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August 29 2012

23:49

Coalition Calls On Duke Energy To Dump American Legislative Exchange Council

A coalition of environmental, civil rights and democracy reform groups today called upon Duke Energy to join the 38 other companies that have left the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. In their letter sent to Duke CEO Jim Rogers this morning, the coalition requests that Duke Energy "disassociate and stop funding ALEC immediately."

"We collectively call upon Duke Energy to drop all financial and staff support to ALEC due not only to their role in blocking clean energy implementation and solutions to global warming, but due to their direct attacks on democracy and our civil rights."

As Greenpeace's Connor Gibson points out in his blog about the effort,

"Duke Energy has distinguished itself from other polluters with rhetorical commitments to tackling global warming and implementing clean energy, but stops short of meaningful action. By dumping ALEC, Duke would take a step in the right direction toward the potential it has to become a cleaner energy company."
  

Here is the full-text of the letter to Jim Rogers:


    Dear Mr. Rogers,

    We, the undersigned, a coalition of environmental, civil rights, and democracy reform groups are writing to express our concern for the extensive support provided by Duke Energy to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and request Duke Energy disassociate and stop funding ALEC immediately.

    ALEC is not only responsible for drafting model state laws attacking renewable energy programs and climate policies, it is also intentionally crafting and supporting Voter ID bills and other legislation designed to suppress people from voting and participating in our democracy. We are concerned about this fundamental attack on our democracy and civil rights, and Duke Energy’s support for it.

    Duke Energy has repeatedly stated concern over climate change, yet is participating in ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force, which includes notorious climate skeptics like the Heartland Institute and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (which we understand Duke Energy disassociated from in 2009 due to its role in obstructing national climate policy). In direct opposition to Duke Energy’s position on climate, ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force continues to advance legislative efforts that attempt to deny the realities of climate change.

    ALEC more broadly demonstrates an attack against state action on climate change and renewable energy, promoting laws and resolutions that undermine state’s abilities to address climate change and expand clean energy. While Jim Rogers has called for the US to “wean [itself] from the use of foreign oil,”[viii] Duke works alongside multinational oil companies like ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Chevron within ALEC, all of which are known for their heavy obstruction of U.S. climate and clean energy policies.

    Perhaps most alarmingly, ALEC is spearheading attacks on our democracy and civil rights, promoting Voter ID legislation and other bills intended to make it more difficult for people to vote and participate in our democracy. These bills will most dramatically hit young people, people of color and poor people, suppressing them and their ability to vote.

    We collectively call upon Duke Energy to drop all financial and staff support to ALEC due not only to their role in blocking clean energy implementation and solutions to global warming, but due to their direct attacks on democracy and our civil rights.

    We look forward to a quick response and would be happy to provide any clarification or additional resources informing our questions, if needed.

    Sincerely,

    Energy Action Coalition
    Greenpeace
    Common Cause
    Center for Media & Democracy
    CREDO Action
    Public Citizen
    Friends of the Earth
    Progressive Change Campaign Committee
    Oil Change International
    Southern Energy Network
    Checks & Balances Project

 

August 24 2012

18:18

Conquering Coal - A Tale of One City's Fight

This is guest post by Megan Pitz.

As another sweltering summer day over 100 degrees came to a close in the Washington, D.C. region, citizens of nearby Alexandria, Virginia witnessed the closure of the Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS) coal-fired power plant also known as the 'Mirant Plant.' 

The closure was expected by the community – as much as anything can be that you fight for – but it didn’t happen overnight. It began in 2003 with citizen-activists Elizabeth Chimento and Poul Hertzel’s quest to learn the source of black soot-like residue coating the windowsills of homes and businesses in Alexandria’s Old Town neighborhood.

Chimento and Hertzel’s first step involved pressuring city officials to clean up the power plant.  Efforts in this direction continued for several years until a Mirant Community Monitoring Group (MCMG) of citizen activists, civic groups, and City officials formed and began working alongside environmental groups to hold the plant’s owner and environmental agencies accountable for the power plant’s pollution. 

In 2008, after nearly six years, this led to a legal agreement between the City of Alexandria and plant owners that, along with recommendations from Virginia’s Air Pollution Control Board, provided some of the pollution controls these citizens had been asking for, especially for the main public health concern of particulate matter.  

The decision to retire the plant arrived later but would never have happened without the active engagement of a dedicated community.

The Potomac River plant is one of the largest single sources of ozone-forming pollutants within the DC metro area of nonattainment, an area that does not meet federal clean air standards and includes Alexandria. 

Citizens and the City had for years pressured the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to determine whether its pollution posed a serious health threat to residents living in its midst but it was not until 2003, when ozone-forming NOx spewing from its stacks exceeded Clean Air Act (CAA) standards, that the VA DEQ confirmed the health impacts and gave the plant’s owner (then Mirant) an ultimatum to clean up or shut down. 

Mirant responded by shutting the plant down in the hope of proving it was needed for a reliable supply of local electricity.  This only served to galvanize the campaign by providing the DC Public Service Commission an opportunity to file a petition

The petition enabled the Secretary of Energy to look at the plant’s generation and, while ordering it to turn the plant back on, also order the utility to add pollution controls and build transmission lines that would make the plant unnecessary for reliability.

Environmental attorney John Britton used the Order to write a letter highlighting the plant’s history of exceeding air quality standards and the consequent threat to the health of residents.  Britton’s letter also noted a tradeoff that became a theme of campaign messaging: while Alexandria received no power from the plant, its residents bore its health and environmental impacts.

The MCMG continually countered Mirant’s untruthful publicity by distributing their own information while citizens wrote officials personal stories about their health problems attributable to the plant. Along with environmental groups, the MCMG organized marches and meetings, posted signs and handed out fact sheets about the plant, and actively participated in public hearings. 

Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light (GWIPL)’s Director Joelle Novey worked to mobilize congregations of many faiths in support of closing the plant.

A petition drop at a meeting of hard-to-reach audience GenOn shareholders created enough pressure to get the attention of key decision makers at GenOn. This resulted in a private meeting with their Executive VP, where citizen activists Dr. Ana Prados and Ernie Lehmann conveyed residents’ determination to retire the plant. 

Letters-to-the-Editor in local papers connecting the plant site to spills and events raising awareness about effects of the plant’s mercury were also effective in garnering additional public support to close the plant.  

However, even successful attention-grabbing tactics can be ignored when not coupled with a credible legal threat.  The Potomac River plant operates in violation of the Clean Water Act due to its failure to install cooling towers.  Addressing such violations in a 26-page letter, lawyers Joshua Stebbins and Zachary Fabish pressured GenOn by making key officials at EPA and NOAA aware and requesting they be remedied in the plant’s upcoming permit renewal.

Impact of the letter was magnified with sign-on of the entire coalition of groups formed for the ‘GenOff’ campaign, including Greenpeace USA, the Sierra Club, GWILP, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. 

