30 July 2011

Evil? or Broken? -- Part 2 (An Example of Bad Science)

I have just finished reading an article in Atlantic magazine - actually, I read it twice - called The Brain on Trial. I will not link to it, because I believe (for several reasons) that it represents bad science, and don't wish to give it added weight. It took a second reading to find the reasons for the nagging discomfort I had after the first reading. The article has a lot of substantive content about new discoveries related to the functioning of the human brain, and the effects of chemistry (and brain tumors) on it.  It's concluding premise is that there really is no such thing as free will - that we and all our behavior are simply the mechanical play-out of our genes, perhaps with some environmental influences thrown in (abuse as a child is treated as a mitigating circumstance for crimes committed later as an adult).

The article begins with the story of Charles Whitman, the University of Texas Tower Sniper, who killed 13 people (his first victim a pregnant woman) and wounded 32 others. In his suicide note Whitman asked that an autopsy be done on his brain, to find out what had made him do this, because he recognized that something was wrong in his own mind. The autopsy found a glioblastoma 1.5 cm in diameter, pressing against the amygdala. The amygdala lies hear the hypothalamus, and is involved in the regulation of emotions, especially aggression and fear.

This was a sensational starting example, and not unexpected; all writers try to draw you into their writing with something interesting. I should have taken warning from it, however.  The author is an academic; the attribution says he is a neuroscientist at an southeastern university. After reading this exculpatory article I'm reminded of Bill Murray in Ghostbusters saying "Back off, man - I'm a scientist!"

However, in the article the scientist-author does not directly reference any single scientific study, though he does pick and choose - allude really - to certain conclusions here and there. One of these is that a psychiatrist who works with criminals is a poor predictor of future behavior. Instead, statistics ("science") is/are better, because these show that sexual interest in children and "prior sexual offenses" are better predictors of recidivism.

Excuse me, but "Duh!"

The author gives other examples - a pedophile who also had a brain tumor, and when it was removed his "problem" went away. He discusses how teenagers do not have a fully-developed pre-frontal cortex, the moderator of impulsive behavior. Most state legal systems recognize this (as do car insurance actuaries), and people below the arbitrary age of 18 (17 in some states) are treated very differently, with an implicit assumption that they will grow a mature pre-frontal cortex and be different as adults. This age cut-off is very artificial, and requires extra hoop-jumping by judges and prosecutors.

I once visited a 17-year-old in a juvenile detention facility in Fairfax County, Virginia; I went as the counselor to an LDS branch president. The young man was imprisoned because he had been part of a robbery gang, and during one robbery had been confronted by a screaming old woman who owned a little vegetable store. He shot her in the eye and killed her. He showed no remorse, simply snarled when we asked him about it that the "old bitch got in my face." His next sentence was revealing: "get me out of here," he demanded. "You guys are important and rich - you get me out!"

Somehow, I don't think that growing a final lobe on his pre-frontal cortex would qualify him to be released into the general population anytime soon. I know more than one adult with a poorly-developed pre-frontal cortex.

The red flag in the Atlantic article, however, was this cluster of sentences, spread over a paragraph: "If you are the carrier of a particular set of genes, the probability that you will commit a violent crime is four times as high as it would be if you lacked those genes... <you are> 13 times as likely to be arrested for a sexual offense. The overwhelming majority of prisoners carry these genes." and "By the way, as regards that dangerous set of genes, you've probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you are a carrier, we call you a male."

I find it really hard to believe that the author is unaware of female prisons and female serial killers.

Later on the author states unambiguously that depression, schizophrenia, and mania are all "controlled" by drugs. For starts, that's a gross and unwarranted generalization. More to the point, mixing schizophrenia with the other two is an example of an apples and oranges association - but it appears to be deliberately done to advance an agenda.

That agenda is this: there is no such thing as free will. The author basically states that all humans are broken to varying degrees, we all fit somewhere in a continuous spectrum of disfunction, and therefore no one should be judged as being "blameworthy". The author is quick to point out that he is not advocating turning sociopaths loose on society - but instead advocates that judges follow the "science" - to make statistical judgments of who should be locked up forever (pedophiles and serial killers have an extremely high recidivism rate) and who should be put into a vastly-expanded public system of rehabilitation. His characterizes his preferred solution is "customized sentencing."

I have no issue with rehabilitation, and know of several cases where it seemed to have helped. I have no issue either with treating the schizophrenic who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords as not being criminally culpable. What I DO take issue with is lumping schizophrenia with depression, and then by association removing all the rest of humanity from being "blameworthy." The subtlest part of this slight-of-hand is to draw the conclusion from these examples that all humans fit into a broad spectrum of bad-to-good socialization, and that no one can be considered blameworthy of anything - just treated as broken, and either fixed or quarantined forever. There are huge stretches of logic in this sequence, yet the author self-identifies as being a neuroscientist (emphasis mine). To call this loose logic sequence "science" is equivalent to calling trash collection "digital waste engineering." I won't even bother to address the lack of legal rigor in the article.

From all of these apples-and-oranges, rare-anecdotes-represent-humanity, and other logic stretches, the author finally gets to the agenda he is pushing: that there is no such thing as free will. In other words, we never were really given our agency, the greatest gift of all - and none of us are guilty of any wrongdoing. Infidelity? My genes made me do it. Murder? Abuse as a child exonerates me.

As bad science goes, this is a bit more subtle than the homeopathic advertisements I see in the back of Discover magazine.

But only a bit.


25 July 2011

Evil? Or Broken?

What, exactly, is an evil person?  A Philosopher's Talk segment on NPR equated evil with lack of empathy. Most people attach the word "evil" to someone who does something they consider terrible: the Holocaust, 9/11, the Killing Fields of Cambodia. It could be used by someone angry that another person poisoned his barking dog. I've heard the word attached to someone who was an inveterate punster.

But make no mistake - there is real evil out there. At least two different kinds.

In the King James Bible there are two words for taking life: slay and kill. In 21st Century English these words have mapped to different meanings: kill and murder. In both cases, the former is state-sanctioned: what a soldier does in battle, or a butcher does to feed his family. In both cases the latter meaning (the 1604 meaning of kill, or 2011 meaning of murder) is morally reprehensible. (That's short for "bad.") So when the King James Bible says "Thou Shalt Not Kill" - it means you must not murder. This distinction was important during the reign of James I, and for some people it remains important today.

Martha Stout's book "The Sociopath Next Door" posits that about 1 in 25 people around you is born without the capacity to love or empathize. As she puts it: what do the con man, the impostor, and the serial killer have in common?  They are all missing something essential: a conscience.

I would put it this way: there is a tiny fraction of the human population with an imperfect - or missing - moral spine.

I believe I've encountered a few individuals in my life experience who might qualify. In each case they had a crippled idea of a life philosophy, and had a deep devotion to Number One: themselves. They tortured others - both animals and humans.  There is a degree to everything, and in one case the individual was profoundly unhappy - an extremely intelligent atheist who knew he was different, knew he had no real hope except to climb an academic ladder - and was deeply frustrated.  There are some individuals at the extreme end of this spectrum who apparently never had any particular sense of unhappiness - John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind. Killing for them was just a business - a way to satisfy a need.

