SGU Episode 15
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|SGU Episode 15|
|6th October 2005|
|SGU 14||SGU 16|
|S: Steven Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|P: Perry DeAngelis|
|C: Chris Mooney|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Interview with Chris Mooney
- 3 Conclusion (1:03:16)
- 4 Today I Learned
- 5 References
S: Hello and welcome again to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Today October 6th, 2005. With me tonight are Perry DeAngelis...
S: and Evan Bernstein.
E: Good evening all.
S: Bob cannot be with us tonight but I'm sure he will be with us again next week.
Interview with Chris Mooney
Intelligent Design (0:28)
S: Tonight we have just one item on the schedule. We have a guest with us tonight: Chris Mooney. Chris is a friend of mine back when he was at Yale and he was running a skeptical group at Yale at the time. He is a journalist and a writer who operates—and this is a quote; I can't remember who the quote is from—"at the intersection of science and politics." He is the author of a recently released book which is—is it still on the New York Times Bestseller List? It was recently.
C: Yeah. It may not be when they release the next one.
S: Right. Okay. The Republican War on Science. He's a regular contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer; writes an online column for CSICOP called Doubt and About. He's a contributing columnist for a new online media group called the Seed Media Group which is—we'll ask him about it but basically its mission statement says that it promotes the culture of science and is trying to promote public understanding and appreciation for science. Also the author of numerous, numerous articles and op eds on a range of topics from politics to science and the law and culture. Chris, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.
C: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
S: So, let me—let's start with a topic that is a favorite of ours on this show, namely intelligent design. I understand from reading your blog that you've been covering the court case that's going on right now. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
C: Sure. Yes. I've been in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for three days of trial so far. I wish I could have caught more but things have been kind of crazy but I did see Wednesday through Friday of the first week of the trial and it is—all I've seen is the ACLU and its co-litigants making a case against the Dover School Board which had introduced intelligent design into the curriculum and so far the board has been able to make its case defending itself—
C: —the (inaudible) making its case. And that was—the board's defense will come later but so far they've brought in experts on science, on philosophy of science and on theology to make the argument that intelligent design is not science and is religion and I think they've been very effective at that.
S: Is that the core of their case?
C: That is the core of their case, and, of course, if it's—if the purpose of introducing intelligent design into the curriculum is to advance religion then it's unconstitutional.
C: Because the purpose has to be primarily secular. That's what the law—that's what the legal test is.
S: Right. So, from what I've read elsewhere there's sort of two pieces to their case. One is that it's not science but the—and the other is what you just said. That its specifical purpose it to promote religion.
C: That's right.
S: So that—those are sort of the two—the two pieces that they're doing and they're doing a good job of it, huh?
C: Yeah, and they're linked together, right? Cause if it isn't science then what is it?
S: Then what is it? Right.
S: But I think one—again in one article I read about it said that the judge can rule specifically on what the purpose—forget about whether or not it's scientific or not but the—if the purpose is overtly religious—
C: Mm hmm.
S: —the judge can rule against the school board on that basis alone.
C: Yeah. I guess so.
S: Yeah. So—does that seem to coincide with the case the ACLU and the others are making?
C: Sure. Sure. I think that ever—what some people would like to see on the defense of evolution side is the judge do a really sweeping opinion.
S: Mm hmm.
C: Both explaining why intelligent design isn't science and so forth, and also explaining why it is religion. That's certainly what I think evolution defenders would hope for. Something in the vein of the 1981-82 McLean vs. Arkansas case which is very parallel—
C: —to the current Dover case in a lot of ways, because in that case what was being introduced into a curriculum for Arkansas was not intelligent design but creation science but all the legal issues were exactly the same.
S: Mm hmm.
C: And the legal strategies were exactly the same. Almost exactly the same.
C: The judge was very powerfully in favor in evolution and ruled that way.
S: So there's a lot of legal precedence that would seem to favor the anti-intelligent design case—
S: —in this situation. And I guess it really comes down to whether or not the judge rules that intelligent design, as it is being used here, or formulated here, essentially is creationism. Do those precedents apply? And I guess that's why everyone is watching this case very closely.
S: 'Cause this is sort of precedent setting in terms of intelligent design specifically.
E: And it's a federal case. I think it's the first time this is being argued in federal court.
S: Intelligent design is.
E: Intelligent design. Right. Right.
S: Creationism has multiple times. What level of fe—do you know what level of federal court is this?
C: This is the district court. This is the federal district court in Harrisburg, and if appealed it will go to I believe Third Circuit or Supreme Court. But again, whether this one is going to be appealed or not is up for grabs. I mean, certainly in McLean vs. Arkansas, the district judge wrote a very resounding opinion denouncing the creation science strategy in no uncertain terms. It wasn't appealed. It just sort of stood.
S: Yeah. I wonder if it would almost be better if this does go to the supreme court. Cause then—cause a decision at that level would be more sweeping in its implications that at the—at this level. Do you think that's true or even that the precedent at this level is adequate for our purposes?
C: I think that the defendant of evolution, ACLU, National Center for Science Education, the others prosecuting this case think that this is a very good case for them. Because, first of all it's not that hard to show that intelligent design has religious content. It's not that hard to show that the school board that enacted the intelligent design policy, that they were—had religious motivations because some of them—statements at public meetings tend to make that pretty clear. So, for these reasons I think they think it's a strong case for them.
S: Mm hmm.
C: And so, yeah, I think that they'd probably be glad to appeal it. But I think that there are going to be other legal fights—
C: —where the battle may be a little bit more difficult. So...
S: This is a good case for us. What would make it more difficult? I mean, are you referring to specifically Kansas or any other venue that you're talking about?
P: And you mean more difficult for the evolution side.
C: Yes. Yes, I do. And what I mean is that in Dover, Pennsylvania the school board put intelligent design—the words "intelligent design" into their curriculum and they voted on it. And they also included referred students to Of Pandas and People, the intelligent design textbook.
C: And what happens if the school district, either local or state board of education just says, "We are going to teach the gaps in evolution," and doesn't say anything else? Or, "We are going to teach that evolution is just a theory."
C: Doesn't offer any alternative. Well, is that religion?
S: That's a harder legal case to make.
