Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The hydra of horrible ideas

For today's post, we will focus our attention on a Skeptophilia frequent flyer -- Representative Lamar Smith, who is narrowly edged out by Senator Mitch McConnell as the world's most punchable face.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Smith is in the news this week because of his appearance as a keynote speaker at the 12th annual conference of the Heartland Institute, a petroleum-industry-funded "think tank" dedicated to casting doubt on climate change science.  Smith has been unrelenting in his attacks on the scientific community, which makes it even more appalling that he has since 2013 been the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, a committee that also includes not only the virulently anti-science Dana Rohrabacher but Bill Posey of Florida, who believes that vaccines cause autism.

So the governmental oversight of scientific research in the United States falls clearly into the category of "heaven help us."  There's no doubt that Smith is in the pocket of the fossil fuels industry; they are far and away his largest donors, having funded his campaigns to the tune of $600,000.

And no one can say the industry isn't getting what they paid for.  Smith's talk at the Heartland Institute was fairly crowing with delight over the opportunity they have to completely gut any environmental legislation they want, given the appointment by the Trump administration of anti-environmental climate change deniers to damn near every leadership post in Washington.  "I think the president has ushered in a permanent change in the political climate," Smith said, to cheers from the audience.  "And by that I mean I think he’ll keep his promises and that he’ll do exactly what he said.  You’re seeing that in his appointments, like Scott Pruitt at EPA, for example.  So … I don’t think you’ll have any disappointment on any of those issues."

When an audience member suggested that Smith stop using the term "climate science" in favor of "climate studies" and "scientific research" in favor of "politically correct science," Smith agreed with a grin, and said he'd go a step further.  "I’ll start using those words if you’ll start using two words for me," Smith said.  "The first is never, ever use the word progressive.  Instead, use the word liberal.  The second is never use the word 'mainstream' media, because they aren’t.  Use 'liberal' media. Is that a deal?"

More cheers.

Most alarmingly, Smith said he's planning on increasing the pressure on research scientists to publish only results that support the goals of his political backers.  In fact, he spoke at length about his plans to craft legislation to punish federally-funded researchers who publish data that contradicts the party line -- in other words, that doesn't meet his warped concept of peer review, which means essentially having to pass a governmentally-set purity test.  To hell with what the evidence says; science becomes whatever the conservative agenda says it is.

The timing of this meeting is not without irony.  Just this week, research was published in Nature that the amount of warming we've already seen is leading to "devastating" bleaching of coral reefs; that climate change is enhancing the conditions that lead to life-threatening "smog events" in Beijing and elsewhere; that the winter of 2016-2017 showed "exceptional... periods of record-breaking heat" in the Arctic; and that last month was the second warmest February in the 139 years such records have been kept -- the warmest was February 2016.

But to Smith and his cronies, none of that matters.  It's all "politically correct climate studies."

All of this illustrates one rather sobering fact; for those of us on the left-ish side of things who breathed a sigh of relief when Paul Ryan's disaster of a health care bill died on the floor of the House last week, the fight is far from over.  This administration is proving to be a hydra of horrible ideas.  Destroy one of them, and two more appear in its place.

And this time, one of the hydra's heads is wearing the smarmy, smirking face of Lamar Smith, which is a mental image that will haunt my nightmares for some time to come.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hell's gate

As a diversion from less cheerful subjects like what is currently happening in Washington, D. C., today we will consider: the Gates of Hell.

The interesting thing about the whole concept of hell is that it's connected to Christianity, and yet there's not much of a mention of it in the bible.  The Old Testament version, Sheol, was not really the traditional flaming inferno; it was more of a gray, dreary place cut off from hope and light, sort of like Newark but with less traffic.  The concept of a fire-and-brimstone version of hell doesn't seem to come up until the New Testament, for example Matthew 10:28 and Mark 9:43, where we are introduced to such fun notions as "the fiery furnace" and "unquenchable fire" into which you get pitched if you break the Ten Commandments and commit the Seven Deadly Sins, unless you're also a billionaire fast-talking con man, in which case you get elected president of the United States instead.

