"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, May 25, 2009

Motorcycle Maintenance and the Matter with Kansas

I. An Unlikely Distribution

Consider this astonishing map of the distribution of a particular pesticide.

There's a book out called "What's The Matter with Kansas" which investigates the strange prospect of the hardscrabble states of the interior voting reliably against their own economic interests. This is achieved by a certain sleight of hand with which Americans are sadly familiar, where a political philosophy really amounts to a stand-in for a certain subspectrum of religious beliefs.

There's another matter with Kansas, though, which is that its landscape is in ruins. I had the experience of driving into western Kansas from the Oklahoma panhandle during the spring flower season two years ago. It had been a stunningly beautiful spring in Texas with profusions and varieties of bright flowers all the way from Austin to Amarillo and beyond. Crossing into Oklahoma didn't change matters noticeably, but the transition to Kansas territory just a few miles further on was mortifying. It was like crossing a border into a land where color had been outlawed.

Every inch of the place was economically active, and every inch dedicated to the prosperity of people who obviously lived far, far away. Not a bluebonnet or an Indian paintbrush was anywhere to be seen, not even the sunflowers that the state chooses as its emblem. Nor much in the way of human creativity either. Since a drive diagonally across Kansas is a lengthy prospect, this was a bit discouraging, especially in the wake of the spectacular trip across Texas the previous two days.

I'll come back to the map in a bit; it has more to tell us.

II Zen and the Art of Integrity

A wonderful article by Matthew Crawford appeared in the New York Times Magazine last weekend, called "The Case for Working With Your Hands". In Crawford's case, it is about a transition from being a University of Chicago philosopher to being a motorcycle mechanic. Of course, as any well-read baby boomer will know, the idea of mixing philosophy and motorcycle maintenance isn't without precedent.

Crawford finds himself defending the idea that manual labor engages the intellect; a prospect that only people who don't do any could maintain. What does this have to do with me and my blog? I'm a clumsy and nerdy sort: the idea that my escape from my quandaries could be achieved with wrenches and screwdrivers seems a bit overwrought after all.

Here is the key passage in his article, and probably in his forthcoming book:
Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.
As it happened, in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.
As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.
A "certain integrity". As opposed to "The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others." Here in a nutshell is what is wrong with us.

In a Jeffersonian democracy, where a great range of practical skills is distributed among the voters, one suspects that the capacity to maintain a fondness for some facts in preference to others would not be among those skills. In a world of specialization, one can be an expert on football scores and used car prices, say, without knowing much else about anything else. Cultural affinities align you with one or another opinion package. Those packages come with supporting facts.

In American politics these days, you only have two packages to choose from. One, increasingly narrowly defined, is also aligned with a narrow and literalist religious philosophy, entraining a certain amount of ugly racism and paranoia, and it is fortunately a little shy of the critical mass required to make the country seriously dangerous in the horrible tradition of 20th century totalitarian regimes. The alternative, though, for which the rest of us have increasing sympathy, is hardly immune from paranoia, selectivity of evidence, and foolish romanticism. Ultimately the selectivity of evidence becomes so severe that the two main groups operate, effectively, in distinct worlds. Their job, then, is not to promote their ideas, but to promote their "facts", facts whose implication is so overwhelming that no argumentation is necessary.

III. The "Good Guys" Do It Too

I was pretty much ousted from the progressive community in Madison, WI, some years back when I defended the locally based Kipp Corporation against accusations of the most wanton emission of pollutants into a residential neighborhood. The fact that the neighborhood had grown up around the factory and largely because of the factory was a matter of indifference to its contemporary left wing citizens. Their attitude was that the company "hadn't successfully proven that it wasn't emitting dioxins". My BS detector was good and thoroughly pinned.

Now Kipp was proposing to build a larger smokestack, something that probably would have affected the value of my own property at the time. But the battle wasn't being fought on those grounds at all. It was being fought over the proxy of imaginary dioxin and complaints of ilness that almost exclusively were being filed by a single citizen, who ostentatiously wears a gas mask to public meetings in the neighborhood. The neighborhood website, for which I was the first webmaster, currently features a skewed report about the company.
In 1999, an odor survey of neighborhood residents was conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Citizens reported sleeplessness, headaches, nausea, and other ailments as a result of exposure to odors they attribute to MKC.
Or so it says. I filled out the survey and reported no such problems. By the time of the survey, a great deal of noise was being made about Kipp; one supposes that neighbors had headaches and nausea in 1999! The "result of exposure" is, obviously, something of a judgment call. I don't recall the exact wording of the survey but I am pretty sure DNR didn't ask the question that way. I know some DNR folks. DNR has more competence than that.

Kipp, unsurprisingly, has packed its bags for the suburbs, and perhaps the last major manufacturer is gradually leaving Madison, which may be for the best for all concerned.

This experience, though, has made it clear to me where the hostility to environmentalism originates. Kipp has always been the model of a responsible corporate citizen, maintaining a clean and presentable facility, supporting community events and initiatives, providing decent employment for blue collar workers, resisting outsourcing, and in general being community minded. The ingratitude shown by the local community, its susceptibility to fear and innuendo, and its profound rudeness, tactics that might have more resonance with a truly corporate opposition, in this case were taken out against a closely held and responsibly run local business.

This is a disaster. If every accusation of environmental malfeasance must be taken on faith, there is little motivation for activists to actually determine whether their accusations are founded. Accusations are taken to be true on the principle of selected facts. Why spend effort on weighing evidence? One could argue that there's so much more good work to be done; why bother fussing about evidence when you can go directly to good, satisfying action?

