Category Archives: culture wars

Beautifully complex information, skepticism, and the challenge of understanding climate change

via Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog, comes a link to this beautiful information graphic pitting the data and the interpretations on both sides of the global warming “debate” against each other face to face, and in a jargon free way. The original graphic is on a black background, but I find this version more readable, and have posted it here below the fold.

Apart from the visual beauty and simplicity of this poster, what really strikes me is how difficult it is to wrap our heads around the complex datasets underlying the scientific consensus on global warming, and the projections that have the “alarmists” so, well, alarmed! This poster does a really nice job presenting both sides in a point-counterpoint manner that may help clear some of the confusion – but it also illustrates the daunting task of understanding the data and discerning the patterns, which is why we need real expertise – and we need to trust the experts when most of them tell us that we have a real problem on our hands! It is therefore worth reading the accompanying notes from David McCandless, the creater of this graphic:

I researched this subject in a very particular way. I deliberately chose not speak directly to any climate experts or leading scientists in the field. I used only publicly available web sources.

Why? Because I wanted to simulate what it’s like for people trying to learn about climate change online.

My conclusion is “what a nightmare”. I was generally shocked and appalled by how difficult it was to source counter arguments. The data was often tucked away on extremely ancient or byzantine websites. The key counter arguments I often found, 16 scrolls down, on comment 342 on a far flung realclimate.org post from three years ago. And even when I found an answer, the answers were excessively jargonized or technical.

Most of the info for this image is sourced from Realclimate.org. It’s an amazing blog staffed tirelessly by some of the world’s leading climatologists.

Unfortunately, the majority of the writing on there is so scientific and so technical, it makes the website nigh on useless to the casual, curious reader.

The scientists (my people) clearly need to make a better effort at communicating what they know and find in as jargon free a manner as possible! If it is a nightmare for someone as motivated as the creator of this infographic to find and make sense of the data, I can only sympathize with the journalists and more casual readers (even reasonably informed ones, let alone those under the sway of Faux news) who find the arguments confusing. If even a public communication portal like Realclimate.org is too technical for a motivated reader, it shouldn’t surprise us that so many fall prey to the much simpler spin from the “skeptics” who deny any human role in exacerbating global warming.

Heck, even a professional skeptic like James Randi put his foot in his mouth about this a couple of days ago when he wrote (finally, after having avoided the topic for years) that he was skeptical not about global warming itself, but about our species’ role in accelerating it. Considering he is a leading professional skeptic who has always wielded Occam’s razor most skillfully in debunking all manner of pseudoscience (with complicated explanations), perhaps it is not surprising that he felt the climate models were too complex to point to humans as a primary cause. Although, while acknowledging that our measurements of climate had become much more accurate with modern technology, Randi should have realized that our methods of analysis of complex data have also come a long way, lending much greater confidence to the assertion that much of the recent rise in global temperatures is, indeed, anthropogenic. Of course, many including his closest supporters immediately jumped on him to set him straight – read in particular these blog posts by James Hrynshyn, PZ Myers, and Phil Plait [UPDATE: also, Orac, whose post I’d missed earlier]. Randi has, appropriately enough for a skeptic, acknowledged his error in a new posting yesterday making it clear that he is emphatically not a “denialist”. But as PZ points out (a bit too harshly), Randi’s stance as a “skeptic” still leaves him open to exploitation by professional denialists who routinely twist the meaning of “skepticism” by cherrypicking words and data to raise dust clouds of doubt around the real science which overwhelmingly indicates strong anthropogenic forcing of recent climate change. Which brings us back to the challenge of communicating that science more effectively and dispelling those doubts.

Look below for the beautiful information graphic – and spend some time with it – for it is a great start towards understanding this complex issue. And I also hope it spurs more climate scientists to make a better effort at communicating the complex data and how they go about making sense of it. McCandless has also made the datasets he used to produce the graphs in his poster and their sources available for download so you can play with them yourself if so inclined. Then head on over to Realclimate.org for an archive of all the data that they are now making available to the public!