Wait, I said I was going to keep this post apolitical.  My bad.

Because of the mention of fire, there's been a picture developed that hell is a hot place underground, which has of course connected it in some people's mind with volcanoes and other subterranean phenomena.  There are a variety of places on Earth that have been considered possible candidates for gates to hell, three of which I describe below.

First, we have the Batagaika Crater in Siberia, which locals have nickname the "Hellmouth."  It's a pretty impressive feature, to be sure:

At its widest, it's a kilometer across and 87 meters deep, and is getting bigger.  The crater has nothing to do with hell, though, unless you're talking about the manmade hell we're creating by ignoring the human causes of climate change; it's something geologists call a megaslump, when removal of groundwater and thawing of permafrost cause massive subsidence.  So it's pretty awful, but doesn't have much to do with the punishment of the damned.

A second candidate is the Necromanteion of Baiae, a tunnel system near the city of Naples which apparently hosted a magical oracle who was supposed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  She would enter the tunnel, breath the magical vapors, and come back and tell the locals what the dead had to say for themselves, which mostly was confusing, garbled nonsense, that the oracle's handlers then got to interpret whatever way they wanted.

What the dead probably should have told the oracle was "it's a stupid idea to breathe magical vapors in an area of high volcanic activity," because the gases coming out of the tunnel were high in sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, both of which are quite toxic, and explain her confusion without any magical explanation needed.  Baiae is near the Campi Flegrei, or burning fields, an area of fumaroles and boiling mud pits that illustrate that Mount Vesuvius didn't exhaust its capacity for violence when it destroyed Pompeii in 79 C. E.

Last, we have Darvaza, in the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan.  Like Batagaika, Darvaza is due to the actions of people -- in this case, a natural gas drilling facility that went very, very wrong.  At some time in the 1960s -- given that we're talking about the Soviets, here, there's no certain information about precisely what happened when -- the ground collapsed underneath a gas-drilling rig, and during the collapse the methane seeping from the walls of the crater ignited.  People expected that it'd burn itself out quickly.

It didn't.

Darvaza is still burning today, and has become a tourist attraction for travelers who don't mind the fact that (1) it reeks of sulfur, (2) if you stay there long enough, the fumes will make you violently ill,  and (3) there are no amenities for miles around.  But if you're an adventurous sort, it's certainly something you won't see anywhere else on Earth.

So that's a trio of candidates for being the doorway to hell.  If none of these float your boat, however, there are actually dozens of others.

And that's not even counting Newark.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Drawing the line

One of the things I've liked the most about my seven years writing here at Skeptophilia is that it's given me the opportunity to think, learn, and reconsider my own views.  The point of skepticism, it seems to me, is to be open to revising one's stance if presented with new information or better arguments, and thus refining one's own perceptions.

Yesterday's post, about a couple of incidents in colleges where speakers with unpopular views were harassed or threatened with being banned outright, elicited a couple of comments from loyal readers that got me thinking about what I'd written.  And while I won't say it's completely changed my mind, it has made me realize that the topic is far more of a minefield than I'd realized.

[Note: I am quoting them with their permission.]

