Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 22, 2017
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Defeats are supposed to teach people how to do better; in theory. In practice, it often happens that defeats teach people how to become masters in blame-shifting. With some exceptions, this seems to have been the main result of the recent defeat of the Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, where we saw a truly spasmodic search for culprits: Putin, the Russian hackers, the Fake News, the Rednecks, the FBI, Exxon, the aliens from Betelgeuse, and more. Everything except admitting one's mistakes.
Even less soul searching has been performed by those who turned out to be among the major losers in this story: science and scientists. In particular, climate scientists saw their field wiped out from the White House Website minutes after President Trump took office. That may have been simply a question of protocol, but surely it is not a good omen for the future.
So far, scientists have reacted with appropriate outrage to possibilities such as Trump repudiating the Paris climate treaty. However, on the average, scientists seem to be completely unable to even imagine that there may be something wrong with what they have been doing. We may have here a good illustration of the principle expressed by James Schlesinger that "people have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic". Even though some scientists are starting to show symptoms of panic, most of them seem to be still in complacency mode.
Yet, for everything that happens there is a reason and if you invaded Russia in winter it is no good to blame the snow for the defeat. So, what did scientists do that led them to a situation that may turn out to be even worse than the retreat from Moscow for Napoleon's Grande Armée?
One problem, here, is that if scientists had wanted to present themselves to the public as a priesthood of acolytes interested only in maintaining their petty privileges, they succeeded beyond the rosiest expectations. Yet, I don't think that this is the problem. Overall, science is still a sane profession and very few scientists have been directly involved in financial scandals. The public perceives this and normally rates scientists as much more trustworthy than – say- journalists or politicians. And modern climate science, as part of the field of Earth sciences, is nothing less than a triumph of human knowledge. Truly a major advance of what we know on the way our planet and our ecosystem work.
The problem, in my opinion, is a different one. It goes deeper and it is not related to individual scientists or to specific scientific fields. It has to do with science as a whole and, in particular, with the inconsistent messages that scientists are beaming to the public. According to the results reported by Ara Norenzayan's in "Big Gods" (Princeton, 2013), people have a built-in "lie detector" in their minds that works by a heuristic algorithm: people will evaluate the truth of what they are told on the basis of consistency. Not only the message must be consistent in itself, but also the messenger must be consistent with the message carried. This is a fundamental point: people don't normally care about data and factual evidence: they care about the consistency of the message in their social environment; it is something that Dan Kahan has shown in a series of studies on the public perception of climate science.
So, if your local prophet tells you that you must be chaste, he'd better be chaste himself. If he tells you that you must make sacrifices and accept poverty, he'd better be poor himself. And chastity/poverty must be acceptable in your social environment. These are things that Francis of Assisi understood already long ago. Then, think of Donald Trump: why was he elected? It was, mainly, because Trump's political message was consistent with Trump himself. Trump was telling people that he would make America rich and powerful and that was perfectly consistent with the fact that he is rich and powerful himself. Because of this, Trump's message didn't trigger people's lie detector and Trump the unthinkable became Trump the unavoidable.
Getting back to science, the message of climate change is intimately linked to the need of making sacrifices. We are asking people to reduce their consumption, reduce waste, travel less, and the like. It is a perfectly legitimate message and many religious groups have been carrying similar messages successfully. Of course, it would never work if Donald Trump were to propose it; but why can't scientists propose it successfully? Scientists are not Franciscan monks, but normally they are not rich. I often tell my PhD students that they are exchanging three years of starvation for a lifetime of unemployment. I don't really need to tell them that: they know that by themselves.
The problem is that there exists another side of science where scientists are beaming out exactly the opposite message of that of the need of making sacrifices. It is the side of the "gee-whiz science" or, maybe, "Santa Claus Science", scientific research still operating along the optimistic ideas developed in the 1950s, at the time of the "space age" and the "atomic age". The message that comes from this area is, "give us some money and we'll invent some magic device that will solve all the problema." It is a message that's ringing more and more hollow and the public is starting to perceive that the scientists are making promises they can't maintain. Not only the various scientific miracles that were promised are not materializing (say, nuclear fusion) but many pretended scientific revolutions are making things worse (say, shale oil). Still, many scientists keep making these promises and a certain section of society accepts – even requires – them.
So, the name of the problem is inconsistency. Scientists are taking two different and incompatible roles: that of doom-sayers and that of gift-givers. And "inconsistency" is just a polite way to say "lie." White scientist speak with forked tongue. Ye can't serve God and mammon.
The result is that not just Donald Trump despises science; it is a consistent fraction of the public that just doesn't believe the scientific message, especially about climate. The fraction of Americans who think that climate change is a serious threat has remained floating around 50% – 60%, going up and down, but not significantly changing. It is trench warfare in the climate communication war. Things may get worse for science under the Trump presidency. It already happened at the time of McCarthy, why shouldn't it happen again?
At this point, good manners dictate that when you write about a problem, you should also propose ways to solve it. Of course, there are ways that could be suggested: first of all, as scientists we should stop asking money for things that we know won't work (the "hydrogen-based economy" is a good example). Then, science badly needs a cleanup: we should crack down on predatory publishers, fight data fabrication, establish transparent standards for scientific publications, provide for free results of science to those who pay for it (the public), get rid of the huge number of irrelevant studies performed today, and more. Personally, I would also like a science that's more of a service for the community and less of a showcase for primadonnas in white coats.
But, as we all know, large organizations (and science is one) are almost impossible to reform from inside. So, where is science going? Difficult to say, but it may need a good shake-up from the outside (maybe from Trump, although he may well exaggerate) to be turned into something that may be what we truly need to help humankind in this difficult moment. The transformation will be surely resisted as much as possible, but change is needed and it will come.
"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24)
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 18, 2016
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There is only one culture: bringing back science into the fold of humanism
Thanks for this question – it is a very interesting question: "are we teaching enough science to our children?" And I can tell you that it is much more than an interesting question, it caused some small earthquake in my mind. Truly, I had a flash of understanding that I had never had before and right now I completely changed my view of the world. It happens to me: the world changes so fast and I do my best to follow it.
Your question is so interesting because it has to do with the idea that there are two cultures: a scientific one and a literary one. As a consequence, some of us think that instruction is unbalanced in one or the other direction: maybe we teach too little science to our children, maybe too much. The whole idea goes back to someone named Snow who proposed it in the 1950s. He was not wrong, I think, but there were problems with the idea. The concept of the two cultures can be intended as meaning that we need somehow to bridge the gap that exists in between. Or, and I think that's what happens most often, it can be interpreted as meaning that one of the two cultures is superior to the other. That can generate a competition between the two and divide people into two different tribes: literates and scientists. We are very good, as human beings, at dividing ourselves into separate tribes fighting each other. And that's bad, as you can imagine. Actually, it is a disaster. Snow was a scientist and he decried the scientific ignorance of literates. On this, he was right but in the long run the result was that literates despise scientists as illiterate boors and scientists despise literates as feebleminded ignorants.
Now, I had been thinking about all this and, as I said, today I had this flash that focused my mind on a concept. I think we have to say this clearly: this story of the "two cultures" is an idiocy. It must end. There is only ONE culture, and that's what we may call "humanism," if nothing else because we are all humans. That is, unless someone in the audience today is an alien or a droid. In such case, would you please stand up? No……? Apparently, we are all humans in this room and so we call our culture "humanism" (or, sometimes, "arts and humanities") How else would you call it?
So, there is really no reason for considering modern science a separate culture rather than part of the human culture that we call humanism. I am saying this as a scientist: science is part of what I would like to call human "sapience", what the ancient called "sophos"; that we translate as "wisdom" "sapience," or "knowledge." The term philosopher just means someone who loves sapience. And that's what we are; scientists or non-scientists, the very fact that we are here today, engaged in this discussion. means that we love knowledge: we are all philosophers. And that's a good thing to be; sapience is what makes us human and that's why we speak of humanism.
So, why do science and scientists sometimes pretend to be a separate branch of knowledge? Well, it has to do with another concept that comes to us from the Greek philosophy. It goes under the name of techné that we may translate as "craftsmanship" and that originates the modern term "technology". Here lies the problem.
Five minutes ago, someone asked me about hydrogen powered cars. I answered that they have been a complete failure and that was it. But I ask you to go a little more in depth with this question. Why do many of us think these things are important: hydrogen cars, a hydrogen powered economy, and lots of strange things we hear as proposed by scientists and that are said to be able to "solve our problems." Why is that? There is a reason and it goes back to a period in history when scientists found that they were able to devise some clever gadgets: you remember the "atomic age", right? It started more or less from there. Then there was the space age, the information age, and so on. There was this great wave of optimism when we really thought that science would bring us a new age of happiness and prosperity – it was the triumph of technology over everything else. The triumph of techné over sophos.
That period of optimism is still with us: anything that you say that disputes the sacred cow of economic growth is answered with "the scientists will think of something." Climate change? Resource Depletion? Pollution? Not really problems if you have the right gadget to solve them. And this brings, sometimes, the question "do we teach enough science to our children?" It is a result of the opinion that, in order to solve our problems, we need more gadgets and that, in order to have more gadgets, we need more science and that, in order to have more science, we need to teach more of it to our children. I think this is not a good idea. I think we have too many gadgets, not too few. And all these gadgets either don't work or cause more problems than those they are supposed to solve. Think about that: we wanted flying cars and we got killer drones, we wanted freedom and we got body scanners, we wanted cheap energy and we got Fukushima, we wanted knowledge and we got 140 characters, we wanted a long life and we got Alzheimer. The more gadgets we have, the worse the situation becomes.
Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that technology is bad in itself. We all live in heated spaces, we use electricity, when we have a headache we take an aspirin, and we use a lot of useful devices in our everyday life. I am not telling you that we should run to the woods and live as our stone-age ancestors – not at all. Being good craftsmen is part of being human. It is just that this fascination with gadgetry is generating multiple disasters, as we have been discussing today: from climate change to all the rest. One of these disasters is the decline of science, with scientists often turned into those raucous boors who feel they have to send out a press release every month or so to describe how their new gadget will save the world.
It can't work in this way. We need to take control of the technology we use, we need to stop being controlled by it. And I think the first step for retaking control is to bring science back into the fold of humanism. I am saying this as a scientist and as someone who loves science – I have been loving science from when I was a kid. Modern science is a beautiful thing; well worth being loved. It has been telling us so much that's worth knowing: the history of our planet, the origin and the fate of the universe, the thermodynamic engines that make everything move, and much more. We need to see science as part of the human treasure of knowledge and we need to love knowledge in all its forms. And, as I said at the beginning, someone who loves knowledge is a philosopher and that's what we can all be and we should be; because it is our call as human beings. If we want to save the world, we don't need gadgetry, we need to be what we are: human beings.
Published on The Doomstead Diner on December 4, 2016
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Recently we published an article about Fake Newz here on the Diner. This concerns itself with all the false or misleading information you have to sift through when either watching on TV or YouTube or reading either the MSM or alt-media Blogs. If you are a person who is looking to ferret out the "TRUTH" with a Capital T, it can be mighty difficult at times. You are just as likely to get a completely false story from the New York Times or the Washington Post as you are to get one from Zero Hedge or Infowars. It might even be more likely since Da Goobermint is always feeding Propaganda stories out to the MSM to promote a particular agenda. The nonsense about Iraq and WMDs would be a typical example. You pretty much can't believe anyone on anything until you do a lot of drilling down and researching other websites and links, which can be a mighty time consuming task on any individual story, much less trying to get a handle on a complex topic like Geopolitics or Climate Change. It gets even worse if you try to pull it all together to get a comprehensive view of what is occuring with collapse. Many articles every day on many topics, and you can only click and read so fast on any of them!
The problem isn't strictly confined to the Newz either, it is perhaps even worse in the field of Science. We live in a society where the "Scientist" is revered as someone who is knowledgeable and who you can trust to give you truthful information. Science has ruled our world since the Enlightenment and brought us all those wonderful inventions over the years like the Automobile and the Iphone, so for the average J6P the Scientist is almost God-like in perceived wisdom.
On the internet as you discuss issues of Collapse, you periodically run into people who claim the Mantle of Scientist and use that to justify their opinions and beliefs. They wield this term like a club, it's known in argument as "Appeal to Authority". No matter what complete bullshit comes off their keyboards, you're supposed to buy it because they are "scientists".
Now, what makes a person a scientist? Generally, they have a Ph.D. in some particular field of science like Physics, Chemistry or Biology, but not always. Sometimes people with Engineering degrees also claim to be scientists, and they may not even have a Master's degree, just a B.S. in… Bullshit. lol. But they work in some field like Geochemistry where they are part of a team publishing papers in some Journal, and so this makes them "scientists". Sometimes people in the Medical professions also claim to be Scientists. They studied a lot of science of course to get the ticket to be a Doctor of,,,something. Could be investigating your anus for the presence of polyps, could be drilling your teeth to nail those nasty carries giving you a toothache, whatever. Doctors generally speaking do science by investigating your bodily orifices and then fucking them in some way. Probes, Drills, Catheters etc they got plenty of fucking tools. If there are not enough normal holes to do investigative science, they cut some new ones. Nurses study "Nursing Science", so they can claim to be scientists too! On the scale of Scientists though, Nurses generally fall pretty low in respect, and the Doctors shit on them every day. The Nurses then shit on the EKG and Ultrasound Technicians and they shit on the Janitorial Scientists who keep the toilets clean in the hospital. The IRONY here is that it's probably the toilet scrubbers doing the most important scientific work in keeping everyone alive in said hospital and keeping Super Viruses from escaping into the general environment. The Pharmacist scientists don't shit on anyone, they're too bizzy counting out pills.
Once you claim the mantle of scientist, people are supposed to listen to you and BELIEVE you because you are an "expert". But are scientists experts in reality?
"Science" is a very broad term covering many fields of study. The prototypical scientist has an undergraduate series of courses which cover the basic areas of science and math, then picks one area to specialize in and does further study to get a Ph.D. in that area. It further specializes from there, because the Ph.D. candidate has to pick a specific topic within the area of study to write her/his Dissertation on. Then assuming said student is awarded a Ph.D. and gets a job either in industry or academia, they go on to a career of looking at a specific topic and publishing papers on this topic. So, a student who majors in Physics might go on for a Ph.D. in Astrophysics and then write a Dissertation on Black Holes and spend the rest of his life researching how Black Holes affect the Magnetosphere surrounding the Earth, or something like that anyhow.
Does this highly specialized knowledge make this person any more competent to decipher economics than a typical math major with only a B.A. who maybe has a a job as a bookkeeper? Not in principle, not really. In fact, such a scientist might be LESS competent, since they had to specialize so much in learning all along the way. All you can say is this person is probably generally intelligent since they managed to jump through the academic hoops necessary for getting a career going as a scientist, but other than their own particular area of expertiese they aren't any more expert than anyone else with a reasonably good knowledge of the basic sciences in anything else.
So OK, we got scientists out there to be sure, and they are generally smart but very specialized. They also have opinions like everyone else does, and they have different agendas depending who they work for or their own particular set of beliefs. So in the area of Climate Science for example, one scientist who get his funding from Exxon-Mobil will come up with a hypothesis and paper that says one thing, while another scientist who gets his funding from NOAA will come up with a different one. So now it is Scientist vs. Scientist and you have to decide which one you WANT to believe. I stress the word WANT here, because generally speaking most people do not have enough background to understand all the modelling that was done, nor do the papers always make clear all the underlying assumptions of the model. So you really don't have the information necessary to make an informed decision, you just pick the one that sounds right to you, based on your own preconceived notions.
The other way the non-scientists out there try and decide who to believe is on the "weight of evidence" method, where you pick the side that has the MOST papers out there or the MOST scientists who seem to more or less agree on a topic. So in the area of climate science for instance, most scientists seem to believe that climate change is real and anthropogenic, but they don't agree on a lot of other important things, like how fast it will occur, what might be done to mitigate it or whether it's possible to mitigate at all.
You have a similar effect going on in the world of energy, where there are a whole bunch of scientists who say we are resource constrained with fossil fuels and then others who say, no, there's plenty of fossil fuels still in the ground to dig up. Then there are some scientists who say we can substitute renewable energy sources for fossil fuels and others who say, no, we'll never get enough energy that way to maintain our current energy usage. These scientists then all produce papers to demonstrate their POV is the correct one, and which one do you WANT to believe?
I bring this topic up here today because I have issues with two people who claim the Mantle of Scientist as a validation of why THEY should be believed. One is a radical former Biology Professor now turned Extinction Guru, Guy McPherson of the blog Nature Bats Last. The other is an Anonymous contributer to the Diner Forum who goes by the handle MKing and I often refer to as "Professor Moriarty", who claims to be a World Class Expert Geochemist and King of Frackers. I tend to give Guy a little more credibility than Moriarty, because at least he lets you know who he is, but generally I find neither one of them very credible. They are on complete opposite sides of the spectrum as well, Guy on the one hand believes that due to the burning of fossil fuels Homo Sap will go Extinct by the year 2025 in his now latest timeline I am told. Moriarty on the other hand believes there is plenty of fossil fuel energy left in the form of Natural Gas mostly that we can still frack up, and then transition to a fully renewable energy system into the far future. He obviously doesn't believe we'll go Extinct in the near term, nor does he think further burning up the NG that can be extracted will do any damage to the environment. Regardless of what his credentials are, he's not a scientist, he's a shill for the Energy industry.
REAL TITLE: Extinction Guru REAL TITLE: Energy Industry Shill
Beginning with Guy, first off his area of science was not Climatology, it was Biology. He's never done any research in the area of Climatology, all he ever does is cherry pick the journal articles of other scientists who specialize in climatology. He's a walking, talking database of these articles and he can spit them out faster than an AR-15 on full automatic spits out lead.
Here is how a typical lecture complee with Power Point Slides on a Big Screen TV from Guy goes:
"On page 74 of this article published by Dr. Joe Brilliant in the Journal of Nature, Volume 9, issue 6 published on Dec 21, 2012, Dr. Brilliant's graphs reveal that Global Temps will rise by 1000C before I finish this lecture and you will all be fried to a CRISP!"
Up goes the slide with Dr, Brilliant's graph for maybe 10 seconds, then Guy is on to the NEXT reference!
"Professor George Genius in this article published on October 18, 2008 in the Journal of Applied Stupidity, Volume 66, Issue 666 shows clearly in the tables that NO HOMO SAPS can possibly survive a 6.66C rise in temperatures so every single one of you in this room will DIE by 2025, so just live with it and Live a Life of Excellence for the next 8 years!
I'm not fucking kidding here folks just Google up the lectures! Rat-aTat-aTat, the shit comes at you so fast you can't even take a breather much less have a sip of beer! I will say I have never personally attended one of Guy' lectures, but I watched plenty of the videos up on the web and I DID try to have a reasonable discussion with him during the period I hosted his website. Epic failure there.
