SciBlogs

Archive October 2010

Check out those climate change claims on the internet Ken Perrott Oct 29

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This looks interesting. Skeptical Science has introduced a Firefox add-on which enables an internet surfer to rapidly check out the arguments found on web pages and blogs. Great for those without a specialist knowledge in the area of climate science. So much of this information on the internet is distorted or downright wrong. This could save the interested surfer the time and effort required to research claims for themselves.

As the image above shows  the report includes information on the real science. I can see people wishing to place comments at an offending blog using this feature.

The add-on also enables interested surfers to make their own reports on blogs and web pages. Those supporting the science as well as the offending ones.

This will provide a chance for the more interested surfer to contribute information and links to the Daily Climate Links email and Global Warming Links page. A chance to contribute to a very useful resource.

Go to Skeptical Science Firefox Add-on: Send and receive climate info while you browse for more information on the add-on. Looks like it could be fun.

You can download the SkS Firefox Add-on at Skeptical Science 1.0.

See also: Get your climate change science on the run for details of Skeptic Science’s iPhone and ipod Touch application. Another useful way of checking our the science of climate change.

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Waking up to morality Ken Perrott Oct 27

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I have come to the conclusion that a lot of what is said and written about morality is rubbish. So I am pleased to see that, at last, science is opening up to the idea that it can investigate this area of human interest.

Part of that rubbish has been the idea that morality is “off limits to science.” That it is ring-fenced. I think this attitude partly explains the hostility we see expressed towards the scientific study of morality and scientists speaking out on the topic. And this hostility is coming from some scientists, as well as theologians and philosophers.

So I am looking forward to any debate resulting from the recent New Scientist opinion special “Science Wakes up to Morality.” (See October 16 issue No 2782).

This includes short articles by eight scientists, philosophers and journalists. Well worth reading.

Fiery Cushman, a moral psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Don’t be afraid — science can make us better:

“We have long thought of moral laws as fixed points of reality, self-evident truths rooted in divine command or in some Platonic realm of absolute rights and wrongs. But new research is offering an alternative, explaining moral attitudes in the context of evolution, culture and the neural architecture of our brains. This apparent reduction of morality to a scientific specimen can seem threatening, but it needn’t. Rather, by unmasking our minds as the authors of morality, we may be better able to bend its narrative arc towards a happy end.”

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, writes in Beyond intuition:

The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out long ago that no combination of statements about what “is” the case could ever allow one to deduce what “ought” to be. After all, in deductive arguments, the truth of the conclusion is already contained in the premises. But when scientists deal in morality, deducing an “ought” from an “is” is often precisely what they attempt to do.”

And:

“So let’s assume that we have instinctive moral responses to a variety of situations of the kind encountered by our ancestors throughout our history, though modified by our culture and upbringing. What would follow from this about what we ought to do?

It certainly doesn’t follow that we ought to do what our instincts prompt us to do. That might have enhanced our survival and reproductive fitness in an earlier period, but may not do so now; even if it did, it could still be the wrong thing to do. Consider the ethics, for example, of having a large family on an overpopulated planet. Rather, by undermining the authority that some philosophers have given to our intuitive moral responses, the new scientific lines of evidence about the nature of morality open the way for us to think more deeply, and more freely, about what we ought to do.”


Singer’s most recent book is The Life You Can Save: How to Play Your Part in Ending World Poverty.

Paul Bloom, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, writes in Infant origins of human kindness:

“A theory of human kindness needs two parts. the core of our moral sense is explained by our evolved nature, but its extension to strangers is the product of our culture, our intelligence and our imagination.”

Joshua Knobe, an experimental philosopher at Yale University” writes in Our hidden judgements:

“It seems that our whole way of thinking about phenomena that appear to lie outside the bounds of morality may actually be rooted in hidden moral jusdgements.”

Pat Churchland, a philosopher of neuroscience at the university of California and the Salk institute, says in Brain roots of right and wrong:

“Morality seems to be shaped by four interlocking brain processes: caring, rooted in attachment to and nurture of offspring; r4ecognition of others’ psychological states, bringing the benefit of predicting their behaviour; problem-solving in a social context, such as how to distribute scarce goods or defend the clan; and social-learning, by positive and negative reinforcement, imitation, conditioning and analogy.

