Thursday, October 1, 2015

Is There A War On Reason?

This question was brought up in a recent TIME essay ('American Students and Politicians Need To Stop Waging A War On Reason', Oct. 5, p. 30) and the answer delivered was foursquare in the positive: Yes, there is a war being waged on reason. It doesn't even take a large degree of perspicuity to see that - merely paying attention to the ongoing public discourse of politicians, their assorted hearings and shenanigans (like the 5 hour grilling Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards 2 days ago).

In that case Richards was suddenly presented with a graph from Repub congressman Jacob Chaffetz. The graph made it appear that abortions provided by Planned Parenthood grew to a much greater number from 2008 to 2013 than the number of cancer screenings and breast exam referrals.

The graph (above)  showed a ridiculously rising (high gradient) red line for abortions vs. a 'diving' graph for breast exams. Chaffetz claimed the graph was put together from PP's own data.

But keen observers soon smelled a 'rat' on observing the numbers associated with the abortion graph were far smaller than those for the breast exams. It later become clear it was done by 'Americans United for Life'. Adjusting for the difference, Chris Hayes showed the correct graphs on his Monday night 'UP' show with abortions just trailing at the bottom and with essentially zero slope, and breast exams with at least a sold 50-60 deg slope on the rise. (Adjusted for all screening categories the slope is negative but still far different with more positive outcomes than Chaffetz')

This is one example, but shows how reason can be undermined by faulty numbers, or misused data. The failure of reason is predicated on the fact the data was not decent nor were the facts, to begin with. (As also in the case of the claimed "global warming pause" embraced by deniers.)

Then there is Warren Commission groupie Michael O'Dell, who - in a paper on a known disinfo web site (of John McAdams) -tried to disprove D.B. Thomas Echo correlation analysis of the acoustic data published  in the British journal Science and Justice in 2001.  In his paper, O'Dell made much ado over a "60 Hz hum tone" that had already been repeatedly explained by others as evidence of copying. O'Dell then performs a linear regression analysis which he claims takes this into account. (See top diagram of Fig. 1). The problem is that O'Dell doesn't even present the graph in its proper scaled perspective, choosing truncated scales that make his regression line appear to have more gradient than it really does (see my correction of his line below)

Again, reason is sacrificed because the data are not correctly presented - in each of the foregoing cases with the wrong gradients or slopes.

As the author of the TIME essay puts it:

"The attack on education isn't on training our youth for whatever careers they choose; it's on teaching them to think logically in order to form opinions based on facts rather than familial and social influences. "

As I've also shown, quantitative reasoning can play a huge role in separating wheat from chaff.

Then there is the case of outright denial of empirical and visual facts  even when staring the percipient in the face.  I already noted this example in an April 11 post when in an encounter with John McAdams in 1997, on the Usenet newsgroup alt.conspiracy.jfk, he challenged a FAQ I'd written for the group. McAdams complained about my reference to Jackie “climbing over the limo trunk” in an effort to retrieve part of JFK’s blown out skull fragment (later inferred to be the Harper bone fragment retrieved by William Harper). He insisted "she wasn't climbing over anything" to which I then replied, "Ok, let's say she's moving across it to the rear - which shows a frontal shot".  He tried to "debunk"  this as well but a picture is worth a thousand words. And in the one below (from the Zapruder film - frames 313-14) readers can see the FACT of Jackie's trunk motion for themselves:

Now really, if a guy can't even admit reality when it's staring him in the bleeping face, why would one wish to trust him on anything?  No serious person should because a man who'd deny reality would deny anything . And yet thousands hang on McAdams' every word as if it's gospel. Again, a case of mammoth failure of reason and McAdams' assorted ad hominem jeremiads against "conspiracy buffs" even denote a war against reason - as does the indiscriminate attack on conspiracy thinking by the media in general, see e.g.

Then there is the resistance among some college students to broadening their perspectives on the genesis of 9/11, every bit as misplaced as the elite national, corporate media's resistance to the notion of political conspiracy. The  TIME author (ibid.) cites a student at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill who wrote m article criticizing a 'Literature of 9/11' course for requiring students to "sympathize with terrorists". He wrote this gibberish despite the fact he hadn't taken the class or read the actual works but relied on his "personal research". This dumbass kid would have benefited from reading Chalmers Johnson's ‘Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire’,  2000) later said to “have seen the September 11 catastrophe coming”.  Johnson’s 2000 book argued that U.S. interventionist foreign policy and military overextension, especially in the Middle East,  would lead to unintended and unpredictable consequences. Reading works such as Johnson's would have informed the punk about U.S. foreign policy decisions made in our name but to which we are not privy to consenting or voting on.

Then there is the woeful war on reason in connection with human induced global warming. In particular, two tactics of the denier must be noted:

1) Distorting and framing Uncertainty:

This is perhaps the biggest tactic in use and has to do with what has been called 'agnotology'.  This term,  derived from the Greek 'agnosis' - the study of culturally constructed ignorance- is achieved primarily by sowing the teeniest nugget of doubt in whatever claim is made (and as we know NO scientific theory is free of uncertainty).  Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor has correctly tied it to the trend of skeptic science sown deliberately and for political or economic ends .

The agnotologist and his ilk succeed once the following trope is emitted and embraced by the power structure:

There is still so much uncertainty, we shouldn’t invest money to solve the climate problem,’

But this is egregious on so many levels that it boggles the rational mind. First, any modern scientific pursuit must include uncertainty. Uncertainty is acknowledged every time I perform a measurement - say of the solar diameter- and express it with plus or minus kilometer values. It signifies that final measurement cannot be presumed free of measuring error which is inherent in all our physics, astronomy etc.

