Tag Archives: science

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.

 

 

 

Climate Insanity

In Trump’s America, and especially in the wake of the increasing white nationalist mayhem he is encouraging, it’s easy to lose sight of the other damage being done by this utterly corrupt administration.

Take the administration’s wholesale rejection of science.

As Europe tightens restrictions on herbicides and pesticides found to be harmful to humans, the EPA rolls back similar restrictions. The panel of scientists that used to advise policymakers about such threats has been replaced by former lobbyists and industry hacks. Worse still, the administration refuses to admit that climate change is real. It has buried reports from reputable scientists, including those working for the Pentagon.

Last month, The Guardian carried a column by a scientist fired by the administration for insisting on reporting the facts.

The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate science is not new. Interior climate staffer Joel Clement’s reassignmentand the blocking of intelligence aide Rod Schoonover’s climate testimony, which forced both federal employees to resign in protest, are just two of the innumerable examples. These attempts to suppress climate science can manifest themselves in many ways. It starts with burying important climate reports and becomes something more insidious like stopping climate scientists from doing their jobs. In February 2019, I lost my job because I was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration. And yet my story is no longer unique.

This is why on 22 July I filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration. But this is not the only part to my story; I will also speak to Congress on 25 July about my treatment and the need for stronger scientific integrity protections.

I have worked at the National Park Service (NPS) for a total of eight years. I started out as an intern during the Bush administration, where I experienced nothing like this. I returned in 2012 after earning my PhD, when the NPS funded a project I designed to provide future sea level and storm surge estimates for 118 coastal parks under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. This kind of information is crucial in order for the NPS to adequately protect coastal parks against the future effects of the climate crisis.

I handed in the first draft of my scientific report in the summer of 2016 and, after the standard rigorous scientific peer review process, it was ready for release in early 2017. But once the new administration came into power, publication was repeatedly delayed, with increasingly vague explanations from my supervisors. So for months, I waited. And waited. I was still waiting when I went on maternity leave almost a year later in December 2017.

While she was on her maternity leave, she received an email from an NPS colleague, warning her that “senior leadership” was changing her report without her knowledge, eliminating all references to the human causes of the climate crisis. As she points out in her column, this went far beyond normal editorial adjustment. It was climate science denial, and she initiated a months-long battle over her findings.

Senior NPS officials tried repeatedly, often aggressively, to coerce me into deleting references to the human causes of the climate crisis from the report. They threatened to make the deletions without my approval if I would not agree, to release the report without naming me as the primary author, or not release it all. Each option would have been devastating to my career and for scientific integrity.

She stood firm. The NPS was forced to publish the report as written–and then the retaliation began. There were pay cuts. Her research funding was terminated. She eventually joined the growing exodus of scientists from federal agencies.

I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said “Reality doesn’t care if you believe in it.” While this administration protects the bottom lines of its donors, sea levels continue to rise, the planet continues to warm, and life on earth gets more precarious.

Trump and his “best people” aren’t just corrupt and inept; they are insane–and our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

Now Paper Straws Are Liberal?

We can wring our hands about the corruption of the Department of Education, or the placement of ideologues on our federal courts, the encouragement of White nationalism, or the abandonment of democratic norms and the rule of law, but even those abominations pale next to the war being waged by Donald Trump and his GOP cult on science and the environment.

A sufficiently motivated populace can eject Trump from the Oval Office, and elect people who will begin the process of repairing our governing institutions and our civic culture. The  rejection of science and denial of the existential threat posed by climate change, however, is imposing damage we may never be able to reverse.

It isn’t simply downplaying the extent of the threat, or failing to pursue measures to reverse the damage we now recognize. These troglodytes are actively encouraging behaviors harmful to the environment.

President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign store sells “Make America Great Again” hats, T-shirts, cups, towels and even dog leashes. But one of its newest items might be one of the campaign’s biggest attempt to troll the other side: Trump-branded plastic straws.

According to the campaign store, for $15, those interested can purchase a 10-pack of the red straws with Trump’s name “laser engraved” on them. The new campaign merchandise seems to come as a response to increasing concerned about plastic usage and waste. A video that went viral last year of a marine biologist removing a plastic strawfrom a sea turtle’s nose brought attention to the issue and many communities and businesses have begun to banthe use of plastic straws altogether.

The description of the Trump straws is not subtle about the message the merchandise is meant to send. “Liberal paper straws don’t work. Stand with President Trump and buy your pack of recyclable straws today,” it reads.

Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted about the new straws on Thursday, saying “Make Straws Great Again.”

Scientists tell us that humans dump eight million metric tons of plastic into our planet’s oceans each year.  By 2050, they estimate that plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish. Plastic in the ocean is eventually broken into smaller pieces — known as microplastic — by sun exposure and wave action, and that microplastic can find its way into the food chain.

When plastic does eventually degrade (a process which takes 400 years for most plastic), it releases chemicals that contaminate the sea.

According to Our Last Straw, 

Americans use millions of plastic straws a day. Those straws litter our streets, lands, shorelines, and oceans. Plastic drinking straws are among the top 10 contributors to marine debris pollution. They do not biodegrade but break down into smaller microplastics that have made their way into our food chain and the deepest trenches of our oceans. The research and statistics on the impacts of plastic straws across the globe are alarming. News articles are appearing regularly on what plastics do to our environment, our health, as well as efforts and innovations across the globe to eliminate and ban single-use plastics straws.

