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hockey brawls

by Donald Prothero, Oct 16 2013

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A review of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines

by Michael E. Mann

(Columbia University Press, New York, 395 pp., 2012)

The topic of global climate change has become one of the hottest global issues for over a decade now, figuring prominently in U.S. politics, and leading to many international conferences on how to contain it. As a scientific debate, the facts were resolved over a decade ago. Survey after survey over the past decade have shown that roughly 95-99% of scientists who publish peer-reviewed research in climate change agree that global climate is changing rapidly and that humans are to blame. This is a level of consensus in science similar to that supporting gravity, plate tectonics,  big bang cosmology,  quantum physics—or evolution. Yet for reasons having nothing to do with science (i.e., religion or ideology), there are powerful vested interests in the United States that don’t like the “inconvenient truths” of evolution or big bang cosmology (creationists) or climate change (libertarians and free-market conservatives, backed by the fossil fuel industry). They are determined to fight scientific consensus by any means necessary. In contrast to Canada, or any major industrialized nation in Europe or in eastern Asia (including Japan, South Korea, China, and others), the U.S. is the only nation where science deniers (creationists and climate deniers) comprise any significant part of the population, and have a lot of influence in a major political party, so they can prevent any political action on the issue. Continue reading…

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Should we let the clowns run the circus?

by Donald Prothero, May 22 2013

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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom
—Isaac Asimov

A few weeks ago, we heard in the news the chilling and alarming statement that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, wants to subject all the scientific research grants of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to political scrutiny. No longer was it sufficient that the NSF conduct peer review of grants by experts in the field to determine whether they are worthy of funding. No, the House Committee has decided that they are better judges of good science that the scientific community itself, and they ought to be able to override the decisions of scientists who work in the field.

We’ve seen this kind of political interference in science before, but never at such a high level. Even more disturbing, the GOP members of the House Science and Technology Committee are not the kind of people that most of us would want judging the quality of science. They are nearly all science deniers of one sort or another. This committee includes such luminaries as Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Continue reading…

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The “hockey stick” slaps back

by Donald Prothero, Apr 17 2013
The rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, with an averaged curve (black line) fitted to the annual cyclic variation of seasonal ice (noisy blue curve).

The rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, with an averaged curve (black line) fitted to the annual cyclic variation of seasonal ice (fluctuating blue curve).

The year 2012 and now early 2013 have been an unending litany of bad climate news. After a record-breaking year of heat and drought in North America, and with devastating Superstorm Sandy, and record heat and fires in Australia, the year 2012 ended up being the ninth hottest year on record despite a strong La Niña cycle that should have made it a lot cooler. Once the current La Niña cycle ends, you can expect the next few years to blast past the previous global temperature record of 2010. As it is, nine of the ten hottest years on record were in the last decade—only the record-breaking El Niño  year of 1998 didn’t occur in the window between 2002 and 2012.

Even more alarming were the weekly reports about the incredibly fast loss of our global ice volume, from mountain glaciers to the Greenland and Antarctic continental ice sheets. Most serious of all, however, is the record melting of the Arctic ice. Last summer, the Arctic ice cap shrank to the lowest level ever measured, and even the winter ice pack was the fifth smallest ever measured. And the news just came in that the melting rate of the Antarctic ice cap is the highest ever recorded. If anything will cause the rapid rise of sea level, it will be the melting of these ice sheets. Then we’ll see not only low-lying countries disappear, but more storms like Superstorm Sandy, whose storm surge will reach much further inland with a higher sea level base. Continue reading…

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What Is a Consensus?

by Brian Dunning, Jan 03 2013

IMG_3741Anyone who has ever pointed out that a scientific consensus exists on a certain matter has probably been meet with laughter and derision. The word consensus has practically become a punchline. It is reminiscent of the famous corollary to Godwin’s Law which states that the first person to mention Nazis has automatically lost the argument; so it frequently goes with the first person to mention consensus. So many highly visible personalities deny and deride scientific consensus that the term has, in popular usage, become synonymous with a fatally weak argument. Continue reading…

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Bride of Frankenstorm

by Donald Prothero, Nov 14 2012

The “end of the world” allegedly predicted by the Mayan calendar in December 2012 may be a myth, but 2012 had no shortage of catastrophes. We had the warmest year in history in North America, with record-breaking heat waves through much of the summer, and drought conditions approaching those of the Dust Bowl years. A July heat wave melted 97% of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, the worst melting since satellite monitoring began 30 years ago. Arctic sea ice cover in September was at an the all-time low, beating the record set only back in 2007. 2011 was not much better, with Hurricane Irene flooding the Northeast, a large number of killer tornadoes (including deadly storms in Missouri and Alabama), 500-year floods in Nashville and Duluth, and severe wildfires all over the parched Rocky Mountains. It seems that the news is full of one unprecedented weather event after another, and those jokes about snowy winters a few years ago seem lame when most of the U.S. population sweltered through the heat waves of 2012. Continue reading…

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Shouldn’t scientists be making decisions about science?

by Donald Prothero, Oct 24 2012


The news recently has been full of shocking and disconcerting quotes from the members of Congress. The most outrageous is by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

When he heard this statement, Bill Nye said:

“Since the economic future of the United States depends on our tradition of technological innovation, Representative Broun’s views are not in the national interest,” Nye told The Huffington Post in an email. “For example, the Earth is simply not 9,000 years old,” he continued, contradicting a remark made by Broun later in the video. “He is, by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.”

Continue reading…

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No hearts are breaking for Heartland

by Donald Prothero, Jun 27 2012

This was the first in a series of planned billboards that created real problems for Heartland Institute.