The City’s commitment to the 2008 legal agreement was a barrier to close the plant, but this quickly changed.

In the summer of 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a rule to limit sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution.  The SO2 Rule set a one-hour standard for SO2 emissions at 75 parts per billion.  With the new rule, the plant’s emission levels of SO2 across VA, DC, and MD also became, by law,  “unhealthy.”
  
But the critical action in the story of the shutdown came from the City of Alexandria itself. The City’s commitment to the agreement it had signed with the plant owner also gave it some leverage. As a party on the other end of this binding agreement it was positioned to make GenOn an offer no one else could: if GenOn agreed to retire the plant, it could take the remaining funds set aside by the Agreement, some $30 million, and walk. 

Faced with the expense of cooling towers and SO2 controls, ongoing costs of less effective controls, political pressure as well as renewed pressure from residents and environmental groups backing the Sierra Club attorneys’ legal threat, the City’s offer turned out to be one GenOn could not refuse. 

When on October 1st, 2012, the Potomac River Generating Station emits the last of its smog-causing pollutants, many will truly breathe a sigh of relief.


Megan Pitz was a Fellow with Greenpeace USA's Coal Campaign, where she represented the organization in the coalition that pressured the Potomac River coal plant to retire.

Image credit:
Parys Ryszard | Shutterstock
  

August 23 2012

19:09

Daily Kos Climate Change SOS Blogathon Features Wide Range of Climate Hawk Voices

Our friends over at Daily Kos are running an amazing Climate Change SOS Blogathon this week, featuring dozens of voices from the climate hawk community. Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, John Abraham, Rep. Ed Markey, A Siegel, Richard Heinberg, Heather Libby, Brad Johnson, Kelly Rigg and DeSmog's IT director Evan Leeson are just some of the many friends of DeSmog that are contributing posts throughout the week-long blogathon.

I jumped into the action as well, contributing a piece on Tuesday titled Breaking Up With Polluters To Save The Climate.

Greg Laden just posted a scary piece about the implications of sea level rise for future generations.

There is a lot of great content. I highly recommend heading over to Daily Kos to check it out. Here is a full run-down of the posts so far. Stay tuned to the Climate Change SOS Blogathon box at the bottom of most posts to keep up with the newer entries.

 

August 22 2012

23:50

Hundreds of Concerned Citizens Protest Governor Andrew Cuomo's Plans To Frack New York

Over 350 concerned citizens turned up at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s policy summit today to protest his risky plan to allow hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in New York. The state has had a moratorium on the dangerous shale gas drilling technique since 2008, but Governor Cuomo is expected to announce the green lighting of fracking in sections of New York in the coming weeks.

New Yorkers concerned about threats to their drinking water and public health showed up en masse to deliver their message to Cuomo in person at a summit geared toward exploring a possible 2016 run for the White House. The gathering drew several Clinton administration veterans.

CREDO Action and New Yorkers Against Fracking organized the protest "to send a clear message to Gov. Cuomo that if he hopes to count on the support of New Yorkers and environmentalists for a future presidential run, he must say no to fracking New York."
 

Gov. Cuomo, don't frack New York,” said Zack Malitz, Campaign Manager of CREDO Action. “We have a moratorium against fracking in place now, and Gov. Cuomo lifts it at great peril to his political future. If Cuomo wants the support of New Yorkers who care about clean water, their health and the environment when he runs for president in 2016, he should abandon his plan to frack New York.”


David Braun of New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of over 160 organizations across New York that supports a ban on fracking, says that "Governor Cuomo has a choice between dirty fracking and safe renewable energy. We are here on behalf of millions of New Yorkers who want Cuomo to represent the interests of our communities and not those of the oil and gas industry."

Huffington Post New York reporter Inae Oh has more quotes from folks who attended the gathering.

Below are some photos of the protest, courtesy of Credo. View more at http://www.flickr.com/photos/credopolicysummit/


  

August 20 2012

10:00

See No Evil, Speak Little Truth, Break Rules, Blame Others

The "Wegman Report", led by Edward Wegman of George Mason University (GMU) got criticized in 2010's Experts claim 2006 climate report plagiarized.  Experts called it "obvious" even "shocking" plagiarism.  GMU's incompetent handling, mistreatment of complainants and flawed rulings were mostly documented in March, but recent FOIAs expose more untruths.

Is the harsh title fair?  Read on, then study the 69-page attachment.

GMU Provost Peter Stearns' February letter to GMU faculty made claims of non-plagiarism that contradicted not only experts, but themselves.  The process consumed almost two years to assess four (4) pages of text.  

Stearns' letter was even more untruthful than previously known.  It  fabricated an imaginary second investigation committee, seemingly to somehow excuse crucial contradictions.   This seemed an attempt to defend the Wegman Report at all costs, even with potential problems from Federal agencies who expect schools to handle misconduct properly.  They fund much of GMU's actual research, done by faculty that to the best of my knowledge are normal, credible researchers.

However, a few groups in GMU are closely, even uniquely enmeshed with people behind the machinery of anti-science, such as Charles Koch, Ken Cuccinelli, David Schnare, Fred Singer, and Pat Michaels, plus the Heartland Institute and key Washington think tanks.  GMU even has a long history of tobacco connections, oddly relevant.

Following are a few brief summaries to motivate the title's phrases:

See No Evil: Via FOIA, the only investigation committee took 200 days to produce a 9-page report.  It ruled on Ray Bradley's three complaints based on Canadian blogger Deep Climate's early discoveries:

  • 2.5 pages of text mostly from Ray Bradley's book: paraphrasing, not plagiarism although serious plagiarism experts said otherwise long ago.
  • 5.5 pages of near-verbatim plagiarism of social networks text: never mentioned.
  • 1.5 page subset re-used in later paper: plagiarism, likely unavoidable, since the publisher had forced retraction in May 2011. This is an obvious contradiction.

But there was more, found by Deep Climate and others:

  • Another 70 pages of formally-reported plagiarism, 27 in WR alone, in 6 more articles, half Federally-funded, and four PhD dissertations: never mentioned.
  • Alleged falsification in the Wegman Report: never mentioned.

Speak Little truth: GMU VP Roger Stough rarely told complainants much and when he did, he was often wrong or misleading, now seen more clearly by FOIA replies.  Stearns' letter   fabricated committee(s) and processes that never happened, casting doubt on the credibility of anything thereGMU never informed Ray Bradley of any result.  GMU acknowledged receipt of other complaints, which then seemed to vanish into limbo. Complainants got no status reports.

Break Rules: FOIA replies exposed large policy-breaking schedule slips, at best poorly explained, at worst misleading.  GMU ignored its policy of pursuing all significant issues -  Stearns said there were no more investigations.   GMU's seemed to maximize discouragement and stonewalling of external complaints, even from distinguished academics like Ray Bradley or Ohio State's Rob Coleman, an experienced misconduct expert.  One can imagine GMU's handling of internal complaints, especially from junior faculty of students.

