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Archive July 2010

Suzan does a mini- Monckton Ken Perrott Jul 30

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The journalist Suzan Mazur seems to be taking a leaf out of Christopher Monckton’s silly book.

A while back I reviewed Suzan Mazur’s book The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry (see Self-exposure — a journalist out of depth). I didn’t like it. My conclusion was that she had no real knowledge of evolutionary science. She approached the issue like a political journalist, believing the worst of the scientists she interviewed and thinking she had a “story” when she didn’t. The title of the book says it all. As does the fact that it was promoted by intelligent design/creationist websites and blogs.

Since then Mazur has had a few other digs at scientists particularly on the issue of peer review (see The Peer Review Prison). It is just so easy to get quotes from disgruntled authors to support a conspiracy theory of the “scientific establishment” censoring honest scientific work and new ideas. Nothing new there. And it is not honest reporting.

Now she has been called out by the scientist/philosopher Massimo Pigluicci. He described his experience with her work on The Altenberg 16 in his recent book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk.* The discrepancy between the material he provided in his interview and the article she wrote allowed, according the Pigluicci, “a rare glimpse from the inside of a journalist’s behaviour once she thought (mistakenly) that she was on to something big.” Pigluicci said it revealed “how thin the boundary is between not only science and pseudoscience, but journalism and pseudo-journalism.”

This didn’t please Mazur at all. And like a mini-Monckton she climbed out of her tree, attacked Pigluicci, his employer (Lehman College) and Publisher (University of Chicago press). She describes Pigluicci’s comments as a “malicious attack,” “twisted,”  disingenuous” and “libelous trash.” She questions whether Pigluicci “is competent to teach with regard to moral and ethics at Lehman College.”

And she demands that the publishers removed Pigliucci’s book from circulation, cancel scheduled readings and “advise Massimo Pigluicci to cease and desist from further derogatory public statements with regard to me and my work.”

This is the sort of thing we have come to expect from lord Christopher Monckton when his claims are subjected to calm, reason, scientific critique (see Support John Abraham against Monckton’s bullying).

Two weeks after making her demands the University of Chicago Press and their legal counsel have advised Mazur they stand by  Massimo Pigliucci, won’t be removing his  book from circulation or stop public readings from it. Se has released the letter she sent to the publishers (see Pigliucci Deceit Drags Publisher Into Big Muddy) but no copy of their response.

Strangely, this little storm in a teacup was reported, as far as I can find, only at New Zealand’s Scoop (which was also involved in publishing her book).

*See Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense for a review of Pigluicci’s book Nonsense on Stilts

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Evolution of gods, morals and violence Ken Perrott Jul 29

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Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, ’this view of human nature — the very idea that there might be a human nature — smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.’

However, the time is right. ’It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.’ One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

Outline of evolutionary origins of morality and religion

Science sees the mind as a product of natural selection. And reproductive success involves more than biological causes. It also is dependent on a complex of other, social, skills and morality involves many of these.

The book begins with an excellent summary of current knowledge of moral evolution.  It describes the origin of altruism and its development into reciprocal altruism and indirect altruism.  The evolutionary origins and development of moral emotions and moral grammar are described.

With development of larger societies our evolved moral sympathies extended to cover large groups besides kin, clan and tribe.  This involved an extended idea of the ’in-group’ to involve individuals who were previously in the ’out-group.’ There was also a need to identify those who were part of the new ’out-group. Religions provided ways of doing this by encoding moral ’laws’ and requirements. And by redefining the larger in-group using beliefs, traditions, taboos and ceremony. These also provided mechanisms for individuals to display their adherence to the in-group and so their trustworthiness for social interaction with other members of the group.

Origin of god-beliefs

Part of this approach to studying religion recognises the existence of gods. But in the minds of humans, not (necessarily) as objective entities.  These concepts arose as part of our evolved strategy to over-interpret, and under-determine, stimuli.  ’The human mind is designed to naturally, and automatically, interpret the world in terms of agents — that is, beings acting with intention.’

’Supernatural’ agents, gods, spirits, ghost, ancestors, etc., were a natural development. Some agents were defined to have special, counter-intuitive, powers, invisibility, access to one’s mind and thoughts, etc. (I like this description of ’supernatural’ — always a difficult word to define — as being ’counter-intuitive.’)

