Environmentalism and anti-science, how GMOs prove any ideological extremity leads to anti-science

Today I read about two individuals who decided on political defections over perceived anti-science amongst their former political allies- one due to climate change, the other for anti-GMO. From the right, we have Michael Fumento, who in Salon describes his break with the right, spurred by Heartland’s campaign comparing those who believe in climate change with the Unabomber, as well as a general atmosphere of conspiratorial crankery and incivility. And from the left, we have Stephen Sumpter of Latent Existence leaving the Greens over their support for the misguided anti-scientific campaign of “Take the Flour Back” to destroy a crop of GMO wheat at Rothamsted Research which carries a gene from another plant to make it aphid-resistant. Starting with the anti-GMO extremists (since I’ve been picking on right-wing denialism a lot lately), their movement is pretty classic anti-science and extreme. The Rothamsted Research program has been very forthright and clearly is trying to engage and communicate with the protestors, has released this video trying to engage them in a fruitful debate over their research:

and sent them a public appeal trying to explain their side and asking for dialogue rather than violence. I will quote most of it here.

We have learned that you are planning to attack our research test site on 27th May. Please read the
following in the spirit of openness and dialogue – we know we cannot stop you from taking the action you plan, nor would we wish to see force used against you. Therefore we can only appeal to your consciences, and ask you to reconsider before it is too late, and before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever.
We appeal to you as environmentalists. We agree that agriculture should seek to work “with nature rather than against it” (to quote from our website), and that motivation underlies our work. We have developed a variety of wheat which does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Instead, we have identified a way of getting the plant to repel aphids, using a natural process that has evolved in mint and many other plants – and simply adding this into the wheat genome to enable it to do the samething.
So our GM wheat could, for future generations, substantially reduce the use of agricultural chemicals. Are you really against this? Or are you simply against it because it is “GMO” and you therefore think it is unnatural in some way? Remember – all plants in all types of agriculture are genetically modified to serve humanity’s needs, and the (E)-β-farnesene compound our wheat produces is already found in over 400 species of plant, many of which are consumed as food and drink on a daily basis (including the hops used in beer, to give just one example). To suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality.
You seem to think, even before we have had a chance to test it, that our new wheat variety is bad. How do you know this? Clearly it is not through scientific enquiry, as the tests have not yet been performed. You state on your website: “There is serious doubt that the aphid alarm pheromone as found in this GM crop would even work.” You could be right – but if you destroy our test, you and we will never know. Is that what you want? Our research is trying to shed light on questions about the safety and the usefulness of new varieties of the staple food crops on which all of us depend. As activists you might prefer never to know whether our new wheat variety would work, but we believe
you are in a minority – in a democratic society most people do value factual knowledge and understand that it is necessary for sensible decision making.
You have described genetically modified crops as “not properly tested”. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained. We do not see how preventing the acquisition of knowledge is a defensible position in an age of reason – what you are planning to do is reminiscent of clearing books from a library because you wish to stop other people finding out what they contain. We remind you that such actions do not have a proud tradition.

