MoJo Author Feeds: Chris Mooney | Mother Jones Mother Jones logo en The Strange Relationship Between Global Warming Denial and…Speaking English <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it's an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that <a href="" target="_blank">substantial minorities</a> of Americans deny, or are skeptical of, the science of climate change.</p> <p>The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the UK-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its "<a href="" target="_blank">Global Trends 2014</a>" report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t <a href="" target="_blank">Leo Hickman</a>). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/Screen%20Shot%202014-07-21%20at%202.05.20%20PM.png"><div class="caption"><a href="" target="_blank">Ipsos MORI Global Trends, 2014</a></div> </div> <p>Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, "the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and 'connected' population."</p> <p>Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.</p> <p>What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.</p> <p>Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like "doubt," "natural causes," "climate models," and other skeptic <em>mots</em> are readily available in other languages. So what's the real cause?</p> <p>One possible answer is that it's all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.</p> <p>"I do not find these results surprising,"&nbsp;says <a href=";view=article&amp;id=61&amp;Itemid=86" target="_blank">Riley Dunlap</a>, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. "It's the countries where <a href="" target="_blank">neo-liberalism</a> is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns&mdash;US, UK, Australia and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions." (Neoliberalism is an <a href="" target="_blank">economic philosophy</a> centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)</p> <p>Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An <a href="" target="_blank">apparent climate skeptic</a> or <a href="" target="_blank">lukewarmer</a>, Murdoch is the chairman of <a href="" target="_blank">News Corp</a> and <a href="" target="_blank">21st Century Fox</a>. (You can watch him express his climate views <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.</p> <p>In the US,<em> Fox News</em> and the<em> Wall Street Journal</em> lead the way; research shows that Fox watching <a href="" target="_blank">increases distrust</a> of climate scientists. (You can also catch <em>Fox News </em><a href="" target="_blank">in Canada</a>.) In Australia, a <a href="" target="_blank">recent study</a> found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers "did not accept" the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers&mdash;the<em> Australian, </em>the<em> Herald Sun</em>, and the<em> Daily Telegraph</em>&mdash;were particular hotbeds of skepticism. "The<em> Australian</em> represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields," noted the study.</p> <p>And then there's the UK. A <a href="" target="_blank">2010 academic study</a> found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate skepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, "the <em>Sun</em> newspaper offered a place for scornful skeptics on its opinion pages as did <em>The Times</em> and <em>Sunday Times </em>to a lesser extent." (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Daily Mail</em></a>, that feature plenty of skepticism but aren't owned by News Corp.)</p> <p>Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.</p> <p>And media aren't the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There's also the Anglophone nations' concentration of climate "skeptic" think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalizations necessary to feed this anti-science position. According to a <a href="" target="_blank">study</a> in <em>Climatic Change</em> earlier this year, the US is home to <em>91 </em>different organizations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a "climate change counter-movement." The annual funding of these organizations, collectively, is "just over $900 million." That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate "skeptic" activity, and while the study was limited to the US, it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.</p> <p>Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos MORI (which released the data) adds another possible causative factor behind the survey's results, noting that environmental concern is very high in China today, due to the omnipresent conditions of <a href="" target="_blank">environmental pollution</a>. By contrast, that's not a part of your everyday experience in England or Australia. "In many surveys in China, environment is the top concern," Page comments. "In contrast, in the west, it's a long way down the list behind the economy and crime."</p> <p>Whatever the precise concatenation of causes, the evidence seems clear. We English speakers have a special problem when it comes to understanding and accepting climate science. In language, we're Anglophones; but in climate science, we're a bunch of Anglophonies.</p></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Top Stories Tue, 22 Jul 2014 15:12:18 +0000 Chris Mooney 256631 at How Western Civilization Ended, Circa 2014 <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>You don't know it yet. There's no way that you could. But 400 years from now, a historian will write that the time in which you're now living is the "<a href="" target="_blank">Penumbral</a> Age" of human history&mdash;meaning, the period when a dark shadow began to fall over us all. You're living at the start of a new dark age, a new counter-Enlightenment. Why? Because too many of us living today, in the years just after the turn of the millennium, deny the science of climate change.</p> <p>Such is the premise of a thought-provoking new work of "science-based fiction" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard, Conway at Caltech) best known for their classic 2010 book, <em>Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. </em>In a surprising move, they have now followed up that expose of the roots of modern science denialism with a work of "<a href="" target="_blank">cli-fi</a>," or climate science fiction, entitled<em> </em><a href="" target="_blank"><em>The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future</em></a>.<strong> [SPOILER ALERT: Much of the plot of this book will be revealed below!] </strong>In it, Oreskes and Conway write from the perspective of a historian, living in China (the country that fared the best in facing the ravages of climate change) in the year 2393. The historian seeks to analyze the biggest paradox imaginable: Why humans who saw the climate disaster coming, who were thoroughly and repeatedly warned, did nothing about it.</p> <p>So why did two historians turn to sci-fi? On the latest installment of the <a href="" target="_blank">Inquiring Minds podcast</a>, Oreskes explained that after the extensive research that went into <em>Merchants of Doubt, </em>she and Conway "felt like we really understood the science, but we also felt that the scientific community had really not explained why any of this mattered. And we just kept coming back to this idea of, how do we really talk about why this matters, and not just for polar bears, and not just for people living in far flung places or far into the future, but what's really at stake.&rdquo;</p> <p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"></iframe></p> <p>The resulting book, <em>The Collapse of Western Civilization</em>, diverges in many respects from other cli-fi works, such as the novels of <a href="" target="_blank">Kim Stanley Robinson</a> (who clearly influenced Oreskes and Conway, and who blurbed their new book). <em>Collapse</em> is quite short, and hardly a study in character or plot. It has one narrator, and that narrator is a "scholar," approaching the topic analytically. The force of the story, then, comes not so much from dramatic elements, but rather, from its simple conceit: How would a fair-minded thinker, living 400 years from now, evaluate us?</p> <p>The answer couldn't be more depressing: We got it all wrong. We sacrificed our birthright. We unleashed ravaging heat waves, <a href="" target="_blank">destabilized ice sheets</a>, shot chemicals into the skies in a failed attempt to fix our mess, then halted that intervention and made everything <em>still</em> worse. (All of these things unfold in the story.)