Mooney on “sound science”


Chris Mooney is an indispensable source for the examination of the effects of political policy on science, and his latest piece in his series on "sound" science is great reading. The issues he discusses, which are largely on environmental science in this case, are also highly relevant to the evolution creation debate. He quotes from a scathing report by George Brown that has the following sections:

Boy, but that sounds familiar. The Intelligent Design movement practically has those written down as bylaws: uncritically accept whatever kooky minority supports your views, present a misleadingly simplistic view of science, and work from the desired result to the data you want, rather than drawing your conclusions from the data.

I've also made a few more comments on this subject at Pharyngula.


I don’t think it’s wise to compare something as new and untested as climate change with evolution. Models and statistical methods are great to look at, but if they can’t predict anything, how much faith should you have in them? 40 years ago, the big fear was an untimely ice age. Now we’re fearing a warming trend. I’d hate to think that 40 years ago you also favored creationism.

It isn’t the _outcome_ that’s important (i.e., pro- or anti-global warming); it’s the methodology being used. If global warming turns out to be based on small data sets or otherwise less of a concern than we currently believe, it will be because sound scientific methodologies demonstrate it to be so, not because some “oppressed” Bjorn Lomborg-type managed to overcome the “bias” of mainstream science.

Incidentally, although Lomborg’s argument about global cooling (which you parrot here) is featured prominently in _The Skeptical Environmentalist_, note that the central conclusion of the section on global warming wasn’t that it doesn’t exist, but rather, that cost-benefit analysis doesn’t favor reducing CO2 emissions enough. That’s not a scientific judgment; it’s a political one.

Speaking of Lomborg, is anyone working on a thorough, detailed rebuttal of The Skeptical Environmentalist? Lombor’s book is, basically, crap, but it’s clever, devious crap, and many of the responses from the scientific community that were published when it first came out left a lot to be desired and provided Lomborg with ammunition for his “oppressed truth-teller” act. I’d really like to see a thorough debunking of him.

Tom writes:

I don’t think it’s wise to compare something as new and untested as climate change with evolution. Models and statistical methods are great to look at, but if they can’t predict anything, how much faith should you have in them?

While I certainly don’t think that climate change has anywhere near the level of favorable evidence for it that evolution does, there is still a strong consensus and robust data which shows quite clearly that the Earth is warming, and that anthropogenic greenhouse gasses are the most likely cause. I don’t want to have a drawn-out debate about it here, because that’s not the point of this blog, but I once had quite a skeptical outlook on it until I looked up the evidence first-hand. I was shocked by how much evidence there is and how misleading many skeptics’ arguments are.

The more important point is that much of the anti-global warming rhetoric and arguments are very similar to anti-evolutionary arguments. Anything less than 100% certainty is considered just grounds for complete dismissal. If there’s any bit of evidence that could possibly have an alternative explanation, that alternative is assumed to be true without further justification. The people who argue against it do so not by looking at the data and deciding what’s most likely true, but rather they have their minds made up well in advance, and the data is only looked at for the purpose of finding anomolies or discrepancies that can be endlessly harped on. And then, in a mind-boggling display of hypocrisy, they accuse those who disagree with them (which includes just about every major scientific organization) of having ulterior motives. (Many global warming denalists are hired-guns of the coal and oil industries. These people aren’t exactly in a position to accuse others of having ulterior motives, but they do it anyway.)

Now, none of this is to say that global warming is definitely true and that the skeptics are definitely wrong. (If the skeptics are right, IMHO, it will be due to dumb luck rather than sound judgement.) But Mooney is dead-on to compare the treatment that the issue got by the 104th Congress with what anti-evolutionists and other pseudoscientists do.

Tom further writes:

40 years ago, the big fear was an untimely ice age. Now we’re fearing a warming trend. I’d hate to think that 40 years ago you also favored creationism.

The bit about there being a big fear of an oncoming ice age 40 years ago is a red herring. There was never anything approaching the level of consensus about “global cooling” back then as there is for global warming right now. There was only a relatively small number who raised the issue as a serious concern, and it didn’t last long. This too is a tactic similar to what anti-evolutionists use, which is to point out where scientists have changed their minds in the past so as to imply that scientists are easily misled and therefore not to be trusted. (I’m not accusing you of “using the tactic”, Tom; I’m sure you’re just repeating what you’ve heard elsewhere.)

Steve, I don’t know of any in-depth rebuttal of Lomborg in print, but a visit here might be of some value.

I agree with you on the convergence of tactics used by the anti-evolutionists and the climate-change skeptics.

