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Transgender bathrooms, creationism, climate change denial, and the Ten Commandments

Toilet signs

Toilet signs, Ebay

Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?

Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.

(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)

It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.

It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.

So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?

Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?

And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?

Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.

Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.

And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.


Crabs washed up on a beach in Oregon after suffocating in low-oxygen waters. Credit: Elizabeth Gates, courtesy of PISCO, via NSF (click to magnify)

And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?

We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?

Mahaffey anecdote from Sorenson h/t Abbas Raza. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Do we need more studies on vaccines, GMOs, climate change, etc.?

An undefeatable strategy for delaying or doubting. As the Civil Servant Sir Humphrey advised Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister, when he wanted to avoid taking action about smoking, “Say the scientists disagree. Say there is a need for more research. Scientists always disagree with each other about something or other, and there is always a need for more research.”

The Logic of Science

anti-vaccers want more studies but refuse to accept studies memeI frequently encounter people who state that, “I’m not anti-vaccine/GMO, I just think that we need more studies” or “we need more research before we take major action on climate change.” I have, however, noticed that whenever someone declares, “I’m not X” they usually end the statement with some pathetic justification for why they are in fact X, and that is definitely the case in this situation. The cry for more studies on vaccines, GMOs, etc. is nearly always hypocritical and stems from a willful ignorance about just how many studies there actually are. The reality is that topics like vaccines have been so well studied that they have achieved the status of settled science. So, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough studies; rather, the problem is that people refuse to read or accept the hundreds of studies that we already have. To be fair, I have occasionally encountered…

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Global warming: Could we hide rising seas in sunken deserts?

Would the depressions that exist below sea level in 49 countries, many in desert regions, provide a way to accommodate rising sea levels? No.

Human folly is the root source of our greatest problems (actually, that’s as true and useless as saying that oxygen is the root source of forest fires). Creationism, on which I’ve written so much, is one manifestation; global warming denial another, and much more serious in its probable effects. [Reblogged from Mountain Mystery: Hiding Rising Seas in Sunken Deserts]

Edit: This just in; a frightening comparison of the size of anthropogenic and natural background effects;

“Today, the Earth is warming about 20 times faster than it cooled during the past 1,800 years,” said Michael Evans, second author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC). “This study truly highlights the profound effects we are having on our climate today.”

(Terra Daily reporting on Robust global ocean cooling trend for the pre-industrial Common Era, Nature Geoscience)

The Mountain Mystery

Dead Sea shoreline, 428 metres below sea level.Dead Sea shoreline, 429 metres below sea level.

This weekend, a friend asked me if the rise in the oceans could be drained off into the world’s below-sea-level depressions. Could rising ocean waters be diverted to fill the Dead Sea and Death Valley Depressions, for example? It seems a creative solution. Instead of flooding the Maldives, Piazza San Marco, and south Florida, the expected ocean level rise could fill some of the Earth’s less inhabited wastelands instead.

At this moment, I don’t want to debate the idea of climate change and its impact on sea level. I think the evidence is substantial that Arctic ice and mountain glaciers are disappearing and the melt water is reaching the sea. But this may ultimately be a thousand-year-long melting blip before the return of another ice age. I don’t know. What I’d rather do today is simply try to put some numbers on…

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21st Century Capitalism Subverting Democracy, Says Top Investment Manager

Financial system failing; real problems of climate, environment, resource limitation, and looming food shortages ignored; long-term consequences never considered; rising inequality; a rewards system that stops the market from behaving rationally; democracy ineffective against the influence of the financial elite.

Jeremy Grantham

Photograph by Erik Madigan Heck via WSJ

Who says? Left-wing intellectuals like Naomi Klein, contrarian Nobel Prize economists like Krugman and Stiglitz, political dissidents like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, or Scottish National Party, Green, and a cetain Labour would-be leader in the UK? No; one Jeremy Grantham, financial strategist whose firm manages more than US $118 billion in assets, in his keynote address to the 2015 Morningside Investment Conference in Chicago. I don’t normally write about financial matters, but here we have the chief strategist of one of the world’s largest asset management firms delivering one of the sharpest critiques of what now passes for capitalism that I have ever seen, and his remarks* deserve far wider circulation.

