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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thunder down under:
A look at our future?

by Donald Prothero, Dec 21 2011

Today is the northern hemisphere winter solstice  and we’ve already seen a year with many climatic records broken and numerous record-breaking disasters, especially with all the tornadoes and droughts and heat waves. Already the global average temperature estimates for 2011 are coming in, and it looks like it will once again break all previous records for the warmest year in history (which was previously broken by 2010, and before that by 2009). The reports we’re hearing from the media about even more rapidly melting polar ice caps and the vanishing of glaciers around the world are not reassuring.

But in the southern hemisphere, it is summer solstice today, and there the signs are even more ominous. Australia has just gone through years of one climatic disaster after another, capped by 2011 with record flooding, wildfires, drought, and even an gigantic typhoon named Yasi. As this article points out, or an article in the December 2011 issue of Discover magazine discussed, many climate scientists view Australia as a harbinger of the future. It is far more vulnerable to changes in climate than most other regions, since it is a small continent located in the southern high-pressure belt of deserts, with only limited wet areas along the coast and the tropical north. It has few mountains or other topographic features that modify climate or trap rain and snow compared to most other continents, so it can be whipsawed through climate changes much faster than other regions. As the article’s author quoted in an email he received from an Aussie friend, “Welcome to Australia, the petri dish of climate change. Stay safe.” Or as David Karoly, the leading climate researcher at the University of Melbourne, put it, “Australia is the canary in the coal mine. What is happening in Australia now is similar to what can expect in other places in the future. One of the effects of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals. Regions that are dry get drier, and regions that are wet get wetter. If you have a place like Australia that is already extreme, those extremes just get more pronounced.”

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Canada May Sensibly Blow Off Kyoto

by Brian Dunning, Dec 01 2011

No nation concerned with the science of climate change should have ever given the Kyoto Protocol the time of day. Most of them did, and signed and ratified this plan to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of wealthy nations, while granting the two most polluting nations (China and India) immunity to produce as much CO2 as they wish. 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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Baked Alaska

by Donald Prothero, Aug 24 2011

Last week I returned from an amazing Skeptic Society cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage. During the cruise, we held a conference with 200 other Skeptics on “Glaciers and the Science of Climate Change,” with presentations by scientific experts on glaciers and climate. On day 3, we witnessed the glaciers melting away before our very eyes. At Glacier Bay National Park, we saw tons of ice calving away from Margerie and Johns Hopkins glaciers, causing huge booms to echo across the fjord. As our resident expert Dr. Bruce Molnia of the USGS pointed out during his presentation, over 95% of the glaciers of Alaska are stagnant or shrinking, and we saw several examples of these. Molnia has been studying Alaska’s glaciers for decades, and he showed stunning images of how much they have retreated in just the past century (such as the images of the retreat of Muir Glacier below, shot in 1941  and in 2004). If you recall the images of the vanished glacier’s in An Inconvenient Truth, some of those were from Molnia’s research. We billed the trip as “See ‘em before they vanish” but in the case of most of the glaciers, it’s already too late. If my 6- and 8-year-old sons repeat this trip decades later as grown men, there will be almost no glaciers to see at all.

Muir Glacier

Naturally, the conference focused on the scientific evidence about glacier retreat and global climate change. Our moderator Michael Shermer challenged us to show us the evidence that climate change is real and anthropogenic, and our speakers did so in spades. Much of this evidence was outlined in Chapter 10 of my new book Catatastrophes!, so I will not repeat all of it here. But some of the key points that came up again and again in the conference were:

