Tonight, PBS's NOVA will air a strongly pro-vaccine special, called "Vaccines: Calling the Shots." If you care about science, it's something you should watch.
The program focuses on our faulty risk perceptions around vaccines, how many people are vastly more scared than they ought to be of a tiny risk (vaccination) while ignoring a huge one, the return of deadly diseases. The consequence could not be more grave: In a scene that is just hard to watch, the program shows a tiny infant suffering from whooping cough, its mother weeping, nurses running in constantly to sit the baby up (he cannot even raise himself) so that he does not choke. It's heartbreaking.
Here's a preview:
Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that "Vaccines" makes a powerful case for immunization. It lays out the overwhelming science demonstrating the safety of vaccines and also shows you how the immune system works and why conditions like autism likely have a genetic and early developmental explanation, rather than being caused by vaccine "injury."
Unfortunately, it also shows that again and again in history, after a disease (like smallpox) is beaten back by vaccinations and medical science, people who are no longer threatened by the real danger then start to worry about the inoculation itself.
Long before modern times, human beings caused great extinctions of charismatic animals, including many species of birds. From the gigantic Moas of New Zealand (the Polynesians killed them off in about 100 years after arriving), to the Dodo and Passenger Pigeon, we made nature poorer, throwing away biological diversity and unique products of evolution that can never be replaced.
But it looks like all of that may have been a meager preview to the consequences of climate change for the diversity of birds in our modern world. Such is the upshot of a vast new study by the Audubon Society's scientists, which overall finds that by the end of the century, more than half of all North American bird species will be "threatened" by climate change. (The study did not examine the nearly 10,000 other bird species around the world, but there's no reason to think the punchline for them would be very different.)
There are currently 588 North American bird species, and the Audubon study projected that out of those, 314 will lose "more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080," and another 126—the "climate endangered" species—will lose that much by as soon as 2050. Losing habitat is, of course, not the same as extinction. Some of these species enjoy legal protections already, and some live on other continents, too. And some will find new habitats. But clearly, the loss of habitat is a major threat to a species.
Here are 10 birds classified as "climate endangered" by the report:
Evangelist T.T. Martin's books against the theory of evolution are sold in Dayton, Tennessee, scene of the 1925 Scopes trial.
Are science and religion doomed to eternal "warfare," or can they just get along? Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and atheists debate this subject endlessly (and often, angrily). We hear a lot less from economists on the matter, however. But in a recent paper, Princeton economist Roland Bénabou and two colleagues unveiled a surprising finding that would at least appear to bolster the "conflict" camp: Both across countries and also across US states, higher levels of religiosity are related to lower levels of scientific innovation.
"Places with higher levels of religiosity have lower rates of scientific and technical innovation, as measured by patents per capita," comments Bénabou. He adds that the pattern persists "when controlling for differences in income per capita, population, and rates of higher education."
That's the most salient finding from the paper by Bénabou and his colleagues, which uses an economic model to explore how scientific innovation, religiosity, and the power of the state interact to form different "regimes." The three kinds of regimes that they identify: a secular, European-style regime in which religion has very little policy influence and science garners great support; a repressive, theocratic regime in which the state and religion merge to suppress science; and a more intermediate, American-style regime in which religion and science both thrive, with the state supporting science and religions (mostly) trying to accommodate themselves to its findings.
It is in the process of this inquiry on the relationship between science, religion, and the state that the researchers dive into an analysis of patents, both in the United States and across the globe. And the results are pretty striking.
First, the researchers looked at the raw data on patents per capita (taken from the World Intellectual Property Organization's data) and religiosity (based on the following question from the World Values Survey: "Independently of whether you go to church or not, would you say you are: a religious person, not a religious person, a convinced atheist, don't know"). And they found a "strong negative relationship" between the two. In other words, for countries around the world, more religion was tied to fewer patents per individual residing in the country.
Those data aren't shown here, however, because in many ways, that would be too simplistic of an analysis. It is clear that many other factors than just religion (wealth, education, and so on) influence a country's number of patents per capita. What's striking, however, is that after the authors controlled for no less than five other standard variables related to innovation (population, levels of economic development, levels of foreign investment, educational levels, and intellectual property protections) the relationship still persisted. Here's a scatterplot showing what the data look like after applying these controls:
Note that Japan and China clearly stand out as highly secular, highly innovative countries. At the other extreme, meanwhile, we find nations like Portugal, Morocco, and Iran. (The full analysis in the study also included data from the years 1980 and 1995; those are not shown here. Only country data from the year 2000 are labeled above.)