</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="429" src="/files/collapse%20front%20cover%20CROPPED.jpg" width="301"><div class="caption">Columbia University Press.</div> </div> <p>The consequences were toppled governments, mass migrations, and unimaginable human tragedy from starvation, dehydration, and disease. Finally came the "collapse" itself, not of Western Civilization at first, but of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which in the late 21st century rapidly disintegrated, driving up sea levels some 5 meters. Much of Greenland soon followed.</p> <p>"We were trying to sort of play on this two different senses of 'collapse,'" explained Oreskes on Inquiring Minds. Summarizing the plot of the book, she elaborated as follows: "The West Antarctic Ice Sheet does collapse, causing massive rapid sea level rise, which then puts into effect a kind of chain of events, which ultimately leads to the collapse of political and cultural institutions as well."</p> <p>This is a worst-case scenario, but it is far from crazy in light of our current trajectory. And we are on this trajectory because we're ignoring the evidence all around us. "A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment," writes Oreskes' and Conway's historian, explaining why our present era will later be called the "Period of the Penumbra."</p> <p>So why are we currently on course to be remembered for causing humanity's greatest failure? The historian singles out two causes in particular, the first of which may be surprising.</p> <p>First off, the historian argues that our scientists failed us, and in a very particular way: They failed us by being too conservative. Scientists today know full well that the <a href="" target="_blank">"95 percent confidence limit</a>" (the requirement to statistically establish that there is less than a 1-in-20 chance that a given scientific result is due to chance&mdash;or, a 19 in 20 chance that it is real&mdash;before it can be accepted) is merely a convention, not a law of the universe. Nonetheless, this convention, the historian suggests, led scientists to be far too cautious, far too easily disrupted by the doubt-mongering of denialists, and far too unwilling to shout from the rooftops what they all knew was happening.</p> <p>"We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists' desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity," writes the historian. "Western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing in something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did." The historian even cites the currently live issue of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming: It is very likely that global warming is changing these storms in some way, but showing that in a way that satisfies all of the relevant experts has proven very difficult.</p> <p>Why target scientists in particular in this book? Simply because a distant future historian would too, says Oreskes. "If you think about historians who write about the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the collapse of the Mayans or the Incans, it's always about trying to understand <em>all</em> of the factors that contributed," she says. "So we felt that we had to say something about scientists."</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="349" src="/files/Naomi%2C%20Rock%20Climbing%20Jackson%20Hole%202011%20copy%20CROPPED.png" width="332"><div class="caption"><strong>Naomi Oreskes. </strong><em>Andy Tankersley.</em></div> </div> <p>And then, there are the ideologues. They are, of course, vastly more culpable than the scientists. Here, <em>The Collapse of Western Civilization</em> picks up a theme from <em>Merchants of Doubt:<strong> </strong></em>Free market ideologues, trained on the idea that the Soviet Union was the root of all evil, converted to an economic religion of their own dubbed "neoliberalism," defined as "the idea that free market systems were the only economic systems that did not threaten individual liberty." Unfortunately for this worldview, market failures do exist, and climate change is the <a href="" target="_blank">granddaddy of them all</a>. But too many neoliberal ideologues couldn't accept that, so they doubled down on fantasy. (These are the climate change denying libertarians that we all know so well.)</p> <p>In <em>The Collapse of Western Civilization,</em> neoliberals receive a comeuppance for this that is appropriate in its dramatic irony. The book ends by noting that China, a country not exactly wedded to freedom of thought or free markets, nevertheless survived climate calamity the best, thanks to its ability to exercise the centralized power of the state to force rapid climate adaptation. Eighty percent of Chinese thus survived the climate cataclysm. Other nations soon followed suit, also growing more autocratic.</p> <p>Oreskes is not applauding this, of course; rather, she's suggesting that it could be a very, very painful irony resulting from the behavior of neoliberals. "It could well be the case that the authoritarian nations are actually better situated to deal with climate disruption than the liberal democracies," says Oreskes. "And we want to suggest that that's a very worrisome thought."</p> <p>So can we still prevent ourselves from writing the story of <em>The Collapse of Western Civilization</em>&mdash;a story in which the historian narrator repeatedly points out missed opportunities, when something could have been done to prevent the disaster that followed? Oreskes thinks the answer is yes.</p> <p>"It's not too late. We do still have opportunities," she says. "But if we continue the way we've been going, and we continue to miss these opportunities, there is going to become a point of no return."</p> <p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"></iframe></p> <p name="b990"><em>This episode of </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Inquiring Minds</a>, <em>a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of questionable claims about <a href="" target="_blank">"drinkable" sunscreen</a>, and a new study finding that <a href="" target="_blank">less than 1 percent of scientists</a> are responsible for a huge bulk of the most influential research.</em></p> <p name="b990"><em>To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to </em>Inquiring Minds <em>via </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>iTunes</em></a><em> or</em> <a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>RSS</em></a><em>. We are also available </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>on Stitcher</em></a><em> and </em><a href=";mt=8" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>on Swell</em></a><em>. You can follow the show on Twitter at </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>@inquiringshow</em></a><em> and </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>like us on Facebook</em></a><em>. </em>Inquiring Minds <em>was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes&mdash;you can learn more </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>here</em></a><em>.</em></p></body></html> Environment Podcasts Books Climate Change Climate Desk Science Top Stories Inquiring Minds Fri, 18 Jul 2014 10:00:13 +0000 Chris Mooney 256171 at Scientists Are Beginning to Figure Out Why Conservatives Are…Conservative <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>You could be forgiven for not having browsed yet through the latest issue of the journal <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Behavioral and Brain Sciences</em></a>. If you care about politics, though, you'll find a punchline therein that is pretty extraordinary.</p> <p><span class="inline inline-right"><a href="http:"><img alt="Click here to read more about the science of why we don't believe in science." class="image image-preview " height="150" src="" title="Click here to read more about the science of why we don't believe in science." width="200"></a><span class="caption" style="width: 198px;"><strong><a href="" target="_blank">Click here to read more from Mooney on the science of why people don't believe in science</a>.