The difference between most sociopaths and a serial killer may simply be narcissism. The former retain a concern for what people think of them, and it holds them in check, more or less. Historically, these broken individuals have tended not to propagate their genes unless they had this additional trait. Unless they somehow became a leader of men (I'm thinking about Genghis Khan and Josef Stalin here). Fear of execution held some of these crippled individuals in check up until the mid-20th Century. Most simpler societies, which have not had the luxury of lawyers and elaborate jails, dealt with this sort of person quickly and permanently: slay/kill them.

Ever hear of Tollund Man? A 5,000-yr-old mummified corpse found in 1950 in a Danish bog... with a rope around his neck. There was initial speculation that he was a human sacrifice... but he was more likely a murderer or pedophile, dealt with quickly and efficiently by a local community where he was captured (a second autopsy verified that he had been hanged).

So. Are serial killers, pedophiles, and Islamic Khotila* evil? Or do they just have a broken wire in their brains somewhere? There is a rather high correlation between children that torture animals and sociopaths, just as there is a high correlation between mathematicians and musicians. Another way of looking at this is: we are all built differently, and some are born missing the empathy socket.

But there are also apparently normal people who commit murder. They were sent over the edge by something - infidelity, an attack on their children, something that brought them to a point where they were - at least temporarily - able to kill another human being. The courts even distinguish between "Aggravated Murder", "Murder", and Second Degree Murder. The latter is judged to be not quite as bad as premeditated murder. All too often I see on TV or in the newspaper a story of a spurned husband (it almost never seems to be the wife) who kills his estranged wife and perhaps their children - and then kills himself. Neighbors, fellow church-goers all seem surprised by this: he seemed like such a nice man and such a good father...

Can good people turn bad? Clearly, yes. Do we all have weaknesses - various broken wires in our brains - that can be taken advantage of? I think that, too, is a very real likelihood. I'll bet anyone reading this can think of at least one example. From terrifying personal experience, I am certain that there is an Adversary out there.

That's where the "2nd Degree Murder" comes from, where people get tipped over the edge. It's somehow less "bad" - emotions overcame him. The implication is that his violent act is not typical, doesn't mean he will do it again. Right.

What can you - or society for that matter - do about people who go over the edge?

Not much - it usually happens too fast.

What can society (or you) do about a sociopath bent on killing an estranged wife?

Again not much. Avoidance isn't always possible. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled on a teacher asking to carry a pistol into her elementary school classroom: she had an estranged husband who had repeatedly stalked her, threatened to kill her, and had already violated a court restraining order. How would you decide this one?

We are told clearly that Charity is the greatest of all characteristics required of us by God. We can be charitable, try to understand, and when possible perhaps even try to help. Being charitable does NOT mean that we have to give free rein to the agency of the evil person - the Title of Liberty comes to mind. This sort of evil is what courts are designed to deal with - to quantify, evaluate, assess, and if possible to correct. If correction is not possible, then quarantine. We do this for viruses, both organic and digital - we isolate these dangerous things until they are no longer dangerous.

Finally, I believe we have the luxury in our modern society to do no more than this - no more than to quarantine. From a practical standpoint (court-time and lawyer's fees), capital punishment is far more expensive than life imprisonment. More importantly, I think a follower of Christ must step beyond the Mosaic Law and forgo societally-sanctioned executions. Because execution, whether by hanging (Tollund), gas chamber, or lethal injection - is still killing another human being.

Kill, slay, or murder - it doesn't matter what you call it, another human being still dies. We don't have to hold the cloaks of the executioners.


* An Afghani Islamic militant group hanged an 8-year-old boy they kidnapped, because his policeman father would not surrender a police vehicle (news reports on 24 July 2011). There are several Salafist organizations that openly sanction murders of innocent men, women, and children simply because they are Christian or Shi'a. To call these Islamists "Jihadis" is to compliment him. Jihad means to fight evil, and the Qu'ran makes it pretty clear that this means to root out evil in your own soul. 

Instead, I much prefer the words "Khotila" (قاتل) - murderer - or Jazari (جزار) - butcher.


23 July 2011

Slipping and Sliding: How Fast, How Big, How Often?

A recent issue of EOS, the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union, has a very compact but informative figure in it (p. 227 of the 5 July 2011 issue).  (Sorry, but it appears I can access the full figure only from my USGS desktop. I'll try to describe it:).  It helps the average science-interested individual figure out how size of a fault-plane can tell you how big an earthquake will be.  The diagram also warns us potentially how large a tsunami run-up (the wall of water you will meet at the coast shortly afterwards) might* follow one of these monsters.

It’s been known for a long time that the size of an earthquake correlates fairly well with how much surface area is torn in the formerly “stuck” rock on a fault surface.

Some brittle-vs-plastic-rock basics:

If you have a vertically-oriented fault like the San Andreas, the vertical dimension for the fault “tear” can be only about 10 kilometers - below that depth the rock is so hot and pressurized that it turns plastic and doesn’t “break”.  A magnitude 7.8 event is a Very Big One for the San Andreas.  Even if it rips horizontally for 200 kilometers, it can’t get enough surface area torn to be bigger than that.

An ocean-floor subduction fault, however, is a different cat.  These things dips shallowly... almost flat in some places.  You can therefore get a lot more “down-dip” rock breakage or “tear” with this kind of fault before you get down to the “plastic” zone.

The Tohoku earthquake off northeast Japan in March, 2011, is calculated to have been in the magnitude 9+ range.  That’s 10 times more energy released than a magnitude 8 event, and close to 25 times more energy than a “piddly” San Andreas 7.8 event (like the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906).

The EOS diagram (click here) lays this all out graphically:

A 60 km by 120 km tear, with 5 meters slip along the fault-face, will give you a magnitude 8 event - and a 10 meter Tsunami run-up. That's a wall of water over 30 feet tall.

A 200 km by 500 km rip, with 10 meters slip (what happened off the Sendai coast of Japan), will give you a magnitude 9 event - and a Tsunami run-up of up to 20 meters. This explains the monster wall of water hitting and destroying the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and destroying villages MILES inland. This Fukushima nuclear plant debacle is now looking more and more like the Chernobyl disaster that depopulated a lot of the Ukraine in 1986 (135,000 people were permanently evacuated from their homes in a little over a day).

It’s been known for a long time that the rate of subduction - how fast a continent is over-riding an oceanic floor - seems to correlate with the frequency of volcanic eruptions inside the continent’s edge. Mount St Helens has erupted twice in the last 31 years (but no other eruptions have occurred elsewhere in the Cascades since 1917's Lassen event). The Juan de Fuca plate "only" moves about 2.5 cm per year towards North America.

