Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What would Thomas Paine do?

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, Nov. 14, 2011 by Charles F. Sawyer

In 1989, I delivered my first paper to the Monday Evening Club. The subject of the paper concerned the implications of a book written by Bill McKibben, entitled “The End of Nature." Published that year, after having been serialized in the New Yorker, it is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has been printed in more than twenty languages. A recent updated version was published in 2006. The message of the book was that true nature, which was independent of human influence, has been replaced by an artificial nature that had been created by the actions and interactions of human beings. He pointed out that human activity had changed the chemistry of the atmosphere, with enormous implications for the quality of life in the future. He pointed out that our influence on climate, with changing temperatures and sea levels would likely lead to less predictable and more violent weather events. McKibben’s discussion of the issues presented by these changes was both broad and detailed and illustrated in both scientific and human terms. He listed possible consequences of environmental degradation including floods and famine, worsening asthma and hay fever. He points out that we way in which we live, with our cars, our houses, plastics and pesticides, are as much a part of our world as the trees, waters and hills that are the natural landscape. He takes the position that we will have decide between our material world and the natural world. He envisions a “humbler world” where we would make do with less and thus take a less dominant position with relation to nature and where nature might once again establish itself as independent and constant. In the end, he does not think that likely. He sees a managed world, in which human beings control the climate, genetics and ecology as the most likely scenario, short of ecological catastrophe.

This being my first paper delivered to the Club, I recall wondering how it would be received. My memory is that the book, and thus the paper, was considered by several members to be a polemic and, as such, somewhat out of the mainstream o f papers. I would be interested to see how the Club would receive it today. I may get the chance, because my paper deals in large part with the questions and concerns treated in a recently published book entitled “Fool Me Twice – Fighting the Assault on Science." Let me tell you about the journey that took me to that book.

Last summer I was sitting on the porch at Wahconah Country Club [Dalton, MA], having just finished a round of golf. I had played with one of my regular partners and a local high school science teacher, whom he had invited. It had been a pleasant day and we were having drinks and talking about nothing in particular. Somehow, and I don’t recall how, the conversation turned to a discussion of the teacher’s science classes and the teaching of evolution. As the conversation went on I realized that he was telling us that he managed to include some version of intelligent design into the curriculum. I couldn’t just sit there and listen as he went on, so I jumped right in. As I did so, I thought “whoa.” I’m not sure that I’m equipped to defend and discuss the theory of evolution, something that I didn’t think needed defending. Me, the history major, who had jumped the science ship as soon as I was permitted to.

I actually think I did OK, talking about natural selection, carbon testing, archeological findings and what science means by the idea of a “theory.” Later, however, as I thought about all of this, I was not only
troubled by the idea that the latest iteration of creationism was being snuck into high school science class, but by my own ignorance and inability to intelligently discuss something so fundamentally important. If I, a college and law school graduate, a person interested in politics and current events, a daily reader and watcher of the news, was so limited in my understanding of evolution, considered to be the foundation for an understanding of modern biology, what was the state of general understanding? I was determined to be more informed, in no small part I must admit, so that I would be better armed for the next creationist. That led me to buy a book by Richard Dawkins entitled “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.” In the book, Dawkins takes on creationists, including followers of “intelligent design” and all those who question the fact of evolution through natural selection. He uses living examples of natural selection in birds and insects, radioactive data that calibrate a timescale for evolution, the fossil record and the traces of our earliest ancestors and confirmation from molecular biology and genetics. I now felt somewhat more learned, and prepared.

My journey was moved forward by several current events. I think we all have become increasingly aware of the issue of global warming and climate change. And much has been learned and explored since Bill McKibben’s book, 22 years ago. The events of this year have, I think, been particularly significant in raising our attention level. I refer to tornadoes that have raced across the country, not only in what we consider the tornado belt, but here in western Massachusetts with the June 1 tornado that hit Springfield. The National Weather Service has concluded that this has been the deadliest year of tornadoes since 1936. I also refer to the drought that has persisted in Texas and would appear to become the worst on record. And we can’t forget about hurricane Irene and the 100 year flood events that accompanied her.

Now I think we are all mindful of the fact that weather and climate are two different things and that there have always been extreme weather events that do not represent an accurate picture of the actual climate. However, we are being presented with more and more scientific information that supports the fact of global warming, if not climate change. I read recently about a prominent physicist and skeptic of global warming who spent two years trying to find out if mainstream climate scientists were wrong. In the end, he determined they were right. Temperatures really had risen. The study of the world’s temperatures by Richard Muller was partially bankrolled by a foundation connected to global warming deniers. He pursued long held skeptic theories in analyzing the data. He was spurred to action in part because of “Climategate,” a scandal involving hacked emails of British scientists. He found that the land is 1.6 degrees warmer than in the 1950’s. Those numbers from Muller, who works at the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, match those by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. His ultimate finding of a warming world was presented at a conference in Santa Fe, NM in late October. One quarter of the $600,000 to do the research came from the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder is a major funder of skeptic groups and the Tea Party. The Koch bothers, Charles and David, run a large privately held company involved in oil and other industries, producing sizeable greenhouse gas emissions.