Blame Others:   GMU violated its "retaliation" policies by making false or misleading claims about Bradley, impugning his reputation and helping incite vitriolic blog attacks against him.   Universities are supposed to guard complainants from retaliation, repair it if need be, not do it themselves.  GMU owes Bradley many apologies.

Why would they do this? FOIAs have revealed actions far outside GMU's own policies, the norms of academe and possibly Federal rules.  Big universities are expected to know how to follow misconduct policies, so mere incompetence seems an insufficient explanation, especially with experienced administrators who should know better.

We cannot know exactly what happened, but GMU has some unusual connections that might help explain this.  No explicit pressure need be assumed, but a few parts of GMU are deeply involved in climate anti-science activities, so it is no surprise that something like the Wegman Report was written almost entirely by GMU faculty and students.

Funding. Charles Koch is by far the largest single foundation funder for each of GMU Foundation, its Mercatus Center and Institute for Humane Studies (IHS).   His donations to these usually exceeded the research grants of most government agencies. His lieutenant Richard Fink cofounded Mercatus and is a  Director of it and IHS. Koch is a Director of Mercatus and Chairman of IHS

Money comes from other Koch allies, such as Richard Mellon Scaife, Searle Freedom Trust, Earhart Foundation, L&H Bradley and  DONORS Trust+Capital, the second largest foundation giver, which anonymizes the real givers' identities.  The recently-discovered Knowledge and Progress Fund seems to send Koch money only to DONORS.  It is a real money maze.

Governance. Nancy Mitchell Pfotenhauer is the Vice-Rector of the GMU Board of Visitors. She was a Koch Industries lobbyist and an executive of Americans For Prosperity.  The Board also includes Kimberly Dennis (Searle Freedom Trust, DONORS) and Mark McGettrick, Executive VP at Dominion Resources, a large utility that has donated well to the campaign of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, as has Koch Industries.

Lawyers. Ken Cuccinelli, his Deputy Wesley Russell and his ex-partner Milton Johns (Wegman's lawyer) all got their JD degrees at GMU in the 1990s.  So did David Schnare, of the American Tradition Institute (ATI), well-known for FOIA harassment of UVA, Michael Mann, James Hansen, Andrew Dessler and Katharine HayhoeFOIA has legitimate uses, but can also be employed for harassment.  The reader can decide which these are.

Schnare is also an Adjunct Professor who recently taught a GMU course on how to do FOIAs, use the Data Quality Act, using this outline.  it starts:

'This course is an introduction on how to sue the government when it does what it should not do. Citizens, advocates of small government and Tenth Amendment proponents engage in this kind of litigation practice to address the imbalance between federal authorities and state and individual sovereignties.'

He also offers "externships" to give students practice, via a new 501(c)(3) "public charity," originally (and legally still) the George Mason Environmental Law Clinic.  it is now called the Free Market ELC, consisting of him and Chris Horner, as at ATI.  He was looking for students to file FOIAs against some Virginia university, likely not GMU.

Conclusion. We cannot know whether the strange process and absurd rulings came from overt pressure or implicit GMU culture.  A few parts of GMU form a very large gear in the machinery of anti-science and they defended Wegman at all costs.

Public funding of research depends on credibility, of which little is found in GMU's handling of this case.  Maybe it is time for a first-ever institutional debarment from Federal funding until they rebuiild a track record of normal behavior.  Given the credibility problems of key people, this may require outside teams.

Finally, people might recall the potential felony issues raised here  and wonder if this process might add more obstruction of justice to the mix.  The old saying may apply: "It's not the crime - it's the cover-up."

Image Credit: andere andrea petrlik  / Shutterstock .

AttachmentSize see.no_.evil_.speak_.little.truth_.pdf3.05 MB

August 17 2012

22:02

Just 2% of Canadians Deny Climate Change Occurring, Poll Finds

Originally published on EnergyBoom.com

A recent survey conducted by Insightrix Research, Inc. has found that only 2% of Canadians believe climate change is not taking place.

The online poll, commissioned by IPAC CO2 Research Inc., a Saskatchewan-based center studying carbon capture and storage, asked respondents where they stood on the issue of climate change.

32% of participants said they believe climate change is occurring as a result of human activity, and 54% said they believe climate change is happening because of a combination of human activity and natural variation.  Meanwhile, 9% believe climate change is the result of the natural climate cycle.  Far in the minority were respondents (2%) that believed climate change is a hoax.

Conversely, in the United States climate denial represents a much larger chunk of the population, as a recent survey shows. 15% of Americans believe climate change is not occurring.

Much like the United States, Canadians' opinions on climate change vary depending on the region.  The Insightrix survey found that residents in the Prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) are least likely to believe humans are changing the climate, while those living in the Maritimes, Quebec, and British Columbia are most likely to hold the belief. 

Almost half (44%) of respondents in Quebec believe anthropogenic climate change is happening, while only 21% of participants in Alberta and Saskatchewan hold the same belief.

This regional divide also exists in regard to fossil fuel consumption.  66% of Albertan respondents believe fossil fuels will be used for electricity production in 2050, while only 37% of Quebecers held the same belief.  Across the country, 51% of Canadians believe fossil fuels will still be used for electricity in 2050.

Carmen Dybwad, CEO of IPAC CO2 Research, said:  "Our survey indicates Canadians from coast to coast overwhelmingly believe climate change is real and is occurring, at least in part due to human activity."

Image credit: ItzaFineDay via Flickr

August 02 2012

12:36

Are Conservatives Inherently More Biased than Liberals? The Scientific Debate Rages On

In the first round of critical reactions to my book The Republican Brain, there wasn’t much to impress. As I related at AlterNet, the general conservative response to the book was to misrepresent its arguments, rather than to engage them seriously. (The book predicted this, incidentally.)

But now that some researchers have been able to read and process the book, some highly intellectually serious criticism arrives courtesy of Yale’s Dan Kahan, of whose work I’ve written a great deal in the past. You can see Kahan’s first two responses to the book here and here—the latter includes new experimental data. You can see my roadmap for how I plan to respond to Kahan here.

This is the first post of my response, and it is solely dedicated to clarifying my position in this debate. You see, while many people will read this exchange as though I am claiming that conservatives are inherently more biased than liberals—or in other words, claiming that they engage in more or stronger motivated reasoning—it isn’t actually that simple.

The closing words of The Republican Brain are these:

I believe that I am right, but I know that I could be wrong. Truth is something that I am driven to search for. Nuance is something I can handle. And uncertainty is something I know I’ll never fully dispel.

These are not the words of someone who is certain in his beliefs—much less certain of the conclusion that Dan Kahan calls the “asymmetry thesis.”

