17. Clearing the air about rich scientists.

First, a review.  I spent two years getting a Master’s Degree, six years on a PhD, and four more years as a post-doc.  During the Master’s, I borrowed money to make ends meet, often from my brother.  During the PhD, my stipend ($12,000/year) covered our rent and my wife had a full-time job.  (That stipend was a result of me having to obtain my own grant money and from being a TA in my advisor’s classes.)  For three years of my post-doc experience I was paid about $25K from a short-term federal grant.  THEN, after 12 years of research experience, I was incredibly lucky to get a REAL job as a tenure-track professor at a small university for the incredible sum of $39K/year.  Yes, I had made it as a scientist!  And after 14 years, I became a Full Professor, at the top of the professional pile, my salary has not even doubled.

So, let’s be clear: no one, NO one, went into science to make money.  There is no money in science, and our State and Federal elected officials see to that. I have a salary; all scientists have salaries.  I have a 9-month contract as do all scientists and faculty at universities.  Only a very few research scientists have 11-12 month contracts (but they often are not protected by tenure).  That means that I “get my summers off” from the heavy burden of having to cash a paycheck for 6 pay periods.  Of course, I have options.  I can get an hourly job during the summer, like at the grocery store with my students.  I can teach classes during the summer IF I can attract enough students to fill the class, which is getting harder and harder to do now that online “learning” has come along.  Oh, and those summer classes cost the students $1200-1600 each and often aren’t covered by financial aid.  Or I can write a grant and use that money to get rich quick, right?

But there’s a catch.  I have a salary and I can only be paid from a grant at my salaried rate.  As a state employee, I am prohibited from making more than my salary.  I also can’t write two grants and get paid from both of them at the same time- that’s called double dipping isn’t it?  And grant agencies, especially federal, insist that most of the salary money goes to grad students and post-docs, not to Principal Investigators, whose real job is to train the next generation of scientists.  The absolute most I can get from a grant is the three months in the summer that I am not getting paid by my institution, and ONLY at my salaried rate.

What’s that you say? Some researchers get paid exclusively from grant money (soft money)?  Yes, they do and that terrifies most of them because if they don’t get grant money they don’t get paid and, in the case of faculty, they won’t have a job much longer.  The competition for that money is so stiff that only 10% of the applicants get funded.  AND the grants that are funded are always pared down to the bare minimum as the PIs are asked to do more with less.  The review panels would LOVE to give more money to science, but Congress (usually) doesn’t think science needs to be funded quite to the degree other parts of our economy do like, say, the military and the oil industry.  So scientists scramble constantly for the very few dollars that are available.  This economic strategy is to protect the public from ravenous hordes of scientists who want to feed at the trough of taxpayer’s money

Well, then who does make money from federal grants?  Oh, that would be NON-scientists like Halliburton, GE, and other FOR-PROFIT private interests who get massive grants and subsidies, sometimes without having to compete for them.  Oh, and THEY get to use the money to lobby and advertise to prevent anyone from taking away the money they get to lobby and advertise to get more money.

To be honest, universities receive a good chunk (about 1/3) of every grant as “indirect costs” that are not earmarked for anything.  Universities LOVE grants because they get some non-earmarked cash, but that money is used for other university business, like in-house grants, scholarships, start-up funds, and student support, and NOT for fattening faculty paychecks.  In fact, my fourth year as a post-doc was funded from indirect costs from grants.

So, all of the fatheads who claim that scientists love grants because it pays for their beach houses are speaking from a different orifice than their mouth. Scientists are as dedicated as public school teachers are to their avocation.  They love doing science, they love discovery, and they absolutely are not in it for the money.  Which is a good thing because THERE ISN’T ANY.  If we were the sort of people motivated by money, we would have gotten business degrees or become politicians.

 

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16. Science vs Politics: A Cynical Assessment

It seems that scientists always face an uphill battle when arguing for a change of opinion regarding “how the world works.”  Everyone has deeply held opinions about the nature of the world that are based on facts, experience, philosophy, religion, wishful thinking, family beliefs, and cultural mores, and in some combination of those.  The strength of each source of beliefs varies and the proportions of each depends on the individual.  Our beliefs define how we respond to new information, whether we will be accepting or doubtful, and how willing we are to change our minds on particular topics.

Science is predicated on a foundation of evidence, of facts that are discovered by a systematic process of investigation and then verified to the greatest degree possible given the current state of our understanding and technology.  Scientists make an effort to start with a null hypothesis that declares there is no evidence for change and then they formulate an alternative hypothesis that suggests what a change might be, if one exists. Then, an experiment is designed to test that particular hypothesis with a relatively clear understanding of what the data in support of that hypothesis would look like even before the experiment is conducted.  It’s the same as saying, “Well, if this is true, what would it take to convince us?” A bar is set and the data must meet or exceed that bar.

