Blue Marble

More and More Americans Think Astrology Is Science

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:00 AM EST

"I believe in a lot of astrology." So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a "spiritual lens"…and that she believes in aliens.

According to data from the National Science Foundation's just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry's direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is "not at all scientific" declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.

The data on Americans' astrological beliefs are compiled by NSF but come from a variety of sources; since 2006 they have come from the General Social Survey. Over the years, the GSS and other surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: "Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?"

In response, a substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say consider astrology either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific." That's bad enough—the NSF report compares it with China, where 92 percent of the public does not believe in horoscopes—but the new evidence suggests we are also moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say astrology is scientifically bunk has been declining ever since a high point for astrology skepticism in 2004, when it hit 66 percent.

The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less "factual knowledge," NSF reported. In the latter group, there was a staggering 17 percentage point decline in how many people were willing to say astrology is unscientific, from 52 percent in 2010 to just 35 percent in 2012. Also apparently to blame are younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least "sort of" scientific, and those aged 35 to 44. In 2010, 64 percent of this age group considered astrology totally bunk; in 2012, by contrast, only 51 percent did, a 13 percentage point change.

Here's a breakdown of the changes in Americans' astrology beliefs by age group:

So what's behind these data? The lead author of the report chapter in question, public opinion specialist John Besley of Michigan State University, cautions that we should probably wait for further data "to see if it's a real change" before speculating. But, he admits, the apparent increase in astrology belief "popped out to me when I saw it."

So if it turns out that Americans are indeed becoming even more devoted to astrology than they already are? As with many things in life, there's a Shakespeare quotation appropriate to the situation: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

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Is Shipping Oil by Rail As Dangerous As the Keystone Pipeline?

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:00 AM EST

When the State Department issued its long-awaited environmental-impact statement on the Keystone XL project earlier this month, one of its key findings was that if the controversial pipeline weren't built, oil-laden rail cars would pick up the slack. "Rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if new pipelines are delayed or not constructed," it argued. As we noted recently, that rail transit is already underway. ​According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), crude oil traveling by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. Recently, an ExxonMobil official said the company had already begun to use trains to haul oil out of the Canadian tar sands, and the company plans to move up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day from a new terminal by 2015. In other words, tar sands will be developed one way or another, according to the State Department, with or without the $5.4 billion pipeline that would eventually link Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

The AAR argues carrying crude by tanker car is safe, citing a statistic that 99.9977 percent of dangerous chemical shipments by rail reached their destination without incident through 2010, making it safer than other forms of transport. But as crude by rail in the United States is increasing—the AAR says shipments have shot up 443 percent since 2005—so too are the spillsAn analysis of the data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows that in the US, 7 of the worst 10 railroad oil spills of the past decade happened in the last three years. This number doesn't include the catastrophic accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, which decimated the town and killed 47 people.

In fact, at over 1.2 million gallons spilled in total, more crude oil was spilled from trains last year than every other year since 1971 combined. The 10 worst spills together cost nearly $2 million in damages. The worst was in Aliceville, Alabama, on November 8, when nearly 750,000 gallons spilled from a 90-car train after it derailed, setting off a series of explosions. In Casselton, North Dakota, nearly a half-million gallons spilled on December 30, after a grain train derailed in front of a BNSF train filled with crude oil, igniting an inferno that forced the town to evacuate.

​The severity of the Lac-Megantic incident forced the National Transportation Safety Board, in conjunction with the Canadians (where crude by rail is also booming), to issue a 15-page document recommending increased safely measures. The report finds that "railroad accidents involving crude oil have a potential for disastrous consequences and environmental contamination equal to that of the worst on-shore pipeline accidents." Despite the urgency, the report says not enough has been done to properly equip US railways to face the increasing demands: "Although railroad accidents involving large numbers of crude oil tank cars can have similar outcomes [to pipeline spills], oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation."

North Carolina Protected Duke Energy from Pollution Complaints Before the Company's Coal Ash Disaster

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 11:23 AM EST
A coal ash dump site in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Last year, North Carolina's top environmental regulators thwarted three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits aimed at forcing Duke Energy, the largest electricity company in the country, to clean up its toxic coal ash pits in the state. That June, the state went even further, saying it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's 31 coal ash storage ponds in the state—an act that protected the company from further federal lawsuits. Last week, one of those coal ash storage ponds ruptured, belching more than 80,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River.

