The problem with the general public perception of Environmentalism: a coin with two sides, and both of them misguided

In spite of the ever growing interest of the general public in environmentalism I can’t help but notice that the acceptance of its principles and theories (especially the dangers of man-made extinctions and climate change) even by self-described science enthusiasts and supporters (who are NOT scientists) is much lower than, let’s say, the acceptance of evolution. At first I found this kind of weird: most of these people, not being biologists, decided (and rightly so!) to trust scientists and experts about evolution, so why don’t they trust scientists and experts about conservation and global warming? The answer then came to my mind, and I think it’s a combination of at least two facts. First of all, environmentalism apparently implies some sort of responsability, which is something pople don’t like very much. Second and probably most important, it’s a sad truth that most people who define themselves environmentalists are, in fact, obnoxious, misinformed, dogmatic assholes whose main interest is in appearing “hip” and “different”, rather than truly act in support of environmental conservation. Their main activities seems to be shouting that humanity is evil and corrupted, and that Mother Nature is a so good and kind, and, most terrifying of all, they often seem to refuse many scientific positions on various subjects (energy, agriculture, etc…), which is of course horrifying, since science is our best tool to understand the environmental dangers we face and to try to find new solutions.

This being the situatution, I can partially understand and sympathize with rational people who don’t want to be associated with such morons. It’s painful for me to know that the public face of environmentalism is represented mainly by uneducated hippy wannabes. At the same time, however, people that antagonize environmentalism on this basis should understand this: the fact that an idea is venerated by many morons in bad faith who don’t really understand its principles doesn’t automatically mean that said idea is stupid. Environmentalism as a whole, or parts of it,  are supported by many (if not most) scientists and researchers around the world, because it makes sense from a scientific and self-preservation standpoint – after all, when you look closely, environmentalism is nothing other than the management and conservation of resources vital to mankind. Who the fuck would oppose that?

So we have these two widespread perceptions of environmentalism: we have the cultist-like dogmatic misinformed people who spread ignorance and damage the public image of the movement, and on the other side we have people who see them and fallaciously identify the empty slogans of hippies with what should be the real goals of environmentalism, and thus attack the movement as a whole. To both groups, I say: try to look at the science behind environmental challenges, before taking a position.

Myrmecos’ Alex Wild pays a visit to Italy

Hey, apparently a while ago Alex Wild of Myrmecos visited Parma, an Emilia-Romagna city not too distant from where I live! But what was he doing there? He was in collaboration with local researchers to start a project in which the local population (in this case, elementary school kids) would be directly involved into ant research, which is totally awesome. I was really envious when I read on Wild’s blog of similar projects that took place in America, because this kind of things both help researchers collect data on large territories and manages to sparkle more interest and understanding for science and biodiversity in non-scientists; since here in Italy there’s basically no real support for scientific research, I thought we would never start something like that, which would have been a pity because our nation, thanks to the enormous diversity of geographic and climate conditions, has the richest biodiversity in all Europe. Well, apparently (and fortunately) I was wrong, since this new initiative follows the american model: it consist in leaving open vials containing a bait (usually a piece of a cookie) in various places with different conditions (grass, concrete…), wait for local ants to enter them, then capture the insects. At this point, the citizen can attempt an identification, but more importently can record data on when, where, etc… the specimens where captured, then freeze the ants, pack them with the data and send them to experts, helping them to study the distribution and ecology of these amazingly important organisms. So, overall, that’s great news for italian biodiversity research. One minor note to Alex Wild’s otherwise excellent article: I kind of rolled my eyes reading “…the students went back inside to talk about what they had found and then, I assume, it being Parma, eat pasta and/or pizza for lunch…”. It’s a little bit weird. Yes, pizza and the pasta can be found everywhere in Italy, of course, but come on, you make me feel like this guy.

Mockumentaries, Part 2: “Alien Planet” and “The Future is Wild”

Alien Planet

So who's your favourite? Dumbfuck Turtle...

The Future is Wild
...or Dick-faced Fish?