In politics, there is no such bar.  There are no criteria for determining what is and isn’t true.  What is believed to be true is true because it matches the message of the speaker and the picture the speaker is trying to portray to others, particularly voters.  In politics, one does not need to meet or exceed a bar; in many cases a single example is all that is needed to support the belief that something is true.  In politics, the exception can always disprove the rule.

For scientists, new information is not considered the final word.  New data help us reconsider the interpretation of existing data and how we should best design new experiments to verify what we think we know.  Science cannot prove anything; science looks for trends; there is no endpoint where we say, “That’s it!  We’re done and we understand it all.”  Scientific discovery is a process of unfolding, but no real scientist will ever vouch for anything in absolute terms.

This dichotomy in how different people arrive at conclusions creates a tremendous obstacle to those who believe in fact-based decision making when they are attempting to change the mind of someone who does not follow the same path.  For someone who does not necessarily rely on facts, a discussion or argument can be peppered with belief statements that have no basis in facts but which are given the same footing as those that are.  Against such a debate strategy one must either have a complete command of factual information of all kinds or lose the argument.  The latter will almost always be the case because a believer can conjure up their argument on the spur of the moment, memory is not needed, nor is veridicality.

As a university science professor, I live in a fact-based world.  Nothing I do, nothing I write, nothing I teach can or should be disassociated from the historical line of evidence.  What we teach from one year to the next is checked against the most recent discoveries to make sure we are still making accurate statements.  My audience is one that has not yet embraced the concept of fact-based decision making and it is my challenge to bring them around to that way of viewing their world.  Turning otherwise smart students into critical thinkers, those who evaluate the quality of information, is the only goal I have.  There is no place in my world for belief systems that do not have factual support.  As with teaching, I cannot rely on any such argument in my applications for tenure, promotions, grants, or scientific publications.  Any statement I make, such as “I believe I deserve it,” must be supported by real evidence.

Thus, I have a great deal of sympathy for the administrators of the university, most of whom are drawn from the academic ranks, who have to present and defend the goals and functions of the university to the state representatives, education boards, and others who control the purse strings of university funding.  All of their need-based requests must be securely founded in facts.  All budgets must account for every expenditure and the reasons for those expenditures must be defended.  It’s not unlike going through an IRS audit: the paperwork, facts, evidence, presentation, and conclusions must be in order and correct.

In contrast, those controlling the purse strings have no need to ever base their decisions on fact.  Their decisions are based in fiscal philosophy which is a belief system.  The money in question does not belong to the elected officials, but elected officials make decisions about spending that money based on personal beliefs about how money should be spent.  Thus, while the university official can present the most logical and well-supported argument for the allocation of money, based on research and demonstrated need, the decision to fund the university request is often based entirely on whether that request matches the fiscal beliefs of a majority of the board or legislature controlling that money. This is an obstacle to funding public education that requires amazing tact and patience on the part of the university officials.  They must learn to use the correct terminology and must never lose their temper; they must play by rules they do not support; they must kowtow; they must smile and never frown when listening to the most banal and ignorant statements; they must give up on facts and play the belief game.  This is the world of politics.

Political systems have no particular use for facts.  In the fact-based world, we understand that positions can change as more facts are collected.   Policies and strategies can be amended, viewpoints can shift, and one must be tactful if one understands that.  However, in the belief-based world, tact is not a valued commodity.  That world is black and white and does not change with new information because new information is always treated with suspicion if it contradicts what is considered the “truth.”  Politicians get votes by making bold, clear, unambiguous statements that are convergent with popular opinion regardless of whether those opinions have any basis in reality.  Reality is a meaningless abstraction in politics because reality is what people believe to be true and what they believe to be true might have no basis in fact.  Once in office, politicians continue to manipulate perceptions of reality to sway public opinion, as do others in the opinion molding business.

This process, getting elected by eschewing facts in favor of opinion, creates legislatures that refuse to support fact-based decision making.  The result is political trajectories that are not amended as new information is obtained and policies supported by dogmatic belief systems of politicians who cannot allow themselves to ever change their minds on important topics for fear of being considered weak.  This style of electing officials is a time-honored tradition because those who do not vary in their beliefs are viewed positively by voters even when their beliefs are completely wrong and even fraudulent.  Authoritarian, aggressive, self-aggrandizing, overbearing politicians are considered strong, forthright, plain-speaking, and firm.  These are characteristics that appeal to voters.  And these characteristics almost never have a strong foundation in fact.

This style of thinking and acting is dishonest in another way.  Almost all of those elected officials and decision-makers are college educated and have been exposed for years to the world of fact-based logic.  What they found after leaving school is that such a system does not facilitate their career aspirations as quickly as the cheap and intellectually dishonest technique of making up their own reality and eschewing facts.  And once they buy in to the reality-manipulating world of belief politics, they cannot go back without sacrificing their reputation in that world.  In that sense, higher education has failed utterly even though the many of the skills used for achieving success in the belief world were gained in college.

