Communicating the Risks of Climate Change

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

A policy forum piece in the 24 October 2008 issue of Science titled Risk Communication on Climate: Mental Models and Mass Balance explores the disconnect between the scientific consensus on climate change and the the public’s seeming complacency on the matter. Author John D. Sterman argues that an effective response to this challenge will be impossible without active public engagement.

But a Manhattan Project cannot solve the climate problem. The bomb was developed in secret, with no role for the public. In contrast, reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions requires billions of individuals to cut their carbon footprints by, e.g., buying efficient vehicles, insulating their homes, using public transit, and, crucially, supporting legislation implementing emissions abatement policies. Changes in people’s views and votes create the political support elected leaders require to act on the science. Changes in buying behavior create incentives for businesses to transform their products and operations. The public cannot be ignored.

Addressing the public’s inability to appreciate the urgency of the issue at hand, Sterman has a three part prescription for the scientific community that includes issuing scientific findings and policy recommendations in plain language, finding useful analogies and other cognitive tools to help people to understand the implications of climate policies, and improving the communication of science.

[C]limate scientists should partner with psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists to communicate the science in ways that foster hope and action rather than denial and despair. Doing so does not require scientists to abandon rigor or objectivity. People of good faith can debate the costs and benefits of policies to mitigate the risks of climate change, but policy should not be based on mental models that violate fundamental physical principles.

Matthew Nisbet, commenting on this piece at Framing Science writes:

[T]he problem in waking policymakers and the public up to climate change isn’t an absence of science literacy, as so many scientists (and bloggers) continue to bemoan, but rather simply the nature of human cognition and the realities of our media system.

Unfortunately, though, there is an astounding level of scientific illiteracy in the U.S.A., sustained by a culture of anti-intellectualism and a superficial understanding of the world. The role that can be played by framing science is in demonstrating the relevance of the scientific endeavor beyond the ivory towers of academia. A greater appreciation for the science of climate change can be fostered by discussing it in terms of its public health impacts, economic costs and opportunities, and national security risks. Translating scientific fact into a public call for action will require, too, that this issue be understood in the context of social responsibility and as a cross-generational moral issue. Communicating science, especially when intended as a call to action, requires more than providing a lay abstract  – we must be more effective at answering the “so what?” questions for the public.

25 October 2008
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Palin’s Remarks Fly in the Face of Science

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Via Thnk Progress, another glimpse at the willful ignorance of Sarah Palin, who ridiculed federal spending on research involving Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly). Quoting remarks by Palin:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and ometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula is quick to point out the idiocy of Palin’s latest pronouncement.

This idiot woman, this blind, shortsighted ignoramus, this pretentious clod, mocks basic research and the international research community. You damn well better believe that there is research going on in animal models — what does she expect, that scientists should mutagenize human mothers and chop up baby brains for this work? — and countries like France and Germany and England and Canada and China and India and others are all respected participants in these efforts.

A quick search of PubMed shows the wealth of research being conducted in Drosophila to improve our understanding of neuroendocrine dysfunction, developmental and genetic abnoralities, cognitive disorders and the biological basis of behavior. Maybe Palin thinks we should rely on intercessory prayer as a replacement for biomedical research, freeing up valuable funds to improve the wardrobe choices of all Americans.

A tip of the hat to Daily Kos. Keith Olbermann at MSNBC has a video rant in which he discusses the inanity of Palin’s position.

25 October 2008
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Atheists Lack Political Clout

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece titled For Atheists, Politics Proves to Be a Lonely Endeavor.

One problem with turning out the atheist vote is finding it. Atheists do not reside visibly in certain neighborhoods like blacks or Hispanics or gay men and lesbians. They do not turn up on the databases of professional associations like doctors or lawyers. And as nonbelievers, they axiomatically do not come together for worship.

As Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta noted:

Reading atheist blogs is fine. Reading atheist books is fine. But unless we can transform our thoughts into action, it’s all pretty useless.

I’m not sure it’s useless, but coalescing into a force for change will take more than talking among ourselves. The problem, though, is to define a central organizing theme around which the diverse nontheistic community can organize. A good starting point is to address the overt and subtle bigotry against atheists in all spheres of American society. And no better contemporary example of that is to be found than the frank anti-atheist bigotry wielded for political gain by Elizabeth Dole in her campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate in North Carolina – and, now, with the backing of the Republican National Committee (see, for example, The Friendly Atheist and Pharyngula).

Alonzo Fyfe, writing at Atheist Ethicist, notes that such bigotry must be confronted, without condition and without apology.

