Comments & Context

A Letter to the Past

Professors Lusina Grigoryan, of York University, and Madalina Vlasceanu, of New York University, recently led a study on what works and what doesn’t in order to alter behaviors affecting climate change. The study included 60,000 participants in 63 countries, and 11 strategies, including gloom and doom, stressing the scientific consensus, and writing a letter from the future.

The large team was “quite surprised” to discover that 86% of the participants believe climate change to be a “serious issue,” that needs to be addressed, with 70% supporting “systemic/collective action,” something you might not think from reading the headlines.

That aside, the regional results were as skewed as you might guess. For example, stressing the 99% consensus among climate experts lifted support for climate-friendly policies by 9% in Romania, but lowered it by 5% in Canada.

A gloom and doom bombardment produced a 12% increase, the largest change, in the share of social-media enthusiasts willing to post pro-environmental messages, which seems to go with the territory, and may be part of the problem: Do those posts really do much?

Overall, the most effective strategy was devised by Grigoryan, lifting support for green policies by 9% overall, with a range of 10% in the US and in Brazil to very modest declines in the UAE, Serbia and India. Grigoryan asked participants to imagine their future selves writing a letter to a child close to them today, outlining what they would have done differently.

by admin· · 0 comments · Comments & Context

Eagles, Eels, and Forever Chemicals

Wildlife ranges are forever changing. As is becoming more widely understood, species most now migrate to find appropriate new habitats in our changing world, not just to find food and shelter as the seasons change. These days, with the climate changing more quickly than species are able to migrate, they need our support through scientifically planned wildlife corridors, overpasses, and breeding refuges.

Citizen scientists have long assisted in tracking changes in migration patterns and ranges, a crucial role as field science is notoriously under-valued and underfunded. If you ever see a truly distinctive bird, like a swallow-tailed kite, out of its usual range, you need to discipline yourself to trust your eyes, even if your bird book suggests the bird is 1,000 miles too far to the north. In the old days you then had to search around for print reports confirming such sightings, but now we have, a wonderful example of how citizen scientists can support conservationists. In recent years black vultures, glossy ibises, and Mississippi kites have all extended their breeding ranges far northward, and eBird has been tracking their progress. A vibrant roseate spoonbill showed up in New York last week—its official range extends from South American into the coastal waters along the Gulf of Mexico.

eBird also tracks dramatic cases that excite some birders eager to see a distant species, and trouble others because a vagrant of a vulnerable species is clearly lost. In August of 2020, a Steller’s Sea Eagle showed up near Alaska’s Denali Park. A bird presumed to be the same eagle was spotted in March of 2021 along Route 59 in Goliad, Texas, perhaps blown off course by a winter storm. In December the eagle again believed to be the same (we have to keep saying that because we don’t actually know) was seen around Taunton, Massachusetts, before passing through Nova Scotia, and landing in Maine in early 2022. Sightings a few weeks ago put it in Spaniard’s Bay in Eastern Newfoundland. The usual range of this vagrant runs from Korea up through the Kamchatka Peninsula, home to a large breeding population. Sometimes the raptors, with a wing span of 8 feet, show up in the Aleutian Islands and even Juneau, but this trip is clearly stunning.

The Texas sighting included a photograph—there is close to zero chance such a sighting would get past the proctors without digital evidence—and to confirm the accuracy, a team from the Texas Bird Records Committee went out into the field and found the exact post where the eagle had perched. One birder reported that the unexpected appearance of hundreds of birders at a working wharf in Maine could have caused an ugly scene, but instead the mood was “bemused, pleasant, and happy.” Although these days science often drives a wedge between us, that’s an example of how it can bring us together.

Citizen scientists can also take a lead in the health of their own communities. Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory introduced such a project in one of their ongoing Science Cafés, informal open-floor events intended to advance ground-breaking biomedical research.

