I wrote this back when I worked at NCSE, and it still brings me joy. If you don’t recall the events of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, there are great resources at TalkOrigins and perhaps the definitive contemporaneous account in The New Yorker (as well as the books referenced in the poem below).
’Twas the night before Kitzmas and all through the land,
No creationist was stirring, not even Ken Ham;
The briefs had been drafted and filed with great care,
In hopes that Judge Jones’s decision’d be fair;
The plaintiffs were nestled all snug in their beds,
While Bill of Rights visions ran round in their heads;
And Nick blogged for PT, and Vic played The Boss,
And fretted and fussed o’er the chance of a loss,
When over the wires there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to NetNewsWire I flew like a flash,
I started my browser and cleared out the cache.
The ruling I found at the federal court
Was a verdict I knew I would love to report.
For what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a hundred-plus pages, all written so clear,
With lawyerly flourish like ten score trombones,
I knew in a moment it must be Judge Jones.
More sharper than razors the experts they came,
Whom he cited, and marshaled, and quoted by name:
“Now, Miller! now, Alters! now, Padian—why not—
On, Robert T. Pennock! on, Forrest and Haught!
The Establishment Clause says that Pandas must go,
ID isn’t science; heck, Fuller says so!”
The case had been brought in a federal court
When the Dover school board thought it wise to consort
With Disco. ’tute shysters who sold them a line:
“Don’t call it creation, but ID should be fine.”
As rats that behind the Pied Piper did flow,
The school board had taken the DI’s say-so;
The teachers they ordered to point to ID,
“Evolution’s a theory, with gaps, don’t you see!”
A book had been bought to be put on their shelves;
Who purchased the book? No one knew, maybe elves.
More likely, a church group had ponied the dough,
But when pressed on the point Buckingham had said “no.”
His lies how they winkled! His obstruction so crude!
In the face of such efforts, eleven folks sued.
Tammy and friends brought the ACLU,
Steve Harvey and Rothschild joined pro bono too,
The quartet was finished by Richard B. Katskee,
With sciencey backing from Nicholas Matzke.
(The opposite side was in sad disarray:
For Dembski and Meyer had scuttled away,
While Minnich and Fuller and Michael J. Behe
Gave tragicomedic performances, e.g.
Comparing ID to a view like astrology—
I think that Jeane Dixon is owed an apology.
The More Center’s Thompson was no Machiavelli;
His case was as firm as a bowl full of jelly.)
To the court came reporters, in need of news hooks,
And Lauri and Gordy and Edward wrote books.
And Matthew wrote also, of Darwin’s own breed,
Each one of their books is a cracking good read.
Jones heard the case fairly, not tipping his hand,
Though the case it moved slowly, and forty days spanned.
His ruling was thorough, at times it waxed furious,
That board members lied he considered perjurious.
By then an election had sorted their hash,
Still Jones fined the board around two million cash.
In reading the ruling I filled up with glee,
The flaws of ID for the whole world to see!
In schools ’cross the nation I knew folks would say—
“Happy Kitzmas to all, and to all a good day!”
By Josh Rosenau and Glenn Branch, with apologies to Clement Clark Moore.
Lab leaks and why expertise matters
Of late, I’ve been trying to understand the spike in enthusiasm for the so-called “lab leak” claim about the origin of SARS-CoV‑2, the virus that causes COVID-19. To me, and as far as I can tell, to the majority of people with the expertise and training to judge these things, a lab escape is far less plausible than a zoonotic spillover from some wild bat population, or some intermediate species which picked up the virus from bats and then spread it to humans.
Zoonotic spillover is how SARS and MERS became epidemics, and so its pretty reasonable to expect the same thing happened with COVID-19. It’s also how we get Ebola, Lyme disease, rabies, West Nile, zika, and a bunch of other diseases that remain relevant to modern life. We can’t always trace the exact site or wild population where that spillover happened. So it’s possible we might never find the source of SARS-CoV‑2, or that it might take a long time.
One of the things that seems to plague these discussions is that non-scientists’ expectations about how science works are often not how science actually works. So people looking for signs of something nefarious at the Wuhan Institute for Virology will latch onto some nubbin, from which they spin up a grand theory of how a lab escape could’ve happened. But it turns out to be built on sand, because of things most people don’t know and usually have no reason at all to know.
For instance, today I got into an interesting discussion with the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki. We were discussing a passage from Lindsay Beyerstein’s excellent New Republic piece. She points out that most people envisioning a “lab leak” picture researchers holding giant tubes full of virus, any one of which might slip and unleash the Apocalypse. Beyerstein writes:
the popular version of the lab leak theory that posits that Covid was taken from nature and escaped in its wild form. The problem with that scenario, [Dr. Angela Rasmussen] told me, is that a swab from a bat contains very little infectious virus. Each bat weighs less than half an ounce, and each sample is basically a Q‑tip swiped briefly over a bat’s mouth or anus. These samples are stored in vials in the freezer; they’re not likely to spill or leak, the way disaster movies have primed us to suppose.