The proper response to the video from the Republican National Committee is not to condemn the advertisement for attempting to link Hagan to bad atheists – because, in fact, none of the people represented in the video are bad atheists. They are atheists – and, in the mind of the bigot, all atheists are bad atheists. We should not be assuming that this association between ‘atheist’ and ‘bad’ is necessarily or even often true.

In fact, this is the association that we should be challenging.

While this view is substantially correct, we should not be oblivious to the damage done to the cause of increasing the respect and political clout of atheists by those who focus intently and incessantly on ridiculing religious belief. They are surely not “bad atheists,” but they contribute to the poor public perception of atheists, generally.

Analogies are frequently made between the atheist movement today and the state of the gay and lesbian rights movement a decade or two ago, but these comparsons fail in one very important respect; it is not simply that atheists remain closeted for fear of reprobation, or that we seek to eliminate the demonization of and discrimination against those without a belief in supernatural deities. It is that some atheists (whether called fundamentalist or militant or dogmatic) exhibit an arrogance and certitude that seems to give license to denigrate those who find value in religious practice.

Gays and lesbians did not assert the superiority of their sexual orientation, nor did they try to claim equal rights and equal protection while simultaneously seeking to prove heterosexuals wrong. When atheists do both with equal vigor, we open ourselves to suspicion and attack. It is difficult to ask for respect while refusing to show it.

This is not to say that there is no place for religious criticism, or that we can be less than vigilant in supporting the wall separating religion and government. But while Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens eloquently and forcefully make the intellectual case for atheism, we must also find effective ways to make the case for equality in our ostensibly secular society. Until the perception of the atheist movement is changed from one that appears to be anti-religion to one that seeks to end religious discrimination, members of the community of reason may remain politically impotent, despite their considerable numbers.

25 October 2008

Colin Powell Endorses Barack Obama

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Say what you will about Colin Powell’s willingness to shill for the Bush administration, but his endorsement earlier this week of Barack Obama’s candidacy reminds us that he is a man of integrity, eloquence, and reason.

Powell’s view on the role that American should play in the world was refreshingly enlightened, and noticeably devoid of leadership through military might.

Also, I think, the new president has to realize that the world looks to America for leadership, and so we have to show leadership on some issues that the world is expecting us to, whether it’s energy, global warming and the environment. And I think we have to do a lot more with respect to poverty alleviation and helping the needy people of the world. We need to increase the amount of resources we put into our development programs to help the rest of the world. Because when you help the poorest in the world, you start to move them up an economic and social ladder, and they’re not going to be moving toward violence or terrorism of the kind that we worry about.

Powell also takes the Republican Party to task for its exploitation of narrowmindedness and intolerance to promulgate a culture of fear in the interest of political expedience.

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

Colin Powell’s principled endoresment of Obama stands in stark contrast to the malicious and slanderous attacks by McCain, Palin, Giuliani, and Fox News. Hopefully this is a signal that Powell will emerge from the columbarium of the Bush White House and continue to be a voice of reason on the world stage.

23 October 2008
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Religion in the Real World

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

As the accidental philosopher Yogi Berra once remarked, “in theory there is no difference between theory and practice; but, in practice, there is.” This is, after all, what makes experimental science so rewarding (and so frustrating), and why moving basic science “facts” into clinical practice is often elusive. When faced with negative results, a good scientist will question assumptions and seek to explore the unanticipated confounding variables; only a very poor scientist would dogmatically insist on the veracity of the original hypothesis and repeat the same experiment.

Yet this is the approach taken by many atheists, unable to understand why repeatedly pointing out the errors and contradictions in sacred texts has failed to eradicate adherence to archaic and irrational religious belief and win “converts” to nontheism.

A well-worn aphorism by Karl Marx suggests that religion is “the opium of the masses.” But looking at that quote in context, we see a more nuanced view of religion.

The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Writing at the New America Foundation in an article entitled “Asking the Right God Question,” Gregory Rodriguez notes of that excerpt that:

Marx wasn’t just another hater of religion as a childish fantasy or a retreat from rationality. He saw faith as a symptom and not the disease, and he was interested in faith not in terms of right and wrong but because of what it told him about the human condition.

Rodriguez points to a recent study from Northwestern University published in the Journal of Research in Personality. That study of American Christians showed that the common denominator underlying religious belief across the political spectrum was fear. Rodriguez notes:

It appears that we do believe out of need, but it’s not, as Marx suggested, primarily because of material deprivation. Instead, it looks as if faith answers fear, and many different kinds of fear, which we can begin to delineate in some detail.