C: How do you prove that? The way you prove it would be, I guess, you would go to the creationist literature and you'd find that these specific attacks on evolution they're teaching only come from creationists.
S: Right. Right.
C: But it's harder, because they're not introducing any creationist content. They're just attacking evolution. And I think that that's what's coming.
S: Mm hmm. Well, I think—certainly over the last 30-40 years the creationists have been modifying and modifying their strategy. They're gonna, I think, try everything that they can. I don't know where they would go after that but I'm sure they'll think of something.
C: (laughter) After that I don't know.
S: There—I don't think they're going to give this up any time soon. It'll just have—It'll have to be refought in different guises, I think, over and over again. But I don't think that they're fooling anybody in terms of the legality of this. I think whenever it gets to—maybe at the school board level—at the grassroots level they can certainly pack boards and have some short term victories but whenever this gets to a high court and you're arguing the case with the rules of evidence as they apply in a courtroom, the creationists always gets crushed.
C: So far, anyway.
S: So far. I think it would take a pretty—an ideologically conservative judge to really—to score a victory for the creationists in these kinds of cases.
C: Right. But remember, though, the 1987 case was the strongest precedent. It was a Supreme Court decision saying that Louisiana could not teach quote "creation science" alongside evolution. And this was a 7-2 Supreme Court decision but there were two, and the two were Scalia and Rehnquist.
S: Right. Right. Remember that.
S: That's true. I mean, that's true—and I read Scalia's dissent in that case very carefully, and if I recall, his position is not that creationism is science or not religion or whatever. His position basically is that this is a state's rights issue and the Constitution does not specifically forbid it.
C: Mm hmm.
S: So, I don't know. Do you agree with that? I think that's the position that would allow these kind of cases to go against evolution.
C: That's my sense. And also, in that opinion, if I recall correctly, he said something along the lines of, "Surely just criticism of evolution can be taught." Something like that, and that I think is where the strategy is going to end up going.
C: Based on that dissent.
S: Well, and—I think that the bigger context—what's wrong with that—what's wrong with teaching the criticism of evolution because it isn't teaching a religious faith, per se, although, obviously we know—let's face it, we all know that the purpose of that is to promote a religious belief. The problem with that is that you have people who have an agenda other than science deciding what gets taught in the science classroom and that's always a problem, regardless of whether that agenda is religious or social or political or whatever. But that's—legally that's a harder case to make. I mean, that's really more—gets to the quality of the science that's being taught in public schools.
C: Right. And—I agree with what you say and I guess I would just add that legally if you start make—want to start making this case then the first thing you would say is, "Why just evolution?"
C: "Why is it only evolution being singled out?"
S: Well, they'll single out the Big Bang, too.
S: But you're right. Yeah. They only pick on those things that rub up against Christian fundamentalist belief systems.
C: Mm hmm.
E: Does that include the germ theory of medicine? They should be doing faith healing instead?
S: Yeah, I mean—
E: The two should get equal time in health classes.
Alternative Medicine (11:29)
S: Well, since you bring that up, Evan, we'll segue into another issue that you've written on extensively which is a favorite topic of mine which is alternative medicine. And this is another area where people with some—either political agenda or a ideology are trying to distort the process and regulation of science. For example, the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. This is a research organization created to do research friendly to the CAM ideology. And I know—I believe you've written on that topic yourself. Is that right?
C: I have, although, I must confess that it's been awhile since I visited the topic. I think it's been two or three years, so I'm not really up to speed on what's happening in that area.
C: There is an interesting analogy here though because—
C: —of course, intelligent design postulates a supernatural force.
S: Mm hmm.
C: And that's why the defenders of evolution, certainly the experts brought in to testify in the Dover case, said this isn't science, because it's an appeal to the supernatural and science relies upon a naturalistic—
S: Mm hmm.
C: —methodology. And some of this intelligent design research is very similar. Certainly the intercessory prayer, for example.
C: It's hard to know how exactly that would work if not through the supernatural. Or some of the things where there's no actual physical contact made.
S: Like therapeutic touch, for example. Yeah.
C: Right. Again, what is going on there, if not something supernatural?
S: Right. A lot of it is overtly spiritual. A lot of it is overtly anti-scientific. A lot of alternative medicine. And, again—slightly more difficult issue here. With evolution, at least we're talking about what gets taught as science in science classrooms, so it's much more easy to establish the premise that this is about science. With medicine, the premise that medicine—modern medicine and health care should be based upon science itself is under direct attack. There are people who believe that health care and medicine should be based on things other than science, such as spirituality and personal belief systems. So it's a—although we know that the creationist—the intelligent design crowd are—have the same agenda: to essentially undermine the philosophical underpinnings of science, basically, by specifically allowing supernatural explanations. Their tack is easier to attack from the point of view that they're trying to teach what—teach their belief system in a science classroom. So, anyway, I've found that of all the skeptical issues that I tackle, the alternative medicine issue is the most difficult. Because, again, people have a lot of personal—strongly held personal views, even skeptics, even scientists, when it comes to healthcare. It's amazing; I always—when I'm discussing these topics with people try to find common ground and I found—it's amazing how difficult I find it, to find common ground on the alternative medicine issue because people don't assume that health care should be based upon science. It's amazing.
C: And a lot of strongly held beliefs in these various areas, I'm sure, where people have a lot of investment in different modalities that they're interested in which may not be based on science. Or may not even be possible to base them on science.
S: Right. Right.
P: And, of course, in any area where medicine cannot yet conquer and desperation sets in, it's rampant and certainly in those areas.
S: Right. The emotional desperation of being sick and not having a cure for what you have is another dimension to that issue which doesn't come in in something abstract like evolution.
S: There are no, sort of, practical personal implications for evolutionary theory. It's more of an intellectual scholarly thing, whereas what medicine you take...
P: The immediacy of life and death doesn't enter into it, in the evolution debate.
S: Right. But in a way, again—I'm a physician so I'm biased, but to me it also makes the alternative medicine issue one of, if not the, most important issues that we face as scientists and skeptics because the implications for people's health and welfare and quality of life can be immediate and dramatic. I mean, there's nothing worse you could do to somebody than to—for them to die.
P: And the way to make it even more rampant is to teach non-science in the science classroom.
