Friday, July 6, 2007

Information problems

This is another one of those days when something in the news just drives me crazy. In this case, it's here, on the BBC internet news: Amazing News!.

Here it is, announced by a usually reputable news source, that "Villagers in central China have been using dinosaur bones as medicine - thinking they were from dragons. These bones have been dug up, then boiled in soup or ground down to make traditional medicines for decades. The news emerged this week when scientists displayed some excavated bones at a museum in Henan Province."

I didn't actually scream in anger; but almost.

This is UTTERLY not news; basically ANYONE with a real education in any biological field SHOULD KNOW THAT. Why? Because it WAS huge, world-wide news already. In 1929. Ever hear of "Peking Man"? Know how they found him? In the drugstore, that's how. Zhoukoudian. Actually, scientists knew "dragon bones" were fossils, and were looking at them, in the late 1800's. And Zhoukoudian, the site of Peking Man's discovery, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for crying out loud. Hardly obscure.

It's an incredibly widely known story. And here it is- not only did the scientists involved in the new story apparently not know, but neither did the story writer- NOR THE EDITORS.

So why am I ranting about this here? Because this phenomenon, and all our environmental disasters, are very closely related. Through the very serious, and growing, failure of our higher education systems and institutions.

This phenomenon of ill-trained young scientists announcing "discoveries" - that are decades, or sometimes centuries old- is not only astonishingly wasteful, but dangerous. Globally, earth-threateningly, dangerous. The problem needs to be societally recognized, and very seriously addressed.

I'll give just one recent example here; in Genetic Engineering. Just last week, the NYT printed another "Scientists Astonished" article; that did NOT astonish me, nor my colleagues in evolution. What, Genes are Complex?

The morons running the genetic engineering scams out there have finally had to admit that- gosh, it just ain't as simple as they said it was in all those corporate Prospectuses. They came up with a concept called "junk DNA" - basically the concept was that MOST of any organism's DNA - must be functionless- since THEY COULDN'T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT DID. And now, after decades of profitless corporations, and billions of dollars wasted, it's dawning on them that gee-golly, apparently all that DNA does actually DO something - like turn processes on, and off, for instance.

Evolutionary biologists never thought "junk DNA" was a sensible idea; in fact there are abundant reasons to KNOW otherwise. Guess what? ALL that DNA has a function- much of it very complex regulatory stuff. The morons just have no clue how it works. The rest of biology hopes these numnums will eventually actually... GO OUTSIDE their lab, and LOOK AT A FROG - in a pond. And watch it; and the pond; for at least an hour. Instead of looking at pictures of frog cells in the library. It is not the same thing.

I don't really have to explain to this audience what the consequences of this stupidity are- beyond utterly wasted capital resources; projects launched that are doomed to fail, false hopes, and careers ending in brick walls.

I contend this whole phenomenon of utterly uneducated PhDs is one of the leading causes of environmental catastrophe. You can find one who'll believe anything the CEO wants him/her to. Because... they do NOT get a genuine education. They get trained in minutiae; and often ONLY that.

If we're going to be able to change our species' behavior (and we know we have to) we desperately need accurate information; informed judgment. And we are NOT getting it from our universities these days. Some of it, to be sure, is the result of the vastly increased amount of "information" that's out there. But some of it just because of "grade" and "degree" inflation; and the complacency of all the complicit.

Your own examples, and anger, are welcome in the comments...


Anonymous said...

Why is it the ones who supposedly have superior education seem to have the least common sense?

I had never heard the term "junk DNA" before but it sure struck me as odd.

Considering how complex and amazing DNA is in and of itself that anyone would render any part "useless" simply because they did not understand how it works is to me, a very uneducated person btw, ridiculous, not to mention, arrogant.

Love your blog...keep on waking us bums up! :)

Mary said...

Excellent and much deserved rant!!

