About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

When Republicans don’t know squat about science, and proud of it

If you are even a teensy little bit into reason and rationality, then you are likely to wince every time you open a newspaper, surf the web or watch tv. The wince of the week definitely came from an interview that ABC’s George Stephanopoulos conducted with GOP House opposition leader John Boehner (see the story as recounted by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum on their blog, and while you are it, pre-order their forthcoming book, Unscientific America).

The topic was global warming and what the Republican’s “plan” to deal with it might look like (don’t laugh! Not yet). I prepared myself for the usual denial mixed with narrow minded statements to the effect that we cannot afford to save the planet during a recession, and I was not disappointed. But the real kicker came when Stephanopoulos asked Boehner: “What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?”

Here is the answer, in full: “George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

Ok, let us analyze this piece of politico-scientific flim-flammery on Boehner’s part. First, he is saying that the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen is comical. It would be, if anyone had actually made that claim. Boehner is confusing cancer with global warming, an astounding example of non sequitur that he can quickly fix by checking out the definition of greenhouse gas on Wikipedia. (Don’t these people have science advisors?) Second, Boehner claims that burping cows emit carbon dioxide. They don’t, they produce methane (which is a greenhouse gas!). Again, Mr. Boehner, please at least check Wikipedia if you can’t bother with a more highbrow source, the entry is “methane.”

The interview then concludes with an unwitting bit of humor on Boehner’s part (at least, I think it was unwitting...), when he said to Stephanopoulos: “I think you’ll see a plan from us. Just like you’ve seen a plan from us on the stimulus bill and a better plan on the budget.” Hmm, you mean like the very thin budget without numbers you came up with? Wanna go see what Wiki says about budgets? They typically include numbers.

This would be very funny if it weren’t for the fact that Boehner isn’t an irrelevant country bumpkin, he is the minority leader of a party that has been in control of the fate of this nation and of much of the world for the past eight years, a party that could regain control at any time because of the fickleness of the electorate and the vagaries of things like economies, wars and terrorist attacks.

There is absolutely no excuse for this level of ignorance by a prominent elected official. It is of course natural to disagree on political issues; it is even ok to be skeptical of a scientific consensus on the basis of one’s own honest understanding of the situation. But to say that cows discharge CO2 and that environmentalists claim that CO2 is a carcinogen is not just bizarre, it is a flagrant case of unethical and willful ignorance. Boehner should be ashamed of himself and resign his post in disgrace. Alas, that won’t happen until the cows come home. I mean, burp CO2.


  1. Hey, at least it's an improvement over representatives who use Noah's flood as an argument against global warming or haven't heard of plate tectonics.

    I mean, he's at least heard of a few sciency-sounding words.

  2. Here is the way I, based off my current knowledge, see it.

    Republicans are about limiting your personal freedoms and expanding you economic freedoms while Democrats are just the opposite. However, Republicans appeal to "traditional family values" when trying to argue to limit your personal freedoms. As if there was something inherently special about these values. Oh, I guess while we're at it we should confine women to standing in front of the stove again.

    If Republicans don't know squat about science it is because, not so much that they are in the hands of interest parties or anything like that, but more that their political philosophy has been based on ignorance and minimal emphasis on critical thinking skills from the beginning (hence they are much more religious).

  3. Our premise would be that there is instead an increase in cooling (because energy for warming just isn't free) not warming. If the warming camp is ticked off, it is so because they know where the origin of the idea of cooling must come from. Genesis.

    To make it a total moral issue on the left tho, that is quite senseless. We certainly have an impact of the earth, but people on the left contribute to that impact just as much as anyone else. It also seems like accuracy matters incredibly if ones name happens to be Palin, Cheney, Boehner or Bush but hardly at all if your name is Napalitano, Pelosi, Clinton or Setero/Obama.

    After having lived through the coldest, snow stormingest March and April I've ever experienced in NM, somehow I fear the global warning experts really don't know a thing but everyone is too afraid to offer counter claims!

    Ah...and by the way, did you know that the economy has failed as well because of GLOBAL WARMING!? lol!

    Talk about a scapegoat for everything imaginable...

  4. Agreed Boehner shows a woeful ignorance of science. It is embarrasing, but I don't know that "republicans" hold a monopoly of ignorance on science considering the woeful state of science education.

