Leaping Robot Heads Back to the Classroom

Today is the first day of the spring quarter at UCSB.  This naturally translates into less time for blog writing. But – on the plus side – I’m teaching two classes which should generate some interesting ideas for future posts.

One of them is an upper-division undergraduate course framed around the idea of “Technology, Power, and the American Century.” The goal is to look at the myriad ways technology and power (of all kinds) intersected during the long American century. (I’m defining this as roughly 1870 to the end of the Cold War…from when the U.S. became a key industrial power and a major figure on the global stage to when America emerged as the sole hyper-power after the collapse of the USSR). If you’re interested, a copy of the syllabus is here.

I am also co-teaching a graduate level class with a colleague from the Communications Department – it’s the “gateway seminar” for our Technology and Society doctoral emphasis (sort of like a graduate minor). We decided to focus on questions – historical as well as contemporary – about data for a class we’re calling “Data: Big & Small, Raw & Cooked.” Besides thinking about the changing historical context of data – what is it? How have people collected, managed, and used it over time? – we will also address contemporary issues associated with data, especially those related to Big Data.

As always, thanks for your interest in Leaping Robot 🙂  More anon…

It’s the End of the World and I Feel…Conflicted.

One of the more bizarre science-related stories last week had nothing to do with telescopes at the South Pole or the inflationary expansion of the Universe. Rather than focusing on the Beginning of Time, a flurry of activity was spurred by an allegedly “NASA-sponsored” study that addressed the End of Times.

The story got its start when a draft circulated of a peer-reviewed article soon be published in the journal Ecological Economics. Its authors were two researchers from the University of Maryland – Safa Motesharrei (a graduate research assistant in Applied Math and Public Policy) and Eugenia Kalnay (faculty) – and Jorge Rivas, with the University of Minnesota (although his web site is out of service). Motesharrei, the prime author, is affiliated with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center at U-MD which in turn is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The title of their article gives some clue to the ensuing controversy: “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.” (abstract below for what I’ll call the “HANDY paper”).

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Their study was based on using a particular model – called H(uman) A(nd) N(ature DY(namics) or HANDY – to try to see mathematically whether contemporary society was susceptible to the sort of environmental or economic meltdowns that doomed earlier civilizations. The paper opens with a Jared Diamond-style summary of how earlier civilizations – Roman, Mesopotamian, Chinese, etc. – had all succumbed. The authors go on to detail their use of “four equations describ[ing] the evolution of Elites, Commoners, Nature, and Wealth.” Their resulting model “shows Economic Stratification or Ecological Strain can independently lead to collapse.” Such a fate “can be avoided…if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably.”

Normally, the appearance of a (draft) article like this would have been a non-event. But those words – inequality, collapse, equitably – somehow caught the attention of Nafeez Ahmed whose blog Earth Insight is hosted by The Guardian. Ahmed also helped create a 2011 documentary called The Crisis of Civilization which is about how global crises – economic as well as environmental – are the “converging symptoms of a single, failed, global system.”

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Poster for Ahmed’s 2011 documentary

On March 14, Ahmed wrote about the HANDY paper in an eye-catching piece titled “NASA-funded study: industrial civilization headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?” Facebook shares (120,000+ so far) and tweets (8,000+) got the HANDY paper (and Ahmed) lots of attention. Stories about it appeared on NPR’s web page, Popular Science and in major national newspapers with hyperbolic headlines like “NASA Predicts the End of Western Civilization“.

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Who wouldn’t click on the link to read this?

What struck me as most interesting was how media reports focused not so much on the content of the HANDY paper but on the fact that it was “NASA-sponsored.” At a time when the space agency is increasingly beleaguered in some quarters, it seemed almost quaint that journalists would see the NASA imprimatur – which was not as firmly stamped as Ahmed suggested – as proof of quality. This seemed to harken back to the glory days of the Space Race when “NASA Made This” really meant something.

As one might expect, there was a backlash. For example, Keith Kloor, writing on-line for Discover.com, critiqued not so much the HANDY paper’s conclusions but the manner in which Ahmed was publicizing them.1 Ahmed counterattacked via blog in the social media version of wash, rinse, repeat…and here we are.

Besides showing how social media and blogs can amplify a non-event into international handwringing, the hullabaloo around the HANDY paper is important for two reasons.

One is historical. The HANDY paper – its methods, its conclusions, and the reaction to them – bears a striking resemblance to the 1972 Limits to Growth report.

Screen shot 2014-03-22 at 2.25.54 PMSponsored by the Club of Rome, Limits was announced with a media blitz aimed at policy makers and ambassadors, its “doomsday timetable” predicted an inevitable collapse of societies all around the planet unless politicians and business leaders had the courage to restrict the growth of populations, industrialization, and resource use. Instead of continued expansion, it called instead for economic and ecological equilibrium commensurate with a species wholly dependent on limited planetary resources. Extensive computer-based calculations by researchers from MIT provided the Club of Rome with evidence needed to support its bleak assessment of the future.

