The Science of Not Knowing

There are moments when reading and real life come together. Not to be too dramatic: but now is one of those times. As oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico, my companions for the journey are Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. And, both of them make the same essential point about science: the real power and terror of science is that neither doesn’t nor can know everything.

For Dillard, the not-knowing can be seen in the natural world, in something as seemingly simple as an elm leaf:

Or again, there are, as I have said, six million leaves on a big elm. All right…but they are toothed, and the teeth themselves are toothed. How many notches and barbs is that to the world. In and out go the intricate leaf edges, and “don’t nobody know why.” All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine.

Berry’s comments are in response to Edward O. Wilson, who in his book Consilience, celebrates science and discounts the possibilities of learning in and from mystery:

He understands mystery as attributable entirely to human ignorance, and thereby appropriates it for the future of human science; in his formula, the unknown = the-to-be-known…If modern science is a religion, then one of its presiding deities must be Sherlock Holmes. To the modern scientist as to the great detective, every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved. A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always redeemable. the appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of “the answer”.

Don’t nobody know why…and yet we teach students that there are answers. I am outraged that BP was not required to have a solution to what was clearly a potential problem. I suppose we can blame it on a failure of the imagination but the cynic in me can’t help but blame it on a desire for profit. And an unwavering belief in science to solve any problem. I, of course, am hoping along with everyone else that this IS a problem science can solve, and quickly, but at what cost?

BP, with its string of abuses, clearly has not real concern for the world community other than as a market for its oil. Berry points out that science is often conducted with economics rather than community in mind and quotes Wilson’s description of the “cardinal principle in the conduct of scientific research: Find a paradigm for which you can raise money and attack with every method of anaylsis at your disposal.” Berry goes on:

This principle, in effect, makes the patron the prescriber of the work to be done. It would seem to eliminate the scientist as a person or community member who would judge whether or not the work ought to be done. It removes the scientist from the human and ecological circumstances in which the work will have its effect and which should provide one of the standards by which the work is to be judged; the scientist is thus isolated, by this principle of following patronage, in a career with a budget.

Hmmm…as I typed those last words, I realized how hard I was being on scientists, even if I was only channeling Berry. I’m blaming scientists for the flaws in a system that is much larger than them just as teachers often get blamed for failed reforms for which they had no responsibility. I imagine some scientist, in a planning meeting for the platform, quietly suggesting that this could be a problem. His solution, however, did not meet the cost analysis: what was the chance of this happening and how much would it cost? What the number crunchers failed to consider, however, was the cost if it DID happen! This could ruin BP. I don’t think anyone has the heart to bail them out.

Can’t We Do Better?

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative is proposing to build a 1500 Megawatt coal-fired electric plant in the tiny town of Dendron, Virginia.  It will be the second largest in Virginia.  It will emit nearly 15 million tons of CO2 each year contributing to Virginia’s increasing greenhouse gas emissions.  Maybe even more frightening is the 118 pounds of mercury that will be released each year in a location just 15 miles from the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  You can learn more about this project at the Sierra Club Web site.  In interest of fairness, ODEC has their own Web site related to the project.

While ODEC will tell you that this plant is “clean,” that doesn’t mean that they have completely eliminated envinronmental threats, far from it.  I think the scariest piece are the piles of fly ash that accumulate, over 16 stories high.  In nearby Yorktown, Virginia, attempts to bury the ash led to contaminated ground water.   According to an EPA report: “Vanadium, nickel, selenium, and sulfate have been found in groundwater near the four fly ash pits. Surface water in Chisman Creek was shown to be contaminated with vanadium, nickel, and sulfate. Drinking contaminated groundwater posed a risk to the public.” Luckily for the folks in Yorktown, they could tap into the city water supply.  I doubt if the Dendron residents have that option.

I wrote a letter to the Dendron city council this morning that I will share here.  I would encourage you to do the same, especially if you, like me, live within the 30-mile radius that has been identified as the “zone of concern” by health experts.  We need to make it so hard for companies like ODEC to build old technologies that their only option is to start looking into alternatives.  Surely in a rural community, biomass makes some kind of sense.  ODEC could be on the forefront of the movement towards cleaner alternatives but has chosen instead to prey on a small community in the hopes of not meeting much opposition as they continue practices for which the health dangers have been known for decades.

Here’s the letter:

Dendron City Council
c/o The Town of Dendron
2855 Rolfe Highway
Dendron, Virginia 23839

Dear Honorable City Council Members:

I am writing to ask that you deny Old Dominion Electric Cooperative’s application to build a coal-fired electric plant in your town.  While I understand that it is hard to turn down jobs and money, I believe they are small compensation for the environmental and community disasters that will occur if this goes forward.

