Awesome is genetically modified

I’ve long promised friends to write up my views on genetic engineering. This is the CliffsNotes version. I’ll write something more detailed over summer.

I support the shit out of genetic engineering, and the consumption of genetically modified foods. I dabble in it and I love it where it’s going. I love that today, genetic engineering techniques are orders of magnitude more precise than accepted plant breeding and various mutagenesis techniques.

It’s obviously quite safe. Most food isn’t tested in clinical trials, but genetically modified organisms are tested extensively before being released into the market. Even industry testing is a huge leap from no testing at all. According to various respected independent scientific organisations: in 20 years of testing, by over 500 independent groups, not fucking once in well designed studies has genetically modified food currently on the market been associated with human illness.

I don’t love Monsanto. I don’t love the regulatory environment that ensures that only rich multinationals like Monsanto get to dominate the biotechnology sector. The draconian bureaucracy that chokes biotechnology, largely influenced by manufactured public opposition courtesy of scientifically illiterate moonbat cults like Greenpeace, sets a financially insurmountable hurdle that prevents small, low budget startups (like what I’d love to do to fund my neuroscience education), humanitarian efforts and open source-friendly independent researchers from competing with Big Biotech.

Another obvious problem is the broken patent system. I’m in two minds about it: first, there clearly needs to be restrictions on patenting open source genomes minimally altered with open access sequences available from websites like the Standard Registry of Biological Parts (henceforth just “Parts Registry”); and second, in the case of novel or sophisticated genomes, patenting is probably OK. But patenting should not restrict independent testing. Perhaps firms should be required to donate batches of seeds to registered labs for analysis.

That said, I’m not sure if I believe in compulsory large-scale testing. Very few “synthetic” foods not derived from GMOs are tested at all if they contain no known toxic or illegal compounds. I don’t see much difference between worrying about any unknown chemical reactions between various compounds and those of various sequences of genes. The mere existence of Parts Registry speaks to the precision offered by genetic engineering.

Even the gene gun, criticised for its relative inaccuracy, has been consigned to near-obsolescence due to various high-precision competing technologies (at least, in agricultural biotechnology, it’s still used in human gene therapy with great success).

Such precision for inserting sequences isn’t always necessary to achieve predictable outcomes: recombinant methods offered by viral vectors for gene therapy and even “cruder” methods such as electroporation get the job done.

What people often fail to realise when they go after Monsanto by parroting made up bullshit about genetically modified organisms is that a more open market (though, not totally “free”) conducive to open source and small companies is profoundly anti-corporate. Forget Monsanto, DIY biohacking even has the power to take on Big Pharma, and, by extension, Big Quacka.

It’s taken for granted that conventional agriculture isn’t going to feed 9 billion people. The organic vs. GMO debate, perpetuated by Big Quacka, is fucking stupid. Organic food, generally, offers lower yields for obscene land use. Economical land use is very important, because any land used by humans encroaches on fragile ecosystems. This is why it makes no sense to inadvertently expand farming and explicitly decry cities as taking us away from nature. We need to take up less space if we want to allow ecosystems to thrive.

Organic food may very well play a role in feeding the world, but the ever-advancing field of genetic engineering offers a much better shot. Crops can be tailored for climates, even to withstand levels of city pollution (though I expect that to drop dramatically, if we survive) and to thrive and usher in a revolution of indoor vertical farming. This will combat projected rising food prices (due to global warming and other factors) and make it possible to grow crops where it’s not feasible to do so using other methods. Such efforts are being spearheaded by not-for-profit organisations such as the Mexican International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

I hope it’s clear why I frequently call out so-called environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering. Not only do they slow progress in a field that offers novel, powerful solutions to climate change, land use, and so on, but they also work against humanitarian efforts aimed at ameliorating poverty. The most stark, recent example of this is the backlash against golden rice, a theoretically sound and repeatedly proven solution to rampant vitamin A deficiency in third world and developing countries. One can’t help but wonder how many children have died from malnutrition while golden rice, nutrient-enriched cassava and other publicly developed crops remain under lock and key, thanks again to elitist middle class Westerners who really have no excuse for such scientific illiteracy.

Those who have been taken in by denialist literature such as the non-peer-reviewed report/Gish Gallop by EarthOpenSource (Google it, you’ll find it) are invited to read this better document by the European Commission. People concerned with data from long-term animal feeding studies should read this paper (without shooting the messenger, which is too often a convenient excuse for intellectual laziness). And people who thought that Gilles-Eric Séralini found evidence that GMOs cause enormous tumours in rats should look at this (heavy lifting) and/or this. Spoiler alert: his study looks an awful lot like scientific fraud.