Now environmental groups and former regulators are charging that North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke for 30 years, has created an atmosphere where the penalties for polluting the environment are low.

The Associated Press reports that McCrory's Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked three federal Clean Water Act suits in 2013 by stepping in with its own enforcement authority "at the last minute." This protected Duke from the kinds of stiff fines and penalties that can result from federal lawsuits. Instead, state regulators arranged settlements that carried miniscule financial penalties and did not require Duke to change how it stores the toxic byproducts of its coal-fired power plants. After blocking the first three suits, which were brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the state filed notices saying that it would handle environmental enforcement at every one of Duke's remaining North Carolina coal ash storage sites—protecting the company from Clean Water Act lawsuits linked to its coal waste once and for all.

The Dan River disaster became public on February 3—one day after Duke officials had been alerted that a pipe beneath a coal ash storage pit of nearly 30 acres had ruptured. "The company reports that up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water drained out, turning the river gray and cloudy for miles," the AP reports. "The accident ranks as the third largest such coal ash spill in the nation's history."

The AP story suggests that McCrory's settlements with Duke are part of a pattern of regulatory slackness. A former North Carolina regulator who recently left to work for an environmental advocacy group after nine years working for the state told the AP that under McCrory, who took office in early 2013, she was often instructed not to fine or cite polluters, but instead to help them reach compliance standards. The article continues:

Since his unsuccessful first campaign for governor in 2008, campaign finance reports show Duke Energy, its political action committee, executives and their immediate families have donated at least $1.1 million to McCrory's campaign and affiliated groups that spent on TV ads, mailings and events to support him.

After winning in 2012, McCrory has appointed former Duke employees like himself to key posts, including state Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker.

His appointee to oversee the state environmental department, Raleigh businessman John Skvarla, describes his agency's role as being a "partner" to those it regulates, whom he refers to as "customers."

"That is why we have been able to turn DENR from North Carolina's No. 1 obstacle of resistance into a customer-friendly juggernaut in such a short time," Skvarla wrote in a letter to the editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, published in December. "People in the private sector pour their hearts and souls into their work; instead of crushing their dreams, they now have a state government that treats them as partners."

McCrory hit back, telling the AP that his administration is "the first in North Carolina history to take legal action against the utility regarding coal ash ponds." Duke Energy has also made large donations to Democrats, giving $10 million for the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

Will Sochi Have Enough Snow?

| Fri Feb. 7, 2014 7:00 AM EST
American snowboarder Karly Shorr competes in the women's slopestyle snowboarding qualifying session at the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

The Winter Olympics kicked off yesterday in Sochi, Russia (first up: men's snowboarding). When Russian President Vladimir Putin pitched Sochi to the games' organizers back in 2007, he promised there would be "real snow"... a bold claim for a town better known as a seaside summer resort. Sure enough, this week Sochi had highs in the 50s (warmer than the Super Bowl last weekend in New Jersey) and—uh oh—no new snowfall in the town. Conditions are a bit better in the mountains where the ski events take place, and organizers insist the games are ready to speed ahead on a fresh layer of fake snow.

Low snowfall has become a chronic problem for skiers and snowboarders worldwide, which has turned many of them into vocal activists against climate change. President Obama even mentioned snow sports in his major global warming speech last summer, when he said that "mountain communities worry about what smaller snowpacks will mean for tourism."

Porter Fox
Porter Fox Courtesy Porter Fox

In some cases, global warming can lead to increased heavy precipitation of all kinds, and that includes snow, as anyone who lived through the recent polar vortex in the eastern US can attest. But the best conditions for snow sports depend on a snow cover that lasts through the winter, not simply a couple serious blizzards. Over the course of the season, high temperatures can burn through even the heaviest snowfall, and according to Porter Fox, that's already happening from the Rockies to Sochi.

Fox is a veteran skier and journalist for Powder magazine who is keeping a gloved finger on the pulse of shifting slopes. He recently published a book that details how global warming is threatening the entire business model of the ski industry. It's called Deep: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. Fox joined us for today's Inquiring Minds podcast episode, and told me that climate change could soon send snow sports crashing downhill.

