City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

May 5, 2017

April 27th

Filed under: Gambel's Oak, Long-leaf phlox, Mallard, Squirrel — canopus56 @ 12:54 pm

Biophilia – Part VII – Is the Biophilia Hypothesis Necessary?

2:00 p.m. After a night of extraordinarily heavy, cold rain, the sun returns in the afternoon, but temperatures have returned to the high thirties. It is brief reminder of winter, and I have become forgetful and under-dressed for today’s jog. The butterflies and ants have disappeared, but at mile 0.6, a single female mallard flies up the centerline of the road at about 15 feet above its surface. In past years, ducks have raised broods at the flood retention ponds near mile 3.2, and I suspect that the male and female mallards seen along the first mile have taken up residence there. Only five birds, heard by their calls, are detected in the first mile. At mile 1.2, opposite picnic site 9 and at milepost 1.5, two fields of pink Long-leaf Phlox have bloomed. One is about fifty by twenty feet and the second is one-hundred and fifty by fifty feet. Up canyon from milepost 1.5, the western roadside shows more immature phlox, and this proposes further showings over the next week. Scott’s Hill and Little Black Mountain are all frosted with snow, but it is a thin layer. The SNOTEL stations at Louis Meadow and Lookout Peak record only one inch of new snow. I spend today logging all of the flowering cultivar trees, principally crab apples and plums, along the first two miles of the upper canyon road. Tamarisk at the entrance to picnic site 11, has leafed in. Turning down canyon, Pleasant Valley is an idyllic greening sight under the spotting of clouds, bright sunlight and crisp air. The angle of the sun on the eastern sandstone cliffs reveals new movement of water. The heavy rain at the ridgeline has seeped through the soil and at the top line of the sandstone cliffs, sunlight glints off of sheets of water that leak from under the soil and down the vertical sandstone cliffs.

Before picnic site 12, I see for the first time in decades in the canyon, a Rock squirrel disappear into one of the several small burrows that dot the roadside in the first one and a half miles. I have always suspected these were squirrel burrows, but this is the first time that I have actually seen a squirrel disappear into one. The squirrel had paralleled me along the road making a noisy traverse of the underbrush. Then is popped out by the side of road, watched me for a few moments and then retired to it burrow underneath a large Gambel’s oak tree. The burrow looks empty; there are many leaves around its entrance and going down into the four-inch tunnel. This illustrates how the Gambel’s oak forest provides a nurturing habitat for the squirrels beyond the oak’s cornucopia of acorns. If the rock squirrel burrows into the ground alone with an earthen ceiling, its tunnel would run the risk of collapse and flooding. The contorted roots of this species of oak may provide a sturdy wooden roof for the squirrel’s den, and the thick layer of leaves dropped by the oak absorbs snow and rain. Residing under the oak may keep their den dry and warm. But the squirrels also have many tree nests along the road (Dec. 10th), and I have seen several similar nests inhabited by squirrels near my home. When will the squirrels rise from beneath the ground and take to the trees, and will they be hunted there by the Cooper’s hawks?

The cold weather leaves an empty parking lot at two in the afternoon, and I have the road largely to myself. But on returning at five, the steady sunshine has refilled it with cars and people.

* * * *

Wilson and Kellert argue essentially a political position using informal argumentation from signs: genetic drive for biophilia is necessary justification for the preservation of nature given the accelerated extinction rates of species caused by humankind’s activities (Wilson 1984, Kellert 1993). Current levels of specie extinction are nearing to that seen in catastrophic meteor extinctions events, and this extinction is a hallmark of the Anthropocene era (March 2nd). Nature needs to be preserved to preserve humankind. But is a genetic compulsion to seek nature only a sufficient justification for preservation? There is along history of conservation and biophilia that created our national parks, that created the environmental movement, that protected us against environmental toxins, and that raised the alarm of loss of diversity that pre-dates the development of genetics and behavioral psychology. In the nineteenth century John Muir in his journal and writings celebrated nature and at the beginning of the twentieth century Walt Whitman in the “Leaves of Grass” cried, “Give me solitude – give me Nature – give me again, O Nature, your sanities!” Many contributed to developing the importance that our modern culture gives to the natural environment based on their feelings, not their genes: Aldo Leopold in the 1940s, Rachael Carson in the 1960s, David Brower in the 1970s, and Arne Naess’s deep ecology movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Political action to reserve natural lands from human use flows from human emotions and the human will, and genetic biophilia is not a necessary justification for communities to decide to preserve lands. The counterargument is that genetic biophilia is needed to counteract the increasing reliance on informal argumentation based on signs in post-industrial culture; genetic biophilia is a sufficient justification to preserve nature.