As Kahan uses the phrase, it is the view that conservatives, more than liberals, or more intensely than liberals, engage in the process motivated reasoning—e.g., letting their emotions and beliefs shape their sense of factual reality in a goal-directed manner, one aimed at preserving their identity, their group’s identity, and so on.

Does The Republican Brain strongly assert and defend the asymmetry thesis as Kahan describes it? Well, not exactly. I discuss motivated reasoning in great detail, to be sure. And I take the position that conservatives often engage in motivated reasoning very strongly—for instance, in denying the science of climate change (to preserve their belief in “individualism”), in believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (to preserve their belief in George W. Bush), in believing that President Obama was not born in the United States (for reasons that you can guess about) and so on.

However, I also observe at many points in the book that liberals, too, engage in motivated reasoning. In fact, they may even do so more strongly than conservatives on certain issues where liberals are themselves highly emotional and (literally) identity-protective. These tend to be matters pertaining to equality, such as race.

In other words, I fully acknowledge that liberals, too, let their emotions skew their reasoning. As human beings, it would be stunning if they didn’t. And yet nevertheless, in modern American politics, conservatives overwhelmingly seem to hold more politically convenient but factually wrong beliefs—so what is up with that?

At the close of the book, I report a new experiment designed by political scientist Everett Young, conducted at Louisiana State University, trying to solve this riddle. We set up an experimental design to test whether conservatives engage in more motivated reasoning than liberals—and the data did not confirm the hypothesis. To be sure, the findings were suggestive at points—especially in showing conservatives to be more biased than liberals about the issue of nuclear power, of all things. But you could hardly call the findings definitive.

Accordingly, The Republican Brain is ultimately pretty agnostic about the issue of “asymmetry” in motivated reasoning. That’s because I was well aware of the scientific uncertainty that lingers around this question, and the difficulty of conducting experimental tests to dispel it. Kahan discusses many of these difficulties, but let me just elaborate a bit myself.

Suppose that a study (one by Kahan, as it happens) shows that conservatives who know more about science are more wrong in their beliefs about global warming, whereas liberals who know more about science are more right in their beliefs about nuclear power. This sounds a lot like an asymmetry in motivated reasoning—especially since we know that more knowledge or political sophistication generally worsens this biased reasoning behavior—but is it definitive proof? Not necessarily. After all, it could simply be that conservatives have stronger emotions about global warming than liberals have about nuclear power—which would make it unfair to compare the two issues.

See the difficulty here? You can’t measure an ideological difference in motivated reasoning unless liberals and conservatives have the same motivations, or at least the same motivational intensity, to begin with. If the motivations are different, or different in intensity, then those might be the true cause of any difference that you observe in the experiment.

Such is the scientific quandary, but do I personally believe in the asymmetry thesis? Let me put it this way. I believe there is something inherent about conservatives, versus liberals, that leads them to process information differently and that, in the current era in American politics, leads them to hold more politically convenient but factually incorrect beliefs. However, there are many candidates for what that something is; and importantly, many of them are much better documented in the scientific literature than is any fundamental left-right gap in motivated reasoning.

I review the candidates for that special something in The Republican Brain—and note that these also might be termed “asymmetries,” although they are not the one Kahan is focused on. They include:

1. Conservatives have different personalities than liberals on average—less openness to new experiences, for instance, and more conscientiousness.

2. Conservatives have different psychological needs than liberals on average—including, importantly, the psychological need for closure, or to have a definitive belief about something…to have certainty. This is not a comment on the quality of conservative reasoning, by the way (something Kahan is mistaken on); rather, it is a comment on conservative motivations in processing information.

3. Conservatives tend more strongly towards authoritarianism, a personality type or disposition associated with an intolerance of ambiguity and seeing the world in sharply defined, black and white terms. Authoritarianism is not a "quality of reasoning" measure either, but this is a trait that has been associated with reasoning errors, such as committing the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), and also with more selective exposure to friendly sources of information.

4. On a moral level, conservatives are more group oriented—more likely to affirm loyalty to the unit, the tribe, the team—and more respectful of authority. This is based on Jonathan Haidt’s work, but it also echoes the research on authoritarianism.

And so on. Really, that just scratches the surface of the research on left and right.

Now, all of these differences could be having downstream effects on how conservatives process information and apportion beliefs in public policy debates. In fact, let me put it more strongly—I’m quite convinced these differences are having all sorts of downstream effects, although I’m considerably less certain about precisely what they are (because the research on this is, as we’ve seen, more scant and more difficult to conduct).

What are some possible downstream effects? Well, one is certainly motivated reasoning—and when it comes to conservatives’ moral convictions and group loyalty, I’m quite sure these are fueling motivated reasoning, asymmetrically or otherwise.

But there are other possible effects. For instance, perhaps conservatives consume or process less information than liberals, a behavior we would expect to see based on their greater need for cognitive closure. And indeed, as I mentioned, some evidence discussed in the book suggests conservatives engage in more selective exposure to friendly information sources, like Fox News. Is that motivated reasoning? Well, not exactly. Is it an important asymmetry? Well, yes: I believe it is.

Let me also note that in the study at LSU, while we did not find clear evidence of worse conservative motivated reasoning, we did find something that smacks of the need for closure: conservatives across the board were spending less time reading the essays provided in the experiment.

And then there is still another factor, one that I ultimately decide, in the book, is probably most important. And it is that liberals and scientists (and social scientists) share a deep psychological affinity—they are explorers, tolerant of uncertainty, always seeking out the different, and the new. They have similar personalities. This leads liberals to want to be scientists, and leads the ranks of scientists to be full of liberals—and thus builds a natural allegiance and affinity between the two groups.

So when it then comes to determining what’s true about reality, liberals are lucky enough to have the “right friends,” as the psychologist Peter Ditto put it to me. And conservatives have the “wrong enemies.” This—not an inherent asymmetry in motivated reasoning—is the most important underlying explanation here, in my mind.

This is a complex explanation, to be sure—but then, I’m a liberal. I can’t help it. The point is that throughout this process, and throughout writing the book, I have strived to apportion my beliefs and my claims to the available evidence. That’s precisely what The Republican Brain does. It is careful because the issues are complex. Indeed, as I painstakingly explain in the book, any inherent left-right differences also play out in a changing cultural, technological, and media context—adding yet another layer of complexity to the issue.

Nonetheless, evidence is very strong that 1) conservatives and liberals are psychologically and morally different; and 2) U.S. conservatives today hold a wealth of demonstrably false, but politically convenient beliefs.

What’s the precise nature of the bridge, the linkage, between 1 & 2? Based on the current state of the science, I do not think we definitively know. However, I think we will find out and that we’ve got a lot of good leads—which is why this discussion is so helpful to have.

So let’s have it. 