My husband and I visit Surry often.  We pass through Dendron on our way to pick blueberries at Drewry Farms.  It is a lovely community.  I have trouble imagining where 2,000 workers would even stay.  And, I certainly can’t imagine the huge piles of fly ash that will loom over the homes.

I have also worked with the Surry County schools, and I’m concerned that this plant would be within 20 miles of the school campus.  I’ll simply remind you that coal-fired electric plants are one of the nation’s largest sources of air pollutants that damage cardiovascular and respiratory health and threaten healthy childhood development.

I’m sure ODEC has painted a rosy economic scenario and said little about negative environmental and community impacts.  As a neighbor who is also within the 30-mile radius of the plant, I ask you to consider the other side and tell ODEC that you wish to preserve your community and the environment.

Spinning, Spinning, My Head is Spinning

I just couldn’t let this one go without comment.  In this clip, John McCain basically blames his running mate’s statements about Pakistan on journalists!  And the question wasn’t even asked by a journalist.  Instead, it was a voter, shouting the question to her as she walked.  It was noisy, she just spouted off the first thing that came into her head, etc. etc. etc.  This is CRAZY!  At the end of the clip, McCain reveals exactly why he named her: she got everybody excited.  This isn’t about who would be the best candidate; it’s about giving Republicans, especially the evangelical base, a reason to go vote for the whole ticket.  Who cares that she doesn’t have a clue?

An Insult to Women

John McCain has picked Sarah Palin, first-term governor of Alaska, as his running mate.  The media is wondering aloud if it is a brilliant move or a questionable decision.  I definitely come down on the latter side.  After spending months attacking Obama for his lack of experience, McCain has picked a woman who actually had to mention her tenure on the PTA in order to bulk up her resume during her acceptance speech!

Mostly, I’m annoyed because this is basically an insult to women, especially a slap in the face to Republican women.  McCain, I suppose, was hoping to appeal to all those disaffected Hillary supporters out there.  Really?  And the way to do that was to pick a relative unknown with no experience who most suggest is going to be eaten alive in a debate with Joe Biden?  Doesn’t the Republican party have a woman who is equivalent to Hillary?  Someone with national experience?  A few names come to my mind–Kay Bailey Hutchinson, for one, who is now in the position of defending this choice.  Or Condoleeza Rice?  Maybe McCain was simply initimidated by these women?

I saw some Republican woman on CNN get frustrated with James Carville when he questioned the choice.  This is so typical, she said, that men brush aside women.  Sorry, lady, not buying it.  We would have been thrilled if McCain had actually chosen a woman with a chance.  I’m sure Sarah Palin is smart and has lots of future potential but as vice presidential candidate so is a poor choice.

Pulling My Head Out of the Sand

Like all Unitarian Universalists, my week has been overshadowed by the horrible shootings in Tennessee last Sunday. I think the shock was intensified for me as the week played out because of  the sudden awareness that my liberal beliefs pose such a threat to others.  Oh, I knew Ann Coulter and her tribe made fun of me, but I figured much of it was just political theater.  So, it was a real eye opener when I heard about the “liberal hunting license” that is available on the web.  (Sorry, unlike some of my liberal brethren, I refuse to link to these kinds of hateful things.  You’ll just have to google it yourself.)  And, then I discovered that killing liberals has been a pretty standard joke on Fox News.  Really?  Someone, anyone, finds it funny to talk about killing people like me because of my political views.  I might find Russ Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly offensive but I would never wish their death.

And I found myself wondering how we got here…where hateful rhetoric like this is not only accepted but seemingly encouraged.  While I wouldn’t want to blame people like Sean Hannity for what happened last Sunday, his ongoing war against liberals certainly didn’t help.  For someone who is mentally unbalanced, these relenting attacks become an underlying soundtrack to a tragic life and offer up an easy target.  Tom Friedman says that while he was sleeping, the world got flat.  While I was sleeping, the world got ugly.

There has been a positive side for me, and I suspect for others.  I very much took my religious faith for granted, that I had a place where I could worship freely, no matter my beliefs.  I knew that there were martyrs like Michael Servetus, burned at the stake for his beliefs.  But that was ancient history.  We live in an enlightened era, in a country that espouses freedom of religion, right?  The shootings in Tennessee shook my trust in that freedom and made me think hard about my own faith.  When I walk into the sanctuary on Sunday morning, it will be with a new-found gratitude and a prayer for those who are now suffering for their beliefs.

A New, But Old, Brand of Patriotism

Lynne Keisling at Knowledge Problem pointed to an article in The New York Times that reported that the $4 plus gas has led to a move from gas guzzling SUVs to fuel efficient compact cars.  While I am happy that consumers are going green, I think it’s sad that it had to take high gas prices to convince them.  Wasn’t it enough to know that they were wasting precious resources?  Were they really so self-centered that until it was about them and their wallet, they couldn’t understand why someone might choose to drive a smaller car?

