A HERD of bison is to be flown from western Canada to far-eastern Russia next month, more than 5000 years after they died out in the region. The first 30 animals from Elk Island National Park in Alberta will take a 15-hour flight on a cargo plane to the republic of Yakutia, 8000 km east of Moscow, as part of a plan to establish an ice age wildlife park.
Joining the bison in "Pleistocene Park" are relocated muskoxen and other species "that lived here thousands of years ago," says Nikita Zimov, son of a local scientist who is behind the scheme.
Most intriguing is the plan to resurrect everyone's favorite extinct megafauna. Maybe you've heard about this idea:
The ultimate goal is to reintroduce the woolly mammoth, which died out in the region about 13,000 years ago. Scientists estimate the carcasses of as many as 10 million mammoths are buried in the permafrost that covers huge swaths of far-eastern Russia.
A Japanese team hopes to clone one of the extinct giant beasts by harvesting DNA from the frozen legs or sperm of a mammoth found by a hunter in Yakutia in 1994. If they are able to extract sperm, they plan to impregnate an Indian elephant and then repeat the process with the next two generations to produce an 88 per cent pure mammoth within 50 years.
Says Nikita Zimov, "Of course, it is all a little bit fantastic but, if it succeeds, we will reintroduce mammoths."
By the way, anyone worried about whether the bison can handle all those air miles can rest assured. Their crates will be lined with non-slip rubber.
Herewith the 50th edition of the Tangled Bank, the fornightly showcase of good weblog science writing, selected by the authors themselves.
I have organized more than three dozen submissions, many of which embraced multiple fields, into the most logical sequence of categories I could come up with, beginning with the most basic of all the sciences and wrapping up with the least. Mathematics
What's the fuss about Iran's uranium enrichment dreams? Wheat-dogg offers a primer on the science behind the geopolitical debacle.
A little further afield is the Wilksinson Microwave Ainosotropy Probe, famous for depicting what happens if you let quantum fluctuations do their thing for 13.7 billion years and plot the results in the form of color-enhanced Rorschach blotches. Steinn at Dynamics of Cats has come up with a neat little WMAP for Dummies. And then, EGAD’s Millikan takes us on a tour of the implications of polarization of the cosmic background interference that’s responsible all those neat colors.
Not everyone is content to leave all universal age parameters at 13.7 BYA. Scientia Est Portentia says we can track the age of nuclei. Where would astronomy be without supernovae?
By now we all know that the chemists all envy the attention thrown at the physicists. Matt of Pooflingers Anonymous wants to change all that, beginning with his fond memories of chemistry class.
Why should we have been paying attention in Chem? Because those who did can appreciate Nobel Intent's review of the latest findings on elemental O and the rise of the modern world.
Combine a couple of those oxygen atoms with one carbon, and you've the molecule behind the big buzz of late on the global warming front, as a spate of new papers warns that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could melt a lot faster than we once though. William “Stoat” Connelly has a good overview and a critique of misleading media coverage, too.
George Musser of Scientific American is also on the AGW case. He figures there's so much confusion that it’s time the global warming skeptics got their own taxonomy. His initial attempts at canvassing the community break them down into seven meta-categories, but doesn’t stop there by any means.
Naysayers trouble Jennifer Forman Orth of the Invasive Species Weblog, too. But it's the fuss over "botanical xenophobes" that has her annoyed. There's a place for immmigrants, she suggests in a succint little post.
Doubt is also the order of the day when it comes to the ivory-billed woodpecker. Grrl Scientist laments that the debates appears to have "deteriorated into a battle over pixels." Habeus corpus, anyone?
From the skies to the deep sea, now, where we find confirmation of a 30-year-old idea that whales are very clever songwriters. Well, at least humpback whalesong displays a heirarchical structure. Wandering Visitors summarizes a bunch of recent findings on that note.
PZ Myers reminds us in a comprehensive Pharyngula post that "complexity is the result of simple, repetitive, iterated processes" and offers some great examples to prove the point.
An evolutionary approach to cancer is all very well, but as Orac notes in the second part of a new series at Respectful Insolence, there needs to be more thought given to the role of genetic diversity in oncology. Biotechnology
Emerging diseases, specifically zoonotic diseases, have the attention of Tara Smith, as well. She explains elegantly what these animal-transmitted pathogens are all about in a two-part opus beginning at this Aetiology page.
Not everyone agrees that marijuana is a medicine, but where else would you put this post on the use of genetic markers to separate the hemp from the more interesting variety of Cannabis sativa? This from the Biotech Weblog. Meanwhile, C. Melinda Wenner's drug of choice is caffeine, preferable in the form good old fashioned tea. She sings its praises at She Blinded Me with Science.
Greta and Dave Munger aren’t happy with videotaped confessions. Their two-part analysis on the value of the technique begins at Cognitive Daily here. I, for one, had never thought about the camera-angle angle.
Chris at Mixing Memory is so interested in new cognitive science research suggesting political partisans are't thinking straight that he isn't waiting for the paper to be published. His take: it's a little more complicated than that.
But not as complicated, I suspect, as sorting out the link, if any, between illness and exposure to electricity. Avant News' Ion Zwitter takes a look at the emerging concern, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, over all that electromagnetic radiation.
Then there's the case of postmenopausal women who sometimes have their own problems with cognition, concentration and attention spans. Neurotopia's Evil Monkey runs down the latest research in the conclusion of a three-part series.
And Carl Zimmer wanders a little off the Loom’s usual topics when he looks at the old “we only use 10 % of our brain” line. Turns out it might be true after all.