I can't agree more and find the increased specialization and lack of general knowledge accounts for a great deal of the inane minutaie churned out of the ivory towers. That and the advent of personal commuters, that enables that many more people to earn those advanced degrees.

As a recovering academic, I find that the hubris of those "scholars" who take themselves quite seriously is quite dangerous in a lot of ways.

I'm with you Brother!

(Quick alternate topic question: Do I need pressure treated wood for building my greened house/office? It looks like some nasty stuff and your experience based insights would be great, if you can spare the time. - If not, I understand too!)

shadowfoot said...

My husband and I have noted this lack in many circles. He refers to it as a lack of training in "critical thinking".

We're not teachers in the official sense, but have taught unofficially in a medieval recreation group we're in over the years. One of my favorite classes is to bring out some of my books on illumination (illustration in medieval and early renaissance books), and to ask people what they see. We take in all the details, but also how they all go together to create the whole. From there we go into taking apart hypothetical problems or situations -- research projects, creating a class, organizing an event, etc.

Some are more able to learn to view things from different perspectives before drawing conclusions, of course. Not all move beyond the observation stage to the actualization stage, but some do.

What's interesting to me -- and frustrating at times -- is that even when they've learned to do this, they don't always remember to apply it.

Anonymous said...

I have to deal with agronomists on occasion for things like soil tests {the involved analysis for toxic traces type} which I can't afford otherwise so I interact with Agricultural Extension. If you allow them to talk at you enough, they will explain that you need all types of commercial products {fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, systemics, nematocides--I am just getting started} and seldom if ever offer any suggestions for non toxic growing.
They are mystified by me as I never use anything they tell me my nursery can't live without, I refuse government aid {except for the tests}and I don't really have any degree of respect for their supposed brilliance.
Meanwhile, there is a brand new insect plague here and they will wait two years until they bother to start looking for a predator to control it and that will be after they tell everyone to use all kinds of exotic, new, unproved insecticides, the same as they did in the case of previous plagues.
And as to their actual ability to grow something or even their interest in growing something, that seems to have been worked out of them while they got their degree, or even before that.
I can go on and on, and I do offer my apologies to the few agronomists who are outside of this description.
It seems that the schooling consists of at least 75% chemical company indoctrination, and none of the remaining 25% of the education includes any inspiration about growing or any appreciation of the philosophy of agriculture. Jefferson said that a country without a philosophy of agriculture is a country without a philosophy.
Agronomists prove that.

Anonymous said...


And re treated wood --- read up on it, the old copper arsenate (green) stuff is justifiably being taken off the market. I believe you will be able to get wood pressure treated with borax, and that may be a good alternative. So might any of the strand-board composites, and there's at least one variety made without using formaldehyde resin, and some using bamboo fragments I think.

Watch out for advocacy opinions when doing your research.

"Biologically rational decisions may not be politically possible once investment has occurred." (Science 5 Jan. 2007 at 45.)

Greenpa said...

Mary- I like your phrase "recovering academic"- :-).

I would stay away from any pressure treated lumber, for sure. The record of the industry there is absolutely uniform. When treatment A is "discovered" to be unacceptably toxic, treatment B is developed, and announced to be "harmless" to everything except the targets. 20 years later, when thousands have been sickened, treatment C is developed, and announced to be "harmless" to everything except the targets. 20 years later, when thousands have been sickened, treatment...

The treatments are poisons. The idea that they can be made to "stay in the wood" is ludicrous, if you've ever been outside. Stuff erodes. All stuff.

The absolute best wood for below grade work is Black Locust; Robinia pseudacacia. It will last longer than any treated wood, in fact. The problem is finding any big enough to use. It USED to be available- but.. they used it. Many railroad bridges were built of it.

If you can find it, it will be expensive; and worth it. Other woods nearly as good; bald cypress (old growth, though- look for salvaged wood from above-grade uses). Quite a few other woods are called "rot resistant"- but actual performance below grade can be pretty variable. Black Locust is the one. The good news is - you're in an area where it should be as available as anywhere.