Surowiecki replied asking about claims that WIV may have kept wild bats on site, which might have more readily spread viruses than an errant cotton swab. It’s a claim that’s circulated in the more conspiratorial parts of the lab leak discourse, but is hindered by the fact that there’s no evidence beyond a video of unclear provenance and some ambiguous quotes in popular press accounts to suggest that there ever were bats held at the facility.
Now, I’ve never done research in China, nor have I tried to keep bats in a lab, but I have been involved in academic animal research, catching mice in the field and releasing them after brief measurements. I know that the jump from that sort of research to caring for captive animals is an absolutely enormous leap from a practical standpoint and in terms of administrative burden. Is it impossible that WIV did that? No, not impossible. But it would be a heavy lift, and should leave some pretty clear trails to follow, none of which exist.
Other than a few seconds of footage of a bat (from the wrong family) being handled in a lab somewhere (not necessarily at WIV), advocates point to a pair of quotes, which Surowiecki cited, from research collaborators from the US who are claimed to have waffled on whether WIV might have worked with captive bats. Here he cites Peter Daszak, a US researcher who co-authored grants with WIV staff, receiving funding from US agencies.
Also, I don’t understand why Daszak tweeted of WIV “They DO NOT have live or dead bats in them,” only to later totally back off that statement.— James Surowiecki (@JamesSurowiecki) June 29, 2021
Surowiecki notes that Daszak later declined to rule out the possibility that WIV had any bats, suggesting that Daszak was backtracking.
I looked around, and found a fuller version of Daszak’s first quote, which limits his claim significantly. He said, “This piece describes work I’m the lead on and labs I’ve collaborated with for 15 years. They DO NOT have live or dead bats in them. There is no evidence anywhere that this happened.”
To me, that seemed significantly different. But Surowiecki answered, “I don’t get it. The WIV is one of those labs that he’s collaborated with, and he issued a blanket denial that it had live or dead bats.”
And that makes sense! It seems like Daszak first says the lab isn’t doing this work, then says “we didn’t ask them if they had bats.”
But to me, and to an academic researcher like Daszak, WIV is not “a lab.” It contains probably dozens of different labs, most doing nothing of interest to Daszak. It’d be like suggesting that because Daszak works with NIH researchers, he must know all about every animal colony NIH maintains. Daszak commented on the labs he collaborates with, which would also be the labs most focused on sarbecoviruses like SARS-CoV‑2. Rather than being self-contradicting, Daszak’s comments make total sense in this light: he’s saying that the work he knows about doesn’t involve live bats, but he can’t say there are no live bats anywhere in the entire, large research center. Contextual knowledge changes our interpretation, and thus shapes how we weight the likelihood of a secret bat colony.
A similar thing happened when we talked about the practicalities of actually keeping such a colony, and keeping it secret. I could certainly imagine it being practical for a field researcher to grab a mouse and bring it home for the weekend, but I also know it would go against their training and all sorts of standards for animal care and use. It would be against all sorts of rules, some of which may be different in China, but others are enforced by US funding agencies (which would hold foreign researchers to similar standards as US facilities), and are enforced by publishers as well. There’s no reason for a non-scientists to know those details, but it’s a firm barrier to some sort of ad hoc bat zoo at WIV. They want to publish in Science, Cell, and Nature, and they can’t (regardless of any regulatory differences between the US and China) if they don’t get ethical review for that research, and document that review and the conditions of the animals’ care at the time of publication. If they were working with captive bats, we’d see evidence in their published research, and likely in regulatory paperwork submitted with NIH and other funding agencies in the US, if not in China.
On top of the bureaucratic barriers to this work, Beyerstein tweeted a link to this interesting paper on growing interest in bat research, and the challenges of keeping a colony, especially of the insect-eating bats that are host to SARS-like viruses. Unlike a rat that you catch and bring home in a cage, a bat that you bring to the lab needs a lot of room to fly, and often requires elaborate work to get it to feed. If they maintained any sort of colony of horseshoe bats, that would probably have merited its own research publication. Maybe multiple papers. And it’d require maintaining a substantial facility and staff to care for the bats, maybe the size of a netted-in soccer field or more. Not something easy to hide. They’d probably consult with other people outside of China who have done similar work. There would be a trail of evidence in research papers, construction, and conversations with colleagues outside of China.
The few quotes that people cite as evidence some captive bats may have been kept at WIV all suggest something extremely casual, and there’s just no sign that you could run such an operation at all casually. Here’s what it takes to feed a colony of insect-eating bats:
Again, no one who isn’t a bat biologist has any reason to know all of that. How different countries, funders, and publishers regulate animal care and use, and what biologists have to do to maintain a research colony, are miles from most people’s daily experience. Exactly what academics consider “a lab” is irrelevant to most people’s lives. There’s absolutely no reason for anyone outside the field to know these details. But each of them shapes our intuitions, and the upshot is that ideas which seem implausible to the scientists closest to the question can seem much more plausible, indeed may seem most likely, to those farther away.
Lab leak advocate Alina Chan inadvertently made this point a few days ago when she wrote this:
One thing I’ve noticed is that experts in the hard sciences (mathematics, CS, physics) afaik are more likely to think that SARS-CoV‑2 has lab origins.— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) June 27, 2021
But more experts in the life sciences afaik seem to think that a natural origin is more likely.
Could it be a matter of priors?