Evolution and other political minefields
Janet D. Stemwede's latest Adventures in Ethics and Science take her to the complex world of animal and human testing, where she finds that living up to any given standards isn't all that easy. The ultimate question is can ethically flawed research still be scientifically sound? But just as important is whether scientists ought to use results from ethically flawed experiments.
Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science is turning out be a very provocative book. The gang at Crooked Timber certainly think so, having assembled a series of thoughtful essays in response. Well worth the time. As is a surprising new voice, Indian Cowboy, that argues there’s a whole whack of conservatives and some Republicans who want nothing to do with that particular war. Not when it comes to intelligent design.
On that note, and as this is a vanity carnival, here's one of my own musings on the Island of Doubt over the neverending debate of the role (and if there is one) of atheists in the campaign against creationism.
And finally, Martin Rundkvist’s post at Salto Subrius is like a piece from another puzzle, so it gets its own category, thanks to a good picture and an even better headline on the geological oddity known as a giant’s kettle.
Phew. What a riot. It was a most enlightening experience, an honor and a pleasure, and one that left quite the impression on my list of bookmarks.
Pop culture currency exchange: One disembodied Beatle buys 0.67 disembodied Princess of Wales
Psychics to try contacting John Lennon in TV seance
The ex-Beatle, who was murdered over 25 years ago, is the latest subject of a pay-per-view seance arranged by the producers of a 2003 attempt to contact the dead Princess Diana. That show made money but was slammed by critics as hitting a new low in television tastelessness.
"People say this is disgusting and I accept that criticism, but we're making a serious attempt to do something that many, many millions of people around the world think is possible," said Paul Sharratt, who heads Starcast Productions, which made "The Spirit of Diana." That show drew over half a million US viewers willing to pay $US14.95 to watch it. The Lennon show will air on April 24 on a pay-per-view channel and cost $US9.95.
I have no idea what's on my agenda for April 24, but I have a pretty darn good idea what I won't be doing.
Incidentally, says this story, "The Spirit of John Lennon" is being done without the knowledge or consent of John Lennon's estate. A spokesman for Yoko Ono had no immediate comment. And good thing, too.
When it comes to the art of group persuasion, you first have to get your own act together, yes? Well, maybe not.
I was struck the other day by the similarity between two debates. Exhibit A is the never-ending argument among scientists over the role, if any, of atheism in the evolution-versus-creationism battle. Meanwhile, we have Exhibit B: the progressive political community's inability to decide how to address the less patient elements among them as they desperately search for a winning strategy for retaking Congress and the White House.
Josh Marshall, he of the widely read Talking Points Memo blog, complained the other day about the way the Democrats are handling Sen. Russ Feingold's attempt to censure the president for misleading the country into a war, among other things. He wrote that it's "really not that surprising that not every Democratic senator would want to jump on the bandwagon," given the party's dismal performance in opposition, but
..the bigger problem for Dems is not the things they do but the very public hand-wringing and navel-gazing about how people might react to the things they do. That doesn't look good. And it doesn't look good because it really isn't good. .... So 'censure' him. Or don't censure him. But most of all don't get all bent out of shape or whiny about whether it might make some Bush supporter unhappy or might prompt some scold on the WaPo oped page to say tut-tut.
In other words, do the right thing.
A few weeks back, David Roberts, whom I believe is a staffer at the environmental web magazine Grist, left a comment on Chris Mooney's Intersection, in response to a post exploring the email spat between Dan Dennett and Michael Ruse (on which I have written my own take). David, it would seem, is just as tired as Josh over endless teeth-gnashing:
I for one am getting sicker and sicker of the tendency of progressives to endlessly worry over their "message," tweaking it and triangulating it and fussing endlessly over whether it's going to offend anyone.... Who would want to sign on with a bunch of wankers who spend half their time discussing exactly how to talk and what words to use instead of just believing and acting on their convictions? Would you (for instance) entrust your national security to a group of people who spend half their time talking about how they can convince people they care about national security?
Some quick blog-trolling produced numerous relevant posts on this subject, much of it coming from the release of Dan Dennett's latest book, Breaking the Spell, which doesn't exactly treat religious belief with a whole lot of respect.
You can't be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called "strident", "dogmatic", and "fundamentalist" over and over again.
The desire to have it both ways is not surprising in a good propagandist. What is surprising is the readiness of liberal agnostics to go along with it, and their readiness to write off, as simplistic, insensitive extremists, those of us with the temerity to blow the whistle.
Isn't it misguided to attack the symptom (anti-evolution) rather than the cause (blind faith)?
Now, back to politics, thanks to science fiction author turned political analyst David Brin:
Many liberal activists foresee just such a "memic" victory -- or a triumph in the battle of ideas -- "if only we refine our message." Such people appear to be willfully ignorant of countless other requirements needed, for this to be achieved. The neoconservative movement spent decades and close to a billion dollars reinventing itself during its long exile from power, after defeats in 1964 and 1974. Democrats may need to be just as inventive.
Much of this is referring to the latest political trend: framing. George Lakoff wrote a book a couple years ago arguing that Democrats lost power because they didn't have an attractive "frame" while the Republicans did. Something about a friendly, paternal approach around which they hung an entire campaign. Now everyone's talking about framing this and framing that. Everything needs a frame. How can you even consider campaigning without a frame?
To which I say, nonsense. Not everything needs a frame, which is really just another way of saying a simple, or simplistic, metaphor. In fact, the more complex -- or as scientists might say, heterogenous -- a philosophy, scientific theory or political movement might be, the less amenable it will be to framing.