These factors result in a conscience: a set of socially sanctioned responses to prototypical circumstances”

And:

“The interplay of our neural and cultural institutions comprises our moral history.”

Martha J. Farah, Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, argues that we will be required to rethink our sustice system to take into account how morality is linked to brain function (see My brain made me do it).

Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, is interviewed by Amanda Gefter.

I like his comment rejecting religious notions of morality:

“Consider the Catholic church. This is an institution that excommunicates women who attempt to become priests, but does not excommunicate priests who rape children. This church is more concerned about stopping contraception than stopping genocide. It is more worried about gay marriage than about nuclear proliferation. When we realise that morality relates to questions of human and animal well-being, we can see that the Catholic church is as confused about morality as it is about cosmology. It is not offering an alternative moral framework; it is offering a false one.”

Having just started reading his book, I am going to write more about Sam’s ideas later. Some early reviews are in and he is certainly getting some debate going.

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Four signs of a stroke Ken Perrott Oct 25

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Here’s some important information which could save lives.

Four simple indicators of a stoke.


I received this short story by email recently. It illustrates the importance of rapid stroke identification:

During a BBQ, a friend stumbled and took a little fall – she assured everyone that she was fine (they offered to call paramedics) .she said she had just tripped over a brick because of her new shoes.

They got her cleaned up and got her a new plate of food. While she appeared a bit shaken up, Ingrid went about enjoying herself the rest of the evening

Ingrid’s husband called later telling everyone that his wife had been taken to the hospital – (at 6:00 PM Ingrid passed away.) She had suffered a stroke at the BBQ. Had they known how to identify the signs of a stroke, perhaps Ingrid would be with us today. Some don’t die. They end up in a helpless, hopeless condition instead.

Neurologists say if they can get to a stroke victim within 3 hours they can totally reverse the effects of a stroke…totally. The trick is getting a stroke recognized, diagnosed, and then getting the patient medically cared for within 3 hours, which is tough.

The stroke victim may suffer severe brain damage when people nearby fail to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.

Recognise the symptoms

STROKE: Remember the 1st Four Letters….S.T.R.O.

Bystanders can recognize a stroke by asking four simple questions:

S *
Ask the individual to SMILE.
T *Ask the person to TALK and SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE (Coherently)
(I.e. It is sunny out today.)
R*Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS.
If he or she has trouble with ANY ONE of the first three tasks, call emergency number immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

O* Ask him to stick O*UT HIS TONGUE.

If the tongue is ‘crooked’, if it goes to one side or the other,that is also an indication of a stroke.

Remember:

Smile – Talk – Arms – Tongue

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Can the ’supernatural’ be of any use? Ken Perrott Oct 22

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This xkcd cartoon is so true (Thanks to xkcd: The Economic Argument).

1: There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world. Scientific ideas are based on evidence from reality, they get tested and validated against reality. And they get tossed out if found wrong.

So it’s not surprising that scientific knowledge gets incorporated into things that are useful.

2: Just shows how silly all this talk of science being blinkered becuase it “excludes supernaturalism” is. If this term has any meaning in the real world it just means something that is counter-intuitive or hasn’t been explained.  Science is full of such ideas so it is dishonest to claim it is blinkered. What could be more weird or non-intuitive than “spooky action at a distance.”

No, when these proponents of “other ways of knowing” etc., attack science they are trying to remove the requirement of evidence and testing against reality. That’s what they mean by their code word “supernatural.”

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Are ebooks taking off? Ken Perrott Oct 21

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Martin Taylor at eReport reports this amazing statistic (See US stats show 9% ebook share, grim news for print):

The latest US book industry sales figures from the Association of American Publishers show ebooks are now tracking at 9% of domestic trade book revenue for the 8-month period January to August 2010.

To put this in context I have plotted the ebook share of  total consumer book sales in the US for the last years.

This certainly looks like ebook sales, and presumable sales of ebook readers and similar devices, is taking off in the US.  As Martin points out Amazon’s Jeff Bezos claims that when both printed and e-book formats are available their  sales are about 35% ebooks!

Mind you, I think this sudden increase may be partly caused by the more recent  availability of improved ebook readers, devices like the iPad, and on-line ebook stores. If so, we might expect the increasing trend to slow and some sort of equilibrium reached in the next few years between sales of ebooks and printed books.

