Scientific consensus and global warming

tin-foilSome of the most impassioned and frankly bizarre discussions I have do not involve politics or even religion. No, it seems that people are more than willing to become completely unhinged from reality whenever I discuss…wait for it…global warming.

Yes, global warming, that enormously elaborate, perfectly executed global hoax perpetuated over the course of several decades by the vast majority of physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, biologists and so on who study the climate, each with the nefarious sole purpose of getting rich off of grant money (irrespective of their academic credentials, affiliations, organizations or national origins).

Well, it’s either that or global warming is real.

But at any rate, the willingness of people to squeeze their eyes shut and close their ears to the evidence of global warming remains nothing short of astonishing.

Case in point. In a twitter argument I was in some time ago, a global warming denier accused me of asserting the reality of global warming without providing any evidence to support my assertion; to which I responded that I have the overwhelming consensus of the entire scientific community on my side. I added that on their “side” they have Fox News, right wing talk radio and blogs, Glenn Beck, and in fairness, a very small handful of scientific contrarians largely ignored by their colleagues at this point.  But no real science. Nothing in a peer-reviewed journal of note. None. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

Losing patience with this particular climate contrarian’s willful ignorance, I asked him to name a single scientific body of national or international standing that does not endorse the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. He gave me the Fraser Institute, Slovakia’s past president Vaclav Klaus, and something called Weather Canada. What?  Did I misspell “scientific body of national or international standing?” This type of false equivalence is endemic with climate change deniers. They do not understand what makes for a statement of credible science and for the life of me I can’t figure out why they don’t get it.

Clearly some people simply have no idea what constitutes a national or international scientific body, so allow me a few words to document my position more succinctly and hopefully in so doing, elucidate the term “scientific consensus” should any poor soul need to reference this page in the future:

I understand climate change is real not because I’m a climate scientist, but because I trust climate scientists and more specifically, I trust the scientific method to ferret out the invalid and leave the valid.

With that, let’s start with general science, physics, and chemistry:

American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years.”

American Geophysical Union: “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.”

American Chemical Society: “Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles.”

American Institute of Physics: “The Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics has endorsed a position statement on climate change adopted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Council:”

American science not good enough? What about scientific organizations in Europe?

The European Physical Society: “The emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, among which carbon dioxide is the main contributor, has amplified the natural greenhouse effect and led to global warming.

European Science Foundation: There is now convincing evidence that since the industrial revolution, human activities, resulting in increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases have become a major agent of climate change.”

Still not good enough? Let’s add a third continent then shall we?

Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies: “Global climate change is real and measurable. Since the start of the 20th century, the global mean surface temperature of the Earth has increased by more than 0.7°C and the rate of warming has been largest in the last 30 years.”

How about the people who in 2011, launched a 1-ton mobile laboratory on a 352 million mile journey and then landed it flawlessly with pin-point accuracy via a jet-propelled sky crane? You may know them as:

NASA:  “The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane to higher levels than at any point during the last 650,000 years. Scientists agree it is very likely that most of the global average warming since the mid-20th century is due to the human-induced increases in greenhouse gases, rather than to natural causes.”

How about meteorologists and oceanographers?

American Meteorological Society: “Human activities have become a major source of environmental change. Of great urgency are the climate consequences of the increasing atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases.”

Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society: “Global climate change and global warming are real and observable … It is highly likely that those human activities that have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been largely responsible for the observed warming since 1950.”

And finally, what about our friends in paleoclimatology?

American Quaternary Association: “Few credible Scientists now doubt that humans have influenced the documented rise of global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution,” citing “the growing body of evidence that warming of the atmosphere, especially over the past 50 years, is directly impacted by human activity.”

Each of these organizations are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of experts in their respective fields; men and women who have spent decades refining their expertise through constant study, experimentation, peer-review, and analysis.  These are people who publish their findings as often as practicable, just so that their counterparts can tear it down if at all possible.  These are scientists.

