by Al Bredenberg

Paramos allí en la orilla del río, yo y la vaca, Grateful. Confundido, yo estaba mirando en alrededor, buscando el lugar de dar a beber la vaca sedienta, pero no pude ver el lugar. El problema: ¡El río estaba cubierto por una capa gruesa del hielo!

De repente, la vaca empezó a actuar nerviosa y de abordar al río. “¡No, Grateful!” dije a ella, pero ella no prestó atención, y ¡comenzó a pisar al río congelado! Con un creciendo sentido de pánico, yo pisé también al hielo para tratar de desviarla de la peligrosa situación. “¡Ay-ay-ay!” pensé. “¿Qué va pasar si se quebranta el hielo?”

Traté de empujar la vaca hacía la orilla, pero una vaca es un animal bien grande, y ella no se desvió, y lo que era más, comenzó a caminar adelante en el hielo.

“¡Grateful, párate!” grité, y en ese momento ¡la vaca empezó a correr! En un pánico total, empecé a perseguirla, gritando.

Pero, ¿cómo llegué a estar en esa situación, corriendo atrás de una vaca grande por un río congelado en el invierno? Voy a explicar, y también voy a recordar una lección que aprendí acerca de las capacidades de los animales.

A la edad de 24 años, me mudé al estado de Vermont, Estados Unidos, para vivir con unos amigos en su granja en el campo al lado de un río hermoso. Durante los días, ayudaba a ellos en su negocio de ebanista. Muy de mañana y por la noche, cuidamos a los quehaceres, incluso alimentar y ordeñar la vaca Grateful, que nos proveyó con mucha leche rica.

Grateful era una vaca de mayor edad que mis amigos han adquirido de un lechero del área. Ella recibió su nombre “Grateful” (inglés, “agradecida”) porque ella tenía solamente tres tetas y por eso proveyera menos leche. Pero a pesar de eso, ¡no la han matado por carne!

Desafortunadamente, el agua de la casa dejó de funcionar durante el invierno por causa del frío intenso. Pues decidimos de dar a beber a la vaca en el río a unos ciento metros de distancia del establo. Dejamos una hacha en la orilla para excavar un hoyo en el hielo cada noche para exponer el agua por la vaca sedienta.

Pero, durante unas semanas, yo acepté la asignación de cuidar a la vaca durante la mañana, y otra persona la daba a beber en las noches.

La noche en que ocurrió el incidente que mencioné anteriormente, todos mis compañeros estaban trabajando tarde, pues se cayó a mí de cuidar a Grateful.

Pero, cuando llegamos al río, descubrí que mis compañeros habían movido el lugar para dar a beber. Yo busqué todo alrededor, pero no pude ver el hoyo en el hielo ni el hacha para cortar el hielo.

Entonces, ¡esta vaca loca estaba caminando en el hielo, determinada para seguir adelante, sin prestar atención al ser humano persiguiéndola, gritando!

Bueno, con gran temor, continué corriendo atrás de Grateful por uno o dos minutos, impotente de hacer nada, esperando que el hielo grueso pudiera sostener la vaca pesada.

Pero sorprendentemente, después de unos minutos, Grateful empezó a minorarse, y entonces ella regresó a la orilla en una manera muy calma, y me esperó. ¡Aparentemente, después de todo, no estuviéramos pasando por una estampida!

Resollando, calmándome, yo miré alrededor, y en ese lugar más adelante al lado del río, vi varios montones de estiércol de vaca, un hoyo en el río, y el hacha apoyándose en un árbol.

En ese momento comprendí de que durante las semanas pasadas, mis compañeros, sin informarme, habían cambiado el lugar por dar a beber la vaca. Este lugar estaba más adelante en la orilla. Pero, llegué a entender que la vaca recordó perfectamente el lugar correcto y simplemente había tratado de llegar allí a pesar de la tontedad de su ayudante humano.

Yo grabé el hacha, y comencé a cortar la capa fina de hielo en el hoyo para permitir de beber la pobrecita vaca sedienta.

Pero, al la misma vez, ocurrió a mí una realización y lección: ¡Muchas veces, los animales son más inteligentes que pensamos!