Unfortunately in New Zealand we are well behind. Ebook readers, and the iPad, have only become available this year. So far there are just four ebook readers on the local market (the Kobo and two Sony models), plus the Kindle from Amazon. And try to find them in the local shops!

On the other hand the price of the Kobo has dropped $50 recently suggesting that we will soon see more competition, and lower prices, in the New Zealand market, as overseas.

Footnote: I was interested to see that science writer Carl Zimmer is experimenting by releasing his most recent book purely as an ebook. (see Brain Cuttings). He found it quick to produce and it’s certainly quicker for the reader to obtain.

If this catches on with authors I am going to have to splash out and get my own ebook reader.
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Some pesky delusions Ken Perrott Oct 20

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Book review: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, editors John W. Loftus and Dan Barker


Price:
US$14.28; NZ$44.97

Paperback: 422 pages
Publisher:
Prometheus Books (March 31, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
1616141689
ISBN-13:
978-1616141684

As the title indicates this book is about delusions often promoted by Christians. These are many and varied. The show up in areas such as the history of science, cosmology, morality/ethics, history, culture and anthropology, the nature of the mind and consciousness, ideas of gods, the Christian bible and the historically authenticity of biblical history. Religious leaders and theologians promote them and congregations uncritically accept them. That is the nature of faith and is Why Faith Fails, as the book’s subtitle says.

It is a collection of articles by nine different authors. The advantage — most readers will find some articles which specifically interest them. The disadvantage – few readers will have the same interest in all the articles.

Another advantage of different authors is that they are all experts in their own fields and write authoritatively on the subjects of their articles.

So I should declare my interests.  Part I: Why Faith Fails and Part 5: Why Society Does not depend on Christian Faith specifically interested me. Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good and Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God would interest those with a background or interest in theology. Readers interested in biblical history and analysis might prefer Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word.

History of science

A common delusion is that Christianity was a precondition of science. One could pass this off as simple hubris, arrogantly ignoring the contributions to science made by medieval Islam, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, etc.  However, I think it is more serious than this because theologians and many philosophers of religion (who just love to pontificate on the history and epistemology of science) promote the delusion. Other conservative philosophers and op-ed writers sometimes uncritically pick this up. Particularly these days when some feel obligated to take the side of religion in the current science-religion debates. This delusion should not go unchallenged.

This delusion gets some mileage because few people have much knowledge of the history of science. There is a real need for popular books and articles on this.  Richard Carrier is an expert in this field. He has researched the intellectual history of ancient Greece and Rome. His forthcoming books ’The Scientist in the Early Roman Empire’ and ’Science Education in the Early Roman Empire’ are an expansion of his Ph D Dissertation. Meanwhile Carrier’s article in this collection ’Christianity was not responsible for Modern science’ provides a useful preview.

He argues that while some proponents of this Christian fallacy may be consciously lying ’delusion seems a more likely explanation for how so many can repeat a claim so demonstrably false without ever being corrected by their peers.’ Because, ’Christianity fully dominated the whole of the western world from the fifth to the fifteenth century, and yet in all those thousand years there was no Scientific Revolution. A cause that fails to have its predicted effect despite being continually in action for a thousand years is usually considered refuted, not confirmed.’

Apologists claim that scientific investigation needed the Christian idea of a rational creator before it could occur and laws of nature could be discovered.  Carrier points our ’that the universe is rational is observed. So it doesn’t have to be proved. Such a belief requires no faith or theology because it rests entirely on evidence.’

And these apologists are silent about the common medieval theme that religion was more worthy of study than natural phenomena. In 1277 the idea that nature followed laws was included in a list of heresies published by Bishop Tempier of Paris, on Pope Pius XXI’s instructions, because it conflicted with God’s omnipotence.

Carrier speculates on the idea that scientific thinking was a by-product of early pagan theology. And he provides many examples of advances made in science and mathematics by the ancients. Examples which apologist theologians usually erase from their histories.

This chapter agreess the pagans ’set the stage for the end of ancient science — just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim.’ The Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of civil war and disastrous economic policy. ’Pagan society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders.’ Christianity profited from this. ’Only with considerable ingenuity, and against considerable resistance, did some Christians eventually figure out a way to reintegrate these pagan values into a thoroughly Christianised culture, and then only after many centuries of nearly complete disinterest.’

