Category Archives: Science

And Galileo Wept

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In some ways, we’re brilliant. Take the Republican party, for example. Their representatives have declared that climate change isn’t real, evolution isn’t proven, rape isn’t a problem, birth control isn’t necessary, and guns are great. And they still keep getting elected. Not that political parties need to be immersed in the latest science, but to claim as Bobby Jindal recently did that he has no opinion on evolution because he’s not a biological evolutionist makes you wonder if he has an opinion on gravity, having never studied Newton. Or for that matter, what’s his opinion on the speed of light?

Alas, we are enveloped in waves of such sophistries. For politicians to parrot a climate denier’s implausible assumptions or some Missouri popinjay’s insistence that rape isn’t real, is to insist on the kind of ignorance that  must be actively sought after, applauded, advanced. In fact, this kind of ignorance must be so cleverly calculated that it can compel workers to vote against their own interest, over and over, like what happened recently in Tennessee when Volkswagen allowed its workers to vote for union membership and they voted it down while holding placards produced by Americans for Prosperity, an Orwellian named front group designed to bust unions, among other things. Funded by the Koch brothers, natch.

The media enables the sideshow, of course. Talking heads like George F. Will lend a patina of Edwardian styled class to what is at best an intellectual Happy Meal. This despite actual journalism going on in the same paper (the Washington Post) pointedly refuting George Will’s erroneous claims:

“The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.”

Thank you Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan of the Washington Post, for pointing out the obvious, but gratitude aside, what kind of editorial hack would allow a columnist to essentially make up facts, or, at minimum, distort interpretation such that the column says the exact opposite of what the science is trying to convey? Fred Hiatt, at the Washington Post, for one. The Wall Street Journal editorial page for another. Then of course, Fox News. But even the so-called liberal media usually gets the frame wrong for science disputes. When Republicans say there is no such thing as climate change, and Democrats reply that climate change is real, CNN and the like say, “Look, Democrats and Republicans are fighting again,” which is a kind of truth, but Gravity is real and so is climate change. Why not point that out? Maybe, as a followup question, someone could ask Republicans what their feelings are on black holes and whether or not the Earth revolves around the sun?

Last weekend, well over 310,000 climate activists descended on NYC out of pure frustration with this phenomena (estimates range from 310,000 to over 500,000). For years now, as the science community has essentially screamed that climate change is real, is happening, is dangerous and will cause untold millions to suffer and cost untold billions, our conservative politicians essentially said, “Meh” or “I can’t hear you.” Or they presented disingenuous arguments like Republican congressmen Rep. Steve Stockman from Texas who claimed sea level rise will not be an issue because when ice melts in a glass of water it does not overflow, failing to realize that much of the ice on the planet is on land and would run into the ocean. Jon Stewart spent a bit of time at Comedy Central schooling him (after asking repeatedly, “are you fucking kidding me?”), which might be funny, only Stockman happens to sit on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee for the US House of Representatives; and, as such, guides our national agenda. This is rather like putting a six-year-old intellect in charge of our national science priorities. I say this with apologies to six-year-olds everywhere.

Not all Republican climate deniers are too stupid to breathe, however. Those with a glimmer of intelligence fall back on various dodges and rationales provided by lobbyists from energy companies and PR firms whose roots were formed deep in other, older protracted public relations battles around tobacco and cigarettes. The Royal Society conducted a survey that found ExxonMobil had given $2.9 million dollars to such American groups that “misinformed the public about climate change,” 39 of which “misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence”. In 2006, the Royal Society issued a demand that ExxonMobil withdraw funding for climate change denial. The institution was ignored. Between 1989 and 2002 the Global Climate Coalition, a group of mainly United States businesses, used aggressive lobbying and public relations tactics to oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight the Kyoto Protocol. The New York Times reported that “even as the coalition worked to sway opinion [towards skepticism], its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.” The lobbyists, of course, remained undeterred—their job wasn’t science, after all, it was persuasion. And they were good at their jobs.

Thanks to such work, politicians have reversed their positions and moved away from supporting efforts to push for renewables and other ways to lessen our carbon footprint. Consider this: the 2012 Republican nomination battle saw Romney, Gingrich, and Pawlenty all disavow their past support for climate science and climate protection. In one debate, Pawlenty was challenged on his climate change efforts as head of the National Governors Association and governor of Minnesota, and he replied: “It was a mistake, and I’m sorry … You’re going to have a few clunkers on your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. … I made a mistake.” As Newt Gingrich took heat for a TV ad in which he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat together and spoke on behalf of climate action, he repeatedly declared it was “the dumbest thing I’ve done in the last four years.” Mitt Romney, who prioritized climate change action as governor of Massachusetts, used his speech accepting the Republican nomination to take a dig at President Obama’s concern over climate change, then repeated the line on Meet the Press, insisting: “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.”