It is about priors. It’s incredibly telling that people with informed priors think a lab leak is extremely unlikely and that zoonosis is most likely, while those who know less about the murky day-to-day of biological research find the lab leak intuitively likely. Even at a different level of abstraction, biologists see these issues through different lenses. Biologists know that there are a lot of bats (about 1200–1500 species in the world, many undescribed), and that bats are good at hiding but travel all over. They also know that bats have a lot of viruses and that those viruses are good at hiding, and that there are a ton of ways a virus could leap to farmed animals, or animals that are caught live in the wild and brought to markets in big cities like Wuhan. That’s a causal chain that makes sense if you’ve studied biodiversity or tried sampling these things in the wild. At the same time, it all can easily seem incredibly tenuous to people who rarely see bats and don’t realize just how little we really know about the biodiversity all around us. But human error? We all see that every day.
ID and the age of the earth
Disco. ‘tute “research” director Casey Luskin is sad. Congressional Quarterly wrote about creationism and didn’t say nice things about “intelligent design” creationism. Casey insists that ID shouldn’t be lumped in with young earth creationism or geocentrism, asserting:
the vast majority of leaders of the ID movement accept the conventional age of the Earth and the universe
This is a tough claim to judge, and Casey’s word choice here is interesting. Calling the best scientific estimates of the age of the earth “conventional” leaves Casey wiggle room: does he regard 4.54 billion years as a mere “convention,” or as a well-tested and solid assessment based on multiple lines of evidence?
If Casey’s stance is ambiguous, that of his bosses (the “leaders of the ID movement”) is even moreso. Disco. ‘tute fellow Paul Nelson has described the ID movement as a “big tent” encompassing young earth creationists like himself, along with creationists who are more prepared to accept the geological evidence.
Stephen Meyer, Casey’s boss and a subject of much of Casey’s blog post, was asked about his age of the earth in 2005, during the Kansas kangaroo court. This was a bizarre hearing that the state board of education held, using quasi-courtroom rules, in which various people were asked to testify against the standards written by expert teachers and scientists and in favor of a creationist alternative.
Meyer didn’t appear in person, instead phoning in while a photo of his giant noggin was projected onto a screen. Pedro Irigonegaray cross examined Meyer:
Q. I have a few questions for you first that I want to establish for the record. In your opinion, your personal opinion, what is the age of the earth?
A. Do you want my personal– why are you asking me about my personal–
Q. You’re here to answer my questions. First of all, what is your personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
A. I understood I was being called as an expert witness.
Q. What is your personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
A. I’m unclear. I understand–
Q. The question is simple. What is, in your opinion, the age of the earth?
A. Well, I’m just wanting to clarify the ground rules here. I thought I was being called as an expert witness, so why are you asking me about my personal–
Q. That’s not the issue. Now, please answer my question. What is your personal–
A. I would like to understand the ground rules first. Why am I being asked about–
MR. IRIGONEGARAY: Mr. Chairman, if he’s not going to answer my questions, I’d ask that his testimony be stricken from the record.
A. I’m happy to answer your question. I’d like to know why you’re asking about–
Q. (BY MR. IRIGONEGARAY) The “why” is not for you to determine.
MR. SISSON [a lawyer speaking against the evolution standards]: Mr. Chairman, I understand Mr. Meyer’s request to reflect some confusion about the ground rules, and it is quite appropriate for him to ask that the chair of the committee, namely yourself, speak to him concerning the appropriate ground rules. Thank you.
CHAIRMAN ABRAMS: Dr. Meyer, can you hear me now?
A. Yes, sir.
CHAIRMAN ABRAMS: My name is Steve Abrams, chairman of the science subcommittee. And even though these hearings have been called about the Kansas science curriculum standards and particularly how they relate to the minority report and particularly to the question of the philosophical claims and the religious claims of science and how to teach science in Kansas, we are allowing the counsel for the majority and the counsel of the minority great latitude in trying to establish their case. And Mr. Irigonegaray has elected to ask virtually every question– every witness questions about their personal opinions about certain things. And so we have granted him that latitude, and so I would say that’s where we’re going.
A. You would like me to cooperate with that?
CHAIRMAN ABRAMS: You can either answer “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know,” or whatever you want to do, but that– yes, I’d like you to cooperate.
A. It’s a transparently obvious strategy to impeach the credibility of your witnesses, but I will cooperate. So my answer to your question, Pedro, is that I– my personal opinions and my professional opinions are the same. I think the earth is 4.6 billion years old. I think the universe is–
Q. (BY MR. IRIGONEGARAY) No, just the earth. I didn’t ask you about the universe.
A. My opinion of–
Q. Mr. Meyer, please just answer my question. I’m not asking you other opinions.
MR. SISSON: I’d simply request to make a point here, ask the Chairman if I may make a point. Mr. Chairman, would you instruct the witness that there is no subpoena power here and that he is under no compulsion to answer and he would suffer no penalty if he chose to decline to answer.
CHAIRMAN ABRAMS: He can answer the questions to his extent. However, we would like you to answer them.