Now, after having been treated to one of these exercises, about how many of the people leaving such a lecture actually go and dig up all these references and read through 75 pages of justifications for a a given conclusion? Answer: The number asymptotically approaches ZERO. So you are either buying the shpiel or not here and accepting that His Guyness has thoroughly vetted all these articles he cites and they are all TRUTH with a Capital T. The likelihood of this one also approaches ZERO.
However, he'll never brook any argument to counter his hypothesis, he'll just brandish his mantle of Scientist and call you a deluded fool who is filled with Hopium. This type of argument techinque does not inspire me with confidence to believe a fucking thing he says. The conclusions he draws on the timeline to extinction are also FAR ahead of any other scientist out there researching the topic, although there are a few out there who will say it could come by the end of the century if we don't change our ways. Who am I supposed to believe here and why?
Moriarty is even less believable than Guy from his side. First off he CLAIMS to be a scientist but never backs up his claim because he won't reveal his real identity. He doesn't appear to have any more knowledge than the typical internet devotee of Peak Oil related websites who has spent a few years browsing these sites and reading some technical journals. His arguments also run counter to just about everyone else writing in these areas from other scientists who actually do publish their names and stand behind their work like Arthur Berman, David Hughes, Ugo Bardi, Richard Heinberg, etc, etc, etc. When confronted with this fact, he basically just calls them idiots. Since he won't reveal his identity, I can't even set up a debate between him and one of the many people he has insulted over his years trolling the Diner, which besides the scientists he thinks are idiots also includes the bloggers he thinks are idiots and the other Diners he thinks are idiots. Plus he also claims to have STALKED me incognito at the SUN☼ Booth at the Inman Harvest Festival. This behavior is not particularly scientific and does not inspire much confidence in his opinions either.
On a more general level than just Guy McPherson and Professor Moriarty though, the problem of what is "Real Science" vs what is "Fake Science" is just as troublesome in trying to ferret out the TRUTH as the Fake Newz vs Real Newz problem. There are just TONS of theories being pitched around out there, a real popular one is that there is a Planet X on a collision course with Earth and that's what is causing all the geological disturbances that appear to be on the increase. There are theories that Oil is abiotic and will replenish itself over time, although the timescale on that one does not appear to be fast enough to make up for the current depletion rate. There are theories that Cold Fusion is possible coming from Italian scientists. Elon Musk has theories that he can produce enough Batteries to run EVs forever, and build a colony on Mars too!
Can I possibly vet all these theories and say, "yea, that's GOOD science and TRUE" and another one is "BAD Science and FALSE"? Even if I wanted to TRY to do that I wouldn't have time for it in the day. So generally speaking for myself, I read as much as I have time for and then use my Occam's Razor of COMMON FUCKING SENSE (CFS) to decide what I WANT to believe. Which is hopefully as close to the Truth with a Capital T as I can get.
For all the rest of you out there, you also have to use CFS when reading either Newz stories or Scientific theories. When me or some other Diner publishes something, it may or may not be vetted for its accuracy, and the posting probably reflects the bias of the poster, one way or the other. Only you can figure out for yourself what is the TRUTH here, and buying the opinions of "scientists" just because they claim that mantle is a fool's game. Some "scientists" like Guy McPherson and Professor Moriarty have clear agendas they are putting forward, and this is not science in any way, shape or form. It's opinion, argument and propaganda and must be viewed as such. Besides that, they're both assholes. 🙂
Published on Resource Crisis on October 26, 2015
The Romans knew well the dark art that we call "propaganda" today. As an example, this image, from the Trajan column in Rome, shows Dacian women torturing naked Roman prisoners; it was part of the demonization of the enemy during the Dacian campaign of the early 2nd century AD. However, with the gradual decline of the Empire, its propaganda was becoming more and more shrill and unrealistic. Christian thinkers such as Tertullian were reacting against the absurdity of the official propaganda by contrasting it with ideas that at the time were regarded as even more absurd.
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Propaganda & Irrationalism in Roman times and Ours
Quintus Septimius Tertullianus (anglicized as "Tertullian", ca. 150 – ca. 230) was one of the early fathers of Christianity. Of his numerous works, we often remember a sentence that reads "Credo quia absurdum." (I believe it, because it is absurd). This exact phrase doesn't exist in Tertullian's works, but it describes well the essence of his way of thinking. He and the other Christians of that time were proposing something truly absurd: that a virgin had given birth to the son of God, that God was at the same time one and three, and that the son of a Jewish carpenter who had been executed as a common criminal was, actually, one of the three!
Tertullian died before the start of the third century crisis that saw the empire nearly disintegrating in a series of military defeats, civil wars, economic collapse, and currency devaluation. But, surely, the symptoms were all there much before and Tertullian could not miss that there was something rotten in the Roman Empire of his time. Indeed, he was possibly the first writer in history to identify what we call today "overpopulation," when he wrote in his "Apology" that
…our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.
It was not just Tertullian perceiving the problem and, as a result, the Empire was being swept by a wave of new religious creeds, all of them reacting against the official Pagan religion. Christianity was seen as an especially virulent sect, and it was the object of a strong repression on the part of the authorities. If Tertullian had been living today, he would be called a terrorist. But he, like many others, as just reacting to the increasing shrill and absurd official propaganda of his times.
Now, let's fast forward to our times. What does our Imperial propaganda tell us about our prosperity? It is not any more attributed to the favor of the Pagan Gods, but to a deity we call "Science," often endowed with attributes termed "progress" and "innovation". Our Imperial armies don't give thanks any more to the Pagan Gods for their victories, but rather attribute them to semi-divine spirits that we call "smart weapons" and which are bestowed on us by the main deity, Science. And our prosperity is attributed to the ability of science to provide better and slicker tools for us. It is scientific progress that allows us to attain the eternal bliss of economic growth.
But all this is showing evident signs of fatigue, to say the least. The prosperity of the empire we call "Globalization" is rapidly disappearing and the dark menaces of climate change and resource depletion is upon us. Now, we are told that we did everything wrong and we are told that by those same people, the scientists, who have taken us to where we are. We are told that our smart phones, our shiny cars, our wonder drones can't save us; that our economic growth can't last forever, that the years of prosperity are getting to an end. How can that be? What kind of cruel joke is being played on us?
The result is a rabid reaction that takes different forms, but that normally takes as its main target science, or what's sometimes called "official science". Science, some seem to conclude, must be betraying us and the scientists must be traitors. It can't be that crude oil is running out; it must really be abundant, being continuously recreated in the entrails of the earth by mysterious abiotic processes. And it can't be that we are destroying ourselves by burning fossil fuels; no, climate science can only be a hoax played on us by evil scientists seeking fat research grants for themselves. And how can it be that the same people who can make a smartphone can't make a fusion reactor work? No, that can't be: they are hiding from us the fact that nuclear fusion can easily be obtained inside a huffing and puffing desktop device that looks like a water boiler.
Many people seem to be starting to see science not just as a hoax, but as something truly evil, as when the ancient Christians had turned the Pagan Gods into devils and evil spirits. And so we see the spreading of conspiracy theories: from the idea that the water vapor emitted from airplane engines is in reality a deadly cocktail of poisons designed to kill us, to the attempt to demonstrate that no human astronaut ever walked on the Moon. It is the rise of the "New Irrationalism," a movement of thought still officially ignored, but growing.
Perhaps, had Tertullian lived in our times, he, too, would maintain that the lunar landing had been a hoax and we would call him a conspiracy theorist. But his ideas gained ground within a dying empire. About one one century after Tertullian, Emperor Constantine ordered the Christian symbol, a cross, to be painted on the flags of his army that was preparing for battle. He was hoping that the new Christian God would play the role of the old Pagan Gods; a new daimon that would grant him victory. Constantine won his battle, but that changed little to the destiny of the Empire. When Rome fell to the Visigoths, in 410 A.D., it was left to another Christian thinker, Augustine of Hippo, to explain in his "De Civitate Dei" (The City of God) that the purpose of Christianity never was that of saving a rotten empire.
In the end, empires are just constructions of the human mind; structures that persist for times long enough that some people tend to endow them with the virtue of eternal life: Rome was said to be the "eternal city" and our empire seems to be based on the idea that economic growth can last forever. But empires come and go in cycles, they are as impermanent as the morning dew; they just last a little longer. So, we are going to follow the example of the Roman Empire in its descent toward disappearance. And it may well be that, up to the last moment, we'll hope that some scientific miracle will save us. Then, it will be the task of someone, in the future, to explain that the purpose of Science never was that of saving a rotten empire.
Off the keyboard of Geoffrey Chia
Published on the Doomstead Diner on April 22, 2015
Discuss this article at the Doom Psychology Table inside the Diner
APPENDICES TO THE ESSAY “ON THE NATURE OF BELIEF“
G. Chia, April 2015
APPENDIX 1: THE PROPOSITION OF PREDISPOSITION TO A PARADIGM BASED ON POLITICS, PERSONALITY &/OR PROFESSION (the 6P)
Some dictionaries may define the term “ideology” simply as a system of beliefs. However, it is more useful to define a term according to the manner in which it is used in the real world. Thus, an “ideology” is more accurately defined as a rigid system of beliefs. When we say “Mr X is driven by his ideology” we imply that he holds rigid views which he refuses to change, no matter what the circumstances.
As such, the Scientific Method is not an ideology, because it is not a rigid system of beliefs. It is a rigorous, rational process by which hypotheses are accepted or discarded according to the best evidence, reason and investigation. If we say “Mr X is driven by his scientific enquiry”, we mean that he assesses a situation, then formulates a few hypotheses on the basis of the best evidence and reason available at the time (in medical parlance this is known as making a list of “differential diagnoses”). He then tests each hypothesis for validity and falsifiability and adopts the one which best stands up to scrutiny. His evaluation (or diagnosis) may change later, if better information comes to light. This is exactly how a Physician works.
Pretty much all other belief systems are ideologies with varying degrees of rigidity. Some ideologies are less rigid in that they are willing to adopt selected paradigms from Science and reason-based progressive social policies. For example, some Christian groups and clerics are willing to accept that evolution and global warming are realities and that women deserve equal respect and status to men, notwithstanding their “Adam’s rib” fable (hence women are allowed to be pastors and hold positions of authority in their church). Even the Pope has come to accept the reality of AGW and advocates that humanity must take measures to deal with it http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/27/pope-francis-edict-climate-change-us-rightwing Fundamentalist Christians however remain abjectly insistent on their particular interpretation of their version of their sacred doctrines, as is equally the case for Fundamentalist Muslims or Fundamentalist Jews. They each demand their “divine right” to pursue their (self serving) agendas to the point of murder and death. This is a major reason why the conflicts in the Middle East will never be resolved. Such a mentality brings to mind lyrics from the Dire Straits song “Industrial Disease”:
…I go down to Speaker’s Corner, I’m thunderstruck,
They got free speech, tourists, police in trucks,
Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong,
There’s a protest singer singing a protest song…
Obviously the amusing irony here is that both men who claim to be Jesus are certainly wrong and the listener laughs in amusement, that to entertain the idea that even one of them may be Jesus is an insane delusion. However, by that same token, rational thinkers know that the superstitious ideologies of all the Abrahamic religions (indeed all religions) are certainly wrong and are just as insanely deluded.
Here is an idea widely prevalent (and widely promoted by the media) in society at present: that political persuasion, personality traits or professional background determine one’s ideology. Let us call it the Proposition of Predisposition to a Paradigm based on Politics, Personality &/or Profession, or for simplicity, the 6P.
Here are some elaborations of the 6P based on:
1. Political views:
The “right wing conservative / left wing liberal” political dichotomy was particularly well satirised by the late Kurt Vonnegut in his classic essay “Cold Turkey” (now nearing the tenth anniversary of publication):
…Even crazier than golf, though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative…Which one are you in this country? It’s practically a law of life that you have to be one or the other. If you aren’t one or the other, you might as well be a doughnut. If some of you still haven’t decided, I’ll make it easy for you. If you want to take my guns away from me, and you’re all for murdering fetuses, and love it when homosexuals marry each other and want to give them kitchen appliances at their showers, and you’re for the poor, you’re a liberal. If you are against those perversions and for the rich, you’re a conservative. What could be simpler?
In the article by Lissa Johnson, “At All Costs: The Dark Psychology Of Abbott Government Climate Policy” she wrote…”Right Wing Authoritarianism is fearful and cautious, driven by a view of the world as a dangerous place. It seeks safety and stability via conformity to traditional hierarchies in which everyone knows their place…Social Dominance Orientation, in contrast, seeks to win at all costs, via the ‘strong’ in society dominating the ‘weak’…‘Superior’ groups coming out on top is the goal…Put briefly, they are the two faces of authoritarianism: authoritarian obedience and authoritarian dominance…Social Dominance Orientation correlates negatively with empathy, altruism and honesty, and is predicted by high levels of the personality trait ‘tough mindedness’, which involves lack of sympathy and compassion. So strong is the ruthless emotional foundation of Social Dominance that in 2013 it was empirically recognized as not only correlating with the ‘dark triad’ of personality (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy), but as being a member of the dark personality cluster itself… (Researchers Daniel Jones and Aurelio Figueredo) found that the interrelationship between the three dark triad traits and Social Dominance Orientation was explained by a common ‘Dark Core’. This Dark Core consists of two parts: manipulation (or dishonesty), and callousness (or lack of empathy)…The authors concluded that, like those high in narcissism, Machiavellianism or psychopathy, “Individuals high in Social Dominance have a dark personality”. What distinguishes Social Dominance is that it manifests “at a group level with a politically oppressive style.”…The primary goal of Social Domination is to maximize inequality between social groups in a “superior-inferior” order. This requires a capacity, if not a zeal, to oppress and subordinate other human beings.
2. Personality: Optimists vs Pessimists
This is the view that irrespective of objective facts, the natural optimist tends to select positive information to construct their world view and the pessimist selects negative information. It does appear that most people may be hard wired to have an optimism bias (see explanation in main Belief essay and also: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jan/01/tali-sharot-the-optimism-bias-extract ). Optimism bias serves several purposes for the individual: it makes them feel better, it gives them hope and motivation to work towards their desired goal and it boosts their popularity within their social group. No one likes a wet blanket to dampen a party. Unfortunately, such “rose coloured glasses” can blind these people to the potential pitfalls and problems they may encounter along the way. The “she’ll be right, mate” Aussie attitude (or the condescending admonition, “cheer up, it’ll probably never happen”) is in fact is a recipe for disaster. Real world observation suggests that a cautiously pessimistic approach is more likely to lead to success or prevent disaster, precisely because problems are actively avoided, or if encountered are anticipated and therefore tackled promptly (compared to the incautious optimists who will flounder about and remain in denial when faced with crises they did not prepare for). According to neuroscientist CJ Bajada, “optimism bias is a well established psychological phenomenon that, despite criticism, has been replicated in many experiments. While it is generally an adaptive phenomenon, it can have disastrous consequences (such as an economic collapse).” http://www.academia.edu/7957545/The_Optimism_Bias_A_cognitive_neuroscience_perspective
Hence what is the best way to approach challenges in an uncertain future? Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Self professed optimism, apart from being an emotive ploy to win popularity in a crowd, can be simply an excuse for inaction by the person who is too darned lazy to make contingency plans.
3. Professional background
“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The implication here is that a person’s occupation shapes their world view. I can offer some personal perspective regarding this matter, specifically in relation to the prospect of Near Term Human Extinction. I will contrast my views with those of Dr Guy McPherson, a conservation biologist and relentless promoter of the “inevitability” of NTHE. In some of my previous essays, I was significantly influenced by Dr McPherson’s opinion due to his summaries of overwhelming dire information sourced from the peer reviewed scientific literature regarding the exponential worsening of global warming. There is no doubt whatsoever that we are headed for the catastrophic devastation of our planetary biosphere. Nevertheless to “prove” that NTHE is “inevitable”, it is necessary to show beyond any reasonable doubt that there is not a single future scenario where even one small group of human beings can possibly survive in the long term.
For example, the Limits to Growth scientists have conclusively shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the collapse of Industrial Civilisation is guaranteed this century. They have shown there is not a single realistic scenario (using even the most optimistic inputs) where modern industrial society can continue functioning by the end of this century, even without taking into account the guaranteed impending global financial collapse as a result of our Ponzi scheme economics. Even if we were to ignore the LtG projections, the most conservative estimate by climate scientists of a global average temperature rise of 4°C by the end of this century means that climate change alone guarantees that large scale agriculture (and hence cities and civilisation) will collapse. Not only that, the inevitable decline of high net energy sources (Peak Oil) alone also guarantees the collapse of Industrial Civilisation. The impending collapse of global Industrial Civilisation is a certainty beyond any reasonable doubt. But what about NTHE?
After pondering NTHE for two years, I was able to work out a feasible scenario by which at least one population of humans may be able to survive even the worst global warming projections, putting the lie to the “inevitability” of NTHE: http://www.thecanadiandaily.ca/geoffrey-chia-critique-guy-mcphersons-views/ Despite cursory admission that my views had validity, McPherson continues to propagate the overall message of the “inevitability” of NTHE to the public, spurred on by his echochamber of anonymous uberdoomer blogfans. Could our different professional backgrounds possibly account for our different views?
I do not deny the possibility of NTHE, indeed I agree it may be a likely outcome. Nevertheless I am working towards and promoting the idea that survival of a tiny number of humans is possible if adequate preparations are made and I advise sapient people around the world to give it a go. McPherson has not denied the possibility that a tiny handful of humans may survive. Despite this, his overarching message to the public remains that NTHE is guaranteed. He dismisses any other opinion as “hopium” and therefore he promotes hopelessness.
Why the different strategies? I am certainly not a natural optimist, hence that personality trait can be eliminated as an explanation. My success as a medical practitioner stems from my habit of always pessimistically considering the worst case scenarios in my patients, which I then take measures to protect them against, hence minimising their future risk. I am not unfamiliar with death, having experienced, as a junior doctor on call, patients dying in front of me from cardiac arrest who failed to respond to resuscitation. My own death and the death of my species are not beyond my contemplation. On the other hand I have also witnessed remarkable advances in cardiac therapy over the years with dramatic reductions in cardiac mortality and prolongation of good quality life in patients who would have been written off as hopeless cases a decade ago. Perhaps it is the latter which motivates me to strive for the survival of our benighted species, for better or worse.
I suspect that Dr McPherson’s professional experiences have been different. As a conservation biologist, if all that he has witnessed, researched, documented and read about over the past few decades have been relentless mass extinctions (about 50% of all vertebrate species have gone extinct over the past 40 years), then he may well consider the human species to be on the same trajectory and the outcome to be inevitable. The Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson stated that over 99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. The difference for humans is that if we go extinct in the near term, it will be self inflicted.
What purposes do the 6P serve?