However, at least one - and generally several - volcanoes in Kamchatka are erupting all the time.  The Kamchatka Peninsula is moving eastward over the Pacific plate at over 8 cm per year - much faster than North America is moving relative to the Juan de Fuca plate. More plate gets subducted down to the mantle, faster, and this means more partial melting takes place. Think lava-lamp with three times the heating coils.

What are subduction-related volcanoes, anyway?  Examples are Mount Rainier on Seattle's skyline, Mount St Helens near Portland, and Mount Shasta in Northern California: the Cascades range.  Their equivalents elsewhere: Bezymiani, Sheveluch, Alaid and a boatload of other volcanoes in Russia's far east Kamchatka Peninsula, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Unzen in Japan, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and Krakatau ("east of Java") and Merapi in Indonesia.

Does this subduction rate thing also hold for the frequency for large earthquakes?

The same diagram suggests that subduction earthquake frequency and size don’t seem to correlate with how fast the plates are moving.  This is probably because of complex fault geometries, and how often so-called “silent” or “slow” earthquakes take place (they tend to redistribute accumulating fault strain).

Bottom line: the last huge subduction earthquake on the Pacific Northwest coast happened in January 1700 AD (there's another very eye-opening figure in that link).  At least 7 of these magnitude 8+ events have occurred in the last 3,500 years, but that means nothing in terms of predicting the next monster.

The Next Big One could occur tomorrow or 200 years from now.

What can you do about this?  If you live in Kansas, you need not worry.

If you live in Portland or Seattle, however, it would be a good idea to earthquake-reinforce your house... and buy earthquake insurance. The problem is that if a Cascadia earthquake hits, the damage could be so massive and so far-reaching that it could wipe out many North American insurance companies. Hurricane Andrew (which slammed south Florida in 1986 - the same year as Chernobyl) caused about $24 Billion in damage, and even with the modern practice of spreading risk, it stretched some insurance companies to the limit.

You CAN, however, steadily build up a year’s supply of food, and develop some sort of water storage system.  Again, this is as much for your neighbors as for yourself.  You are your brother's keeper.

* Depending on fault geometry, there could possibly be only a small tsunami. Knowing the geometry ahead of time makes all the difference.


22 July 2011

Science, Statistics, and Truth

Science vs. Truth.

What?!?? vs.Are you implying that they are not the same thing?

Not necessarily - especially when statistics are involved.

A weekly news-and-commentary summary magazine called (of course) The Week, even has a regular column titled “Health Scare of the Week.”

Vitamin D cures cancer.  Vitamin D statistically minimizes recurrence of certain types of cancer.  Those are very different statements, and the “statistically” part depends heavily on sample-size and sample population (what population was checked? Healthy college students? Nursing home residents? Australian life-guards?). Also, measures of statistical significance (T-tests, etc) must be considered.  If you can understand them... (that's why I married a biologist and statistician).

Even then, how does one make sense of a statement like “...found that people with the most Mediterranean diet have up to a 40% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease...” (Nature 475 [14July2011], p. S17)?

How about conflicting scientific papers?  One paper (Nemeroff et al., 2001, Am. J. Psychiatry 158, 906-912), cited in the scientific literature more than 250 times since 2001, said that Paxil was a wonder antidepressant with minimal side-effects. Now there are accusations that the study’s academic authors were “hand-picked” by the drug company, and engaged in gross scientific misconduct.  Among other things, they allowed their names to be attached to the original manuscript, which was actually written by an unacknowledged contractor hired by GlaxoSmithKlein.  The contentious issue of drug-industry influence over medical research is bubbling just under the spill-all-over-the-stove point.

Perhaps the best way to stay sane when faced with conflicting reports like this is first, never take something in popular “news” media too seriously - it’s always been written some distance from the original data, and nearly always has an incentive for a sensationalist slant. Second, never take a scientific study very seriously until there are repeats and duplicate verifications by other groups.

Well, can I gather information on the Internet? Don’t be in too much of a hurry here, and don’t bet your life on it - or the life of someone you love. When our sweet little Sun Conure started showing motor-skill degradation, we took her to a vet. They took blood samples and severely traumatized her for $240. They even warned us that “...she may have a broken leg from the handling...” when she was returned to us. Internet research on the symptoms drew an enormous breadth of opinions by a rather large number of self-anointed experts. “Avian Gout” was a common theme... but this Conure was fed the same food as another Conure in a cage less then 10 cm apart. They were nearly the same age - less than a third their normal life-span. The problem was transparently not food, then, nor was it infection. What’s left? All we could conclude was cancer.  Sunshine had lived with us for 5 years, perfectly healthy until last Summer.

We took such loving care of little Sunshine until she died in December. I tried feeding her her most favorite treats - and she tried valiantly to eat them, apparently just to please me. After she died, I recalled the final letter from My Dad, dying of lung cancer, where he said virtually the same thing of my step-mother -- trying to cook special treats to keep him alive.

Ultimately, Good Science is a highly variable thing, with as many variants as there are people doing (what they at least hope to be) good science. Many good people worry about Science vs. Good Science a lot, and there is even a journal focused on this. Though scientists often contribute to the Journal of the Philosophy of Science, some prominent scientists have felt that the practical effect on their work is limited: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” to quote Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman.

So what’s left? By general consensus, the medical profession transitioned from doing more harm than good to its patients to doing more good than harm sometime around 1870. Something started working then, and history suggests it was the introduction of scientific principles, tests, and unbiased trials. An early start was in 1854, when John Snow assembled a map of London, marking cases of children dying of cholera, and saw them centered around a single community water pump on Broad Street. He arranged for the handle of this pump to be removed, and viola - end of epidemic. Stopping child deaths always seems to gather peoples’ attention.

And that raises another issue: when you have limited resources, do you spend them on something like solving tinnitus (the screeching that about 30% of adults like me are hearing every day and night of their lives), or AIDS, which affects roughly 0.3% of the US population, and rarely kills anymore?

Medical science keeps getting better and better - I’m enthralled by weekly stories from my son, a 3rd year Med student. He describes wonderful doctors (and at least one hideous, totally amoral doctor) on his university teaching staff. With the exception of that one doctor-researcher (who has her own agenda), doctors depend on the medical science that itself must depend on statistics - to evaluate the efficacy of one drug or treatment vs. another. You can get better, more reliable statistics with the largest possible sample-group. 238,000 people (The Harvard Nurses Health Study) will give more reliable results (you can have more confidence in them), than a study with 45 men taking a drug and 52 men taking a placebo for a control to evaluate a possible tinnitus solution. Every additional person in a clinical trial, however, costs money. NSF grants being limited, sample populations will almost always be limited as a result.

I said “almost”... read on.

Keep in mind that there are no black-and-white medical fixes or solutions - not even cigarettes vs. no cigarettes. My uncle John died at 96 after chain-smoking for 82 years, while a practicing LDS friend died of lung-cancer almost two years ago at age 45. He had never smoked.

The real problem is that there are too many variables to sort through.

