Anarchism as Creative Destruction

The F-16 Fighting Falcon: John Boyd played the key role in designing this aircraft.

Anarchism is a political philosophy that gets a bad rap. When most people hear the word “anarchism”, the first thing that comes to mind is a bomb exploding in a crowded square, or a bullet in the chest of a US president. Revolutionary anarchism was and is a thing, but I think the portrayal of anarchist thought as being centered around destruction and chaos is naive. Anarchism at its core shifts political discussion from being anchored on the left vs. right divide to being predicated on the dichotomy between centralization and decentralization of power. It is in this polarity between centralization and decentralization that I find anarchism to be an effective lens to view the world through. 

I recently read Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, a wonderful biography of John Boyd, a US fighter pilot and possibly the most influential military strategist since Sun Tzu. One of Boyd’s few writings is Destruction and Creation, a 1976 paper outlining Boyd’s views on how humans create models of the world and how these models in turn change our perception the world. As I read and reflected on it, I sensed many connections between his theory and my thoughts on anarchism. With this in mind, I will try to explain those connections. I highly recommend reading this paper at least once before starting this blog post, it is extremely thought provoking and will give you context for my thoughts. 

Two key components in Boyd’s theory are those of destructive deduction and creative induction. Destructive deduction involves the breaking of concepts, or models of the world, into their empirical constituents, the observations, intuitions, and perceptions that we see everyday. Creative induction is the assembly of these now separate empirical constituents into new concepts, or models of the world, that better explain our ever changing environment. The driving force behind this cycle of destruction and creation is the constant feedback provided by our environment, which lets us know how well or how poorly our model of the world matches the world as it actually. This feedback leads to the modification of our models, which in turn leads to different observations shaped by the model. These new observations then lead to the creation of new models, which in turn shape new perception and so on. This process of creation and destruction never stops, and forms the core of Boyd’s thesis. 

In my mind, I see the modern state as the model in need of destruction and a stateless society being the empirical constituents that formed that model. As the state ages its model of society grows faulty as a result of over the top centralization. Centralization abstracts governance structures from the reality on the ground, and leads to an increasingly large disconnect between it’s model of society and how society is actually evolving. The mere presence of a state leads to changes in the society it is attempting to control, creating novel, unaccounted-for problems that it cannot solve. As these problems continue to compound and reach a critical, destructive deduction leads to the break up of the state and radical decentralization. With the state out of the way, novel governance structures are formed through constructive induction as people form new social groups and power structures that actually solve problems. These structures then compete and most likely centralize, starting the cycle over again. 

I think this formulation is present in all of history prior to the rise of the modern state, and will eventually prove true in the current global order. These are just some preliminary thoughts the intersection between anarchism and Boyd’s thesis, let me know what you think. The connection between his work and Feyeraband’s and Kuhn’s philosophy of science is also interesting and something I will continue to think about.

My First AGU Experience

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Me smiling for a picture to please my mom.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the American Geophysical Union’s 2017 Fall Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana to present research I have been conducting under Dr. Denise Kulhanek of Texas A&M University/The International Ocean Discovery Program. I want to share some of my thoughts about the meeting, as it was my first scientific conference and it gave me a lot to think about.

The American Geophysical Union is the largest Earth and space science organization in the world with over 60,000 members from 137 countries. This past meeting had, last I heard, something like 27,000 attendees. Attendees came from all points in their academic careers, including undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, professors, and research scientists. The attendees work for universities, national laboratories, federal government, industry as well as other entities. The breadth of scientific experience at the meeting was amazing, and it was invigorating to connect with so many brilliant scientists.

There was also a tremendous variety of disciplines on display at the meeting.  Earth science as a field is, in my opinion, the most interdisciplinary of the major sciences. In order to attempt to describe the Earth system, knowledge of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics and geology is necessary. These disciplines, in addition to innumerable sub-disciplines, give geoscientists the tools needed to try to describe the Earth system with as much detail as possible. The meeting featured scientists from all of these sub-disciplines, a lot of which I had little prior knowledge about.

AGU

List of Sections/Focus Groups at the AGU 2017 Fall Meeting because I’m lazy.

