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Population growth isn't really our problem

In the course of preparing for a panel here at the Conference on World Affairs, I ran across a 2009 editorial by environmental journalist Fred Pearce, in which he explains why current global population trends aren't as horrific as they're often made out to be. I thought you should read it.

Global population is going up, Pearce writes, but that's not the same thing as saying that birth rates are going up. And, in the long run, that distinction matters. Around the world—not just in the West—human birthrates are decreasing. And they've been decreasing for a really long time.

Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.

This is getting close to the “replacement fertility level” which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don’t reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic “bulge” of women of child-bearing age keeps the world’s population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.

Far from ballooning, each generation will be smaller than the last. So the ecological footprint of future generations could diminish. That means we can have a shot at estimating the long-term impact of children from different countries down the generations.

What I really like about this essay, though, is how well Pearce articulates the real problem, which is over-consumption. Population and consumption might appear to be intrinsically linked, but they're not. As Pearce points out, global consumption is increasing far faster than global population and the average American family of four uses far more land, far more water, far more energy and produces far more emissions than an Ethiopian family of 11.

This is important. I've heard many, many Americans express their fears about population growth over the years. Pearce's essay makes it clear that, when you do that, you're pretty much being a concern troll. The population problem, while still real, is well on its way to solving itself. The consumption problem, not so much. Population growth is a problem of the poor. Consumption growth is a problem of the rich (which, from a global perspective, includes pretty much everyone in the United States). So when you ignore consumption and pin the blame for global sustainability issues on population, what you're doing is blaming the 99% for the mistakes of the 1%.

Read Frank Pearce's entire essay on Yale Environment 360

Image: Family Portrait, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 12567713@N00's photostream

Autism: Awareness isn't enough

Science writer Steve Silberman does an amazing job covering neurodiversity and the Autism community, so I've been waiting to get his take on the recent Centers for Disease Control data that found the rate of autism prevalence in the United States to be 1 in 88.

That prevalence rate has been on an upward trend for a while, and whenever the new stats come out (these are based on data from 2008), it triggers a shockwave of hand-wringing coverage that treats these figures as if they must be based on an increase in actual incidence of autism, as opposed to changes in diagnostic criteria and methods. This matters, Silberman writes, because the science seems to back up the idea that what we're actually seeing is better diagnosis.

That theory is bolstered by two recent studies in South Korea and the United Kingdom, which suggest that autism prevalence has always been much higher than the estimated 1-in-10,000 when the diagnostic criteria were much more narrow and exclusionary. What’s changed now is that — in addition to the radical broadening of the spectrum following the introduction of diagnostic subcategories like Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS – clinicians, teachers, and parents have gotten much better at recognizing autism, particularly in very young children. That’s actually good news, because by identifying a child early, parents can engage the supports, therapies, modes of learning, and assistive technology that can help a kid express the fullest potential of their unique atypical mind.

The real problem, according to Silberman, isn't a mysterious increase in the number of children with autism. Instead, the problem is how we, as a society, treat those children once they are no longer children.

Once that 1-in-88 kid grows to adulthood, our society offers little to enable him or her to live a healthy, secure, independent, and productive life in their own community. When kids on the spectrum graduate from high school, they and their families are often cut adrift — left to fend for themselves in the face of dwindling social services and even less than the meager level of accommodations available to those with other disabilities.

Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the money raised by star-studded “awareness” campaigns goes into researching potential genetic and environmental risk factors — not to improving the quality of life for the millions of autistic adults who are already here, struggling to get by.

Instead, what people with autism really need is to be a part of their communities. That means acceptance of difference is more important than awareness of difference. It also means that respect, support, and inclusion are more important than frantic attempts to "cure" children who might not have anything really wrong with them.

Read the rest of Steve Silberman's story on autism awareness, autism acceptance, and what people with autism say they really want.