- The 6P is an easy model for the mainstream media to sell to the general public. It pigeonholes people into categories. It is a form of stereotyping. It is lazy simplistic thinking. Therefore, just like high-fat sugary food, it slides down the gullets of the simpleminded sheeple most readily*, delivered in the form of a 30 second sound byte between “infomercials” (*in contrast to more complex, more truthful ideas, which require greater time and effort to properly deliver, ruminate on and digest).
- The 6P is used for targeted advertising by corporations and for identification of “persons of interest” by governments.
This is based on the following premise: surveys have shown that interests in, beliefs in or purchases of “a, b, c, d and e” are associated with personality or political inclination “Z”. You have shown interest in “a, c and e”, therefore you must be a “Z” type person and should also be interested in “b and d”.
You must be aware of the fact that corporations and governments are collecting all your digital metadata and using idiot computer algorithms to profile you. For example, Google trawls through your internet browsing to identify your “pattern” of searches. Their algorithm then makes an assumption about your values and beliefs, pigeonholes you into one particular category of consumers and automatically triggers a suite of advertisements directed towards you. In your subsequent searches you then find commercial options ranked on the top lines or ads displayed on the side of the webpage representing suggested searches or purchases. It does not matter if the algorithm is not 100% accurate regarding your personal situation, a 30% hit rate on those ads among a billion consumers represents a great deal of money to Google and the advertisers.
The database of your searches and purchases by eBay and purchases by PayPal also represent valuable commercial intelligence to advertisers, to be used in the same way.
Facebook in particular is a goldmine of personal information, by which narcissistic individuals and the means to manipulate them can be identified. How many “friends” do you have?
Government collection of your metadata is even more chilling. The previous US government tactic of racial profiling and kidnapping people of “Middle Eastern appearance” and rendering them to prisons for torture without trial resulted in monstrous travesties of justice against innumerable innocent people. It may even have led to the radicalisation of previously moderate law abiding individuals. Nowadays, phonecalls, emails and browsing history of the general population are electronically trawled by dumb programs which flag key words or phrases such as “terrorism”, “bomb making”,”jihad” or the phrase we used in the main essay, “evil corporations”, irrespective of context. “Persons of interest” are then identified, categorised and can later be singled out for “special treatment”. This process “analyses” hundreds of millions of people more than the old blunt instrument of racial profiling, which means that potentially magnitudes more innocent people will be unfairly flagged. The fact of the matter is that any terrorist with half a brain will use untraceable phones and anonymized web browsing to avoid identification. It is the innocent citizens who will end up being targeted and harrassed by the authorities.
- Fraudsters such as Fox News (of “WMDs in Iraq” fame) use the 6P as a mental Trojan horse by which they outrageously distort the public perception of reality. Specifically, we refer to the way Fox News claimed to be “fair and balanced” by seeking views about AGW from “both sides”. Typically they would interview a legitimate climate scientist, then seek the opinion of a scientifically illiterate denialist, say, a “freemarket” economics professor with impressive academic titles (but no scientific credentials). Fox News would then conclude that there is considerable doubt regarding AGW: the scientific experts hold to a left wing version of the “truth”, the economic experts hold to a right wing version of the “truth”, so Fox News implies that reality may lie somewhere in between.
It is as though the scientists claim the Earth is round, the economists claim the Earth is flat and Fox News, being “fair and balanced”, concludes that the Earth could be oval.
To reiterate yet again, here is the objective truth: AGW is a fact recognised by ALL the National Academies of Science around the world (including the Royal Society of London). It is not a “left wing politically motivated opinion” as Fox News would like to portray it. AGW deniers are either liars or fools or both. The Earth is round and anyone who claims it is flat or oval is a liar or a fool or both.
Another personal experience as to why the 6P is flawed:
I too had been a “brain hostage” of the 6P in the past. Specifically, I previously assumed that other atheists would have reached the conclusion that “Man” created “God” (rather than the other way around) in the same way that I did, by means of evidential analysis and rational thinking. I therefore assumed they would also accept the rational consensus, based on decades of irrefutable evidence, of all the academies of Science around the world about the reality and importance of AGW. I was stunned to discover (in my interactions with the Brisbane Atheist group about 10 years ago) this assumption was incorrect and a significant number of them were intransigent AGW denialists and extreme right wing rednecks. They mounted ad hominem attacks against me for my position on AGW and I called them liars or fools or both. Not my finest moment I admit, but a reflection of my deep disappointment in my inability to find sensible thinkers in what I had wrongly assumed to be a forum of rational minds. On one topic (the existence of God or gods), they adopted a rational position; but on another topic (AGW – which they felt threatened their comfortable lifestyles), their self-serving arseholery trumped any rationality. An avalanche of further overwhelming climate data over the past decade have only proven more conclusively the fact that AGW deniers are either liars or fools or both.
I was subsequently motivated to look beyond assumptions which could prove false (eg. that as a rational atheist, I assumed other atheists to be rational) and to try to find a way to achieve an better understanding of the origins and purpose of each and every one of the beliefs of each particular individual, rather than lump people into categories as the 6P does.
We regard the 6P as being of limited utility to help us understand the beliefs of a person. Saying that a person subscribes to right wing views because they are predisposed to believe in right wing views explains nothing. Saying a person is predisposed to right wing views because they have an authoritarian personality has some explanatory value, but still requires the nature and origin of that personality to be further assessed.
The 6P can be misused in this way: Belief in AGW is portrayed by Fox News as a function of “leftie/greenie” political ideology (ignoring that AGW is a scientifically validated fact beyond any shadow of a doubt, which has nothing to do with politics). Fox News followers then feel that their own views denying AGW, which stem from their self serving motivations (and indeed from their nonscience or nonsense based political ideology), can be regarded as equally valid as the “political views” of the “warmists”, thus perpetuating a dysfunctional denialist mindset.
The analytical method we outlined in our main essay on Belief requires firstly to determine whether a particular belief of a particular individual has been scientifically validated beyond any reasonable doubt, or at least whether that belief is considered to be reasonable evidence-based speculation by the scientific community. If the explanation for their belief is that it is a reality based belief, no further explanation for that belief is required. If not reality based, then that particular belief of that particular individual needs to be evaluated according to the nine major functions of belief we outlined (and ancillary factors if applicable – in parts 2 & 3 of the Belief essay, of which the 6P is just a small part). By applying that process to all the individual’s beliefs, we can establish a precise and purposeful explanation of the unique nature of that individual’s belief system. The 6P in isolation however offers limited explanation as to what purposes an individual’s beliefs serve, it is primarily a form of pigeonholing and can be prone to misuse.
GC Appendix 2 follows…
APPENDIX 2: THE MISREPRESENTATION OF “COGITO ER SUM” BY PHILOSOPHERS AND THE FAULTY LOGIC OF PASCAL’S WAGER COMPARED WITH THE GOOD SENSE OF THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
COGITO ER SUM:
Here is a common misrepresentation of “I think therefore I am”:
The sensory information I receive, my perception of the world, is impossible to absolutely verify. It is impossible to be absolutely certain that my perceptions represent an external objective reality. It is possible such information may in fact be hallucinatory and entirely false. The only thing I can be abolutely certain of is that I am thinking about this issue and therefore I and only I alone definitely exist. Therefore the denial of external objective reality is a reasonable philosophical proposition.
Such a declaration by a pundit (usually male) is the ultimate in egocentric blather, essentially being a dismissal of everyone else around him and an acknowledgement only of himself. Perhaps the best response to such dumb pontification is to kick him in the shins, then say to him that according to his own philosophy, the kick was merely a figment of his own imagination.
It brings to mind this limerick:
There once was a Reverend named Peel,
Who said, “Although pain isn’t real,
When I sit on a pin,
And it punctures my skin,
I dislike what I fancy I feel.
Humans are certainly prone to hallucinations and illusions, however we can overcome these limitations by performing independent observations and measurements by different people using different modalities at different times in different places (and ensuring we are not in a drugged out state when we do so).
Descartes’ thought experiment was intended to argue that only the certainty of existence of the thinking self was indisputable, however it did not necessarily conversely follow that everything else was non-existent. Decartes was a pioneer of the Enlightenment and an advocate of empirical observation, precise measurement and the testing of hypotheses. Therefore he clearly believed in external objective reality. For philosophers to hijack “cogito er sum” and argue that just because something could not be absolutely proven, therefore it could be regarded as unproven and therefore could be considered false, is an absurd stretch. Objective Truth exists but we can never achieve Absolute Truth. This misinterpretation of “cogito er sum” reflects the fact that those who demand Absolutes are absurd thinkers who simply do not understand Reality. This is mirrored in contemporary times in the absurd argument by the AGW deniers, who say that because AGW cannot be proven to the absolute level of their scientifically illiterate satisfaction, therefore AGW does not exist. The best response to them is to kick them in the shins.
PASCAL’S WAGER vs THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE:
The brilliant mathematician Blaise Pascal justified his belief in God as follows, best illustrated in this 2×2 table:
|God exists||God does not exist|
|I choose to believe in God and follow the rules of the Church||Consequence: a few lifetime inconveniences, rewarded by Eternal paradise (finite disadvantage, infinite benefit)||Consequence: a few lifetime inconveniences, with no Eternal reward (finite disadvantage, no benefit)|
|I choose not to believe in God and live life as I best see fit||Consequence: self determination in life, but Eternal damnation (finite benefit, infinite disadvantage)||Consequence: self determination in life, with no Eternal consequences (finite benefit, no disadvantage)|
Pascal’s Wager bears some superficial resemblence to the Precautionary Principle shown generically below:
|Low probability but high impact (major consequences) scenario||High probability but low impact (minor consequences) scenario|
|Precautionary action||Consequence: minor inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, mitigation of severe event||Consequence: minor inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, mitigation of minor event|
|No action||Consequence: no inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, but if event does occur, outcome will be terrible||Consequence: no inconveniences from taking precautionary actions, and even if event does occur, disadvantage will be minor|
What is the similarity between the two tables? In both cases, the upper left hand box of the 2×2 table seem to represent taking out insurance, which we all do for our cars, property or for overseas travel, so why not do so? Furthermore the outcome to avoid at all costs is the bottom left hand box of the 2×2 table, the worst case scenario. Hence, why not hedge our bets?
In theory one could express the various benefits and disadvantages of Pascal’s Wager better numerically, if we could establish a probability for the existence of God and could also rate the inconvenience of following Church rules. Even using a small probability of God and an afterlife, say one in a million, and using quality of (earthbound) life or QOL “units” from 0 to 10 (zero being dead and nonexistent, 10 having an optimal self determined full life and 5 representing a halving of your quality of life due to religious rules), what would the numbers look like? The aggregate quality of existence or AQOE will be the quality of your earthbound life combined with either eternal paradise (positive infinity) or eternal damnation (negative infinity)
|God (and afterlife) may exist||God (and afterlife) do not exist|
|I choose to believe in God and follow the rules of the Church||Earthbound QOL = 5, AQOE taking into account 1/1000000 probability of God = 5 + (1/1000000 x infinity) = POSITIVE INFINITY||Earthbound QOL = 5, AQOE = 5 + 0 = 5 (no afterlife)|
|I choose not to believe in God and live life as I best see fit||Earthbound QOL = 10, AQOE taking into account 1/1000000 probability of God = 10 + (1/1000000 x negative infinity) = NEGATIVE INFINITY||Earthbound QOL = 10, AQOE = 10 + 0 = 10(no afterlife)|
So there it is, a nice neat table with nice neat numbers enabling you to make a nice neat decision. Hence the cold calculating brain tells us it is best to believe in, or go through the motions of believing in God. No matter how you run your calculations, even with a one in a billion or one in a trillion probability of the existence of God, it is still best to believe in God because even the smallest imaginable number multiplied by infinity is still infinity. A convincing logical argument? Actually, it is unmitigated bullshit.
Pascal’s Wager is so deeply flawed it is difficult to know where to begin and we can only scratch the surface of the counterargument in this appendix. No doubt, you will spot many flaws for yourself, however we would like to highlight just a few points. The refutation can be achieved quantitatively, or qualitatively by commonsense argument.
We have assumed, as Pascal and the Church had done, that the probability of the existence of God and the probability of a human afterlife go together. However how do we know the two are not mutually exclusive? That, for example, a creator God may exist but humans do not have an afterlife, just as we assume that God created all other animals but did not give them an afterlife? Furthermore, how do we know that any purported human afterlife goes on for an infinite duration? What is the evidence for that assertion? The only bases for those religious assertions (indeed, the assertion that God exists in the first place) are the human interpretations of “sacred” texts which were written by other humans in antiquity who claimed to have been inspired by God.This mindset is identical to that of Scientologists who intensely believe in Xenu the galactic overlord on the basis of the “sacred” text written by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
Nevertheless, let us lump the probability of existence of God and the afterlife together and assume an infinite afterlife, for simplicity. How can you quantitatively judge the probability of the existence of God? You need to look at any evidence suggesting God may exist, against evidence suggesting God may not exist, multiply each by weighted factors determined by you, do some kind of subtraction judgement and come to a percentage likelihood. As stated before, whatever number you arrive at is irrelevant, because any positive number, no matter how small, when multiplied by infinity, becomes infinity. But what if there is NO evidence whatsoever for the existence of God? Without rehashing the same arguments which Richard Dawkins made in his book “The God Delusion”, the evidence for the existence of God or gods is in fact zero, zilch, nada, nothing. There is simply no evidence. What is zero multiplied by infinity? An infinity of zeroes, ie zero.
It was understandable in the time of Pascal, when proper knowledge of the physics based origins of the Universe, of biological evolution and of DNA were lacking, that the appearance of a clockwork universe and the apparent “intelligent design” of organisms seemed to represent convincing evidence for a creator. Knowing what we now know however, we can completely dismiss both arguments (in particular that of I.D.) as utterly bogus (see “Confronting the Wizards of ID, http://archive-au.com/page/2595960/2013-08-10/http://www.dissent.com.au/backissues/issue22.htm ). There is simply NO evidence for the existence of God. All our reality based knowledge points to the fact that the Universe is utterly indifferent to humanity, that the current favourable conditions on this planet for our existence have arisen due to an extremely rare convergence of circumstances in time and place in an ancient and vast Universe. Such a rare convergence was bound to happen sometime, somewhere, in an old enough and big enough Universe.
For qualitative refutation of Pascal’s Wager, we need to consider the following:
Firstly, Pascal’s argument assumed dichotomously that either the Christian God exists or does not exist, a monumentally flawed assumption. The impartial observer will recognise that his view was merely a tiny microscopic smallminded perspective of the broad vista of human religious belief, hamstrung to the extreme by his ethnocentric culture. The fact is that many thousands of different Gods were and are purported to exist by many different groups of people, with many different versions of afterlives (or reincarnations), with many different purported rewards or punishments for following or not following their particular doctrines. It did not and does not make any sense whatsoever to place the probability of existence of the Christian God above the probability of existence of any one of thousands of other Gods (unless one’s brain had been captured by the “might equals right” paradigm outlined in our Belief essay). Hence in order to hedge one’s bets, it would be logically necessary to follow all the practices of all the religions around the world (including making blood sacrifices of your enemies, flaying their corpses and wearing their skins, as was the practice of Mesoamerican Religions) to maximise your chance of eternal reward and minimise your chance of eternal punishment. Due to the fact that many religious practices are mutually contradictory, such a strategy is clearly impossible. The honest observer therefore has to conclude that Pascal’s strategy, properly applied, is completely unworkable. Pascal chose to dismiss non-Christian Gods as pure superstitions, not worthy of any consideration in his Wager. Accordingly, by that very same token, the impartial observer is also justified in dismissing the Christian God as pure superstition not worthy of any consideration in the Precautionary Principle.
Secondly, just for the sake of argument, let us say that the Christian God, Heaven and Hell do indeed exist. Certain clerics who claim to know the mind of God assert that disbelievers are guaranteed to go to Hell, however on what evidential basis do they make such an assertion? Or is that something they just made up, so they could use fear to control the behaviour of others? I personally had a memorable conversation with a Catholic priest while on attachment to a hospice as a junior doctor. I was surprised to hear he believed that ethical non-Christians or Atheists, who did good deeds in the world, were not condemned to Hell and could even end up in Heaven. Indeed multitudes of people around the world in history had never been exposed to Christianity and were completely unaware of the Christian God through no fault of their own. He could not believe a compassionate God would condemn such people to Hell. Was that Catholic priest a heretical deviant who himself was headed for Hell for opposing the doctines of the church, or was he simply a compassionate man who believed in a fair, compassionate God?
Thirdly, let us employ some common sense as to the origins of the threat of an eternity of punishment in Hell. Most parents at one time or another would have invoked the threat to their four year old child that a horrrible Bogey man would kidnap and torture them if the child did not do the bidding of the parent eg “if you don’t stop wiping your snot with your sleeve, the Bogey man will grab you in the night”. Striking fear into the heart of a naive child using an imaginary threat can enforce compliance until they grow up and wise up. In the absence of any evidence of Heaven or Hell throughout the entirety of human (or paleolithic) history, sensible adults will dismiss the threat of Hell as no different from the fabricated threat of the Bogey man. Unfortunately some naive people never grow up nor wise up.
The 2×2 Precautionary Principle table is actually too simplistic for proper decision making and is better replaced by the “Probability-Outcome Graph” I previously formulated:
With regard to Global Warming and the Precautionary Principle: AGW should never have been regarded as a “low probability but high impact” scenario. It was always a “high probability, high impact” scenario and it was always a no brainer that humanity should have worked hard to prevent it. Unfortunately planetary policies had been hijacked by people with no brains, hence nothing substantial has been done. The fact is that AGW is no longer a “future probability”, whether low or high. It is a present certainty. Catastrophic events will become unimaginably more severe in the years to come and desolation of our biosphere is baked into the cake. We have missed the boat.
Attributions: Geoffrey Chia: inflammatory language, Rebecca Willis: critical feedback
Off the keyboard of Brian Davey
Published on FEASTA on April 9, 2014
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
Anyone looking for a comprehensive review of the controversies associated with fracking is going to be disappointed by this short book. After having ploughed almost all of its 170 pages I found, near the back, the following sentence:
“I won’t go through all of the contested issues, because the chapters in the book provide a basis to carve out your own analysis looking at some of the main peer reviewed papers”.
So the message is that if you want to make up your mind about shale then go to the peer reviewed literature. The implied message in this, made explicit at times, is that many opponents of the shale gas industry don’t do this and many members of the public rely too heavily on rumour and panicked reports leading to what Michael Stephenson claims is a low quality to the public policy debate. The public policy debate needs to be guided by academic scientists in peer reviewed papers…..like him.
As he writes, towards the end of this book:
“In this book I hope I have shown how a controversial subject can be tackled with science. There are various definitions of science around. One that I like is “…a systemic endeavour that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanation and predictions about the universe.”
