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One Community Grapples With Choices Between Human-Made Or Natural
We instinctively feel safer about anything natural and more worried by anything human-made, but instincts may not lead to choices that do human or environmental health the most good.
I am privileged to live in Concord, Massachusetts, a community with strong environmental values. Human instincts that compel consumption and blinker us with short-term thinking are making an awful mess of the natural world, and using our remarkable intelligence to overcome those instincts can only happen if those values are true and strong. But one of those values, to automatically prefer anything natural and demonize anything human-made, is itself an instinct that can also get us into trouble. As right as that feels, it can lead us to overlook, or deny, scientific evidence that should also play a role in intelligent decision-making.
Two issues coming up in Concord right now illustrate the risks of making decisions based more on instinct than a combination of instinct and intellect; fluoridation and artificial turf on playing fields. In both cases, what is being proposed — to get rid of fluoridation in the public water supply and use grass instead of artificial turf on town playing fields — could actually do more harm to public and environmental health than good.
The fluoride case is easy. While some questions have been raised about what the optimal dose may be to improve dental health and minimize any risk (largely fluorosis, or white spots on kids teeth exposed to too much fluoride), public health experts overwhelmingly agree that the optimal dose is not zero. While some environmental advocates dramatize claims that the risks of fluoride outweigh the benefits, citing largely sketchy research and generic chemo-noia (some say we should fear fluoride because the stuff we use in water is an industrial byproduct, or as they call it “industrial waste”), the bulk of the evidence says fluoride’s benefits far outweigh its risks.
The artificial turf battle is similar. It hasn’t been waged for nearly as long as the fluoride fight, which by its very persistence and ever-changing bogeyman (it causes communism, cancer, cognitive problems, etc.) has become a poster child for battles more about values than facts. But fears of artificial turf, largely centered around the fact that it's artificial, have been around long enough to prompt several thorough risk assessments, by Connecticut, New Jersey, California, and others from Seattle and Norway, which all found the same thing reported by a meta-analysis of the entire body of research on the subject, "Environmental and Health Impacts of Artificial Turf: A Review," in the February 2014 issue of Environmental Science and Technology;
Health risk assessment studies suggested that users of artificial turf fields, even professional athletes, were not exposed to elevated risks.
Cheng et al. also assessed the sustainability question, comparing the environmental pros and cons of artificial turf to grass. Plastics and the recycled tire rubber that cushions the impacts on artificial turf fields have environmental costs, but grass fields need fertilizer, re-seeding, mowing, water, and much more maintenance, all of which have underlying production, transportation, emissions, and energy demands too. Counterintuitively, researchers found;
Preliminary life cycle assessment suggested that the environmental impacts of artificial turf fields were lower than equivalent grass fields.
Plenty of sources warn about the risks of artificial turf, but they are mostly environmental advocacy groups, whose values understandably inform their view of the facts. Other alarms are raised by journalists who emphasize the danger, but fail to mention, or play down, the large body of evidence that undercuts those alarms. One particularly shoddy piece was by NBC’s Hannah Rappleye, "How Safe is the Artificial Turf Your Child Plays On?," which focused on a small cluster of female soccer goalies and suggested, without any hard evidence, that the artificial turf they played on might have caused the cancer.
Concord residents will soon be asked to vote on these issues at Town Meeting, a wonderfully democratic New England institution at which any citizen who shows up votes and that’s how town policy is made. On the surface, my friends and neighbors and fellow environmentalists might see these as obvious choices, to fear the human-made with all its stigmatized classes of materials like "chemicals" and "plastics," and favor the natural. But the body of evidence on both issues, including the evidence about what’s best for the environment, suggests that might not be the best choice for human or environmental health.
Concord residents are a pretty intelligent and well-educated lot, but education and intelligence don’t make it any easier to overcome our powerful instincts and values and think about things objectively. In fact, the smarter we are, the better we are at seeing the facts the way we want to. (See "The Polarizing Impact of Science Literacy and Numeracy on Perceived Climate Change Risks.") That’s why when I speak at Town Meeting, I will not advocate a vote one way or another on these issues. Our choices reflect how we feel and that’s up to each individual. I will only ask my friends and neighbors to join me in trying as hard as we can to use both our instinct and our intelligence to make choices that don’t just match our simplistic values-driven preconceptions, but also objectively consider the evidence as we try to figure out what will do our community the most good.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.