Sunday, December 9, 2007

Republican War on Science

I've been busy catching up on my reading, while at the same time piling on new titles that I just have to get to soon. This plays into what I term "book guilt" -- the feeling that I really should have made time to read each of those titles that are on my stack that I really wanted to read. Well, that's the price of keeping current.

Recent finds: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush & His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country & Hijacking Our Democracy [2004: Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-074688-9](Amazon link) In the tradition of Reagan appointee James Watt to Secretary of the Interior, W has filled dozens of senior posts with anti-environment ideologues.

Stauber & Rampton Trust Us, We're Experts [2001] on paid 'experts' and Toxic Sludge is Good for You [1995] (Amazon link) on the role of high-powered P.R. firms in advancing corporate 'spin' against scientific evidence and warnings. The authors are also contributors to the Center for Media and Democracy website P.R. Watch which lists all their related books.

Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science [2006] (Amazon link) covering the sad tendency for right-wing legislators to cherry-pick the few skeptic shills like Fred Singer who will deny whatever problems science is currently pointing out, in hopes of delaying any response that might hurt their fossil-fuel industry backers.

On my to-read list for "soon" is Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason [2007: ISBN 978-1594201226] (Amazon link) covering similar issues as Mooney, but of course with an insider's point of view. Gore faced many of the denialist legislators and "expert" witlesses oops, I mean witnesses, but could make little headway against closed minds and a wall of denial, distraction and obfuscation.

How do I know that, if I haven't gotten my hands on Gore's new book yet? Well, I did dig out my old copy of Ross Gelbspan's landmark 1998 book The Heat Is On which recounts many of the congressional hearing-but-not-listening events. There is Pat Michaels once again trying to spin the climate issue into a non-issue. Gore challenges him on specific science, Michaels retreats, changes the subject, equivocates... then the R's all vote to do nothing and cut funding for climate science. Yikes. Find a copy of this book, or see his companion website The Heat is Online. He has a newer book following on the same theme that I haven't read yet: Boiling Point (Amazon link), also available in Spanish on the heatisonline site.

What this tells me is that we've known since the mid-90's that Big Oil and Big Coal were spinning us to the limit, and that anyone who really wants to understand climate change has access to the real facts. Sadly, there are lots of people who just don't want this inconvenient truth to be true, and they have plenty of places to turn for comfort of like-minded pollyannas. A few of these are paid by Exxon or coal producers to be spokes-shills, and the rest are parrots all repeating the same meaningless bromides like "CO2 is only a fraction of a percent of the atmosphere" as if that decided the question of whether CO2 is an important greenhouse gas (hint: it still is.) These aren't science; I won't even call them "factoids", they're merely glib distractoids.

Evidently the distraction business is still going strong. Today I took another look at the CBC-TV (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website for the Fifth Estate documentary "The Denial Machine" by Sheldon MacIntyre link. It's a good documentary covering links between today's climate skeptics and a P.R. firm that previously worked to promote doubt about the link between second-hand tobacco smoke and cancer.

The show was probably rebroadcast this fall, as the discussion board on this site is full of comments from this October. Sadly, at least half the comments still express doubts about the science behind this, and some are harshly critical of CBC for being lefty, alarmist, not being balanced, blah blah blah. This just makes me sad. The comments are all over the map - some seem very right-wing, while others are just muddled. Far too many of the comments contain points that appear to come straight from the climate skeptics' list of failed arguments. It makes me think the denial project has been all too effective.

It all fits with the names of two arch-denialist congresscritters: DeLay and Doolittle. That's pretty much the agenda of the denialists, and from the mid-90's to now in the U.S. and Canada that's where we've been stuck.

The one bright spot is that Australia voted last month to turf out anti-Kyoto PM John Howard, and the newly elected PM Kevin Rudd made ratifying Kyoto a key plank in his election campaign, which he fulfilled as one of his first acts in ofice.

With Australia gone, now the U.S. is completely isolated among industrial economies in remaining outside the Kyoto treaty. Canada, sadly, remains nominally a signatory but the Harper rightists have made it clear we are not even going to try to get close to our treaty obligations.

Yesterday I attended our local event as part of the worldwide "D8" rally for action on climate change. Ours was at Toronto's Dundas Square. The turnout was good despite a very chilly and windy day. I had a poster made of rigid pink insuation foam with the slogan "Pink is green" (think about it...) The TV news today said the Vancouver rally had a fairly poor turn-out.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bird brains

Okay, I realize I never posted why I chose the online identity "birdbrainscan" for myself. I often find myself curious about other people's choices of nicknames, so for people like me who think of things like that, here's where mine comes from.

It's obviously a "before-and-after" combination of "birdbrain" plus "brain scan". My wife is a keen fan of Wheel of Fortune, and I watch along. My favorite puzzle format of theirs is before-and-after, in which two common phrases, titles, etc. are joined with some amount of overlap, such as "Bleak House at Pooh Corner." There is a whole genre of puzzle where you have to link two words or phrases by creating a chain of before-and-afters. The TV game show Chain Reaction uses this game.

I don't have any personal links to brain imaging, other than finding it really kewl, and it starts with "brain" so it completes the puzzle. But as a keen birder I proudly accept the label of birdbrain for myself.

I am particularly smitten with the inspiring book Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage, which recounts the remarkable intelligence of corvids, fitting into a broader literature on animal intelligence that I've enjoyed. I checked this book out of the library several years ago and I still recall vivid details of several stories. Ask me about the crow and the crosswalk (technically a zebra crossing, as this was in the U.K. but I like the alliteration.) Another very clever bird was the late, lamented Alex the African Grey parrot, trained by Irene Pepperberg to answer subtle questions about fridge magnets. News of Alex's passing this fall was met with an outpouring of public grief. Alex was truly amazing and Dr. Pepperberg has contributed greatly to our appreciation of the power of tiny but well-used brains.

I couldn't just use birdbrain as a nick since it is far too popular. So a before-and-after combo seemed just the ticket to make a term that had never shown up on the web previously. A google search now finds all sorts of message boards where I've used this nick dating back to 2003 at least.

How it all ends on YouTube

I just stumbled upon a crazy series of videos on YouTube that have made a crazy amount of buzz:

How It All Ends

This has been viewed over 2.5 MILLION times so far. The author, wonderingmind42, AKA Greg Craven, (story) is a high school physics teacher with a flair for small, controlled tabletop explosions and a vast collection of funny hats. His video sums up the pros and cons of taking action on global warming in a way designed to bypass the idea that we can't act until scientists hand us 100% certainty. And all that in 9.5 minutes!

Well actually he has much more to say on the subject, which he has recorded and linked together with another video index and table of contents, under the revised title "How it all ends" (along with a re-cut of his original video to address some objections.) The expanded version runs to dozens of short clips, each addressing one slice of the pie. It's too bad streaming videos can't include clickable links to other videos - if anyone needed that feature, it's this guy. For now, just view his index to get titles of the additional pieces of his puzzle. [Update: thanks to tbolger for pointing out the clickable menu of these videos on the website]

In fact, Greg is really plugged in to the state of the art in replying to "climate denial." He gives props to "How to talk to a climate skeptic" (holds up a poster saying to google that phrase ;-) I notice he didn't mention RealClimate in his main video (who knows what's in the hours of additional content - I just saw this today!) But his point is that we need to move beyond just bickering about specific tidbits of evidence and look at the big picture of risk management (a point not lost on the RealClimate scientists).

Here's a blog by another birder who also noticed the viral video by
Born Again Birdwatcher. (I'll say more about my online nickname "birdbrainscan" in a follow-up post.)