Those Darn Medical Missionaries

Dr. Kent, the Christian medical missionary who survived contracting Ebola. Also, apparently, a more alarming concern than Ebola itself.
Dr. Kent, the Christian medical missionary who survived contracting Ebola. Also, apparently, a more alarming concern than Ebola itself. (At least if you’re a certain kind of intellectual who might write for Slate.)

I’ll give Brian Palmer this: in his article for Slate he’s not at all shy about telling us how he really feels. It’s great, he says, that Christian medical missionaries are out there trying to do good works in Africa: “Rather than parachuting in during crises, like some international medicine specialists, a large number of them have undertaken long-term commitments to address the health problems of poor Africans.” And yet, after all the kind words like these he has to say for medical missionaries, they only serve to underscore the weirdness of his central point:

When an infected American missionary was flown back to the United States for treatment…  a fair number of Americans were thinking a much milder, less offensive form [thinking that he should “suffer the consequences” or that he was “idiotic”]. I’ll hold my own hand up. I still don’t feel good about missionary medicine, even though I can’t fully articulate why.

So let me point out the first obvious irony, which is for someone flying the proud flag of rationalism and skepticism to be so open and honest about his totally irrational and credulous animosity towards Christians. Gee, if only we had a word to describe irrational, unarticulated prejudices…The sad part is that religious skepticism has descended so far below the heights of freethinking iconoclasm that no one even seems to remember when rejecting theism was a carefully considered intellectual proposition that actually meant something. Now it’s a fashion statement. Some of us don’t like normcore. Some of don’t like Christianity. People are weird, am I right?

I’m definitely not the first to take Palmer to task, and I’m avoiding the most obvious problem with his argument. David French handled that admirably in his piece for the NRO:

In other words, [Palmer] has a problem with medical missionaries because they’re not operating in first-world hospitals with first-world reporting systems and first-world systems of legal accountability? If there weren’t staffing shortages, drug shortages, a lack of large health-care facilities, and all the other issues that dominate developing-world medicine, we wouldn’t need medical missionaries.

French is right, and so I don’t repeat it. Instead, let me raise just one other issue. It’s subtle, I think, until you state it out loud. Then it seems really, really awkwardly obvious. We’re on the threshold of an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Africa with the potential to kill millions (both directly and from the resulting chaos and upheaval) and, on the verge of this nightmare, Palmer thinks it’s a good time to talk about the queasiness with which he regards the religiosity of strangers? That is what the threat of a continent-wide pandemic makes him think is a really pressing issue?

Now that’s some privilege right there.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Saint of Scientism

2014-09-22 NDT
Doesn’t this look like it could be a screen shot of a televangelist?


The overtly religious behavior of supposedly secular, anti-religious opponents is becoming increasingly obvious, but the reaction to revelations of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s plagiarism are surprising even to me. This, my friends, is what happens when you tip a sacred cow.

The story comes from Sean Davis by way of The Federalist. Davis has done some digging and has found that many of the punchiest and most perfect quotes Tyson uses to excoriate religious believers who don’t grasp the magnificence of science are punchy and perfect because he made them up.

The fabrications were not a one-off thing. They were deliberate and calculated, crafted with one goal in mind: to elevate Tyson, and by extension his audience, at the expense of know-nothing, knuckle-dragging nutjobs who hate science. Tyson targeted journalists, members of Congress, even former President George W. Bush. And what was their crime? They were guilty of rejecting science, according to Tyson.

There’s only one problem. None of the straw man quotes that Tyson uses to tear them down are real. The quote about the numerically illiterate newspaper headline? Fabricated. The quote about a member of Congress who said he had changed his views 360 degrees? It doesn’t exist. That time a U.S. president said “Our God is the God who named the stars” as a way of dividing Judeo-Christian beliefs from Islamic beliefs? It never happened.

That’s already a pretty interesting story, but before I had a chance to write about the other shoe dropped. Folks, naturally enough, started adding this information to Tyson’s Wikipedia page. This is pretty standard fare: whenever a person with a Wikipedia entry gets connected to some major controversy, there’s usually a section in their entry dedicated to discussing the charges. But, in this case, Wikipedia editors did not take kindly to anyone besmirching the honor of their patron saint!

According to a review of the edit history of Tyson’s page, one long-time Wikipedia editor deleted an entire pending section summarizing the issue of Tyson’s fabricated quotes. Another editor attempted to insert a brief mention of Tyson’s fabrication of the George W. Bush quote. That mention was also deleted. When it was reinserted, it was deleted yet again by an editor who describes himself as a childless progressive and an apostle of Daily Kos (h/t @kerpen)… Literally every single mention of Tyson’s history of fabricating quotes has been removed from Tyson’s Wikipedia page.

