Sunday, October 24, 2010

Abandon All Hope, America

This is just depressing.  The NY Times article describes how denial of climate change is almost universal in the Tea Party universe.  And their reasons are just breathtakingly stupid:

“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.”

So Mr. Dennison, a local electrician, trusts Rush Limbaugh and the Bible on this issue more than he trusts the climate researchers.  I think one big reason the deniers are winning the debate is that the carbon industry – mainly coal and oil companies – have been running a successful propaganda machine.  And I don’t think the average Tea Partier realizes that he or she is being used as a stooge in this debate.  If we can just pretend that climate change isn’t happening, we can avoid the difficult discussions about what to do about it.  And coal and oil companies continue to rake in huge profits.

I think there’s also a populist mindset at play here.  It’s a classic case of “Us versus Them”.  Rush Limbaugh got rich by shouting that “they” are all conspiring to control our lives and take our money.  Part of the “they” are the pinhead scientists who have ginned up global warming as a way to promote a socialist agenda.  This plays well to a crowd that’s already suspicious of the “Academic Elite”.  And the right-wing has used this very effectively in the current election cycle.

So what to do about this?  Climate change is not going away just because a large portion of the population has stuck their heads in the sand about it.  How do we move the discussion from “is it real?” to “what do we do about it?”  I’d like to think that education is the key, but honestly, I don’t think the people being cited in the NY Times article will ever be convinced.  I mean, these are the same people who still deny evolution.  I think it’s going to take activism on the other side of the debate to mobilize voters and elect rational people into office.   This won’t happen during this election cycle, but as the effects of climate change become more apparent more people will start to demand action. Unfortunately this is a slow process, and not very efficient.  But it seems to be how things work in this country.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Another Church Sign

Mrs. RH and I went for a motorcycle ride today to Lynchburg, TN, to visit some friends. We saw this sign there, and I had to take a photo of it.  LynchburgCOC

Isn’t this the opposite of what we should be teaching?   Don’t trust yourself?  What exactly does that mean?

Michael Mann Responds

Michael Mann, the climate researcher from Penn State who first published the “Hockey Stick” graph, has been under attack.  Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli has been investigating Mann’s previous employer, the University of Virginia, based on emails that were stolen from a climate research institution in Great Britain.  Cuccinelli’s fist subpoena was rejected by by a court, but he’s trying again.  It’s clear that Cuccinelli is on a one-man crusade against climate science and Mann.

On Friday Mann responded to attacks by Cuccinelli and others in an editorial in the Washington Post.  Read it – it’s excellent.  At a time when every single Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate denies the science of anthropogenic climate change, these words resonate:

“We have lived through the pseudo-science that questioned the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, and the false claims questioning the science of acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. The same dynamics and many of the same players are still hard at work, questioning the reality of climate change.

Burying our heads in the sand would leave future generations at the mercy of potentially dangerous changes in our climate. The only sure way to mitigate these threats is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions dramatically over the next few decades. But even if we don't reduce emissions, the reality of adapting to climate change will require responses from government at all levels.”

Mann also brings up another chilling point that I hadn’t thought of:

How can I assure young researchers in climate science that if they make a breakthrough in our understanding about how human activity is altering our climate that they, too, will not be dragged through a show trial at a congressional hearing?”

Are these ideological witch hunters going to be successful in discouraging good scientists from conducting needed research on climate change?  That would be tragic.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Annoying Church Sign

I live in a fairly rural part of the mid-South.  Churches are everywhere, and church-signs are very popular.  I’ve always enjoyed reading the signs and sometimes get a chuckle from the intended humor, or more often, the unintended irony.  But this one just kind of ticked me off:


I’m mean, do they really believe that a non-believer is worthless?  Or that it’s impossible to be good without god?  The conceit and smugness of these people are boundless.

How Do Airplanes Fly, Really?

