See the New Mad Sociologist at http://madsociologistblog.wordpress.com

Environment

Ahh, The Good Ol’ Days Before the EPA and its Socialist Meddling in Business Freedom

Who Doesn’t Want to go Back to That?

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Rejection of Science in the Age of Science

Americans are rejecting science, and putting themselves…and everyone else…in peril

 

Every semester I lead my Introduction to Sociology students through the following scenario:

Uncle Phil is sitting at home watching television, a wonder of technological advancement, and eating a microwave meal. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his chest that travels down his left arm. Uncle Phil remembers watching a medical show one time that taught him how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. He quickly formulates the hypothesis that he is, in fact, having a heart attack, and runs over to his computer so he can Google the symptoms. Sure enough, the most likely cause of his symptoms is a heart attack. If nothing else, it’s better safe than sorry. Phil remembers reading an article in the science section of his newspaper that taking aspirin might help him. He takes an aspirin while he dials 911 on his cell phone. The technological marvel transmits his signal to the nearest tower and almost immediately puts him in touch with responders, who use similar computer technology to alert the EMS. Trained paramedics, using GPS services, arrive at Phil’s house shortly after he falls unconscious. They rush into the house and use the most sophisticated technologies and scientifically proven techniques to stabilize Uncle Phil’s condition and get him to the hospital. At the hospital, Uncle Phil is subjected to even more sophisticated scientific gadgets and scientifically trained professionals. They rush him into the ER.

Uncle Phil’s family is contacted and they rush to the hospital. When the scientifically trained doctor enters into the waiting room and assures them that Uncle Phil survived and is going to be just fine. As long as he takes his scientifically designed medication and follows a scientifically proven diet and exercise regimen he should make a full recovery.

What’s the first thing Phil’s family says?

The answer is, of course, “Thank God!”

Even if one is not inclined to rule out the role of divine intervention, shouldn’t science at least get second billing or an honorable mention?

Here in the United States we face a unique relationship with science and technology. In one sense, we take for granted and, to a certain extent consider mundane, the incredible technological advances of the last thirty years. At the same time, we are enthralled and awed by the changes that may take place in the next thirty. Culturally, however, Americans have a peculiar love/hate relationship with science. We love the idea of a scientifically sophisticated society, but when that science bangs up against our cherished beliefs, then too often science is rejected.

Part of this phenomenon, I think, has to do with the nature of belief in the United States, and the misapplication of “theory” as a synonym. Often in discussions with Global Warming deniers the argument breaks into a diatribe of how my own “belief” in Global Warming does not supersede beliefs in denial. The same holds true with the hundred and fifty year old debate on evolution. Many people in the United States equate the concepts of “belief” and “theory.” They are lacking a basic understanding of what a theory is, and thus, they are unqualified to make judgments about scientific matters. And people are dying as a result. Nothing less than the future of civilization hangs in the balance of educating Americans about the nature of science.

When confronted with a claim about my “belief” in Global Warming or Evolution or what have you, I try to clarify a distinction. I do not belief in Global Warming, or in Evolution, or in Gravity or Germ Theory for that matter. I accept the validity of these theories because they have been tested and have demonstrated utility and reliability. In other words, they satisfy the requirements of a valid theory. In the event that another theory comes along that demonstrates greater validity and reliability, I will not hesitate to embrace it. That is a key difference between belief and theory.

I teach my college students that a theory must possess two key characteristics. First, it must explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed. Evolution through sexual selection, for instance, effectively explains the process of speciation. In this matter, it is important to understand that a theory can only explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed and should not be held to account for failing to explain other related phenomena. Darwinian Evolution, for instance, does not explain the origin of life itself. That is the domain of other theories. Nor should the useful debate of the nuances inherent in theory necessarily constitute a weakness. A good example of this is the debate between steadu state and punctuated equilibrium schools of evolutionary thought. That there is a debate on the nuances of evolution does not mean that there is a debate about the validity of Darwinian Evolution itself.

Secondly, theories must be useful in formulating testable hypotheses and consistently predicting the outcomes of research or experimentation based on these hypotheses. A counter-example that I offer is Intelligent Design “Theory.” What hypotheses can be formed? What outcomes can be predicted based on Intelligent Design? Without knowing the whims of the Intelligent Designer the concept has no scientific utility. It is not a theory and should not be given equal time as a theory in science classrooms.

Therein is the central misunderstanding. Americans have an almost postmodern understanding that belief in religion, or belief in capitalism, or belief in patriotism is of the equivalent quality as a “belief” in science. That science is a discipline of proof is irrelevant. Acknowledging the validity of Global Warming is qualitatively the same as the belief of Denialism. Accepting the truth of the evolution of species is just as much a matter of faith as is the belief in the Biblical account of Genesis. This false equivalence is embraced and fed by the equal time movement claiming that students should have equal exposure to theory and faith in the classroom.

One of the things we know about the contest between belief and evidence is that when one’s belief is contradicted by a preponderance of the evidence, our human tendency is to deny the evidence. We will find or invent reasons that reinforce our pre-conceived notions. It’s almost as if our beliefs are addictive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first coordinated attacks against science, unrelated to religion, was the PR strategy to defend the tobacco industry. Perhaps there is a reason why Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the people is among his most famous quotes.

With what I call the Tobacco PR Wars as precedent, companies hire firms that specialize in seeding enough doubt and enough false evidence to allow those steeped in their beliefs to enhance their confirmation bias. Yes, I smoke two packs a day, but the lady down the road used to smoke three packs a day and she lived to be ninety-two years old. These professional cons use the nuances of science and play against the probabilities and uncertainties of all research models and experiments to make their case. They hold up the natural limitations of all theoretical explanations as proof that the target theory is clearly false. Hey, the northeast has experienced some cold springs, so Global Warming is a lie. Scientists used computer generated numbers in their models. They are clearly fudging the data to make themselves look right. Those who want to continue smoking, or refuse to invest tax money into alternative energy, or love their SUVs, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack, grasp this “evidence” to confirm that they are right after all. Those stuck up scientists don’t know what they are talking about—until Uncle Phil has a heart attack.