Our work is publically funded, we have pledged that our results will not be patented and will not be owned by any private company – if our wheat proves to be beneficial we want it to be available to farmers around the world at minimum cost. If you destroy publicly funded research, you leave us in a situation where only the big corporations can afford the drastic security precautions needed to continue biotechnology research – and you therefore further promote a situation you say you are trying to avoid.
We end with a further concern. You may not know much about Rothamsted. You may not know that our institute is the site of perhaps the longest-running environmental experiment in the world, with plots testing different agricultural methods and their ecological consequences dating all the way back to 1843. Some of these plots are very close to the GM wheat test site, and we are extremely worried that anyone walking onto them would endanger a research programme that has been in operation for almost two centuries.
But we also see our newest tests as part of this unbroken line – research never ends, and technology never can nor should be frozen in time (as implied by the term ‘GM freeze’). Society didn’t stop with the horse-drawn plough because of fears that the tractor was ‘unnatural’. We didn’t refuse to develop better wheat varieties in the past – which keep us well-fed today – simply because they were different from what went before and therefore scary. The wheat that we consume today has had many genetic changes made to it – to make plants produce more grain, resist disease, avoid growing too tall and blow over in the wind, be suitable for different uses like pasta and bread, provide more nutrition and grow at the right time for farming seasons. These agricultural developments make it possible for the
same amount of food to be produced from a smaller area of land, meaning less necessity for farmers to convert wildlands to agriculture, surely we should work together in this?
When you visit us on 27 May we will be available to meet and talk to you. We would welcome the chance to show you our work and explain why we think it could benefit the environment in the future. But we must ask you to respect the need to gather knowledge unimpeded. Please do not come to damage and destroy.
As scientists we know only too well that we do not have all the answers. That is why we need to conduct experiments. And that is why you in turn must not destroy them.
Yours sincerely
J. A. PICKETT DSc, CBE, FRS (Professor)
Michael Elliott Distinguished Research Fellow and
Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology
Toby Bruce (Scientist specialising in plant-insect interactions, Team Leader)
Gia Aradottir (Insect Biology, Postdoc )
Huw Jones (Wheat Transformation, Coinvestigator)
Lesley Smart (Field Entomology)
Janet Martin (Field Entomology)
Johnathan Napier (Plant Science, Coinvestigator)
John Pickett (Chemical Ecology, Principal Investigator)

The protestors, thinking they’re attacking some Monsanto-like evil corporation, are so consumed with their hatred of GMO that they are spreading misinformation, refusing to allow scientists to even engage in the research into GMO, and rather than engaging the scientists in dialogue are threatening to just destroy their experiment. This is the worst kind of bullying, extremist, anti-science garbage out there. At least the creationists don’t show up in our labs and start spitting in our test tubes. The climate denialists might make a lot of noise but they aren’t threatening to blow up James Hansen’s computer. Finally the “take the flour back” justifications are terrible:

Rothamsted have planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’.

This sentence is so stupid I have trouble understanding how they wrote it for public consumption. A gene can not be “similar to a cow”. This makes no biological sense. We could have a gene that has similar sequence to that of a gene in a cow, but even that shouldn’t necessarily be threatening. After all, if you look at our genes you’d find most of them (80 percent) have significant homology to bos taurus. This claim despite being biologically silly, is refuted by the researchers who insist the gene being studied is (E)-β-farnesene, a protein that is in many plants we already consume, that transfers natural resistance to aphids.

Wheat is wind-pollinated. In Canada similar experiments have leaked into the food-chain costing farmers millions in lost exports. There is no market for GM wheat anywhere in the world.

This is patently absurd, the absence of a market for a product that has not yet been brought to market is not an argument. Further, the evidence is that GM crops are readily adopted in the United States, and increasingly in China. The loss of millions has more to do with the unjustified panic over GM that has been created by Luddites in Europe, and finally, how is it possible to study the efficacy and safety of this technology if they’re just going to show up and destroy it? It would be better studied and the results will be more openly reported by the publicly funded Rothamsted researchers than if these experiments were done behind some fence in China by Monsanto.

This experiment is tax-payer funded, but Rothamsted hope to sell any patent it generates to an agro-chemical company.

The researchers deny this and have pledged not to patent the product. However, this might ultimately be an error that is ultimately harmful to the researchers’ attempts to distribute the technology. By patenting the product and licensing it, you will have a greater ability to convince an agricultural supplier to invest in, market and distribute the product. If you don’t patent it, and it becomes immediately public, the inability of a corporation to have exclusive use of the patent may discourage them generally from adopting the product. They’re out to make money, it’s true, and the sad thing is, even if you have the best product in the world, if they can just be copied by any competitor the appeal of investing in your product will be zero. It’s sad but true. I think they should patent it, and simply promise that licensing would require ethical provisions for its distribution to impoverished countries.

La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organisation of peasant farmers, believe GM is increasing world hunger. They have called for support resisting GM crops, and the control over agriculture that biotech gives to corporations.