AB — 18 enero 2011

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Great infographic from PhDComics — explains why so many people believe so much crazy stuff:

The Science News Cycle

AB — 2 Nov. 2010

An interesting study, soon to appear in the Journal of Risk Research, by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan and colleagues, suggests that people tend to disbelieve scientists whose cultural values are different than theirs.

I’m not able to determine when this study will be published, but you can find an abstract at this link, and I was able to download a preliminary version of the whole article in PDF by clicking on the link on that page that says “One-Click Download.”

These conclusions shed light on the debate over anthropogenic climate change, Kahan tells Science Daily (“Why ‘Scientific Consensus’ Fails to Persuade“):

We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.

(For more on the climate-change controversy, see my previous entry, “John Abraham’s Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Climate-Skeptic Monckton.”

Kahan and colleagues based their study on the theory of the cultural cognition of risk. In his paper, Kahan says this theory “posits a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.”

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults. They divided this sample into groups with opposite cultural worldviews, some favoring hierarchy and individualism, the others favoring egalitarianism and communitarianism.

They surveyed the respondents to determine their beliefs about what in fact is the scientific consensus on issues of climate change, disposal of nuclear waste, and concealed handguns, with particular focus on the associated levels of risk in each of those areas. Various statements were attributed to fictional personas portrayed as authors of books on these various issues. Respondents were asked to judge whether each author is really an expert or not.

Analysis of the results on the climate-change issue revealed that:

Disagreement was sharp among individuals identified (through median splits along both dimensions of cultural worldview) as “hierarchical individualists,” on the one hand, and “egalitarian communitarians,” on the other. Solid majorities of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring (78%) and that it has an anthropogenic source (68%). In contrast, 56% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided, and another 25% (as opposed to 2% for egalitarian communitarians) that most expert scientists disagree that global temperatures are increas-ing. Likewise, a majority of hierarchical individualists, 55%, believed that most expert scientists are divided on whether humans are causing global warming, with another 32% perceiving that most expert scientists disagree with this conclusion.

The study revealed similar results around the issues of geologic isolation of nuclear wastes and concealed-carry laws.

So should we conclude that people are going to believe what they want to believe, and that’s all there is to it? The authors make an interesting statement about the implications for public presentation of scientific findings:

It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.

The report suggests some ways that cultural meaning might be considered in communicating with the public. One such strategy is what the authors call narrative framing:

Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.

AB — 24 Sept. 2010

Readers of Quriosity.com will be interested to learn that I have sold that domain (someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). As a result, I have transferred all Quriosity content to the new domain and blog AThinkingPerson.com.

You’ll be glad to know that A Thinking Person will continue to publish the same brilliant commentary you have come to expect from Quriosity.

The new RSS feed address for A Thinking Person is https://athinkingperson.com/feed/ .

AB — 14 September 2010

The Raleigh News & Observer carried a story today about a new survey by the Wake County Environmental Services department about roadside littering in the county. (See “Wake is surveying our littering habits.”)

I confess that littering is a big pet peeve for me. It’s hard for me to conceive how anybody could think it doesn’t matter if they throw trash on the ground.

A news release from the county says the survey will study “the attitudes and perception of littering among Wake County citizens.” Survey questions focus on “awareness of litter; perceived location of, and problems associated with litter; personal experience with littering; perceptions of causes of littering and willingness to participate in voluntary litter-cleaning programs.” The results will be used in the development of an anti-litter awareness campaign. (See “Wake Conducts Roadside Litter Survey.”)

If you live in Wake County and you’re interested in taking the littering survey, follow this link.

AB — 1 September 2010

[Updated 16 July 2010]

Yesterday I reviewed an informative presentation by John P. Abraham, associate professor in the school of engineering of St. Thomas University in Minnesota. In his presentation, “A Scientist Replies to Christopher Monckton,” Abraham offers a point-by-point rebuttal/refutation of claims made in a presentation he attended by Christopher Monckton, in which Monckton presented arguments against anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW), that is, the idea that human activity is causing an increase in global temperatures resulting in dangerous climate change.

Monckton is Chief Policy Adviser at the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI) and is well-known as a critic of anthropogenic global warming. (See one of Monckton’s slides referenced by Abraham, to right.)