This is despite scientists’ track record. In the seventies scientists warned that the rain falling from the sky was contaminated with sulfuric acid. They recommended restrictions on sulfur emissions. Such policies were put into place and the acid rain problem went away. In the eighties scientists theorized that CFCs were causing life threatening ozone depletion at the poles. CFCs were restricted and the ozone holes have started to close. But they simply must be wrong about global warming because it snowed somewhere in April.

The consequences of this ignorance aren’t just inconvenient. They are deadly. The anti-vaccine movement is case in point. Most parents take want to protect their children. When they hear horror stories about children experiencing all kinds of problems and are told that vaccines are the cause, parents must choose between the scientist and the natural repugnance of watching a needle enter their child’s arm with a toxin that may hurt them. Parents who are convinced that those scientists don’t know what they are talking about, that it’s a conspiracy to make money on the vaccines feel justified in denying their children vaccines shots. This is especially true of parents who are part of social movements that emphasize so called “natural” healing as a central belief. Consequently, preventable diseases like Whooping Cough (Pertussis) are making a comeback. But why not? After all, my belief in the dangers of vaccines is no less valid than your belief in science.

When it comes to global warming, the consequences of ignorance is nothing short of catastrophic. The bottom line is that civilization itself hangs in the balance. That’s a little much to handle. Most of us would love to believe that our world is perpetual and that our grandchildren will inherit the same opportunities that have always existed. This is a central belief system in the United States. It plays into our faith in the American dream, our belief in capitalism as the best means of economic and cultural advancement, and our belief that God is watching over us and will take care of us so long as we are faithful. Human Caused Global Warming is a challenge to all of these belief systems. Not to mention, the means by which we must deal with this problem are far more daunting and invasive than putting up with CFC free hair spray. It’s much easier and more comforting to believe that the scientists are wrong. They must be!

And let’s not let the scientists themselves off the hook. There are examples of scientists selling their souls to profit. We look at examples of over-medication, genetically modifying food for the patent protections or to withstand greater quantities of pesticide. The science system, in the US especially, is one in which even well intentioned scientists have to play to the market to get their research funded. Many scientists will draw huge salaries to work for pharmaceutical and oil companies. It was scientists who designed cigarettes that allow for greater absorption, and consequently, increased addictiveness, of the product. Famed nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi referred to the development of the atomic bomb as “superb physics.”

In the case of vaccines, scientists haven’t been very clear in communicating that there is risk associated with this product. Just as some people are allergic to penicillin, others will react poorly to vaccines. To my knowledge, there isn’t a significant “anti-penicillin” movement. Perhaps for good reasons, scientists have downplayed the few risks of vaccines because they are far outweighed by the benefits. But then the papers report on a child who became sick after getting his vaccination. Why are the scientists being so secretive? Doubt is sowed, and that becomes the fuel for ridiculous movements such as the Anti-Vaxxers. That’s all it takes.

Science simply must find ways to educate the public on scientific process, not just science trivia. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos is incredible, but how have scientists made these fascinating discoveries? Why should we trust that what Professor Tyson says is true? What are the checks that exist in the scientific enterprise that ensures the best possible explanations? What happens when scientists like Einstein are wrong, or when new theories are developed to explain the cosmos? Why should we care about evolutionary theory? What is the truth about vaccines? What is the role of probability in scientific understanding, and why is this not a weakness that challenges the validity of theory? The discoveries of science are fascinating. Most Americans are aware of these discoveries…they just don’t necessarily trust them. We need to know why we should. We also need to be educated in the fine balance between healthy skepticism and destructive cynicism.

After all, scientists cannot afford, nor should they be expected to pay for, their own PR movement. There’s only so much that Bill Nye the Science Guy can do. Those of us who love science and believe in the value of science for the endeavor of human progress must provide, for free, that education and PR. We are against the greatest systematized effort of public doubt in human history. Billions of dollars have been invested into keeping us ignorant. There is no counter other than knowledge.


Solar Freakin’ Roadways!

All That’s Needed is the Political Will to Make it Happen!

Screwed Logo

 

 

 

 


The Last Hours of Humanity?

Could we be Looking at the End of Civilization?
We always thought the end of the world would come from fire, of flood, or interstellar rocks. It could be that the end of the world comes from profit motive.

Click Here to go to the Last Hours website.

 


Where is Fukushima?

Fukushima is here!

If you think you are far enough away that you don’t have to worry about the radiation from Fukushima, you may have another think coming. Fukushima is Here.


Food and a New Understanding of Public Space

Pam Warhurst gave a rousing lecture on the experiences of her hometown in re-imagining their common space. This isn't just about increasing food yields, which would be impressive enough. This is about re-imagining the commons and building a community around food.

In an age where the commons is being gobbled up by the unfree market, this really is a radical concept. Capitalism assumes that there is no such thing as "the commons." The best way, according to the capitalist ethic, to order our communities is to open all resources to commodification. Maintaining and perpetuating the commons is a waste of time and money. The free market is believed to be the most efficient way to maximize our resources and our efforts. This is balderdash.

When a community ethic evolves, organically, around an ethic of the commons, a healthy and equitable lifestyle can be cultivated.


Don’t Look at the data in this Post on Global Warming!

Global Warming? What Global Warming?

 

(Click the image for the source)

Nothing to see here, folks. Go back to what you were doing.

This is all a socialist plot!

Who are you going to believe? A bunch of stupid climate scientists or well respected, right-wing think tanks?

You know how those environmental hippy whackos are!

No changes are necessary.


Connect the Dots

Join 350.org and connect the dots yourself. Global warming is real. It’s happening. And it’s our fault. And it’s our responsibility to do something about it.


What’s wrong with this picture?

The evidence is right before our eyes.

 


This is my pet Russian tortoise. Her name is Tort. Isn’t she beautiful?