However, gods were anthropomorphised. Even today most believers adhere to belief in a largely anthropomorphic god. Hence the lack of support for theological and philosophical accounts of gods. ’The more that reflective beliefs about God move away from cognitively intuitive conceptions, the less influential those beliefs become.’ Gods that are radically different to people are incomprehensible and irrelevant to the ordinary believer. Teehan describes these popular or relevant gods as minimally counter-intuitive (MCI) agents.

So this scientific description portrays religion and gods as ways of solving the problem of extension of our evolved moral intuitions. To enable organisation and operation of societies larger than kin, clan and tribe.  And for defining the boundaries between this larger in-group and the still existing out-groups.

Gods as full access strategic agents, knowing our inner thoughts and providing judgment and punishment became important to enforcement of order and social cohesion.

Judaism and Christianity

After describing this evolutionary model for development of morality, religion and culture Teehan sets out to analyse two historical religions.  He chooses Judaism and Christianity as his examples, but argues the same analysis can be applied to other religions as well. In fact he does make a brief mention of Islam.

His analysis of Judaism relies largely on describing the Jewish concept of God (Yahweh) and moral law as outline in the Old Testament of the bible. Yahweh does satisfy the criteria for god beliefs generated from evolved cognitive channels. It is a minimally counter-intuitive full access strategic agent. One that judges, provides legitimacy to laws and customs, and punishes. Boy, does it punish!

And his analysis of the Ten Commandments shows how they arose from the needs of the contemporary society and the relationship of the Jewish people to surrounding tribes and people. They provided a code for social relations covering interactions with the larger in-group and the different interactions with those in the out-groups. Customs and taboos provided means for members of the in-group to display their adherence and therefore trustworthiness.

His analysis of Christianity is different and the universalism of the acceptable in-group and concentration on values rather than clan or race offers a challenge at first sight. However, Christianity quickly developed its boundary conditions as the religion moved from values to belief — to acceptance of Christ. This, with co-option of intuitions like purity both reinforced in-group social compliance and the demonization and hostility to the out-group.

Religious violence — the other side of moral coin.

In-group — out-group boundaries and their importance to religion provides an explanation for religious violence. This is the other side of the coin. The negative to the positive of social harmony and religious morality.

Teehan devotes a chapter to religious violence, its evolutionary origins and its importance and the problem it presents to the modern world. He sees this as a major justification for the scientific study of religion. Whatever our own individual beliefs, religions still exert powerful control throughout the world and we all suffer when this results in violence.

Solutions to the problems presented by religion

The book gets into a more speculative style when discussing possible solutions to the problems religion presents to today’s world. On the one hand he considers ways of reducing religious violence. But I am pleased he, on the other hand, also considers ways of dealing with the negative aspects of religious morality. It would have been so easy just to see religious morality as only positive. This is important because dogma and enforcement of ancient religious laws and customs means religious morality is often conservative and just not suitable for today’s societies.

Despite importance of our evolutionary history we are not trapped with the irrational intuitions. As an intelligent species we also have the ability to reason. Teehan does see solutions to these problems in rational thought. Despite recognising how flimsy this is in humans. Too often ’rational thought’ is just rearranging our prejudices. However, recent history does show moral progress despite religious conservatism. We no longer justify racism and slavery. We condemn controls on women and denial of their rights. Homosexuality is no longer considered evil. Our empathetic concerns often extend to other non-human animals.

So we can advance a more rational morality much more suitable for modern society than those conservative morals inherited from religion.

I see this as not just a rational, reflective approach to morality. Social education does lead to a change in our consciousness and like all learning this becomes incorporated into our subconscious. Just like riding a bike. Our intuitions for guilt, fairness and purity which we once co-opted to justify inhuman practices like racism and slavery, we now co-opt to support a more humane morality.

Teehan also that education of children is important. He sees education in comparative religion will do a lot to break down the in-group/out-group boundaries. If children can appreciate different cultures, different approaches to life, different moral codes, before reaching the age of accepting their own religious moral code as absolute this will do a lot to overcome religious hostility.

What about the non-religious

This is a book about origins and nature of religion and religious morality. I am pleased it goes further and briefly talks about prospects which involve the non-religious. But I would like to see the evolutionary analysis extend to cover other aspects of society, including non-religious movements and institutions.