Was one somehow getting more vitamin D in his diet? Less sunlight? More polyphenols? Less exercise? Did one have longer-lived parents? Smoking is as close to a statistical slam-dunk for a known problem that can be avoided, but the example above shows that even with tobacco, there are always glaring exceptions.

If you want the largest statistical sample possible, to get the most reliable numbers, you have to go to the state level: millions of people. Life expectancy is highest, prostate-cancer, lung-cancer, depression, and other malign levels are lowest... in Utah.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out a correlation.

Joseph Smith gave it to us in 1835.


21 July 2011

Nuclear Winter

A recent issue of Nature (19 May 2011, p. 275-276) discusses Nuclear Winter. Many people may recall that in the 1970's about 70,000 nuclear weapons were pointed at various nations in a condition aptly named Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD

Translation: you pop me, and I’ll obliterate all your cities within 20 minutes. 

Atmospheric and nuclear physicists, among a large number of other worried people all over the world, published several papers pointing out that the soot raised by a MAD nuclear exchange would lead to a massive drop in world temperatures. Bottom line: those who die in the initial detonations would be the lucky ones. The rest of the human population would slowly freeze and starve to death. As a child, this possibility preoccupied me a lot.

There is a precedent for this, by the way. About 74,000 years ago there was a supervolcano eruption (Toba volcano) in Indonesia that, according to scientists analyzing genetic diversity, triggered a freeze that reduced the human population worldwide to as few as 2,000 people - creating a bottleneck in human evolution.

Because of these studies, Mikhail Gorbachev took steps in parallel with Ronald Reagan to reduce the tension in the 1980's, as well as to reduce the world-wide arsenal. Today there are about 22,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and with the New Start Treaty this could drop to 5,000.

The authors of the Nature paper point out that at least 200 known (if unacknowledged) ballistic nuclear weapons in Israel, a rapidly-growing arsenal in increasingly-unstable Pakistan, unknown arsenals in India and China, and an imminent nuclear arsenal in increasingly bellicose Iran, all pose a growing and very real threat to humanity as a whole. 

Human history has a consistent and bad track record of one charismatic nut causing the deaths of up to 20,000,000 people at a time - Stalin’s collectivization and Hitler’s Aryan War come to mind.

The Nature authors have access to far better atmospheric models than were available just a decade ago. These models can deal with more variables, have a far finer 3-D modeling grid, and all of the modeling is based on much better experimental data. Here’s what the modeling now tells us:

Their initial assumption is a 50 Hiroshima-bomb equivalent nuclear exchange - say between Pakistan and India, but Iran-Israel is another real possibility. If lobbed at cities, the soot raised by these detonations will amount to a calculated 5 megatons of smoke and soot raised. Open-air tests in the 1960's show that this debris will quickly reach the Troposphere, and new models show it will be heated and rise to the Stratosphere, where it will circulate worldwide for years. 

There’s no safe hidey-hole, either: an exchange in the Northern Hemisphere will take awhile, but WILL reach and impact the Southern Hemisphere. 

50 Hiroshima bombs will drop the worldwide average temperature by -0.7 degrees C. This sure doesn’t sound like much, but it is comparable to the temperature drop during the Little Ice Age (~1500AD - 1850AD). During this time, millions died of famine in Europe alone

An even larger exchange is a real possibility - and carries with it proportionally greater consequences. The modeling is not advanced enough to even know if the increase will in fact be proportional - it could push the Earth’s climate to a tipping-point where a new Glacial Age is precipitated. We know just enough to be scared, and this clearly comes across in the dry scientific discussion of the Nature article.

The underlying problem right now is that the human population is huge (over 6 billion and growing) and meta-stable. By meta-stable, I mean that a small perturbation (as a physicist would say it) may have huge, DIS-proportionate consequences. There are vast numbers of people living right on the edge of survivability - seeking food on a day-to-day basis. There are already huge famines underway in North Korea and East Africa. 

What can YOU do about this? As an individual, not much, beyond gathering a years supply of food and water. Why would you bother? Because you may be able to help neighbors on your block and in east Africa when (not if) the worldwide food situation worsens. 

This is a basic responsibility for anyone who calls themselves followers of Christ. 


15 July 2011

L'Aquila Prophesy

On 6 April 2009, a Magnitude 6.3 earthquake devastated the small town of L’Aquila in central Italy.  It was caused by movement on a NW-SE normal fault in a region known for tectonic activity and volcanism (there is a reason for Vesuvius and those Alps). Over 300 people died.

There were a number of fore-shocks, something not unusual for an earthquake-prone region, and they were sufficient that local officials asked for advice from six seismologists and a government official. A week before the main event, these individuals gathered as a panel to review data, and afterwards at a press conference assured the public that they were in no danger. Their reasoning: that any potential fault energy was already being dissipated with these small shocks.

In May 2011, an Italian judge gave the go-ahead for a trial for these individuals. The charge: manslaughter.

What’s happening here? Seven individuals are being charged in court for failing to predict correctly the devastation that was about to happen.  If convicted, they could spend up to 12 years in jail.

Is this right? Can you throw people in jail for failure to prophesy correctly? Italian jurisprudence certainly seems to think so.

The consequences of this trial are being felt far and wide in the scientific community. There have been impassioned letters sent to the Italian judge by European scientific societies, and among other entities the American Geophysical Union.

The US Geological Survey felt sufficiently moved by this to host a two-hour-long, web-based briefing for scientists about their legal liability for doing their science under US Law.

Bottom line: if you do your job in good faith as a Federal scientist, you are un-touchable by the Federal government prosecution because of several protective Federal laws, and you are untouchable by any other state or municipal government because of the Supremacy Clause in the US Constitution.

A volcanic eruption can be approximately forecast - the timing approximately, but the extent of damage and duration less so.

A hurricane can be forecast in a narrower window of time, but again, the extent of damage can only be estimated ahead of time very imprecisely.

Earthquakes cannot be predicted. The Dow Jones Industrial average cannot be predicted.

In both cases you can make some statistical forecasts based on past history, but they assume history will repeat, and most people would consider a statement like 'there is a 31% chance that the Hayward Fault will rupture in the next 50 years'... to be close to useless for them personally. Well, sure... so what am I supposed to do about it? Not totally useless: you can use this number to appeal for more funds to retrofit buildings and strengthen building codes.

The FACT of your death can be predicted: it will happen.  Forecasting the timing of your death is entirely different; your lifestyle and parents’ longevity weakly correlate with how long you can expect to live, but that's all you can say. Statistically, Mormons live longer and healthier than the rest of the population, but my friend Mike, an LDS chef, died last year of lung cancer from who knows what fumes in his kitchen.

Scientists are not prophets, seers, or revelators... though these roles are something that we implicitly demand of all politicians and managers.

Research geophysicist sounds just fine to me as a career choice - and I can even spell it.


14 July 2011

Kiedy Piaski Zajaoenia y Ogniem

That's Polish for "When sands flash of fire".  It's the Polish version of an article I published in Scientific American about the Wabar Impact Event.  I knew you'd have to open this blog just to see what the heqq...

