Climategate is a tempest in a teapot, but it may lead to worst tempests

Posted on December 6th, 2009 — permalink

The Tennessean has been publishing numerous letters to the editor and editorial columns talking about how “climategate” supposedly shows that anthropogenic global warming is a fraud. It’s extremely frustrating. That conclusion can only be drawn from a deep misunderstanding about how science works and the language of scientists used in the e-mails, but sadly it seems that newspapers are interested more in presenting “both sides” than getting to the truth of it. Today, there is an egregious column from David Lipscomb professor Richard Grant repeats the same tired arguments global warming denialists have already been using, and completely misunderstands the impacts of the supposed revelations from the leaked University of East Anglia emails.

It’s very frustrating myself to watch this happen. The people who are trumpeting about this are ignorant about science. When I read the excerpts from the emails that are supposedly the smoking gun about climate change being a fraud, I do not see anything extremely alarming. What’s more, even if I did, the evidence for climate change has not come completely from the University of East Anglia; it has come from all over the place. If it hadn’t, scientists would not be accepting it as strongly as they do! And, yet, the newspaper coverage of this is covering the scandal, the controversy… it does not seek to illuminate the truth of the situation, to explain what is really going on. And, this of course lends fuel to the politicians who are exploiting global warming denialism for their own ends. (To be fair, there are also politicians who exploit the fact of human-caused global warming for their own ends! That doesn’t make the conclusions wrong, however.) It is sad to me to see so many in our population being manipulated in a way that will allow us as a society to act in ways that may very likely cause us tremendous pain in future decades.

Here is the text of a letter to the editor I wrote to the Tennessean in response. I don’t know if it will get published; I hope it does, of course, because many more people read the Tennessean letters to the editor than this blog.

The numerous letters and columns that have been written suggesting that “climategate” undermines conclusions about anthropogenic global warming are all getting it very wrong. There are two important points.

First, no matter what the researchers said when venting frustrations in private e-mail, their final actions in what data was published showed no misconduct. Nothing was suppressed, nothing was fudged. The impact of the supposedly revealing emails is vastly overstated by those who deny man-made global warming.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if we throw out all of the climate data and conclusions from the researchers in question, the conclusions still stand. This is an important point about how science works. Cold Fusion generated a lot of headlines in the 1980’s when first reported, but ultimately didn’t stand because no independent scientists could reproduce the results. With climate change, there are multiple independent teams who have data that all point to the same conclusions. Even if something were to cast doubt on conclusions of the University of East Anglia, that does not in any way affect the independent data of the USA’s NOAA, for example.

The climate change data is still robust. The leaked emails only show informal communication using the jargon scientists use, and normal human frustration with how obstinate so many seem to be against accepting the fact of man-made global warming. Given how science works, these emails do not in any way undermine those conclusions. It is only at our peril that we use these leaked emails to further political ends.


The problem with lawyer-driven society in a nutshell

Posted on November 30th, 2009 — permalink

This post on Boing-Boing includes the following quote that summarizes the pathological extreme of lawyer-driven society, a pathological extreme that we see too often in our current society:

The reason given was that the potential liabilities involved haven’t been settled by a definitive SCOTUS ruling. Which is absolutely true, of course. Just as it is true that the risk of exploring the pyramids hasn’t been conclusively settled until we’ve proven that we won’t be attacked there by golden unicorns.

In my (admittedly limited) observations, corporate lawyers (which, I believe, represent the vast majority of legal work out there— far more than Perry Mason style courtroom lawyering) exist to do two things.

The first thing they do is try to write contracts and other similar things that grab absolutely as much control for their employer as possible. When dealing with other corporations, they have to battle other lawyers, but when dealing with individuals who can’t afford their own phalanx of lawyers, they usually write egregious things like “Terms of Service” on software and severance agreements that include terms nobody who believes in the principles of the United States should agree to, but that we all agree to as a matter of course all the time just because it’s become standard operating procedure.

The second, less sinister but just as harmful, thing that they do is sit around and play paranoid. They think of where their company might get into legal trouble, where there might be liabilities, and then they advise their company on policies that will hopefully avert any such potential liabilities. Here, they’re doing their job; they’re telling companies what could go wrong. The problem is, just as with our reaction to fears of terrorism, in our society we tend to hear about these things going wrong, and squeeze off all sorts of expression and creativity out of paranoia. Or, if sometimes those things do really go wrong, seemingly undermining my calling them “paranoia”, they don’t really evaluate the cost of the downsides of policies that stop that thing from going wrong again.