The only thing possibly worse than the fanatical desire to protect Tyson’s image from reality is the viciousness with which Davis, for daring his sacrilege, is pilloried by his opponents. It is, as he describes, overtly religious.

These lovers of science don’t actually love science, because science requires you to go where the evidence takes you, even if it goes against your original hypothesis. What many of Tyson’s cultists really like is the notion that one can become more intelligent via osmosis — that you can become as smart and as credentialed as Tyson by merely clapping like a seal at whatever he says, as long as what he says fits the political worldview of your average progressive liberal.

Davis’s analysis is particular interesting from a Mormon perspective, because the Book of Mormon closely identifies false prophets with flattery. Examples:

  • And he [Sherem] preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and this he did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ. – Jacob 7:2
  • Yea, and [the people] also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them. – Mosiah 11:5
  • And [Nehor]  had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; – Alma 1:1
  • But behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction, by thy lying and by thy flattering words; – Alma 30:47 (This is Alma speaking to Korihor, another false prophet)

It’s not just a generally religious template that Tyson is enacting. It’s some of the worst religion has to offer: the promise that if you give a prophet loyalty this means you are superior to your neighbors. It’s a message seductive as it is sinister.

Shrinking Waves May Save Sea Ice

2014-06-10 sn-seaice

The whole global warming issue is pretty controversial, and one of the reasons for that is that–no matter what the consensus on the science might be–there’s actually a long and convoluted path from “human carbon emissions make the world warmer” to answering the question “what should we do about it?”

One of the big uncertainties, of course, is the cost-benefit analysis of policies designed to slow global warming. That’s what the Freakonomics guys did in one of their chapters from Super Freakonomics, and their conclusion was that–assuming climate change is real–there might not be any policy to stop it that is worth the cost. That claim, as you can imagine, landed them in some hot water.

But there are other uncertainties as well. So the planet gets warmer. So ice at the poles melts and sea levels rise, right? Well, maybe not so fast:

It’s a nagging thorn in the side of climatologists: Even though the world is warming, the average area of the sea ice around Antarctica is increasing. Climate models haven’t explained this seeming contradiction to anyone’s satisfaction—and climate change deniers tout that failure early and often. But a new paper suggests a possible explanation: Variability in the heights of ocean waves pounding into the sea ice may help control its advance and retreat.

That’s Carolyn Gramling writing for Science. She goes on to summarize the paper’s theory: warmer climate means lower waves, lower waves means less pounding on sea ice, less pounding on sea ice means slower melting to the point where (as noted above) sea ice in Antarctica is actually growing instead of shrinking.

The reality is that the Earth’s atmosphere and land and ecosystems and the sun’s radiation all work together to form a very, very, very complex system full of all kinds of negative and positive feedback loops that we know nothing about. This is just one example. Ice has been growing since at least 1979 despite projections, but no one had a clue. Now they have one but it is, of course, still just a clue. As science goes: this is great. When the data doesn’t line up with your predictions, it means you’re not understanding something and you have a chance for a new discovery.

But as a basis for expensive, global policy-making goes, this is not so great. The one thing all policies to thwart global warming have in common is making energy more expensive which will have the effect of lowering growth which will have the effect of keeping more people in the developed world in poverty for longer. We can be much more certain about that then we can about the corresponding threat from global warming. After all, we can’t even predict if the sea levels will rise at all, let alone by how much, so how can we begin to make a careful evaluation of the cost/benefit of policies to mitigate this unknown danger?

The consensus on global warming is often trotted out as a cudgel with which to beat skeptics, but this isn’t really effective once you step back and realize that climate change, itself, is only one part of a much, much more complex puzzle.

Protecting the Reputation of Science from Scientists

2014-05-01 Jack Parsons
Jack Parsons, near the future site of the JPL, is on the far right.

Here’s one of the more ironic passages I’ve read in my life:

Sir Isaac Newton’s accomplishments border on the uncanny, as does his image in the world of science. As the historian Mordechai Feingold has written, “With time, the historical Newton receded into the background, overshadowed by the very legacy he helped create. Newton thus metamorphosed into science personified.” So what is that legacy? What were those accomplishments? Here, familiarize yourself with Newton’s greatest contributions.