You can stream our interview below (it can be found at minutes 3:30-8:30) or scroll down to read a transcript:

Porter Fox: There is going to be huge change in the ski industry in the next 10 to 20 years, and there is going to be cataclysmic change in the next 50 to 70 years. In Europe, North America, around the world, really.

Climate Desk: For skiers and snowboarders, what is that actually going to look like?

Fox: Some of the big visual indicators are we've lost a million square miles of spring snowpack in the last 45 years. Some other changes, in the Northern Rockies that snowpack is down 15 to 30 percent. Specifically in the US the rate of winter warming has tripled since 1970, it seems that winters are starting to warm faster than other seasons, and even high elevation areas are warming faster, and very specifically the US West is one of half a dozen hotspots that are warming faster than the national average. Every single one of those factors is bad news for the Sierras, the Rockies, the Cascades, my favorite places to ski in.

Why Bill Nye Won the Creationism Debate Last Night

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 12:06 PM EST

They warned Bill Nye not to do it. Not to go into the hokey museum of the America's leading Young Earth creationist, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, and try to reason with the guy.

Evolution defenders have long turned down such high-profile public debates, of the sort that creationists yearn for. The logic is simple: It puts creationism on an equal footing with real science; and once you've done that, the creationist has already, in effect, won.

But something funny happened on the way to disaster last night at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Sure, creationist leader Ken Ham got the opportunity to appear before a huge audience (some 750,000 people were tuned in simultaneously at one moment in the debate; the total number of viewers is surely much higher). He got to show he was likable, and play a lot of well-produced videos featuring people with Ph.D.s or scientific training who nonetheless embrace creationism. In all likelihood, then, Ham gained some followers last night. And he definitely got some priceless advertising for his museum.

Yet it came at the cost of being trounced by Nye, who managed to show not only how downright absurd Young Earth creationist beliefs are (noting, for instance, that there is a 9,550-year-old tree in Sweden that is itself several thousand years older than Ham thinks the Earth is), but to demonstrate the extreme nature of Ham's brand of creationism. In one of the best lines of the night, Nye emphasized that "billions" of religious people around the world accept science, adding, "the exception is you, Mr. Ham."

Most of all, Nye allowed Ham to undermine himself before the audience. By in effect preaching, rather than sticking to scientific assertions, Ham demonstrated what we've always known about creationism, and what many canny anti-evolutionists have sought to conceal: It's a religious doctrine, not a scientific one. When asked what kind of evidence would change his mind in the question and answer phase of the debate, Ham basically had no answer. "The answer to that question is, I'm a Christian," said Ham. "And as a Christian, I can't prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word, and shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ, the Bible is the word of God. I admit that that's where I start from."

The picture of a dogmatist, holding out against all evidence for an Earth that's somehow supposed to be only a few thousand years old, where somehow all plant life survived being inundated for months by Noah's flood, shone through.

To be sure, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Nye, who in his 30-minute presentation at the outset of the debate laid out a host of facts and scientific details (about the ages of limestone, bristlecone pine trees, air trapped in ice cores, and much else) without articulating a clear message. Early in the debate, Nye's strategy seemed to be to simply show why Ham's brand of creationism is intellectually absurd, even as Nye himself played the role of a "reasonable man" (a phrase he repeated often) who found it all just too much to swallow.

Yet this approach likely failed to touch the audience emotionally by showing, for instance, what a threat creationism is to our kids' education, and what an affront it is to the many serious religious believers around the world who don't see any need to pit science and faith against each other. Instead, Nye piled on facts. Or as the moderator, CNN's Tom Foreman, put it when Nye finished, "That's a lot to take in."

But as the evening wore on, Nye proved he was better off the cuff than when he was formally presenting. And he started to land a different sort of punch, repeatedly emphasizing the threat to US competitiveness from creationism-infused education, and Young Earth creationism's exclusionary nature. "There are billions of people around the world who are religious and accept science," Nye emphasized repeatedly. Meanwhile, Ham appeared increasingly dogmatic, simply banishing from the realm of "observational science" (as he defined it) anything that would tell us how old the Earth is, or what happened there before modern humans could directly observe it.

