Americans respect science – they just don’t understand any of it

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans think science has had a mostly positive effect on society, and scientists are held in high regard – more so than any other professions apart from the military and teaching, and way ahead of the clergy (or journalists, for that matter).

But along with all this adulation comes a shaky grasp of science – fewer than half those surveyed knew that electrons are smaller than atoms, for example.

And there’s a widespread refusal to believe ideas that are generally accepted by the scientific community. While 84 percent of scientists agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, for example, more than half the general public thinks we’ve had no effect at all…

But if you want the prime example of the public’s fundamental disagreement with basic scientific tenets, then – you’ve guessed it – it’s the question of human and animal origins.

According to the survey, an extraordinary 68 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution through natural selection – a state of affairs that is surely unparalleled elsewhere in the western world. Less surprisingly, the figure is just 13 percent for scientists, who understand that the word “theory” in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution doesn’t actually mean “random guess”.

As you might expect, this situation creates a touch of cognitive dissonance. Over a third of the public said that science sometimes conflicted with their religious beliefs. This doesn’t put them off, mind you, as a full 63 percent of these creationists reckoned that scientists contributed “a lot” to society’s wellbeing. So perhaps there’s hope…

We could try making the creationists breed fruit flies, and actually see evolution in action. But a better way might be to make them put their money where their mouth is. Presumably, if you don’t believe in evolution, you don’t believe in newly-emergent strains of flu or other diseases, either. Just deny the latest vaccines to the creationists, and they’ll weed themselves out in the next hundred years or so. By natural selection.

I would suggest the same for the climate “skeptics”. The quote-marks are necessary. They abuse the historic meaning of the word – especially in science.

Let’s park them along the global riparian boundaries and deny them the seawalls many can afford. Especially those with funding contributed by the Oil Patch Boys. Another hundred years or so, they’ll be too busy treading water to reproduce.

Why does the world give the US special climate dispensation?

It would be laughable anywhere else. But, so everyone says, the Waxman-Markey bill…is the best we can expect – from America.

The cuts it proposes are much lower than those being pursued in the UK or in most other developed nations. Like the UK’s climate change act the US bill calls for an 80% cut by 2050, but in this case the baseline is 2005, not 1990. Between 1990 and 2005, US carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose from 5.8 to 7bn tonnes.

The cut proposed by 2020 is just 17%, which means that most of the reduction will take place towards the end of the period. What this means is much greater cumulative emissions, which is the only measure that counts. Worse still, it is riddled with so many loopholes and concessions that the bill’s measures might not offset the emissions from the paper it’s printed on. You can judge the effectiveness of a US bill by its length: the shorter it is, the more potent it will be. This one is some 1,200 pages long, which is what happens when lobbyists have been at work…

Like the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS), Waxman-Markey would oblige companies to buy only a small proportion (15%) of their carbon permits. The rest will be given away. This means that a resource belonging to everyone (the right to pollute) is captured by industrial interests without public compensation. The more pollution companies have produced, the greater their free allocation will be – the polluter gets paid. It also means, if the ETS is anything to go by, that the big polluters will be able to make windfall profits by passing on the price of the permits they haven’t bought to their consumers…

Even so, I would like to see the bill passed, as it at least provides a framework for future improvements. But why do we expect so little from the US? Why do we treat the world’s most powerful and innovative nation as if it were a failed state, rejoicing at even the faintest suggestion of common sense?

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George Monbiot: Climate change and the semantics of denial

I was hoping to stage round four of the fight for the prestigious Christopher Booker prize for climate change bullshit this week, after the reigning world champion promised to come out of retirement to defend his title. But sadly David Bellamy, despite his extravagant promises to destroy the competition, hasn’t yet weighed in, so we’ll have to hold on for another tantalising week.

I hope he doesn’t chicken out. He could be the only person who can now secure this beautiful trophy for the United Kingdom against the Michigan Mauler, John Tomlinson.

In the meantime, I want to take issue with a comment by my colleague James Randerson. In his excellent blog this week about our dear friend from the Sunday Telegraph James said the following:

I have always disliked the phrase “climate change denier”. Global warming will have extremely serious consequences for people around the world, but making the link with the 20th century’s most colossal work of industrial-scale evil – the Holocaust – plays into the hands of those who want to convince the waverers that this is purely a political argument.

James’s comment is already causing a measure of delight among – ahem – the climate change deniers. That’s hardly surprising: they have spent the past few years furiously denying that they are deniers, using the argument that James has adopted…

Whether we’re talking about people who are paid to deny that climate change is happening, or those who use the materials these flacks produce, denial is a precise and concise description of what they do. Their attempt to wriggle out of it by insisting that – by calling them what they are – we are somehow debasing the Holocaust is as contrived as all the other positions they take. We shouldn’t fall for it.

I agree with Monbiot more often than not. 99% agreement on this topic.

Since part of my life as blogger and contributing editor is as skeptic – politics, junk science, religious tomfoolery, etc. – I resent the way the Killer Klown Brigade have captured that word. Sophistry is not skepticism. And skepticism about science without scientific answers is generally hypocrisy.

Climate change scepticism for fun and profit

Don’t fret. You still have plenty of time left to secure your place at the second annual International Conference on Climate Change – which is not, of course, about climate change.

For any of you who are not yet familiar with this venerable event, this conference is the largest coming together of climate change sceptics anywhere outside of, well, the internet. Organised and sponsored by the Heartland Institute which says its mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems” and which Milton Friedman once called “a highly effective libertarian institute”, the conference will be asking whether global warming “was ever really a crisis”.

Followed by, “Do poor people really matter?” – “Is it time time to drop the experiment with democracy?” – and the ever-popular favorite, “Why consider anyone else as your equal?”

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? There’s nothing quite like putting tizzying politicians right. But best of all, the generous souls at the Heartland Institute are offering a special 20% discount on the $720 registration fee. All you have to do to qualify is put your name to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine’s Global Warming Petition, which to date has been signed by 31,072 American scientists, “including 9,021 with PhDs”. Pretty impressive, huh? The signatories all say they agree with the following statement:

“There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

Join other famous signatories like Perry Mason and even one or more of the Spice Girls. I signed up as Mickey M. Mouse.

Climate skeptics have their head in the sand

Climate skeptics who argue that global warming has stopped have their “heads in the sand”, according to the UK’s Met Office. A recent dip in global temperatures is down to natural changes in weather systems, a new analysis shows, and does not alter the long-term warming trend.

In a statement published on its website, it says: “Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. “The evidence is clear, the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise. Global warming does not mean that each year will be warmer than the last.”

The new research confirms that the world has cooled slightly since 2005, but says this is down to a weather phenomena called La Niña, when cold water rises to the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Despite this effect, the office says, 11 of the last 13 years are the warmest ever recorded

The apparent cooling trend is exaggerated by a record high temperature in 1998 caused by a separate weather event, El Niño, she said. “You could look at what happened in 1998 and say that global warming accelerated and that’s not true either.

We have the same sort of poli-sci skeptics here in the States, of course. Ready and willing to reject the sum of peer-reviewed analysis on the basis of one or another hiccup paraded about like all the bought-and-paid-for rejections of cigarette smoking as being at all causative of human illness.

As much as conservatives and reactionaries bemoan what they call political correctness, they are the originators of that particular illness and have embraced it with all the fervor of whichever True Belief their leaders proffer. Lately, no human need bear any responsibility for climate change is the scripture.

Oh, and I wouldn’t have been so polite about where they’re hiding their heads.