The marketing practices of agri-business like Monsanto are extremely problematic, and it isn’t just peasant farmers in other countries but farmers here in the US that object to being strong-armed by big businesses, and seemingly extorted into using Monsanto seeds over reseeding their own fields. However, this is separate from the argument that GM crops are unsafe or increase world hunger. If anything, the experience of those such as Norman Borlaug and the creation of dwarf wheat varieties should demonstrate that modification of wheat can have a tremendous impact on world hunger. I have no doubt that GM technology might in the future generate similar advances in productivity as traditional methods. It’s also not the point of the research at Rothamsted which is to decrease the need for pesticide use. Yes, Monsanto sucks, what does that have to do with Rothamset? What does world hunger have to do with decreasing pesticide use? These are illogical arguments, that are a combination of appeals to consequence and straw men. Rothamsted is not Monsanto.

‘Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination. It’s for anyone who feels able to publically [sic] help remove this threat and those who want to show their support for them.

Decontamination, what an excellent euphemism for vandalism, destruction of property, and violence. They are going to destroy the research project of publicly-funded plant researchers who are trying to answer questions about safety and efficacy of a product that could decrease pesticide use. They have justified this based on false information, biological ignorance, and a Luddite attitude towards biological technology that if anything will improve the safety of our food supply.
People have bizarre ideas about genetic modification, that somehow, transferring a gene from one species will then confer the properties of that entire species to the plant (hence the senseless cow comparison above). This is absurd. The arguments against resistant organisms don’t make a lot of sense to me either, because the alternative – pesticides – share the same flaw – at the same time represent a health threat to humans as well. The idea of transferring a gene that makes a protein that we already eat in other plants hardly seems like it should even raise an eyebrow to me. I don’t get the paranoia from the environmentalists on this issue. The need to feed ourselves and wrest resources from the pests and bacteria that we compete with on this planet is not static. It is constantly changing and our strength is our ability to use technology and science to our benefit. We don’t refuse to research antibiotics because one day bacteria might become resistant. We develop new antibiotics.
This demonstrates though that any ideology is susceptible to anti-science when it becomes extreme and that includes environmentalism. Based on shoddy understanding of biology, paranoia about Monsanto, and misinformation about publicly-funded researchers, these morons are about to go out and destroy a scientific project. If there were a better description of a modern Luddite I haven’t heard one.
Anyway. Onto Michael Fumento’s article in Salon. Fumento is irritated with the right because he sees them as exhibiting the one characteristic that he has never been able to stand in anyone – hysteria.

Gosh! When did I end up in bed with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber? Could it be because I did specialize in blowing things up while serving my country for four years as an airborne combat engineer? I also watched human beings blown up. I had friends and Navy SEALs I was in battle with blown up. My own intestines exploded on the first of my four combat embeds, three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Took seven operations to fix the plumbing. I later suffered other permanent injuries.
Yet now I find myself linked not only with the Unabomber, but also Charles Manson and Fidel Castro. Or so says the Chicago-based think tank the Heartland Institute, for which I’ve done work. Heartland erected billboards depicting the above three declaring: “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” Climate scientists now, evidently, share something in common with dictators and mass murderers. Reportedly bin Laden was scheduled to make such an appearance, too.

The HI and and Morano have been shrieking about how environmentalists are worse and that this was unfair targeting of what the enviros do all the time, but no, not really. Usually when they find some example of an environmentalist calling for consequences for global warming denialism it’s quoted out of context, and even if it does happen, despite being a tu quoque this was a pretty extreme campaign. Extreme enough to even turn Fumento against them. No small feat.
Now a brief interlude for Fumento to stroke his vast ego (just read his blog tagline):

This is nuts! Literally. As in “mass hysteria.” That’s a phenomenon I wrote about for a quarter-century, from the heterosexual AIDS “epidemic” to the swine flu “pandemic” that killed vastly fewer people than seasonal flu, to “runaway Toyotas.” Mass hysteria is when a large segment of society loses touch with reality, or goes bonkers, if you will, on a given issue – like believing that an incredibly mild strain of flu could kill eight times as many Americans as normal seasonal flu. (It killed about a third as many.)
I was always way ahead of the curve. And my exposés primarily appeared in right-wing publications. Back when they were interested in serious research. I also founded a conservative college newspaper, held positions in the Reagan administration and at several conservative think tanks, and published five books that conservatives applauded. I’ve written for umpteen major conservative publications – National Review, the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, among them.