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A Consilience of Observations

by Donald Prothero, Jul 20 2011

I’ve just survived four days of The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, and my head is buzzing with so many thoughts—so many great talks—so many friends I haven’t seen since TAM8 last year, and new ones I met for the first time after months of email and Facebook exchanges. TAM never fails to exhilarate me—and exhaust me. My favorites: Bill Nye’s brilliant pep talk for science and space exploration; Dawkins’ wonderful preview of his new book and his speculations about extraterrestrial life; PZ Myers’ very different take on the non-prevalence of humanoids on other planets; Elizabeth Loftus’ succinct review of her lifetime of research showing the unreliability of human memory; and especially the message at the end of both Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s and Sean Faircloth’s presentations: we need to dial back all the petty sniping within our ranks and realize that we face a very serious enemy out there of religious and political zealots who do not value science, skepticism, critical thinking, or “reality-based” political views. They outnumber us; they are well funded by right-wing think tanks and evangelical churches; and they have elected plenty of people in power who are already pushing their agenda. I realize that getting skeptics and freethinkers to work together is like herding cats, but we have a powerful entrenched opposition that will require every resource at our disposal to hold them at bay, let alone push them back. They are already eroding science education and displacing good science with pseudoscience in public policies.

But my favorite talk was Eugenie Scott’s presentation, “Deja Vu all over again: Denialism of Climate Change and Evolution.” It gave me a sense of deja vu, because apparently without knowledge of each others’ work, we have converged on a common topic. This is what philosopher William Whewell would call a “consilience” or common agreement of different lines of evidence or threads of argument. As I independently pointed out in my upcoming book written last summer about science denialism, entitled Reality Check, and in a paper I wrote which is now in press, there are tremendous parallels between the evolution-deniers (creationists), the climate change deniers, and many other types of science deniers. Even more striking, they borrow most of their tactics from the prototypical reality deniers, the Holocaust revisionists, along with the tactics of the tobacco companies in creating “doubt” through PR to obscure the real science.

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Global Warming Skeptic Changes His Tune
— by Doing the Science Himself

by Donald Prothero, Apr 06 2011

With the GOP takeover of the House, the political climate surrounding controversial topics in science has changed radically. The extremists who now run the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been doing their best to challenge the enormous body of evidence supporting the reality of global climate change. On March 10, 2011, they set new lows for trying to redefine “greenhouse gases” to exclude carbon dioxide, methane, and all the other greenhouse gases that science has recognized. The situation was so ludicrous that Rep. Edward Markey (Democrat from Massachusetts) mocked their anti-scientific efforts by asking if they planned to repeal the laws of gravity, relativity, quantum mechanics, and heliocentrism. In his words:

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet. However, I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room. I won’t call for the sunlight of additional hearings, for fear that Republicans might excommunicate the finding that the Earth revolves around the sun. Instead, I’ll embody Newton’s third law of motion and be an equal and opposing force against this attack on science and on laws that will reduce America’s importation of foreign oil. This bill will live in the House while simultaneously being dead in the Senate. It will be a legislative Schrodinger’s cat killed by the quantum mechanics of the legislative process! Arbitrary rejection of scientific fact will not cause us to rise from our seats today. But with this bill, pollution levels will rise. Oil imports will rise. Temperatures will rise. And with that, I yield back the balance of my time. That is, unless a rejection of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is somewhere in the chair’s amendment pile. Continue reading…

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Throwing Cold Water on a Hot Topic

by Michael Shermer, Nov 16 2010

This post is a review of Cool It, a film by Bjorn Lomborg, directed by Ondi Timoner, produced by Roadside Attractions and 1019 Entertainment. Written by Terry Botwick, Sarah Gibson, and Bjorn Lomborg. Based on the book by Bjorn Lomborg. 88 minutes.

COOL IT (movie poster)

I FIRST MET BJORN LOMBORG IN 2001 upon the publication of his Cambridge University Press book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which I found to be a refreshing perspective on what had been the doom-and-gloom, end-of-the-world scenarios that I had been hearing since I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s. Back then we were told that overpopulation would lead to worldwide hunger and starvation, that there would be massive oil depletion, precious mineral exhaustion, and rainforest extinction by the 1990s. These predictions failed utterly. I felt I had been lied to for decades by the environmentalist movement that seemed to me to be little more than a political movement that raised money by raising fears. Continue reading…

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