Scientists came to a decisive view on the dangers of global warming in the 1980s, the Reagan era, when faith in the power of unfettered markets surged and it was harder than ever to make the case for collective action, market regulation and a strong role for the state. But tough national and international regulations is exactly what the crisis requires. Conservatives fought this not only because it aligned them with wealthy corporations whose deep pockets enabled their candidacies, but because it also aligned with their general principle that less government was always better.

Worse, though, in the world of the conservative ideologue, there’s a growing conviction that an environmental scientist is a potential 5th columnist. They call this the ‘watermelon’ theory on the environmental movement, green on the outside, red on the inside, because any effort toward stronger regulations is socialist, apparently. Does your organically cleaned washroom breed Bolsheviks? This is delusional, to be sure, but delusional world views have real world consequences. Galileo was sentenced to house-arrest and died a broken man in 1642. Shortly before he died, imprisoned and exhausted, Galileo denied what he knew to be true and finally agreed with the Catholic church: okay, whatever, the Sun revolves around the Earth. No oceans failed or worlds boiled into oblivion because of his capitulation, which, of course, will be the consequences of denying that anthropocentric global warming is real.

By the way, the Catholic church did not admit that they had made a mistake on that little matter of the Earth revolving around the Sun until 1992.

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The Apex of Moronia

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H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”

This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”

Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”

Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”

But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”

Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.

Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.

God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.

Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.

According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”

The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.

Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.

Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”

In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.

H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.

~Jack Johnson

Note: HB 207  was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014

Uranium – The Virginia Battleground

(Click the map to see where future uranium mines could be in Virgina.)

Update –
Here’s an article about last night’s meeting: Science meets passion at uranium briefing

As you may know, Va. Beach is hosting a public briefing tonight on Uranium Mining in Virginia. A surprising number of people are getting seriously involved with this issue, and not just the people of Virginia.

Uranium mining can’t begin unless the moratorium is lifted, and due to a lack of support, the vote was postponed until 2013. The corporate money and power behind the mining project is becoming more clear all the time, though it’s been framed as a FFV’s love for their community and ultimate concern for its progress. The public isn’t buying it though, and they’re passionate about keeping the ban in place. As that firestorm continues to mount, I think we could have a real People v. Profit showdown next year, and that may be just what the doctor ordered.

I hope you’ll find a way to attend the briefing tonight, but even if you can’t, read this great exposé by award-winning investigative journalist, Rose Ellen O’Connor. It’s a three-part series that started in November about lifting Virginia’s ban, but covers much more than the 30-year moratorium. She carefully includes both sides, but weaves in and out of the ‘truth or consequences’ of uranium mining, complete with horror stories, lies, politics, corruption and misinformation. Each one is a prize, so if you’re interested in the prospects of mining and milling uranium in Virginia, I recommend reading all three for the nitty-gritty.

Uranium Mining – The Virginia Battleground – Environmental Concerns vs. Corporate Interests Part One
Just a taste:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Marline, the Canadian firm that failed to win approval for mining from the Virginia General Assembly before the market tanked in 1985, had workers crisscross the state with Geiger counters, hopping out of their cars when an area seemed promising. Marline bought up leases on 16,000 uranium-rich acres in Fauquier, Madison, Culpeper and Orange counties, which have since expired. Opponents of lifting the moratorium say they fear that Virginia Uranium will seek to mine the sites that Marline found and that the state will be overrun by uranium mines.

Virginia Uranium executives insist publicly that they have no interest in other mines.

“We’ve made it clear we’re only interested in Coles Hill,” Wales said at the Richmond forum.

But Coles Jr. seemed to suggest that the company is, indeed, interested in other mining possibilities at a meeting with potential investors in London in February. Coles said the geologist who discovered uranium at Coles Hill has long believed that more deposits will be found. Virginia could be another “Athabasca Basin” Coles said, referring to an area in Saskatchewan, Canada, where 41 companies mine one-third of the world’s uranium supply.

“Talking to the lead geologist,” Coles said, “he’s insistent to this day that Coles Hill is the first of more major discoveries in Virginia that might lead to another Athabasca-style resource play.”

Uranium Mining – The Virginia Battleground – Environmental Concerns vs. Corporate Interests Part Two

Uranium Mining – The Virginia Battleground – Environmental Concerns vs. Corporate Interests Part Three

The main study on Uranium Mining in Virginia came out in December. Most people have read the non-technical brief that has been linked in many articles. But the full report to view on the internet is linked below. From the link, scroll to the Table of Contents and from there you can either read the full report, select chapters, or skim. Under the skim feature you can also search by “suggested” keywords.
Full report: “Uranium Mining in Virginia: Scientific, Technical, Environmental, Human Health and Safety and Regulatory Aspects of Uranium Mining and Processing in Virginia.”

Who owns Virginia Uranium Inc.?
Here’s how the company is structured: VA Uranium Holdings Inc., a company incorporated in Yukon, Canada, for tax purposes, owns 100 percent of Virginia Uranium Inc.  A little less than 50 percent of VA Uranium Holdings is owned by Canadian firms. Virginia Energy Resources Inc., a uranium development company based in Vancouver, Canada, owns 29.44 percent of the holding company’s shares, while Sprott Resource Corp., a Toronto-based natural resource development firm, owns another 18.06 percent. Local investors own about 52.5 percent of the holding company, according to Virginia Uranium.