Notice the time stamp, January 20, 2012. Normally, at this time of the year, Tort is buried underground, happily hibernating for the winter. She starts digging her hovel sometime in October/November as a response to cooler weather trends. Her goal is to maintain her body temperature at around 53°F.

Yet here she is, in late January, perfectly content to walk around and seek out yummies to eat. She hasn’t even started to burrow.

She hasn’t even begun to dig a burrow for herself. Frankly, there has been no reason for her to dig in. For the most part, we haven’t experienced nearly the cooling that we normally get. It seems to be significantly warmer this year than last. I have tomatoes and peppers growing in the garden. We really haven’t had the cold snap that usually destroys the vegetable garden. Yes, there was a span of a couple of days when we had to cover the plants. I had to bring Tort inside because she was unprepared for the cold weather. This was just a few days in December. Since then, the temperature has not been below 50 for any significant amount of time. According to the Weather Channel, we are unlikely to get a cold snap in the next ten days.

I would say that this is unusual weather, but last year we didn’t get a significant cold spell either. Tort dug in last year because there were some noticeable cooling trends, but my Maringa trees usually lose branches if there is a cold snap lasting any significant length of time. Last year I didn’t lose so much as the tip of a branch from my trees. Tort came out of hibernation in March rather than April.

I’m not a climate scientist. From what I’ve read from climate scientists, they are loath to conclude that any given weather event is caused by general trends. This is for sound scientific reasons. But it seems to me that the evidence is right in front of us. At some point we have to start confronting those who have their heads in the sand with regard to climate change. We should do this with scientific evidence, of course, but also the evidence of our own experience.

We really need to start pulling those heads out of the sand before it’s too late.

PS: This blog is written on January 28. Tort is out and walking around without a care in the world.


A Consensus on Global Warming vs. Climategate

It must be remembered that regardless of how we feel about the flogged and lamented Climategate scandal the scientific consensus on global warming is almost universal. The American Geophysical Union conducted a poll of those in the geoscience community.  Of this community 90% agreed that global temperatures have risen and over 80% agree that human activities are a significant contributor to global warming.

As you can see from the graph below, there is a significant difference on the feelings of human contributions to global warming between those who are familiar with the research and the public in general.  Now this could be explained by the institutionalization of the idea of global warming which biases geoscientists toward a “belief” in global warming.  This would be unlikely, however, considering how this consensus has developed over time.

Climate Science

What interested me the most, however, is that only 47% of petroleum geologists concurred with the rest of the scientific community about the causes of global warming. This indicates that there is an institutional bias involved in opinions about global warming.  Still, it’s telling that those who are most intimate with the research are the more overwhelmingly unanimous.

Climategate is an important issue, not because it squashed fraudulent global warming claims, but because it highlights the very real nature of institutionalized biases.  It is crucial to examine the institutional biases that might impact scientific objectivity, and mainstream science should not shy away from this very real and applicable dilemma.  However, this is no less true for global warming deniers (GWD) as it is for the mainstream scientific community.  Conservative pundits and other GWD often harp on how the scientific community is bought by moneyed interests invested in global warming fraud (though it’s unclear who they are and how they benefit) yet neglect the obvious conflicts of interest among GWD organizations with regard to oil and petroleum interests.

Secondly, climategate makes an obvious case for increased computer security. We don’t know who these hackers are and how they got access to these e-mails, but I would imagine that there’s a lot of deleting going on right now. Every scientist in the world knows that sending e-mails to colleagues may not be as private as they think.  As yet there is little outrage about this breach of privacy that could constrain communication between scientists.

Thirdly, climategate brings our cultural ignorance of scientific process and methodology to the surface.  Climate research is very complex. The Earth is an impossibly dynamic system (much like society).  The intricacies of global climate systems never conform to easy predictions, models or analysis. How can the earth be getting hotter if it was colder in New England, and snowing early in Houston?  How can oceans rise in one part of the world, but not in another? To the lay person it sounds as if scientists are talking out of both sides of their mouths when they point out how short term trends do not contradict long term trends.  Climate scientists must find a way to make their science more accessible to the lay person if they want their warnings to be understood and taken seriously.  Also, science education must provide more in depth experience with scientific and statistical methodology.  This is a kind of depth that cannot be attained through high stakes tests.

We also need a better understanding of the sociology of science.  What takes place in the arcane chambers of the scientific world? For many people the science lab is as inaccessible as El Dorado. When a piece of that world is revealed to us, and it turns out that scientists are just folks doing a job there’s almost a betrayal of our preconceived notions, especially when those scientific folks turn out to be flawed. The statements made by the invaded scientists were certainly questionable. It’s easy to understand how a lay person would be irate over the idea of scientists “hiding” data or using “tricks”.  It’s also reprehensible that scientists might try to hide their data from competitors and detractors.  This is not your high school science lab.  This is interaction between people who do science for a living, people with the same frustrations that all working people have with their jobs. That’s not to condone the more questionable statements, though I do understand what they may have meant about hiding declines and doing tricks.  For the lay person, however, reading these e-mails (or rather about these e-mails from a select conservative pundit) is understandably outrageous. Climategate comes nowhere near unveiling a worldwide conspiracy to convince people they are getting warmer(?), but it certainly can be spun in such a way.  People knowledgeable in science, and I would hazard the sociology of science (of course this might be an institutional bias) would be more likely to see beyond the spin.

I really hope that all of the explanations about the hacked e-mails are true. I have enough experience to suspect that they are not, but I also know that this is no revelation of conspiracy.  Climategate will be used as a tool to call into question the incredible consensus that exists on global warming. What’s more, it will be used to destroy the political will to act boldly and radically on climate change.  In this issue science and politics overlap.  That’s a dangerous combination.  Science can highlight, but cannot solve problems. Only political action can do that, and political action is subject to claimsmaking and social movements.   I hope it is coincidence that this bomb fell before a major international conference on climate change, and without evidence to the contrary I will assume that it is, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Let’s just hope that the rest of the world is not as subject to sensationalism as we are in the United States.