And of course, click on the image for the much larger version!

climate_skeptics_960w.gif

[From Climate Change Deniers vs The Consensus | Information Is Beautiful]

Oh, the perils of a multi-cultural classroom!

Thankfully, Danae is on a roll this week, taking on the evils of my profession in her inimitable style, in the surprisingly sequential Non Sequitur:

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That was on Monday – not too long after someone named Patrick left a comment on slideshare in response to my posting of Eugenie Scott’s talk on that site, chastising us scientists for allowing our beliefs to be shaken by new information!! I guess we do tend to do that, don’t we? Guilty as charged, sir! And I suppose science and faith are therefore very different cultures indeed!

But let us follow Danae’s spirited fight against such cultural bias in the classroom some more, shall we?

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I just hate when that happens – when the cultural bias of my profession (teaching) towards imparting new information shows up in the classroom impinging upon the poor students like that! Whatever shall I do?

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Uh-oh – looks like I shall really reap a whirlwind now, from the ACLU!! Stay tuned

World of Warmcraft

Amid all the media coverage and hot air (from all sides) surrounding the COP15 negotiations ongoing in Copenhagen this week, where the world’s leaders are converging right now to dither collectively about what they will or will not do about global warming, even as icebergs melt and activists ratchet up the rhetoric – on both sides – we should all be thankful for the sanity-restoring coverage provided by Jon Stewart and his minions at The Daily Show! So if you want to clear your head a bit, look below the fold for a couple of samples of their recent coverage:

Last night, they had World of Warmcraft:

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'World of Warmcraft
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

And last week, they addressed the so-called climate-gate email leak scandal, pointedly and concisely capturing my own ambivalent frustration with the incident.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Scientists Hide Global Warming Data
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

A Christian student reflects on Eugenie Scott’s talk about Evolution/Creationism

At the podium-3 copyWhat an overwhelming response we had at Eugenie Scott’s wonderful lecture last week on “Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution?“! Thank you, Genie, for such a great talk, for inspiring and recharging those of us in the think of the evolution/creationism culture war in the Central Valley, for showing us how to address these issues in a graceful, polite, and inclusive manner. And thank you, all of you who came to campus that evening and overflowed the Satellite Student Union. For those that couldn’t come that evening, you can still enjoy the talk, in parts via videos posted on Scott Hatfield’s blog, and also a full-length podcast of the slides with audio that I’m working on (as soon as classes are out of the way this week!). More on that soon.

For now I want to share an essay written by one of my students who attended the talk, identifies himself as a Christian, and has, starting from a religious background that made him suspicious of the E-word, come around to accept the evidence for evolution, while retaining his faith. I thank Eric York for allowing me to share his synopsis of and reflections on Genie’s talk here. Having a standing-room audience is one thing – and a great thing for sure – but a personal testimony from a student who has made some real progress in their thinking because of what we teach, that is the best kind of response we teachers can hope for. Note that I am posting his essay as is, although I have (and you can guess where) some quibbles with a couple of the things he says in his synopsis. You should also read Scott’s summary of the talk, which has a bit more on the core-fringe model of knowledge. If you attended the talk, feel free to share your reaction in the comments section below. Here’s Eric (continued below the fold):

“Why all the fuss about Evolution?” –Eugenie C. Scott

Eugenie Scott provided a lecture outlining the basics of evolution, followed by a detailed synopsis of the evolution vs. creationism debate. She started off the debate by outlining the different facets of evolution, and the various sciences it is deeply entangled with. These included astronomy, biology, geology, and anthropology, which are each considered evolutionary sciences. The main distinction is that evolution doesn’t necessarily address the origins of life; rather it attempts to explain how organisms have gotten to their present state, via descent with modification.

One of the complaints about evolution is that humans don’t like the idea of us being “descended” from monkeys. However, Scott cleared this up by stating that we aren’t descended from monkeys or apes. She compared this to a family tree. I descended from my dad, and my dad descended from my grandpa. My grandpa also had another son, who in turn had a son, who is consequently my cousin. I am not descended from my cousin, but we do share a recent common ancestor. This parallels the concept of descent with modification.