One important point of to keep in mind before comparing individual countries with one another: The figure above should not be interpreted as saying (for example) that China produces more patents per capita than the United States. Indeed, that isn't actually true: While Chinese residents filed more total patent applications (560,681) in 2012 than citizens of any other country including the United States (460,276), the US still filed more patents per capita, since its population is less than a third of China's. Rather, what this result means is that after controlling for other factors, China appears to have more unexplained innovation "left over" than the United States. (For stats nerds: What we are talking about here is the residual after a regression analysis.) It is this leftover or residual value—the differences in innovation that can't be explained by other factors—that the researchers are saying is associated with religion.
The authors then apply a similar analysis to the 50 US states, this time using patent data from the US Patent and Trademark Office and religion questions from a 2008 Pew Survey, including the following: "How important is religion in your life: very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?" Here's the result, after controls for the gross state product per capita, state population, and educational levels:
Note that states like Vermont and Oregon are highly innovative and not very religious, whereas innovation lags in states like Arkansas and Mississippi, even as religion thrives. The authors note in their paper, however, that while the Bible Belt states tend to show the most religion and least innovation, the finding does not depend on them. "The negative association holds throughout the sample," they write.
Once again, before going and trying to compare states with one another: Keep in mind that the figure above does not mean that Delaware or Idaho produce more patents per capita than Massachusetts or California. Once again, it simply means that Delaware and Idaho have more "left over"—or residual—innovation after other factors are controlled for.
It is important to keep in mind that these findings are correlational in nature; the authors explain that they do not allow for "definite causal inferences to be drawn." Their own view is that causation probably "goes both ways": Religiosity stifles innovation, but at the same time, innovation and science weaken religiosity. Or as they put it: "In both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a significant negative relationship between religiosity and innovativeness (patents per capita), even after controlling for the standard empirical determinants of the latter."
Explaining in more detail, Bénabou notes that he thinks that much comes down to the political power of the religious population in a given location. If it is large enough, it can wield its strength to block new insights. "Disruptive new ideas and practices emanating from science, technical progress or social change are then met with greater resistance and diffuse more slowly," comments Bénabou, citing everything from attempts to control science textbook content to efforts to cut public funding of certain kinds of research (for instance involving embryonic stem cells or cloned human embryos). In secular places, by contrast, "discoveries and innovations occur faster, and some of this new knowledge inevitably erodes beliefs in any fixed dogma."
So what do other scholars think? "It is a very important finding. And it is done well and correctly, using state of the art techniques," comments Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University who is familiar with the Bénabou et al. paper (he is thanked in the acknowledgments). Mokyr admits that "innovation is hard to quantify," but one reasonable way to do it—if still imperfect—is to "count patents."
Doing so, it would seem, lends support to the science-religion conflict thesis: the idea that in places where religion predominates, inquiry truly does take a hit.
ISIS militants in Syria, holding a flag reading "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"
"Its Islam over everything."
So read the Twitter bio of Douglas McAuthur McCain—or, as he reportedly called himself, "Duale Khalid"—the San Diego man who is apparently the first American to be killed while fighting for ISIS. According to NBC News, McCain grew up in Minnesota, was a basketball player, and wanted to be a rapper. Friends describe him as a high school "goofball" and "a really nice guy." So what could have made him want to join the ranks of other Americans drawn towards militant Islam like John Walker Lindh and Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn? And how can we explain the dozens of other Americans who have also gone off to fight as jihadists in Syria, for ISIS and other militant groups?
According to University of Maryland psychologist and terrorism expert Arie Kruglanski, who has studied scores of militant extremists, part of the clue may lie in that Twitter tagline of McCain's. Not just its content, but the mindset that it indicates—one that sees the world in sharp definition, no shades of gray. "These extreme ideologies have a twofold type of appeal," explains Kruglanski on the latest Inquiring Minds podcast. "First of all, they are very coherent, black and white, right or wrong. Secondly, they afford the possibility of becoming very unique, and part of a larger whole."
That kind of belief system, explains Kruglanski, is highly attractive to young people who lack a clear sense of self-identity, and are craving a sense of larger significance. In fact, Kruglanski and his colleagues have found that one important psychological trait in particular seems to define these militants who leave their own culture and go off to embrace some ideology about which they may not even know very much. (We recently learned that Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two British jihadis who went to fight in Syria last year, ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon before they departed.)
These young people seem to have what psychologists call a very strong "need for cognitive closure," a disposition that leads to an overwhelming desire for certainty, order, and structure in one's life to relieve the sensation of gnawing—often existential—doubt and uncertainty. According to Kruglanski, this need is something everyone can experience from time to time. We all sometimes get stressed out by uncertainty, and want answers. We all feel that way in moments, in particular situations, but what Kruglanski shows is that some of us feel that way more strongly, or maybe even all the time. And if you go through the world needing closure, it predisposes you to seek out the ideologies and belief systems that most provide it.
