Thursday, August 30, 2012

Where is the Science?

Science possesses an “aura” of respect among many members of the population. The perception exists that the practice of science or assignment of the adjective “scientific” lends an air of authority to the subject matter under study. With all fields of authority there exist challenges ranging from doubt to disbelief. Some perceive science to be immune from challenge owing to its widely recognized systematic methodology. The credibility of many disciplines may benefit when “scientific” is used to affirm their standing.

Our recent discussion of drought is suffused with scientific pronouncements concerning its cause and effect. There is no doubt that scientific analyses have been applied to our current and past droughts. Moreover, scientific methods are cited in discovery, reporting, and analysis of all weather events--floods, blizzards, heat and cold waves, destructive windstorms, and yes, climate in general. Climate is the composite of generally prevailing weather conditions over a broad area. Herein we are transported farther into the realm of applications and ramifications of science. In this sphere confusion sometimes arises between the conclusions of science and human application of solutions to the problems uncovered. Many fail to recognize science as a profoundly human endeavor. For some this failure contrasts with their perception that the original purity and reliability of modern scientific methods supposedly yields non-controversial results.

Applied science is the application of scientific knowledge to practical problems. Early scientists were quick to recognize the benefits of problem solving as an outcome of application of newly found scientific methods several hundred years ago. As in any human endeavor, however, potential for abuse exists. One could wonder how a venture commonly perceived to yield objective truth could result in disagreement or strife. So it is with the subject of climate change, sometimes synonomously termed global warming. From recognition that our climate is changing, many modern analysts and activists in the field have attached the adjective “anthropogenic” (human-caused) to the phrase global warming. We now have anthropogenic global warming. In keeping with our divinely gifted ability to modify and improve our environment, concerned citizens have proposed a multitude of remedial solutions.

The question of anthropogenic global warming is laden with emotion and passion. Those with honest concerns are to be commended. Certainly there are some downsides to a warmer earth if we identify any number of unfavorable outcomes. As a teacher of science I was called upon to advise students who became consumed with alarm or even overconfidence on similar issues. Student treatment of controversial issues ranged from undue concern to unjustified optimism. Passion for fixing things is not a trait possessed exclusively by young folks.

Climate change has been a burning social issue for several decades. Our population roughly divides among those who subscribe to anthropogenic global warming, those who disparage human caused warming of our earth, and those who are uncertain or indifferent. The entry level for discussion of this matter often reduces to whether or not we are believers or deniers. As with so many subjects under discussion, proper preparation for the discussion is not only desirable, but necessary. At least a minimal understanding of philosophy of science serves us well. A friend with whom I have held lively discussions wrote: “Philosophers of science typically understand the philosophical dimensions of science--presuppositions, values, what kinds of knowledge claims are being made and how they are justified.”

When concerns on climate are discussed, the term “climate science” is frequently used. Climate issues are thereby linked to the public’s confidence in science. For many questions relating to discovery of truth describing the natural world, confidence in science is entirely justified. But with any human endeavor our confidence in climate science or any other branch of science scholarship is influenced and limited by our confidence in those scientists offering their conclusions. For example, under what presuppositions do such scientists work? It is virtually impossible to offer conclusions devoid of subjectivity. This situation works to strengthen or weaken our personal confidence in the conclusions of subjects under study. The scenario described works to make science a vibrant human endeavor. But at worst, our confidence in the science may be weakened.

Climate science and anthropogenic global warming is a subject of enormous complexity. There are two parallels in society’s current obsession with both causes and solutions for global warming. One is the mischaracterization that the findings of science are definitive and beyond question. The other is the perception that complete understanding together with solutions to problems are within reach, albeit at enormous public expense. Both viewpoints are subject to superficial misunderstanding.

Our God-created physical world is profoundly beautiful, yet our understanding of its operation may still be characterized as inadequate. We recognize that human opportunity for research discoveries are multiplying. We must grasp the truth that our knowledge of significant scientific discoveries should inspire humble caution. Global warming is such a subject.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Responses in a Complex System

In the beginning the Creator designed a cosmic system of incredible complexity. Within our cosmos there are multiple subsystems. For example, there are multiple physical systems operating together on our planet. Each functions according to a system of physical constants which are inviolable. Humans discover these constants and must operate their daily lives accordingly. Each activity must conform to the physical constants of natural law whether we enjoy the result or not.