Scientists and economists savaged the methodology that produced Limits, but the Club of Rome’s report sent a powerful message about a possible future. Its troubling conclusions compelled more than eight million people to buy copies of Limits and it was translated into some thirty languages. Limits fit the pattern of other eco-doom books that filled shelves in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The 1970s were a very doomy time, in fact. Fears about the future were not just the province of activists, campus intellectuals, and ecologists. In the early 1970s, the Christian fundamentalist revival in the U.S. coincided with apocalyptic excitation about the future. In The Late Great Planet Earth, former tugboat captain Hal Lindsey used his own interpretation of the Book of Revelation to write what became the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970s (and was made into a movie).

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Critics attacked Limits throughout the 1970s.  Economists who assumed growth was a fundamental tenet of modernity proved particularly hostile. Demand for resources, critics said, was historically contingent. Factory owners did not clamor for coal in the 16th century nor was uranium a desired international commodity until after 1945. As a result, Limits appeared to some people as just a reprise of old Malthusian ideas. Released in the absence of peer review with a public relations extravaganza did not help assuage skeptics. Moreover, the data underlying Limits wasn’t available for inspection which aroused scientists’ suspicions further. Even the analytical tools the MIT group used provoked ire. The computer cliché “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” although still relatively novel in 1972, typified many experts’ responses.

Similar critiques of the 2014 HANDY paper have already appeared (here and here and here, for example) although the attacks seemed more aimed at Ahmed’s hyperbolic approach rather than the research itself. (One of the points argued in my book The Visioneers was that Limits served to motivate a cohort of dreamers and visionaries who applied their engineering and science skills to try to circumvent its pessimistic predictions. I’d be curious to hear if any new efforts are catalyzed by articles such as the forthcoming HANDY paper.)

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Cover of the 7″ version of R.E.M.’s 1987 hit

The second reason why I think the HANDY article is important has to do with how we imagine doomsday scenarios. Like good science fiction, these tend to reflect not the future but rather the time in which they are put forth. In his 1992 book When Time Shall be No More, the late historian Paul Boyer surveys the history of apocalyptic thought in American culture. During the Cold War, the End would come via the flash of a thermonuclear explosion. Deténte and the environmental movement brought eco-catastrophism to the fore (as Jacob Hamblin so nicely writes about in Arming Mother Nature) as overuse of resources and overpopulation became the mechanisms of our demise.

Today, the collapse of society, as the HANDY article details, is predicated on the growing distinction between the haves and have-nots as destabilizing inequities will lead to overconsumption of resources and eventual conflict. In short – not surprising given the rise of attention to the 1% vs. 99%, disparities in CEO/employee pay, the collapse of the middle class, ad infinitum. Studies like the HANDY article may not be guides to the future but they offer a penetrating glimpse into the present. Every era gets its doomsday mechanism it deserves.

  1. He also dug into the NASA funding issue. Eventually, NASA issued a denial that it had indeed sponsored the study or endorsed its conclusions. This was largely a non-issue, though. The draft article notes some support from NASA while a statement from National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center explained “Motesharrei received minor support from NASA (Award No. NNX12AD03A), through UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, to develop a coupled earth system model. Some of this funding was spent on the mathematical development of the HANDY model. The research paper was not solicited, directed, or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. []

Cosmos and Context

In his 1986 song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon sang that “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” I am amending this Simonism slightly for this blog post to read “every generation throws a science popularizer into the big time.”

Last week’s premiere of the re-boot of the classic television series Cosmos – hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – sparked this observation.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, staring down the Big Bang, in the first episode of Cosmos 2.0

A huge amount of media buzz surrounds the remake – co-produced by Seth McFarlane – of the classic series that PBS first aired in 1980. Originally hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan with the full title of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the series became – until dethroned by Ken Burns’ 1990 epic The Civil War – the most widely watched series in the history of American TV.1

That’s a tough act for anyone to follow. Tyson’s version, which aired on several Fox-affiliated channels, did so-so in the ratings, drawing in about 5.8 million viewers. Even with this relatively weak initial showing – and I hope the numbers do pick up – a whole new generation of viewers are able to learn about the universe and science via Tyson’s Cosmos. That alone makes it important.

But a true comparison of the two versions of Cosmos involves more than just viewership numbers and market share. Understanding this difference demands a closer inspection of the context and circumstances in which the Sagan and Tyson versions appeared.

Historian and author Audra Wolfe recently tackled this question in a fine essay that appeared on-line a few days ago. Wolfe made the important point that understanding the first Cosmos series requires that we recognize the Cold War context in which it was broadcast. She writes that PBS broadcast Cosmos at “a moment when Cold War tensions were heating back up.”