Humanists and others holding a nontheistic worldview aren’t gripped by uncontrollable fear that our lives are devoid of meaning or that the world will be overcome by chaos and conflict absent belief in imaginary deities. The problem is that the continued criticism (and ridicule) of religious belief does nothing to convey this important fact to those who might appreciate atheism on an intellectual level but who continue to cling, seemingly inexplicably, to religious practice. Humanism must be put forth as a positive alternative if we are to foster an evolution toward a more enlightened and rational populace, and we must address those issues which cause people to live in fear. It is not enough to kick the theological crutches out from under the arms of those who use them – we must show that they can walk without them.

11 October 2008

Religulous: Trite and True

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Comedians, at their best, point out the folly of our own lives, using humor to pry open our minds so that we can question our assumptions, beliefs, sacred rituals and mundane behaviors. George Carlin (may Pesci rest his soul) did this masterfully, crafting canonical criticisms of the sacred and the profane.

In his newly released film Religulous, comedian Bill Maher and director Larry Charles attempt to do to religious fundamentalism what Michael Moore did in exposing the irrational fear that leads us to embrace guns, surrender essential civil liberties, and march toward a poorly conceived war. Unfortunately, Maher does not muster an appropriate level of cinematic demagoguery, and the effort falls flat, succeeding neither as comedy nor as insightful commentary.

Maher attacks the low-hanging fruit of on the tree of willful ignorance, focusing too much attention on the bronze-age ethos of biblical literalism, theme park piety and the lunatic fringe of religion. In doing so, his approach is little more sophisticated than would be expected of an adolescent who has newly discovered the cognitive dissonance required for a belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Nowhere does this rise to the level of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, nor does it make as compelling a case as Sam Harris’ The End of Faith that religious adherents and their apologists pose a grave threat to the future of our civilization.

Maher argues against the arrogant certitude of religion, and embraces skepticism, but does so only superficially, never quite probing deeply enough into the contradictions and errors in the Bible or challenging liberal members of the clergy on the rationale for their entire religion once stripped of the nonsensical mythology. He sabotages his own argument, too, when acknowledging the psychological salve that is the faith of last resort practiced in foxholes and prison cells.

Had the film highlighted the juxtaposition between liberal (or even humanistic) and fundamentalist versions of those same religions, he could have made a strong case against blind faith without the need to ridicule religious identification itself. And it is that blind faith, rather than religious adherence per se, that is the true enemy of reason. While he does call for non-believers to emerge from their closets in defense of reason over faith, he failed to make a compelling case for this, showing religion as merely silly rather than inherently dangerous. Thus, when he finally asserts that religion must die if mankind is to survive, and urges the audience to “grow up, or die,” these admonitions seem like a non sequitir, the conclusion of a largely unsupported thesis.

Writing about this film in Salon Andrew O’Hehir wrote:

…to the extent that “Religulous” is meant to bemoan the auto-lobotomized mandatory Christianity of American public life (I’d include such honorary Christians as Joe Lieberman), and to encourage atheists, agnostics and other doubters to come out of the closet and claim their share of the debate, it’s performing a genuine social mitzvah.

True enough. And, granted, Maher’s intent was to play the farce of fundamentalism for comic effect, and there were laughs to be had. As a member of the secular choir, I enjoyed his romping sermon; but, I learned nothing new, and doubt anybody not already questioning their faith would be swayed by this movie. While this film doesn’t address the nuanced and more sophisticated religious beliefs held by many ostensibly religious Americans, it does cast a spotlight on the ridiculous beliefs held by a significant minority of registered voters, and for that it is to be applauded.

4 October 2008
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Predictably Irrational

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

In his recent book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely challenges our assumptions about the rationality of our decision-making and delves into the behavioral economics underlying our poor choices. Perception and expectation, he argues, exert undue influence on important spheres of our lives.

The news this week is replete with examples of this phenomenon. First, we have the financial system bailout proposed by President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Once again, deregulation of the financial services industry has created a free-for-all, allowing those on the inside to participate in the orgy of excess while the rest of us just got fucked. The cost of the morning-after pill the public is being asked to swallow? $700,000,000,000!

That’s a huge, and arbitrary, amount of money! I’m not sure from whose posterior that figure was pulled, but it certainly placed a high MSRP on the deal. From that point forward, the public debate centered on the “$700 billion bailout,” relying on the brilliant and effective price anchor set by Bush and Paulson. By raising the bar to such obscene levels most people “knew” the cost of the financial system’s salvation had been ordained as $700 billion. That price became our expectation, amplifying the public’s perception of alarm by its shear size and foreclosing the possibility that a smaller amount would be deemed adequate for the task at hand. Now that the bill is signed, do we really know what we’ve bought (on credit, no less)?