That is what we mean when we say the scientific consensus is clear.  Global warming is real.

The testable faith of snake-handling preachers

timber rattlerAnother preacher has died at the hands of his delusion. This time it was 42 year old Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, Kentucky. In 2012 it was Mark Wolford from Morgantown, West Virginia. Both men died from rattlesnake bites they received while “demonstrating” their faith.

While painful, a rattlesnake bite in the United States is rarely a death sentence. The vast majority of rattlesnake bite victims survive by seeking prompt medical attention, but because both Mr. Coots and Mr. Wolford were so incredibly deluded by their religious convictions, they waited on their faith to save them.  Why?  Because the two pastors took the words written in Mark 16:17-18 literally. That scripture reads,

“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”

They believed. And as a result of that belief, each felt he would be protected from harm – which of course they weren’t. Rattlesnakes do what they do, venom does what it does, the human body reacts how it reacts, and now Mr. Coots and Mr. Wolford are dead.

I don’t have the details on Mr. Coots, but Mr. Wolford was bitten in the thigh by a timber rattler. Timber rattlers, as with all rattlesnake species, have large, retractable fangs which act as venom delivery syringes. The older and larger the snakes, the bigger the payload of venom they deliver. Rattlesnakes may also be able to control the amount of venom they inject. In other words, sometimes a rattlesnake may bite and not inject any venom at all – possibly to serve as a shot across the bow, while on other occasions a snake will inject the full, deadly amount. Another amazing adaptation of a rattlesnake is their namesake; they advertise their discontent to all by shaking their keratin tipped tails. They rattle.

We can only assume that both Mr. Coots’ and Mr. Wolford’s snakes were tired of being man-handled, their rattling had not worked to warn these odd, pale, loud, bouncing primates of the danger they faced, therefore each snake moved to their final option. Venom.

What happened next is not for the squeamish. Timber rattlesnake venom is difficult to pin down because there is quite a bit of variation within the species, but let’s assume that these particular reptiles had Type B venom. Type B is mostly hemotoxic and is a particularly nasty blend of enzymes, amino acids, and other bits and pieces which roll up to form a toxic saliva that practically melts bodily tissues (the one two punch of necrosis with coagulopathy). Cells are destroyed by the millions while at the same time the bodies’ normal ability to stop the melt-off by blog-clotting is dismantled. The body is liquefied.

So Mr. Wolford, being bitten in the thigh, must have been in excruciating pain. That is a huge muscle and the effects of high-speed necrosis on that much body tissue must have been nauseating.

According to a Washington Post account of Mr. Wolford’s incident, somewhere in the process of waiting for faith to save him – several hours after the bite – the reality of unbearable pain along with the visual and olfactory cacophony of decaying body tissue finally pushed the fiction of faith healing to the part of the brain that houses the Tooth Fairy. Someone made an emergency call to the Bluefield Regional Medical Center.

It would seem that even some snake handlers have a threshold of pain tolerance that once passed, eclipses Mark 16:17-18 with the reality and potential relief medical science. For Mr. Wolford that threshold was crossed too late. For Mr. Coots, medical treatment was refused. For both, reality, as it so often does, ignored what people hope is true. Each man died a senseless, faith-fueled, death.

“Darwin award” memes float around the internet when these types of things happen but frankly I don’t like those. First, they suggest that these snake-handling deaths somehow influence natural selection, which is biologically inaccurate and may inadvertently propagate a misunderstanding of what Darwinian natural selection actually is. But more than that, these are sad stories of religious delusion, with the only redeeming part being that at least these guys didn’t take innocent lives with them by way of grenade-laden vests or dynamite-packed car trunks. But make no mistake, the depths of their delusions ran no less deep.

There is nothing noble about these deaths. There is nothing commendable about this level of commitment to faith. All that happened here was that naturally non-aggressive, wonderfully complex, crotalus horridus were harassed by large mammals who should have known better. The snakes bit the mammals and as predicted, without medical treatment, the mammals died.