A. Does that mean I can say something else about the age of the earth?
CHAIRMAN ABRAMS: Mr. Irigonegaray is going to ask the questions that he thinks important and he may repeat the question. And he will ask– my guess is it will be a yes or a no answer or some side of an answer like that. If you feel comfortable answering that, say “yes,” or if you don’t know, say you don’t know, whatever it is. I mean, be truthful and answer however you feel comfortable answering.
A. Right. But may I say anything more about the age of the earth, then?
Q. (BY MR. IRIGONEGARAY) I’m the one asking questions here, Mr. Meyer, and all you need to do is to answer my question.
A. Okay. I think the age of the earth is 4.6 billion years old. That’s both my personal and my professional opinion. I speak as someone who is trained as a geophysicist–
Q. I’m not asking you about that. I just asked you for a number, and you have given it to me.
A. Okay. That’s all you want is the number?
Q. My questions are pretty clear, Mr. Meyer.
In the end, yes, Meyer endorsed something close enough to the standard scientific estimate of the earth’s age, but it took several minutes and he worked mightily to avoid answering the question. Not quite as bad as Senator Rubio’s comments last year, but still pretty awful. That he got to the right place in the end is less interesting than his evasiveness on the topic. Other witnesses during the three days of the hearing were more forthcoming, and most did endorse something like 4.5 billion years. A few rejected that number. For instance, John Sanford:
Q. And what is that personal opinion specifically as to the age? And I’m interested only in the age, not an explanation.
A. I believe that I was wrong in my previous belief that it’s 4.5 billion years old and that it’s much younger.
Q. How old is the earth, in your opinion?
A. I cannot intelligently say how old it is except it’s much younger than I think widely believed.
Q. Give me your best estimate.
A. Less than 100,000 years old.
Q. Less than 10,000?
Q. Conceivably less than 10,000?
Q. Conceivably less than 5,000?
Q. So it’s somewhere between 5 and 10,000 years of age?
A. Between 5 and 100,000. But I would like to–
Q. No, I’m asking the questions.
Roger DeHart took the same approach:
Q. Mr. DeHart, I have, excuse me, a few questions for the record that I would like to ask you first.
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And I’m going to ask you first how old, in your opinion, is the world?
A. I’m going to answer like Dr. Sanford earlier, I would say between probably a lot younger than most people think.
Q. That doesn’t say anything to me. What is your opinion in years the age of the earth?
A. I’m fine with 5,000 to 100,000.
Q. You’re fine with 5,000 to 100,000?
Bryan Leonard was notably cagy:
Q. All right. I have a few questions that I want to ask you for the record. First, what is your opinion as to what the age of the world is?
A. I really don’t have an opinion.
Q. You have no opinion as to what the age of the world is?
A. Four to four point five billion years is what I teach my students.
Q. I’m asking what is your opinion as to what the age of the world is?
A. ‘Um, I was asked to come out here to talk about my experiences as a high school biology teacher.
Q. I’m asking you, sir –
A. I was not under the impression that I was asked to come out here –
Q. I’m asking you –
A. — talking about –
Q. — sir, what is your personal opinion as to what the age of the world is?
A. Four– four to four point five billion years is what I teach my students, sir.
Q. That’s not my question. My question is, what is your personal opinion as to what the age of the world is?
A. Again, I was under the impression to come out here and talk about my professional experience –
Q. Is there a difference?
A. — more of –
Q. Is there a difference between your personal opinion and what you teach students the age of the world is?
A. Four to four point five billion years is what I teach my students, sir.
Q. Is– my question is, is there a difference between your personal opinion and what you teach your students?
A. Again, you’re putting a spin on the question is– you know, now I’ll spin any answer, sir, to say that my opinion is irrelevant. Four to four point five billion years is what I teach my students.
Q. The record will reflect your answer.
Q. Welcome to Kansas. I have a few questions for the record for you. First I have a group of yes or no questions that I would like for you to answer, please. What is your opinion as to the age of the earth?
A. In light of time I would say most of the evidence that I see, I read and I understand points to an old age of the earth.
Q. And how old is that age?
A. I don’t know. I just know what I read with regards to data. It looks like it’s four billion years.
Q. And is that your personal opinion?
A. No. My personal opinion is I really don’t know. I’m struggling.
Q. You’re struggling with what the age of the earth is?
A. Yeah. Yeah. I’m not sure. There’s a lot of ways to measure the age. Meteorites is one way. There’s a lot of elements used. There’s a lot of assumptions can be used and those assumptions can be challenged so I don’t really know.
Q. What is the range that you are instructing?
A. I think the range we heard today, somewhere between 5,000 and four billion.
Q. You– you– you believe the earth may be as young as 5,000 years old. Is that correct?
A. Well, we’re learning that there’s such a thing as junc –
Q. Sir, answer –
A. — really has a function.
Q. Just please answer my question, sir.
A. We’re learning a lot about micro –
MR. IRIGONEGARAY: Mr. Abrams, please instruct the witness to answer the question.
CHAIRMAN ABRAMS: I think –
Q. (By Mr. Irigonegaray) The question was– and winking at him is not going to do you any good. Answer my question. Do you believe the earth may be as young as 5,000 years old?
A. It could be.
Nancy Bryson offered a similarly broad range:
Q. I have a few questions for you that I’d like to place on the record first, please. The first thing I’d like to ask you is what is your personal opinion as to what the age of the world is?