I’ll now explain the basic set up of the conference. It was hosted at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center, a huge building that is about 1 mile across on its longest side. Lets just say there was a lot of walking involved. The conference itself was from Monday, December 11, to Friday, December 15. The scientific program lasted from 8 to 6 every day and consisted of two types of events, oral and poster sessions. Oral sessions were 2 hours long, and consisted of scientists giving 15 minute presentations on research related to a selected topic. An example of a topic was session focused on “Evaluating Tectonic and Volcanic Forcing of Earth’s Climate”. Poster sessions were 4 hours long, usually related to oral session topics, and allowed for more in-depth explanations of research as well as interactions with the scientists behind the research.

The posters scheduled for sessions were kept in the poster hall for the full duration of the day, to give as many opportunities for viewing as possible. Presenters were often at their posters for about 2 of the 4 hours dedicated to their session, making it somewhat a game of chance if you were actually going to be able to meet the scientist behind the poster. The poster hall and its various sessions was really something to see. They must have connected about 3 or 4 huge ballrooms to accommodate all of the posters. The posters were organized by section and filled the whole of the massive room. The atmosphere was really something new for me. It was gratifying to be in a place filled to the brim with all sorts of science, and to be able to stop at any poster and learn something new.

My research with Dr. Kulhanek uses sediment cores taken during the International Ocean Discovery Program’s Expedition 363 to the Western Pacific Warm Pool to reconstruct changes in the western equatorial Pacific carbonate system during the Miocene (~9 to 19 million years ago).  The Pacific Ocean is the largest repository of carbon on the planet, and changes in the production and burial of carbonate over time in this region have had a tremendous affect on the global carbon cycle and climate. We are focusing on the Western Pacific Warm Pool because it is widely believed to have a large influence on global climate, but has not been studied as much as other regions of the ocean because many climate proxies are hard to use in its extremely warm waters.

WPWP

Map of the WPWP with sea-surface temperatures. The site I’m looking at is U1490.

My poster showed preliminary X-ray fluorescence (XRF) bulk geochemistry data we measured at IODP’s XRF lab last semester, along with shipboard measurements taken during the expedition. The data produced from XRF  is semi-quantitative, it gives out element content in counts per second which isn’t very useful for analysis. In order to use the data we took ratios of different elemental proxies to calcium/potassium to convert our not useful raw XRF data to useful quantitative element ratios.   We used this geochemical data to show changes in carbonate content (crucial to understanding ancient climate systems), paleoproductivity (a measure of the amount of life in the overlying sea), continental input (sediment from islands) and weathering rate during our selected time period. The main conclusion from this preliminary research is that we still have work to do. Here is the pdf of my poster if you want to browse through it (Valerio_Kulhanek_AGU2017_opt).

Nonetheless, presenting my research at AGU was tremendous fun. I presented in the “Paleoclimate Variability in the Indo-Pacific Region” poster session for about two hours, and got to meet a lot of great scientists. Most of the people who came by our session had either sailed on Expedition 363 or were working with sites cored during the expedition. I got a lot of great advice about where to go next with my research which was great. It was a great experience to meet scientists from all over the world and be able to discuss my research with experts in the field. I also met Robinson Meyer, a climate and technology reporter with the Atlantic, who came by the poster. We had a great conversation about the state of science and science journalism in 2017 which was very enjoyable. He’s a cool dude. Overall, my first presentation at a scientific conference went very well and I enjoyed doing it.

I also had the opportunity to attend the International Ocean Discovery Program’s AGU Town Hall, where the various scientists from around the world involved with IODP hang out and drink beer. The meeting started off with the IODP Forum Chair Dr. James A. Austin updating the community on the state of the drilling program and the planned expeditions for the future. After this presentation the scientists got food and beer, then just hung out for a while. I got to meet a lot of great scientists there. I thought the meeting was a microcosm of the international nature of scientific inquiry, and invigorated my plan to continue work with IODP in the future.

I spent most of my time during the conference in sessions related to paleoceanography/paleoclimatology or volcanology, geochemistry, and petrology. This increased my certainty that my research interests are primarily at the intersection of paleoclimatology and geochemistry, which was reassuring. It was good to learn that what I thought I was interested in is actually what I am interested in.  With this in my mind I added to my list of potential grad school professors those that are in line with what I want to do.