Let us take the discussion from the realm of the theoretical to the realm of the practical. This year our discussions with friends have been transformed from the light banter of an abnormal January and February with its snowless warmth, to the excitement of spring “busting out all over” more than a month early, to the wilting heat of June and July, and finally to week after week of dreaded rainless skies. We are suffering through a drought of rare intensity. For a succession of years our region has experienced relatively cool summers, plentiful rainfall including flooding at times, and bountiful crops.    

With respect to the system of rainfall distribution necessary for thriving agricultural crops to feed our planet’s inhabitants, there is satisfying delight when our weather cooperates and a bountiful crop follows. In the world’s mid-latitude agricultural zones man has learned to harness and conform to our complex weather system. Agricultural experts have learned more about adapting their agricultural practices in keeping with the Creator’s initial mandate to humans to “subdue the earth.” When the earth’s complex meteorological systems produce favorable “normal” conditions, laypersons rest in the knowledge that things are proceeding as they had anticipated.

Since the onset of the drought of 2012, many have discovered more about the operation of a complex system such as earth’s weather. There are multiple complexities governing our weather both short term and long term. Many laypersons are content with a simpler explanation. We are now more informed about climate patterns called oscillations (back and forth swings) in our hydrosphere and atmosphere affecting our short and long term weather even at distant locations. Such oscillations such as ENSO (El Nino-Southern Oscillation) and the AO (Arctic Oscillation), among many others, instruct us in the scope of the complexities.

The oscillations, for instance, between periodic cool and warm ocean water episodes in ENSO and between high and low atmospheric pressure in the AO mirrors the cool and warm and dry and moist variations in our complex weather patterns. Some droughts and flooding incidents are long lasting and severe. A favorite explanation of extreme weather in modern reporting is anthropogenic global warming, climate change triggered by the release of greenhouse gases resulting from man’s burning of fossil fuels. A careful study of the research and analysis of these issues provides understanding to the enormous complexity of weather cycles prevalent on earth for many thousands of years. During most of this time many fossil fuels had not even been discovered, much less consumed. We will devote more time to the hot social issue of anthropogenic global warming in future posts.

Let us briefly comment on some historic drought cycles. Tree ring studies and other paleoclimate studies have provided evidence for historic droughts in North America and around the world since the time of Christ. Such evidences are present in several forms and are termed “climate proxies,” preserved physical characteristics which stand in for direct measurements of precipitation hundreds of years distant. Petroleum consumption was not a factor. Moreover, population levels had not come close to today’s seven billion souls.

As many as thirty million people perished in the “Great Drought” of the Victorian era from 1876-1878 reaching to India and China. The East India drought, 1790-1796, reached countries as far away as Mexico and caused crop failures in Europe. In North America the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke mysteriously vanished, perhaps the result of the driest three-year period in 800 years between 1585 and 1587. The Medieval Period drought was recorded between 1150 and 1450, reshaping the Indian culture of the southwest and forcing migrations from the area. Around 200 AD drought conditions persisted in North America for several decades. There is some evidence that humans are learning to respond more effectively to serious droughts in modern times.

Why did our Creator create a world where living sometimes becomes a struggle for existence? Notwithstanding, our world climate has the potential to sustain and prosper billions of people. Our planet supports seven times as many people as it did 200 years ago. Could we consider that our world climate is inhospitable to the human race? Or should we judge that the human struggle for existence in terms of climate and the challenges of living in our physical world are designed by God to accomplish a greater benefit known ultimately by Him? “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33 KJV)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Drought Outlooks

Each time a high profile weather event occurs many analysts rush to explain it. This tendency has been intensifying in recent decades. Reporters now have access to more detailed information on climate than ever. Burgeoning population makes such information even more vital. An intense lobby has sprouted making the anthropocentric climate change issue an important political football. Even through there were a few scientists in the 19th and early 20th centuries raising climate issues, it was not until the last few decades of the 20th century when the matter rose to prominence. In the 1970s there was increased awareness but no consensus. In the 1980s the issue experienced intensifying “expectations.” In the second decade of the 21st century, therefore, a drought of the current magnitude commands a lot of press.

The drought of 2012 has its impact primarily on the present. This event is most forcefully felt by farmers during the current growing season. Soon the effects will trickle down to consumers, creating scarcity and higher prices. If the drought continues or worsens in the future, environmental and social fallout will result. For the present we may focus on the immediate impact of this year’s weather phenomenon. Secondarily, people focus on, “What will happen if…?” Beyond the present and future, interesting speculations result from our consideration of droughts which have occurred in the distant past and what is in store for the future. At this level of discussion we may discover some of our most important insights. From a historical perspective we learn lessons most useful for our present crisis.