Fumento is a weird guy. He really doesn’t like it when people tell him he should be worried about something. To the point that he’ll deny things like that heterosexuals are at risk of spreading HIV, or at least diminish the heterosexual spread of the disease. This is despite the fact HIV is predominantly a heterosexual disease outside of the US. Similarly with other epidemic concerns, scientists make a big deal out of them, he usually says, “it’s no big deal”, and then by virtue of prevention programs, luck, or maybe even overestimation of the pathogenicity of the bug in question, he seems to come out on top. I don’t think it’s a good way to view the world, because when he’s wrong, he’s going to be really wrong. I tend towards to more cautious side of the spectrum based on historical events like the flu pandemic of 1918. We know it can happen, we should treat emerging diseases and severe flu strains seriously.
So now that he perceives the right is the hysterical bunch, screaming conspiracies about Obama ruining the entire capitalist western world, true to form he rejects the hysteria:

Nothing the new right does is evidently outrageous enough to receive more than a peep of indignation from the new right. Heartland pulled its billboards because of funder withdrawals, not because any conservatives spoke up and said it had crossed a line.
Last month U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican recently considered by some as vice-president material, insisted that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party, again with little condemnation from the new right.
Mitt Romney took a question at a town hall meeting this month from a woman who insisted President Obama be “tried for treason,” without challenging, demurring from or even commenting on her assertion.
And then there’s the late Andrew Breitbart (assassinated on the orders of Obama, natch). A video from February shows him shrieking at peaceful protesters: “You’re freaks and animals! Stop raping people! Stop raping people! You freaks! You filthy freaks! You filthy, filthy, filthy raping, murdering freaks!” He went on for a minute-and-a-half like that. Speak not ill of the dead? Sen. Ted Kennedy’s body was barely cold when Breitbart labeled him “a big ass motherf@#$er,” a “duplicitous bastard” a “prick” and “a special pile of human excrement.”

Civility and respect for order – nay, demand for order – have always been tenets of conservatism. The most prominent work of history’s most prominent conservative, Edmund Burke, was a reaction to the anger and hatred that swept France during the revolution. It would eventually rip the country apart and plunge all of Europe into decades of war. Such is the rotted fruit of mass-produced hate and rage. Burke, not incidentally, was a true Tea Party supporter, risking everything as a member of Parliament to support the rebellion in the United States.
All of today’s right-wing darlings got there by mastering what Burke feared most: screaming “J’accuse! J’accuse!” Turning people against each other. Taking seeds of fear, anger and hatred and planting them to grow a new crop.

President Obama is regularly referred to as a Marxist/Socialist, Nazi, tyrant, Muslim terrorist supporter and – let me look this up, but I’ll bet probably the antichrist, too. Yup, there it is! Over 5 million Google references. There should be a contest to see if there’s anything for which Obama hasn’t been accused. Athlete’s foot? The “killer bees”? Maybe. In any case, the very people who coined and promoted such terms as “Bush Derangement Syndrome, Cheney Derangement Syndrome and Palin Derangement Syndrome” have been promoting hysterical attitudes toward Obama since before he was even sworn in.

Well at least he’s consistent. Although he once did send me an email comparing me to Hitler. I wish I’d kept it, it was pretty funny. I tend to agree with the characterization of this as hysteria, although to be fair I think Obama is getting it worse than Bush did. After all, the accusations against Bush were often true, including the worst one. His administration did deceive us into a war in Iraq. The weapons were not there, the intelligence was inflated, and either through incompetence or irrationality we ended up in a Middle-Eastern hellhole for 10 years. The evidence against Obama, who in reality is a rather milquetoast pragmatist, being Stalin/Hitler/Marx/The Antichrist is a bit weaker.
His call is for civility, which for some reason that eludes me, is often anathema to bloggers. Civility in some sense of the word is patriarchal oppression, or censorship, or something. I don’t know about that, but my general rule is I write like my mother is reading this (and she might be), so it’s best not to be an outrageous turd to other people.

