Scientific Consensus and Global Warming

tin_foil_hatSome of the most bizarre debates I have with people are not about religion, or even creationism, but of all things, global warming!  Although I must confess that most of the global warming deniers I debate are also highly religious creationists (speaks to the general lack of critical thinking that goes with the territory).

In one recent twitter argument, the global warming deniers accused me of defending global warming without proof, to which I responded that I have the overwhelming consensus of the entire scientific community on my side. On their side they have Fox News, right wing talk radio, and Glenn Beck (and in fairness, I very small handful of scientific contrarians).

Losing patience with their willful ignorance, I asked my debaters to name a single scientific body of national or international standing that does not endorse the consensus on anthropogenic global warming.

To which they responded with the Fraser Institute, Slovakia’s president Vaclav Klaus, and something called Weather Canada.

Clearly these people have no idea what constitutes a national or international scientific body, so allow me a few moments to document my position more succinctly and hopefully the term “scientific consensus” will begin to make more sense.

Let’s start with general science, physics, and chemistry.

American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years.”

American Geophysical Union: “The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.”

American Chemical Society: “Careful and comprehensive scientific assessments have clearly demonstrated that the Earth’s climate system is changing rapidly in response to growing atmospheric burdens of greenhouse gases and absorbing aerosol particles.”

American Institute of Physics: “The Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics has endorsed a position statement on climate change adopted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Council:”

Now what about scientific organizations in Europe?

The European Physical Society: “The emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, among which carbon dioxide is the main contributor, has amplified the natural greenhouse effect and led to global warming.

European Science Foundation: There is now convincing evidence that since the industrial revolution, human activities, resulting in increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases have become a major agent of climate change.”

What about folks down under?

Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies: “Global climate change is real and measurable. Since the start of the 20th century, the global mean surface temperature of the Earth has increased by more than 0.7°C and the rate of warming has been largest in the last 30 years.”

How about the people who just last year launched a 1-ton mobile laboratory on a 352 million mile journey only to top it off by flawlessly landing it via a jet-propelled sky crane with pin point accuracy? You may know them as:

NASA:  “The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane to higher levels than at any point during the last 650,000 years. Scientists agree it is very likely that most of the global average warming since the mid-20th century is due to the human-induced increases in greenhouse gases, rather than to natural causes.”

How about meteorologists and oceanographers?

American Meteorological Society: “Human activities have become a major source of environmental change. Of great urgency are the climate consequences of the increasing atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases.”

Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society: “Global climate change and global warming are real and observable … It is highly likely that those human activities that have increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been largely responsible for the observed warming since 1950.”

And finally, what about our friends in Paleoclimatology?

American Quaternary Association: “Few credible Scientists now doubt that humans have influenced the documented rise of global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution,” citing “the growing body of evidence that warming of the atmosphere, especially over the past 50 years, is directly impacted by human activity.”

Each of these organizations are comprised of hundreds if not thousands of leaders in each their respective fields; men and women who have spent decades refining their expertise through constant study, experimentation, and analysis.  These are people who publish their findings as often as practicable, just so that their counterparts can tear it down if at all possible.  These are scientists.

That is what we mean when we say the scientific consensus is clear.

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Michael Shermer asks, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?

de omnibus dubitandum

That is my motto, which translates to English as “everything must be doubted!” If was going to get a tattoo, this would be on my short list (along with either a soccer ball or something from Lord of the Rings…which may help explain why I don’t get tattoos.)

Dr. Shermer’s essay in today’s Huffington Post, What Is Skepticism, Anyway?, speaks to what it means to doubt everything, to wear the proud badge of skepticism – a badge I’ve been wearing since I first pondered how it was physically possible for one man to deliver gifts to so many kids in one night.