And then, well, there were the lions. Ham's particular theology requires him to believe that before Noah's flood, all the animals were vegetarians. "I have not spent a lot of time with lions, but I can tell they have teeth that really aren't set up for broccoli," Nye countered.

"Just because an animal has sharp teeth, it doesn't mean it's a meat eater, it means it has sharp teeth," Ham answered, unbelievably.

Brian Malow, the science comedian, had fun with this one:

In the end, the most important thing about this debate, which drew dramatic attention, is that it was thoroughly disruptive of the evolution-creationism status quo. We've been in a rut in this battle for too long, with school boards and lawmakers continuing their stealth anti-evolution attacks (rarely admitting, as Ham so plainly did, that they're driven by religion) even as scientists wring their hands about American anti-intellectualism from the safety of their college towns.

Last night, in contrast, it all hung out. We saw what Young Earth creationists really, really think. They believe in vegetarian lions and an Earth younger than its oldest-living tree. And for most Americans, there's just no way that makes any sense.

Creationist Ken Ham: Climate Change Goes Back to "the Flood of Noah's Day"

| Wed Feb. 5, 2014 2:54 AM EST

When Bill Nye the Science Guy took the stage Tuesday night at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, his task was to refute the idea that biblical creationism is a scientifically valid idea—one that should be taught in schools.

But as we've seen again and again, science denial is rarely limited in scope. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Nye's opponent, museum head Ken Ham, doesn't just reject evolution; he's also spreading some rather unscientific ideas about global warming. Appearing on CNN after the debate, Ham informed viewers that "there's been climate change ever since the flood of Noah's day." Ham added that while the climate had warmed "a bit in the past," it's now "cooling again." (Not true.) You can watch Ham and Nye debate climate science in the clip above.

This has been something of a theme for Ham, who says in a series of online videos that this supposed "cooling trend" is "no surprise to creation scientists." According to Ham: "Western governments have invested so much in the carbon dioxide theory that they probably won't change their minds any time soon. But Scripture tells us what really happened: We live on a young Earth that has undergone radical climate changes from the global flood."

Watch:

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How the Feds Are Ripping You Off To Benefit Big Coal

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 6:41 PM EST

Federal coffers are missing out on what could be billions of dollars in lost revenue due to shoddy accounting work by the office that handles leases for coal mines on public land, according to a report made public today by the investigative arm of Congress.

The Government Accountability Office was asked by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a stalwart climate hawk, to look into whether the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management routinely sells leases to coal mining companies for far less than their market value. Investigators found that BLM agents in Wyoming (by far the country's largest coal producer) set prices based on coal's historic value, but, in contradiction of the department's own rules, fail to take into account how much it will likely be worth in the future. Similar problems were found in other coal-producing states. As a result, the GAO report claims, many leases were sold far beneath their true market value, depriving taxpayers of additional royalties (which, as it stands, come to about $1 billion per year) that are normally skimmed from the mines' profits.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed," said Tom Kenworthy, an energy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has kept tabs on Interior's longstanding problems with coal lease valuation.

"As a net result, the public is getting screwed."

That the leases are selling for less than they're worth seems clear; what's less obvious is exactly how much money is at stake, since the values were never properly set in the first place (the GAO report doesn't specify a number). A 2012 analysis of federal lease records by former New York State Deputy Comptroller Tom Sanzillo for the independent Institute for Energy Economics found that undervalued coal leases cost the Treasury $28.9 billion in lost revenue since 1983, or almost $1 billion every year. Meanwhile, analysis by Senator Markey's office put the figure at $200 million, although a spokesperson would not specify the time period to which that applied, as the underlying data are considered proprietary to the Interior Department, he said.

Since 1990, the federal government has leased 107 parcels of public land for coal mining; these parcels typically account for 25-40 percent of the roughly one billion tons of coal produced annually nationwide. That adds up to a massive carbon footprint: Fossil fuels produced on public land create roughly a billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution every year, about as much as 285 coal plants.