Science has provided the closest approximation of reality that we can have.  It should be the foundation for organizing our society and for making long-term decisions and for planning our future.  But science and politics are antithetical entities, and humans are political by nature.  The world of science will always lose the political battle unless science supports what the politicians and their political system already believe to be true.  The facts will only be accepted if they arrive pre-aligned with political philosophy.  And the politicians in charge will tend to be the ones best able to play the “belief is reality” game with the voting public.

15. Waiting for the Crisis: Zika and Political Inaction

The Zika virus is a very real public health threat to the United States and to the world. Unlike the Ebola virus, Zika has escaped confinement and is moving rapidly and cannot be contained. Rather than stopping it, the best we will be able to do is develop medical interventions to treat at-risk populations both before and after infections have been detected. And once Zika becomes a permanent part of our medical landscape, we will never be fully rid of it. This is unavoidable because Zika is both contagious and has a common and abundant vector: the mosquito, which provides a place to hide from humans and which cannot be eradicated. Thus, we are faced with another emerging health crisis. To confront the reality of Zika, our Congress needs to get serious about funding additional research and preparations for an epidemic. As rational and intelligent beings, we have the ability to anticipate future events and to take preventive action, but we cannot afford to have a political system that mimics the behavior of frogs and canaries.

Although the belief is false that a frog will refuse to leave pot of water that is slowly heating up to the boiling point, frogs are helpless to do anything about slow toxic changes to their environment. As amphibians, frogs can live on land, but must return to the water to reproduce. When they deposit their eggs in water, the eggs are exposed to anything in the water, including all manner of pollutants, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. From egg to tadpole, the frog’s entire development takes place in this chemical cocktail, and the immature frog can do nothing to avoid toxic insults from the human environment. As a result, development is often impaired, and physical abnormalities and high mortality rates are common.

In contrast to frogs, humans are able to recognize changes in the environment, and we are able to manipulate our environment in response to those changes. However, it also seems to be true that we are loath to make changes to our accustomed way of life. That apocryphal frog in the pot is a symbol of human behavior and represents a typical political response to looming environmental problems, particularly those of our own making. We see it, but we refuse to recognize it, especially if by doing so we have to change the status quo. This unwillingness to reconsider our path is embedded in and maybe even defines human politics.

On the other hand, canaries were used throughout history as a warning sign to indicate rapid lethal changes to the human environment. For coal miners, a dead canary was a warning that an environmental disaster was immanent and to leave the mine immediately. That warning was heeded without question because in a coal mine there is nowhere to escape except out. To survive, miners had to act and act fast. The Earth, our world, is very similar to a coal mine; we really have no escape options. In a finite and confined world, the first warning may be the only warning.

Our current political path seems to be to observe and lament deformed frogs and dead canaries as if their fate is somehow not intertwined with our own fate.   We believe we can endure the environment we have created and attempt to live with the consequences. We must recognize that those consequences will include increasing medical issues in babies and children, earlier onset of age-related diseases, more frequent loss of function from disease, and shorter lifespans. The costs of these consequences will be prohibitive, disastrous, and tragic. A continuation of this mindset, I predict, will be the return of the era of high mortality from infectious diseases, which we thought we had conquered more than 60 years ago. This would be a monumental failure and one that our descendants would find difficult to forgive.

Or we can accept the rules of the evolutionary game. To do so we must recognize and overcome the obstacles created by basic human nature. We live a different world today than in 1950, we must act faster, as soon as we recognize a problem, and not wait until we have an uncontrollable crisis. This means that medical research must have the money to develop vaccines now, when we recognize a threat, not later when the threat has escalated to a crisis. This means that environmental and health issues cannot be used as political footballs with one political party attempting to score points at the expense of the other party.   Today, we know for a fact that when a disease is spreading in a faraway place, that disease is only weeks, days or even hours away from us. Air travel has reduced the size of the planet to a single, very large, very dispersed city, and no one is safe from any epidemic.

When we recognize an environmental threat, we cannot wait until it knocks on our door. We can’t wait until the residents of Miami are a foot deep in sea water, until mercury is in every fish in every stream, until ground water is 500 feet down and salt water intrusion destroys our coastal water supplies, or until hundreds of babies are born with reduced brain size. When the facts tell us we must act, we should not argue with the facts because it is politically inconvenient. In the long run, facts will win every argument and losing some of those arguments will cause irreversible damage to our world. Zika is just one more canary and, while one political party blames the other for inaction, that canary is dying.

14. Size Does Matter: The Ecology of Organic Food

The push for organic food to supplant conventionally produced food (i.e., produced with pesticides, supplements and artificial fertilizers) has always been hampered by the claim that the organic production style couldn’t provide the volume of food needed to supply the US population. That claim was not really based in reality so much as a number of predictions about production costs, food costs, and backlash from invested corporations. With 100 million acres of prime US farmland being used to produce field corn, a crop that is diverted almost entirely to animal feed and ethanol production, space is certainly not the reason why we couldn’t begin to ramp up organic agriculture for actual food. Of greater concern is the problem with converting conventional farms to organic farms and the necessary wait of several years before certification of “organic” can be obtained.

