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Monday, March 29, 2010

The UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) is Always Right

Photo courtesy of silkegb via Flickr

Self-described as an organization of "citizens and scientists for environmental solutions," their chosen name almost demands respect--a union of scientists who are concerned. But they don't hide the fact that they are not all scientists, so, in theory only two of them have to be scientists to keep the name legitimate, and in any case nobody knows exactly what a scientist is.

The fact that other scientists often disagree with their positions (as scientists always do) is problematic as well.

Are they always right? That can't be possible.

Does every member of UCS agree with every other member on every topic (are they really united)? Well, of course not.

Is their work peer-reviewed and published in science journals? No [Most of] it is not. [Most of] their research is as subject to subconscious bias as anything else. [Update: See comment from UCS press secretary, Aaron Huertas in the comments and this link for official stance on Nuclear.]

Once you take a scientist out of his or her lab, they are no wiser or more knowledgeable than anyone else. Ask a nuclear physicist to paint your portrait or rebuild your brakes and watch what happens.

It is the scientific method that makes science work, not so much scientists.

I like the UCS because they do a good job of sifting the chaff from the wheat. You still have to take their positions with at least a small grain of salt because there is still some chaff left.

Their position on biofuels has changed considerably as research has rolled in over the years. I am qualified to critique that subject and their positions on it are for the most part accurate but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Their positions on nuclear energy tend to be heavily biased, and there are plenty of very high ranking physicists and scientists who disagree with them.

Here is a UCS response to a claim that the reprocessing of nuclear waste reduces waste.

I'm not qualified to refute the physics but this raised my right eyebrow precipitously, while simultaneously lowering my left one.

Why do most other first world nuclear powers melt their long-lived waste into handy dandy blocks of glass if not to reduce its volume, make it easier to handle, transport, and store?

You never know with the French, but it seemed unlikely to me that they process their waste to "increase" their disposal problems. Which led me to wonder why fuel is reprocessed in the first place. I found the answer here:

Over the last 50 years the principal reason for reprocessing used fuel has been to recover unused uranium and plutonium in the used fuel elements and thereby close the fuel cycle, gaining some 25% more energy from the original uranium in the process and thus contributing to energy security. A secondary reason is to reduce the volume of material to be disposed of as high-level waste to about one fifth. In addition, the level of radioactivity in the waste from reprocessing is much smaller and after about 100 years falls much more rapidly than in used fuel itself.

And here is more from The American Physical Society:

Rather, waste management is made very much easier. The decree that Yucca Mountain must isolate the waste for more than 10,000 years is due primarily to the presence of long-lived transuranic elements. Appropriate reprocessing will allow those troublemakers to be consumed in fast reactors, leaving only the real waste—the fission products—to be disposed of, and their radioactive toxicity fall below that of the original uranium ore after less than 500 years. Effective waste management becomes a slam dunk.

The UCS downplayed the fact that by creating more of the short-lived, less problematic stuff, reprocessing reduces the amount of the much more problematic long-lived stuff.

Information about the technical and economic viability of renewable energy is also growing. At some point the UCS is going to have to soften its stance on nuclear energy. As a student of human nature I suspect that will not happen without a power struggle inside the UCS because people are swayed less by strong rational argument than they are by strong emotions.

We will need every weapon at our disposal to displace coal. Renewables can't do it alone. See my article Reframing Nuclear Power as an Ally of Renewable Energy

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Domesticated Dogs--Mutualists or Parasites?

Photo courtesy of Dog Tag Art via Flickr

This thought exercise was motivated in part by my second reading of The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (by Matt Ridley) while on a trip to Argentina. The book covers parasitism's role in evolution. While in Argentina I noticed the stark difference between the urban mostly purebred lapdogs in Buenos Aries and the often malnourished mutts found in rural areas. Here are some Wikipedia links to the terms parasitism and symbiosis for reference.

