Tag Archives: science and public policy

“Wolf Island: Discovering the Secrets of a Mythic Animal” by L David Mech (author) and Greg Breining (Contributor) – University of Minnesota Press, 2020

This is a a recent book is about research on the predator/prey relationship between wolves and moose, conducted from 1958 to 1962 at Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Most of it is taken directly from Mech’s field notes.

Field notes from ecologists provide insight (and entertainment!) that can’t easily be gleaned from peer reviewed scientific articles, of which Dr Mech published an astonishing three hundred, plus a dozen books (Wikipedia). I’m so glad this volume made it into print. We all need to know more about science.

So, most of what is written in this book is old. The dangers and challenges of remote winter field work were very great in 1958. Bush planes were temperamental and communications irregular, but Mech LOVED what he was doing as a graduate student. Later he wanted to change fields (to American Studies), but I’m glad he persisted as a biologist.

Mech is very restrained in his writing, giving us just a few glimpses into other areas of his life. We learn just a little about his family, and he also discusses religion.

A final chapter of the book discusses the amazing technological changes which subsequent decades brought to fieldwork, including radio tracking and DNA analysis. 

Wildlife and wilderness management inevitably become controversial. What is “natural”? When animals and humans occupy the same space, what interests should be defended? What do we lose when biodiversity is decreased? 

My mind wanders to issues of public policy. How can we make prudent decisions when our understanding of nature is so incomplete? Whenever I have an opportunity to meet young scientists, I feel encouraged that the work of groundbreakers like Mech is being carried forward. 

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“Down from the Mountain – The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear” by Bryce Andrews

One reviewer described this book as “feral”. No. Far from it. It’s thoughtful and highly nuanced. Andrews describes his interactions with nature very carefully. His relationship to nature is based both on study and practical personal experience.

Mission Valley, Montana, is a place where mountainous wilderness and farmland intersect. Andrews works for People and Carnivores, a conservation organization with the goal “keep people safe and carnivores wild”.

“Millie” is a mature female grizzly bear with two female cubs. Andrews writes about one summer, when he begins a project to try to keep bears out of a cornfield. Grizzlies aren’t really carnivores – they are decidedly omnivorous and opportunistic. When human change the landscape, they take full advantage of new food sources. Grizzlies spend a third of each year in hibernation, so their drive to EAT is strong, especially during the Fall.

Millie came to Andrews attention because she was illegally shot and did not die. Her injuries became infected. She became weak and unable to care for her immature cubs. Captured by authorities and judged to be untreatable, she was euthanized. Her cubs, doing poorly on their own, were captured. After long and complicated negotiations, they were finally moved to a distant zoo which was willing to accept responsibility for their long-term welfare.

What’s the point here? This is a book about human responsibility. It’s also a book about wilderness. What was here before humans arrived? What has changed as humans migrated and our numbers skyrocketed?

This was Andrews’ second book. Click here to read my review of his earlier book, Badluck Way, in which he describes his earlier ranching experience. Both these books are wonderful, and will be enjoyed by anyone who values wilderness.

Climate Up Close – A New Organization

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Climate Up Close is a very small, recently formed organization trying to bridge the gap between scientists and concerned citizens. It consists of 4 young scientists (two PhDs and two grad students) and a communications strategist. They’ve generated an event which they offer to community organizations. Judging from their website, I think they’ve presented their program about a dozen times. They volunteer their time and accept contributions to cover travel expenses.

I attended a presentation on January 4. It was sponsored by a religious congregation in central Philadelphia. Publicity was scanty but the turnout was high, with about 80 people in attendance. By way of introduction, comments by three prominent non-scientists (2 politicians and an author) were shown. Each was judged to be WRONG based on the best currently available science. Climate Up Close wants to improve the quality of public discourse on this topic.

In the first 45 minutes, four topics were covered:

  • The state of climate science. What’s “settled”? What’s open to question? Levels of confidence.
  • Climate Context – history
  • Climate Change – what contributes?
  • Impacts, projections and modeling – sea level rise, storm intensity, heat waves, etc. “Tipping points” and instabilities.