“I like the word endeavour because it implies that a lot of science is slow and may be painstaking. I also like the bit about testable explanations and predictions. Most science is a long journey, which sometimes goes in the wrong direction, but this element of testable explanation, usually means it gets back on the right track….If it is properly funded, if the scientists are listened to and if their results are out there for all to see then the public debate is better, and policy and regulation are better. ” (p 145 )
While reading this particular passage, sitting in the library of the British Geological Survey in Keyworth near Nottingham, I had to suppress the urge to blow a raspberry.
A lot of science is slow and painstaking Stephenson tells us, and it sometimes goes off on the wrong direction but don’t worry, with more time it will get back on track.
Well, how much time do we have, Professor Stephenson? Leaving aside for now which side of the issue he would come down on, would Professor Stephenson not agree that the stakes are incredibly high? The stakes are high because they concern whether people are to have their living environment and their health ruined, or not. They are high because they concern whether shale gas contributes to triggering runaway climate change, overshooting 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, or not. So how much time do we have to solve these problems?
The facts are uncertain and in dispute and there is a lot at stake and Professor Stephenson is telling us that the process must be slow and painstaking. Yet the government had already made up its mind by 2012. It had taken all the important decisions about pushing this industry – with people like Stephenson giving it cover. By January of that year Stephenson had already published an article in New Scientist titled “Frack responsibly and risks and quakes are small.”
So if science is slow and needs time for scientists to debate things based on the evidence from peer reviewed articles – how come Mike Stephenson already knew 3 years ago that “responsible fracking” had low risks? What about all the evidence gathering that was so necessary to come to that conclusion?
As it turns out three quarters of the available studies on the impacts of shale gas development were published in the two years 2013 and 2014. The number of peer reviewed studies doubled between 2011 and 2012 and then doubled again between 2012 and 2013 while in 2014 there were at least 154 peer reviewed studies. The bad news for Mike Stephenson is that almost all reveal problems with fracking. Might it be that Mike Stephenson came to a provisional conclusion 3 years ago and assumed that he did not have to change his mind? Or might it be that he has not been keeping pace with the literature since then?
I don’t know the answer to these questions but it seems fair to me to ask. If you are going to profile yourself as an advocate for scientific research and peer reviewed articles deciding policy, after having “raised the quality of public debate”, then it seems to me you ought to regard yourself as also being under corresponding ethical obligations. These include:
(1) not finally deciding before the evidence is in, or at least taking pains to explain that your opinion is provisional and might be revised with more information;
(2) attempting some coverage of all the major controversial issues rather than just choosing a small sample of issues for your review of the peer reviewed literature and then covering other issues in a less thorough way or not mentioning them at all;
(3) making an effort to take in and accurately presenting points of view that are not your own;
(4) staying up to date on the scientific debates in dispute.
In this review I intend to show that Mike Stephenson has not done these things. As already pointed out he wants to say – you must do your own peer review process of the controversial issues. Well, anyone who wants an in depth understanding will indeed have to but it’s a very convenient approach for the author to deal with some issues and then not to deal with the others. A casual reader with little time could easily read this book, and assume that by doing so they have got the gist of the main arguments, and that they do not need to read further. If they did do this it is my contention that they would be left with an extremely misleading impression. Many problems with fracking that are now emerging in peer reviewed articles would remain unknown – out of sight out of mind. They would be unknown unknowns.
Nor do I think that Stephenson has done a very good job of presenting alternative viewpoints – particularly in the debate about climate policy. He relies heavily on an approach to climate policy advocated first of all several years ago by S. Pacala and R. Socolow of Princeton University, the so called “stabilisation wedges” approach. This is an approach, in case you did not know it, that is sponsored by BP. It is also NOT about reducing global emissions but is about keeping emissions “flat” over the next 50 years. It is about stopping emissions growing until such time as the world has developed the capacity for carbon capture and underground storage.  Such a policy would, of course, be another great job creation scheme for geologists for it is they that would have to identify the safe places for underground storage. At the same time the fossil fuel industry, having played the major role in digging or pumping carbon out of the ground would now be able to make big money pumping the CO2 back into the ground.
The problem with this approach of course is that the world does not have time to stabilise emissions according to the agenda of BP. Emissions have to fall and very fast indeed if the world is to have any chance of not overshooting a 2 degree temperature increase over the pre-industrial. Leading climate scientists like those of in the Tyndall Centre are quite clear on this. Scientists like Kevin Anderson of Manchester University had repeatedly made submissions to parliament making this point drawing on the peer reviewed science that they have done. In a blog that Anderson put on this own website in January of this year he explains :
“Shale gas within 2 degrees C carbon budgets. The development of a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with UK’s equitable share of the IPCC’s carbon budget for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2 degrees C obligation. This remains the case even if shale gas can be combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. The CO2 emissions from gas CCS are anticipated to be 5 to 15 times greater per kWh of electricity generated than are the emissions from either renewable or nuclear. Add to this the timeframe for developing a mature UK shale gas industry and, even with CCS, shale gas can have no appreciable role in the UK energy mix”.
Now let’s turn to the issue, mentioned in the book, of “fugitive emissions”. As Stephenson acknowledges, the real killer for any argument that natural gas is better for the climate than coal is evidence about so-called “fugitive emissions”. This is a phrase used to describe the leakage of natural gas or methane into the atmosphere during the production and distribution of natural gas. Since natural gas is mainly methane and since methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, much more powerful that CO2, a high level of leakage would completely undermines the case for shale gas. If fugitive emissions are high then the argument for natural gas is lost – if they are low then there is a case that natural gas is a lower carbon energy source (although whether it is low enough, given the need to rapidly reduce emissions, is another question). So what’s the situation and how does Stephenson describe it in this book?
As Stephenson says there are two ways of trying to measure fugitive emissions – the bottom up method, measuring leakage in and through equipment and the top down method from aircraft, towers and so on. The two methods of measurement give very different results and if the airborne measurements are the more accurate ones then the verdict goes against natural gas on climate grounds. So this is a crucial question – and what concerns me here is how well the author tells this particular story and presents the evidence.
In my judgement – he does not do a very good job. He presents just one study about airborne measurement by Scott Miller et al. which does not fit his preferred view and then tries to dissuade the reader about the top down measurements:
“Are these broad brush atmospheric measurements more reliable than the patchy measurements from actual well operations? Perhaps, but can we be sure that the aircraft measurements are attributing methane to the right sources, after all swamps and municipal waste dumps produce methane – as do cattle. And cattle are common in Texas” (p 117)
Later the reader is again leaned on as to how to interpret the balance of the literature. On page 144 we are told
“Now taking the issue of whether shale gas is lower carbon than coal the conclusion of a balance of peer reviewed articles is that it probably is. Although shale gas does come with fugitive emissions, these probably don’t offset the ‘carbon savings’ that you get by using shale gas rather than coal in a power station. But the conclusion is tentative because it does step from a rather small number of measurements that suggest that fugitive emissions aren’t particularly large and does go against one study (Howarth’s group at Cornell University) that suggests large fugitive emissions”.
Note that by this stage in his book the top down airborne emissions measurements have disappeared from Stephenson’s presentation of the issues. No mention of Scott Miller here. Has Scott Miller been dismissed because he and his team might be measuring cattle burps after all?
Cattle that burp propane…and missing studies that don’t make it into this book
When I read this I went off in search of the Scott Miller article and an academic friend easily dug out a few more articles about the airborne measurement of emissions from the academic literature. Surprise surprise – Scott Miller et al were well aware of cattle, municipal waste dumps and other sources of methane. In fact their paper was not just about oil and gas field sources of methane. It was arguing that there is a general underestimate of methane emissions, including from cattle. It was also about tracking down the different sources and in regard to confusing cattle emissions with gas field ones his article says this:
“Texas and Oklahoma were among the top five natural gas producing states in the country in 2007and aircraft observations of alkanes indicate that the natural gas and/or oil industries play a significant role in regional CH4 emissions. Concentrations of propane (C3H8), a tracer of fossil hydrocarbons, are strongly correlated with CH4 at NOAA/DOE aircraft monitoring locations over Texas and Oklahoma (Fig. 5). Correlations are much weaker at other locations in North America ( to 0.64). “
So what is going on here Professor? Do Texas cattle burp propane?
As I wrote earlier, if you’re going to argue for peer reviewed science settling issues then you really are going to have to do a literature search to see if there are other relevant articles. In this case there are. For example, there is an article by Anna Karrion and team in the Geophysical Reserach Letters in 2013 
Their article is titled “Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over
a western United States natural gas field”. It was published in August 2013 so there are no excuses for not finding and citing it. The measurements were taken over the Uintah gas field in Utah in February 2012 where 6.2 to 11.7% of production was found to be leaking. This level of methane leakage is a disaster for the climate – and a disaster for the argument of Professor Stephenson too.
But perhaps this was cattle burping? However the Karrion research team did adjust their measurements for cattle and natural seepage. These adjustments were based on a study of methane emissions from free range cattle combined with census data of cattle for this region, available from the US department of Agriculture. Another study of methane seepage was also taken into account. It is interesting to compare the magnitudes. The research team only shaved 2.5% off their measured gas flux to correct for cattle and natural seepage – with the rest of the measurement being oil and gas field related. The other 97.5% of the gas was from the field.
There was no excuse for not mentioning this. In fact there have since been other studies.
I do not know when Stephenson’s book went to press but 6 months before its recent release there was another study by Schneising et al. that used satellite data for the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations. Scientists from Germany, the United Kingdom and the University of Maryland show 10.1% (plus or minus 7.3%) and 9.1% (plus or minus 6.2%) for the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations respectively.
Flaws in the inventory measurement of methane emission rates
To complete that argument let’s look closer now at the sources that Professor Stephenson bases himself on – the studies by MacKay and Stone and by Allen et al at the University of Texas. Here I am relying heavily on free lance researcher Paul Mobbs because he has done a study a critique of MacKay and Stone, which contains a critique of the Allen paper too. Basically Mobbs argues that the figures that MacKay and Stone use for leakage are too low and the figures that they use for gas production are too high. Thus the percentage of gas production leaking is miscalculated . Let’s walk through this argument.
Firstly, Mobbs points out how the inventory method of measurement of leakage that MacKay and Stone use has been challenged. He cites an article in Nature which refers to the Colorado measurements from airplanes plus a new study in press of the Denver–Julesburg Basin conducted with scientists at Picarro, a gas-analyser manufacturer based in Santa Clara, California. The later study relies on carbon isotopes to differentiate between industrial emissions and methane from cows and feedlots, and the preliminary results line up with the earlier Colorado findings .
Mobbs also criticises the Allen paper on leakage referred to by MacKay and Stone and finds it to be flawed. It is a non randomised study of 0.1% of the wells drilled in the USA so cannot be taken as a representative sample.  The companies concerned volunteered themselves for measurement and if they did that it is probably because the companies were reasonable confident that measurements for their installations would be low. It is also relevant to point out, as Mobbs does, that the publisher had to correct the Allen article after initial publication, because the authors had not declared conflicts of interest.
“On the other side of the equation, the figures Mackay and Stone used for gas production per well are too high. Currently there is a great deal of debate over how much gas and oil unconventional wells actually produce . Recent studies suggest that resource estimates need to be downgraded, now that we have sufficient statistical data of what is actually being produced in the field . There is no specific source for Mackay and Stone’s figures, but their modelling assumes levels of gas production which are roughly twice the value determined by the US Geological Survey  and the US Department of Energy .
“The easiest way to explain the flaw in Mackay and Stone’s reasoning is this: The method of calculation was correct. However, they took a figure for the emissions from gas production which may be half what it should be. This was divided by a figure for gas production which was twice as big as it should be. The result was that they produced an estimate for emissions which was one quarter of what it should have been.”
How much production, now and in the future?
It will be noticed here that Mobbs makes reference to a debate about how much oil and gas unconventional wells produce. This leads me to another aspect of Stephenson’s book that needs critical appraisal. A reader will not find any inkling of this debate in the pages of the book. Stephenson uncritically takes the viewpoint of the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA), including its projection of future production. He appears to be unaware that, for some time now, a number of authors have been warning that the shale boom in the USA is a bubble that would burst and that it would all end in tears. There has been what has been called a “battle of the forecasts” but Stephenson makes no mention of it.
Straight from pages one and two Stephenson is telling us that shale gas will provide half of US domestic production before long. Increasing volumes will be exported to Mexico and Canada. Not only that – manufacturing is returning to the USA because of cheap fuels and bulk chemicals and primary fuels in particular are booming. It is all a wonderful success….
…or, alternatively, the kind of hype that is typical of an economic bubble.
So what can we learn from academic studies based on peer review? Here’s what Mason Inman says in that Nature article already cited :
“To provide rigorous and transparent forecasts of shale-gas production, a team of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers and economists at the University of Texas at Austin has spent more than three years on a systematic set of studies of the major shale plays. The research was funded by a US$1.5-million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, and has been appearing gradually in academic journals and conference presentations. That work is the “most authoritative” in this area so far…
If natural-gas prices were to follow the scenario that the EIA used in its 2014 annual report, the Texas team forecasts that production from the big four plays would peak in 2020, and decline from then on. By 2030, these plays would be producing only about half as much as in the EIA’s reference case. Even the agency’s most conservative scenarios seem to be higher than the Texas team’s forecasts…..”
Oh dear – there are the peer reviewed forecasts and there are the assertions of Professor Stephenson. Speaking for myself the academic studies that have been appearing in peer reviewed journals seem more thoroughly researched than the forecasts derived uncritically from the EIA. (5 peer reviewed articles are mentioned in the Nature article).
Bubble economics – in a gold rush, sell shovels
Mike Stephenson has written a book about shale gas but has omitted to mention, perhaps because he did not notice, that most of the US shale oil and gas industry has not actually made any money. In fact it has lost a lot of money. Sure it has produced a lot of oil and gas and that has (probably temporarily) arrested the decline of the oil and gas sector in the USA. Sure this has brought oil and gas prices down – and in the last year it produced a glut that has led to a price crash. Sure, it has been a veritable bonanza for oil and gas equipment and logistics companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes. As the saying goes, “in a gold rush – sell shovels”. However, the exploration and production companies have been losing money year after year.
In a study presented to a recent industry forum in Heuston and available on YouTube a consultant called Art Berman gives free cash flow figures for a sample of 40% of US exploration and production companies in this sector. He shows negative cash flow of $13.5 billion in 2013 going up to a negative of $14.26 billion (annualised from 3 quarters) in 2014. As a result debt in the sector has risen from nearly $165 billion in 2013 to $172.5 billion in 2014. 
Note that most of this is before the recent crash in oil and gas prices – a crash produced by a glut in the market. And where did this glut come from? The answer is not from Saudi Arabia or the other producers, but from the shale sector in the USA. If the sector could not produce a profit last year and in 2013 how is it going to now? A number of authors have been arguing for several years that the shale oil and gas boom was a bubble. Was Professor Stephenson unaware of their work?
The fact is, and this is another thing that Stephenson does not discuss – the shale boom in the USA did not occur in an economic vacuum. Ultra- low interest rates brought about by “quantitative easing” after the economic crash of 2007-2008 meant that banks and institutions in the finance sector were looking for somewhere to put their money that would actually make money. There was a “hunt for yield” and a lot of that money went into junk bonds and capital for shale exploration and production companies which were prepared to borrow money at high rates of interest. This was based on their assumption and expectation that, at some point in the future the rising prices of gas and oil would start paying big time for their expensive to finance exploration and production frenzy.
As in every bubble the confidence that it would pay off, if not now, but eventually, has kept the process going….and kept the merchants of hype turning out the “good news” that people like Stephenson have swallowed uncritically.
All of this matters – for it is key to the Stephenson argument that there is a balance of risk and reward and if the shale gas story is not going to last and is economically unsustainable anyway then the rewards will be small or non-existent for the production companies and for consumers. This is not to deny, of course, that some companies will have made a lot of money. As I have said these are the services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes who have “sold the shovels” in this particular “gold rush”. Such subtleties are not to be found in this book and Stephenson writes about risks and rewards without ever reflecting on the fact that those who get the rewards and those who get the risks loaded onto them are different people.
Professor Stephenson as Goldilocks – looking for just the right amount of regulation
If the shale gas boom is not going to last and is unsustainable then there are problems with another part of the Stephenson book – the bit about regulation. On pages 125-126 he opines:
“This book is about risk and reward in shale gas. The reward is jobs and growth – maybe cheap energy. The risk is damage to the environment and human health. In countries where shale gas is being developed how is this balance between risk and reward being struck? The answer is mainly through regulation. Regulation can’t be too stringent such that it completely stifles the ability for a company or a driller to try different techniques – but at the same time it can’t be too lax, such that that it doesn’t completely protect the public and the environment”
It’s all rather like Goldilocks and the porridge that was too hot, the porridge that was too cold and the porridge that was of just the right temperature. But what is lacking in this banal idea of trade-offs is the possibility that there is no such “just right” balance – that the level of regulation that would effectively protect the public would be so costly that it would stifle the industry – whereas the level of regulation that would enable the industry to operate profitably would be so weak that it would be highly dangerous to public and the environment. What is also lacking in this banal presentation of the issues is the possibility that some of the processes are not amenable to regulation anyway. As a peer reviewed guest editorial in the British Medical Journal, which was critically examining a report by Public Health England, puts it :
“…the report incorrectly assumes that many of the reported problems experienced in the US are the result of a poor regulatory environment. This position ignores many of the inherent risks of the industry that no amount of regulation can sufficiently remedy, such as well casing, cement failures and accidental spillage of waste water.”
So tell us this Professor Stephenson – how does one regulate for traffic accidents and accidental spills? You can re-route heavy goods vehicle traffic – but tell us how you can you re-route the exhaust emissions from the large numbers of heavy vehicles or the other equipment? Also, you can regulate but tell us how you can you guarantee that companies will keep to the regulations? We’ve already had experience in Nottinghamshire, where I live, of one drilling company breaching several planning conditions and it was local people who noticed, not the regulatory authorities because they only have one enforcement officer for ALL planning issues in the whole of Nottinghamshire.
If “no amount of regulation” can sufficiently remedy problems of the industry then the argument that risk and reward can be balanced through regulation is purely and simply wrong. Or if I am wrong then it is up to Professor Stephenson to prove it using peer reviewed evidence. In his book he cites a study of a varying amount of regulation in different US states – but that is not engaging with the core issue. Prove that regulation makes enough difference Professor!
In fact I think Professor Stephenson will find that peer reviewed literature is beginning to suggest the opposite of what he wants us to believe. There is evidence that tighter regulations do not have an impact. A recent study from Colorado shows that even with tighter regulations air pollution that is damaging to health has increased. This was because emissions per well improvements were overwhelmed by the increased number of wells. 
