Tag Archives: science

Denial Isn’t Just A River In Egypt

Sorry about that bad pun, but these day, even pathetic humor is a respite from the daily news…                                                                          
                                                                    
And speaking of the daily news–according to one recent report on the pandemic, new cases have increased by 84% in states that don’t require the wearing of masks, and fallen by 25% in states that do.
 
You might consider that a clue-just a small hint that we should trust science.

After all, those numbers would seem to confirm what all those doctors and epidemiologists have been saying: mask-wearing protects us (or more accurately, protects other people from being infected by those of us who are asymptomatic). Evidently, however, America’s tribal polarization has overwhelmed sanity.
 
The polls tell us that a sizable majority of Americans strongly favor measures to control the spread of the pandemic over efforts to “reopen” the economy. When those numbers are broken down, however, Republican voters disagree—prioritizing the economy.
 
Self-identified Democrats are significantly more likely to wear a mask and engage in social distancing than self-identified Republicans.
 
The polling reminds me of a survey I saw a couple of years ago—well before the pandemic—in which significant numbers of Americans who would not object to their children marrying across racial or religious lines strongly disapproved of the prospect of that child marrying someone of the opposite political party.
 
Talk about “identity politics”!
 
In today’s highly polarized America, an individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Political scientist Lilliana Mason has argued that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Democrat and Republican have become our new mega-identities.
 
The fact of extreme partisan polarization doesn’t, however, explain why identifying as Republican means being substantially less likely to believe the science that tells us Covid-19 poses a genuine threat. Of course, there’s President Trump’s determination to ignore the threat—to insist it is an artifact of testing (!), or a Democratic “hoax,” but in a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman offered a different theory, arguing that the G.O.P.’s coronavirus denial is rooted in a worldview that goes well beyond Trump and his electoral prospects. Krugman argued that Covid-19 is like climate change: It isn’t the kind of menace the party wants to acknowledge.
 
“It’s not that the right is averse to fearmongering. But it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate — people of a different race or supercilious liberals.”
 
As Adrian Bardon of Wake Forest University recently wrote in The Conversation, Americans increasingly exist in highly polarized, informationally insulated ideological communities occupying their own information universes, and engage in what political scientists call “motivated reasoning” to dismiss inconvenient or unwelcome facts.

In all fairness, this phenomenon isn’t limited to today’s GOP; the “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-GMO” activists tend to come from the left side of the political spectrum and are equally dismissive of science that doesn’t fit with their ideological preferences.
 
In his book, The Truth About Denial, Bardon reminds us that our human “sense of self” is intimately tied to our tribal membership and our identity group’s beliefs. We are all prone to engage in confirmation bias (what we used to call “cherry picking”), accepting expert testimony that confirms our prejudices and rejecting facts and data that contradict them.
 
Unfortunately, in some situations, ignoring facts can kill you. Or grandma.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

How a cognitive failing explains why so many people reject the facts about the pandemic

The Triumph Of Quackery

We are seeing what happens when the “fringe” goes mainstream. (Well, perhaps not mainstream as in “mainstream American society” but mainstream as in “takes over a President and his political party.” Mainstream Republican, in other words.)

When belief in science threatens the bottom line, when those pesky things called “facts” are politically inconvenient, when the complexity of modern life requires an acknowledgement of uncertainty–people who are profoundly uncomfortable with those realities retreat to the conspiracy theories and bright lines that have long characterized beliefs of people we might refer to as “untethered to reality.”

As Richard Wolffe recently asked about one such “untethered” person in the Guardian, “What kind of buffoon brags about taking a drug that could kill him?”

Wolffe acknowledges that–among the many ailments Donald Trump has inflicted on his own country – there is one worse than hydroxycholoroquine, unsafe and ineffective as the FDA says it is for this use.

But it’s even worse that he is a one-man delivery vehicle for a dunce cult that denies science.He represents the nadir of a long tradition of conspiracy-loving wingnuts who used to populate the fringes of the American conservative movement. Over the last half-century they have moved steadily into the mainstream of the Republican party, where their fact-free fairytales about the evil establishment have found a natural home in the cranium of the 45th president.