Overall, my first AGU meeting was great. I loved having the opportunity to learn so much about my field of study, meet so many interesting scientists and be able to present my research to the research community. Going to AGU has redoubled my determination to continue my research career, and helped narrow down what I am truly interested in. I’m grateful to my research adviser Dr. Kulhanek for being such a great mentor and giving me the opportunity to travel and present my research in New Orleans. Also, thanks to the American Geophysical Union for providing me with a travel grant to attend the meeting. I look forward to attending many future conferences.

The Geologic Perspective

As a student of geology, one of the first lessons you learn about your field is that geologic time is very different from everyday time as you experience it. Geologic time is measured in units virtually impossible to comprehend. The history of the Earth is measured in thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, hundreds of millions and billions of years. These numbers are so big that they can be hard to relate to. How can we, as beings whose lifespans are measured in such measly numbers as tens of years, even try to understand the history of a planet whose history reaches back 4.56 billion years? Or a universe that stretches back 13.7 billion years? Hell I don’t know. A year can feel like a long time. Even as a person who studies this stuff I can hardly wrap my head around the numbers thrown around when discussing any part of the planet’s past.

As Earth scientists, we have a system of dating that ties geological strata to time that we use to contextualize the timing and relationships of different phenomena as they occurred during Earth’s history. This is called the geologic time scale. This system organizes time into various units based on events that occurred in each period. Some of the units you’ve probably heard before, most likely the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. These geologic periods contain the time when dinosaurs roamed the planet. The boundaries of these units are typically defined by major changes in global stratigraphic compositions indicating major geological/paleontological events such as mass extinctions. Here is one representation of the time scale.

Clock representation of geologic time shamelessly ripped from Wikipedia

Here’s another.

A more traditional representation taken from the Geological Society of America

As you can see, the geologic time scale is quite complicated and contains a lot of information. These representations attempt to represent the history of Earth in a compact, concise guide that is useful in contextualizing the aging of the Earth. It contains the histories of almost an almost innumerable numbers of species, many of which are not even found in the sedimentary record and thus not known to us. To use as reference, there are an estimated one trillion species of microbes on Earth right now, 99.999% of which haven’t been discovered. Not to mention the estimated 8.7 million species of eukaryotes (more complex organisms) that live on Earth right now as well. To imagine the number of species that have ever inhabited this planet is like trying to count the number of waves in the ocean. Or, most likely, to try to count all the waves in all the oceans on all the planets of the universe.

Prior to studying geology, meaning much of high school pretty much, my main intellectual passion was the study of history. Human history, that is. In particular I was primarily intrigued by modern Western/ Middle Eastern military history. The time period most of my reading was focused on was from 1700 onward. This meant that pretty much most of what I learned about the world outside of classes was in a pretty narrow, three hundred year window. I read histories of the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as well as many others. In my junior year I even found the time to read a fantastic three-volume biography of Winston Churchill that I highly recommend.

While I found the study of human history to be super fascinating, it didn’t prepare me all that well for my pivot into the study of geology. Pretty much the oldest thing I could conceptualize was Neolithic Revolution about 12,500 years ago. Now, for the everyday person it is pretty normal to think that 12,500 years is a very distant time in the past. So much has happened in human history since then that its very easy to cast out much of it and say its not super important to learn about. For me, the past three hundred years contained most of the important things that have happened in the world, and thus figured pretty highly in the way that I understood the society I lived in.

Once I began at university and was first introduced to the study of deep time, of geologic time, I was pretty taken aback. Of course I had already learned during my time in pre-college education that the Earth was billions of years old, but learning about the sheer amount of change that occurred during those billions of years really made an impression on me. Honestly, it brought a badly needed sense of perspective on just how little time that humanity has has existed. I guess you could say being confronted not only with the size of the universe, but also the age of it really forced me to confront my anthropocentric view of existence. We haven’t been around that long in the grand scheme of things, and if we don’t learn to extend our thinking past the short-term we may not be around that much longer.