What this makes clear is that while Stephenson waves the flag for looking at the scientific evidence in peer research articles there are lots of points in this book where his opinions, for that is what they are, are not backed up by peer reviewed research at all.
The Shale Gas Factory and things “we” must put up and cope with
This is particularly the case in the chapter called “The Shale Gas Factory” where he has his work cut out as an apologist. He is honest enough to acknowledge that a fracked gas field is (in his words) “unpleasant” to live close to, most of all in the drilling phase. He mentions the industrialisation of the countryside, the high volumes of traffic, the enormous size of the trucks, the fragmentation of the countryside into parcels, the tremendous noise, the effect on local wildlife. But his argument that people will have to put up with all of this is not based on peer reviewed science – it is the pleading of a gas industry advocate, pure and simple. For example, he writes:
“But all of these are nuisances that are associated with other industries and oil and gas activities. I don’t mean to minimise them, but they are the sort of things that we can cope with. Trucks can be re-routed; noise can be put up with, land can be reclaimed just like it can after any industrial activity like quarrying.”
I especially liked the “I don’t mean to minimise them, but they are the sort of things we can cope with”. Who is this “we” exactly? His entire book is an exercise in minimising the dangers and unpleasantness.
Note here the assumption that if the problems associated with fracking are the same as problems of the oil and gas industry in general then somehow they don’t matter so much and “we” will just have to be put up with them. All over the world the oil and gas industry works hand in glove with military dictatorships and autocracies and is implicated in human rights abuses because it operates with the assumption that it can enter other people’s space, other environments and the people who live there will have to put up with it. All over the world people are expected to “put up” with damage to their living environment and expected to “cope”.
But people all over the world do not want to put up with the damage done by the oil and gas industry. Which is why, when people start to oppose them the oil and gas companies use their connections in government and the big money that they earn to bribe politicians, hire mercenaries and/or work with military dictators to buy off opposition or repress it violently. For example, when Ken Saro-Wiwa campaigned against environmental devastation caused by Shell and other oil companies in Nigeria he and 8 other leaders of the Ogoni tribe was hanged with the connivance of the oil and gas companies like Shell. Closer to home the Shell to Sea campaign in County Mayo in Ireland shows another community that rejected the assumption that it should just put up with the construction of a natural gas pipeline through its parish. In that case the community formed links with the Ogoni campaigners in Nigeria. 
The oil and gas sector has a culture of its own – it is used to working against opposition. As the film Gaslands II shows, when people in the US started to campaign against fracking they found themselves dealing with people with expertise in counter-insurgency.
Here’s some more to reassure the reader:
“Will these activities be dangerous? They might be. Trucks might spill chemicals, waste tanks might overflow in a stream. But these are industrial installations that engineers are good at managing and have been managing for a long time. In many ways there is no difference from building sites.”
More nuisances that the Professor “does not mean to minimise”
Once again the professor “does not minimise” the dangers. But don’t worry. We are dealing with engineers. They wear hard hats so they must know what they are doing……
But have you got a peer reviewed article to back that up Professor Stephenson? Because here’s some information from a peer reviewed journal called the American Journal of Industrial Medicine from July of last year which actually compares oil and gas field fatalities to that on building sites. The research was into health and safety needs associated with drilling and fracking and was by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and the College of Health Sciences at the University of Wyoming. What they found was high injury and mortality rates among gas and oilfield workers. The occupational fatality rate was 2.5 times higher than the construction industry and seven times higher than that for general industry.
Curiously, while the fatality rate was higher than on building sites the injury rates were lower than those of the construction industry. This suggests that injuries were under reported. Again I do not know the reasons for this but I speculate that it is because it is not so easy to hide a death but I suppose, as Professor Stephenson might say, people in the industry have learned to cope and put up with mere injury. Other problems that the researchers found that the workers coped and put up with were crystalline silica levels above occupational health standards as well as particulate matter, benzene, the noise and radiation.
The point I would wish to make at this point is that corresponding to the things that Mike Stephenson thinks “we” have to put up with there are statistics of accident rates, hospital admission rates, deaths. It is possible to see evidence of trends affecting professions working in fields like industrial medicine, health and safety and public health which eventually leads to informal studies and then to peer revewed studies.
After 2006 when the Shale boom hit the Bakken region in the USA, the Mercy Medical Centre in Williston and the Tioga Medical Centre in neighbouring Williams County saw their ambulance runs increase by more than 200 per cent. Tioga’s hospital saw a staggering leap in trauma patients by 1,125 percent. Mercy had a 173% percent increase.” Drugs (including overdoses of prescription drugs, methamphetamines, and heroin) explain many of the cases, with oilfield related injuries such as “finger crushed or cut off, extremity injuries, burns and pressure burns” accounting for 50% of the cases in one of the region’s hospital emergency rooms. 
Why is this such a dangerous and brutalised industry?
Now if you are a Professor Stephenson this is something to be put up with but other people might ask how it comes about that alcoholism, drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, violence and accidents suddenly shoot up when the oil and gas industry comes to town?
Might it be that the industry has a largely mobile workforce that arrives and has no attachment and hence no loyalty to the people and the areas that it moves through? Might it be that the workforce puts up with the noise, the fumes, the accidents and so becomes brutalised and indifferent to the people who live in the places that they rip apart and then move away from? Might also be that a highly mobile and partly international workforce who are dislocated like this, permanently transient, are desensitized emotionally and that that is what makes them turn to drugs and alcohol? It might be that this is an industry whose culture desensitises them and then they expect local people to put up with the destruction of the places that they move through? (These are my hypotheses for peer reviewed research with a workforce with undeniably high rates of drug, alcohol and violence problems).
On the other side of this process the people who have to put up with the industry, feel disempowered by the likes of Professor Stephenson, the politicians and his friends. They become understandably stressed and anxious and their mental health suffers – particularly when it is expected that these “are the sort of things that we can cope with”. Speak for yourself Professor.
Some would say “home is where the heart is” but, for Stephenson, a loyal advocate for the industry that always just moving through on route to the next oil and gas field, an industry from which so much money for the BGS comes, it’s all a matter of personal preferences.
Here he is, “not minimising” again:
“As for industrialisation of the landscape and the shale gas factor, there’s no doubt that for a period of time that could last for as much as a year there will be intense industrial activity. After this, during production, activity is less intense and obtrusive and after abandonment there is no activity. Whether you think that the landscape is scarred and tainted with industry at this stage depends on your point of view. It’s true that access roads will still divide up the land after the wells are plugged and clearings in the woods will still be visible for a long time after. Some will say that’s what our landscape looks like already – a particular pattern of past uses of the land. Others will say it’s unacceptable” ( p108)
Well we know what Stephenson would say….unless perhaps if it was about where he lives, I don’t know. What I do know is that this has nothing to do with peer reviewed science. What I also know is if this sort of thing happens it leaves measurable scars on the people and the places that live there and this turns up eventually in statistics and then in peer reviewed articles about health.
As the Concerned Health Professionals of New York state “ public health problems associated with drilling and fracking are becoming increasingly apparent. Documented indicators variously include increased rates of hospitalisation, ambulance calls, emergency room visits, self reported respiratory and skin problems, motor vehicle fatalities, trauma, drug abuse, infant mortality, congenital heart defects and low birth weights”. (                )
Note the infant mortality rates. Young children are being killed by this industry.
The case for the precautionary principle – criteria for where ‘enough is enough’
But let’s continue. If you are going to use peer reviewed articles to reveal what the issues are then it assumes that the industry will be able to go ahead anyway because you can only learn about the issues in real life by looking at the retrospective record. This indeed is the assumption of Stephenson’s book. You will not find in it any criteria for deciding that the health or environmental damage has exceeded some threshold level where Professor Stephenson thinks the government should cry “enough – this industry must be closed down as too dangerous to public health and/or too dangerous to local environments and/or too dangerous to the climate system.” Why Professor?
Of course there is a paradox in all of this – you can only gather evidence of whether something is safe or not, or can be made to be safe or not, through the actual doing. We can only say something like this in retrospect. You can only test your explanations and predictions about fracking by doing fracking – and if the doing of fracking shows the explanations and predictions that the risks are low to be wrong then it advances your science all right but, in the meantime, environments may have been damaged, you may have hurt a lot of people and you may have set off runaway climate change. Great for the science – but too late if you have created an industry, invested a lot of capital in it, built the gas fired power stations to burn the gas….and triggered a runaway process.
That, of course, is the case for the precautionary principle. While I read this book I looked out for mention of the precautionary principle and, towards the end looked in the index to check I had not missed it somewhere. It’s not in this book. Why not? Of course the precautionary principle is a damage avoidance strategy to be used to prevent things happening that might be very dangerous before the full evidence is in. It is supposed to be embodied in EU policy but in practice the powers that be and industrial interests never think in these terms because it restricts their freedom of action. Their attitude is – so what if there are risks if the industry and government can make other people and places carry these risks? Those are the sort of things that “we” – in other words those unlucky enough to be living in a gas field “can cope with”.
Of course in this case we in the UK are lucky because we have the experience right across the USA to help us decide whether to ban fracking or not. All the evidence is still not in – but we have a fair amount to go on. In this respect books like those of Mike Stephenson, which are powerfully misleading to the public and politicians can do a lot of damage. It is true that at £70 a copy not many people will read it but it will help to cover the backs of the decision makers and gives the appearance that they are following the evidence of their scientific advisers. No doubt it will also help the BGS show loyalty to its friends in the oil and gas industry. This will help to keep pulling in the money and contracts which pay for such a very large percentage of what the BGS does. It will keep the government sweet too.
Conclusion – the central idea of this book is banal and naive
In conclusion, the central theme of this book – that “science can be allowed to decide through peer reviewed debate” is at best innocent in the naive sense, pious and misleading. It evokes a world where issues are decided on by politicians and the public guided by neutral scientists who deliver the facts. But this fairy tale for the children begs all the difficult questions.
Firstly it takes time for the facts to emerge and, in the meantime there is uncertainty about how dangerous the industry is or is not. To find out what the situation is you have to let the industry proceed in at least one or more places but what you might find is that it does a lot of damage. So you find out when the damage has already been done – when, for those places it is too late.
Secondly what you are likely to find out if and when there is damage done is that a lot of resources get put into a cover up and massaging the truth. The clash of ideas is inevitably “polluted” by public relations strategies used particularly by the most powerful actors to influence which interpretations are presented and which get noticed in public debate.
Thirdly, the way issues are framed makes a huge amount of difference and it is possible to choose some issues and some papers about them and ignore or dismiss others in a way that is incredibly misleading.
Fourthly generous resources are available to present and research some avenues of inquiry while not being available at all to investigate others. The idea that there is ‘no evidence’ for a problem can be presented as proof that the problem does not exist whereas it may be proof that no resources have been made available to look.
Fifthly, narratives of risk and reward can ignore the way that some people might be rewarded while everyone else, including future generations, can lose badly. This can lead to a further paradox – the winners in public policy debates may be the people with the greater resources. But their greater resources may be because they are the beneficiaries of a process that others suffer from, and are impoverished by. There is then an asymmetry in the resources different groups bring to the public policy debate as well as an asymmetry in access to the “corridors of power” and the detailed policy making process.
In the end this leads to a situation in which the people who write the policy are the people who benefit from the policy – this includes the frackademics of course who get lots of money and are feted with lots of attention by high ranking politicians. Then places like the British Geological Survey keep raking in the money and the research grants – though quite why a geological institution should be a lead agency to research multi-dimensional issues of public health and environmental damage is itself debatable. Sure they have a role – but as a lead agency? Might it be because they are already closely tied into “collegiate” relations with the oil and gas industry so can be trusted by a government and officialdom that has also been co-opted by the industry? As Stephenson puts it:
“…if its properly funded, if the scientists are listened to and if their results are out for all to see then the public debate is better and policy and regulation are better…” (p145)
Yes, he would say that wouldn’t he?
Most, though not all, of the literature referred to in this review are taken from the compilation of the concerned health professionals of New York which is downloadable at www.concernedhealthny.org
You can see Paul Mobbs’ scalable diagram of the political, academic, PR and industry connection which Stephenson is in at http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/fracktured_accountability/frackogram_2015.svg.
(1) S”hale gas and public health – the whitewash exposed.” The Ecologist Mobbs P. (2014) http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2385900/shale_gas_and_public_health_the_whitewash_exposed.html
(5) GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 40, 4393–4397, doi:10.1002/grl.50811, 2013
(6) “Remote sensing of fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas production in North American tight geologic formations” Oliver Schneising, John P. Burrows, Russell R. Dickerson, Michael Buchwitz, Maximilian Reuter and Heinrich Bovensmann, in “Earth’s Future 2 (10) 548-558) Article first published online: 6 OCT 2014 DOI: 10.1002/2014EF000265 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014EF000265/abstract;jsessionid=EA0823B336056464D344E41EE226992A.f01t04
(7) http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/decc_2013-2.pdf ; http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2417288/fracking_as_bad_for_climate_as_coal_uks_dodgy_dossier_exposed.html ;
(8) ‘Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas’ by Jeff Tollefson at http://www.nature.com/news/methane-leaks-erode-green-credentials-of-natural-gas-1.12123#/b3
 “A reality check on the shale revolution”, David Hughes, Nature, 21st February 2013 – http://fraw/files/extreme/hughes_2013.pdf
 “Natural gas: The fracking fallacy”, Mason Inman, Nature, 3rd December 2014 – http://www.nature.com/news/natural-gas-the-fracking-fallacy-1.16430
 “Variability of Distributions of Well-Scale Estimated Ultimate Recovery for Continuous (Unconventional) Oil and Gas Resources in the United States”, Open-File Report 2012-1118, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, June 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/usgs_eur_2012.pdf
 “Updated Fugitive Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Natural Gas Pathways in the GREET Model”, A. Burnham et al., Energy Systems Division, Argonne National Laboratory, October 2013 – https://greet.es.anl.gov/files/ch4-updates-13
(13) “Years not decades. Proven Reserves and the Shale Revolution. The Apparent End of the Beautiful Story” http://www.artberman.com/wp-content/uploads/HGS-NA-Presentation-23-Feb-2015.pdf
(14) Editorial: “Mistaking Best Practices for Actual Practices. Public Health Englands Draft Report on Shale Gas Extraction”, British Medical Journal, 17th April 2014 http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.g2728
(15) “Influence of Oil and Gas Emissions on Ambient Atmospheric Non Methane Hydrocarbons in Residential Areas of Northeastern Colorado”,Thompson et al 2014. Ementa: Science of the Anthropocene 2, 000035
(18) “Occupational exposures in the oil and gas extraction industry: State of the science and research recommendations.”, Witter, R.Z., Tenney, L., Clark, S., and Newman, L.S. (2014). American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 57(7), 847-856. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajim.22316/full
(20) “Potential health impacts of the proposed shale gas exploration sites in Lancashire.” Karunanithi, S. (2014, November 6). Reported at a meeting of the Lancashire County Council Cabinet, Thursday, 6th November, 2014 at 2.00 pm in Cabinet Room ‘B’ – County Hall, Preston, Item 9 on the agenda(1-68). Retrieved from http://council.lancashire.gov.uk/documents/b11435/Potential%20Health%20Impacts%20of%20the%20Proposed%20Shale%20Gas%20Exploration%20Sites%20in%20Lancashire%2006th-Nov-2014%2014.pdf?T=9
(21) Compendium at www.concernedhealthny.org
(22) “Study: More gas wells in area leads to more hospitalizations.” The Citizen’s Voice. Skrapits, E. (2014, October 2). Retrieved from http://citizensvoice.com/news/study-more-gas-wells-in-area-leads-to-more-hospitalizations-1.1763826
(23) “Fatal truck accidents have spiked during Texas’ ongoing fracking and drilling boom.” Houston Chronicle. Olsen,L. (2014, 11 September). Retrieved from (24)
(25) “Proximity to natural gas wells and reported health status: Results of a household survey in Washington County, Pennsylvania.” Rabinowitz, P.M., Slizovskiy, I.B., Lamers, V., Trufan, S.J., Holford, T.R., Dziura, J.D., Peduzzi, P.N., Kane, M.J., Reif, J.S., Weiss, T.R. and Stowe, M.H. (2014). Environmental Health Perspectives. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1307732
(26) “Drugs, oilfield work, traffic pushing more people through doors of Watford City ER.” Bakken Today. Bryan, K.J. (2014, August 3). Retrieved from http://www.bakkentoday.com/event/article/id/37101/
(27) S Schlanger, Z. (2014, May 21). In Utah boom town, a spike in infant deaths raises questions. Newsweek. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.newsweek.com/2014/05/30/utah-boom-town-spike-infant-deaths-raises-questions-251605.html
(28) American Lung Association state of the air 2013. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.stateoftheair.org/2013/states/utah/uintah-49047.html .
(29) “Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado.” McKenzie, L. M., Guo, R., Witter, R. Z., Savitz, D. A., Newman, L. S., & Adgate, J. L. (2014). Environmental Health Perspectives, 122, 412-417. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1306722
(30) “Study shows fracking is bad for babies”. Whitehouse, M. (2014, January 4). Bloomberg. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-01-04/study-shows-fracking-is-bad-for-babies
(31) “The impact of oil and gas extraction on infant health in Colorado.” Hill, E. L. (2013, October). Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.elainelhill.com/research
(32) “Shale gas development and infant health: Evidence from Pennsylvania (under review).” Hill, E.L. (2013, December). Retrieved June 23, 2014 from http://www.elainelhill.com/research.
(33) “Fracking’s real health risk may be from air pollution.” Abrams, L. (2013, August 26). Salon. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.salon.com/2013/08/26/frackings_real_health_risk_may_be_from_air_pollution/
(34) “Statement on preliminary findings from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project study” [Press release]. Dyrszka, L., Nolan, K., & Steingraber, S. (2013, August 27). Concerned Health Professionals of NY. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://concernedhealthny.org/statement-on-preliminary-findings-from-the-southwest-pennsylvania-environmental-health-project-study/
(35) “Investigating links between shale gas development and health impacts through a community survey project in Pennsylvania.” Steinzor, N., Subra, W., & Sumi, L. (2013). NEW SOLUTIONS: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, 23(1), 55-83. doi: 10.2190/NS.23.1.e
(36) Poll shows support for a drilling moratorium in Pennsylvania. StateImpact. Phillips, S. (2013, May 14). Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/2013/05/14/poll-shows-support-for-a-drilling-moratorium-in-pennsylvania/
Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi
Published on Resource Crisis on March 20, 2015
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Frontiers does it again: how bad practices in science publishing can mislead the public
The publishers of “Frontiers” provide readers with a remarkable pitch for their activities that includes the lavish use of terms such as “grassroots”, “community oriented” “empowering researchers,” and the like. Unfortunately, reality is far from these fantasies. “Frontiers” is not a grassroots initiative, but a profit oriented, commercial publishing house, and scientists have no control on what they decide to publish or not to publish.
