The Word of the Year: SCIENCE

The Word of the Year: SCIENCE

The Merriam-Webster people have named SCIENCE the word of the year.


Why?  It had “the greatest increase in look-ups” in the online version of their dictionary.  This data might be pretty solid, given that they have about 100 million look-ups a month.  A lot more people wondered what science means in 2013.  I have to admit that I did that myself, although I didn’t turn to the dictionary for help. 

Now the humanities professor from Amherst who reports this finding on his Lingua Franca blog has what an over-the-top reaction.  He says that 2013 was also “the year in which the humanities were officially buried.”  And their funeral oration was “a scathing report issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.”  Their diagnosis was that the withering away of the humanities in our colleges and universities is evidence that “our country” has “a decaying soul.”

The humanities professor does admit that maybe one reason people haven’t been rushing to the dictionary for help on “humanities” is that the definitions given there are fuzzy and unhelpful.  And let’s say they figured that in advance and so didn’t bother to look the word up.

That people are wondering what science means I take as a good sign.  The word should be more contestable that it is. 

For me, if you think about the origin the world science (scientia),  it could only mean what we can really know, or knowledge of the way things (and people) really are.

To be scientific, to be a bit more imprecise, is to be empirical.  It is, from one view, not to be satisfied with dogma or opinion.  It is to be the man from Missouri, who says don’t tell me, show me.  As Socrates repeatedly explains, it’s not to rely on hearsay evidence.

Science is also not thinking abstractly.  The philosopher Hegel, who thought he discovered the science of History and had become wise, says that the philosopher is the least abstract thinker.  He doesn’t “abstract from” anything, he explains everything.   Many modern claims for science—such as the science of economics—gain clarity through abstracting from inconvenient phenomena.  I would think you need to read Hegel—no easy task—before you say you know he can’t explain everything.   The least you will discover is that he operates at a higher pay grade than say Richard Dawkins or E.O. Wilson.

When scientists forget what they haven’t explained or can’t explain,  they fall prey to scientism.  It’s not that economists can’t explain a lot. But who can deny that libertarian popularizing economics who claim to account for everything we do fall prey to scientism?  By saying that everything has an economic or self-interested cause and can be explained by prevailing mode of the division of labor, our economists often turn their science into a kind of propaganda.  So too do our popularizing evolutionary theorists, whose accounts of human behavior are also quite speculative and incredible to philosophers and poets who have given a lot more detailed attention to the relevant phenomena.

Marx also turned science into a kind of propaganda, but he actually thought that was a scientific thing to do.  He thought that what he thought he knew had to be proven true through revolutionary action.  We see a similar kind of thinking animating the Controller in the scientific novel The Brave New World, and in the programmatic efforts of the behaviorist scientist B.F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger (who  also operates at a very high pay grade—although I would be the first to say knows less than he thinks he does) in his fascinating Letter on Humanism:  “The essence of materialism does not consist in the assertion that everything is matter but rather in the metaphysical determination according to which every being appears as a material of labor.”  That might mean, if you think about it, is that materialism doesn’t negate, but rather exaggerates, what can be done through human freedom or human productivity.  It might reconcile materialism with transhumanism—or the displacement of impersonal evolution by conscious and volitional evolution.  The modern version of science, Heidegger’s point might be,  is a form of humanism.  Heidegger might even explain the “metaphysical determination” that’s at its foundation as the cause of what sometimes seems to be our our decision to reduce all education to productivity or “measurable outcomes.”

Don’t think I’m mainly defending  “the humanities” here.  The separation of the humanities from science has been worse for the humanities than for science.  Scientists might think they know more than they really do, but they do know more and more through their rigorous and self-correcting method (maybe more and more about less and less, but I’ll leave that for later).  The humanities, meanwhile,  get lamer and lamer when they imagine that the rigor of scientific empiricism is not for them.  Really understanding a Socratic dialogue, I suspect, is harder than theoretical physics, and certainly requires at least as much rigorous attention to the details you can see with your own eyes.

One kind of rigor is to acknowledge imprecision when you can really see it.  Aristotle, for example, says that political science actually exists but is necessarily imprecise.  It’s somewhere between the persuasive baloney of the rhetorician (or even the science of rhetoric—or marketing) and the exceptionless precision of mathematics.  The recovery of the humanities might begin by reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the science of understanding the proud, free, and politcal being who most possess both moral and intellectual virtue to be all he (or she) can be. After that recovery, of course, we wouldn't call "the humanities" a distinctive field of inquiry anymore.

For Aristotle, it’s a scientific observation to say that human beings have souls.  And it’s scientifically possible to talk about the soul’s decay in particular persons and in particular communities.  It’s only ambiguously clear that the decay of “the humanities” as a field of inquiry opposed to science is evidence of the soul’s decay.  We can hope it’s a prelude to a recovery of the genuinely scientific investigation of the soul.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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