Frame analysis is a great way to look at someone else's propaganda. Matt Nesbitt's site is a good example. The problem is that the real world scientists deal with is a very messy and complicated place. You have to tolerate the occasional contradiction. Evolutionists have to work hard to embrace both competition and altruism. Those who study particle physics are still trying to wrap their heads around the particle-wave duality of the quantum theory. But do they apologize for the apparent failure to reconcile such ideas? No, they just shrug their shoulders, maybe mumble "deal with it" and get back to work.
Some scientists and many progressives seem to have forgotten that messy is good. Diversity is strength. Any ecologist will tell you that the most robust ecosystems are those with the most species. And I suggest that the political landscape shares that nature. John Ralston Saul, for example, argues that the perpetual battles between centralist and decentralist powers in Canada is anything but a liability; it's precisely what makes the country so successful (at least, in the past).
The challenge is not to convince those you're trying to persuade that your side speaks with one monolithic voice. It's to convince them that a little internal conflict is what a governing party or an administration needs. It's not black versus white. It's black-and-white versus color. [Warning: frame proximity alert.]
I know. "Up with heterogeneity" isn't exactly a good campaign slogan, but I'm arguing that you don't really need a slogan. Not if you're trying to rid our schools of creationist claptrap and not if you're campaigning for votes from the side that champions reason.
So what if atheists offend some sensibilities? Get over it. People are always going to get offended by something. And what if some Americans are going to take offense at rebuking the president while we're allegedly at war? Get over it.
The president of the United States of America said something very frightening yesterday.
At around 12:45 ET, at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, a member of the City Club of Cleveland asked George W. Bush this unscripted and unvetted question:
Former Nixon administration official Kevin Phillips, in his latest book, American Theocracy, discusses what has been called radical Christianity and its growing involvement into government and politics. He makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?
Instead of the only rational answer available to a politician in a democratic, secular republic -- a polite but firm "no" -- Bush offered a response that served to remind us that his administration is about more than mere incompetence and malfeasance:
The answer is -- [five second pause] -- I haven't really thought of it that way. (Laughter.) Here's how I think of it. The first I've heard of that, by the way. I guess I'm more of a practical fellow.
I'm not an avid birder. Sure, I appreciate the brilliant colors of the jays and cardinals that flit through the woods here in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, but I have no idea how many species call this place home and I couldn't even produce a single scientific name for the ones that nest in our yard. And yet, there's something undeniably intriguing about the prospect that the ivory-billed woodpecker continues to haunt the swamps of Arkansas.
I remember feeling almost excited that spring morning a year ago as I listened to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce describe how a couple of biologists came to conclude that the ivory-bill wasn't extinct after all. Their video, and the accompanying description in Science, seemed to clinch the case. The evidence came from members of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, so why wouldn't it be sound?
Now come the recriminations. Were the editors at Science, along with the rest of us, just a little too eager to see what we wanted to see in four seconds of blurry video? Remember what the poster behind Fox Mulder's desk said? "I want to believe."
The best commentary on the controversy, which I hasten to add, has not been settled -- the debate within the ornithology community is far from over -- comes from California researcher Stan Moore, a long-time observer of such things. Posting to the Ecological Society of America's listserv (a post I verified), Moore says he has "concerns about what I perceive to be unwarranted certainty by Cornell."
Uncertainty should be the rule in evaluating claims of seeing any extinct bird or other taxa. Proof of the existence of an animal thought to be extinct should be of a high level, even more so than of a rare bird sighting. But rare bird sightings require a high level of certification by state rare bird record committees. How much more so should the certification of an extinct bird's existence/presence be!
Moore's problem is that most of us, including a large number of scientists and others who should know better, didn't apply the proper level of skepticism to what amounted to an extraordinary claim accompanied by less than extraordinary evidence.
Moore doesn't dare to challenge the evidence himself, he just points out that Sibley's instincts should be trusted - especially if all we have to go on are four seconds of footage that makes the Zapruder film look like high-definition television:
David Sibley is one of the world's most accomplished bird artists. I trust his intuitions when he analyses grainy videos that are not definitive, but there is always room for some uncertainty. In the case of deep uncertainty regarding issues of extinction or even sightings of extremely rare birds, the benefit of the doubt should go to the doubter.
As Sibley and his coauthors write in Science:
Our analysis of the digital video and deinterlaced video frames demonstrates that this conclusion rests on mistaken interpretations of the bird's posture, that several features visible in the video contradict identification as a typical ivory-billed woodpecker, and that other features support identification as a pileated woodpecker.
With the benefit of this hindsight, it now seems the Cornell "proof" was something less. Moore even quotes a description a couple of months ago in the New York Times of the ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovery as nothing more than "faith-based ornithology." That comment came from Jerome A. Jackson, an ivory bill specialist at Florida Gulf Coast University and the author of a 15-page article in The Auk, the quarterly journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, attacking the rush to publish the Cornell team's report.
Moore also casts aspersions on the motives, conscious or otherwise, of the Cornell team, which has benefited in more ways than one from the attention and funding the discovery has attracted. ("A book was written, funds have been raised, publicity generated, excitement fomented, and reputations put on the line...")
"Faith-based," eh? Subconscious motives? Thems fighting words, and perhaps a little too strong. After all, the Cornell team members did see the suspect woodpecker with their own eyes, and dismissing a claim as rooted in faith instead of reality is just about the most damning thing one scientist can say to another.
But Jackson's and Moore's disappointment with the editors at Science, the rest of the scientific community and the media is understandable. Science has now done the right thing and published both sides of the case. The rest of us should keep an open mind.
A departing columnist with one of my local papers has assembled a good summary of the philosophy that guides this blog. Arch Montgomery, head of Asheville School in Asheville, NC, writes in his ultimate column that
...certainty is conviction absent humility. Certainty is intolerant. It is absolute. It knows the answers and will not tolerate disagreement. It is inflexible, permanent and anti-intellectual. It is the Taliban. It is the Ku Klux Klan.