Skepticism is in my DNA (or is it?). In fact, and this happens frequently if the Long Island Medium is on TV, I often get the eye-rolling dismissal, “oh come on Dad, you’re such a skeptic.”  Fiction has its place; but fiction masquerading as fact does not. And fiction masquerading as fact which then plays on the real emotions of people grieving for the sake of ratings, absolutely does not!

So how does being a skeptic turn in to an eye-rolling accusation? Shouldn’t we all aspire to be better skeptics? Yes we should. And Dr. Shermer’s piece helps dispel some of the misconceptions around what it means and what it doesn’t mean to be a skeptic. It’s not obstinate disagreement, it’s not blissful acceptance, it’s actually more like thoughtful analysis.

Dr. Shermer says,

“Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

Skeptics question the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the “Show Me” state. When we skeptics hear a fantastic claim, we say, “That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.”

“That’s interesting, show me the evidence for it.” Those last six tiny little words are combustible! Show me the evidence for it. Why do we ask for it? Because we want to understand your claim, we want to learn for ourselves, we do not accept truth claims solely on authority, we eschew logical fallacies, and we demand intellectual honesty from  ourselves so we expect it from others.

Dr. Shermer lists a series of “I believe” statements that shouldn’t be a surprise to any scientifically or historically literate person:

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the germ theory of disease.

• I believe that vaccines are good for societal health.

• I believe that fluoridated water reduces cavities.

• I believe in the Big Bang theory of the universe.

• I believe that the theory of evolution best explains life.

• I believe that the theory of plate tectonics best explains the the continents.

• I believe that the periodic table of elements best explains chemistry.

• I believe that JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.

• I believe aliens are probably out there somewhere but that they have not visited Earth.

All of Dr. Shermer’s “I believe” statements can also be reworded as “I understand how” or “I understand why” statements. My piece of a few days ago, I believe in evolution because I understand why evolution is true, gets right to the heart of the distinction. For example, when someone says, “I believe in vaccinations,” they probably mean is, “I trust the medical community on the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing disease.” I agree that is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s more accurate.

On the other hand, when someone says, “I believe in ghosts,” they are asserting an unfalsifiable claim to knowledge they don’t have. They might actually believe in ghosts, but skeptics have no interest in the subject. Never, in the history of humanity, has the existence of a ghost, any ghost, been verified. (Sorry fellow Shakespeare fans, Hamlet doesn’t count as evidence.)

To further understand what it means to be a skeptic, I recommend reading Dr. Shermer’s book, “The Believing Brain” and I would add to your order, Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World.” Both of these books should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf (see my blog’s cover photo above if you still doubt me).

In fact, I would argue both of these books should be required reading for every high school student in America!  Teenagers already mistrust what adults are telling them, so what a fantastic time to equip them with an even greater understanding of what their skeptical intuition is already telling them.

Everything must be doubted!

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Rick Santorum – Village Idiot

Former Republican candidate and national class clown, Rick Santorum, is at it again, blaming higher education for the indoctrination of our nation’s youth.  Here we have a hyper-conservative Roman Catholic, accusing higher education of indoctrination. The irony almost burns.

He has been down this road before – calling President Obama a snob for wanting more kids to go to college. College, where young people go to learn to how to be liberal (never mind that Santorum himself is a college graduate with a Juris Doctorate).

Yes, for Santorum, higher education is the source for the nation’s problems.  And by problems, what he means are those things that other consenting adults do that bother him, like get married or watch porn.

While Rick Santorum’s extreme Catholicism does provide folks like me with some degree of comedy, I’m hopeful sound minds continue to prevail and he stays out on the fringe where he belongs.


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Sandy Hook Truthers Are Real

As a brief follow up to my earlier vent regarding the Sandy Hook Massacre conspiracy theory bullshit and how these freaks have now turned on Sandy Hook resident Gene Rosen for playing a part in the rescue, I have since discovered that my son’s college roommate is in fact a real Sandy Hook Truther.

What the actual F*CK! These people actually exist!  While disconcerting in and of itself, the fact this particular individual is also a rabid gun rights advocate is downright alarming.