P: Do that to a generation.
S: Right. Which I think we have been doing. To some degree.
Dover Courtroom (16:16)
S: So what's the mood in the courtroom down in Dover? I mean, are there more—is it packed with creationists or are there—is there a good turnout for the evolution side?
C: No. It's packed with journalists.
S: Journalists. (laughter)
C: If anything.
E: I'm not surprised.
C: They're all covering what they call "the next Scopes trial" and there's a number of the community there. Surprisingly, it seems like there's a lot more people sitting on the pro-evolution side in terms of all the different parts, their legal team and all the—
C: —plaintiffs and there are—the other side seems to have a very—not many people on the bench, so to speak. And I think it's been very serious. I think this judge—I've been extremely impressed with him. John E. Jones III. He's a new Bush appointee. He's been on the bench, I think, since 2002.
S: Mm hmm.
C: Something like that. This is by far the most high-profile case I think that he's dealt with yet. But he's very direct, very matter of fact. I think he handles the courtroom very well.
S: He's doing a good job?
C: Yeah. Down to earth. And it's very serious. It's really—you think you know everything about the evolution issue but then you see it in a courtroom and you really realize, "Oh my God," people are actually giving testimony about all these philosophy of science issues and science issues that you just don't expect to hear about in that context.
S: Right. Interesting.
C: It's really new and kind of eye opening.
P: Is he considered a conservative jurist?
C: I don't think I would classify him as a conservative. I looked a little bit into what he's done before—
C: And actually, not all of it is at the front of my mind, but I think would say more—he's a Bush appointee...
P: Which is why I ask.
C: George W. Bush. Right. But, I think that, if I remember correctly and this is probably something I want to check, I think that in Pennsylvania he was sort of a Tom Ridge ally and Ridge was sort of thought of as more of a moderate—
E: Right. He was.
C: —kind of Republican before he was on the bench. Before this current judge was on the bench I think sort of more in that camp.
S: I see.
C: So, that's how I would tend to categorize.
The Republican War on Science (18:17)
S: So, speaking—since the name Bush has come up we might as well take this opportunity to talk about your book. Is this your first book?
S: Yes. It's called The Republican War on Science and essentially is about how the Bush administration has used and distorted science, subjugated it to their political agenda. So why don't you give me a summary of what the book is about and what your main points are.
C: Sure. It is about the Bush administration and it is also about sort of the larger trends in the Republican Party and the conservative movement that has brought us to this point, where you have an administration that has been broadly denounced by the mainstream scientific community for systematically misusing and distorting information and it's not like a couple issues where, I think, probably every administration is guilty of cherry-picking information or selectively using it from time to time. It's really quite comprehensive and it ranges from global warming and mercury pollution and environmental sort of issues to embryonic stem cells to the president endorsing the teaching of intelligent design.
S: Right. Right.
C: So, it really is quite comprehensive and across a stunning array of issues and problems erupting at almost every government agency that has a scientific mandate. And what I argue is that this is a natural feature of the way the Republican Party works today, because it has to cater to the religious right base. So it has to give them what they want on science. And it has to cater to industry and so it has to give them what they want and so, both of the tendencies infiltrate and infest the government and you see a situation which is like what we have, where the scientific credibility of the government itself has been called into question.
S: But do you think this a difference just in degree or are they employing any new strategies that are, again, further distorting the process of science?
C: Well, I think that as far as strategies go, there's a range of different techniques that are used to achieve the same end, which is attack information you don't like. And that could involve attacking an individual scientist; it could involve trying to doctor a report before it gets published. We have examples of all these different sorts of things.
S: Mm hmm.
C: To answer the first part of your question, is it a difference of degree or difference of kind? That's a little tough. I think it—at minimum it's a difference of degree, where we clearly have a systematic problem with the Bush administration and that's not to say that there weren't problems under other administrations, cause I think there were. I think to some extent science is always politicized.
C: And if the left does it the right does it. But what I do argue is that we have the perfect storm now because the Bush administration is systematically catering to the people who put him into power across so many different issues and across so many different agencies. We can't seem to go a month without a new science-in-politics scandal erupting. And the latest one of course is the FDA and Plan B contraception.
C: I'm sure that before the end of the year we'll have a couple new ones. But that's how it goes with this administration and I think that that's sort of become symbolic of the way the administration operates when it comes to science.
S: Yeah. I agree. I think that—there's a variety of political views within this radio show and among our skeptical colleagues but regardless of what your political views are, I haven't heard anyone defend Bush on science. He doesn't appear to appreciate it very well or respect it.
S: It's indefensible.
P: It's indefensible.
S: And—it's like whenever he opens his mouth on a scientific issue, it's a moment to cringe, essentially. So, I agree that that's a huge problem. Although, my perception has been, as you say, this is endemic to politics itself. We sort of start with the political ideological conclusion that you wish to have and then you, again, cherry-pick or distort the science to fit into that. But it does seem that the reports of scientists who are disgruntled by the way they are being abused within this administration has been huge. It's always hard to say if this becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The media keys into an idea so of course they report every case of it. But, obviously you make the case in your book that this is a very real phenomenon. What do you think is the worst abuse Bush has had during his tenure?
C: Well, it's tough. I'll give you—there's different ways of coming at that question. So, on the one hand, evolution is by the far the most firmly accepted scientific thing that's being attacked right now.
C: So that Bush would speak out in a way that undermines it, by appearing to endorse the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution, in some sense that's the most egregious offense since evolution is so firmly established. There's a stronger consensus on evolution than there is on any of these other things. So that's one way of coming at it. But another way of coming at it is, well—certainly some of the most outrageous things are things that the president himself said because this is the president speaking to the American people and everyone listens when the president says something. So not only did he say something that was egregious about evolution and intelligent design recently, but if you go back to the beginning of his administration, his stem cell speech...
S: Mm hmm.
C: August 9th 2001, when he actually stood before the nation and millions of people watching—I don't know how many but a lot—and said that there would be more 60 stem cell lines available under his policy. And this was obviously information that was not vetted carefully.
