When evolutionary biologist and atheist superstar Richard Dawkins recently stepped into (yet another) sinkhole of his own making, fellow evolutionary biologist and all-star atheist PZ Myers shook his head sadly. (It was not the first time that Myers had chided Dawkins for “callous indifference.”) Dawkins, true to form, could not recognize the sinkhole he created. That led Myers to shake his head again, sadly.
As Myers wrote about the latest Dawkins sinkhole, “it hurts to see him say obnoxious things on Twitter, like rating different kinds of rape and pedophilia.” Even worse, Dawkins didn’t understand “why that’s objectionable,” Myers noted.
If I was 20 years younger and participated in a certain body art trend, I might have a tattoo inscribed on my forearm that said something like this:
— Josh Meier (@moshjeier) August 12, 2014
As the Skeptics Dictionary notes:
Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.
This is a very human tendency. Public debates on contentious topics, such as GMOs and climate change, are rife with confirmation bias. I know that everything I write on such topics is viewed by most readers with preconceptions, which include strong opinions already held about the topic itself, or even about me. I’m not really bothered by this, because I don’t see myself as a persuader. I’m not looking to change minds or win you over to any one side of an argument (even when I aim to debunk myths and misinformation). I’m much more interested in chronicling and exploring the contours of a particular scientific dialogue or narrative–how it formed, how it’s maintained, who is shaping it.
If, as a result of this, you come to reexamine some of your own assumptions, well, that’s an added bonus.
So one of the things that’s fascinating to me about confirmation bias is how it manifests itself in media and in those who probably think they are not infected by it.
Climate concerned advocates received some welcome news yesterday:
A new study finds that when they understand climate basics, some conservatives are more likely to accept that climate change is happening
I continue to be amazed at how much time and resources are spent justifying attempts to win over the most ideologically entrenched demographic in the climate debate. I’m also amazed that some climate advocates still cling to the notion that inaction on climate change persists because not enough Americans believe global warming is happening.
According to a 2013 Pew survey,
Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say there is solid evidence that the earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades, a figure that has changed little in the past few years.
True, of this percentage, only 39% can be classified as “concerned believers.” Overall, 36% percent of Americans are squishy fence straddlers, while 25% are identified as the “cool skeptics” unconcerned about global warming.
Is the goal of climate activists to convince more people that climate change is happening or to persuade more people that it is a major concern? It seems that those two aims often get conflated. But it is an important distinction, since as a 2014 report from the Yale Project on Climate Communication reiterated: Read More
Earlier this year, two writers at Mother Jones noted:
It’s easy to find bad information about the safety of vaccines on the internet.
True, that. It’s also easy to find bad information about the safety of GMOs on the internet.
What puzzles me is why liberal outlets recognize “bad information” about vaccines but not GMOs. (Grist is now a notable exception, after publishing skewed information on GMOs for years.) For let’s be clear: the science on GMOs is as solid and authoritative as it is on vaccines. So why are liberal outlets like the Huffington Post accepting of the scientific consensus on vaccines, but not GMOs?
I’m going to lay out an illustrative example of this contradiction in a minute. It has to do with an article on vaccines the Huffington Post rejected several weeks ago and one on GMOs that was recently published. But first, as a refresher, let’s review what prominent scientific bodies and institutions have concluded about the safety of GMOs. Here’s a handy overview from the Pacific Standard: Read More
A liberal publication (which I like and read) has a message for vaccine-hesitant parents.
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) August 6, 2014
Alas, this is an incredibly ignorant and counterproductive thing to say. Whoever is running MoJo’s social media operation needs to get familiar with the latest science communication research on vaccine messaging. A good place to start is this nice overview at DoubleXScience. Here’s an excerpt: Read More
When Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks, people listen. I was on vacation when America’s most prominent scientist made news for railing against GMO fearmongers. “Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food,” he told a French interviewer. It was an impromptu, oversimplified response on a complex, hot-button subject, but Tyson’s stance was clear to all: GMOs are nothing to be afraid of.
He has since expanded on his views in a Facebook post that is well worth reading. (More on this in a minute.) Tyson did not intentionally thrust himself into the GMO debate. Nonetheless, what he said carries tremendous weight. What’s interesting is how some are interpreting this importance.
At Vox, Ezra Klein seizes on Tyson’s statements as further proof of a key difference between agenda-setting liberals and conservatives on science. Sure, the liberal base of the Democratic party is anti-GMO, Klein acknowledges. But this hasn’t mutated into the liberal equivalent of conservative climate denial, because the Democratic establishment–particularly its powerbrokers—-haven’t embraced the anti-GMO views of its base, he argues.