So, history also shows that Christianity could be made compatible with science and scientific values. The scientific revolution occurred ’in spite of Christianity’s original values and ideals.’ ’Christianity only had to adapt to embrace those old pagan values that once drove scientific progress.’

Obviously this process is not finally settled. We only have to consider today’s attacks on evolutionary science by a significant section of Christians, and the hostile theological reaction to Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s new book The Grand Design to realise this. (See The Grand Design — neither God nor 42 and  Hawking’s grand design — lessons for apologists?).

Morality

David Eller’s chapter ’Christianity does not provide the Basis for Morality’ debunks a common Christian delusion actively promoted in the public sphere.

Eller is an anthropologist. He says ’the person who utters a statement like ‘Christianity provides the only basis for morality’ either understands very little about Christianity (or religion in general), or the person is expressing his or her partisanship about religion (i.e., pro-Christianity) — or, more likely, the speaker is doing both.’

He compares this delusion to the claim ’that English provided the only basis for grammar.’ A claim that would shock most people.

This chapter answers the questions ’What is Religion? What is Morality?’ with an anthropological description of how these have arisen. He uses Kai Nelsons short description: ’morality functions to guide conduct and alter behaviour or attitudes.’ And in his own words ’morality is nothing more than a special case of the more general human predilection to appraise behaviour and to erect systems and standards of appraisal.’ Humans — hopelessly social creatures that we are — do and must engage in the appraisal of each other’s actions. Morality is one form of such appraisal.’

Ellor also considers ’Morality without Christianity’ and ’Morality without Religion.’ Another section, entitled ’Morality without Humanity’ considers morality in non-human species. The work he describes shows that ’’morality’ is not unique to humans but has its historical/evolutionary antecedents and its biological bases. ‘Morality’ does not appear suddenly out of nowhere in humans but emerges gradually with the emergence of certain kinds of beings living certain kinds of lives.’

I found this chapter a useful, brief (20 pages) outline of current anthropological understanding of morality. But I would have liked to see here, or in a separate chapter, some discussion of how today the non-religious person goes about setting up their own moral system. He recommends Richard Carrier (Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism), Gary Drescher (Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics) and Sam Harris (his talk Can we ever be right about right and wrong’) for defence of the notions of an ’objective’, ’natural’ or ’real’ morality but doesn’t support this himself. He says ’morality is too diverse and contradictory to be natural or real or objective, and the total lack of agreement on moral answers — or even moral questions — contradicts the notion of a single ‘real’ morality.

All well and good. But as someone who often argues for an objective basis to human morality I would have loved to see this discussion presented somewhere in more detail.

As for the delusional claim that Christianity is the only basis for morality, Ellor concludes ’Let the silly and biased claim never be uttered again.’ I would add ’insulting’ to  ’silly and biased ’- and then Amen.

Culture

David Ellor also has a chapter ’The Cultures of Christianity.’ He argues there is no such thing as a ’Christian culture.’ Rather there are ’Christian cultures.’ And in fact there is ’no such thing as Christianity but rather Christianities.

Rather than being a set of logical propositions and collections of evidence open to discussion and debate, religion, and specifically Christianity, is part of culture. ’Christians are not easily argued out of their religion because, since it is culture, they are not argued into it in the first place.’

This chapter discusses how religions can co-opt and penetrate other cultures. Christian missionaries acting as an arm of colonialism and imperialism are a classic example. Future generations of the indigenous people often have to find their own culture and history through the filter imposed by missionaries. Similarly the colonial Christian culture modifies and co-opts the indigenous folk religions. We have seen this in New Zealand.

Even within a society Christianity tries to penetrate the lives and culture of all members of the population, whatever their beliefs. Especially at times of stress the Christian religion tries to incorporate itself into, and dominate the work of, relief organisations and public expressions of concern and grief. Even promoting messages of thanks to their god and expressions of ’it’s a miracle.’ The rescue of the Chilean miners is just one recent example.

And even our language is replete with words of religious origin (although often these also work as swear words). Our art, symbols and every day habits often have religious content. Many names have a religious origin.