UPDATE

Here’s an article by the Union of Concerned Scientists addressing this issue. Read Debunking Misinformation about Stolen E-mails.


Alternative Fuels! It’s not just for envirofascist-neopagans anymore!

For the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that the debate about global warming has become so polar that it might be time for environmentalists to change track.  As a paradigm shifting discourse, global warming has gone as far as it can.  Those who accept the mountains of data verifying the reality of global warming may be convinced of the righteousness of their cause, however, those who deny the validity of global warming are also entrenched in their own ideas. I use the term Ostrich Theory to describe such individuals.  They are so invested in their beliefs that they will ignore any evidence to the contrary and embrace any supporting evidence regardless of it’s inanity. Another term for this is “confirmation bias.”

That’s not to say that environmentalists and scientists should stop educating us on global warming. Indeed, there may be some whose minds are not made up.  There’s the upcoming generations, those who will be most affected by global warming, who need to know what they are walking into.  Also, it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that some global warming deniers can be convinced of the validity of global warming claims (of course the same could be said about those who accept global warming!)

Regardless, the debate has stagnated.  Instead of a didactic discussion in which the merits of one side prevails over the other, we are faced with a polar issue with clear and equally entrenched lines of division and disagreement.  Environmentalists, those who are driving the debate on global warming, can only lose legitimacy in such a contest.

For this reason I suggesting chancing our paradigms for encouraging the development of alternative fuels.  Yes, burning fossil fuels is the cause of a significant amount of global warming, but it is so much more harmful than that. There are significant health costs associated with the burning of fossil fuels.  The New York Times reports that as many as 20,000 people die every year due to health complications resulting from the combustion and pollution of fossil fuel.(1)  The Times is referencing an extensive report by the National Academy of Sciences that puts the unaccounted health costs of burning fossil fuels at $120 Billion!

If anything, this report understates the hidden costs of fossil fuel as it only includes those attributed with energy production.  The profound damages caused by extraction and waste or accidents (such as the TVA coal ash spill in Tennessee pictured below), as well as the political costs of being dependent upon other nations for our energy needs, were not included in this assessment. The study also excluded trains, ships and planes from its cost analysis. If all costs were included it’s likely that the figures would be much more dramatic.

Clean Coal

Global warming is an abstract concept laced with a certain amount of futility. On the one hand, the convolutions of as dynamic a system as the global climate is so far beyond the understanding of most people (including the scientists who study it) that it’s hard to make a concrete claim.  The complex mathematics that describes global warming can be reshaped into convincing arguments that global warming is not an issue at all, perfect for the “Ostriches” noted above.

Even if convinced, one must deal with the ominous reality that this is a global issue requiring people all over the world to work together toward a common solution, something that has never happened in all of history.  How can we as activists affect change in the face of the awesome obstacles of dynamic climactic phenomenon as well as the daunting task of getting politicians to put their immediate national interests aside to come up with a global consensus.  Then there are the economic contingencies that are so complex as to defy description.

But the information in the above study is clear and disturbing in its conservatism.  People are dying and the rest of us are losing billions of dollars in the fossil fuel game.

The costs of fossil fuels are not just defined by the digital score keeper on our gas pumps. There are hidden costs that need to be brought to light in a study even more comprehensive than the one mentioned above. When these costs are factored into the final billing for fossil fuels, suddenly the benefits of alternative energy becomes much more marketable. This is true even if global warming is not included in the discussion. Wind energy and solar energy, so far billed as being too expensive to replace fossil fuels at this point, are comparatively more affordable in light of the NAS study.

_______________________

1. The number of dead does not include those who die as a result of global warming.  The World Health Organization estimates that over 150,000 people worldwide die every year as a result of global warming.


Air Polution and IQ

For a few years now I’ve suggested changing track when it comes to the hydrocarbon debates.  It’s not that I’ve changed my mind about Global Warming. Global Warming is very much a reality and may be happening even faster than experts have predicted. When it comes to the discourse, however, the lines are pretty well drawn. Those who do not accept the validity of Global Warming, for whatever reason, are unlikely to change their minds. That does not mean that such people cannot be brought into the movement for change that can perpetuate global warming policy.

The fact is that the same chemicals contributing to global warming are also contributing to other negative consequences for our society. Such consequences include the destruction of our future, not through cataclysmic climate change, but equally cataclysmic destruction of the intellectual capacity of our future.

According to research done by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, pre-natal exposure to high concentrations of air polution can result in a five point IQ deficit. Now, I’m not sure of the predictive value of a five point IQ deficit, but the fact that air pollution can have such effects bares consideration.

Controlling carbon emissions is not just about keeping the earth from heating up, but also about keeping the brains of our children from cooling down.


Environmental Apostasy: Agitate April 2009

  I’’ve lived in South Florida for twenty five years. After a quarter century of living in the sunniest part of the Sunshine State I can say that I have never…never…become acclimated to the oppressive heat of this   climate. There was a time when I would simply endure the summers and live for the winters, which were quite bearable. Now, however, even that consolation is disappearing. There was a time when I could expect reasonable weather sometime in late September or early October. Now I’m sweating (and cranky, my wife reminds me) well into December.  Even when some cool spells do give me respite, they are very brief.  Then, just as I’m starting to maybe enjoy living in Florida again, the heat descends like a wet blanket.

  To make matters worse, sometime around late April or early May South    Florida seems to burst into flame as the dry season sucks the moisture from the land and creates a veritable tinder box in my back yard. According to the NOAA, this year’s dry season is the second driest on record. They didn’t have to tell me. Rains that only twenty years ago used to come and go almost like clockwork have since become spotty and unpredictable, creating greater and greater water deficits every year.