I described in a previous post how the science publisher “Frontiers” took down a perfectly legitimate paper in climate science on the basis of unscientific criticism they received – a story that led me to resign from the position of chief scientific editor I had with them. Now, they did it again, although in reverse: they refused to take down an unscientific paper about AIDS on the basis of perfectly legitimate scientific criticism they received about it. What they did was, instead, to demote it to an “opinion” paper. That only made the problem worse.
Let me state it clearly: the business of a science publisher is to publish peer reviewed scientific papers. Opinion pieces can find space in scientific journals only when dealing with issues that can’t be solved with the standard scientific method; say, about science policy. But it is totally wrong for a science publisher to publish bad scientific papers under the label of “opinion pieces.” For that, we have plenty of tabloids that can do the job.
What Frontiers did is not just a minor mishap: publishing bad science about serious issues such as AIDS is dangerous as the treatment of AIDS is an issue of life and death for many people. Unfortunately, however, the diffusion of “open access” journals managed by scientifically incompetent editors is leading to a proliferation of bad science. And this bad science appears, at first sight, as legitimate, “peer reviewed” articles that can badly mislead the public.
This is a problem deeply ingrained with scientists having delegated the dissemination of their result to commercial publishers. In principle, there is nothing wrong with publishing as a commercial enterprise but it is turning out that scientists have no real control on what these publishers (even supposedly “serious” ones) publish or do not publish. The case of Frontiers shows this point very clearly. So, the only possibility we have – as scientists – to contrast this trend is to avoid submitting our work to publishers who clearly show little or no understanding of the basic elements of what science publishing should be.
In the following, you can find the responses of a group of Italian scientists to the paper on AIDS that Frontiers published.
Texts kindly provided by “Dora“
Last September, Frontiers in Public Health published an AIDS denialist paper by Patricia Goodson, a psychologist who teaches Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University. Following the immediate reaction of the scientific community, the publisher Frontiers launched an investigation to look into the peer review process and to understand how the paper came to be published.
During this investigation Frontiers “has sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology”, which led to a conclusion that ended up turning what could be a simple, however serious, oversight of peer reviewers and chief editors into a debacle of the journal: Dr Goodson’s article has been re-classified as an “opinion” piece, “which represents the viewpoint of an individual”.
So the paper continues to be indexed on PubMed and can easily be used by the AIDS denialist movement for its propaganda in social networks and among lay people with HIV or who are at risk. Used in this way, the paper’s re-designation as an “opinion” article rather than a “research” one is purely academic.
Johns Hopkins biologist Kenneth Witwer has called on scientists to boycott the publisher in response.
With a group of friends at the Italian HIVforum and with the support of four Italian scientists, I’ve sent a letter of complaint to Frontiers’ editors. The Frontiers Editorial Office Manager replied acknowledging receipt and promising a more comprehensive response “in a few days”. It’s now been two weeks and there’s no trace of that “more comprehensive response”.
This is our complaint letter to Frontiers.
Dora – On behalf of the HIVforum Group (firstname.lastname@example.org)
March 1st, 2015
Frontiers in Public Health
EPFL Innovation Park, Building I
CH – 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland
HIV/AIDS Chief Editors
Nina Bhardwaj, New York University School of Medicine Langone Medical Center, New York, USA
John B.F. de Wit, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Frank Miedema, University Medical Centre Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands
Kamila Makram, CEO of Frontiers
Editorial Office of Frontiers
As PLWHAs, scientists, clinicians and activists we are dismayed at the decision of Frontiers in Public Health to publish an article whose sole purpose is to promote HIV/AIDS denialism: Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent. (1)
The individuals who developed this piece are associated with a well-known internet based group (2) whose ideological purpose is to convince people with HIV/AIDS, and those who are at risk, that the virus does not exist or is harmless, that their diagnosis is a fraud, that HIV/AIDS is not sexually transmissible, and that competent treatment of the disease including the prevention of mother to child transmission is a cruel hoax perpetrated by greedy and foolish doctors, the pharmaceutical industry, governments, and gay activists.
It is difficult to understand how in 2015 a professional journal focused on public health could willingly lend support such a perverse project.
As a work of supposed scholarship, the paper is of manifestly poor quality. Likewise, its call to public health practitioners to take seriously such claims and to engage with them in informed debate is disingenuous: such “debates” have been carried on ad nauseam for decades, and serve only as a tactic to generate sound and fury in order to try to convince the denialists’ target audience that there is genuine uncertainty in the scientific and medical communities about whether HIV exists or causes any human disease. (3) Attempting to engage denialists is pointless: they have demonstrated conclusively over the past 30 years that they are impervious to evidence based counterargument, and will simply repeat the same claims over and over despite repeated refutation and painstaking explanation. Invariably such “debates” degenerate into personal attacks, and on a number of occasions to lawsuits.
Clearly, no one familiar with the basic science could take any of this paper’s contentions seriously, but its purpose is not to convince competent scientists or clinicians. Its purpose is to try to lend a veneer of credibility to their argument, when they target their main audience in social media. (4)
Dr. Goodson’s opening argument that “according to established immunology principles” the detection of antibodies necessarily demonstrates a past resolved infection and not a present one will be recognized as nonsense by anyone with basic science literacy, but is calculated to provide false reassurance to people with HIV who are struggling with their diagnosis.
She concludes her argument by blithely dismissing at a stroke the vast epidemiological literature demonstrating the causal relationship between HIV infection and AIDS with the statement that “epidemiological data do not provide evidence for causation”. It beggars belief that someone who teaches public health in a US institution could so profoundly misstate the fundamentals of her field, or that such a statement could pass unremarked on in a public health journal.
In between, she recites a familiar litany of tired falsehoods, misrepresentations and misapprehensions designed to mislead her intended audience into ignoring and dismissing measures to prevent, diagnose and treat a serious infectious disease. Dr. Goodson asserts, for example, that an HIV-1 Western Blot with bands at gp41, p32, and p24 is read as “negative” in Africa and Australia, which is patently false. Citing no less an authority than Dr. Henry Bauer himself she claims that HIV-1 p24 and gp41 are “found in blood platelets of healthy individuals.” which is again untrue. She states that “a retrovirus is nothing more than RNA with an outer protein shell” which “enables it to bind to cells of the type it infects”, ignoring the lipid bilayer envelope and other key components of lentiviruses.
She states incorrectly, that antiretroviral drugs “destroy the immune systems’ healthy T-cells”, and “cause a collapse identical to AIDS”, and that the apparent “miraculous recovery” observed by patients with AIDS using them is nothing more than a temporary illusion created by their broad spectrum antimicrobial effects.
There is nothing in Dr Goodson’s paper that warrants informed debate, nor any insight that could possibly contribute positively to public health.
We cannot understand how such obvious untruths and misrepresentations were able to pass through the filter first of the peer review and later of an investigation which has “sought expert input from the Specialty Chief Editors of the HIV and AIDS section of Frontiers in Public Health and Frontiers in Immunology”. (5)
Open access publishing is not merely a discourse among scholars but its very accessibility intersects with that of lay social media where it can be open to abuse by interests that seek to borrow the reputation of peer reviewed journals to further agendas inimical to public interest: this creates an enhanced obligation on publishers to be mindful of potential audiences and to avoid causing harm to readers who might lack the background knowledge and skills to evaluate contentious and clearly counterfactual claims, especially where such deliberate misinformation might lead individuals to make poor health decisions.
While it may have been the intention of the publisher that such claims might be conclusively dealt with by open debate on their pages, in reality this has not been possible in the case of HIV/AIDS denialism for many years, if ever. Such “debates” are futile because denialists by their nature are not amenable to reason or evidence, and in reality there is no dispute among informed scientists and clinicians about whether HIV exists and causes disease. (6)
Frontiers’ publisher has possibly misinterpreted the lack of public engagement with Dr Goodson’s absurd paper as approval of, or at least indifference to, its publication. In fact many of us have trusted the good sense of Frontiers’ editors to take appropriate action for such a bizarre submission with obvious adverse implications for public health, and did not wish to add unnecessarily to the publisher’s further humiliation by contentious public criticism in the comments.
Unfortunately our trust in the judgment of Frontiers’ senior editors appears to have been misplaced. The decision to demote the paper to “Opinion Article” will make no difference to the intended lay audience who will see only that Goodson’s claims are published in a peer reviewed journal of some repute, and are therefore credible.
The original publication of the paper was an embarrassing error which has highlighted to readers and potential contributors a significant deficit in the journal’s editorial oversight. In its Statement of Concern, the publisher has promised to make public the outcome of its investigation into how this paper came to appear in its journal. (7) To date this has not occurred.
The decision by Frontiers’ senior editors to support continued publication despite being made aware of the likely public health consequences of such a decision is incomprehensible, and appears to demonstrate indifference to, or a lack of understanding of, the journal’s responsibilities to its readers, contributors and to the wider community.
Dora – On behalf of the HIVforum Group (email@example.com)
Guido Poli, AIDS Immunopathogenesis Unit, San Raffaele Scientific Institute and Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milano, Italy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Guido Silvestri, Emory University School of Medicine, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA (email@example.com)
Andrea Savarino, Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Giovanni Maga, Institute of Molecular Genetics IGM-CNR National Research Council, Pavia, Italy (email@example.com)
Off the keyboard of Anthony Cartalucci
Published on Land Destroyer on February 26, 2015
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Irrational faith in corporate R&D is not science, it is a modern day cult built on old, shameless tricks.
February 26, 2015 (Tony Cartalucci – LocalOrg) – When money and power are involved, those standing to gain the most will say and do anything to push their agenda forward. Five centuries ago, saying and doing anything involved exploiting people’s superstitions and their faith in religion. Today, saying and doing anything means also exploiting science.
Science, engineering, and design are amongst our most practical and effective tools to make real and meaningful change. But because they are so powerful and appealing, the potential for their abuse in the wrong hands is immense. Compounding this is the naivety of those who are fascinated by science’s promise but blind to its potential abuse.
It wasn’t long ago when big-tobacco had armies of “scientists” citing the latest “studies” confirming the health benefits and safety of smoking. Of course these were paid liars, not scientists, even if many of them had PhDs. And it was lies they were telling, even if mixed with shades of science. Today, special interests have refined this practice of filtering lies and exploitation through the lens of science regarding everything from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the false debate on climate change, to the questionable interests behind global vaccination programs.
The latest example of this comes via National Geographic which recently published an article titled, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?,” which claims:
We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.
Indeed, just as religions claimed a monopoly on morality and spirituality, National Geographic condemns those “empowered by their own sources of information” and “their own interpretations of research,” maintaining that the only truth to be found is amongst the “consensus of experts.”
The Consensus of “Experts”
The article goes on to claim:
The idea that hundreds of scientists from all over the world would collaborate on such a vast hoax is laughable—scientists love to debunk one another. It’s very clear, however, that organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry have deliberately tried to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus by promoting a few skeptics.
National Geographic never explains why “organizations funded in part by the fossil fuel industry” are conspiring to lie, but the notion that “scientists” would conspire to lie is “laughable.” After all, scientists work under various organizations funded by special interests as well, including immense corporate-financier interests – many of which overlap with big-oil, ironically. If the billions to be made by big-oil is motivation enough to lie and say the Earth isn’t getting warmer, aren’t the billions to be made in a “carbon credit” pyramid scheme also motivation enough to lie that it is?
|Images: The “science” of smoking. Images collected by the New York Times for their article, “When Doctors, and Even Santa, Endorsed Tobacco” depict “scientific studies” assuring consumers of the safety, even benefits of smoking cigarettes commonsense told everyone else were literally killing people. Those today who think they are ahead of everyone else by parroting “scientific studies” regarding big-ag’s GMOs, big-pharma’s vaccines, and big-oil and bankers’ climate change racket are ahead of nothing. They are being duped by an old trick practiced shamelessly for at least 100 years.|
A truly scientific examination of the facts would reveal that the climate always changes – that humans are most likely impacting the climate since virtually everything else does – but that also both big-oil and big-business possess enough money to buyout both sides of the climate change debate, and profit from it without actually truly understanding the climate or what humanity can do to adjust to it no matter what it does or why.
The article then states:
…evolution actually happened. Biology is incomprehensible without it. There aren’t really two sides to all these issues. Climate change is happening. Vaccines really do save lives. Being right does matter—and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right.
Evolution does happen. Biology is incomprehensible without it. The climate does change. The science of vaccines is sound. The problem that most people have with each of these topics is not honestly addressed by National Geographic. The article puts up strawmen arguments to make anyone questioning the established narrative appear exceptionally irrational, even dangerous.
Few if anyone seriously questions the theory of evolution. The moon landings are also mentioned in the article, but also are included for the sole purpose of making people questioning the matters of GMO, climate change, and vaccines seem more unreasonable and fanatical.
Besides appealing to mainstream “experts,” the article doesn’t actually address the arguments for or against each of the three latter topics. The article is essentially a long winded hit piece on people questioning the establishment and what it claims science is telling us about each of these three points of contention. It is essentially a warning against “heresy.”
The few hints included in the article however, reflecting the talking points of big-government, big-business, and big-academia, are easily dismantled with the skeptics’ arguments conveniently excluded from the article.
GMO and Natural Selection
National Geographic claims:
We’re asked to accept, for example, that it’s safe to eat food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) because, the experts point out, there’s no evidence that it isn’t and no reason to believe that altering genes precisely in a lab is more dangerous than altering them wholesale through traditional breeding. But to some people the very idea of transferring genes between species conjures up mad scientists running amok—and so, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, they talk about Frankenfood.
It is true. Traditional breeding has altered the genetic constitution of plants and animals we consume daily. So drastically have we altered many of the grains we consume over the centuries, many people cannot even consume them because of gluten intolerance.
If nature can lead itself off such catastrophic cliffs with natural genetic mutations, and traditional breeding has altered our food to the point it is not edible to some, what might humans altering DNA inside organisms lead to?Biotechnology cannot be uninvented. While it shouldn’t be feared, it should be respected. It should be understood by the greatest number of people across the widest possible social strata. The democratization of this technology means the unlocking of its potential for the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number of people, controlled by the very people who will directly benefit from it.
Until then, skepticism regarding products peddled by immense corporate monopolies jealously hording this technology caught time and time again infiltrating government regulatory bodies and running stables of “scientists” and “researchers” churning out “peer reviewed studies” sponsored by the very producers of the subject at hand is not “irrational” nor constitutes a distaste for science, but rather is simple, cautious commonsense.
The Problem isn’t Vaccines, its the Criminals and Killers Peddling Them
Commonsense also tells us that rolling up our sleeve and allowing ourselves to be injected by a substance produced by literal criminals is a demonstration of unhinged, absolute insanity.
Indeed, the manufacturers of vaccines are criminals, literally. One example is GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), an immense pharmaceutical giant based in the UK. It has been caught on at least 3 separate continents engaged in a multi-billion dollar bribery racket. In China when the police began investigating the systemic corruption driving GSK’s sales in Asia, GSK attempted to bribe the police as well.
The Financial Times would report in an article titled, “Police accuse GlaxoSmithKline China head of ‘ordering’ bribes,” that:
According to the official, the company’s China subsidiary set up several internal units with code names like “operation Great Wall” and “operation soaring dragon” specifically to bribe doctors and government officials.
He also said that in 2012, as the company came under scrutiny from the authorities, Mr Reilly and two Chinese subordinates established a “crisis management team” to bribe law enforcement officers from China’s industrial and commercial administration. The goal was to convince them to stop an investigation into the company’s illegal activity, the official said.
The pharmaceutical giant has been caught in Europe, the Middle East, and the US in similar bribery rackets of equal immensity.
GSK also manufactures vaccines for diseases including hepatitis, rotavirus and HPV infections, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, bacterial meningitis, and influenza. The question of whether or not properly manufactured vaccines can guard against the above mentioned diseases isn’t the question, the question is why would anyone trust their health and life to a corporation engaged in global-spanning criminality?
But GSK’s bribery scandals and the fact that virtually all other mega-pharmaceutical corporations are engaged in similar practices isn’t the worst of it.
During the height of South Africa’s apartheid system, government scientists were working on vaccines that would devastate the nation’s black communities. The Economist would report in an article titled, “Dr Death and Prime Evil,” that (emphasis added):
In contrast to the conviction of Mr de Kock stands the bizarre case of Wouter Basson (pictured), a medical doctor who ran the apartheid government’s chemical and biological warfare programme. Nicknamed “Dr Death” by newspapers, he was granted immunity for many crimes because they allegedly took place outside South Africa. As Dr Death he allegedly provided cyanide capsules to soldiers, and tried to develop bacteria that would selectively kill black people, as well as vaccines to make black women infertile.
The United Nations would elaborate on this biological weapons program in their report titled, “Project Coast: Apartheid’s Chemical and Biological Warfare Programme,” which stated (emphasis added):
One example of this interaction involved anti-fertility work. According to documents from RRL [Roodeplaat Research Laboratories], the facility had a number of registered projects aimed at developing an anti-fertility vaccine. This was a personal project of the first managing director of RRL, Dr Daniel Goosen. Goosen, who had done research into embryo transplants, told the TRC that he and Basson had discussed the possibility of developing an anti-fertility vaccine which could be selectively administered—without the knowledge of the recipient. The intention, he said, was to administer it to black South African women without their knowledge.
|Image: Dr. Basson helped develop vaccines aimed at destroying South Africa’s
black communities. They were to be given to victims without their knowledge.
One wonders what sort of lies the South African media would have invented, when black women began to realize the vaccines were in fact a weapon aimed at them and their communities and began warning others not to take them. Would terms like “anti-vaxxers” have been invented, and parades of “scientists” rolled out to assure South Africans that vaccines were perfectly safe and those refusing to take them were dangerously ignorant? Would South Africa’s version of National Geographic have claimed such people were simply being irrational in the face of the unquestionable reasoning of science?
Why is National Geographic now calling people “irrational” for being suspicious of vaccines when they are created by criminal corporations and when there are recent examples of governments using vaccines as weapons against their own people?
It might also trouble readers to know that South Africa’s repressive, racist, genocidal regime at the time received significant support from the United States and many European nations. This included both political support and significant military aid.
Considering all of this, it would seem rather unreasonable to trust “the experts.”
As with GMOs, studies underwriting the safety and necessity of these vaccines are also subject to immense lobbying efforts and outright corruption and criminality. Efforts to vaccinate the entire population of the planet (7 billion and counting) with a growing number of vaccines, including boosters for those who have already received them, is worth billions upon billions. Trusting “scientists” without considering the possibility this immense fortune might skew their objectivity is folly. It is just as dangerous to be ignorant of the human condition and its corruptibility as it is to be ignorant of scientific facts regarding diseases and the benefits of vaccines.
