The Wizard and the Prophet

Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World

[Amazon Link]

After reading a couple of his history books (1491 and 1493), I decided author Charles C. Mann was a must read. It took awhile, but here's another one, covering much more recent history and associated controversies.

The "Wizard" is Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner, often dubbed the father of the "Green Revolution", the strides in agricultural production that (essentially) ended famine as a major world problem in the span of just a few decades. The "Prophet", on the other hand, is William Vogt: today he's obscure, but Mann makes the convincing case that he's the forefather of most of the threads of the modern environmental movement.

It's—really!—a fascinating story. Borlaug grew up in rural Iowa, about 75 miles east of where my own parents grew up, at about the same time. Vogt, on the other hand, grew up in then-rural Long Island, where he enjoyed observing the local flora and fauna. Both grew up to be scientists, each enduring massive hardships in painstaking research in foreign lands: Borlaug attempting to develop strains of wheat that could be grown in Mexico; Vogt attempting to discover what was going wrong with the (at the time) lucrative guano-producing islands off the coast of Peru.

Broadly speaking, though, Borlaug and Vogt are just standins for their general attitudes and approaches toward humanity and the environment. Painting with a very broad brush: The "prophets" tend to be pessimistic, look for (and usually find) doom around every corner; favor "soft" approaches to supplies of food, air, water, and energy; preach a lot about "limits" and "sustainability". "Wizards" are the flip side: optimistic, technocratic, always (and usually finding) scientific workarounds to obstacles, and look to centralized "hard" solutions to resource supplies.

Mann is an ideal reporter on this, for many reasons. He's a fantastic writer, who can (and does) make details of guano production and wheat cultivation riveting. He's also well-versed in technical issues. You won't want to miss his discussion of rubisco, (aka "Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase") the most important enzyme you've never heard of. It acts as a catalyst for photosynthesis, so, yeah, without it there would be no you and me. It evolved once, 3.5 billion years ago. The reaction it catalyzes is agonizingly slow; just slugging along at 2-3 per second. It's also (in Mann's word) inept; the reaction is "supposed" to use CO2, but rubisco often grabs onto O2 instead, which is useless, photosynthesis-wise.

And yet, nature hasn't produced anything better in 3.5 billion years. I can't decide whether this is a point for or against "intelligent design". Yes, rubisco is slow and stupid, but if it were any smarter or faster, … again, we wouldn't be here. We might have life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Mann only missteps once, as near as I can tell, on technical issues. when he discusses semiconductors (pp 284-285). Doping silicon with a scattering of other elements cause a surplus (or deficit) of free electrons, but Mann claims this causes the crystal to become negatively/positively charged. I don't think so. Quibble.

Mann is also good because he's relentlessly agnostic on the issues that bitterly divide Wizards and Prophets. (Specifically: "On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I think Vogt was correct. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I go for Borlaug. And on Sunday, I don't know.") He is relentlessly both fair to, and skeptical of, both sides, and that makes his insights all the more credible.

What Mann can't bring himself to say explicitly: the weight of the evidence so far swings the scales in favor of the Wizards. Time and again, he rattles off the failed predictions and disastrous policy positions of the Prophets. (E.g., Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" that fizzled.) To be fair, the Wizards' record isn't spotless either. And both sides tend to be more than a little, um, pushy in implementing their policies. Both sides are enthusiastic top-down social engineers.

For folks interested in the University Near Here, Mann relates his discussion with UNH's Dennis Meadows, who was on the Limits to Growth team back in the day, a dedicated Prophet. Dennis got a little exasperated at Mann's queries. Heh. I remember that Dennis got a little exasperaated with me at times, on technical issues. No matter, I remember him fondly.

URLs du Jour

2018-05-16

[Amazon Link]

  • Proverbs 13:23 is a toughie, interpretation-wise:

    23 An unplowed field produces food for the poor,
        but injustice sweeps it away.

    My best guess: the poor can—or could—live on food harvested from unowned property, but "injustice"—somehow—prevents them from doing that. Maybe, maybe not.

    This leads me to check out alternate translations than our default NIV. How about King James?

    23 Much food is in the tillage of the poor: but there is that is destroyed for want of judgment.

    This seems to blame the poor themselves, maybe? Their silly lack of judgment destroys their means of sustenance?

    The "Message" is always amusing, though:

    23 Banks foreclose on the farms of the poor, or else the poor lose their shirts to crooked lawyers.

    Ah. The Man always finds a way to screw the Little People.


  • The writer Tom Wolfe passed away, and there are a lot of words out there about that. I enjoyed Kyle Smith's take on The Great One.

    Thirty years ago, B.T.W. (before Tom Wolfe), I was an aspiring postmodern novelist. An undergraduate in the Yale English department, I marinated in the wordplay of James Joyce. I steeped myself in Thomas Pynchon. I would write novels that would sell in the tens. On the side, I would deconstruct other people’s novels, locate the damning signifiers that were hidden deep within, undetected even by their authors. Then a friend gave me a stack of unwanted books from a class she had completed. One of them was The Right Stuff.