Here is the combination that now keeps me up at night: my son sleeps 10 feet from a guy with both an unnatural gun lust and an obscene disconnection from reality.

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What the hell is wrong with people – Sandy Hook a government conspiracy?

Apparently some gun nuts out there believe that the Sandy Hook massacre is a government sponsored cover up to drum up public opinion for gun control.  So these morons have decided to harass some of the bystanders who actually stepped up and helped during the horror.

While some conspiracy theories are often bizarre yet (relatively) harmless, this one and the people who are peddling it, are just plain disgusting.  Actually, they are more than that, but I’m trying to refrain from F bombs in my description.

Sandy Hook hero harassed by callers

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Why Mars Matters

Late Sunday night, August 5th, NASA scientists and science lovers across the world bit their fingernails as the USA’s latest rover, Curiosity, hurtled toward the thin Martian atmosphere at a zippy 13,000 miles per hour.  Then, through a series of fantastically planned and perfectly timed steps, the likes of which included the deployment of the largest supersonic parachute ever constructed and the lowering of the $2.6 billion 1-ton mobile laboratory via a jet-propelled sky crane, Curiosity flawlessly went wheels down inside the Gale Crater near the red planet’s equator.  It was a picture perfect landing; the pin point culmination of a 352 million mile journey. Let that sink in for just a second.

Ok, now the real fun starts. Its mission sounds so simple: to answer the question, “could Mars have supported life?” To try and find that answer, the aptly named Curiosity will start its work as a nuclear powered mobile astrobiology lab, conducting sophisticated experiments in mineralogy, chemistry, geology, and climatology among others.  It is a monster truck science machine if ever there was one.

Detractors may complain that this mission is money wasted, but the reality is the mission costs are a fraction of a fraction of a percent of our nation’s budget. The, what I’ll call “tangible” upside benefits, are in a two-be-determined status. Of course mission dollars recycle in to the economy in real terms of salaries throughout the supply chain; but long term uses for nascent technologies won’t show up in the marketplace for a while.  Space exploration has given us the lasers for LASIK surgery, the imaging technology for MRIs, and hundreds if not thousands of other advancements in our daily lives. Most certainly the technologies surrounding Curiosity will also get in to the hands of entrepreneurs and inventors ready to advance the world’s collective standard of living.  Stay tuned.

But finally, the slightly less “tangible” ROI, but by no means less important, will be the results that help us answer the outstanding questions about life on Mars.  Life on Earth and its origins is still a fascinatingly mysterious thing and whichever way the evidence of life on the red planet points, knowledge about the origins of life on our own pale blue dot will benefit.  As children across the metro Atlanta area file in to science classrooms this week; teachers now have this fantastic, real-time, science backdrop from which to draw inspiration and to breathe excitement in the minds of our future scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians.  Perhaps one of the most important lessons our teachers can impart, is that real scientists don’t claim to know things they don’t know, so admitting what you don’t know is the act which opens the door to discovery.  Hence the excitement surrounding the possibilities this mission has for adding to the ever advancing library of human knowledge and the hope that it inspires in the open minds of our children, the dreams of tomorrow.

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The Age of Things

This post is as much for my benefit as it is anything else.  I’ve spent a couple of hours piecing together the various ages of things that I think are pretty darn awesome.  Estimates here are of course based on the latest science. Enjoy!