In day-to-day life religious ceremonies are often imposed on the secular sphere. This is a constant battle for secularists who object to such invasion.

The need for Chrsitian dominance of culture is so strong that when they don’t get their way some will withdraw and create their own societies. Home schooling is their alternative to secular schools when these don’t succumb to demands for control over curriculums and ceremony. Some groups will withdraw into separate societies or cults rather than engage in a secular society.

Cognitive science

Valerie Tarico, a psychologist, has an interesting chapter ’Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science.’ Jason Long’s chapter ’The Malleability of the Human Mind’ supplements this. These are useful summaries of our current understanding in cognitive science and its relevancy to religious belief. They are sure to shatter a few illusions people hold about themselves and their beliefs.

These chapters challenge the idea that we are rational. Bias is our default setting and we naturally indulge in confirmation bias and cherry-picking of evidence. Most of this distortion occurs well below the level of consciousness — we easily delude ouselves into thinking we are objective and rational.

Tarico points out ’the success of the scientific endeavour can be attributed to one factor: it pits itself against our natural leanings, erects barriers across the openings to rabbit trails, and systematically exposes faulty thinking to public critique. In fact, the scientific method has been called ‘what we know about how not to fool ourselves.’

Taric’s discussion of how we have a feeling of ’knowing’ specifically interested me. We ’know’ we are right. These feelings inhibit further exploration of evidence and ideas. No doubt these feelings provide emotional support to the theological claims of ’properly basic beliefs.’ The Editor, John Loftus, sees this as a defensive response. ’Because of the onslaught of sceptical arguments, more and more Christians are claiming that their faith is a ’properly basic belief,’ and as such, it doesn’t need any evidence to support it. . . .In effect, Christians have insulated their faith from contrary evidence. But this also means the external evidence does not have to support their faith, so why bother with apologetics at all.’

Yes, why bother indeed?

I have only discussed those areas that interest me. In contrast, others may go straight to ’The Cosmology of the Bible,’ ’The Bible and Modern Scholarship,’ ’Yahweh Is a Moral Monster,’ ’The Darwinian Problem of Evil,’ ’Jesus: Myth and Method,’ or ’Why the resurrection is Unbelievable’. The ability to pick and choose is the advantage of a collection like this. The only disadvantage I found, with this book, is that some of the chapters are part of a continuing debate with other protagonists. This is OK for the reader who has a specialist interest and is closely following the debate. But it is a bit frustrating for readers who don’t have the background.

So most readers will find something of interest to them in this book. It’s well referenced for those who want to dig deeper. You don’t have to start at the beginning. And it’s probably a book readers will come back to as their interests change or they wish to check out ideas and writers in an unfamiliar field.

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Why we deny climate change Ken Perrott Oct 18

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Book Review: Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change by Clive Hamilton

Price: USD$16.47; AUD $24.99; NZD$29.99

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Earthscan Publications Ltd. (May 2010); Allen & Unwin (March 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1849710813
# ISBN-13: 978-1849710817

I think this book has three messages, but two of them resonated strongly with me. Effectively these are the title and subtitle.

The problems presented by global warming are so large we may never solve them (hence Requiem for a Species — us). The more I discover about the science of climate change the more I become aware that if we don’t take protection measures soon the results for our species will be dramatic.

Socially and psychologically we want to deny the problem (Hence Why we Resist the Truth About Climate change). Psychological and sociologically, as individuals and collectively, we are in denial. This inhibits our capacity to take the actions needed to protect us from the results of human induced climate change.

Those messages come through strongly. The third message, ideas and suggestions for getting us out of these problems is far weaker, probably because it is less specific.

No escaping the science

The book provides a brief outline of the science — just to convince us there is a problem. Those wanting a more detailed presentation should look elsewhere.  However, Hamilton does clearly present the problems and the danger to our civilisations. Whatever the reasons for people’s unwillingness to deal with these problems it is not scientifically warranted. As the first chapter puts it — ’there is no escape from the science.’

The author also briefly discusses financial aspects of solutions. I found his discussion of costs helpful because his comments help to bring some balance to the public debate. He shows that alarmist claims of high costs by climate change deniers are just not true.