The first wrote:
While a person who makes up part of a vulnerable demographic for whatever reason absolutely has the right to avoid going to an event where they might be exposed to hate speech, simultaneously, allowing others on a campus to hear opinions that confirm them in thinking that hate speech against other people is a thing that is acceptable in society today seems overly affirming to people that perhaps don't deserve any audience at all. 
Not every campus speaker speaks hatefully, or on hateful topics, and you're right that unless we are exposed to all sides of an argument, we cannot develop informed opinions on that argument.  It's also incredibly difficult to draw a line in the sand that says 'these words are hateful, these words are just provocative, and these words are fine' - and I'm not sure that we should. 
So how do we listen to all sides of an argument that involves hate speech without making the victims of the hate speech feel that we are supporting the existence of said hate speech against them?   
I'm not sure there's an answer to this out there, but figured I would see what you thought.
I responded:
It's a tough question. I agree that to the disempowered, even having speakers who hold those kinds of views feels like tacit acceptance.  But I still think that the way to combat that is to work toward empowering the disempowered -- the professors encouraging them and supporting them in speaking up, even helping them to formulate questions and criticisms, or showing up with them to a talk -- is much better than denying the speaker the right to speak.  Like in the case with Stanger [the professor at Middlebury College who was assaulted after inviting Charles Murray, a political scientist with controversial views about the genetics of race and intelligence, to speak at the college] -- she was up front that she disagreed with Murray, but wanted him to present as an opportunity for her students to engage in reasoned discussion (and, perhaps, refutation of Murray's arguments).  It didn't work out that way, and the violence that ensued proved nothing.
She wrote back:
But that assumes that the students who feel disempowered by the topic of the speech will be able and stable enough to attend, listen to a speech that denigrates and attacks them (politely), before being able to disagree or question someone with which they disagree...  [You] might liken it to sitting down to listen to an hour of your worst childhood bullies argue about why they should have bullied you, or even to sitting down to listen to an hour of explaining why you shouldn't exist as a person at all. 
Some people are strong enough to do that, but not all of them are, no matter how much empowerment their professors try to share with them, which is why they would be the ones that don't attend - but then we have no one to question and debate.
And it turns out that the views of Laura Kipnis, whose talk at Wellesley prompted a group of faculty to draft a letter suggesting that such speakers be barred from presenting on campus, are not as academic and dispassionate as she claimed.  In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kipnis makes some statements that would strike many of us as ethically questionable -- that sexual relationships between professors and students are okay because when she was in college, "hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum...  We partied together, drank and got high together, slept together."  She scoffs at the idea that such relationships could result in a more powerful individual victimizing a less powerful one, or using that power differential for their own gain.

And she doesn't hesitate to engage in low blows against people who disagree with her.  About a man whose attitudes about inappropriate humor and unwanted sexual advances Kipnis considered puritanical and overly delicate, she even went so far as to suggest that his nervous coin-jangling in response to her questions was masturbatory.  In an academic journal.  Kipnis writes:
I recalled a long-forgotten pop-psychology guide to body language that identified change-jangling as an unconscious masturbation substitute. If the leader of our sexual-harassment workshop was engaging in public masturbatory-like behavior, seizing his private pleasure in the midst of the very institutional mechanism designed to clamp such delinquent urges, what hope for the rest of us?
So it seems like Kipnis is dancing pretty close to the line herself.

Another reader commented:
I'm generally with you on this topic, but I think we have to take off our privilege blinders.  Neither you or I would ever be compelled to take time from our schedules and prepare/engage in a "scholarly debate" with someone who says we are part of a genetically inferior race, or that our family members should be immediately locked up and deported. It's very easy for us straight white dudes to keep things civil when our humanity is never attacked.
Which is also spot-on.  My own attitudes about speakers being denied the right to speak based upon controversial viewpoints would probably be very different if I myself was a minority.  As the reader commented, being a white straight male makes it awfully easy for me to be on the side of free speech -- since that free speech is seldom used to harass or demean me.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I'm left with the conclusion that this is a great deal harder than it seemed at first.  To fall back on the basic rule of banning only speech that promotes criminal acts or violence is to ignore the fact that free speech has been used many times in the past to incite hatred, discrimination, and marginalization.  And ignoring that fact is only one step away from tacit acceptance.

On the other hand, where to draw the line is problematic.  I still believe that colleges do students a terrible disservice by insulating them from controversy; prohibitions against hearing speakers or reading books or papers that voice dissenting opinions are, by and large, antithetical to the reason we have education in the first place.  But the complexity of this issue, and the spectrum of where those controversial views might fall, make it a far thornier decision than I had realized.

Many thanks to my readers who took the time to respond to yesterday's post -- especially the ones who challenged me on what I wrote.  After all, having written a piece about how important it is to be pushed into reconsidering your preconceived notions, it would be a little hypocritical of me not to be willing to engage in a bit of that myself.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The silencing of dissent

The word education comes from the Latin verb educare, meaning "to draw out of."

Too many people involved in the educational process forget this.  Education is not trying to see how many facts we can stuff into students' brains; it's seeing how we can foster their growth, challenge their preconceived notions, help them to see the universe in a new way.