A. I’m undecided.
Q. What is your best guess?
A. I’m totally undecided.
Q. Give me your best range.
A. Anywhere from 4.5 billion years to ten thousand years.
Q. And, of course, you have reached that conclusion based on the best scientific evidence available?
Angus Menuge steadfastly refused to answer:
Q. Sir, I have a few questions that I’d like to ask you for the record, please. What is your personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
A. I don’t know. And that’s my final answer.
Q. Do you have an opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
A. I’m not giving an opinion.
Q. I didn’t hear you.
A. I am not giving an opinion.
Q. You don’t have any personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
A. I have no opinion.
Q. Do you find that to be rather an oddity since you consider yourself an expert on all of these areas?
These were folks invited to testify as the voice of the ID movement, the public leaders. And while many did endorse the best scientific understanding of the age of the earth, many didn’t, or were remarkably slithery in their statements.
Polls and the line between truth and conspiracy theory
In the poll on conspiracy theories I mentioned a few days ago, I mostly focused on the item about vaccines, mentioning in passing the fact that Democrats (and liberals) bought into far fewer conspiracy theories than Republicans (or conservatives). I didn’t point out that, of the “conspiracy theories” Democrats were more likely to accept, several require a rather fine parsing to register as conspiracy theories (rather than simply an over-broad but accurate account of history).
For instance, the PPP poll asked whether “the CIA was instrumental in distributing crack cocaine into America’s inner cities in the 1980s.” There’s no doubt at this point, as even the CIA acknowledges, that contractors the CIA sponsored to bring guns to the Contras were hauling drugs back. The CIA claims to have been shocked (shocked!) that the smugglers they employing could possibly be smuggling drugs, and denies helping these smugglers evade the DEA. Whether you believe that or not, there’s no doubt that the CIA was helping the folks who were moving drugs, especially cocaine, into the country. Does that make the CIA “instrumental”? Probably not, but is that a distinction you make when a pollster’s recording is on the phone with you? (For what it’s worth, political Independents were the most likely to agree with that poll item.)
These subtle shades of meaning are even more important on the question about whether “President Bush intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq war.” As a simple historical matter, President Bush, his administration, and other advocates for war definitely made false claims about Iraq’s WMDs; the main justification for war was the claim that those weapons – and programs to create more – existed, but they didn’t. After the invasion, extensive and unhindered investigations found no evidence of active nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons programs, nor of usable stockpiles.
To turn this factual assessment into a conspiracy theory liberals might endorse, PPP adds a layer to the question, asking whether President Bush “intentionally misled.” It’s a question of mental state: did he know his claims were false, or did he craft a biased process for gathering and vetting intelligence that generated biased evidence and analysis, thus allowing him and his staff to overestimate and overstate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? Posed with that question, 14% of Democrats felt that President Bush didn’t lie (15% were unsure), while 73% of Republicans felt he didn’t lie. Quite a gap.
A big part of that gap comes because of a counterfactual belief that’s widespread in Republican circles: the belief that Saddam Hussein really did possess weapons of mass destruction. A survey from Dartmouth, conducted in late April, 2012, found that 63% of Republicans agreed that: “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003.” By contrast, 63% of Democrats correctly recalled that there were, in fact, no WMDs in Iraq when we invaded (15% thought there were WMDs, 22% were unsure). That partisan difference in factual knowledge shows up consistently in public opinion polls ever since the invasion.
So, combining those polls, we learn that 63% of Republicans think there were WMDs in Iraq, and an additional 10% (give or take the margin of error) know there weren’t, but want to give George W. Bush credit for having fooled himself into believing the BS he was selling.
Combining those polls gets tricky though, since more Democrats seem to think Bush lied (per the PPP poll) than think there weren’t WMDs in Iraq (in the earlier poll). I’d guess that the strong wording of the question triggered a stronger partisan, even tribal response. Republicans were more likely to try to defend Bush, while Democrats were more likely to vilify him.
You can see this effect in the question about climate change, which 58% of Republicans in the PPP survey said was “a hoax.” But that same week, a new survey from the researchers who produce the “Six Americas” assessment of public opinion on climate change showed that only a quarter of Republicans or Republican-leaning Independents think climate change is not happening. Half know that it is happening, and more – 6 in 10 – think we should do something about it.
Again, phrasing the question in a more politicized way and in stronger terms made people more likely to reject the science. The Six Americas survey defined climate change carefully, as “the idea that the world’s average temperature has been increasing over the past 150 years, may be increasing more in the future, and that other aspects of the world’s climate may change as a result.” That careful, scientific framing strips the issue of its political context: it isn’t a question about economic policy or allegiance to a partisan agenda. Asking whether “global warming” (the more politicized term) is a “hoax” taps into the partisan framing. Senator James Inhofe has used that phrase as a book title and in Senate hearings, to attack both the science of climate change and the policies proposed to address it.
While you might expect that stronger charges would attract less support – logically, the subset of people who think global warming is a hoax ought to be nested within, and therefore smaller than the subset who think it isn’t happening – we see that they don’t. Placing charges into a political context draws in people who know that the underlying factual claim is wrong, but still want to endorse their tribe’s position. As I’ve said before, it’s often worth being wrong in order to maintain group membership.