I’m just a dumb rockhead, so I’m probably digging a deep hole by going here. But the excellent XKCD asks a question I’ve been asking for years.  As a private pilot I’ve always suspected that the Bernoulli explanation was at least part B.S.  Over the years I’ve asked some pilots, flight instructors, and authors of flight manuals this same question.  How do airplanes fly upside down?  The answer I get usually involves pointing the nose of the airplane up so the air has to travel longer over the upward (bottom) side of the wing.  But this never really made sense to me.  In normal flight a pilot can keep the airplane flying just fine in (slightly) nose-up, nose-level, or nose down positions simply by adjusting power settings. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that Newton’s third law is the more important factor in keeping airplanes aloft. The air strikes the bottom of the wing and deflects off, which pushes the plane up.  The shape of the airfoil has a lot to do with the stability and handling characteristics of the airplane, but I’m not convinced it’s the main factor in keeping the airplane aloft.

This is a fun explanation to prepare your kids for; it's common and totally wrong. Good lines include 'why does the air have to travel on both sides at the same time?' and 'I saw the Wright brothers plane and those wings were curved the same on the top and bottom!'

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Taking Action

I was catching up on my blog reading this morning and two posts caught my eye.  First, John Cole at Balloon Juice posted about an encounter with a bunch of elderly Fox News watchers.  When one of them made a ridiculous claim John called him on it: 

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, and when he said “You can’t even pray anymore. Christians get stopped from praying, but Muslims get to pray,” I lost it.

“When was the last time someone stopped you from praying,” I asked.

He seemed startled- “Me, never. But they…”

I cut him off- “And when was the last time anyone stopped anyone you know from praying?”

“Well, I don’t personally know of anyone…”

“So who exactly is stopping people from praying?”

I’m not sure it changed anyone’s mind, but I think it’s good to call out BS when you see it.  Ignoring the crazy talk just allows it to continue to spread.  I work with some very conservative people with pretty radical ideas.  I challenge them on it whenever I can.  If nothing else, it forces them to defend their beliefs.

The second post was from Hement, the “Friendly Atheist.”  It’s similar to the Balloon Juice post, but focuses on religion.  Why shouldn’t we argue with religious people and force them to defend their beliefs?   Again, letting ridiculous claims go unchallenged is dangerous.  Hemant uses the example of child vaccinations.  Of course we have to speak out against the anti-vaccination crowd, because their beliefs are irrational and dangerous.  Why shouldn’t we also speak out against irrational religious beliefs?  Religion is used to justify discrimination against women and gays.  It also provides cover for charismatic leaders who claim that they are “doing God’s will.”   If Sarah Palin truly believes that she is doing God’s work, then any crazy thing she says or does is justified.   Read Jon Krakauer’s  “Under the Banner of Heaven” for great examples what can happen when religious fervor goes unchecked.

Anyhow, read both posts.  They are well worth your time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How to handle a global warming denier

Ron Johnson, a Republican candidate for Senate from Wisconsin, has made some crazy claims about global warming.  He recently blamed it on sunspots, even though the sun has in an extended period of low sunspot activity.   Russ Feingold and the Wisconsin Democratic party released a video making fun of Johnson’s statements.  Take a look:



I think this is the right response when dealing with someone who denies science and logic. Reason doesn’t work, so we may as well use mockery to expose the craziness.

Thanks to Little Green Footballs for the tip.

Monday, August 16, 2010

“Benevolent Catholic Dictatorship”


That’s what this guy says we need.  Oh – and only good Catholics get to vote.  This is a great example of Poe’s Law.  This almost has to be a parody, but I can’t really tell.

Now that we know they want replace our government with a Catholic version of Sharia Law, should we ban construction of new Catholic churches?

Thanks to PZ for the tip.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Language Sensitivity

Rebecca at Skepchick is auctioning her magical powers to induce whatever bodily enlacement the winning bidder desires.  Proceeds will fund her trip to DraconCon in September.  I think it’s a great idea, and suitably snarky for Rebecca.   But here’s the rub:  her initial Ebay listing had the word “shit” in it, so they yanked it.  They are perfectly fine with a listing that’s selling obvious hocus-pocus, but a little 4-letter word is too much.  Where does this sensitivity to words come from?  I don’t know, but I like George Carlin’s classic take on it:

What Global Warming Looks Like




Dr. James Hansen has posted a brief paper on current weather patterns. Much of the earth is experiencing warmer than normal weather, and there have been extreme floods in some areas, and fires in other regions.  Hansen asks whether these patterns could be the result of global warming.  While it’s not possible to definitively link near-term weather to long-term climate patterns, the current trends are consistent with patterns predicted by climate models.  From the paper:

“What we can say is that global warming has an effect on the probability and intensity of extreme events. This is true for precipitation as well as temperature, because the amount of water vapor that the air carries is a strong function of temperature. So the frequency of extremely heavy rain and floods increases as global warming increases. But at times and places of drought, global warming can increase the extremity of temperature and associated events such as forest fires.

