Happy New Year

Thanks for being a reader, and thanks to many of you for making this site a lively exchange of interesting perspectives, particularly on climate change related issues. Early next week, I’ll have a post up elaborating on a few new wrinkles to the blog.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you on something. What particular story and/or topic would you like to see given more attention in 2012? (Bear in mind there are editors and reporters who read this blog.) But be as specific as possible. No doubt, a number of you will throw climate change in the mix, which is fine. Just spell out what you would like to see covered differently or in more detail. But I’m especially keen to hear of any science/environmental stories that you believe are underreported in the media.

Lastly, Ed Yong has compiled his top 12 list of “longreads” for 2011. I recommend you check it out. He has great taste and judgment.

Best wishes to you and your families for the New Year.

Category: science journalism

How to Explain Legions of Alt Med Believers?

I have a family member with some apparent gastrointestinal issues. The other night, while visiting, she was belching like a frat house drunkard. The episodes picked up in intensity after dinner. It was quite the entertainment for my two boys, who began gulping their grape juice to keep up with their best imitations.

Amid the barnyard display, I learn this is a recurring problem for my poor relative and that she’s treating it with colonics. I tried to reason with her, explaining that there is no scientific basis for colonic cleanses. It was no use and I eventually (and stupidly) resorted to mockery, which, of course, gave my relative all the reason she needed to tune me out. “You’re always so negative on anything that is a natural health solution,” my relative said to me, which was a reference to our previous discussions on alternative medicine. Yes, she is believer and yes, my previous attempts to undermine that faith fell on deaf ears.

My relative is not uncommon. There are millions of very intelligent people who have bought into the mythology of alternative medicine, especially the claims of homeopathy. The evidence is out there that this stuff is bogus. So why do many believers in alternative medicine discount science? Are they in denial? Not properly informed by journalists? What’s the story here?

Category: colonics, homeopathy

Can We & the Planet Reconcile Competing Values?

The Economist has an excellent article about the “fate of India’s amphibians” and what is a universal conservation paradox:

As economic growth has accelerated so, it appears, has the destruction of  [India's] forests. The Centre for Science and the Environment, a lobby group, reckons that the pace at which clearance permissions have been granted has doubled in the past five years. In 2009 alone, 87,884 hectares (out of a total of 68m hectares of primary and other forest) were approved for clearance.

Yet while growth damages the environment, it also nurtures a countervailing force: rising green consciousness. That tends to happen wherever economic dynamism threatens a country’s natural wealth, but maybe especially so in India. Environmental awareness lies deep in India’s political culture. Mahatma Gandhi was an early green, and the original tree-huggers were Indians: the chipko movement used Gandhian methods to prevent deforestation in the Himalayas in the 1980s. At the same time, India’s growth in the past 20 years has—while leaving many millions in poverty—produced a large, eco-sensitive middle class.

In his book, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945, historian Samuel Hayes wrote that

the environmental drive in modern society stems from new human values about what people want in their lives.

This became evident decades ago in industrialized Western countries, like the United States. The raft of foundational environmental laws (safeguarding air, water, and endangered species) in the early 1970s was the codification of these new human values in the U.S. Since then, however, enforcement (and expansion) of environmental legislation has been met with considerable opposition by parties driven by different values.

What interests me is how these competing values have turned landscapes into battlegrounds. For example, I’ve written a lot about a remote place in Utah called Nine Mile Canyon, where ranching, conservation, oil & gas development and historic preservation have long clashed. I’ve also explored how reconciliation of disparate values has been painstakingly arrived at in more populated locales, where business and real estate interests bumped up against ecological concerns.

India, as the Economist article puts it, is entering similar terrain:

The big question is how concern for the environment and a desire for growth will be reconciled.

That means India’s competing values will have to be reconciled, which, if the last thirty years of U.S. environmental politics is any guide, won’t be pretty. That also means, as the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger said in a recent interview with science writer John Horgan, that there will be uncomfortable tradeoffs people are going to have to accept:

We are now the dominant ecological force on the planet and that means that we must ever more actively manage our environment. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity and it demands that we actually make hard choices. If we want more forests and more wild places, then we’ll need more people living in cities and more intensive agriculture. If we want less global warming, then we’ll need to replace fossil energy with clean energy, including a lot of nuclear energy. If we want to save places like the Amazon rainforest then we have to recognize that, over the next 50 years, a lot of the Amazon is going to be developed. The choices will come down to where we want development, and what we might save in the process.

A larger debate over those choices and the values underlying them would be nice.

Category: environmentalism

The Maya Complex

An archaeologist is peeved about the “craze over the supposed Maya prophecy of the end of the world in 2012,” which he says “is based on bogus, commercialized, fake claims.” Well, blow me down, are there any rational-minded people who would seriously entertain such a prophesy even if it came straight from a Carlos Castaneda book? Wait a second, those were Yaqui Indians and Castaneda was a best-selling fake.