C: You would not expect the president to make this kind of an error if he cared at all to be correct. And of course he didn't apologize for it either, which makes it seem like a little bit more than an error and more like a convenient misrepresentation. But in any case, of course, we know that there are only 22 available and scientists will tell you that only a fraction of those are scientifically useful. So—and this figure was central to the whole stem cell policy. The notion that he was allowing at least some research to go forward—it turns out to be just based on misinformation. So that's pretty stunning.
S: The implications of that are a lot greater. I don't think that—
S: the president's statement on intelligent design is going to affect anything.
C: Well, it might inspire other school boards to try to do what the Dover board did.
S: I think—I don't know. I think the creationists are pretty inspired.
C: Yeah. They're inspired enough.
S: My sense is that there's a grassroots organization, it is chugging along, and they don't need any inspiration.
C: Mm hmm.
S: And it's not going to alter the legal decisions that will ultimately determine the future of this issue. Unless of course, as you say, he appoints Supreme Court justices that are at the Scalia end of the spectrum.
P: Chris, I'm not sure I understood you there about the president's stem cell statement. Are you saying that when he originally made the statement he was misinformed or do you think he was purposeful in his misinterpretation.
C: Sure. I was trying to be cautious because we don't know exactly what happened.
C: We know that the more than 60 number came from the National Institutes of Health—
C: —but it did not refer to lines; it referred to derivations, and the difference here is that a line is something that's well developed and characterized and you can ship samples to colleagues who can then study them. A derivation just means you cracked open the embryo and you've taken out—
C: —cell matter. It doesn't necessarily—it's not going to grow necessarily sustainably in culture. And the NIH had done a telephone survey, right, this wasn't from the literature, and the had gotten—and that itself raises issues, but they had gotten this more than 60 derivations figure. The president stood up and said lines. Why did he say that? There—that is the question but I can't necessarily answer—
C: cause I don't know what else is going on—
P: Okay. So even if it was a pure honest error, if you will, at the time—
P: since then it's become clear that it was a mistake—
S: Within a day—
P: but still he—
S: I remember when that happened. Within a day there was plenty of published information—
P: Okay. But even if—
S: —reviewing that statement and showing to be erroneous.
P: But even until these years later he still has never said, "that was a mistake—
P: —and I should therefore alter the policy."
C: Right. If it's just an error, an innocent error—
C: —then at some point would apologize, you would think. Because it is a clear error. Just wrong.
P: And possibly change the policy.
C: Well, and, since the information was so crucial to the policy—
S: Well, it was the justification for the decision. It was not—the purpose for the policy was ideological and that hasn't changed.
P: I just—that's true.
C: But it made the—it made it seem like he was issuing a credible compromise position—
S: Right. Right.
C: —cause more than 60 sounded like some research was going to be allowed.
C: And that was the whole point. Bush was going to be a wise leader who compromised and gave scientists something and gave his religious right base something. But it turns out he didn't give scientists much of anything at all.
C: So—Yeah. So, I think that that's pretty outrageous. And if you just vet the information; just get a scientist in—and you can't make that mistake about derivations versus lines. It's very elementary.
Global Warming (27:32)
S: Well, let's talk about global warming. That's—this topic has come up on the Skeptics' Guide in the last—in recent episodes. We had Bob Park on our show a few weeks ago, and Bob Park was very clear to point out that there is a scientific consensus supporting the notion that there is man-made global warming. I think it was the following week or two we had on Steve Milloy. Steve Milloy runs the Junkscience website and is also a consultant for the Cato Institute and he very emphatically believes that there is no evidence to support the conclusion that there is global warming. And of course, this is a topic that you have written about multiple times and talk about in the context of your book and the Bush administration. So, again, give me your take on the whole global warming debate.
C: Well, I'm very, very firmly in the Park camp.
C: And I don't know what Steve Milloy said on your show but I think—
S: You don't listen to our show? I'm shocked.
P: This is an outrage.
S: I'm outraged. But you have to listen to the show. I'm sure you'll download all 14 prior episodes now and listen to them.
C: I'm sorry, guys.
S: But go ahead. Go ahead.
E: Shameless promotion.
C: I'm in the Park camp and this is like any other issue where the scientific community has reached a conclusion. It is reached in the same way that it always reaches the conclusion: by scientists publishing in the literature and now thousands of papers have been published about various aspects of global climate change. And eventually, all those publications leading towards the conclusion that becomes adopted as consensus and how do we know it's consensus? Well, you have the National Academy of Sciences review what's published or you have—well it's not just the National Academy, it would be the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel Climate Change has done it and the American Geophysical Union has done it and the American Meteorological Society has done it; pretty much everybody who has expertise in this area has all looked at it—
S: Mm hmm.
C: —and said, "Yes. Humans are causing global warming." Now, when you think about it, it's very elementary in the sense that it's—the greenhouse theory, or the theory of greenhouse gasses is extraordinarily well established.
C: And, so, if you get enough of the stuff up there, you're going to trigger the greenhouse effect. And now they've been able to bring that in line with observations and with models as well. So that's why the conclusion's now so strong.
S: Right. Although there are—and I agree, that's my position as well: that there essentially is a scientific consensus that there is probably this global warming effect and there's reason to be concerned and to maybe even take steps to prevent it. But prior to, I think, getting to the point of absolute certitude, there's always in science a certain amount of doubt. And you have made the point in some of your articles, and I have also echoed this point in some of the articles that I have written, that it's very to take the doubt that exists in any discipline and then magnify it, overemphasize it, what have you, so you're not denying the science, it's just really a matter of spinning—of spin. And I think that's what Steve Milloy did. He basically brought up a lot of interesting points: that the amount of increase in temperature was greater in the first half of the 20th century than the second half when—I'm sorry. The other way around. In the second half rather than the first half, when in fact there was more CO2 production in the first half. That there was actually a global cooling period in the 40's, 50's, 60's until it turned around again. So these—
C: Yeah. And if you had talked to scientists they'll say the cooling was actually human caused as well.
C: Sulfate aerosols. They counter global warming.
S: So, again, there was—but there was very convincing sounding—the other thing he said that was a major one of his points was that man-made CO2 production is only about 1% of the total CO2 production. That 99% of it is natural. But again—
C: I don't know about that.