(Originally posted as “On genetically engineered food” on my tumblr blog Just Defiance.)

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No propaganda please

Ooh, looky here!  Some Aussie cannabis activists have unearthed an interesting study from 2006! Check this shizz out:

Active component of marijuana and Alzheimer’s disease pathology (Hereafter: Eubanks, et al. 2006.)

Yeah, umm, the most excitable of the pro-pot people are jumping on this study as indispootaple proof that cannabis cures/treats/manages Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, I’m for the legalisation of marijuana; but I happen to think that propaganda is self-defeating and destructive, so I’m very much against enabling propagandists who otherwise agree with me on certain issues. That means that sometimes, correction is called for.

Alzheimer’s disease is a currently incurable affliction that slowly kills neurons in many parts of the brain. The first brain structure that Alzheimer’s attacks is the hippocampus, which is where memories are encoded, and this is why most people associate the condition with the dramatic memory loss.

Alzheimer’s presents with catastrophic cell death (obviously) and higher-than-normal levels of amyloid plaque deposits in certain regions of the brain. In healthy people, the death of neurons and the presence of large deposits of amyloid plaque is often a consequence of ageing, but in Alzheimer’s, these harrowing symptoms occur much more rapidly and extensively.

(Click here for a refresher on neurons.)

The study found that pot seems to inhibit the activity of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) in the brain. AChE breaks down unused acetylcholine at the synapse (the inconceivably tiny space between the axon terminal of one neuron and the receptors of another). Acetylcholine is an extremely important neurotransmitter (a chemical signal that affects the polarisation of the receiving neuron, which either provokes or inhibits an action potential); but like anything good, you don’t want too much of it; you need a balance. That’s where AChE comes in.

When AChE activity goes a bit overboard (often due to genetics), excessive accumulations of amyloid plaque start to develop in the brain. This process is called AChE-induced amyloid beta-peptide aggregation. When amyloid beta-peptides a synthesised in healthy brains, they protect against oxidative stress, help regulate cholesterol transport and do other non-threatening thngs; but once again, too much of a good thing can be bad news. Large deposits of these peptides can also result in inflammation, and as above, a brain afflicted by Alzheimer’s is riddled with them.

But correlation does not imply causation. According to the amyloid hypothesis, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by this build-up of brain plaque. This hypothesis doesn’t really hold, though, because a vaccine that clears amyloid plaques was developed and trialed. During stage I trials, it was found that the clearing of amyloid plaque did not have a significant effect on the onset of dementia.

Thus, the thing that cannabis does especially well will reduce the development of a neurological marker of Alzheimer’s disease. Clearly Alzheimer’s is related to amyloid plaques, but we still aren’t sure how. So it would be premature to suggest that this function of cannabis could play a part in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

As I said above, AChE inhibition does mean that more acetylcholine will be present in the synaptic gap during neurotransmission. A little extra acetylcholine is associated with boosts in cognition; so the inhibition of AChE is one way to boost cognition. There are already drugs on the market, and such drugs (like Exelon) are often used to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. So could pot do that too?

Well, no. Cannabis is quite different.

Acute intoxication with cannabis comes with a disruption of short-term memory for as long as the high lasts. This effect is due to the inhibition of the release of neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, in the hippocampus. In fact, researchers have remarked that the extent of neural inhibition in the hippocampus for the length of the high actually resembles a temporary hippocampal lesion.

The consumption of too much pot over the long term does make you stupid. Worse, doses of marijuana to equal doses of similar drugs used in Alzheimer’s treatments would lead to THC-induced hippocampal deterioration, which is what Alzheimer’s disease does on its own. Moreover, if you read Eubanks, et al. with a fairly comprehensive dosage chart handy, it’s clear that you would have to consume a heavy dose of THC in one session to achieve a substantial inhibition of AChE enzymes. No, that’s not a challenge.

So the cannabis you smoke actually won’t do shit for Alzheimer’s patients. It’s kinda like pouring a little bit of gasoline on a house fire.

But targeted drugs derived from cannabis might. Even so, the work of Eubanks, et al. offers no argument in favour of legalising cannabis. To claim it does is simply misleading.

So can we stop pretending that cannabis is some kind of magical wonder drug suppressed by Big Pharma? It’s not. It’s just a relatively safe recreational drug with some notable medicinal uses. That should be our platform.

Now, don’t get me wrong: if you live in my state, join that group and support them. (It should go without saying, but: you don’t have to be a pothead to support legalisation. I’m not a user, I just happen to believe that proscribing a victimless source of pleasure while tolerating more destructive sources of pleasure is simply wrong.)