Fortunately there is an emerging La Nina, which should have a cooling effect during 2nd half of 2010. 

Thanks to Daily Kos for the tip

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Climate Denial Croc of the Week

If you haven’t discovered Peter Sinclair’s excellent video series, check it out.  This 2-part episode does a great job of explaining how the deniers distort the temperature data to support their claim that the earth isn’t heating, and is actually cooling.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Greenland Continues to Lose Ice

This can’t be good (from Science Daily): 

Greenland Glacier Calves Island Four Times the Size of Manhattan

“In the early morning hours of August 5, 2010, an ice island four times the size of Manhattan was born in northern Greenland," said Andreas Muenchow, associate professor of physical ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

I haven’t been following the conservative denial machine in the past few days, but I wonder if the time is changing in light of the recent NOAA report and this news about Greenland.  Are they going from “It’s not happening” to “It’s part of natural cycles”?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Too Hot

From my friend Sam.  It’s 100F here today, which just ain’t right.


What Would It Take?

We all become attached to our strongly held beliefs, and must constantly struggle to be open to new ideas.  I sometimes find it useful to ask myself “what would it take to convince me that a strongly-held belief is wrong?”  Using more scientific terminology the question becomes “How would I falsify this claim?"   A famous example reportedly comes from biologist J.B.S. Haldane.  When asked what it would take to convinced him that the theory of evolution is false, he answered “A rabbit from the Precambrian.”    

This question has lead to some interesting discussions with friends over the years.  It’s also a useful question to ask a debate opponent when discussing a particular idea.  For example, if you ask “what would it take to convince you that the earth is billions of years old?”, and they answer that no evidence would convince them, you might as well end the debate.  Their position is based on ideology and not reason, and no amount of evidence will change their mind.

Someone once presented me with a “what would it take” question that I still have not been able to answer.  The question was “can you imagine a piece of evidence that would convince you that plate tectonics is false”?   This one has me stumped.  Plate tectonics so completely explains all the observed data that I simply cannot think of a piece of evidence or a competing theory that would convince me that it’s not happening.   This doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen some day, but the evidence would have to be overwhelming.  Sort of like the Precambrian rabbit. 

New NOAA Climate Report

Ten Indicators of a Warming World.

NOAA came out with a report last week that contains the results of a review of climate date. Their study involved more than 300 scientists for 160 research groups. Money quote:

“Based on comprehensive data from multiple sources, the report defines 10 measurable planet-wide features used to gauge global temperature changes. The relative movement of each of these indicators proves consistent with a warming world.


For the first time, and in a single compelling comparison, the analysis brings together multiple observational records from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “The records come from many institutions worldwide. They use data collected from diverse sources, including satellites, weather balloons, weather stations, ships, buoys and field surveys. These independently produced lines of evidence all point to the same conclusion: our planet is warming,”

What I like about the article is the rigorous adherence to the scientific method. It's apparent that they didn't set out to "prove their case". Instead, they did what scientists are supposed to do: they made predictions based on their hypothesis, then designed experiments or observations to test the predictions. In this case, all ten of their predictions supported the hypothesis. I have never seen a global warming denier take this approach.

Livingston, Louisiana Creationism Update

The Livingston, Louisiana Parish School Board has decided not to push creationism into the curriculum this year. They have decided injecting creationism into the science classroom would lead to expensive litigation and that they would likely lose in court. But for some reason, they are still considering adding it next year. Here is a quote from School Board Member David Tate:

"We don’t want litigation, but why not take a stand for Jesus and risk litigation?"