No, I’m not cherry-picking. When I say “regularly referred to,” interpret literally. Polls show that about half of voting Republican buy into the birther nonsense (one of the more prominent hysterias within the hysteria). Only about a fourth seem truly sure that Obama was actually born here. In her nationally syndicated column Michelle Malkin wrote regarding Limbaugh’s slut remarks, that “I’m sorry the civility police now have an opening to demonize the entire right based on one radio comment.” In a stroke she’s expressed her disdain for civility and declared the new right’s sins can be dispatched as an itsy-bitsy little single faux pas, “one radio comment.”
No, Michelle, incivility – nay, outright meanness and puerility – rears its ugly head daily on your blog, which as I write this on May 23 has one item referring in the headline to “Pig Maher’s boy [Bill Maher]” and another to “Jaczko the Jerk,” [former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko]. She calls Limbaugh target Sandra Fluke a “femme-agogue” and her supporters “[George] Soros monkeys.” Pigs? Monkeys? Moonbats? It’s literal dehumanization.

And now I’m in the bizarre position of actually agreeing with Fumento. Never thought I’d say that. Somehow his protective “never panic” mantra has been protective against the panicky insanity over the Obama presidency coming from the left, and allowed him to hold onto some core of humanity. Maybe it’s an adaptive feature after all?

The new right cannot advance a conservative agenda precisely because, other than a few small holdouts like the American Conservative magazine or that battleship that refuses to become a museum, George Will, it is not itself conservative. Pod people are running the show. It has no such capability; no such desire. I find that disturbing for obvious reasons. But, based on my own conversations with liberals, I think – nay, I know – that if more of these allegedly godless, treasonous people understood real conservatism a lot would embrace many conservative positions.

And this is true. I have voted for Republicans in the past (Connie Morella was the first congresswoman I ever voted for when I was 18), and would like to be able to in the future. But I agree with Fumento (my fingers just went numb again), until they accept empiricism again, and stop pitting their ideology against science there is no way I would ever vote for one. It’s unfortunate, because in the old school/Rockefeller Republican/revenue generation isn’t anathema days they occasionally had good ideas to contribute, and a ideological view that was balanced by a tradition of civility and responsibility towards the country.

Is the holocaust denial/climate change denial comparison apt?

Many of the climate change denialist sites have been up in arms by comparisons of climate change denial to holocaust denial. In particular Marc Morano at climate depot has had multiple articles attacking and expressing hysterical outrage at these comparisons.
We know they don’t like the comparison, but the question is, is it apt?
Continue reading “Is the holocaust denial/climate change denial comparison apt?”

Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?

About a month ago I asked if denialism is truly more frequent on the right or is it that the issues of the day are ones that are more likely to be targets of right wing denialism? After all, one can think of slightly more left wing sources of denialism like GMO paranoia, 9/11 conspiracies, altie-meds, and toxin fear-mongering. The mental heuristics that cause people to believe, and then entrench themselves, in nonsense seem generalizable to humanity rather than just those attracted to conservative politics. Why should those who identify as liberal be any different? Wouldn’t they just believe in nonsense with a liberal bias?
Lately, Chris Mooney has been taking a different tact on explaining the apparent discrepancy between liberal vs conservative rejection of science with the suggestion the conservative brain is fundamentally different.
First of all, it’s not a matter of education. Whenever people complain that disbelief in evolution or climate change or whatever is a matter of education, they’re simply wrong. We can not educate our way out of this mess, and the problem isn’t that the Republicans arguing this nonsense are any less educated. Chris agrees and cites evidence:

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.
For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science–among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.

And it’s not specifically education on or awareness of the specific topic, as self-reported knowledge of the topic resulted in opinions among conservatives more likely to be aligned against the scientific mainstream. Orac points out this is not an old phenomenon and maybe the Dunning-Kruger effect which we incorporated into our unified theory of the crank. This is the “incompetent but unaware of it” phenomenon, that the more incompetent people are, the more likely they are to be falsely confident of their own abilities and unable to recognize competence in others..
But the most fascinating part of this article is when Mooney mentions a study to see if liberals were comparatively incompetent in judging the science in an area of high liberal bias – Nuclear power. This would seem to provide an answer to the question from my earlier post, that is, are we missing an equivalent liberal tendency towards denialism because we’re not asking the right questions?
It looks like my hypothesis of possible equivalence might have to be rejected …
Continue reading “Are Liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives Part II?”

