The Elephant in the Room


Is God off topic?

Well, as I settle down to read Unscientific America, I thought I’d discuss how I think science ought to relate to religion, so I could get my view on the record independent of Chris & Sheril’s.

There is a view in which science and religion address orthogonal questions, and in a sense I’m an advocate of that view.

The separation can’t be said to be perfect. Certainly, here in Texas as we are besieged by people who are convinced who “don’t believe in” evolution, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the belief baggage that religious people carry. As a related point, whatever the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is, it becomes weaker if you make a point of not challenging young earth creationism; all paleoclimate evidence vanishes in a puff of smoke, and really you’re left with an incoherent view of the universe.

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama says:

if science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

Here is a view that by definition can’t be at odds with science.

My own interest in religion centers around two facts: the first is the inherent value of the experience of Unity. This appears closely related to the mystical experience as described in many religious cultures, including traditional Catholic Christianity. The experience of God can be so dramatically intense (the word that the more intellectual person can hang onto it is “numinous”) that regardless of what theory of the universe you hold, accounting for the experience itself cannot reasonably be considered as beside the point. This in turn draws attention to the phenomenon of experience, and how very feeble and hollow efforts to reduce the phenomenon of experience (formerly, the “soul”) to a basis in a physical theory must be.

As theologian Paul Tillich (apparently; I’ve seen this attributed to others) said to atheists: “Tell me the God you don’t believe in, and I probably don’t believe in that God either”.

So to me, people like P Z Myers and Richard Dawkins who celebrate atheism are celebrating a naivetee as severe as that of the people they criticize for believing literally in implausible miracles. Tangling up religion with superstition is unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable. Most people are not going to be philosophers. But dismissing it is equally unfortunate, leaving the poor adherent of the shallow materialism with no vehicle for spiritual development.

So first and foremost, atheists are very much the wrong people to go after superstition. That is because they don;t understand that there is a baby in among the bathwater. When we allow them to associate their “philosophy” (I use the word loosely because it’s a rather shallow philosophy) with science, that serves to discredit science not only among the superstitious but also among the spiritual. It does no good to start to address people’s superstitions by attacking God as chief among them.

I started this blog just as Nisbett and Mooney got their paper about “framing” into Science. See also their Washington Post op-ed:

Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.

We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don’t enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists’ failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It’s here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society — even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.

I guess I must have caught the zeitgeist; my first postings here preceded those arguments by just a few days. But I am now and was then convinced that they are raising the right issues.

I’ve seen some pretty negative comments about Unscientific America, and based on my first gloss of the material I expect I won’t fall into that camp. I think some of the hostility has to come from Mooney’s discomfort with the shallow and belligerent atheism of Myers.

In fact, I at one time wanted to be part of the SciBlogs list and managed to wangle myself an invitation. I think I was rather rude in ignoring it. After over a year the invitation remains the oldest item in my inbox. I had two complaints about SciBlogs that kept me away. Myers was one of them. (The other was their sense of design. I simply don’t want to look at that color scheme every day.)

Anyway, my world view is explicitly theist and explicitly informed by the intrinsic experiential value of religious experience. In the end, if you are so foolish as to offer people a choice between love and reason, you shouldn’t be astonished if they choose love.

I wasn’t raised in the Christian tradition, and I find the Christian approach to religion confusing. So I’m not the person to do the outreach either.

But we can’t proceed to approach the heartland culture by dismissing that part of the culture that they value most, and for perfectly good reasons: the church provides them with a foundation in community, ethics, and appreciation of life. How to approach such people with scientific reasoning is not an easy question, but you shouldn’t be surprised if your attempt to trivialize what they consider most holy is not met with a forehead slap and a sheepish laugh and a “what was I thinking?”

Some Big Picture Comments

By me, hoisted from the comments, about communicating climate science.

The scientific community has stood firm with climate science throughout, but this fact has had very limited recognition. The preponderance of evidence that CO2 accumulation must be not just slowed but essentially halted becomes more inescapable every year.

Yet many people believe exactly the reverse, largely under the influence of organized PR efforts intended to obscure the evidence.