    My problem with global warming is similar to the view expressed by Penn Gillette: global warming alarmism has a lot of the trappings of pseudoscience.

    The science too often take a back seat to hysterical alarmism and political activism, with a lot of political correctness thrown in. I always get nervous when politicians pick up any scientific cause, precisely because of most people's ignorance of science, and politicians insatiable appetite to spend money.

    Although I have not researched it carefully (nor am I inclined to disavow good global warming science), it seems there has been some good scientific counter arguments to all of the alarmism (One of my favorites: "A Climate of Belief" by Patrick Frank published in Skeptic Magazine, Vol 14, No 1, November 2008.)

    The (legitimate scientific) critics of the debate seem to be dismissed with typical "thought stopping" techniques, which reinforces the appearance of pseudoscience and always raises my baloney detection meter a notch or two.

    I am perfectly willing to accept good science and trust the dust will eventually settle around this topic. Until then, I maintain a bit of a skeptical eye.


  5. Dan,

    a bit of reasonable skepticism is always a good idea, no matter how strong the scientific consensus.

    On global warming in particular, even Pen has admitted that they overdid it on Bullshit! and that the scientific evidence is now pretty much as good as it can possibly get given the complexity of the problem.

  6. As Obama said during the campaign, its almost if they are proud of being ignorant. As far the denial of global warming. Over 2000 scientist said on to the UN statement asserting that humans were the cause, and urging action. When is the last time you heard even 20, hell 2, scientist agree on anything? This notion of a big hoax being played on the public is ridiculous, what purpose would it serve? Oh, and by the way, the idea that its a hoax, is strictly American, conservative American.


  7. New Atheist,
    Actually, its not strictly American. Bjorn Lomborg from Sweden has elucidated a cogent argument regarding the economics of global warming, and their are a number of British Scientists who have taken a much more moderate view (I'll have to do a search to find their names -- I've forgotten.)

    The comment by "New Atheist" is typical of what gives me pause about the "alarmist" global warming movement. Really, what it often boils down to is this: "Everybody believes this, the evidence is in, and if you don't believe then you must be a conservative dolt." A little rational discussion seems to be off limits. (Although I will freely admit -- as a "moderate" conservative -- that many conservatives actually are dolts...)

    As I said, I am not a global warming denier. But there are some very smart, reputable scientists who actually have a much less alarmist view and have good arguments to support them. In fact, there seems to be an increasing number of them. I give them credit for modulating the debate.

    What I know about the science of climate change and meteorology could fit on the head of a pin. So I have to rely on the rational arguments of experts and appropriate scientists. Admittedly, the preponderance of evidence probably does support man-made global warming. I just hate to see rational, scientific arguments that go against the grain automatically swept under the carpet and labeled "crackpot." I think the history of science should make us all a little hesitant to do so.

    Besides, a good, skeptical argument that challenges what we think we know always gives me warm fuzzies -- even if it turns out to not be true.


  8. A couple of days ago a substitute teacher at the school where I work was all bent out of shape because the EPA was saying that carbon dioxide is a poisonous gas.

    "Well it is." I said. "And so is oxygen at 2 atmospheres partial pressure. And so is nitrogen at sufficient partial pressure."

  9. NA "Oh, and by the way, the idea that its a hoax, is strictly American, conservative American."

    Polish Academy of Sciences Questions Gore's Man-Made Global Warming Theory

    By: Kevin Mooney
    Examiner Investigative Reporter
    04/24/09 9:18 AM

    Just as Al Gore prepares to testify on the dangers of Global Warming and urgency of new legislation the Polish Academy of Sciences has published a document that expresses skepticism over the concept of man-made global warming. Gore’s testimony today caps four days of hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on climate change legislation.
    Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, have introduced a draft version of the “American Clean Energy and Security Act,” which calls for imposing a cap and trade scheme.
    This report from a major scientific institution in the European Union shows the “consensus” position is becoming increasingly untenable.
    The report is as follows:
    The climate change of our planet, which can be observed more frequently in recent years, has become alarming for the public opinion. Various methods to remedy the situation are elaborated on the international level by decision makers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (operating since 1988) and different ecologic organisations.
    Having a part in this significant debate, the Geologic Science Committee of the Polish Academy of Sciences wishes to turn to 10 fundamental aspects of the problem closely related to the functioning of geosystem - the complex interdependence of processes occurring in the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. The knowledge of these factors should be the foundation for any rational and careful decisions, which could interfere in the geosystem.

