Monthly Archives: December 2011

4 posts

An Introduction to Dan Kahan

Written by: Matt Seyer

The ideological split on climate change has long been a point of intense frustration for me.  It bewilders me that in the presence of such overwhelming evidence and widespread scientific consensus, people will still wind up on the wrong side, taking the scientifically inaccurate view.  I’ve usually chalked it up to not being exposed to the right studies or to the proper news sources.  Perhaps these people are being intentionally lied to.  Maybe they’re turning a blind eye to anything that stirs up cognitive dissonance.

It’s very easy to point fingers.  It’s much more difficult to actually try to explain such phenomena.  There is a growing body of work which suggests that ordinary citizens react to scientific evidence on public risks in ways that favor their specific cultural group.  People support whichever position strengthens their ties to others with whom they share important commitments.  As a result, public debate about science is badly polarized.  The same groups who disagree on ‘cultural issues’ – abortion, same-sex marriage and school prayer – also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.

Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law at Yale Law School, is a leader in the field of cultural cognition (referred to above), a term he coined.  Kahan’s research is fascinating, insightful, and important.  Rather than attempt to summarize it and consequently shortchange his ideas, I’ll let him summarize it for you.  Follow the link to his short piece describing his work and its results, along with his proposed strategy of effective science communication for President Obama.

A quick blurb:

“When our leaders talk about risk, they convey information not only about what the scientific facts are but also what it means, culturally, to take stances on those facts. They must therefore take the utmost care to avoid framing issues in a manner that creates the sort of toxic deliberative environment in which citizens perceive that the positions they adopt are tests of loyalty to one or another side in a contest for cultural dominance.

Where, as is true in the global warming debate, citizens find themselves choking in a climate already polluted with such resonances, then leaders and public spirited citizens must strive to clean things up—by creating an alternative set of cultural meanings that don’t variously affirm and threaten different groups’ identities.”

Science Communication Isn’t Soulcraft (Or Shouldn’t Be)

Thoughts from Matt

Written by: Matt Seyer

Rick Perry’s campaign recently made what I perceive to be a last ditch effort to revitalize the Perry presidential run with his “Strong” video.  Mr. Perry’s bigotry was on full display as he casually bashed homosexuals, and he promised to be our Christian champion in Obama’s war on Christianity (the nonexistent one, that is).  The video has now surpassed Rebecca Black’s “Friday” as the most disliked video ever (percentage-wise) on Youtube.

Rick Perry’s ‘Strong’ Ad Surpasses Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ With More Dislikes On YouTube

Bernie Sanders is proposing a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission.  Sanders’ Saving American Democracy Amendment would make clear that corporations are not entitled to the same constitutional rights as people and that corporations may be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.

The Saving American Democracy Amendment

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, of whom many are only aware because of his support for controversial (within the GOP, that is) scientific subjects like evolution and climate change, is now backpedaling on the latter.  Huntsman, who has been vilifying Mitt Romney for his flip-flopping on a variety of issues, is now adopting a much more lukewarm stance on climate change.

Huntsman Goes Squishy on Climate Change

Speaking of Republican presidential candidates, Paul Krugman’s latest Op-Ed declares that the GOP is getting exactly the kind of people it deserves.

“There are two crucial things you need to understand about the current state of American politics. First, given the still dire economic situation, 2012 should be a year of Republican triumph. Second, the G.O.P. may nonetheless snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — because Herman Cain was not an accident.”

Send in the Clueless

For a much longer discussion of why Republicans are welcoming intellectually-subpar candidates, check out James Crotty’s article in Forbes.

“Why Do Republicans Gleefully Embrace Idiots as Presidential Candidates?…The question naturally begs a larger question: How can a country, with the world’s highest national GDP, and absurdly complex systems regulating everything from credit default swaps to nuclear missile safety, possibly allow onto its national stage men and women of such transparently inferior intellect?”

Why Republicans Embrace Simpletons and How It Hurts America

Even though most of you have probably already seen this, the LA Times recently published an apology to Obama from a discontented Democrat:

‘Obamacare’ to the Rescue

To wrap up, Bruce Bartlett, former senior official in the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, provides a clear, succinct, and convincing case that the question isn’t whether or not we should raise taxes on the rich, but rather how we should do so.

“Republicans like to pretend that cutting spending is economically costless, even stimulative [sic], whereas raising taxes in any way whatsoever is so economically debilitating that it dare not be contemplated. This view is complete nonsense.”