Scientists have constraints on the time they have to devote to public communication and the ways in which they are expected to communicate. At present the most effective communication seems to come from a few climate bloggers, some anonymous, or from amateurs like Greg Craven or Peter Sinclair. These efforts only arose to fill a gaping vaccuum in professional communication.

However we got to this state, it has to be reversed.

I don’t know as preventing the public from having or stating opinions is even possible, and its certainly not a good idea. But people who are not experts should at least keep in mind the possibility that there are other people who understand things better than they do. So that’s a shift in the culture that even precedes the shift in consumption habits.

At least it is a shift back to a condition that existed when I was young, when the opinions of scientists really did carry a lot of weight in public discourse, and when real expertise was respected.

The effort to communicate real science in good faith has to be doubled, redoubled, and redoubled again. We really need for people to understand the basic ideas. It needs to be seen as unhip to have your eyes glaze over as soon as argument from evidence begins.

People need to understand that what they “feel” about something is not decisive.

I don’t have a single detailed answer for how to get from here to there. I have a dozen ideas, including a couple I am keeping under my hat. I’d be thrilled to dedicate myself to any of them. People I am talking to have dozens more. What we lack is a business model.

Right now, people like Mark Morano or Joe d’Aleo have a career path open to them to muddy the waters. We need ways to create incentives for creative people to make a career advancing, rather than retarding, public understanding of science.

That is not a career in PR as we understand it. There are already environmental advocacy groups out there. I am speaking of something else; the revitalization of conversation between science and the public.

Maibach Public Outreach Talk

John Fleck alerted me and others to this talk by Ed Maibach on public outreach and climate change in DC this week. I managed to round up an anonymous correspondent. (If you know who wrote this, please note that the author wishes to remain anonymous. If you are the author, please let me know if you change your mind!) It all seems insightful but pretty innocuous to me, frankly. Regardless, I sincerely thank the anonymous blogger for the contribution.

Earlier this week, I attended a talk by Dr. Ed Maibach of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication titled “Climate Change Communication 2.0” in which Dr. Maibach discussed his recent research findings that identify “6 Americas” based on differences in the public’s beliefs, concerns, and motivations regarding climate change (see http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/images/files/GlobalWarmingsSixAmericas2009c.pdf).

Based on this continuum of perceptions and responses to the climate change issue, Dr. Maibach expressed a need to rethink the communication of climate change to engage, persuade and motivate all 6 audiences more effectively. He proposed a shift from what he termed, “Communication 1.0 which focuses on education and persuasion oriented communication aimed at individuals to Communication 2.0” that is aimed at communities or groups of individuals based on their social ecology and focuses less on education and more on behavior change through the passage of policies that will then, over time, shift attitudes. This, of course, is in contrast to Communication 1.0 whereby education and persuasion are viewed as a means for first altering attitudes that will then result in a shift in behaviors.


To illustrate his proposal, he provided and example from Europe in which both London and Stockholm implemented a congestion pricing scheme to address high motor vehicle congestion in targeted areas of the city. By charging motorists a fee to enter these high congestion areas, the cities sought to reduce said congestion while raising revenue for transportation improvements. Although not popular at the time of passage, politicians went forward with the decision and the citizenry in these areas, who have since had to change their behaviors, are now much more supportive of this change and thus have a different attitude towards the regulation.


Dr. Maibach went on, in the course of his lecture, to propose that many of the current communication strategies (Communication 1.0) that focus on individual actions aimed at climate change mitigation (i.e. reducing your personal carbon foot print) were not fully sufficient for addressing the issue of climate change. Communication 2.0 requires a message that appeals to broader sectors of the public (the 6 Americas) and should be focused on policy-oriented changes that focus on both mitigation and adaptation (and possibly climate engineering). So I’m sitting there, nodding my head thinking, “exactly, your spot on, Dr. Maibach,” when the reality sets in and I come back to the age old question of “but how do we do this, how do we make it happen?”


