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Personal attacks in science denial

Orac, of Respectful Insolence, has a post about how global warming wasn’t "invented" by Al Gore, contrary to what many global warming deniers seem to think. However, the part I find especially interesting in his piece is his explanation of why denialists tend to attack people.

Here’s an excerpt:

If there’s one characteristic of denialists of all stripes, it’s that they have a strong tendency to personalize their dislike of their particular bete noir science.


The reason, of course, is that cranks can’t attack the science using good science and, of course, it’s far easier to attack a person than well-supported science. After all, all people have flaws that can be ridiculed or used as the basis of ad hominem attacks.

Like Orac, I’ve seen this from global warming deniers, anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and anti-evolution creationists. Whatever motivates them in their denial, it seems they share this common tactic of attacking the messenger.

…any messenger.

Poor Ken Ham still doesn’t get it

I just got the latest Answers In Genesis newsletter today. I’m on the list because I ordered some of their videos on their site (one of which I reviewed here). This is the first one I’ve received and I can tell it’s going to be a monthly source of amusement and bewilderment.

The lead story in this month’s newsletter is titled “The Emotional Age Issue.” The gist of Ham’s point is that secular folks who obviously don’t have a scientific leg to stand on when it comes to the age of the Earth, get all angry and emotional about the issue when the AiG folks “prove” that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. I kid you not. There are some wonderful quotes in here that I’d like to share with you (with comments, of course!).

Ken says that, in his years of ministry, he’s found that the age of the Earth and the universe is an “extremely emotional topic for secularists.” For biblical creationists, of course, it’s issue that should lead Christians to a “real zeal for the authority and accuracy of the Word of God.” It’s an amazing twist… and one that Ham and other creationists make on a constant basis… trying to make scientific data into an emotional issue while portraying biblical mythology as scientific fact.

Ham says…


The Pale Blue Dot

About twenty years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward it’s launching point and took the now famous “Pale Blue Dot” photograph. The arrow points to us. That’s Earth… from about 3.7 billion miles away, which is just a little bit outside our solar system. In the grand scale of the universe, that’s hardly any distance at all. Given that our sun is one of about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy which is, in turn, one of an estimated 125 billion galaxies in the universe, Voyager 1 was sitting virtually on top of Earth when it took this picture.

We live on an mind-bogglingly tiny speck of dust.

Voyager 1 - Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan was much more eloquent than I, of course. His words in 1996 (from Wikipedia)…

Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

A very small stage, indeed.

Satire is a beautiful thing

Amazingly enough, there are still people who claim to understand the science behind global warming, yet make the mistake of thinking localized cold temperatures, such as the recent snowstorms in the Eastern United States, are somehow a refutation of global warming. It’s almost as if they don’t understand the meaning of the key word “global.”

Jon Stewart captures it (and mocks it) perfectly in this Daily Show clip.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm

That bit makes fun of the “local versus global” aspect of global warming denialism and it is amusing, but at its heart is a serious issue… the denialist combination of ignorance and arrogance fueled by political and/or religious ideology. It’s a combination that inspires deniers to manufacture evidence, take evidence out of context, twist and distort evidence, and cherry pick evidence in their attempts to bolster their cause.

What makes it worse is that the denialist propaganda seems to be having its intended effect. Despite overwhelming evidence showing that our planet is warming faster than what natural cycles would indicate and that the warming is strongly affected by human activity, fewer and fewer people accept the science. What makes the denialist position so successful? Is it because their “evidence” is valid? …because their position is somehow warranted? Or is it, perhaps, that climate science is complicated… and therefore boring to a lot of people? Could it be that it takes too much effort to research the basics in order to gain a modicum of understanding of the science? …that real science is hard?

Here’s a hint. It’s not because denialist “evidence” is valid (and yes, the scare quotes are warranted).

Certainly, it’s far, far easier to look out the window at an above-average snowfall and conclude that no warming is occurring… and if that nicely-boxed conclusion is spruced up by your strongly-held ideology or by a level of (perhaps understandable) apathy that makes you susceptible to the loud voices of denialism, then it’s fairly easy to consider the matter closed and ignore any further evidence to the contrary.