Here’s the irony of this quote (which comes from the PBS show NOVA): Feingold was talking about the way Isaac Newton as a human being has been lost to history because his image has been co-opted as a poster child for science. Getting back to the real Isaac Newton would entail rescuing his humanity. Such as, perhaps, his devout and sometimes odd religious views. He was, by the standards of his day, a heretic. He is, by the standards of our day, an occultist.

There is no grand conspiracy to hide the truth, and it’s out there if you take a look, but there’s a definite reluctance on the part of modern intellectuals to embarrass one of the titans of the tradition. Newton has become in a real way a kind of sacred cow. He represents, as NOVA put, science itself. So it would be really rather awkward for everyone if folks were made aware of the extent to which he wrote about his very literal interpretation of the Biblical text. This is part of how science preserves its reputation today: by controlling the narrative.

So here’s another, more recent example: Jack Parsons. Never heard of him? That’s kind of the point. And yet he was a founding father of rocket science in general and of the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory in particular (it was jokingly referred to as the Jack Parsons Laboratory for a while). So what happened to Parsons? Well, he had some really weird occult beliefs, for one thing, and a penchant for orgies for another. In his own lifetime this led to his fall from grace (because the US government didn’t like sexual occultists in the 1950s any more than they liked communists) and since then his legacy has been borrowed.

Not because there’s a secret Star Chamber out there controlling our history books, but for the much more prosaic but even more effective reason that nobody really wants to embarrass the modern narrative of bold, rational, scientific progress. And so it is, from Galileo to Newton to Parson, that what we think we know about the history of science and the actual history of science diverge radically.

What If I Believe This Just Because It Is Beautiful?

2014-03-25 Bicep2 Telescope

Just over a week ago reports with headlines like Big Bang’s Smoking Gun started to appear all across the Internet. Just yesterday the New York Times weighed in on the significance of the discovery, ranking it alongside the Higgs-Boson:

These gravitational waves are the long-sought markers for a theory called inflation, the force that put the bang in the Big Bang: an antigravitational swelling that began a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic clock started ticking. Scientists have long incorporated inflation into their standard model of the cosmos, but as with the existence of the Higgs, proving it had long been just a pipe dream.

There are already skeptics, but I want to focus on an odd, impromptu interview with Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde and what it says about the relationship between science and faith. Linde is one of the physicists who first proposed the theory of inflation decades ago, and in the video Professor Chao-Lin Kuo surprises him at his home with initial results confirming that Linde has been right all along. Something Linde said really struck me:

If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms and… let’s see. Let’s just hope that it is not a trick. I always live with this feeling “What if I am tricked? What if I believe into this just because it is beautiful? What if…?” Yes, so this is really helpful, to have evidence like that. It’s really, really helpful.

Professor Linde’s question really struck me the first time I heard it. “What if I believe it just because it’s beautiful?” What that expresses to me is a much more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of human belief and faith than we are usually allowed to glimpse when the guardians of right and proper rationalism are busy trying to drive their wedges between religious faith and scientific evidence. Just so we’re clear: I’m not equivocating the two, nor am I in any way suggesting that this new discovery itself validates theism.

What I’m doing is just pointing out that belief is about more than just rationality and objective evidence. It’s about intuition and symmetry and beauty and value. I think it would be a terrible misrepresentation of Linde’s faith in his unverified theories to call it “wishful thinking,” or “blind belief,” although there are aspects of both wishing and blindness in it. Similarly, ugly dismissals of religious conviction using the same labels strike me as a fundamentally impoverished view of what it means to be a human being in a world of mystery and contradiction where questions always outnumber answers on any truly meaningful issue.

From where I’m standing, the kind of tentative, pioneering scientific faith that precedes (but dos not obviate) experimental validation is a close cousin of the kinds of thoughtful, humble religious conviction that have animated so many believers in so many traditions for thousands of years. Obviously we should never merely accept this kind of faith where there is the prospect of evidence at hand. But isn’t it just as clear that this kind of faith is intrinsically noble and important? Clearly there are important differences between religious and science inquiry, but this is one commonality: faith is the beginning and not the end of inquiry.

Pious Fraud and Climate Skepticism

Pious fraud is the idea that sometimes it’s a good idea to lie to serve a higher good. In religion, it may mean lying about the origins of a sacred text or witnessing a miracle. In science, it may mean lying about a useless medical treatment to try and strengthen the  placebo effect. In Disney movies, it means giving an ordinary feather to Dumbo and telling him that it will magically help him to fly.  The ethics of pious fraud are therefore hotly contested.