The Heartland Documents, Doubt is their Product

Everyone is writing about desmogblog’s leak of internal documents from the Heartland Institute. But to me I think leaked documents are nothing compared to their fully public, out-in-the-open history of being openly contemptuous of science, funding cranks with advanced degrees (though not in climate) to disparage the field, and their hosting of denialpalooza.
James rightly points out that much hay is being made of a single sentence that, could “easily be the result of sloppy editing, or at perhaps a Freudian slip.” This is of course is a sentence describing a curriculum developed by the HI that “shows the topic of climate chance is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective in dissuading teachers from teaching science.”
But other aspects of the document instead suggest to me that these people are true believers. Even in context this quote sounds horrible, but I don’t think it reflects a conscious desire to deceive. After all, they think their beliefs are true. They are so blinded by ideology they are literally incapable of acknowledging facts that run counter to these core beliefs. I think, if anything, this sentence is interesting because it shows that they are picking up tactics from previous denialist campaigns by those that were intentionally deceptive, such as the DI anti-evolution campaign and tobacco company denial of health effects of smokng. They are not interested in actual science but rather are interested in methods of sowing doubt. Similar to the cigarette company strategy of denying the harm of tobacco smoke, “doubt is their product”. We already knew these guys were merchants of doubt, some of them are the very same people that deny tobacco smoke is harmful.
I don’t think these documents are going to be a game changer. They’ve largely told us what we already know. HI is funded by oil interests. They pay cranks with degrees good money (11k a month to Idso – sweet!) to lend legitimacy to denialist pseudoscience. Their overriding goal is to undermine any science that conflicts with free market fundamentalism. They are trying to undermine climate science through sowing doubt and confusion in the public rather than pursuing actual scientific inquiry. To those that think HI is great, they think methods like this are just fine. To those of us who have seen how denialists operate, from the tobacco companies to the Discovery Institute, this is just another confirmation of their overarching strategy – to create doubt where there should be none.

A global warming conspiracy theorist has won 4 states, should we be worried?

The states in Green have gone for Rick Santorum, who besides having a a Google problem also believes in one of the wackiest conspiracy theories there is – the climate change hoax. That is, the belief that there is a shady group of Illuminati that have power over thousands of climate scientists from all over the world, and in their greed for sweet sweet grant money scientists uniformly falsify all their data to serve this power-hungry cabal. Is that an exaggeration? Nope, that’s what people who believe in the “hoax” ascribe to (see skeptical science’s thorough debunking of Evans here). This is a more severe form of the denial by Newt or Romney, who claim “insufficient evidence”, the more basic goalpost moving of half-hearted global warming denialism.
But now we have a full-blown global warming hoax-promoting conspiracy theorist picking up momentum to become a candidate for president. Should we be worried?
Continue reading “A global warming conspiracy theorist has won 4 states, should we be worried?”

In case you missed it, some denialism mentions of note

Being inactive for the last couple of years I still read about denialism being mentioned in some interesting places. Two in particular I thought I share.

Peter Gleick in Forbes write on “The Rise and Fall of Climate Change Denial is interesting largely because it’s in Forbes. And predictably, for publishing in a right-wing magazine, the comments are basically 100% against Gleick, a national academy member, accusing him of everything from incompetence to dishonesty. It’s actually pretty remarkable. But at least the scientific viewpoint is starting to infiltrate the literature of the right wing. Now only if we can get the WSJ to place a scientifically accurate article on global warming on their editorial pages. It would likely snow in hell first.

The other is an interesting look at Denial from United Academics called Why We Deny including an article evaluating Michael Shermer’s latest work on the pscyhology of denial.

