Knowledge Versus Belief and the Decline of Violence

• The National Science Board (the governing body of the National Science Foundation) has begun to wrestle with the difference between knowledge and belief. Is there a difference? The contentious issue arose as a result of a public survey that attempted to determine science literacy in the U.S. Two true-false questions on the survey were: 1) “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and 2) “The universe began with a huge explosion.” Can a person be scientifically literate without accepting the concepts of evolution and the big bang? Many scientists and educators say no. Perhaps the broader question is: what is the difference, if any, between knowledge and belief? What do you think? (Science, July 22, 2011)

• Is violence on the upswing in the world? What are we to make of 9/11, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Columbine, the recent youth camp killings in Norway, and Middle Eastern suicide bombers? Here’s the good news, as set forth in an 832-page book by Steven Pinker of Harvard University (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Viking Press, 2011). Pinker argues that, in fact, violent deaths of all kinds have declined over the years. His data indicate that such deaths declined from about 500 per 100,000 people in ancient societies to around 50 per 100,000 in the Middle Ages. In modern times, violent deaths dropped to around six to eight per 100,000 worldwide (even fewer than this in Europe). In the U.S., the rate of homicides is about five per 100,000 per year, and in 2005 just eight tenths of 1 percent of all Americans died of domestic violence and in two foreign wars combined. Prehistoric people, according to Pinker, were far more murderous than modern societies in percentages of the population killed in combat. He calculates that even in the warring 20th century, about 40 million people died out of the approximately six billion people who lived, or 0.7 percent. (Reviewed in Scientific American, Oct., 2011)

• New data indicate that “The distributions of many terrestrial organisms are shifting in latitude and/or elevation in response to changing climate.” (Chen et al, Science, Aug. 19, 2011) The data indicate that the shift is occurring faster than expected, and there is a positive correlation between magnitude of distribution change and the amount of warming.

• Around 2006, scientists discovered thousands and thousands of dead and dying bats in the caves where they spend the winter. Dead bats littered the cave floor and those still alive showed whitish dust-like material on their noses and faces. It’s now known that these bats were infected with “white nose disease;” it’s caused by a fungus that sends out microscopic threads that release an enzyme that digests skin and wing tissue. For the time being, the white nose epidemic is mostly restricted to the eastern states, but unless something can be done we may end up seeing bats on the endangered species list. In spite of their fearsome appearance, bats are “mind their own business” creatures that play a major role in pollinating certain plants and helping to keep mosquito and other insect populations under control; fruit-eating bats help disperse seeds in their feces. (Science News, Sept. 10, 2011)

• Nearly 40 years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, but because of politics the EPA is slow to prosecute municipalities and businesses that violate regulations and even slower to enact regulations on newly discovered contaminants (e.g., perchlorate, the solvent tetrachloroethylene, etc.), some EPA staffers were told to ignore Clean Water regulations by mid-level EPA bureaucrats. It’s now known that several thousand chemicals can pollute our drinking water. (Scientific American, Oct. 11, 2011; N.Y., Feb. 2, 2011)