I referred previously to the Chicxulub Event about 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs.  THAT rock was about 10 km/6 miles in size. The Wabar object was quite a bit smaller - only a rock the size of a large living room. It smacked in the middle of the driest desert in the world (the temperature reached 61C/142 F one mid-morning while I ran a magnetometer over the biggest two craters).

While small by comparison, this object still caused immense damage. Geologic and geophysical mapping show that it raised a mushroom cloud of molten glass to at least the Stratosphere; molten glass rained down at least 850 meters/900 yards away.  The object broke up in the lower atmosphere and created at least three craters that we can still see between the moving Saif dunes. Calculations show that the rock (94% iron and 4% nickel, plus copper, cobalt, and iridium) brought with it a kinetic energy equivalent to, or bigger than, the Hiroshima atom bomb.  The Wabar impact site is similar to the Sedan and other bomb craters in the Nevada Test Site, save one: there is no radiation. There is shocked quartz, an asymmetric ejecta field, and there are other minerals that suggest temporary temperatures reaching over 10,000 C. If you could have seen it, you would not have likely survived the experience.

Here's the crucial point: Wabar happened in 1863. Gene Shoemaker and I mapped the field site together and we made a bet. We both agreed that the site was very young. If it was older than a Qu'ranic reference to 'Ubar, I owed him a steak dinner. If it was younger than that, HE owed ME a Thai dinner with a coconut sticky-rice dessert. Sadly, Gene was killed in a horrific car-wreck 300 km north of Alice Springs in Australia in 1996, before the thermoluminescence dating results (from sand we had carefully gathered at night below the impact rim of one of the craters) came back. Result: less than 250 years. Details for the 1863 date are in the SciAm article.

Whew.  A "city buster" hitting the Earth less than 150 years ago?  Imagine that.

Another crucial point: I have partial records that suggest that "city busters" like this hit the Earth in 1863, 1908, 1930, 1935, and 1947. And that's just on land. By a miracle, every one of these fell in very remote areas. I published another article in 2002 (Wynn, J.C., 2002, Mapping an iron meteorite impact site with a magnetometer, and implications for the probability of a catastrophic impact on Earth: Journal of Environmental & Engineering Geophysics, vol. 7, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 143-150.) that showed that these things happen far more frequently than even a radical like Gene Shoemaker had ever suspected.

About 80% of the human population now lives within 100 km/60 miles of the ocean. At least 70% of the Earth's surface is ocean. Something like 20,000+ tons of TNT equivalent detonating under an ocean is your classic Mogi Source - the perfect Tsunami-maker. If it just hit your city, it would be a relatively clean death for everyone around it by comparison.

One final point: we cannot easily "see" these things coming. They have to be really big before enough light scatters off them to be picked up by Earth-based telescopes, and you would need many "picks" before you could calculate a reliable orbit. By the time you could see a Wabar-sized object, it would already be over. Since the Earth has substantial gravity, one of these things flying even close to the planet will be drawn towards it, gravity being what it is. We can't use radar to spot these, either. The energy of a radar beam falls off as the distance squared, and even if the beam was 100% reflected, the return beam would have energy falling off as the return distance squared. Mankind doesn't have radar beams with enough energy to do this; if they did, it would fry everything in the sky flying through its beam.

What does this all mean? It means we are helpless beneath the sky. It means we do not control our future. You can get good warning of a volcanic eruption, a shorter warning for a hurricane, a really short warning for a tornado, and NO warning for an earthquake or one of these bombs from the sky.

You can store a year's supply of food and water to help you and your neighbors survive a near hit.


13 July 2011


Early versions of the syphilis microbe ripped through their human hosts savagely and quickly.  Too quickly, in fact, which meant that frequently the parasite killed its host and itself in the process, before it could replicate beyond that host.  Natural selection being what it is, a “gentler”, slower-acting version of syphilis emerged that is now the most common form of this particularly unpleasant STD.

Odd way to start a chapter of geologic ages, you say. Bear with me.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy are the gate-keepers for the definition - and dating - of the various geologic epochs. This keeps self-absorbed geologists for naming a geologic age after themselves, among other things. The responsibility they have also assures that everyone worldwide is referring to the same thing when they say, for instance “Eocene” (the period ranging from 55.8 to 33.9 MY ago). This stratigraphic boundary-marking is normally done by looking for a marker bed - some particular layer that is seen all over the world that marks some profound change in climate or animal populations.

Here's an example: the end of the Permian Epoch and the start of the Triassic Epoch (251 MY ago) is marked by a mass extinction: about 95% of all life forms disappeared from the geologic record.  This is called the Permian Extinction (for obvious reasons) and geologists are still trying to figure out what caused it.

For the end of the great Cretaceous Epoch, there actually is a “smoking gun”: a huge crater in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula (it runs offshore into the modern Gulf of Mexico) that marks the asteroid impact that ended the age of the dinosaurs.  Think of it: a rock about 10 km (just six miles) in diameter made a crater ~170 km to ~300 km in diameter (depending on which scientific paper you read) and scooped debris into a sub-orbital trajectory that came down in Montana.  The marker bed for this event is a thin layer of clay that is distinctive worldwide: it is loaded with iridium, a “sidereal element” similar to platinum, and not normally found on earth - but commonly found in asteroids. There are also huge tsunami deposits on Haiti and elsewhere in the proto-Caribbean.

About 10 years ago, a Nobel Laureate chemist named Paul Crutzen suggested the name “Anthropocene” for the Age of Man. Yes, it’s pseudo-Greek, but most of these things are. This was intended to spur debate over human influences in the world, and they are substantial.

To put things in perspective:
* We are presiding over the largest and most rapid mass extinctions of animals in millions of years.
* The International Energy Agency reports that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions for 2010 reached 30.6 Gigatonnes. That represents a 5% increase in just two years!
* We are seeing the beginning effects of major climate change: a dramatic increase in atmospheric carbon that if left unchecked will acidify the oceans, destroy coral reefs, and drown cities like Miami and New York by the middle of this century.
* There are land features on Earth now that can be discerned from space - human-made features.

Major and abrupt changes to soils worldwide (you can count the Walmart parking lot asphalt acreage) might meet the traditional definition of when a geologic boundary is crossed. When do you date the change to the Anthropocene, however?  There is ice-core evidence for accelerating changes in the atmosphere dating to roughly 1800 - when the Industrial Age began to roar. However, there are radio-isotopic changes in soils dating from 1945, when nuclear weapons began to detonate in the atmosphere.

Which would you choose?

Man is now the Top Predator on the Earth. In fact, with the ice-free Arctic coming on we are killing off even the polar bears. To human over-hunting we apparently owe the extinction of the Mammoths and Mastodons, the North American Camel, the Ground Sloth, and other “Charismatic Megafauna” in the past 12,000 years. To human over-fishing we also owe the collapse of the world Cod population and the imminent collapse of nearly all large fish stocks in the oceans that humankind depend on for protein.

