written on our tombstone” kind of power.

When I’m trying to explain a scientific topic, I do not use metaphores. The minute you use a metaphor to explain anything, you are not talking science any more, because science is about facts. Yes, that is limiting, but the reality is that science is limited — limited to facts. Yes I know all the freshman biology textbooks thrive on metaphor, cutsey cartoons of objects unrelated to the topic under discussion, and ANYTHING to make us think it’s all a game. I know this because I remember when freshman science texts were about science; I have one yet on my bookshelf. I know it is possible to write about science, and be understood the better for it, without using metaphores — but of course not if the book is edited by people trained in the liberal arts, where metaphor is a valid tool of expression. Valid for their purposes.

I think it’s time we used our tools to aximum advantage.

Science is about facts — not about emotions or metaphores.
Facts and opinions are two different things.

When we get that sorted out in our minds, we will have the mental tools to solve most of our problems, without inventing words that don’t mean what we are saying to convince people that we aren’t doing what we are doing.

The Power of Facts


This tree is a fact. We don’t need to measure to know that it is, but we could measure it in a variety of ways, so it could be a measurable fact, and trees have definitely been studied using the scientific method. This particular tree is not a scientific fact; it is a beautiful fact. Wait, that was an opinion. Maybe you think the tree is an ugly fact. But it is a fact and not an opinion.

If you want to function effectively in your environment, personal or political, it is important to know the difference between a fact and an opinion.