That’s the scary result of politics trying to invalidate science… or religion trying to invalidate science. People get bad information and then they get the idea that there’s a controversy (where none should exist), or they start to think that scientists are full of crap, or that a biologist is the same as an astrophysicist (ie… a scientist is a scientist is a scientist), or that politicians have some sort of special “in” when it comes to the truth. People start to think that the scientific process is broken, or that a single mistake invalidates years (or even decades) of research, or that a scientist in a bitchy mood indicates that scientists are corrupt, or that scientists should be automatons who never get cranky when quote-mined by some junk-science-peddling politician.

The denialists’ position against global warming science is political, pure and simple. It can be summarized by the idea that, because the fix would be a hassle (or expensive), they want nothing to do with it. On that foundation is built their structure of misinformation… with twists, distortions, and lies… that only continues to stand because they yell loudly, they yell repeatedly, and they yell authoritatively. They do it with a self-righteous arrogance, implying that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong, but unpatriotic and stupid… perhaps socialist, too. They set up towering straw men to burn to the ground with their trite arguments, paying no mind to whether the argument is scientifically valid.

Despite all the denialists’ blustering, the thing they lack is truth. Perhaps truth isn’t important to them as long as they get their way, but truth is the intended destination of science.

The scientific process is self-correcting. Mistakes are sometimes made, but through the process, those mistakes are found and corrected. Science moves on, leaving behind an understanding of our world that is just a little bit better than before. That’s what science does. It moves. It progresses. It refuses to settle. It refuses to stop.

…and all the denialist blustering in the world won’t keep it from moving ahead.

The ignorance is astounding

I managed to get on the mailing list of Worldview Weekend, which tends to be one of the largest repositories on the internet for right-wing, religious, conspiracy-theory crazies. I leave myself on the list for entertainment purposes and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Unfortunately, it’s a little scary, too, because I know there are people who actually believe what’s being presented on the site.

This week, Phyllis Schlafly decided that she was going to take on the role of climatologist in a piece titled Global Warming Is Frozen Over, with predictable results. Here’s her opening salvo.

Whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow on February 2, there’s no denying that January put into a deep freeze the claims of crisis by global warming alarmists. Frigid temperatures destroyed fruit and coral in Florida, and snow fell on Al Gore’s palatial home in normally warmer Tennessee.

What I find most significant is that she thoroughly discredits herself in her first sentence by demonstrating a significant lack of understanding about global warming. She’s not the only one, though, as I’ve seen similar claims made by people all over the internet and even among my friends on Facebook. It’s as if Schlafly (and the others) completely overlook the meaning of the word “global” in “global warming.” They also tend to misunderstand (or ignore?) the difference between “climate” and “weather.” In addition, from what I’ve generally seen, they also have a very thin grasp on science in general… especially when science points to something that contradicts their firmly entrenched political or religious ideology.

Schlafly goes on to bring up the CRU email “scandal” (Climategate) which is essentially a manufactured controversy, calling the CRU an “official collaborator” with the IPCC. She says…

Those disclosures told the world about some scientists’ willingness to suppress climate-change data and rig the process in order to pretend there is consensus among scientists about global warming, to ostracize contrary views, and to promote their globalist agenda.

As anyone who’s honestly followed the incident knows, the CRU emails did no such thing. The inclusion of “globalist agenda” is also discrediting and points to her conspiracy-theory leanings, something which will no doubt endear her to global warming denialists everywhere.

In her rant, Schlafly says that lowering our level of emissions to the level that Obama has proposed will also lower our standard of living to 19th century levels, that Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts “repudiated cap-and-trade,” and that Osama Bin Laden has blamed the United States for not stopping global warming (as if the notion that Bin Laden accepting global warming somehow means it’s not true). She also includes lengthy quotes from Czech Republic president Vaclav Klaus as if he is some sort of leading climatologist when it seems, based on the included quotes, that he’s basing his analysis on political ideology instead of on science.

Of course, no Worldview Times rant on global warming would be complete without a reference to Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth and, for an added bonus, Schlafly includes a slam on The Story of Stuff, a video that promotes conservation, albeit in polemic way.

In her conclusion, Schlafly says that what we need to do to solve unemployment and poverty is to increase our use of energy (which is Schlafly’s way of saying “burn more fossil fuels”). Think I’m kidding?

The main cause of unemployment and poverty is the lack of enough energy. Rather than expanding government to limit energy, we should be increasing the use of energy to eradicate hardship.