July 30 2012

14:56

Conversion Fever! Why The Media Adores Former Climate Skeptics

If you’ve been following the science of global warming for over a decade—as I have—you might find the recent conversion of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller into a climate believer kind of underwhelming. That’s certainly the reaction of many longtime climate scientists, with whom Muller now, finally, agrees.

At this rate, Muller should be caught up to the current state of climate science within a matter of just a few years!” climatologist Michael Mann tweeted. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira also had an amusing take, as quoted by Joe Romm: “I am glad that Muller et al have taken a look at the data and have come to essentially the same conclusion that nearly everyone else had come to more than a decade ago.”

Why, then, does Muller draw New York Times op-ed attention for his conversion? Is it really news that one individual physicist has finally come to agree that the science of climate change is very solid?

Note that this is not the first time this has happened with climate skeptic conversions in the media, or in the New York Times in particular. Remember the former skeptical journalist Gregg Easterbrook, of the New Republic and elsewhere? The New York Times published his conversion op-ed in 2006. Even at the time, some of us thought Easterbrook was pretty tardy in his turnaround—and this was six years ago.

Another prominent 2006 convert was the libertarian publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer. Once again, upon hearing the Shermer news some of us thought, “better late than never, I suppose.” Or as I blogged at the time:

As in the case of Easterbrook, I don’t see why people like Shermer held out so long…but as we all know, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that can lead earnest people astray. So perhaps we should simply applaud these rather late AGW converts, rather than presuming to judge…

So what is up with former climate skeptics, conversions, and media attention?

The short answer is that most non-science journalists (and editors!) simply don’t know much about the science of climate change, or how solid it is. In this area in particular, they are classic low information thinkers, and so they make up their minds about what is newsworthy based upon short-cuts and heuristics.

This has many consequences. For instance, it explains why journalists (like average Americans) are much more likely to focus on climate change in the context of extreme heat and weather. It also makes these non-science journalists highly susceptible to framing effects—which gets to the heart of our story.

There are few frames that journalists dig more than the conversion story, the “Nixon Going to China” narrative, in all its various incarnations. And of course, they don’t dig it for scientific reasons—they dig it for political ones. A convert represents a shift—movement—in the overall political narrative. A convert is also likely a proxy for the public, especially at a time when more and more Americans are shocked and alarmed by extreme weather, and highly open to considering global warming as its cause.

What all of this means, of course, is that while in a scientific sense Muller’s conversion is quite insignificant—in fact, its tardiness may even seem rather trying—in a political sense, his recent arrival is all that matters. So just declare victory, my scientific friends. True, we won over most of the scientists that matter a long time ago. But politically, converts still count for a great deal. 

July 26 2012

18:52

Affidavits in Michael Mann Libel Suit Reveal Astonishing Facts About Tim Ball Associate John O'Sullivan

Affidavits filed in the British Columbia Supreme Court libel litigation brought by climate scientist Michael Mann against climate science denier Timothy Ball reveal that Ball's collaborator and self-styled "legal advisor" has misrepresented his credentials and endured some significant legal embarrassments of his own. 

The affidavits also reveal that Tim Ball was "aware of the charges against John O'Sullivan almost from the start" and has tried to distance himself from his erstwhile advisor and writing partner.

The affidavits [12] come from research of science and medical writer Andrew Skolnick, who documents O'Sullivan's misrepresentations, backtracking and questionable behavior.

Tim Ball and John O'Sullivan had a close working relationship, even before Mann sued Ball for libel in March 2011. For example, they co-authored the climate science denial book Slaying the Sky Dragon: Death of the Greenhouse Gas Theory, which was published in 2010.

Skolnick's evidence shows that O'Sullivan made a series of false claims, including:

  • that he was an attorney with more than a decade of successful litigation in New York State and Federal courts;
  • that he was employed by a major Victoria, B.C.(Canada) law firm that is representing Ball in the libel action;
  • that he is a widely published writer, with credits in Forbes and the National Review;
  • that he had received his law degree from the University College, Cork, Ireland and/or from the University of Surrey (O'Sullivan's actual legal accreditation, apparently obtained after the Mann-Ball action commenced, comes from an online degree mill, Hill University, which promises delivery in two weeks);
  • that he is a member of the American Bar Association.

One affidavit includes an online comment in which O'Sullivan says, "For your information, I am a retired academic and I have litigated personally or assisted others in pro se litigation at every level of court there is in New York State as well as Federal level, for over a decade and never lost." 

Although O'Sullivan admits in this particular comment that he is not, in fact, licensed to practice law, in the U.S. or the U.K., he adds, "I'm just some Brit with a brain who can go live with his American wife in her country and kick ass big time around a courtroom."

Certainly, O'Sullivan was successful in winning an acquittal when he was personally charged in England as a high school teacher accused of sending lewd text messages and assaulting a 16-year-old female. Given the acquittal, it would not generally be appropriate to bring up this sordid and unproven bit of history, except that O'Sullivan himself went on to write an "erotic" "novel" with a startlingly similar storyline: Vanilla Girl: a Fact-Based Crime Story of a Teacher's Struggle to Control His Erotic Obsession with a Schoolgirl.

Although eager to present himself as a science researcher of accomplishment - certainly Tim Ball's equal - Skolnick's research found that O'Sullivan is highly prone to error, whether intentional or not.

For example, O'Sullivan provided bogus contact information when registering as a member* with the New York County Lawyers' Association, an organization that apparently does not vet its members' qualifications (and does not, in any case, bestow the right to practice law). While O'Sullivan claimed to be with a firm named "Principia Scientific International," he provided the address of a construction company called Second Nature Construction; the phone number and fax number didn't belong to O'Sullivan or anyone connected to "Principia," either.

Principia certainly exists in some form. According to its website, O'Sullivan is its CEO, and Tim Ball is Chairman. Other members include climate deniers Paul DriessenPaul Reiter and more. Principia notes that it operates as a "private association rather than a charitable foundation. This is because PSI chooses to operate with the relative freedom of any start up association that has yet to determine whether it may fulfil its long term purpose as either a business with the private profit motive or a charity."
 

This information emerged, and became relevant to this most recent libel action against Tim Ball, in part because Ball himself, in his Response to Civil Claim, stated that his communications with O'Sullivan were subject to solicitor-client privilege.

Mann then filed a reply, pointing out the facts documented in Skolnick's affidavits. As Mann's lawsuit proceeds, the court will inevitably rule on Ball's claim for "solicitor-client" privilege.

In the meantime, Ball has not submitted any affidavit from O'Sullivan attesting to his qualifications as Ball's legal advisor. If he did, O'Sullivan would be subject to cross-examination by Michael Mann's lawyer.
  

* The original post mistakenly said O'Sullivan was registering as an 'associate' member; in fact he registered as a member and was granted membership, despite not having a valid law degree or Bar certification in New York. We regret the error.