Greenpa said...

Oh- Mary- why not concrete? Done right, it will be better than any wood; more expensive than treated wood, but less than natural-

Anonymous said...

AND ANOTHER THING- :-) Here's another knuckleheaded thing from the universities; beautifully illustrated in a current NYT article - Let's STUDY it!.

Got a bad problem? Give us money, and we'll be delighted to STUDY it FOR you, FOREVER!!

Problem: coyotes are moving into suburbs; eating pets, and now REALLY - starting to attack CHILDREN.

Answer from Cornell: Wow! Great! We'll radio track the coyotes! Study MAY have a conclusion in.. 2010!!

Answer from anyone in the real world: suburban coyotes need to HUNTED. Just a little. Hm; are the coyotes in Montana attacking children? Hell no. Why? Because people SHOOT at them if they get too close. Are there plenty of coyotes? Hell yes.

Sure, suburbanites never like people shooting in their backyard. Mostly, they like going to funerals for dead mangled 3 year olds even less. Authorize the COPS, and Game Wardens, to shoot and kill any coyote they see.

That's a solution based on - oh, 20,000 years of experience we've had with animals and hunting. They learn real quick to stay away.

So - let'd do nothing for 4 more years- give the coyotes a GOOD chance to eat a couple children.

Anonymous said...

OMG!! The stories!! :-) I sympathize extremely with Greenpa's "almost " scream of rage. Here's the one that did it for me recently once again from Hey! The BBC!! Dinosaurs Could Swim!!.

Ok, maybe we have to cut BBC a LITTLE slack; it was a "REAL" PhD who told them this crap; specifically "Dr Loic Costeur, a palaeontologist at the University of Nantes, France". They took his word that this was all brand new, never been seen.

Except- the National Geographic had a HUGE article on dinosaur tracks in the USA; complete with diagrams of big dinosaurs peddling around on 2 feet- all figured out from the tracks - some time before 1955. I haven't got the time or desire to look it up; but I can still see the pictures in my head, it made such an impression. SIXTY YEAR OLD NEWS.

Morons. Yeah, this is a big big problem for Homo Sap. Experts, the tribal Priests, who are actually morons with no real idea about WHEN winter will get here.

Greenpa said...

Shadowfoot- excellent observation. Incidentally, I used to be serious épée fencer, and taught it- love the SCA.

There was a great study done - DECADES ago, on this very thing. High school kids were taught the principles of diffraction of light in a class section on physics; and shown the example of a glass rod put into water- where it appears to bend. Then; weeks later, in a biology section, they went out on a field trip to spear carp, for later dissection. That's what they told them, anyway. (Outstanding, real world!) Alas; only about 3% of them ever connected the bent glass rod with where they had to aim the spear in order to connect with a fish.

Us humans are just not always that quick on the uptake.

Anonymous said...

Hey Everyone From Spice!

I read this Blog and usually keep quiet, but I have to comment here. I finished my undergrad degree(s) at a small religious liberal arts school, that hired a mind boggling amount of its own graduates. (Probably more than 1/3)
I started to refer to this as academic inbreeding, as the gradutes were more and more likely to never have an original idea. Several of them, I have since discovered worked for that institutaion after being rejected at many others.
I think this is also part of the problem!

Beelar said...

The inbreeding comment is an interesting one- most good colleges have a policy regarding the maximum number (ideally, anyway) of their own graduates to hire. The small liberal arts college I attended wrestles with this constantly, because it is one of the best such schools in the world. So as you might expect, often the very best applicants for a position are graduates of the school. Even so there is an effort to honestly find a balance with "outside blood", because of the inevitable long-term detriments of such academic "inbreeding". On the one hand, there'll always be something that you miss, in keeping to yourself. On the other, if what outsiders have to offer is demonstrably inferior, there's only so much of it you should accept.