Category Archives: Politics – Science

Trust in Science


The scale of the universe mapped to branches of science.

What makes people distrust science? Surprisingly, not politics” is an insightful piece recently penned in Aeon magazine by psychology professor Bastiaan T Rutjens.

Let mes start by saying that today’s distrust of science is astonishing when you consider that every single moment of your life you benefit from science. From the clean water your drink to the sewer systems that remove waste, from the marvels of modern medicine to wonders of technology, from the bridges you cross to the building you live in, from the phones and TVs you watch to the cars and planes you travel in, all result from the success of science. Half the people reading this post would have died of childhood diseases had they been born just a few generations ago. Before modern science, and the technology that results from it, life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. Why then is there so much distrust of science?

The article begins by exploring a tentative answer—political ideology must be the culprit.

The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

However, research by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, finds no relationship between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification and vaccine skepticism. So there must be more to science skepticism than mere political ideology. But what? To answer this question Rutjens and his colleagues recently published multiple studies that investigated both trust and skepticism of science. What they found were

four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate—in some cases quite strongly—which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity.

Rutjens and his colleagues found that:

a) climate change skepticism was most pronounced among the politically conservative;

b) skepticism about genetic modification wasn’t related to political ideology or religious beliefs, but correlates highly with science knowledge—the more you know about science the less skeptical you are about the safety of, for example, genetically modified food;

c) vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology but was strongest among religious participants and those with moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

As for general trust in science and the desire for more funding for scientific research, the results were clear: it is by far lowest among the religious. The religiously orthodox have the most negative views of science and don’t want to invest federal money in science.

To summarize the findings Rutjens writes that, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, distrust in science isn’t driven by political ideology. Moreover, with the exception of the case of genetic modification, scientific literacy doesn’t seem to remedy distrust in science. Finally, regarding vaccine skepticism and distrust of science, religiosity plays the largest role.

Brief Reflection – I would also propose that poor education combined with our many cognitive biases and bugs undermined trust in science which is both the best way we have to uncover the truth about the world and the only cognitive authority in the world today. Here’s to hoping that we don’t revisit The Demon Haunted World that Carl Sagan wrote about so movingly.

CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity, science-based, evidence-based

I read “CDC gets list of forbidden words: fetus, transgender, diversity,” in yesterday’s Washington Post. While the story is no doubt true I thought at first I was reading The Onion or hearing a new George Carlin skit. According to the report:

The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases … in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In some instances, the analysts were given alternative phrases. Instead of “science-based” or ­“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” the person said. In other cases, no replacement words were immediately offered.

Now I’m not surprised that the assault by the Republicans on reason, evidence, and science continues unabated, but it is still shocking to see your country go down this road.

First off, the substituted phrase  “science in consideration with community standards and wishes,” is revealing. You still use the word science but you change its meaning to “what people want or wish to be true.” The problem? That’s not science! So if the scientific evidence shows that humans evolved, that the climate is changing, or that there are such things as fetuses, you simply deny such truths because they aren’t compatible with community standards. Wow.

(I wrote previously about these anti-scientific trends in “The Chair of The U.S. House of “Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is a Christian Scientist!” After writing the post, I received an email from Zachary Kurz, the Communications Director for the Committee objecting to parts of my post and advising me to alter it. Really.)

All of this has striking parallels with Lysenkoism which

was a political campaign against genetics and science-based agriculture conducted by Trofim Lysenko, his followers and Soviet authorities. Lysenko served as the director of the Soviet Union’s Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Lysenkoism began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

The pseudo-scientific ideas of Lysenkoism rejected Mendel’s laws of inheritance, as well as the concept of the gene and Darwinian natural selection. The result:

More than 3,000 mainstream biologists were sent to prison, fired, and numerous scientists were executed as part of a campaign instigated by Lysenko to suppress his scientific opponents. The president of the Agriculture Academy, Nikolai Vavilov, was sent to prison and died there, while scientific research in the field of genetics was effectively destroyed until the death of Stalin in 1953. Research and teaching in the fields of neurophysiology, cell biology, and many other biological disciplines was also negatively affected or banned.