    1. The climate of the Earth depends on the interaction between the surface and the atmosphere, both of which are heated by solar radiation characterized by a cyclical, variable intensity. The climate is influenced by the Earth's yearly revolution around the Sun, thermics, changes in ocean waters flow, air mass movement, mountain massif position, their uplift and erosion in time perspective as well as changes in the continents' position as a result of their permanent wandering.

    2. Geologic research proves irrefutably that the permanent change is the fundamental characteristic of the Earth's climate as throughout its entire history, and the changes occur in cycles of varied length - from several thousand to just a few years. Longer climate cycles are provoked by the extraterrestrial factors of astronomic character as well as by the changes of the Earth's orbital parameters, in brief - by regional and local factors. Not all reasons for climate change or their phenomena are fully known yet.

    3. Although in the history of the Earth, a considerably warmer climate than today had dominated, there had been repeated occurrences when the Earth experienced massive global cooling which always resulted in vast ice sheets that sometimes even reached the subtropics. Therefore, reliable forecasts of changes in the Earth's climate (not to mentioned efforts to prevent, shape, or act against them) must take into account the results of its research of the Earth's geological history - a time when humanity (and the industry) were not on our planet.


  10. It's even worse when you consider that the intellectual base (I use "intellectual" loosely) of the party is even more absurd. Jonah Goldberg considers global warming a "liberal fascist" plot.

    Glenn Beck calls "green the new red," aka, efforts to reduce carbon emissions or prevent rivers from catching fire are communist.

    On Earth day that dolt (Beck) did a segment about how dangerous and toxic flourescent light bulbs are because they contain mercury. Given that Beck works at an alleged news network you think someone there might have bothered to find out that the use of flourescent bulbs yields a net reduction in the amount of mercury in our environment since the coal plants put out much more mercury than the bulbs contain (and that the bulb mercury isn't an issue unless you break one or fail to recycle it.)

  11. Dan said:
    "The science too often take a back seat to hysterical alarmism and political activism, with a lot of political correctness thrown in. I always get nervous when politicians pick up any scientific cause, precisely because of most people's ignorance of science, and politicians insatiable appetite to spend money."

    Have you considered the possible alternative that there may be something to be alarmed about? And if there is, would it not be appropriate for policy makers, politicians, and citizens to engage in political activism in doing something about it?

    I appreciate your skepticism. Although I probably lean the opposite direction from you politically, I often remind myself that climate science must be very complex, and I don't have the level of knowledge of the issues that are probably debated in the peer reviewed literature. Like you, I have to trust what the relevant scientists communicate to the public. And perhaps there are reputable scientists who doubt the alleged consensus.

    Maybe some "alarmism" is warranted? James Hansen of NASA who is often considered one of the leading climate scientists thinks that we may be 10 years away from a "tipping point" of doing anything about global warming. Perhaps he is wrong, but maybe he isn't? Is "alarmism" necessarily bad given the stakes involved?

    The "political activism" also comes the other side, as politician's in the Bush administration tried to censor what Hansen had to say.


    It is also a fact that there are think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industries that want to influence scientific and policy debates in their interests.

    Just some thoughts to consider.

  12. Hi Sheldon,

    I often wonder when/if it is time to start being alarmed. Interestingly, I recently read (Sorry, I read so much on the internet these days I forget where all these tidbits come from,) that even Hansen has modulated his views a bit.

    Being familiar with Mesa Verde, you might get a kick out of this: recently visited there with my family (a truly awesome place.) We went on the park guided tour, and the tour guide was answering a question about why mesa verde had been abandoned. The guide said some speculation revolved around climate changed that may have been a factor. My son leaned over to me and said, "Where's the ruins of all the factories that caused the climate change?"

    Hey -- I really do get that there is a difference between man made global warming and natural climate cycles. But I found his comment at the time quite funny.

    Believe it or not, I recently traded my gas guzzling jeep for a much more fuel efficient car, and even turn off all my unused electrical stuff every day. I am very willing to make some reasonable changes, but I haven't pushed the panic button -- at least not yet.

    But I love watching the debate and am willing to become a little more activist. But I sure would like to see some good responses to some of the legitimate critics (ala Patrick Frank) first.