Which is why what happened at Wellesley College this week is so completely antithetical to the spirit of education.

On Monday, a committee of Wellesley professors presented a letter to the community of the college.  I quote  part of the letter below, but the entire text is available at the link provided if you'd like to read it:
Over the past few years, several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs have presented their ideas at Wellesley...  There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley.  We are especially concerned with the impact of speakers' presentations on Wellesley students, who often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the speakers' arguments.  Students object in order to affirm their humanity.  This work is not optional, students feel they would be unable to carry out their responsibilities as students without standing up for themselves.  Furthermore, we object to the notion that onlookers who are part of the faculty or administration are qualified to adjudicate the harm described by students, especially when so many students come forward.  When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker's words, we must take those complaints at face value. 
What is especially disturbing about this pattern of harm is that in many cases, the damage could have been avoided.  The speakers who appeared on campus presented ideas that they had published, and those who hosted the speakers could certainly anticipate that these ideas would be painful to significant portions of the Wellesley community.
The letter was spurred by the appearance on campus of Laura Kipnis, writer and self-described feminist who has criticized Title IX implementation, and who has decried a "culture of sexual paranoia" on American college campuses.  Kipnis, for her part, was shocked by the faculty committee's response.  She wrote:
I find it absurd that six faculty members at Wellesley can call themselves defenders of free speech and also conflate my recent talk with bullying the disempowered.  What actually happened was that there was a lively back and forth after I spoke.  The students were smart and articulate, including those who disagreed with me. 
I’m going to go further and say — as someone who’s been teaching for a long time, and wants to see my students able to function in the world post-graduation — that protecting students from the ‘distress’ of someone’s ideas isn’t education, it’s a $67,000 babysitting bill.
Which is it exactly.  The goal of college -- hell, the goal of education in toto -- is not to insulate you from the trauma of ever hearing ideas you disagree with, it's to open your mind to consideration of other answers and other ways of thinking.  It's not supposed to be comfortable.  In fact, if you come out of college with your views completely unchanged from what they were on your first day as a freshman, the college has failed.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Note that I'm neither defending nor opposing Kipnis's views.  In fact, my opinion on Kipnis's views is entirely irrelevant.  But the idea that a college would block a speaker simply because his or her ideology runs counter to that of "dozens of students," and thus cause them to be "in distress," is ridiculous.

The bottom line: the only speakers who should be prevented from speaking on college campuses by decree are those who recommend criminal activity or violence.  Other than that, if you disagree with the views of a speaker, you have three options: (1) don't attend; (2) stage a non-violent protest; or [best of all] (3) show up and ask questions that push the speaker toward addressing whatever it is you disagree with.

Which is also why what happened at Middlebury College (Vermont) last week is so appalling.  Professor Allison Stanger, of the Department of International Politics and Economics, had invited Dr. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute to give a talk.

The AEI is a pro-capitalism conservative think tank.  Murray rose to some notoriety with his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which proposed that intelligence was largely inherited, and was a better predictor of job success, likelihood of committing a crime, and financial status than is the socioeconomic status of the parents.  Murray was roundly condemned as a racist for writing about intellectual differences between different ethnic groups, and his book is still a subject of controversy today.

Murray never got to speak.  His appearance at the lectern was greeted by shouts of derision.  After it became clear that he was not going to have an opportunity to say anything, he and Dr. Stanger left -- but a screaming mob followed them, attacked Dr. Stanger's car, and resulted in her receiving a serious concussion and whiplash.