Image: Autism Awareness Ribbon, Colorful Puzzle Pieces, Free Creative Commons Public Domain Download, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from walkadog's photostream

"My feelings could not be lifted but sunk down": Dispatches from Japan on the anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake

Ichiroya Kimono Flea Market is a company that sells vintage and new kimonos. I don't own any kimonos, and I don't expect to ever buy one. But I do subscribe to Ichiroya's email newsletter. Why? Because it's hands-down the best corporate communique I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Honest, earnest, and unfiltered, the newsletter is written by Ichiro & Yuka Wada, who own and operate Ichiroya out of Osaka, Japan. The newsletters are not really about the company, per se. Sure, they discuss kimonos sometimes. But they're really more just a weekly personal letter from Japan. They're about life. And they're a pleasure to read, even when the life they're recording is incredibly sad.

I was turned onto the Ichiroya newsletters last month by science writer Shar Levine, who has been reading them for years. After the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan a year ago—and through the fear and madness that's followed the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns—Shar told me that the Ichiroya newsletters have been a powerful testament to how these disasters impacted the lives of everyday Japanese.

There are archives of some of the newsletters online. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find an archive that contained the letters written since March 11, 2011. However, when I got the Ichiroya newsletter today, I knew I needed to share it with you. The entire thing is posted below the cut. It tells a story of terrible sadness, strength, and rebirth that needs to be read.

Read the rest

This is what a scientist looks like

Last year, I told you about a group of 7th graders who took a trip to Fermilab that completely changed their perception of what scientists ought to look like. Before they went on the field trip, "scientists" were bald white guys in lab coats who practiced, primarily, chemistry, and who were deeply weird.

At Fermilab, the kids realized that scientists were, basically, people. All ages. All races. Many with luxuriant, flowing hair. Doing things that actually seemed like fun.

This is What a Scientist Looks Like is a Tumblr that kind of does the same thing, but for people who can't just take the day off for a Fermilab visit. On it, you'll find photos of scientists in their natural habitats—practicing yoga, looking gleefully at Lego models, even lifting startlingly large weights.

If you've ever wondered who I'm talking about when I tell you that "researchers" found something ... this is who the researchers are. Think about it as a gossip magazine column: "Scientists! They're just like us!"

Well, except for the entomologist lifting weights. She's clearly better than me.

What it's like for a mathematician

It's hard to explain the experience of expertise. That's why one of the first things they teach you in journalism school is to avoid questions like, "What's it like to be a mathematician?" It's hard for your interview subject to know how to respond and you seldom get a useful answer.

But not never.

On Quora, someone* asks, "What is it like to have an understanding of very advanced mathematics?" And the responses are surprisingly interesting. Especially the first, wherein an anonymous mathematician lays out a detailed account of how advanced mathematics have altered his/her view of the world and of being a mathematician.

• You are often confident that something is true long before you have an airtight proof for it (this happens especially often in geometry). The main reason is that you have a large catalogue of connections between concepts, and you can quickly intuit that if X were to be false, that would create tensions with other things you know to be true, so you are inclined to believe X is probably true to maintain the harmony of the conceptual space. It's not so much that you can imagine the situation perfectly, but you can quickly imagine many other things that are logically connected to it.

• You are comfortable with feeling like you have no deep understanding of the problem you are studying. Indeed, when you do have a deep understanding, you have solved the problem and it is time to do something else. This makes the total time you spend in life reveling in your mastery of something quite brief. One of the main skills of research scientists of any type is knowing how to work comfortably and productively in a state of confusion.

These are only two bullets on a multi-bullet post. You really should read the whole thing.

Great find, noggin!

*I couldn't tell who had asked the question. Maybe I'm just not familiar enough with Quora. If you can see a name for the thread's original author, let me know.

Infrared portraits of scientists and staff in Antarctica

Henry Kaiser—filmmaker, musician, Antarctic research diver and BoingBoing guest blogger—took a series of infrared portraits of scientists and staff at the McMurdo Research Station. I really like the way these infrared photos feel like they capture the cold environment better than a normal photo would. Another bonus: I keep having to remind myself that, no, everybody in Antarctica has not dyed their hair blue.

