Archive for February, 2010

In Which I Confess to the Onset of a Sudden Man Crush on Steven Novella, MD

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Barbara Tomlinson pointed out to me that Phil Plait (of the Bad Astronomy blog) linked to me today in Two posts about denialism, climate change and otherwise. That was pretty cool, given how much I like the Bad Astronomy blog. The post reads a bit like Plait is crediting me with having come up with the O.J. Simpson/climate-change denialism metaphor, when of course it was Bill McKibbon who did that; I just quoted from and linked to him. But I’m not proud; I’ll take the traffic, and will secretly cherish the thought that Phil Plait linked to! Yay!

Even better: By linking to me he made sure I’d pay extra-close attention to the post in which he did so, thereby bringing my attention to someone I’ve inexplicably never read before: Steven Novella, MD, of the NeuroLogica Blog.

Wow. Just wow. This is serious pay dirt.

Here’s the NeuroLogica post that Plait thought my McKibbon theft was worth sharing a post with: Scientific consensus, climate change, and vaccines. After quoting Robert Kennedy Jr. on the strength of the scientific consensus on global warming, Novella continues like this:

But Robert Kennedy is not always a fan of the scientific consensus – for example he rejects the scientific consensus on vaccines, choosing to believe that the consensus is a deliberate fraud (exactly what global warming dissidents say about the climate change consensus). This makes Robert Kennedy a hypocrite – he accepts the scientific consensus and cites its authority when it suits his politics, and then blithely rejects it (spinning absurd conspiracy theories that would make Jesse Ventura blush) when it is inconvenient to his politics.

But Kennedy is not alone – this seems to be what most people do most of the time. In fact I would argue that we need to be especially suspicious of our scientific opinions on controversial topics when they conform to our personal ideology (whether political, social, or religious). That is when we need to step back and ask hard questions that challenge the views we want to hold. We also need to make sure that our process is consistent across questions – are we citing the scientific consensus on one issue and rejecting it on another? Are we citing conflicts of interest for researchers whose conclusions we don’t like, and ignoring them for researchers whose conclusions confirm our beliefs?

Did I already say wow?

Here’s another item from Novella: Letters from a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. I’m going to let you go read that yourself. And I think you know who I mean by you. :-)

Finally, Novella is the host and producer of a weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, that is currently on its 240th episode. Looks like my commute just got booked solid.

Romm on Boykoff on the Media on the “Controversy” Over Climage Change

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I liked Joe Romm’s item on Max Boykoff’s presentation at the AAAS meeting in San Diego last week (Exaggerating Denialism: Media Representations of Outlier Views on Climate Change). In particular, I liked this graph of Boykoff’s, because I think it sums up a key problem with how the media has been covering this issue:


Despite the high-profile complaining about the Himalayan-glaciers misstatement, the IPCC’s estimates of the likely impacts of global warming apparently are viewed by most experts in the field as actually being fairly conservative. (In the scientific sense, not the political sense. I.e., the IPCC is tending to be cautious in predicting how severe the impacts of global warming are likely to be.) The main story I’ve been hearing from those who keep close tabs on the actual scientists is that they’ve been freaking out over the last few years because as they get more data, they’re finding that far from overstating the dangers we face, previous estimates look more and more like they have been understating the danger.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading mainstream media coverage. Business-as-usual reporting, as successfully gamed by the fossil-fuel industry and their minions among high-profile conservatives, has focused on the controversy between the deniers on the one hand, and the already-fudged-in-the-direction-of-less-dire-outcomes IPCC estimates. The implication of that reporting is, “There are two sides, two points of view. One side says A, the other says B; the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

But that’s not how science works. If you’re a reporter covering science, you need to focus on what the scientists are saying. And that’s a very different picture (as Boykoff’s graph shows) than the one you get from assuming that the truth must lie somewhere between James Inhofe and the IPCC.

McKibben on Why Climate Change Denial Is Like the O.J. Trial

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

For Craig, Part 2: Bill McKibbon’s excellent article on the basic mechanism behind climate-change denialism: Why It’s the O.J. Moment of the 21st Century.

The campaign against climate science has been enormously clever, and enormously effective. It’s worth trying to understand how they’ve done it. The best analogy, I think, is to the O.J. Simpson trial…

The Dream Team of lawyers assembled for Simpson’s defense had a problem: it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning. So Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Robert Kardashian et al. decided to attack the process, arguing that it put Simpson’s guilt in doubt, and doubt, of course, was all they needed. Hence, those days of cross-examination about exactly how Dennis Fung had transported blood samples, or the fact that Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman had used racial slurs when talking to a screenwriter in 1986.