WARNING: HEAVY SWEARING WITH A CHANCE OF VULGARITY

Here’s the second part of the Mockumentaries series, and man, fuck these two. Fuck them to the hellish depths of the abyss. Their concept is dumb and their execution is worse. I don’t know if Alien Planet (2005) had some pretense of being taken seriously and having a scientific foundation (I think it had, given all the retarded interviews with people like Michio Kaku, the living parody of a scientist, and Stephen Hawking, who is clearly a biologist); what I know is that if you want to make up a fictional planet and all the organisms living on it, what comes out can’t be realistic in any way. Biological evolution always defies our imagination, it doesn’t matter how plausible or fantastic your fictional creatures look and behave, we have the capacity to foresee certain patterns of adapatation to certain environments, but said capacity is, as for now, quite limited. The entire show is even more sterile since not only they’re making up the organisms, they’re making up their whole fucking world. It’s not more science-based than Avatar, it’s just much less good-looking and exciting. In fact, the little “it’s a real documentary!” gimmick gets boring pretty fast, and the CGI looks like shit. It looked like shit in 2005, it looks like shit today. Oh, and since you are going to make up a bunch of aliens, one would think you would put some effort into making them look interesting, but nooooo, their design is absolute crap too. So, in the end, we’ve got zero science education and zero entertainment. Congratulation, Alien Planet, you’re a real winner.

The Future is Wild (2002), on the other hand, is a series about the possible future evolution of animal life on Earth after the hypothtical extinction of Homo sapiens, and it is inspired by the works of that weirdo that is Dougal Dixon. To their credit, at least they have a little more solid premises than Alien Planet: we can predict some of the future geological and climate changes, and we know modern terrestrial animals from which the creatures of this series would “evolve”. This, however, doesn’t make The Future is Wild (or the works of Dougal Dixon, for that matter) any more educative or exciting. Trying to predict the evolution of large animals, even very loosely, can’t be taken too seriously, and these people don’t even seem to apply themselves to the task: their idea of evolution is quite childish. They basically take an ecological niche, and a taxon that nowadays doesn’t fill that niche, and mix them toghether. “Wouldn’t it be cool if fish could fly in the forests and giant squids could walk the earth?”- it seems something that a kid would say, and instead it was said by a grown man, maybe even one of the scientists who helped in creating this silliness. Chances are that most taxa (at least the invertebrates) will retain more or less the same niches, although with new forms, and the taxa that will conquer new niches will do it in such a surprising way that it’s impossible to guess it. In addition, as it has always happened, entire biological groups will disappear, while new groups will appear; the series, instead, mainly focus on new “super” future versions of modern animals, disregarding the inevitable appearence of new taxa and reinforcing the wrong idea that evolution is kind of a “chain”, in which a species slowly morphs into a single other species which in turn slowly morphs into a single other species etc… Evolution is not a chain, it’s a tree, a cladogram, in which different biological groups share common ancestors. This could have been one of the few real things this silly series could have explained to the general public, but they decided to reinforce the common misconception of the”great chain of evolution” instead. Bravo. At least not all of the creatures are as ugly and silly looking as the ones from Alien Planet: the bizarre and even morbidly creepy look of some of the animals is basically the only thing that makes Dixon’s books vaguely interesting, after all. The beasts in the series, however, are not all as inspired as the beasts from the book, and many of them are just horribly designed. The effects are not as crappy as in Alien Planet, but they’re still pretty crappy too.

So, in conclusion, these two pieces of fuck are basically just a horrendous waste of time which pretend to be science-based while they’re simply science-fiction, and they’re not even as fun as most science-fiction movies are. Peace out.

Mockumentaries, part 1: Walking with Dinosaurs

Walking with Dinosaurs

That's probably one of the most accurate depictions of Diplodocus in popular culture. Sadly, there's a few dinos in this series that are not that realistic.

Walking with Dinosaurs is probably the most famous natural history related mockumentary ever, and also one of the most expensive. Everyone, little me included, went crazy about it at the time (it was 2000), and honestly, who could blame us? Dinosaurs are badass, and that series was the first of its kind, making use of advanced digital effects and taking inspiration from real nature documentaries to narrate the lives of the “terrible lizards”. It was so popular, it spawned a shitload of sequels/prequels/spin-offs focusing on various other prehistoric beasts (including the science fiction show Primeval), and even nowadays, 12 years after it first aired, is still remembered and loved by many fans all around the world. So, what are my impressions about this series now that all these years have passed and I’m no more a little kid obsessed by dinosaurs, but a young man obsessed by dinosaurs? Is it good like the first time I’ve watched it? Well, yes and no. Mainly no.

The fact is that, for various reasons, the series didn’t age well. The special effects are still better than in most, if not all, other series of this kind, and at the time they looked they could compete with Hollywood movies in term of realism, and that was especially surprising considering that it wasn’t a Hollywood production, but a british one. Now, however, it’s really easy to understand that those big animals on the screen are just 10-year-old CGI, and see all of their imperfections, while I’m still amazed at the realism of the effects in Jurassic Park, a more than 20 years old film.