Raising Taxes on the Rich: Not Whether, but How

The GOP’s Saving Grace

Written by: Matt Seyer

The GOP seems to have a memory problem-be it Sarah Palin’s forgetting one of the pillars of her platform, Rick Perry’s forgetting the third agency of government he would get rid of once in office, or Herman Cain’s forgetting that he doesn’t actually have a clue.  This has led to widespread speculation as to how serious Republicans are about getting their candidate elected.

That speculation was shattered recently when the GOP announced their newest contender for 2012: Kevin Tusks.  Mr. Tusks was an unknown in the party for years, but has gradually built his reputation through a variety of what some are calling “circus tricks,” feats of policy-making so daring and dangerous that they belong in the circus ring.  His gusto in the Congressional arena is matched by his physical prowess: at three tons and eleven feet tall, Tusks completely dominates any space he occupies.  He held a special attraction for the GOP because his memory has been described by Harvard Biology professor Andrew Biewener as “one of the best in the entire animal kingdom.”

But the truly unique thing about candidate Tusks?  He’s the perfect standard-bearer for the GOP this coming election because he is the standard.  His entire life, Kevin Tusks has been a loyal party member as well as an actual elephant.

“It’s shocking to people at first, I realize that,” said Tusks in an interview with me last Friday.  “It’s always shocking to find someone who’s been a GOP member their entire life.  It’s even more shocking when I tell them I come from a predominantly liberal family.  But they move past it once they learn my reasons for being a Republican.”

Mr. Tusks paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps to consume some of his two hundred pound snack that he brought. I pressed him – what are those reasons?

“The reasons are thus: I hate taxes, socialism, and complete pussies, and every other party, mainly Democrats, seems to admire those things.  The GOP was just the right fit for me.”

I must admit, I was floored.  Here was a candidate who didn’t have the answer scribbled down on his hand.  Here was a candidate who could finish his thoughts without a single “Oops.”  Here was a candidate who could paint us all a picture-both of political realities as well as abstract portraits.  Still, I had other queries.  Wasn’t he afraid of being lumped with other dark-skinned candidates like Herman Cain?

“I’m not frightened by it.  I’m ready to get into the game and do my part for my party,” said Tusks proudly.  “I think the American people deserve a new face, a serious candidate, and I think it’s high time my people got the representation they deserve.”  In response to questions about opposition from white-supremacist groups, Tusks simply stated, “Haters gonna hate.”

In the brief time I spent with Kevin Tusks, I fully understood why the GOP was finally endorsing him (He recently received full-throated support from the RNC and other GOP groups).  He was intimidating in all the right ways (he could walk all over any challenger), but respectful and calm at the same time.  He could speak in complete sentences, remember his whole platform without recourse to cheat-sheets, and spur people to action with his booming voice and soaring rhetoric.  Even though we disagree on almost every issue, I knew from one interview that Tusks and I would be bosom buds for a long time.

To close out our interview, I pitched him a softball: would the fact that he was an elephant hurt his chances in any way?

“I highly doubt it.  The American people will be able to tell I’m the real deal.  Besides, my party has been putting monkeys in public office for years now, and America hasn’t seemed to mind,” said Trunks, with a twinkle in his eye.

Democrats, we may have met our match.

Let’s Be Serious: Climate Change in the Republican War on Science

Written by: Matt Seyer

Anthropogenic Climate Change

Today, among serious people, any discussion of climate change is conducted in the context of a broadly-held assumption: that humans are causing the climate to change (this is known as anthropogenic climate change, or ACC) and that these changes are significant and harmful.  This assumption derives from overwhelming scientific support.  ACC is recognized as a global problem that requires a global effort to counteract its current effects and stall its future impact.  Most if not all talk of climate change involves coming up with innovative and lasting solutions to this problem.  In the upcoming elections, the appropriate solutions will surely be a topic of intense debate.

Yet, one still encounters the occasional politician who seeks to instill doubt in the public as to the veracity of the assumption that ACC is occurring.  This is harmful, generally speaking, in the same way that it would be harmful if one of our leaders questioned whether or not nicotine was addictive.  An assertion so empirically false slows our progress in combating the issue.  It creates unnecessary confusion and ultimately wastes time; never mind how irresponsible it is.  Among the general public, such skepticism could be warranted, given that some might not have access to or be aware of the latest scientific research on the topic.  But among our leaders, who absolutely do have said access, this is completely inexcusable.