If anything, they were actually helped by the mountain of evidence. If a haystack gets big enough, the odds only increase that there will be a few needles hidden inside. Whatever they managed to find, they made the most of: in closing arguments, for instance, Cochran compared Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and called him “a genocidal racist, a perjurer, America’s worst nightmare, and the personification of evil.”…

Similarly, the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all. If you have a three-page report, it won’t be overwhelming and it’s unlikely to have many mistakes. Three thousand pages (the length of the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)? That pretty much guarantees you’ll get something wrong.

Indeed, the IPCC managed to include, among other glitches, a spurious date for the day when Himalayan glaciers would disappear. It won’t happen by 2035, as the report indicated — a fact that has now been spread so widely across the Internet that it’s more or less obliterated another, undeniable piece of evidence: virtually every glacier on the planet is, in fact, busily melting.

Similarly, if you managed to hack 3,000 emails from some scientist’s account, you might well find a few that showed them behaving badly, or at least talking about doing so. This is the so-called “Climate-gate” scandal from an English research center last fall. The English scientist Phil Jones has been placed on leave while his university decides if he should be punished for, among other things, not complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

This is the same phenomenon that Sputnik talked about in the Tank Riot podcast about the Zapruder film: Having lots of evidence doesn’t prevent conspiracy theories — it breeds them. The Internet is, or is well on its way to becoming, a universally available, indexed compendium of all the facts ever assembled by the human mind. Paradoxically, that doesn’t make us smarter. Or maybe it does, under certain circumstances. But it also makes us more deluded.

It all comes down to epistemology. If you only seek confirmation for your existing views, you will always succeed. More than ever, we need the methods of science — multiple working hypotheses, repeatable testing, and a disconfirmation bias — to make sense of the world. But the scientific method has always run counter to human nature — even for scientists. It’s hard to be willing to be wrong.

All that assumes that you’re motivated by a desire to learn the truth. In the case of O.J.’s lawyers during the trial, or the fossil fuel industry trying to stave off the changes mandated by global warming, they’re actually trying to obscure the truth, so the scientific method doesn’t really come into play. It’s up to us, though, the would-be consumers of the disinformation they’re peddling, to use a little caveat emptor.

Seeing Is Believing, Part 3

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Continuing the series of posts containing videos that are (not) real, here’s Leo LaPorte interviewing Craig Allen and Eric Kallman of Wieden + Kennedy about the making of the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercial, which aired during the Super Bowl.

The bottom line, for those who don’t want to watch the video: It’s real. It’s all one take (albeit, take fifty-six on day three of shooting), and with two exceptions, it’s all “practical” effects — no computers, no in-camera trickery.

The two exceptions are this: The part where the tickets in his hand turn into diamonds, then into a bottle of Old Spice, was composited in. And the mechanism they used to move him onto the horse was painted out in the final wide shot. Everything else — the bathroom, the boat, and (yes) the horse — was real. If you were on the set, it would have looked just like what you see in the commerical.

With the possible exception of the Saints’ come-from-behind win and the way the game was still on the line in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, this was my favorite part of Super Bowl Sunday. Of course, effects notwithstanding, it’s mostly actor Isaiah Mustafa’s delivery that makes it work. Christie D’Zurilla, writing in the LA Times’ Ministry of Gossip blog (It’s the guy in the Old Spice commercial: Isaiah Mustafa), says:

The Old Spice body wash audition was like any other except …

… the night before, he called a college buddy, quarterback Jake Plummer, most recently of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, to shoot the breeze. Jake wasn’t home, but Jake’s answering machine was — so Isaiah, schooled in improvisation, did an over-the-top mini performance of the script he had in hand…

“I just did it for him, and I did it extra big, and then when I hung up, I thought, ‘Maybe I should try it that way and see if they like it.’ ”

They did.

Good stuff. And real!

Here’s just the commercial, if you’d prefer your Isaiah Mustafa with no Leo LaPorte:

Update: Heh. From reddit user seraphseven:

Hello voters! Look at your rep, now back to me. Now back to your rep, now back to me! Sadly, he isn’t me. But if he stopped voting with his head up his ass, and switched to the Democratic Party, he could vote like he’s me. Look down — back up. Where are you? You’re at a rally, with the pol your rep could vote like. What’s in your hand? — back at me. I have it! It’s a bill, with appropriations for that thing you need. Look again — the appropriations are now health care. Anything is possible when your representative votes like a Democrat and not a lady. I’m on a horse.