This context is critical. Uncle Sam supported science for many reasons, not least the fact that American national security was predicated on technologies developed by a robust cadre of scientists and engineers. Carl Sagan, unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, was an outspoken critic of scientific research that was too closely tied to defense needs. Still, there’s no denying the fact that the space probe missions, telescope technologies, and so forth that made his (and so many other scientists’) research possible was derived from “high-tech weaponry built on cutting-edge science.”2

Knowing the context of Cosmos, c. 1980 help us understand even better both the original show as well as the 21st century, post-9/11 post-academic science version. The timing is critical; production for Cosmos started in 1978, squarely within the context of the Carter administration. It appeared at the end of a period in U.S. history when public support for science and technology had reached a low point.

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Protesters decrying the arrival of the Concorde 2 at LAX, October 1974…one sign of the discontent about science and technology, c. 1970

Fears of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war coupled with anxieties about resource depletion and overpopulation had strained earlier optimism to the breaking point. Sagan wrote Cosmos in the context of, if not in direct response to, this anti-science & technology zeitgeist.3

We can see this in the clear and powerful way that Sagan frames and situates Cosmos in classical humanistic framework. He deliberately shows that science is allied to the humanities – references to history, languages, philosophy, and classics abound. I can still recall my sense of profound disappointment when I watched the first episode of Cosmos – I was just 13 at the time – in which Sagan walks through a recreation of the great Library of Alexandria and mourns its tragic loss to fire.

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Sagan strolling through a CGI-created version of Library of Alexandria

Sagan framed science as an intellectual adventure, the means to which humans better understand not just their Universe but themselves. It’s impossible not to see this as a clever move on the part of Sagan and his co-writers in response to the anti-science vibe of the early 1970s. Sagan’s science and technology was not that of the mega-machine, the mad inventor, or the technocrat. It resonated with the humanities. Like its subtitle said, it was a “personal journey.”

At the same time, Sagan also gently chided those in the audience who were prone to conceive of science in too broad of terms. The 1970s certainly saw their share of groovy “pseudoscience.” Popular interest in UFOs, Bigfoot, ESP, astrology, and all other shade of the paranormal abounded. A few episodes into the Cosmos series, Sagan outlines how astrology may once have had elements of science – its emphasis on measurement, observation, and mathematics – but it had long since yielded to astronomy and astrophysics.

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Scene from the original Cosmos in which Sagan gently de-bunks astrology.

The astrology of the 1970s that so many American turned to for horoscopes and predictions was, Sagan explained, unscientific bunk. It was his response to the tides of anti-rationality and anti-science that had flooded American bookstores, New Age gatherings, and popular media.

Production of Cosmos started just as a boom in scientific popularization was shaping up and Sagan rode that swell. Between 1978 and 1984, more than a four dozen new magazines, newspaper sections, and television shows devoted to “popular science” appeared.4 Cosmos appeared smack in the midst of the largest jump in science journalism since the opening years of the Space Race, just as public attitudes toward science and technology were swinging away from pessimism and skepticism.

It’s clear that Tyson is no Sagan. Instead of a science communicator, he is primarily a science salesman. And to do this effectively, Tyson must strip science of its political and social controversy, avoiding issues that Sagan was willing to tackle.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 1.33.14 PM

But why should Tyson try to be Sagan? The Groovy Seventies and the Cold War are over. Cosmos 2.0 is airing at a time when the forces of anti-science look very different than they did 35 years ago. Today, anti-science is not something that manifests from grassroots concerns but is instead manufactured by large donors and special interest groups. If Tyson refuses to critique the militarization of science – which is so patently obvious to scarecely even need mentioning – then I doubt he has the stomach to call out David H. Koch, a noted climate change skeptic, AND a major donor to the PBS science show NOVA.

When we watch Cosmos 2.0 today, it is at a time that is definitely not anti-technology. If anything, it’s the complete opposite. Commercialized scientific research is the path to more and newer (if not better) technology, or so we’re often told. Innovation, creative destruction, connectivity, and disruption are championed in a manner and degree that would have been seen as suspicious in the 1970s. Sagan’s science was a path to humanity’s greater understanding of itself. Cosmos 2.0 still maintains shades of this. But it is appearing on our televisions at a time when science is seen more as a vocation – more STEM jobs! – and a lever of commercial riches.

Every generation gets the science popularizer it deserves. Although I am glad that Tyson is out there promoting the beauty and utility of science for a new cohort of viewers, I remain happier that I got Carl Sagan.

  1. Over 500 million people worldwide are estimated to have seen Cosmos 1.0 []
  2. Other colleagues have done excellent jobs of pointing out the historical inaccuracies that mar Cosmos 2.0, such as Rebekah Higgitt and Meg Rosenburg []
  3. Sagan co-wrote the show with Ann Druyan and Steve Soter. []
  4. Bruce V. Lewenstein, “Was There Really a Popular Science ‘Boom’?,” Science, Technology, and Human Values, 1987, 12, 2: 29-41. []