The second example regards the reviews of the performance of Sarah Palin in her first and only vice presidential debate. She has, we are told by the usual media outlets, exceeded all expectations. But how well Sarah Palin “performed” last night, especially in relation to the very low bar that represents our expectations, is really beside the point.

By way of example, let’s say you were seeking to recruit a java developer for a critical, high profile IT project. A woman applies whose only experience is working as a clerk at Best Buy. Your expectations going into the interview are low due to her resume, which shows little relevant background, a slew of typographical errors which betray an inattention to detail, and an objectives statement that refers to her desire to fulfill God’s wish to seek career advancement. When she arrives for the interview she is polished, professional, and stunningly beautiful, and greets you with a smile, a wink and a firm handshake. Clearly she is much more impressive than you expected; however, whenever you tried to probe her understanding of java, or computer programming generally, she refused to answer, returning instead to her ability to work under stressful conditions, as evidenced by the fact that she could see the competing Circuit City across the street if she craned her neck just so when having a cigarette by the dumpster behind her store. She shows you a picture of her 5 children, and assures you she is ready and willing to work 24/7 on this project. Maybe she even plays a flute solo to show you how well-rounded she is, or speaks a few phrases in Klingon to let you know she can kick it with the techno-geeks.

Do you hire her? Does her unexpectedly stellar performance somehow bridge the yawning gap between your need and her ability? Of course not. But we have been lured into a discourse about how well she did relative to our expecations. Expectations are irrelevant. This debate was as close as we come to an interview of candidates who will be first in the line of sucession for the presidency, and she failed. The expectations game is a distraction, as is the constant emphasis on style over substance.

Of more enduring interest than these two specific issues (although one or both may linger for quite a while) is how poorly we understand the way most people make decisions. In progressive politics, in promoting atheism or humanism, in advocating for the value of the scientific method and critical thought, it is not enough to be right on the facts. Expectations and perceptions play a crucial role. Those who sell luxury SUVs, poorly conceived bailout packages, religious mumbo jumbo, psychic readings and unqualified political candidates seem to understand this quite well.

3 October 2008
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Going Nucular

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

After a prolonged hiatus, I am resurrecting this blog, which had been rendered silent by the competing priorities of real life. But, the enduring irrationality of the American public, the perversion of our political process, the myopic greed of our major corporations, and the persistence of willful ignorance compel me to once again express my thoughts, vent my frustrations, and air my grievances, even if only for my own edification.

Where this will go I cannot say. I have been lurking anonymously in the blogosphere during the past several months, only rarely surfacing long enough even to post a comment or participate in some online discussion. But, there is much to be said, and much to be done. So, let’s get to it…

3 October 2008

It’s the Faith, Stupid!

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Many freethinkers, especially when congregating in small groups, burn a significant amount of mental oil pondering the improbable fact that millions of seemingly normal people reject mountains of scientific evidence in favor of blind faith. This is especially the case when it comes to the theory of biological evolution by natural selection, which is not merely rejected in favor of some plausible alternative hypothesis, nor locked in some purgatory of perpetual skepticism, but outright denied in favor of belief in magical, divine machinations.

Apparently, such logical errors are not the result of a general cognitive deficit. If that were the case, these same individuals would scarcely be able to dress themselves, and the streets of America would be awash in men and women, only partially clad in their Sunday best, lost en route to the local mega-church. No, if there is a pathology afoot, it is one that selectively diminishes capacity for critical thought in very specific areas – a not very likely prospect.

It could, as has been argued, be a simple matter of willful stupidity – a striving to maintain the bliss of enduring ignorance through acts of self-deception. In fact, Larry Moran, at Sandwalk, has posted a piece with the provocative title “Do Fundamentalist Christians Actively Resist Learning?” This post reiterates the point that there is an inverse correlation between educational attainment and religious fundamentalism, and goes on to puzzle over the “remarkable” phenomenon that a “significant percentage of fundamentalist Protestants can go to college and still reject the basic scientific fact that humans evolved.”

As we’ve seen time and time again on the blogs (and elsewhere), the Christian fundamentalists have erected very strong barriers against learning. It really doesn’t matter how much they are exposed to rational thinking and basic scientific evidence. They still refuse to listen.