  13. And Bret Stephens.

    "What we have here is a nonfalsifiable hypothesis, logically indistinguishable from claims for the existence of God. This doesn't mean God doesn't exist, or that global warming isn't happening. It does mean it isn't science."

    Global Warming as Mass Neurosis
    Bret Stephens
    The Wall Street Journal

    Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the mass hysteria phenomenon known as global warming. Much of the science has since been discredited. Now it's time for political scientists, theologians and psychiatrists to weigh in.

    What, discredited? Thousands of scientists insist otherwise, none more noisily than NASA's Jim Hansen, who first banged the gong with his June 23, 1988, congressional testimony (delivered with all the modesty of "99% confidence").
    [Global Warming as Mass Neurosis] AP

    The New True Believers

    But mother nature has opinions of her own. NASA now begrudgingly confirms that the hottest year on record in the continental 48 was not 1998, as previously believed, but 1934, and that six of the 10 hottest years since 1880 antedate 1954. Data from 3,000 scientific robots in the world's oceans show there has been slight cooling in the past five years, never mind that "80% to 90% of global warming involves heating up ocean waters," according to a report by NPR's Richard Harris.

    The Arctic ice cap may be thinning, but the extent of Antarctic sea ice has been expanding for years. At least as of February, last winter was the Northern Hemisphere's coldest in decades. In May, German climate modelers reported in the journal Nature that global warming is due for a decade-long vacation. But be not not-afraid, added the modelers: The inexorable march to apocalypse resumes in 2020.

    This last item is, of course, a forecast, not an empirical observation. But it raises a useful question: If even slight global cooling remains evidence of global warming, what isn't evidence of global warming? What we have here is a nonfalsifiable hypothesis, logically indistinguishable from claims for the existence of God. This doesn't mean God doesn't exist, or that global warming isn't happening. It does mean it isn't science." ..


  14. Hi Dan,
    Yeah, that is cute about your son at Mesa Verde and climate change. Incidentally, the environmental causation hypothesis for MV region abandonment has pretty much been discarded, but that info. seems to be absorbed fairly slowly by the Park Services interpretive rangers, and probably the public in general.

    I do plan to check out the Skeptic article by Partick Frank to keep myself educated on the contrarian's arguments. Thanks for the reference.

    And Cal,
    Bret Stephens is a WSJ columnist, and with 5 seconds worth of research I have found out he has no specialized scientific training. I see no reason to trust any of his interpretations or representations of climate change data and debate, especially as he is writing for the WSJ and is fulfilling his ideological duties. Just the fact that he dismisses global warming as mass hysteria is a good signal that he shouldn't be taken seriously.

    Columnist George Will just recently got busted blatantly mis-representing studies as saying something opposite to what they actually said, and supporting his climate change denialism.

    If you have a more scientific based source, I am willing to consider it (like Dan's ref. to a Skeptic article).

    We might note that the theory of anthropomorphic climate change based on greenhouse gas emissions is a very plausible one. Are we really to doubt very strongly that the tons of coal, oil, and natural gas that we burn for our energy does not have some effect on the Earth's climate and ecosystems? Of course it does.

  15. On Boehner's boner: I was thinking this guy must be a lawyer, but I looked him up and his background is in business.

    Still, we also have Obama blathering about "clean coal" as though it were proven technology and not a bald-faced lie. This wouldn't have happened in China, where the government is run by engineers.

  16. Methane contains carbon. Cows do not fart CO2, they eructate it (belch). It is caused during the fermentation that occurs in the rumen. (There was a rumor going around last week that a democrat congressman had claimed the CO2 was carcinogenic; that was what Boehner was responding to). Your own ignorance of cows notwithstanding, (don’t you people have science advisors?) your criticism of Boehner is obviously ideological and not really about science knowledge eructations during interviews.

    Shouting ignorance and then displaying it is, well, ignorant.

  17. "NASA now begrudgingly confirms that the hottest year on record in the continental 48 was not 1998, as previously believed, but 1934 ..."

    If by "begrudingly" you mean they made the correction when it was brought to their attention. It's also worth noting that this is highly misleading. This is in reference to the contiguous United States, not the globe. Nasa still ranks 2005 as the warmest year on record (and the WMO ranks '98).

    Secondly, when NASA adjusts its models sometimes temperatures shift a bit one way or another, leading to reversals. '98 and '34 had switched before. The degree change we're talking here is 0.02 degrees Celcius. Before the revision 98 had been warmest by .01 degrees.