  For about twenty-five years or so I have been following the phenomenon known as Global Warming.  At first there was significant debate as to the existence, extent or cause of this phenomenon.  Since then, however, a growing consensus has     developed.  Global Warming is happening and it is caused largely (though admittedly not exclusively) by human actions, including the burning of fossil fuels and the annihilation of  forests. The solution is as conceptually simple as it is economically and politically complex: stop destroying the forests and stop burning fossil fuels.  For the last quarter of a century we could have been and should have been working toward a greener, more sustainable strategy for meeting our needs.

  But we haven’t.  Instead, we’ve been bickering about whether or not global warming is real! Naysayers can point to a number of “holes” in the information that are out there about global warming, such as the margins of error delineated by using computer models, the fact that certain regions are experiencing cooler than normal weather and even some “alternative” research that suggests global warming is a myth.  By holding to their version of “science” global warming deniers can ignore the ever growing and expanding science archive that reveals their perspective as mere mythmaking.

  The fact that the top fifteen hottest years on record have occurred since 1990 is either not true, or coincidental. Measurements taken by the likes of NASA and the Goddard Institute confirming a significant warming trend since 1880 can be ignored. The top   scientific institutions in the world and the International Panel on Climate Change are nothing more than dupes of a radical environmentalist agenda to…uh…to…to what?

  In my dealings with global warming and climate change deniers and my research into alternative versions of the global warming story I’ve heard tell of a secret environmentalist agenda to perpetuate the myth of global warming.  Okay! But what is the environmentalists’ agenda in spreading this lie? What do they get from perseverating on this false issue when there are admittedly very real environmental matters on which they could be    concentrating? It can’t be funding, because the global warming deniers are never at a loss for funding sources from fossil fuel companies, automakers and neo-con think tanks.

  Of course, this agenda is not as mundane as funding opportunities for desperate    scientists, or conformity to institutional norms supposedly designed around the erroneous assumption of global warming. No! The secret agenda of environmentalists is much more insidious than that.  Why, global warming is nothing less than an attempt to…

            …dun dun duuuuunnnnnnn!

                        …TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

Environmentalism is the New Communism!

  One of the recurring themes of this absurd  conspiracy theory is that environmentalism is communism re-incarnate.  Environmentalists are intent on taking over the world and instituting a global government that will, ultimately, control every aspect of the individual’s life. In short,   environmentalism, via the myth of catastrophic global climate change, hopes to scare the entire world into acquiescing to a domination that    Joseph Stalin could only have dreamed.

    Steven Milloy, author of Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Ruin Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them and the founder of junkscience.com reflects this sentiment by calling environmentalists “the wannabe rulers of the world and rationers (sic) of our energy supply.”  According to a blurb for Chris Horner’s book, Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism, on the Heritage Foundation website, “manipulation of global warming…is the ideal scare campaign for those who hate capitalism.” A Whistlblower Magazine article called Hysteria: Exposing the Secret Agenda Behind Today’s Obsession with Global Warming claims that “environmentalism is nothing less than the global elitists’ replacement ideology for communism/socialism.” (Communism and elitism? Hmmm?)

  Any number of websites can be cited to confirm the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s assertion that “environmentalism is    recycled communism and Nazism.” One source that continues to pop up in my myriad of web searches was Czech   Republic President Vaclav Klaus, who is quoted time and again, in this case by Charles Krauthammer, as saying “the largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity is no longer socialism.  It is, instead, the     ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism.”

  There it is.  The President of the Czech Republic said it. It must be true!

  Environmentalism is, in essence,           un-American.  It is associated with communism and Nazism, despite the fact that communism and Nazism are fundamentally different ideologies.  References to elitism and a one-world government cabal behind the environmentalist movement are straight out of Illuminati folklore. There’s a deep, dark, conspiracy to steal your freedoms for which the environmentalist movement is a front and the global warming paradigm is a scare tactic designed to get us to surrender all of the things we hold dear.

  If, as you are reading this, you are experiencing the bitter taste of McCarthyism, you are not alone. In this case, however, the commie hunters are not elected and appointed    government officials (thank God). Instead, the environmentalist conspiracy theory has, at its roots, the same free market capitalist edge as the Red Scare of the 20’s, and McCarthyism in the fifties.  Research on Global Warming poses a threat to long held assumptions on the primacy of free markets to deliver the greater good.  If the possibility of global catastrophe can be traced to capitalism, then that blows a big hole in the “greater good” concept. 

  Also, policies to deal with global warming will, undoubtedly influence the corporate bottom line, and open polluting industries to dreaded regulation. This will not be tolerated any more than will fair labor policies or living wage laws. This may explain why major corporations who have a stake in climate change policy, like Exxon/Mobil, fund fuzzy science that offers a spin against the global scientific consensus.

  And the best way to silence sensible ideas? Label them “communism” or “socialism” or even “Nazism/Fascism.” It doesn’t matter if these labels make sense, so long as the PR sticks. Then any time someone, even the former Vice President of the United States,

makes a stand, all we have to do is defer to the President of the Czech Republic for reassurance that we are right and they are wrong.

Environmentalism is a New Religion

  The second major claim to explain the myth of Global Warming is that environmentalism constitutes a practice of religion.  As a new belief system, it evangelizes to gain a greater following and thus greater power for the environmentalist movement.  This has been especially successful among our scientific elite (just about all of them, apparently).

  The most common proponent cited for this claim is the late novelist Michael Crichton, author of Jurasic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and other science based fictions.  His novel, State of Fear (which to be honest I have not read) is offered as a compendium of the environmentalist plot to convince the world that disaster looms.  According to Barnesandnoble.com, Crichton destroys the case of the environmentalist assertions on global warming.  Many who have commented on the novel agree.  As is typical of Crichton’s novels (and I am a fan of Crichton), he blends thrilling fiction with enough science to give the plot credibility.  Yet, we must remember, Crichton is a fiction writer.

  Crichton is the main proponent for the environmentalism as religion paradigm.  “Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists,” he claimed in a speech. When asked to explain why he believes that environmentalism is a religion, he falls back to his college studies of anthropology for a definition of religion.  He claims that, anthropologically speaking, environmentalism offers a collective set of beliefs, has leaders, asks its “followers” to contribute to the belief system by making changes to their lifestyle and embracing a total worldview of what is good and what is bad.  He states that environmentalists have advanced a mythology of a naturalistic Eden which does not match reality.  This Eden has been lost to industrial development, so environmentalists offer a way to salvation through sustainability. 