But, is it really that fundamentalist Christians are averse to scholarship or somehow unable to comprehend scientific concepts? While that may feed into our idealized view of nontheists as the exclusive members of the community of reason, I don’t think this premise holds up under scrutiny. Too many fundamentalist Christians exhibit other signs of intelligence for this to be the case. And it would be naive to view all Christian theology as simplistic and childish; in fact, Christian apologists have jumped through astoundingly complex theological hoops to support their core beliefs in the face of what others might consider daunting and compelling contrary evidence.

Instead, I suspect that education is not always able to overcome preposterous and unsubstantiated beliefs as a consequence of faith. That is, faith, elevated to the status of virtue. Sola fide, the road to God’s grace. The sort of faith, the defense of which becomes a matter of preserving one’s very soul. Once faith is framed as more virtuous than materialistic scientific evidence, it is no longer amenable to argument, and the glossolalic apples are unable to communicate with the jargon-speaking oranges.

But, of course, faith is not a virtue. To a scientist, faith – holding to views that are unsupported by evidence – is a cardinal sin. And it is this, rather than the content of specific factual disagreements, that warrants our consideration. Faith is anathema to critical thinking, and has fallen into well-deserved disrepute in most spheres of our existence. But when the magisteria of science encroaches into a believer’s essential biblical worldview, faith is touted as the salvation of mankind and presidential candidates.

Rather than framing religious believers – even those holding fundamentalist, literalist views – as incapable of rational thought and as being willfully resistant to enlightenment, we should seek to understand the roots of this faith, and what attributes might make some more susceptible to its grip than others. At the very least, perhaps we can encourage this faith to be relegated to its rightful place, at the alter of the primum movens.

As Richard Dawkins has said:

The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.


30 December 2007

Pride, Prejudice and Situation

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

A recent post at A Load of Bright on patriotism, questioning the notion of declaring allegiance to a government or an ideology due to the happenstance of one’s birth, reminded me of an issue I have been pondering for some time. How much of our individual destiny is determined at the moment of our birth (or at the moment of our conception, for those of you more theologically inclined)? In other words, how much of what we perceive as our success (or failure) in life is simply due to circumstantial or constitutional luck?

Of course, I’m not referring to any sort of natal astrology where the vagaries of celestial mechanics and planetary alignment provide a fate map for our lives. No, this birth effect is more substantial and less susceptible to refutation than any zodiac prediction.

As much as we may value free will (or the illusion thereof), and although history shows us that individuals can overcome their circumstances and upbringing to spectacular and lasting effect, we cannot disregard the influences that shape our destinies. Were we to calculate the coefficient of determination we would undoubtedly find that our fates are inextricably linked with the situation of our birth. This is not to say that our fates are predetermined, only that they are heavily influenced by factors beyond our control.

What sorts of factors could exert such influence? Here are some representative examples, placed into categories that are admittedly overlapping and interconnected.

  • Inborn: Genetic and epigenetic factors that affect our physical appearance, stature, superficial ethnic identification, intelligence, behavioral tendencies, gender, disease susceptibility, lifespan
  • Familial: One or two parent household, number of siblings and relative birth order, household income and wealth, parental educational attainment, parenting style, frequency and scope of travel, presence or absence of extended family, language spoken at home, educational opportunities
  • Societal: Poverty, life expectancy and infant mortality rates, civil unrest, crime rate, public health infrastructure, civil liberties, urbanization, class boundaries, racial and ethnic discrimination
  • Political: Democratic/autocratic/theocratic government, state of war, monetary and fiscal policy, trade policy
  • Geographic: Climate, proximity to other countries, ease of travel/commerce, arability, environmental pollution

In addition, there are obvious temporal factors interacting with all of the above such that one’s future is largely dependent on the time in which they were born.

Let’s examine a hypothetical case where an individual of modest intelligence and average stature is born to a wealthy, patrician, Christian family in which several generations have held political office and, as a consequence, gained access to powerful global business and political interests. This family lives in a democratic nation at a time where the dominant culture values populism, religious faith, and celebrity over accomplishment, intelligence, and vision. In a tragic convergence of circumstance, this person is elected president of the United States of America. In another time and in another place, this same person might have been killed by a swarm of bees while trying to draw honey out of an active hive with a short stick.

All of which brings me back to my motive for writing this post. Patriotism is too often an excuse to unite within artificial borders to perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality. While it has utility in bringing people together for self-defense, to build a sense of community, and to instill pride, it can also lead to jingoism.

Recognizing that altering the circumstances under which others are born may be a useful paradigm for informing foreign policy, we should strive to take actions that will provide opportunities regardless of the time or place of one’s birth. If we fully appreciate both the sources of our good fortune and the challenges faced by others, perhaps we will be better able to use this knowledge to take actions that will have a positive impact on people’s lives.

24 December 2007
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