Yeah, lots of the things lots of us do, and lots of the things it would be really neat for companies to do, could potentially expose them to all sorts of liabilities. And, yeah, it’s useful to have lawyers around to tell them what the laws really are (since, alas, we live in a society where it takes years of training to understand the laws) and where things might go wrong. But then, sometimes, you have to be willing to take risks. Sometimes, you have to say, yeah, there’s no case law that says we’ll be safe if we do that, but let’s try it anyway because the potential benefits could be great.

Too often, though, we don’t do that.

Kind of odd for me as a not-risk-taker to be saying this, but I’ve seen this happen enough times that it just makes me sad that we’ve taken what should be a service— the advice of lawyers about the state of the law— and have turned it into a gigantic ballast that prevents us from flying.


“Other Peoples’ Liberals”

Posted on October 2nd, 2009 — permalink

As I listen to the Hollywood Elite fall all over themselves defending Roman Polanski, saying how awful it is that he’s been apprehended for the 30-year-old crime of rape of a 13 year old (perhaps not involving physical force, but certainly involving drugs and coercion), I’m reminded of a term I use, “Other Peoples’ Liberals”. This is related to the term “Limousine Liberal” (or even, at times, “Marin County Liberal” if you happen to live in the right place, although that’s too broad a brush).

These are the folks who drive SUVs because they have a “legitimate” reason, but decry the fact that so many people drive cars with low gas mileage and destroy the environment. This is Dianne Feinstein, a staunch gun control advocate but who had a concealed carry permit; when confronted, she said she needed it for her protection. This is parents of a friend of mine who was one of the most out gay people I knew. He said that they were all for gay rights in the abstract, but were not happy to find out their son was gay. This was the father of a women I knew in high school, who was all for racial equality, but who expressed some objections when she was dating a black man.

These are people who are all for tolerance and environmentalism, as long as it doesn’t require them to disturb their own back yard.

In a word, hypocrites.

To be sure, it’s not at all an exclusively liberal thing. It seems that a few months can’t go by without our finding out about the extreme illicit sexual adventures of an extreme outspoken conservative “family values” politician. Rush Limbaugh was all no-tolerance on drugs, until all of a sudden he’s up on drug charges. Excessively wealthy executives are for the unregulated free market and treat “socialism” as the dirtiest word ever, until all of a sudden their bank is failing and they need government bailouts to survive.

High standards of behavior that everybody else must be held to, but which are clearly too strict when applied to you.

Hypocrisy is universal. As is the ability for people to be able to overcome cognitive dissonance and justify their own bad behavior, and to come to the defense of the people they have chosen to celebrate, even when they themselves or those they celebrate have violated things they would otherwise speak out against vociferously.

We just need to recognize it for what it is, even when the subject is somebody who’s produced challenging art and that has been celebrated for that art.


The other horrors of 9/11

Posted on September 11th, 2009 — permalink

Many people will consider this post to be in extremely poor taste.

But there are things that I think that we really need to keep in mind as we’re remembering the lessons that we learned, the tragedies and the horrors of 9/11. (And, this won’t be the first time I made a post that many considered in poor taste….)

To frame the whole thing, let’s start with what I call George W. Bush’s most egregious untruth— not a lie, for I don’t doubt that he meant it when he addressed the nation on the evening of 9/11, but what in retrospect turned out not to be true:

None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.

What was the legaciy of this moving forward to defend freedom, justice, and goodness?

  • The passage of the PATRIOT Act, rushed through in less than two months, voted on so fast in a political climate where legislators would be viewed in a light similar to how this blog post will be viewed if they voted against it. It was a massive piece of legislation that incorporated all sorts of expansion of powers for law enforcement and limitations in the checks and balances. Many of the things in there would have been the subject of vigorous debate and public scrutiny if they had been proposed individually. Yet, in the climate of “We MUST do something” after 9/11, it was rammed through, and public opinion would have had it no other way.

    And, yet, despite how controversial the authoritanrian tenets of this act should have been in the “land of the free”, one senator and only 15% of the House of Representatives voted against it. Many (all?) of those who voted for it hadn’t read the act, and I wouldn’t be surprised of most of them didn’t really know what was in the act they were voting for.

    This kind of “must do something” response is the legacy of 9/11 that I hope we learn the most from. We open ourselves to manipulation from people who would love to pass all kinds of authoritarian laws when we respond in haste and in fear to a horrific event such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

  • The Iraq war. Bush & co. were going to go into Iraq anyway. 9/11 made it easy for them. They could frame the whole war in terms of terrorism and defending America. A large proportion of American citizens were led into believing that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even though there is absolutely no evidence for that. (The USA Today article I link to cites 70%; other numbers I’ve seen are closer to 1/3 or 40%. In any event, a significant fraction of Americans believed the lie.). 3,000 people died on 9/11. In Iraq, 4,200 Americans and something like 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war. (And we won’t even talk about the cost of this war, rushed into, in compraison to, say, any potential cost of a much-reviled universal health care plan.)