S: I sort of challenged him on that but—I said, "even if you take that at face value, 1% could be significant in terms of its cumulative effect over a century" and I think the other—the figure which he didn't quote which I think puts it in better perspective is that today CO2 is 380—I think it's parts per million or parts per billion.
C: I believe parts per billion.
S: Parts per billion. And historically, hundreds of years ago it had never—I think it has never exceeded 300 parts per billion, prior to the industrial age.
S: And it is as high as it's been for—it's estimated it hasn't been this high for 40,000 years. So that's—380 compared to 300 sounds like a more convincing ratio.
C: Right, and of course, if you go back far enough, you get earlier periods in the earth's history when we did have really high CO2. Much higher than now, and of course these were periods when you had crocodiles swimming in the Antarctic and things like that. So, yeah, there are areas of uncertainty. No one disputes that. The point is the scientific consensus position on global warming includes the uncertainty.
C: The uncertainty is part of consensus.
C: So they say the conclusion is either likely or very likely and that doesn't make it 100%. But that's how science works. The reason they say—that they reached this conclusion is because they can't explain what we are seeing with the temperature trends right now with only invoking natural variability.
S: Mm hmm.
C: But if you then invoke natural variability and our human variability and you plop them together—human caused forcings, as the term goes—then it starts to look much like the current record. And so the global warming theory explains what we're seeing and that's the power of it and that's why it so well accepted. And that doesn't mean there aren't things that we're doubtful about.
C: There's doubts about, for example, the warming in the troposphere. Did the trend in the troposphere—was that in line with global warming predictions? And actually, that one now seems to be becoming settled and the doubts seem to be going away. But that—just that one area of certainty didn't make scientists throw away the global warming theory because it helped explain so many other things. And that's how science works.
E: Does the scientific community have a consensus as to the correct way to combat global warming?
C: Well, that's not exclusively a scientific question, of course.
S: It's economic and political and social.
E: Of course.
C: I think a politician can be honest if this politician says, "Global warming is happening. Humans are causing it and for economic reasons, I don't think we should do anything about it." That is—I mean, I might disagree with that statement but there's nothing dishonest about it.
C: And I'm criticizing dishonesty because someone like Senator Inhofe saying that global warming is a hoax; that's just outrageous and politicians shouldn't lie to us, shouldn't mislead us, and that's what he's doing. So that's really the outrage in my mind. Dealing with the issue; man, that is tough, because this is the whole—whole modern economy is based, in a sense, on getting energy from fossil fuels.
E: And the world economy. Wouldn't you really, collectively, have to have the world acting as one to effectively combat it in any—what would be considered, short amount of time to make a dent.
C: Sure. Sure. You would. And again, I am in agreement with the people who point out, rightly, that Kyoto—maybe it's a good start but it is only a very small way of beginning to address the problem. And it's a baby step at best. So, you really would have to—Well, you're getting at the policy area that's very difficult.
S: Yeah. I think I've certainly read a lot of criticism of Kyoto, not only from the Cato Institute and Milloy but even who accept global warming, that the cost benefit ratio is outrageous and the impacts on the global warming phenomenon is minuscule and yet the real economic cost, especially to countries who can't well afford it, can potentially be huge, in the billions. So, you're right; there you get into social economical issues, not purely scientific issues.
C: Right. And there I would just say that unfortunately we do—I think that the data skewed too. It's an economics debate but it's quite clear that global warming is going to have big economic costs as well.
C: And those things have to be balanced and unfortunately I don't think that they are balanced because usually we just talk about how it will hurt the economy. Well... If some of the more extreme global warming scenarios are realized, then the costs are going to be huge as well.
E: Will technology ultimately be the savior in this cause?
C: I don't know. I don't know.
P: It'd be nice.
P: Do you think Kyoto should have been affirmed in its current state, Chris?
C: You know, I've never taken a position on that, to tell you the truth. I could kinda go either way. My own personal view is that there's a merit to getting started but clearly Kyoto was just a baby step. And so, if you're going to justify Kyoto, you're going to justify it by saying that at least it would have gotten everybody on the same page trying to do something and then we could have built on it.
S: But what it might lead to but not what it is in its current state.
C: Yeah. I mean, in its current state it's really just, like I said, a baby step.
C: And if the U.S. and India and China aren't really participating then—
S: It's pointless.
C: —it's barely even a baby step.
S: Well, I think that—you talk about the intersection of science and politics—it's always been my view that in an ideal Utopian type of world it would be nice if science always informed the political process. If the leaders of this complex civilization we find ourselves in used the best science objectively analyzed and agreed upon to decide how to most efficiently and effectively run our society, but again, that's not what I see really any—either end of the political spectrum. I see people running—making decisions because they get them reelected, because they serve a constituency, because they serve and ideology and the science really is either inconvenient and ignored or it's just cherry-picked in order to seem to support the conclusions they've already arrived at. But let me ask you one question. Have you ever seen or written about pseudoscience—I know you don't like that term—but bad science used on the extreme environmentalist end of the spectrum.
C: Sure. Actually, the term pseudoscience is not—I'm willing to use. It just depends on how you define it.
C: There have been philosophical debates about whether you can actually identify pseudoscience, so I think you have to be careful, but someone said that a philosopher of science named Philip Kitcher said—was willing to use the term pseudoscience as long as it means bad science taken to an extreme.
S: Right. Which is I think how we use it.
C: Yeah. So, sure. I think that environmentalist—I think more mainstream environmentalists are not a credible science abusers generally but I think there's certainly at the extremes some problems and one of the ones that I pointed out in the book when I was doing my due diligence about how the left does this was certainly exaggerations of human health risks related to genetically modified foods.
C: That was one. Which was clearly—I think the science doesn't back them up, and in fact, you can point to the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine did a study and said that there's no unique health risks to genetically modified food that you wouldn't get from conventional breeding.
C: So, something like that. Or—
S: The entire organic food thing, I think, is again, another example.
C: Well, they're related and—
C: I think the animal rights people—Very, very outlandish anti-science stuff from them, as well.
S: Right. Right.
P: Do you touch on vivisection in the book, Chris?
C: Vivisection I didn't touch on as much. What I touched upon was, first, the animal rights movement has been guilty of actually attacking scientists. Which is a very extreme form of what I call "if you don't like the science target the scientist". They just—destroying labs is taking that much farther.