But reliance only on signs alone to prove hypotheses removes critical thinking from hard science, since proof is not subject to contradiction. At times, informal argumentation from signs inflates to bureaucratized psuedo-science. Thereby, the power of individuals has been reduced rendered ineffective and reduced to Fromm’s homo consumens by free-market economic theory, by the coarse narcissism of Ayn Rand-based libertarianism, by biological behaviorism, and by the modern need to have all policy subjected to scientific proof, often pseudo-scientific proof. Frequently, the pre-condition of scientific proof before policy change degrades into the abuse of mathematical models and of critical statistical thinking. By pseudo and bureaucratized science, I mean that human and natural reality are too complex to be properly modeled mathematically or to allow for the ethical validation of a model. Models and mathematical models of reality are an essential check that enables people to distinguish between that which is from that which humanity wants to be, but all abstract models have their limits. It is important to distinguish between a beautiful idea and an elegant model from what actually is, and to not become so enamored with our models or ideology that were ignore the world. Lacking the ability to fully model all causes in a complex reality, governance becomes policy based on signs supported by weakly verified scientific evidence and provisional hypotheses. Too frequently, I see policy and expert pronouncements being supported by only small-sized studies that at best give doubtful signs of whether our view of the world is correct. Nonetheless, such scientific opinions are presented as if they are immutable law instead of as doubtful provisional hypotheses.

An example of the risks of informal argumentation from signs is in the field of economics. Although economics is a science, economic theories are often incapable of verification and contradiction. A leading modern economic theory is the Phillips curve – the inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment. A statistical relationship between the unemployment and inflation did exist in the United States for a short-period ending in 1968, but since then, there is no correlation between the two. Despite searching economic data for over forty years, economists were only able to again find an exemplar of that association in the United States mid-west (Nicolini and Fitzgerald 2013). Even so, Federal Reserve policy uses the Phillips curve a core guiding indicator that places millions in unemployment lines and despite the lack of supporting statistic proof.

Over the last few years, science itself has moved to reduce abuse of statistics by informal argumentation from signs. In 2016, the American Statistical Association issued a statement discouraging the use of statistical p-value statements in research (Wasserstein and Lazar 2016), and that move was prompted in response to the increasing problem of non-reproducibililty of experiments in many branches of research (Ioannidis 2005, Nuzzo 2014). Current research practice emphasizes the need for multiple studies that demonstrate a dose-dependent relationship between a causal factor and an effect (see Wasserstein and Lazar 2016). This discourages making inferences from limited associations established by studies supported only by simple frequentist statistics. Research also involves turning data into a model. The science of modeling is also changing by techniques that emphasize statistical selection of factors used in proposed causal models. Whether a researcher proposes to include or exclude a potential causal factor can dramatically change the results of statistical analysis, and thus, analytic techniques, such as mathematical factor analysis, are encouraged to select causal factors and to reduce researcher bias in selecting causal factors.

Given the state of non-reproducibility in science, critical reading of scientific studies that justify policies in the political, environmental or economic spheres is a necessary democratic skill. The American Heart Association has a useful approach for determining what weight should be given to studies and whether scientific theory is supported by reasonable evidence or whether an unproven theory should be considered provisional:

• Level A: Multiple populations evaluated. Data derived from multiple randomized trials or meta-analysis.

• Level B: Limited populations evaluated. Data derived from a single randomized trail or non-randomized studies.

• Level C: Very limited populations studied. Only consensus opinion of experts or case studies evaluated (Stone et al 2013).

The American Heart Association also adds a second vector that consists of three degrees of beneficial effect created by the treatments studied: small, medium and great. Taken with the three types of studies, a conceptual grid is created to guide decisionmaking. Studies of limit populations that contain primarily expert opinions and whose beneficial effect is small suggest no action should be taken until efficacy is proven further. Studies based on multiple randomized blind-trials whose interventions have a large beneficial effect should be looked at closely for implementation. This decision-making schema is usefully for approaching the many scientific and psuedo-scientific claims that bombard every day life. Claims made based on small sized studies that promise only marginal benefits do not require much energy-grabbing attention.

By the foregoing, I do not mean to be anti-science by claiming that experts and the long tradition of journal publication and review should be discounted, as currently occurs among some political elites. Rather, science must be read and understood by ordinary citizens and presented by expert authors with acknowledgment of its limits. This means that many times scientific research can only provide loose guidance despite the enormous expense and effort that good science demands, and citizens should not expect it to always provide the level of certainty and stability that people expect their politicians to provide. Scientific research and science-based policy-making cannot be a full substitute for human value-based decisions and human judgement calls. The ethical use of scientific studies results ultimately rests on the courage to say that in many cases one does not know the answer, but to proceed with the humility of ignorance.

In this current culture that requires proof by informal argumentation from sign, genetic biophilia is a needed, but not necessary, justification that supplements human values for the preservation of natural places. It is needed to combat the prevalence of poor critical thinking that supports anti-environment forces. However, given the weakness of scientific proof supporting the signs of genetic biophilia, it should not be a mainstay of the argument from preservation. Ultimately, people must decide to preserve for the simple reason that they like nature and not because it has some utilitarian value, even the utilitarian value of satisfying a genetic-based human need.

* * * *

On April 27th, 1920, a special water bond election was held to issue $3,300,000 for water supply improvements, including $200,000 for building a reservoir in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). On April 27th, 1902, the Salt Lake Tribune overviewed the city’s reservoirs and lines, including the High Line and partially excavating reservoir at Pleasant Valley in City Creek Canyon.

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