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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pseudoscience, Inc.

Last week at a large family gathering I had a chance to talk politics with several of my aunts and uncles. A few of them work in the health care industry, and one of them is from Thailand, having met her husband, my dad’s brother, while he was working there for the State Department. That uncle, a humanist liberal, applied to his position after a stint with the Peace Corps. It was an interesting and knowledgeable and diverse group. But the most interesting exchanges I had that night were with my dad’s youngest brother, the guy who my brothers and I know as the “cool uncle.” Knowing that he’s a conservative—he once gave my grandma an Ann Coulter book for Christmas—I asked him if he was a republican or a libertarian. “I believe government should just stay out of people’s lives,” was his reply.

This uncle has a bachelor’s degree from IU, works in management at a shipping and receiving company, and substitute teaches. He once tutored me in algebra—very effectively. He’s intelligent and, his fondness for Coulter notwithstanding, well informed. At one point in our conversation, I said that I come across a lot of important ideas and arguments while reading libertarian blogs (like but that they discredit themselves in my mind by buying into global warming denialism, so much so that it’s hard for me to take anything else they say or write seriously. I had high hopes at this point that he would reconcile the issue for me, but it turns out that he too is a denialist.

I recently had the intro comp students I teach read the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, in which he uses an encounter with an intelligent and well-read cab driver, whom he calls Mr. Buckley, as a launch pad for his ruminations on the failure of our education system and media to hit the mark when it comes to science while far too often drifting off into the space of fantasy. “A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis,” Sagan writes, “is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment” (5).

When it comes to matters of more economic consequence than lost cities and healing crystals, the science is in for even more abuse. As Sagan reports in what may be the most important chapter of the most important book I’ve ever read, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,”

“A 1971 internal report of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation lists as a corporate objective ‘to set aside in the minds of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases; a conviction based on fanatical assumptions, fallacious rumors, unsupported claims and the unscientific statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists” (217).

Compare this to a memo written by PR guru Frank Luntz to Republican members of Congress: “The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science…Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.” Wrapping up the memo, Luntz strikes an astoundingly cynical and ominous note: “The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science” (Reported in Elizabeth Kohlbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, p. 165)

Paleontologist Tim Flannery, in his book The Weather Makers, reports on how fifty corporations whose bottom line depends on the continued use of fossil fuel pooled their money together in 1989 to form a lobbying group called the Global Climate Coalition. Their mission statement: “cast doubt on the theory of global warming” (242). The GCC spent $60 million dollars before disbanding after eleven years. But that was only the beginning of the denialists’ PR bonanza.

And this is déjà vu all over again. Here is Sagan again:
“When the first work was published in the scientific literature in 1953 showing that the substances in cigarette smoke when painted on the backs of rodents produce malignancies, the response of the six major tobacco companies was to initiate a public relations campaign to impugn the research, sponsored by the Sloan Kettering Foundation. This is similar to what the Du Pont Corporation did when the first research was published in 1974 showing that their Freon product attacks the protective ozone layer. There are many other examples” (217). BPA anyone?

By now it should be clear to everyone following the debate that the consensus Luntz was referring to has long since been reached. Not a single scientific organization refutes the reality or the seriousness of the threat of human-induced global warming. The debate is not among scientists—with a few exceptions; it is science after all—but between scientists and the message machine of the fossil fuel industry, who have the will and wherewithal to invest sums that dwarf the combined net worth of Al Gore and Maurice Strong. In America today, we’re dealing with a mediascape where money controls the message—and disturbingly often, our minds too.

As for the substance of my uncle’s argument—the points he made are disconcerting evidence of the power PR has to determine what we believe. Even this intelligent and well read man rolled out the standard denialist boilerplate. I won’t refute his arguments here, as they’ve been ably and amply refuted elsewhere, most accessibly by Peter Sinclair at Climate Denial Crock of the Week. (Concerned that Sinclair's own funding information is not detailed on his site, I emailed him about it. It turns out he gets no funding, from anyone.)

Climate scientists tried to scare us in the 70’s with the threat of global cooling:
CO2 doesn’t drive temperature:
(In response to my refutation of this point, that it’s a straw man, my uncle claimed that Al Gore makes that specific argument. I don’t know if he does or not, and don’t really care. Al Gore is not a climate scientist.)

As for the old canard that volcanoes release more CO2 that humans have in all of history: the best estimates are that volcanoes emit 145-255 million tons a year on average compared to 30 billion tons for human activities. So it's not even close.

Sagan's point is not, as many of my students thought, that we are all ignorant or scientifically illiterate, but rather that it's impossible to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience without researching the provenance of the facts and arguments. Unfortunately, fossil fuel corporations don't properly label their PR products. And who has the time to research all the claims?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Macaque on Crack

I remember growing up in the 80's as the youngest of three boys being raised by mom who was much in thrall to Ronald Reagan. To this day, she is given to making claims like, "A lot of homeless people live like that because they want to."

Another claim I frequently heard was that you couldn't help homeless people because if you gave them any money they would just spend it on booze. To her credit, though, my mom never ventured into the realm of dismissive arguments about racial inequality--mostly, I assume, because I was too ignorant as a kid to know it was a problem I should ask about.

Just today I signed onto my facebook page and saw that one of my friends had joined a group called Making Drug Tests Required to Get Welfare. I'm sure that a large percentage of people receiving welfare are in fact addicted to one drug or another, and so making them take a test would certainly mean less of our public treasure getting doled out to these supposedly "undeserving" people. But this very notion of deserving assumes a type of supernatural rising above material circumstances that simply, well, doesn't occur in nature. We have rather another manifestation of the tragically naive notion of free will that lies at the heart of conservative thinking.

According to this dualist view (spirit controls body), people choose to experiment with drugs or not, and the outcome of those experiments is purely a matter of personal responsibility. Moreover, if you're going to choose to get hooked on drugs, then you've forfeited any right you had to a helping hand.

If this view really were true, it would be a great comfort to those of us who are already comfortably well off. Because it's undeniable that poor people have a lot more problems with addiction than middle or upper class people do, if addiction were purely a matter of personal choice, then we could dismiss their plight as resulting from their own bad decisions. Indeed, this is the standard conservative thinking.

A 2002 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience provides a much more realistic model for conceptualizing the relationship between social status and addiction. The researchers gave individually housed macaques access to cocaine and did PET scans of their brains to monitor the effects. They then released the monkeys into a common space, which prompted them to begin competing for status. What they found once a hierarchy had been established was that dominant monkeys showed an increase in the amount of dopamine receptors in their brains, while subordinate monkeys showed no change.

How this difference in dopamine receptors manifested itself in the animals' behavior is that the dominant monkeys ceased administering cocaine to themselves, while the subordinate ones were more likely to become addicted.

Insisting that welfare recipients take drug tests is simply further disadvantaging the already disadvantaged. A better idea is to favor policies that reduce income and wealth inequalities. Providing equal access to quality education and health care wouldn't hurt either.