C: And also, I also talk about the bogus assertion that you don't need to do research on animals because you can just model it in a computer or something like that. And of course, scientists will tell you that you just can't get the kind of information you need without certain kinds of animal research. So they're just, you know, sort of making false claims as well. Those are the the things I touched upon there. But you know, those are two examples from the left or, I think, what some would call the left. And it's not that this stuff doesn't exist. In terms of more mainstream environmental groups, I think if you take the mercury—you could probably—you could find some examples on global warming, too, but exaggerating how bad it's going to be maybe and not talking about the uncertainty. I talk about mercury pollution and I talk about how to be honest and address this issue, environmentalists need to admit that there is a natural mercury cycle and there are human sources as well, but natural sources play a key role and you can't ignore that—
C: —even as you talk about the industry sources. So things like that. I mean I think it's perfectly—we need to point those things out. I think it's important to do so.
P: Chris, did you choose the title of your book? Or was that the publisher?
C: Well, it's sort of a consultation process, just like everything in the editorial process.
P: Is it? You sat around and sort of brainstormed?
C: A long process. Many titles were thought of.
P: I'm sure.
C: This is the one we ended up with. I'm very happy with it.
Harry Potter and Science in Fiction (41:50)
S: So, I want to shift gears a little bit here to maybe a little bit of a lighter topic. I know—I've seen on your articles part of your website that you've written about Harry Potter.
S: And a lot of media issues actually. Very serious issues regarding how the media treats science and skeptical issues. But the Harry Potter one caught my eye because you characterize yourself as a Harry Potter fan and it turns out that the—all of the members of the Skeptics' Guide are fans of what I'll call "loosely speculative fiction". Anything from the fantasy to the science fiction range of the spectrum. I know Perry's not terribly a Harry Potter fan but my brother Bob and I are. So, we're with you on this one. We're with you one the whole "fantasy-science fiction's wonderful". It's a wonderful form of entertainment and actually we've written an ar—I think Perry and Bob wrote and article defending Harry Potter also, from attacks. So, the issue is: what is the role of fiction in selling science and is fantasy, even fantasy that overtly presents a magical world. Why do people feel there is a problem with this?
S: And why—and I think from you previous articles you don't think there's with—but why don't you give me your take on it?
C: Well, it's a great question. And I actually—before I answer I'd like to just enlarge it a little bit because there is certainly—science is often treated in the kind of dismissive way in books like Harry Potter, but also science is also treated in dismissive way in a lot of Hollywood movies where there's sort of a mad-scientist-stereotype character.
P: This is the Frankenstein myth that you wrote about, Chris.
C: Yeah. Who goes and destroys the world.
C: It's just sort of too convenient in a certain form of fiction to make someone who's, kind of, a mad scientist character who has a lot of knowledge but not the ability to control it—
C: —into a bad guy. And also in Harry Potter, just to create kind of a cliche where people who have a lot of technical knowledge just lack imagination and are unable to see what's really going on, like the wizarding world that is behind the scenes, because they're too busy tinkering with gadgets and getting distracted by material reality and all of this.
S: Yeah, but I think—I'm even more kind to the Harry Potter universe and I'll tell you why. Because I think—I don't really think that it's a negative commentary on Muggles that they don't see the magical universe. I think it's pretty accepted as a premise in that universe that the Muggles can't see the magic. Not through any failing of their own. And, in fact, if you read the novels the—those wizards that are in the know praise the Muggles for how clever they are with their gadgets and their science. And there's also—my favorite character in the novels is Hermione Granger, who is a rare character in popular fiction in that she is a heroine who's not unduly talented but who achieves her greatness through hard diligent work and study. And it's actually made quite clear in the books that in many ways she's a superior wizard to Harry Potter, who—Harry Potter was born with the talent but Hermione Granger is studious and she is greatly praised and portrayed in a very positive light. I think—in a way, even though it's in the context of wizarding knowledge, she's actually a great role model.
C: I agree.
S: I actually am critical of those shows, especially popular culture television shows which denigrate being studious and intellectual.
C: I'll buy that. I think that there are certainly are some messages in some of the novels where the Muggles are associated with small mind—I mean, I know that the picture is more complicated but—
S: Yeah. Yeah.
C: —there is this kind of close-mindedness that is linked to gadgetry—
C: —and linked to playing video games and that sort of thing. So, it's there, but I agree that the picture is a little more complicated than—it's not as bad as something like, I don't know, what was this movie—The Island that just came out. I don't know if you guys caught that one—
E: Naw. I didn't see it.
S: Not yet, no.
C: —where mad scientist—
P: I read what you wrote about it.
S: This is the cloning one?
C: Yeah. One of the many cloning...
C: Where it's just—this myth that just keeps getting repeated about a scientist who just goes beyond all the boundaries, for no clear apparent reason. Just for lust of power.
S: Just to tempt God. Sheer hubris.
C: Right. And, I just, I understand where the myth comes from. I respect the literary antecedents of it. It is Frankenstein. It is part of our culture. But, I think that it's very reductive way of depicting scientists and I wish that there was a little bit more diversity admitted in some of these.
S: I agree. Occasionally having a positive scientist in shows like that would be nice. I am—I agree that television largely is a vast wasteland and there are—there's a lot of anti-science and pro-paranormal stuff on television but there are a few lights. And it did not escape my notice that the most popular show on television—we'll see if it holds up this season, but certainly in the last couple of years—is CSI, the Crime Scene Investigations. And there the lead character is a scientist and a skeptic and a rationalist and really is a very positive character who uses knowledge and investigative techniques to solve these crimes. And so it's interesting that despite the alleged popularity of paranormal themes the number one show has a distinctively pro-science character and theme to it. So—and I don't think that's necessarily such an exception.
C: No. If it's good entertainment, it's good entertainment.
S: Right. Exactly.
C: Be brainless.
S: Yeah. Along that point that good entertainment is good entertainment, I think some of the paranormal shows that were very popular like, the series) Lost is a show with these people who are stranded on a island and weird things are happening and there's certainly some paranormal plot line undercurrent in the show, and then that leads to a host of other paranormal shows out this season and I've sampled some of them; they're almost universally horrible, by the way, but, the thing that it just reinforces for me the fact that—what this is really saying is that TV executives are idiots, basically. Because they take a show that's popular, they emulate the most superficial aspects of that show, and they think that they're going to have easy hits. When in fact, what's good about these shows is the writing and the characters. Not the fact that there's a paranormal theme.