Muller’s research team carefully examined two chief criticisms by skeptics, One is that weather stations are unreliable. The other is that cities, which create heat islands, were skewing the temperature analysis. These factors were considered and accounted for in the final analysis. Muller asserted that the temperature rise that had been previously reported had been done without bias. I saw that Muller had recently written a piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, a place friendly to skeptics. There he pointed out that in his research he did not address the cause of global warming, although he did say that it makes sense to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide created by fossil fuels. He did not think that the threat was as proven as the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is.
What caught my attention in reading one article about Muller’s work was a reference to Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of the book “Fool Me Twice” that criticizes science skeptics. He noted that Muller should expect to be harshly treated by global warming deniers. “Now he’s considered a traitor,” Otto said. “For the skeptic community, this isn’t about data or fact. It’s about team sports. He’s been traded to the Indians. He’s playing for the wrong team now.” I went out and bought Otto’s book.
In a 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate, Sarah Palin came out in favor of teaching both evolution and creationism in science class, saying, “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of education. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools.”

The central question that Otto raises is one that is as old as the republic. Are we Americans well informed enough to be trusted with our own governance? More specifically, are we going to use true science, and the scientific method, to understand and engage with such important issues as climate change, population growth and food supply. Despite the crises we are and will be confronting, political discourse in the United States in the last decade has seen a reactionary pullback from science and reason, as manifested in the decline of science journalism and the boastful indifference to scientific facts by many elected officials. Otto describes the ghettoization of science in American journalism, whereby the policy implications of scientific issues are not reported in the way that the effects of business and economy are. Science has earned a sort of untouchable status in American discourse, allowing for rhetorical treatment of matters that are the proper subject of scientific study. Often, religion fills this vacuum and, as a result, a false dichotomy has been created between science and religion. As one observer has said, this may be best evidenced by Rick Perry’s August 18, 2011 response to a New Hampshire child who asked him if he believed in evolution. Perry said “It’s a theory that’s out there. It’s got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution.” How stunning it is to have one of the leading contenders for the Presidency publicly express doubts as to the veracity of the scientific theory which is the foundation of modern medicine and biology. The press seems to accept the notion that it should report every such statement as simply one side of the story, and that there are always two sides to every story, each of which are equally valid, with the truth lying somewhere in between. And thus Governor Perry goes unchallenged.

Early in his book Otto points out that science has been responsible for roughly half of all US economic growth since World War II. He notes that by 2006, anti science views focused on three main areas, the denial of: (1) the science of reproductive medicine; (2) the science of climate change; and (3) the science of evolution. He puts significant emphasis on the importance of enlightenment ideals as the foundation of our Republic. He tells of the struggle that Thomas Jefferson had in framing the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s initial effort began, “We hold these truths to be divinely inspired, that all men are created equal.” Unhappy with this, he sought advice from Benjamin Franklin, and out of that collaboration came the statement so familiar to us, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” To be self evident was to recognize natural law, using reason alone to understand the true nature of things. The Enlightenment was important to America because it provided the philosophical basis of the American Revolution, which was more than just a protest against British authority .As it turned out, the Revolution provided the blueprint for a democratic society, for an enlightened concept of government whose most profound documents may have been the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Thomas Paine, who authored Common Sense, a reasoned argument for American independence, later wrote: “You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be from mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave to himself of his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. ... The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other and I trust I never shall.” To feel the full impact of the Enlightenment on America one needs only to look at the first Inaugural Address of Thomas Jefferson, who along with Benjamin Franklin, is considered to be the American most touched by the ideas of the Enlightenment. Jefferson wrote: “if there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.”
Early in the book Otto talks about the scientific method and the difference between matters of faith and scientific theory. He explains that the scientific method is a process of observation, Hypothesis, experiments and conclusion, From observing something in the natural world a hypothesis is made, which is advanced by experiments that support the hypothesis. A conclusion is reached , which is then presented to the scientific community. Other scientists the test that hypothesis with their own experiments. The more that time and tests confirm the conclusion, the more that “theory” approaches fact. Those that say evolution is only a theory do not understand what is meant by that appellation or choose to ignore it because it challenges their belief system. After 150 years of having been subjected to hundreds of thousands of tests, it is the one explanation that has been confirmed by all the known and validated experiments performed to date. Another point Otto makes is that if there is no way to prove a hypothesis is false, then it cannot be science. For example, saying that God, or some intelligent equivalent, created something, be it the earth, humans or the universe is not a scientific statement because it’s not limited to the natural world and because it can’t be disproved.