Jane Disney who, among other things, oversees the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at MDI labs, has been working with hundreds of citizen scientists testing for toxins like arsenic, a crew that has now turned their sights to PFAS as well. Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, are manufactured chemicals used to make products water- and oil-repellent. But they also contain carbon-fluoride bonds that do not break down naturally, hence the moniker “forever chemicals,” and have been linked to many serious diseases generally associated with aging. In 2021 Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection released a list of priority towns where contamination is linked to the use of sludge, septic-tank sewage, and industrial waste as fertilizer, often on dairy farms.  To give you an idea of the complexity of the work, the DEP staff compiled lists of sites they suspected had received 10,000 cubic yards of sludge that was likely contaminated with PFAS, in small rural communities in both Aroostook and Waldo counties, and in cities like Lewiston. These all fall within a half-mile of people’s homes and include a dairy farm where PFAS levels in milk were 150 times the state standard, with some sites perhaps cross-contaminated.

Dr. Disney is working with local homeowners who do find PFAS in their wells to come up with a strategy. Here the divide between wealthy and poor communities is pretty stark. Filtration systems are beyond the reach of some households, and concerns about PFAS are coming up “a lot” in discussions with the residents. A poorly maintained filtration system can be worse than no system, and one participant made the point that since people who rely on municipal water supplies are guaranteed water free of dangerous pollutants, provisions should be made for those without access to such commodities who rely on their own resources. Some scientists are working on ways to break down those carbon-fluoride bonds, but citizens need protections now.

Fred Bever, the Chief Communications Officer at MDI, and he really is an excellent communicator, invited everyone to the upcoming Science Café, the Science of Beer, that will be held at Fogtown Brewing in Ellsworth. If you’re in the region, be there or be square.

Birds, bright and beautiful as they are, tend to get more attention than other species critical to our habitats, like small solitary pollinators, and grubby bugs. A species that really needs our help is the American eel, a critically endangered creature whose life cycle remains an ongoing mystery. Homer’s mentions “eels and fish” in the Iliad, which caused ancient Homeric scholars to question the passage, noting that Homer would surely have known eels are in fact fish. Aristotle was puzzled by their life cycle, and even young Sigmund Freud tried to figure out how they reproduce.

Their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea weren’t discovered until 1920, and even now no one has seen an eel breed. Damming of rivers, over-fishing, and pollution have devastated eel populations. In 2003, Bob Schmidt, a founding biologist Hudsonia, an ecological research firm in the Hudson Valley, set up nets at the mouth of the Sawkill on the Hudson River to track their population levels. (If you are in the area, please get in touch with Philippa if you want to join us on the water next spring. Your fingers and toes get cold, but on sunny days the elvers shimmer as they briefly pass through your hands.)

Newly born elvers are transparent, making it hard for fish finning beneath them to see them, and soon after birth drift up from the Sargasso on the currents, a voyage that takes a year. Upon reaching our tributaries, they begin the next stage of their lives, swimming up over waterfalls and human structures, getting further and further inland as, in the words of one researcher, they become larger and more experienced at negotiating the waters. After twenty or so years they swim back to the Sargasso, now they are dark above and white below, camouflaged against both predatory birds and fish, to breed and die.

Science communities are international, and it’s pretty certain that the many individuals contributing to these efforts do not vote along the same party lines. We’ve highlighted research in the past underscoring the importance of volunteer work and social interaction to ameliorate the isolation and depression so often in the headlines these days. Nature provides us with everything we need to stay alive for free. In the three instances outlined above, cooperation not only benefits those working together, it improves the chances that the natural world can continue to labor on our behalf.

Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood

Photograph: Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation

by admin· · 0 comments · Comments & Context, Uncategorized

Tech Construction Boom

The Biden administration’s industrial policy, specifically the CHIPS and Science Act, appears to be having a serious real-world effect. Construction in the computers and electronics sector is setting records, and by a wide margin.

The CHIPS (“Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors”—why do they find acronyms so irresistible?) Act was designed to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the US. It was inspired by supply chain lessons from the pandemic—maybe having to source crucial industrial supplies from halfway around the world isn’t as brilliant an idea as it seemed at first—and to wean American industry from Chinese component makers as tensions between the two countries mount. According to a McKinsey summary, the law “directs” about $280 billion in new investments and R&D in the sector over the next ten years, via a mix of direct spending and tax breaks. Some $24 billion of that is devoted to tax credits designed to stimulate investment in semiconductor manufacturing.

