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Smarter than thou?

by Donald Prothero, Jul 30 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson on "Real Time with Bill Maher", July 25, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson on “Real Time with Bill Maher”, July 25, 2014

In a previous post, I commented on how the Religious Right got upset when “Cosmos” aired last spring. They were angry when “Cosmos” mentioned Giordano Bruno or scientists who were persecuted by religious extremists during their pursuit of truth. They recoiled in horror at  how often “Cosmos” reminded us of our cosmic insignificance  compared to the scale of the universe, or from the perspective of geologic time. They raged about the fact that “Cosmos” spent an entire episode on on evolution, and the topic of evolution came up repeatedly. And lots of pro-business types hated the episode about Clair Patterson’s lonely fight against the lead manufacturers, who were invisibly polluting the world and poisoning us all. The climate deniers hated that “Cosmos” mentioned anthropogenic global warming many times.

Nonetheless, most of the reviews for “Cosmos” were overwhelmingly positive and there’s good reason to think that it reached much of its target audience, and inspired a lot of people to think about scientific questions in a way that hasn’t  happened since the original Sagan version of “Cosmos.” I have been rejoicing at the recent resurgence in the media popularity of science and evolution lately, especially after Bill Nye’s defeat of Ken Ham, the great response to Neil Shubin’s PBS documentary “Your Inner Fish,” and of course, the huge popularity of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos”.  Finally, we have several major scientists (Nye, Tyson, Shubin) who are popular in the media, especially on trendy shows like “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” as well as national news networks like MSNBC and CNN. They are national celebrities for all the right reasons (smart, articulate, telling people the truth about science and the world), rather than being famous because of reality TV or sports or entertainment. They are becoming widely known, and doing a great job of promoting science against the tidal wave of junk science and pseudoscience in the media. There hasn’t been such high-profile popularity of scientists since the days of Sagan himself. It’s about time! Continue reading…

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TAM 2014: the mind of the science denier

by Donald Prothero, Jul 23 2014
Speaking at TAM on July 13, 2014

Speaking at TAM on July 13, 2014

It’s been just over a week since I returned, exhausted but inspired and excited, from The Amaz!ng Meeting 2014 in the South Point Hotel south of Las Vegas. The meeting was a great success, with nearly 1200 attendees, and an excellent slate of speakers including Bill Nye the Science Guy (who talked about his debate with Ken Ham and gave me a nice shout-out for helping him), Genie Scott, Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, and many others. This year, the theme was “Skepticism and the Brain,” so the speakers including a lot of the leading lights of psychology and neurophysiology, including Elizabeth Loftus (who  has shown that human memory is highly unreliable, and usually false), Robert Kurzban (talking about the modular mind), Carol Tavris (talking about cognitive dissonance), and many others. My friend and co-author Daniel Loxton gave an amazing talk about skepticism and why it’s important (it got rave reviews and a standing ovation). Many of the participants thought that this was one of the best TAMs ever, because it largely stuck to a consistent theme, rather than giving a scattershot slate of speakers on widely divergent topics. Plus there were the usual wild evening activities, including another installment of Penn Jillette’s inimitable Rock’n’Roll, Doughnut and Bacon party. Continue reading…

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Does Einstein threaten religion, too?

by Donald Prothero, Sep 26 2012

Over the past 1.5 years of blogs, I’ve discussed all sorts of science deniers, from the Flat Earthers, to the geocentrists, to the various crackpots and fringe physicists, to the young-earth creationists, with their broad-based attack on most of biology, geology, anthropology, and cosmology. Nearly all of this attitude toward science comes from biblical literalism. But if you asked the average person, or even a physicist, whether Einstein and relativity were a threat to religion, you’d get a resounding “no.”  Relativity may be a difficult to explain in layman’s terms, and sometimes counter-intuitive way of understanding physics at the extremes of velocity and space, but it’s hard to imagine why it would trouble a fundamentalist. Perhaps its importance to modern cosmology might make it an anathema to them, but it’s not threatening in and of itself, is it?

There you would be wrong! Apparently to the mind of some conservatives and creationists, ANY thing in science can become a threat to their world view, and therefore requires one of their bizarre forms of attack and rebuttal. Take, for example, conservative activist Andrew Schlafly. He is the son of famous anti-feminist homophobic activist Phylis Schlafly, and the editor of Conservapedia, a strange attempt to mimic Wikipedia but with a strong conservative bias. Andrew Schlafly is not uneducated: he has an engineering degree from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard and worked for Intel and Bell Labs. However, he has no training in any of the sciences that might challenge his conservative ideology, and it plainly shows in how he writes about subjects beyond his expertise. He is a classic case of what has been called the “smart idiot,” educated enough to sound convincing but not educated in the right areas of expertise to realize he’s wrong—and with strong ideological denial filters, confirmation bias, and issues of cognitive dissonance that cause him to perform some incredibly weird thought processes. Continue reading…

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The republican brain on science

by Donald Prothero, Aug 29 2012

A Review of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science—and Reality by Chris Mooney, John Wiley, New York, 327 pages.

Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

—Stephen Colbert


Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

—Isaac Asimov


You can’t convince of believer of anything, for their belief is not based on evidence but on a deep-seated need to believe.

—Carl Sagan


Hearing the speakers at the GOP convention spout their ideas this week, I’m again reminded that an entire American political party is proudly and openly espousing views that are demonstrably contrary to reality, from claiming that rape does not cause pregnancy, to claiming that global climate change is a hoax, to even weirder idea, like the bizarre notion that the President of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim. For years, I’ve puzzled over why people can believe such weird things as creationism or other kinds of pseudoscience and science denials. In my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, I devoted an entire chapter to asking why creationists can so confidently believe patently false ideas, and refuse to look at any evidence placed in front of them. I’ve compared it to Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, where Alice steps through the mirror and finds that the objects and the landscape look vaguely familiar—but all the rules of logic are reversed or turned inside out. How can people continue to believe things that are clearly wrong, and refuse to change their ideas or look at evidence? Continue reading…

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Canutes of the Carolinas

by Donald Prothero, Jul 08 2012

When the news came across the internet, you read it in disbelief and your jaw dropped in amazement. I had to read it twice to make sure it was true. The North Carolina legislature had declared that sea level could not rise as much as scientists had been predicting! Reading the announcement immediately brought to mind the legendary English King Canute, who commanded the sea to stand still, or mad Roman Emperor Caligula, who similarly ranted at the ocean to obey his commands. The story became the laugh line of the press cycle, with the ridiculousness of the idea lampooned in media across the board. I had to double-check that it wasn’t a Poe or something from the satirical web journal The Onion, because it sounded more like a parody.

But it’s real, folks. The legislature has passed a bill forbidding the state to use the scientific predictions of accelerating sea level rise of up to a meter in the next century, and only consider historic rates of sea level rise, which amount to only 8 inches. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the ridiculous idea of legislating nature was paid by none other that Stephen Colbert, who (in his character as a brainless conservative) “applauded” the North Carolina legislature. As Colbert lampooned it on the June 4, 2012 edition of Colbert Report:

I think we should start applying this method to even more things we don’t want to happen. For example, I don’t want to die, but the actuaries at my insurance company are convinced that it will happen sometime in the next 50 years. However, if we only consider historical data, I’ve been alive my entire life, therefore I always will be.

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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Denialist Demagogues and McCarthyist Tactics

by Donald Prothero, Sep 14 2011

A few weeks ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry made the news by not only topping the field of GOP Presidential candidates in denying climate change, but upping the ante, and blaming it on greedy scientists. Many of the other GOP candidates have claimed that scientists are trying to scam the public for nefarious purposes:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took his skepticism about climate change one step further on Wednesday, telling a New Hampshire business crowd that scientists have cooked up the data on global warming for the cash.

In his stump speech, Perry referenced “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”

“We’re seeing weekly, or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what’s causing the climate to change,” Perry said. “Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.”

It isn’t the first time Perry has accused climate scientists of fibbing. ThinkProgress’ Brad Johnson reported on Monday that in Perry’s book, Fed Up!, the governor calls climate science a “contrived phony mess.”

Among his fellow GOP presidential contenders, however, Perry’s views are not so extreme.

Herman Cain has called the very premise of climate change “a scam,” while former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has referred to it as nothing more than a “trend,” accusing the left of “taking advantage” of it by creating “a beautifully concocted scheme because they know that the earth is gonna cool and warm.”

Back in 2009, meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) argued on the House floor that the very concept of global warming is faulty because “carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of nature!”

Rick Perry even managed to further emphasize his ignorance of science when in a recent debate that he said he admired Galileo and how he “was outvoted for a while.”  Bad analogy, Rick! If Perry actually knew any science, he would realize that Galileo was championing an unpopular scientific idea (heliocentric solar system) that was “outvoted” by the conservative power of that time, the Church and the Inquisition. Eventually, scientific truth won out, not the political delusions of the conservatives.

Only Jon Huntsman, who is hopelessly behind and unlikely to get the nomination in a party dominated by anti-science extremists, sounded sane. In an interview with ABC News in late August, he said:

“When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.”

But the rest of these candidates, one of whom could potentially hold the presidency for the next four years, should worry us with not only their rejection of science, but the even more alarming tactic of using ad hominem attacks and “shoot the messenger” tactics to try to discredit the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists around the world (as I discussed in my post of Aug. 24). Not only are their charges and fantasies patently absurd, but they remind us of how other demagogues, from Hitler and Stalin to Joe McCarthy, used name-calling and intimidation to threaten and suppress ideas of people who challenged their world viewpoint. Continue reading…

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