Video: “Uranium has never been mined east of the Mississippi River–for good reason. Kay Slaughter, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, explains why mining and milling uranium in southern Virginia poses serious threats to the environment and public health.”

Health effects of uranium exposure in charts, graphics and pictures (pdf)

~~~~~

I think lifting the ban has less to do with Virginia’s economy and more to do with the mining industry’s profits. Plus, our military’s unsustainable need for uranium and other strategic elements and rare earth minerals is a thirst we should be concerned about. It certainly won’t be sated in Pittsylvania County. In that context alone, I think the ban will be lifted by our lawmakers regardless of every foreseeable negative impact, and we can expect that this sort of dangerous mining and toxic dumping will spread … unless we can stop it.

Ms. O’Connor did point out the large Canadian presence involved, and in fact they are present throughout U.S. mining operations – but she didn’t mention that their web of partnerships sells to global markets. In foreign-owned hands, how can we control, or even know where the uranium and its by-products are being sold?

After 35 years of continuous mining (which is unheard of because they quit working when the market is down), the damage would be done and the mine would be abandoned. A hand full of people – maybe even some Virginians – would have made a startling fortune. After that, many generations of our children would be charged with finding safe ways to escape something we did knowing that we couldn’t control the outcome and that it could cause them cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations – among other things.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding … Virginia has a long history of catastrophic weather events, and that’s not including the climate change that promises to deliver circumstances we can’t conceive of today. There’s not a corporation nor a government on earth that can ensure a thousand years of safety. Nor can they deny that in the next thousand years, no matter how “safe” the clean-up is, one healthy explosion in the reclamation area is all it would take to contaminate the water, air and land that sustain millions of Americans. That’s a bullseye.

A while back, I read a comment that a physicist made about nuclear energy production, but I think it applies to uranium mining as well. He said, “We can send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri today but it would take a hundred years or more to arrive. In 80 years, we might send a spaceship that would pass the original en route. Are we advancing our progress by sending one today? Unlikely – we already know what the current technology can and cannot do. If we used the money on basic research instead of giving it to companies to try to make inferior technology competitive, we would be better off in the long run.”
DCKennedy

Kurt Vonnegut


Your Guess Is as Good as Mine, from “A Man Without a Country”, 2005
[By Kurt Vonnegut, the legendary author, WWII veteran, humanist, artist and smoker, was an In These Times senior editor until his death in April 2007.]

Most of you, if not all of you, like me, feel inadequately educated. That is an ordinary feeling for a member of our species. One of the most brilliant human beings of all times, George Bernard Shaw said on his 75th birthday or so that at last he knew enough to become a mediocre office boy. He died in 1950, by the way, when I was 28. He is the one who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I turned 83 a couple weeks ago, and I must say I agree.

Shaw, if he were alive today, would envy us the solid information that we have or can get about the nature of the universe, about time and space and matter, about our own bodies and brains, about the resources and vulnerabilities of our planet, about how all sorts of human beings actually talk and feel and live.

This is the information revolution. We have taken it very badly so far. Information seems to be getting in the way all the time. Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. Our most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading characters in our history books. I will name two of them: Aristotle and Hitler. One good guesser and one bad one.

The masses of humanity, having no solid information to tell them otherwise, have had little choice but to believe this guesser or that one. Russians who didn’t think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.

We must acknowledge, though, that persuasive guessers—even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in Russia—have given us courage to endure extraordinary ordeals that we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, wars, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead—the guessers gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively.

Without that illusion, we would all have surrendered long ago. But in fact, the guessers knew no more than the common people and sometimes less. The important thing was that they gave us the illusion that we’re in control of our destinies.

Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long—for all of human experience so far—that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on, because now it is their turn to guess and be listened to.

Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting.

They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they want standards, and it isn’t the gold standard. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.

Loaded pistols are good for people unless they’re in prisons or lunatic asylums.

That’s correct.

Millions spent on public health are inflationary.

That’s correct.

Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.

That’s correct.

Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.

That’s correct.

Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do: Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to competition and raid the Treasury in case they go broke.

That’s correct.

That’s free enterprise.

And that’s correct.

The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.

That’s correct.

The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its people.

That’s correct.

The free market will do that.

That’s correct.

The free market is an automatic system of justice.

That’s correct.

And so on.

If you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, D.C. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcomed in Washington, D.C.

Do you remember those doctors a few years back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They were not welcome in Washington, D.C.

Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.

What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge—the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard or Yale educations, to become guessers. If they didn’t do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on.

Please, don’t you do that. But let me warn you, if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you—and now I have to guess—about ten to one.

Cold Turkey
Timeless shorts by Kurt Vonnegut from In These Times
DCKennedy