</strong></span></span></p> <p><em>Behavioral and Brain Sciences</em> employs a rather unique practice called "Open Peer Commentary": An article of major significance is published, a large number of fellow scholars comment on it, and then the original author responds to all of them. The approach has many virtues, one of which being that it lets you see where a community of scholars and thinkers stand with respect to a controversial or provocative scientific idea. And in the latest issue of&nbsp;the journal, this process reveals the following conclusion: A large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that <em>liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics</em>.</p> <p>That's a big deal. It challenges everything that we thought we knew about politics&mdash;upending the idea that we get our beliefs solely from our upbringing, from our friends and families, from our personal economic interests, and calling into question the notion that in politics, we can really <em>change</em> (most of us, anyway).</p> <p>The occasion of this revelation is a <a href=";code=0dc53272b98187d10e528452fc6608c7" target="_blank">paper</a> by <a href="" target="_blank">John Hibbing</a> of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free <a href=";code=0dc53272b98187d10e528452fc6608c7" target="_blank">here</a>.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including <a href="" target="_blank">their own experiments</a> using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of "a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it," as <a href="" target="_blank">one of their papers</a> put it).</p> <p>In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets&mdash;centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns&mdash;would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.</p> <p>The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. "One possibility," they write, "is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene," when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed. (The <a href="" target="_blank">Pleistocene epoch</a> lasted from roughly 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.) We had John Hibbing on the <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Inquiring Minds</em> podcast</a> earlier this year, and he discussed these ideas in depth; you can listen here:</p> <p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"></iframe></p> <p>Hibbing and his colleagues make an intriguing argument in their latest paper, but what's truly fascinating is what happened next. Twenty-six different scholars or groups of scholars then got an opportunity to tee off on the paper, firing off a variety of responses. But as Hibbing and colleagues note in their final reply, out of those responses, "22 or 23 accept the general idea" of a conservative negativity bias, and simply add commentary to aid in the process of "modifying it, expanding on it, specifying where it does and does not work," and so on. Only about three scholars or groups of scholars seem to reject the idea entirely.</p> <p>That's pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one of the teams of commenters includes New York University social psychologist John Jost, who drew considerable political ire in 2003 when he and his colleagues published a <a href="" target="_blank">synthesis of existing psychological studies on ideology</a>, suggesting that conservatives are characterized by traits such as a <a href="" target="_blank">need for certainty</a> and an <a href="" target="_blank">intolerance of ambiguity</a>. Now, writing in <em>Behavioral and Brain Sciences</em> in response to Hibbing roughly a decade later, Jost and fellow scholars note that</p> <blockquote> <p>There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the <em>virtually inescapable conclusion</em> that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety. [Italics added]</p> </blockquote> <p>Back in 2003, Jost and his team were blasted by <a href="" target="_blank">Ann Coulter</a>, <a href="" target="_blank">George Will</a>, and <a href="" target="_blank"><em>National Review</em></a> for saying this; congressional Republicans began <a href="" target="_blank">probing</a> into their research grants; and they got lots of hate mail. But what's clear is that today, they've more or less triumphed. They won a field of converts to their view and sparked a wave of new research, including the work of Hibbing and his team.</p> <p>Granted, there are still many issues yet to be worked out in the science of ideology. Most of the commentaries on the new Hibbing paper are focused on important but not-paradigm-shifting side issues, such as the question of how conservatives can have a higher negativity bias, and yet not have neurotic personalities. (Actually, if anything, the research <a href="" target="_blank">suggests</a> that liberals may be the more neurotic bunch.) Indeed, conservatives tend to have a high degree of happiness and life satisfaction. But Hibbing and colleagues find no contradiction here. Instead, they paraphrase two other scholarly commentators (Matt Motyl of the University of Virginia and Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California), who note that "successfully monitoring and attending negative features of the environment, as conservatives tend to do, may be just the sort of tractable task&hellip;that is more likely to lead to a fulfilling and happy life than is a constant search for new experience after new experience."</p> <p>All of this matters, of course, because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble. Out of the rubble just might arise a better way of acting in politics that leads to less dysfunction and less gridlock&hellip;thanks to science.</p></body></html> Politics Religion Science Top Stories Tue, 15 Jul 2014 10:00:05 +0000 Chris Mooney 255906 at "Cosmos" Just Got Nominated for 12 Emmys <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>It was a truly groundbreaking moment in television. Educationally driven science content was once anathema on primetime television, but earlier this year, Seth MacFarlane, Neil deGrasse Tyson and company set out to prove that wrong with <em><a href="" target="_blank">Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</a>, </em>a remake of the classic Carl Sagan-hosted show from 1980.</p> <p>And if today's <a href="" target="_blank">Emmy nominations</a> mean anything, the result is a major triumph. <em>Cosmos </em>has received 12 of them.</p> <p>That's not quite as good as the 19 for <em>Game of Thrones, </em>or 16 for <em>Breaking Bad, </em>but it's a very significant number, and it includes nominations for "Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series," "Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming" (for writers Ann Druyan and Steven Soter), "Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming" (for director Brannon Braga).</p> <p>In fact, that's actually a tie with HBO's <em>True Detective</em>, which also got 12 nominations.</p> <p>Recently, I <a href="" target="_blank">interviewed</a> Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the face of the new show, who remarked on how to interpret its success. "You had entertainment writers putting <em>The Walking Dead</em> in the same sentence as <em>Cosmos</em>," said Tyson. "<em>Game of Thrones</em> in the same sentence of <em>Cosmos</em>. 'How's<em> Cosmos</em> doing against <em>Game of Thrones</em>?' That is an extraordinary fact, no matter what ratings it earned."</p> <p>The Emmy nominations will certainly give entertainment writers another such opportunity. In fact, it's <a href="" target="_blank">already happening</a>. And when a science television show is celebrated by the deacons of popular culture, that can only be good news for the place of science in American society. (Note: the Showtime climate change documentary <em>Years of Living Dangerously</em> also received 2 Emmy nominations.)</p> <p>The <em>Cosmos </em>nominations are for:</p> <blockquote> <p>Outstanding Documentary Or Nonfiction Series</p> <p>Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming</p> <p>Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming</p> <p>Outstanding Art Direction for Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality Competition Program</p> <p>Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming</p> <p>Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming</p> <p>Outstanding Main Title Design</p> <p>Outstanding Musical Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score)</p> <p>Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music</p> <p>Outstanding Sound Editing for Nonfiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera)</p> <p>Outstanding Sound Mixing for Nonfiction Programming and</p> <p>Outstanding Special and Visual Effects.