If you look at the Census Bureau’s construction spending numbers, the bipartisan Act is already stimulating such investment. Graphed below are quarterly averages of monthly spending numbers (which are expressed as a seasonally adjusted annual rate) as a percent of GDP. The top graph shows the total and major aggregates, which fall well short of the “eye-popping” modifier. Residential construction has risen, first with the recovery from the 2006–2012 housing bust, and then accelerating with the 2020–2022 boom—though the 2022Q2 peak, 3.8% of GDP, was no match for 2005Q4’s 5.0%. Nonresidential has been pretty flat for almost a decade, only recently returning to its pre-pandemic levels.

But the second graph tells a very different story: a surge in manufacturing, largely accounted for by computers and electronics. The slope of the lines does qualify for the “eye-popping” modifier, as do the numbers behind the picture. Between 2021Q4 and 2023Q2, construction spending in manufacturing is up 114%, with 86% of the dollar increase coming from the computers and electronics subsector, where spending is up 441%. That surge took construction spending in computers and electronics from 0.1% of GDP to 0.4%. That may not sound like much, but it never got above 0.1% until 2022Q3. No other manufacturing subsector reported by Census shows an increase unless you take it out to two decimal places.

What will come of this spending won’t be known for some time. But something is happening now.

by admin· · 0 comments · Comments & Context

Long Violent History

The pensive face of young Tyler Childers is popping up on computer screens around the world. The son of a surface coalminer, this Kentucky singer & songwriter’s first release was “Bottles and Bibles.” and he is known as the spokesman for the people in his region who often struggle financially. In his statement about his new song, Long Violent History, he simply asks his community to put themselves in the shoes of African-Americans who fear everyday encounters with “public servants,” the police. In the song itself, he wonders how many “boys could be pulled off this mountain,” before his community swarmed into town, demanding “answers and armed to the teeth.”

One of his ex-fans suggests his expression of these “liberal views,” which include not getting shot in one’s sleep, have ended his career, a bit of a stretcher since his new page had over 50,000 likes within days of posting. In the accompanying song, the weaponry he describes includes Pawpaw’s old rifle and Springfield 30-06s. You may know what an aught 6 is but I (that’s Philippa) had to look it up, a rifle introduced in WWI, largely retired but still in use as a regular old hunting rifle. And the uprising he invokes is the Battle of Blair Mountain, a bona fide labor struggle over conditions in coal mines, not some ridiculous gun rally or ghastly display or racism or anti-Semitism. I hope you will take the time to listen to his statement. It’s a marvel.

His solution is to vote out those who have let police brutality run, and he suspects that these same people are the ones who hollowed out his and like communities–jobs out, drugs in–in what have become food deserts. He encourages his community to spend more time growing food, canning, hunting, fishing, and tanning hides, so they don’t have so much time to jawbone about things they know nothing about.

Good advice for everyone, and we know Tyler Childers wouldn’t be such a fool as to go deer hunting with an AK-whatever.

All proceeds from the song go to the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund that he set up with his wife, Senora May, a beautiful story all her own. They are in the process of setting up a scholarship fund to support  people of color attending Appalachian colleges.

by admin· · 0 comments · Comments & Context

Logic Check from Bird World

Conservation scientist J. Christopher Haney, who was brought in by Fish & Wildlife to lead the largest study of pelagic birds in the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the Horizon blowout, likes to count. In his recently released book, “Woody’s Last Laugh, How the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Fools Us into Making 53 Thinking Errors,” he documents a hundred years of flawed thinking and makes some broad suggestions, an encouraging read in this time of loud, angry voices.

Many species facing extinction get little play in the press. Not so the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWP): A putative spotting in the Big Woods of Arkansas in 2004/5 generated over 450 media reports, and arguments about the status of the species are often as acrimonious as current political dust-ups. As many know, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the species officially extinct seven months ago, despite persistent claims of sightings that continued after the announcement.

Haney admits that he chuckled in a snarky way when he read the F&WS announcement, not because extinction is funny, “it’s deadly serious,” but because, Here we go again….

In his younger years, Haney considered the extinction of the nomadic Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWP) a resolved issue, and concentrated on other questions. He admits that the status of the IBWP was never a big deal to him. He thinks of the species as a “big black, white and red woodpecker,” of which we have another so alike it is hard to distinguish, the pileated woodpecker. But eventually he was drawn in.