Sales of organic food in the retail grocery chains is growing at a phenomenal rate and the food giants in the US have become active proponents of organic food. So much so, that they are literally investing their own money into supporting organic food companies in order to guarantee their supply lines. While this would seem to be a dream come true for environmentalists and healthy food choice advocates, the scaling up of organic food production is likely to carry with it a number of negatives. Admittedly, if organics move out of the niche market and into the main stream, prices will decrease some, options will diversify, and this will be very attractive to consumers. On the other hand, that food has to be produced and it’s the scale of production that should be of concern. Thus, although “organically grown” has always implied “environmentally friendly”, there is certainly reason to worry that the scaling up of organic farming will have a rather conventional-farming effect on our environment.

Growing food on a large scale necessitates changes to the landscape. The over-riding question needs to be whether it is possible to scale up production without losing the entire point behind growing organic food. That is, can we be good stewards of the soil, protect and enhance biodiversity, maintain genetic integrity of crops, and avoid unsustainable depletion of resources while producing huge quantities of food for humans? Certainly, this ideal is in opposition to conventional and commercial farming with its near total reliance on technological solutions in the form of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers being applied to vast acreages of a single crop. Can we produce food by working within the parameters of a biological system?

Organic farming is a return, in many ways, to traditional farming; it’s generally small-scale, multi-crop farming that relies on human labor, beneficial insects from the surrounding environment, and careful attention to soil quality and ecology. In recent years, as organic farming has shifted into a higher gear, techniques have emerged to help organic producers scale up using very modern methodologies, including specialized equipment, hothouses and aquaponics. While these approaches will help produce and market larger quantities of organic foods, the food will become less of a product of the farm ecosystem and more of a product of technology.

In addition to the environmental consequences of large-scale farming, there is certainly another important reason to be cautious. One major attraction of organically produced food is the taste. Consider the fruit we call a tomato. Most of us will readily agree that nothing quite compares to a garden-fresh tomato and certainly nothing currently available at the grocery store comes close. The reasons for the complete lack of character of the hothouse tomatoes adorning the shelves of the produce section of the grocery store are several, but they should serve as a warning to the major food chains attempting to too-rapidly scale up their organic farming sales.

Making a tomato requires time. A tomato is the interaction between a plant and the environment and that interaction has been fine-tuned for millennia. The garden-fresh tomato is a creation not just of the plant, but also of the environment interacting with the plant. The environment stimulates the plant both positively and negatively and the plant responds to the environment in both genetic and physiological ways. The tomato is part of the genetic response, but the flavors of the tomato are a complex combination of many different responses to many different stimuli.

A high-quality tomato, one that elicits such intense pleasure when eaten, is the product of a high-quality environment. Such a tomato cannot be produced in a system that attempts to maximize and speed production for the sake of quantity, one that diminishes the importance of the surrounding environment, or one that does not allow for the complete expression of the tomato genome. Otherwise, the result is what we now encounter in all conventional produce departments- bland, pink, texture-less pretenders that do not contain the same beneficial nutrients and qualities of the real thing, and that can never generate the rapturous response typical of their garden-fresh cousins.

So, can organic food production match the scale of conventional food production without losing its philosophical foundation? It’s very possible and highly desirable, but moving in that direction at a high rate of speed will not be conducive to achieving that outcome.

13. Seedless Bananas and Monocultures: A Perfectly Bad Combination

The Cavendish banana was truly fortunate to have been discovered by humans. Without our adoption, this sweet and attractive, but seedless banana would have disappeared into the jungle long ago because, as a genetic mistake, it was doomed to be an asexual and probably short-lived anomaly. Instead, like winning the big lottery, the Cavendish became the most famous of all bananas despite having no evolutionary future whatsoever. However, the time has come, the course has been run, and the Cavendish is now likely to disappear, but only to be replaced in the grocery display by another genetic anomaly, another as-yet-unknown seedless banana.

Although humans in love with the long yellow Cavendish banana may mourn its passing, that single banana genotype only exists because we fostered it (by the millions and millions) and because it was unable to reproduce itself by seed. Although all wild bananas naturally make seeds, those seeds make them undesirable as far as humans are concerned. But occasionally the banana plant produces a mutant, a genetic mistake containing three copies of all chromosomes, which renders the new plant unable to produce viable seeds. Humans love these seedless triploids and we have discovered ways to make more of them, as we have done with the seedless watermelon. Sweet and juicy, the triploid fruits have none of those nuisance seeds scattered across their delicious interiors.