What do the records of history tell us about droughts? First, we remind readers that we have focused on Earth as “a place to thrive,” rather than “a place to survive.” Often when places to thrive are described, writers highlight only the most positive features. Consider, for example, a realtor advertising his client’s salable home. The home’s positive features are spotlighted while its negatives are minimized. Travel agents propose a vacation venue to underscore its family value, notwithstanding the presence of some negatives. Agents present positive values in an effort to outweigh the negatives. With respect to earth’s powerful weather machine, therefore, a number of inconvenient events exist along the way: rainstorms, dry conditions, windstorms, or worse.

When our Creator designed our planet He designed a dynamic atmospheric system. The components of such a system were in place long before the arrival of man on Earth as evidenced by the geological record. “Dynamic” indicates an energetic, vigorously active, changing system. Scripture outlines numerous elements of this dynamic system, particularly in the majestic ancient Book of Job. Many dynamic meteorological events are described, not with horror, but as the manifestation of God’s power, wonder, and majesty, even as they sometimes connect with more difficult, frightening events. The writer asks us to consider that God “…does great things beyond our understanding” (Job 37:5b). The ultimate answer to the most dire human concerns is found in Job’s statement “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15) NIV.

Until 200 years ago planet Earth did not support as many as one billion people. It now supports seven billion. Man’s ability to sustain agriculture, in concert with man’s God-given ability to generate technological achievements, defines Planet Earth as “a place to thrive.” We may observe our earth’s weather system and remind ourselves of a famous expression. Is the glass half empty? Or is the glass half full? The reader’s world view overwhelms our search for answers to many similar questions. In all of life’s big questions, we seek to develop a worldview guided by the writers of God’s special revelation found in Holy Scripture.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Drought Cycles

In January 2012 our mid-west region was experiencing a relatively mild and snow free winter. We reported on the “Arctic Oscillation,” supposedly responsible for the abnormal warmth and lack of normal winter precipitation. Lower polar air pressure was responsible, we were told, with the “AO” bearing the onus of giving the phenomenon a name and justifying it. In addition, our desire for a cause/effect explanation was satisfied. But having grown up in the Snow Belt around Syracuse, NY I felt vaguely sentimental recalling memories of the “old-fashioned” winters of my childhood.

Over the next few months there was more significant meteorological news to report. Our nation is now in the midst one of the worst droughts in memory, perhaps since the horrific drought years of the 1930s. There were serious regional droughts in the 1950s and again in 1988. The latter is still acknowledged to be the second most expensive natural US disaster next to Hurricane Katrina. Droughts may have more wide ranging effects than any other form of natural disaster. The impact of an extended drought is economic, environmental, and social. A reading of the literature makes obvious that lack of rainfall over a region is merely the beginning of troubles.

One irony in our northwest Illinois neighborhood is freshly embedded in local residents’ memory. Last summer on July 27-28 this area had thirteen inches of rain in less than 24 hours, a local meteorological event known as “training” where repeated storms strike the same area in a short time. More rain fell in that storm than our region has received this entire calendar year thus far, and it would replenish our 2012 rainfall deficit by approximately 150% if it were to occur now. The broader mid west region of our country has experienced several incidents of major flooding in the past two decades. It is less well known that flooding and drought incidents have alternated for many hundreds of years as recorded in meteorological history.

Historic droughts in Brazil in 2005 and 2010 were followed by horrific flooding in January 2011. These events in the southern hemisphere elicited far less interest among those suffering through the 2012 drought in the United States. Current local news is more widely reported and of greater concern. The 2012 sudden onset event in the US has been reported as the worst drought since the multi-year drought event of the 1930s. Clearly the 2012 drought is one of the ten largest of the last century, but its severity is still growing. This year’s sudden onset drought is in danger of becoming worse, but its impact may not rival the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

Commodity and food prices may not be impacted during the current drought as they were decades ago. Plant scientists have utilized erosion control practices and developed drought resistant hybrids. There are many deleterious effects of localized overpopulation and unwise agricultural practices exacerbated during cycles of drought and flood. Some of these have little impact during normal years. But the agricultural consequences are felt more seriously in times of crisis. Knowledge of plant hybridization reminds us indirectly of God’s mandate to “subdue the earth” given to man in Genesis 1:28.