What about the Trump campaign’s assertion that their (very expensive) straws can be recycled? I know it will shock readers to discover that the claim is yet another lie. As the Washington Post (and a number of other media outlets) reported:

Recycling is very important: It keeps many of our plastic objects from spending hundreds of years causing trouble. Unfortunately, your straws always end up in a landfill.

“Plastic straws and other items smaller than two by two inches, such as plastic utensils, fall through the machinery that sorts our recycling,” says Jonathan Kuhl of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “Because of this, we ask District residents not to put these small items in their recycling bins.” The same is true in most recycling plants around the country.

Name calling and gleeful ignorance. They’ll sure show us dumb “libs” (defined as people who accept science). Their grandchildren don’t need a habitable planet anyway.

Rejecting Science

Watching the Trump Administration, I am reminded that there are many kinds of collusion.

The dictionary defines collusion as secret agreement or cooperation for an illegal or deceitful purpose. The  Mueller investigation is pursuing a particularly egregious form–one that, if proven, would legally be considered treason. Americans are focused on that allegation to a degree that overshadows other activities by this Administration–activities that involve a more “homegrown”variety of collusion, and tend to carry less serious legal labels.

Trump’s war on science in cooperation with favored industries is, in my view, every bit as treasonous as his relationship with Russia.

The Guardian recently documented that assault.

Donald Trump’s administration is cutting programs scientists say are proven to protect Americans, from pollution safeguards to teen pregnancy prevention and healthier school lunches, with effects that could last for years.

Experts who have worked in the federal government under Republicans and Democrats say both have sometimes put politics ahead of science but none have done so as blatantly as Trump. And they warn the consequences could continue long into the future.

“It’s as egregious as I’ve ever seen it, starting from the very top with the president just denying the existence of science, manipulating the system on behalf of special interests,” said the former surgeon general Richard Carmona, who testified to Congress that the George W Bush administration pushed him to weaken or suppress public health findings.

Science writer Timothy Ferris has noted the connection between science and liberal democracy; in his book The Science of Liberty, he also documented the historical connection between anti-science and totalitarianism.  As he writes, new scientific knowledge exposes prior ignorance and error, a process that doesn’t pose a problem for democratic regimes, since fallibility is a given in such cultures, “but it leaves totalitarian leaders clinging to outmoded doctrines in a changing world.”  He quotes China scholar H. Lyman Miller,

Just as the scientific community operates according to anti-authoritarian norms of free debate…so science prospers in an external environment that similarly tolerates pluralism and dissent…Scientific dissidents espoused a strong form of liberal political philosophy that grew out of the norms of their profession.

The assault on science, on evidence and on the proper process for achieving reliable data is an assault on liberty and democracy. Refusing to act on the basis of scientific evidence that inconveniences political allies not only causes significant harm to public health and the environment, it is an attack on reason, progress and the rule of law.

In my view, such behavior is every bit as treasonous as taking orders from Vladimir Putin.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes You Just Want To Cry…

I drafted this post before I heard yesterday’s news that Ryan Zinke is “retiring.” I’m sure that whomever Trump chooses to replace him will be equally awful, equally corrupt–but at least we may be lucky enough to have a breather before that person ramps up.

Why was I devoting today’s post to Zinke? Let me count the ways….Actually, I don’t have to, because Scientific American has done it for me.

When you think of sensationalism or bias in the media, Scientific American isn’t the publication that first comes to mind. The fact that the magazine’s articles are usually pretty sober and deliberate is why this recent article was especially troubling.

It was titled “Monumental Disaster at the Department of the Interior,” and the sub-head was even more pointed: “A new report documents suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of staff.”

Here’s the lede:

This is a tough time to be a federal scientist—or any civil servant in the federal government. The Trump administration is clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources.

According to the author, a former employee of the Department, Zinke and the political staff  he has hired have consistently sidelined scientists and experts, “while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests.”

The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.

I never thought I’d be grateful for incompetence, but really, the only thing that is saving American institutions from Trump and the looters he has installed as agency heads is their monumental ignorance of government and policy, and total lack of any managerial ability.

The report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists; it documents a number of Secretary Zinke’s more egregious and anti-science policies and practices. It describes “suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats.”

It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.

The author follows a damning list of actions taken by Zinke with a rhetorical question: why? Why would any government official choose to be anti-science, anti-evidence? Why–even if he really doesn’t accept the science of climate change– does Zinke pursue policies that he has to know will foul the air we all breathe and the water we all drink?

He then answers his own question (you knew this already, though, didn’t you?):

Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

One of the ways I’ve been clinging to what remains of my equanimity during the nightmare of this administration is to remind myself that nothing is forever, that although a lot of people are getting hurt in the meantime, most of the horrific policies being pursued by this gang of thugs and looters can be reversed.

But every day we fail to protect the environment, every day we double down on practices that accelerate climate change, is a day we can’t get back.

Trump’s criminal syndicate is willing to destroy the planet our grandchildren will rely upon– presumably the planet their own grandchildren will inhabit–in order to please the fat cats whose campaign dollars are their source of political power.

I really can’t think of anything more vile.