    Was Saddam Hussein evil, and did his regime need to go away? Yes. Did the US make a complete mess out of the war, as a result of disastrous misplanning and lack of understanding about rebuilding after Saddam was ousted? Absolutely. I will say that over the last year or so, I’ve actually been almost optimistic that Iraq may be able to get back on its feet; I had not been for years before that. And, heck, the war in Afghanistan is looking scary now… I can’t help but wonder if much of that results from our redirection of focus from that war (which had broad international support) to Iraq long before the Afghanistan war was anywhere near complete.

  • Many US citizens and many US politicians have started to speak out in favor of torture. Why? Fear. Because 9/11 has convinced us that we have to do whatever it takes to fight back against those who would do those sorts of things. Never mind that torture doesn’t work and generates bad intelligence. Never mind that it sullies the image of America internationally, gives those who hate America a great reason to hate America, and will only make things harder on Americans who get captured by terrorists. Never mind that it makes us evil that we do it. We want us our revenge. We suffered from the horrors of 9/11, so we want to make sure somebody else suffers in kind. We have seen it be effective week after week in the TV show 24, so we think we’re being courageous and doing the hard thing to support it. It makes me sick. I have some hope that perhaps we’re going to hold those at the top accountible for the decisions they’ve made, but for the most part, we’re probably going to throw some lower-level scape goats to the dogs as a way of pretending “accountability” while we still debate whether or not we should continue this barbarous and ineffective tactic.

  • The end of due process. OK, that’s overstating it; due process still exists. And, as the link at the bottom of this paragraph shows, finally, years later, we’re reevaluating what we did and realizing that it was wrong. But there remain lots of ways for the government to work around it when they want to. Hoards of people picked up for the slightest suspicion have wasted away years of their lives in Guantanamo Bay as they are held without trial, without hearing. Yeah, they may not be American citizens, and thus not subject to protection from our authorities by our Constitution, but what of our ideals? What happened to defending freedom and justice? And, indeed, being an American citizen doesn’t stop you from being held without due process if the right part of the executive branch declares that you’re a material witness, without any proof whatsoever.

There are other things. The general paranoia we have about photography of public places, and how cops and security guards come down with unreasonable suspicion against those who are just taking pictures. The UK’s institution of universal surveillance and a lack of law enforcement oversight. The fact that anybody is still paying any attention to Dick Cheney as he tells us we should be torturing away as his administration always did. Folks’ laptops being seized, searched, and (effectively) confiscated at national borders without reasonable suspicion, in blatant violation of the spirit of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. The complete squandering of the sympathy and goodwill that the US had in the international community after 9/11 as a result of our aggressive and self-righteous posturing.

I believe it’s just a matter of time before some nutcase— be it a terrorist of the 9/11 variety, or a homegrown white guy of the Oklahoma City bombing variety— is able to get his hand on a “weapon of mass destruction” and blow it off in some highly populated area. And, I’m talking something nuclear here (be it a “dirty bomb” or a small nuke or some such), not just an airplane full of jet fuel— because the N-word makes everything so much scarier. And, I have to admit, I despair in the authoritarian rules that will be passed by widespread popular demand, quickly, in response to that.

We should never forget the horrors of 9/11. But we should also never forget the terrible mistakes we made in response to 9/11.


Worst-named college ever

Posted on May 24th, 2009 — permalink

“Liberty” University seems not to value freedom of speech or freedom of assembly.  Lots of news articles on this, but here’s an example.

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I’m with Arlen Specter

Posted on April 28th, 2009 — permalink

Or rather, he’s with me, since I ditched the Republican Party something like 6-7 years ago.  He’s been a Republican in the Senate forever… and now he’s a Democrat.  What’s more, the article has this choice quote from Olympia Snow:

But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a fellow moderate, didn’t seem surprised. On the national level, she says, “you haven’t certainly heard warm encouraging words of how [the GOP] views moderates. Either you are with us or against us.”