The most recent entrant in the long and checkered history of pious fraud is the exaggerated claim that 97% of climate scientists all agree on climate change. The claim started out as a paper (not peer reviewed, btw) and then went on to get lots of airtime. Even President Obama tweeted it:

2014-02-27 Obama Consensus Tweet

There are lots of problems with the original paper and with the way that the paper has been used by others. Before we dig in, however, it’s important to carefully define the terms. The issue that is really at stake is not just a science issue, but a policy issue as well. It has 5 core components. They are:

  1. Climate change is really happening, and will continue to happen. (Implied: human forecasts are accurate.)
  2. The principle cause of climate change is human behavior (e.g. carbon emissions).
  3. The effects of climate change will, on balance, do much more harm than good.
  4. Climate change is largely reversible (e.g. we can do something about it).
  5. The costs of reversing climate change (e.g. with slower economic development for impoverished nations) are outweighed by the benefits.

As it turns out, however, the 97% paper successfully establishes near-universal scientific consensus on exactly none of these issues. Well, maybe on point #1, if you want to be generous. There are several articles out there castigating the authors of the paper for dishonesty and other shenanigans, but by far the strongest evidence of just how fraudulent the paper is comes from Popular Technology.

First, let’s explain how the 97% paper worked. Bjørn Lomborg (as reported in WattsUpWithThat) writes that:

The paper looks at 12,000 papers written in the last 25 years (see here, the paper doesn’t actually specify the numbers, It ditches about 8,000 papers because they don’t take a position.

They put people who agree into three different bins — 1.6% that explicitly endorse global warming with numbers, 23% that explicitly endorse global warming without numbers and then 74% that “implicitly endorse” because they’re looking at other issues with global warming that must mean they agree with human-caused global warming.

Voila, you got about 97% (actually here 98%, but because the authors haven’t released the numbers themselves, we have to rely on other quantitative assessments).

In other words, the 97% paper is based on interpreting the papers of various other climate scientists. So what Popular Technology did is actually quite simple, they asked the original authors if they agreed with how the 97% paper had characterized their articles. As it turns out: they did not. The 97% paper effectively drafted many of the most vocal and outspoken critics into the consensus regardless of their actual feelings. That would be bad enough. But, as the scientists described, the problems only get worse from there.

Let’s start with issue #2. Ostensibly, this should be the most reliable claim of the paper because it’s the whole point of the paper. Other folks, like President Obama, may have subsequently added on points 3-5 (which the paper itself didn’t claim), but surely the paper at least had some accuracy about the main issue it claimed to study? Not really. The problem is that the consensus being defended is what’s called the IPCC consensus (after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), but the IPCC defined anthropic global warming as global warming that is caused 90%-100% by humans. That’s a pretty high bar. The 97% paper, on the other hand, lowered that bar to just 50% and it did so without explaining what they were doing or why. Dr. Scaffeta, who has a PhD in physics and whose paper was used by the 97% paper as evidence of the consensus, explains:

Cook et al. (2013) [the 97% paper] is based on a strawman argument because it does not correctly define the IPCC AGW theory, which is NOT that human emissions have contributed 50%+ of the global warming since 1900 but that almost 90-100% of the observed global warming was induced by human emission.

What my papers say is that the IPCC view is erroneous because about 40-70% of the global warming observed from 1900 to 2000 was induced by the sun. [emphasis added]

Please note that it is very important to clarify that the AGW advocated by the IPCC has always claimed that 90-100% of the warming observed since 1900 is due to anthropogenic emissions. While critics like me have always claimed that the data would approximately indicate a 50-50 natural-anthropogenic contribution at most. [emphasis added]

What it is observed right now is utter dishonesty by the IPCC advocates. Instead of apologizing and honestly acknowledging that the AGW theory as advocated by the IPCC is wrong because based on climate models that poorly reconstruct the solar signature and do not reproduce the natural oscillations of the climate (AMO, PDO, NAO etc.) and honestly acknowledging that the truth, as it is emerging, is closer to what claimed by IPCC critics like me since 2005, these people are trying to get the credit.

They are gradually engaging into a metamorphosis process to save face.[emphasis added]

This is why I say that none of the 5 points above are actually substantiated by the 97% paper. Not only do Scaffeta (and many more) reject the characterization of their papers, but they in fact have dissenting views about the causes of global warming. This has profound implications. If (to use Scafetta’s high estimate), 70% of the global warming from 1990 – 2000 is caused by the sun, then this means that the models used by the IPCC consensus are wrong and we can’t trust their forecasts (so much for points 1 and 3). It also means that we have significant reason to doubt whether or not there’s much humans can do about climate change (points 4 and 5).