C: I agree. I definitely agree. But unfortunately, there's still a lot of schlock being made.
S: I'll tell you what gets me upset more than the Frankenstein plot line is the the skeptic who is a set-up to be the fall guy. Which—there you have and this was true on The X Files; there's a BBC show now on the paranormal where this is the case, where there is a guy who is a skeptic in a magical universe, right? And, who always comes up with kind of a silly and reductionist scientific explanation for, what is in the context of the show, clearly anomalous occurrences. And they're always proven to be close-minded and wrong. Science fails every time with these shows. That formula, I think, is the most damaging.
C: Yeah. I agree with you. Because, of course, in fiction, you control the laws of the universe.
C: And so, it's very easy to make someone who in our world would be right—
C: —the skeptic, into someone who is a complete idiot. Another example of this—I don't know if you'll all agree with me but I think that Michael Crichton's State of Fear is a great example of this where he controls the universe—
C: —and he can make the people who think global warming's happening into idiots. Well—
S: And terrorists.
C: that's all well and good. Yeah. And terrorists. (laughs) And that's all well and good to do in a novel, but we have real world problems to deal with.
S: Right. If you're going to be God, you decide what the universe is—
S: in all of its respects and you get to fix the dice, as it were.
P: CSI is somewhat—is a skeptical scientific hero. It—doesn't it?
P: The main doctor in that show.
S: Yeah. Absolutely.
P: It's a rare example, but they do exist.
S: I think what I would love to see is a paranormal detective kind of show where the universe is scientific materialistic.
E: There was a good show for that. Cadfael; you ever see that show, Cadfael?
S: Yeah. I have seen it, yeah.
E: Remember Cadfael? I mean, we're going back a few years—
E: but that—
S: That was British too wasn't it, that show?
E: It was. It was. Took place in... well, what, Perry, the 15th century?
P: About the 1200's.
P: Yeah. Early.
S: He was a monk, right?
E: And here was this monk who was effectively an investigator also. And was able to solve the crimes of the day using good techniques of evidence and logic and so forth. Very good show in that respect.
P: Basic science at the time. The key to the character was that he had life prior to, and outside of, the monastery.
P: And the fact that he traveled the world and fought in great battles is what gave him a perspective that was lacking in his brethren.
S: He was more cosmopolitan.
P: Right. And allowed him to see beyond their—what was always portrayed as a narrow superstitious view of the world.
P: It was very good. Wonderful stories. [Derek Jacobi] was the star of that show.
S: Right. Course the most celebrated skeptical investigators in entertainment is the Scooby Doo crew.
S: They were at least the classic version.
E: The cartoons.
S: The cartoons. When they were the ones who, every week, pulled the sheet off the fake ghosts.
P: What do you think of Penn and Teller's show, Chris? Bullshit.
C: I don't think I've watched it enough to opine on the phrase actually.
P: You've seen a few episodes just not that many?
C: Not really enough. No.
P: It's good.
S: You should catch it. It's...
P: They can be a little—what would you say Steve?
S: Well, they have a clear libertarian political world view and sometimes they push that world view in their show. It's not really strictly scientific skepticism.
C: So do they do anti-global warming stuff, for example?
S: They did an environmentalism show, but—
S: —they were very careful to restrict themselves to the environmentalist extremists and they didn't really attack mainstream environmentalism. However, they did endorse the book The Skeptical Environmentalist. And I didn't like that, because I think that is generally—is basically bad science.
C: Yeah. Well, that book has been—well, I haven't read it but it has been criticized by very credible people.
S: Right. Not the least of—to me the most telling thing is that Scientific American dedicated an entire issue to trashing that book.
S: They thought that that was so egregious and—
C: They thought they had to. And the people who trashed it were some of the leading lights.
S: Yes. They invited the leading lights in each of the topics that were covered by the book and said please write us an article about this topic to address the claims made in this book. John Rennie occasionally speaks for our group and spoke about that issue. They did a show on secondhand smoke, which actually scientifically was accurate, but again, was intermixed with their libertarian philosophy. But you know what? They're unapologetic about it. They say it's their show and they're doing what they want. And that's fine for them. That's good.
E: Right. They're not trying to conceal it as something else. They're letting you have it the way they see it and it's for you to absorb, be entertained by it, or reject it. But they're not being deceptive at all.
S: No. Not at all. They're very open about it. Worth a view. Of course, the best episode was the ghost-busting episode...
P, E: (laughter)
S: —that had the—I think the most erudite guests on that particular episode.
E: There was a—
P: They were all great except for that doctor. What was his name? That guy from Yale.
S: I don't recall.
E: All I—I remember there was a Nobel Prize winner on there. Steve, was that you?
P: Totally overshadowed that guy. Feeble neurologist. Chris, I notice from your website you were at the Trove—is it bookshop, tonight?
C: Yeah. I was, actually.
P: For a book signing, I take it?
C: Uh huh. There was a 14-author book signing. It was a little bit—
E: It was like a book-signing convention.
E: Oh, were they?
C: I was in their shadow a little bit.
S: How's Trent doing these days?
E: Yeah, what did you write in their books? "Good luck, Trent"?
C: (laughter) I didn't write anything in their books, but I did actually shake hands with Senator Lott and—'cause he worked the room and came by and shook everyone's hand—
P: Of course.
C: Very nice. And he looked at my book (laughs) The Republican War On Science and it's got the elephant on the cover and he's trying to figure out what to say.
C: and he says, he ultimately said, "Nice view."
C: It's the elephant's ass that you're looking at on—
(laughter) P: A politician for you.
C: —the cover of the book. So, I thought that was a good move, yeah.
S: Nice view.
P: Chris, your—did Steve say earlier that the book was a best seller?
C: It got on to the Times list. The highest it's gotten is 24.
S: That's great.
C: The best seller—it made six total lists.
E: Was this your first book, Chris?
P: He said that earlier—What's that experience been like, Chris, having a very popular book?