</p> </blockquote> <p>The full list of Emmy nominations can be found <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.</p> <p>To listen to our Inquiring Minds podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can stream below:</p> <p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"></iframe></p></body></html> Media Media Science Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:58:25 +0000 Chris Mooney 255841 at Study: Rich Republicans Are the Worst Climate Deniers <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>We've known for some time that as Republicans become more highly educated, or better at general science comprehension, they become <em>stronger</em> in their global warming denial. It's a phenomenon I've called the <a href="" target="_blank">"smart idiot" effect</a>: Apparently being highly informed or capable interacts with preexisting political biases to make those on the right <em>more likely to be wrong</em> than they would be if they had less education or knowledge.</p> <p>Now, a <a href="" target="_blank">new study</a> in the journal <em>Climatic Change</em> has identified a closely related phenomenon. Call it the "rich idiot" effect: The study finds that among Republicans, as levels of income increase, so does their likelihood of "dismissing the dangers associated with climate change." But among Democrats and independents, there is little or no change in climate views as levels of income increase or decrease.</p> <p>The study, by Jeremiah Bohr of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was based on an analysis of pre-existing data from the 2010 installment of the <a href="" target="_blank">General Social Survey</a>&mdash;a leading source of survey information about the US public. In addition to questions about levels of education, income, and political party affiliation, the survey asked the following: "In general, do you think that a rise in the world's temperature caused by climate change is extremely dangerous for the environment, very dangerous, somewhat dangerous, not very dangerous, or not dangerous at all for the environment?"</p> <p>Bohr looked specifically at those individuals who chose the "not very dangerous" or "not dangerous at all" options. And he found that at the lowest income level, the probability that a Republican would give one of these dismissive answers was only 17.7 percent. But at the highest income level, it was 51.2 percent. Here's a visualization of the chief finding, showing how the likelihood of a Republican giving one of these answers changes in relation to wealth:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="373" src="/files/Screen%20Shot%202014-07-09%20at%2012.32.56%20PM.png" width="600"><div class="caption"><strong>Probability of dismissing climate change risks in relation to political party affiliation and level of income </strong><a href="" target="_blank">J. Bohr, <em>Climatic Change</em>, July 2014</a></div> </div> <p>This therefore leads to a surprising conclusion: "At the bottom quintile of income, Republicans are not significantly different from either Independents or Democrats" with respect to their denial of climate risks, the study reports. It's only as income increases that Republicans become so much more likely to be deniers.</p> <p>So why does this occur? There are several possibilities discussed in the paper.</p> <p>The first is that income is actually a proxy for something else: Namely, being politically aware. It's possible that being wealthy is related to paying more attention to politics and your political party, and people who do so would be more aware of what those who agree with them on other issues actually think about global warming. (The study controlled for another possible influencing factor, education.)</p> <p>The other possibility, though, is that climate denial is a defense of economic interests. "Among individuals with conservative political orientations, there is a correlation between occupying advantageous positions within industrial economic systems and an unwillingness to acknowledge the risks associated with climate change," Bohr writes. "Perhaps to validate their economic interests, these individuals are more likely to process information on climate science through political filters that result in denying the risks produced by climate change."</p></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Top Stories Thu, 10 Jul 2014 10:00:07 +0000 Chris Mooney 255756 at How to Convince a Republican: Use a Pie Chart! <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>These days, perhaps the most hotly debated issue in climate change circles has little to do with science. Rather, it is over how to <em>communicate</em> that science to a public that still does not get it.</p> <p>The leading communication strategy at present is built on a <a href="" target="_blank">now famous 2013 paper</a>&mdash;whose main result was <a href="" target="_blank">tweeted out</a> by no less than President Obama&mdash;finding that 97 percent of scientific papers (those that took a stand on the matter, anyway) supported the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. This result is often simplified down to the idea that "97 percent of scientists accept the consensus that humans are causing global warming." Spreading this simple message, say supporters, is a critical way to get people past the wrongheaded idea that climate science is still subject to "debate."</p> <p>The strategy <a href="" target="_blank">has its critics</a>, including Yale science communication researcher Dan Kahan, who contends that the approach will backfire among conservative ideologues. A <a href=";utm_campaign=0c21b4fdf0-DAILY_BRIEFING&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-0c21b4fdf0-303421293" target="_blank">new study</a> just out in the journal <em>Climatic Change</em>, however, suggests not only that the "97 percent consensus" message can be effective, but that it will work best when expressed in the form of a simple phrase or (eat your heart out, <em>USA Today</em>) a pie chart. Like this one, which is an actual image designed to spread the "97 percent" message:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/97percent-inline_0.jpg"><div class="caption"><a href="" target="_blank"></a></div> </div> <p>The <a href=";utm_campaign=0c21b4fdf0-DAILY_BRIEFING&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-0c21b4fdf0-303421293" target="_blank">new paper</a> is the latest collaboration by the George Mason and Yale projects on climate change communication, headed up, respectively, by Ed Maibach and Anthony Leiserowitz. They set out to test not only whether the "97 percent consensus" message works, but whether it works best when conveyed in one of three formats: as a simple statement ("97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening"), as a metaphor (for instance, "If 97 percent of doctors concluded that your child is sick, would you believe them? 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening"), or as a pie chart. The actual pie chart used in the study is pictured at right.</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="265" src="/files/Pie%20Chart%20From%20Study_2.png" width="355"><div class="caption"><a href=";utm_campaign=0c21b4fdf0-DAILY_BRIEFING&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-0c21b4fdf0-303421293" target="_blank">van der Linden et al</a>., July 2014, <em>Climatic Change</em></div> </div> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"> <div class="caption">&nbsp;</div> </div> <p>The study had 1,104 participants, who were divided up into 11 separate experimental treatments. One group read the simple statement, one group saw the pie chart, eight groups received a variety of different climate communication metaphors, and there was, of course, a control condition. Before and after encountering one of these messages, participants were asked their estimate of the current degree of scientific consensus on climate change.</p> <p>The upshot was that all of the messages worked, to an extent, to improve people's perception of scientific consensus. However, the simple phrase fared the best&mdash;improving the subjects' perceptions of scientific consensus by 17.88 percentage points&mdash;and the pie chart came in second (14.38 percentage points). The various metaphor-based messages (using the doctor metaphor above, a similar engineering metaphor, and so on) were all roughly equal in their effectiveness, but none was as good as the simple image or phrase.