AttachmentSize 2012 04 19 - Affidavit 1 of Skolnick.pdf11.96 MB 2012 05 29 - Affidavit 2 of A Skolnick.pdf2.69 MB

July 25 2012

14:19

If Conservatives Were Really “Conservative,” They Would Want to Do Something About Global Warming

Originally, when I asked MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel to be a guest on the Point of Inquiry podcast, my goal was simple. I wanted someone who could give an expert take on the relationship between climate change and all the freakish weather we’ve been seeing. As for having this individual also be a self-described conservative and onetime voting Republican, and someone who fell under attack from Tea Party types because of his stance on climate change…well, that it was kind of icing on the cake.

As the interview progressed, though, I came to feel something quite different. I felt, ever so tentatively at least, that there is a real persuasive case to be made by conservatives to other conservatives about climate change, one that just might help bring them around to seeing the need for real policy solutions. What’s more, such a case might even prevail if conservatives in the U.S. today truly embraced the principles of their Burkean intellectual forefathers—which one can conclude almost by definition that they don’t, since they largely deny the science of global warming.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

At the start of the interview, Emanuel expertly detailed why we know climate science is reliable, how climate change manifests itself in extreme weather—statistically, of course, and not anecdotally—and why outright skepticism of global warming caused by humans just isn’t a credible intellectual position for one to hold any longer. So far, so good.

But where things got really interesting was around minute 14, where the conversation shifted towards policy and Emanuel made a conservative case for taking the science of climate change seriously, and finding a solution to the problem. “The thing to do is to get [conservatives] to understand how much they could potentially bring to the table in trying to figure out how we deal with these risks,” Emanuel explained.

What did he mean? Well, if one is a Burkean conservative, then one by definition wants to prevent risk to the existing order of things. One wants to conserve, to ensure stability. And since climate change is clearly a grave risk to economic, ecological, and overall planetary order, Emanuel naturally sees addressing global warming as a conservative idea. As he explained at minute 16 or so of the podcast:

It’s conservative in the little C sense that most people mean when they say, a conservative family insures itself, for example, and doesn’t take unnecessary risks and gambles. And that’s an important point, because what we’re dealing with here is risk. And a conservative approach to risk is, to take out an insurance policy, for one thing. And that’s the way we ought to be thinking about this problem.

Are you listening to that, conservatives?

But that was only the beginning of Emanuel’s conservative argument that today’s U.S. conservatives are doing global warming all wrong. Emanuel then went on to explain how the current state of affairs on energy policy is anything but…conservative:

On the energy side, there are a lot of things [going on] that aren’t conservative at all, that are at the heart of the problem. Is it a conservative free market principle for the U.S. taxpayer to be massively subsidizing one industry at the expense of another? No, I don’t think it is, but that’s precisely what we’re doing with fossil fuels. There are huge tax subsidies.

Is it a conservative principle to permit one business to pass on a major part of its cost of doing business to some completely different industry, make them pay the bill? There’s nothing conservative about that, but we do that massively for the coal industry. The coal industry racks up somewhere around 180 billion dollars a year of health costs, that have to be absorbed by ratepayers of insurance policies, and by taxpayers who are underwriting things like Medicare.

These aren’t conservative principles.

I have to confess that at around this point in the interview, I wanted to cry out, preach it Brother Emanuel. I was getting pretty darn fired up. It all makes so much sense that a conservative wouldn’t want to put up with this kind of stuff. Subsidies? Come on.

But of course, it doesn’t really help for me to have some weird out of body experience and get all psyched up on behalf of conservatives being principled. After all, I’m still a liberal at the end of the day. It’s not me who needs psyching or convincing.

The question, then, is why today’s U.S. conservatives don’t listen to people like Emanuel, despite the fact that he speaks to them in a language that they ought to understand, and furthermore, speaks as one of them?

This is, of course, a question that takes us very deep into the Republican brain. Emanuel, in our the interview, basically blamed it all on the extremism of the Tea Party—the very same extremism that pushed him out of the Republican Party and made him call himself an Independent (although philosophically still a "conservative").

But I’m not so sure it’s that simple. I think that the natural conservative tendency to want order and stability tends to travel along with a lot of other tendencies—to want find such stability in the group, the tribe, the team; to more adhere to dogma and religious beliefs; to staunchly defend the tribe and banish outsiders (like Emanuel)—and an overall tendency towards closure and fixity of beliefs, rather than openness to new ideas. In other words, psychological conservatism all too readily undermines sensible intellectual conservatism—leading to a situation where someone like Kerry Emanuel makes a whole lot of conservative sense…and so-called conservatives want nothing to do with it, because they've gone all in on a worldview that won't allow it.

So perhaps Emanuel’s response, when I bluntly asked him why he didn’t stay around and fight to reclaim his onetime political party, makes sense. He laughed, and then frankly added,

I’m still quite willing to talk to anybody about this problem that wants to listen to it, and talk about the fact that we ought to be debating the things that are really debatable about these problems.

Here’s hoping Emanuel will find a lot of conservative people to talk with. At least in a former incarnation, I think Mitt Romney is just the sort of conservative who would have listened.

Which…yeah. Which gets at the very root of the problem.

To listen to my full interview with Kerry Emanuel, click here.

July 24 2012

21:23

Breaking Up With Keystone XL and Dirty Energy - It's Not Us, It's You [Video]

This is a guest post by Heather Libby.

A new video from the Post Carbon Institute pokes fun at the Keystone XL pipeline’s tendency to reappear no matter how very little we want it around - much like an ex-boyfriend who won’t get the hint.

Like many in the environmental movement, I was thrilled when President Obama denied the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. I really thought it was the end of the Keystone XL. Silly me.

Within weeks, Republicans were looking for new ways to resubmit the Keystone XL plan. Mitt Romney has said he’ll make approving the Keystone XL a priority for his first day in office if he wins.

Seeing all of this, I was frustrated and felt disenfranchised. So I did what I always do in that situation: write comedy. 

All I could think of was how much pipeline companies like Transcanada, Enbridge, Shell and Kinder Morgan reminded me of guys who simply won’t take no for an answer. They're going to keep coming back no matter what we tell them, unless we cut them off for good - and remove their subsidies.

Fortunately there are many organizations - including 350.org and Oil Change International who are working hard to convince governments that eliminating subsidies is the right thing to do for our energy future. 

Don’t you think it’s time we end this dirty relationship?
  

We Quit You, Keystone XL

July 23 2012

13:01

It’s the Weather, Stupid: Slowly Re-Awakening the Public About Climate Change

The Yale and George Mason Centers on Climate Change Communication, collaborators on the well-known “Six Americas” studies of how the public views global warming, are out with their latest report, the fifth in the series. And it hints at an underlying theme discernible in many of these surveys: On climate change, the U.S. public is a lot like a weather vane. When there’s freaky weather—like now—people increasingly worry about global warming. When the weather is what they’re used to and expect, not so much.