One means proposed by Dr. Maibach was reframing climate communication as less of an environmental issue and more of a public health and safety issue. Specifically, he noted that all 6 Americas have one value in common and that is the need to save energy and that shifting the dialogue towards energy use may be a more effective form of communication. This, Dr. Maibach noted, would allow for a more singularized, consistent message as he cited the current state of ad-hoc and atomized climate change communication due to a lack of cooperation between varied organizations has resulted in numerous messages and at times, conflicting voices in despite a common goal. In closing, Dr. Maibach recommended that climate change communication focus on changing public policy by engaging both decision-makers and the public to address climate change at the political, not individual levels.


Although there was very little time for question and discussion by the end of the talk I could feel people shifting in their seats with a bit of angst and discomfort. Some felt that shifting communication away from the environment was not appropriate because that was their chief concern and energy alone doesn’t get at the issue. Others expressed concern that Communication 2.0 shifts the focus away from the individual when it’s the individuals who will move the politicians. Many were struggling with this notion of behavior change that leads to attitude changes and one person questioned the scale (local, national, global) at which Communication 2.0 should occur. There were not answers, to these questions, per se in that despite the lack of time, the talk, as described in the beginning by Dr. Maibach, focused more on broad generalizations and less on specific issues such as the ones raised by the audience. My question, which I did not ask, for a number of reasons but would love to hear your comments on are as follows:


How do we reboot the climate change communication system in an effort to shift from Communication 1.0 to Communication 2.0?


I 100% agree with the framework set forth by Dr. Maibach. I’m personally tired of the newsletters, e-mails, and buying books that direct me to reduce my carbon footprint because in the end, I know that we’ll never have the mass shift in behavior at the individual level to address climate change appropriately at the national or global level. So I must admit that I’m biased as I believe that the only way to really enact change is through policy change. This is nothing new, Garrett Harding touted the notion of mutually agreed upon coercion in Tragedy of the Commons over 40 years ago. But how do we get there when in the end, those fighting to address climate change are doing so for a number of different interests and reasons (as noted by Dr. Maibach). Is it possible for those advocating for the need to address climate change to come together with a unified message? Can we shift from touting the “25 E-Z Things You Can Do Around Your House” (a book I was given at the Austin Step It-Up Rally) to instructing people to work within the political system?


The biggest constraint I saw in Dr. Maibach’s talk wasn’t in his proposal, but rather his example of the European congestion charge example when he stated that despite unpopular public opinion, the politicians passed the law anyway because it was the right thing to do. Is or will there ever be that type of political will regarding climate change? I have to think that there will be, we just need to get the right message out, and I think we can, but first, we have to shift to Communication 2.0.

Dr. Maibach replies as follows in email:

Many thanks to the anonymous blogger for this feedback. I realized that I had left some members of the audience a bit uncomfortable with my comments, and this posting helps me understand why.

In my talk I should have directly addressed how “Communication 2.0” can be used to grow and strengthen public support for appropriate policies and other “placed-based” changes.

My use of the congestion pricing examples from London and Stockholm was intended to illustrate how behavior change (based on policy change) can in some instances be a powerful means by which to change people’s attitudes in helpful ways. In contrast, we often attempt to change people’s attitudes by “educating” them (via communication and outreach campaigns), all too frequently with no effect.

I agree that it is unrealistic for us to expect elected officials to enact smart yet unpopular policies in hopes that the public will soon come around to seeing the wisdom of the change. We need to build public support for smart policies, so that they become political winners instead of political losers.

In the meanwhile, my hat is off to those brave elected officials in London and Stockholm who were willing to enact smart yet unpopular policies. Leadership of that variety is a wonderful thing.

Edward Maibach, MPH, PhD
Professor, Department of Communication
Director, Center for Climate Change Communication
George Mason University

A quarter million

Page view number 250,000 was served by this blog site in the wee hours this morning. 

Sounds impressive, huh? If I had a penny for every hit I’d have $2500. For an hourly rate of pay of about a dollar, I’d guess. 
Which is more than what I got, which is a half dozen books to review. 
And also much less than I got, which is a bunch of new friends, not to mention an old friendship renewed.

Anyway hit number 250,000 came from Auckland NZ, via this aggregator.