</p> <p>Notably, however, the pie chart proved most effective among one group&mdash;Republicans&mdash;that is notorious for being the most difficult audience to sway on climate change. The effect was pretty impressive, as this figure shows:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/Screen%20Shot%202014-07-07%20at%203.55.54%20PM_0.png"><div class="caption"><a href=";utm_campaign=0c21b4fdf0-DAILY_BRIEFING&amp;utm_medium=email&amp;utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-0c21b4fdf0-303421293" target="_blank">van der Linden et al.</a>, July 2014, <em>Climatic Change</em></div> </div> <p>The authors do not speculate on <em>why</em> Republicans, and Republicans alone, seem to respond more strongly to pie charts. However, their bottom line conclusion is this: "presenting information in a way that is short, simple and easy to comprehend and remember seems to offer the highest probability of success for all audiences examined."</p> <p>This study probably won't end the debate over whether telling people that "97 percent of climate scientists" agree on climate change is the best way to save this rock. But it certainly validates something that writers, bloggers, and media outlets have long known: You keep it simple, and you show pretty pictures.</p></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Top Stories Tue, 08 Jul 2014 15:02:29 +0000 Chris Mooney 255576 at A Scary Super Typhoon Is Bearing Down on Japan…and Its Nuclear Plants <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p><strong>UPDATE, 11:30 AM on July 8: </strong><em>Typhoon Neoguri has weakened, and is no longer a Super Typhoon. But it is still headed straight at Japan, and in particular, at the island of Kyushu, with landfall expected on Thursday. For the latest forecasts from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, see <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.</em></p> <p>Japanese forecasters are calling it a "<a href="" target="_blank">once in decades storm</a>." And at <a href="" target="_blank">Kadena Air Base</a>, a US military installation on the island of Okinawa, one commander dubbed the storm "the most powerful typhoon forecast to hit the island in 15 years."</p> <p>Super Typhoon Neoguri, currently sporting maximum sustained winds of nearly 150 miles per hour and just shy of Category 5 strength, is heading straight at Japan's islands, and its outer bands are currently battering the island of Okinawa. Here's the forecast map from the Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center. As you can see, the forecast for tomorrow brings the storm up to maximum sustained winds of 140 knots (161 miles per hour), or Category 5 strength (click for larger version):</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><a href=""><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/JTWC%20warning%20for%20Neoguri%20July%207%20am_0.gif" style="width: 623px; height: 450px;"></a> <div class="caption"><a href="" target="_blank">Joint Typhoon Warning Center</a>.</div> </div> <p>The Western Pacific basin, home to typhoons (which are elsewhere called tropical cyclones or hurricanes), is known for having the strongest storms on Earth, such as last year's devastating Super Typhoon Haiyan. July is, generally, when the Western Pacific typhoon season really <a href="" target="_blank">starts getting into gear</a>, but August, September, and October are usually busier months.</p> <p>Neoguri will weaken by the time it strikes Japan's main islands, but as meteorologist Jeff Masters <a href="" target="_blank">observes</a>, "the typhoon is so large and powerful that it will likely make landfall with at least Category 2 strength, causing major damage in Japan."</p> <p>One pressing issue is the safety of Japan's nuclear plants. In the wake of the 2011 tsunami and the subsequent disaster at the <a href="" target="_blank">Fukushima Daiichi plant</a>, it's important to consider whether a similar vulnerability arises here.</p> <p>Fukushima is located north of Tokyo on Japan's largest island, Honshu. By the time the typhoon reaches that point, it is forecast to be considerably weaker. But there are a <a href="" target="_blank">number of other reactors</a> spread across the islands; perhaps most exposed will be the southwestern island of Kyushu, where the current forecast has the typhoon making its first major landfall.</p> <p>According to reporting by <a href="" target="_blank">Reuters</a>, there are two nuclear plants on the island. A company spokeswoman for Kyushu Electric Power Co. told the news agency that it "has plans in place throughout the year to protect the plants from severe weather."</p> <p>Will that be good enough? According to <a href="" target="_blank">Edwin Lyman</a>, senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the good news overall is that Japan's nuclear plants are currently shut down, awaiting permission to restart as they institute stronger safety protections, including the construction of higher seawalls. A shut-down plant is still not without risks, because "you still have to provide cooling for the fuel," says Lyman. But overall, he thinks that the newer protections, combined with the fact that the plants have been cooling while shut down, suggests less vulnerability than existed in 2011.</p> <p>"I would say that they're probably in a better position than they were to withstand massive flooding from a typhoon, and the fact that the reactors have been shut for some time, increases the level of confidence," Lyman says. "But there's still issues, and we'll just have to hope that if there's a massive flooding event at one of the reactors, that the measures they've already put into place will be adequate to cope with them."</p> <p>Here's a stunning NASA image of Neoguri, snapped yesterday:</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="814" src="/files/Neoguri.A2014187.0205.2km.jpg" width="624"><div class="caption"><strong>Typhoon Neoguri on July 6 </strong><a href="" target="_blank">NASA</a></div> </div></body></html> Environment Climate Change Climate Desk Top Stories Mon, 07 Jul 2014 17:55:30 +0000 Chris Mooney 255511 at Forget Red State, Blue State: Is Your State "Tight" or "Loose"? <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>It is obvious to anyone who has traveled around the United States that cultural assumptions, behaviors, and norms vary widely. We all know, for instance, that the South is more politically conservative than the Northeast. And we at least vaguely assume that this is rooted in different outlooks on life.</p> <p>But <em>why</em> do these different outlooks exist, and correspond so closely to different regions? In a <a href="" target="_blank">paper</a> recently published in the <em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em> (and discussed more <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>), psychologists Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gelfand of the University of Maryland propose a sweeping theory to explain this phenomenon. Call it the theory of "tightness-looseness": The researchers show, through analysis of anything from numbers of police per capita to the availability of booze, that some US states are far more "tight"&mdash;meaning that they "have many strongly enforced rules and little tolerance for deviance." Others, meanwhile, are more "loose," meaning that they "have few strongly enforced rules and greater tolerance for deviance."</p> <p>The 10 tightest states? Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The 10 loosest, meanwhile, are California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont. (Notice a pattern here?)</p> <p>Harrington and Gelfand measure a state's tightness or looseness based on indicators such as the legality of corporal punishment in schools, the general severity of legal sentences, access to alcohol and availability of civil unions, level of religiosity, and the percent of the population that is foreign. But really, that's just the beginning of their analysis. After identifying which states are "tighter" and which are more "loose," the researchers then trace these different outlooks to a range of ecological or historical factors in the states' pasts (and in many cases, lingering into their presents). For as the authors write, tighter societies generally have had to deal with "a greater number of ecological and historical threats, including fewer natural resources, more natural disasters, a greater incidence of territorial threat, higher population density, and greater pathogen prevalence."