Vaccines and the Republican War on Science
Ever since Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science was published in 2005, folks have been looking for a way to argue that Democrats are just as bad. The standard example for this counternarrative, one which Mooney even offered in his book, was vaccine denial – the claim that vaccines cause autism or are otherwise dangerous.
Intuitively, this seems right. The folks and venues touting antivaxx conspiracy theories tended to be New Agey outlets, and the places facing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases tended to be liberal strongholds, like Boulder, CO or Marin County, CA. That must mean liberals are more likely to buy into vaccine denial, right? Unfortunately, no pollster ever seemed to include a question about vaccine denial in a survey along with questions about political party or political ideology.
Yesterday, Public Policy Polling, an outfit known for asking wacky but surprisingly informative questions, asked people about a host of conspiracy theories. The Atlantic Wire’s Philip Bump summarizes the results nicely, and there’s much to return to here. For our purposes, the most interesting outcome is that 26% of Republicans think vaccines cause autism, compared to 16% of Democrats (that’s on p. 21 of the PDF).
Indeed, the only claimed conspiracies which Democrats were more likely to back than Republicans were: “the moon landing was faked” (D: 7%, R: 4%, I: 9%, all within the margin of error), “President Bush intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq war” (D: 72%, R: 13%, I: 48%), “the CIA was instrumental in distributing crack cocaine into America’s inner cities in the 1980s” (D: 14%, R: 9%, I: 21%), “Paul McCartney actually died in a car crash in 1966 and was secretly replaced by a lookalike so The Beatles could continue” (D: 7%, R: 4% I: 5%, inside the margin of error), “the United States government knowingly allowed the attacks on September 11th, 2001, to happen” (D: 14%, R: 8%, I: 12%). Republicans are more likely to believe in aliens and in bigfoot, that aliens crashed at Roswell and shape-shifting reptiles rule our world, that Saddam Hussein played a role in 9/11 and a secretive power elite secret rules the world, that the government adds mind control messages to TV signals, sprays evil chemicals into the air, and fluoridates water for nefarious purposes, that bin Laden is alive and Oswald didn’t act alone, that pharmaceutical companies invent new diseases to make money and vaccines cause autism. They also are more likely to think President Obama is the anti-Christ and global warming is a hoax. Republicans endorse more conspiracy theories, and with greater fervor, than Democrats (even stretching back to conspiracies of yesteryear, like McCartney’s supposed death or the CIA’s ambiguous role in the Contras’ drug dealing).
According to a survey last December, Republicans aren’t just more likely to think vaccines cause autism, they are also less likely than Democrats to think “the schedule of vaccines recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services is safe.” At the time, Adam Berinsky, the researcher who commissioned the survey, suggested that Republicans’ negative reaction might simply be “a result of the interaction between anti-government sentiment among Republicans and the mention of a government agency in the question.” Yet that survey also found that Republicans were more likely to think vaccines were associated with autism, cancer, and heart disease (and less likely to link it with diabetes).
Berinsky compared those conspiratorial beliefs with another conspiracy theory, finding that people who are less trusting of the vaccine schedule are more likely to think President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. In other words, belief in one conspiracy seems to predispose you to others. Democrats who were more dubious of the vaccination schedule were also more likely to doubt that the President was born where all evidence indicates he was born. This parallels findings from Australian researchers including Stephan Lewandowsky, who found that people who endorsed conspiracy theories like the CIA assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr., or NASA faking the moon landing are more likely to reject climate change. (Lewandowsky’s paper itself inspired such a fury of conspiracy-mongering that he was able to generate another paper about the conspiracy theories spawned by the first.)
I wrote to Berinsky to ask whether he’d compared vaccine denial with other conspiracy theories, like creationism or climate change denial, and he was able to make a comparison with climate change denial. “As you would expect,” he told me, “anti-vaccine people are climate change deniers.”
That’s what you’d expect from the evidence that conspiracy-mongering begets conspiracy-mongering. It’s not what you’d expect if you shoehorn vaccine denial into the role of a liberal counterpart to conservative science denial.
An evolution the GOP likes
“The president says that the jury’s out on evolution. Here in New Jersey, we’re counting on it.”
–Bruce Springsteen, May 21, 2005
“Folks in Dover [PA] aren’t sure about evolution. Here in New Jersey, we’re counting on it.”
–Bruce Springsteen, August, 2005
“This issue [marriage equality] is in a state of evolution.”
–Hillary Clinton for Senate spokesperson Karen Dunn, July 3, 2003
“I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage. But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine.”
–President Barack Obama, October 27, 2010
“We cannot afford to be imprisoned by politics that say your views are not allowed to grow as you gain knowledge and experience. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging you’ve changed your mind when your views have evolved. Don’t we pride ourselves on learning by living?”
–Sen. John Kerry, July 10, 2011 op-ed titled, “Politicians have the right to evolve on gay marriage”
“That was my timetable, that was my home state,” Boxer said. “That’s how I evolved. Vice President Biden evolved on his timetable, and President Obama evolved on his timetable.”