While I would never call Texas Gov. Rick Perry my leader, for better or worse he is a leader, and as a presidential contender he has a very loud microphone through which to voice his opinions.  He has made it clear he does not believe that human beings are contributing to climate change, and he expounded on the issue in detail at a campaign stop in Bedford, N.H.

“I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized.  I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.  I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

He added that plans to address climate change by limiting carbon emissions would cost “billions, if not trillions” and that America should not spend that much money on “scientific theory that has not been proven and from my perspective is more and more being put into question.”

Perry is not alone by any means.  Here’s another Republican leader and presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty:

“The weight of the evidence is that most of it, maybe all of it, is because of natural causes…There’s lots of layers to it.  But at least as to any potential man-made contribution to it, it’s fair to say the science is in dispute.”

Are they correct?  Is there substantial disagreement on the causes of climate change?  There absolutely is not.

Let’s take it from the top, starting with synthesis reports.  Synthesis reports are assessments of scientific literature that compile the results of a range of stand-alone studies in order to achieve a broad level of understanding, or to describe the state of knowledge of a given subject.

One synthesis report that is widely referenced is from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body considered the leading international organization on climate science.  It details the scientific consensus of thousands of researchers from 194 countries.  The most recent report states:

“Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic [human-caused] greenhouse gas concentrations…The observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing, and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.” (External forcing refers to anything outside of the normal climate system that changes the climate, including the results of human activity, sunspots or volcanic eruptions.)

In the United States, the U.S. Global Change Research Program coordinates and integrates federal research on climate.  Its 2009 report mirrored the IPCC’s conclusions:

“Observations show that warming of the climate is unequivocal. The global warming observed over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), with important contributions from the clearing of forests, agricultural practices, and other activities.”

Again in the United States, a committee was organized by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council.  This committee was tasked with reviewing the current research on climate change.  The committee’s conclusions were straightforward and clear: climate change is occurring, it is caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and it poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems.  In fact, it made a point of rejecting the view that those findings are in some way questionable:

“Although the scientific process is always open to new ideas and results, the fundamental causes and consequences of climate change have been established by many years of scientific research, are supported by many different lines of evidence, and have stood firm in the face of careful examination, repeated testing, and the rigorous evaluation of alternative theories and explanations.”

While we’re on the topic of the National Academy of Sciences, it should be noted that the National Academies of 32 other countries, including Brazil, Japan, Germany, Canada, France, China, India, Russia, the UK, and Italy have all issued similar statements.

Several science organizations within the United States affirm the authenticity of ACC, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Physics, the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the Geological Society of America, among many others.

This might all be good and well, but are we not running the risk of tunnel vision?  Are we really considering the broader spectrum of scientists?  Several scientific studies have attempted to quantify just how much agreement there is among scientists when it comes to climate change.

A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that out of 1,372 climate researchers under review, approximately 97 to 98 percent of those actively publishing in the field said they believe human beings are causing climate change.  An earlier survey published in the 2009 issue of Eos – a publication of the American Geophysical Union – asked scientists (approximately 3,146) from a wide range of disciplines: “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”  Approximately 82 percent of the surveyed scientists answered yes to this question.  Of those climate change specialists surveyed, 97.4 percent answered yes.
When it comes to anthropogenic climate change, there is a clear, widespread consensus among multiple scientific bodies from multiple industrialized nations.  Within the United States, several major science organizations, including our own National Academy, independently affirm the consensus, along with 97% of climate researchers actively publishing in the field.  This is more than enough to assume ACC as a scientific fact and to move on from there.

What of Perry’s second charge: that a substantial number of scientists have fudged their data?  Perry never goes into specifics, but it’s a safe bet that he’s referring to Climategate, an incident so fraught with misrepresentation and absurdity that it would take me many more pages just to detail the basics.  In short, Climategate was a carefully constructed and skillfully executed hoax. (  Again, our leaders cannot responsibly allude to such an incident as though it were cause for doubt.

Perry, Pawlenty, and other Republican leaders would have us believe that the science of climate change and its human causes is in dispute.  They tell us that skepticism is growing, that scientists are manipulating data.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Anthropogenic climate change is a serious issue, one that will require humanity to work in unison in order to avoid the consequences.  We count on our leaders, who have access to all of the proper information, to be the first to embrace the reality of such issues and thus the first to begin working on the solutions.  It’s time to get serious, and, especially in the 21st century, it’s time to stop disavowing sound science.