I’m not a fan of Dawkins’s writing, as he tends to ramble and go off on tangents that are related to his main point, but sometimes only marginally… and they go on far too long.
There was plenty of good information about evolution in the book, but it was tough to stay with it because of the asides and meanderings. There are much better books on the topic (even his own The Greatest Show on Earth is better, though it suffers from the same problems). In the end, the point that evolution is not a product of random chance is sufficiently made and explained, which is, after all, the intent of the book, so it is successful on that note.
With two notable exceptions, the Republican candidates really need to take a page from Woodrow Wilson’s playbook.
Of course, like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.
Letter to Winterton C. Curtis (29 August 1922)
Update: Sadly, it seems Romney is hedging on the science, presumably to pander to the science deniers that tend to inhabit the Republican base and the Tea Party. He said, ”Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that but I think that it is,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.”
As I’ve said before, if you want to argue policy, that’s fine, but do it honestly. Don’t try to discredit the science just because you don’t like related policy suggestions.
Orac, of Respectful Insolence, has a post about how global warming wasn’t "invented" by Al Gore, contrary to what many global warming deniers seem to think. However, the part I find especially interesting in his piece is his explanation of why denialists tend to attack people.
Here’s an excerpt:
If there’s one characteristic of denialists of all stripes, it’s that they have a strong tendency to personalize their dislike of their particular bete noir science.
The reason, of course, is that cranks can’t attack the science using good science and, of course, it’s far easier to attack a person than well-supported science. After all, all people have flaws that can be ridiculed or used as the basis of ad hominem attacks.
Like Orac, I’ve seen this from global warming deniers, anti-vaxxers, religious fundamentalists, and anti-evolution creationists. Whatever motivates them in their denial, it seems they share this common tactic of attacking the messenger.
From evolution to vaccinations to global warming, something I encounter on a regular basis on television and the internet is denialism, rejecting the scientific evidence in favor of an alternative… an alternative which could be anything from pure woo to scientific-sounding arguments: “Just have faith” to “irreducible complexity.” Denialism is something that invariably causes a collective sigh an eye roll from the skeptic community because logical and fact-based responses seem to have no effect on denialists.
An article from the European Journal of Public Health defines denialism as “the employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none, an approach that has the ultimate goal of rejecting a proposition on which a scientific consensus exists.” The article goes on to identify five common characteristics of denialism. I’ve seen all of these “in the wild,” but items one through three are the ones I see most often.
These five characteristics were summarized by Debora MacKenzie in a New Scientist opinion piece titled Living in denial: Why sensible people reject the truth and are as follows:
- Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
- Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
- Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
- Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
- Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
MacKenzie also adds a sixth characteristic.
Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
In the New Scientist piece, MacKenzie looks at the “why” of denialism.
This depressing tale [about swine flu] is the latest incarnation of denialism, the systematic rejection of a body of science in favour of make-believe. There’s a lot of it about, attacking evolution, global warming, tobacco research, HIV, vaccines – and now, it seems, flu. But why does it happen? What motivates people to retreat from the real world into denial?
Her approach uses a softer glove than many skeptics use, avoiding outright condemnation of deniers but instead making an attempt to understand how denialism spreads: identifying common characteristics, tactics (above), causes, motives, and possible solutions.
The most notable common characteristic that MacKenzie defines is this.
All [denialists] set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people.
I can anecdotally confirm that statement, both in my personal life and in my readings.
Where MacKenzie goes after that is to a hypothesis that what really triggers denialism is a sense of loss of control… a hypothesis that seems a good fit to the major denialist issues.
It is this sense of loss of control that really matters. In such situations, many people prefer to reject expert evidence in favour of alternative explanations that promise to hand control back to them, even if those explanations are not supported by evidence
All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.
She goes on to explain that this position is not necessarily malicious or anti-science. They simply require a human reaction.
It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.
The origins of denialist claims are another matter, and MacKenzie talks about how many of the more prominent claims (tobacco, global warming) got their start with corporate backing, how deniers tend to attract other deniers, and how claims become politically and religiously charged.
The European Journal of Public Health article isn’t as philosophical in its analysis of denialist motivations, but hits home nonetheless.
Denialists are driven by a range of motivations. For some it is greed, lured by the corporate largesse of the oil and tobacco industries. For others it is ideology or faith, causing them to reject anything incompatible with their fundamental beliefs. Finally there is eccentricity and idiosyncrasy, sometimes encouraged by the celebrity status conferred on the maverick by the media.
Whatever the motivations (personal, political, financial, etc), the one thing that remains true among denialist claims is their distortion (or complete rejection) of the truth. For many issues, such as vaccinations and global warming, denialism has caused and will cause lives to be lost. For others, such as the rejection of evolution, their positions simply contribute to the “dumbing down” of America.
