Monthly Archives: May 2009

Remembering Rachel Carson (repost)

To mark Rachel Carson Day today, I am reposting the following which I wrote a couple of years ago to mark her centenary. I guess some of that middle paragraph doesn’t quite hold the same sting anymore given the political sea-change this country has experienced in the past two years, but I’ll leave it in as a reminder that there are those still out there who would deny Carson’s legacy and sully her memory. I’ll have another post shortly with more positive recent elements celebrating her life and work.

Rachel Carson would have been a 100 years old today, had she not lost her battle to breast cancer in 1964, 18 months after publishing her seminal work, Silent Spring, which many consider the birthpoint of the modern environmental movement in the US. I remember reading it and being affected quite powerfully while I was in college in Bombay some 20+ years ago, and wondering why DDT had not yet been banned in India (it was banned, for agricultural use, in 1989, but not for malarial mosquito control). Silent Spring (like Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle), was one of the first books I had read which showed not only that science had a role in helping us understand how the world worked, and how we humans interact with it (for better or worse), but also that scientists could (and indeed should) play an active role in shaping the public discourse on the relationship between humans and nature.

And that role is even more urgent now, especially here in the US, where science and reason have been taking quite a beating lately. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore, to note that the US Senate failed to take up a measure to honor Rachel Carson in time for her birth centenary! The resolution was blocked, using senate rules, by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) who likened Silent Spring to “junk science”, no less!! These guys know all about junk science don’t they?! Anyway, I don’t want to sully my (and your) remembrance of Carson by linking to any more of these sad stories of wingnut ravings.

Instead, consider the following for your sunday morning, this May 27, 2007, and may they inspire you to more positive action, to inherit and further her legacy, follow her model as a scientist, citizen, and activist.

Let me leave you with the following quote:

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

— Rachel Carson, 1954.

Ken Burns to show America’s National Parks on PBS this fall!

Now here’s something to really look forward to in the fall television schedule: Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentary historian of many important aspect of American life and socio-cultural-political history has finally turned his famous camera lens onto this country’s natural heritage, specifically the parts that people have chosen to protect for posterity in The National Parks, America’s Best Idea. The US is, in some ways, a birthplace of modern National Parks set up by democratic governments, and this model has influenced conservation strategies worldwide, for better or for worse. Given Burns’ background, it is hardly surprising that this documentary will focus not just on the natural beauty and wildlife of the Parks, but more on the people involved in creating and sustaining them:

Filmed over the course of more than six years at some of nature’s most spectacular locales — from Acadia to Yosemite, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades of Florida to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska — The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is nonetheless a story of people: people from every conceivable background – rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy. It is a story full of struggle and conflict, high ideals and crass opportunism, stirring adventure and enduring inspiration – set against the most breathtaking backdrops imaginable.

[via The National Parks: America’s Best Idea | PBS]

The website for the show has a number of interesting video clips – here’s one from an affiliated station:

And here’s another clip with a short interview with Burns:

And according to the Sierra Club, which is an outreach partner for the documentary series, many local PBS stations are airing a special “making-of” show this Sunday, on May 24th! KVPT, the Fresno affiliate at channel 18, has it listed at 9:30 PM.

Remembering Stephen Jay Gould via Scientia Pro Publica

There is a new multidisciplinary science blog carnival that I haven’t had a chance to make note of here during this busy semester: Scientia Pro Publica. In its 4th edition, Nature Network’s primate diarist Eric Michael Johnson remembers Stephen Jay Gould, who died 7 years ago today:

Science is an integral part of culture. It’s not this foreign thing, done by an arcane priesthood. It’s one of the glories of the human intellectual tradition.

On May 20, 2002 the scientific world lost a major proponent for science and reason. Stephen Jay Gould was a scientist, a historian and a writer who communicated his passion for evolution to an audience around the globe. For many people outside of the sciences, his books may have been the only source they ever read about evolution from a working biologist. His ability to connect with readers from diverse backgrounds and his willingness to challenge so many sacred cows of biological theory will ensure a distinguished legacy for his life’s work. He is largely responsible for my own interest in evolutionary biology and the history of science and I would like to dedicate this fourth edition of Scientia Pro Publica to his memory.

Scientia Pro Publica is a biweekly rotating blog carnival that represents the best in multidisciplinary science blogging. For this edition I made an effort to limit the number of posts in each category to five of the best submitted entries. I also actively sought out disciplines that haven’t been as well represented in the past. Please feel free to contact me at with your comments or concerns. Also, if you like what you read here consider submitting your own posts at this automatic entry form. Thank you and enjoy the best of the net, Scientia Pro Publica #4.

[via The Primate Diaries]

I too count myself among those inspired by Gould to study biology, and indeed, to make what feeble attempts I can to communicate science to the general public through avenues such as this blog or our local cafe scientifique. I am thrilled therefore to find my own recent blog post on plagiarism and peer review in science included in this carnival. This is the closest I could hope to come to being mentioned on the same page with Gould!