Earth’s drought cycles have come and gone for thousands of years. Some idealists would prefer that there were no droughts, no floods, no earthquakes, no hurricanes, no thunderstorms, or similar violent meteorological events. When they read the words of Job 37 they may wish for gentle rains rather than mighty downpours. Had we been commissioned to write Holy Scripture, perhaps we would have wished to delete the record of drought-caused famines experienced by Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and many other Old Testament giants. The God of creation has chosen to provide humanity with a world which may be characterized as “a place to thrive” notwithstanding some very powerful cyclical events which generate considerable human suffering. We choose to link to our post of 3/10/2012. Our country’s 2012 weather was becoming established as “topsy-turvy” even then:

Even as the sudden onset drought of the summer of 2012 continues to worsen, further drying up our soil moisture reserves, causing fears of rising food prices, and stoking the suspicion that global warming is worsening, we understand that there are multiple short term and long term factors controlling the weather. Even a small portion of these factors is beyond the ordinary understanding of laypersons. The knowledge store of professional climatologists is still a work in progress. Many truths stand tall: God has provided our planet’s climate for the long term benefit of humanity all through earth history. God’s providence now sustains the lives of seven billion people, a seven-fold increase in the last two centuries. One overwhelming truth stands out from all the rest: God is still in control. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Privilege of New Discovery

Some senior citizens past age 65 were blessed to have been raised in families with a rich heritage of rural memories to share. Many of our parents regarded the great outdoors as an inexpensive learning laboratory and vacation venue. Many of my grandparents’ generation were also farm owners. People of this demographic are becoming scarce. Their experiences appear to match my own. A disclaimer is in order for many post-65 residents who do not share the experiences I describe. Urban children of that generation may share satisfying personal adventures from their city life. Different types of coping strategies may make their past metropolitan life seem worlds apart from those who fondly recall the pastoral life and its appeal. In either setting, rural or urban, fond memories have evoked lingering fascination.

Curious children were blessed with parents or instructors who encouraged their young people to dig more thoughtfully into the wonders of animal life. Parents and teachers sought to light the fires of investigation. Awaiting inquiring minds were explanations about how such animals functioned and how our physical world operated generally. In our homes, motivated by the responsibilities of making a humble living under harsh economic realities, we were impelled by the joy of discovery for God’s glory manifest in the created world around us.

As we became older, young people of my generation were treated to additional instruction provided by their high school and college biology courses. The biology courses of that era were bringing to a close a traditional era in biology instruction. A Wikipedia article on the “History of Biology” expresses the new discipline rapidly overtaking biology education: “Following the…cracking of the genetic code, biology was largely split between organismal biology—the fields that deal with whole organisms and groups of organisms—and the fields related to cellular and molecular biology. By the late 20th century, new fields like genomics and proteomics were reversing this trend…” My high school and college biology courses may have instructed me in the wonders of the circulatory, digestive, reproductive, respiratory, nervous and other organ systems. But the new emphasis in molecular biology was tantamount to a sudden leap in man’s knowledge.

Stated another way, biology of the 1950s and 1960s was entering the transition from the study of organs and organ systems to molecular biology. We were at the threshhold of the age of bio-chemistry. The biochemical research of the last 40-50 years has opened the curtain on life processes of cells and explaining them in detail. Now we understand what is happening within the whole organisms and organ systems. Then the era of expanded discovery arrived and continues to expand as we speak. The age of discovery of wonders of living things had moved from a more devotional appreciation of God’s glory manifest in living things to a genuine understanding of how God accomplished the task.

Nowhere can we appreciate more clearly the joy of discovery than in understanding the beauty of DNA and RNA in the delicately twisted bio-molecules of inheritance and replication within every body cell of every living creature we admired on the farm or in the city. The information stored and duplicated is coded with three billion bits of information consisting of three billion “letters” whose sequence is absolutely critical to produce the many thousands of proteins, the building blocks of life, at just the right time, in the right order, and in the right place. It is no mystery why some modern high school biology texts number a thousand pages or more. Each text tells a miniscule fraction of the story of biology. The unlocking of the genetic code opened a new vista in bioscience during the 1960s.

In the realm of physical matter during the 1960s and 1970s “simple” protons and neutrons were found to be composed of three quarks each. Therefore, protons and neutrons assumed more complexity than we had thought initially as instructed by our high school chemistry courses prior to the onset of the 1960s. There were discoveries of six leptons, the most famous being the electron discovered in 1897. For the next hundred years the family of leptons grew. And now we are blessed with the apparent discovery of the seventeenth particle, the Higgs boson, recently added to the Standard Model of particle physics.