As I observed back when Bush took off his “compassionate conservative moderate” mask shortly after the 2000 election, the Republican Party has increasingly become the party of homophobia and creationism.  (And, yes, also of rationalizing incompetence and of torture.  We knew in 2004 that Bush was the Torture President, and yet somehow we re-eledcted him.)  There are a lot of Republicans– you know, people like Olympia Snow and Arlen Specter– who have evidently been rationalizing that their party hasn’t been taken over by certain extreme cultural elements.  I know people who remained Republicans even though they are fully rational, because they aren’t comfortable with a lot of what the Democrats are doing– but they had to justify, somehow, that their party was more than the face that it has been presenting to the country and the world for the last decade.  That facade may be falling apart.  Anecdotally I know of Republicans who’ve fled the party because it has gone from being the fiscally conservative party to being the socially oppressive and scientifically ignorant party.  And now we see at least one, and perhaps more to follow, senators who don’t want to toe their party’s line leaving the party.

It’s very sad to me, because by and large people who aren’t creationists or who don’t hate homosexuals are left with effectively a one-party system.  I don’t by any means agree with everything that the Democratic party does.  But the Republican party has too strongly celebrated and mainstreamed parts of it that I simply can’t agree with.  It will be interesting to see if Arlen Specter’s switch is a wake-up call– or if Snow will be next, and the Republican party will become increasingly marginalized as a result of having let itself be taken over by its religious extremists.  But we do need more than one rational party in this country; if the Republicans aren’t it, I would hope that, somehow, all rational people won’t end up at the mercy of the power structure of the Democratic party.


Why I am heartened by the failure of the bailout bill

Posted on September 30th, 2008 — permalink

Congress defeated the $700×10^9 bailout bill championed by George Bush. The media are portraying this as a disaster, quoting financial advisors saying that this is a “financial 9/11″ and that boy oh boy are we screwed.

On the other hand, I have to admit on some levels I’m happy to see this. Why?

First of all, this isn’t the financial 9/11. The financial 9/11 was when all the major banks said, “Guys? We’re dead. Please bail us out so our execs can enjoy their golden parachutes without the guilt of a destroyed economy all around us.” What did Congress do after 9/11? Well, too quickly they passed the PATRIOT bill, overwhelmingly voting “yes” because the American people were demanding that we Do Something… even though many (most?) of those voting “yes” on it hadn’t had a chance to know what was in it, never mind think about the implications of it. And the PATRIOT bill was a huge step in dismantling a lot of the basic protections we have against living in a surveillance state.

When there is a crisis, there’s always a push to pass legislation, to Do Something, right away. Sometimes we’re lucky and what is done makes sense. More often, it’s thrashing about in a “ZOMG” reaction. Sometimes, if they are prepared, those with an agenda can push across legislation that would never have been pushed across when calmer heads were able to prevail. This is what happened with the PATRIOT act. According to reports, there’s an oppressive cyberregulation bill waiting in the wings for the “Internet 9/11″ to provide the public sentiment that will allow that to push across.

Probably we need to do something fast to prevent our economy from very quickly imploding. But I’m very nervous about the fast response. I’d like to see us do something right. I’d like to see us recognize that just a bailout without a philosophical shift in the attitudes that led us to this mess would be a huge mistake. I’d like to see us recognize that we’ve done an experiment with deregulation of huge, gigantic companies, and for those who were in favor of such things (which included, at least at times, me) to recognize that, yeah, those ideas have now been shown to be wrong, and sticking to them in spite of the evidence is not rational.

We need more than a band-aid. Yeah, quick action may be needed to keep ourselves out of a horrible depression for the next few years. But we need to think about the next several years, the next few decades, or, heaven forbid, even the next century or two. What we really don’t need is a knee-jerk reaction.. and I fear that that is exactly what the $700B bailout is.

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Obama should not suffer for being maximally ethical

Posted on March 23rd, 2008 — permalink

I read a particularly annoying letter to the editor in The Tennessean this morning that assets that Obama’s candidacy is “over” because he refused to abandon the preacher, a longtime friend, who made some racist (anti-white) statements.  What’s more, this letter writer, Edgar Davie, seems to think that this is as it should be.

I certainly hope that Davie is wrong in his prediction; I know that he is wrong in his moralizing.

In our soundbyte-and-scandal driven media-saturated election season, the most extreme response to any negative feedback seems to be what people always demand. If somebody in the Clinton campaign makes a statement about race that others find offensive, rather than thinking about it and engaging it, that person is expected to resign.  If an ally of a candidate makes statements that we would find alarming if made by the candidate himself, the candidate is expected to fully repudiate and reject that ally in all ways.

And, yet, what does Obama do?  He shows that we can be thoughtful, that we need not have the most extreme reaction to the slightest offense.  He shows that in fact reality, including human relationships and difficult issues, are complicated.  They need to be met head on with care and consideration, not with immediate and extreme reactions designed for media spin control.  This is exactly what we should want in a presidential candidate.  Obama’s famous race speech should in fact be getting him all the positive responses we’ve seen because it’s the perfect response, it’s what we need to have been doing all along.  I just hope that Davie is wrong in asserting that the thoughtful response will be forgotten before the demands for a thoughtless and immediate response.