6 myths of microfinancing

Over the years, I've been really impressed with the stuff I've heard about microfinancng charities like KIVA. The idea of helping people in developing countries launch and support small businesses, changing their lives and the lives of their children, makes a lot of sense. And the personal stories that go with microfinancing are pretty appealing.

I'm starting to re-think my opinions on microfinancing, however, after reading some of the research done by GiveWell.org, an organization that casts an evidence-based eye on what different charities do and whether they actually get the results they claim.

It's not that microfinancing is bad, per se, GiveWell says. It's just that the system doesn't measure up to the hype. And if you've got a limited amount of money to spend on helping other people, there might be more effective ways to do it that produce more bang for your buck.

GiveWell has written a ton on this, but I'd recommend starting with a blog post of theirs from a couple of years ago called 6 Myths About Microfinance Charities that Donors Can Live Without. This piece provides a succinct breakdown of what questions you should be asking about microfinance charities, and provides lots and lots of links for deeper digging. The myth that surprised me the most:

Myth #6: microfinance works because of (a) the innovative “group lending” method; (b) targeting of women, who use loans more productively than men; (c) targeting of the poorest of the poor, who benefit most from loans.

Reality: all three of these claims are often repeated but (as far as we can tell) never backed up. The strongest available evidence is limited, but undermines all three claims.

A must-read for college students and professors

As much as 40 percent of the people who start out majoring in science and engineering end up switching to other degrees. Why? The answers are complex, and the people who drop out are often the best-of-the-best. The New York Times looks at why college students leave science majors and what can be done to change that. Maggie

List of scienceers on Google+

Are you looking for cool science news and thoughts on Google+? Check out this spreadsheet, which collects a bunch of scientists, science writers, and other related people into one place. You can even circle them en-masse! (Thanks Chris Robinson!)

An Apollo astronaut on political quagmires

Thank you, Tim Lloyd. This made my day.

Inventors killed by their own inventions

Wikipedia's list of Inventors Killed By Their Own Inventions. AKA: Further evidence that the biography of Thomas Midgley, Jr. would make a great opera. (Via Paul Kedrosky)

"If it wasn't for gravy and coffee, we'd starve to death": Interview with a cowboy

In 1937, someone from the Worker's Project Administration interviewed an aging cowboy, L.M. Cox of Brownwood, Texas, as part of an effort to record America's oral history.

At the Ptak Science Books blog you can read the full interview with Mr. Cox and get a rare, inside look at what life was really like in the Old West. This is why oral history is interesting to me. It's a chance to capture what life was really life, without the varnish (or at least as much of the varnish) that you'd find in a novel, or a movie, or even a formal letter. It allows us to consider someone else's everyday life, outside the mystique of their time. Cool stuff.

"The usual ride was sixteen hours per day. No Union hours for them. It was from daylight until dark with work, and hard work as that. One cowboy complained of having to eat two suppers, so he quit, packed his bed and left. In about three months he returned, carrying only a bull's-eye lantern, saying that where he had been working he needed only the lantern and had no use for the bed.

... "In the late 80's and early 90's came the covered wagons and then the sheepman. We stood the covered wagons pretty well but it took a long time to get on friendly terms with the sheepman. They were sure enough trespassers in the cowman's eye. One sheepman got his flock located on some good grass and the cowmen came along and ordered him off their premises. 'I can't go now,' the sheepman complained, 'I have lost my wagon wheel.' Cowboys always had a heart and tried to be lenient but they also hated deception. One of the cowboys who had heard this gag before, looked around a bit and found the missing wheel hidden away in some mesquite bushes. The sheepman was hustled away in a hurry."

..."Boiled beef and Arbuckle Coffee was our standby. The boys used to say if old man Arbuckle ever died they'd all be ruined and if it wasn't for Pecos water gravy and Arbuckle Coffee we would starve to death.