Clearly today religion no longer plays the same role it did in the past to unite social groups, promote social cohesion and enforce the required social behaviour. We get along well in this in our post religious societies. But our evolutionary history still exerts an effect through our intuitions and cognitive psychology. Some of these will still be negative — we don’t have to hold religious beliefs to display in-group/out-group behaviour and violence.

On the other hand, we don’t need religious beliefs to enforce social cohesion and individual morality. And this is not just a matter of a wider acceptance of reason in modern society. I believe we still have something akin to the religious minimum counter-intuitive entity. We have a conscience and in many ways we experience it as almost an external minimally counter-intuitive full access agent. Almost anthropomorphic and aware of our innermost thoughts and feelings. We will sometimes even portray our conscience as an external being, perhaps sitting on our shoulder.

Perhaps many believers who feel their god is real and personal are thinking of their conscience. And perhaps non-believers who deny the existence of gods have an almost divine respect for their own conscience.

Austin Dacey develops this idea in his book The Secular Conscience. But I would have loved to see Teehan’s analysis extended to cover this idea.

Conclusion

In summary, this is an excellent book. It gives a good summary of current scientific understanding of evolution of morality and religion. It discusses religious violence as the other side of the moral coin. And there is a useful discussion of the problem of religion in modern society and ways we can overcome the negative aspects of our evolved moral and cognitive systems.

The evolutionary study of religion and morality is a new science, but already a fruitful one. This book provides the ideal introduction.

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Is and ought Ken Perrott Jul 28

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I have been watching some of the videos from the Edge seminar THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY. There will eventually be about 10 hours of talks and discussions posted on the Edge site. From the few presentations I have seen so far this looks to have been a fascinating seminar.

Partly because the science is relatively new – but also because there has been a lot of progress made. However, there are of course areas which promote intense discussion. I get the impression, for example, that several of the participants wish to challenge to dogma that one can’t determine an ought from an is. It’s going to be interesting to see that debate played out.

WEIRD culture and reasoning

Jonathon Haidt

Jonathon Haidt was the first speaker and made some interesting points about the relevance of a science centred largely around specialists from advanced western countries. He is using the acronym WIERD for the orientation around cultures in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. This analysis comes from a recent paper The weirdest people in the world ? by J Henrich, SJ Heine and A Norenzayan. Those authors say “we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”

Haidt also discusses some fallacies about human reasoning. “The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?” Again he refers to a recent paper by Mercier and Sperber – Why do humans reason ? Arguments for an argumentative theory. This is an interesting paper discussing human problems like confirmation bias, the human problem of search for evidence to support an preconceived conclusion.

Obviously both these problems are very relevant to a seminar like this. Go to the Edge site for a video of Jonothan’s presentation or download and audio file (MP3 Audio Download – Jonathan Haidt Talk).

Sam Harris and a role for science

As Sam Harris was one of the participants the seminar will surely have also discussed his ideas on the role of science in determining right and wrong. He presented these ideas in two recent lectures and they resulted in a lot of discussion, and controversy, on a number of scientific blogs (see Can science answer moral questions? and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrA-8rTxXf0).

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The new science of morality Ken Perrott Jul 26

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Edge's John Brockman and the nine speakers in the New Science of Morality Seminar

This last week saw the latest Edge Seminar – The New Science of Morality – held in the US. (see Edge: THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY).

This looks fascinating.  Nine leading researchers in the field gave presentations. Short abstracts are on the Edge site together with videos of the presentations. Transcripts of the presentations will be on line soon.

Morality is an area which religion has tried to ring fence, to claim a special role. But, as with anything else the “god did it” approach gets nowhere. Now the field is being actively researched and there is progress.

The nine researchers who gave presentations were Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, David Pizarro.

There is information on the work and background of these researchers below the fold:

ROY BAUMEISTER is Francis Eppes Eminent Scholar and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University. He received his PhD in 1978 from Princeton in experimental social psychology and maintains an active laboratory, but he also seeks to understand human nature in the big picture, such as by tackling broad philosophical problems with social science methods. He has nearly 450 publications. He is among the most widely influential psychologists in the world, as indicated by being cited over a thousand times each year in the scientific literature. His 27 books include Meanings of Life, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life, Is There Anything Good about Men?, and the forthcoming (with John Tierney) Willpower: The Rediscovery of Humans’ Greatest Strength.

