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Scientific Writing:

Macro-invertebrate Characterization of the Pen Branch Corridor. Thesis for M.S., 1999

This was my Master’s Thesis on the ecology of a stream effected by thermal inputs from a nuclear reactor in South Carolina. It required running a large number of statistic tests in order to compare insect communities to each from stressed streams to other insect communities in non-stressed streams.

Control on Sweet Corn. Weber, D. C., Ferro, D. N. and R. B. Parker. Insecticide and Acaracide Tests, Volume 14, 121. 1989

This was a research article on the efficacy of organic vs non-organic pesticides used to control various insect pests that attack sweet corn. The natural organic pesticides were determined to be effective.


The case for expert opinion

Originally published in The Commons issue #214 (Wednesday, July 31, 2013).

Ideally in a democracy, all citizens have an equal right to speak on a topic, to express their opinions. But with matters of scientific consequence, are we qualified?

ROLF PARKER-HOUGHTON is a writer and self-employed math tutor.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

—Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)


ON April 16, 1862, men from Brattleboro may have been trying not to panic, or at least not get killed, as they crossed the Warwick River near Lee’s Mill, Va.

The confederates were not waiting for the their enemies; they were firing explosive shells at them. Some men were killed outright; other men were wounded and drowned. One can imagine a symphony of fear, composed of shells, yells, shrieks of the wounded, and the splashing of water.

How far away Brattleboro and the peaceful waters of the Connecticut must have seemed to any of those Vermonters as they stepped into and were forced to contemplate the warm waiting waters of the Warwick.

Unbeknown to those soldiers, their friends and families back in Brattleboro looked with some fear at the Connecticut. On the same day as the Battle of Lee’s Mill, the air temperature in Vermont began to climb, and by April 17 it had reached 74 degrees.

If the snow cover on the valleys and slopes of the Connecticut River valley hadn’t been so high, there would have been no need to fear this unseasonably warm weather, but with between two and four feet of packed snow all the way to Canada, there was real cause for alarm.

Mary Rogers Cabot, the author of the Annals of Brattleboro, wrote that people at the time knew, “unless there was a sudden drop in the mercury, there would be a flood […] but the change in temperature failed to arrive.”

The result was that, “on April 17, 1862, the water on the Connecticut River was the highest it had been in fifty years.”

The resulting flood of 1862 destroyed some houses near the river, ripped some bridges off their moorings, and washed away over 14 acres of farmland. Not since 1812 had the Connecticut risen so high.

The residents of Brattleboro could be forgiven if they thought they should be safe from such flooding for at least a couple of decades. But floods don’t follow such easy-to-predict intervals.

The flood of 1869 was much more destructive and fear-inducing than the one that had struck Brattleboro in 1862. On Oct. 2, 1869, it began raining and didn’t stop for three days. The Whetstone rushed over Flat Street, and Frost, and washed away a frame shop, a tannery, a furniture shop, a shoe shop, a lumber office (and the lumber stored nearby), a fish market, a sawmill, and a barn. (The canal from which Canal Street gets its name was also severely damaged.)

The flood came on with such unexpected speed that many people barely had time to escape the rushing waters that slammed into buildings and tore them down in less than a minute. Adolph Friederich and Kittie Barrett were swept to their deaths.

* * *

AMATEUR “ANALYSTS” of global warming, if they can be called that, such as global warming naysayer Rush Limbaugh and his amateur followers, tend to seize on facts — such as the long history of extreme floods in Vermont — as “proof” that what is being seen today is no different from what has been seen in the past.

Ideally in a democracy, all citizens have an equal right to speak on a topic, to express their opinions. In New England, at the small-town Town Meeting, every adult has the right to express and then vote on whether or not, for example, building a new bridge is a good idea.

To those of us who have inherited this tradition, the notion that some people’s opinion is inherently more valuable than others’ strikes us as odious, as wrong.

We all have some understanding of the risks and benefits of an action, and all are impacted by the decisions we make as a group, so surely we each must have equal say on all topics, right?

No, not right.

I haven’t the slightest idea how old the large granite rock in my backyard is. Nor do I know how to even begin to calculate the age. I don’t even know what type of math would be used to make that estimate.