Exactly. He also makes use of what I consider to be one of the wisest things ever said, paraphrased for an educational context: "We do not want our children to have minds so open that their brains fall out." I'll take this opportunity to refer to a little essay I wrote a while back for Skeptic magazine on the evolution of the original aphorism.
Which is just what Chef, the sex-obsessed South Park character voiced by soul man Isaac "Shaft" Hayes, did this week when he quit the show. His raison d'exit? He says he's fed up with "intolerance and bigotry," but considering the the satirical cartoon series has made its reputation on just that since it debuted a decade ago, something else must be involved.
According to London's Independent, the show's creators, "University of Colorado graduates who never quite shed their student sense of humour" Matt Stone and Trey Parker, suspect
the true cause of Hayes' annoyance is a notorious episode aired in the United States last November - and yanked from the air in Britain for legal reasons - which targeted Scientology and suggested, in characteristically unsubtle fashion, that the religion was a bogus pile of sci-fi claptrap designed to hoodwink people into forking over their money.
"In 10 years and over 150 episodes of South Park, Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons or Jews," ... Stone said in a statement. "He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show." Stone added, however: "Of course we will release Isaac from his contract, and we wish him well."
As do I. Based on his experiences with Scientology, the pseudo-faith founded by science fiction author L.Ron Hubbard, I'd say he'll do just fine without the South Park checks he's been cashing for nine years. Here's what Hayes has to say about the subject:
Scientology is the gateway to eternity. It is the path to happiness and total spiritual freedom. Until one has experienced the technology of Scientology it’s unlikely that one will ever experience these wonderful discoveries. I know because it has worked for me. The more time and effort I invest, the more I receive. I highly recommend it.
And just for a little context, here' s what some other folks have to say about their way of life (Some are pulled from the Scientology Kills website, others from the official Scientology site -- can you tell the difference?)
Were it not for Scientology, I would either be completely insane or dead by now. I am forever grateful for the technology of Scientology and to Mr. Hubbard who dedicated his life to helping man and this planet, as well as to the people who have dedicated their lives to helping others through Scientology. -- Lisa Marie Presley, celebrity without portfolio
Scientology is sanity and if people who aren’t in Scientology knew just how sane their lives could be, they would run to find out about it. -- Anne Archer, Actress
To tell you the honest-to-God truth: without Scientology, I would be dead. -- Kirstie Alley, Actress.
Before Scientology I had no idea about being in control of my vehicle and therefore had my fair share of accidents. After each shift I would be wiped out. Now, I handle my car with certainty and do the impossible as far as my clients are concerned. I’m rarely stressed and when my shift is over I still have plenty of energy to play with my young son. Not bad for an old coot, eh? -- Henry Baumgard, Taxi Driver
The proposition that the religious right enjoy an evolutionary advantage over the secular progressive factions because the former have more children is not particularly new. But this essay in Foreign Policy is a good introduction to the argument for those who haven't thought about it before.
Towards the end comes this nightmare scenario:
Tomorrow’s children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents’ values, as always happens. But when they look around for fellow secularists and counterculturalists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.
There are some problems when it comes to applying the theory to reality. For one thing, the authors claim that "Among states that voted for President George W. Bush in 2004, fertility rates are 12 percent higher than in states that voted for Sen. John Kerry." This may be true, but it ignores the fact the most states in 2004 only tilted one way or the other by the smallest of margins. In many cases, Arkansas and Alabama among them, the difference was less than one percentage point.
But overall, I find it hard to find fault with the thesis. The result will be rather ironic, considering the positive correlation between belief in creationism and family size. In other words, the less likely one is to believe in evolution, the more likely it is that evolutionary processes will ensure one's culture comes out on top.
Unless you're a hard-core whale hugger, it might be hard to see the significance of the loss of one member of a population of Orcinus orca, a species commonly and misleadingly known as killer whales. But the death of L98, or "Luna," last week in a remote bay on the western coast of Vancouver Island is not only a serious concern for the entire population from which it was separated five years ago, but also serves as another lesson in how science tends to be sacrificed on the altar of respect for superstition.
L98/Luna was about two years old in the spring of 2001 when the rest of "L" pod, members of the "southern residents" orcas that spend their summers swimming and feeding in the cross-boundary waters that separate Canada and the United States in the Pacific Northwest, paid a visit to Nootka Sound, about halfway up the Vancouver Island coastline.
For reasons unknown to the biologists who have devoted their lives to studying the species, the young male didn't follow the rest of his pod back out of the sound and on down to Puget Sound. He stayed behind and spent the next five years making a nuisance of himself, endangering float plane traffic, getting himself scratched up on boats, attracting a small industry of whale watchers and posing something of a dilemma for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
The problem is the whales are a protected species. The southern residents are considered endangered in the U.S. and in Canada. The fact that there are now fewer than 90 left in the population puts enormous pressure on wildlife managers to protect those that remain. Plus, voters love whales and don't like to see them chopped up by propellors.
So the Canadian and American governments ponied up US$200,000 to reunite Luna with his family. They tried rounding him up in 2004. It almost worked, except that members of the local First Nations, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht, suddenly declared that Luna was the reincarnation of a chief that had died just before Luna, now called "Tsux'iit," showed up. They proceeded to physically interfere with the effort to corral L98/Luna/Tsux'iit. Riding out in ceremonial canoes made for great evening-news footage (although offering the whale chocolate bars was probably a bad idea).
Eventually, the DFO crew ran out of money, patience and/or guts and gave up. Luna stuck around for another two years until he was killed after getting a little too friendly with a propellor. Now there's maybe 86 orcas left in the population. Not good news from a ecological point of view. Or from the point of view of the sizable whale-watching industry in the region.