Fundamentalist religions are among the leading candidates. Followers of militant Islam "know exactly what is right and what is wrong, how to behave in every situation," explains Kruglanski. "It's very normative and constraining, and a person who is a bit uncertain, has the need for closure, would be very attracted to an ideology of that kind." And for an outsider coming into Islam and drawn to that sense of certainty that it imparts, Kruglanski adds, you then want to prove yourself. To show your total devotion and commitment to the cause.
That's not to say every fundamentalist becomes a terrorist, any more than it is to say that every person with a need for cognitive closure does. Other life factors definitely matter as well, and the need for cognitive closure is a trait measured on a continuum; it's not that you either have it our you don't. All of that said, the trait clearly does show up again and again in these extremists.
Followers of militant Islam "know exactly what is right and what is wrong, how to behave in every situation," explains Kruglanski.
How do we know? Kruglanski and his colleagues have directly studied violent extremists and measured them on these traits. In Sri Lanka, for instance, Kruglanski was able to study thousands of members of the so-called Tamil Tigers (more formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). A militant and terrorist group fighting to secede from Sri Lanka—a conflict fueled by both linguistic and religious differences—the Tigers had lost their civil war and surrendered, and many were now in a deradicalization program (thousands have since been released). "We administered questionnaires and interviews to about 10,000 of them, and we see how their thinking has evolved, and how it has changed," he says.
Other psychological research points to conclusions highly consistent with those of Kruglanski. Psychologist Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia, for instance, has investigated a trait called "integrative complexity," which is clearly related to the need for cognitive closure and can be analyzed by examining an individual's public speeches or writing. It is literally a measure of the complexity of thought, and one of its key aspects is whether one accepts that there are a variety of legitimate views about an issue, rather than thinking there is only one right way.
Suedfeld's work has shown that in global conflicts, a decrease in integrative complexity on the part of the contending parties—exhibited, for instance, in an escalation of black-and-white rhetoric—is a good predictor that violent conflict will occur. He has also shown, through analyzing the speeches of Osama bin Laden, that the terrorist leader's integrative complexity plummeted markedly in the run up to two major attacks: the twin embassy bombings in 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Bin Laden "was very purist in his ideology," adds Kruglanski—a trait suggesting his need for closure.
The USS Cole, with a visible hole in its side following a terrorist attack Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons
And as it relates to terrorism, the need for cognitive closure has another, surprising implication. According to Kruglanski's research, when terrorists attack a population, the fear and uncertainty that are created (for instance, following the 9/11 attacks) induce a strong need for closure in the attacked population as a whole. And this creates a kind of extremism of its own. People become more suspicious of outsiders and much more supportive of strong security measures that could curtail individual liberties. And they tend to rally around what is perceived to be a strong leader.
"The psychology of the terrorist victim—there is a high need for closure, high need for clarity, high need to commit to an ideology that would provide quick answers," says Kruglanski. That's certainly not saying that the victims of terrorism are themselves equivalent to terrorists. But it does mean that as psychological warfare, terrorism might very well work.
So how do you overcome the need for closure, and achieve deradicalization, when much of this core impulse emerges from the very human need to manage uncertainty and find meaning and significance in life? Kruglanski celebrates community-based programs in Muslim countries that try to "inoculate" young people against extreme ideologies. He also praises deradicalization efforts that seek to weaken the ideology of former terrorists with the promise of potential release and reintegration.
Both types of programs have shown at least some effectiveness, says Kruglanski. They help former extremists "find alternative ways of being significant, making a contribution, other than violence."
This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of a new Pew report showing that social media may actually discourage the expression of some opinions (rather than enabling them), and of how neuroscientists and filmmakers are working together to understand how people's perceptions actually work in a movie theater.
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
To understand the pitched fight over this question, you first need to realize that for many years, we've been burning huge volumes of coal to get electricity—and coal produces a ton of carbon dioxide, the chief gas behind global warming. Natural gas, by contrast, produces half as much carbon dioxide when it burns, and thus, the fracking boom has been credited with a decline in US greenhouse gas emissions. So far so good, right?
Umm, maybe. Recently on our Inquiring Minds podcast, we heard from Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, who contends that it just isn't that simple. Methane (the main component of natural gas) is also a hard-hitting greenhouse gas, if it somehow finds its way into the atmosphere. And Ingraffea argued that because of high leakage rates of methane from shale gas development, that's exactly what's happening. The trouble is that methane has a much greater "global warming potential" than carbon dioxide, meaning that it has a greater "radiative forcing" effect on the climate over a given time period (and especially over shorter time periods). In other words, according to Ingraffea, the CO2 savings from burning natural gas instead of coal is being canceled out by all the methane that leaks into the atmosphere when we're extracting and transporting that gas. (Escaped methane from natural gas drilling complements other preexisting sources, such as the belching of cows.)