The math may be easy to comprehend, and in a short period of time, I could perhaps master it. But like most people, I have no time to learn what math was used to determine the ages of the rocks in my back yard. Until I take that time, and learn the actual mathematics underpinning the theory, I have nothing to say on the subject.

Science is not a structure for democratic conversation among all members of society; it is a democratic conversation among those of us who are highly trained in very specific fields of study.

Both the breadth and depth of specialized knowledge makes it impossible for every one of us to have a voice of equal value when it comes to scientific topics. Unless you are a geologist, I am not terribly interested in your opinion about how old my granite rock is. Indeed, it would be silly for you to offer your personal understanding of it, beyond citing from a textbook or a reputable academic website the opinion of the majority of geologists.

Even more annoyingly, if you were able to find written reports of debates among geologists as to whether it was more likely for my granite boulder to be closer to 100 millions years old, versus 10 million years old, without an education into the mathematics that geologists use, you would have no way to choose between these arguments. You pretty much are reduced to giving more credence to the majority opinion. And if the opinion of the majority of scientists trained in climatology were to change in the face of astonishingly convincing new evidence that man-made gasses had nothing to do with global warming, we again would have little recourse but to accept their new pronouncements.

That’s not only okay, it’s the only sane way to attempt to approach and make use of the overwhelmingly massive amount of highly technical information that has accumulated in the last 600 years or so.

There simply is no time in a given lifetime to try to understand all the math and scientific thinking that goes into all the information that we are forced to contemplate, as we step into what appears to be something like a dangerous river.

* * *

IS THE global warming that the overwhelming majority of planetary and climate scientists say is happening caused by manmade greenhouse gasses? You and I basically have nothing to say directly on this point. Must of us don’t even begin to understand the math involved. I include myself in that statement, of course, even though I have tutored and taught mathematics for many years.

We accept the pronouncement, on the age of a piece of granite, because geologists as a group largely agree on such basic information. So it goes with the effect of man made gasses on global warming, and a host of other topics, needlessly debated by the population at large.

We accept the pronouncement on the age of a piece of granite, because geologists as a group largely agree on such basic information. So it goes with the effect of man made gasses on global warming, and a host of other topics, needlessly debated by the population at large.

The fact that some scientists can and do state a view that runs contrary to the majority opinion on this last topic is only proof of a minority opinion. That some of the minority opinion is funded and written by petrochemical companies (who are afraid of decreased profits) isn’t even necessary to bring up. It’s the minority opinion, and a tiny minority opinion at that.

Going with the majority opinion of trained experts may seem like a funny or even suspicious way to decide what one believes most likely to be true. (It is also disturbing that many scientific conversations have been contaminated with writers motivated by profit, as has happened in medical science and other fields.)

It seems funny or odd only when the conversation about mathematics has become completely partisan and politicized.

Frequently, popular and partisan “science writers” left and right, cherry-pick single studies to back up their points and ignore the majority opinion. This isn’t the use of science, it is the manipulation of it, a perversion of it.

The need to be informed on the politicized “debate points” makes people on all points of the political spectrum — left, right, and other — feel like they actually need to understand (or at least pretend to understand) the technical aspects of the scientific discussion.

But understanding the technical points is impossible without understanding the math that is related to these topics.

Few of us seem able to admit we can’t really understand how to write a mathematical model or how to understand the effects of global warming. All I need to know is that the overwhelming majority of highly trained scientists agree that unless great changes in how we use and provide energy can be achieved, not only will climate change continue, but it will continue to get worse.

As citizens, we can debate how to lessen the odds that there will be cataclysmic changes, but there is no point in debating among ourselves whether the changes seen are related to greenhouse gases. If we want to be part of that debate, we need to take calculus, statistics, and college algebra.

Based on what the majority of experts say, we should be afraid of the river we are crossing. Explosive shells are falling all around us. We must let that fear pass through us, find calm, do our duty, and try to survive.

Creative Writing:

“The Centipedium Race” a one act stage play, for Cabaret Sans Souci, at Sandglass Theater, Putney, Vermont

Poems published in The Chronicle, Fred, Best of Write Action Volume I.




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