The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think-tank based in Chicago, has never been afraid of controversy. It was founded in 1984, originally to push free-market and libertarian causes. Heartland spent its early years as an apologist for the tobacco industry, fighting to deny or obscure the scientific evidence for the dangers of smoking and of second-hand smoke, and derail public health policies to protect people from smoking and smokers. In recent years, it has become more famous for being a hotbed of global-warming denialism, sponsoring conferences where all the “big names” of denialism get together and preach to the choir. They are also famous for their anti-environmental efforts across the board, especially with the debate over fracking, the safety of coal mining, and other controversial practices. In this regard, they are  not too different from some of the other “think-tanks” that push free market and libertarian policies, heavily supported by private industry and right-wing foundations.

But the business of pushing unpopular agendas like smoking is all about credibility and PR, and making your institute appear to be a serious defender of some worthy cause, not a hotbed of crazies. Thus, perception is everything. And it’s clear that in recent months, Heartland has “jumped the shark” and is now on a downward death spiral, as funding dries up and even their former supporters refuse to have their names associated with it. The problem started with their almost yearly conferences on climate change, which became more and more extreme so that even many mainstream climate-change deniers refused to participate. By 2006, ExxonMobil stopped funding them, and tried to distance themselves from the Heartland reputation as a bastion of loonies. Still, Heartland kept promoting their causes, and kept their climate-change conferences going nearly every year. Continue reading…

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Legislating Science in North Carolina

by Steven Novella, Jun 04 2012

The history of governments meddling in the practice of science is not a good one. The most infamous case is that of Lysenkoism -Stalin backed the ideas of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. His ideas became of the official sanctioned science of the Soviet government. Genetics was declared a “bourgeois science,” or “fascist science,” and many geneticists who disagreed with Lysenko were executed or sent to labor camps. Execution tends to have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and the practice of science. Over seven decades later genetic science in Russia is still lagging behind.

In the US we have a similar problem – not the Gulag, but political factions that disagree with certain findings of science that are ideologically inconvenient for them. The two biggest issues being targeted (but certainly not the only ones) are evolution and climate change. Much of the focus has been on what should be taught to students in science class (my vote is for science).

Recently the North Carolina legislature proposed House Bill 819 to study the effect of climate change on sea levels, and therefore coastlines. For some reason the legislators felt the need to include in the bill specific restrictions on how the science can be done. Section 2 includes this line:

These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

Continue reading…

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“The Medieval Warm Period was just as warm”—NOT!

by Donald Prothero, May 16 2012

As I discussed in a previous post (April 11), the people who deny anthropogenic global warming (AGW) have many similarities to creationists. Despite the fact that the reality of AGW is supported by a 95% or greater consensus of qualified climate scientists, the critics (mostly non-scientists, or scientists in fields that do not qualify them to assess climate science) keep on repeating the same false tropes over and over again, no matter how many times they are debunked. This is analogous to the shopworn old arguments of creationists, who invariably trot out fallacious arguments like “evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics” even though it has been corrected hundreds of times by scientists. The creationists have such a strong denial filter to resolve their cognitive dissonance that they either don’t realize why their “Second Law” argument is invalid, or they are deliberately and deceptively using it over and over again because it impresses their scientifically illiterate following.

The same is true of the long-debunked example of cherry picking, “It hasn’t warmed since 1998″ (see my April 11 post). Another common false statement is “The planet warmed just as much during the Medieval Warm Period, but eventually it cooled down again.” They argue that if this warming preceded our modern injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then maybe our current global warming not caused by our burning of fossil fuels. Climate deniers repeat this old saw over and over again as if it’s somehow a devastating blow to the huge body of data about our recent climate changes. They often illustrate it with the anecdotes about how the Vikings could colonize Greenland for a while, then as climate cooled in the late Middle Ages, these colonies failed when Greenland became too cold again. The story about the fate of Viking colonies in Greenland is true—but the rest is not.

Continue reading…

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The “Smoking Guns” of climate denialism

by Donald Prothero, Feb 22 2012

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain

—The Wizard of Oz

Having just suffered a major court defeat in 1987, the major players in the “Intelligent Design” creationism movement were trying to recover their momentum. They decided to transform and disguise their attacks on science by hiding their religious roots, and changing their creationist textbooks to remove overt references to God. They planned a subterfuge to get their unconstitutional dogmas taught in public schools in the form of “intelligent design” (ID), and claimed to be non-committal about the “designer” (even though every one of them was a devout evangelical Protestant, and open about their creationism when they spoke to religious groups). Behind the scenes, however, their intentions were very clear all along: drive a “wedge” of “intelligent design” to separate evolutionary biology and materialistic philosophy from its support in the United States, defeat not only evolutionary science but also materialism, and replace them with their own theistic dogmas. For public consumption, the ID creationists and the Discovery Institute in Seattle refused to admit that they were any more than scientists who wanted ID to get a legitimate chance of being heard and taught, since on the face of it they made no reference to a specific deity or designer.

But their cover was blown when a document which described their “wedge strategy” was leaked over the internet, and is now available to anyone who wants to read it. The “Wedge Document” describes their true intent: not new and important scientific research on evolutionary topics, but to win the battle by a concerted PR campaign to influence the public and political officials. Unlike all other legitimate scientific ideas that must pass muster of scientific peer review to persuade the scientific community that their approach was superior and truly scientific, the ID creationists planned an “end run” around the legitimate scientific community through PR and political pressure.

Continue reading…

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