CATEGORY: WordsMatter

Words Matter: Industrial climate disruption is not a religion

CATEGORY: ReligionWeekFor other posts in the Words Matter series, please click here

religion
a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices (source)

Some people falsely allege that industrial climate disruption is a religion. This allegation is blatantly flawed, as is the related allegation that industrial climate disruption is a cult. But that doesn’t prevent deniers of industrial climate disruption from making the false allegation in an attempt to render the underlying science moot.

As shown in the definition above, a religion is a set of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices, with the key word being “religious.” Religion requires the worship of some greater power or divinity. Scientific disciplines do not. In general, religion concerns itself with faith and adherence to established doctrine whether or not the doctrine make sense. Science, on the other hand, concerns itself with what is observable, what can be explained using logic and mathematics, and what can be tested with experiments or future observations.

Industrial climate disruption does not postulate any particular greater power or divinity. This fact alone disproves the claim that climate disruption is a religion. But for the sake of argument, what greater power or divinity could possibly be invoked by industrial climate disruption? The measured infrared properties of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane make poor deities, seeing as they’re not imbued with any intelligence. Climate models also make poor greater powers since they are merely simulations based on fundamental physics that respond blindly to their inputs. And the various fundamental laws of physics used in climate models are as unintelligent as a molecule of carbon dioxide is.

The only way to make industrial climate disruption into a religion is to redefine the entirety of science itself as a religion. And at that point we might as well say that the Babel Fish is the proof of the non-existence of God, prove that black is white, and avoid zebra crosswalks thereafter (ref.).

And for those industrial climate disruption deniers who go even further and call industrial climate disruption a “cult,” cults are a subset of religions. Specifically, a cult is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” (source). If industrial climate disruption can’t be a religion, than it can’t be a cult either.

So why do deniers of industrial climate disruption make a blatantly flawed allegation? Some truly are ignorant of the differences between religion and science. Some may be so opposed to policies they fear will result from accepting industrial climate disruption as real that they have unconsciously chosen to ignore the blatant flaw. But the rest know that the allegation is false, but they allege it anyway in an attempt to discredit industrial climate disruption as a whole.

Since the Renaissance, science has earned a privileged place in human culture. Individuals and organizations make decisions every day based on what the best available science tells them will happen. For example, scientists knew that Mount Saint Helens was going to erupt weeks before it ultimately did – the evacuations ordered by the Governor of Washington as a result of the work of geologists monitoring the volcano saved thousands of lives. Given the privileged place science holds, if the science underlying industrial climate disruption is accepted, then naturally individuals and organizations will start changing how the interact with each other and with the world as a result. Those changes would naturally create winners and losers, and many of the people and businesses on top today would sustain massive losses in the process.

If successful, branding industrial climate disruption as a religion is a shortcut. Instead of having to challenge the expertise of each and every climate scientist one by one, they can all be tarnished as “high priests.” Instead of having to demonstrate errors in thousands of peer-reviewed studies, all the studies can be dismissed as mere holy writ. And instead of having to disprove multiple well-established scientific laws and independent lines of evidence that all demonstrate the reality of industrial climate disruption, all that information can be conveniently swept under the rug with rhetoric

If industrial climate disruption can be branded as a religion, then it can essentially be ignored. The individuals and organizations (both businesses and governments) who stand to lose the most can dismiss industrial climate disruption by saying “We don’t have to change to satisfy the religious beliefs of Jews, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, or pagans, so we don’t need to change to satisfy climate disruption either.” Governments of countries where separation of church and state is codified can go even further, claiming that creating policies to address industrial climate disruption would be in breach of that very separation.

Industrial climate disruption has no greater power or deity and thus cannot be a religion. But that won’t stop deniers from misusing “religion” in an attempt to discredit industrial climate disruption.

Words matter – and sometimes they’re misused on purpose.

The most important lesson we should all learn from the 2012 election

“You idiot! Get back in there at once and sell, sell!”

As we set about the process of compiling and canonizing the 2012 election post-mortem, one thing we keep hearing over and over is how utterly stunned the Romney camp was at their loss. Republicans across the board apparently expected victory – the conservative punditry seemed certain of it – and now we’re hearing that Romney himself was “shellshocked” by the result.