The matter of "too much uncertainty" is also the wrong way to look at the issue for any scientific model or measurement, because they can as easily UNDER-estimate a potential threat or occurrence as over estimate it. Let's take the case of city -busting asteroids which were the topic for discussion today on the CBS Early Show,  with physicist Michio Kaku.  Kaku reported that in fact we have had to readjust our estimates of asteroid impacts based on new observations. Where we once expected a city-buster (say one that could take out a city like New York) every 150 years, we now have to expect it such a killer every 30 years!

In a similar vein, the uncertainty attached to climate models could also be in the direction of under-reporting or under-estimating the full impacts. Thus, the uncertainty could well be such that the runaway greenhouse effect could erupt fifty to one hundred years earlier than previously thought. Or the rising of the sea level owing to melting Arctic (and Greenland) ice sheets could incept a 10m rise as opposed to a 3 m one. This is why uncertainties are expressed as plus and minus values at the end of the measurement.

My point is that the trope expressed above doesn't take into account that the uncertainty implies that the problem is more likely to be worse than expected in the absence of that uncertainty.

2) Misrepresenting Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW):

This tactic has worked because too many Americans are not aware of the real consensus among real climate scientists that anthropogenic global warming is a FACT that must be acted upon. Perhaps the first researcher to scientifically and statistically establish this was science historian Naomi Oreskes - who first published an initial survey of global warming literature, entitled  “Beyond The Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

Oreskes analyzed “928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords ‘climate change.’” She found that 75 percent of papers accepted the consensus view “either explicitly or implicitly,” while “25 percent dealt with methods or paleoclimate,” and took no position on AGW.  Remarkably, she found that none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.  

Later studies have found a small sliver of dissenting views, but the more the consensus has been studied, the sturdier it appears, while the dissenting literature is dogged with repeated problems. For example, in Eos Transactions, Vol. 90, No. 3, p. 22 , P. T. Doran and M. Kendall-Zimmerman found that (p. 24)

the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely non-existent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.”

In their analytic survey for which 3146 climate and Earth scientists responded, a full 96.2% of specialists concurred temperatures have steadily risen and there is no evidence for cooling. Meanwhile, 97.4% concur there is a definite role of humans in global climate change.

A 2010 paper, Expert credibility in climate change, reconfirmed the 97 percent consensus figure, and found that “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC [or AGW] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.” A 2013 paper, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, examined “11,944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011” and found that “97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position,” while a parallel self-rating survey found that “97.2 percent endorsed the consensus.”

Despite that, another Mensan (what's with these characters?) Marty Nemko, in a prominent Mensa Bulletin piece in 2010, actually posed these questions:

- Why does the media imply that the IPCC report reflects the consensus of thousands of scientists, when – as reported by CNN – there are dissenting scientists, like Richard Lindzen of MIT?

- If there’s consensus, why on Dec. 20, 2007, did the U.S.  Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Policy issue a report that 400 scientists now believe the evidence doesn’t support that “consensus"?

Nemko interprets “consensus” in these questions to mean 100% agreement, but this isn’t the case at all.  A consensus in the accepted English definition means the concurrence of an overwhelming majority. We have always known a certain minority hard core of scientists (the contrarians – who probably want more attention than being lumped in with others) have existed. People like S. Fred Singer of the University of Virginia and Richard Lindzen of MIT.  These outlier oddballs will always exist because it's in their interest to object, since either they are part- funded by the fossil fuel industry (Singer) or they are able to carve out a contrarian niche in a field otherwise dominated by concurrence (Lindzen).

But by confusing the meaning of "consensus" they seek to try to make the public believe the issue isn't settled when it is.  It would be analogous to a fundie claiming there's no consensus that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old because a few oddball naysayers, like Jason Lisle and D. Russell Humphreys, choose to differ. This despite the fact that we can actually use radioactive decay to obtain an excellent estimate that puts the Earth's age at 4 1/2 billion years.

As for Nemko's second question, the answer ought to be obvious: it's because the Senate is largely comprised of people who lack any credentials in climate science – and hence are not informed or educated enough to offer a professional scientific opinion – only a political one. Thus, they would not have been able to recognize that most of the 400 scientists "who don't believe the evidence supports a consensus" were not climate scientists.
Of course, we now know all this doubt, this agnotology, has been driven by elite interests in the fossil fuel industry as has been vividly exposed, e.g.

The inability to think critically occurs even at the mundane or prosaic political level.  The TIME author, as an example, cites a 2014 poll by Alex Theodoridis of the University of California, Merced, in which 54 percent of Republicans polled believe Obama is a Muslim. When you also press many of them for evidence, they offer up a Youtube video where Obama seemingly admits it, despite the fact the video has been shown to be an edited fake (just like the one done on Planned Parenthood), see e.g.

As the TIME author notes(ibid.)

"Obama has always been affiliated with Christianity and there is not one fact to indicate he's a Muslim"

The author is correct that "embracing reason is an uphill battle for humans" - particularly when one's beliefs and predispositions conflict with others' strong reasoning and actual facts. This also includes facts that can antagonize and make a person uneasy, especially students.

The final words of the TIME author in this context are spot on:

"If you don't want to read the books and develop the skills , don't take the class, don't attend the college. Spend the rest of your life huddled among those who agree with you.  But know that is not thinking - but sleeping. "

Or in other words, remain a "brain- eating zombie" the rest of your days, to use the author's parlance. Because those who attack and wage war on reason and those who use it really are "brain eaters" (at least of functional brains) and as we know that is the M.O. of the zombie.

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