  • Age of Universe: 13.75 Billion Years
  • Age of Milky Way: 13.2 Billion Years
  • Age of the Sun: 4.57 Billion Years
  • Age of Earth: 4.54 Billion Years
  • RNA on Earth: 4.1 Billion Years
  • Prokaryotes on Earth: 3.8 Billion Years
  • Photosynthesis on Earth: 3.5 Billion Years
  • Eukaryotes on Earth: 1.85 Billion Years
  • Sexual Reproduction on Earth: 1.2 Billion Years
  • Multicellular Life on Earth: 1.2 Billion Years
  • Cambrian Explosion on Earth: 580 Million Years
  • Arthropods on Earth: 570 Million Years
  • First Animal Footprints on Land: 530 Million Years
  • Plants Move on to Land: 434 Million Years
  • Dinosaurs and Mammals on the Scene: 225 Million Years
  • Tyrannosaurus Roars: 68 Million Years
  • Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (bye bye Dinosaurs, make room for more mammals): 65.5 Million Years
  • Earliest Primate Ancestor: 65 Million Years
  • New World Monkeys (long tails) and Catarrhini: 30 Million Years
  • Catarrhini splits in to Old World Monkeys and apes (Hominoidae): 25 Million Years
  • Hominoidae splits in to Great Apes and Lesser Apes: 15 Million Years
  • Speciation within Great Apes launches lines toward Gorillas (10 Million Years), and our common ancestor with Chimpanzees (7 Million Years)
  • Strong Evidence for Bipedalism in Australopithecus afarensis (3.6 Million Years)
  • Homo habilis and First Stone Tools (2.33 Million Years)
  • Homo erectus (1.8 Million Years)
  • Homo ergaster Controls Fire (1.5 Million Years)
  • Homo heidelbergensis Leaves Footprints in Italy  (600 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens (200 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens Leave Africa (100 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens Arrive in Australia and Europe (40 Thousand Years)
  • Neanderthal Extinct (25 Thousand Years)
  • Homo sapiens Become Last Man Standing (12 Thousand Years)
  • Agricultural Society Develops (10 Thousand Years)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh Written in Mesopotamia (4,150 Years)
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North Carolina moves to outlaw disagreeable climate science

In a move that would make The Onion proud, North Carolina lawmakers have decided to tackle global warming threats to their coast in one of the most asinine ways one can imagine. When faced with potentially frightening scientifically derived sea-level rise predictions, they are simply outlawing the measurement methods.

Yes, the lawyers, insurance agents, dentists, etc. that comprise the North Carolina general assembly have listened to the real estate developers of the NC-20, all of whom surely know better than the coastal geologists who have spent their academic careers studying marine geology and sea-level.

It is the decidedly non-scientific opinion of the NC-20 that a “backwards” look is the best way to predict future sea-level fluctuations. This of course creates a nice clean un-alarming straight line with a slight upward trend which makes everyone feel good and paves the way for future coastal real estate development.

The coastal geologists on the other hand use fancy and complicated multivariate computer models based on what the climate is predicted to do (hence the term, prediction), and their models show a dramatic 1 meter rise in sea level over the next century.  Lawmakers in North Carolina couldn’t quite stomach those predictions so they literally have enacted legislation which prohibits the use of models that might scare real estate developers away.

The original house bill 819 was a masterpiece of anti-intellectualism.

The Division of Coastal Management shall be the only State agency authorized to develop rates of sea-level rise and shall do so only at the request of the Commission. These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

The senate bill that was approved on June 7 is a slight improvement, but not by much:

[Rates] shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.

That legislation sounds a bit more scientific, with words like “statistically significant” and “peer-reviewed” but it’s still a bunch of politicians telling real scientists how best to conduct science.

The bottom line is that scientifically derived sea-level predictions are based on the effects of a warming planet, and many if not most of North Carolinia’s lawmakers don’t “believe” in global warming, ergo they have a nice piece of legislation which is tantamount to saying, “if I close my eyes, then you can’t see me.”

I feel for them. Global warming by definition is beyond the control of individual lawmakers in North Carolina and no one likes to think of their beautiful coastlines succumbing to a rising sea. So they are really faced with a choice.

On the one hand, they can continue down the road they are on. They can simply ignore what’s going to happen (most of these lawmakers will be dead and buried in a hundred years anyway). They can follow the NC-20′s advice which is to just smash and grab as much wealth as you can now, and kick the can to the next generation or two; those are the folks that get to watch all that coastal development get washed away to oblivion during the first serious hurricane season.