Stanger herself was astonishingly philosophical about the whole thing.  She writes:
It is obvious that some protesters made dangerous choices.  But with time to reflect, I have to say that I hear and understand the righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down.  I know that many students felt they were standing up to protect marginalized people who have been demeaned or even threatened under the guise of free speech. 
But for us to engage with one another as human beings -- even on issues where we passionately disagree -- we need reason, not just emotions.  Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray's arguments.  They could have challenged him in the Q. and A.  If the ways in which his misinterpreted ideas have been weaponized precluded hearing him out, students also had the options of protesting outside, walking out of the talk, or simply refusing to attend... 
More broadly, our constitutional democracy will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another, something that is admittedly hard to do with a bullying president as a role model.  But any other way forward would be antithetical to the very ideals of the university and of liberal democracy.
So the professors at Wellesley, and the students who rioted at Middlebury, are examples of exactly the opposite of what colleges should be about.  Once again, as long as you are not promoting violence or criminal activity, you should have the right to express your views.  Students learn more by being exposed to unpopular opinions, and learning to frame their arguments rationally and logically, than they will by belonging to an institution where unpopular opinions are suppressed.

And the professors and administrators should be unequivocal in their support of this.

The price of being cowed by the letter from the professors at Wellesley and the violence at Middlebury is the conversion of colleges into comfortable little bubbles of confirmation bias, where only the majority opinion is ever heard, understood, or argued with.  And if you need an example of where that can lead, you have to look no further than the echo chamber of our current administration, where yes men and women have insulated the president from the consequences of his own lies, and any dissent is labeled as fake news at best, and treason at worst.

Intellectual discomfort is not bad for you; in fact, you should seek out opposing opinions.  It keeps you honest about the soundness of your own views, and helps you to craft arguments against positions you disagree with based on the facts of what your opponents believe.  It hones your mind, improves your grasp of the real situation, and fosters dialogue and open communication.

Which should be the outcome of education in any case.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Humble pie

I think one of the most important attitudes to strive toward is a willingness to re-examine our beliefs if new evidence comes up.

It was that, more than its in-your-face religiosity, that always bothered me the most about the bumper sticker I used to see that said, "Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it."  And, to be fair, I've met people who were as close-minded about other things -- the controversy over the alleged dangers of GMOs and vaccines, the ethics of everything from capital punishment to abortion to eating meat, and a hundred different stances on political issues.

And then there's the person I know who once said, "If you don't believe that other species should have exactly the same rights as humans, I'm sorry -- you're wrong."

I believe it, and that settles it.

Highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and the advantages of adopting some sense of proportion about our own worldviews, was a study from Duke University published this week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  Called "Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility," this paper makes a strong case that we can go a long way toward improving communication, reaching consensus, getting along with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and relatives, and (most importantly) recognizing when we ourselves are wrong by ditching our arrogance.

"If you think about what’s been wrong in Washington for a long time, it’s a whole lot of people who are very intellectually arrogant about the positions they have, on both sides of the aisle," said study lead author Mark Leary.  "But even in interpersonal relationships, the minor squabbles we have with our friends, lovers and coworkers are often about relatively trivial things where we are convinced that our view of the world is correct and their view is wrong."

[image courtesy of photographer David Shankbone and the Wikimedia Commons]

I think this may be the feature of the current administration here in the United States that bothers me the most -- the steadfast determination never, ever to admit error.  Confronted by incontrovertible fact, the reaction is not to say, "Okay, I was wrong," or even to retreat in disarray; they attack, deflect, distract, try to discredit, screech about "fake news" and "alternative facts," and promise reprisal against anyone who says different.

"Death before reconsideration" seems to be the motto these days.

So the study's results were illuminating, but hardly surprising.  Intellectually humble people, they found, are more likely to applaud someone who changes his/her mind based on new evidence; the arrogant tend to label this as a "flip-flop," and consider it a sign of weak-mindedness.  The arrogant, when reading an article with which they disagree, are more willing to label the author with pejorative adjectives -- immoral, incompetent, dishonest, cold.

Most interestingly, intellectually humble people are far better at discerning strong arguments from weak ones -- leading one to the conclusion that the arrogant tend to make snap judgments based on what they already believed, while the humble wait to see what the evidence says.

A fascinating bit of the study was that they found no correlation between intellectual humility and political leanings, which is another blow to the "my side is right about everything" attitude of the intellectually arrogant.  "There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," Leary said.  "We didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that."

A result I find fairly heartening.  It's important for us to realize that our own team doesn't have the market cornered on truth, and to keep our minds open to the fact that we might, in fact, be seeing a biased view of the world ourselves.