After this fast moving lecture, questions were solicited. The Q/A format was to collect questions, group them and then let the scientists respond. Inevitably, some concepts came up that may have strained non-scientists, like “signal-to-noise ratio” and the distinction between water vapor and water in the gas phase (atmosphere). By and large, I felt the explanations were admirably clear. The speakers resisted the temptation to branch out beyond their expertise, into fields like economics. (I wanted to ask demographic questions.)

I didn’t blow my cover, keeping my Masters level background in atmospheric chemistry to myself. Regrettably, I was unable to stay for informal discussion afterwards. I had plenty of questions.

I was accompanied by a non-scientist friend. I think she followed much of the science, but her primary reaction was enjoyment of the energy and confidence shown by the presenters.

Climate Up Close has a excellent web site, but I couldn’t find them on Facebook.

Climate Up Close is a wonderful example of how people can reach out in the public interest without a big budget or lots of organizational structure. I’m very grateful that these highly educated specialists are making the effort to talk to ALL of us.

Afterthought on “The Cure for Catastrophe” by Robert Muir-Wood.

(See my earlier blog entry on November 20.)

This book afforded me the unusual pleasure of finding a friend within the pages! Well, not exactly – I found a surname: Redfield. Who did I know by that name? Dr. Elizabeth (Libby) Redfield Marsh, mentor, good friend and fellow Penn State graduate! In 1975, she made a phone call that changed my life. She was teaching at a small public college in New Jersey. Would I consider interviewing for a job? Mutual connections at Penn State had given her my name. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

I knew that Libby had grown up spending her summers at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, surrounded by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Might she be related to William Redfield, mentioned in Muir-Wood’s book as a self trained “amateur” scientist of tremendous acumen, one of the first observers to recognize that hurricanes have a circular structure and move along somewhat predictable paths? Yes! William Redfield (a storekeeper from Middletown, CT) went on to become the first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1848 and now the world’s largest general scientific society.

Between the time of William Redfield and Elizabeth Redfield Marsh, the Redfield family produced a number of distinguished scientists. Her father, Arthur Redfield, was a meteorologist. Libby’s chosen academic field was geography, and she wrote about rural planning. The family tradition continues. One of her sons teaches geography and environmental studies at a private college in Pennsylvania. Another is a physician.

Here are some reasons why this personal anecdote seems important NOW:

  • Science as a basis for public policy is being denigrated by climate deniers, the anti-vaccine lobby and other groups. This disturbs me greatly. If not science, then what will be the basis for our decisions? I don’t dispute the role of values and intuition, but IF there is scientific data available on an issue, it should be carefully considered. We ignore it at our peril.
  • I love science as an expression of the human spirit. It lifts me up.
  • I value “citizen science”. Enthusiastic “amateurs” make important contributions in fields like entomology, ornithology and digitization. (Take my word on that last one.) I subscribe to the notion that children are all born scientists. The Redfield family was unusually successful at keeping scientific passions alive.

So here’s to the memory of Libby Marsh (1923? – 2009) and her scientific ancestors, amateur and academic! May their efforts be remembered and appreciated.

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver

This book scared me. It’s like “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore which I never read, because of my friend Dick’s reaction, which was simply “I’m scared”. If Dick, a PhD and a clear thinker in the areas of science and public policy, is scared, so am I. And I know a great deal about global warming, so why read the book?

I knew less about the vulnerability of our food supply.

Kingsolver and her family decided to try for one year to eat from within their own county in Virginia. They didn’t go for 100%. Each chose a favorite food to “keep”, and they bought some things like rice, flour and oatmeal that just weren’t locally available.

They took a vacation in Italy. Without these human touches, the book would have been insufferable! Kingsolver certainly has a serious agenda.

Another saving grace is that she emphasized the local Farmers Market as the place where change can start. And I live among a plethora of roadside stands and farmer’s markets! I can buy fresh produce and flowers daily in summer. We argue over whose corn is better, the family around the corner or the farmer I pass on the way to work. I grow my own herbs and sometimes eat my neighbors eggs. What a blessing! Within this county, I can get fish, shellfish, venison and locally made wine. And possibly the best of all onions, something called a “candy onion”.

Will I made some changes in how I eat? Maybe… I hate to give up the distant fruits, like bananas and avocados. 

I originally read this book in July of 2009. Farm stands come and go – the feast continues!