Kris an’ Murphy: Giving Science the Birds

Murphy: “So where’d you find this, Kris?”

Kris: “The internet. One of the signs being carried about by various “March for Science” marchers yesterday. I gather there was a fair number of them.”

Murphy: “Marchers?”

Kris: “Signs. Not so sure about the marchers. Some places yes, some no. I think.”

Murphy: “Will be interesting to see if the scientists are more forthcoming about their numbers than, say, Mr Trump was about his inauguration numbers.”

Kris: “You would think they would be!”

Murphy: “You would. And then you realize that they’ve enlisted themselves in the political-pressure-group game now, and the political scientists among them – if, of course, the darlings have allowed any into their fold – will tell them what they need to know. We’ll see if they’re any better at listening to that, rather than what they want to hear, than any other political pressure group. And what they need to know is that, in this game, spin trumps data.”

Kris: “Ew. Watch your mouth!

Murphy: “No. You watch yours. Mr Trump spun his data far more effectively, and cheaply, than his opponents in the last election. You aren’t going to like hearing this any better than the scientists will, but Mr Trump had better science for his purposes, and made better use of it. And he’s now calling the shots. We might, if we’re lucky, have the stomach for them. But back to that sign. Did they ask them?”

Kris: “[…] You’ve been reading a lot of old Greek manuscripts today?”

Murphy: “Complete with all their ambiguous pronouns. Touché. Did the scientists ask the birds about their preferences?”

Kris: “I’d like to know how.”

Murphy: “Precisely. But they said they did!”

Kris: “They were speaking symbolically. Just ask them.”

Murphy: “Oh, right, sorry, I forgot. This was a march. We should expect symbols clashing. Can we make any sense out of this one? How many kinds of birds are there?”

Kris: “Well, lessee … the University of Google says about 10,000. In several different places.”

Murphy: “That’s all?!? A measly 10,000? There’s like 400,000 species of beetles in the world, and probably that many species of bacteria in a single football field! Why don’t we pay more attention to them?

Kris: “Yeah, well, good luck with your Great Backyard Beetle Count. And aren’t we already having enough trouble asking the birds how come they prefer science?”

Murphy: “Or don’t.”

Kris: “Y’know, that might actually be easier. Says here that about 1,200 of those bird species are in danger of extinction, with about 190 already gone. Like that dodo on the sign. I suppose that’s close enough to a 9:1 ratio to satisfy some scientists, anyway.”

Murphy: “Science poseurs, you mean. So let me get this straight. Because a bird – a bird – didn’t get a Ph.D. in Chemistry from U. Cal. Berkeley and didn’t see the value of getting one, it was anti-science, went extinct because of that, and deserved to go extinct because of that??”

Kris: “Speaking symbolically, of course.”

Murphy: “Yes, yes, I get it. Some two-foots have the bird brains but not the bird feathers. Like the politicians. Spelled V-O-T-E-R-S.”

Kris: “You going to get around to telling me how you really feel some time before the faculty club closes tonight?”

Murphy: “Watch me. The dodo lived on the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, and nowhere else. It says here that the dodo was first seen in 1598, and last seen in 1662. By whom? Dutch sailors and settlers. And how did these Europeans get to Mauritius?”

Kris: “Sailing ships.”

Murphy: “Exactly. Which means … wait for it … science! You got any idea how much trigonometry captains had to master before they could be trusted to guide a square-rigged ship out of harbor, never mind halfway and more around the world? And those captains brought their axes to destroy the dodo habitat, and the cats and dogs and rats to steal the dodo’s food and eggs and chicks, at the same time that they and their crews were throwing the adults into stewpots. Of course the dodos would be anti-science if you asked them. Science killed them!

“Here in the USA, the passenger pigeon was amongst the most common of all birds before the 20th century. In 1914, the last of them died. What killed them? Science! Better guns. Better nets. Refrigeration. Railroads to transport the refrigerated meat to all parts of the country. The telegraph to advertise to those parts of the country the availability of cheap pigeon meat. To feed to your pigs! Of course the passenger pigeons would be anti-science. Science killed them!

Kris: “And it also saves them, bald eagle fans.”

Murphy: “Yes, yes, the whole DDT mess. Which would never have occurred in the first place without science! And don’t bother telling me about how science pulled the black robin back from extinction in New Zealand. After scientific advances in ‘land management’, plus the introduction of invasive species to make the european settlers feel more at home, made the bloody rescue necessary in the first place!”

Kris: “So we should throw out all science and send ourselves back to the Stone Age or earlier so we don’t have to worry about the bad things that might happen. Happy Malaria to you too.”

Murphy: “Dammit, Kris, don’t you get it? Science is a tool. People use it to do work. It’s the best set of tools for doing work that humans have ever come up with. Set a job, and the science toolkit can find a way to do the job, far better than any other toolkit. But who sets the job? Dammit, who pays for the job?!? Marching for Science is about as nonsensical as marching for a set of socket wrenches. They’re going to get used. But by whom?? You want them to be used by a good mechanic who sees jobs all the way through, rather than a clueless one who blindly attacks bolts without understanding what loosening that particular bolt will do.”

Kris: “Good luck with that, Murphy. People want jobs done now. They don’t want to have to wait for your mechanic to see through a brick wall in time. Who knows how thick that wall really is? And they sure as hell don’t want to pay for the privilege of waiting and seeing. They want those swamps drained, those condos built, those forests cleared so that the whole of Patagonia can be used for the cows that wind up as McDonald’s so-called hamburgers, and who cares what happens to hyacinth macaws so long as I can get a Big Mac when I want one? Even the scientists who scream the loudest about global warming don’t want the finger pointed at their own driving and flying habits. Science is going to get used to keep people fat and distracted, and the best you can hope for is that you get to see some of the train wrecks coming in time to avert the worst of the damage.”

Murphy: “Like the no-funding-for-the-EPA train wreck?”

Kris: “Murphy. I was in Maine when the last of the mills closed. The EPA copped the blame for that, the businesses moved or folded rather than have to spend money they didn’t have to satisfy the new regulations – or at least that’s what they claimed, and the claim stuck so whether that’s the whole story or not doesn’t matter. The grandchildren of those mill workers are working in laundromats, mopping hotel rooms, and flipping burgers because that’s all that’s left for them to try to make a living on. And it ain’t much of a living. That’s forty years of pissed off to deal with. These people don’t have a problem with science. They want it to do jobs for them. Not Dilbert. Not the city kids blowing off college to play computer games in their dorm rooms with the rainbow shades pulled down. They’ll trade pulp stink and the furbish lousewort for jobs that will actually pay the bills. Speaking of birds.”

Murphy: “As in ‘chickens coming home to roost’?”

Kris: “Yeah. That.”

Murphy: “Which means we can do, exactly, what?

Kris: “The bottle was opened half an hour ago. You can pour.”

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