–Sen. Barbara Boxer, May 9, 2012
“I support marriage equality because it is the fair and right thing to do. Like many Virginians and Americans, my views on gay marriage have evolved, and this is the inevitable extension of my efforts to promote equality and opportunity for everyone.”
–Sen. Mark Warner, March 25, 2013
“I’ve got two young sons who, when I ask them and their friends how they feel about gay marriage, kinda give me one of those looks like, ‘Gosh mom, why are you even asking that question?’ The term ‘evolving view’ has been perhaps overused, but I think it is an appropriate term for me to use.”
–Senator Lisa Murkowski (R‑Alaska), March 28, 2013
“I don’t support the gay marriage. My [gay] son is by far one of the most important people in my life. I love him more than I can say. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have respect, it doesn’t mean that I don’t sympathize with some of the issues. It just means I haven’t evolved to that stage.”
–Rep. Matt Salmon (R‑Ariz) to KTVK, March 29, 2012
The Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner assembled those quotes on “evolving” views on gay marriage, and discusses why the term works so well there:
Evolution implies forward movement and change; once a politician starts to evolve, the implication is that he or she won’t stop. So for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R‑Alaska) to describe herself as “evolving” implies that she will come to one day support gay marriage. Likewise, for Salmon to say he hasn’t evolved implies some failing on his part. …
When politicians say they’ve evolved, it not only gives them political cover; it flatters voters who have changed their views but don’t want to be told that they were ever wrong. …
More proof: Sen. Rand Paul (R‑Ky.), trying to push his party on immigration, suggested they “evolve.”
Rand Paul, of course, is has been squirrelly about his views on evolution itself, refusing to even tell a group of home schoolers how old he thinks the earth might be. I doubt you’d get any more of an endorsement of evolution from Sen. Murkowski or Rep. Salmon. It’s still nice to know that, however much they may be unsure about evolution, the GOP is counting on it.
Social movements and science denial
The University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements is hosting a dialogue on science and politics, and I’m rather pleased with my contribution: “Will Climate Change Denial Inherit the Wind?” Do check out the other essays in the dialogue, especially Jeffrey Guhin’s discussion of some results from his observations of creationist Muslim and evangelical Christian schools in New York, and Kelly Moore’s debunking of 5 myths about science and politics.
I’ve been noodling around with the ideas in my essay for a while, ever since reading Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, which uses the Scopes trial and the rise of creationism and fundamentalism to introduce the methods of social movement theory. In reading the book, I was struck by the power of those tools, and by parallels between the rise of creationism as a movement and what’s happening now with climate change denial. When the folks from Notre Dame wrote looking for an essay, I was glad to have an excuse to finally get those ideas down on paper (or in electrons).
Creationism doesn’t persist just because of some quirk of human cognition, nor because of religion, nor because reporters mishandle science, nor because of poor public school science classes. Creationism is a movement, and can’t be understood outside the context of that movement. Creationism originated in the United States, in a particular historical milieu, and persists because the early creationists were able to link their movement to the broader rise and spread of the fundamentalist movement. By linking antievolutionism to a core part of a certain group’s religious identity, and by forging strong political and cultural ties, the movement was able to establish a permanent foothold in American society, and to shape how evolution is perceived even by those outside that movement.
It didn’t have to be that way. American and British religious communities didn’t reject Darwin’s ideas en masse when they were first published. Even in The Fundamentals, the collection of essays that established and lent its name to fundamentalism in the 1910s, many essays accepted evolution. Some accepted it entirely, others rejected common ancestry while accepting natural selection, others rejected natural selection while regarding common ancestry as obviously true, and a few rejected evolution outright. It took the Scopes trial, the death of William Jennings Bryan (not himself a fundamentalist), and a shift in the demographics of fundamentalism for creationism to become a defining trait of fundamentalism. Once that link was established, we can trace a shift in the perception of evolution, from a scientific idea to an idea competing in the religious sphere. You see evidence of that link in public polls and in impromptu comments by Miss USA pageant contestants.
I think the same thing is happening with climate change, and I trace out the evidence for that process in the essay for Notre Dame. You can see it in public polling, as liberals become notably more accepting of climate science while conservatives become notably less accepting. You see it in the behavior of politicians, as many of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates had endorsed climate science and climate action in their previous public service, but during the primary felt obliged to disavow those policies, declaring them “a mistake,” “clunkers,” etc. Indeed, Senator Lindsey Graham, who helped write and sponsor the climate bill in 2009 wound up declaring himself unsure about climate science a year later, while Senator McCain, who pushed climate bills throughout the Bush years and in his presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008, has opposed any such action through the Obama years.
If it is true that climate change denial is becoming a defining trait of conservative politics in America, that would be tragic. Fortunately, I think there’s cause for hope, and that’s where I end the Notre Dame essay, and where I’ll end here.
Rubio walks back comments on the age of the earth
A month ago, I had a bit of fun at Senator Marco Rubio’s expense over his “I’m not a scientist, man” response to GQ’s question about the age of the earth.
I brought up his comments again in my talk last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting, to much audience amusement. It served as a perfect example of the Pillars of Science denial, and the geologists were especially intrigued by his view that the understanding the age of the earth “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.” Accurately dating rocks and knowing how that fits into geological history is a big part of oilfield geology, not to mention hydrology and seismology, topics with fairly obvious economic relevance.
