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Monday
Nov282011

RS49 - Eugenie C. Scott on Denialism of Climate Change and Evolution

Release date: December 4, 2011


Our guest Eugenie C. Scott joins us to talk about a new initiative of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) to tackle denialism of global warming. Both evolution and global warming are “controversial issues” in the public sphere, but are not controversial in the world of science. There is some overlap between the two issues, but far more people are climate change deniers than evolution deniers. What is interesting to skeptics, however, is the similarity in the techniques that are used by both camps to promote their views. The scientific issues are presented as “not being settled,” or that there is considerable debate among scientists over the validity of claims.

Evolution and global warming opponents also demonize the opposition by accusing them of fraud or other wrong-doing. Denialists in both camps practice “anomaly mongering,” in which a small detail seemingly incompatible with either evolution or global warming is considered to undermine either evolution or climate science. Although in both cases, reputable, established science is under attack for ideological reasons, the underlying ideology differs: for creationism, the ideology of course is religious; for global warming, the ideology is political and/or economic.

Dr. Eugenie C. Scott is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, and sits on the Board of Advisors for the New York City Skeptics. She has written extensively on the evolution-creationism controversy and is past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Scott is the 2010 recipient of the National Academy of Science's Public Welfare Medal. She is the author of "Evolution vs Creationism" and co-editor, with Glenn Branch, of "Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools."

Eugenie's pick: "SkepticalScience.com"

Reader Comments (4)

I rather think the problem more one of semantics on the part of the advocates of particular policies in response to 'Global Warming' more than anything else. When advocacy of public policy is argued as if this were science, rather than what it really is, politics, science is reduced to an ideological toady. And that is truly a tragedy.

This issue isn't so much over the science (a minority excepted). It's about what, if anything, 'should' 'be done' about all this. And that is absolutely not a scientific debate. It's purely a political, ideological, philosophical and sentimental one.

It has been largely by the misuse of Science to advocate political programmes that large segments of the public have become skeptical of the reliability and objectivity of large parts of Science itself. So those seeking the advent of authoritarian paradigms (which curiously can often be very tolerant, democratic and humane) over 'science', should simply 'keep it up'. I suspect we'll all discover to our loss (and gain) that Tolstoy's observation about barbarism was no less accurate today than 80 years ago.

December 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Smith

Why should Science be immune from Skeptics' examination?

Must one have religious expertise to criticise religion (indeed this was a criticism levelled at Dawkins)?

Can non-String Theorists say anything useful about String Theory?

Do Philosophers of Science have anything to say about Science?

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

Eugenie Scott rightly distinguishes the science (human emissions heat up the planet) from the policy (attempts to reach international agreements). I think most of the opposition to the science comes from failing to make the distinction, leading to the belief that climate science is either a socialist conspiracy to extend government control, or driven by scientists' desire to get lots more grant money by being as alarmist as possible.

I have tried out an argument to counter each of those claims. I am not sure how well they work, because my extremely limited field testing mostly has led to the deniers not answering. I don't know whether that should count as a success.

If there really were a socialist conspiracy, it could easily be spiked by offering a free market solution to the problem. For as long as the free market enthusiasts can't offer a solution to the problem, that has two consequences:
1) They have to admit that government regulation, as in the Montreal protocol and Europe's approach to acid rain, can work where the market fails. That hurts. Perhaps that will motivate them to put some energy into developing free market approaches that work at global scale, not only at smaller scales. I hope so, because I'll take whatever solution works best, and a solution that would be acceptable to the deniers would have a better chance of being implemented.
2) The lack of a free market solution allows the plausible inference that their disputing the science is driven by the wish not to see their favoured ideology shown to be inadequate. I have seen free market enthusiasts admitting that their beliefs are driven by a dislike of the proposed solution. Like the one who wrote "I'll believe it [global warming] when it doesn't cost me any money." Another admitted that he picks his beliefs according to whether or not he likes the actions that follow. This is wishful thinking, and strictly irrrational.

Of course, accusing people of wishful thinking is not generally likely to persuade them. It is probably better to illustrate the principle with an example they like, i.e. a political opponent engaging in wishful thinking, and then pointing out that whether or not denying global warming is wishful thinking, it sure looks like it. Therefore even if global warming were a socialist conspiracy, it would be good political strategy to offer a free market solution instead of looking irrational.

The claim that all scientists' warnings must be driven by a desire for grant money can be countered by pointing out that this is a universal argument against all warnings. By that argument, scientists must be wrong about thalidomide being a problem for pregnant women, it must be fine to dump mercury waste in fishing grounds (see Minamata), the Newfoundland cod fishery never collapsed, all other fisheries are fine, too, there are plenty of passenger pigeons and Tasmanian tigers, and the oceans are just brimming with blue whales, which are kept out of sight by scientists. The universal denial argument clearly is not universally correct.

A further point here is analogous to the counter to creationists' claims that evolution is ideologically motivated by atheism. That is implausible because scientists of lots of different religious faiths do accept evolution. Likewise in climate science, lots of scientists warn of global warming who are funded by governments that have strong motivations not to act, and therefore strong motivations to engage in wishful thinking and claim there is no global warming. China keeps the lid on social unrest by buying off its people with rising living standards. That depends on continued economic growth, and China is seriously worried about dependence on foreign energy sources. China does have a lot of coal. Nevertheless, China invests in reducing the carbon intensity of its economy. India wants economic growth, which could be powered most cheaply by coal. Despite these incentives, Indian and Chinese climate scientists don't say everything is fine. And US climate scientists kept warning of global warming even during the Bush administration, when the incentives rather were to say everything is fine. The claim that all warnings are motivated by financial incentives simply doesn't stack up.

December 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Biegler

I've heard this a few times in talks by Eugenie Scott, and she said it again in this episode (around 21:50),

"There's a lot of stuff in evolution. There's astronomy, geology and biology."

Isn't this pushing the boundaries of what most people think of as evolution a little too far? A basic awareness of astronomy and geology are necessary (the age of Earth and the universe, etc) but they don't have evolutionary processes.

I noticed this a while back and have yet to hear any other scientific reference to "evolution of the cosmos" or of geology. The term "evolution" is inappropriate in these cases... there is no natural selection in the way the cosmos formed, nor in the way that geological processes operate.

I don't think I'm being overly pedantic. It seems to me that NCSE need to be clear on the terminology that they use.

Or is this bundling of astronomy and geology in with biological evolution intentional, as a way of covering all the bases? If so, I'm not sure it's really going to work. I've seen some confusion in audiences around this, e.g. Eugenie's talk earlier this year (2012) at the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin. (it's on the NCSE's YT channel, titled "Creationism in and outside of the US")

July 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter5ecular

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