By Jim Steele
It’s curious how we find threads of good fortune interwoven with tragedy. Over a month ago I suffered a “widow-makers” heart attack, but I was graced with good luck. Just two hours earlier I was hiking on San Pedro Point. If the attack happened there, they would have carried my corpse off the mountain. As it was, the doctors still doubted my survival. But fortunately, one of the best heart surgeons was operating. But after 24 hours, he called my wife offering his condolences, telling her he did the best he could. Even in my drug-induced dreams I lay dead in a dark casket. But again, I was lucky. The surgeon’s best was just good enough. The next day he called my wife to say I was suddenly making progress.
Lying in ICU for 15 days, I reviewed my life and wondered if I would ever see family again. The COVID lockdown prevented all visitors, and my electronic devices were all home. I conjured up 60 years of friends, hoping to see their faces or hear their voices one more time. Sometimes a wave of melancholy would visit, thinking my passing would ultimately make little difference in their lives. But when I came home, I found hundreds of cards, email messages and texts wishing me well and I wept with heart-felt appreciation.
I was struck by friends who said that they “knew” I couldn’t die. Some because I was such a stubborn SOB. Others repeated I had so much more to give and my earthly mission was not complete. I confess loving to hear such sentiments, but they were just kind words. How could they know what my mission was? But then again, I had been on a solemn mission for 50 years.
In the late 1960s, I dropped out of ROTC and Engineering school not wanting to contribute to the horrors of the Vietnam War. After a few years of community organizing, I knew I had to go back to college, but for what purpose? In keeping with my love for nature, I had adopted some native American spirituality, so I went on my “vision quest”. The idea was to strip myself of all attachments to better know myself. I fasted in the middle of the wilderness for 4 days with just a blanket and bottle of water, then spoke to the universe about what I wanted. Amazingly, many lofty words only echoed back pathetically, but when I said I wanted to be a liaison between nature and people, my words rang strong. So, I enrolled at San Francisco State University in ecology and began my mission.
I embraced the beliefs of a great 1800s scientist, Thomas Huxley. He became known as Darwin’s Bulldog for his avid defense of many of Darwin’s theories. Studying fossils Huxley was first to theorize birds had evolved from dinosaurs. Relevant to my mission Huxley advised, “The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.” Or as Einstein advised, “Never stop questioning.”
As director of SFSU’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus I expanded the environmental studies program. To know nature, we immersed students in nature. I began a 25-year study of how natural climate and landscape changes affected wildlife. When a meadow we were monitoring dried up and birds declined, many blindly blamed global warming. Avoiding Huxley’s unpardonable sin, I dug deeper. It became clear the real problem was stream flows had been disrupted over 100 years ago. By restoring the streams, the meadow became more resilient and the wildlife improved better than before. Judicious skepticism had made me a better environmental steward.
Unfortunately, researchers’ dramatic conclusions too often go unexamined. Fearful conclusions make us abandon our critical thinking and valid contrasting research gets ignored. Too often research gets designed to fit prevailing fears so that science now suffers from a “replicability crisis”. Ten years ago, a Stanford epidemiologist tested over 400 research published claims and only one could be replicated and validated. The editor of Europe’s top medical journal, the Lancet, speculated half of their published research was likely false. Outside the laboratory, claims about ecology and climate are far more difficult to verify.
As science becomes more politicized, we get blinded by our beliefs. Honest points get dismissed as fake news, or the work of deniers. But more than ever “skepticism is our highest of duties”. All contradictory evidence must be examined, and respectful debate conducted. Indeed, this wretch is still on a mission to bring insights to the complexities of wildlife, wildfires, sea level, and climate. So, I want to thank Sherm Fredericks for providing the newspaper space for my columns. I simply hope to make people think and dig deeper. I will have a long rehab, so I encourage you to email me to discuss those issues. Together we can become “improvers of natural knowledge”.
(Jim Steele is director emeritus of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)