In that sense, we could say that humankind “owns” the Earth because of our enormous and highly visible impact in its surface.... but we still are not as important to the planetary biosphere as, say, microorganisms. Destroy all microorganisms, and everything on the planet stops. Not so if H1N1 killed off most humans.

We certainly don’t control the Earth, however.  Virtually all governments recognize that the uncontrolled and accelerating growth of fossil fuel burning will cause terrible changes to our world, from monster hurricanes and continental-scale wildfires to drowned coastal cities.  But humankind seems unable to do anything about it.

Which gets me back to the syphilis analogy. If we are an infection that is destroying the Earth as we know it... will we “evolve” fast enough politically to keep from poisoning our planet?  LDS people are fairly unique in that we recognize the Earth to be a living thing.  Since 1978 (at least) we have been told that we must not “mess it up” - we cannot continue to consider the Earth’s bounty to be limitless, or to pollute it.  In 1834, Joseph Smith instructed the Saints that it wasn’t necessary to kill a Massassauga rattlesnake that they encountered near one of their camps on the Zion’s Camp march. That was quite an interesting first step in an environmental movement that most people attribute to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring.”

We were getting instructions more than a century before that.  Have we been listening?


11 July 2011


That's really code for "Atheist."  When someone doesn't want to be painted with the absolutist label "Atheist", they call themselves a "skeptic."

Being a real skeptic isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as one is honest about it. Any good scientist must be a skeptic - you have to be willing to look at faulty or circular logic in someone's interpretation and call it that. You must also always be willing to scrutinize data when it seems a bit too clean, a bit too good. The scientists who provided the latest value for the Hubble Constant - the relationship between the Red Shift and how far away something was - initially came up with 42... and paused and re-checked every calculation multiple times:

LONDON (Reuter) - Scientists searching for one of the fundamental keys to the universe found they had been beaten to the answer by the comic cult novel ``Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy''; and the answer was 42.  In the British novel and radio serial by Douglas Adams, an alien race programs a computer called Deep Thought to provide the ultimate answer to understanding life and the universe.
In the novel, seven and a half million years later Deep Thought comes back with the result: 42.
Astronomers at Britain's Cambridge University took a little less time - three years - to calculate the Hubble Constant that determines the age of the universe. But the answer was the same.
``It caused quite a few laughs when we arrived at the figure 42, because we're all great fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide,'' Dr. Keith Grange, one of the team of Cambridge scientists who worked on the project, said Friday.

But you can take anything to extremes, including skepticism. If you're not honest and even-handed, you can't call yourself a scientist, and that includes admitting when you have insufficient information or data to make a call. It includes admitting that your current scientific paradigm is not permanent.

Under the guise of skepticism, Atheists commonly review each other's books promoting Atheism. Does that sound in-bred to you? Does it sound any different than Believers praising books by Believers?

Skeptics promote magazine columns with that word - and as part of the devious game some of them play, they will lump Believers with the most bizarre and narrow cults and beliefs... Painting everyone with the same tar-brush is an old pseudo-logic trick, closely related to an ad hominum attack. They also make heavy use of another emotional tool: ridicule. I've seen this done by professors to their own students.


To me, it's just another manifestation of a substitute religion for belief in a Supreme Being. As I said in an earlier blog/chapter, everyone has a religion. There are Atheists and there Proselyting Atheists, but they are all guilty of the same blindered data-selection that they accuse Believers of.


I sure hope they enjoy the uplifting help and support provided by their god. I'm sure their god will take great care of them at their end.


10 July 2011

Intelligence, Part III

 “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”  (D&C 93:29)
That single verse has 5 qualifying links or footnotes.

There is a totally different take on the word intelligence – I would first capitalize it, and then pluralize it: Intelligences.

Almost everyone I have talked with about this will agree on one thing: they know things from somewhere that they can’t explain. It typically manifests by my mentioning, say, the concept of marriage that lasts beyond death, or the idea of a Pre-Existence. They all say something like “yeah, I know that…” even when I point out that it is inconsistent with the formalities of their particular faith (if they aren’t Latter-Day Saints).

Now there’s a thought – pre-existence - that my Jesuit friend could never explain:

“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. “(Jeremiah 1:5)

Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? – the only really important questions.

As I understand this, we’ve been in existence for billions of years - a Pre-Existence. The difference between a million and a billion is really not critical here since I can’t count high enough to reach either. It certainly would explain that pre-existing memory that everyone seems to have.

Intelligence was not created or made (D&C 93:29).

The first time I heard this in a class it surprised me, but again, that pre-existent memory said “yeah – of course.” So we weren’t created, we were organized into existence as thinking individuals. At some point we were given agency. We had already existed. Now there’s something to occupy your thoughts for a few commuter bus trips to downtown Washington, DC.

How? I haven’t a clue – at least not in any detail – but the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy (and Vacuum Energy and quantum entanglement) commonly come to my forebrain sometime around Arlington on I-66.

I have this abiding sense that I – we – are almost at the point where we can understand and tie all these cosmology and tantalizing scriptural pieces together. For me, at least, it’s another reason not to fear death. Beyond that door, this learning thing just has to speed up considerably. I won’t need sleep or sugar, for one thing.  AND we will have full access to all of those pre-existent memories.


09 July 2011

Intelligence, Part II

1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.
 2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
 3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3: 1-3)

When I was 11 years old, my mother remarried after 7 years struggling as a working single mom. I entered 7th grade shortly afterwards, and to my parents’ surprise (a bit after the fact; they were not asked beforehand), we were all given an IQ test upon entry.  I had no idea what that was, but did note that the Christian Brothers, who ran Garces Junior High School, used the results to divide about 60 of us 12-yr-old boys into two classes. It was made abundantly clear that the “other class” was for “dummies”.  In the class where I ended up, we were initially arrayed in five rows of six chairs each according to this IQ result. I decline to share where I ended up, but it astounded my new step-father, and led to huge changes in my life that would begin about two years later.

My new step-father badgered my mother for 20 months into letting me go to a public high school, and more importantly, THE public high school in Bakersfield, California, that had a college prep program (all grades had a “.4” after them), and an advanced college-prep program (called “point five). This was in the Elitist Age, before people figured out that it was probably not wise to discourage growing children by classifying them. It was also before educators really came to grips with the fact that there are many, many different forms or manifestations of intelligence.

Why did my mother resist? She had been taught from childhood as the daughter of an Irish Catholic dad (my grandfather) that if she didn’t raise her kids Catholic, she would go to Hell. She understood that to be literally the case. It wasn’t until after I earned a PhD in geophysics that my Mom confided to me that when she married my step-dad, they both thought I was mildly retarded. They correlated grades with brains. My worst grade was nearly always “Deportment”, where a good grade for me was a “C-minus” and a typical grade was a “D-minus.” Bored and always in trouble is the long version.