In it I think a very good point is raised by Shermer (who I’ve been known to disagree with for his own cranky outlook on global warming), we actually shouldn’t expect people to be rational and accept science easily. Too much of the way we think is irrational, and too much of our psychology is based upon making the world conform to the way we view it, rather than conforming our belief to the way the world is. He points out that we tend to come to have beliefs first, often inculcated by family, religion, culture, or tradition, then spend a great deal of effort to rationalize those beliefs and selectively believe evidence that confirms it. After all, when beliefs are tied to such powerful emotive forces to change belief or confront evidence contrary to such belief can be emotionally devastating. The notion that humans are rational and believe things based on evidence or will even act in their own best interest based on logic and evidence is simply not supported by the evidence of how we behave. I find it still amazing that he can have such an insight about the fundamental irrationality of humans and still have a libertarian worldview, which I feel is critically dependent on treating humans as rational actors in an economy, either as individuals or groups. Clearly this is not the case.
Continue reading “In case you missed it, some denialism mentions of note”

The New Yorker Ranks the Republicans vs. Science

And get’s it wrong

What’s amazing is they rank Newt first at the same time acknowledging he destroyed the Office of Technology Assessment.

Jon Huntsman may have the most rational scientific and technological policies of anyone in the field, but Gingrich, sometimes called Newt Skywalker, has far more passion. As Kelefa Sanneh argues in the current issue, the philosophy of Gingrichism is nothing but a combination of the idiosyncratic views of the man himself–which include his beliefs in the virtues of space exploration and his opposition to regulating the Internet, even when it comes to porn. He was an early adopter of Twitter, and he once made the cover of Wired. He is ranked atop Scientific American’s recent “Geek Guide” to the 2012 candidates. As Sanneh notes, one of Gingrich’s manifestos about information policy includes a preface by the science-fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, declaring, “It’s raining soup, and Newt Gingrich has the blueprints for soup bowls.”

His record is scarcely perfect. As Speaker, Gingrich abolished the Office of Technology Assessment–a move reminiscent of Nixon abolishing the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. But, for the most part, Gingrich has moved policy in the right directions. And he gets extra credit for sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi to talk about global warming.

So, he destroyed the office in congress that used science to evaluate legislation, as well as the efficacy of that legislation once enacted. He removed scientific guidance from the legislative branch, but because he’s passionate about the internets that doesn’t make him the worst thing to happen to science in the last 30 years?

I realize we’re looking for the shiny turd in a cowpie here, but Gingrich? No way. Huntsman should be ranked first because he at least acknowledges global warming is real, a brave stand to take amongst a bunch of deniers. Whereas Gingrich dumped that chapter from his book after Rush Limbaugh suggested he might actually be on the side of reality. What’s going to matter more in the next 4 years? A president that took a brave stance on regulating internet porn? Or one that took a stance on global warming?

None of these guys has any scientific chops but that seems too much to ask in politicians on either side these days. But this analysis by the New Yorker is embarrassingly superficial.

The New Scientist Debates Denialism

Luckily they don’t make the mistake of actually debating denialists. The feature of last weeks issue, “Age of Denial” is a series of articles by skeptics and one laughable rebuttal, discussing the nature of denialism and tactics to use against it. They do quite a good job covering the basics, starting with Deborah MacKenzie and her article “Why Sensible People Reject the Truth“:

Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see “How to be a denialist”). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

Here she has it exactly right. Denialism starts with ideology, which most of us possess to some degree or another, and a conflict between that ideology and reality – at least so far as science allows us to understand it. In order to regain control of one’s beliefs, and protect them from being challenged, one has to prove that the science is wrong. And that requires one to believe in some form of non-parsimonious conspiracy theory, after all, how else could it be that science has come up with such an answer if not for the concerted malfeasance of thousands of individuals, all working together to undermine the TRUTH?

Further she cites these as tactics of denialists:

How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. “I’m not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings,” he says (The European Journal of Public Health, vol 19, p 2).
1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

Sound familiar? That’s because McKee cites us in his paper. We’ll forgive her for not identifying the original source, after all McKee gives the credit.

She does get a few things wrong, likely due to her unfamiliarity with just how absurd some denialists are. For instance when she says:

The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust. There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work. But there is denial of vaccines, which we are merely told will prevent diseases – diseases, moreover, which most of us have never seen, ironically because the vaccines work.

