Unscientific America: Page 3

By Chris Mooney | May 29, 2009 9:16 am

After posting the table of contents and pages 1 and 2, we’re now on to the next:

 …in the first place? Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such a public outcry? Did they simply not care? Was the Pluto decision really scientifically necessary?

Such questions implicate far more than our current conception of the solar system or which planets babies will see in the mobiles overhanging their cribs. The furor over Pluto is just one particularly colorful example of the rift today between the world of science and the rest of society. The divide is especially pronounced in the United States, which is simultaneously the world’s scientific leader–at least for the moment–and home to an overarching culture that often barely seems to know or care. (Unless scientists mess with Pluto, that is.)

It’s a stunning contradiction, when you think about it. The United States features a massive infrastructure for science, supported by well over $ 100 billion annually in federal funding and sporting a vast network of government laboratories and agencies, the finest universities in the world, and innovative corporations that conduct extensive research. Thanks to such investments, Americans built the bomb, reached the moon, decoded the genome, and created the Internet. And yet today this country is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, ignores scientific advances or outright rejects scientific principles. A distressingly large number of Americans refuse to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of the origin of our species and the diversity of life on Earth. An influential sector of the populace is in dangerous retreat from the standard use of childhood vaccinations, one of medicine’s greatest and most successful advances: By the end of the twentieth century, they were responsible for saving a million lives per year. The nation itself has become politically divided over the nature of reality, such that college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and caused by human activities. Meanwhile, the United States stands on the verge of falling behind other nations such as India and China in the race to lead the world in scientific endeavor in the twenty-first century.

For convenience, here are the links to look back over pages 1 and 2. Here is the link to the next pages, 4 and 5. For more information and to preorder from Amazon, click here.


Comments (14)


    It’s strange how yanks aren’t even metric and a lot of science came from them or rather a very small portion of the population which is devoted to science!

  2. Michael

    I believe in the theories of evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. These have a sound scientific basis, and have only gotten more precise and stronger over time.

    However, the unproven political theory of man-made golbal warming is a constructed myth. The earth has bee cooling for the last 10 years, and has had significant cooling during the last 2 years. This trend continues. Northern hemisphere glaciers are getting thicker and expanding. The Antarctic sea ice is expanding. The sea level is not rising. The predictions of the IPCC have simply proven to be false. Man-made hydrocarbon emissions have a miniscule effect on the earth’s climate, especially compared to geothermal and tectonic activities and the oceans’ composition and currents. Not to mention the massive, if subtle, effects of various siderial movements like the sun’s retrograde effect and the lack of sunspots.

    Yes, I am a ‘denier’ of man-made global warming, and as such am the target of some of the most vile personal attacks and character asassination that I have ever experienced. And this coming from so-called well-educated and well-informed people. Unfortunately, these folks have themselves politicized the climate change debate to a point where any objective truth is very hard to find. Nevertheless, I persist in gathering climate facts instead of playing the politically correct games.

    If scientists continue to play politics in order to get grant money and power, then it’s not surprising that people are losing faith in the process of science itself. This is a shame and a disaster for our country.

  3. Blogger

    “A distressingly large number of Americans refuse to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of the origin of our species and the diversity of life on Earth.”

    Well, yes, because it so directly contradicts with what the Bible (and most holy books) have to say about our origin:

    “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power,
    for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”


    I reject it as the origin of our species too. It has some value as a change mechanism, but not as a mechanism of origination.

    BUT: Vaccinations and other medical technology have been the high points of our technological society.

  4. Sorbet

    Americans built the bomb

    I thought it was mostly immigrant Europeans

  5. Actually, Michael, the shame for our country is that we have not turned a deaf ear to those who make up their facts rather than documenting the research. e.g. “Northern hemisphere glaciers are getting thicker and expanding. The Antarctic sea ice is expanding.”

    But then, the are some who will allow Sen. Inhofe to write their script for them. I wonder who writes the good Senator’s script.