The frustration of dealing with most deniers is the almost impenetrable armor of ignorance they wear which deflects attempts at presenting actual evidence, be it factual or logical. They counter by trotting out any of the tactics listed at the beginning of this article, selecting the one that best fits the topic at hand. Cherry pick this evidence. Trot out this fake expert. Rage about this conspiracy theory.
When all else fails, bring up Hitler.
Phil Plait is a Rachel Maddow fanboi and I can’t say I blame him. Though Rachel is fallible and has made mistakes before, more often than not, she hits the proverbial nail on the head, so when she gave her commentary on Climategate, the ACORN “scandal,” and other right-wing nonsense, Phil couldn’t resist linking to her video (and commenting on it…worth a read)… and I couldn’t resist watching it.
Another dead-on hammer-strike.
Phil rightly comments that the far right doesn’t have the copyright on nonsense, but the Republican “unholy alliance” it has formed with fundamentalist religion has led it to its anti-reality stance.
He concludes with this…
Global warming is real. Evolution is real. Vaccines do not cause autism. Homeopathy doesn’t work. These are facts, and they don’t care whether or not denialists spin, fold, and mutilate them. Until we face up to reality, however, they will spin, fold, and mutilate us.
I’ll drink to that.
The “ClimateGate” email “scandal” about climate change reminds me very much about the manufactured controversy about evolution and Charles Darwin. How so?
In the case of evolution, deniers will frequently make accusations that Darwin was racist, or misogynistic, or anti-Semitic as “evidence” that evolution by natural selection is unreliable (or untrue). Whether those claims about Darwin are true or not is debatable, but even if they were all true, it has zero effect on the validity of the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Scientific theories are based on facts, not the personalities of researchers.
With “ClimateGate,” deniers focus on a small number of cherry-picked, old emails from a few climate scientists, take them out of context, twist (or misunderstand) their meanings, point out some crankiness on the part of the scientists, and claim that they somehow debunk and discredit decades of climate research and mountains of evidence compiled and analyzed by hundreds (or thousands?) of other climate scientists.
It’s absurd thinking of the highest degree.
I’ve mentioned before that I wish the Republican party would “go back to being the fiscally conservative, small government party they used to be instead of the religious, anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-environment party they are now.”
Andrew Sullivan, over at The Daily Dish, seems to have the same idea, but in more detail. Andrew and I are not alone, either, since I’ve seen links to his post from two other blogs today, as well as a post by Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs who also put together a list of why he’s parted ways with the Right. No doubt there are plenty more who agree with these folks.
Here’s a sampling of items from both posts that I find particularly noteworthy (though I recommend going through the full posts of both blog authors).
From Andrew Sullivan:
- I cannot support a movement that holds torture as a core value.
- I cannot support a movement that holds that purely religious doctrine should govern civil political decisions and that uses the sacredness of religious faith for the pursuit of worldly power.
- I cannot support a movement that would back a vice-presidential candidate manifestly unqualified and duplicitous because of identity politics and electoral cynicism.
- I cannot support a movement that does not accept evolution as a fact.
- I cannot support a movement that sees climate change as a hoax and offers domestic oil exploration as the core plank of an energy policy
- I cannot support a movement that refuses to distance itself from a demagogue like Rush Limbaugh or a nutjob like Glenn Beck.
- I cannot support a movement that believes that the United States should be the sole global power, should sustain a permanent war machine to police the entire planet, and sees violence as the core tool for international relations.
From Charles Johnson (reasons why he parted ways with the Right):
- Support for bigotry, hatred, and white supremacism (see: Pat Buchanan, Ann Coulter, Robert Stacy McCain, Lew Rockwell, etc.)
- Support for throwing women back into the Dark Ages, and general religious fanaticism (see: Operation Rescue, anti-abortion groups, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, the entire religious right, etc.)
- Support for anti-science bad craziness (see: creationism, climate change denialism, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, James Inhofe, etc.)
- Support for homophobic bigotry (see: Sarah Palin, Dobson, the entire religious right, etc.)
- Support for anti-government lunacy (see: tea parties, militias, Fox News, Glenn Beck, etc.)
- Support for conspiracy theories and hate speech (see: Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Birthers, creationists, climate deniers, etc.)
- A right-wing blogosphere that is almost universally dominated by raging hate speech (see: Hot Air, Free Republic, Ace of Spades, etc.)
- Hatred for President Obama that goes far beyond simply criticizing his policies, into racism, hate speech, and bizarre conspiracy theories (see: witch doctor pictures, tea parties, Birthers, Michelle Malkin, Fox News, World Net Daily, Newsmax, and every other right wing source)
I think all of those issues are critical issues with the Right, but I tend to focus in on the anti-science, anti-intellectual issues like evolution and climate change… and then I just continue down the path of monumental incredulity at the crap that is touted, supported, and defended by what used to be a fiscally and bureaucratically conservative and responsible party.