Scott brought up a book called, “A Consumer’s Guide to Pseudoscience.” This claims that the core ideas of science that are well tested, such as gravity and orbit, are at the center. Around the core ideas are the frontier portions, which include the current experiments and hypotheses that sciences are actively testing. Finally, surrounding the frontier is the fringe. This discusses the why and philosophical aspects of science, and includes ideas such as natural selection and perpetual motion.

Scott spent a significant portion of the time discussing the debate between creationism and evolution. She suggested that instead of looking at both as a dichotomy in which you have to choose one over the other, look at them as a continuum. This continuum starts with conservative Christians that take the Bible literally. This includes those people who, as Scott stated, base their belief on the written Word that simultaneously makes the statement that the earth is flat. This argument is based on Scripture that pictures the earth as circular. Arguments against this claim are that the old Hebrew language didn’t have an adequate term for the word spherical, or that by saying the earth was circular was merely describing its general properties and not its absolute shape. This is only one of the many arguments between evolutionists and the conservative Christians who take the Bible literally.

From the literal interpretations of the Bible comes a transition into young earth creationists, who believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old. They believe that the Earth has only recently been created, and accept that if evolution does occur, it must act much more rapidly than currently accepted. Next are the old earth creationists that believe in creationism, but accept an older earth with the possibility of evolution. This is based on the interpretation of Genesis that the seven days of creation aren’t actually 24 hour days. This is based on the Scripture that says, “To the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.” By this reasoning, the seven days of creation could in fact imply thousands, millions, or even billions of years. Under this claim, evolution could be a feasible method that a creator used to derive the extant organisms that are alive today. This is followed by materialists, who don’t believe in creationism, and are skeptical of evolution. They are basically an in between category and don’t go one way or the other. Finally are the fundamental evolutionists. They are the ones that explicitly believe in evolution and the direct descent with modification.

Altogether I felt this was a very interesting and enlightening discussion. I personally am a Christian and take the Bible as inspired by God, which leaves several aspects up to interpretation. However, I am also taking evolution with Dr. Crosbie, and through this have learned the mechanisms, consequences, and impacts of evolution. Consequently I have come to believe that evolution via natural selection and descent with modification is in fact responsible for how organisms have changed over time to get to their present state. Although my belief is in contradiction to most views held by Christians, I personally think that science and creationism can in fact go hand in hand, and don’t have to be mutually exclusive of one another. As mentioned, I have slowly reached this conclusion by taking my evolution class, along with analyzing past and present research. I felt that it was appropriate to include as part of my analysis for this seminar the influence that Scott had on confirming my ideals, and expounding upon the inclusiveness in my own thinking of creationism and evolution.

Eugenie Scott @ Fresno State on Dec 2: “Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution?”

I am really excited to invite you to an evening with Dr. Eugenie Scott on the Fresno State campus tomorrow, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009! An evolutionary biologist by trade, Dr. Scott is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, and as such, has been at the forefront of the culture war around the teaching of evolution in the US for over a quarter century. Along the way she has testified on behalf of evolution and science at numerous venues, most famously at the Dover trial a couple of years ago, and has authored several valuable books on the subject, including Evolution vs. Creationism and Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools (with Glenn Branch). I am therefore thrilled that she accepted my invitation to come down into the valley to talk to us because here, as you may know, we happen to be in something of a hotbed for that culture war as well, although not nearly as hot as some other parts of the country (no attempts to mess with public school science curricula at least).

Dr. Scott will give a public lecture on “Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution” at the campus’ Satellite Student Union (maps) at 7:30 PM on Dec 2, 2009, as part of a new Evolutionary Biology lecture series hosted by the campus Consortium for Evolutionary Studies (see poster below for the various sponsors of this particular talk). We are bracing for a good turnout since this will be one of the most prominent speakers to come here and speak on behalf of teaching evolution and science in the classrooms – and we plan to bring some more over the coming year.