Watch: Bill Nye the Science Guy Debates Ken Ham (the Creationist Guy)

| Tue Feb. 4, 2014 3:02 PM EST

As we reported earlier, the case for evolution is a slam dunk. Nonetheless, a lot of people don't accept it, and tonight at 7 pm ET, a mega debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham, leader of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, goes forward. The debate will be at the museum itself. It is at 7 pm ET, and can be watched live above.

For more of our coverage of evolution, see below. I will be live tweeting the debate on Twitter; follow me here.

Here's What People Are Saying About the Big Keystone XL Report

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 5:29 PM EST

The end is in sight for the tumultuous public debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. On Friday, the State Department released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for TransCanada Corporation's controversial pipeline project—and concluded that approving the pipeline to carry oil from Alberta's tar sands would have little impact on climate change.

The environmental assessment is one of the last major reports awaited by President Obama before he decides whether or not to approve construction of the pipeline. In his June speech on climate change, Obama said he would sanction the pipeline "only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." The pipeline requires State Department review because it crosses the international border between the US and Canada.

Obama's final decision is still weeks away. But reactions to the report are already plentiful—here's a sampling.

A statement from 350.org, the environmental organization founded by climate change activist Bill McKibben, reads, in part, "The President has already laid out a climate test for Keystone XL, that it can't significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. It's  clear that Keystone XL fails that test…the pipeline would pose an astronomical cost to our climate and a huge risk to families along the pipeline route. Keystone XL will fuel the climate crisis, which means more drought, more fires, more extreme weather events, and a more cost to our economy and the environment."

Larry Schweiger, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, tells the Washington Post:

Regardless of what the EIS says, the Canadians have admitted that the amount of carbon they're going to be releasing from the tar sands will increase Canada's total emissions by 38 percent by 2030 instead of reducing emissions when all the science says that's what we need to do in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Cindy Schild, senior manager for refining and oil sands policy at the American Petroleum Institute, told Bloomberg News, "If they can't show this project is in our national interest, what is? The only thing left [is] for the president to decide that this project is in our national interest."

Brian Straessle, a spokesman for API, added, "The president has had five years of inaction on the Keystone XL pipeline. If 2014 is really his 'year of action,' he should start by approving Keystone."

In a statement, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the Natural Resources Defense Council's international program director, said, "This is far from over. Next we must address whether the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be in America's national interest. To that question, there is only one answer: No. The evidence is overwhelming that this project would significantly worsen carbon pollution, endanger our farms, our homes and our fresh water, create few jobs and transport dirty tar sands to the Gulf for export."

Only Obama Can Block the Keystone Pipeline Now

| Fri Jan. 31, 2014 5:04 PM EST
Activists protest the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House.

The decision on whether or not to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, has always been President Obama's to make. But the environmental stakes are so high—leading climate scientist James Hansen is fond of referring to the pipeline as "game over for the climate" because it would promote the extraction of one of the dirtiest kinds of oil—that a decision has been delayed for the last few years as the State Department carries out a review of the project's likely environmental impact.

That wait ended today, as State released its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The report says the annual carbon emissions from producing, refining, and burning the oil the pipeline would move (830,000 barrels per day) would add up to 147-168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. (By contrast, the typical coal-fired power plant produces 3.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.) That sounds like a lot, but the report comes with an important caveat:

Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.

In other words, according to the report, those emissions are likely to happen whether the president approves Keystone XL or not. That's an important distinction, given that President Obama has already said that in order to gain approval, the pipeline must not increase carbon emissions. But there are other ways to move oil: For example, the report mentions that "rail will likely be able to accommodate new production if pipelines are delayed or not constructed." Rail transit is already underway; yesterday an ExxonMobil exec said the company had begun to use trains to pack oil out of the tar sands (despite their pretty awful safety record). But if the oil is going to be extracted (and the emissions emitted) one way or another, the case for blocking the pipeline per se becomes less clear.

There's still one more important document yet to be released by State: an investigation by the department's internal Inspector General into a potential conflict of interest by a contractor who helped produce the report, Environmental Resources Management. As Mother Jones first reported, State Department officials took steps to conceal that some ERM employees had ties to companies that would profit from the pipeline's construction. Last December, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz) led a coalition of House members who asked the president to delay release of the environmental impact statement until after the Inspector General's report is released, which is not expected for several more weeks.