</p> <p>That applies nicely to the United States. The "tight" states, it turns out, have higher death rates from heat, storms, floods, and lightning. (Not to mention tornadoes.) They also have higher rates of death from influenza and pneumonia, and higher rates of HIV and a number of other diseases. They have higher child and infant mortality. And then there's external threat: The South, in the Civil War, was defending its own terrain and its own way of life. Indeed, the researchers show a very strong correlation between the percentage of slave-owning families that a state had in the year 1860, and its "tightness" measurement today.</p> <p>It makes psychological sense, of course, that regions facing more threats would be much more inward-looking and tougher on deviants, because basically, they had to buckle down. They didn't have the luxury of flowery art, creativity, and substance abuse.</p> <p>Still not done, Harrington and Gelfand also show that their index of states "tightness" and "looseness" maps nicely on to <a href="" target="_blank">prior analyses</a> of the differing personalities of people living in different US states. Citizens of "tight" states tend to be more "conscientious," prizing order and structure in their lives. Citizens of "loose" states tend to be more "open," wanting to try new things and have new experiences.</p> <p>Other major distinguishing factors between "tight" and "loose" states:</p> <blockquote> <ul><li>Tight states have higher incarceration rates and higher execution rates.</li> <li>Tight states have "lower circulation of pornographic magazines."</li> <li>Tight states have "more charges of employment discrimination per capita."</li> <li>Tight states produce fewer patents per capita, and have far fewer "fine artists" (including "painters, illustrators, writers").</li> <li>Most striking of all, the authors found "a negative and linear relationship between tightness and happiness" among citizens. Put more simply: People in loose states are happier.</li> </ul></blockquote> <p>In sum: It's a very interesting theory, and one with quite a scope. Or as the authors put it: "tightness-looseness can account for the divergence of substance abuse and discrimination rates between states such as Hawaii and Ohio, reliably predicts the psychological differences&hellip;between Colorado and Alabama, helps to explain the contrasts in creativity and social organization between Vermont and North Dakota, and provides some understanding concerning the dissimilarity in insularity and resistance toward immigration between Arizona and New York."</p> <p>In these days of extreme political dysfunction, America itself is in increasing need of an explanation. Now, maybe, we have one.</p></body></html> Politics Maps Race and Ethnicity Religion Science Top Stories Mon, 07 Jul 2014 10:00:14 +0000 Chris Mooney 255411 at The Science of Turning Plants Into Booze <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>It's the 4th of July, and you love your country. Your likely next step: Fire off some small scale explosives, and drink a lot of beer.</p> <p>But that last word ought to trouble you a little. <em>Beer</em>? Is that really the best you can do? Isn't it a little, er, uncreative?</p> <p>Amy Stewart has some better ideas for you. Author of the <em>New York Times</em> bestselling book <a href="" target="_blank"><em>The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World's Great Drinks</em></a>, she's a master of the wild diversity of ways in which, since time immemorial, human civilizations (virtually all of them) have created alcoholic drinks from the sugars of their native plants. "We have really good evidence&mdash;like analyzing the residue on pottery shards&mdash;really good evidence of people making some kind of alcoholic beverage going back at least 10,000 years, and probably much longer than that," says Stewart on the latest episode of the <a href="" target="_blank">Inquiring Minds podcast</a>.</p> <p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"></iframe></p> <p>In other words, human beings pretty much always find a way when it comes to getting hammered. Indeed, you could argue that learning how to do so was one of the first human sciences. In a sense, it's closely akin to capturing and using solar energy: Making alcohol, too, hinges upon tapping into the power created by the sun. "It is not much of an exaggeration to claim that the very process that gives us the raw ingredients for brandy and beer is the same one that sustains life on the planet," writes Stewart in <em>The Drunken Botanist</em>.</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"> <div class="caption"> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="451" src="/files/Amy_Stewart_Delightful_Eye_Photography_3758.SMALLER.jpg" width="301"></div> <strong>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; Amy Stewart. </strong>Delightful Eye Photography</div> </div> <p>Here's how it goes: The sun pours down vast amounts of energy upon the earth and fires the process of <a href="" target="_blank">photosynthesis</a> in plants. Plants take in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, give off oxygen, and produce sugars.</p> <p>It is from these sugars that the world's diverse alcohols&mdash;ranging from cane alcohols to agave alcohols to tree bark alcohols&mdash;spring. But human cultures, spread across the world, had very different plant species to work with, so the resulting alcohols are also very different. "There's all these processing steps you have to take to get at the sugar, but people were highly motivated to do that," Stewart explained on Inquiring Minds.</p> <p>One of the most interesting processes, originating in ancient Mexico, involved cutting into the stalk of the huge agave plant to get its sap to flow. But then, the agave sap seekers would cover up the puncture, letting sap pile up up, only to release it again&mdash;after which they would repeatedly scrape the plant's insides, a process "which irritates the plant so much that sap begins to flow profusely," explains Stewart in her book. One agave plant, Stewart reports, can generate more than 250 gallons of sap.</p> <p>Once you've got a hearty supply of plant sugar, in the form of agave sap or whatever else, the second vital step of the alcohol process involves yeast. In the process of <a href="" target="_blank">fermentation</a>, these tiny microorganisms take sugar and break it down into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. For yeast, the alcohol is a waste product. For us, apparently, it's a necessity. In the case of agave sap, the tradition is to let it ferment not only in yeast but a special kind of bacteria that lives on the agave plant. The result is <a href="" target="_blank">pulque</a>, a whitish, sour and low alcohol liquor sometimes compared to yogurt. (Using different processes, and different species of agave plant, gives you tequila and mezcal.)</p> <p>But that's just one of the myriad ways in which humans make alcohol. Forget your grapes-to-wine and your grains-to-beer pathways&mdash;they're so unoriginal. "When you look at what the whole world drinks, you get a very different picture," observes Stewart. "Around the world, <a href="" target="_blank">sorghum</a> is probably the plant used to make alcohol more than any other." It is used to make anything from home-made beer in Africa to a high proof liquor called <a href="" target="_blank">maotai</a> in China.</p> <p>So what are the implications for your July 4 libations? Stewart encourages making patriotic choices&mdash;but, the right patriotic choices.</p> <div class="inline inline-left" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="398" src="/files/Drunken-Botanist-high-res.SMALLER.jpg" width="297"></div> <p>First, here's a drink that's probably a lot less patriotic than you think: Some <a href="" target="_blank">spruce beer</a> claiming to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin. The history of liquors, writes Stewart, is "riddled with legends, distortions, half-truths, and outright lies," and one of them involves Franklin. I'm always highly suspicious of any story that involves a Founding Father," says Stewart. "You always want to look at that stuff with some scrutiny."