Triploid bananas have no real future in the wild. They can only reproduce by cloning, that is, by growing new shoots at the base of the parent plant and those new shoots take over once the parent plant has flowered and produced a stalk of bananas. But the mutant seedless plants are anchored to the spot, in a genetic sense, unlike seed-producing bananas that can disperse their offspring and move across the landscape with each passing generation. Thus, humans have been the transportation assistance the Cavendish banana needed and we have spread the strange mutant seedless genotype across the globe and making it possibly the most successful dead-end genotype in history.

Unfortunately for the Cavendish banana, an alliance with humans is both the reason for its success and the reason for its downfall. The human propensity for using monocultures for producing food also creates the conditions that will eventually wipe out this most unusual of all things- an organism with only one genotype. For such a creature, success can be sustained only as long as the world around it doesn’t change. But life with humans is life with change, often rapid and unpredictable change, and such change is never favorable for asexual species. Without the recombination of chromosomes through sex, a clonal species cannot produce new genotypes that may be better able to tolerate new stresses in the environment. And unfortunately for humans, there are no natural methods we can use to assist the Cavendish banana to be more sexually active.

The seedless Cavendish banana exists in the very trap that human agriculture now finds itself. In fact, asexual reproduction and genetic uniformity of bananas is the very reason it has fit into the human world so perfectly. Our agricultural system has slowly and intentionally adopted a worldview wherein huge monocultures of genetically identical plants is not just the norm, but a desirable condition. The Gros Michel and now the Cavendish bananas were and are represented around the world by single genotypes. If bananas were corporations, they would be MacDonald’s and Starbucks; meeting the exact expectations of consumers around the world for uniformity of quality, taste and experience. As long as consumers only want a single flavor, this is a winning business plan. But there are flaws in this worldview and given the right conditions, these flaws will become gaping holes, and it begins with the monoculture.

A monoculture is much like a vacuum and it cannot be tolerated in nature. A monoculture is a vast and uniform resource awaiting exploitation on a first-come-first-served basis and there are multitudes of herbivores attempting to be first. When any plant-eating organism infiltrates the defenses of human agriculture, it is faced with a seemingly limitless food supply. Under such artificial conditions we always see explosive population growth of the very organisms we try assiduously to keep under control. It is a evolutionary truism: Vast expanses of genetically uniform crop monocultures guarantee the emergence of pest species.

Under natural conditions the plants themselves are extraordinarily adept at producing defensive chemicals for discouraging herbivory and plants have been fending off herbivores for millennia.   Every smell and flavor in plant leaves, flowers, and seeds are important for attracting or dissuading other species. And every natural population of plants has genetic variation for every different trait, particularly for those defensive compounds. Oh, but the banana. The seedless banana has eschewed genetic variation. And the Cavendish banana is being grown in vast genetically uniform monocultures by humans who incessantly propagate only a single genotype rather than embracing genetic variation as a method for preventing the disaster that awaits.

This defiance of nature, both by the banana and by human agricultural practices, is getting harder and harder to sustain. The enemies are gathering at the gates, searching for any weakness in the defenses. We are literally inviting them to find the weak spot. A typical Cavendish banana plantation is now spraying pesticides 25-50 times a year to fend off nature’s would-be consumers of this incredibly unnatural crop. The result is inevitable and predictable. An enemy is a product of evolution and emerges by beating the defense systems that humans have created to defend the defenseless. Whether it is our chemical arsenal selecting for pesticide resistance in an insect or the emergence of a highly chemical-resistant strain of fungi, the result is inevitable. These outcomes are a consequence of the rules of the evolutionary game played by all natural organisms and the rules we refuse to acknowledge in our pursuit of modern agricultural production practices.

Is there a solution? Can the Cavendish banana be saved? Yes, there is, and no, probably not, at least not as the preferred banana genotype worldwide. With 1000 species of genetically variable bananas to choose from and dozens of seedless varieties already being grown, we will have no particular difficulty finding a replacement for the Cavendish. The nemesis of the Cavendish banana has already been unleashed and, like Frankenstein’s monster, it cannot be recalled.

However, our efforts at this point should be to find many replacements for the Cavendish banana, not just one, and to propagate them in diverse mixtures with no real dependency on any single genotype as in the past. This approach would protect us from the loss of any one or two genotypes to future threats. We should move away from monoculture-style production, such that multiple species of plants are grown on plantations. These changes to banana production would also reduce our reliance on environmentally damaging chemicals and would allow for some protection from naturally-occurring beneficial organisms.   In the long run, having experienced two disastrous challenges from nature to our love of bananas, perhaps it is time to follow the rules of the evolutionary game to ensure a safer future for our genetically deficient and nearly defenseless adoptees.

12. Using DDT to control the Zika virus

The proposal to bring DDT out of the retired arsenal of chemical weaponry to control mosquito vectors carrying the Zika virus is a Pandora’s Box of problems. And these are not hypothetical problems. The mosquitoes and the virus are biological threats that have emerged because of disruptions to the broader environment, all of which are connected to human population growth and simplification of the ecosystems humans live in. While the Zika virus is a very real threat to human health, the answer to this threat is not DDT. DDT is a technological solution to a biological problem; it will not only fail rather quickly, but its widespread use will create additional biological problems for which DDT is not a solution. The long-term damage to the broader ecosystem will certainly far outweigh any temporary benefit.