Some say Luna had spent too much time on his own, essentially a juvenile deliquent growing up without the benefit of adult instruction, and would likely have come to a similar end even if he had been reunited with his pod. That's just speculation. The truth is we still know little about orca psychology, learning curves or the transmission of culture.
But we do know a bit about human pyschology. And human politics.
We know that the Mowachaht/Muchalaht made no mention of relocated spirits for the first couple of years of Luna's time in Nootka Sound. We also know the Mowachaht/Muchalaht were engaged in negotiations with the DFO over control of aquaculture operations in Nootka Sound. And we know that one Mowachaht/Muchalaht elder told a Vancouver Island television crew that his First Nation would be perfectly happy to work out a deal to allow for the reunification of Luna and his pod, if only the government would first address their grievances regarding the fish farms. So much for the spiritual angle.
In the end, the southern resident orcas are down another critical member. And the Mowachaht/Muchalaht win only the moral victory of knowing their suspiciously timed tale of reincarnation managed to trump the sincere, science-based efforts of the big bad Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
DFO does have a lot to answer for. Promoting salmon aquaculture in British Columbia's waters, for example, has done little to bolster its scientific reputation. But the time and money spent on saving one whale can easily be justified when you're dealing with such a small population. The reputation of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht, on the other hand, lies in tatters -- or would, if more in the media had told this story a little better.
The lesson is, an irrational deference to mysticism is anything but wise. Yes, it's politically safe not to offend aboriginal communities. But in the end, everyone loses.
Or: A Short History Of Everything-you-ever-heard-about-x-is-wrong
I fell into a rather nasty little trap the other day when I bristled at the suggestion that those who deny that HIV causes AIDS are easily comparable to creationists who deny evolution. My initial impulse was to argue that the two camps, while equally annoying, are sufficiently distinct to warrant separate strategies when dealing with them.
Now I realize the folly of trying to draw arbitrary lines between disparate groups that nevertheless exhibit a good deal in common. It is more useful to analyze each according to is own weaknesses. Just as there are more differences within members of each so-called "race" than there are between the races (rendering the term meaningless), so the anti-science rhetoric and propaganda of each denial gang within the larger anti-science movement is best described by its own motivations and fallacies. Trying to assign them into higher-level divisions is pointless.
In that spirit, herewith a brief look at some of the more popular brands of head-in-the-sand denialism, in chronological order.
1. Creationists A special case to be sure, as what they deny -- the ability of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology to explain the diversity of life -- came along after their core belief had been around for millennia. Their motivation is religious. It's not simply that arcane calculations drawn from the Old Testament posit that the universe is only 6,000 years old, but that to accept evolution is to demote humankind from a special place in that universe. With creationism comes serious implications for our relationship with nature and other cultures. In that sense, it is easy to understand why adherents are reluctant to accept a worldview that diminishes their god's role from active participant in human affairs to passive bystander. Suggested response strategy: patience.
2. Holocaust deniers Although based in old-fashioned anti-Semitism, which predates just about every surviving form of bigotry, Holocaust denialists have transcended mere cultural animosity but actually take issue with well-documented recent history. They not only dispute eyewitness testimony, but challenge mountains of physical evidence. The alleged conspiracy required to have successfully revised so much of the historical record boggles the mind, and dwarfs even the Area-51 fantasies of a government cover-up of alien abductions. To this extent, they are perhaps the least rational of all denialists, and the least likely to be convinced of the error of their ways. Their motivation is rooted in jealousy and an extreme lack of self-confidence. Suggested response strategy: dismissal.
3. HIV/AIDS denialists A puzzling aggregation of homophobes and ultra-skeptics/paranoiacs who come to their belief from disparate places. Some have had personal experiences or come across compelling anecdotes that cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific evidence tying the development of AIDS to infection by HIV. Others begin with a deep-seated suspicion of the entire medical establishment and extend that distrust to any or all prevailing wisdom regarding health-care treatments. Some of the more ardent of this gang are beyond hope because of exposure to extreme cases of suffering; others are worth the effort as they are sometimes willing accept the scientific method. Suggested response strategy: repeated exposure to the facts.
4. Climate change dissidents The scientific evidence in favor of an anthropogenic explanation for the majority of the warming experienced by the planet in the past century has now reached the point where the number of climatologists willing to identify with this group is approaching zero. (The recent radiosonde data that did away with the apparent discrepancy between surface and stratospheric temperature trends may have been the nail in the coffin.) But among non-experts, the movement enjoys continued support. Motivation? From the corporate side, it's simply greed and narrow-minded, short-term visions. At the personal level, it could often be explained by political tendencies and a skeptical approach to the educated elite. Suggested response strategy: a broadening of the mind through travel or education about the implications for the subject's children.
I'm sure there are a few more good examples. But it's a beautiful day out there, and I'd like to get some sun.
Having helped draw attention in my last post to some flawed reporting on HIV and AIDS, I thought it only fair to do the same for some good journalism on the subject. The latest edition of The Walrus, which is sometimes thought of as the Canadian analog of Harper's, includes Brent Preston's informative "The HIV Resurgence."
Whereas Celia Farber's Harper's feature implies that HIV infection rates are grossly overestimated (largely because African clinics that can't afford proper testing apply a postive diagnosis based solely on symptomatic criteria), Preston writes that the opposite is really the case, at least in Canada:
It is accepted that testing data underestimate the extent of hiv infection and so researchers must create epidemiological models to get a better picture of the advance of the disease. Dr. Robert Remis of the University of Toronto is a pre-eminent Canadian scientist in this field. He has produced detailed models for Ontario, home to over 40 percent of Canadian hiv cases, and his assessment is blunt: "The bottom line is that the epidemic is not under control. Prevalence [the total number of people living with hiv] increased 36 percent from 1998 to 2003." Remis's models indicate rising rates of infection among four distinct groups: immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, homosexual males, intravenous-drug users, and heterosexual Canadians.