In this age of hyper-connected ignorance, there are no independent experts and there are no true facts. Your scientific theories are equal to my Twitter theories, just as your FBI investigation into Russia is equal to Rudy’s supposed investigation into Ukraine. All opinions are equal, but some are more equal than others.

As Wolffe notes, slap a respectable-sounding name on groups espousing bizarre theories, and watch the desperate-to-be-believers lap it up: the staid-sounding Association of American Physicians & Surgeons, for example, has denied that HIV causes Aids (citing “official reports and the peer-reviewed literature”) and revealed that Barack Obama was using “mass hypnosis to bamboozle voters with his fancy speeches,” among other “scientific” discoveries.

According to recent surveys, most Republicans want scientists out of the policy process. Before the pandemic, just 43% of Republicans thought scientists should play an active role in policy debates, compared with 73% of Democrats. This at a time when so many policy issues–from auto emission standards to public health standards–require an understanding of what credible science tells us.

Even fewer Republicans – 34% – think scientists are any better at making decisions about science policy than you or me.

These opinions did not crawl out of the primordial soup on their own. They have evolved over time in a warm bath of fringe conspiracy groups that have spent decades fighting against the teaching of evolution, among other social evils. One of those groups was Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, which worked to push evolution out of the classroom, almost as doggedly as Mrs America fought against women’s rights and the Equal Rights Amendment.

So it’s no surprise to find her son Andrew named as general counsel to the AAPS. Among other projects, Andrew Schlafly founded a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, to correct its “liberal bias” on things like evolution.

Fringe beliefs aren’t new. Stupidity isn’t new (although I doubt we’ve ever had a President as monumentally stupid as Trump, who recently responded to a question about per capita comparisons with Germany and Japan by saying “You know, when you say ‘per capita’ there’s many per capitas. It’s, like, per capita relative to what? But you can look at just about any category, and we’re really at the top, meaning positive on a per-capita basis too.”)

What is new is the Internet and especially social media. What is new is the chutzpah of a President complaining that fact-checking his obvious lie on Twitter somehow deprives him of “free speech.” What is new is our ability to occupy information bubbles of our own choosing–bubbles that reinforce our bigotries and reassure us that Q is real and the pointy-headed intellectuals who trust science are part of the “deep state.”

What is new–and most definitely not improved– is the devolution of an entire political party into an adolescent, anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-fact cult of quackery.

 

Climate Denial Coming Back To Bite Us

It’s all connected.

Not just climate change and the incidence of pandemics–which, it turns out, is a connection we need to understand and take seriously–but science denial and destructive public policies, among many other relationships.

As Talking Points Memo and Pro Publica have reported, scientists and medical researchers are just beginning to unravel the ways in which climate change affects the emergence of new diseases. It isn’t as though the relationship between the two was unknown; for many years now, experts in the field have been warning about the likelihood that a warming planet would accelerate the rate at which new diseases appear. But the mechanisms are just beginning to be understood.

The numbers are jaw-dropping: A new emerging disease surfaces five times a year. One study estimates that more than 3,200 strains of coronaviruses already exist among bats, just waiting for an opportunity to jump to people.

Those strains have always been there–but the planet previously had “natural defenses” that fought them off.

Today, climate warming is demolishing those defense systems, driving a catastrophic loss in biodiversity that, when coupled with reckless deforestation and aggressive conversion of wildland for economic development, pushes farms and people closer to the wild and opens the gates for the spread of disease.

The effect of climate change on the way diseases are transmitted from bats and other animals or insects to humans is anything but intuitive, which is why it would be helpful to elect legislators and other policymakers who have a modicum of scientific literacy. (Actually, it would be nice if at least a few GOP lawmakers knew the difference between science and religion…)

The article explains how it works.

There are three ways climate influences emerging diseases. Roughly 60% of new pathogens come from animals — including those pressured by diversity loss — and roughly one-third of those can be directly attributed to changes in human land use, meaning deforestation, the introduction of farming, development or resource extraction in otherwise natural settings. Vector-borne diseases — those carried by insects like mosquitoes and ticks and transferred in the blood of infected people — are also on the rise as warming weather and erratic precipitation vastly expand the geographic regions vulnerable to contagion. Climate is even bringing old viruses back from the dead, thawing zombie contagions like the anthrax released from a frozen reindeer in 2016, which can come down from the arctic and haunt us from the past.