</p> <p>The claim is that Franklin invented spruce beer, a very old drink that, Stewart explains, explorers actually used to fight scurvy because spruce trees contain ascorbic acid. When Franklin died, a recipe for spruce beer was found in his papers. But it turns out Franklin had merely copied the recipe from a book called <a href="" target="_blank"><em>The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy</em></a>, published in 1747 by an Englishwoman named Hannah Glasse.</p> <p>Franklin "never intended to take credit for her recipe," says Stewart. "But nonetheless, you will see these microbreweries all over that do Founding Father beers, and they'll have this Benjamin Franklin spruce beer. And I'm sure that they are never going to go back to put Hannah Glasse's face on that bottle."</p> <p>So what's a more authentic patriotic drink? Stewart gave us a recommendation, and a recipe.</p> <p>"Two of the things that we drank a lot of in our early days were hard cider, apple cider, and corn whiskey, like bourbon," says Stewart. "Those are very American drinks, and very much part of what the Founding Fathers were drinking. So, the two of them together actually make a drink called a <a href="" target="_blank">stone fence</a>."</p> <p>Here's the recipe, as explained by Stewart on the podcast:</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" src="/files/Stone%20Fence%20Cropped.jpg"><div class="caption"><strong>A "stone fence," prepared at the Inquiring Minds podcast mixology laboratory. </strong></div> </div> <blockquote> <p>All you do is take hard cider, which is the lightly alcoholic, fizzy kind of cider, and pour it in a glass with some ice, and add a little splash of bourbon, like an ounce, ounce and a half at the most. And give it a good stir. And that's the drink.</p> </blockquote> <blockquote> <p>Now, people really experiment with this drink. Sometimes they'll do something a little bit like a mint julep, where they'll add some mint, and some simple syrup, and maybe a little squeeze of lime juice to it. Sometimes people will add a little bit of fruit syrup, like cassis, or I don't know, blackberry liqueur, or something like that, to make it a little bit of a fruitier, kind of red drink.&nbsp;</p> </blockquote> <blockquote> <p>So it's a nice template to explore. You've basically got something kind of fizzy and dry, and you've got the bourbon as a base alcohol. And then you can sort of add to that. But the nice thing is, it's reasonably light. You can really dial back the bourbon, and have something that you can drink during the day when it's hot.</p> </blockquote> <p>So enjoy yourself (safely) this July 4&mdash;and when you have a drink, remember that alcohol production is a global scientific endeavor, based on an understanding of botany and also of the world's diverse cultures.</p> <p>"Knowing a little bit about what the plants are, and where they come from, and how they got turned into alcohol, you actually can make a better drink if you know some of that stuff," says Stewart.</p> <p><em>To listen to the full Inquiring Minds interview with Amy Stewart, you can stream below:</em></p> <p><iframe frameborder="no" height="166" scrolling="no" src="" width="100%"></iframe></p> <p name="6dc5"><em>This episode of </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">Inquiring Minds</a>, <em>a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a conversation with </em>Mother Jones<em> reporter Molly Redden about how the Supreme Court <a href="" target="_blank">flubbed reproductive health science</a> in the Hobby Lobby case, and of Facebook's <a href="" target="_blank">troubling recent study</a> that involved trying to alter users' emotional states.</em></p> <p name="b990"><em>To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to </em>Inquiring Minds <em>via </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>iTunes</em></a><em> or</em> <a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>RSS</em></a><em>. We are also available </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>on Stitcher</em></a><em> and </em><a href=";mt=8" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>on Swell</em></a><em>. You can follow the show on Twitter at </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>@inquiringshow</em></a><em> and </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>like us on Facebook</em></a><em>. </em>Inquiring Minds <em>was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes&mdash;you can learn more </em><a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><em>here</em></a><em>.</em></p></body></html> Environment Podcasts Books Science Top Stories Inquiring Minds Fri, 04 Jul 2014 10:00:15 +0000 Chris Mooney 255281 at Hobby Lobby's Not Alone: Here Are 4 of the High Court's Biggest Science Blunders <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" ""> <html><body><p>On Monday, the <a href="" target="_blank">Supreme Court ruled</a> that most private companies can decline to cover their employees' contraception for religious reasons. This verdict is wildly controversial as a piece of legal reasoning&mdash;but its <a href="" target="_blank">scientific logic</a> is wanting, as well. The contraceptive drugs and devices at issue in the case, after all, <a href="" target="_blank">do not cause abortion</a>, as Hobby Lobby Stores, the company at the center of the case, claimed. So Hobby Lobby didn't just have religious objections to those drugs; it had <em>false </em>religious objections.</p> <p>Yet amazingly&mdash;and as we'll explain further below&mdash;Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court's conservative 5-4 majority, seems not to have cared whether the entire basis for Hobby Lobby's beliefs was <em>true</em>. And that's not the only example of the high court, or at least one of its justices, offending against science and scientific thinking in a legal opinion. Let's review some other recent examples:</p> <div class="inline inline-right" style="display: table; width: 1%">&nbsp; <div class="caption">&nbsp;</div> </div> <p><strong>1. When the court decided that companies can't patent genes:</strong> In June of 2013, the Supreme Court issued one of its most scientifically derided opinions, in the case <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics</em></a>. At issue was whether a company can patent a gene. And the court ruled overwhelmingly that Myriad Genetics, which had patented the well known BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (mutations of which are tied to breast and ovarian cancer), couldn't keep those patents. After all, these genes occur in nature, and Myriad merely discovered their sequence and isolated them. Only a "synthetic" form of DNA, which a company has created, can be patented, according to the court.</p> <p>That might appear to make sense (<a href="" target="_blank">not that you should trust appearances in this area</a>), but the court's decision&mdash;written by Justice Clarence Thomas, but joined by seven other justices&mdash;made a number of scientific errors. <a href="" target="_blank">Steven Salzberg</a>, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, found "<a href="" target="_blank">no less than three errors of fact</a>" in the first paragraph of the decision. Without nerding out too much, suffice it to say that the court appears to have misunderstood the following key genetic terms: "<a href="" target="_blank">exon</a>," "<a href="" target="_blank">intron</a>," and "<a href="" target="_blank">cDNA</a>." "I cannot pretend to know who they got to do their biology background research," writes Salzberg, "but any genetics graduate student could have done far better." For his explanation of how the court erred, see <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>. (Note: It is not clear these mistakes were material to the decision, and the <a href="" target="_blank">official ruling</a> on the court's website <a href="" target="_blank">no longer contains</a> the "cDNA" error identified by Salzberg.)</p> <p>And then there was Justice Scalia. He did not simply join the majority; he wrote an opinion "concurring in part and concurring in the judgment," noting the following:</p> <blockquote> <p>I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I&ndash;A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. <strong>I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.</strong> It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.