We need a new brand of patriotism in this country, one with its roots in World War II, the kind of patriotism that encourages people to give to the community all the time, not just when it is in their economic interests.  Rather than quibbling over lapel pins, let’s really be patriotic.  For a start, encourage people to both buy fuel efficient cars AND drive less.  Maybe give employers who implement tele-commuting a tax break.  Gas rationing during WW II was seen as a patriotic thing to do; let’s bring back that sense of pride.  Second, how about getting people to grow victory gardens again?  With the price of food rising and the scare over salmonella, having people grow some of their own fruits and vegetables would certainly be a patriotic thing to do.

Lapel pins? Are we really talking about lapel pins??

I’m watching the News Hour coverage of last night’s debate. One of the commentators from pointed out that Barack Obama was not factual about the American flag lapel pin when he said that he had not made definitive statements one way or the other about wearing a lapel pin. In fact, according to Obama did say that he wasn’t wearing a pin: “Actually, he did. He said last year, “I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest” because it had become “a substitute for … true patriotism” during the run-up to the Iraq war.”

All I could think about was the fact that we’re in the middle of a Presidential election with a lot at stake: the economy, education, the war in Iraq, and we’re wasting time worrying about whether someone is wearing a pin or not? They even found some woman from Pennsylvania to record the question for him. Puh-leaze! Lapel pins?? And, I wish he would have repeated what he said last year at the debate last night: things like pins are substitutes for patriotism. Maybe we should start practicing real patriotism by conserving petroleum and building up our own economy instead of throwing money into that pit known as Iraq.

Tom Shales at the Washington Post criticized ABC for the gossipy nature of the debate and I applaud his message.
I was particularly annoyed with the whole thing about William Ayers, the former member of the Weather Underground.   The Associated Press has a good outline of the issue.  But, come one, aren’t we setting a pretty high standard if we start looking at every person with whom you associated?  Aren’t some very close Clinton friends in prison now?  And, of course, Bill Clinton pardoned two of the Weathermen before he left office.  Again, this is really a non-issue.

I think part of the problem here is that neither candidate is very far apart on the issues.  So, we focus instead on trivialities and titillating details.  And, I think Obama showed his disdain for these tactics last night.

Saturday Morning

A grey day so I’m dressed in grey except for my green handmade socks!  I have a meeting and recorder rehearsal.  Then, the afternoon to play around with Flash.  We have a new non-profit client who might like some simple educational games, and I discovered that I have a copy of Macromedia Studio 8 on my shelf.  Cool!  I installed last night and ran it and was pleased that it seemed to go just fine with the new operating system on the Intel mac.  So, I’m going to try to make a Hanukkah activity in which you light each candle and learn about the prayers and what happens each night.

Meanwhile, I stumbled on this CNBC clip of an interview with John Cusack on his new movie, War, Inc.  Very good.  I think he articulates how I feel about the war: things are going on that we just can’t know about and some of that is the people who  are making huge profits while young Americans die.  Susan Jacoby, who wrote the recent book about dumb Americans, suggests that the problem with the war isn’t that we were lied to, it’s that we weren’t plugged in enough or we would have known.  I disagree and I don’t want to sound too conspiracy theory about this, but I think there are activities going on that, even if we read the paper everyday and are active in the world, are hidden from us.  Couple that with the arrogance of someone like Cheney whose response to the fact that Americans are increasingly against the war was “so?” and you are in a situation where just being knowledgeable isn’t enough.  It is time for protest.

Sweet, Sweet Honey

What a wonderful evening I had last night!  Out to dinner with friends then a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert at the Attucks Theater in Norfolk, Virginia.  I was swept away by their beautiful acapella singing.  Just amazing music, but what struck me the most was how much fun they were having.  At one point, one of them closed her eyes and just sang, and when she opened them, she seemed a little surprised that there was an audience watching.  I came home and downloaded their new CD from iTunes.  And, one of my friends is going to Ysaye Barnwell’s Building a Vocal Community at the Omega Institute this summer and encouraged me to go.  Hmmm…it’s a possibility although I am trying to save money for England.

Hey…it’s Robert Frost’s birthday!  I always use him as an example of fair use; how I would be listening to the Writer’s Almanac on my way to school and discover that it was Robert Frost’s birthday and wanted to read a poem so it was OK to make a copy for my classes.  Well, I didn’t know what a depressing life he led.  I have been to visit his gravesite.  Today, Keillor is reading “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep.”

I read my email before blogging and ended up at Civil Discourse to read about Jeremiah Wright.  The post quotes the Wikipedia entry on Wright and takes the time to present the full sermons from which the ugly soundbites were pulled.   And then I followed a few links.  Here’s Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic who also provides context for the sermon.  That led me to Think on These Things, an Obama-leaning political blog.  I get it…I’m only listening/reading the people who agree with me, but they are also the ones who are providing the information not being covered in the media.