I had fallen off the blog carnival wagon after rounding up a fairly monstrous Oekologie carnival right here last summer, and then watching the Tangled Bank fizzle out (whatever did happen to it? anyone know?) during winter break. So if you are coming to reconciliation ecology for the first time through this carnival, welcome, indeed! Feel free to poke around here, and and I hope you will leave a comment or two if some of my writing catches your eye. As for those few of you who came here first, let me run you off to the carnival: there is much good science writing to be sampled among the mutidisciplinary tents Eric has pitched – so run along, sample the wares there, and raise a glass to Gould and to science in the public sphere. I know where I’ll be as I proctor the evolution final during the rest of this afternoon!

Morning flight of migrating songbirds…

Morning Flight
Originally uploaded by J Gilbert

…captured neatly in these images by Jim Gilbert at Cape May, New Jersey last fall. I really like these unusual images of birds frozen in full flight during fall migration. Cape May is a major stopover point for migrating birds along the Atlantic coast of the US. While I didn’t manage to spend much time there when I was a postdoc at Princeton, I do remember spending some lovely mornings birdwatching in the Princeton woods – a tiny remnant patch of forest that acts like a magnet for so many migrant birds looking for a place to rest and replenish amid ever expanding suburbia. I remember clear cold mornings following a patch of cloudy/rainy weather were the best times to see many migrants in the fall, as they would come down in waves with the cold air from the Arctic on their tails.

Lovely images these!

The Science News Cycle!

PHD Comics: Science News Cycle

Of course, this is only one part of the cycle. What about the anti-cycle of woo that often starts of in the Internets as well, and runs counter to this whole thing. And when the two collide…

Read Michael Pollan. Not his soundbites. Mostly books.

Interesting interview today on Democracy Now, where Amy Goodman chatted with Michael Pollan about the food industry, health, agriculture, and the environment:

Michael Pollan is one of the nation’s leading writers and thinkers in this country on the issue of food. He is author of several books about food, including The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his latest, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. In light of what he calls the processed food industry’s co-option of “sustainability” and its vast spending on marketing, Pollan advises to be wary of any food that’s advertised.

While I agree with Pollan’s main message, and much of what he has to say in his books, I do have some concerns about his growing food-guru status. Don’t get me wrong, I like his books, and have indeed used his excellent “Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a text for my Human Ecology class. I worry, though, that sometimes in his activist zeal, and quite legitimate skepticism about food science (especially as it comes aligned with the food industry), he comes across as dismissing all food-related science. But, just because some/much of the nutritional advice was incomplete or wrong in the past doesn’t mean we can’t offer better advice now. We do understand our own evolved physiology much better than we did a decade or two ago, and that knowledge is still growing quite rapidly. Indeed Pollan draws upon much of the current science to make his case against the industrialization of food – and explains it all quite eloquently. So, I’m sure he understands the science well – but do people reading him (or simply hearing him) without adeaquate critical thinking skills or an understanding of basic biology (i.e., >70% of all who passed through high school in the US in the past decade) get the whole picture? Or are they, perhaps confirming their inherent suspicion of science, going to dismiss anything a medical practitioner or scientist tells them?

And this gets more worrisome as Pollan adopts more of a “guru” persona, dispensing simple soundbite advice such as “Don’t Buy Any Food You’ve Ever Seen Advertised” from the above interview. Back in January on Science Friday, Pollan advised, “Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother would not recognize as food.” (Curiously conservative advice from a self-professed defender and lover of food – but more on this below.) His new book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” is quite the potent and timely polemic against the food industry, and is now oft-quoted for advice such as, “don’t buy high-fructose corn syrup” and “don’t buy products with more than five ingredients“. Then there is also his mantra, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” All sounds good and wholesome doesn’t it? And I don’t actually have much of a quarrel with the basic message – but we live in a soundbite culture, so shouldn’t we at least think about what these soundbites mean?

Tiptoeing around the elephant-in-the-room of food/diet related health issues among our ancestors, my great-grandmother would most definitely not have recognized any number of things in my pantry/fridge as food – and not just because she was vegetarian (I’m not) or hadn’t travelled much. Our world, for better or worse, is much more globally connected, and however ardent a locavore you are, it is difficult to argue that we don’t have access to new kinds of wholesome food not available a few generations ago! Pollan is, of course, arguing against highly processed “edible food-like substances”, which I too avoid as much as I can – but surely there are plenty of non-processed foods, found even in my local farmers’ market that even my mom won’t recognize as food! Just as I’ve seen more than one mystified customer at Ethiopian restaurants prod uncertainly at the Injera, the traditional wholesome bread from that land of our oldest ancestors, upon which the main course is served! Little do they know that the teff that Injera is made from is perhaps one of the very first grains to be domesticated by us, remains very healthy to eat – and is now even grown locally in Idaho!

Food with no more than 5 ingredients? There goes a large portion of my traditional Indian cuisine!! I can’t even buy a tandoori paste or mango pickle? Does even Pollan really eat only foods with 5 ingredients or less? i’d feel sorry for him. Yet his message has resonated enough in the market to convince even Häagen Dazs to introduce a new line of 5-ingredient ice creams!

