Shuck and Jive

Friday, October 03, 2008

Defending Science

My father is a member of the American Chemical Society and at the age of 90 he keeps up with (among many other things) Chemical and Engineering News. He was motivated to send me a clipping of a recent editorial. I found it on-line. The editorial is entitled Defending Science:

AN ACS MEMBER recently wrote me to complain about the lead News of the Week story on CO2 and climate change in C&EN’s April 7 issue (page 9). In his letter, the member wrote that regulating CO2 “would change the national economy and decrease our standard of living” and, as such, “it is critical to know whether or not increased CO2 emissions would be a significant danger to the public.”

I chose not to publish the letter for reasons that will become clear in the remainder of this editorial. My correspondent does not think that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere contribute to climate change. To support that position, he cited a paper by Arthur B. Robinson and coworkers at the Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine (OISM) published in the Journal of American Physicians & Surgeons (2007, 12, 79).

Huh? The Journal of American Physicians & Surgeons (JAPS)? What has a journal with that name got to do with climate change? With all due apologies to my correspondent, the answer is: nothing.

Where does one start on this? There really is a right-wing effort in the U.S. to discredit widely accepted science, technology, and medical information. Probably the best known is the Junk Science website of Steven J. Milloy, the tireless antiscience polemicist who started out as an apologist for the tobacco industry and spends most of his time these days claiming that all climate-change research is, of course, junk science. It’s a catchy little phrase that Milloy applies to, well, anything that doesn’t match his right-wing concept of reality....

He goes on to show how this organization and others exist to discredit science. The editorial concludes:

Why does any of this matter? Why not just ignore AAPS, JAPS, and OISM and the noise emanating from them? For the same reason science can’t ignore creationism and intelligent design: The goal of the antiscience movement is to endlessly cast doubt on legitimate science.

Of course there are questions about any scientific theory, gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in, whether it is the theory of evolution or the theory of human-induced climate change. That’s why we continue to do science. But the questions and gaps are not fatal flaws, as the antiscience advocates would have the general public believe. As scientists, we need to continue to make that case. (Read More)

My father sent this clipping to me, a religious professional, because he and I both know that the church is where antiscience gains its momentum. I wonder what it is going to take for the church to address this growing antiscience movement.

Do we need a creed that embraces science? Do we need to develop a theology of science? Do we need a curriculum for children, youth, and adults that provides education regarding science?

Teaching and preaching about the Bible, Jesus, and social justice issues are important. But this is becoming the critical issue of our day. The antiscience movement is a serious threat to life. It seems to me that it is up to clergy who are somewhat literate regarding science to take the lead in promoting scientific literacy.

Evolution Weekend is one place to start. Does your church participate?

What are your thoughts?


  1. Maybe I'm unrealistically optimistic, but the denial of science for largely political reasons has been going on for much of our history (ask Galileo), and yet science has managed to prevail. The science deniers may slow down the perfusion of science knowledge into the general population, but progress continues in spite of their efforts.

  2. Hey, John, your Dad sounds awesome. :)

    I haven't studied this in great depth. But, could it be this causes of climate change issue just reflects a legitimate difference of opinion among some scientists. I think because folks don't accept the majority opinion, it doesn't always follow that they are science deniers.

    Either way though, it seems to me that we certainly need to do everything possible to reduce our carbon footprint, and not at all contribute to the problem. To me this is a no brainer.

    Anything that harms God's creation in any measure can't be good, and something that Christians as stewards of the natural world should support.

    At the sametime, I think it's important to really have our ducks in a row, know what we're actually talking about, and not come off with just a "politically correct" response that might not be based in truly objective information.

    For instance, is it possible to drill for oil in Alaska in a way that is truly environmentally responsible, and be developing alternate sources of energy at the sametime. Would this be helpful? Or, should we oppose any additional drilling up North, or offshore drilling no matter what?

  3. There are two points here, as I see it.

    The first point is specific to global warming (real or not) and its cause (human or not). On this point I subscribe to the majority opinion at NASA:

    Causes of global warming

    Climatologists (scientists who study climate) have analyzed the global warming that has occurred since the late 1800's. A majority of climatologists have concluded that human activities are responsible for most of the warming. Human activities contribute to global warming by enhancing Earth's natural greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect warms Earth's surface through a complex process involving sunlight, gases, and particles in the atmosphere. Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are known as greenhouse gases.

    The main human activities that contribute to global warming are the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and the clearing of land. Most of the burning occurs in automobiles, in factories, and in electric power plants that provide energy for houses and office buildings. The burning of fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide, whose chemical formula is CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that slows the escape of heat into space. Trees and other plants remove CO2 from the air during photosynthesis, the process they use to produce food. The clearing of land contributes to the buildup of CO2 by reducing the rate at which the gas is removed from the atmosphere or by the decomposition of dead vegetation.

    A small number of scientists argue that the increase in greenhouse gases has not made a measurable difference in the temperature. They say that natural processes could have caused global warming. Those processes include increases in the energy emitted (given off) by the sun. But the vast majority of climatologists believe that increases in the sun's energy have contributed only slightly to recent warming.

    Second point to follow

  4. "But, could it be this causes of climate change issue just reflects a legitimate difference of opinion among some scientists. I think because folks don't accept the majority opinion, it doesn't always follow that they are science deniers."

    Science is not a democracy. We don't decide what is and is not scientifically accurate by taking a vote. We decide such things based on the evidence.

    Any first year college chemistry student can tell you that CO2 absorbs infra-red radiation and can perform a 10 second analytical experiment to demonstrate that.