Look at the picture of that blue-eyed, smiling beauty. Is that a smile? It's like the false eye patterns that have evolved on some moth wings. The false eye patterns are an illusion to scare off predators and just maybe that false smile is an illusion that works to tweak human emotions. The moth can't close its false eyes anymore than this dog can stop smiling. Dogs have evolved ways, both physically and behaviorally to endear themselves to us (elicit chemical reactions).

Most of us would not be best buds with another person who has bad breath and a tendency to pant while their huge dripping tongue hangs out of their gaping mouth, but dogs have to do that to regulate body temperature. Rather than evolve another way to manage body temperature, have some managed to get us to look past that rather unique and bizarre cooling system by placing a (simulated) smile behind it?

I'm not a dog hater. But I'm also not a "dog person." I consciously resist attributing more to a dog's behavior than is really there. The dog wants my resources but will do nothing to move my genes into the future in return for them (help me provide food and protection for my family), which is one definition of a parasite.

The dog will make me feel good the way a cigarette makes a smoker feel good (a case for tobacco plants manipulating us), whereas my natural affinity toward the opposite sex evolved specifically to move genes into the future. And of course dogs don't really consciously scheme in this way. The laws of mathematics and natural selection are simply moving things in this direction.

For 98 percent of our shared history, our relationship with dogs could be viewed as a form of mutualism, where both species benefited. This remains true where dogs are still used as biological burglar alarms, defenders of and even herders of livestock, and for hunting. All of these activities served indirectly to help move human genes into the future by helping to keep us safe and fed.

However, it's easy to see a trend, especially in cities, where dogs have lost most if not all of their usefulness when it comes to gene propagation (from an evolutionary perspective) and may actually be hindering human reproductive success. I'm not saying that is a good or bad thing. I'm just saying...

Clearly we have impacted dog evolution, and they have impacted ours although we tend not to notice or acknowledge that fact. Evolution is a response to our environment and clearly dogs have been a major part of that environment long enough to have impacted us genetically.

Most dogs today in first world countries are used almost exclusively for companionship. By companionship I mean the good feeling (chemical reactions) derived from the company of someone you like who also likes you. Feelings (chemical reactions) like that evolved in social primates to motivate the formation and maintenance of groups or monkey troops for mutual benefit.

Dogs are commandeering for their own gene propagation our companionship chemical pathways (feelings). Your dog is programmed to like his owner. The fact that everyone's pet dog seems to love its owner and vice verse is some evidence to suggest that this happens automatically, without conscious effort or thought--to like its owner regardless of who it is and for the dog owner to like their dog even if it is an ugly, snarling, stupid, untrained, hand-licking, crotch-sniffing, carpet-pooping, hair-shedding, smelly abomination. And that goes for cats as well:

My neighbor's cat--with summer hair cut

Given time, your dog would develop the same affinity with a new owner, and you with a new dog. This tendency probably evolved to enhance our past mutualism, but once this relationship evolves away from "mutual" propagation of genes, you have by definition, a parasite.

Grandparents can contribute mightily to the welfare of grandchildren, which may help explain our ability to live so long past our reproductive age. It's easy to see how a lapdog could not only divert physical resources from that role, but reduce the motivation to spend the time and energy to seek out those grandchildren by meeting those needs (feelings, chemical reactions) for those grandparents, especially now that most of us don't live in three generation households.

The antics of the grandparent's lapdog hanging out on a couch has become a ubiquitous stereotype and endless source of material for the TV show called America's Funniest Videos. These lapdogs might be viewed as genetically modified biological endorphin generators (tranquilizers).

Another ubiquitous stereotype is the guy in a pickup truck with his best friend hanging out the passenger window, a big (false) smile on his face, tongue flailing in the wind. Instead of a real person, man, woman, child, uncle, brother, parent, or in-law who might help care for or defend a family, you find a dog sitting there making his owner feel good inside. One could argue that chicks dig dogs and the dog will therefore attract a mate, but you can't argue that all chicks dig dogs. Chicks that do not dig dogs have been eliminated from that guy's list of potential mates the way cigarette smoking would have limited it. A tradeoff many smokers and dog owners are perfectly willing to make.