Reality doesn’t care what you believe.

Combating Thought Pollution: The case for scientific literacy

I’ve recently found myself in a bit of a verbal joust with a columnist in my local newspaper’s conservative-leaning op-ed pages. He, like so many others of his ideological bent, doesn’t believe global warming is real and, given North America’s unusually cold weather over the last couple of months, has devoted his column space to parading this opinion in the guise of misinformation and anecdotes.

Exasperated, I penned a quick letter to the editor dissecting the rampant fallacies in his column. My letter subsequently got shared by the Climate Reality Project as a “letter to the editor that cut deep” and that highlighted “the need for greater scientific literacy.” It was also retweeted by the famed climatologist Michael Mann, known both for his work mapping global temperatures as well as for being the target of relentless slander from well-funded global warming denial machines.

In my letter I introduced the term “scientific literacy” and described global warming deniers as demonstrably “scientifically illiterate.” Apparently the otherwise sensible columnist and quite a few of his readers found that phrase somewhat insulting, which made me wonder, do climate change deniers even know what it means to be scientifically illiterate? My hope was to encourage this cadre of contrarians to be intellectually honest with themselves and, rather than double down on the embarrassment of scientific illiteracy, consider why it was they were being accused of rejecting science in the first place.

So, what does it mean to be scientifically literate? And, conversely, what does it take to recognize and overcome scientific illiteracy?

Scientific literacy has two parts. The first and most obvious is knowledge of some science. How dogwood leaves convert sunlight into sugars for energy. How the moon’s gravitational pull creates the tides on the beaches we flock to during spring break. How the vaccines we give our children protect them, and us, from previously horrifying and deadly diseases. How evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth. How carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. How the basic unit of life is the cell. How the basic unit of distinguishable matter is the atom. And so on.

The second and arguably more important aspect of scientific literacy is understanding how one knows stuff. If the first part is about knowledge, then the second part is about “epistemology,” or the way in which one adds to their knowledge. There is “good” epistemology based on reason and evidence, and there is “bad” epistemology based on bias, paranoia, myth, and superstition. To be scientifically literate, one has to value reason and evidence and then recognize that good epistemology is at the core of the scientific method. Then one simply needs to learn some science; that’s it. There’s no pretending to know. There’s no blind belief. There’s only honest inquiry.

What then does it mean to be scientifically illiterate? In the case of those who simply don’t know, it means that one is ignorant of scientific findings, a condition that can thankfully be remedied by a bit of determination and a library card.

In the case of those who are educated yet reject the evidentiary basis of scientific findings, as in climate change denial, it means that one is willfully ignorant, a condition much more difficult to cure. This group builds an ideological or irrational wall to separate what they want to believe from what’s true. In other words, one is rightfully called scientifically illiterate if he looks at a mountain of real, testable, repeatable, falsifiable evidence that all points to one conclusion, yet still rejects it. Such individuals have forgotten, as surely they were once taught, that the scientific method is not conditional depending on the scientific domain.

There are a variety of cognitive devices otherwise rational people use to trick themselves into rejecting scientific findings they find ideologically unpalatable. One is confirmation bias—when people actively seek only the evidence that validates their belief, irrespective of all other evidence. Those demonstrating confirmation biases will select small straws of data that might support their position while ignoring the massive cinder blocks of actual evidence showing their beliefs to be incorrect.

For example, the global warming denier is confirming his bias when he says, “This one paper, or this blog, or this news outlet, or this scientist rejects global warming, therefore global warming can’t be true,” while he simultaneously ignores the tens of thousands of papers published in scientific journals year after year that demonstrate how real global warming is.

Another trick people use to remain scientifically illiterate is to present junk-science or pseudo-science as equal to science. Junk-science sometimes requires a bit of critical inquiry to recognize and weed out, but should be easily identifiable because it basically works in reverse of actual science. Junk-science usually begins with a biased truth claim, and then attempts to fabricate evidence in support. It starts with the answer it wants and never asks any questions. There is no hypothesis testing. There is no scientific method. There is no peer review.