Over time I took other ‘qualifying’ tests; from one of these I gleaned a number off of a file on a counselor’s desk. I knew enough by then to realize that this was a good number. For a short while, I reveled in this number.

If a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience … , he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19).

But the difference in intelligence between 11 years old and 27 years old could be measured in light-years. When my PhD committee came out of the discussion room, each shook my hand and said “Congratulations, DOCTOR Wynn.” The seventh and last one was Cam Mosier, who sauntered out of the conference room slowly, shook my hand with a smirk, and said: “Now you can finally start learning.”

Boy, ain’t that the truth.

As time went on, I realized that I was smarter in some things than most people, but dumber on most other things than almost everyone. My wife can zang through a word-scrambler or crossword puzzle before I can write anything on paper. My youngest son and I can tangle in Randori – the Jujitsu slow-motion random fighting used in training ground-fighters – and he moves like flowing water. I have to resort to dirty tricks (a distinguishing characteristic of Jujitsu) to have even half a chance with him. The comparison list grows asymptotically with time.

But here’s a secret: that intelligence initially gifted you can and will increase in quantum steps. The downside is that you have to go through the worm-hole to get to the next quantum state. That’s another way of saying you get there by spending months to years in Hell.  It’s called the Refiner’s Fire. You can delay some of this, you can even waste much of your life trying to avoid it, but a loving God will be very persistent in allowing you opportunities that, once past, you will be grateful for. If you’re like me, however, you wouldn’t willingly go back and go through those experiences again.

I once visited a mine in Saudi Arabia called Mahd ad-Dhahab. There I watched the hard-rock blasting, the ore transport, the milling and grinding process, the huge, yellow-hot smelter - and finally held a brick of Dore in my hands: a block of ~97% pure gold. It took both hands, too, because something the size of a red building brick weighed about 30 kilos (70 lbs). 

I traced back in my mind the process to get to this point and saw a metaphor for my life.  Every crucible I was poured from left me a better, smarter person: smarter in empathy, smarter in patience, smarter in science, smarter in parenthood.  

That last one has made me smarter at understanding who I am, why I am here, and Who will welcome me back Home.


07 July 2011

Intelligence, Part I

I think most of us have met the brilliant professor type who can’t ever seem to find his keys. I knew a professor when I was a student at Berkeley who was a Nobel Laureate.  Each day his wife would drive him to uphill end of the campus (she didn’t trust him to drive himself). He would get out and she would yell “Downhill, Owen, downhill!” and the campus security guard would pick up on this and kindly direct him towards nearby Leconte Hall.  Owen Chamberlain had an incredible gift for making sense of the many particles being discovered in high-energy physics during the last century. He had real trouble finding his office, however. This may be an extreme example, but it makes a point: we all have gifts, but no one has all the gifts.  One gift that Owen Chamberlain had in abundance was intelligence.

There is intelligence, and then there is intelligence.  Actually, there are also intelligences, which I will write about tomorrow.  1 Corinthians 12 talks about many different gifts given to human beings, but I’d like to discuss variations on that one gift - intelligence - that I see frequently as a scientist.

There is "IQ", which is supposed to be a broad indicator of quickness of mind. I've given keynote lectures at Oregon MENSA meetings and it's not so much talking to an audience as engaging the audience. They are equally quick to admit to anyone who has patience that they are almost all nerds, and say that with evident pride.

I’ve seen mathematical intelligence, and I’ve seen verbal intelligence – these are measured by the SAT exam you may have taken in high school.  My wife can unsramble word puzzles in milliseconds - I don't even bother to try, it's just too frustrating. I’m guessing that what is measured in the SAT represents perhaps 12% - 15% of all forms of intelligence. 

I’ve also seen geographic intelligence – you probably know someone who can navigate in cities or in a wilderness with apparent ease.  A young Navajo boy would quietly sit through my quorum lessons and never say a thing.  Get him out in Aravaipa Canyon, however, and the kid would light up - and seemed to be able to walk sideways on the canyon walls.

There is emotional intelligence – the famous “EQ” – that is a measure of how sensitive a human being is to other peoples’ feelings.  A famous dictum of the Federal Executive Institute is this: no matter how smart you are, if you have a low EQ your stint as a manager will end in a train-wreck. 

There is practical intelligence – I have a son-in-law without a college degree who can figure anything out, and can fix any thing. This goes hand-in-hand with mechanical intelligence, and is closely related to geometric intelligence – some people can easily see things in three and even four dimensions, while I may stare at the car and wonder why it died suddenly in the middle of the I-205 bridge.

There is language intelligence – one son learned to speak, read, and write Mandarin in about 18 months, the equivalent of someone going to school in Taiwan for 15 years. All his siblings, incidentally, speak at least two and up to five languages in addition to their native English.  Don’t look at me - it comes from their Mom, who can also read 10,000 words per minute (I read about ~200).

There is also physical intelligence – the things we see in great athletes.  Baseball players who bat .400 is one hard-to-explain example.  I can generally tell pretty quickly that one of my new Jujitsu students is going to get to Shodan – 1st degree black belt – quickly and easily.  She’s a “natural.”

There are many more manifestations of intelligence, and I've just barely scratched the surface here.

Where is this going? If you saw the movie “Rainman” you will understand what an Idiot Savant is: someone who may not be able to do most things you and I take for granted, but who has an incredible gift down inside just waiting to be discovered.  

And this is my point: when you see or work with someone who seems “slow”, be very, very careful about making a dismissive judgment.  I have known people who speak slowly, measuring their words, and if you err in discounting them, you will make a grave mistake. They are probably smarter than you.

Instead, it seems that we all have several forms of intelligence to varying degrees. Look, then, to discover the hidden gem in the people around you. Someone you’ve been married to for 40 years may be a genius – and you have just overlooked it all this time. If so, shame on you.


03 July 2011

Akrasia vs. Arete

Aristotle is by general acceptance one of the greatest minds of all antiquity. From Aristotle we have the foundations of scientific reasoning and experimentation - the foundations of modern science. Sadly, virtually nothing he wrote himself has survived; all we have are translations of what we would now call class notes - translated from Greek into Arabic and then into Latin and Romance languages during the Enlightenment in Western Europe.

I'll address just two of Aristotle's defining words in this blog/chapter, words that clearly indicated an anticipation, if not inspired glimpses, of LDS Doctrine: Akrasia vs. Arete.  

The conventional single-word 19th Century English translation of Akrasia conveys something totally different in 21st Century English, so I won't repeat it here. Fundamentally, Akrasia means lack of self-control. Someone may know what is right, but has a weak will and gives little weight to long-term goals (Telos). Aristotle generally accepted Socrates' belief that few people voluntarily do evil, but instead most who do evil fall into it out of lack of self-control - typically to give in to immediate pleasure. This was not vice - which is deliberate evil - but instead something a bit less "bad." It can nevertheless lead to immense and long-term damage to themselves - and to many other people as well. We see Akrasia afflict far too many otherwise demonstrably intelligent people in our world. The word sounds like 'crazy' - which would be a good description for some catastrophic falls from public esteem by certain American and French politicians lately. A few minutes of illicit sexual activity commonly leads to destroyed families - and disfunctional children - for a far longer time than the initial mistake entailed. The sins of the fathers are (all too frequently) visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.