This is far from the only explosive comment to come from these scientists, however. Dr. Nir J. Shaviv (PhD in astrophysics) was also cited as being a part of the 97% consensus, and also completely rejected that categorization. He wrote:

Nope… it [that the paper was part of the 97% consensus] is not an accurate representation. The paper shows that if cosmic rays are included in empirical climate sensitivity analyses, then one finds that different time scales consistently give a low climate sensitiviity. i.e., it supports the idea that cosmic rays affect the climate and that climate sensitivity is low. This means that part of the 20th century should be attributed to the increased solar activity and that 21st century warming under a business as usual scenario should be low (about 1°C).

I couldn’t write these things more explicitly in the paper because of the refereeing, however, you don’t have to be a genius to reach these conclusions from the paper. [emphasis added]

So, not only does he also find that cosmic rays must factor into some of the warming (and therefore also criticize the forecasts), he also points out that he was unable to express his true opinion because of the peer review process, which was basically censoring (albeit not very well) his true belief. Just as a quick summary of the rest of the findings, here are some additional comments from the scientists who spoke with Popular Technology about how they felt the 97% paper characterized their own work:

  • “It would be incorrect to claim that our paper was an endorsement of CO2-induced global warming.” (Dr. Craig D. Idso, Geography)
  • I think your data are a load of crap. Why is that a lie? I really think so.” and “I think your sampling strategy is a load of nonsense. How is that a misrepresentation? Did I falsely describe your sample?” (Dr. S. J. Tol, Economics, in a series of tweets to one of the authors of the 97% paper.) [emphasis original to the Popular Technology article]
  • “The paper is strongly against AGW, and documents its absence in the sea level observational facts. Also, it invalidates the mode of sea level handling by the IPCC.” (Dr. Nils-Axel Morner, Quaternary Geography, describing how his own paper is actually against the consensus.)
  • “I am sure that this rating of no position on AGW by CO2 is nowhere accurate nor correct…. I hope my scientific views and conclusions are clear to anyone that will spend time reading our papers. Cook et al. (2013) is not the study to read if you want to find out about what we say and conclude in our own scientific works.” (Dr. Willie Soon, Rocket Science, describing why the categorization of his paper as having “no position” on anthropic global warming was false. He added: “No extra comment on Cook et al. (2013) is necessary as it is not a paper aiming to help anyone understand the science.” [emphasis added])
  • “If Cook et al’s paper classifies my paper, ‘A Multidisciplinary, Science-Based Approach to the Economics of Climate Change’ as “explicitly endorses AGW but does not quantify or minimize,” nothing could be further from either my intent or the contents of my paper… I would classify my paper in Cook et al’s category (7): Explicit rejection with quantification.” (Dr. Alan Carlin, Economics) [emphasis original to Popular Technology piece]

The Popular Technology article concluded: “The Cook et al. (2013) study is obviously littered with falsely classified papers making its conclusions baseless and its promotion by those in the media misleading.” and added two followup analyses: Cook’s 97% Consensus Study Game Plan Revealed and The Statistical Destruction of the 97% Consensus.

Where does that leave us? The most charitable possible interpretation is that the 97% paper deliberately or negligently inflated consensus on this issue. The reason for doing this is obvious: it’s a policy paper rather than a scientific paper. It is designed to get people to support policies intended to curb global warming without actually proving that these policies are the right decisions to make. It is a pious fraud. When the paper is used by others who tack on issues 3-5 (harm, reversibility, and net-benefit of opposing global warming) they are compounding the same fraud which the paper was deliberately designed to initiate.

This is a very, very bad idea. It is a bad idea because it poisons the entire debate. If scientists are willing to blatantly lie and fabricate to try and win a policy war, how can we (especially we who are non-experts) trust the scientific “consensus”? If the consensus were as low as 33% of scientists but it was transparent and honest and included all 5 points, that would be enough to make the issue quite serious. If it was as high as 67% (with the same conditions) that would be enough to make me seriously consider supporting drastic policies. But to try and trick people into believing there is consensus on all 5 points when there is, at best, exaggerated consensus on just 1 or 2 points throws the entire policy argument into question. Now I know that people are lying to me, and I also know that I have no realistic way of estimating the extent of the fabrications. I have to weigh the uncertain efficacy and uncertain benefits of climate change remedies against their certain costs.

This is not a good position for someone to be in if they are truly worried about climate change. And it’s not a reasonable position to be in if you’re actually confident of the facts. The fact that we are in this position at all is the reason that I, like many other open-minded skeptics, look for other possible explanations to explain the absolutist rhetoric of the climate change alarmists.