Also be aware that there are well-funded organizations devoted to polluting the marketplace of ideas with junk-science, so don’t be duped by their resolve and sophistication. These are the professional science deniers, setting up shop as “institutes” or “museums,” but whose actual goal is to provide bad evidence and to cast doubt on any real science that undermines their agenda. You can identify them by asking the following:

Did they believe their claim first and then set out to prove it, or did they derive the claim from the evidence they collected?

Is their claim falsifiable? Is their hypothesis something that can be tested, measured, or observed?

Are they asking us to disprove their claim without offering any evidence that it’s true? If so, they are shifting the burden of proof. Without evidence there is no validity.

Do their results contradict the rest of the scientific community in order to benefit a single industry such as cigarette manufacturing or oil production?

While confirmation bias and junk-science are two of the main devices in the scientific illiteracy tool kit, there are many others we must recognize and guard against, such as arguments that rely on small sample sizes, arguments that appeal to emotion, and arguments that conflate policy with science. Above all, good epistemology is the best way to keep any of these bad ideas in check.

The underlying point here is that proper science is not a political or ideological tool. It’s a way of using evidence to understand how things work. This is why scientific literacy matters so much. It’s not just that our economy, indeed our future, relies on an educated workforce capable of advancing ideas through innovation; it’s that our entire society needs to value reason and evidence as the inputs to our big decisions. Science, technology, engineering, and math are pillars of innovation, but one needn’t be a scientist, technician, engineer, or mathematician to be scientifically literate. If our society is to advance, we need to elect leaders who understand reality, we need to value knowledge over superstition, and we need to act based on what the data and evidence show rather than on what we want to believe is true.

In 1780 Thomas Paine wrote, “Where knowledge is a duty, ignorance is a crime; and if any man whose duty it was to know better, has encouraged such an expectation, he has either deceived himself or them.” Paine wrote this in a pamphlet called “Public Good.” Scientific literacy is not only a public good, it’s a public necessity.

Published in the March / April 2014 Humanist

Challenging fringe ideas in the Op-Eds

skepticismMy first few posts here have actually been letters to the editor that were published in my local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal.  The MDJ has been published in Cobb County Georgia, a northern suburb of Atlanta, since 1866 and the paper has a daily paid circulation of approximately 17,000 readers.  That’s quite a few minds, and that excludes the thousands more who read the paper for free online.

I give the scope of my local paper for a simple reason; to illustrate that what you write might actually have a bigger impact than you think.

I’m reminded of something that Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Brain and founder of The Skeptics Society, as well as Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, linked to on his twitter account a year or so ago. He had found and shared a piece from Dan Johnson, a University of Lethbridge geography professor, that had been published in the Lethbridge Herald under a column called, “Public Professor.”

Unfortunately that column looks like it was lost in a Lethbridge Herald site redesign, but I managed to grab a key quote when I first read it. In the column, Dan wrote about something he called “healthy skepticism.” His piece, “Healthy skepticism is a useful tool,” proceeded to explain frankly, the public good that comes from skepticism and the need each of us carries, as stewards of good citizenship, to dutifully question dubious claims. Dan wrote,

“I am a believer in people trying to influence their local communities, and maybe contribute to the healthy skepticism of the typical person. I think if every skeptic did that, in a thousand local newspapers, we would be ahead.”

And there it was, “in a thousand local newspapers.” In other words, we skeptics, we freethinkers, we champions of evidence and reason, can’t simply roll over and concede the Op-Eds and the letters to the editor to the energetic conspiracy theorists, the global warming deniers, the creationists, the theocrats, the political extremists; in effect, the lunatic fringe.