So I guess he's ready to drag is Parish down the financial toilet "for Jesus".

He also said this, which demonstrates how deep his profound ignorance of the way science works:

"Creationism is another thought of how things came into being,” he said. “Give every theory due time” in the classroom.

This is a common theme among creationists: scientists are being unfair by not allowing opposing ideas to be heard. Why not just teach both theories and let the students decide? Well, here's the thing - science is not democratic. It's based on testing and observation. Scientific theories are tested by making predictions based on the theory, then testing those predictions using experiments or observed data. Evolution has survived this process and has emerged as the theory that best explains the data. None of the alternatives can claim that, and therefore, don’t deserve a place in science classrooms.

Once again, we have a great demonstration of why it's so important to teach basic science and critical thinking to our young people.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is AGW causing a Decline in Phytoplankton?

Microscope picture of planktonThere is a recent article in Nature that reports a 40% decline in the amount of phytoplankton in the ocean over the past century. Here's a good summary of the paper. If this is true, it's very disturbing news. Phytoplankton is a vital part of the food chain, and also plays an important role in the carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The authors speculate that global warming has caused the declining numbers by increasing the stratification of the ocean, which in turn reduces circulation and decreases the amount of nutrients that reach the plankton from deeper layers. There may be other causes as well. Clearly, more study is needed to confirm the trend and it's causes. But if phytoplankton numbers are indeed falling, could this trigger one of those dreaded "climate feedback loops" that we keep reading about?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

This morning when driving our trash to the local drop-off location I listened to a religious talk station because I have sinned and needed to do penance. The topic of discussion was psychics. Apparently one of the guests has written books about how beliefs in the psychics and other supernatural powers is evil and anti-biblical. They talked a bit about Sylvia Browne, a famous "psychic" who is especially notorious in the skeptical community (James Randi has been going after her for years).

Now, on one hand I guess it's good that someone is warning the Christians about these scoundrels. But their objections weren't based on critical thinking or scientific evidence. They object because belief in the paranormal is apparently counter to scripture. And of course, I couldn't miss the irony that the author's entire world view is based on a set of paranormal beliefs that include a magic man in the sky, miracles, end times, and everything else that goes with evangelical Christianity. All in all, the whole thing was amusing.

Oil and Salt and the Gulf of Mexico

There's an interesting article in the NY Times about the evolution of oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. The article focuses on the role that salt deposits play in trapping the oil. Salt deposits are cool things - given the right circumstances salt will flow and form domes, pillars (called diapirs), basins, or other structures. These can trap oil contained in adjacent permeable strata. Spindletop, the first highly productive oil field in Texas, is a salt dome with oil trapped beneath it. The photo is the famous Lucas well, which was the first to tap into the Spindletop reserves.

The NY Times article makes it clear that oil exploration in the Gulf is going to be with us for a long time. I hope we can figure out how to do it safely.

Mark Twain Rocks

Via the Friendly Atheist - Mark Twain's uncensored autobiography is being published 100 years after his death in 1910, as he instructed. Newsweek has published an excerpt, and it's exquisite. Read it.

My State is Doomed, Part 3

Another example of the shining intellects running for governor of Tennessee:

So we have the creationists, the guy who says we should secede from the Union, the guy who says that the first amendment of the constitution does not apply to Islam, and this genius. I think I'm totally going to vote for Basil.

Monday, July 26, 2010

My State is Doomed, Part 2

Ron Ramsey, the Lt. Governor of Tennessee and candidate for Governor, has stated that Islam may be more of a cult than a religion, and therefore not subject to protection under the 1st Amendment. Fine, Mr. Ramsey. You tell me exactly how to define a cult vs. religion, and we'll discuss whether your particular beliefs deserve protection.

We are doomed (again).

More on Global Warming and Senate

Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat both have columns in today’s NY Times about the Senate’s failure to pass climate legislation. Both of them are worth reading. Krugman attributes the failure to cowardice and greed. Cowardice because senators from conservative states know that backing a cap and trade bill might cost them their seats. Greed because big energy generously funds climate deniers and politicians who support their cause. I agree with Krugman, but would add ignorance to the list. The American public’s ignorance of the scientific method and critical thinking skills allows them to be easily swayed by hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, and scare tactics. I’ll be posting more on this in the future.