Mitt Romney went into Election Night expecting a victory and was “shellshocked” when he finally realized he had lost, CBS News reported.

Despite early signs of a stronger-than-expected turnout for President Obama, it wasn’t until the crucial state of Ohio was called for the president that Romney began to face the likelihood of defeat.

Even then, he and his team had trouble processing the news, senior advisers told CBS News.

“We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory,” one adviser said. “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”

Well, Nate Silver saw it coming. His projections called the final outcome almost down to the precinct, and it’s not like he doesn’t have a track record.

Silver’s final 2008 presidential election forecast accurately predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia (missing only the prediction for Indiana). As his model predicted, the races in Missouri and North Carolina were particularly close. He also correctly predicted the winners of every U.S. Senate race.

It wasn’t just Silver. Almost all the polls showed Obama with at least a slight lead in the battleground states, and if we can believe CNN’s election night insiders, Mitt’s own tracking showed him five points adrift in Ohio as late as Sunday (which explains why he set up camp there when many expected him to focus his energies elsewhere).

In other words, all the data, all the nonpartisan analysis, all the evidence, made clear that Romney’s chances were slim. It’s understandable that he and his people would be disappointed, and mightily so. But surprised? How does that happen?

In a nutshell, the GOP blindsided themselves. The reason should be obvious to anyone who has paid any attention at all to American politics in recent years: an overabundance of blind faith. I don’t mean this in a religious sense (although the political and socio-scientific manifestations of the phenomenon issue from strong religious antecedents). Instead, I’m referring to the broad, swelling inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between belief and knowledge.

As noted, nearly all the polls showed Romney in trouble. Most broke out their results in ways that clearly suggested why he was in trouble. The rational response to such information is to take it onboard, adapt and adjust. But that’s not what the GOP did. Instead, they dismissed the data that didn’t align with their beliefs. They went so far as to “unskew” the polls because they were clearly biased in favor of Mr. Obama. How do we know they were biased? Because they favored Mr. Obama. UnskewedPolls.com performed some ideological/mathematical hijinks and produced “corrected” polls that demonstrated how Mr. Romney was actually leading. By a lot.

The resulting projected electoral map was positively Reaganesque.

You might argue that the rational response isn’t to adapt and adjust if there is actually reason to believe that all the polls are, in fact, skewed. This objection is fair, so long as your reasons for doing so are driven by factual concerns instead of ideological ones. I think it’s more than clear, by now, that GOP faith in a Romney win was driven by belief instead of knowledge isn’t it?

The upshot is what we saw Tuesday night and in the days following: shock, dismay, confusion. Romney and his people (here I’ll include the GOP’s media relations arm, FOX News) didn’t see the obvious coming and some were melting down as reality began to assert its ugly presence in ways that even Megyn Kelly couldn’t ignore. Sure, Karl Rove had an excuse for going all Randolph Duke on the set. He’d just spent $600M of rich folks’ money and had a pack of nabs to show for it, an outcome with dire implications for his future career prospects. Of course he was losing it – he was seeing his political life pass before his eyes as the Ohio totals ticked in. Again, though, this was a live, nationally televised case study in self-delusion: it isn’t true because sweet Jesus it just can’t be.

I keep using these terms “knowledge” and “belief.” I suspect that many people across the country might initially grapple with the difference (in fact, I know this to be the case). So let me define these terms, at least operationally, for the benefit of those who don’t understand the distinction.

  • Knowledge is a process whereby conclusions derive from information and reasoning.
  • Belief is a process whereby preconceptions govern the pursuit of information.

In other words, with knowledge, you learn all you can in as rigorous and intellectually honest a fashion as possible, then you figure out what it means. With belief, the conclusions are given from the outset and data is selected and discarded according to whether or not it supports the point you’re trying to make.

Accepting facts that run counter to what we believe, and what we want to believe, and even what we desperately need to believe, can be hard. I understand the difficulty as well as anyone. I personally now believe pretty much the opposite of nearly every important thing I believed as a young man, and I have frequently noted how many times my beliefs changed because I was proven wrong by the very smart people with whom I insisted on surrounding myself. I’ve always been a fan of the famous John Maynard Keynes quote: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

As hard as it is to investigate contrary information and opinions, though, it’s imperative that we do so. With gusto. The Republican Party had all the evidence there before them throughout the entire campaign. There is precious little that we know now that we didn’t know a month ago. Their decision to pretend it was all skewed led to what? They lost the White House (in a race that was surely theirs for the taking). They lost ground in the Senate. Thanks to gerrymandering they still control the House, but their candidates nationwide received fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. Gay marriage initiatives passed in a couple of states. Gays and lesbians were elected to Congress.