Toles on Climate Science “Certainty”

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

For Craig (via Joe):


Drum on Bernstein and Isikoff on the Bushies on Torture

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Kevin Drum, in  Lying About Torture, Part 2:

A few days ago, Jonathan Bernstein pointed out that former Bush/Rumsfeld speechwriter Marc Thiessen was continuing to claim that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003 helped foil a terrorist plot to crash an airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper. This was obviously a lie. Why? Because the cell leaders of the LA plot were arrested a year before KSM was captured.

Apparently this kind of crude, low-rent deception isn’t limited to Thiessen. It turns out that the same sort of clumsy lying was also part of the CIA’s classified “Effectiveness Memo,” which the Bush administration relied on to bolster its legal case for torturing terrorist suspects.

Sigh. If there’s a better summary than “crude, low-rent deception” to describe the Bush administration’s whole approach to the justification of state-sponsored torture, I’d like to hear it.

The Horrors of Aerial Chemical Spraying

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Barbara Tomlinson (she of the cool satellite launch video, and the Spasms of Accommodations blog) forwarded this video to me:

It’s by YouTube user sanluisskywatch, who appears to be on a self-appointed mission to document and spread the word about the fact that the skies over San Luis Obispo are being intentionally sprayed with aluminum and barium:

Airplanes continue to dump toxic fallout over populated areas of the state- pilots are told its to help global warming, but it’s actually to weaken our immune systems, lower farm yields, and help their Ionospheric weapon (HAARP) to heat localized areas that have been sprayed to change the weather. The freakiest part is, the coup running our country into the ground decided to never tell the public, so we are all breathing barium and aluminum almost every day. Aluminum will give you early alzheimers, barium will weaken your immune system and increase likelyhood of usually easily preventable diseases.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he (she?) is also a 9/11 truther:

Stopping the sky from becoming all white, with halos around the sun. Also interested in ending the 9/11 cover-up, which is obvious, and just sad at this point. The media really look like jackasses.

Yup. The media really look like jackasses.

Seriously, though, I had two reactions to this: First, pity at what the world must look like to someone who believes this particular conspiracy theory. I mean, everywhere you look, there they are! Chemtrails! Wake up, people!

Second, my own version of the same fear. Not of chemtrails, but of the world my children will inhabit, in which scientific illiteracy is combined with pervasive networking, such that people like sanluisskywatch can organize with his (her) 137 subscribers (and counting) to spread the word.

Seeing Is Believing, Part 2

Friday, February 19th, 2010

This seems apropos, given the recent obsession hereabouts with climate-change research. On February 11, 2010, NASA launched the Solar Dynamics Observatory atop an Atlas V rocket, and Barbara Tomlinson made the following video. This is the point in the launch just before the rocket goes supersonic, when it sends out a series of concentric pressure waves that destroy the sun dog in the right side of the frame:

Here’s a longer version (complete with cheesy soundtrack!):

I liked the user comments:

TenRoc382k9 (13 hours ago)
looks kinda fake

Heh. Can’t fool us. Those San Francisco backdrops in “Monk” are obviously real, but this? Give me a break.

Tomlinson found the “fake” comments interesting, too. In fact, she graphed them:


She observes:

My favorite version of Wow! is captainpickard’s, “I’ll have an order of KICK ASS, with a side of FUCK YEAH!” For Fake! I have to compliment stegre for “I have seem (sic) many edited films and this video has definitely been tampered. Your argument is invalid.” It is both arrogant and nonsensical at the same time. Excellent work, stegre.

More discussion at Bad Astronomy: Rocket launch blows away the sky. And at One Astronomer’s Noise: SDO is GO!!!!!, which includes a link to Anna Herbst’s wider-angle video.

Update: Another cool view, this one by Romeo Durscher, including the contrail that followed:

Stargate Studios’ Chromakey Reel

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Just a small reminder: Seeing is believing. Except when it isn’t.

Romm’s Illustrated Guide

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

From Joe Romm: An illustrated guide to the latest climate science.

Annual global temperature anomaly

It has lots of neat graphs for those who want pretty pictures, and links you can follow to the actual science for those who want to chew on the details. (You’ll need to click twice, since the first link in most cases is to an earlier item where he summarized a particular study. But from there you can find links to the original papers, some of which are behind paywalls.) The thing I like most about it is how it demonstrates that there are many different reinforcing lines of evidence that the globe is warming. The evidence doesn’t consist of a handful of cherrypicked stolen emails containing intemperate language, or a few carefully selected assertions from a lengthy UN report. It is a whole body of actual science, published in reputable journals, representing research by hundreds of different teams approaching the problem from different directions, using different techniques, all arriving at a similar conclusion. That’s what an actual scientific consensus looks like, and when you ignore it, you put yourself in the same category as toddlers who believe they can wish some unpleasant fact away, that they can cover their eyes and thereby make it so no one else can see them.