Never mind.

So all this attention lavished on the Maya is grating on archaeologist Michael Smith, in part because the Mesoamerican culture he’s studied gets no respect:

As an Aztec specialist, this whole Maya 2012 nonsense really bugs me. The Maya always get all the publicity, and the Aztecs get very little. The Maya are always on the History Channel or in National Geographic Magazine. Maya, Maya, Maya! We Aztec specialists often get an inferiority complex with respect to the Maya.

The Aztecs actually DID predict the end of the world, but who gets all the credit for ancient prophecies for doom and destruction: the Maya, who didn’t even make such prophecies.

I know! Not fair. The Maya get to be a poster child for eco-collapse and the stars of a brutish, bloodthirsty movie. What are the Aztecs known for? Montezuma’s revenge.

Category: Archaeology, Aztec

Has the Journal Nature Sullied its Brand?

The prestigious journal Nature has published a special supplement on traditional Asian medicine (free access). Financial sponsorship for it came from the Kitasato University Oriental Medicine Research Center and the Saishunkan Pharmaceutical Co, which is described as

a herbal medicine manufacturer which aims to help people make the most of their natural powers of healing and self-recovery.

That’s one big red flag. Of course, Nature duly acknowledges the sponsorship, and appearances notwithstanding, gives this reassurance:

 As always, Nature takes full responsibility for all editorial content.

Nature also explains how it to came to treat traditional Asian medicine as science-worthy:

When the topic of traditional Asian medicine was first mooted, we were sceptical. To a magazine based in Europe and steeped in the history of science, there is much about traditional Asian medical practice that seems mystical and pseudoscientific. Other than well known success stories — artemisinin for malaria, and arsenic trioxide for leukaemia — there seemed to be a lack of scientifically proven remedies.

Yet a bit of probing revealed what a complex story this is. Not only are big efforts underway to modernize traditional medicine in China and Japan, but Western medicine is adopting some aspects of the Eastern point of view too. In particular, modern medical practitioners are coming around to the idea that certain illnesses cannot be reduced to one isolatable, treatable cause. Rather, a fall from good health often involves many small, subtle effects that create a system-wide imbalance.

Orac, unsurprisingly, is aghast, and says the special issue is “chock full” of “atrocities against skepticism and science.”  I’m still making my way through the articles, so I’m going to reserve judgement, for now. Orac, though, has done his own deep dive and concludes that,

to their eternal shame, by publishing this issue, the editors of Nature have become willing shills for the TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] industry. Nature has sold out, and its editors and publisher should be called out for it.

It’ll be interesting to see how other scientists (and science journalists) react.

Category: traditional Chinese medicine

The Good Old Days

Ryan Avent at the Economist gets my nostalgia award for the day with this romanticized dreck:

But turn again to those living 100 or 500 years ago. How would they have viewed civilisation today? Think of all the animals, languages, and societies that have since gone extinct. Modern lives might seem like a vision of hell. The coastal, urban corridor along which I live now is horribly changed from its condition a century ago. Those of us who live along it spend the vast majority of our time indoors and only rarely glimpse anything that could honestly be called nature. The food we eat is highly processed and often unidentifiable as one plant or animal versus another. Many of us rarely see many of our close friends and family, and communicate with them only through the tinny interfaces of our electronic devices. “Some life!”, a resident of the past might conclude. Yet how many of us would switch places with those who lived centuries ago? A century from now, much more of the world will likely have been despoiled. Humans might live in underground bunkers eating lab-grown meat. But who’s to say they won’t prefer their lot to ours?

A reader at the Economist thread tells Avent this is “possibly the dumbest thing you have ever written” and asks:

Have you never read an account of life back in the 1500s? Your teeth would be rotten. Probably would go your entire life without eating a banana. Raw sewage sloshing around in the streets, constantly added to by the emptying of chamber pots and horses crap. Reading by candlelight, if one was even literate and had access to books. Indoor pollution would be horrible, with heat provided by a poorly ventilated fireplace. Bed bugs and other creatures would be the norm. The food would be absolutely disgusting and monotonous. Would own probably, what, 2 pairs of clothes, made of burlap? One would probably never travel more than a 50 mile radius in one’s entire lifetime, and travel, when it did occur, would be via stagecoach over horribly bumpy and potholed roads. I could go on.

Modern day life is quite literally heaven compared to the life of centures past, which was — as Hobbes famously put it — nasty, brutish and short. I’d be surprised if even a single person outside of royalty wouldn’t trade places with your average American.