Haney’s father was a book salesman, and gave his young son many 19th century bird books, mostly seconds, that Haney read carefully. In the hoopla following the possible IBWP sightings some time ago, he found that the bird being described in the newspapers in the early aughts bore no resemblance to the bird described by naturalists in 1873. Yet the real tipping point for his thinking was driven by his observations of how people responded to the reports, and he embarked on a ten-year study of that phenomenon.

He hypothesizes that we have a “pig-headed death wish” for the bird because it does not conform to our expectations, and that this began in the late 1800s just as the US frontier was closing, causing the American public to engage in a lot of myth-making tied to the wilderness.

The somewhat incomprehensible errors that pushed the bird toward a “symbolic grave” began in the 1930s, when UT Knoxville ornithologist James Tanner saw them eating large grubs in pristine old growth forests. Those forests were “felled to the wartime ax” in the 1940s, and ornithologists decided the species could not adapt and would be forced into extinction. (People thought this about the similar pileated woodpecker around the same time.) Tanner did not follow the bird, which may be or have been an opportunistic wanderer. And importantly, his belief that they could only survive in virgin bottomland hardwoods was directly contradicted by a photograph taken by his own mentor showing a pair in piney flat woods, with a female on the ground—which supposedly doesn’t happen—amid scrawny trees.

There’s a lot in the book, but we’ll cut to a few of the biases Haney outlines, harking back to the work of Kahneman and others on our thought processes, always good reminders.

Anchoring bias, we have been anchored to the belief the bird is likely extinct for one hundred years, largely because of misconceptions about its diet. Haney points out that a bird so narrow a specialist would never have survived into the modern era, referencing the waves of extinctions that killed off 34 mammal genera over the years.

We often get extinctions wrong. We’ve re-found over three hundred species that were once believed extinct over the last hundred years, and we tend to rush to a belief in extinction rather than to a default that the species is alive somewhere. The Bermuda petrol, a sea bird of similar size, was listed as extinct in 1620, but in fact populations in the low single digits managed to hide out in the open terrain of Bermuda’s tiny islands to be rediscovered 300 years later. This is the Romeo bias, the serious error that led Romeo to kill himself when he believed Juliet was dead. Listing the ivory-billed as extinct takes it out of field guides, and makes it less likely that people will be able to identify individuals if seen, which will limit our understanding. In addition, the extinction stamp removes protections from potential habitats.

Haney makes the stunning observation that we take all sight reports before 1915 at face value and accept them, yet between 1915 and 1940 they became controversial, and every observation after 1940 has been attacked. He points out that in the 1800s observers were riding on horseback through tough terrain, without binoculars, while more recent observations benefit from excellent optics, lots of field guides, and “a cohesive birding fraternity unafraid to levy ruthless verdicts from doubting peers.” That we have changed our criteria across historic eras, essentially dismissing a whole class of people because they are “suggestable,” reflects fundamental attribution error. And it only goes in one direction: people are believed to have mistaken a pileated for an ivory-billed, never the other way around. There have been over a hundred sightings through the final decades of the 20th and into the early decades of the 21st centuries, which Haney considers important.

The math supports Haney’s view that we don’t know. He argues that we would have to send observers into every one of the 90,000 acres where the IBWP was once seen 254 times to be 99% sure it is not there. Even if there are as many as 500 birds remaining, sprinkled throughout ten southern states, the probability of seeing one is not zero but close to. A prior study costing $1.6 million got through only 12% of the territory, and was abandoned, with analysis suggesting if there were 100 birds a very poor sighting might occur every 2 years, but even a blurry photograph would probably take 20.

Haney closed one interview by noting that birders generally only accept indisputable sightings—“A 70% probability may be OK for stock-picking,” but not for science. But he calls keeping lists only of verified accounts nothing but a limiting hobby, and that hobbies are not “granted the final word on truth,” as we search of what is reliable in our universe. The IBWP described in ornithological science is not the same as the birders’ IBWP, we have to look at the math, look at the social identities of those arguing for and against—for example, southern hunters might want to keep federal regulators off their hunting grounds—and perhaps give some credence to recent sight reports. He suggests the safest thing to do is back away from this mind trap and say, “I don’t know,” a useful three words, if seemingly easier to say by those with broader knowledge.

by admin· · 0 comments · Comments & Context