Sunday, April 23, 2017

Connecting the Denial Dots

Photo from Eugene, Oregon March for Science.

By Bob Ferris

It is interesting that when you look at the continuing comments from science teachers on the recent The Sustainable Schoolteachers blog (i.e., the target audience), there is a theme of understanding, respect and appreciation for what Brandie Freeman has done. And rightfully so.  This is a lot like what many of us in science experienced during the Marches for Science yesterday (see photo above and video below from Chicago).

But then there are a handful of detractors jumping in to prop up the subject of the blog: a self-published, indefensible piece of propaganda from a specious, Libertarian, think tank—The Heartland Institute (1,2,3). (Yes, this document is identified as coming from the Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change but all the scientist authors s are linked to Heartland and Heartland holds the copyright for the document.)

Me standing behind friend Jim Litts at Eugene March (photo by Ali Litts)
But who are these folks?  We see, for instance, Radical Rodent who offers up defense of the document along with giving us yet another conservative think tank, Global Warming Policy Foundation, that is, surprise, surprise, allied with Heartland.

Then we have Gordon Fulks who despite all of his protestations has operated more in the political arena (1,2,3,4,5,6) than the science pathway which he jumped off in the early 1980s.  He has in comment promoted both the Heartland Institute and the International Climate Science Coalition another off shoot of Heartland.  He is also science advisor for the free-market/Libertarian, think-tank Cascade Policy Institute which interestingly is an organization that past state Libertarian party director Jim Karlock (another critic on the Schoolteacher blog) frequently plays “disinterested” wing-man for (see this thread), while trying to block things like public transportation because “cars are better.”

Folks assembling in Eugene.
Stir into this attacks on the regulation of particulate matter in California by Fulks and that Jim Karlock makes videos of Gordon Fulks and we see obvious patterns and connections.  Taken in total we are left with a bunch of free-market Libertarians who do not want to see fossil fuels regulated because of their ideology.  And they would like us to think that they represent a broad coalition but they do not.

When Jim Karlock (see above video) ran for office he drew about 11 percent of the vote and the following criticism from a columnist in the Oregonian “His opponent is Libertarian Jim Karlock, a fellow who has lots of unusual ideas, many of which would destroy everything that makes his Northeast Portland district so eminently livable.”   This seems harsh but not inappropriate given Jim’s contrarian positions and attacks on others.

But dealing with these “gentlemen” takes a toll and it is helpful to bathe in a little sanity.  A good place to start is to look at the coverage from the March for Science in Chicago and realize that on this single day, in this one city of 600 or so events, more people marched than signed the highly criticized Oregon Petition (1,2,3,4,5) that was pushed by Gordon Fulks in his comments.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Need for an American Reset

Mary Morris Phelps with her husband Bill Phelps at Cat Island near Georgetown, South Carolina.
By Bob Ferris

I remember a time about forty-five years ago when I sat drinking corn whiskey with my great-aunt on an island in South Carolina at her winter retreat known as Blackout.  We drank the whiskey from a tall, glass demijohn with a cork made from a candle stub wrapped with a paper napkin.  The whiskey was some of the finest I had ever tasted but I strongly suspected that certain federal taxes were never offered or paid for our libation.  But this is all setting and not point.

My reason for recalling this moment in time is that we were not only drinking neat and eating crab claws from a can, we were talking politics.  My aunt, Mary Morris Phelps, was arguing that Ronald Reagan would never be elected to a national office because he had been divorced.  Her argument was that politicians had to be squeaky clean and beyond reproach.  They had to be paragons of virtue.  I was fresh out of the 1960s and argued that the times were a’changing.  In retrospect, I was wrong to dismiss her concerns.

Parson Weems and his legend.
I grew up on the Parson Weems stories of George Washington’s honesty and also Abe Lincoln’s charcoal and shovel education.  We knew these and others were often largely myths or purposeful exaggerations but we also understood that they were important in terms of setting expectations and crafting our own lives.

Science and inventiveness were also emphasized when I was a child.  We all wanted to fly kites like Ben Franklin or invent things or processes like Thomas Edison or Eli Whitney.  And we were constantly reminded of Alexander Graham Bell because of Bell Laboratories and educational films (see above video excerpt).
I also grew up with stories of how my country was a melting pot and my childhood home in the San Francisco Bay Area teemed with examples of immigrants from the south and east.  Yes there were lying and bigotry in abundance but these were shadow sins seen rightfully as ugliness when exposed to light.

Robert Morris Ferris about the time that I started learning these lessons.
It is hard to reconcile this conversation with my great-aunt and my All-American programming to our current happenstance.  How, for instance, can we talk about George Washington’s honesty when our sitting President has been called a liar repeatedly in nearly every major paper in the country?  How do we talk to children about scholarship and science when every presidential candidate from one party disagrees with 97% of the scientists working in a particular field?  Or innovation when a party platform includes pushing a dirty fuel that was old news at the end of the 19th century?  And how do we talk about our melting pot nature when our President’s “big idea” is to build a wall that cannot work to stop other immigrants from accessing what his grandparents, mother and two of his wives were freely given?

Elizabeth Gouverneur Morris Ramsay Ferris my grandmother.
Who is to blame for all of this cultural dissonance?  We all are to some respect, but that is probably not the best question.  A more proper query is how can we reclaim what we have so casually tossed aside?  This is a tough challenge particularly when we look at the more than considerable cultural momentum that we would have to first slow, then stall and eventually reverse.  We have our collectively credibility to repair.  We must re-embrace science and innovation so we create a future rather than clinging to a tired past that only increasingly damages our long-term prospects.  And we have to reestablish ourselves as not just another country in a dangerous world, but the safest and most welcoming one.  We need to be the island of hope in the sea of despair.