Though long (it’s a 73-minute Flash presentation with voiceover), Abraham’s critique of Monckton is well worth reviewing, especially if you’ve been wondering about the emerging criticism of AGW and the general scientific consensus on climate change.

[Update added 16 July 2010]: A reader (see his comment below) has kindly pointed me to Monckton’s response to Abraham’s presentation. This is in PDF format and is very long — his answer is in the form of a series of questions (500 of them). See “Response to John Abraham, by Christopher Monckton.”

I have to say that, although I tend to agree with the consensus position in this case, just because most or even all of the experts in a certain field believe the same way, I don’t think others should be obligated to follow the crowd. And those who do accept the consensus point of view should be willing to keep their convictions on the table and to re-examine matters when new information becomes available.

To say that those who question claims of climate-change are “anti-science” or to call them “deniers” (as if their challenges were somehow akin to denials of the Holocaust) is disingenuous and counter-productive. It gets people arguing about all the wrong things, instead of communicating and working on problems.

In the case of the challenges to the climate-change consensus, science itself is not being called into question. The real issues have to do with things like politics, public policy, economic philosophy, and ideology. If people’s livelihoods and the well-being of their descendants are in play, isn’t it reasonable to allow them to call into question the conclusions and policy implications of those who evoke climate science as justification for their policy recommendations?

Also, it’s reasonable to point out that scientists themselves are humans with their own foibles, and while for the most part they might believe they are carrying out their work according to well-established principles and sound procedures, some of them have shown themselves to be influenced by self-interest, greed, and ideological leanings. So if their work is financed with public resources and being used to influence policy, isn’t it reasonable to expect their work – and especially their statements about its implications – to stand up to public scrutiny?

If researchers and institutions are convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a real danger, then it would behoove them to find ways to present the evidence in an accessible way, rather than just sticking their noses in the air and spouting arrogant put-downs of those that raise questions.

That brings me to the value of John P. Abraham’s presentation.

Sample slide from Abraham presentationI found Abraham’s presentation reasonable and level-headed (see one of his slides to right). He refrains from personal attacks. Abraham analyzes Monckton’s scientific references, charts, and assertions in detail. Where available, he examines the data sources for Monckton’s charts and the papers he references. He even wrote to the authors of many of the original papers to ask for clarification when needed and shows their replies in his presentation.

Abraham’s presentation is really produced as a point-by-point refutation of Monckton, but along the way you learn a lot about climate change and the associated data. Pretty easy to follow, for a non-specialist reader with a fair understanding of science.

“My goal,” he says, “is to show people how they can learn about the scientific understanding on their own.”

The questions he addresses include:

  • Has Al Gore really overestimated the future sea-level rise by 100 times, and is it really true that sea levels are not rising?
  • Are polar bears in the Canadian Beaufort Sea really endangered by warming temperatures or not?
  • Was there a medieval warming period comparable to that taking place today, and did the IPCC “erase” that medieval warming period from its historical climate data?
  • Do IPCC’s climate sensitivity estimates really rest on just 4 scientific papers, rather than 2,500?
  • Have average temperatures actually been going down, contradicting IPCC projections?
  • Is there really no evidence for any catastrophic effects of anthropogenic climate change anywhere in the world?
  • Is it really true that increase in CO2 levels is an effect of warming rather than a cause, and is it really true that CO2’s effect on global temperature is negligible?
  • Is the extent of arctic sea ice actually remaining steady rather than declining?
  • Has the Greenland ice sheet really been increasing rather than decreasing?
  • Is it really true that the Himalayan glaciers have not been retreating?
  • Is it really true that oceans are not heating up?
  • Is it really true that global warming is caused by increased solar activity, rather than human activities?

If these kinds of questions concern you, I encourage you to review Abraham’s presentation.

AB — 29 June 2010

Which evil and crazy movements have the potential to scale?

There’s plenty of craziness in the world. But evil only has widespread effect if it finds a way to scale, as in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Al Qaeda.

So, my questions are,

What are the factors that allow evil movements to reach scale?

What are the crazy movements today that have the potential to scale and create havoc?

AB — 29 June 2010