  18. Stan,

    thanks for the correction, cows do indeed burp, not fart, methane.

    That said, you really don't think that Boehner ignorance is of a whole different, and much more worrisome, order of magnitude? Oh well.

  19. It may be possible to overstate Republican pride and ignorance, but it can't be easy. This from Jesus's General (and yes, I'm assuming they're Republicans):

    The Emmy-winning scientist [Bill Nye] angered a few audience members [in Texas] when he criticized literal interpretation of the biblical verse Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights - the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”

    He pointed out that the sun, the “greater light,” is but one of countless stars and that the “lesser light” is the moon, which really is not a light at all, rather a reflector of light.

    A number of audience members left the room at that point, visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence.

    “We believe in a God!” exclaimed one woman as she left the room with three young children.

  20. Sheldon,

    I agree that Dr. Frank is good writer and probably a decent all around scientist, but if your criteria to accept or reject someones pov on evidence looks like this: "I have found out he has no specialized scientific training." then what business do any of you have in interpreting the worth and validity of Biblical text? Merely not liking how you perceive something is not the same as invalidating, btw.

    None of you have specialized religious training do you?

  21. Cal,
    My main point was that it is better to go to a scientific source to inform one's self on the science of climate change, not the opinion pages of a newspaper that caters to the business owning class.

    If I had any money to invest, then I might consider the WSJ an credibel source.

    Regarding your other point. I don't expect any newspaper to publish a full length column on my casual rantings about the idiocy of the Bible, maybe just a short letter to the editor.

    However, although I have not been educated in a seminary, which I would consider a great big waste of time, I was raised in a religous household and have a baseline knowledge of the Bible. Despite having religous instruction crammed down my throat, I came to the conclusion that the Bible as a guide to reality is nonsense. (Although it is interesting literature).

    In addition to that I have read some works by critical Bible scholars such as Hecor Avalos. Also, after hearing an interview, also and on my future reading list is a new book, Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman who was originally educated at the Moody Bible College and then in religious studies at Princeton.

  22. "When Republicans don't know squat about science, and [are] proud of it"

    What does one do if they are politically 'conservative' but also intelligent, educated and scientific? I am astounded by a political party which seems to embrace ignorance. Certainly the leaders of the party can't be all that ignorant. It takes some amount of smarts to reach such prominence. Doesn't it? And yet as MP points out, the Republicans seem to wallow in ignorance (George Bush anyone?) and denigrate the sciences. What's an atheist, biologist, conservative to do?

    As for global warming, I say "Bring it on, baby". I live a quarter mile from the Gulf of Mexico. If sea levels rise a foot or two, I'll have waterfront property. Yes!

    Seriously, I recently heard of some studies that claimed that increased levels of greenhouse gasses placed additional stress on plants that were growing at the upper edge of their temperature tolerance. So even if global warming is entirely a solar phenomenon, our greenhouse gas emissions may put many plant species over the tipping point. That, along with just plain old breathable air quality, issues of acid rain, and the wasting of fossil fuels, indicates to me that we really ought to be finding ways to cut back.

  23. Sheldon,

    Liberal theologians have their own best interest in mind and I have no respect for that whatsoever. That very mentality creates an internal contradiction in the face of it. The intended and eventual result becomes evident real soon. My early to late thirties, I use to read a variety of things either inside or outside of Christianity that were somewhat skeptical, then I realized one day, they're all saying EXACTLY the same thing!

    'The God of the Bible cannot be trusted. Period.'

    Oh, yeah, and those glory seekers writing that stuff can be trusted?!! (Not much different than Dawkins, really)

    Bwah haha! NO!

    Needless to say, I got a reality check and I stopped reading all that sort of material.

    Consider the source ALWAYS.

  24. Massimo,

    I'd heard a counter-theory to global warming because of greenhouse effects. It sounded convincing, and is based on premise that with greater emissions, there'd be lesser sunlight falling on Earth's surface, and that'd cool the atmosphere (because ultimately, atmosphere gets heated not directly, but only because of heat trapped by the lithosphere)
    or at least offset warming caused by greenhouse gases. What do you think of this theory?

    I don't have much idea of American politics, but anyway, it's always imperative to develop less polluting technologies, because even otherwise also we have problem of acid rain, which most definitely is carcinogenic (to the skin at least).

    Nice post!


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