PAUL BLOOM is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field.

JOSHUA D. GREEENE is a cognitive neuroscientist and a philosopher, received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard (1997) and his Ph.D. from Princeton (2002). In 2006 he joined the faculty of Harvard University’s Department of Psychology as an assistant professor. His primary research interest is the psychological and neuroscientific study of morality, focusing on the interplay between emotional and “cognitive” processes in moral decision making. His broader interests cluster around the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. He is currently writing a book about the philosophical implications of our emerging scientific understanding of morality.

JONATHAN HAIDT is Professor in the Social Psychology area of the  Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he does research on morality and emotion, and how they vary across cultures.
He studies morality – its emotional foundations, cultural variations, and developmental course. His early research on moral intuition changed the field of moral psychology, moving it away from its previous focus on moral reasoning.
His current work on the “five foundations of morality” is changing the field again, moving it beyond its traditional focus on issues of harm and fairness, and drawing attention to the moral issues that animate political conservatives and religious believers. This work has been profiled twice in the New York Times – once in a Science Times article by Nicholas Wade, and once in a magazine essay by Stephen Pinker on morality.
Haidt has published 75 academic articles, in Science, Psychological Review, and other leading journals. He is the co-editor of Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well Lived (2003, APA press), and is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and the forthcoming The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books).

SAM HARRIS is a neuroscientist and the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. He and his work have been discussed in Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Rolling Stone, and many other journals. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Times (London), The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The Annals of Neurology, PLoS ONE, and elsewhere.
Mr. Harris is a Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. He is the author of the forthcoming The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press).

MARC D. HAUSER is Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he is director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and co-director of the Mind, Brian and Behavior Program. He is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a Guggenheim Award, a Collège de France Science medal and a Harvard College Professorship chair for his excellence in teaching.

He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, Wild Minds: What Animals Think, and Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. He has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe, as well as on Today, The Early Show, PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, and NPR.<

He is the author of the forthcoming Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad (Viking Penguin)

JOSHUA KNOBE is a faculty member in Yale University’s Program in Cognitive Science. He is one of the founders of the ‘experimental philosophy’ movement, which seeks to use experimental methods to address the traditional problems of philosophy. Accordingly, his publications have appeared both in leading psychology journals (Psychological Science, Cognition, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) and in leading philosophy journals (Journal of Philosophy, Nous, Analysis). His work has been discussed in popular media venues including the New York Times, the BBC and Slate. He is coeditor, with Shaun Nichols, of Experimental Philosophy.

ELIZABETH A. PHELPS
received her PhD from Princeton University in 1989, served on the faculty of Yale University until 1999, and is currently the Silver Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University. Her laboratory has earned widespread acclaim for its groundbreaking research on how the human brain processes emotion, particularly as it relates to learning, memory and decision-making.  Dr. Phelps is the recipient of the 21st Century Scientist Award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for Experimental Psychology.  She has served on the Board of Directors of the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Neuroethics, was the President of the Society for Neuroeconomics and is the current editor of the APA journal Emotion.

DAVID PIZARRO , a psychologist at Cornell University, has his primary interest in moral judgment; particularly moral intuitions (especially concerning moral responsibility, and the permissibility or impermissibility of certain acts), and in biases that affect moral judgment. While intuitions re foundational principles on which people base their morality (e.g., that an act has to be intentional in order receive blame for it, or that killing someone is worse than letting them die), biases in moral judgment are the unintended consequence of certain cognitive and emotional processes (e.g., judging someone as more guilty of a crime because they are a racial minority).

Pizarro also has a general interest in the influence of emotional states on thinking and deciding. He is particularly interested in specific emotions (anger, disgust, fear, etc.) and their differential impact on how we rocess information, how we remember events, and how these emotions impact our moral judgments of others.

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Science, faith and limits of knowledge Ken Perrott Jul 23

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Occasionally we have debates here about the “limits of science,” “other ways of knowing,” and the old “scientism” label. Recently these issues have received a bit of coverage in  a series of articles at the Guardian.

These have been responses to the question Can Science Explain Everything?