In the immortal words of Wikipedia… Citation needed.

Consistency is irrelevant to denialism

I follow the Skeptical Science blog and I took special interest to today’s post by John Cook about a debate featuring Ian Plimer and Christopher Monckton versus Barry Brooks and Graham Readfern. I’ve only heard Monckton speak before and he has shown himself to be mostly full of schlock conspiracy theories, smoothly twisting (or fabricating) facts to make his climate change denialist points.

However, aside from the debate summary, what I found interesting was one of the statements in Cook’s conclusion, which fits the denial-o-sphere so exceptionally well. Cook was explaining that, though Plimer and Monckton were both deniers, they reached their conclusions through contradictory points, one basing his conclusion (basically) on the idea that our climate is sensitive and the other basing his conclusion on the idea that it’s not sensitive. Both speakers got applause from the deniers in the audience when presenting their contradictory arguments.

Cook says:

In a sense, their combined approach perfectly encapsulates the way skeptic arguments are used to mislead. Layering argument upon argument, regardless of whether they display any internal consistency, isn’t about furthering scientific understanding but proving the preconceived notion that humans can’t be causing global warming. Two skeptic arguments can contradict each other, even on the same debating stage, so long as the common enemy of man-made global warming is refuted

Replace the topic of “global warming” with the topic of “evolution” and his conclusion is just as valid. To the deniers, consistency… or scientific evidence… or reality… isn’t important. What is important to them is to mislead… to twist the argument any way they can… to repeatedly bring up claims, regardless of whether the claims have long since been refuted… to use emotional or political arguments that have nothing to do with the science… to distort, cherry pick, and fabricate evidence in whatever way possible in their attempts to inject unwarranted doubt into the issue.

Why? Because they so want reality to conform to their pre-conceived political, ideological, or religious notions that they’re willing to use virtually any means at their disposal to keep their fortresses of self-delusion from tumbling down. I’ve seen that in action. I’ve heard deniers admit as much. What makes it worse is that they vigorously spread their misinformation, drag others down with them, and hobble any notion of having an intellectually honest discourse.

…because honesty… like consistency… like truth… is irrelevant to them.

If it’s cold, it’s evidence!

I find it noteworthy that the global warming deniers, many of whom were touting the recent cold snap in the USA as evidence against global warming, are strangely silent about the recent warm temperatures we’ve been having. In Pennsylvania, it was about 60 degrees this morning, which is pretty high for this time of year… not unheard of, but definitely high. The entire past week has been warmer than usual, actually.

Now, those who understand anything about climate change understand that local temperature variances really say nothing about global climate change (hence the word "global"), but the deniers latch onto this sort of thing and wave it around as if it somehow validates their conspiracy theories. The caveat is that they only do it when it suits their purposes. If there is contradicting "evidence," it is ignored.

Evolution deniers do the same thing… tout irrelevant things as evidence in support of their delusion, but ignore (or deny) evidence that refutes it. Anti-vaxxers do it, too… as do moon hoaxers, flat earthers, 9/11 truthers, and Obama birthers. It’s a common theme among conspiracy theorists.

And all that is fine… unless they have any political clout.

Sadly, that seems to be the case in some instances.

Those stupid scientists!

Calamities of Nature - Hot Debate From Calamities of Nature comes this comic (the image here is just the first panel). I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I’ve heard a similar argument made by Sam Harris concerning the word “elite” in a Newsweek essay about Sarah Palin and politics last year. Not exactly the same argument, but related.

The comic brings up a valid point (though highly simplified to fit into three panels) and I’ve commented on it before… with no small amount of disdain. The point is relevant to more than the topic addressed and I’ve encountered the same seeming inconsistency-of-thought regarding evolution, the age of the Earth, cosmology, and a few other science-related topics.

It’s an attitude that science is great… unless it conflicts with your political or religious ideology… that it’s better, in that case, to trust someone who’s not too educated, not too intelligent, not too well informed, not too “elite”… rather than someone who is highly trained in the related field.

Here’s the excerpt from Sam Harris’s article (to save you the time of searching the Newsweek article for it):

Ask yourself: how has “elitism” become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence. When it comes to choosing the people whose thoughts and actions will decide the fates of millions, then we suddenly want someone just like us, someone fit to have a beer with, someone down-to-earth—in fact, almost anyone, provided that he or she doesn’t seem too intelligent or well educated.