  That’s a brilliant application of anthropological paradigms! Except that it’s not exactly anthropological.  I’m a sociologist, with a sociological understanding of religion, but what is the anthropological definition?  It is not as described by the medical doctor (not an anthropologist) Michael Crichton. Anthropologists admit that there is some variability in definitions of religion, but suggest that to qualify as a religion, an institution must have a religious ideology, or belief in the supernatural, an odd concept for urban atheists; religious rituals such as prayer or meditation; and a religious social organization, or a hierarchy of experts who interpret supernatural dogma. 

  Though one could conceivably suggest that many environmentalists do have a     religious fervor, and a spiritual/idealistic relationship with nature, they do not have a cohesive ideological acceptance of a supernatural order as would participants in a religion.  Indeed, environmentalists are often representative of many different religious beliefs from atheism to Wicca, from Paganism to Protestantism. 

  As  a participant in environmental activism I’ve never submitted to any rituals for invoking the supernatural.  Any prayer or meditation that takes place is individual. Yes, I’ve participated in Earth Day festivals that have featured many activities that might be construed as religious; but these were not             pre-established theo-environmental practices, but rather activities used to provoke interest in the cause. 

  And the hierarchy of environmental institutions is not based on some shamanistic expertise in understanding religious dogma. Indeed, I’ve often found myself “nominated” for board positions based on nothing more meritocratic than the fact that I consistently showed up for meetings.

  It’s clear that environmentalism does not pass anthropological muster as a religion.  Of course, by Crichton’s definition, any institutionalized belief system could be defined as a “religion.” The Republican Party is a collective set of beliefs, with a leadership and a following that is encouraged to embrace a total world view of good and bad and fit their lifestyles accordingly. One might even say that the Republican Party also has a concept of an Eden and a way to salvation such as a free market and salvation through capitalism.  The same could be said of the Democratic Party, or the Libertarian Party or, for that matter, global warming deniers. How does Crichton, by his own      standards, justify labeling environmentalism a religion and not Globalwarmingdenierism?

  Another problem with Crichton’s definition is his claim that the religion of environmentalism is an anthropological response to atheism.  Religion, according to Crichton is an anthropological constant, something that human beings need.  If we do away with formal religion something must take its place.  That something is environmentalism.  “I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form.” So by suppressing religion and embracing environmentalism we are reproducing a cultural imperative.

  That’s an interesting theory from which we should be able to hypothesize that environmentalists are self identified atheists.  If this hypothesis proves to be untrue, however, then the theory is burdened with trying to explain why people who already profess a religious belief need to embrace environmentalism at all. So when we see organizations such as the Environmentalist Evangelicals, The Evangelical Environmental Network, Old Testament Ecology, The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, just to name the first few that popped up when I did a Google search to test Crichton’s theory, one must question the scientific validity of the celebrated author’s claim.

  In fact, many established religions have what could be called an environmentalist component in that they recognize the natural world as being spiritual or godly.  Therefore, followers are expected to revere the natural world.  Nature and ecology is often incorporated into their belief systems.  Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism as well as most indigenous religions are known for their reverence of nature. This contradicts Crichton’s assertion that environmentalism is a religion in and of itself and that it is somehow a replacement religion for “urban atheists.”

  Regardless, Crichton’s misguided concept of theo-environmentalism is not uncommon among the pundits and the blogosphere. The false concept of a theo-environmentalism has been reinforced by conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh (imagine that). Of course, their version of theo-environmentalism is a radical, misanthropic religion. One article, The Truth About the Destructive Religion of Environmentalism claims, “the bottom line: the most consistent, dedicated environmentalists want you, and everyone else, to die.  It’s as simple as that.” Really? Environmentalist parents, like me, even want our own children to die?

  So what is the spin, here? The insinuation being made when claims makers point their fingers and pronounce heresy on the New Religion is that environmentalism is anti-Christian.  In the United States, to label something anti-Christian is a silencing technique akin to the label communism.  In fact, if we remember our Cold War history, communism was often preceded with “godless,” as in “those godless communists.” That something like environmentalism could be both godless and communistic means that it is lacking in any legitimacy.

 Pseudo-Science

   Pseudo-scientific alternatives to global warming then become legitimate paradigms for those who love America or those who are Christian.  Claims are made that there has been no change in any of the indicators of global warming or even that the earth is actually cooling. Other claims makers suggest that global warming is the result of natural cycles of heating and cooling. These explanations have little, if any scientific validity, yet drape themselves in the vestment of science to offer credibility.

  The science on global warming is clear and unmistakable.  The earth is getting warmer and human actions are the largest part of the cause. Unfortunately, the science is also more complex than the layperson’s understanding of science.  The global climate is impossibly complex, so the science of global warming is attenuated by margins of error that can be misread or misrepresented (by both sides of the debate, to be honest), or other vagaries inherent in studying dynamic systems. With so much complexity and uncertainty it is     understandable, even healthy, that people have doubts about the science.  Alternative  explanations are less burdened with such margins of error or vagaries. They are, therefore, more attractive to the scientifically uninitiated.

  Global warming science is neither communistic, nor religious.  When the theory was first presented in the seventies it met with the requisite scientific skepticism.  Indeed, there were those who believed that the Earth was actually heading toward a new ice age.  Through the years global warming has been tested and re-tested using a variety of approaches, from global temperature monitoring, measurements of ocean levels, ice core samples, tree ring analysis, satellite imagery, field work and yes, computer models.  These tests have been improved and duplicated. Computer models become more accurate as more climatological variables are understood and added to the algorithms.  And the results from this science become increasingly more accurate.  The results remain, essentially the same.  Global warming is real and is largely a human made phenomenon.   Today, this is the consensus of the world scientific community.

