Scientific Skeptic

So we keep asking, over and over, until a handful of earth stops our mouths – but is that an answer?

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Jenny McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey teaming up to kill children…

Slate has an excellent article out titled Say It Ain’t So, O, which takes on Oprah’s support of celebrity vaccine denialist Jenny McCarthy, she of Playboy Playmate fame and absolutely no medical credentials whatsoever.  (The one thing Slate gets wrong is calling McCarthy a “skeptic” – see the difference between a true skeptic and a denialist right here.)  I’m quite a bit more disturbed by this bit of news than Dr. Offit, whose excellent book Autism’s False Prophets I’m reading right now, because Oprah’s endorsement is a golden stamp that will have millions – millions – sitting up to listen to this clueless assclown extol her ignorance en large.  I know I said I’d be civil on this blog, but McCarthy deserves a forked tongue and will receive no quarter from me, because what she does kills children.  Literally.

Damn her for that, and damn Oprah too, if she lends her considerable influence to this crock of nonsense.

A little humor…

There are lots of great skeptical cartoons out there, and I don’t think this one is especially new, but it always gives me a good chuckle…

The War on Rationality

The War on Rationality

Skepticism versus denial…


See No EvilThere are many examples of words that mean different things depending on whether they’re used in a casual or common manner, or whether they’re used in a scientific manner.  The word theory, for example, is often used as a synonym for guess or hunch in common usage, and in everyday talk, this is usually perfectly alright.  But in science, the word theory means something very different.  The National Academy of Sciences defines a scientific theory as a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences and test hypotheses – that’s quite a bit different than a guess or a hunch.  This, of course, causes no end of grief to people who are opposed to certain scientific theories (particularly opponents of the Theory of Evolution), because while they would like to presume that even scientific theories are open to a lot of guesswork, the simple fact is that they are not, which makes the opposing argument quite a bit harder.  In fact, they are the exact opposite of a guess – they are well-substantiated, and are not put forth until they meet certain criteria of factual accuracy.  The plain truth is, a scientific theory requires considerably more vetting than a mere guess, or even an educated guess.  It must be supported by evidence, so it is actually anything but a guess.

Similarly, the word skeptic is commonly thrown around with a meaning that includes anyone who questions a claim, for any reason.  For example, a person might be skeptical that the police officer who pulled them over correctly calculated their speed, or that someone playing the bar trivia game actually got the answer right and earned their free mug of beer.  But again, in science, we find a definition of skeptic that is quite a bit more rigorous than simply questioning a fact, and again it has to do with the skepticism being well-substantiated.  Scientific skepticism (or rational skepticism) is when one questions the veracity of a claim that lacks empirical evidence, or questions a claim based on the existence of empirical evidence to the contrary.  These qualifications are key, because in common usage, anyone can question anything based on whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean the skepticism has any veracity of its own.  It’s easy to be a simple contrarian.  True skepticism is much like a scientific theory in this way – what is the point if you can’t determine if the skepticism has any merit or not?  And how can you determine if it has any merit if it doesn’t make testable predictions of its own, just like a scientific theory does?  Just saying that you don’t believe something (skeptic) isn’t any better than simply stating that you think something is true (theory).  Either way, you need to back it up with hard data, or else it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.

And so we come to global warming skepticism…but is it really skepticism?  Many people opposed to the idea of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming take objection to being called global warming deniers, but I think that this is the far more accurate term.  The thing that I notice about the arguments of global warming deniers is that they are rarely based on science, but instead usually based on political or religious ideology.  Note that most global warming denial comes from political and social conservative camps, largely composed of Republicans (with some Libertarians, who share the Republican ideal of small government, thrown in for good measure).  Most other political affiliations do not have an issue with accepting anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as true (although the tactics used by deniers to plant seeds of doubt are definitely having an effect, unfortunately.  I’ll be devoting a future article to this topic shortly).  This is further evidenced by the deniers’ seeming obsession with Al Gore, as if he were the main source of the climate science affirming AGW, which of course, being a non-scientist, he is not.  Lastly, most of the denial arguments do not reference any scientific basis for skepticism – they point to no lack of evidence of AGW, and they point to no peer-reviewed scientific evidence to the contrary.  Instead, denial arguments frequently reference political, ideological and religious sources for the basis of their doubt.  The science of global warming is rarely refuted with more science.

When someone is motivated by political ideology rather than science, then that person is not a true scientific skeptic, and is more fairly called a contrarian or a denier.  When someone continues to repeat arguments that have long ago been debunked, that person is not a scientific skeptic, but a denier.  When someone cherry-picks facts with the intention of winning an ideological debate, rather than with the intention of establishing whether or not something is true, that person is not a scientific skeptic, but a denier.  The denier is not a scientist who is interested in examining nature to determine how it works from an unbiased perspective, but an ideologue.  They are wedded to a philosophical concept, and the truth of the matter is not as important as staying true to the ideological system they adhere to.  Whereas a scientist investigates nature and reaches conclusions based on his investigations (and always leaves the conclusion open to reinterpretation based on further investigation), the ideologue reaches his conclusion first and then bases his position on the context of that framework, without giving any regard to facts or evidence to the contrary.

What deniers and ideologues don’t understand is that no one – not Al Gore, not “liberals” – invented anthropogenic global warming.  Like all other scientific theories, it was discovered.  It was already there, waiting for us to figure it out.  There is a difference between invention and discovery, and I attribute the failure to understand the distinction to a misunderstanding of the scientific method and how it works.  Scientists do not invent theories – they don’t make them up out of thin air and then search for evidence to confirm them.  They do exactly the opposite:  they investigate the natural world, examine the evidence that they find and accumulate, and then draw conclusions based on that.  The conclusions are often unexpected and go against the pre-conceived biases of all the humans that work on them (scientists, after all, are human too).  But we don’t get to pick and choose what’s real and what’s not based on our predilections and desires.  There are no choices here.  What’s real is what’s real, whether we like it or not.