Financial alarmist will quote figures for a 30-year period as if they were annual costs. Huge numbers, billions and trillions of dollars, are bandied about as if they were up-front costs. These alarmists promote dire predictions of starvation in the third world, huge taxation increases and transfer of jobs and incomes from the developed to the undeveloped world. Serious stuff for the average person already concerned about the cost of living, unemployment and taxation.

The book brings the financial costs back to reality. For example, in terms of effects on the projected world gross domestic product (GDP) of taking action on climate change. The worst case prediction of the reduced GDP in 2050 because of action is 5.5%. And most scenarios considered produced predictions of the order of 1%!

Another way of considering this is the delay, caused by action on climate change, in reaching predicted world average incomes. In the worst case scenario considered, world average incomes would double in 2050, only three years later than if there were no costs. The more typical scenario predicted a one-year delay. As Hamilton puts it: A one-year delay in the doubling of average incomes is the basis for the belief that pursuing a safe level of climate protection would be too expensive.’

The financial alarmists of course ignore the costs of not taking action on climate change. The Stern report estimated this would be in the range of 5% to 20% of world GDP.

The political centrality of financial considerations identifies a problem Hamilton sees. It shows that humans have become concerned with models of economic growth, even with the simple dogma of growth. We have a growth fetish.  Consumerism has become part of our personal identities. And, Hamilton argues, our dissociation from nature in the modern world is another problem.

Solutions to our future climate problems require us to battle against our own nature. Rather than do that we go into denial.

Many forms of denial

Denial takes many psychological and social forms. Hamilton spends a chapter considering some of these:

Cognitive dissonance – ’the uncomfortable feeling we get when we begin to understand that something we believe to be true is contradicted by evidence.’ Hence the urge to deny, or explain away, the evidence.

Bulverism’a method of argument that avoids the need to prove that someone is wrong by first assuming their claim is wrong and then explaining why the person could hold such a fallacious view.’ Lays us wide open for the arguments and conspiracy theories of sceptics and deniers.

Green consumerism — this can ’transfer responsibility from corporations mostly accountable for the pollution, and the governments that should be restraining them, onto the shoulders of private consumers.’ But ’climate change is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. In other words, it needs good, strong policies enforced by governments.’

Green consumerism can also foster the illusion that we are doing something and companies can cynically hijack it to promote their products.

Procrastination — the human wish to put things off. This makes us susceptible to the arguments of deniers and sceptics that we should wait until there is overwhelming evidence. That we should wait until it is too late.

Apathy and distraction are common forms of avoiding problems. People will switch off, just not want to know, or avoid knowledge by demonising its sources. We hear avoidance tactics like the putting down of scientist and environmentalists, claims of their ’following the money,’ Al Gore is fat, etc.

Some will promote a ’brave’ face by adopting an ’anti-PC’ approach. Purposely ridiculing and rejecting messages and actions of concern. Cutting off their nose to spite their face they will celebrate Earth Day by turning on every light and electrical appliance in their house!

Blame shifting — ’our actions won’t make a scrap of difference. It’s the fault of the US and China — they have to solve the problem.’ This is popular in New Zealand but of course ignores that collective action by the world has trade and political results for rogue countries who unilaterally decide to opt out.

And, more seriously, we have those who adopt an anti-science attitude. That makes it easy to ignore scientific facts. We can see that with those who adopt a post-modernist attitude towards reality or, more commonly, fundamentalist religious people who prefer to take their ’knowledge’ from their ’holy’ scripture. It’s no accident that many evolution deniers are also climate change deniers.

Role of political conservatives

Also no accident is the fact the more active opposition to climate change science comes from conservative groups and think-tanks. The book argues this is the case for the USA. But we can also see this in New Zealand with the active role of the ACT Party and the Centre for Political research, and their connectiosn with climate change denial groups.

Hamilton describes how with the collapse of communism in 1989 US conservatives had to find a new enemy — and they did. ’President George Bush . . . and fellow conservatives recognised that after the Cold War a new threat to their world view had emerged. Germany’s environment minister at the time: ‘I am afraid that conservatives in the United States are picking ’ecologism’ as their new enemy.’’ And, being part of this conservative movement the fundamentalist Christian and anti-evolution groups eagerly engage in this new war.