  Despite the almost unanimous acceptance of global warming among scientists, however, the claims made by global warming deniers appear to be accepted by an increasing percentage of lay people in the United States. A Gallup Poll done this year found that though a majority of Americans still accept the global warming thesis the majority is waning.  Meanwhile, increasing percentages of Americans feel that global warming is exaggerated.  These numbers follow party lines, as more Republicans are skeptical of global warming than are the least skeptical Democrats. Yet even among Democrats increasing numbers accept the claims of exaggeration.  (It must be noted that believing global warming is exaggerated does not equate to accepting that global warming is not real, nor does it confirm the thesis above)           

  Skepticism is a good thing.  To be honest, the skeptics are often correct when they believe that global warming claims are exaggerated.  It is not uncommon for environmental  interest groups, for instance, to advance global warming claims by using the most ominous predictions from scientific models that have an admitted margin of error. Environmentalists are not immune to questionable claims making practices.  Let’s face it, the famous movie The Day After Tomorrow is just as fictional as is State of Fear and takes the same kind of poetic license with science.

  Silencing scientific discourse, however, by equating it with political and religious extremism or apostasy is dishonest. If we are to have a real, critical discussion about global warming and the consequences then we must get past the claims of the conservative punditocracy.  The scientific community can help by making the science more accessible to the lay person. The rest of us can help by calling the global warming deniers to task on their absurd claims and forcing them to defend their pseudoscience using real scientific methods.


Another Good Investment

Twenty years ago the infamous oil taner Exxon Valdez, commanded by a drunk, spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s beautiful Prince William Sound.  The oil slick covered over 11,000 square miles and destroyed the natural habitat of the Alaskan shore.

Though there were some efforts to clean up the overwhelming contamination, these were mostly unsuccessful.  Local residents claim that Exxon was not cooperative in efforts to clean the sludge. According to reporter Greg Palast, even after twenty years, the oil remains hidden in the sediment of the shoreline. Palast Article

Since we know that Exxon has not spent the last twenty years effectively cleaning their own mess, what has it been doing? Why, it’s spent over $10 million on politicians! In this case, over 86% of contributions went to the Republican Party.


A World of Owls and Humans

I’m sitting here with my laptop staring at a house across visible from my back yard. I wonder why I’ve not blogged about this before, but that house and I have a history.

Before the house was built the lot was being used by a burrowing owls.  The Southern Burrowing Owl is a protected species, and the only place in south Florida where such birds can be seen is in my hometown of Cape Coral.  Burrowing owls get their name because they are a grassland bird, rather than an arboreal species. They make their nests in the ground near a short perch. The biggest threats to these cute little owls are traffic and development.

Like all burrowing owl sites in Cape Coral, the nest was marked off and a big sign was placed by the burrow designating the area as protected. Often, a small, white perch is placed by the hole to help the bird hunt for tiny animals. So imagine my surprise one morning when I woke up and saw bulldozers and other earth moving machinery dumping sand for a new house right next to the owl nest!

An active environmentalist I immediately reported the incident to the Florida Fish and Wildlife agency. The agent was very interested, especially afteer I sent pictures of the nest and construction site, and informed me that he would do everything he could to resolve this case.  I would soon be involved in a moral and interesting sociological conundrum.

It turns out that the house was being built by Habitat for Humanity, and the organization had applied for permission to destroy the nest, claiming exigent circumstances.  It turns out that though an owl nest is protected habitat, the habitat can be destroyed if there’s a pressing human need to do so.  The day after I filed the complaint the nest was gone.

Burrowing Owl 2

Burrowing Owl

I’ve always been a supporter of Habitat for Humanity.  I appreciate an organization that dedicates itself to putting poor people in homes. But I’m also an advocate for the natural world, knowing that only the combination of a healthy environment and a healthy society can ensure healthy people.  So here’s a perfect case where the needs of people were weighed against the needs of an animal, and of course the needs of the people were determined to be primary.  The nest was destroyed (the rule states that in order for the nest to be destroyed there can be no eggs in the burrow.  I’m not sure how accountability is established in this matter, but I assume that the nest was empty when destroyed).

This case highlights the unfortunate consequences of antiquated vs modern values and norms. As I looked around the construction sight I noticed that there were seven empty lots on every side of the construction site.  The house could easily have been built one lot over and the nest remained undisturbed.  It would have been a perfect example of human needs being met without unwarrented destruction of nature.

But this could not happen, because the unfortunate owl happened to built her nest on a lot that was owned by Habitat for Humanity for the purpose of building.  The norms of our society have divided up land into neat little rectangular patches without regard to natural processes. Our values define such norms as being justifiable interest in private property, a value system alien to owls.  So the house could not be built on any of a huge number of vacant lots in the area, not because of objective, scientific reasons, but because of sociological contingencies determined centuries ago.

After all, Mike, it’s more important for a person to have a home than an owl.  OK. That’s hard to deny. But by thinking outside of the box, the parameters of which are the norms (land policies) established through a bureaucratic process, both objects could have been achieved. There was plenty of room, in this case, for owl and man to co-habitate.

So the nest was destroyed, the house built, and now it stands…empty.  It’s been empty for about nine months now.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know what happened to the prospective owner that they did not move in when the house was finished. I do know, that it turns out that there was no pressing need to destroy the owl nest.  Once the mamma owl raised her young she would have moved on her own and the property could have been developed.

It also didn’t take me long (literally a one minute google search) to find an alternative to destroying the owl nest.  If there’s enough room and enough time, which in this case there were both, the owl could be encouraged to move to another burrow a short distance away.  This would ensure the health of the owl, and her offspring, demonstrate respect for the natural world and resulted in the construction of a home.

But no such policy initiative exists and no such incentive can be proposed for those looking to sell property, build a house, get a construction job.  The institutions we’ve established are destructive.  They do not allow for enough flexibility to take care of things that are of no concern to the interests of private property and economic development.  Hence the burrowing owl must compete with an indifferent human species…and lose.