  6. wjv

    @Blogger: the origin of our species (homo sapien) is thoroughly explained by evolution by natural selection. But you would be reasonable in saying that the origin of the very first species is not explained by evolution by natural selection.
    (although some sort of natural selection could have been operating on non-living pre-biotic chemicals which gave rise to the first living thing or fist species)

    Your statement “It has some value as a change mechanism, but not as a mechanism of origination” summarizes this subtle point quite nicely actually. Homo Sapien originated (i.e. first appeared) as a result of the change mechanism of natural selection acting.Our origin is hard to pinpoint exactly because change was probably somewhat gradual, however we originated undoubtedly from mutations in a previously existing species.

    This same statement cannot be said for the very first example of life, however.

  7. Not enough scientists have been willing to speak “truth to power”. It seems that too many experts have chosen elective mutism and, thereby, allowed science to be suppressed, censored, gag rules imposed and countless distractions presented whenever reasonable and sensible evidence would come into conflict with what the economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians determine, out of their own selfish interests, to be real and true.

    Science appears to present the leaders of the global political economy with evidence of politically inconvenient and economically inexpedient truths. If that is so, who knows, perhaps the super-rich and powerful people among us might learn something that leads them to exemplify values other than the goodness of greed and personal aggrandizement as well as the false rightfulness of living unsustainably large and irresponsibly free in the planetary home God blesses us inhabit.

  8. We should not be surprised at the pandemic of irrationality. Let’s not forget that while the Enlightenment gave us inspiration, it was (as we are now seeing) what Australian Andrew Glikson calls a “veneer” over superstition and religious faith. It did NOT eliminate the underying default condition of the human mind (irrationality); it provided a new way of thinking and investigating natural phenomena, leading to a methodology that demands not just theories but evidence and substantiation. The scientific method is not operative in most of daily human life. What is operative are the numerous opinions, postulations, ideologies and bits of gossip that, thanks to the internet, take on a life of their own. In turn these are adopted without critical thinking or scrutiny if they conform to an individual’s own biases and belief system. From this we get 9/11 conspiracy theories (from paranoia about our government), homeopathy and anti-vaccination campaigns (due to antipathy to Big Pharma), creationism (as a reaction to materialism and any suggestion that the human brain is a product of evolution, thus leading to the possibility that god is a product of the human brain). Resolving these debates is not open to a vote because, for various reasons, our educational system, religious institutions, mass media and other forces have not demanded critical thinking from us. Put these together with the wildfire spread of personal anecdoctes about space aliens, supernatural forces, nasty scientists,and seemingly unexplained (but unduplicated and untested) phenomena, and it becomes clear that the Enlightenment was a passing era that held back the darkest and most primitive aspects of the human brain. These may have, at one time in our earliest history, had some adaptive value in that fear of the unknown, of the dark, of lurking dangerous creatures, was the safest choice , and that myths told around the fire about these instilled necessary caution in pre-Enlightenment humans. Now the opposite is true, and we risk the loss of reason, science and impartial analysis…in short, the greatest accomplishments in human evolution. We only need to see how Arab nations exist today to realize the importance to human civilization of Enlightenment values and how their absence relegates whole societies to contemporary forms of barbarism.

  9. Michael Heath

    Michael – if you are correct that AGW is “political myth” and that “the earth has been cooling for the past 10 years”, why would you fail to support your claims with empirical evidence? Because you have a cool name we should trust your unsupported claims?

    Here is my evidence that AGW is not merely a political myth, but an actual peer-accepted scientific theory based on empirical evidence where the practicing scientists’ confidence levels in their explanations are both growing and their margins or error are decreasing: http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/assessments-reports.htm

    Perhaps you have a peer-reviewed article whose empirical evidence provides compelling evidence that refutes the IPCC report’s finding regarding AGW and the past several years temp. trends that I linked to here, if so, please provide such.

    In addition, please provide empirical evidence by way of a peer-reviewed article that refutes the peer-accepted evidence that this past decade has not been the warmest decade in this geologic period but instead is providing evidence of cooling. Here is peer-accepted evidence that refutes your unreferenced claim: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/globalwarming.html#q3

    If you are not able to provide peer-reviewed articles by practicing, publishing scientists in the relevant fields with peer-accepted data refuting the claims of climatologists, what is your motivation?