Grantham lists the following 10 major problems [my comments in brackets]:

Resource constrains, low capital expenditure, inequality itself, climate pressures, and the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone. Facebook is not the steam engine.

Human folly, avoiding unpleasant information, leading to bubble after bubble as we repeat past mistakes, and deny or ignore the really important matters, like climate change.

Resource limitations. Conventional economics pays no attention to this, and assumes endless growth, as if the free market were a perpetual motion machine that would never run out of anything.

In particular, oil. Our economy was built on cheap oil, which is running out now. [Shale gas has reversed this, but only for the moment.]

Climate problems. Tree ring data show that California is the driest it’s been in 1,200 years. The cotton crop in Texas failed for 6 years in a row because of drought, and then came devastating floods.

Food problems. Probably, the biggest problems that we face, with water running out, soil erosion, population growth, and climate change. This may well lead to chaos in the world’s poorest countries. [Food problems were predicted in the 1940s, and failed to materialise, but that was because of the Green Revolution and Haber process fertiliser. There are no comparable innovations in sight.]

Income inequality. The economy can’t grow when wages are failing to rise.

Slow rise in output, for many reasons. What technology can most readily provide, we already have [as in my example regarding food]. As Grantham puts it, “Resource constrains, low capital expenditure, inequality itself, climate pressures, and the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone. Facebook is not the steam engine.”

Systematic failings of modern capitalism, which focuses exclusively on profit, neglects common resources such as air, water, and soil, and discounts the future of our grandchildren. As a Princeton University study shows, the [US] financial elite has massive influence on legislation, while public opinion has little or none; “This is not really effective democracy in action.”

Bad management by the central banks, and a corporate culture where 80% of the rewards of top management are in stock options, making financial manipulation (specifically, share buyback using cheap borrowed money) more rewarding than real investment in new productive capacity.

This is not really effective democracy in action.

Finally, market bubbles. These are built into the structure of the financial industry. Investment managers protect their jobs by following the herd. So everyone does the same thing, pushing markets away from correct valuations, and making the rational distribution of resources, which is after all the whole point of free market capitalism, impossible.

The rest of Grantham’s presentation was highly technical, directed at his fellow investment managers; that part of his talk is summarised here, as reported by an investors’ website, which did not, however, bother to relay his remarks on the wider issues discussed above.

*Behind a pay and membership wall, but this summary is my own personal review and may be freely copied with acknowledgement.

Earth’s Climate Evolution – a Geological Perspective on Climate Change

Summerhayes-cover-designYes, climate can change naturally. No, that is not why it’s changing now.

Earth’s Climate Evolution – a Geological Perspective on Climate Change

From Geological Society of London blog via my friend Michael Roberts

A fracking lie. No more no less

By my geologist friend Michael Roberts.

I don’t like it when creationists tell lies and I don’t like it when anti-frackers tell lies, either.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the Royal Society probably know what they’re talking about when recommending that the UK proceed, but with tighter regulation than that currently at force in the US; that if more methane means less coal that’s a good thing (coal has twice the carbon footprint per unit of energy, as well as a whole shopping list of other disadvantages); that knee-jerk rejection of fracking is the very opposite of evidence-based decision making; and that quantified evidence-based decision making is crucial if we are to keep the lights on while keeping the climate change already in process within tolerable bounds. June 2012 Jan 2015 and references therein

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

Here’s the latest picture doing the rounds to show earthquake damage done by fracking


Or more clearly ;


Now this looks very scary  and will make people concerned that will cause quakes in their area. However twitter sleuth aka sadbutmadlad took on the roll of Sherlock Holmes and soon found that this terrible shot had nothing to do with fracking and was in fact caused by a 7.5 quake near Yellowstone in 1959 which is somewhat before modern fracking started

You can read it all about it here ;

Oh deary me, pants on fire

Featured Image -- 1005

It does seem to me that fractivists wear very Hot Pants and possibly the fire is fuelled by CH4.

If this was a one-off it would be forgiveable, but porkies like this are the staple fare of so much anti-fracking literature put out whether in print or in the aether.