I've personally witnessed this Akrasia in three generations of my otherwise intelligent male ancestors. It led to terrible sadness among four generations of wives and children.

In my mind there has always been different kinds of intelligence. Political intelligence, mathematical intelligence, and verbal intelligence are not the same, nor do they equate with Arete; they do not correlate with moral intelligence or even just plain sense.

A former Director, speaking about the introduction of Matrix Management into the USGS by otherwise intelligent people, said to me "WHAT could they possibly have been thinking?!??" 

The other key word is Arete, usually translated as "virtue." For Greeks, Arete included more than just moral and intellectual virtues, but covered a much wider range of things - including, for instance, the sharpness of a knife. Perhaps a partial translation would be "excellence." If someone or something is functioning properly, then it was exhibiting Arete. To function correctly as a human, of course, meant that you were behaving in a moral and rational way - the way your Maker designed you. A good person has the wisdom (Phronesis) to know how to act and comport her/himself in life as if they could see the consequences for more than a single day - and more than a single generation.  

This was an important point for Aristotle: a good person will feel pleasure in doing good things. A Latter-Day Saint might reword this to say that living in conformance with God's will - one's Maker - is the only form of long-term personal satisfaction possible. In a meeting this morning, my Bishop concluded a prayer with these words: "...that we might align our will with Thine."

To this I added a heartfelt Amen.


01 July 2011

Death by Accountability

Accountability seems essential - even moral, right?  EVERYONE should be accountable for their acts.

However, moderation in all things - especially moderation.  For instance, most people agree that water is good. It's possible to drink too much water, however - this even has several names: water poisoning, hyper-hydration, etc. You can kill yourself with too much water, and I'm not even counting drowning here.

Before Ronald Reagan, government employees were known to be hard-working, not particularly well paid, and dedicated to their country. Well, Federal employees haven't actually changed. From Reagan onward, however, government has been described as not the solution to the problem, but that government is the problem.  He then proceeded to use government to build up a 600-ship Navy and double and triple our national debt. Go figure. Except for political leverage by unscrupulous politicians, I really can't see why government has been targeted. Why not Bear Sterns? Why not Bank of America? And except for people who have never seen a federal employee and what they do, I can't see why anyone would believe government was a bad thing. After all, who protects us from volcanic or earthquake crises? Provides us weather information and warnings? Delivers our mail? Guards our country? Cuts our Social Security checks? Chases down fraud (well, everywhere except Wall Street, anyway). 

The inevitable consequence of this broad and unjustified negative categorization has been to demand more accountability: prove to us that you aren't wasting taxpayers' dollars! One addresses this by demanding more and more reports, setting greater and more complex rules. Who actually does this?  Congress usually dumps at least 10 loony new regulations on Federal employees and businesses every year.  Who enforces these? People in cubicles.  We call them The Bean Counters.

I'll emphasize that it's not just happening in the Federal government. I've watched this trend towards ever-greater accountability expand from almost nothing 35 years ago to what we see today in many different domains.  Scientific journals now frenziedly game the rating system to increase an artificial number called a Citation Index or Impact Factor. My performance as a scientist is rated every 6 months. This is largely good, but also partly bad, because how do you rate someone doing a discovery process?  It's complicated and largely artificial, and the current process requires at least a person-day each time for each scientist. It's like the technology that counts how many times people click on an internet ad - it is artificial and leads to strange, illogical behavior, like Content Farms.  

Let me give an example I'm familiar with:
Before I moved with my family to Venezuela in 1987, the USGS National Center was a hustling, busy place crammed with scientists and technicians. The building is a series of stacked 8-sided stars nearly a third of a mile (half a kilometer) long. In 1987 it produced maps, energy and mineral resource assessments, and was a world leader in developing new geophysical technology. The "A" stack of the 3rd floor was Administration, the "B" stack was devoted to chem labs, the "C" stack geology, etc. 

When I got back from Saudi Arabia in 1995, all the chem labs had been gutted from the "B" stack - and it was now filled with cubicles for all the administrative assistants required by ever-growing additional rules, regulations, and reporting requirements. These people were not bad - but they were bean-counters, not contributing anything to the products of the USGS. They also cost money: salary, building space, etc., and this was taken at the expense of doing what the USGS was tasked to do: map our nation and its resources - and international resources that we are so critically and strategically dependent upon, such as the Rare Earth Elements now controlled (97% of world production) by China.  

This cancerous growth was all driven by Congress, which gives us several new bills each year that demanded ever-greater accountability, to make sure that taxpayer money wasn't misspent. Republicans and Democrats are equally well-intended - and equally guilty - for the accountability cancer. Never mind what banks and investment firms get away with (and still scream about too much oversight). The burden on the USGS Administrative Officers can be characterized in an amazing and very tangible way: 2 to 3 meters (10 feet!) of shelf-space were necessary to keep all the regulations in 5-cm/2-inch binders. The first time I saw this, it was mind-boggling. More boggling than this was the way that this reportage and accountability burden increased every single year since then. Now there are so many rules and regulations that they must be kept online. At least it saves cutting down another forest for the paper needed.

Accountability has had a huge effect on scientific productivity. Publications and maps - despite the availability of computers and plotters and The Cloud - is less than half what it was 10 years ago, and it is declining.

Bloated accountability has also had a huge effect on the people charged with managing it. As a chief scientist, fully 60% of my time was taken up with all the required reportage. My work-week was routinely about 55 hours long - because I felt I had to help the scientists get work done and product released. In a science team of ~120 people, we have an Administrative Officer who routinely works a 60-hour week - and she still can't keep up even though she works from dark til dark. She could not function without the 9 assistants to do all that reportage and accountability checking. That's an astounding overhead.

From one admin officer needed per 100 scientists and technicians in 1987, today it is now almost 9 per 100 people.  


When there is suspicion and distrust, the public demands accountability, and this is generally not a bad thing. However, it is possible to stifle research and business productivity almost to a halt with too many accountability demands - mandated reports and constantly-evolving rule-sets for how to do even basic things.

Death by accountability is possible, and I've been watching The Monster's growth actually accelerate in the past 10 years.  It's like a tumor: it demands greater and greater resources, and imposes its priorities on you no matter what else might be important. Already there is far too little Operating Expenses (OE) to get anything meaningful done in the USGS anymore.

Death by Accountability affects not just federal employees, but private businesses and university researchers, too.  We are all being nibbled to death by the flock of accountability geese.

Is there a solution? YES - and it's surprisingly simple.  All new regulations and reporting requirements should have a maximum time-limit - a Sunset Clause. After five or six or even 10 years, they should expire. If they are still necessary, they will inevitably be renewed. But we must stop the permanent add-on increase and growth of The Monster.