When someone starts about “sound science” remind them that it only “sounds like science”

That global-cooling bit I recall from the 1970’s; some climatologist had proposed a mechanism for a fast start of a new Ice Age. An extra-cold Northern Hemisphere winter would leave an extra large amount of snow on the ground, which would take longer than usual to melt in the following NH spring and summer, and which would reflect more sunlight than usual. Causing the Earth to cool enough to accumulate yet more snow in the subsequent winter and summer, eventually producing a full-blown Ice Age.

I recall that scenario from some Nigel Calder (IIRC) TV special on climate change.

Actually, there is an interesting bit of evidence for global warming – there is some research that suggests that various human activities have caused some global warming for most of the Holocene, perhaps staving off a new Ice Age. The activities:

Starting in the European Neolithic: clearing forests for farming

Starting ~5000 years ago in southeast Asia: rice cultivation and its creation of methanogen habitat

There’s a collection of anti-Lomborg stuff at (appropriately enough), and a google source will bring up any number of pretty thorough rebuttals. The best one, I think was published by the Danish Ecological counsel; just click on the URL on my name or go to

The “global cooling” isn’t really even Lomborg’s best bit of misdirection; IMHO the acid rain point is much more persuasive. It’s all the same sort of misdirection that creationists use, of course.

Steve wrote:

The more important point is that much of the anti-global warming rhetoric and arguments are very similar to anti-evolutionary arguments.

That’s very interesting since I see the same thing happening with the global warming rhetoric! Sure, it going to happen with some people on any issue imaginable. But here, we have a hot topic & therefore major biases on both sides. Scientists can & usually are guilty of it in most cases. Good scientists acknowledge their own bias & try to work around it. A pro-warmer scientist wo also happens to belong to Greenpeace is no more better than a scientist funded by oil & coal companies.

I personally know scientists who don’t follow the “mainstream science” view on this topic. I put it in quotes because it’s only mainstream as far as politics & the mass media is concerned. They don’t feel they’re in some fringe sceptics corner. They just feel that they’re in the minority & rightly so since being pro-warming pays more & more often as far as grants go. That’s why comparing how many scientists for & against doesn’t work. You have to look at the science.

As for the science, there’s not much there. Weather is obscenely complex. Climate is much more so. Most of the pro-warming data comes from climate models. These models are not & cannot be very accurate since we just don’t know enough about what effects the climate & how. It’s a guessing game & we don’t have enough raw measurements to confirm anything. So we look at historical measurements. Here’s where the pro-warming bias is quite evident. Graphs almost always start in 1950 & end in 2000. Why? 30’s & 40’s will throw off the grim outlok. Early 2000’s also curl down the huge spike. Fear losses steam. Grants get pulled.

Now, this all said, I’m personally on the fence. But, it’s not my main area of work, so nobody in the media labels me a fringe skeptic. Things are getting warmer, but that’s been going on for 10K years. Big deal. Are we adding to it? Possibly. Possibly not. CO2 is not our only pollutant. Do any counteract its effect? Are we adding to the humidity & how does that affect climate? The questions go on & on, but we don’t have concrete answers yet.

You do realize, “Tom,” that virtually none of what you’ve said is at all accurate?

“Andrew”: No, I don’t realize that. Will you enlighten me? I agree with Steve that this isn’t the place to discuss the science of global warming. So, if you know of a board where we could discuss this in greater detail, post a link here. I’d be happy to hear what’s wrong with my statements. Seriously! I’m not looking for a fight. I’d love to be set straight if I’m am as wrong as you claim.

If you don’t know of a good board, I can post one. I’d like you to feel comfortable though, so I will not offer it first.

Instead of the noxious spam above, enjoy this repost of my rant against Eugenie Scott and lazy reporters, as documented in the November 30 SF Chronicle:


Am I in a bad mood?

The San Francisco chronicle today had as its above-the-fold headline story: “Anti-evolution teachings gain foothold in US schools: Evangelicals see flaws in Darwinism.”

The CBS poll which shows that 35% of the country somehow feels comfortable claiming that “Darwin’s theory is not supported by the evidence” appears in a gray box, also above the fold.

The article was written by Anna Badkhen, who is clearly not a science journalist. The article focuses mainly on the Dover school issue.

All in all it’s not the worst article I’ve ever read on the issue but I was disappointed to see some obviously lazy blunders. The Discovery Institute is mentioned, for example, without any desription whatsoever of its mission or members. ID is described as having been devised by a “small group of scientists” which is being generous to say the least. A pro-ID website ( is provided for the reader who wants to learn more but there are no links to the Pandas Thumb or to Talk Origins or similar creationism-debunking sites. John West of the Discovery Institute is quoted as saying “Mainstream criticism should be raised in classrooms.”