  10. The Pluto decision was not only scientifically unnecessary; it was actually harmful to science. The IAU adopted a planet definition that makes neither linguistic nor scientific sense by categorizing dwarf planets as not being planets at all and by defining objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. They also made themselves look ridiculous by making an artificial claim that we cannot have too many planets in the solar system. What is scientific about that? Meanwhile, the excitement that could have been generated by the discovery of new planets in our solar system, such as Eris, Haumea, and Makemake, never was because all people focused on was demoting Pluto. How many people know about these newly-discovered planets? That was an opportuntity lost.

  11. A random passing physicist

    Michael Heath,

    Pardon me for stepping in here.

    I note you cited the IPCC reports as evidence of being peer-accepted and based on empirical evidence. Can you show me where this is demonstrated?

    My understanding of the IPCC review process is that acceptance by the reviewers was not required for publication, nor was it forthcoming in many cases, with hundreds of criticisms ignored or rejected by the authors. The final version was written after the last review, and the changes made then were not independently examined.

    Secondly, much of the report, and particularly the sections on attribution, are based on computer models, not empirical data. I am not aware of any empirical data demonstrating a human connection, certainly, none is presented in the IPCC reports. Can you indicate more precisely what you’re thinking of here?

    Could you also explain how the IPCC’s confidence levels were calculated? Because on the face of it they appear to be ‘expert judgement’ based on the gut feeling of the authors, and not any quantified measure. That judgement doesn’t seem to be supported in light of the many uncertainties listed in the body of the reports.


    Now, about the statistics.
    Michael (the other one) reports some observations, some of which are correct, and others are not. This is standard on both sides of this debate, and it would be equally valid to call into question the motives of AGW believers in making unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions. And of course, many sceptics do so. It’s generally unhelpful, and it would be preferable for both sides to work towards a better understanding.

    “The Earth has been cooling for 10 years”
    No, there has been no significant change for 10 years, but it has only been cooling for about 7 years. The main temperature series showing this are the UAH MSU and RSS MSU. They can easily be Googled.
    The statistical properties of temperature anomaly times series are such that none of these calculated trends are meaningful. They’re based on statistical assumptions that are invalid for this data, so you get different trends depending on what interval you look at. And the good data only goes back about 30 years, which is far too short a period to identify natural variation.

    “Northern hemisphere glaciers are getting thicker and expanding”
    It depends on what is meant by this. There are some glaciers expanding and others contracting, and it is true that there are northern hemisphere ones expanding. (Quite a lot of those in Norway, for example.)

    However, considered on average, this is actually an unknown. There are about 67,000 documented glaciers in the world (World Glacier Inventory), and mass balance surveys (the method needed to tell if they are actually expanding or contracting) are regularly conducted on about 80-100 of them. Of those surveyed, the majority are still contracting, but it is unclear how this subset was selected. The distribution of survey sites is by no means uniform.

    However, it’s unclear whether this means anything at all, either way, because glacier flow is the result of many effects, particularly precipitation. They have been contracting at roughly the same rate since about 1850 in the Northern hemisphere, and since the last ice age in the Southern. There wasn’t much polluting industry in 1850.

    “The Antarctic sea ice is expanding”
    This one is correct, at least for the 30 years we have data for, although the trend is not particularly significant.

    “The sea level is not rising”
    Again, it depends what is meant. Sea level rise oscillates between 0 and 4 mm/yr on a roughly 10 year cycle. The average rise has been 2-3 mm/yr since about 1900, and shows no sign of changing. In fact, for the last couple of years it has dropped below the average, but this isn’t unusual and is probably not significant. There’s certainly no sign of the impending world-wide disaster predicted, which I assume is what was meant.

    The IPCC projections for the most extreme high-end A1F1 are in the neighbourhood of 26 cm to 59 cm per century. More typical projections are around 20 cm to 45 cm. These are roughly in line with a continuation of the present rise.

    Claims that such a rise is going to cause unusual flooding are unjustified. The land rises and falls at about that rate anyway from erosion, eustatic rebound, and the deposition of mud and coral. Flat land close to sea level tends to be that way precisely because of such processes. For example the flooding of the Ganges deposits silt on Bangladesh to such an extent that it is actually *growing* in area, despite the land naturally falling as the Indian tectonic plate dives under the Himalayas, and the aforementioned sea level rise. Bangladesh is at sea level because the river stops when it gets to the sea.