A couple days after my talk, Rubio clarified his view in an interview with Mike Allen:
RUBIO: There is no scientific debate on the age of the earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively, it’s at least 4.5 billion years old. I was referring to a theological debate, which is a pretty health debate. And the theological debate is … how do you reconcile with what science has definitively established with what you may think your faith teaches. Now for me, actually, when it comes to the age of the earth, there is no conflict. I believe that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And I think that scientific advances have given us insight into when he did it and how he did it, but I still believe God did it…. I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science, they have to know the science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile the two things.
Now, I think his answer is still problematic. He doesn’t seem to have changed his view about whether knowing the age of the earth has any economic value, and he still is treating science and theology as equally valid ways to answer the question “how old do you think the Earth is?”
That’s a problem, and, despite what he and a certain reporter at Slate seem to think, it marks a clear difference between him and President Obama.
Marriage, children, and tradition
ThinkProgress reports on an interview with Jennifer Roback Morse of the National Organization for Marriage [sic]. The explain:
Jennifer Roback Morse of the National Organization for Marriage’s Ruth Institute has been particularly vocal over the past few months, promoting ex-gay therapy and suggesting that young people not have gay friends. In an interview published in Salvo Magazine in September, she was quite candid about the archaic stereotypes about same-sex couples that inform her anti-gay positions:
Morse tells Salvo:
MORSE: If you look at same-sex couples, both at what they say and their behavior, neither permanence nor sexual exclusivity plays the same significant role. In other words, if you’re in a union that’s intrinsically not procreative, sexual exclusivity is not as important. Once you start thinking like that, you’ll see that everything people offer as reasons why same-sex couples should be “allowed” to get married—all of the reasons are private purposes. Sometimes it’s nothing more than how it will make them feel. It’s not the business of law to make people feel a certain way. When you see that redefining marriage is going to, in fact, redefine the meaning of parenthood, removing biology as the basis for parenthood and replacing it with legal constructions—then you see that there is quite a lot at stake in getting the definition of marriage right.
Set aside this gross mischaracterization of the monogamous capabilities of same-sex couples, and her naive claim that marriages are now or ever were, as a practical matter, sexually exclusive. It should be noted that, despite Morse’s protestations, what she’s proposing is actually a dramatic redefinition of marriage, not a defense of marriage as it has been practiced in living memory.
Consider: My grandmother was widowed after all her children were grown, and she remarried before I and some of my cousins were born, and well after her reproductive years were over. Her second husband had his own children and grandchildren from a previous marriage, and in time those families merged fairly completely.
By Ms. Morse’s account, Grandpa Herb wasn’t really my grandfather. She’s arguing that I’ve redefined marriage by calling him my grandfather, and that I’ve redefined grandparenthood and parenthood, too. She’s arguing that because my grandparents’ relationship was “intrinsically not procreative,” they were probably not sexually exclusive, and that my grandparents should not have been “allowed” (her scare quotes) to get married. Their marriage was just about “how it will make them feel,” not about popping out babies, so it was somehow not worth it. I don’t agree.
Similarly, she seems to hold that the marriages of friends of mine who are intentionally childless are worthless, as are marriages where one or more partner is physically incapable of conceiving a child.
This justification, which is incredibly common from the marriage segregation camp, simply doesn’t hold together. It is not a defense of any modern marriage tradition. It vaguely resembles Henry VIII’s view on marriage, but to find a version of marriage that really matches what Morse describes, you may have to go back to Genesis, and the story of Abraham and Sarah. God promises Abraham that he’ll have a son, but the years drag on and his wife offers a suggestion:
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived.
The baby is named Ishmael, and Hagar – the slave who Abraham’s first wife gave him as a second wife (traditional marriage!) – gets all uppity. So Sarah, the first wife, gets angry and tries to kill her slave/co-wife (traditional marriage!), but God intervenes and Sarah relents. Then Sodom and Gomorrah get destroyed (in a passage much beloved by NOM), and Abraham and Sarah get even older, and Abraham lets King Abimelech steal Sarah away after claiming she’s his wife, not his sister but God warns Abimelech not to mess with her and Abraham points out that she’s his wife, but also his half-sister (traditional marriage!). They go on a while longer before, lo and behold!, she gets pregnant and gives birth to Isaac and starts hating on Ishmael all over again:
Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’
Abraham starts to object, but God tells him it’s OK to go along with it because it’ll all work out. Then, to quote Dylan, “God said to Abraham, ‘kill me a son.’ Abe said, ‘man, you must be putting me on.’ God said, ‘no.’ Abe said, ‘what?’ God said, ‘you can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me coming, you better run.’ Abe said, ‘where you want this killing done?’ and God said,” well not actually “Highway 61,” but you get the gist. Tradition!
If we hold up Abraham as a model of traditional marriage, which seems to be what NOM wants, then we have to grant that procreation seems to be essential to the enterprise, but we have to acknowledge the tradition of plural marriage, arranged marriage, and incestuous marriage, and we have to forcibly annul a bunch of loving, heterosexual marriages which cannot produce offspring.
All this from a group which claims to be “for marriage.”