IV Bee Colony Disorder and Bayer

As a natural worrier, one problem that has been worrying me has been the decline of bee colonies. As of last week, I thought of it as mysterious, so when I saw Bee Colony Disorder being blamed on pesticides on Twitter last week, I thought to investigate.

The tweet in question came my way from @monkchips who seems a decent enough sort on the whole. For instance he likes Frank Lloyd Wright. Can't be all bad. He said:
Bayer pesticides are killing our bees. Please protest against imidacloprid. [v:glynnmoody] http://bit.ly/abZEU
I asked him for evidence, and his reply was simply:
Bayer found imidacloprid in pollen of flowering trees at concentr's high enough to kill a honeybee in mins http://bit.ly/9jc3N
Which leads to a rather typical advocacy article on Salon; the connection to the Colony disorder is made by innuendo. Nobody is denying that this stuff may have damaged a bee or two; this puts the manufacturer in an awkward position, leaving a romantic/absolutist green position easy to take up. But there's really no evidence presented that bee colony decline is connected with this substance. And normally it would have stopped there.

But as scientifically literate people participate in Twitter, new possibilities for connections emerge. One @jenncuisine (an inspiring chef and an environmental chemist) pointed me to the map up above. All that remained for me was to find a map of bee colony disorder in the US for comparison, which I did. And here it is:

Not as detailed a map, admittedly, but even so, enough to assert that the correlation is very weak. No reports in Kansas? Reports in Iowa and South Dakota?

Whether or not imidacloprid is killing some bees, it is not likely to be responsible for the alarming phenomenon of Bee Colony Disorder. Implications to the contrary need evidence, not innuendo, and it took little investigation to provide evidence to the contrary.

V The Matter with Kansas

Still, the very strange map of where this substance is applied, compared with my own experience of a very sharp decline in ecosystem health exactly coincident with the Kansas line, doesn't leave me enthusiastic about this behavior. Do other pesticides show a similar pattern?Was my experience just coincidental in some way? What exactly is the matter with Kansas?

We have to have some way of investigating evidence scrupulously.

The problem with the press isn't Craig's List or bloggers. The problem is an incapacity to examine and weigh evidence. We are left on our own, guessing. This is turn is responsible for the collapse of reasoned discourse. How can we reason together when we are operating on different evidence?

The solution to the journalistic quandary may need to emerge from the scientific blogosphere. Scientists, at least honest ones, are like motorcycle mechanics. We do not get to pick and choose our evidence. Whether or not Bayer is killing bees, is there something odd about Kansas beyond its politics, after all?

Would it not be worthwhile to find out, from someone without any agenda other than truth?


jg said...

Your use of potent, unforgettable phrases like "opinion packages" is one of the reasons I come back here.

David B. Benson said...

Michael Tobis --- Excellent essay!

"We're not in Kansas any more, Toto."

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I thought I commented earlier, but it's not here.

I usually don't like long winded meandering posts but this one is very different. It manages to stay together and interesting all the way through, in the end forming a good more complete picture or viewpoint of a complex issue that is the trouble with facts and thruth.

Dan Satterfield said...

Your best post ever sir!

Michael Tobis said...

This article generated a fair amount of enthusiasm. I am honored, but also a bit surprised.

After all these are the sorts of noises my brain makes when it is in neutral gear... I like to reach more substantive conclusions than I managed here. It's not as though we hadn't already identified the problem. This just recapitulates it.

But I'll have to take it as good news that people enjoyed it. If there's a taste for this sort of association out there, I think I can oblige it.

Thanks for the encouragement.

Craig Allen said...

The ironic thing is that the more herbicide that is used, the more weeds you get. Weeds like nothing better than a nice stretch of roadside that has been herbicided to remove all the native plants opening the way for the weediest blow-ins. And it's a one way street. Generally once you have shifted a patch of grounds from natives to weeds it will never return.

I share your frustration at people's lack of ability to analyse evidence. Being an environmental campaigner I meet lots of passionate people who care deeply about the environment. Many are very savvy. Some barely have a grip on reality. It's a real drag when you are trying to win an argument against vested interests hell bent on twisting the truth, and some of the most vociferous people standing with you are of the 'immunisation harms children', 'contagious diseases are caused by your mental state', 'dna is dangerous' ilk. And what the hell do you say to people who is paranoid about the cancer causing effects of electromagnetic radiation, such as that which "emanates from power sockets", but who smoke heavily claiming that it is the additives that get you and that they are safe because they grow their own?

Aaron said...

Pesticide use in Kansas is not likely to affect commerical honey bees. Pesticide use in California, Texas and Florida, where the bees winter and do their first work in the spring might have a large effect.

On the other hand agricultrual practice in Kansas is likely to affect they native bees, meaning that plants that depend on native bees are likely to just die out.

William T said...

Aaron +1
If there are no flowers in Kansas (as you suggest) there are likely not many bee hives. Corn does not need bees for pollination.

Michael Tobis said...

Fair point.

Still the pesticide connection felt like almost-baseless innuendo to me. Not that the press would report any real evidence if there were any, but I didn't succeed in finding anything outside the usual green sources.

Now that the first round of science is in, we'll have to see what the anthropogenic component is of these problems. Likely there is one. But we don't know what it is and I don't think it is appropriate to guess.

Hank Roberts said...




Hank Roberts said...

Lock up your beehives, especially if you're researching pesticide effects:

riderwear said...
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