The series was revolutionary also because it contributed to enlighten the general public about the world of dinosaurs, divulging informations that where relatively new and certainly mainly obscure to most people, and dissolving many myths (I’m especially referring to the depiction of sauropods and pterosaurs, and to the mesozoic biomes, but there are many examples). Behind many aspects of the reconstructions there was good science: not only palaeontologists helped along, but the use of computer simulations to understand the ways the animals could or could not move were probably revolutionary. And yet, the series isn’t immune to embarassing errors, like many anatomical inaccuracies the most obvious of which is probably the complete lack of feathers on dromaeosaurids (and baby t-rexes too, actually, but I’m not sure if at the time the fact that baby t-rexes had feather-like structures was known). Maybe it would have been too difficult to animate the feathers, I don’t know.

Even worse, however, is the fact that many information presented there as solid facts are, in fact, just hypothesis or even wild guesses inspired mainly by modern day animal behaviour, and that’s the big limit of the narrative style chosen for the series: to keep going the illusion that what you are watching is a real documentaries with living animals, they had to stay in part and talk about the dinos like they knew everything about them. This, however, prevents the viewer to know what are the more plausible theories and what are just guesses that are possible but aren’t in fact backed up by many facts. I’ve still nightmares about people that were sure that Frill-necked lizards are in fact living dinosaurs (big mistake, pals, that would be birds) because the Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park was depicted as having a (completely fictional) frill (by the way, the poison was made up too). And while I can excuse a sci-fi movie whose purpose is just to entertain, it’s a little more difficult to excuse a series that should entertain AND teach. I don’t know, maybe if the narration wasn’t just like the narration of real nature documentaries, people would have been less involved in the show, and so it couldn’t have helped spread the interest for and knowledge of prehistoric life the way it did.

In the end, while it’s easy to see why the series was so successfull, and revolutionary in many ways, and while it’s still the best of its kind, I don’t think that someone who watches it for the first time today would be as impressed: once it looked like a real documentary with real dinosaurs, now it looks like a fake documentary with relatively good (but easily recognizable as such) CGI and puppets.

I’m not going to talk about all the other Walking with… series, because they’re mainly the same thing with less popular animals, and some of them include the obnoxious presence of Brady Barr, who makes them a lot cornier. Next time, I’ll talk about something different – and way, way shittier than the flawed but relatively enjoyable Walking with Dinosaurs.

Happy 30th Birthday, SuperQuark!

Piero Angela

The background isn't photoshopped: Piero Angela can breath in space, and is bigger than Jupiter.

Just a couple of days ago here in Italy was broadcasted the 30 years anniversary special of SuperQuark, which is by far the most important and most interesting italian TV program of scientific divulgation (well, basically it’s the only real scientific education TV show in Italy). The episode centered around the history of the show and of scientific progress in these 30 years and was hosted, as it was every single episode since the beginning, by the awesome science journalist Piero Angela, now 83 years old and still much more intelligent and lucid than most younger italian these days. The celebration will continue for a couple of episodes, with a special highlighting the best of naturalistic footage shown by SuperQuark over the years and another about the most wonderful buildings in the history of mankind.

I’ve been watching SuperQuark since I was a kid, but it’s certainly not a kid program, although the explanations are very clear, thanks to footage, live experiments and even illustrative cartoons, some of which by legendary italian cartoonist Bruno Bozzetto. With this TV program Piero Angela created a show that treats science with respect and teaches it clearly to the vast italian public, in a way that is sadly unmatched by any other TV show in my country.  Angela is also a fierce adversary of pseudoscience, homeopathy and paranormal bullshit, and has often criticized them in spite of all the morons who attacked him only because he dared to apply skepticism and reason to their crap. He has always tried to teach italians about science and the scientific method, applying it to every topic.

Thank you, Piero, and happy birthday SuperQuark!

Random incoherent rants, vol. 1: Physicists are more prone to insanity than other scientists

Toni Zichichi, creationist extraordinaire

Antonio Zichichi: Because creationism isn't an exclusively american problem.

Time for some mindless ranting! (birds will have to wait, mostly because of my laziness)

