Rotten Pumpkins

Posted October 26th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

Its getting harder to laugh given what is in the news – e.g., droughts, wildfires, higher carbon emission rates… but it is Friday, and at least where I am, we are finally getting some rain. The Colbert Report is in re-runs this week but this clip remains timely, and would have been even more appropriate this evening anyway.

Update: Joe Romm has more on Global Warming’s Halloween Horror – with links to frightening news about impacts of drought and in other cases, extremely high rainfall, on this year’s pumpkin crop.

One of the most important developments in the history of science?

Posted October 5th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

So says Andy Albrecht, as reported in the New Scientist. In a post that must have disappeared into one of those parallel universes, but that shows up in my rss feeds, David Appell asks what they could possibly be talking about. Stephen Colbert explains:

Reality has become a black swan

Posted July 1st, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy


An article by Denise Caruso in today’s NYT discusses the policy implications of new scientific perspectives on how genes function, reported in findings of ENCODE – a human genetics research consortium that is part of NIH. From this perspective, “genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood” rather than as a “tidy collection of independent genes.” The policy problem is that intellectual property laws, and products of recombinant DNA, e.g., GloFish, and the entire $73.5 billion biotechnology industry, are all based on the “one gene, One protein” principle.

Among other things, according to Caruso, this “evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today’s commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals.” But an assessment of risks that arise from network effects would require access to proprietary gene profile data for which there are no reporting requirements, so it is no surprise that challenges to the safety of these products are dismissed as “unscientific.”

As Caruso acknowledges, this network view is not entirely a new idea. What this case illustrates is a contrast between two different scientific frames that I refer to as deterministic and adaptive. The deterministic view has long been outdated but that has taken of a life of its own because it is reinforced by the economic interests invested in it, and by a way of life that seems increasingly delusional. The only way reality will ever fit into a world that values GloFish will be through social learning, as part of an adaptive approach… I wrote more about the contrast between these frames in a 1999 journal article, on Science in a Double-Bind, in which I revisited the work of Gregory Bateson. I have also raised similar issues regarding the development of “markets for ecosystem services,” as a way to make environmental costs part of the cost of doing business, and to create economic incentives for conservation management practices (last year in this post). Since ecosystem services are not yet a $73.5 billion industry, the rules of the game are still a work in progress – so there may be an opportunity to design a new business model that is consistent with a more complex reality, and supports human well-being.

Update: Denise Caruso adds a bit more detail and a correction on her blog,

How do we know?

Posted June 27th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Epistemological therapy

Although most of my regular work is on land and water, I tend to gravitate towards climate issues on the blog because they make it easy to illustrate archetypal problems in science and policy, and it is all related anyway. However I will be gravitating more towards land and water, which become more relevant in any discussion of adaptation and responses and to climate change. In the meantime, for anyone who still needs convincing that humans have become geological agents, a new paper by Naomi Oreskes not only explains how we know the scientific consensus on climate change is not wrong. It also takes the reader step by step through the various ways that knowledge is validated, whether the subject is climate change, the germ theory, the movement of tectonic plates or even evolution,  Science is ultimately about validating knowledge and, as she points out, there is no single sacrosanct “scientific method”-  but she reviews the way that different kinds of reasoning and evidence all point in the same direction. With respect to climate, she makes a convincing case that I dare any trial lawyer to poke a hole in, that while scientific consensus could be mistaken, no one has come up with a reason to think that it is. It is worth a read even if you don’t need convincing. She also makes up for whatever climate scientists are lacking in communication skills.

Because of other obligations, I missed her presentation hosted by the American Meteorological Society last week – it was on my calendar, but hat tip to Andrew Dessler for the reminder and the link to the paper and to her presentation.