This is true. In the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama paid lip service to the nascent GMO labeling campaign, but has since steered clear of the battle. (And it is heating up.) The State Department during Obama’s tenure has challenged international trade barriers that restrict products containing GMO ingredients. Last year, Obama infuriated the anti-GMO wing of his base when he signed the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” (a much misunderstood bill). Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democratic standard-bearer, has come out strongly in favor of crop biotechnology. As Klein correctly notes, “You don’t see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislation.”
But this is a narrow lens to view GMO politics and policy. Consider the case of AquaBounty Technologies, the company that develops a genetically modified salmon. The transgenic fish has been stuck in a regulatory black hole for nearly two decades. A final decision by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), was set to be released in 2012, but opposition from environmental and consumer groups apparently nixed that.
NGO’s self-identifying as public interest groups are typically aligned with liberal causes. Many people, especially those who consider themselves progressive Democrats, presume these groups to be a force for good, motivated by truth and science. But as journalist Marc Gunther details in a recent Guardian piece, these groups don’t deserve such trust on GMO issues. He specifically cites the AquaBounty case: Read More
Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a profile of Richard Cizik for Audubon magazine. He was, at the time, a prominent lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals and a member of good standing among social and political conservatives. But Cizik’s views on a number of hot-button issues were evolving. In 2008 he was forced to resign, or as he later put it, fired for remarks he made on NPR:
In a broad-ranging conversation about my work to educate my fellow evangelicals about the impacts of climate change, I told Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” that I could support “civil unions” for gays and lesbians and that government funding of contraception was morally acceptable as a way to avoid abortion.
As I wrote in my Audubon piece, Cizik had come to view global warming as an urgent, moral issue. History would judge the evangelical community, he believed, just as it had on another defining issue: Read More
Earlier in the year, Roger Pielke Jr. was named as a contributing writer for Nate Silver’s newly re-launched FiveThirtyEight site. Shortly after that, Pielke, a climate policy scholar and political scientist at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, published an article at FiveThirtyEight headlined, “Disasters Cost More Than Ever–But Not Because of Climate Change.”
I recently conducted a Q & A with Pielke about this episode and the aftermath. The links in my questions are from me. I asked Pielke to provide his own links.
KK: It’s been noted on Twitter that you are not listed on the main contributors page for FiveThirthyEight. Does this mean you no longer write for the site? If so, can you explain what happened?
RPJR: That is correct, I no longer write for 538. Last month, after 538 showed some reluctance in continuing to publish my work, I called up Mike Wilson, the lead editor there, and told him that it was probably best that we part ways. I wished them well in their endeavor going forward. I remain a fan. Since then I have joined up with SportingIntelligence, a UK-based website that focuses on analyses of economic and other quantitative aspects of sport. It’s a great fit. And of course, I continue to publish in places like USA Today and the Financial Times on a wide range of subjects
KK: What do you make of the uproar your FiveThirtyEight piece generated? I know it quickly degenerated into an ugly pile-on, which I and some other journalists found unseemly. But did critics have any legitimate points you want to acknowledge?
RPJR: Well, that first piece was written on a subject that I have written on many times before (and perhaps as much as anyone) – disasters and climate change. The short essay was perfectly consistent with the recent assessments of the IPCC. The fact that some folks didn’t like it was not surprising — most anything on climate change is met with derision by somebody. What was a surprise was the degree to which the negative response to the piece was coordinated among some activist scientists, journalists and social media aficionados. I think that took everyone by surprise. I learned some new things about certain colleagues and journalists — both really good things and some really pathetic things. Seeing a campaign organized to have me fired from 538 also taught me a lesson about the importance of academic tenure.
KK: If you could write the piece over again, what would you do differently, if anything?
RPJR: Looking back, probably the main thing I would do differently would be to simply not write about climate change at 538. When I was originally hired there was actually zero discussion about me focusing on climate or even science, but rather covering a wide range of topics. I made clear to Nate and Mike that I was looking to at least partially escape from the climate change wars by focusing on other issues. The climate change piece was an obvious place to start even so because the IPCC reports had just been released and the topic is also covered so thoroughly in the peer reviewed literature. Clearly, that judgment was wrong!
KK: Have you and Nate Silver talked about this ordeal? What was his reaction?