What is the truth behind the science of vaccines? They work. They may or may not be necessary in nations whose populations have access to proper nutrition along with modern sanitation and hygiene practices. If vaccines are to be distributed, they should be manufactured and administered by interests outside of government and corporate entities, both of whom have proven beyond doubt they cannot be trusted with such a responsibility.
Climate Change Will Happen, With or Without Us
Everything from the sun, to geological processes, to constantly evolving ecosystems have an impact on the climate. There is no “normal” climate we must attempt to maintain. Millions of years before human civilization, CO2 levels and temperatures were many times higher than what they are now. During the Cretaceous period there were no ice caps and the continent of Antarctica was covered with lush temperate forests inhabited by dinosaurs.
Humanity itself has seen wild fluctuations in the climate, enduring an ice age and an exceptionally warm period during Medieval times.
The fact that the climate of the planet naturally changes, however, does not absolve humans from minimizing their impact on the planet. Beyond ending the reckless genetic contamination of the planet’s genetic heritage through the use of GMOs, the petrochemical industry and the heavily centralized consumerist paradigm that currently exists must also be dismantled, decentralized, and converted to more sustainable and healthier alternatives, not only for the planet, but for society and human beings individually.
That should be a conclusion both sides of the current climate change debate could agree on – one doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand the impact on human health car exhaust has on the human body or the immense waste involved in manufacturing plastic trinkets in China, putting them on a ship to steam across oceans to be put onto trucks to be put into a Walmart and sit under lights burning 24 hours a day to be bought by a consumer who drove to the store and now must drive back home.
But dismantling immense oil and retail monopolies and replacing them with self-sufficient, high-tech local communities seems to be furthest from the minds of those championing urgent activism in response to climate change. Instead, they propose even more power be put into the hands of governments, banks, and corporations to create “policy.” The “policy” to no one’s surprise, leaves more power centralized in the hands of the very special interests that are truly and quantifiably destroying the environment.
Why aren’t people seeking technological rather than political solutions to address climate change? What if we mitigate humanity’s impact on the climate, and it still changes, just as it has for hundreds of millions of years before humans walked the Earth? Will “carbon credits” feed us if the world becomes incredibly cold, destroying global agriculture? Will it hold back flood waters if oceans rise despite our greatest efforts? Some how, “science” has convinced people to worry immensely about a problem but do nothing at all practical about it.
What is it about rational “science” that has people acting so irrationally?
Science as the New Religion
Hiding behind science is nothing new. Darwinists hid behind it to prop up their racism, which in fact inspired the Nazis to hide behind it to scientifically prove they were the “master race.” The Nazis, in fact, loved science, and used it with horrible precision. As mentioned before, big-tobacco used “science” to prove their products were perfectly “safe.” What precisely has convinced people today that such charades are not still playing out, more refined now than ever?
As National Geographic stated, people love their tribes. Those who have circled their wagons around “science” as their chosen dogma, are no different than the religious they believe themselves to be superior to. They have not truly and objectively looked into any of the issues they blindly support – and as National Geographic did, simply claim “it’s science!” or that “experts said!”
The arguments made for GMO, vaccines, and climate change are made by the same circle of special interests and propagated by their immense media monopolies. Little they say can be independently verified by the army of sycophants that eagerly repeat their claims. Citing a “peer reviewed study” is different than reproducing an experiment’s results oneself.
Also troubling is that following the money to see just how valid or compromised such studies might be seems not to even factor into this tribe’s calculus. Their belief that scientists are infallible and incorruptible is as naive as those who believe their respective priest classes are likewise somehow above all others morally, spiritually, and intellectually.
National Geographic’s article will undoubtedly help reinforce this new, backwards religion of “science,” while leaving real science battered, abused, and a stolen shield carried by liars as they carry out misdeeds against others. And while this new religion will swear their “science” is the only answer – all others might hear is yet another and particularly shrill voice amongst many others drowning out the voice of real reason.
Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi
Published on Resource Crisis on November 17, 2014
In classical antiquity, theatrical performances such as the “Atellana” farce were based on standardized plots and stock characters, identified by the masks they wore on stage. It was not so different than our present TV soaps and a good example of our tendency to interpret the world in narrative terms
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I am a little late for the talk at the peak oil conference. Fortunately, it seems that I didn’t lose much: the speaker must have started just a few minutes before I arrived and I only missed the introduction by the chairman. So, I relax in my seat as the speaker goes on with his presentation.(*)
The first thing I note is his the way he is dressed; not the standard one in this conference. Most speakers, so far, have been physicists and they have a typical way of dressing: they look like physicists even when they wear a tie; and they usually don’t. This speaker, instead, not only wears a tie, but even wears a double breasted suit (or so it seems to me – even if it is not a double-breasted suit, he wears it as if it were one). And it is not just the way he dresses, it is his whole posture and style. Everyone else at this peak oil conference has been speaking while standing up; showing slides, speaking without notes. Instead, he sits, shows no slides, and reads from a notebook he has placed on the table. If he is unlike the others in the way he appears, his talk is also totally unlike the others in this conference. Physicists tend to show data and numbers; graphs and tables; to the point of being boring. He doesn’t. He is not showing data, or graphs, or tables. He is not even mentioning data. He is telling a story.
He takes us to a sort of tour of oil producers. Each country is described as if it were a character on the stage of the world’s theater: the Americans, a little tough, but doing things right and successful in reaching energy independence by means of their advanced technologies; the Saudis, somewhat devious, but powerful with their large resources; the Russians, aggressive in their attempt of rebuilding their old empire. And the Europeans, well intentioned but hopelessly naive with their insistence on renewable energy. The story goes on as each character on stage interacts with the others. Will the Europeans succeed in getting rid of their dependence on Russian gas? Will the Americans be able to overtake the Saudis as the world leaders in oil production? What will the Saudis do to maintain their leadership?
Occasionally, data manage to appear in the narration; but when they do, the data are wrong. For instance, the speaker tells us that extracting one barrel of oil in Saudi Arabia costs as little as 2-3 dollars per barrel (yes, maybe thirty years ago). And he tells us that the Saudis just have to open the spigots of their wells to increase their production by 2, 3, or even 5 million barrels per day (yeah, sure…..). And some key concepts are never mentioned. No trace of peak oil, no hint of a depletion problem, and climate change seems to pertain to another conference, to be held on a different planet.
The talk winds up with the audience clearly perplexed. There starts the session of questions and answers and someone asks to the speaker what he thinks of peak oil. He answers first that he is not a geologist, but an economist; in this way confirming once more (if that ever was needed) that a man will never understand a concept if his salary depends on not understanding it. Then he adds that “they have been claiming for thirty years that peak oil was coming,” and, if that wasn’t banal enough, he mentions also the old quip by Zaki Yamani, “the stone age didn’t end with the end of the stones.” This is sufficient for stopping further significant questions. It is soon over and he rises up and leaves the hall while the conference continues with another speaker.
There is no experience so bad that you can’t at least learn something from it. So, what can we learn from this one? For one thing, the speaker in the double breasted suit had an experience symmetric and opposite to experiences I had myself. Sometimes, when I tried to present the concept of peak oil to an audience of people wearing double-breasted suits, I had the distinct sensation that they were looking at me as if I were an alien from Betelgeuse-III, just landed in the parking lot with my flying saucer. When you say “clash of absolutes” you may well refer to this kind of experiences. But there is something badly wrong, here: we all read the newspapers, we all have access to the same data on the Internet. So, how can it be that people can come to such different interpretations and conclusions?
I have been mulling these considerations in my head and eventually it flashed on me: it is not a question of the data; it is a question of how people process them! And most people wearing double breasted suits think just the way most people think: they think in narrative terms, not in quantitative terms.
Think of our remote origins: prehistorical hunters and gatherers. What kind of skills did our ancestors need to survive? Well, one was the ability of making tools; from stone axes to fishing hooks. But, much more important than this was the stock of social skills needed to climb the ladder of the tribe’s hierarchy; to become chiefs and shamans. That hasn’t changed very much with the arrival of the social structure we call “civilization”. In the annals of the Sumerian civilization, we have records of the names of kings that go back to thousands of years ago, but no mention of the name of the person who invented the wheel during that period. Even today, engineers are ruled by politicians, not the reverse.
So, the common way to interpret the world is in narrative terms, assigning roles to people as if they were actors playing their on-stage role. It is the theater of life, not unlike theater of the on-stage kind, not unlike the various forms of narrative that surround us: novels, movies, TV soaps and the like. It is typical of most people and it is especially strong in politics, where the various actors are classed in terms of a narrative vision of their role. For instance, Saddam Hussein was one of the characters supposed to play the role of the bad guy. Once he was cast in that role, there was no need of proof that he was accumulating weapons of mass destruction in order to start a war. He was evil, and that was enough. And there was no outrage when it was discovered that the weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist. That didn’t change Saddam Hussein’s role as the evil guy of the narration.
Scientists, however, tend to think in a different way; especially those who study the fields known as “hard sciences.” However, their way of reasoning is difficult to understand for most people. Just think of the common statement used to deny the human role in climate change, “scientists were worried about global cooling in the 1970”. Independently of whether it is true or not (it is only marginally true), it illustrates the abyss of difference between the common way of interpreting reality and the scientific one. Scientists believe they should change their mind if new data contradict old interpretations. But that’s not what heroes do in novels and films where, typically, a character starts with a given idea, fights for it throughout the story against all contrary evidence, and ultimately triumphs.
So, nobody would even remotely pay attention to what scientists say, were it not for the fact that they can occasionally come up with toys that people seem to like so much; from smart phones to nuclear warheads. But when they move out of their role as toy makers, their opinion loses importance in the debate. Even when you try to argue that a large majority of scientists (maybe 97%) agree that human generated climate change is a reality, you obtain nothing. Even a large majority among scientists is such an exceedingly tiny minority of the general population that it is not worth paying attention for most people (including politicians and decision makers).
In the end, telling stories is usually more successful than arguing using data and models. Indeed, after the conference, I was told that the economist in the double breasted suit is a very influential person and that people high up in the government often ask him for advice in energy matters. Evidently, he can tell a good story.
Not all good stories have a good ending, but good stories can always teach us something. So, what can we learn from this one? One is that we have been doing everything wrong with the idea of using data in order to convince people of the reality of such things as peak oil and human caused climate change. Yes, it is possible to gently nudge people’s beliefs in the right direction if we find ways to expose them for some time to the data and to their interpretation. But the kind of commitment we can obtain in this way is weak and ineffective. It is easily destroyed by even the most brutal and primitive propaganda methods: casting scientists as the bad guys of the story works wonders: as spin doctors themselves confess, “playing ugly pays“. And once a narrative has made inroads in the mind of people, it is extremely difficult – in practice impossible – to dislodge it from there. Have you noticed how, in most narrative plots, bad guys remain bad guys throughout? It is as if they were the characters of an ancient Atellana farce, wearing the appropriate mask for the bad guy (or scientists wearing their nicknames of geeks or eggheads)
Another thing that we can learn from this story is that we are all humans and none of us think like machines or like robots. Scientists may be trained to reason in terms of data, but even for them it is difficult to do it all the time. Reasoning in narrative terms has accompanied our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. If it is still with us, it is because it has done us a good service over this long span of time. What counts is not that the world can be seen as an unfolding story, but what kind of story is unfolding. And there exists a different story of the world to be told, a story infinitely superior to the current brutal plot that tells us that all the problems we have are related to the bad guys of the day and that when we’ll have bombed them to shreds everything will be fine again. This is the plot of second rate novels: it has little to do with real literature, the kind of literature that changes people for good, that changes the world for good. A better story of the world says that the world is not our enemy. The world is, rather, our partner (**): it can provide us with bountiful goods, but, as for a human partner, and as it is the stuff of so many stories, what we do to our partner comes back to us. If we hurt our partner, we will be hurt back and this is true in fiction as in real life. If we hurt the world surrounding us (or “Nature” or “the ecosystem”, or whatever term you prefer) we will be hurt back, and this is already happening. This is the story we are living: we may be the good guys or the bad guys; it depends on us.
(*) This post is a factual report from a recent peak oil conference. I didn’t name names or places, but the people who heard the talk I am describing will recognize it and the speaker.
(**) The concept of Nature as a partner to humankind can be found, for instance, in George Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics”
Off the keyboard of Ashvin Pandurangi
Published inside the Doomstead Diner on August 1, 2013
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Finding the Proper Perspective on Faith and Science:
A Rebuttal of John Michael Greer’s, The Quest for Common Language
*All quotations attributed to John Michael Greer in green are sourced from the following two articles, and all emphasis on such quotations are mine – 1) Held Hostage by Progress ; 2) The Quest for Common Language
In two back-to-back articles, John Michael Greer of The Archdruid Report has strayed away from his general rule to avoid making arguments about specific religions. Here is a clear case, in my opinion, in which rules are NOT meant to be broken…
In Greer’s view, conservative Christians who interpret the Bible “literally” are not accurately representing the Faith. Instead, they are inserting scientific assertions into the Bible where, in fact, there are none. I understand that this is a very common view among “liberal/progressive” Christians and religious non-Christians. BUT, I have yet to come across ANY Biblical evidence to support such an ahistorical and simplistic view of the rich Biblical traditions that have been preserved for posterity.
While denigrating the Christians who find scientific truths in THEIR religious traditions (i.e. the Bible), Greer seems to take great pride in alleging that HIS religious tradition promoted biological evolution before Darwin even came on the scene. Apparently, what’s good for the goose is not what’s good for the gander. As support, Greer quotes “part of a ritual dialogue” that features prominently in his religion:
“The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:
“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”
“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”
“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”
“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”
Greer then explains that this ritual continues on, but the above is enough to “give the flavor and some core ideas”. OK… now compare this ritual dialogue with the opening verses of Genesis Chapter 1 (NIV, 1-13):
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.”
(like Greer’s Druid ritual dialogue, this descriptive narrative continues on at some length…)
Can anyone look at these two sources of religious tradition and honestly claim that one contains scientific assertions while the other does not? It strains all reason and credulity to claim that the author of Genesis did not INTEND to make positive assertions about the origins of the Universe, the Earth and life on Earth; assertions that are clearly within the remit of scientific inquiry. Contrary to prevailing opinion, the principle of “Biblical literalism” has always been centered on the INTENDED meaning of Biblical texts rather than a wooden interpretation of specific words used. Greer attempts to sweep away this centuries long-tradition of interpretation with the following claim:
The loosely constructed straw-man used above claims that the Bible is not a “geology textbook” – the implication being, anyone who finds scientific assertions in the Bible is treating it as such a textbook and failing to notice its primary theological purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any serious and considered reading of the Bible reveals that Biblical theology cannot be artificially separated out from culture, politics, history, science or anything else. While the theology may not “center” on how the Universe, Earth and life came into existence, those issues are certainly featured FRONT AND CENTER, and the Biblical authors make no qualms about doing so.
JMG wrote the following in his first foray into the hypocritical bashing of “conservative” Christians:
Although Greer is specifically dealing with Darwinian evolution here, the implication is that Christians are going way beyond the scope of the Bible’s intended message when they make scientific debate a part of their evangelical ministry or mission. It makes you wonder, when is the last time JMG actually read the Ten Commandments??
Who can read the above and yet still claim there is no connection between the origin narratives of Genesis 1 and the theological discourse of Exodus, specifically Moses’ interaction with God on Mount Sinai. Regardless of whether you believe any of what is described in the Bible actually happened, it’s nearly impossible to deny that the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus intended to communicate a great intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and God’s personal relationship with humanity. We find this intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and DELIVERANCE of humanity repeatedly reinforced throughout the traditions of the Biblical prophets:
On top of ignoring such clear assertions in the Bible, Greer, in what can only be best characterized as a gross neglect of Christian history, cites the “historic creeds of the Christian churches” as evidence that the Bible was not intended to contain scientific truths which reflect on core theology. He claims that conservative Christians should get back to the primary message of these creeds, but fails to mention the wealth of historic Christian theologians and scientists (usually both) who read their Bibles and concluded the exact opposite of what Greer professes. After all, the rallying cry of the Christian Reformation movement was sola scriptura – that core Christian theology is not based on the Creeds of any church, but rather on scripture itself.
Leading “natural philosophers” of the Reformation era, with increased access to scripture and confidence in God’s word, confirmed that the study of the natural world is not distinct from the study of God’s glory and love revealed in scripture, but instead that the pursuit of both studies are INEXTRICABLY linked together as we ask the basic metaphysical questions about human existence, nature and purpose. The following are quotes by some of those courageous Christians who were at the forefront of the Scientific Revolution.
Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1627)
“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it needs fly to Providence and Deity.”
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
“Geometry is one and eternal shining in the mind of God. That share in it accorded to humans is one of the reasons that humanity is the image of God.”
Gelileo Galilei (1564-1642)
“It seems to me that it was well said by Madama Serenissima, and insisted on by your reverence, that the Holy Scripture cannot err, and that the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should have in your place added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways”
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
“Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human, and useless for salvation.”
Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
“The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
“The human mind is placed above, and not beneath it, and it is in such a point of view that the mental education afforded by science is rendered super-eminent in dignity, in practical application and utility; for by enabling the mind to apply the natural power through law, it conveys the gifts of God to man.”
Robert Boyle (1791-1867)
“shewing that, being addicted to experimental philosophy a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian.”
The quotes above only scratch the surface of what these men believed about the role of God’s word in science and vice versa, and obviously the list of people and number of quotes could continue. The point here is not that the Bible is inerrant when it deals with scientific matters, but that, contrary to Greer’s assertions, it DOES deal with scientific matters. As proof of fact, we see that all of the scientists above relied heavily on Biblical assertions when conducting scientific investigation – i.e. that the material Universe had a distinct beginning, was created by an Intelligent Mind and therefore it was governed by fixed, uniform and intelligible laws that humans could use to understand its workings and, more importantly, personally relate to its Creator.
It was only the Modernist era which gave rise to the widespread (and dangerous) belief that science and religion must be kept in separate “containers” of consideration and discussion, where never the twain shall meet. Greer, perhaps without knowing it, is simply reinforcing this artificial dualistic or “binary” mode of thinking that he often laments when discussing other topics. The question is not whether conservative Christians are right or wrong about Darwinian evolution based on modern scientific evidence, but whether there is any Biblical basis for them to argue that certain scientific theories are in tension with Biblical theology, and therefore make such arguments a part of their Christian ministry or mission in life.
The answer to this question from Greer’s perspective is a resounding NO. His only support for this answer, however, is the artificial duality that he imposes on the Bible and those of faith. It is true that many Western conservative Christians ignore proper scientific inquiry and simply attack theories on the basis of what they have been taught to believe. That fact is clear enough from the widespread conservative Christian critique of Big Bang cosmology. This critique is just as harsh if not more harsh than attacks on evolutionary theory, despite the fact that Big Bang cosmology supports the Bible’s claim of a beginning to all space, time, energy and matter!