Interestingly, it’s easy to see this analysis confirmed in the writing of climate change deniers. For example, Ian Wishart in his book Air Con presents a fanatical right-wing argument about a conspiracy of capitalist, communist, greenies who are setting the UN up as a World Government. This One World Government intends to redistribute wealth from the west to the developing countries and ’bomb humanity back to the stone ages.’ (See my review Alarmist Con). Scratch a little below the surface and you will find this argument is common to most climate change denial groups and the think-tanks behind them.

It’s not surprising that organisations with a strong free enterprise, anti-interventionist, libertarian ideology should be willing to promote climate change denial. After all, measures to protect the global climate will involve restricting the unbridled freedom of large corporations to pollute at will. Examples of sceptical left-wing groups, however, did surprise me. The book details involvement of the UK Revolutionary Communist Party (a Trotskyite splinter group) in The Great Global Warming Swindle,’ a 2007 denialist documentary.

Requiem for a Species details to formation of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think-tank. Initially devoted to defending Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars programme), it later became involved in defending the interests of tobacco companies, and then attacking climate change science.

Scientist sceptics

Typical of such think-tanks this institute ’amplified the message of sympathetic scientists.’ Hamilton describes the role of three climate science denying physicists who founded the George C. Marshall Institute — Frederick Seitz, Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg. He says ’Among the characteristics of elite physicists like the trio is an intellectual arrogance that leads them to believe, as one close observer put it, that global environmental problems are ‘trivia that can be handled by a good physicist on a Friday afternoon over a beer.’ Being the stars of the science, with a rigour others want to emulate, gives them a sense of intellectual superiority and permission to be contrarian.’

Many physicists will object to this stereotyping and we should not forget the role of conservative political ideology. But it is interesting that some of the activist climate change sceptics are physicists. Hamilton mentions the example of Freeman Dyson, who has been a vocal sceptic despite freely admitting ’he knows almost nothing about climate science.’

It is also interesting that some of these conservative think-tanks, and climate science-denying physicists, actively support developing geoengineering projects. These are last-resort measures, such as injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, aimed at reduced global temperatures. They have possible disastrous side effects and do not solve the causes of climate change. More, they postpone these effects making them more dramatic when they do come. And they could introduce huge political uncertainties as countries take independent action to influence the global climate in a manner that may disadvantage other countries.

Mind you, such projects probably appeal to conservatives who are trying to torpedo global action and see profits in geoengineering. The technology probably also appeal to the inflated testosterone levels and wishful thinking of some conservative physicists.

The solutions

Hamilton briefly considers some of the solutions to human climate change that have been promoted. He finds carbon capture and storage to be far from practical at this stage. Nuclear power has some problems and cannot be introduced widely enough rapidly. It may offer some long-term solutions with successful development of new so-called fourth generation nuclear power.  Movement from coal to renewable sources and natural gas has possibilities, together with increased energy efficiency.

However his conclusion is pessimistic. ’Sadly the national and international political institutions that must bring about changes are too slow, too compromised and too dominated by old thinking to mandate the energy revolution we must have to guarantee our survival.’

Hamilton concludes that humans are not mature enough to handle the power we have unleashed. Hence our denial. His solution is to move beyond today’s thinking and ideologies. To work through what he sees as a stage of hopeless deception resulting from the grief of hopelessness. Here I find him rather vague and to some extent I felt he was presenting personal wishes which are perhaps not practical. He laments our disconnection from nature and criticise human tendencies to celebrate technology. At times he almost seems to argue for a religious solution suggesting the current popularity of atheism may be ’a Homeric burst of pride before the fall.’ At the same time, though, he stresses that our knowledge and technology are ’our only means of saving ourselves and staving off the ravages unleashed by our hubris.’

Hamilton finishes with appeals to action, although these are vague. He describes how humans have two sides to their character — one leading to support for free-enterprise and the other supporting social cohesion in common action. He believes that solutions stressing the possibility of free enterprise can be counter-productive and that we should, in contrast, stress solutions stressing common interests and action. I can see his point. However, I still feel one should not steer away from, or ignore, those solutions involving free enterprise. We are not going to easily change that part of our character and it should be enlisted where it is positive. And there are many examples where companies, for their own selfish reasons, have adopted and supported new technology, etc. with positive environmental outcomes. Perhaps we should be stressing these when we also criticise other examples of free enterprise like green washing, corporate selfishness, etc.

