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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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INSIDE THE MIND OF A CLIMATE CHANGE DENIER


Sunday February 21, 2010

-EUGENE LINDEN
 
 
THE SCENE: THE WASHINGTON MALL ON A SNOWY FEBRUARY DAY.
BOB AND JOE ARE STANDING IN FRONT OF AN IGLOO CONSTRUCTED BY THE GRANDCHILDREN OF SENATOR JIM INHOFE (R-OK).  IN FRONT OF THE IGLOO IS A SIGN THAT READS: “AL GORE’S NEW HOME.”
 
            Bob looks at the sign and laughs,  “Look at that Joe, guess we won’t be hearing any more about that global warming nonsense.”
            “I totally agree. Thank God my main man Inhofe had the guts to stand up to the girly-man liberals and expose global warming for the hoax that it is. [They exchange high fives and fist bumps]. If it weren’t for Inhofe, courageous selfless companies like Exxon, and the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page just imagine where we might be – ‘like your electric car, Bob?’ No thanks, I’ll stick with my good old American oil.”
            “Hmm, don’t we import most of our oil?”
            “Whatever. The main thing is: this country was built on oil and it will die on oil!”
            “ Word bro!” The two men start trudging through the snow.  Bob changes the subject. “So Joe, you watchin’ the downhill in the Olympics this weekend?”
            “Didn’t you hear? It’s been delayed. It’s warm up in Vancouver and they don’t have any snow.”
            “Jeesh, how stupid – you’d think they pick some place cold for the Winter Olympics – someplace like Canada.”
            “Uh Bob, Vancouver is in Canada.”
            Bob stops. “So it’s unusually warm up there?”
            “I dunno – something about El Nino.”
            “Don’t El Nino’s happen all the time?”
            “Yeah, why?”
            “Because why would they pick a place for the Winter Olympics if they know that every few years it’s going to get warm and they won’t have snow?”
            Joe is getting exasperated. “Maybe, Bob, because this year it’s warmer than it has been before.”
            “You don’t have to be sarcastic. That’s all I was asking.”
The two continue trudging down the mall.  Bob is still confused about the Canada information. “So Joe, if it’s warmer in Canada…”
“It’s not warmer in Canada!”
“But you just said…”
“What just because it’s warmer in Vancouver, you think it’s warmer in all of Canada?” Joe looks at Bob as though he’d never encountered anyone so dense.
“But didn’t I read something about sea ice melting, the Northwest Passage opening for the first time, permafrost melting…”
“Bob, haven’t you been listening to Rush and Glenn Beck? The scientists made up the data. Look around you [Joe points to the mountains of snow]! Like the Virginia GOP said, ’12 inches of global warming.”
“But you just said that warming in Vancouver doesn’t have anything to do with global warming.”
“Yes…”
“So ,why does snow in Washington have to do with global warming?
“Exactly!” says Joe triumphantly, “It refutes global warming! ”
“So the world’s not getting warmer?”
“Nobody’s proved anything -- the scientists made up the data.”
“That’s just awful – do we have proof.”
“Yup, those leaked emails from England, and then I read in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that some of the claims about global warming in this big fancy IPCC report were based on non-peer reviewed articles.”
“What’s a peer reviewed article.”
“Supposedly it’s one where the scientists’ methods and data are reviewed by other scientists with the credentials to judge the paper.”
“I get it. So they used a non-peer reviewed article because the peer reviewed articles don’t support global warming, right?”
Joe again looks exasperated. “Well no, but that’s the problem. The scientists are all conspiring to suppress the truth that global warming is a hoax. So they get together to prevent the scientists who see the truth from getting published. That’s why these heroes have to get their money from the coal industry.”
“Wow! That’s a big conspiracy. But I suppose now that it’s all out in the open, these phonies will be discredited and the real scientists will get the word out that the world isn’t warming.”
Joe gives Bob a world weary look. “Don’t hold your breath, Bob,  they’re saying that nothing in the emails changes any meaningful thing in the global warming story. These scientists are ruthless…”
“I thought global warming supporters were girly men?”
“… ruthless girly men, Bob. Those emails have some really nasty accusations in them, ridiculing our scientists and accusing them of intellectual dishonesty. Why can’t they just argue the facts?”
“What was in it for those scientists, Joe?”
Joe again gives Bob a condescending look, “What else, money, power, fame, glamour ,girls , or, er, boys. ”
Bob again looks puzzled, “Even during the Bush administration?…Anyway, wanting money doesn’t explain the conspiracy part – you know suppressing the truth.”
Joe looks pleased. “So there is a brain in there [he knocks on Bob’s head]. You’re right. Think about it Bob. This supposed global warming would be happening all over the world, and if something’s a so-called threat to the world, then how do you fix it?”
“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me.”
“World government, my friend. Global warming is just a pretext so that liberals and George Soros can establish a world government. First they’ll take away our guns, then they’ll come back for everything else.”
Bob looks stunned as everything falls into place. “Thanks Joe – that’s one scary bunch of girly men. Well thank god they’ve been stopped! Come to think of it, we’re in a pretty good place. The conspiracy has been exposed, and we don’t have to worry about the world getting warmer.”
Joe gives Bob a sober look. “The conspiracy’s not dead Bob, we can’t let down our guard. Oh, and the world is getting warmer.”
Bob buries his face in his hands, “What do you mean, you just said the scientists made up the data!”
Joe reverts to condescension, “C’mon Bob, I said the data don’t prove anything. That’s different. Look around you spring comes earlier, lakes aren’t freezing, duck season is changing. It’s obvious the world is warming.”
“You mean the scientists are right?”
“Of course not. The warming is natural – probably because the sun is brighter.”
“Wouldn’t they think of that?”
“You’d think, wouldn’t you?
“So CO2 has nothing to do with it?”
“That’s right, CO2 doesn’t cause warming, it rises after warming. Anyway the warming’s all good.”
             “Why is that?”
            “Because it’s natural, dummy! Plants live off CO2, right? Remember the ad: ‘They call it pollution, we call it life!’ If I were a farmer I’d buy land right in the wind shadow of a coal-fired power plant.”
“Bob looks troubled, “But if it’s natural we can’t do anything about it. If we caused it, at least we would know why it was happening and how to stop it.”
Joe narrows his eyes and looks at Bob. “You going all liberal on me Bob?”
“Of course not! But how do you know it’s all good?”
“Trust me, Bob, and remember: Exxon’s got your back.”
 

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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