There is a trend among some street persons to keep a pit bull in their company, much to the chagrin of government officials and anyone else that feels obligated to cross to the other side of the street rather than cross a potential alcoholic, mental patient, or drug addict in possession of a dog bred to fight to the death.

And finally we have the young mom with her stroller and one, two, or three young kids along with two golden labs out for a leisurely stroll. Do those dogs add to the extensive energy and time required for child care? I have on more than one occasion seen parents who actually give deference to the family dog over their kids, within limits.

Most of today's lapdogs started out as hard working rat dogs, which today is considered a derogatory term. They were bred to chase and kill, and even to go into the burrows of various rodent pests, rats in particular.

Today, dogs bred to hunt bears, or foxes, or wolves, or game birds, or water fowl, or to herd and protect livestock, are caged up in cramped dark houses all day with nothing but a bowl of dried dog food and maybe a chew toy for company. They get to go outside on a leash twice a day to crap in a planter strip, or if they are really lucky, fill the backyard with their poop. Zoo animals have it better. What's wrong with this picture?

Dog owners quite simply rationalize away this grim reality so they can continue to get their fix. Their dog is ecstatic to see them when they walk through the door (after having spent the day alone in mind numbing isolation) and just look at that smile on his face!

The backyards in American cities are literally open sewers. This mountain of poop accounts for much of the degradation of bodies of water in and around cities. The news headline while I was in Buenos Aires was that a parasite spread by dogs had been found in the grass and soil of every park in the city.

Our dog and cat rescue and shelter facilities are bursting at the seams. Having saturated homes with rescue animals they have started rescue foster animal programs. It's starting to get ridiculous.

From an environmental perspective, consider keeping only lapdogs, dogs bred specifically as companion animals instead of larger, higher status breeds bred for other jobs. They did not evolve (albeit artificially) to live in a house environment. A dog's ability to elicit endorphin releases from your brain is not dependent on its size.

One environmental argument in favor of dogs is that a dog (poop issue aside) will do far less damage when substituted for children. That's a valid point but it also supports the contention that some dogs, by intercepting energy, resources, and feelings from owners, have moved from mutualist to parasite, which from an evolutionary perspective is neither good or bad, it just is.

Parasites, you gotta love 'em, or at least some of them.

[Update 5/9/2010] My eldest daughter pointed out that it has become popular for single young guys to own cute lapdogs, which she suspects are being used to get the attentions of women. If she's right, then using lap dogs as chick magnets would not qualify them as parasites ; )

[Update 11/21/2010] I watched a film called Dogs Decoded last night. Here is the transcript near the end of the show:

NARRATOR: But when we treat dogs as if they were children, do we sometimes allow them to replace our children?

MORTEN KRINGLEBACH: They are, essentially, moving our focus away from having children onto having pets.

PETER ROWLEY-CONWY: I think we can think of little puppies brought home as parasites. They don't do anything useful, they're not perceived as a food source, they're not perceived as a guard dog. They are simply brought home for fun.

The cuckoo is perhaps quite a good analogy because the baby cuckoo, of course, being planted in somebody else's nest, prompts mother bird to look after baby cuckoo, even though there's nothing in it for the mother bird at all.

MORTEN KRINGLEBACH: I think it's safe to say that dogs have, evolutionarily, been very successful. If you compare them to wolves, you will see that wolves are now an endangered species, while dogs, of course, are all around the world.

NARRATOR: Whether they are viewed as parasites or as beloved companions, no one can deny the evolutionary success of the domesticated dog.

In fact, there are over 400 million, worldwide. And humans have created over 400 genetically distinct breeds.

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