I don’t think this book will be useful for the solutions it proposes. But it is effective in underlining the seriousness of the climate problems we face. And highlighting the psychological and sociological reasons we find it difficult to solve those problems. In the end these could be our downfall.

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Attitudes will change. Life will get better Ken Perrott Oct 14

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This video needs to be seen by everyone. It’s important

Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns reaches out to GLBT teens with a personal story and a message of hope.

Thanks to PZ Myers: You can’t be unmoved by this video : Pharyngula.

Your computer is the enemy! Ken Perrott Oct 14

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I know many of us feel this instinctively. But think about it. Have a look at your computer’s motherboard.

Another problem to obsess the conspiracy theorists?

From Pundit Kitchen.

via So That’s How Computers Work! – Pundit Kitchen.

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Scientific misconduct and skepticgate Ken Perrott Oct 11

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I have been interested in scientific misconduct recently – partly as a result of the Hauser scandal. Consequently I was reading about a recent conference on the subject. The documents included plagiarism right up there with the more commonly accepted forms of misconduct like falsification of evidence.

Plagiarism is the use of text from others’ writing without attribution. Now I realised that this was a big issue for student assessment at universities but apparently it is also an issue for scientific journals. Many journals now use a computer programme to check out submitted papers for plagiarized content.

Just imagine, though, there is a whole field of scientific publishing where such things would not be routinely checked. I am referring to popular science articles, newspaper articles – and reports to clients, including governments.

Well, the proverbial seems to be hitting the fan for one such report – the Wegman report. Gareth at Hot Topic briefly reports this in his article Wegman investigated for plagiarism, ’skepticgate’ looms.

What is the Wegman report?

This report is frequently quoted by climate change sceptics, contrarians and deniers. It is central to the “Hockey Stick Controversy” they promote*. This refers to climate change sceptics/deniers attempts to discredit the work of Michael Mann and his co-workers on historic trends in global temperature. In fact the claim that Mann’s work has been discredited is one of the central myths deniers use. See my post  Climate change deniers’ tawdry manipulation of ’hockey sticks’ which was a response to a local manifestation of this myth by blogger Poneke (13 years of Climategate emails show tawdry manipulation of science by a powerful cabal at the heart of the global warming campaign). Poneke even claimed, at the time, that the IPCC had dropped Mann’s work.

Climate change skeptics managed to get the US House of Representatives to hold Committee hearings on Mann’s ’hockey stick.’ As part of the political maneuvering some republicans formed the Wegman Committee to investigate and report on Mann’s work. Hence the Wegmann Report.

Incidentally around the same time other members of the House asked the authoritative  National Research Council to do their own investigation. This resulted in the report  Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years. Its very thorough, authoritative and was itself thoroughly reviewed. It basically supported Mann et al’s findings (with some criticisms), so you don’t often find deniers mentioning it* (although they will sometimes selectively quote extracts in a distorting way).

I have read both reports, was impressed with the National Research Council report but found Wegman’s report biased, and actually disingenuous.

Plagiarism found

For a while now the Canadian blog Deep Climate has been uncovering aspects of the political maneuvering behind the Wegman Committee. It has also been reporting a very detailed analysis of the Wegman report which found extensive and crude plagiarism. One of the persons plagiarised, Raymond Bradley a co-author of Michael Mann’s,  formally complained to Wegman’s employer which began an investigation (see University investigating prominent climate science critic).

Deep Climate has also released an analysis by John Mashey which exposed extensive plagiarism by Wegman and his students in other publications. Including some Ph.D. theses by students. (See Strange Scholarship - pdf file).

The Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (a political climate change denier) is currently carrying out a witch hunt against Michael Mann and the University of Virginia (see Ken Cuccinelli seems determined to embarrass Virginia). Ironically, one of the documents he relies on is the Wegman Report. Perhaps he should be directing his legal attentions at Wegman and his employer George Mason University – which after all is in his state.

This story is going to be interesting so keep an eye open for the results of the investigation.

The story has been picked up by several blogs and newspapers (see below) – strangely most of the usual critics of climate change science are so far silent.

*In my review of Ian Wishart’s book AIR CON, for example, I noted that he quoted extensively from the Wegman report and ignored completely authoritative National Research Council report (see Alarmist con).

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