Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The World According to Rush

Today on my way to work I heard Rush Limbaugh rattling off several science related rants keyed to articles someone clipped for him. Maybe that's too rough, its possible he clips them himself. Really what I mean is that the articles either didn't say what he thinks they did, or they are really about something else entirely. What he was telling his listeners was:

1. Global warming isn't as bad as we thought.
2. Species loss is a hoax.
3. Cows are more responsible for carbon emissions than cars.

Some people should stick to politics. And like juries, politicians (and pundits) should not pretend to understand science.

He sources an article talking about CFC emissions to justify his first statement. That the cooling effect of CFCs in the atmosphere means that global warming isn't as bad as had been predicted. Except, the NOVA I watched on this issue over a year ago said something more akin to that because of the masking effect of CFC global cooling, global warming due to carbon emissions might actually be much worse than we have been measuring. That as the CFCs go away (and we need them to go away) that the curve will get steeper because of the amount of carbon in the air already.

I remember it because it was one of the most depressing TV shows I had seen in memory.

The next assertion was tied to an article talking about biodiversity and new species being discovered in the deep oceans. He somehow meant to use this as a way to deflect global warming, saying that global warming isn't a big deal because we are constantly discovering new species. To me this sounds a lot like 6+4=Orange but maybe I am dense. Biodiversity and global warming are separate issues. Species depletion is about abuse of habitat (although I guess there is a link between the carbon produced by burning the rainforest and the loss of the indigenous species). That we're finding more species doesn't make up for the fact that we're killing off other species. And really, truth be told, the deep oceans are supposedly one of the most fragile ecosystems, and are likely very threatened by climate change - so Rush, I wouldn't get too excited about counting them yet.

I guess the last point was to get us to feel less guilty about our SUVs. That if cows were more responsible than cars, then how bad could cars be? The problem is that that turns the issue on its head. The point of the argument isn't how good cars are, it is how bad cows are, and how environmentally intrusive ranching is. When you figure in all the feed, fuel, and other cattle maintenance and look at it from the perspective of carbon emissions, pretty much all livestock is horribly inefficient. This story should make people feel bad about their SUVs and the hamburgers, not better about one and amused by the other.

Its almost enough to get a person thinking about changing their diet. Almost.

So three informative articles, three dreadfully wrong interpretations, and depressingly voiced over the most listened to radio program in the nation. No wonder Al Franken was always saying that the more you listen to Rush, the stupider you get. (is "stupider" a word? seems right in that context even if it isn't)

He went on to attack the concept of scientific consensus, asserting that if someone has to cite a consensus then it can't be science - that science is yes or no, not a consensus. It's sad how comfortable it must feel to hear that if you are a Rush listener and simultaneously how completely wrong it is. Science is totally and completely about consensus. I bet if you look hard enough you could find a legit scientist that has a fully fleshed out theory explaining why we have gravity all wrong. However the consensus is that we have it right.

He slewed into this from his global warming assault, and it is also a tactic used by the "intelligent design" folks. Really its the difference between marketing and scholarship. In and of itself a consensus doesn't mean something is true or something isn't true - about anything, but especially about a scientific truth. The reason we can say science is a yes or no thing is because so much of what is "lay-science"(?) is so long established that it seems that there is no diversity of opinion. Probably 1000 years from now natural selection will seem like a yes or no proposition, right now its just a consensus of learned judgment that is backed up by observable and measurable data.

That's whats often missing when people invoke a consensus for their cause, the rest of the phrase: "of learned judgment that is backed up by observable and measurable data." That changes it somewhat. The ID people can say there is a consensus amongst many researchers, and so therefore muddy the water. Opponents of climate change ideas can do the same. But I doubt either group can face the rest of the phrase. Science is not yes or no, and it isn't simply a consensus. The agreement required to steer scientific inquiry is much more rigorous. That people often say that any dissent counters a legit consensus, or that offer a paper consensus and try to present it as a learned, defended one is really something we ought to be teaching everyone to look out for. It is the modern snake oil salesman's tool.

Having said that, I do believe that if I asked a group of learned scientists that I would find there is a consensus that Rush Limbaugh is full of shit.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had written this. The difference between you and me is that you can calmly dissect the ridiculousness, whereas 30 seconds into the discussion I've got steam coming out my ears and crap coming from the keyboard as a result.

Anonymous said...

And when did you go beta?

David said...

I was unaware I'd gone beta - everytime I try it says I can't.