Just Food

I just saw local author James McWilliams give a well-attended talk at BookPeople on his book “Just Food”, where “just” refers to justice as well as purity. I would definitely consider him a kindred spirit. He ended his research quite unconvinced of the importance of “food miles” (the book is entitled “How Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly”) but unexpectedly convinced that meat is unethical. 
The talk was wide-ranging, and a number of interesting points came up. I don’t have any central organizing theme of my review of the event, but I thought I’d capture some interesting snippets.
He had been on Ira Flatow’s Science Friday just last week as the contrarian intended to debate Michael Pollan. Of course, he cringed. He gave journalists grief for their craving of simplicity and conflict, but he gave the show credit for letting the two of them actually agree on things.
He believes that organic methods COULD feed the world, but that there would be very little room for meat in such a scenario.
He believes that concentrating on localism doesn’t work. Some places are better suited for growing food than others. They should specialize. However, the places we grow food are the wrong ones. (California, with imported water.) And what we do with the midwest (feed crops) is incredibly destructive.
He is the guy who wrote a New York Times article a couple years back asserting that New Zealand grass fed lamb bought in England was less greenhouse gas intensive than local feedlot lamb. 
Grass-fed cows emit MORE methane than corn fed ones.  (but lamb also eats grass. contradiction of the previous point?)
General agreement from author and audience that overpopulation is the core problem. In a sense our problems are problems of success.
Energy expenditures for meat don’t seem to include “rendering”, i.e., disposing of what he called “deadstock”, over half the weight of a meat animal that is inedible or unsellable anyway. 
20% of all greenhouse emissions in the US are attributable to meat. Transportation is a small fraction thereof. Giving up meat one day a week has all the global warming benefit of zeroing out food transportation costs.
He believes dairy and eggs are not as bad as beef. I’m not so sure. I hope so.
Soil depletion, groundwater depletion, increased population points to increasing food stress in the future. Meat consumption increasingly an ethical issue.
Food problems cannot be solved on an local level. Systems must be redesigned. Global hunger is a food issue, after all. 
Most of the questions intelligent and polite. But one woman was intense, upset. Going on about the importance of local control, keeping things out of the hands of corporations. McWilliams was careful to acknowledge her point, but couldn’t get her to acknowledge that localism, while good, isn’t enough. Many people seem very attached to an idea of local self-sufficiency. In Texas! Texas has NEVER supported a significant population on local resources. 
Speaking for myself as a liberal in a land of libertarians, it was nice to see a smart Texan thinking global for a change.
It was a thought provoking evening. BookPeople rocks.

My Craven Rave at Last

OK, so I don’t want to discourage people from sending me free books. That means if somebody sends me a review copy of something relevant, I read it and review it. So unfortunately I lost my free copy of Greg Craven’s book “What’s the Worst that Could Happen“.

I finally gave up on finding the free copy. Fortunately, it’s an inexpensive purchase at $14.95. And I have to say that I didn’t mind paying all that much.

Now I’m not in the target demographic for the book (which will lead into my biggest disagreement with it) so maybe I’m not one to judge. On the other hand, it’s easy to see Craven’s influence in ClimateSight’s writings, and she is off to a terrific start as a climate blogger.

Craven’s approach is very much in line with something I’ve been saying all along. I refer to the idea of a “network of trust”. No scientist really knows everything he or she claims to know from direct experience. Most of what we know as individuals comes from two factors: 1) a network of trust and 2) the test of coherence.

Don’t get me wrong. What we know collectively comes from observation, experiment, theory and calculation. But what we know as individuals we mostly know because we learned it from someone else. People who don’t learn from others don’t learn very much.

Now, the nonscientist, the earnest and bright high school student, the wise and yet wisecracking high school physics teacher, your Aunt Maggie, don’t have the second way of evaluating science.

The wise and yet wisecracking high school science teacher in question
Click the image for an amusing video demonstrating his style and hawking the book.

That’s why Craven’s book is about the first way of learning, what I call the network of trust.

Basically “what do you believe” comes down to a question of “who do you trust”. Haivng made that point, he weighs the believability of the warmers and that of the no-warmers. Sure enough, when you actually start counting, the number of naysayers turns out to be, well, puny. As I once explained with this graph. While Craven touches on some of the issues in climate science, mostly he is about explaining the scientific culture.