Which, now that I come to think of it, is pretty much the definition of "intellectual humility."

"Not being afraid of being wrong – that’s a value, and I think it is a value we could promote," Leary added.  "I think if everyone was a bit more intellectually humble we’d all get along better, we’d be less frustrated with each other."

To which I can only add: amen.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

There goes the sun

New from the "Oh, No, Here We Go Again" department, today we have: people flipping out over the fact that we're going to have a total eclipse this summer.

To be sure, it's a pretty cool event.  The path of totality will go from Oregon to the Carolinas, and at its widest will be 60 miles in width.  The last time a total eclipse of this magnitude happened in the United States was 99 years ago, so I suppose it's understandable that people are taking notice.  (In fact, I know more than one person who is making plans to visit the path of totality -- but if you're planning on joining them, you might well be too late.  Apparently hotels in cities in the eclipse's path started filling up a couple of years ago.)

But of course, there's nothing like a weird astronomical event to get woo-woos of all stripes all fired up.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Take, for example, the End Times cadre, who think that a completely explainable and predictable feature of the Earth's position in space -- no weirder, really, than standing in someone's shadow -- is a sign that the Rapture is upon us.  Never mind that the other 1,583,294 times these people have been absolutely certain that the Rapture was imminent, cross our hearts and hope to die, what actually happened was: nothing.

They're not going to let a little thing like a zero batting average discourage them.

"The Bible says a number of times that there’s going to be signs in the heavens before Jesus Christ returns to Earth," said Gary Ray, writer for the Christian publication Unsealed.  "We see this as possibly one of those...  We think it’s God signaling to us that he’s about to make his next move."

Ray, however, is ignoring the fact that even if you buy into his worldview, there's the inconvenient little scripture verse about how "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.  But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only," from Matthew 24, which is inconvenient because not only does it imply that people like Gary Ray are talking out of their asses, it also states outright that Jesus said he was going to return and the world would be destroyed (along with other special offers like the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven) before the people listening to him were dead, and that kind of didn't happen.

Ray, though, does not seem unduly bothered by this, and in fact says that the eclipse will be super-significant because the full moon will be near the constellation of Virgo the Virgin, which of course will make everyone think of the passage in Revelation 12, "A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.  She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.  Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads," despite the fact that being a virgin and being pregnant are mutually exclusive conditions.

Unless you count the alleged Immaculate Conception, which frankly, still sounds a little sketchy to me.

Then, there's the fact that we won't have to wait another 99 years to see a total eclipse in the United States; there's going to be another one on April 8, 2024, which fortunately for me looks like it'll pass right over my house.  Ray, though, is excited not because of a second shot at seeing a stunningly beautiful astronomical event; he thinks it's significant because where the paths of the two eclipses cross, it makes a letter X.

*cue scary music*

So he's interpreting this to mean that god is warning us that he's going to X out the United States for our wickedness or something.

It also brings up the question of what shape Ray thinks two intersecting lines would create if this weren't an omen.

So what we have here is a deity who is warning us about the End Times using an event that astronomers predicted decades ago, despite the fact that previous astronomical events like lunar eclipses resulted in nothing special happening.  My advice: see if you can find a spot to view the solar eclipse on August 21, because it promises to be pretty cool.  And don't cancel any plans you might have for August 22.

Chances are, we'll all be here, un-Raptured, for some time to come.

Monday, March 20, 2017

All I need is the air that I breathe

The smog in Beijing, China is legendary.  People wear filter masks to go to the grocery store; if you work outside, you have to wear breathing protection on the worst days or you're likely to end up with bronchitis or worse.  The culprit is not only automobile exhaust, but the thousands of unfiltered coal-burning stoves that many use to heat their houses.