The article, of course, neglects to point out that the public school board meetings are the ONLY places where arguments from ignorance are accepted as serious challenges to evolutionary theory.

And then there are some quotes from Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, who always comes across to me as just about the weakest hapless spokesman for truth and honesty in public school science classrooms as we could hope for. I won’t go into details about what she does say, but I can tell you what she evidently did not say to this reporter but should have said:

“Intelligent design is not an alternative scientific explanation for the diversity of life on earth. As science, it’s complete baloney and any genuine scientist will tell you that it’s worthless. It is nothing more than an argument from incredulity that is exactly the same as saying ‘wow, that’s so cool that God must have done it.’ That is not science. It’s religion and our Constitution prevents us from teaching religious creation theories as scientific facts in public school classrooms. The only reason we are having this discussion in the 21st century is because conservative evangelical Christian groups want to see their religious beliefs taught in public schools.”

It’s so frigging simple. And Scott must say one other important thing: “If you want to quote me in your article, you must quote me in full. And you must include links to websites like Talk Origins and Pandas Thumb where working biologists and geologists, including Christians, have debunked the pseudoscience peddled by creationists. And you should talk to some actual scientists and you should talk to some scientists who are Christians who know that ID is baloney, and you should talk to some Christians who aren’t scientists but who recognize that evolution is the real deal and ID is a political game. Here are their names: . …”

So frigging simple.

Ms. Badkehn does not talk to a single genuine biologist about “ID theory” buy does quote several pro-creationism twits. For example, Ms. Badkhen includes this nugget which would be hilarious if it weren’t so damn sad

Patricia Nason at the Institute for Creation Research, the world leader in creation science, said her organization and other activist groups are encouraging people who share their conservative religious beliefs to seek positions on local boards.

“World leader in creation science”? Where did Ms. Badkhen get that information? Let me guess … from Ms. Nason?

Ms. Badkhen doesn’t say anything more about the Institute for Creation Science, nor she inclined to wonder why the leader of this “creation science” insitute seems to believe that only “conservative” and “religious” people are inclined to accept the veracity of this “world-leading” Institute’s “scientific” work product.

The bottom line here is that we need to get some well-spoken hard-hitting advocates out there communicating our message instead of weak proponents like Eugenie Scott who don’t seem aware of the fact that neither they nor the integrity of the science whose instruction they are entrusted to defend, being taken seriously the reporters to whom they speak.

If Scott is all we got, then shit let’s just flush the public school system and its associated inherent intractable problems down the frigging toilet. Sandefur has already written its obituary so he can have his final post and we can all go home.

Yes, I’m in a bad mood today.

Following up on the previous post, I see that Sandefur and some Thomas Anger guy are duking it out semi-privately at Freespace. This Anger dude writes

But government schools that teach evolution are also the schools that teach a lot of things that skillful observers like Mr. Sandefur and I do not recognize as truth – things that might be wrapped up in the phrase “government as ultimate problem-solver.”

What a load of terrific rubbish that is.

Mr. Anger believes that public schools teach things that “might be wrapped up” in a phrase which Mr. Anger, no doubt a typical phony libertarian, disagrees with.

Of course, Mr. Anger, even as a phony libertarian, probably could make a coherent argument to support his position that the United States government is not the “ultimate problem-solver” (heck, i’m a typical west coast liberal and I could beat that strawman without difficulty).

But somehow Mr. Anger fails to notice that creationists cannot make a coherent scientific argument which would justify teaching their “viewpoint” in a science classroom. Why does Mr. Anger fail to notice this important and obvious distinction? I think I know the answer but I may simply be guilty of stereotyping phony libertarians as being somewhat paranoid and incoherent in their anti-government ramblings.

In any event, Mr. Anger seems to believe that he’d rather students be taught pure unadulterated and proven bullcrap in school than anything that would possibly suggest to them that government can ever be effective. Mr. Anger would fit right in with most religious fundamentalist and ignorant government-hating people everywhere. Surely there is a third world Christian country in political disarray where Mr. Anger could find pure happiness. Maybe somewhere in South America.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on March 31, 2004 9:45 AM.

Routine coincidences was the previous entry in this blog.

“Dogmatic Darwinists” - An Instance of the Misleading Rhetoric of the Anti-Evolutionists is the next entry in this blog.

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