RPJR: I have not spoken with or corresponded with Nate since that first piece. Of course, I do wish that 538 had shown a bit more editorial backbone, but hey, it is his operation. If a widely published academic cannot publish on a subject which he has dozens of peer-reviewed papers and 1000s of citations to his work, what can he write on? Clearly Nate is a smart guy, and I suspect that he knows very well where the evidence lies on this topic. For me, if the price of playing in the DC-NYC data journalism world is self-censorship for fear of being unpopular, then it is clearly not a good fit for any academic policy scholar.
KK: The condemnation of your 538 piece quickly spiraled into ugly personal broadsides painting you (incorrectly) as a climate skeptic. This happened in various high profile venues, such as Slate. How did you feel when this happened?
RPJR: If you are engaged in public debates on issues that people care passionately about, then you will be called names and worse. It goes with the territory. It is not pleasant of course, but at the same time, it is a pretty strong indication that (a) your arguments matter and (b) people have a hard time countering them on their merits. Even so, it is remarkable to see people like Paul Krugman and John Holdren brazenly make completely false claims in public about my work and my views. That they make such false claims with apparently no consequences says something about the nature of debate surrounding climate.
KK: You say you were surprised by “the degree to which the response to the piece was coordinated among some activist scientists, journalists and social media aficionados.” But this response did not happen in a vacuum, either. For years, your work–or more specifically–pointed statements you’ve made about the climate science establishment–have been heavily criticized by a number of outspoken climate scientists and widely read climate bloggers. Looking back, it appears that animosity directed towards you stems more from sharply-worded commentary on your blog and elsewhere, than your research.
For example, in his recently published book, “Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed–and What it Means for Our Future,” NYU’s Dale Jamieson wrote about you. Here’s an excerpt that was posted at Salon: Read More
To recap: The self-proclaimed “Health Ranger” said that certain publishers, journalists and scientists “have signed on to the Nazi genocide machine of our day,” which he identifies as the agricultural biotech industry dominated by Monsanto. The unspecified genocide-promoting group was the equivalent of Hitler’s propagandists, “paid biotech muckrakers — people I call “Monsanto collaborators,” Adams wrote.
He then suggested (his emphasis), that
it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.
Several days after this incitement was published, Adams noted that a “Monsanto Collaborators” website had been created, naming specific individuals (including myself) and publishers. It was baldly transparent. Some colleagues didn’t mince words.
— Phil McKenna (@mckennapr) July 24, 2014
The sinister piece by Adams and the follow-on “Monsanto Collaborators” website was chilling, prompting some of those named on the site to alert the FBI.
Adams has since tried walking back the most menacing aspects of this episode. True to conspiratorial form, he now says the “Monsanto Collaborators” website is part of a “false flag operation.” (See my updates here.) This is a person who makes Glenn Beck and his chalkboard look quaint.
Leaving aside the febrile mind we are dealing with here, it’s worth taking a step back to discuss one claim that Adams has seized on as a main building block for his twisted reasoning. This claim–that GMOs have driven more than 250,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide–is widely dispersed in the mainstream biotech discourse (amplified by influential thought leaders) and accepted by many, especially by those already inclined to be suspicious of GMOs.
If you want the short explanation, read this piece by a Canadian reporter. If you want the long, complicated version of how this myth came to be so established, read a feature story of mine, published last year in Issues in Science and Technology. (An overview, with links, can be read here.)
I recently discussed what is perhaps the most twisted, disgusting anti-GMO tract ever written. It’s by Mike Adams, who as Jon Entine said earlier this year, is “a titan in the booming alternative lifestyle business, running dozens of websites promoting ‘natural’ products, many of them bogus or dangerous, which he relentlessly hawks online.”
The main communication portal for Adams is Naturalnews.com. According to Alexa, the site receives 219, 877 daily unique visitors and 407, 386 daily pageviews. Dr. Oz featured Adams on his show several months ago. Earlier this week, Adams published a screed at his main site that carried this headline:
Biotech genocide, Monsanto collaborators and the Nazi legacy of ‘science’ as justification for murder
The article was accompanied by Nazi imagery and horrible pictures of the Holocaust. Adams equated Hitler’s propagandists with today’s media outlets and journalists who “have signed on to accelerate heinous crimes being committed against humanity under the false promise of ‘feeding the world’ with toxic GMOs.” Adams refers to this as a modern-day genocide being perpetrated by “Monsanto collaborators.”
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Adams then chillingly suggests (his emphasis),
that it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.