Let’s start with some background on the “Six Americas” study: It began in the fall of 2008, that hopeful time when Barack Obama was soon to win the U.S. presidency and many thought he’d address the global warming problem within the short space of a year. In those days, fully half of the public fell into the two “Six Americas” audience segments that evince the most worry about global warming—the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned.” Yet by January of 2010—following “ClimateGate” and the failed Copenhagen summit—the number of Americans falling into these two segments had tumbled by 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, the denialist segment of the public—the “Dismissive” category—had ballooned dramatically, from 7 percent to 16 percent.

Those were sad and depressing days for science and environment advocates; and when it comes to public opinion, we have not yet clawed back to where we were in the fall of 2008. But what the latest survey hints at is that the public is growing more concerned again—a finding that is particularly noteworthy in that these data only run through March of 2012, and thus really only take into account the freakily warm winter (not, you know, the summer heat waves, wildfires, and drought).

I’m betting that since March 2012, Americans have gotten even more alarmed over global warming—perhaps moving all the way back to where they were in fall 2008.

Anyway, what’s interesting in the latest data is that from November 2011 to March 2012, the number of Americans falling into the “Cautious” category on global warming had gone up considerably. (See figure 1a). This is a centrist category, leaning more towards being alarmed than toward being denialist, but still not fully convinced that humans are causing global warming. At the same time, the “Disengaged” category—even more skeptical than the “Cautious,” but not particularly fired up about denialism—has shrunk, as some of its members presumably moved in the direction of feeling “Cautious.”

In other words, it looks as though on global warming, the middle ground has been subtly shifting—and again, this is only through March 2012.

What does any of this have to do with the weather? Well, as Yale and George Mason note in a message to readers about the latest survey:

93 percent of the Alarmed92 percent of the Concerned74 percent of the Cautious, and 73 percent of the Disengaged say that global warming is affecting weather in the United States. Majorities of these groups also say that global warming made several extreme weather and natural disasters in 2011 worse, including the drought in Texas and Oklahoma, floods in the Mississippi River Valley, and record high temperatures across much of the U.S.

Remember that the “Cautious” and “Disengaged” normally aren’t even sure whether humans are causing global warming. Yet nevertheless, when asked about weird weather in March of 2012, they were quite sure global warming was behind it.

How much do you want to bet that they are even more sure of this now?

Another way of thinking about this is that the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned” are keyed in to the climate issue pretty much no matter what. So, for that matter, are the “Doubtful and Dismissive”—who stick to their denialist guns in the face of all counter-evidence (especially the "Dismissive"). But the “Cautious” and the “Disengaged”—those in the middle—are less reliable, more malleable, and more sensitive to things like weather. That means they’re most likely to move, to change their views.

In recent, powerful testimony before the House of Representatives, Joe Romm called upon our government to “do its job” and tackle global warming. If legislators are up to that challenge, I’m willing to bet the public will increasingly fall in behind them. 

April 02 2012

17:17

Judith Curry Was For Me Before She Was Against Me

I first got to know Judith Curry—the Georgia Tech researcher who blogs at “Climate, Etc.,” and has been drawn into controversy for, in her words, “challenging many aspects of the IPCC consensus”—when I was working on my second book, Storm World. I spent a fair amount of time with Curry, and with the other scientists profiled in the book—interviewing them in person, getting to understand their research. This is what science writers do.

At the time, Curry and her colleagues were just coming off a media feeding frenzy after having published papers linking hurricanes to global warming right in the middle of the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

When Storm World came out, it is no exaggeration to say that Curry gave it a rave review. I want to quote in full from her Five Star endorsement at Amazon.com, which is entitled “Science writing at its very best.” Bear with me, this will all become very relevant; and I've italicized a few important parts:

To provide a frame of reference for this review, I and my colleagues Peter Webster and Greg Holland are among the scientists that are featured prominently in Storm World. Our involvement in the issue of hurricanes and global warming began when we published an article in Science shortly before the landfall of Hurricane Rita, where we reported a doubling of the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes globally since 1970. When Chris Mooney first approached me with his idea for writing a book on this topic, I was somewhat skeptical. I couldn't see how this could be accomplished given the rapid changes in the science (I was worried the book would be outdated before it was published), the complexities of the technical aspects of the subject, a concern about how the individual scientists would be treated and portrayed, and a concern that the political aspects of the issue would be handled in a partisan way. Over the course of the past year and a half, it became apparent that Mooney was researching this issue extremely thoroughly and was developing a good grasp of both the history and technical aspects of the subject. Upon finally reading the book, I can only say Storm World has far exceeded any hope or expectation that I could have had for a book on this subject.

read more

March 30 2012

20:19

GM Dumps Heartland Institute, Will No Longer Fund Climate-Denying Spinstitute

General Motors is breaking up with the Heartland Institute, announcing recently that the company will discontinue funding to the notorious climate-denying spin shop.

The move by GM comes in direct response to a national outreach campaign organized by Forecast the Facts, which garnered more than 20,000 people, including 10,000 GM vehicle owners, calling on GM to drop its financial support of the Heartland Institute.

"We applaud GM’s decision and the message it sends: that it is no longer acceptable for corporations to promote the denial of climate change, and that support for an organization like Heartland is not in line with GM’s values. This victory belongs to the 20,000 Americans, including 10,000 GM owners, who demanded that GM put its money where its mouth is on climate change and sustainability," said Forecast the Facts Campaign Director Daniel Souweine.

Climate One director Greg Dalton revealed the GM pullout after receiving confirmation directly from GM during an event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.  Dalton had pressed GM CEO Dan Akerson about its support for Heartland at a Climate One event earlier this month. Akerson said at the time that he would personally review the Heartland funding. 

Heartland President Joseph Bast was understandably upset to learn of GM's decision to cease any further financial support, but continued to push his trusty shiny penny version of events rather than own up to the real reasons for the waning support of his group's efforts. Internal Heartland documents made public last month exposed the shocking revelation of Heartland's plans to deceive schoolchildren about climate science, most notably.

read more

March 29 2012

10:39

Conservatives versus Science: A New Scientific Validation of the Republican War on Science (and Republican Brain) Thesis

For a while now, I’ve been aware of a powerful new paper that directly tests the central argument of my 2005 book The Republican War on Science—and also validates some key claims made in my new book, The Republican Brain. I’ve had to keep quiet about it until now; but at last, the study is out—though I’m not sure yet about a web link to it.

The research is by Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published in the prestigious American Sociological Review. In the study, Gauchat uses a vast body of General Social Survey data to test three competing theses about the relationship between science and the U.S. public:

1) the cultural ascendancy thesis or “deficit model” view, according to which better education and engagement with science lead all boats to rise, and citizens across the board become more trusting of scientists and their expertise;

2) the alienation thesis, according to which modernity brings on distrust and disillusionment with science (call it the “spoiled brat” thesis if you’d like); and

3) the politicization thesis—my thesis—according to which some cultural groups, aka conservatives, have a unique fallout with science for reasons tied up with the nature of modern American conservatism, such as its ideology, the growth of its think tank infrastructure, and so on.