The strategy for using ideology to undermine scientific truth exemplifies today’s American Republican Party. Their opposition to evolutionary biology and climate science are two striking examples. (Just a few days ago I read that “US-based climate scientists to take research to France.”) All of this makes me truly weep for my country as it continues to denigrate science, reason, and evidence while it elevates pseudo-science, conspiracy theory, and superstition. If we continue to accept nonsense, we will all be worse off. The sleep of reason has always produced monsters.

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Bonus – Here is the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in action. (The relevant segment begins about 3 minutes into the video.) Watch the scientifically illiterate Republican members of Congress juvenile attempts to critique a real climate scientist. I fear that our future will be like the Dark Ages of our past.

Why Is Net Neutrality Important

Visualization of Internet routing paths

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet

Today the FCC’s Republican majority killed net neutrality. Why is this such a big deal? This brief discussion between a thoughtful reader of my blog and a response from an expert, a lawyer and computer scientist, clearly reveals the answer.  Here is that slightly edited discussion.

The net neutrality expert responding to my reader:

The crux of my concern is that the entire argument about net neutrality is framed in terms of consumption levels. By that argument, whether the consumption is from using Netflix is irrelevant, I take your position to be what you describe: metering. Metering is orthogonal to net neutrality.

You can have net neutrality and metering, the metering must simply not charge more or less depending on the source/destination of the various packets. Similarly, you can have metering without net neutrality, with metering rates different for various content.

When arguing about net neutrality let’s be clear what we mean: ISPs able to block content, able to bundle, able to favor particular sources of data, all either in whole or by discriminatory pricing that makes accessing particular data more or less expensive to the end user.

Now note my gracious reader responds to the above. He isn’t defensive like most people would be because he is concerned with the truth, not in being right. This is a sign of maturity, wisdom, and a good heart. How I wish more people would be willing to change their minds based on good arguments.

Thanks for correcting me. I have continued researching the subject and have discovered numerous errors in my thinking. For example, Netflix already pays a surcharge for its heavy use of bandwidth. Second, the feds have been regulating utilities since the basic law they passed in the 1930s. Oops.

But the most important mistake I made was in failing to grasp that the true significance of net neutrality is that, as you point out, the desired neutrality applies to sources and destinations, not bandwidths.

I can see a good argument for economic discrimination — making special deals with special sources or destinations. For example, if some corporation promises to transfer its humongous amounts of daily information at 2:00 AM each day, it makes perfect sense that a carrier should cut them a special deal. But that’s just a bandwidth argument one step removed from directness.

The part that I didn’t catch was the new ability of carriers to block sources or destinations for economically arbitrary reasons. I shudder to think of what would happen if a politically motivated actor were to gain control of even a portion of the backbone. They could delay delivery of information from blacklisted sites so as to conceal their actions yet partly control the political discourse.

The new regulations do require some degree of openness from the carriers, but I suspect that they’ll be able to conceal their unfair behavior all too easily.

I wonder if it would be useful to copy the methodology now used for electrical power in many states: the industry is broken into two sub-industries, the grid, and the generators. The grid companies have to carry the power from any generator at a standardized price. The generators feed power into the grid. That sure sounds like net neutrality to me.

And a final reply from the expert again:

Metering by time of day wouldn’t discriminate by content, sounds reasonable to me too. Would help smooth out usage too for operators who can take advantage of that.

Besides the further slanting the economic playing field, I entirely agree with you on the political consequences. It would have sounded far more absurd just a little over a year ago. Yet here we are. Shadow bans coming soon for people and ideas, all but certain. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_banning

My final thoughts

I have little doubt that those who would undermine net neutrality seek two things—wealth and power. As always, Republicans are in the pocket of big business. For more see my recent post, “The New American Civil War,” which discussed how killing net neutrality is part of a larger plan to undermine democracy.