"Methane mitigation is like trying to stockpile bananas to eat during retirement," says University of Chicago geoscientist Raymond Pierrehumbert.
But not every scientist agrees with Ingraffea's methane-centered argument. In particular, Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geoscientist at the University of Chicago, has prominently argued that carbon dioxide "is in a class by itself" among greenhouse warming pollutants, because unlike methane, its impacts occur over such a dramatic timescale that they are "essentially irreversible." That's because of carbon dioxide's incredibly long-term effect on the climate: Given a large pulse of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, much of it will still be there 10,000 years later. By contrast, even though methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide over a short timeframe, its atmospheric lifetime is only about 12 years.
Applied to the debate over natural gas, that could mean that seeing gas displace coal is a good thing in spite of any concerns about methane leaks.
To hear this counterpoint, we invited Pierrehumbert on Inquiring Minds as well. "You can afford to actually have a little bit of extra warming due to methane if you're using its a bridge fuel, because the benefit you get from reducing the carbon dioxide emissions stays with you forever, whereas the harm done by methane goes away more or less as soon as you stop using it," he explained on the show. You can listen to the interview—which is part of a larger show—below, beginning at about 4:40 (or you can leap to it by clicking here):
Pierrehumbert's arguments are based on a recent paper that he published in the Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences, extensively comparing carbon dioxide with more short-lived climate pollutants, like methane, black carbon, and ozone. The paper basically states that the metric everybody has been using to compare carbon dioxide with methane, the "global warming potential" described by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is deeply misleading.
The IPCC, in its 2013 report, calls global warming potential the "default metric" for comparing the consequences, over a fixed period of time, of emitting the same volume of two different greenhouse gases. And according to the IPCC, using this approach, methane has 84 times the atmospheric effect that an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide does over a period of 20 years. But, it's crucial to remember that that's over 20 years; at the end of the period, the carbon dioxide will still be around and the methane won't. The metric, writes Humbert, is "completely insensitive" to any damages due to global warming that occur beyond a particular time window, "no matter how catastrophic they may be." Elsewhere, he calls the approach "crude."
To see why, consider this figure from Pierrehumbert's paper, comparing the steady emission, over 200 years, of two hypothetical greenhouse gases (the solid blue and red lines). One gas lasts in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, and one that lasts only 10 years. Each has the same "global warming potential" at 100 years, but notice how the short lived gas' warming effect vanishes almost as soon as the emissions of it end:
Comparison of two greenhouse gases that have the same "global warming potential" over 100 years but very different lifetimes.
The gases in the figure aren't carbon dioxide and methane, but you get the point. The upshot, Pierrehumbert argues, is that it is almost always a good idea to cut CO2 emissions—even if doing so results in a temporary increase of methane emissions from leaky fracked wells. As he writes:
…there is little to be gained from early mitigation of the short-lived gas [methane]. In contrast, any delay in mitigation of the long-lived gas ratchets up the warming irreversibly…the situation is rather like saving money for one's retirement—the earlier one begins saving, the more one's savings grow by the time of retirement, so the earlier one starts, the easier it is to achieve the goal of a prosperous retirement. Methane mitigation is like trying to stockpile bananas to eat during retirement. Given the short lifetime of bananas, it makes little sense to begin saving them until your retirement date is quite near.
And that, in turn, implies that any displacing of coal with natural gas is a good thing for the climate. It's just less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plain and simple.
Ingraffea disagrees. By email, he commented that Pierrehumbert "is correct that the long term risk to climate is from CO2, but he is willing to accept the almost certain short term consequences which can only be ameliorated by reductions in methane and black carbon."
But interestingly, there is one major commonality between Ingraffea's point of view and that of Pierrehumbert. Namely, both emphasize the importance of getting beyond natural gas, and transitioning to 100 percent clean energy.
Here's the logic: Because carbon dioxide is so bad for the climate, the fact that natural gas burning does produce some of it (even if not as much as coal) means that if cheap natural gas discourages the use of carbon-free sources like nuclear, solar, or wind energy, then that's also a huge climate negative. So just as natural gas is not nearly as bad as coal from a carbon perspective, it is also not nearly as good as renewable energy. And that, in turn, means that while natural gas can play a transitional role toward a clean energy future, that role has to be relatively brief.
"It's useful as a bridge fuel," says Pierrehumbert, "but if using it as a bridge fuel just drives out renewables and other carbon-free sources of energy, it's really a bridge to nowhere."