An Age of New Botany

In Week 5, we read “A Tale of Two Botanies” by Amory B. Lovins  (physicist and MacArthur Fellow) and L. Hunter Lovins (lawyer and social scientist). This article was originally published in Wired Magazine in spring of 2000 – but the arguments presented about GMO foods are nearly identical to those in the ongoing debate about their safety today. Reflecting back on this course, I think that this is one of the most interesting and relevant readings.

As hinted by the title, the premise of this article is to compare two different botanies: the old and the new. According to the authors, the agronomy of the ‘old botany’ only transferred genes between plants who could naturally interbreed. By contrast, under the practices of the ‘new botany,’ genes are “mechanically transfer[red]” between plants that would be unable to breed in nature. The new botany is, according to the authors, dangerous. In this post, I would like to examine the authors’ arguments, and then show how the article outlines the Basic Problem as applied to modern agriculture.

The first reason that new botanical practices of today’s agronomy are dangerous is that the resulting organisms are barely tested. It must be acknowledged that this was the case in the ‘old botany,’ also. Under those practices, however, the transfer of genes between breed-able plants did not deviate significantly from nature. By comparison, the practices of the new botany are doing what in nature would be impossible – the transfer of genes between completely unrelated and incompatible organisms.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason today’s botanical practices are dangerous is that once they are implemented, they can easily spread throughout entire ecosystems. Pollen from a field of genetically modified plants can easily spread to neighboring fields with traditional crops or to wild plant life.

The problems identified by Lovins and Lovins are directly applicable to this course, in that the dangers of the new botany perfectly fit out class’s description of the Basic Problem. Genetic modification technologies are advancing faster than society’s concern with them.

But the role of the ‘new botany’ as an example of the Basic Problem is, I would like to argue, unique in that it shows how the Basic Problem can occur on giant scale. From a single lab, seed, and field, the new botany’s dangers can spread to entire ecosystems and even the world. It is in this unique ability to demonstrate the possible scale of the Basic Problem – coupled with the continued relevance of the issue of GMO agriculture – that makes this article particularly strong.


In this week’s response paper, I will reflect back on the impact this class, and all the assigned readings, have had on my outlook towards the world as both a hard science and social science student. Three years ago, in the middle of my second year at the University, I was facing the decision of which major to declare. Unable to decide, I declared both Biology and International Studies – and have continued working towards both degrees in tandem. At the time, I based my decision to major not only in the sciences but also in the humanities on my indecisiveness. Now, having taken this course and looking back, I believe that my problem in deciding majors may actually have been an example of the Basic Problem at work in everyday life. It was not until this class that I could define the problem of choosing between the study of science and society. With the Basic Problem now in my vocabulary, I am now able to articulate my decision. More importantly, I now have readings I can use as evidence in explaining this problem to others.

This class began by examining the remarkable rate at which science is advancing, and questioning if it presents a problem to the long-term success of humanity. In other words, what is the Basic Problem, does it really exist, and if so, what is to be done?

Reflecting on Week 1’s reading, I now agree that the increasing synergy between scientific disciplines is becoming increasingly dynamic and in this way accelerating the rate of scientific discovery. To dispute this seems nearly impossible. I need only to pick up a scientific journal or magazine to find examples of new advances due to the ‘new’ fields of biophysics, bioinformatics, etc. I continue, however, to question the viability of ‘predicting the future’. While I agree with Prof. Chaloupka that the predictions of scientists tend to be more fact-based than those of social critics, they nonetheless fail to account for infinite number uncontrollable variables. Such variables might include natural disasters, political or financial crises, individual choices, etc. The infinite number of confounding variables decreases the accuracy of predictions by scientists and social critics to such small levels that they are essentially equivalent. I believe, therefore, that scientists cannot make predictions about the future any better than social critics can.