It’s a huge problem in this country today.

Dr. Oz is promoting woo

Dr. Mehmet Oz, a long time guest on Oprah, used to be lauded as being one of the few guests on her show that dispensed practical, real medical advice. However, it seems that lately, he’s given in (at least somewhat) to the woo side of things. Orac, over at Respectful Insolence gives a rundown of some recent offenses, but the main point he makes is that Dr. Oz has recommended reiki as a valid medical treatment (Dr. Oz is also making some vaguely anti-vaxx statements, too).

Reiki is a type of “energy healing” or, as Orac puts it…

As I’ve pointed out before, reiki is nothing more than faith healing using Eastern mysticism rather than Christianity as its base, and the “demonstration” on Dr. Oz’s show really is more akin to the sorts of demonstrations at a Benny Hinn or Peter Popoff revival

I first heard about reiki around eighteen years ago from an audio program by Wayne Dyer (Real Magic: Creating Miracles in Everyday Life… I know. I’m ashamed) and it seemed pretty fishy, especially given his description of it (flashing lights, shocking hands, cuts magically healing, etc). Scientifically, there’s no evidence that it works for… well… anything, except perhaps lining the pockets of “reiki masters” with money.

So here’s a clip of the reiki demonstration on Dr. Oz’s show.

The first thing that should raise a red flag when it comes to an explanation of “alternative medicine” treatments is deliberate vagueness. Here’s what Pamela Miles, the “reiki master” says in way of explanation.

Reiki is a balancing practice and so, rather than addressing the headache or whatever else is the problem, what it does is it influences the person’s overall system toward balance and then, as her system becomes more balanced, symptoms tend to fall away. Then, over time for example, if you get headaches, you know, you may find that you get them less frequently.

Now that is some world class vagueness. She admits to not addressing the actual problem, but only “influencing” the person’s “overall system toward balance.” I’d bet that even she doesn’t know what the heck that means.

So then the conversation continues with Dr. Oz asking, “Do you feel anything, Dalita?” (the woman getting “treated”).

She replies, “Oh, yes. My headache’s going away.”

Oz says, “Your headache’s going away. Do you feel any heat?”


Break out the reiki fireworks, it’s a miracle!

The really sad part is that Dr. Oz’s recommendation will mean that people will go out and possibly try reiki rather than going to an actual doctor. In many cases, no harm will be done. I’m sure that Dalita would survive her headache without any kind of treatment. But there will be others, and this is where Oprah abdicates her responsibilities, who will take what Dr. Oz says as valid medical advice, seeking out a reiki master to treat them… and the only symptom that will be relieved is a heavy wallet.

Dr. Oz should be ashamed.

Steven Newton on Science Denialism

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse links to an editorial by Steven Newton, a project director for the National Center for Science Education. The editorial is posted on Huffington Post, which, as Rosenhouse points out, is "not usually the go-to place for intelligent commentary on scientific issues," but in this case, Steven Newton represents the NCSE and does it quite well.

Some excerpts:

From evolution to global warming to vaccines, science is under assault from denialists–those who dismiss well-tested scientific knowledge as merely one of many competing ideologies. Science denial goes beyond skeptical questioning to attack the legitimacy of science itself.


Science requires conclusions about how nature works to be rooted in evidence-based testing. Sometimes progress is slow. But through a difficult and often frustrating process, we learn more about the world.

Science denialism works differently. Creationists are unmoved by the wealth of fossil, molecular, and anatomical evidence for evolution. Global-warming denialists are unimpressed by mountains of climate data. Denialists ignore overwhelming evidence, focusing instead on a few hoaxes, such as Piltdown Man, or a few stolen e-mails. For denialists, opinion polls and talk radio are more important than thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles.


Understanding science has never been more important than it is today. Critical issues such as climate change and the threat of newly evolved flu strains demand greater scientific literacy among the public and politicians. As long as scientists must squander their time defending their work from denialism, we will fall behind on our fundamental responsibilities.

Check out the full piece. Newton makes some great points about denialism, things I’ve seen happen over and over. What makes it increasingly frustrating is that the denialists themselves can’t recognize what they’re doing. They think they’re actually being scientific. They think they’re rational. They think they have actual damning evidence.

They’re not, they aren’t, and they don’t.