But on the other hand, they can take the lead. But this requires courage – a trait politicians aren’t exactly known for. One would think that having coastal areas in the crosshairs might actually create the motivation, even for North Carolinian lawmakers, to quit listening to talk radio hosts for their climate advice and start listening to the experts whose lives are devoted to understanding what is actually happening in the real world, to take the bull by the horns, and to lead the charge to combat global warming and prepare for its likely deleterious results.

Posted in logic, News, politics, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

To engage or not to engage Creationists, that is the question

A few weeks ago I posted this letter written by a group called Christians4Science.  The group is organized out of the Villa Rica Church of Christ in Villa Rica, Georgia and while they claim that their goal is “for children to receive an un-biased science education (good science is by definition un-biased so I’m not even sure what they mean by that),” it would appear that their primary goal is – you guessed it – to get evolution by natural selection out of Georgia’s public school science classrooms and textbooks.

I have children in Georgia’s public schools, so their efforts are relevant to my interests.

Here’s my conundrum. They don’t seem to have very much traction.  In fact, were it not for their efforts to promote their agenda of bombarding the state science standards review board survey (which is now closed to comment by the way) with anti-science propaganda which in turn got their organization picked up by a local news affiliate, I wouldn’t have known about the public comment period and consequently would have not been able to provide my own public input on the survey. Of course my input implored Georgia to continue teaching real science in science class and reminded the board that the state has been making (relatively) excellent progress as evidenced by the recent result on the 2011 National Assessment for Education Progress in science.

So given that they don’t have much traction, yet that they are a group determined to undermine my own children’s education, I’m struggling with whether or not it’s worth engaging the organization in a dialogue. In other words, does the act of debating them (or even writing a blog post about them) give them some measure of unearned legitimacy?

The group has a fairly new Facebook page that I’ve been monitoring over the last couple of days and I’ve noticed that a few pro-science folks have waded in to what I’ll call the “misinformational” muck on that page – I have not…yet.  Just so you know that I’m not throwing ad hom bombs here, the misinformational muck I’m talking about are quite literally things like links to “peer-reviewed creation science journals” that are of course not peer-reviewed, links struggling mightily to debunk Carbon-14 dating, discussions on how dinosaurs, dragons, and humans lived at the same time, discussions on the “reality” of Noah’s Ark, and so forth. 

The page is holding steady at 68 likes which I’m guessing is roughly equal to the size of the congregation at Villa Rica Church of Christ (or at least the size that have Facebook accounts).

But here’s the thing. They are either just making stuff up or propagating someone else’s made up stuff.  And rather than keep their misinformation confined to the walls of their church – they are trying to release it in to the greater population and in particular, insidiously enough, they are trying to infect school children with their very specific and completely unsupported version of how biology, and frankly how science, works.

What they are calling science is actually anti-science, and I have a problem with that. 

For now I’m content to simply point out that a group who believes dragons, dinosaurs, and humans all lived together, has an organized effort to influence our children’s science curriculum and I’ll hope most people have the same reaction that I have – ill concealed laughter.   But it would be a mistake as evidenced by the progress of junk-thought in Tennessee during the 2012 legislative session, to take this group and others like it entirely off the radar.

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Humanism: my definition

What do I mean when I say I’m a “humanist?”

For me, humanism means that I’m interested in making this planet and the human experience upon it, better for as many people as possible.

I have little to no interest in wasting time or resources on anything masquerading as truth, which is in fact untrue, untestable, mythological, fictional, or supernatural. 

I do however have an interest in thwarting attempts to disenfranchise reality by those who would see fiction replace fact, or by those whose supernatural beliefs infringe upon the natural rights of others, particularly in the public domain.

My concern is with reality, human knowledge, and ultimately the human condition. 

Posted in logic, politics, Religion | Tagged , | 3 Comments