I'm still thinking about some of the issues raised by Farber's piece and the response from scientists like Tara Smith, and may soon revisit the debate over HIV/AID denialism.
I seem to have hit a sore spot with a comment I left on Chris Mooney's Intersection. The topic was perhaps the least politically correct subject of all. Less correct than creationism or even global warming denial. Even giving a micrometre of credit to anyone involved with the idea that HIV doesn't cause AIDS is a dangerous game, indeed.
First, I need to make it clear that I claim no expertise on the epidemiology of AIDS, and I am not (repeat: NOT) a member of the HIV/AIDS dissident camp. The idea hadn't even been on my mind for at least 14 years. But then Harper's magazine had to go and run a feature by Celia Farber, a journalist who made promoting the lack of a causative link between the virus and the syndrome her life's work since she was writing for the pop culture magazine Spin back in the early 1990s.
I didn't even notice the article the first time I read my copy of Harper's. I was too busy marveling over Lewis Lapham's case for the impeachment of George W. Bush, perhaps the most succinct summary of the argument yet. But I digress.
Anyway, Chris lamented that Lapham's journalistic judgment must be slipping to allow Farber's prose to find its way into his publication. "Say it ain't so ...." said Chris, who admitted he had yet to read the story. So I read it. It was lying right there beneath the latest This Old House, so what the heck?
What I found was a much more complicated story than yet another round of HIV doesn't causes AIDS. From my posted response:
Only five of the 40-ish columns that comprise the feature deal with HIV-AIDS denial theory ... the other 35 columns of Farber's feature are very troubling, but not because of anything to do with HIV epidemiology, but because they detail the tragic story of the Uganda nevirapine study, which she documents thoroughly. And the final section of the story, dealing with the aneuploidy-cancer hypothesis, is also worthy of a read. Farber devotes as much space to that topic as she does [once respected, now persona non grata and leading HIV/AIDS dissent biologist Peter] Duesberg's denial of an HIV link to AIDS.
The Uganda nevirapine study, as documented by Farber, is a tale of botched research and alleged coverups that reach the National Institutes of Health. People have died and are dying, she says, because of diagnostic errors resulting from mismanaged handling of field tests of the drug. (And in a blatant attempt to inject a little contemporary culture into her work, Farber calls the affair a real-life analog of The Constant Gardener).
My point, probably poorly made, was that Farber tells an important story that has nothing necessarily to do with whether or not HIV causes AIDS. There may be a problem with her take on the affair -- a group of scientists and other professionals has already produced a long list of objections to the Harper's piece, for one thing. But those objections aren't all factual errors, and my initial reaction is Farber's story shouldn't be ignored simply because she then proceeds to drag the HIV/AIDS dissidents into her reportage.
The reaction from many quarters of the science blogosphere was to lump in anyone who denies the HIV/AIDS connection with other anti-science denial movements, like intelligent design advocates and climate change skeptics. To be fair, there are some similarities. For example, the HIV/AIDS dissidents have a petition with 2300 signatures (according to Farber) from experts who doubt the connection. It brings to mind the infamous Oregon petition alleging signed by thousands of experts who doubt we're warming the planet but turn out mostly to have no real climatology expertise. And as Tara "Aetiology" Smith pointed out, the creationists have a petition, too.
But I think it would be a mistake to paint the HIV/AIDS dissidents with the same brush as the other right-wing anti-science crowds, which seem to have a great deal of trouble with reality. And here's why:
First, the expertise of the HIV/AIDS dissidents tends to be far more respectable, and their theories more sophisticated and heterogenous, than those of the climate change or ID types. That doesn't make them right, but it does mean they have to be dealt with differently. For every Philip Johnson, (a lawyer with no scientific training who has signed on to both the ID and HIV/AIDS dissent movements), there's at least one, and perhaps two or three experts like Rebecca V. Culshaw, an accomplished mathematical biologist whose work is still being published by the scientific press.
There's also the inconvenient presence on that list of Kary Mullis, the inventor of the polymerase chain reaction, a little thing that won him the Nobel prize and just happens to make possible much of the molecular biology that informs modern medical research. What has he done for us lately? Maybe not much, but you can't dismiss out of hand someone who made such a contribution to science. And the other anti-science movements don't have anyone of his stature on their side.
Second, it's simply not fair to compare the scientific consensus on biological evolution with the current thinking on the epidemiology of AIDS or even the global warming orthodoxy. Like many things medical, the pathology and molecular biology of AIDS is far more complicated and involves far more unexplained elements.
[UPDATE: Third, the AIDS denial gang isn't integrated into the corporate-Christian-Republican alliance that is funding their anti-science agenda with millions of dollars and elaborate propaganda campaigns. For the most part, it seems to be drive by eccentrics, people who have personal encounters with unusual pathologies and the usual paranoiacs who doubt everything from official sources.]
Tara, for one, has written some excellent exercises in demolishing the AIDS/HIV dissent theory (here's a good recent one) and I wouldn't know where to start if I found myself handed the "con" side of a formal debate on the question "Does HIV cause AIDS?" But I suggest, very humbly and meekly, that there is a slim outside chance that there might be a wee of merit to a least some elements of the idea that maybe, just maybe, HIV isn't the whole story when it comes to explaining a syndrome that is manifested by 25 or more diseases.
Phew. That was rough.