</p> </blockquote> <p>We'll leave it up to you to decide what's worse: a court that gets the facts of genetics wrong, or a justice who throws up his hands and says he isn't even going to try to understand them?</p> <p><strong>2. When Scalia said facts don't matter because judges are inherently biased:</strong> But this wasn't Scalia's worst scientific moment. That may have come in 2011's ruling in <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Brown v. Plata</em></a>, a lawsuit over California's overcrowded prisons, in which the court narrowly affirmed a lower court ruling that the state must to reduce its prison population, so as not to violate the rights of prisoners. One major issue under consideration in the case involved whether releasing a large number of "low-risk offenders," so as to alleviate cramped conditions, would lead to a public safety risk to the public.</p> <p>Based on "relevant and informed expert testimony" from criminologists and prison leaders, who provided "empirical evidence" and possessed "extensive experience in the field of prison administration," the Supreme Court majority found "substantial evidence" that "prison populations can be reduced in a manner that does not increase crime to a significant degree."</p> <p>Scalia's dissent was, basically, postmodern. He more or less directly stated that judges can't consider facts objectively in many situations. Damn the evidence&mdash;the lower-court judges were just finding the facts that they wanted to hear:</p> <blockquote> <blockquote> <p>&hellip;the idea that the three District Judges in this case relied solely on the credibility of the testifying expert witnesses is fanciful. <em>Of course </em>they were relying largely on their own beliefs about penology and recidivism. And<em> of course</em> different district judges, of different policy views, would have "found" that rehabilitation would not work and that releasing prisoners would increase the crime rate. I am not saying that the District Judges rendered their factual findings in bad faith. I am saying that it is impossible for judges to make "factual findings" without inserting their own policy judgments, when the factual findings <em>are </em>policy judgments.</p> </blockquote> </blockquote> <p>In a <a href="" target="_blank">paper</a> in the <em>Harvard Law Review</em> dissecting the case, Yale law professor Dan Kahan eviscerated Scalia's dissenting opinion (which was joined by Justice Thomas), calling it "a species of cynicism toxic to reasoned self-government."</p> <p><strong>3. When the court shrugged over whether preventing a pregnancy is the same thing as getting an abortion:</strong> And then there's <em>Hobby Lobby</em>, a lawsuit partly based on a faulty scientific premise. In the case, Hobby Lobby objected to paying for four types of emergency contraceptives: Ella and Plan B, which are pills, and two types of intrauterine devices. Women may use any of these four devices after intercourse to prevent pregnancy. In its brief to the court, the company argued that these drugs and devices "may prevent an embryo from implanting in the womb," which the company's owners consider abortion.</p> <div class="inline inline-center" style="display: table; width: 1%"><img alt="" class="image" height="317" src="/files/1280px-HobbyLobbyStowOhio.JPG" width="580"><div class="caption"><a href="" target="_blank">DangApricot</a>/Wikimedia Commons</div> </div> <p>But this is scientifically unfounded, for two reasons. First, medical science defines an abortion as the termination of a pregnancy, and a only pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants in a woman's uterine lining. A fertilized egg by itself&mdash;which usually takes 5 to 9 days to reach the uterine lining&mdash;is not a pregnancy. So preventing implantation is not an abortion. Second, Ella, Plan B, and the two IUDs don't even do what Hobby Lobby says they do. While it was once believed that these drugs and devices prevented implantation, research conducted in the last decade has failed to turn up any supporting evidence. Emergency contraception, the new consensus goes, can only make it harder for sperm to fertilize an egg or delay ovulation&mdash;it can't prevent pregnancy once an eggs has been fertilized.</p> <p>Still, the craft supply chain and its supporters are fond of saying that the FDA's <em>Birth Control Guide</em> says the contraceptives question may prevent implantation. But for reasons <a href="" target="_blank">explained</a> by the <em>Daily Beast</em>, it's very difficult for the FDA to update its labeling. The label for Plan B, for example, hasn't been updated since 1999.</p> <p>The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists presented all this to the court in an amicus brief. But the court's five conservatives didn't seem to care. In his <a href="" target="_blank">majority opinion</a>, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the four contraceptive methods objected to by Hobby Lobby "may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus"&mdash;entertaining Hobby Lobby's crank theories about reproductive health. In a footnote, Alito explains, "The owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation&hellip;do not so classify them." It's a disturbing show of agnosticism about reality&mdash;and whether it actually matters.</p> <p><strong>4. When the court downplayed race-based voting discrimination:</strong> In 2013's ruling in <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Shelby County v. Holder</em></a>, the Supreme Court's conservative majority hobbled the 1965 Voting Rights Act by striking the formula used to determine which states are "covered" to be unconstitutional. The court reasoned that, compared with the 1960s, racial discrimination has declined in the states required to get federal permission before changing any voting laws or practices. These are mostly Southern states.</p> <p>However, in an <a href="" target="_blank">amicus brief</a> to the court, a group of law professors and political scientists clearly demonstrated that conditions of discrimination persist in these states. They presented a wealth of evidence, including survey data on racial attitudes as well as the actual presence of impediments to voting in these states. For instance, the top seven states in which whites showed anti-immigrant prejudices in a 2010 study&mdash;Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alaska, and Arizona&mdash;were all states covered by the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court effectively dismantled. A 2000 survey found that 37 percent of whites in covered states agreed with the statement, "Blacks have too much influence in American politics today," compared with just 21 percent of whites in other states. And in these covered states, the prevalence of practices such as requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship to vote was also considerably higher.</p> <p>"The <em>Shelby County</em><em> </em>Court failed to acknowledge the substantial empirical evidence of systematic racial disparity that continues to this day in locations originally targeted by the 1965 Voting Rights Act," <a href=";context=djclpp" target="_blank">wrote</a> two of the scholars in the <em>Duke Journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy</em>.</p> <p>To be fair, the court in its past has had much <em>worse</em> scientific moments than any of these. The most scandalous? 1927's <a href="" target="_blank"><em>Buck v. Bell</em></a>, in which the high court basically endorsed eugenics. In the case, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia state law "providing for the sexual sterilization of inmates of institutions supported by the State who shall be found to be afflicted with an hereditary form of insanity or imbecility." Delivering the court's opinion, the famed justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote:</p> <blockquote> <p>It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.&hellip;Three generations of imbeciles are enough.</p> </blockquote> <p>We've come a long way since the days in which an intelligent person could actually write such a thing. But this example&mdash;showing just how much even our greatest justices have erred in the past on scientific matters&mdash;underscores how important it is for today's Supreme Court to get not just the law right, but also the facts.</p></body></html> Politics Reproductive Rights Science Supreme Court Top Stories Thu, 03 Jul 2014 10:00:12 +0000 Chris Mooney and Molly Redden 255216 at