Consider: Rev. Wright is a longtime and deep family friend of Obama.  Myself, I have friends whom I still consider friends even though I have heard them espouse beliefs about homosexuals that I consider bigoted.  I have grandparents and relatives that I still love despite having heard them make statements about race that I consider bigoted.  Am I just as much a bigot as them for refusing to completely cut off my relationships because they say things that I disagree with?  Ask yourselves; does everybody in your life that you value hold identical views with you about such charged topics?  Have you completely abandoned all of those who may have publicly expressed a bigoted view? And, if not, why demand that Obama do so?

Specifically with regard to his relationship with Rev. Wright, the most important statement Obama made was this: “I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.”

Obama has condemned the words that he disagrees with, that he finds wrong and offensive… and that so many of the rest of us find wrong and offensive.  If the campaign is about Obama, and not about finding a reason to somehow justify not voting for Obama, this should be enough.  Why then do people demand that he completely abandon the man, the cherished and loved friend of his family?  We really do not want a president who will do that.  We want a president who will engage those whom he disagrees with, those whom (dare I say it) are wrong.  Who will continue to take their wisdom where they are wise, who will try to change their hearts where they are wrong, but who will no matter what continue to respect and value them as human beings worthy of our care and compassion.

Everybody, grow up.  Obama has.


I am one of those moderate Christians

Posted on March 7th, 2008 — permalink

Phil Plait calls out McCain for accepting the endorsement of a religious extremist, but, thankfully, unlike some atheist bloggers, he also reminds us that there are lots of moderate and reasonable religious people out there who may diagree with Phil about the details of religion, but are good folks for whom the extremists do not speak. He does, however, extort us moderate religious types to stand up and remind everybody that the extremists do not speak for us.

So I’m doing that.

The sad fact is that the religious right has had an increasing influence over politics in recent years. Mind you, I’ve been aware of them for a long time. I grew up in Berkeley, CA, where people (including people in my church) were all upset about the Religious Right long before they were really an appreciable political force. But, today, the extreme religious types have contributed to what is, from my perspective, the ruining of the Republican party.

I voted for John McCain in the 2000 primary. I will not vote for him this year. Not unless he repudiates both the creationist political forces that have become de rigeur constitents for any Republican candidate, and not unless he repudiates the Bush/Cheney administration as a horrible thing. He will do neither. (Actually, even if he did, I still wouldn’t vote for him at this point, but I might think about him as a serious candidate.)

I am a Christian, but I don’t want to shove that down anybody’s throat. The church I grew up in was the United Church of Christ– the same denomination, incidentally, that Barak Obama belongs to. We had Nobel prize winning scientists in our congregation. We had ministers who liked to talk about Stephen Hawking. (We’ve also had openly homosexual worship leaders and ordained ministers.) We had no problems whatsoever with evolution or anything else coming out of science. We think it silly from a historical and text perspective to try to read the Bible as literal truth, never mind from a scientific perspective. And we are all very sad to see extremely loudmouthed jingoistic knee-jerk Biblical literalists out there defining what it is to be “Christian” in a lot of the popular press.

I sometimes fear that some Christians are creationists because they think they have to be in order to remain faithful to their religion. I occasionally have had students come up to me and express basically that after I’ve given talks about cosmology. I remember one student late last year who really wanted to believe the stuff I was talking about, because it was so cool, but wanted to be able to make it work with what she believed. My answer was that, well, you really can’t accept the scientific evidence for this cosmology stuff if you insist on believing that the world was created in seven literal days exactly as described in the first chapter of Genesis. But there are a lot of Christians out there with a very deep and thoughtful faith in both God and Jesus who have no problem with understanding that much of the Bible is composed of stories that say something about being human, and are not necessarily factual history. I continue to write science and religion things, despite the fact that when I do so (such as I did on when my blog was there for a time) atheists line up to jump on me for being soft-headed or contributing to the acceptance of the extremists. Part of the reason I do this is in hopes that I might reach out to one or two Christians out there who do not want to abandon their faith, and who may not have realized that they can accept modern science without doing so.


What I changed my mind about : academia, socialized medicine

Posted on January 5th, 2008 — permalink

This post at cosmicvariance refers to a question at the Edge world question center: “what have you changed your mind about?” It’s interesting reading, and I recommend it.

Although I’m not quite a luminary up there with those quoted in Sean’s post, I’m going to give two answers.