My market has more than its fair share of these poor deluded souls, all too eager to bombard the press with their particular brands of “bizarre,” and the local paper, being fully aware of its market, is all too eager to publish them. I’m quite certain that this same storyline is played out almost daily in newspapers across a Untied States sill struggling to embrace progress and leave the Dark Ages of intellectual backwardness resolutely in its past.

We, the rational among us, have to write. We have to fill those newspaper columns, those letters to the editor, and yes, even those online comment sections, with reason, logic, science, facts, and compassion whenever we get the opportunity.  The crazy claims which spring forth from the heart of irrationality have to be met head on with demands for evidence to substantiate them. Outrageous, absurd, paranoid, and scientifically illiterate truth claims will whither in the light of healthy skepticism and it is incumbent upon us to shine it. “If every skeptic did that, in a thousand local newspapers, we would be ahead.”

I “Believe” in Evolution Because I Understand Why Evolution is True

evolutionTomorrow is February 12th, the birthday of Charles Darwin.  Darwin Day celebrations provide us an opportunity to reflect on the amazing impact his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, has had not only on shaping the field of modern biology, but on pushing to the forefront of ideas, a rational understanding of the world that thoroughly supplants superstitious explanations. The day also provides us with a nice opportunity to consider some common – shall we say – semantics around the subject of evolution. Let me explain what I mean.

Sometimes I am asked whether or not I “believe” in evolution.

“Believe?”

It’s one thing to ask if someone believes in something that has not been proven true, like, “do you believe in ghosts” or “do you believe in leprechauns?” But it’s a different animal entirely to ask if someone believes in something that is taken by rational people to have already been proven true.

In other words, when most people ask the question about “belief” in something, they are asking because there might be good reasons not to believe.  As with ghosts and leprechauns, that reason is simply that there’s nothing to suggest they are real.  So I’m usually a bit bewildered by questions of belief in things that are demonstrably true, because the very nature of the interrogation implies that there might be some rational room for doubt.

Asking if I believe in evolution is tantamount to asking if I believe in germs or if I believe that the deer tracks in the snow indicate that a deer recently passed by.  These aren’t beliefs that are open to doubt. They are things well studied and well understood, even if they aren’t directly observed.

So regarding evolution, where does this question come from? Unlike cells and deer tracks, I brace myself for questions of belief in evolution because experience has taught me that the person asking such a question is very likely preparing to pounce with the latest creationist mumbo jumbo. So the question really comes in two parts: “do I believe in evolution,” and “why do I not believe in creationsim?” And so the dance begins.

“Yes,” I will say, “evolution is true because we have multiple lines of evidence to show it’s true.”

“No,” I will say, “the second law of thermodynamics does not disprove evolution as the earth is an open system with a constant supply of energy we call the sun.”

“Yes,” I will say, “the fossil record is quite real and radiometric dating is getting more, not less, accurate.”

“No,” I will say, “things are not intelligently designed by some cosmic architect; they are adapted to their environments through the process of natural selection, giving them the appearance of design.”

Rinse and repeat.

The fact remains that evolution is scientifically solid and that’s about as solid as anything is ever going to get. Given that, we should be as confident discussing evolution in mixed company as we are discussing electromagnetism, heliocentrism, or gravity.  Therefore I normally follow my initial incredulous, “Believe?” with a gentle rewording of the question like so:

“It’s not that I ‘believe’ in evolution per se, it’s that I understand why evolution is true.”

I should also add that while it might be tempting to simply avoid confrontation in the company of scientific illiteracy, that would be a mistake. Science advocates have to be vigilant when we talk about what might be considered by some as “politically” or “theologically” controversial scientific topics like evolution. They are not controversial. They are facts.

When it comes to promoting a scientifically literate population, we have to have some guts.  If the Gallup, Pew, and Harris polls are to be trusted, then there is a very good chance that one day at dinner, or at work, or yes, even at church, you will be presented with someone who bases their beliefs on something other than reality.

Remember, it’s not that you believe in evolution over some alternative valid explanation, it’s that you understand evolution; so don’t back down.