This is demonstrably false, as we have encountered denialists who do deny the efficacy of antibiotics and all of Western medicine, as their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature. She goes on to describe the work of our good colleague Seth Kalichman and the good things he’s done to fight HIV/AIDS denialism. Overall, a good summary of the problem. I also like how she stays non-judgmental and reflects on how pseudoscience is ultimately a complement to science:

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, this certainly applies to pseudoscience. After all pseudoscience is a reflection of the authority science has as the arbiter of truth. If being on the right side of science wasn’t so important, cdesign proponentsists and global warming denialists wouldn’t fight so hard to warp it to fit their ideology, and by doing so, implicitly seek its approval.

Jim Giles contributes an interesting article on an example of how a lie travels twice around the world before the truth gets its boots on with Unleashing a Lie, but then the series gets a bit more problematic with the contributions of noted skeptic Michael Shermer (also anerstwhile global warming denialist and persistent libertarian) and an amusing counterpoint from the otherwise wonderful Michael Fitzpatrick, a British GP who fights the good fight against autism quackery.
Continue reading “The New Scientist Debates Denialism”

Happy Blogiversary To Us!

It’s been two years now since we said hello to scienceblogs, and had our introductory posts on Conspiracy, Unified theory of the Crank, and the denialist deck of cards.

Lately reading a recent profile of a crank, Marc Morano in the NYT, which was sent to me by the crank himself. I can’t help but be amazed how our initial description has held up.

For one, throughout the article, it’s wonderful how wihtout realizing it, Morano exposes the the fact he’s living in a bizarre fantasy world. Starting with the questionable reality of his confrontation with Al Gore:

For example, Mr. Morano said he once spotted former Vice President Al Gore on an airplane returning from a climate conference in Bali. Mr. Gore was posing for photos with well-wishers, and Mr. Morano said he had asked if he, too, could have his picture taken with Mr. Gore.

He refused, Mr. Morano said.

“You attack me all the time,” Mr. Gore said, according to Mr. Morano.

“Yes, we do,” Mr. Morano said he had replied.

Mr. Gore’s office said Mr. Gore had no memory of the encounter. Mr. Morano does not care. He tells the story anyway.

Then his pride over being a swift-boater:

He then jumped to Cybercast News Service, where he was the first to publish accusations from Vietnam Swift-boat veterans that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, then the Democratic presidential nominee, had glorified his war record. Many of the accusations later proved unfounded.

Mr. Morano is proud of his work, which he says is not advocacy but truth seeking.

Or the bizarre way he justifies including scientists who completely disagree with his position on his BS AGW dissenter list:

Kevin Grandia, who manages Desmogblog.com, which describes itself as dedicated to combating misinformation on climate change, says the report is filled with so-called experts who are really weather broadcasters and others without advanced degrees.

Chris Allen, for example, the weather director for WBKO-TV in Kentucky, is listed as a meteorologist on the report, even though he has no degree in meteorology. On his Web site, Mr. Allen has written that his major objection to the idea of human-influenced climate change is that “it completely takes God out of the picture.” Mr. Allen did not respond to phone calls.

Mr. Grandia also said Mr. Morano’s report misrepresented the work of legitimate scientists. Mr. Grandia pointed to Steve Rayner, a professor at Oxford, who was mentioned for articles criticizing the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty on curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

Dr. Rayner, however, in no way disputes the existence of global warming or that human activity contributes to it, as the report implies. In e-mail messages, he said that he had asked to be removed from the Morano report and that a staff member in Mr. Inhofe’s office had promised that he would be. He called his inclusion on the list “quite outrageous.”

Asked about Dr. Rayner, Mr. Morano was unmoved. He said that he had no record of Dr. Rayner’s asking to be removed from the list and that the doctor must be “not to be remembering this clearly.”

Yes, clearly, Dr. Rayner must not be remembering how he never said anything in support of the denialist position on warming. Only Marc Morano is ever correct.

It’s amazing to me how people who are so clearly cranks can remain so influential, especially on a topic as important as global warming. We clearly have more work to do.