Craven is right to do this. Despite the naysayers’ constant harping on “focusing on the science”, study of the details is really for the people who have developed sufficient grasp of scientific coherence. Which, I’m sorry to say, isn’t guaranteed even for tenured faculty. Never mind high school kids. So how should a kid (or an adult!) who is honest enough not to just go with his or her crowd, who wants to get to the right side of what is obviously an enormously important substantive question, evaluate the competing arguments?

By trust, and trust alone. That’s the only way to do it.

A big reason we are having so much trouble these days is because the networks of trust, especially the connections between science and society, but also the connections between any sort of authority and society, are in bad condition. I think if the national science academies of the main science producing countries on every continent unanimously agree on something, if the international body of scientists appointed by every country makes stronger statements every six years every time they issue a report, and if every major relevant scientific body agrees, that ought to be enough. Yet the public remains unconvinced.

Craven decides to look at both teams in detail. He cuts the denialists every inch of slack he can come up with, and they still come up wanting in the trustworthiness department.

That is a great service. (To be sure, he encourages the reader to make their own evaluation.)

All of which brings me to my biggest disagreement with Greg Craven. This is a book out of left field, and so it has statements here and there that strike the climate geek as bizarre, but they are minor points, and I don’t feel a need to quibble.

We do have a point of disagreement. Greg says you should check your own conscience for “what would make you change your mind”? He says that if you can;t come up with anything, if that slot is empty, then your mind is closed and that’s a red flag for incorrect thinking. But I have argued something that sounds pretty much like exactly the opposite!

But I have a complex and elaborate coherence structure to draw upon.

Consider how I got mixed up with the Klotzbach paper. Prominent naysayer Joe d’Aleo’s blog alleged that most warming on land was due to a bias in the land surface temperature record, referring to Klotzbach’s paper. Klotzbach’s claim was not consistent with my coherence network. Therefore, I resolved to figure out what the unclear claim really amounted to. The deeper I got into it, the stranger it got. Eventually, one of the authors was compelled to admit that the word “bias” did not actually indicate an error in temperature. Further reading revealed many other flaws in the work, although the key one, which appears to have been reported (somewhat at second hand) by James Annan, is something I still don’t entirely understand.

This is where the first principle cuts in. Should I further investigate the key claim, still contested by the authors? Well, I know James to be an extraordinarily careful and precise thinker, and it’s already demonstrated that his opposition is not. Since boundary layer meteorology is not my forte, and since the rest of the paper is flawed in many ways, I feel satisfied that it’s best to put my attentions elsewhere.

The main point for present purposes is that I immediately questioned the result claimed by d’Aleo on the basis of its incoherence with everything else I know. And my questioning turned out to be justified. The publication, though it passed peer review, probably should not have done so. It looks like science from a distance, but up close it looks like nonsense.

It’s interesting that the article which violates Craven’s principle is one which won me something of a convert. My old college buddy King of the Road, who arrived on this site a skeptic, was not won over by the strength of detailed argument, but by the appeal to coherence. Having a rich enough body of knowledge of his own, he understands how certain claims can be dismissed as nonsense, while others remain within the spehre of possible sense. So while Craven’s advice regarding openmindedness is good for people who don’t have a richly developed sense of intellectual coherence, it’s not good for those of us who, um, have a sufficient body of actual knowledge.

But this is, in fact, consistent with Craven’s other point. Which is to trust the geeks. (Some of whom actually are hippies, but that’s another story for another time.) Why trust us? Not because we play chess better than you do while you dance better than us. Nor, even, because we really ultimately know what’s what.

Trust us because we know what’s NOT what. Trust us because we know when something someone says is incoherent with what we already know.

In summary, Craven’s book is not enormously interesting to a scientist or science enthusiast. I would not recommend it directly to most of my readers, but we are not its target audience. It does not draw upon mathematical or physical coherence.

It just says, c’mon, it’s obvious, this gang is the guys who know what they’re talking about. They’re not guaranteed to be right, but you’re asking me to make a pretty huge bet that they are for sure certainly wrong. Why would I do that?

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole story told the right way. This is the book to give an earnest skeptical high school student, or a busy and disengaged adult. Craven has done us an enormous service in finding a way to address these audiences.