DDT does kill mosquitoes, but it’s a broad-spectrum insecticide that kills most insects plus many organisms closely related to them, many of which are species that help control mosquitos naturally. Once those species are reduced or gone, we will have fewer options for biocontrol and will rely instead on the continued use of technological solutions, which are short-lived and inevitably fail when applied to biological problems. Mosquitoes are part of the human and natural ecosystems; to control them with DDT, we would literally be poisoning our own homes and environment. Using chemical solutions to pest species, we continue to simplify our environment and continue to lose valuable assets for addressing future challenges.

When biological problems emerge, we should examine the environmental context in our search for solutions. In an intact ecosystem, the checks and balances that exist among predators and prey prevent any one species from dominating or damaging the system for very long. In the human ecosystem, we should ask what has changed, what natural controls might be missing, and what in our environment is favoring the spread of the problem. The human environment has been simplified, many biological parts of a healthy ecosystem are missing, and our interactions with the environment are typically technological.

Our entire history of synthetic chemicals (technological solutions) to control agricultural pests has revealed some very profound truths that govern our interactions with nature: biological problems will adapt to technological solutions, technological solutions will inevitably fail, the rate of failure increases with the intensity of the technology, and the damage wrought by technology makes the future use of biological solutions even more difficult. In stark contrast, the most successful solutions to human pathogens have been to manipulate the human immune system (a biological solution) through the use of vaccines.

We must protect human health from the Zika virus, but turning to DDT is not a viable solution. Aside from the well-known ecotoxicology issues associated with DDT, we have proven a thousand times since 1950 that insecticides do not eradicate pests, that control is illusory, and that such technology can reduce our ability manage future problems. Mosquito abundance is symptomatic of a deeper environmental imbalance and one that will not be solved with DDT, but one that can be solved by understanding the biology behind it.

11. The Single Fallacy Underlying Denial of Environmental Facts

Let’s begin with a quote from Laudato Si, the 2015 encyclical released by Pope Francis:

“As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.”

It’s a common theme on TV news that this or that politician or political party or talking head refuses to accept the fact of climate change or other potentially threatening environmental issues. For scientists and those who understand science, nothing is more frustrating than people in positions of power refusing to recognize facts. We often accuse the deniers of being intentionally stupid or kowtowing to the “slowest common denominator”, otherwise known as the uneducated voting masses. But that is actually dismissive of the real problem….and there is really only one basic problem and it’s a philosophical one.

Any person who refuses to acknowledge the long-term consequences of environmental degradation, of climate change, of the poisoning of the world with fossil fuels, of the dead end path of using synthetic pesticides, of the loss of biological diversity, these people possess a philosophical outlook that prevents them from seeing certain realities. Their viewpoint is based on a single concept that is absolutely central to their way of thinking. It is a concept that determines how and why they react to literally all news about the environment in the way they do. Their underlying philosophical worldview is this: We do not live in a world of limits.

If one believes that statement, then nothing the doom and gloom environmentalists say has any meaning. None of the alarmist scientific reports have any relevance to how we plan for the future. If the world is not limited, there is no shortage of fuel, of water, of energy, of air, of resources. Technological advances will solve any short-term issues we encounter. We can continue with business as usual as long as we care to.

This philosophy is compounded by religious beliefs, specifically those of some Protestant Christians and their very narrow reading of the Bible. The particular chosen viewpoint is that all of the resources on Earth are given to mankind for our use and we have the right to use them as we please. Between having a limitless supply of resources and the unrestricted use of them, there is little or nothing that can be said to turn a denier into a believer.

In a world of limits, we have a responsibility to use resources wisely. We do not have the right to abuse, overuse, deplete, waste, damage, or destroy resources, or behave in a manner that does not respect nature and its inherent limitations. In a limited world, there is such a thing as overpopulation. In a limited world, wanton use of resources is essentially a crime, as is the despoiling of those resource for others. In a limited world, it is not possible for the economy to have 4% growth every single year.

The economic/political conservative of today cannot recognize environmental limits. The Koch Brothers, the Monsantos, the Exxon-Mobils, the WalMarts of the world (to name but a very few) cannot accept that there can possibly be limits to the world. The wealth of these individuals and corporations was and is based on an expanding economy with never ending growth and consumption. The inordinate wealth of the United States is based on a rate of individual consumption that is five times higher than the rest of the world. Although the US represents less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the world’s resources.

The single reason underlying the unwillingness to believe in limits is this: acceptance of the concept of a limited world means that the economic model of the United States is wrong. If that is the case, then any economic model that is predicated on perpetual annual growth is wrong. It means the accepted model of corporate structure in America is wrong. It means that the American way of life is not sustainable and is therefore, well, unethical. It means that everything a rabid proponent of American economic values believes in should be questioned.