Ever decreasing limits

I really like two of the responding articles. Adam Rutherford, who is an editor at the science journal Nature, wrote Ever-increasing circles of science. His conclusions are summarised in the sentence: “The domain of knowledge amenable to science has only ever changed in one direction: at the expense of all others.”

“Science may not tell us much about history, or aesthetics, or metaphysics. But to underestimate the boundaries of what it can say is a fallacy committed only by those who misunderstand or deny the power of the scientific method. When the comedian Dara O’Briain hears the facile maxim “science doesn’t know everything” his response is, of course it doesn’t, otherwise it would stop. As a way of knowing, there are limits to what science can reveal, but those limits are ever decreasing. Is there a sensible reason why it can’t tell us about love, or psychology, or God or the composition of quarks? Abso-bloody-lutely not.”

If you are not familiar with Dara O’Briain or his work have a look at the video clips in Get in the sack! Really great

Sue Blackmore, whose research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation, produced Science explains, not describes

She says: “The experience of consciousness seems incommunicable and ineffable. Yet science can hope to explain how it arises.” She justifies this by arguing:

“Science can (potentially at least) explain everything because its ways of trying to understand the universe by asking questions of it should not leave any areas off-limits. The methods of openness, inquiry, curiosity, theory building, hypothesis testing and so on can be adapted and developed to explore and try to explain anything.”

As her title implies she concludes:

“conscious experiences may remain ineffable even when science thoroughly understands how and why. In this case I would be right in my intuition that science cannot describe everything but may well be able to explain that which it cannot describe.”

Finally I came across similar sympathies in the article Science and Faith at the blog cgranade::streams. The author Chris Granade, a Canadian Ph.D. student,  concludes:

“Why should we mistake the limits of our current methods as being intrinsic properties of the world itself? That seems like the ultimate leap of faith. To hold some phenomenon to be permanently beyond the realm of understanding, regardless of how much humanity grows (or how much our post-human descendants grow), is to take an unpalatable amount on faith.”

I like it!

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Liability of scientific denialism to political conservativism Ken Perrott Jul 22

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I have often thought that political conservatives who promote climate change denial are cutting off their nose to spite their face. Sure, I can understand why conservatives may be opposed to collective action required to deal with the problem of global warming. Or at least some of the political and economic measures that have been discussed. But if they are serious about their political and ideological stance, and their desire to promote it, they should be in there debating the adaption and mitigation procedures that have been advanced. Or advancing some of their own.

Instead, they choose to leave themselves “outside the tent pissing in,” when they avoid the political process taking place and instead claim there is no need.

Political suicide

It’s a suicidal strategy because, after all, one can’t change reality by denying it. And when you get yourself into the position of attacking and denying the best science, and the best consensus on the dangers of global warming, you are denying reality.

Sensible politicians accept reality, even if it is unpleasant, and work to alleviate the problem by advancing and discussing policy measures. Not sticking their head in the sand.

I suspect many political conservatives are starting to wake up to this problem.They are starting to question the wisdom of deniers like Christopher Monckton who is currently carrying out a personal unwinnable vendetta against Professor John Abraham (see Support John Abraham against Monckton’s bullying). The “climategate” scandal has been exposed as a hoax and no longer has much use as a political mobiliser. And some conservative commentators are starting to publicly question the wisdom of the climate denial strategy.

A worry to conservatives

An example is Jonathan Kay’s recent column in the Canadian National Post (see Bad science: Global-warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause).

Kay points out that the denial movement has reinvented a “2-3% sliver of fringe opinion ,. . as a perpetually ‘growing’ share of the scientific community.” And:

Most climate-change deniers (or ’skeptics,’ or whatever term one prefers) tend to inhabit militantly right-wing blogs and other Internet echo chambers populated entirely by other deniers. In these electronic enclaves – where a smattering of citations to legitimate scientific authorities typically is larded up with heaps of add-on commentary from pundits, economists and YouTube jesters who haven’t any formal training in climate sciences – it becomes easy to swallow the fallacy that the whole world, including the respected scientific community, is jumping on the denier bandwagon.

“This is a phenomenon that should worry not only environmentalists, but also conservatives themselves: The conviction that global warming is some sort of giant intellectual fraud now has become a leading bullet point within mainstream North American conservatism; and so has come to bathe the whole movement in its increasingly crankish, conspiratorial glow.”