Not only does climate change facilitate contagion, but once new diseases are introduced into the human environment, changing temperatures and precipitation change how–and how fast– those diseases spread. Harsh swings from hot to cold, or sudden storms — exactly the kinds of climate-change-induced patterns we’re already experiencing— make people more likely to get sick.

The bottom line: climate policy is inseparable from efforts to prevent new pandemics. The relationship of the two cannot be ignored.

What’s known as biodiversity is critical because the natural variety of plants and animals lends each species greater resiliency against threat and together offers a delicately balanced safety net for natural systems. As diversity wanes, the balance is upset, and remaining species are both more vulnerable to human influences and, according to a landmark 2010 study in the journal Nature, more likely to pass along powerful pathogens.

Losses of biodiversity have accelerated. Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact–the others have been so degraded that the natural ecosystems that depend on them have been disrupted. When forests die, and grasslands and wetlands are destroyed, biodiversity decreases further.

The United Nations has warned that the planet has already lost 20% of all species– and that more than a million more animal and plant species currently face extinction.

Speaking of interrelationships–politics is intimately and unavoidably involved with our efforts to avoid planetary-wide extinctions. Losses of biodiversity and the increasing prevalence of pandemics cannot be addressed by MAGA-believing xenophobes who fear globalization and dark people, and think border walls will repel viruses and brown people, and return America to the 1950s.

We are facing life-and-death issues, and they can only be resolved by global collaborations led by people who respect science and trust scientists–and aren’t afraid of people who look or pray differently.

 

 

Elitism? Or Respect For Knowledge?

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic is that electing leaders who sneer at expertise and make war on science was a big mistake.

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis defended the federal bureaucracy, and pointed out how significantly the tasks they perform – from maintaining nuclear waste to  forecasting the weather–depends upon knowledge and training. In a recent interview, Lewis pointed to the Trump camp’s “glaring ignorance” of government’s responsibilities and the expertise required to discharge those responsibilities.

I’ve previously blogged about Trump’s effort to eject scientists from the federal bureaucracy–a fixation exceeded only by his determination to purge anyone responsible for oversight–but the excessive anti-intellectualism of this administration isn’t simply due to Trump. It’s the result of a longstanding Republican “culture war” strategy in which educated folks are demonized as “elitists.”

“Real” Americans don’t put on fancy airs, or point out when policies aren’t based on facts.

As the “Big Sort” has accelerated America’s cultural differences, the GOP has found it easier to sneer at the effete intellectuals who flocked to congenial urban neighborhoods.(I recently read that House Democrats represent 78 percent of all Whole Foods locations, but only 27 percent of Cracker Barrels.) Trump doesn’t understand much, but he does recognize that most of those remaining in the dwindling GOP- -whiter, older and more Christian than the country as a whole–don’t care about policy, or about voting what others might consider their own self-interest. They see themselves as an identity group under threat, and they’ll follow anyone who speaks to their sense of grievance. It’s easy to convince them that coastal “elitists” look down on them.

The GOP’s constant assault on knowledge, professionalism and education has had a predictable effect on trust in all the institutions necessary to democratic self-governance.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on the degree to which the erosion of trust has made us more vulnerable to this pandemic, and noted that Trump is “merely the apotheosis of a political approach that has animated much of the conservative movement for a half century or more: undermining trust in the media, science, and government.”

For America to minimize the damage from the current pandemic, the media must inform, science must innovate, and our government must administer like never before. Yet decades of politically-motivated attacks discrediting all three institutions, taken to a new level by President Trump, leave the American public in a vulnerable position.

Trump has consistently vilified the national media. When campaigning, he called the media “absolute scum” and “totally dishonest people.” As president, he has called news organizations “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” over and over. The examples are endless. Predictably, he has blamed the coronavirus crisis on the media, saying “We were very prepared. The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media.”

Science has been another Trump target. He has gutted scientific expertise and administrative capacity in the executive branch, most notably failing to fill hundreds of vacancies in the Centers for Disease Control itself and disbanding the National Security Council’s taskforce on pandemics. During the coronavirus crisis, he has routinely disagreed with scientific experts, including, in the AP’s words, his “musing about injecting disinfectants into people [to treat COVID-19].” This follows his earlier public advocacy for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, also against leading scientists’ advice. Coupled with his flip-flopping on when to lift stay-at-home orders, the president has created confusion and endangered people.

