This site is moving to a new domain: check out

“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?

1 comment:

caynazzo said...

No one person can fact-check everything which is why we depend on the meta-analysis and consensus of large international groups such as IPCC.

I found this somewhere on the blogohedron a long time ago and new it would come in useful some rainy day.

Libertarianism: a one act play

LIB: Isn't this wonderful? I have a desire to drive, and sufficient surplus income to purchase a vehicle, and the market and technology provide me with one. Praise Jesus! Praise Adam Smith!

SCI: Uh, yeah, OK...but you know, the way you're driving is neither safe nor economical. Could you maybe slow down a little?

LIB: I decide what is economical; I can afford the gas. As for safety, I have insurance, and the little whatchamacallit meter in front of me goes all the way up to 140. I haven't exceeded the limit yet.

SCI: What you can do and what is safe and reasonable to do are two different things. If you want to experience natural selection first hand, that would be OK with me, except for the fact that we're both in the same car.
By the way, that's a lake a couple of miles ahead, and you're headed straight for it.

LIB: Lake? We haven't encountered any lakes in our travels so far. We don't have to worry about lakes. History is our guide, and it clearly says, "no lakes".

SCI: Well, yes, there's a lake right there in front of us. You can see it as well as I can, I hope. It's even marked right here on our map. I suggest you turn left just a little bit and steer clear of it.

LIB: Oh, you pessimistic doomsayers. You're always gloomily predicting our demise, and you're always wrong. We hit a mud puddle a few miles back, and see? No problems.

SCI: I'm only predicting doom if you keep driving as foolishly as you have so far. I suggest that we start on this alternate route now, so that we don't have to swerve too sharply at the last minute.

LIB: There is no lake. I like driving fast and straight. The last thing I want to do is turn left.

SCI: What do you mean, there is no lake? It's right there! And we are getting closer by the minute! Why are you accelerating?

LIB: That there is a lake is only your opinion. We need to study this, and get more input.
(LIB reaches down beneath the seat. His hand reemerges with a sock over it.)

SOCK: No lake!

LIB: Hmmm. We seem to have two opinions here. Since Mr Socky has taken economic considerations into account and you have not, I can judge which is the better and more informed. Sound science says there is no lake. Or if there is, we can accept the compromise solution that it will disappear before we reach it.

SCI: We are headed for that lake at 80 miles per hour, in a car driven by a lunatic. Slow down and turn left!

LIB: I am confident that our innovative and technologically sophisticated economy will come up with a solution before we impact any hypothetical lake. Right, Mr Socky?

SOCK: 's alright!

SCI: I have been telling you what the solution is for the last 3 miles. Slow down. Turn. Now. How is science going to save you if you insist on ignoring it?

LIB: Aha! Look! There's a pier extending out into the lake! I told you that technology would be our salvation. You scientists always underestimate the power of the free market.

SCI: Jebus. That's a rickety 40-foot wooden dock. You can't drive at 90 miles per hour onto a short pier! BRAKE! TURN!

LIB: You are getting emotional, and can be ignored. Market forces and the science and engineering sector will respond to our needs by assembling a floating bridge before we hit the end. Or perhaps they will redesign our car to fly. Or dispatch a ferry or submarine to our location. We cannot predict the specific solution, but we can trust that one will emerge.
I've always wanted a flying car.

SCI: Gobdamn, but you are such a moron.

(car tires begin rapid thumpety-thump as they go over planks)

LIB: I love you, Mr Socky.

SOCK: Ditto!