All living and non-living things are composed of particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons. These are particles having incredibly precise masses, sizes, and forces. Quarks and leptons, in turn, also have predictable properties. Matter out of which our world is composed is predictable in its behavior. It is not a chaotic mass. Living and non-living matter is the handiwork of a Master Creator. We need not grasp all the details of matter’s properties in order to appreciate the orderliness of God’s creation.

How do senior citizens transition between the simple joy of discovery we experienced as teen-agers and the overwhelming knowledge scientists have acquired in the past fifty years? Our society seems bent upon using scientific discovery to draw us away from God instead of toward Him. Instead of drawing us nearer to the God of Creation, increase in human knowledge has led many to embrace the paradigms of evolution, materialism, and naturalism. Is it possible to use the same evidence to deter us from God-awareness as to attract us to Him?

“Sing a new song to the Lord! Let the whole earth sing to the Lord!” (Psalm 96:1 NLT). Creation cries out with praise to the God of Creation.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Robins and the Glory of God

One recent Sunday sermon at our church was entitled “Finding Ultimate Value.” The title was part of a sermon series designated “The Kingdom of God.” The pastor had challenged parishioners to elaborate on their personal views of “The Kingdom of God” and to submit their musings to the pastor in writing. One member’s vision of observing “ultimate value” within our vision of God’s kingdom brought him to contemplate the glory of God in creation. He chose to share his personal reflections with our congregation. The double-edged reinforcement of special revelation (God’s inspired word) and general revelation (God’s revelation of Himself in the natural world) is a powerful dual pathway to our understanding God and His kingdom. So it was that our pastor shared some observations of one of our “theologians in the pews” that Sunday morning.

That member chronicled a family of robins nesting in his back yard. The American robin does not shy away from nesting close to human habitation. Virtually all bird enthusiasts have observed robins nesting on window ledges, atop deck support beams, or even on lamp fixtures. Our local Wal-Mart open-air garden center hosted an opportunistic family of robins inhabiting a nesting venue in plain sight of customers. Our local parishioners’ robin family used a more conventional tree limb for its nest support, but the nest was, nevertheless, close enough to their home to snap startling pictures our friends shared with us through email. Their awareness of how a robin family manifests the glory of God in creation is an occasion for worship of the Creator as He fills us with wonder. We will let the author’s account speak for itself:

We found a robin’s nest outside our window this spring which was immaculately made not just in its basic wood frame but also in the fill material which was finally capped around the edges with adobe. I would have been willing to live in such a house. Then four beautiful eggs were laid, which quickly hatched into four struggling masses and big open beaks competing with each other for mother’s food. Within ten days they had all left the nest.

They were replete with their all weather avionics packages, including direction finders, social programs, temperature controllers, and an airframe which grew component by component from the inside out.  All components maintain themselves with no need for annual overhaul. They learn all they need to know in just ten days. Their avionics are not jammable or hackable. They have no fear of malware. They know what to eat and what not to eat. Each year they know when to migrate and where to go even though they fly thousands of miles to get there and have never been there before.

Few people in our congregation could relate to the technical engineering skills with which their fellow congregant observed his robin family. However, virtually everyone could rejoice that many wonderful annual events of rebirth occur each spring in the animal world in our neighborhoods. These fascinating events are just a small portion of the beauty surrounding us in the world of nature. Listen to how the robin family helped trigger a sense of the glory of God in creation:

God’s nature surrounding me is a strong convincer of His powerful, glorious, and immanent presence…The more we delve into the discoveries of “science” in respect to the intricacies of the universe on the mega and macro scales, the more any reasonable person is awe inspired…The next step is the acknowledgement of the immense presence of a glorious Person…then new doors of glory open to reveal the mind of God and His salvation, which makes all other things pale and becomes the pinnacle of His glory…I can understand how in the heavenly realms the four living creatures never stop saying “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty (Rev. 4:6-8)…This is in a nutshell the only and appropriate way to express our unending awe and worship…

The 10,000 bird species in our created world are some of the soulish beings created by God possessing unique relationships with each other and with man. Each of these many species has been studied and catalogued for their qualities. In their own ways each gives joy to man for their beauty, song, and special adaptations. Beautiful Psalm 148 leads us on a praise journey from the heavens, down to many of earth’s species including birds, and back to the glory which is above earth and heaven.

Charles Spurgeon’s remarks on Psalm 148 quotes Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar’s “flying (winged) fowl” commentary on Psalm 148:10. He describes each sunrise as the awakening of birds to “turn the air to music.” American robins produce one of the earliest bird songs to be heard each morning at dawn. Bonar also poetically states, “Thus, the air is vocal. It has a hallelujah of its own,” referring to the bird songs of early morning.