Douthat has a different take. He believes that the current resistance to cap and trade is a natural progression from the environmental movement of the 1970s, when “apocalyptic enthusiasms” about environmental issues motivated social conservatives and libertarians to join forces and resist new regulations. Many of the dire predictions of environmental doom failed to materialize, which seemed to validate the conservative’s position.

Douthat points out that global warming is almost certainly happening. But this is where he starts losing traction. He advocates that regulations may not be needed because a warmer planet may end up being a good thing, or at worse, something we can deal with as it happens. Cap and trade, he writes, is a “leap in the dark”.

But is implementing a market-based system that places a price on carbon really a bigger “leap in the dark” than doing nothing? This argument ignores the very real potential that climatic feedback loops will result in catastrophic changes far more severe than those predicted by the climate models. This makes inaction the real “leap in the dark”.

Finally, I must give Douhtat some props for at least admitting that global warming is real and taking the discussion to the next step. It was refreshing to read a column by a conservative writer that didn’t spew the usual right-wing denier claims.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Teaching Creationism in Louisiana

You'd think that after the scathing "Dover vs. Kitzmiller" court decision, which found that teaching intelligent design/creationism in public schools is clearly unconstitutional, school boards would be reluctant to raise the issue and drag their districts through long, expensive, and losing court battles. But no, they never learn. The Livingston County, LA school board is considering adding creationism to the science curriculum. Here's a quote from one board member: "Why can't we get someone with religious beliefs to teach creationism?" Maybe somebody will talk some sense into these idiots before they end up costing the local citizens a lot of money and much embarrassment.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My State is Doomed

At least 3 candidates for governor of Tennessee are creationists. Money quote from Zach Wamp, a far-right congressman who's also a member of "The Family":

"If they are going to teach evolution in schools, it better be counteracted by teaching a faith-based, God-centered education."

By this logic I suppose we should also counter teaching about the holocaust with holocaust denial crap. And maybe we should point out that the moon landing might have been a hoax.

We are doomed.

The Climate Change Debate

This week the senate indicated that there will be no meaningful legislation on energy and climate this year. Also this week, NASA reported that 2010 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. And coincidentally, the sun is experiencing a "recent minimum of solar irradiance", meaning that less solar radiation than normal is heating the earth. So we can't blame the sun for the current heating trend, as I've heard so many climate change deniers try to do.

All this is to say that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is almost certainly real. A recent paper reported that the vast majority of climate scientists believe this. Quite frankly, the evidence is overwhelming, and the potential impacts are frightening. In this context, the senate's refusal to act is mind boggling.

I've given some thought as to why we seem to be losing the debate about AGW. In my experience, debate is divided by political ideologies. Most conservatives either deny the science, or don't believe that AGW is all that bad. I've listened to conservative commentators who bounce from "it ain't happening" to "it's not us" to "it's not bad, and may even be good". James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, said yesterday that
"We're in a cycle now that all the scientists agree is going into a cooling period,."
Now, this is just ridiculous. I doubt that Inhofe can name one reputable climate scientist who believes this. But facts don't matter to Inhofe and his ilk - what matters was corporate profits and low taxes. That he would make these claims in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary speaks to his intellectual and moral dishonesty.

I don't really know why conservatives refuse to accept the science behind AGW, but I suspect that there are several reasons:

  1. They HATE Al Gore
  2. Fighting AGW means government regulation, which they hate that almost as much as they hate Al Gore.
  3. Regulations would include some type of new tax, and we know how they feel about that.

I understand all this. The problem is that the deniers have controlled the message such that we don't even have honest discussions about tackling AGW. They've managed to turn the discussion into dishonest tirades about the evil climate scientists and their agenda to control the world and take away your SUVs. This approach is working - even with democratic majorities in the house and senate, nothing is being done.

I don't know how we combat the deniers and turn the debate back to a meaningful discussion of policy. Climate science is very complicated, and easy to distort. And the deniers are good at what they do. But we need to keep fighting this battle - it's real, and if we lose, the results could be devastating.