Mark Bittman on the Purpose of Society

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 21, 2014)

New York Times food expert and op-ed columnist Mark Bittman wrote a recent piece, What Is the Purpose of Society? Obviously the title captured my interest. But what could an expert on healthy food have to say about the purpose of society? A lot it turns out.

Bittman begins,

The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States. But because food is plentiful for most people, and the damage that conventional agriculture does isn’t readily evident to everyone, it’s important that we look deeper, beyond food, to the structure that underlies most decisions: the political economy.

Bittman argues that progressives don’t pressure the “Democrats to take strong stands on everything from environmental protection to gun control to income inequality …” Instead they accept that most politicians are indebted to monied interests. But the big problems of the country—income inequality, race relations, climate change, unhealthy food, immigration law, education—won’t be fixed by creating a nice business climate. So he offers a different vision.

Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, not how do we create a better business environment. Consider what this implies about the purpose of people, to say nothing about the meaning of life. The business of America should not be business, but well-being.

No philosopher can read this and not be reminded of Aristotle’s assessment of governments. They are good to the extent they provide the conditions in which all their citizens can live well. But does America today do this or even try to? As Bittman says:

For example, is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the latter; that has to change … For example, if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose.

Bittman understands that there will be unintended consequences that follow from tinkering with complex political and economic systems,

But without an agreement on goals, without statements of purpose, we are going to continue to see changes that are not in the interest of the majority. Increasingly, it’s corporations and not governments that are determining how the world works. As unrepresentative as government might seem right now, there is at least a chance of improving it, whereas corporations will always act in their own interests.

Bittman challenges us to rethink political philosophy and political economy, whose goal should be to create a society in which everyone can flourish. A society so much different from America today.

The big ideas and strategies for how we should manage society and thrive with the planet are not a set of rules handed down from on high. To develop them for now and the future is a major challenge, and we — progressives and our allies — have to work harder at it. No one is going to figure it out for us.

George Will on Climate Change: What’s Wrong With Him?

George Will has written one of the worst pieces I’ve ever read: “Climate change’s instructive past.” If my introductory college students had written this essay I would have responded: “This is so poorly reasoned, please don’t expect to receive credit.” Or “I recommend an introductory logic class before you write another essay.” Or “Please don’t turn in such nonsense again.”

Will was once an intelligent man. I don’t know what happened to him. Our brains do shrink as we age, still it’s just hard to believe that he believes what he writes. I suppose a non-scientist like Will, writing about a topic on which the experts are in virtual unanimous agreement, might be correct. Perhaps he’s a genius. But not likely.

In defense of his anti-science position, Will cites two books by historians who note that past climate change wasn’t caused by human activity. From this he concludes that present climate change isn’t caused by human activity. Really? That’s like saying that in the past people died from natural causes so today no one can be murdered. The argument is ridiculous. Here it is in syllogistic form:

In the past there have been warming periods not caused by human activity.
Therefore today’s warming period is (probably) not caused by human activity.

Logic teachers shake their heads. And I can just see the climate scientists discussing the column.”Hey Joe, did you know that some climate change in the past wasn’t attributable to human activity?” “Oh my God Bob, I never thought of that! I don’t think anybody who has devoted their life to studying the climate knew this! All of our evidence and the scientific consensus go out the window! I’m so glad George Will taught us about climate history! We had forgotten to include that in our calculations!”

Of course every climatologist knows that the climate has changed in the past from natural causes.That’s one of the things they study. But that doesn’t refute the overwhelming evidence for human caused climate change.

I wish Mr. Will wouldn’t insult our intelligence; I wish he’d retire, but he won’t. Perhaps he’s just a shill for the oil companies. Perhaps he’s just an old curmudgeon. Or perhaps he’s arrogant, so in love with his own intellect that he doesn’t know there are scientists who really understand science.They go to their laboratories every day trying to tease a bit of truth out of nature.They don’t just pontificate about science from their office chairs and then write op-eds. 

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Addendum – Of the nearly 14,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers published between 1991 – 2012 exactly 0.17% either reject warming or attribute it primarily to causes other than CO2 and other greenhouse gases.