    Any high school chemistry student can write out the balanced chemical equation for the combustion of hydrocarbons clearly demonstrating that one of the products is CO2.

    What's the problem?

    BTW, John, didn't know your Dad is a chemist. You come from good stock. :)

  5. The second point, and the main thrust of the C&EN column addresses the more general problem of the rejection of science by people that ought to know better, and the underpinnings of their rejection.

    C&EN is the most widely read and highly respected journals in the field of chemistry. Your blog, John, did not include the column's detailing of the fundamentally conservative bias of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, or the lack of scientific credibility of the journal, JAPS, or the oddball nature of Arthur B. Robinson and coworkers at the Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine.

    Given the fringiness of these people and their publications, it is, at first, tempting to say your concern is a tempest in a teapot. However, it is not. When we look at who has been president for the last eight years, who controlled congress from 1994 (the year of the Republican Revolution) to 2006, who might be our next vice-president, and examine the collective mindset of these people and their stances on science and religion, the magnitude of the problem rises to immediate and significant concern.

    As 'tater brain' notes, in spite of our long history of science-denial, science has consistently been able to shine through. However, times are different now than they were in Galileo's day, or in Priestly's day. (Priestly discovered oxygen and dispelled the "vital spirits" dogma, and then had his house burned by rioters.) In today's world, we have the ability to precipitously and irreparably alter the face of the earth. We are much more numerous, and vastly more powerful than at any point in out past. We could quickly saturate the atomsphere with enough CO2 to reach a tipping-point of no return. We could, in a year see massive crop failure as a surprise, or ocean fisheries could collapse with wide-spread sarvation as the result.
    Carrying the concern to another level, there's always the nucular issue. A world leader with access to the bomb could find themselves compelled by their vision of God's will, by their desire to see Jesus come again, or in wanting to regain control of the Dome of the Rock to pave the way for the apocalypse. They could do something really stupid. I have to wonder how much of George Bush's anti-science, pro-Jesus-come-again beliefs justified his fervor to get our military into the middle east.

    If it seems that I've wandered in that last paragraph, I haven't. There is a clear relationship between the rejection of science and the acceptance of the fantastical as truth. There is a clear continuum in the mind-set that rejects evolution and believes that Jesus will come-again so if Israel bombs Tehran, it's OK.

    It is a huge and immediate problem that faith in the supernatural rejects physical truth. The column in C&EN underscores the problem's pervasiveness and its insiduous acceptance.

    Good for your Dad.

  6. John asks:
    Do we need a creed that embraces science? Do we need to develop a theology of science? Do we need a curriculum for children, youth, and adults that provides education regarding science?

    Yes to all.

    A few years ago I participated in an HHMI grant designed to teach high school teachers and their best students some of the fundamental principles of biology, including evidence for evolution. We conducted demonstration experiments on the biochemistry underlying evolution and phylogenetic relatedness. Several of the teachers, especially those from rural areas said that they had been told by their Superintendent's offices, not to teach evolution. Amazing, but true.

    The level of resistance among some of the students was shocking. One said, in a written summary, "There are some questions we shouldn't ask." Another openly challenged that we were "just trying to cram abiogenesis down our throats. Everybody knows that idea has been discredited since Pasteur." This from a 16-year old. It was clear that she had been indoctrinated in arguments against evolution in her home church.

    So Yes. We need to do something. And we need to be aware of the magnitude of the problem and the strength of conviction of the opposition.

  7. And while we're at it, and possibly more importantly, we need to emphasize basic training in civics.

  8. When government and religion join forces to push back on science for the sake of ideology, we are way past the threshold of "differences of opinion".

    The problem here is that it takes a shift in public policy to reverse course. A shift in public policy carries financial consequences and for those for whom these consequences are negative, undesirable. They would rather spend the money to manipulate public opinion to maintain the current public policy.

    So it becomes political.

    And politics is not the realm of science.

    Joe Six Pack (did she really call the average American male a beer drinking alcoholic?) does not understand and is not easily swayed by scientific arguments.

    Its a failure in the education system really.

    American Democracy as we know it is based on and relies on scientific reasoning. Greater than the problem of global warming is the problem of a public that no longer understands the basics of science or scientific reasoning.

    Although one could argue that technology will fail without science, and if technology fails, the industrial society will fail, and that will ultimately solve the problem of global warming.

    One way or the other, global warming is a self correcting problem.

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  10. I always find it interesting that the those folks who refuse to allow even the smallest theological differences of opinion are the very same group of people who try to hide behind the "legitimate difference of opinion" fallacy regarding scientific facts.

    (BTW, the key word in the phrase "legitimate difference of opinion" is the word "legitimate.")

  11. That statement from NASA regarding global warming could easily be printed in a bulletin or referenced in a sermon.

    I find among my colleagues a bias against science or perhaps a disinterest as if it isn't related to the church or to God.

    Yet the church has had a long tradition (at least theoretically) of appreciation for the two books of revelation (the Bible and Nature).

    It seems we should be preaching and teaching as much as from the book of nature as the bible.

    To put it in evangelical speak:

    "Knowing the Lord includes knowing His Book of Nature."

  12. Alan, are you talking to me here, this group of people...?? :)

  13. I've been reading the book "God After Darwin" by John Haught. It was written in 2000, and it is possibly the best book I've read on how theology can incorporate modern evolutionary science.

    There is no question in my mind that scientific literacy is important. Yes, social justice is also important, but it isn't a matter or either-or. We have to have both. Science is important, and science matters.

  14. Hey Seeker! Welcome! Glad to have you back!

    Yes, social justice is also important, but it isn't a matter or either-or. We have to have both. Science is important, and science matters.

    Praise the Lord.