At this point in my reading, I paused to consider the question: Why are the theories of gravity, global warming and evolution met with very different degrees of acceptance by skeptics and deniers. I’m sure it’s not an original thought with me, but it seems that the notion of gravity is accepted by almost everyone because it is not threatening to accept that idea. Whether gravity is or is not does not challenge anyone’s economic, political or religious interests. It is also an idea that we all see in operation every time an apple falls from a tree, the earth circles the sun or our skin sags further each year. Global warming is accepted by many, but still has many skeptics. Compared to the idea of gravity, it is a very recent concept. We simply have not been wrestling with it for very long. It’s not easy to understand how more snow this winter can be a result of global warming, rather than the contrary. And although it probably doesn’t challenge any religious interests, it most certainly challenges the economic and political interests of many groups. Big oil and coal, major polluters, Kyoto opponents and politicians who are beholden to any of those are to be found in the front ranks of the naysayers. The theory of evolution is quite another matter. It has a shelf life that just goes on and on. Why is this? It doesn’t represent a challenge to anyone’s economic interests, nor to any political groups. However, it does challenge the fundamental religious beliefs of a substantial number of Americans. And therein lies the reason why it may be the most challenged scientific theory of all time.

Fool Me Twice is divided into five sections ‘America’s Science Problem’ discusses how science has been devalued at a time when technology has become more important than ever to sustaining America’s wealth and competitiveness in the global economy. The religious authoritarianism and fascism that have gained strength following the attacks of 9/11 have put science to the side in order to protect the corporate status quo, thereby leaving many pressing issues unresolved and presenting America with an uncertain future.

‘Yesterday’s Science Politics’ asserts that America was not founded as an explicitly Christian nation but one that was inspired by the Enlightenment ideal of reason as God’s natural law. Otto recounts how the sciences once flourished in a free America that routinely attracted scientists who were driven out of repressive places like Nazi Germany, and when figures such as Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble were cherished national figures. He laments how WWII and the Manhattan Project instilled widespread public fear and the subsequent Cold War funding of big science projects drove most scientists away from the public forum. He contends that anxieties about the bomb and the effect of polluting technologies on the environment provided an impetus to the rise of an anti-scientific political culture. He also notes that the end of the FCC Fairness Doctrine in 1987 gave the corporate media free reign to use rhetoric to influence public dialogue, a power that has largely been used for the benefit of private interests at the expense of reason, science and the public’s right to know.

‘Today’s Science Politics’ explains how issues such as global warming have been captured by an identity politics that is driven by emotion, not science. For example, Otto details how the fossil fuel industry has funded disinformation that is churned by a mainstream media which tends to exploit controversy for ratings while ignoring sound science. Assessing the merits of several scientifically credible solutions to the crisis, he proposes that an investment of $30 billion a year would be a reasonable solution toward curbing global warming while revitalizing scientific innovation and the economy.

‘Tomorrow’s Science Politics begins by reminding us that anti-intellectualism is a strategy often embraced by authoritarian powers. Otto argues that corporate pollution represents a tragedy of the commons that has been imposed by the few upon the many’s right to a clean, nontoxic environment. However, as the insurance industry has been stressed by increasing payments associated with more frequent and violent storm events, he makes a strong case for protecting wild nature to ensure benefits for future generations.

"The Solution" attempts to bridge the culture wars by moving towards common ground through science. Otto is strongly spoken when he write that religious leaders are immoral when they lie about issues that will undoubtedly have detrimental consequences for our children, but admits that science must do its part to have its voice heard by appealing to human aspirations, not fears. He hopes that scientists will reach out to moderates in the religious and political communities, who in turn must include scientific truths in the discussion.

In an Appendix at the end of the book Otto proposes that our elected officials take The American Science Pledge. He asserts that many in this generation have failed to solve the accumulating science challenges , preferring to punt them into the future or, increasingly deny they even exist. He sees the need for candidates in both major parties who will lead on tough science questions and who will emphasize the primacy of knowledge and science as the best basis for informed, effective and fair public policies in a diverse nation. He contends that The Contract from America, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge and the No Climate Tax Pledge all seek to restrict reasoned debate. Candidates are asked to sign the Pledge to show their commitment to its five core principles and to agree to debate fourteen top science questions in public forums.

The five core principles are:
  1. Public decisions must be based on knowledge. “I will support public policy decisions based on the knowledge produced by science, which may be informed by economic interests and my values but never superseded by personal opinions or political objectives.”
  2. Knowledge is supreme and must not be suppressed. “I will protect and defend the precious basis of America’s freedom, which is the scientific consensus of knowledge, against political forces that seek to deny it, suppress it, or substitute for it rhetoric or opinion.”
  3. Scientific integrity and transparency must be protected. “I will oppose all efforts to reduce freedom by holding back or altering scientific reports because they conflict with personal opinions, economic interests or political objectives.”
  4. Freedom of inquiry must be encouraged. “I will oppose acts that reduce freedom by attacking, intimidating, interrogating, prosecuting, disparaging or silencing scientists and
  5. Academics whose research or scientific reports conflict with personal opnions, economic interests or political objectives.”
  6. The major science policy issues must be openly debated. “To demonstrate my commitment to these principles and to moving America forward in solving these challenges, I will participate in one or more substantive, nonpartisan, public, televised, independently moderated debates on the top science challenges facing America.”

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