It seems that this…

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Global warming: Yes it’s real and yes it’s CO2-driven; a former sceptic speaks his mind

Scientists are supposed to change their minds when the balance of evidence changes. In my experience, this doesn’t always happen, but one very respected scientist who has changed his mind, not once but twice, and very publicly, is Prof Richard Muller of the Berkeley Earth Land Temperature Project, UC Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Three years ago, he was among the few remaining respected scientists to reject the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) analysis of current climate, and unconvinced that significant climate change was happening at all, let alone that it might be driven by human activity. Not surprising, then, that a consortium of those with an interest in denial funded his BEST (Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature) project, to carry out a completely independent, assumption-free, analysis of the data. They got more than they bargained for.

First, BEST concluded, in findings published last year, that warming is indeed taking place as asserted by the overwhelming majority of the climate science community. Now, even more significantly, BEST has taken the position, in a paper submitted to The Third Santa Fe Conference on Global and Regional Climate Change, that CO2 is the most significant driver, that the IPCC estimate of the effect of CO2 (3oC warming for each doubling of CO2 concentration) is accurate, and that the amount of warming from the 1950s to the 2000s (0.87 +/- 0.05 oC) is if anything slightly more than the IPCC estimate.

Moreover, the BEST publications analyse and dismantle all the standard objections to this work. Yes, there are effects due to volcanoes. I don’t think anyone denies this. The 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption led to summers bad enough to force up the price of potatoes, but earlier events, such as the eruptions of Laki in 1783, Tambora in 1815, and Cosiguina in 1835, were much more significant. We know this from accounts at the time, and can quantitatively estimate the intensity of the eruptions by the amount of sulphate in ice cores. The late 18th and early 19th century data are good enough to provide a scaling factor (0.15 oC cooling per gigatonne emitted sulphate), showing that, by contrast, the overall effect of volcanoes in the 20th century has been insignificant. No, there is no significant effect attributable to the Sun. No, there are no artefacts due to the number and location of climate stations, although this has not stopped WattsUp, a Koch-funded enterprise, from raising this yet again in response to Muller. There is some variability connected with oscillations in the Atlantic, which may be responsible for the 0.17 oC variation from the simplest model. This model, which attributes all change to a linear volcanic effect, and a logarithmic CO2 effect, is remarkably successful. In the light of Muller’s work there is no excuse for invoking alleged scientific uncertainty to delay urgent consideration of the effects of further increasing CO2 concentrations, and the appropriate policy responses.

There are some particular words of caution. We don’t understand why the difference between day and night time temperatures decreased from 1900 to 1987, but then started rising again. We can’t be certain that present temperatures exceed those of the Mediaeval Warm Period, so beloved of climate “sceptics”, although it seems clear that if things continue as they are, the issue will be beyond all doubt. Warming has not led to more hurricanes, and the heat wave afflicting the United States this summer is local rather than global.

Muller’s approach includes the effects to date of one important feedback, the positive feedback due to the fact that ocean warming leads to increased concentrations of water vapour, the most significant of all greenhouse gases. However, of necessity, it neglects effects that have not yet kicked in, most of which can only add to our concerns. A tiny minority of climate scientists still maintain that increased cloud cover will moderate the effects of warming, but the evidence (see Science 2009, 325, 376, for a discussion) now shows that the opposite is true. Melting of sea and land ice will speed up warming, by reducing the Earth’s albedo, the fraction of incident sunlight that is reflected straight back into space, since exposed ground, crops, and open ocean absorb more energy and snow and ice. There is the prospect of release of methane from thawing tundra, and increased release of carbon dioxide from soils, as bacterial activity increases with warming. The only negative feedback in prospect is the greater reflectivity of deserts, as compared with cultivated land, but that is the last thing we should be looking forward to.

Thus Muller’s approach offers us the lowest credible estimate of what is in store for us. Despite which, opposition parties in Australia and the US, including one US presidential candidate, and a vocal faction within the United Kingdom’s governing Conservative Party, continue, and may be expected to indefinitely continue, in their denial that any real problem has been shown to exist.

I find this frightening.

This post is also available at

Denialgate; oil barons caught funding classroom anti-science

Denialgate is the name being given to the leaking of a parcel of documents from the Heartland Institute. This is a thinktank lying far to the right, even by American standards, and funded largely by an extremely wealthy “anonymous donor”, and by the Koch Brothers, oil barons, Tea Party funders, and each of them billionaires 25 times over. As I wrote in 21st Floor,  “ Koch Brothers, US oil billionaires who have spent millions promoting climate change denial (you didn’t think all those well produced “sceptical” or “real science” sites with nice sciency names just happened, did you?)” That may have been the first time that many people have heard of the Koch Brothers, but I fear that it won’t be the last, especially as US Supreme Court recently ruled that privately funded groups can spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns, and they are reported to be spending $60 million to defeat Obama (sound business; much cheaper than losing their tax breaks).