All the way back in 1993, studies demonstrated the toll on human health.  Xiping Xu (of the Harvard School of Public Health) et al. published "Air Pollution and Daily Mortality in Residential Areas of Beijing" in The Archives of Environmental Health, and had the following to say:
The relationship between air pollution and daily mortality in 1989 was examined in two residential areas in Beijing, China.  Very high concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and total suspended particulates (TSPs) were observed in these areas...  A highly significant association was found between ln(SO2) and daily mortality.  The risk of total mortality was estimated to increase by 11% (95% confidence interval [95% CI] = 5%–16%) with each doubling in SO2 concentration...  When mortality was analyzed separately by cause, the association with a doubling in SO2 was significant for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (29%), pulmonary heart disease (19%), and cardiovascular disease (11%), and marginally significant for the other nonmalignant causes (8%), but not statistically significant for cancer (2%).
In the intervening 24 years, the problem has only gotten worse.  In 2015, Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Miller of the University of California-Berkeley published a study called "Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentration and Sources" showing evidence that the excess mortality in China due to air pollution amounts to 1.6 million deaths a year -- 4,400 a day.

Air pollution, say Rohde and Miller, is a major contributor to 17% of all the deaths in China.

Beijing is hardly the only place this is a problem.  Mexico City's population, topography, and lax pollution standards have given it some of the worst air in the world.  A study by Brent Duke of Stanford University found that a third of the city's population suffers from some kind of respiratory ailment directly attributable to pollution exposure.  On the worst days, simply breathing the air is the health equivalent of smoking forty cigarettes a day.

The reason all of this comes up is that there is a new insane science-denying idea floating around in the Trump administration; that air pollution has no ill effect on health.  And one of the prime movers of this claim is Steve Milloy -- a member of Trump's transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

"My particular interest is air pollution," Milloy said.  "[Scientists studying the health effects of air quality] validate and rubber-stamp the EPA’s conclusion that air pollution kills people.  EPA scientists are paying for the science it wants."

In fact, Milloy calls into question not only the health effects of breathing polluted air, but the health effects of smoking.  In a piece called "How Stupid is Air Pollution 'Science'?" he wrote for Breitbart in January, Milloy writes:
In breathing fresh air, the typical adult inhales about 1 microgram of PM2.5 [microscopic particulates] every 6 minutes. 
But a smoker will inhale somewhere between 10,000 to 40,000 micrograms of PM2.5 from one cigarette… that is, in that same 6-minute period. So in the same brief time period, a smoker will inhale 10,000 to 40,000 times more PM2.5. 
Somehow though, despite the much greater inhalation of the supposedly deadly PM2.5, only 2,000 more smokers die annually from PM2.5-related heart-lung causes that non-smokers — according to air pollution “science” anyway.
Which should win some kind of award for pretzel logic.

Of course, to win that award he'd be competing against himself, because he's also responsible for something he has titled, with no apparent sense of irony, a "Fact Sheet" on air pollution that runs counter to every legitimate study on the topic.  This "Fact Sheet" is so full of straw men, cherry-picked data, and outright lies (such as the statement that no study has ever demonstrated that long-term exposure to fine particulates causes increased risk of mortality) that you'd think that even a quick Google search for peer-reviewed studies on the subject would be sufficient to dismiss it.

But no.  In fact, if you do a Google search for "PM2.5 science" what actually heads the list is Milloy's "Fact Sheet."

So you can't simply dismiss this as the crackpot ideas of a few cranks.  These people have clout, an audience, and (worst of all) the ear of the president.  They are deeply in the pockets of corporate interests, and are one by one assuming leadership positions in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior.

What we are heading toward is the dismantling of all of the hard-won pollution standards that have, in the last few decades, improved the air in places that used to be nearly unlivable -- like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

It's not that we've solved the air pollution problem here in the United States.  Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, and Chicago, to name four, still have serious issues with smog, largely due not only to population size but to topography and prevailing weather conditions.  But at least over the past four decades, since the passage of the Clean Air Act, we've been heading in the right direction.

If Milloy and his cronies have their way, we'll be doing a complete about-face.

My own solution to this would be to send Milloy to Beijing during a bad smog event and lock him outdoors for a few days.  Failing that, the only answer is that we need to keep close watch on this administration's likely move toward ripping up the standards for air and water pollution, based on the claim that they're "bad for business."  Call your representatives, and let them know that they can't get away with this.

The air you breathe and the water you drink depends on it.