He laments that conservatives seem to have  lost “their hard-headed approach to public policy” when it comes to climate change. Instead:
“many conservatives I know will assign credibility to any stray piece of junk science that lands in their inbox … so long as it happens to support their own desired conclusion. (One conservative columnist I know formed her skeptical views on global warming based on testimonials she heard from novelist Michael Crichton.) The result is farcical: Impressionable conservatives who lack the numeracy skills to perform long division or balance their checkbooks feel entitled to spew elaborate proofs purporting to demonstrate how global warming is in fact caused by sunspots or flatulent farm animals.”

Making conservatives irrelevant

He warns that this unthinking approach is making conservatives irrelevant in one of the most important debates of our times;
“The appropriate intellectual response to that challenge – finding a way to balance human consumption with responsible environmental stewardship – is complicated and difficult. It will require developing new technologies, balancing carbon-abatement programs against other (more cost-effective) life-saving projects such as disease-prevention, and – yes – possibly increasing the economic cost of carbon-fuel usage through some form of direct or indirect taxation. It is one of the most important debates of our time. Yet many conservatives have made themselves irrelevant in it by simply cupping their hands over their ears and screaming out imprecations against Al Gore.”

I wish our local political conservatives, the ACT Party, the Centre for Political Research and some very vocal bloggers would listen to this advice. Stop trying to deny reality by attacking the science and scientists. You can’t change reality. But you can influence the political debate and decisions.

But to do that you have to be relevant.

Thanks to Deep Climate

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Evolution and the Holocaust Ken Perrott Jul 20

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A remarkably similar title to Darwin's classic

These sometimes get linked because they both have their deniers. I am ignoring those silly people who actually blame the holocaust on Darwin.  Here I want to compare them as phenomena supported by immense amounts of converging evidence.

In ’The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution’, Richard Dawkins compared the denial of evolution to the denial of the history of the Roman civilisation. There is good evidence for both and yet some people seem to think it is OK to deny evolutionary science while accepting the existence of the Roman civilisation.

Same with the Holocaust. As Dawkins pointed out the evidence for evolution is as good as, if not better, than that for the holocaust. But there are still people who accept the Holocaust as a fact while denying evolution. ( actually I did come across someone the other day who disagreed with Dawkins because while he found the evidence for evolution convincing nhe denied the evidence for the Holocaust. Almost a mirror image).

No observers!

Recently I raised this with two local evolution deniers. If they were consistent surely the arguments they used against evolution could also be used to deny the Holocaust. While they squirmed both justified their position by appealing to first person observers.

” I do believe in the holocaust . . . . to imply that the nature of the evidence for each [evolution and the Holocaust] is just the same is merely stupid. People in my generation know/knew people who actually saw the holocaust.  . . . . . The holocaust was directly witnessed, so your comparison of the two is just bizarre.”

And:

“I have yet to see anyone who was a first hand witness to evolution, the reason is that evolution takes billions of years. The reality is that the two cases [evolution and the Holocaust] are not on par epistemically and the insistence they are is exaggerated.”

Yes, I know, the theologically inclined tend to be evasive on this issue. They are afraid to admit they accept evolutionary science because a significant proportion of their brethren actually reject it. Hence the waffle. On the other hand they don’t want to be seen treating the Holocaust the same way so they attempt to deny the similarity. But consider therclaim that people “observed the Holocaust” but no one has “seen evolution.”

The fact is, no one “saw the Holocaust” as such. They saw events. Any specific “observation of the holocaust by an individualrelates to limited specific events. A specific concentration camp. A specific atrocity. We can build up a theory of the complete Holocaust, its history, its overall actions, reasons for launching it, its effects etc., by the normal scientific procedure. This involves research into documents, interviews, etc., as well as testimony of individual witnesses to specific events. It will lead us to considering the Holocaust to be a fact. However, our account is inevitably not the exact or complete truth. It gets closer to the truth as we accumulate more evidence, etc.We have a “theory of the Holocaust,” overwhelmingly supported by facts. No one actually “saw the Holocaust” but we can be sure it happened.