All because the Republican Party privileged belief over knowledge.

Plenty of debate is already under way within the Republican Party as to what the results means and what might be done about it. Some conservative analysts are paying heed to the knowledge they have gained. Others, not so much.

And over at UnskewedPolls, well, see for yourself:

*sigh*

The GOP 2012 experience holds important lessons for us all as we move forward. The world in which we live, the nation in which we live, the neighborhoods and communities and cities in which we live are what they are, not what we wish them to be. For instance:

  • Some among us might wish that we lived in a uniformly white, Christian, heterosexual, nuclear family culture. We don’t. Whatever policies we seek to implement are doomed to failure unless we acknowledge our new multicultural reality.
  • Some of us believe that there is no such thing as climate disruption. There are Nate Silvers and Karl Roves in the natural science world, too. Our future and the future of generations not yet born depend on whether we’re smart enough to know to which of them we need to listen.
  • Many of us believe that cutting taxes on our wealthiest citizens creates opportunity and shared prosperity for everyone. All data on the subject shows this to be pure ideology – the precise opposite is true and the refusal to pay attention to the basic facts of economic history have grave implications for us all.
  • Dollar for dollar, the US pays three times more for health care than any other industrialized nation and by any measure we generate significantly worse outcomes. You might believe that only those who can pay outrageous prices deserve to be healthy, but the actual number of people who agree with you is diminishing rapidly.
  • The president was born in Hawai’i. If you insist that all proof is forged (it has to be, because it doesn’t conform with your beliefs), you will find that you’re damaging the credibility of other positions you hold. Also, people won’t sit next to you on the bus.
  • We are not a theocracy. A growing majority of voters are rejecting candidates whose views on how America should be governed more resemble the 1st century than the 21st. The coalition includes every facet of the electorate, but is especially pronounced among segments that are increasing in numbers.

The things are not beliefs, they are facts supported by every scrap of credible evidence that we have. The existence of facts doesn’t automatically suggest what the best policies might look like, but the refusal to acknowledge them assures disaster.

All of us – Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green and none of the above – would do well to learn from the GOP’s hard 2012 lesson.

Tim Tebow: a morality play in faith and football (and maybe even national pride)

Some time back I called Tim Tebow a “faith-based” quarterback. In that article I took on a prominent sports commentator who had lost all perspective and tried to address the ways in which the questions of religion and quarterbacking ability were getting all twisted up around the second-year Denver Broncos QB.

Since that post, some things have changed and others haven’t. The main thing that has changed is that, after an underwhelming first few games, the Doncs have made Tebow the starter. Which is good. First off, Kyle Orton may be a much better quarterback, but he was playing like hell. Continue reading

Nota Bene #112: GOOOLLLLLLLL

“Freedom of any kind is the worst for creativity.” Who said it? Continue reading

Science and faith: a reply to Martin Bosworth

Our old friend and colleague Martin Bosworth offered up a thoughtful take on science and faith a few days ago and his thesis has been percolating in my mind ever since. In this post he describes himself as experiencing a “spiritual crisis.” No doubt he’s in one of those deep periods of self-reflection that I experience from time to time, although he seems way too lucid for the word “crisis.” In any case, since he posted these thoughts to a public forum and promoted them a bit, I think it’s fair to conclude that he’s inviting conversation. As such, I thought I might take a few moments here to, well, conversate.

Let me begin by noting that Boz doesn’t need anybody’s approval to believe what he believes or to live his life as he sees fit. Continue reading

The hope of a tin man

Over the years, I’ve found that my ability to put my feelings on the shelf has served me well. The distance and perspective that this ability gives me is part of what makes me such a good engineer and, I like to think, a reasonably skilled journalist. But last Thursday, and every day since, I’ve been left wondering if this skill has cost me more than I realized. Continue reading