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.