But denying the concept means we think we are always on the right track and we never have to change our tactics.

While many would point at the Republican Party and say that the Limitless Earth is a fundamental principle, let us acknowledge that the Democratic Party behaves in almost exactly the same way. Although many individual politicians may pay lip-service to the concept of limitations, if we look closely at essentially everything coming out of the US Congress, we can clearly see that such a belief is not part of our working government’s mentality.

The Earth and its resources are finite. This is where denial begins. If that concept is not accepted as the most basic premise of our personal and cultural philosophy, then nothing we do in any other sense has any meaning. No pro-environment action, no change to energy or farming or resource policy has any meaning at all if that statement is not accepted as the starting point for all discussions.

If each of us is able to ask an elected official just one question, make it this one: Do you believe that the resources of the Earth are finite and limited? It is a yes or no question. Any waffling is a ‘no’. The answer you receive will tell you exactly the sort of worldview your politician has and it will tell you whether or not you can expect anything to change as long as that politician is in office.

10. Organic farming is not alternative farming

A common question for anyone promoting organic farming as the answer to our food issues is this: “That sounds great, but can organic farming feed 7 billion (or more) people?” The question is a challenge to the promoter of organic foods because of the well-established belief that modern commercial farming is the most efficient way to produce the vast quantities of food needed for feeding the world. The statistics are hard to argue against and organic farming seems to be a niche market that is incapable of scaling up to produce the quantities needed for the current population of the world. The argument is a false one, however, and it’s important to understand why.

First, organic farming is “farming” and should not be called anything else, including “organic farming.” The modern activity that calls itself “farming” is a perversion of farming that has evolved over the past half century, slowly displacing true farming and insinuating itself in our minds as the only way food production can be done. This has happened in very large part because of the massive sales job by sectors of the agricultural industry as they attempted to justify everything they did in their own interests as being in the public’s interests too.

By 1940, we had already established that farming meant turning the soil, repeatedly, deeply, whenever necessary to control weeds, and sometimes just because it made the fields look neat and tidy. This practice was rarely questioned even though it resulted in tremendous erosion, loss of nutrients, and the loss of living soil constituents. These losses were balanced with the addition of fertilizers, such as cow manure, and after World War II with the availability of inexpensive synthetic fertilizers. So, farming quickly became an activity that required external inputs to maintain soil fertility.

After World War II, synthetic pesticides began an incredibly rapid ascent in the public consciousness, largely because of the fantastic (albeit short-lived) success at controlling very damaging and problematic insect and weed pests. The revelation of pesticides was welcomed with open arms because it represented the triumph of science over nature, which was an ongoing success story playing out across all sectors of human cultures. So, farming soon became the activity that produced food with machines, fertilizers, and pesticides.

The Green Revolution, and plant breeding in general, also burst onto our consciousness in the 1960s by producing new food cultivars that were going to end hunger around the world. Together with vaccines and antibiotics, modern technology was going to end human suffering for all people. Importantly, the ills of the world, including those in agriculture, were merely nuisances that fell by the wayside when the might of the human intellect was focused on them and technology was brought to bear. Farming became, by necessity, an activity that had to be done on a large monoculture scale and at the same time crop genetics had to become more uniform.

Despite the growing numbers of problems that also accompanied this evolution of farming, such as environmental destruction, toxins, cancers, loss of wildlife, pesticide resistance, and ever-growing (not shrinking) numbers of agricultural pests, the public was being assured that this path toward food production and security was natural and safe, and existing problems would be solved. Those questioning the modern farming practices were vocal but weak in comparison to the lobbying power of the industries that had grown out of the march toward production and efficiency.

Beginning in the 1980s, breakthroughs in biotechnology extended the reach of agro-industry into the very genomes of the plants and with that power came incredible claims of new capacity to generate miracle plants. Despite the short-comings of the over-use of fertilizers and pesticides and other ecosystem damaging practices, these biotech plants would solve all the problems that had troubled us; it was just a matter of human ingenuity. Farming continued to move toward larger and larger expanses of single crops with less and less genetic variation due to the new practice of patenting these biotechnological products.

And thus, farming became a large, commercial, soil-destroying, fertilizer-dependent, pesticide-dependent, biotechnology-driven, expensive activity that could only be afforded by corporate entities that could afford the very expensive goods now required to produce the crops. More than 75% of our farm production is by very large commercial farming companies. If one stands back and looks at the activity of farming in 1940 and that of today, there is little the two have in common. Any attempt to recreate the farm of yesterday is met with a dismissive scoff because that kind of farming is an artifact of the past and cannot meet the needs of today.