If, indeed, this is the case, then what are we to do about understanding and countering the Basic Problem and its potential outcomes? It is in answering this question that the arguments of Chaloupka, Kaku, Bill Joy, Lovins and Lovins, Gerald Schroeder, and those journalists reporting on events such as the Heartbleed virus and Global Warming. It is not necessary to try and predict the future. The risks of the Basic Problem, that is the breakneck speed of scientific advancement and the increasingly ability for individuals to access dangerous technologies, are inherent to it. These risks are the same today as they will be in fifty years – all that might change is the technology we are concerned about. In fact, looking back on Week 1’s readings, I would like to postulate that making predictions of the future may actually make the Basic Problem worse. By making predictions, we convince ourselves that those outcomes are more likely than others, and we prepare for them. But, as I have argued, all outcomes of the future are equally likely, and we must prepare for everything.

Week 2’s reading mostly covered the life, personality, and achievements of Richard Feynman. I enjoyed this reading very much, as it gave me a better understanding of the admirations my physics friends hold for him. Beyond this, however, I also found examining Feynman’s life to be a wonderful case study of the Basic Problem. What fascinated me about Feynman was that someone clearly so brilliant, so humble, and so curious was also a major participant in the Manhattan Project – a perfect example of the Basic Problem. Thinking back, I realize that at the time, the potential for Feynman’s work on the Manhattan Project to lead to the creation of nuclear weapons, and for those weapons to become subject to misuse or accidents, may not have been clear to Feynman. After all, in any scientific field, focus is often strictly academic. Not a single one of my physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, biology, or mathematics classes has ever discussed the dangers of new knowledge and technology. One organic chemistry professor would mention the role of certain compounds in dangerous contexts, but rather than impressing the importance of this on his students, he expressed is excitement that such a small chemical compound could cause so much harm. The involvement of physicists in the Manhattan Project was never discussed in my year of physics classes at the UW. We focused instead on the mathematics behind basic physics phenomena and the solving of problems. While physics classes have, of course, only a limited time to teach students to analyze and solve physics problems, even spending one minute on the Manhattan Project and other real world applications of physics would have improved my understanding of the Basic Problem. I stand with my conclusion from Response Paper 2 that the material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.

The readings from Week 3 were particularly interesting for me as an International Studies major. The New York Times is often a required course reading for many Jackson School classes, and I was surprised to see that the Basic Problem (although not identified in these terms) was covered as well. I agreed with all the contentions made by the authors of these articles. For example, before reading “Users’ Stark Reminder: As Web Grows, It Grows Less Secure,” I had no idea what “safety culture” was. The Heartbleed incident seemed to me a good example of a missing safety culture. As discussed in the article, software development focuses on quickly creating new ‘goodies’ for consumers to use. This mostly arises from consumers’ demands for speed, novelty, and convenience. It is difficult, in this context, to expect developers of new technology to spend more time testing their products.

I also found “Global Warming Scare Tactics” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger to resonate strongly with my own experience. I clearly recall, for example the 2006 release of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Only fourteen years old at the time, I was shocked by the film. Indeed, it became a trend throughout my school to express your support for Gore’s movement and preventing Global Warming. As my classmates and I advanced in our studies, however, we learned that Gore may have oversimplified much of his argument. As Global Warming became Climate Change in the consciousness of my peers’ minds, a significant number began expressing skepticism about either. If parts of the Global Warming theory were misrepresented and falsely advertised to the public, what was to stop the same from happening with Climate Change? I believe this lesson from Global Warming holds important implications for educating the public on the Basic Problem. It will be crucial to not over sensationalize it for the sake of shock value. Although it may take more time to reach as many people, presenting the Basic Problem in a truthful, logical way will have more effect in the long run.