Getting back to the item that started me down this path. No, the Harper's piece wasn't perfect. I think Farber and Lapham would have accomplished more if they had just left out the five columns that rehashed HIV/AID denial. Maybe Farber wasn't the ideal choice to write the piece. But the best pieces of investigative journalism usually aren't perfect. And sometime you have to wade through the crap to find the gems.
There's a relevant example in the form of Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On, a fantastic book from 1987 that documents the negligence and tragic bigotry of the Reagan administration in the early days of AIDS research. Yes, Shilts tarnishes his work by buying into the now-discredited "patient zero" thesis, in which the entire AIDS epidemic in North America is traced back to a single promiscuous flight attendant. But the rest of the book, its investigation of the politics of AIDS in particular, remains a classic of the genre.
So don't throw out the baby with the bathwater just yet. And remember what Chet Raymo said: "Science must be radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change." In this case, that doesn't mean anyone should change their sexual habits on the silly assumption that "everything you've been told about AIDS is wrong" as one writer has it. What it does mean is there's enough wiggle room on the existing knowledge base to allow for the occasional dose of skepticism.
I'm guessing that Lapham was thinking somewhere along those lines.
OK. I've had enough. The "at an alarming rate" stories on the latest climate change research are beginning to spiral out of control. This one, from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was the last straw:
Residents of Iqaluit and Pangnirtung have been stowing away their parkas and kamiks this week and pulling out raincoats. Warm temperatures and rain showers across southern Baffin Island have broken almost every record on the books. "The snow is melting off the roof, I can't believe it, it's unreal," says Iqaluit resident Dennis Shappa. "If it freezes over, you know, caribou are going to have a hard time getting to their source of food," says a concerned Moses Kilabuk. (CBC, Feb. 28.)
For those not familiar with Iqaluit and Pangnirtung, they're up near the Arctic Circle. I've been there in the spring. Rain is not normal.
In other news:
The Antarctic ice sheet is losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year in a trend that scientists link to global warming, according to a new paper that provides the first evidence that the sheet's total mass is shrinking significantly. (WaPo, March 3)
Greenland's glaciers have begun moving faster, almost doubling the rate within the last five years at which they dump ice into the Atlantic Ocean, new satellite images reveal. The data has sparked warnings that experts have underestimated how much sea levels will rise in the future. (New Scientist, Feb. 17)
... scientists will say there is still great uncertainty about the pace and scope of future change, although by the end of the century global temperatures could increase by up to 5.8 C. (BBC, March 1)
Meanwhile, James Lovelock in his new book The Revenge of Gaiasays the Earth is
seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.
But wait. It gets worse. I recently got ahold of a paper on long-term climate change -- we're talking about the next 1000 years, not just the coming century -- that will appear in Climate Dynamics.
The authors of "Millennial timescale carbon cycle an climate change in an efficient Earth system model" (DOI 10.1007/s00382-006-0109-9), three British researchers and one Canadian, calculated what would happen if we burn all the fossil fuels available on the planet. Their most extreme scenario has the world 12.5 C warmer (about 23 F) than it is now. Other side-effects of our addiction to oil include
complete Greenland melt by the year 3000, 10 m of ongoing sea level rise, possible collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, a 1.15 unit drop in ocean surface pH, huge loss of global soil carbon and dieback of some tropical and subtropical vegetation.
And so forth and so on.
Of course, that's just what the scientists say might happen. In a worst-case scenario. The good news is if we left the unconventional reserves of oil and gas in the ground, we'd be able to keep the temperature increase down to 7 C or so. But that's still disastrous for beachfront property owners in Florida, most Bangladeshis, and anyone who wants to eat in Africa, among others content with the status quo.
But how much skepticism should be applied to such long-term predictions? I say give them no mind. Not when the near-term is already so troubling. Consider that just about everyone agrees that, thanks to the time it takes between the emission of greenhouse gases and the consequent warming effects they will induce, we're already pretty much committed to a certain amount of warming. And I'm thinking we should be working hard to nail down just what that guaranteed warming effect will be before we worry about AD 3000.
The consensus is shaky. Take that reference in the BBC story to a 5.8 C rise. That number is what some climatologists believe might be the result of doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, (compared with pre-industrial levels), something that will probably happen no later 2050, even if we all start driving Priuses next week. It's a number that may or may not be included in the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Not everyone is convinced that number is realistic. The conventional range for the effect of doubling CO2 used to be a little lower -- 1.5 to 4.5 C. But along with all these new reports of melting glaciers and rising oceans and dwindling crop yields, some researchers are increasing the odds of reaching higher temperatures sooner than later.
Climatologists James Annan and J.C. Hargreaves are having none of it. Their new paper, "Using multiple observationally-based constraints to estimate climate sensitivity" won't be officially published for a few weeks, but a PDF is here. In the paper, they peg the "climate sensitivity" of a 2 X CO2 world at just 3 C. They conclude:
Even with generous uncertainty estimates, a value greater than 4.5 C seems very unlikely. In fact, our implied claim that climate sensitivity actually has as much as a 5% chance of exceeding 4.5 C is not a position that we would care to defend with any vigour, since even if it is hard to formally rule it out, we are unaware of any significant evidence in favour of such a high value.