Category: nostalgia

What Climate Communication Sorely Lacks

My latest post at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media asks if the ratcheting up of climate fear will grab hold of a public already numb to such appeals. I think David Roberts at Grist makes a strong case for how it can work, but it rests on this assumption:

what drives social change and shifts politics is not broad-based support but intensity. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations.

In fairness to Roberts, he also says that “activism, protest, and agitation,” hallmarks of a committed movement, along with continued warnings of imminent climate catastrophe, need not

be seen as an alternative to pragmatic, incremental process pushed by moderate insiders. They are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they ought to be mutually reinforcing.

The problem with even this multi-pronged approach is that there are no overarching values defined, which, to me, seems the only way you can expand beyond your “committed minority.” As one commenter (“grypo”) observes over at the Planet 3.0 site:

This is what the climate movement is missing. There is no core set of values that gets moved to the front of the movement that excites people. I can say the same for the issue of sustainability. What we do instead, is try the climate hawk approach, where we work within the value system of the establishment. We even bend over backwards to make rational economic arguments that don’t solve the main issues. For the Grist approach to work, this all must end. We need to attach the risk of future climate change and sustainability to a value system, and not the one that serves established politics. Ultimately, these issues revolve around human connection, social contracts, and the power of people working together to fix shit.

Roberts, in his post, refers to how American conservatives, over the last few decades, have moved narrow, minority held views (such as supply side economics) into the Republican mainstream. He points out that they’ve achieved this with relentless organization and advocacy. But he fails to mention the cultural values underlying these attitudinal shifts of the Republican party, and how these values have been powerfully framed (subsequently catching on as motivating force) and successfully wedded to policy positions.

So what are the values the climate movement wants audiences to embrace? I submit that avoiding climate doom won’t suffice. In my Yale Forum piece, I suggest that whatever values are formed, they ought to be able to strike a chord with people holding different worldviews.

Category: climate communication, climate politics

Nanotech Battles Looming?

Is Marion Nestle stoking nanotechnology fears here? Or is she trying to head off an ugly variation of the GMO wars? I’m not sure, but this is what she advises:

Companies using this technology should be telling the public more about it. Nanotechnology is technical, difficult to grasp intuitively, “foreign,” and not under personal control. This places it high on the scale of “dread-and-outrage.”

Does it belong there? Who knows? But the sooner its risks and benefits are assessed, the better. Otherwise it risks becoming the next GMO in public perception.

A reader in that Atlantic thread feels pretty strongly that Nestle is “poisoning the discourse.” Anyone have thoughts on this?

Category: nanotechnology

Rattling the Echo Chamber

Several weeks ago in Washington D.C., I met with a scholar whose work I find fascinating. My interview with Ed Carr, an archaeologist-turned geographer, is now up at Yale Environment 360. Here’s an excerpt:

e360: Over the summer various commentators talking about the famine in Somalia and the drought in the Horn of Africa were making a connection to global warming. You criticized this as simplistic.

Carr: What you’re referring to is my argument that drought does not equal famine, and it doesn’t. Famine is a situation of extreme food insecurity, and there’s a very technical definition for it. Drought is a meteorological event: Does it rain or does it not rain? How much under the norm does it not rain? How much water is not available? The problem is that the correlation between weather and famine is actually pretty low, historically. The correlation between markets and things like food prices and famine is actually extraordinarily high.

So the problem is, when we start looking at a situation anywhere in the world where we see famine kicking off, people immediately start pointing to the weather. But that’s one of many things that have to come together to get us to that situation. In almost every case that I’ve ever seen, the weather is a trigger, another stressor on top of a set of stressors. That was my concern there, not to oversimplify a very complex situation.


In addition to asking for more rigor on climate attribution, Carr is someone who challenges conventional wisdom on globalization and development. For more on this, go over and read the whole interview. Lastly, my headline of this post is a play off of Ed’s excellent blog, called Open the Echo Chamber.

Category: development

Don’t Lose Sight of Those Biases

I dip in and out of the comment threads at Judith Curry’s blog. The nesting style annoys me, so I rarely follow an actual conversation all the way through. But there are some commenters, such as Joshua, Martha, and Louise, and a few others on the skeptical side, who I find quite engaging. They usually make the time worthwhile.

This comment from Joshua just caught my eye. He’s responding to someone who asked how he would feel if global warming didn’t play out as expected:

That is a good and important question, and it is one that I have given quite a bit of thought to.

In all honesty, I can’t deny that at some partisan level, I will feel vindicated if AGW is definitively proven (I don’t feel it has been just yet).

When my better self thinks about the implications of that, I realize just how easy it is to let partisan interest, motivated reasoning, socio-centric bias, etc., distort my more rational thinking processes.

And not viewing myself as particularly better or worse then your average Joe or Jane climate combatant, that is why I am astounded that so many combatants, on both sides of the debate, seem so oblivious to influences that bias their thinking as well.

Category: climate change, climate politics