Finally, I would like to reflect on the Grand Finale revealed in class last Thursday. That the answer to “What is the Meaning of it All?” is in fact, that we do not know. This resonates with me, as somewhere along the line of my education, one of my teachers argued that true knowledge lies in admitting when you do not know something. This has idea has stuck with me throughout the years, and JSIS 216 has brought it to the forefront of my attention again this term. I believe that the first step in addressing the Basic Problem is to admit that we do not know the possible outcomes and misuses of many of the technologies we are developing. Admitting that we do not know is the first step towards making an active effort to research each new technology as it is produced and creating the appropriate safeguards for its use. In the long term, I believe that the simple answer of “I don’t know” will allow us to develop an improved safety culture in which speed and convenience are not always more important than forethought and responsibility.


Science & the General Public

As the first two weeks of class have gotten me thinking about the role of science in society, I have begun paying significantly more attention to the reactions of my peers to science-related news and articles. Although my observations are limited in sample size and lack controls, as any respectable scientist would be quick to point out, I believe they still illustrate several of the phenomena we have discussed in class.

Amongst my peers, there seem to be three groups of  attitudes towards issues of science:

  1. Accepting, analytical, logical – this group consists mostly of fellow science majors (biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc).
  2. Interested, but apprehensive – this group consists mostly of social science majors who are intrigued by the workings of science and its implications for civilization, but who are often apprehensive of studying these issues due dislike of mathematics or memorization.
  3. Uninterested – this group shows little interest in science-related news articles, or shared knowledge from science major peers.

Within Group 1, there is also division according to the disciplines these students are most interested in. Biologists, for example, view the role of osmotic and partial pressure gradients across a cell membrane from a different perspective than physicists or chemists. While the biologist might focus on the dynamic equilibrium of ions and water resulting from such gradients, the physicist might examine the energy across the membrane and the chemist might examine in great detail the phospholipids and membrane proteins involved in ion transfer.

This is precisely the reductionist nature of science which Kaku examines in “Visions.” 20th century science, Kaku argues, was characterized by separating the disciplines and allowing scientists to specialize within them. One benefit of reductionism was, of course, the success in establishing the “foundation[s] of modern physics, chemistry, and biology.” Yet Kaku predicts that the time of reductionism is coming to an end: the obstacles facing scientists today can not be solved by such a segmented approach. As reductionism comes to an end, a new dynamic relationship between the scientific disciplines should emerge, leading to the acceleration of scientific discovery.

This prediction seems to be reflected in Group 1. These peers of mine are often split in their approaches to problems, according to their subject of focus. Yet, university coursework is increasingly emphasizing the interconnectedness between the disciplines. And often biology students will go to a physics major friend for help with a homework assignment. It seems that Kaku may have been accurate in his prediction – and that we are currently witnessing the transition between scientific reductionism and synergy.

Group 2 is also quite interesting to examine. My peers in this group, some of whom are enrolled in JSIS 216 with me, are interested in improving the human condition. They are, therefore, often interested in how scientific advancements can be applied to real world problems and express interest in understanding the nuances of science in more detail. Discomfort with mathematics and memorization often prevents these students from venturing into the hard sciences.

Prof. Chaloupka presents a potential solution to this problem, in his talk on “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security.” The first solution he offers to the Basic Problem – that for the first time in history, the capability of causing extreme harm is in the hands of individuals or small groups – is education. Importantly, Chaloupka recognizes that this is not a case of educating just the general public about science. Education must go in both directions – scientists must also be taught about the need for social responsibility and foresight.

Group 3 in particular has much to gain from education about science. This does not mean that members of the general public who are genuinely disinterested in issues of science and human security are to be forced to endure lectures on calculus and biochemistry. Rather, education for this group should probably focus on explaining the potential impact scientific discoveries have on society – and the inherent risks for the future.

It seems to me to be logical, therefore, that just as Kaku’s prediction of synergy between scientific disciplines comes to fruition, society in general must go through a similar metamorphosis. In the same way biologists, physicists, and chemists will work together, the general public should work with the scientific community to regulate discoveries, prevent their misuse, and promote their use for improving the human condition.