We live in a free society, in which people get to speak their minds regardless of the care they have taken in arriving at their conclusions. But free speech isn’t free. As a society we pay what I’ve come to think of as a “bullshit tax” every time someone who is demonstrably wrong publicly proclaims their demonstrably wrong views. When a Fox News anchor crows, “Here’s your 24 inches of global warming, Al Gore!”, we as a society pay a price. When a commenter on a blog constructs an argument that follows some esoteric detail down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole and eventually proclaims, “See? That’s why I don’t believe the science,” we pay a price.

Tea Party activists aren’t the only outraged taxpayers. I’m outraged that we as a society are paying this bullshit tax. I don’t want to do away with free speech, but I am deeply resentful of those who use their freedom to impose this tax on the rest of us.

Possibly My Favorite Onion Video Ever

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

NASA Scientists Plan To Approach Girl By 2018 

Telegenic Blondes

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Jenny McCarthy believes that MMR vaccines’ preservatives caused her son to be autistic, and that her changing his diet cured him. She has written best-selling books in which she advances these claims, and appears in front of millions of TV viewers at every opportunity to make the case. And apparently a lot of parents believe her, such that vaccination rates have fallen in the US, and lots of babies (including those whose parents choose to vaccinate them, based on information obtained from more credible sources than former Playboy models and TV personalities) are at increased risk as a result.


It’s not that complicated. There’s this thing called science. And it has a specific process you go through to evaluate claims like this. And the scientists have done it. And Jenny McCarthy is wrong.

There was a decent op-ed by Michael Fumento in the LA Times this morning talking about this: The damage of the anti-vaccination movement. So go read that, even though it will probably make you angry. And if it doesn’t, I bet this will:


Anyway, if I’m going to subject you to telegenic blondes trying to indoctrinate you with their views about science, let’s close on a more positive note: ZOMGitsCriss on the evidence for evolution:

Traynor: The death penalty is unworkable

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Fifty years ago, the American Law Institute provided the legal framework that underlies this country’s implementation of the death penalty. Now, the Institute has withdrawn its support from that framework. Michael Traynor, former president of the Institute, had a nice op-ed piece in the LA Times today explaining why the Institute took that action: The death penalty — it’s unworkable.

In the decade after the institute published its law, which was part of a comprehensive model penal code, the statute became the prototype for death penalty laws across the United States. Some parts of the model — such as the categorical exclusion of the death penalty for crimes other than murder and for people of limited mental abilities — withstood the test of time. But the core of the statute, which created a list of factors to guide judges and jurors deciding when to sentence someone to death, has proved unworkable and fostered confusion and injustice.

Now, after searching analysis by our country’s top legal minds, the institute has concluded that the system it created does not work and cannot be fixed. It concluded that we cannot devise a death penalty system that will ensure fairness in process or outcome, or even that innocent people will not be executed.

The use of future tense (“or even that innocent people will not be executed”) is a delicate way around the obvious truth: Innocent people have been executed. Statistically, it’s a near-certainty.

I am speaking for myself, not as a representative of the institute, but I can say with certainty that the institute did not reach these conclusions lightly. It commissioned a special committee and a scholarly study, heard various viewpoints and debated the issues extensively. A strong consensus emerged that capital punishment in this country is riddled with pervasive problems.


These problems are entrenched in the death penalty system, both in California and nationwide. The cumulative result: Executions remain as random as lightning strikes, or more so, and that is the very problem the institute’s model statute intended to fix. In addition, across the country, at least 139 individuals have been released from death row after establishing their innocence.

If a similar degree of effort had been devoted to establishing the innocence of those already executed, I have no doubt we’d have dozens of examples of that, too.

Lessig: Obama Has Betrayed His Movement

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Lawrence Lessig is a very smart cookie. And he is not happy: How to get our democracy back.

Maybe this was his plan all along. It was not what he said. And by ignoring what he promised, and by doing what he attacked (“too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in”), Obama will leave the presidency, whether in 2013 or 2017, with Washington essentially intact and the movement he inspired betrayed.

Daily Kos Poll of Self-Identified Republicans

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Clearly, I haven’t been doing enough to stir the pot of partisan name-calling lately. So here you go: The 2010 Comprehensive Daily Kos/Research 2000 Poll of Self-Identified Republicans.

Knock yourselves (or more likely, each other) out.