The idea of these changes seems monumentally prohibitive.  Scary even.  But quintessentially American in scale and stretch.  We have only to remember those lessons and exemplars from so long ago.  We have only to remember what we were taught and commit to pursuing it in the future.  The American Dream has never been gained by bemoaning its demise in our rear-view mirror, but rather looking over the ship’s bow, oxen team, hood or whatever comes next and accelerating.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I inject the Preamble to the US Constitution as written by Gouverneur Morris here for several reasons.  I know that this simple paragraph is often disregarded as not really an essential part of the US Constitution or even enforceable.  But I would argue it is the most important part as it defines the character of the envisioned nation and should influence all legislation that flows from the aegis provided by this document.  That Gouverneur and his half-brother Lewis Morris—my relative and ancestor respectively—gave up much of their status and wealth in order to form this union should be another of those American threads that is exemplified rather than forgotten.

Gouverneur Morris
Unfortunately, we currently have a Congress and a President who think the Preamble applies only to a thin sliver of America’s most prosperous rather than the whole.  How this societal screen would have allowed trickle-down economics or the sharing of our internet data with companies is hard to fathom.  Likewise, while the Affordable Care Act embraces the idea of general welfare, its repeal or modification coupled with tax-breaks to the least deserving does not.  And I would defy anyone to explain how this current administration has forwarded domestic tranquility or made gains in our common defense by picking unnecessary fights with almost any other country that moves.

So it is a tall order with many pieces.  The pathway to success is unknown but we know that our current direction spells nothing but disaster for us and future generations.  It comes down to what it always has for us and that is courage, sacrifice, and leadership.  We need to remember what those are and then seek ways find them within ourselves and others.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Holy Followers of the Oily Shoe

By Bob Ferris

I am engaged in yet another long and exasperating dialogue with a climate denier 2 (i.e., an anthropogenic climate change denier who denies he or she is an anthropogenic climate change denier).  This one revolves around the mass mailing to teachers of the Heartland Institute’s Second Edition of their industry-influenced, “skeptical” take on climate change called Why Scientists Disagree at Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus.

The technical aspects of this document has been well-critiqued by an AP science teacher in Georgia who felt obligated to defend her discipline.  My hat is off to Brandie Freeman for this piece and also having the courage to teach science in this age of fake-news.  Folks in her profession need all of our support as they not only have to teach complicated concepts to often less-than-receptive students but do so in the presence of a giant global industry dedicated to filling their students minds with the intellectual equivalent of dirt.

The Heartland Institute’s publication is interesting.  I have worked on many science-based publications over the years and generally the idea is to gather well-respected experts and have them write, review or endorse your publication.  The notion being that there is a positive correlation between credentials and credibility.  The writing of these qualified folks leading to a better draft publication and the review helping with the final version.  Both of these are complemented by a foreword written by someone of such repute and expertise that it sets the whole tone for the publication.  The Heartland Foundation has taken a different, arguably reverse, approach.

Here the foreword is written by Marita Noon whose background is writing Christian living literature and freely admits that she is not an energy expert nor a scientist.  Moreover, she currently runs two non-profits advocating for issues like the use of hydraulic fracking and fossil fuels.  As her funding flows from the oil and gas interests in New Mexico, it is really hard to understand why the Heartland Institute would see her as an informational or credibility engine for this document.  Particularly as she is such an unaware and comic figure (see above Jesse Ventura clip or the Daily Show segment).

The scientists chosen are likewise puzzling.  Particularly if the goal of this publication is really credibility rather than some glossy trickery.  S. Fred Singer one of the publication’s three authors got his PhD in 1948 when he was twenty-four.  His publishing in legitimate journals was in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Some good work but more recently his efforts have been seriously tainted by controversy.  Craig Idso and the late Robert Carter are no strangers to controversy either.  So all three authors are somewhat less than shining paragons of scientific credibility.  So why would Heartland use them and not others?

And when we shift our attention to those singing accolades about this work those too are puzzling if indeed this is about scientists and their associated discussions.  Why, for instance, would someone like E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D. be included by Heartland?  Beisner is a conservative theologian  not a scientist or someone with a background in energy.  How could those at Heartland think that this adds credibility to the document?  How is this not like having a butcher review a vegan cookbook?    A third of this list of endorsers are not scientists at all and many not legitimately involved in this debate.

Which brings me back to the beginning because what I have just done above would be characterized as an ad hominem attack by the climate change denier 2 making an appearance in science teacher’s blog thread.  In my experience during many, many such debates on technical issues this is frequently the defense of the least credentialed or those who present absolutely no credentials at all.  It seems illogical to me in the extreme to not want to know if someone presenting a complex idea lacked the appropriate credentials or was compromised through ideology, past transgressions or funding.  Why would it be rational to ignore these factors when trying evaluate any issue of import?

With the lawsuits on climate change (1,2,3) and Rex Tillerson’s e-mail alias, it should become clearer and clearer that the fossil fuel companies have known for a generation about climate change and their role in creating it.  Their response to the science was to create a set of alternative-facts and fabricate a debate that did not exist (see Andrew Revkin’s piece).

In the end our climate change denier 2 reminds me of those people following the late Graham Chapman through the streets in the movie “The Life of Brian.”  The fossil fuel industry and their allies like the Heartland Institute have created this “shoe” and many have unfortunately picked it up, tied it to a pole, and are walking through the streets worshiping it.