The result? Well, Gauchat’s data show that the politicization thesis handily defeats all contenders. More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).

And not just that.

read more

March 26 2012

12:44

How Do You Build a Scientific Republican?

It’s widely known that Republicans, far more than Democrats, reject modern climate science. And more and more, it has become apparent that this is at least partly because Republicans have a deep distrust of scientists in general, or at least environmental scientists.

But there are many other causes for this rejection as well. These include Republicans’ strongly individualistic system of values—basically, a go-it-alone sense that government is the problem, and markets the solution—and even, perhaps, some aspects of their personalities or psychologies. This is something that I’ve argued in my new book.

There is also, of course, the huge role of Fox News in all of this: Watching it causes conservatives to have more false beliefs than they would otherwise, about issues like climate change. We’ve written about this extensively on DeSmogBlog; and I’ve highlighted a new video on the “Fox misinformation effect” here and below.

Such are some of the factors that seem to build an anti-science Republican; but now, researchers at George Mason, American University, and Yale have swooped in to ask the reverse question. Given that this is so, how do you make a pro-science one? Or in other words, what attributes or beliefs predict being an outlier Republican who actually believes that global warming is real and caused by humans?

The researchers call such Republicans “counter-normative.” That’s academic speak for “out in the cold” in their party right now.

read more

March 22 2012

13:05

The Science of Truthiness: Why Conservatives Deny Global Warming

These are notes for remarks that Chris Mooney gave recently at the Tucson Festival of Books, where he was asked to talk about his new book on a panel entitled “Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?” Video of the panel is currently available from C-SPAN here. Please note: Mooney’s notes do not necessarily match his spoken word perfectly. 

I want to thank you for having me.

So the question before us on this panel is, “Will the Planet Survive the Age of Humans?” And I want to focus on one particularly aspect of humans that makes them very problematic in a planetary sense—namely, their brains.

What I’ve spent the last year or more trying to understand is what it is about our brains that makes facts such odd and threatening things; why we sometimes double down on false beliefs when they’re refuted; and maybe, even, why some of us do it more than others.

And of course, the new book homes in on the brains—really, the psychologies—of politically conservative homo sapiens in particular. You know, Stephen Colbert once said that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And essentially what I’m arguing is that, not only is that a funny statement, it’s factually true, and perhaps even part of the nature of things.

Colbert also talked about the phenomenon of “truthiness,” and as it turns out, we can actually give a scientific explanation of truthiness—which is what I’m going to sketch in the next ten minutes, with respect to global warming in particular.  

I almost called the book “The Science of Truthiness”—but “The Republican Brain” turns out to be a better title.

The Facts About Global Warming

So first off, let’s start with the facts about climate change—facts that you’d think (or you’d hope) any human being ought to accept.

read more

March 14 2012

16:04

Is James Inhofe Shilling For God, or Oil? The Correct Answer is “Both”

Last week, we were treated to one of those facepalm moments that make those of us who care about the future of planet intensely frustrated. Or worse.

Senator James Inhofe, climate conspiracy theorist, was on a Christian radio program talking about his new book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And here’s what he said (audio at link):

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in [the book] is that “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

Okay, forget about the biblically-based climate denial for a moment. I’m kind of fascinated by Inhofe’s statement that God is still “up there.” Really? Like, in the sun? Directly over our heads?

Is Inhofe a pre-Copernican as well as a global warming denier? Does he not realize that while “up” might have meant a great deal to Ptolemaic Christians, it has no real significance in the context of modern physics and cosmology?

What’s most frustrating, though, is this bizarre invocation of Scripture to justify the idea that we don’t need to worry about climate change. For those of us who are secular in outlook, it’s not just that this makes no sense. The idea that such sectarian notions—arguments or motivations that cannot be proved by rational argument or discussion with those who do not share Inhofe’s religious premises—could be influencing U.S. policy is, frankly, shocking.

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March 12 2012

21:07

Fox News’s Attacks on Climate Science Now Include The Denial of Basic Physics

There was a time, believe it or not, when Fox New’s Shepard Smith openly mocked global warming deniers—seriously comparing them to a man who got stuck in a portable toilet. (Hat tip to D.R. Tucker for showing me this clip.) But since then, Fox has become a veritable misinformation machine on this topic.

One way the station sows doubt about the scientific consensus on climate change is through constantly putting climate “skeptics” on the air. A study by American University’s Lauren Feldman and her co-authors, for example, found that in the period of 2007-2008, 46 percent of Fox’s guests discussing global warming were climate change doubters. By contrast, only 40 percent of guests defended the scientific consensus.

That’s not just phony "balance"—that’s coverage strongly tilted towards unreality. And if anything, I suspect that Fox has grown still more unbalanced during the Obama years.

One of Fox’s frequent doubter guests is meteorologist Joe Bastardi,  who recently said on the show that carbon dioxide “literally cannot cause global warming.” As Media Matters soon pointed out, this statement seems to throw out over 100 years of science on the greenhouse effect, and the behavior of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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March 07 2012

14:35

Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing With Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery

This afternoon, I’ll be at MIT for this conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the MIT Center for Civic Media and entitled “Truthiness in Digital Media: A symposium that seeks to address propaganda and misinformation in the new media ecosystem.” Yesterday was the scholarly and intellectual part of the conference, where a variety of presenters (including yours truly) discussed the problem of online misinformation on topics ranging from climate change to healthcare—and learned about some whizzbang potential solutions that some tech folks have already come up with. And now today is the “hack day” where, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman put it, the programmers and designers will try to think of ways to “tackle tractable problems with small experiments.”

In his talk yesterday, Zuckerman quoted a helpful—if frankly, somewhat jarring—analogy for thinking about political and scientific misinformation. It’s one that has been used before in this context: You can think of the dissemination of misinformation as someone akin to someone being shot. Once the bullet has been fired and the victim hit, you can try to run to the rescue and stanch the bleeding—by correcting the “facts,” usually several days later. But, psychology tells us that that approach has limited use—and to continue the analogy, it might be a lot better to try to secure a flak jacket for future victims.

Or, better still, stop people from shooting. (I’m paraphrasing Zuckerman here; I did not take exact notes.)

From an MIT engineer’s perspective, Zuckerman noted, the key question is: Where is the “tractable problem” in this, uh, shootout, and what kind of “small experiments” might help us to address it? Do we reach the victim sooner? Is a flak jacket feasible? And so on.

The experimenters have already begun attacking this design problem: I was fascinated yesterday by a number of canny widgets and technologies that folks have come up with to try to defeat all manner of truthiness.

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