I have no idea whether Annan and Hargreaves' methods are better than those being used to generate plausible scenarios that top 4.5 C. Annan, writing in his blog, anticipates some controversy. "As recently as last summer," he says, "I was happily talking about values in the 5-6 C region as being plausible, even if the 10C values always seemed pretty silly." And furthermore
The paper didn't exactly sail through the refereeing process, but has now been seen by a lot of researchers working in this area. Although many of our underlying assumptions are somewhat subjective, our result appears very robust with respect to plausible alternatives (this was rather a surprise to us). No-one has actually suggested that we have made any gross error (well, some people are rather taken aback at a first glance, but they have all come round quickly so far). It's important to realise that we have not just presented another estimate of climate sensitivity, to be considered as an alternative to all the existing ones. We have explained in very simple terms why the more alarming estimates are not valid, and anyone who wants to hang on to those high values is going to have to come up with some very good reasons as to why our argument is invalid, coupled with solid arguments for their alternative view. A few nit-picks over the specific details of our assumptions certainly won't cut it.
The moral here is not that climate experts are still arguing, although they are. It's that they're putting a lot of effort into arguing over a couple of degrees centigrade. And while I doubt you'd get too many climatologists to admit it (to them, 2 degrees is a lot), they're now getting deep into hair-splitting territory, from a public policy perspective.
Even 3 C will make more a very different world than the one with which we grew up. Never mind the worst-case stuff. If the moderate, non-alarmist predictions are calling for such a future, then we are in for some very interesting times indeed.
Attention spans being what they are, the fuss generated by the posting of a personal email exchange by two of the giants of the skepticism community -- Michael Ruse and Dan Dennett -- has already evaporated. But it was good while it lasted, and it's worth reviving for a least a few more nanoseconds, in part because it sheds light on one of the biggest challenges facing defenders of reason in the political sphere.
The words exchanged were not, I suspect, among the most cordial or well-chosen that either Ruse or Dennett has committed to the ether. It boiled down to a strong difference of opinion over the role of atheism in the evolution-creation skirmishes, a debate that looms large among those who worry about how to deal with the decline of respect for science and reason in American society.
Ruse, who teaches the philosophy of biology at the Florida State University and the author of The Evolution-Creationism Struggle, has in the minds of many gotten a little too cozy with creationists and is doing a disservice to the good fight by not making it absolutely clear that faith has no place in a scientific debate. He annoyed a lot of skeptics by co-editing a book on intelligent design, Debating Design, with none other than ID-maven William Dembski. (Ruse is against it, by the way, but apparently not strongly enough for some.)
Dennett, a philosophy prof at Tufts, is more hard-core, and has little time for religion in any guise. His new book, Breaking the Spell, is attracting lots of attention, both pro and con, for its failure to give an inch to anyone who thinks religion is anything more than an obsolete evolutionary adaptation to help our distant ancestors build strong communities.
It came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the characters involved that they might not share a common strategy on how to deal with irrationalism. But the private emails they exchanged a few weeks ago exceeded most expectations of just how little love is lost between them. The fact that one of them (Ruse) unilaterally chose to release their letters to a third party (Dembski of all people) and granted permission to post them on the web (here), was doubly shocking.
To summarize: Ruse begins by asking Dennett where's he's been lately, wondering why he hasn't seen some "scathing letter that you and [Stephen] Pinker penned about my inadequacies" in recent editions of the New York Times Book Review. Harmless enough; it could even be taken as tongue in cheek, I suppose. But Dennett replies with:
I'm afraid you are being enlisted on the side of the forces of darkness. You may want to try to extricate yourself, since you are certainly losing ground fast in the evolutionary community that I am in touch with. As you will see, I do lump your coinage in with 'reductionism' and 'scientism' etc. and think you are doing a disservice to the cause of taking science seriously.
It goes downhill from there. Ruse lets loose in his next reply:
I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design -- we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classroom-- what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues -- neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas ... we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.
You don't usually see this level of nastiness between two people who are supposed to be on the same side (that would be the evolution good, creation bad alliance). Lengthy commentaries ensued at The Intersection, Pharygula and Evolution Blog, among others.
Before I sat down to write my take, I asked Ruse whether he had indeed given the emails, and permission to post them, to Dembski without first checking with Dennett. He replied in the affirmative, noting that "I guess if you are as naive as I am about the internet, these things pass one by."
In a followup email, he hoped some good may come of the whole thing.
I just wish that there were more of us trying to think this whole debate through and talk about strategies etc -- perhaps my spat with Dennett will spark some thought on these issues.
I certainly hope so. There already seems to be a fair bit of internal analysis going on among those of us who worry about the failure of the Enlightenment to take hold in against the rising tide of fundamentalism. The subject deserves a more indepth treatment, and I will try to do my bit in the coming days.
For now, consider the political challenge of a worldview that embraces diversity of opinion. How do we engage in a healthy and complex philosophical debate with those who see philosophical complexity and healthy debate as weaknesses? We can't. This is why the Democrats have failed to assemble a credible alternative to Bush's Republican Guard.
At the moment, it would seem that our side, a side that includes both Ruse and Dennett, is doomed to be relegated to the political margins precisely because we haven't sorted out our differences and reduced our arguments to simplistic sound bytes. But should we ever stumble upon a catchy and simple strategy, we'll have abandoned the most cherished principles of our philosophy. Damned if we do....
The long-term solution is to cultivate a broadscale respect for complexity and heterogeneity in all things political. While we wait for that brave new world, though, it probably isn't a good idea to air our dirty laundry. Scientists are supposed to be reasonable people who choose their words carefully. If we lose that repuation, what have we left?
I'm not suggesting we should try to keep differences of opinion à la Ruse v. Dennett secret -- I wouldn't have drawn attention to the emails if I was -- just keep the epithets to a minimum when engaging in debate within our own community.
To close, one more quote from the infamous emails, one that other commentators have unfortunately ignored:
I really like you and Richard [Dawkins], but my liking for you and respect for what you two have done matters not a bit with respect to what I think that I, Michael Ruse, should do – I would be ashamed of myself if I thought and acted otherwise.