The Heartland Institute has many interests. One of their programs is called “health choice”, and their donors include Altria (that’s Philip Morris, the tobacco people). They fund Fred Singer, famous at one time for advising the tobacco companies on how to cast doubt of the link between cigarette smoke and health problems, but now apparently concentrating on climate questions. Regarding climate, the Institute has a long record of cherry picking and distortion, to create the illusion that the science of anthropogenic climate change is seriously in doubt. The strategy is to urge delay on grounds of uncertainty; to keep on claiming that the science is complicated (true) and controversial (true at one time, but no longer), and hence to infer that it is unwise to sacrifice immediate economic benefits to meet hypothetical future threats (non sequitur; as Margaret Thatcher pointed out 20 years ago, prudence implies the exact opposite). The tactics are to claim that anthropogenic global warming is a giant hoax by self-seeking scientists, and as evidence to present outlying points from the large but noisy available data set as typical. The sort of thing I discussed, in connection with how the Daily Mail (and in the US, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal) have misrepresented the recent climate record. Denialgate now completes the military metaphor by showing us the Heartland Institute’s logistics.

There are six documents. One, a strategy outline, is quite different in style and tone from the others, and is the only one to have been explicitly denounced as a hoax by the Institute, while according to one of the Institute’s pet “experts”, Anthony Watts of the very professional Wattsup denialist website, PDF metadata confirmed its separate origin. Watts himself is a former TV weatherman, not a climate scientist. But then, climate scientists who deny the reality of anthropogenic global warming are about as common as life scientists who deny the reality of evolution.

The unintended consequence of these denials was to strengthen confidence in the authenticity of the remaining documents, including, crucially, the fundraising plan and budget. Finally, the distinguished environmental scientist Peter Gleick (MacArthur Foundation Fellow, member of the National Academy of Sciences) admitted that he had received the strategy document through the post from an anonymous source, and was then able to obtain the others directly from the Heartland Institute by a simple subterfuge. Heartland is frothing at the mouth over this piece of dishonesty; naturally, I have to join in this condemnation (ROFLMAO).

So what have we learnt? This, among other things:

The Heartland Institute is funded by Altria (better known as Philip Morris, the tobacco people) and by the Koch Brothers, whom we have already met, but most of its money comes from an anonymous donor.

The Institute plans to spend $249,000 on what it calls “Government Relations”.

The Institute is paying $5000 a month plus $1000 expenses to Fred Singer, a physicist who in the past advised the tobacco companies on how to cast doubt on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, but is now better known for advising fuel companies on how to cast doubt on the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming. (When questioned about this, Singer admitted to getting money from Heartland, evaded questions on the amount, and claimed to spend it all on student assistance.)

The Institute is also paying $88,000 to Anthony Watts, whom we have already met, for a new Internet venture. His present venture, Wattsup, will no doubt continue. Its main achievement was to perpetuate the myth that global warming was the result of an urban heat island effect, a case that he continues to argue even though, as I reported last week, an in-depth study funded by the Koch Brothers themselves found that this is simply not true.

Most ominously, the Institute is paying $100,000 to one David Wojick to prepare a series of 20 modules for classroom use on the subject of climate change. When challenged by a reporter, Dr Wojick emailed, with no sense of irony, “This means teaching both sides of the science, more science, not less.” (Where have we heard that before?) Dr Wojick really is an expert, but not on education, nor on climate science, but on data manipulation, and we can guess in what ways he will manipulate the data.

Meantime, climate change is increasingly finding its way into the “teach the controversy”, “sound science”, and “academic freedom” measures being introduced into US state legislatures, in parallel with Intelligent Design/Creationism. And while the creationist lobby relies on the generosity of the faithful, the climate change denialists are backed by some of the world’s deepest corporate purses.

[A version of this post has appeared on the 21st Floor site,  and forms part of the content of my article on recent developments in climate change studies in the first 2012 number of The Beacon, the house journal of  the New Mexico Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education]

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