    To this day, no book has ever hit me harder. The acuity of Wolfe’s social analysis, the depth of his reporting, and most of all the mad, exhilarating gallop of his prose style rerouted my mind, redirected my intentions. Wolfe’s impassioned admiration for the courage and ingenuity of test pilot Chuck Yeager and the Mercury space-program astronauts jarred all my ironic, postmodernist, Ivory Tower assumptions. I was a Mike Dukakis–loving liberal Democrat, but in the book’s jovial respect for what would later be known as red-state culture (it was Wolfe who popularized the phrase “good ol’ boy”) came the first low rumblings that I might someday become patriotic, maybe even conservative.

    Maybe the best way to memorialize Mr. Wolfe is to dig up and read something he wrote. Here are my brief takes on I Am Charlotte Simmons; Back to Blood; The Kingdom of Speech.


  • At Law and Liberty, John O. McGinnis hits on a theme we've mentioned here, more than a few times: Why Progressives Want to Revive Norms Against Blasphemy.

    Why has progressivism changed its position on the role of open debate? First, progressivism is not as confident that the facts of the world will back up their policy prescriptions as they once were. In part, that is because their policy prescriptions have become more radical. The progressive view, for instance, was once that women should be able to go as far as their abilities and inclinations take them. Today for many progressives, there is something amiss with the world if we do not observe relatively equal proportions of men and women in physics departments at major universities. If you become less confident of the factual support for your ideas, you naturally want to hobble your opponents by fiat rather than reason.

    Second, modern progressivism holds metaphysical beliefs, not unlike those of a religion, that are beyond factual dispute. No facts can be allowed to get in the way of whatever the diversity policies of the day mandate. Norms against blasphemy shut down debates about the God and His nature. Many modern progressives are opposed to religions in their traditional form, but modern progressivism is adopting the most traditional of religious moves—putting the sacred beyond question.

    I'll be uncharitably ad hominem, probably a mistake: many progressives occupy lucrative "priesthood" positions in our nation's institutions that depend on those beliefs being unquestioned—and fully funded.

    Or, as Mel Brooks explained in Blazing Saddles: "We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen!"


  • Occasionally a naysayer is allowed within the sanctum, however. For example, Gerard Alexander in a NYT op-ed, noting: Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think.

    I know many liberals, and two of them really are my best friends. Liberals make good movies and television shows. Their idealism has been an inspiration for me and many others. Many liberals are very smart. But they are not as smart, or as persuasive, as they think.

    And a backlash against liberals — a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing — is going to get President Trump re-elected.

    People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates and parties. Democrats, like Republicans, appreciate this whenever they portray their opponents as negatively as possible. But members of political tribes seem to have trouble recognizing that they, too, can push people away and energize them to vote for the other side. Nowhere is this more on display today than in liberal control of the commanding heights of American culture.

    To sum up: Liberals used to be better at disguising their contempt for their opponents.


  • At the Technology Liberation Front, Brent Skorup debunks the outcome of (essentially) a push poll: No, “83% of Americans” do not support the 2015 net neutrality regulations

    Lawmakers frequently hear impressive-sounding stats about net neutrality like “83% of voters support keeping FCC’s net neutrality rules.”  This 83% number (and similar “75% of Republicans support the rules”) is based on a survey from the Program for Public Consultation released in December 2017, right before the FCC voted to repeal the 2015 Internet regulations.

    Brent notes that in order to get their positive results, the pollsters misrepresented the actual content of the "nearly 400-page" NetNeut regulations into a couple of misleading feelgood soundbites.


  • You might not expect an organization named "The Center for Land Use Interpretation" would produce such an interesting web document: United Divide: A Linear Portrait of the USA/Canada Border. No wait, I'm not kidding! It is interesting, full of pictures, anecdotes, trivia, and oddities. Following the border, starting from "Machais Seal Island, a 20-acre treeless outcrop which is still claimed by both nations", all the way to "Strait of Jaun [sic] de Fuca, into the Pacific Ocean, where it dissolves completely into the sea."

    Found via Granite Geek, which focuses, naturally enough on a Granite State question: Why are there two obelisks, really close to each other, marking the NH border with Canada? Said obelisks are up in Pittsburg. No spoilers here, but the answer may surprise you!


  • And I just want to quote something I hadn't noticed at xkcd: the site's browser guidelines. (In really tiny type.):

    xkcd.com is best viewed with Netscape Navigator 4.0 or below on a Pentium 3±1 emulated in Javascript on an Apple IIGS at a screen resolution of 1024x1. Please enable your ad blockers, disable high-heat drying, and remove your device from Airplane Mode and set it to Boat Mode. For security reasons, please leave caps lock on while browsing.

    I think I'm going to steal that last bit…