Finally, President Trump has consistently demeaned essential government agencies, labeling them part of a “deep state.”

An article originally from Salon looked at the history of empiricism and its importance:

What Galileo established as separating science from other types of “revealed” truths was this: facts and the ability to make testable predictions mattered. There weren’t anymore your facts and my facts, neither were there facts and “alternative facts“. There weren’t revealed facts or aspirational facts. Facts came in only one flavor — observable. Observations, experiments, and reasoning based on reliable data became the only acceptable methods for discovering facts about the world.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt summed it up:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Since at least the 1960s, the GOP has waged a sneering assault on “elitists” who respect empirical inquiry, and pursue facts, knowledge and expertise. The result is that today’s Americans occupy alternate realities. Denigrating knowledge, however, is equivalent to a demand that we disarm the front-line soldiers fighting our wars.

That is no way to fight a pandemic–or run a country.

Ethics Are So Last Administration…

It has been difficult–sometimes nearly impossible–to find policy consistency in the Trump administration. Certainly, looking to His Craziness for anything remotely like an ongoing strategy (other than enriching himself and bragging) is a lost cause. But there has been one exception to the chaos rule.

The environment.

From its first day, the Trump administration has waged war on the EPA. Scientists have been summarily dismissed. Enforcement has been dramatically reduced. Years of solid research have been ignored. Rules put in place based upon considerable evidence have been rolled back. Controls on mercury? Gone.  Regulation of toxic substances in consumer goods? Gone. Safeguards against repeats of the disastrous BT spill? Gone.

Publications like National Geographic and Scientific Amerrican have kept running lists of the protections that this administration has gutted. Last December, the New York Times had an article focused on “95 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back Under Trump.”

Clean air, potable water–clearly not as important as the bottom lines of friends of the administration.

That this administration has no ethical core will come as no surprise to anyone even casually following the news. The cabinet members appointed by Trump seem uniformly chosen for their willingness to destroy the agencies they are supposed to serve. As damaging as this has been in other agencies, it has been most destructive–and most incomprehensible–at the EPA.

Who doesn’t want drinkable water? Who wants to encourage use of chemicals that are demonstrably cancer-producing? How much lobbyist money in the pockets of GOP officials is enough to make them unconcerned about the air their grandchildren will breathe?

I find these questions baffling.

Back in January, The Hill ran a story about the “ethics” of the people Trump was appointing to the EPA.

A House Oversight and Reform Committee review found the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) let political appointees take months to sign required ethics pledges and compile recusal lists, allowing leaders to work on issues where they had substantial conflicts of interest, the panel argued.

An executive order signed during President Trump’s second week in office requires federal employees to avoid working with former clients for their first two years.

“These documents indicate that EPA allowed senior agency officials to avoid or delay completing required ethics forms and that EPA was missing forms entirely for some officials,” committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and subcommittee Chairman Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to the agency.

“The Committee identified multiple instances in which EPA officials failed to complete required ethics documents or sign ethics pledges required by Executive Order 13770.  EPA also allowed officials to delay the finalization of critical ethics agreements for significant periods of time after joining the agency.”

In one case–labeled  “egregious,” in the analysis– an EPA employee took 300 days to finalize his recusal statement–and in the interim, took the lead on a number of air regulations “beneficial to former clients from his days as a coal, oil and gas lobbyist”.

The EPA has been staffed with numerous former lobbyists at the same time that it has been divested of scientists. The attacks on environmental regulations have been consistent–despite the demonstrable success of those regulations in cleaning the air and water, and reducing deaths attributable to pollution.

Again, my question is: why? We all have to occupy this planet. We all have to breathe the same air and drink the same water. What political or monetary advantage is more important than the lives and health of our children and grandchildren?

Are these–and others like them– just people who reject science and evidence?

Are the people dismantling the EPA all bought and paid for possessions of fossil fuel interests? Or are they members of the pseudo-religious “God will take care of us, no need to do our part” cult?

Have they identified another habitable planet, and found a way to get there?

I really don’t understand.