Farming without soon-to-be-useless pesticides, soil-damaging fertilizers, genetically weak cultivars, tremendously expensive short-lived biotech seeds, and bankruptcy-causing large machinery on soil and land that have been stripped of their capacity to assist the farmer…. is a patently ridiculous concept. Organic farming is a fairy tale.

And yet, “organic farming” is what we used to call “farming” until very powerful and influential industries redefined what constituted farming. Most importantly, they got the government to buy into the redefinition of farming to the point that those farmers refusing to use modern commercial goods and processes often find themselves without a market.

The consumers of today are the motivating force behind change and they want a return to healthy and nutritious food. One of the most important challenges for us is to reclaim the definition of farming. Organic farming is farming. Farming as it has been redefined over the past 65 years is the result of an evolutionary treadmill that is not sustainable in any long-term sense. It is an insidious corruption of true farming. The sooner we use the correct words to describe what we want and what we are doing, the better.

8. When we don’t know more than we let on

The belowground community that lives in topsoil and its importance to the health of plants is poorly understood. We certainly know there are any number of organisms that can have negative effects on plants and most of our treatment of farm soils is to attempt to control bad things. For example, it’s well known that if a certain crop plant is grown year after year in the same soil, herbivores and pathogens build up in the soil and result in unhealthy plants and lower yields. Thus, farmers treat the soil in an attempt to reduce the abundance of those organisms before they plant the crop. For example, one chemical widely used in the past was methyl bromide, as a soil fumigant and sterilizer, and which is toxic to most living things. It was useful for pre-treating fields prior to planting, especially strawberry and tomato fields.

However, as a broad-spectrum pesticide it kills most of the living components of the soil and thereby reduces the soil processes that support fertility and nutrient cycling. Soil that has been tilled and turned, exposed and compressed, and subjected to the air and daytime temperatures, is already tremendously damaged in terms of the ecosystem services it provides to farmers and plants. In particular, spiders, mites, worms, and beneficial insects are often completely eliminated (if they weren’t already). Without those inhabitants of the topsoil, unwanted pest organisms are not controlled by natural predators and the farmer is rather limited to using chemicals in any further attempts to control them.

Keeping soil healthy means maintaining the entire soil community from bacteria to nematodes to insects because of the important interactions that exist between them that keeps renewing the soil properties. Unfortunately, we know very little about how all of those organisms interact, how sensitive they are to chemicals and physical disturbance, and how the loss of even a few of them can disrupt important services that the soil provides to farming. So, despite our ability to catalog the contents of the soil community, we understand very little of it’s structure, inter-connectedness, stability, resilience, and how to repair it when damaged.

Having said that, I will say the same thing about biotechnology and the accelerating development of transgenic (GMO) crops moving onto the market every day. We know almost nothing about the consequences of disrupting genomes by adding foreign genes to organisms. That may seem like a bold statement especially give the success at accomplishing these changes and the absolute certainty of the industry in their technical abilities. But technical ability is not the same as understanding.

Consider this scenario: your 15-year-old son takes a driving lesson and then announces he is ready to take his friends to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break! You say he isn’t remotely prepared for such a trip, but he’s confident because he’s watched you drive for years and there isn’t anything to it. Technically, yes, he is capable, but he has no experience with any possible complications that could arise along the way. How well we handle stress is a measure of our preparedness and of our understanding, and stress is not something that can be easily anticipated. It is unlikely any parent would agree to such a proposal, but that doesn’t mean the 15-year-old isn’t absolutely sure of his ability to handle the challenge.

Biotechnicians understand the structures that make-up the genomes of plants; they have a very good understanding of DNA and protein synthesis, they know how to sequence and create desired DNA molecules, they are very good at inserting genes into chromosomes and evaluating their expression. The capabilities of this science are tremendously impressive. Unfortunately, in many ways, it’s not unlike you or I wanting to compete in a NASCAR race because, after all, it’s just a big oval with only left hand turns, right?

The process of doing the science to understand how complicated genomes are and the subsequent application of that understanding to the manipulation of life is a giant step. And yet, we have not hesitated to take that step. Biotech and its application to crop genomes is a giant test-tube; every new undertaking yields new understanding. Every new application is a link in a very long and very complicated network of interacting parts. How many parts and how many links there are is essentially infinite, but we are willing to move forward without really understanding the network. It’s like driving 20 feet behind the next car when our safe stopping distance is 50 feet. If the need suddenly arose, we could not stop safely. Our belief that technology will solve our problems is strong and ingrained, but can technology solve the problem of faulty technology?

In the world of biotech, we are capable of generating solutions to problems, but when those solutions eventually fail, we have a very poor understanding of why. We know how to generate new solutions, but we are not very good at understanding the failures. In that sense, biotech is not science because science is the process of learning from trial and error, of understanding how things work by learning from what doesn’t work. Biotech is interested in finding solutions to very specific problems and much less interested in understanding how all of the pieces work within the whole. This will ultimately lead to increasing distrust of the biotech industry and, as an unwarranted backlash, against science itself.