Well, okay, I’m not sure if the title reflects absolute truth, but that’s just MY personal, probably pretty unscientific, impression. I just think that for every Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein, there’s at least one maniac who has won that joke that is the Templeton prize, or something like that. Seriously, look at the wiki page: of all the scientists who won that templetonic piece of garbage, one is a biologist and NINE are physicists or astrophysicists. Some of them are credited as “physicist and philosopher”, which reflects a thing I had noticed here in Italy, but that maybe is common in other parts of the world too. I’ve known a lot of people who said that they couldn’t decide if they wanted to study physics or philosophy. Uh, what? Why not acting vs neurobiology, then? I failed to see what was the link between these two disciplines, that caused so many people to be attracted to both. Then someone explained to me that many people sees them both as a mean to explain the world, and this notion cracked me up. No offense to philosophers, but every one of them that came after Epicurus is either wrong or redundant. My old teacher of philosophy, a very intelligent man, would probably shoot me in the face if he ever read this, but the fact is that often philosophy is used as an easy way to pretend you understand the world and to confuse the reader into thinking you’re smart, when you’re just using empty words. Physics is a real science, grounded in reality, facts and logic, which can really explain the world on many levels. It’s much harder, and I can understand that people doesnt usually find it as attractive as philosophy (I’m not particularly interested in physics myself, and I’ll admit I often find it frustrating), but if you honestly want to learn what’s the universe, and you have the requisites, it’s a much wiser choice than philosophy. Now, the revelation that many people who study physics had also considered philosophy as a valid alternative to reach the same goal (understanding the world) greatly undermines their credibility to my eyes: they are hunting some kind of romantic, spiritual purpose or cause to everything instead of looking at the facts and logic alone, and thus they are prone to faith-based bullshit.

Of course, most physicists are not people of this kind (I hope, at least), and of course  people of this kind are not found exclusively among physicists; and yet, this kind of morons seems to spawn extremely well in the world of physics. This problem has catastrophic results if it couples with a widely-spread trait of physicists: they tend to be very proud. Sometimes, they are even arrogant, I’d dare to say. Since physics is the base of chemistry, and chemistry is the base of biology, they tend to think they’re superior to such mundane disciplines (and now, time to boast: actually, I think they got it backwards – biology is the study of the most complex phenomenon known to man, life; physics studies the most basic and banal phenomena in the universe, by comparison). Technically, this would make math superior in the gerarchy, since it’s even more basic and physics is based on it, but awesome Feynman dismissed it by amusingly but prickishly saying “Physics is to mathematics as sex is to masturbation”. So yeah, physicists are somehow convinced they’re somehow the best scientists ever – I’m not condemning them for this, as I can be pretty arrogant myself, and I think that arrogance is not necessairly a despicable trait in someone who is actually capable, as many physicists are. What I mean is that, when the arrogant nature of physicists is coupled with the romantic and unscientific view of the world typical of the morons I described above, we get a monster: a person who feels entitled to pontificate about everything because not only they feel like great scientists, but they also think they’re experts of spirituality – and spirituality is everywhere, am I rite?

This sometimes causest clashes with the world of biology, because many spiritual people are of course interested in man, which is a living being, and god, which is supposedly also a living being who created all the other living beings – and you know, living beings are the subject matter of biology, which is based on this thing called “evolution” which rejects any forms of creationism and intelligent design. One would think that a biologist is more qualified to talk about life than a physicist, but those guys (the dumb “spiritual” ones, not all of the physicists) don’t agree and can’t help but point out how Darwin’s theory is “unscientific”. Yeah, sure, whatever. An italian example of this bullshit is the douchebag in the photo, Antonio Zichichi, which is a paladin of irreducible complexity, and is also apparently convinced that evolution is not a scientific theory since there’s not a mathematical formula to describe it yet. Which is kind of amazing, because not only he seems to forget the overwhelming evidence for evolution (science is based not only on logic, my dear Antonio, but also facts – if facts contradict your logic it usually means your logic is flawed), but he also seems to ignore that something (in this case, evolution by natural selection) can be logically accurate even if it hasn’t a math formula describing it yet. By the way, I have no doubt that there’s a still undiscovered uber-complex algorytm that somehow describes everything in evolution; as every good BIOLOGIST knows, however, evolution is basically a synonym for “biology”; now, if all of biology needs to be explained by a single equation to be considered scientific, then all of the other sciences need to be explained by single equations too. Do we know the universal equation that explains everything in chemistry (or in physics, for that matter)? No. Does it mean that they’re not sciences? No. It just means our knowledge is still incomplete (and that’s why we need science – to expand our knowledge). Every discipline has its wide set of formulas, and biology too has many math formulas explaining its various aspects – and thus the various aspects of evolution. Also, Antonio, I don’t see you proposing an equation to explain the god you so firmly believe created and guided the evolution of life. So next time, Toni, just stick to what you know best, and leave the rest to the pros.

 

NOTE: If any physicist feels offended by something I wrote here, please don’t take all of this too seriously. I recognize it’s a probably poorly written generalization; its content is just the impression I got from various experiences in my life, and I don’t pretend it’s certainly something objective. I also reitarate that my rants are of course directed only at a minority of morons, not at physicists in general. You can also, if you will, attribute my rage to a bad experience I had with a truly ferocious and incompetent physics professor I had during my first year of university. Peace out.