    And incidentally, since coral survived the meltwater pulse 15,000 years ago, when sea levels rose 30 m in about 500 years, I don’t suppose rates 15-30 times slower will bother it.

    Now, I’ll move on to a couple of your own claims.

    “In addition, please provide empirical evidence by way of a peer-reviewed article that refutes the peer-accepted evidence that this past decade has not been the warmest decade in this geologic period…”

    Certainly. :-)

    D.S. Kaufman, T.A. Ager, N.J. Anderson, P.M. Anderson, J.T. Andrews, P.J. Bartlein, L.B. Brubaker, L.L. Coats, L.C. Cwynar, M.L. Duvall, A.S. Dyke, M.E. Edwards, W.R. Eisner, K. Gajewski, A. Geirsdottir, F.S. Hu, A.E. Jennings, M.R. Kaplan, M.W. Kerwin, A.V. Lozhkin, G.M. MacDonald, G.H. Miller, C.J. Mock, W.W. Oswald, B.L. Otto-Bliesner, D.F. Porinchu, K. Ruhland, J.P. Smol, E.J. Steig, B.B. Wolfe (2004). “Holocene thermal maximum in the western Arctic (0-180 W)”. Quaternary Science Reviews 23: 529–560.

    The Holocene Optimum, as it is known, is estimated to have been about 1 C to 2 C warmer than present, and lasted for a few thousand years.

    If you go back a little further, the Eemian interglacial, had Hippopotamus in England and Germany, and forests up as far as North Cape in Norway. That was only about 120,000 years ago.

    There’s a lot I could say about your NCDC link. But this is already getting too long, so I’ll just pick out fig 6.10 (b), the well-known spaghetti graph, and point out a few things.

    The series labelled MBH1999 is the famous Mann, Bradley, Hughes Hockeystick graph, which has been discredited on the grounds of invalid statistical methods and the use of Bristlecone pines which were already known not to be temperature proxies. (In peer reviewed literature, too. McIntyre and McKittrick 2003.)

    The series labelled B2000 is the only slightly less notorious Briffa 2000 truncation. Here, the data actually dives down to about -0.7 C after 1960. So they *chopped that bit off* and didn’t show it. They said that because it only diverged in the late 20th century it must be a manmade effect, but that since mankind was only having an effect after this date it was safe to keep the earlier part of the data.

    Several of the other series include Bristlecones, use variants on Mann’s discredited methods, or both.

    Anyway, I hope you can now see the difference between discussing evidence and simple argument from authority. This is what scientific literacy is all about.

  12. Michael Heath

    Passing physicist – I get the distinct impression you are reading about the IPCC report from denialists, but have not actually read it yourself.

    I would assume any report with 620 authors from 40 countries would yield some criticism. In fact there is criticism that the report underestimates the future effects of AGW, where peer-reviewed articles that continue to be published after the 4th report validate such criticism. You seem to be inferring that the IPCC report is not a useful representation of the peer-accepted understanding of AGW from the practicing/publishing denialist perspective. Please provide a citation that shows evidence of that.

    You claimed the IPCC report’s attribution for greenhouse gasses is based only on computer modeling and not any empirical data. That is simply not true: http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/FAQ/wg1_faq-3.1.html . In fact, the IPCC even breaks down sources of gasses based on their chemical make-up, cement factories for example, or CO2 which is the result of volcanic activity. We can distinguish between CO2 in the atmosphere that is from volcanic activity or the burning of fossil fuels partially based on accompanying aerosols and chemicals along with other methods. We also have empirical data regarding the effects of volcanic activity and solar effects, both of which do not explain the current rise of greenhouse gasses we are experiencing and have seen a dramatic rise in since 1750.

    Here is IPCC commentary that refutes your claim that about current cooling in the context climatoligists consider temp. trends: http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/FAQ/wg1_faq-3.1.html

    Your point to the other Michael regarding Arctic sea ice coverage not expanding is a rhetorical dodge and also not true. Climatologists worry about ice depth and age, not cover though it is measured, where both are decreasing to the point of concern. Any above-average cold winter would extend sea ice, changes in the depth and age of the ice are much more representative data points when considering changes in the climate. Coverage is also contracting and has been for 50 years: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/

  13. A random passing physicist

    Michael Heath,

    Well, I can hardly complain about that, because I had got the impression that you were repeating what you had heard about it from believers, but probably hadn’t read it. I’m glad to hear you have.