Many of them have simply been taught to equate the Big Bang with “evolution”, thoroughly mixing up the sciences of cosmology and biology in the process. So it’s true that such ignorance and blind passion is prevalent, but Greer’s assertion here is also trite and irrelevant. He is trying to base an entire argument about historic Christianity, Biblical interpretation, science and theology on this one trite observation. Therein lies the binary mentality he fails to recognize in his own thinking (the following is MY take on his thinking):
“Either you are ignorant and blindly impassioned like THOSE Christians, or you are ‘progressive’ and well-versed in modern science like US”…
“Either you read the Bible ‘literally’ like THOSE Christians, or you read it metaphorically and allegorically like US”…
“Either the Bible is a scientific TEXTBOOK or it has ABSOLUTELY NO relation to science at all”…
The truth about the Bible is not so dualistic and simple. Like most good literature, it contains many different genres and literary devices – historical narratives, biographies, apocalyptic writing, military accounts, love stories, poetry, parables, metaphors, allegory, etc. The intention is not to create fiction or obscure reality but to convey truths about reality in brilliantly impactful ways. There is no reason to say that these truths are limited to “theological” truths rather than historical or scientific ones, or that those fields do not overlap and complement one another in the Bible. Such an argument presents an artificial and unnecessary duality, one that was NEVER incorporated into the historic Christian faith.
On the contrary, and as the evidence above makes clear, the historic Christian faith held to by many “conservative” members of the Church today has made no qualms that its theological messages are deeply intertwined with its historical and scientific assertions (or data points, if you will). Nowhere is this Biblical truth made more evident than in the very heart of Christian doctrine – the incarnation, ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the region of Palestine during the first century AD. Christians assert that the entire Bible from front to back revolves around and points to this one God-man – the divine Logos, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), through whom “all things were made” (1:3).
Greer asserts that the core of Christianity is faith and grace, which is TRUE, but then requires Bible-believing Christians to greatly suspend their disbelief when asserting that the Christian faith is not compatible with, or cannot be based on, intellectual and rational inquiry into other fields of knowledge.
The above is an exceptional encapsulation of Modernist dogma regarding religion. Greer has now thoroughly associated himself with the thinkers and pundits of the last few centuries who have attempted to quarantine spirituality from logic, reason and empirical evidence. It should be readily apparent how absurd this dogma really is when stripped down to its bare essentials. But, seeing as how I stand on the shoulder of pre-modernist giants, I will conclude this rebuttal by quoting Paul’s famous argument in 1 Corinthians 15, which flatly contradicts much of what Greer has asserted in his recent articles. Paul takes Greer’s grossly misleading, ahistorical caricature of Christianity and puts the Faith back into its proper historical perspective.
Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer
Published on The Archdruid Report on July 31, 2013
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That has implications I plan on exploring in a number of future posts. Some of the most crucial of those implications, though, bear directly on one of the core institutions of contemporary industrial culture, an institution that has derived much of its self-image and a galaxy of benefits from the historical fictions and stereotyped debates discussed earlier in this post. Next week, therefore, we’ll talk about what science might look like in a world on the far side of progress.
Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer
Published on the Archdruid Report on July 24, 2013
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Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on July 14, 2013
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The Greatest Intellectual Feat of Mankind
I love science. All science and sciences. I’ve spent a lifetime reading every popular science book I could get my hands on in every imaginable discipline. And in fields in which I was intensely interested I read the textbooks and the journal articles. Science as a way to understanding has been my passion. It therefore gives me great pain to entertain the possibility that the institution of science is yet another failed institution of Homo calidus.
The recognition of the process of science and, in particular, the scientific method has to stand as humanity’s greatest intellectual success. The notions of objectivity, observation, empirical methods, data, analysis, and provisional interpretation as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge have been woven into a beautiful tapestry of process that has proven its value over and over again. Ideologies (beliefs without actual verification) and religious dogma served a purpose to hold groups together by sharing common ideas and beliefs when our species emerged from the basic biological nexus as sentient, social self-conscious beings. Some purely practical beliefs took their origin in observations of nature that were repeatable and therefore the basis of prediction. Where the game could be found, when the rains would come, where the predators lurked, all of these kinds of regular happenings were the basis for repeatability. Each foray out to hunt was an experiment testing the hypothesis of that belief. But the existential questions that came with self-consciousness were not answerable by observations of nature. It would take the discovery of Darwinian evolution by natural selection before we could even begin to approach such questions.
And therein is the reason that ideologies and religions still exist today; that and the likelihood that the further evolution of eusapience was stymied after the invention of settled agriculture.
Even so, agriculture provided a significant boost to what would one day become science. Observation of many variables associated with plant and animal husbandry, and the application of those observations in controlled ways was incipient science at work. Large-scale agriculture gave rise to number systems for accounting, and, eventually, writing — using abstract symbols to express speech. Both were essential for codifying knowledge gained. Number systems and accounting (plain arithmetic) gave rise to mathematics when architects were commanded to build complex monuments and cities. Science (observing and interpreting) and engineering (exploiting knowledge to design and construct artifacts) were already developing as practical but unconsciously performed practices. As civilization progressed it enabled more areas to come under scrutiny and, in turn, allow civilization to progress further. Astrology (an attempt at answering existential questions) morphed eventually into astronomy and enabled long-range navigation and exploration.
The greatest accomplishment for humans was the eventual recognition of the process and its formal codification, transforming it from natural philosophy into a rigorous disciplinary method for obtaining knowledge. There were many steps in this process over a number of centuries. Aristotle had advocated what would become the empirical methods of observation. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century would advocate further for empirical observation as the basis for gaining truth. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Scientific Revolution crystallized and science emerged as a recognized process distinct from philosophy or religion.
And what a revolution it was. Mostly in terms of the pickup of the pace. Discoveries and exploitation came at accelerating rates. The invention of the printing press made it feasible to get it all recorded and disseminated. The institution of science would rapidly evolve.
Today science is an established institution overlaid on universities, government agencies, foundations, and industry. Money flows to researchers who conduct peer-reviewed projects with definite goals laid out. The granting institutions decide what the worthy pursuits will be and the investigators compete to show that their projects are relevant and likely to succeed. If a neuroscientist pursues an National Institutes of Health grant to study some aspect of brain function, she is required (if she wants a chance to win) to mention how her research could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. Failure to delineate how a line of research is going to lead to solving the energy crisis or cure cancer is a death sentence in the highly competitive fields of the modern practice of science.
The line between science and engineering has become blurred. Today engineering PhDs need to do research, ostensibly applied, to push the boundaries of what artifacts they can develop and what those artifacts can do. As in the above paragraph, scientists doing ostensibly pure research are obliged to mention the practical applications. The gaining of knowledge has come down to a gaining of new forms of wealth and wealth creation, not of gaining understanding of nature. If that happens from time to time it is a by-product, not the main goal. Put simply the funding model has changed the purpose of science and turned it into Über-engineering — finding solutions to problems. Science is now an industry*.
The universities, for their part, are producing copious PhDs in sciences and engineering even while the corporations complain that there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough of the Über-engineers based on the fact that the level of competition in innovative product development is staggeringly high. Today what counts as science is a discovery of how to cram more transistors on a chip of silicon.
And as often happens when you over produce a product you turn it into a commodity. The crops of PhDs and Master’s degreed people coming out of second and third tier universities have flooded the markets. They look for jobs as adjunct “instructors” or lecturers rather than full time, tenure-track positions in departments with active research agendas. Thanks to the societal meme that everyone should have a college degree, the subsequent rapid expansion of higher education institutions, and the demand for instructors, this has resulted in a positive feedback loop that produces stamped out of the mold products (PhDs) who then take whatever job they can get. A PhD in a science is no longer about science or the level of intellectual sophistication that it had been at the beginning of the 20th century.
A Two-Edged Sword
Science has been used for good and evil for its whole history as a human endeavor. I count evil as those acts of violence such as wars that make humanity worse off. Science has given us medicines but it also gave us the means of maiming soldiers so that they would require those medicines. Radioactive isotopes and atom smashers have been extremely useful in medical and investigative work but nuclear bombs have been a curse. And now, industrial grade agriculture is feeding billions (though some not so well) it is also poisoning our bodies, our soils, our air, and our waters. And not just our species is suffering.
Up until the mid 20th century science was mostly perceived as a force for good and progress. Very few people could or would question this proposition. But a few started to wonder about the negative effects that they began to suspect and later observe. Rachel Carson and her “Silent Spring” is a poster child of this thinking. But there were others and many even before Ms. Carson. The sword had become that of Damocles to them. We enjoyed the benefits of science and engineering, but most people were either ignorant of or simply ignored the threats hanging just over their heads as they sat on the throne of progress.
Unfortunately the warning voices were drowned out by the din of exclamations about the wonders of science. As I was just coming into more adult-level awareness, having been brought up on Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and (later) Star Trek, the Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58) was a site where adulation of our knowledge of atomic energy was on display. I had been born exactly on the day the first atomic bomb had been used to kill people in Japan 13 years earlier. So I found myself conflicted over the science of atomic energy; on the one hand producing such horror, and on the other producing what seemed, at the time, like a promise of prosperity. By my senior year in high school and continuing in my first years of college, I wondered how this could be. What kind of creatures were we that we could do this to ourselves?
Ironically I would come to live in Seattle, WA. less than a decade after the Seattle World’s Fair where the expectations of progress and the great promise of science was the major theme. I had grown up reading mostly science fiction tales about space travel. Men had landed on the moon just before I came to Seattle so it looked like we were on our way to the Gordon/Rogers/Trek era. The optimism surrounding what would be possible given our mastery over science was palpable throughout the western world (as long as you could suppress thinking about the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon). To this day I like to visit the Pacific Science Center on the grounds of that fair, with the towering Space Needle a constant reminder of the notion of progress. I still love science, with its ability to produce meaningful knowledge of how the universe works. But I have developed considerable doubts about its payoff for humanity given our propensity to see that knowledge as only valuable if it increases our profits or helps us kill our enemies.
Science itself, as a means for gaining knowledge, is not a failure. As a process it is not inherently a two-edged sword. It is not evil. It is the use of science that has turned evil. I hinted at this above.
By evil I don’t mean in a spiritual sense. I mean in the effect on human life sense. As a species we are bound to protect our interests in survival so anything that does so in the evolutionary framework is good, anything that threatens us is evil. Unfortunately in mankind’s exploitation of the knowledge we gained from science we find increasingly more evil than good. The knowledge itself is, of course, neutral. It is just knowledge. The problem is that we do not have the meta-knowledge of how to use knowledge for the long-term benefit of humanity. We have, instead, learned to exploit science, through engineering, for immediate gains without thinking about the long-term consequences. So knowledge of heat engines is used to engineer machines that propel us rapidly from point A to point B. We individuals in the here-and-now “profit” by getting places faster. Our time is then in surplus, our personal energies conserved. Why should we worry about the consequences of burning fossil fuel to achieve this short-term profit? Isn’t it easy to believe this trend will go on and on forever, that our children, and their children, will have even more profit from science and technology?
Knowledge of how to use knowledge for the long-term good of humanity is wisdom. That knowledge is not explicit nor are we necessarily consciously aware of it when it influences our intuitions. It just comes up from our subconsciousness as a feeling about the right path to follow, the right thing to do. Wisdom is also veridical knowledge. It must be valid, consistent, holistic, and morally motivated. It comes only from the experiences of a lifetime that consolidate into mental models of deep reality. It is knowledge ultimately based on evolutionary truth. It cannot be otherwise since evolutionary fitness objectively requires the species to be operating in accordance with the rules of the environment.
Evolution itself is the wisdom of ordinary biology. For every prior species that has ever existed evolution made the strategic decisions through variation and natural selection. Species improved in fitness until the environments changed radically enough to require new strategies. Variation in the genetic pools provided the raw material for selection to cause both incremental improvement, to adjust the phenotypes to shifting environments, and novelty, when needed to launch a new line, so to speak. And if the changes in environments were too extreme, as in a major die-off, evolution started over with whatever remained — the rest went extinct.
Humans emerged as a species with an expanded capacity to imagine the future by taking into account environmental changes that were possible and feasible. They began to formulate their own strategies and improve their own fitness. They figured out how to control fire, how to make artificial fur out of animal hides. They learned how to survive in inclement climates. Cultures became the new ‘species’ (or sub-sub-species). But as with any emerging property or behavior, strategic thinking started out fairly weak and only a few variant members of a population ever achieved anything close to what would eventually be needed as the cultures continued to evolve. Group selection is now being recognized as the selection process that deepened our eusocial nature, but also promoted the ascension of a few wiser leaders in early human tribes. The tribes with the most dominance of cooperation and with the wisest elders were more fit than those who were less cooperative or failed to have sufficiently wise elders.
The basis of eusociality, primarily empathy and language, along with strategic thinking ability are the roots of sapience and wisdom. Stronger sapience (i.e. genetic variants that boosted expansion of the necessary brain components in fetal development) led to more successful groups, which in turn favored the increase in sapience. But it just didn’t progress far enough or fast enough to build the kind of wisdom — knowledge of how to use knowledge — needed to manage the growth and use of simple knowledge.
Ergo here we stand today, overrun with some knowledge of the natural world (including ourselves) and lots of knowledge about stuff (the human-built world) and we haven’t a clue as to how to use it appropriately to bring balance between the two realms. What passes as science today is a mere shadow of what it was and what role it played in discovering how the universe works. There are still, fortunately, a large number of scientists who keep to the old ways. But they are generally the older members of the community. Often they are the ones who have gained wisdom. They are the ones who tend to write books about what the science they practice means in the larger sense. But their voices are barely heard at all against the clatter and banging of the modern industrialized, politicized institution we call science.
Science, as it originated, still stands as an ultimate intellectual achievement. As a method for gaining knowledge, when practiced with wisdom it stands unsullied. It is the process that uses science, the low-sapient human society, that is failed. Society creates institutions that process information and use it for supposed human uses. Something has gone terribly wrong in the institutionalized science of modern times, and that something is the lack of wisdom in humans themselves.
* Lest I be accused of painting with too broad a brush I should hasten to point out that there are still many scientific fields that are pursued for the sake of gaining knowledge without a profit motive. I’ll name one, cosmology. I don’t think cosmologists and astronomers need to justify their grant proposals with anything immediately profitable or curing a disease. However, it has been getting harder and harder to get sufficient grants as national budgets are strapped and priorities increasingly focus on “practical” work. Ask any Republican congressman if he/she thinks it valuable for the NSF to fund a project to find out if there is life on other planets and see how they respond. Ask the same person how valuable it is to research the next major weapons system and you will likely get a totally different response. My feeling is that whatever funding is going toward pure research in these fields is on the basis of momentum and tradition more than choice.
Off the keyboard of Anthony Cartalucci
Published on Land Destroyer on October 16th, 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasboard inside the Diner
Wired’s “Living by Numbers” Health Conference.October 16, 2012 – Wired Magazine has conducted a “Living by Numbers” health conference in New York City, drawing together experts and leaders involved in medicine, science, technology, and business to share their perspective on the progress and future of healthcare. The underlying theme of the “Living by Numbers” conference was the gathering and applying of information regarding our health to improve the prevention and treatment of injuries and sickness.
The implications of the conference were far reaching in both the profound positive impact the emerging technologies and systems presented could have, as well as the vast capacity for abuse that each possesses.The conference was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, IBM, BASF, BodyMedia, iHealth, 2morrow Mobile, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Speakers included Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics, Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Research, Sue Siegel of GE, and retired US Army Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum.
The term “tracking” was prevalent throughout the talks. Several presenters revealed that data collected from Google and Facebook were regularly used in research, specifically for predicting trends almost instantaneously. Of course, in the context of these talks, such methods were presented as being purely beneficial in regards to spotting pandemics and improving healthcare efficiency.
Smart products including phones and home appliances were presented that could record data, be used for health monitoring, and even replace or augment existing medical devices. There were implantable sensors that could log data and monitor vital signs, and GE and Google executives talking about taking a more active, not to mention Orwellian and intrusive role in employees’ habits and lifestyles, and how technology and information-gathering could make such efforts more effective.
There were also talks involving technology such as 3D DNA printers, presented by Craig Venter, that if widely disseminated into the hands of an informed, technically complement medical community, could vastly improve healthcare and regenerative medicine, as well as strip the monopolies, and all the dangers associated with them, from large biotech firms like Monsanto, Bayer, and Cargill.
Coupled with the concept of “self-tracking” presented by Tim Ferriss, and increasingly cheaper and more capable medical equipment making it into the hands of better informed patients as mentioned by Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute, we see a possible future quite the opposite of anything Orwellian. But it is also a future large corporations are already arraying their resources against to prevent from coming into fruition.
Ultimately, the conference was about technology. Technology is a double edged sword. It can cut both ways, and how it is wielded depends mostly on the hands it is held with. Currently, this technology is in the hands of large corporations, institutions, and organizations. And while many of those involved in the development of these networks, technologies, and policies are well-intentioned, the danger exists that those at the very top, the same corporate-financier interests that fund policy think-tanks that engineer wars as well as economic and political manipulation on a global scale, have truly malevolent intentions.
This is a real problem. Perhaps the problem. Technology has reached a point where the very building blocks of what makes us human can be manipulated and controlled to such an extent, it can either liberate us from disease, injury, and even aging, or render us permanently and irrevocably inferior to those who control this technology. Likewise, the control and use of digital information can create either a tool of infinite benefit, or a vast, invasive, inescapable control grid. Coupled together, exists either a technological utopia, or an Orwellian nightmare, all depending on who controls the technology – a malevolent elite, or humanity as a whole.
The key to solving this problem is by simply getting informed and getting involved. The more informed, technically competent people that become involved in the development, use, and improvement of this technology, the more difficult it will be for any corporation or institution to monopolize and leverage the technology against others, ensuring that it is used for the collective benefit of humanity.
Technology, and more specifically biotechnology, is becoming increasingly accessible to the average person through online resources and community laboratories like New York City’s GenSpace and Boston’s BossLab. As technology in general continues to advance and costs continue to go down, the tools once used solely by large corporations, institutions, and organizations are now becoming available to local schools, community laboratories, and independent researchers and developers. While there are many fears of this technology getting into the hands of people intent on creating catastrophes, it must be remembered that the technology will also make it into the hands of many more people interested in defending against such catastrophes.
The choice between an Orwellian nightmare or a technological utopia is entirely up to us. We can choose to be perpetually paralyzed by political ploys, crass, superficial distractions, and shallow consumerist endeavors, or we can choose to assert our own collective will above that of the corporate-financier interests who have for so long dominated humanity and seek to dominate it to an ever greater degree. We can assert our will by becoming informed and involved in the very disciplines that build a modern civilization – engineering, design, and sciences of all kinds. If we can do this individually, even in the smallest way, taking even but a single step forward in the right direction, collectively we can begin replacing the existing paradigm in great strides.