Same with evolution. Creationist attempts to divide evolution into micro and macro- evolution is like saying: “Yes we can find evidence that a particular atrocity was perpetrate in Byelorussia or Poland. That a particular camp existed, or that certain individuals observed certain things. But that this doesn’t prove there was a Holocaust! That the German government and leaders had a policy to eradicate Jews, Homosexuals, Russians and Communists”.

Overwhelming evidence for both

When we look at all the evidence, uncover the documents, conduct interviews, etc., we establish the Holocaust as a fact. Yet there will always be a few deniers who admit to existence of a particular concentration camp, specific murders, etc., but still deny the Holocaust.

Similarly no one has ever “seen evolution.” But researchers have observed specific evolutionary events. We have seen the evolution of new enzymes by bacteria (eg. nylase). There is the work where changes in populations of bacteria over about 20 years has been followed. We have seen changes in populations isolated over decades. We have the evidence of Dawin’s Finches in the Galapagos Islands (see How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches). And so on. These are examples of evolution, facts which fit into the overall unifying theory of evolution. Just as the atrocities observed by individuals are facts fitting into the overall concept of the Holocaust.

Just as with the documentary evidence for the Holocaust we have the genetic record of species. This provide an amazing amount of information on the evolutionary history of life. And of course there are the fossils.

So – no one has “observed evolution” or “observed the Holocaust.” Any individual has only seen bits and pieces. But we can be sure that the Holocaust did occur just as we are sure that evolution did occur and is occurring.

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Life on the building site Ken Perrott Jul 19

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I am in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment.

However, came across this recently so thought I would share it.

If only!

(Thanks to DrPetra)

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Support John Abraham against Monckton’s bullying Ken Perrott Jul 15

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Six weeks ago I posted a slideshow of a talk by John Abrahm’s (see Don’t trust Monckton!).

It was a calm and objective investigation into the claims made by Christopher Monckton in one of his lectures. If you didn’t watch it I highly recommend you do so.

Trouble is, Monckton is not used to such exchanges and has climbed out of his tree. His has written a 99 page “rejection” of Abraham’s talk and sent threatening letters to both Abraham and his employers (University of St Thomas, Minnesota). Asking for the presentation to be removed form the web site and demanding money – which has all the implication of possible legal action.

Now he is further organising his minions via climate change denier blogs to send similar letters to  the University of St Thomas.

Monckton can’t be allowed to succeed in this campaign. I has all the earmarks of those campaigns by Stalinists against dissident Russian scientists, or the German Nazis against Jewish scientists.

It is important that supporters of science make the university aware that this sort of bullying is just not acceptable.

Gareth at Hot Topic is organising a way for you to make your support for Abraham known. Just leave your name on a comment at his post Support John Abraham. He will ensure these messages of support get to Abraham’s employers.

Effectively Gareth is asking us to support the statement:

We the undersigned offer unreserved support for John Abraham and St. Thomas University in the matter of complaints made to them by Christopher Monckton. Professor Abraham provided an important public service by showing in detail Monckton’s misrepresentation of the science of climate, and we applaud him for that effort, and St. Thomas University for making his presentation available to the world.

UPDATE 10:30 am, July 16: I am heartened at the huge support Abraham is getting – currently over 630 people have added teir names to Gareth’s post at Hot Topic (Support John Abraham). In contrast Mockton provides copies of three (3) letters sent to the University of St Thomas as a result of his campaign (see Letters to Father Dease in support of Monckton). Some of Monckton’s supporters are starting to question his wisdon in this attack and threat of legal action.

I believe it important that everyone who is concerned with protecting science from this sort of censorship add their names to the list at Hot Topic. Unfortunately science employers can sometimes be influence by threats of legal action to employ self censorship. However if the University is aware that there is a groundswell of public support for both them and Abraham I am confident they will not give in.

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Ways of not knowing Ken Perrott Jul 14

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We are always hearing about how science can’t explain everything and that there are “other ways of knowing.” Problem is those promoting this idea are very vague about what these “other ways of knowing” are and what the evidence is for their effectiveness. Usually it’s just a way of supporting one’s own pet desires.

So I really like this simple statement by Jerry Coyne in a post at Why Evolutiuon is True (see What evidence would convince you that a god exists?).

“Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right. That’s why science makes progress in understanding the world while religion is still mired in medieval theology.”

Sums it up, really. How can you know you are right if you can’t know if you are wrong? To do that you actually have to interact with reality.

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