Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: "Merchants of Doubt"

(Crossposted from GoodReads) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingMerchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been familiar with the basic message of Merchants of Doubt for some time. It is that much of the (alleged) controversy that we perceive around climate change was and is an example of motivated reasoning, generated deliberately by a small group of aging scientists who had previously employed similar tactics to undermine the scientific consensus on the links between smoking and disease; between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion; and between powerplant emissions, acid rain, and damage to forest ecosystems. Funded to a significant extent by industries that feared the consequences of regulation, this group generated the appearance of controversy, and then relied on reporters' unwillingness to make scientific judgments and respect for the "Fairness Doctrine" to ensure that consensus science was depicted in the media as simply one side of a "he said...she said" face-off.

Why did these people do it? Here is where I found the book helpful (apart from its exhaustive documentation of the story I just told in the previous paragraph). The authors show how many of the key figures had backgrounds in the Manhattan Project or the Cold War physics community that grew out of it. For them, the conviction that communism and socialism were the real enemy never went away; in fact, it hardened into a certainty that any government regulation at all was the first step on a road towards complete loss of freedom. Therefore, any science which identified a problem whose solution seemed to require such regulation had to be blocked. Because it seemed to lead to unacceptable conclusions in a different realm (the realm of politics and governance), the science itself had to be wrong somewhere. When the tobacco industry or the fossil fuel industry or whoever it might be went looking for scientific "hired guns" who would fight the dangers of regulation, these scientists were ready, because of their ideological stance, to hear the call.

Oreskes and Conway don't mention it, but I have often wondered whether creationism has a part to play in this story also. Here again, consensus science (in this case the theory of evolution) led to unacceptable conclusions in a different realm (a certain kind of theology). Creationist authors like Whitcomb and Morris (The Genesis Flood) assured their readers that the views of mainstream scientist could be disregarded because "the evolutionist seeks intellectual justification for escape from personal responsibility to his Creator", a foreshadowing of the climate "skeptics" who similarly claim that mainstream climate science is poisoned by the prior ideological commitments of its practitioners. There is probably no direct connection between Fred Singer and company and the "creation scientists"; but the work of the latter may have prepared an audience to accept the arguments of the former.

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

News on "Math for Sustainability"

If it seems as though I have been talking about the "Math for Sustainability" project for years, that's because I have.  I think it was in 2012 that I first proposed something like it  as part of my Fellowship class for GreenFaith.

So it is exciting that in two weeks we should have submitted the "final" version of the book to Springer.  "Final" is in quotes here because their readers and copy-editors still have to make their comments on it, and we then have to respond and incorporate them in the TeXscript, but this is a major milestone.

Part of the project is to build a website to support readers of the book, and I'd like to let you all know that is now live at https://math-for-sustainability.com.   I encourage you to head over there and take a look!

The very last section of the main text, Section 6.4, is called "After Math".  In this section we try to go beyond mathematics and open up the idea that sustainability requires not just numbers, but values: our full ethical engagement.  Readers of this blog will know that, for me, such questions need to be viewed through the lens of Christ's presence as the meaning and as the master of creation.  I can't go that far in a general textbook, of course; but I can (and I hope we do) challenge readers to discern what it is that they value, and how well those values hold up under the challenges that the Anthropocene epoch is sure to bring.

Peace
John

Friday, June 23, 2017

Memories XIII: Eli/Miriam Memorial Site

For the last year we have used the Are You Receiving Me web address (receivingme.net) as a pointer to the series of talks and events on campus that we have helped to sponsor in memory of our dear child.

As time moves on, it is not so relevant to use this address to point simply to a schedule of talks that are past.  Liane and I have decided to use the address to point to a more permanent memorial for Eli/Miriam. This will include the talks and events but also other material like Eli's obituary in the Centre Daily Times, other writing and interviews we have done, and so on.

Thanks for visiting receivingme.net 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Ichabod


Moses and Joshua Bow Before the Ark, by James Tissot
So Donald Trump has decided to walk away from the 2015 Paris climate accord.  Count me among those who believe this will make less difference that may at first appear to the ultimate outcome of humanity's battle with climate change - which is, at root, a battle with ourselves; whether the interests of our future selves can overcome the greed and inertia of our present selves.  Aquinas would have called this temperance (before that word became associated specifically with alcoholic indulgence):  "a disposition of the mind that binds the passions".

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Letter to PA Human Relations Commission

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is considering guidance clarifying that discrimination against LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania would be treated—and investigated—as a form of sex discrimination. This guidance, which follows precedents set in federal courts and by federal agencies, would be a huge step towards helping ensure LGBTQ Pennsylvanians are able to live their lives free of discrimination.

There is a public comment period that ends in a couple of days (you can find information on the linked website). Here is the letter I sent. Please, if you live in Pennsylvania and support equal opportunity protection for LGBTQ people, send your own letter of support.  I don't doubt that they will receive plenty of comments that lean in the other direction!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Memories XII: Joy, Sorrow, Time


Of all the pictures we have of Miriam (Eli) as a young child, this is probably my favorite.

It's an autumn evening, some time before Miriam's first birthday.   I've just got home from work - maybe four straight hours of teaching math to Oxford students - good work but demanding.  And I have not even had time to take my tie off before I'm swamped by the waves of joy coming from this strong-willed little person.  (To the right of the picture my guitar awaits - Miriam loved music.)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bret Stephens, Alan Jacobs, and climate change

Alan Jacobs (via amazon.com)
My aggregator list has about 30 different blogs on it.  All of them represent voices that I found interesting and important when I added them; many have now fallen silent, and I regret that, and wonder whether I should remove them or whether they might, perhaps, come back to sparkling life.  One blog that is very alive and  consistently fascinates me is Alan Jacobs' Text Patterns.

Jacobs is currently a distinguished professor at Baylor and before that was at Wheaton College.  He wrote a fine biographical study of C.S.Lewis - one of the best, I think - and more recently has published a history of the Book of Common Prayer - I'd love to read that as the BCP has been a steady guide to me in my Christian journey.

He also writes a wide-ranging blog which right now is revolving around two aspects of our present age which are both loudly announced (by some people) and which seem to be mutually contradictory: on the one hand, that this age is the dawn of the Anthropocene, the age when the human race is getting "big" enough to become the central influence on our planet's ecology; and on the other hand that it is also the dawn of the posthuman, the era when human beings are transcended and (according to some) superseded by machines that are faster, stronger, more agile, precise and intelligent that we are.   "Ours; not ours", writes Jacobs. "It is in the light of this twofold reality that theology in our time should be done."