There are alternatives, however. And these alternatives are not so radical that they will leave humans with unfullfilled needs in the interests of preserving a cute little bird.

By following the established policies in this case no-one’s needs were satisfied.  The nest was destroyed (who knows what happened to the owl?), and a house stands empty, one more relic of a ruined economy.  Our species has the most developed cerebral cortex of any species on earth.  We can and should do better than this!

Habitat House


Clean Coal, Framing and an Omnicosmic Perspective

Clean Coal

A couple of years back here in Southwest Florida there was a proposal to build a coal power plant in Hendry County to help satisfy the growing need for electricity.  Not to worry, we were told, this was a “clean coal” power plant using the most recent technological advances to filter all of the bad stuff from contaminating the local environment.

When environmentalists pointed out that there was really no such thing as “clean” coal, that the best one could hope for was “cleaner” coal the coal industry advocates accepted our knowledge of the science.   But they weren’t done with their pitch. Don’t worry, they told us. The smoke stacks would be so high that any pollutants would be carried miles away and would not harm us.

Well, that’s great!  Except, of course, the pollutants would be carried somewhere, to someone!  What about them?

What the coal advocates were doing was framing their product as clean.  On the other hand, even if there’s some dirt, it won’t affect you.  Here they were appealing to the NIMBY mentality.  So long as the toxins are not in my back yard it’s not toxic.

This goes along with a theory that I have been working on for some time, though there are certainly some kinks that need to be worked out. I call it the Ostrich Theory.  In essence, if people can find some way to deny or avoid realities that they do not like they will, regardless of evidence to the contrary.  Like the fabled ostrich who hide’s its head in the ground when danger is present, human beings will often use very convoluted reasoning to avoid glaringly obvious dangers in their own lives. These dangers may be physical, psychological, social or ideological.  (Yes, I know that using an ostrich to exemplify this theory is scientifically inaccurate.  In fact, ostriches do not bury their heads to avoid danger–a strategy that would have made them a very accommodating food source–they run or kick.  But the ostrich symbol is still useful in this matter).

This theory explains many phenomena such as those living next to death camps during the holocaust “not knowing” what was going on in their own communities, or global warming deniers (some of whom are noted scientists).  It also explains the NIMBY mentality.  So long as the bad stuff isn’t happening in my back yard, it’s OK.  Yes, I want to have cheep access to electricity.  Yes, I’m against adding toxins to my community.  So what we will do is take the toxins that allow me access to electricity and put them somewhere else.  That way I can turn on my lights without guilt.

Of course, there’s a power element involved in the Ostrich Theory.  There are those who make the determination of where things like coal plants go.  Since they have to go into somebody’s back yard it will be the back yards of the most dis-empowered, or in places that are secluded from human sight.

How many people have actually seen a coal mine, for instance.  The process of mining coal is extremely destructive.  If you live in or have traveled through Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and many other states in that area, you’ve almost certainly driven by many coal mines.  But you did not see them.  They were carefully hidden behind thickly tree-lined roads, or on the other side of a mountain range.  The idea is, if you can’t see it, then it’s not something to worry about.

Of course, there are times when the dangers become so obvious that one would think rational individuals could not ignore them.  Such was the case last week when over a billion gallons of coal ash broke through their containers in Tennessee.  Over 5 million cubic yards of slurry was released into the neighboring rivers and streams creating an ecological disaster many times more severe than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Don’t worry, say the coal experts. The slurry is not toxic.  Great news! I’m safe.  That is, of course unless you read the EPA report that claims that exposure to coal ash increases ones risk of cancer by as much as 10,000 times!

Framing is an important focus of study for sociologists.  A sociologist can take a look at the framing involved in creating the reality of “clean coal,” for instance. But in order for sociologists to truly grasp “frames” we must look beyond the framework.  A sociologist must cultivate what I call an omnicosmic perspective.  We must be prepared to look at all facets of a social phenomenon and use our knowledge to reveal that which exists beyond the frame.

In essence, a frame is used to focus one’s attention on a small part of a reality. Often, this small part is the area targeted by some powerful group, a group with the resources to create a frame. The omnicosmic perspective endeavors to grasp the reality as a whole regardless of the power elements involved.

The omnicosmic reality of burning coal for energy belies the framed reality of “clean coal.” Even if all of the pollutants could be filtered from the coal as it’s being burned for electricity (which it can’t), there’s the phenomenon of coal in its entirety to think about.  Coal must be extracted, stored, transported. Waste from this process must be dealt with, and dealt with in a way that is responsible, as it appears was not the case in Tennessee.  The the coal is burned and the pollutants filtered. But what do we do with the filters. Pollution doesn’t just go away.  If it’s not going one place, like through the smoke stacks, it must go somewhere else. It doesn’t just disappear.

Clean coal is a myth.  Only ostriches would accept such a brittle frame.

But the omnicosmic perspective must probe deeper.  In fact, deriving energy from “burning” is never a clean option.  Burning is the historical method of generating and using energy.  This is understandable.  It’s technologically easy to burn. In an agrarian society, burning may be a viable option.

Burning is also a fine way, apparently, of firing an industrial society. But burning can only take us so far.  Burning means waste and pollution. The more burning, the more waste and pollution.  There comes a point of diminishing returns.

We’ve reached a point in our technological advancement when we must move from the omnicosmic acceptance of burning, to a new consciousness of energy conversion.  For instance, converting the energy of the sun or the wind into electrical energy, a process that does not involve burning.

In order to endeavor to change an omnicosmic reality, one that we have always taken for granted, we must be ready to accept its shortcomings. We must look beyond the way reality is being framed for us, as well as why it’s being framed. Framing is a strategy used by entrenched institutions to perpetuate their interests.  They are useful for individuals as a way to understand reality in a relatively simple, easy to use form.

As such, frames are notoriously ineffective at convincing people who are already well educated on a topic.  If sociology has a purpose in the postmodern world it is to help educate people beyond the accepted frames of entrenched interests.