I know we got off to a bit of a late start in the Darwin Bicentennial celebrations this year, but we hope to keep the momentum going into the future as we try to light a few more candles in the dark in this lovely valley.

Click below the fold for the poster announcing this lecture – feel free to download and share it as widely as you like! And if you are on Facebook, check out the event page to rsvp and invite others, and become a fan of the Biology Department page while you are at it. I hope you will join us for this talk tomorrow. Oh, and free event parking is available on campus for the evening – if you need it, please visit the seminar website above for contact info to obtain the parking code.

Why the fuss about Darwin and Evolution? – a lecture by Eugenie Scott at Fresno State

Will “The Cove” succeed in stopping the slaughter of Dolphins?

I sure hope it has some real impact – the film looks very powerful and the reviews are good as well. But its another film apparently not likely to appear in the Fresno area, so I’ll have to seek it elsewhere or wait for the DVD release in December! Meanwhile, you can find out more, including show dates and locations, on the film’s website. Here’s an excerpt the synopsis:

The Cove begins in Taiji, Japan, where former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry has come to set things right after a long search for redemption. In the 1960s, it was O’Barry who captured and trained the 5 dolphins who played the title character in the international television sensation “Flipper.”

But his close relationship with those dolphins – the very dolphins who sparked a global fascination with trained sea mammals that continues to this day — led O’Barry to a radical change of heart. One fateful day, a heartbroken Barry came to realize that these deeply sensitive, highly intelligent and self-aware creatures so beautifully adapted to life in the open ocean must never be subjected to human captivity again. This mission has brought him to Taiji, a town that appears to be devoted to the wonders and mysteries of the sleek, playful dolphins and whales that swim off their coast.

But in a remote, glistening cove, surrounded by barbed wire and “Keep Out” signs, lies a dark reality. It is here, under cover of night, that the fishermen of Taiji, driven by a multi-billion dollar dolphin entertainment industry and an underhanded market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat, engage in an unseen hunt. The nature of what they do is so chilling — and the consequences are so dangerous to human health — they will go to great lengths to halt anyone from seeing it.

Undeterred, O’Barry joins forces with filmmaker Louis Psihoyos and the Oceanic Preservation Society to get to the truth of what’s really going on in the cove and why it matters to everyone in the world. With the local Chief of Police hot on their trail and strong-arm fishermen keeping tabs on them, they will recruit an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style team of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers, adrenaline junkies and world-class free divers who will carry out an undercover operation to photograph the off-limits cove, while playing a cloak-and-dagger game with those who would have them jailed. The result is a provocative mix of investigative journalism, eco-adventure and arresting imagery that adds up to an urgent plea for hope.

Darwin’s Brave New World – Extended Trailer

Does this look exciting, or what? That trailer sure sucked me in much more energetically than either of the trailers for Creation or Darwin’s Darkest Hour. Hopefully the whole thing delivers on what the trailer promises. Too bad, therefore, not to see any US air dates at the end there, although our neighbors to the north will get to see it, having helped produce it. I hope it does get here eventually. PBS, are you paying attention?

Darwin on American Public TV and in Theatres this fall!

As the Darwin Bicentennial year winds down and we approach the Sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species” on Nov 21, we will get two promising televisual/cinematic treatments of the torment Darwin underwent while sitting on the horns of the dilemma of whether or not to share his theory with the world! The recent drama about whether the movie Creation was going to be distributed at all in the US has now been settled as we get word today that Newmarket, a small Indie company (whose previous hit, intriguingly, was “The Passion of the Christ”!!) has picked up the US rights for the film and plans a year-end release! Hooray – although some of us are apprehensive about how “even-handed” the film will be in trying to “balance” between religion and science! The National Center for Science Education’s executive director Eugenie Scott (who has just accepted my invitation to speak at Fresno State this fall as well – but more on that soon!) liked the film, describing it in her early review as “a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public — for the good.