    While I haven’t read every part of it, I’ve read a great deal of it personally, because as a rule I don’t necessarily trust the skeptics to get it right, either. If you want to give chapter and page number for the bits you want to cite, I’ve got a copy right here.

    I’m not clear on why you think the number of authors as such would generate criticism. The criticisms tended to be to do with scientific errors and omissions, rather than authorship numbers. It’s not the criticism specifically that is the issue, but that it was in many cases ignored. I’m not saying that the criticism necessarily invalidates the report, I’m saying that it means it is not peer-reviewed (or peer-accepted as you put it) in the usual sense of the phrase. The normal peer-review process has the peers comment in much the same sort of way, but then their criticisms have to be addressed to their satisfaction before it can be published. This was not the case with the IPCC reports. Nor were any of the peers asked to indicate acceptance, and indeed there are a number of reviewers who have since said they disagree with it quite strongly. (Like Professor Reiter.) The decision to re-write the science bits to match the already-published summary was also considered at odds with usual scientific practice.

    So in what sense are the IPCC reports “peer-accepted”?

    I did not claim anything at all about the IPCC’s attribution of *greenhouse gases*. I was talking about the attribution of anthropogenic causes to climate change, described in chapter 9 of AR4, entitled, surprisingly enough, “Understanding and Attributing Climate Change”. You will find the arguments conveniently summaried in table 9.4 starting on page 729.

    “Observed change is very large relative to climate-model simulated internal variability. Surface temperature variability simulated by models is consistent with variability estimated from instrumental and palaeorecords.”

    “No climate model that has used natural forcing only has reproduced the observed global warming trend over the 2nd half of the 20th century.”

    “Estimates from different analyses using different models show consistently more warming than observed over the last 50 years at the 5% significance level.”

    “Simulations in response to estimates of preindustrial forcing reproduce broad features of reconstructions.”

    “…but observed change in the temperature of the warmest day annually is inconsistent with simulated change. The detection of changes in temperature extremes is supported by other comparisons between models and observations. Model uncertainties in changes in temperature extremes are greater than for mean temperatures and there is limited observational coverage and substantial observational uncertainty”

    Models, models, models. And there are plenty more. The fundamental argument is that the models they built, based on their current understanding of CO2 forcing, are unable to simulate observations without CO2, (ignoring all the other things they are unable to simulate). That’s the argument.

    Yes, there is empirical evidence that temperatures have risen (from thermometers we know are sited next to air conditioners and barbecues, and which didn’t exist in most places in 1900) and that CO2 has risen as a result of industry (although it is a bit more complicated than that, with oceans and biosphere playing big parts), but it is the connection between the two, the little bit of magic that turns correlation into causation, that proves elusive. All your linked faq talks about is measuring temperatures, and only plots them up to 2000, I note. It doesn’t talk about how they attribute that to CO2, and it doesn’t refute any comments made about the last 7 years.

    And finally, both the other Michael and I did not comment on *Arctic* sea ice, but *Antarctic*. There’s a bit of a difference! You can find the data here: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/current.anom.south.jpg and http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/current.area.south.jpg

    The trend is up, the ice is growing, and it’s not a rhetorical dodge.

    And you’re wrong about the depth vs area issue. Area is more important for climate because of the effect on the Earth’s albedo. Thickness is only an issue with regard to predicting the next year’s melt – and because most sea ice is always first-year ice anyway, has less of an effect on the melt than wind and weather.

    Incidentally, since you brought the Arctic up, the area is roughly at the long term average at the moment (over all the data we have, not just to 2000), and surveys have described it as thicker than usual. And the drop from 2005-2007 (clearly weather not climate, even by IPCC standards) was due to unusual wind patterns, not temperature, according to NASA. http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/quikscat-20071001.html

    So, there were a few misunderstandings there. But that was a pretty good go, I appreciate you making the effort, and I’d certainly encourage you to make another attempt. Can I assume that the bits you didn’t respond to, you accept as correct? Or at least don’t dispute? I don’t normally, (and would always ask,) but it would be nice to get those questions settled.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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