C: It's been extraordinary. It's been absolute insanity. This happened at the same time that the hurricane wiped out New Orleans where my whole family live.
E: Oh boy.
P: You wrote little about that.
C: It was just beyond crazy because I was having all these huge successes and yet I was travelling the country speaking to huge crowds while my family was literally living in my apartment. Here in DC 'cause they had nowhere to go and my friends in DC were taking care of them for me.
C: —I owe them big time for. And so it was a very weird time where great stuff was happening for me and terrible stuff was happening for everyone else. It was sort of an emotional roller coaster.
S: How's your family doing now? Are they placed or are they still...
C: Yeah. Things are getting sorted out. My mother's house was completely destroyed. My brother's and my father's, I think, are probably pretty salvageable. So, they're fine. They're okay. It's going to be a long time before anyone goes back to living and normal life in New Orleans, if at all.
E: That's for sure.
S: Right. Right. We were speaking last week about a lot of the rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding the Katrina hurricane. Have you encountered them through the people you know in New Orleans at all? What's you view about that?
C: Well, I guess, in retrospect, I've only heard a couple of news reports about his but I guess I'm not surprised—
C: —that in this kind of situation there are exaggerations of the mayhem that was happening, because everyone was scared and everyone was—it was an extreme situation.
C: So, I guess I'm—I guess that that makes sense that that would happen. So what—as soon as I heard new reports about how—doctors and scientists saying that these allegations—some of the more wild stuff; we have no evidence that this actually took place, I was like, "Oh, that's not surprising for someone who's trained as a skeptic."
P: (laughter) Absolutely not.
C: But I—no one was—beyond the news media, reporting these things at the time. I haven't heard it from anyone I know from New Orleans.
P: My wife's family is from New Orleans also and certainly didn't encounter anything like that. They escaped and they're moving back in now. They're in Metairie which is slight east of the city. Slightly west of the city; so they escaped the most devastating aspects of the hurricane.
C: Well, my mom's going back on Saturday and her house got 10 feet of water, so it's not going to be a pretty picture. I just told her to get ready and just not expect anything.
C: I'm sure she'll salvage some stuff.
P: But you were able to convince your brother to buy flood insurance.
C: Yeah, because I was, by happenstance and by the fact that I'm a science writer and from New Orleans I was one of the people that was saying that New Orleans was going to get it. It's only a matter of time. And I didn't think it was going to be this year, but I did think it was going to be some time in the next 20 years. And... so, I wrote about that and I did lobby my family and I did succeed in helping my brother get flood insurance.
P: Good for you.
S: Good for you.
P: Good for you.
E: Good job.
C: Although, it looks like his house is okay anyway, but...
S: So, Chris, what are your plans for the future? Do you have any other big topics that you're going to tackle in book format or what are you going to do?
C: Well, it's something that's a matter of a lot of discussion right now, but I haven't settled on a new project yet. Things have been very, very busy and the question is whether I want to take one of the topics that I've discussed already and blow it up into a book in and of itself, like, evolution or something like that—
C: —do I want to go into something really completely new and I haven't made up my mind about that yet.
S: Yeah. Yeah.
C: But I'm doing a new book. I mean, definitely I'm doing another book as soon as this one settles down, but what it's about yet I can't say.
SEED Media Group (1:00:35)
S: Tell me a little bit about SEED. I meant to ask you about that. That's the SEED Media Group. What—How does that function?
C: Sure. I'm the Washington correspondent. They brought me on. They're a young relatively new magazine with some big ideas and I really like that about them. And the big idea is essentially this. I think that you probably agree with this. Science today is transforming all aspects of our society. Science is transforming the arts. We talked about science and the arts just now.
C: Science is transforming politics because science matters more and more to political decisions. Science is transforming the law. Science is transforming business. Science is transforming culture. Science is culture. That's the motto of the magazine and they are trying to cover that. And it's really a bold undertaking to try to cover this for a mass audience and doing what I can to help it succeed.
S: Great. And are the editors generally have a solid scientific—would you say skeptical underpinnings, or...?
C: Oh, I think definitely. I think there's a lot of overlap—
C: —between the SEED crowd and some of the skeptic crowd. I mean, they're—they have Steven Pinker; they bring him on board to do a lot.
S: He's great. Love his work.
C: Yeah. Stuff like that, so. A lot of the same people, as you would expect, I think, given what they're covering. They're very into Sam Harris, too. Which is more—less skeptical and more humanist kinds of stuff. Questioning religion kind of things.
S: Do they cover that as well?
C: I think that certainly as miniatures of Sam Harris. I don't know any other things that they've done on the religion topic but, yeah sure.
S: 'Cause on this show we would talk about religion only as far as it intersects with science or science policy, but not religion or belief per se. I don't know if this—it sounds like the mission of this magazine is more scientific so—
C: Oh, yeah. Definitely. Definitely.
S: So I mean so far do they talk about religious—purely religious issues or is it just only where it intersects with science?
C: No. Only where it intersects with science. Science is the driving force and inspiration here.
E: It should be. Good.
C: It's perfect for me because of what I do.
S: Right. It sounds interesting. This is the first I'm hearing of it was through just reading your website. So...
C: Well, it's new.
S: I'll have to pick it up.
C: Go check it out. SEED Magazine. I have the cover story of the latest issue, which is about the Dover trial. The Dover, Pennsylvania trial. And evolution. So, I think they picked a good topic for the cover story of this issue, because it's so hot right now.
S: Right. Right.
S: Well, I believe that we are out of time. Chris Mooney, thank you so much for being on the Skeptics' Guide.
C: Thanks for having me.
S: I hope we can have you on again sometime.
S: Again, take a look at our website and there are links to Chris's Doubt and About column, to the SEED Media Group website, and to Chris Mooney's personal website. Perry, Evan, thanks again for joining me.
E: Thank you. And thank you, Chris.
P: See you all next week.
S: We'll see you next time on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes see our website at www.theness.com.
Today I Learned
- Steve's favorite character in the Harry Potter series is Hermione Granger.
- Steve was friends at Yale with Chris Mooney, who wrote The Republican War on Science
- Senate.gov: "Inhofe Delivers Major Speech On The Science Of Climate Change"
- The NESS: Is Magic Real?