As for avoiding food that’s ever (ever?!) been advertised – that’s a good bias to nurture against industrialized food which is the source of most advertising. Indeed, you would do well to avoid buying anything based on advertisements. But wait, what about them happy California cows peddling cheese, etc. on my telly right now? Should I give up on dairy? More importantly, I think this also exposes Pollan’s rather shallow analysis of the socioeconomic constraints shaping consumer choice. its all well and good to call for a return to great-grandma’s simple foods, cooked fresh every day for your family using only the best organic locally grown ingredients (<5 of course) bought from the farmers' market. But is this really feasible for the average modern-day lower-to-lower-than middle-class parents, harried as they might be juggling multiple jobs, maxed-out credit cards, long commutes, and their kids' complex school/after-care/sports/dance/music/art schedules? And how do we apply Pollan's prescriptions to the increasing number of poor in this crashing global economy? Corporations may be evil, and the food industry has certainly actively changed the landscape of food choices available to us – but is there nothing to be said for the economies (and efficiencies) of scale when it comes to feeding (affordably) the large number of people now occupying this planet? Allow me to play devil's advocate, if you will, and ask: how many could we actually feed on the Pollan prescribed diet? (I’ll stop with just that one question, and brace myself for backlash from my environmentalist friends).

I’m all for renewing our seriously damaged relationship with food. But do you see my problem with the soundbites? Curious, isn’t it, that someone railing against highly processed foods has fallen into the trap of allowing his own complex thoughts and arguments to be reduced into highly processed soundbites: tasty, easily gobbled up, but not very nutritious soundbites!

Listen to Oprah/Jenny McCarthy and help out the terrorists: don’t vaccinate your children

The anti-vaccination movement has really gone mainstream big time lately, with new celebrity spokesbimbos like Jenny McCarthy now being endorsed by the mighty Oprah! Even a recent episode of the venerable TV show Law and Order (SVU, I think) raised the issue by putting an anti-vaccination parent on trial for causing the death of another child due to measles. It was great that L&O took the rational position on this, but they don’t have Oprah’s reach, surely! If Oprah gets explicitly behind the anti-vaccination woo, the rest of us, esp. those who understand the science, must shudder at the likely consequences. Indeed we are already shuddering at the rising death toll from diseases we should have eradicated by now because we have vaccines that work against them!

Much has been written in the science blogosphere about this lately, and many are trying to sway Oprah away from the woo to consider the actual science. It amazes me that this unscientific movement has gained such traction among the populace of countries that are otherwise at the forefront of science, bastions of western civilization: places like the US and the UK! Why so many in these countries are unscientific is, of course, a much larger question, so I’ll just let you ponder that on your own for now. But I do wonder: what are the less knowledgeable populations in developing countries to make of this anti-vaccination movement? Does the celebrity woo of well-fed blond bimbos like McCarthy carry more weight with a parent in rural India or Africa over the sight of undernourished kids in their own communities hobbling around on polio-afflicted legs? Is it that western parents have forgotten, within a generation or so, what Measles, Polio, Whooping Cough, etc. really are like? I’m not that old (well, my daughters will dispute that) but even I do remember the last few fires from Smallpox raging through communities where I grew up in India, before it was eradicated in the 70s through vaccination. I can still see the pock-marked faces of survivors, some of whom are still alive in India. Indeed, I’m reminded of the value of vaccines every other day when my wife talks to her mother whose health is deteriorating daily due in no small part to complications from Post-Polio Syndrome! So it really is mystifying to me that there are parents around me who don’t want to vaccinate their children – even if it puts not only their own, but other children at risk by reducing herd immunity. The argument for vaccination is so strong, and the few studies touting their lack of safety have so little support and/or have been so discredited, that I am genuinely puzzled by the irrationality (and selfishness) of these parents. If you are still unsure about the rational argument on this, you really should read this Open Letter to Oprah, which lays it out clearly – and do what you can to keep raising this question until Oprah starts listening.

And while you read that letter, let me raise another spectre, of another group of bogeymen who might get behind the anti-vaccination movement enthusiastically: the terrorists, especially those bent upon “mass destruction” through biological weapons!! Seems to me that the anti-vaccination movement, if successful, will only make their jobs easier: if we lose our herd immunity, then they don’t need to spend much money inventing/pursuing new bioweapons at all – even good old measles might do the trick! How easy it would be to release some of these old viruses and cause an epidemic if more parents stop vaccinating their children. So if you are swayed by the fear-mongering of celebrities like McCarthy, pause for a moment to ask if Osama (or whomever’s next in line) might not be chuckling in their cave about the irrationality of the “modern” west for making their job easier! Should we bo doing some reverse fear-mongering of our own to counter the antivax hysteria? If swine-flu raised so much fear in the public here, why do these old viruses with a proven killer track record not scare these parents into vaccinating their babies? Why isn’t this vaccination debate being framed yet in “national security” terms? Which side of this debate is Jack Bauer on??!!