Meanwhile, NCSE also alerts us to another treatment of Darwin’s Darkest Hour – a 2-hour television special airing on PBS stations next week courtesy of NOVA and National Geographic. Here’s a preview:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8ARE_N2MgM&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0x5d1719&color2=0xcd311b]

When Hollywood distributors are exposed to Darwin’s thoughts, who knows what could happen?!

Its not clear yet if and how the Darwin biopic “Creation” may ever get distributed in the US, even as it readies for a UK release next week. There was some scuttlebutt yesterday when the NCSE tweeted a Bay Area NBC affiliate station’s report that their parent company was in a “bidding war” over the US distribution rights! And the juicy tidbit in that story was that apparently Mel Gibson (he who managed to get his graphic movie about a guy being flogged and tortured for hours shown in churches all over the US, without the help of any major Hollywood distributors!) had actually helped finance this movie (him being Catholic, and Catholics saying they don’t have a problem with Evolution – that’s how some people tried to explain it)! Wow – would that have blown some fuses in the heads of the church-going fans of Gibson’s Passion in the American heartlands!! But, alas, that won’t happen, because that news story has been retracted/replaced, with this caveat:

The original article confused the film’s distributor, Icon Distribution, with Mel Gibson owed [sic] Icon Productions. The companies use the exact same logo and indeed Icon Distribution was once owned by Gibson. It is no longer. We regret the error.

Huh?! Alrighty then… and so American journalism continues its reverse evolution – but that disease apparently afflicts the British press as well, for the very same Telegraph that lamented the lack of a US distributor for this movie had, two days earlier, published a truly egregious piece of “balanced” reporting about evolution vs. creationism! As for the movie itself, I still haven’t seen any official word on how that NBC affiliate’s parent company is doing in that “bidding war”, nor if indeed there is any such war at all. In fact, their own latest story has no mention of any bidding!! Scores of fans on the movie’s Facebook page, meanwhile, are rallying around demanding it be shown here, but who knows if they constitute enough of a market for the bean counters weighing faith-based backlash vs. the box office appeal of a 19th century nerd wrestling with serious scientfic/philosophical issues! Last night, on another media outlet likely genetically linked to the Bay Area station, Rachel Maddow and Kent Jones had probably the funniest take on the saga:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsMTB828XCA&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0x234900&color2=0x4e9e00]

Who will dare show this in America?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BREvUKpZTeU&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0x234900&color2=0x4e9e00]

These are strange and deeply worrisome times for democracy, science, and education in America, once the beacon of those very things which drew people like me from all over the world to its shores. From a global leader for science and free intellectual pursuits, how has America become a place where even one of the most significant scientists in human history is no longer welcome? Not even a biographical film about him! In a week when this country’s very own democratically elected President was censored in the nation’s public schools and heckled by a congressman, this news should come as no surprise, I suppose:

Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin’s “struggle between faith and reason” as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.

Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a Christian perspective, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as “a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder”. His “half-baked theory” directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to “atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering”, the site stated.

The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as “a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying”.

Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On The Origin of Species was published.

“That’s what we’re up against. In 2009. It’s amazing,” he said.

“The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it’s because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they’ve seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.

“It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There’s still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It’s quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.

“Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn’t saying ‘kill all religion’, he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people.”

Creation was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council, and stars Bettany’s real-life wife Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s deeply religious wife, Emma. It is based on the book, Annie’s Box, by Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, and portrays the naturalist as a family man tormented by the death in 1851 of Annie, his favourite child. She is played in the film by 10-year-old newcomer Martha West, the daughter of The Wire star Dominic West.

Early reviews have raved about the film. The Hollywood Reporter said: “It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand as they will find it even-handed and wise.”

Mr Thomas, whose previous films include The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, said he hoped the reviews would help to secure a distributor. In the UK, special screenings have been set up for Christian groups.

And you thought the money-grubbing, amoral (or immoral), Hollywood movie business loved controversy and liked to make a buck off it whenever it could! Apparently not, if it might irritate a minority (I hope) of religious extremists, America’s own Taliban. So a film about Darwin – a long dead and much celebrated scientist – seems much more dangerous to the fabric of this country than Borat! Sigh…