Carl Sagan said, “Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”  I could not have put it any better.


How could we affect the Earth? Here’s how…

Historical CO2 and temperature levels

Historical CO2 and temperature levels

Awesome post a couple of days ago over at Starts With A Bang.  It’s titled, “How Could We Affect The Earth?“, and it details in layman’s terms what exactly we’re talking about here.  It’s said that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, but there is no arguing with simple numbers that undeniably show we are exponentially increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.

There are a lot of global warming deniers (not skeptics, see this post for the distinction) out there who genuinely don’t seem to understand what they’re talking about, which isn’t unusual when science is discussed in political or ideological terms.  The problem with discussing science in non-science terms is that you end up discussing ideas and opinions, not hard data.  Well, this post contains just the tip of the iceberg of the hard data behind global warming, but it should be enough to convince any reasonable person that what’s currently going on just isn’t right:

Human CO2 emissions over the last 200 years

Human CO2 emissions over the last 200 years

…doing the math on these statistics, from 1800 to 1950, the world’s human population released 300 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. You’ll notice that, because this was such a (relatively) small amount released over a (relatively) long time, the effect on carbon dioxide concentration wasn’t very pronounced.

But over the next 30 years, from 1950-1980, we really ramped up out fossil fuel consumption, and over those 30 years we put out 390 billion tonnes — more than the past 150 years — in just 3 decades. You’ll notice that the rise in carbon dioxide concentration over that time is pretty steep.

And as for the last 29 years, from 1980-2009? We’ve put out more fossil fuels than ever before: an unprecedented 725 billion tonnes over that timespan. So what does all of this mean for our atmosphere? Could humanity — a few billion tiny animals — really affect the entire atmosphere of our planet?

Well, could we?  What do you think?  If we keep pouring hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and that keeps increasing at an exponential rate, how could we NOT have an effect?  I honestly don’t get the denier’s argument here – it’s like saying that someone could light a cigar in your house and you’d never notice the smell.

What folly.  When discussing science, let’s just consider science.  Nature does not know about or care about our politics, religions or ideologies, and we will all eventually perish if we try to confront nature with our trivial pastimes.

Welcome, President Obama…

I have looked forward to this day for a long time, perhaps all my life.  A politician has entered the highest office in the land, and he’s articulate, visionary and highly intelligent.  Who woulda thunk it?  We have had smart presidents in my lifetime before, and even articulate presidents (Bill Clinton comes to mind).  But I don’t think I can qualify anyone who has been president in my lifetime as truly visionary, someone who is not afraid to shake the status quo and shoot for something beyond mere politics, nor highly intelligent as opposed to merely smart.  Barack Obama is a man who seems to understand that petty partisan politics are largely what have brought us to this relatively low spot in recent American history, and he seems determined to overcome that adversity even in the face of all those – in power and out – who would continue the status quo of partisanship to the detriment of the country and its citizens.

It’s refreshing to have a genuine leader in the position of president, a leader who diplomatically but firmly tells these people, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”  Those petty politics and arguments  are making things worse for my children’s future, and we’re treading water on important issues that require tough decision-making today, not pacification of the masses while waiting for the next administration to inherit issues that should have made headway 10 years ago (alternative energy sources, anyone?).  We could debate ideology and philosophy forever (and have), but ultimately we have to actually get things done, too, and recognize that our philosophical splits must be reconciled via compromise, concession and consensus.  Personal opinions are not meant to be foisted onto others who think differently, they are meant to contribute to the larger discussion at hand.  I’m convinced Obama knows this and will act on it – and that’s a good thing.

George W. Bush’s administration was the epitome of partisan politicking, and made a mockery of our constitution.  Lest you think I’m some knee-jerk reactionary liberal, I’m a moderate who initially supported Bush early in his presidency, and I supported the Iraq invasion.  Unfortunately Bush made a tool out of me and millions of others with his grossly anti-science, anti-logic and ultimately anti-thinking administration.  And now begins the hard work of undoing all the damage he did, which was extensive indeed.  I believe Obama is just the man to take on the task.

I don’t know for a fact that Obama is going to do a fantastic job.  I don’t know that he’ll accomplish the lofty goals he’s set for his administration, and I’m not willing to make guarantees that he’ll live up to his promise.  But ultimately it’s not about him, and he seems to understand that, and if the things he says are anything to judge by, I think he has a pretty good shot at waking this country up from its doldrums.  Whatever else anyone may think of him, he is not a partisan, and I don’t think he’s going to tolerate partisan politics in his administration.  He will have to deal with it in Congress, of course, but he’s so even-keeled and well-spoken that it’s difficult to imagine he won’t be able to reach at least some of the hard-heads entrenched there.  He’s hugely pro-science, and I have complete faith that our environmental and technical decisions will now be made with the best science in mind, rather than the wishes and misinformation used so heavily by the last administration.  And he’s technologically proficient.  I feel he could sit down at a computer and know what the hell he’s doing, a first for any president.  :-)

In the end, I have a good feeling about this one.  But don’t take it from me – here’s the full text of his inaugural address:

Barack Obama

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

- Barack Obama, January 20, 2009

Welcome, President Obama.  I know that whatever else happens, you’ll at least do your best to do what’s best for this country.

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