I will grant that not all Republicans are this way, but the party in general (or as Andrew Sullivan puts it… “in so far as it means the dominant mode of discourse among the institutions and blogs and magazines and newspapers and journals that support the GOP”) has taken on the self-righteous air of superiority, while in practice, promoting ignorance, hatred, and the idea that the better educated you are, the smarter you are, and the more experience you have, the less qualified you are to partake in intellectually challenging endeavors.
If this country is going to improve its status (and it does need improving) or even maintain its current position in the world, the Right needs to change its ways or get out of the way, because its current pattern of blocking science and education, glorifying ignorance, and pounding its virtual fists on the podium of bigotry doesn’t cut it and it won’t cut it in the future.
As Charles Johnson said:
The American right wing has gone off the rails, into the bushes, and off the cliff.
I won’t be going over the cliff with them.
I won’t be jumping off that cliff, either.
I returned from the Atheist Alliance International Convention in LA last night and I’m struggling to get back into the groove of my East Coast time zone. I wanted to post my impressions of the convention, including my highlights and disappointments.
Overall, I’d have to say that I loved the entire event. There were some technical issues every now and then and a bit of disorganization here and there, but it didn’t detract from my experience at all. Almost without exception, the people I encountered were friendly, warm, polite, and fun-loving. There were smiles everywhere I looked. The event was also nearly devoid of religion-bashing, which was a delightful surprise. There were some expected jabs at creationists from some speakers (where appropriate), but that was about the extent of it.
The event was positive, informative, and socially delightful. We were privileged to have lunch and dinner with Margaret Downey, who was a pure delight. I sat next to a wonderful couple from Vancouver (whose names escape me, sadly) at dinner and we had great conversations about religion, politics, and philosophy. At the Sunday night social, I had an exuberantly fun time with Richard Haynes (of Atheist Nexus), Sean Faircloth, Trevor (not Victor), and Carla the veterinarian who delighted in explaining the intricacies of various castration techniques (OMG I hope I got her name right). Topics ranged from zombies to Hello Kitty to health care to the aforementioned castrations (which seemed to come up far too often, with hilarious results). It was wonderful.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference before (professional or personal) with that many openly friendly people.
As for the speakers and events, here’s a summary of my experience.
Friday was the opening day and after a live podcast for Dogma Free America (which covered current events and was quite entertaining), almost all the presentations were paralleled by two others, so it was tough to choose between the speakers (the program wasn’t always clear about the topics).
My first choice was a good one and I listened to Stephen Frederick Uhl, an ex Catholic priest and author of Out of God’s Closet, speak about ethics and morality without religion. I enjoyed his talk immensely and found much of what he had to say paralleled some of my own ideas about ethical/moral guidelines… only he explained things better and in more detail.
I wasn’t as fortunate for my second and third picks of Sunsara Taylor and Maurice Bisheff. Taylor spoke about abortion, but was way too radical in her views for my tastes… and for the tastes of most others in the room, based on the comments and questions she received. Bisheff spoke about Thomas Paine, but his presentation was terribly dry and seemed to promote Paine’s deistic views which, according to this talk, approached the level of metaphysical woo.
Friday night there was a live screening of Real Time with Bill Maher (with Richard Dawkins as guest) after which we got a hilarious presentation by Brian Dalton (of Mr. Deity fame) along with the entire cast of his show who did some of the sketches on stage. Near the end of his presentation, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher arrived and Maher was awarded with the Dawkins Foundation award for his movie Religulous. Maher then delighted the crowd with some great comedy, including a reading from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (you can see a clip on YouTube of that bit).
After the main convention hall events, there was a comedy fundraiser for AAI with some very, very funny comedians.
Saturday was science day and all the speakers were directly sponsored by the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Every talk I attended was brilliant and informative and inspiring.
- J. Anderson Thomson, an evolutionary psychologist, spoke about the evolutionary foundation for morality and the studies that are being done about the brain and how it process moral decisions.
- Lawrence Krauss, a physicist (and author of The Physics of Star Trek), spoke about the universe, its expansion, its origins, and its future… and made physics not only interesting and entertaining, but incredibly funny.
- Carolyn Porco, a planetary scientist and the leader of the imaging team for the Cassini project, spoke about Cassini and showed some remarkable images of Saturn, including this one, Saturn eclipsing the Sun and with Earth as a small dot just above the left side of Saturn’s rings.
- A biologist (whose name I don’t have at the moment) gave an amazing talk about stem cell research and what’s been accomplished so far, what being worked on currently, and what the future holds. His did a great job of making it all understandable to laymen.
- Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and author of Why Evolution is True, spoke about the evidence for evolution in various fields. His talk was probably my favorite of the convention, since it’s one of my favorite topics (and favorite books) and he was a very entertaining speaker.
- Daniel Dennett, philosopher and author of Breaking the Spell, spoke about the “Evolution of Confusion,” the interviews he’s doing with atheist clergy, and the fluff language of some theologians (like Karen Armstrong, as Jerry Coyne reminded me) who say things like “God is the God behind God.”
- Richard Dawkins was the keynote speaker after the dinner banquet and, being on a book tour, read from the final chapter of his new book about the evidence for evolution titled The Greatest Show on Earth.
Saturday evening, there was a live music party hosted by Atheist Nexus. I was completely bushed at this point and didn’t stay around for much of it… and had a Sunday breakfast scheduled for 7:00 am with the board members of Atheist Alliance International.
I had breakfast with Stephen Uhl (mentioned earlier) and Stuart Beckman, the current president of AAI. We gave Beckman some feedback about the convention and had some great conversations about building support in the atheist/skeptic/free-thinking community and getting rid of the stigma society attaches to atheism.
There were two headline speakers after breakfast.
- Jonathan Kirsch, religious historian and author of The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual, spoke about the Inqusition, its origins, its methods, and how they have been used over the centuries… even up to the current day. It was a fascinating talk and he was an entertaining speaker.
- Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education and author of Creationism vs. Evolution: An Introduction, spoke about the verbal and legal tricks that creationists use in their attempts to insinuate creationism (or intelligent design… same thing) into our schools’ science curriculums. She was warm and funny and it’s reassuring to know that she and her staff are on top of the issue.
- Sadly, Richard Haynes, the founder of Atheist Nexus, was moved to after the closing ceremonies, so only a small crowd got to hear his talk about his story, starting Atheist Nexus, and how to help build the atheist community. He was very friendly, humorous, and relaxed and made a great presentation. It would be great to have him as a headliner at the next convention.
Sunday night there was an informal social at the hotel bar from 7:00 to midnight for those folks who were staying over until Monday. I got there a bit early, doing some writing and drinking Diet Coke, until folks started to arrive… and then it was a phenomenal evening of hilarity, as I mentioned at the start of this post.
Overall, this was a terrific event. The minor glitches and snippets of disorganization didn’t phase me and the speakers were informative and inspirational. What really made the event special, however, was the sense of camaraderie, friendship, and warmth that was exuded by the attendees. For folks that are frequently labeled with all kinds of derogatory terms (hateful, angry, rebellious, etc), they certainly blew away that stereotype and made the convention center into a place that felt welcoming and comfortable… even for non-atheists (of which there were a few).
I’d definitely go again.
Yesterday, while searching for some information on climate change, I happened upon a blog called The Way Things Break and was delighted. Not only did I find the information I was looking for, but I found all kinds of content related to the shenanigans of the anti-science crowd.
Here is the post, titled The Land of Make Believe, that won my heart…
Science denialism involves a lot of make believe and pretending:
- Pretend as though claims made by an individual, conclusions of a single paper, etc. are actually the underlying science, so as to hold up any disagreement or revision as though it is evidence that the core science is somehow incorrect; alternatively, pretend such ‘one offs’ are definitive rebuttals to the core science.
- Pretend as though areas explicitly acknowledged to be in need of further study are actually the underlying science, so as to hold up any disagreement or revision as though it is evidence that the core science is somehow incorrect.
- Pretend that a non-representative sample selected so as to give the appearance of disagreement with the conclusions of the core science is evidence that the core science is somehow incorrect.
- Pretend that the mere presence, absence, or relative amount of a substance is somehow a legitimate rebuttal to the real world effects (if any) it has been demonstrated to have.
- Pretend that the existence of media hype, past examples of pseudoscience, etc. are somehow a legitimate rebuttal to the science.
- Pretend non-sequiturs [Evolution can't explain how life started!] are somehow a legitimate rebuttal to the science.
- Pretend lay misunderstanding of the science is somehow a legitimate rebuttal to the science.
- Pretend that personal ignorance or disbelief of the science is somehow a legitimate rebuttal to the science.
- Pretend that a scientific consensus is somehow akin to religious faith; similarly, pretend that there is an “orthodoxy” being enforced that amounts to religious or political “persecution”, silencing of “dissent” etc. for failing to understand/accept the science. [Bonus points for claiming such in a high-profile media outlet such as a newspaper or television show]
And perhaps most importantly of all:
- Pretend to be “skeptical” rather than anti-science.
I think I’ve seen almost every one of those points used at one time or another, whether used to deny evolution, climate change, or vaccinations (among other things).