Why it’s OK to hate religion

Religion, by any precise definition, is based on faith, and faith is about preserving assumptions at all costs.

Evidentialist philosopher Peter Boghossian defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”; so by definition, faith entails what the late Christopher Hitchens termed “the surrender of the mind”. The cost of faith is reason. Wilfully surrendering one’s reason to the dictates of a higher authority is not only stupefying, it also sets a dangerous social precedent.

My argument against faith is a consequentialist one: when polite society is conditioned to extend “politeness” to deluded assumptions about the nature of reality, the venom of epistemic relativism has been injected.

For this reason, hating religion is not just OK, it is practically a moral imperative. Religion is by far the most obvious manifestation of the faith disease.

In response to one of my recent attacks on the ejaculations of a faith head, I was told something to the effect of “but that’s just your opinion, and you will respect mine.”

Why should I? And why should anyone? That perverted wisp of wisdom emanated from someone who believes that holding off her child’s vaccinations is a just and socially responsible thing to do, which it isn’t. Perhaps such a potentially infanticidal sentiment is not quite as extreme as those motivating acts of faith-based terrorism, but it does certainly resonate with Voltaire’s timeless dictum:

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

As I’ve written elsewhere, opinions that are not informed by evidence are worthless opinions. Religious convictions eschew evidence entirely; they write any empirical evidence that doesn’t gel out of consideration.

Occasionally, in the “pluralistic” media, we are forced to endure the cognitive putrification of some disingenuous religious figure distorting science to justify his brand of faith-based garbage, but we should always consider the myriad things this professional rationaliser is not saying.

Religion is based on faith, and for that reason, it’s OK to hate religion. This contempt should extend to more liberal interpretations of the various religions too, because such prescriptive worldviews remain grounded in faith. The theocrat is right to assert that her faith should be afforded respect when the faith of the liberal theist is considered impervious to scrutiny.

If we wish to distinguish between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” religious dogmas, which criteria should we employ? Almost without exception, the various holy books of the world claim that the normative delusions they describe are absolute truths. Their doctrines are not mutually inclusive. Individual theists may hold beliefs that roughly align with liberal democratic values, but their motivations are still delusional.

Of course, religiosity should not rob anyone of the right to vote or to contribute to our discourse; but a person’s faith, like their politics, should not be exempt from scrutiny. Asking Mitt Romney whether or not he adheres to some of his church’s more contemptible doctrines should be a necessity, not a taboo.

Scientific knowledge, and the scientific approach to knowledge, on the other hand, is truly democratic. If we agree that science is about uncovering reality, anyone who cares enough to do the background reading can contribute. The culture of science is distinguished in other ways too: it’s worth noting that string theorists do not engage in holy wars with other quantum gravity theorists.

When made acceptable, the faith precedent rears its ugly head elsewhere in society.

I spend a lot of time arguing with global warming deniers, and ultimately their arguments will come down to “I have a right to my opinion”. Yes, they sure do, and I’d hate to disabuse them of their rights, no matter how much and in what manner they abuse those rights. But I don’t think their opinions deserve undue respect.

The precedent that everyone’s assumptions should be exempt from criticism in public space runs counter to free speech. Free speech is supposed to be a social mechanism for the self-correction intrinsic to modern liberal democracy.

The public have a right to know the truth, so it follows that the merchants of comfortable delusions deserve to be ridiculed and alienated. Free speech thus provides the rope for the Chris Moncktons and Rush Limbaughs of the world to publicly hang themselves with.

The reason we should not disabuse people of their faith, so we’re told, is that faith brings people comfort. Comfortable delusions are virulent infectious memes, and they do harm.

When confronted with a serial killer, nobody confuses tolerating with enabling. I think that the only reason people don’t readily equate enabling religion with enabling serial killers is due to the average homo sapiens’ inveterate environmental and temporal cognitive myopia. It’s the same myopia that causes people to stop and save a child who is drowning in front of them at the expense of their designer shoes, but to rarely even consider that giving money to alleviate poverty elsewhere in the world is equivalent.

On a personal level, I find the idea of healthy people with access to adequate nutrition and shelter pretending to know things they don’t know for a little extra comfort to be the height of self-indulgence. It takes a special kind of solipsism to take solace in the notion that something is looking out for a First World thirty-something, while millions of children who live in abject poverty die horribly every year.

Less seriously, for many people, use of the word “religion” is suspiciously correlated with a sudden transient drop in the user’s IQ score. Since this essay was originally posted, I have been told that I should identify my religious affiliation as “consequentialist” on the Australian census. I find the notion that the idea of minimising the palpable, measurable phenomenon of human suffering is on equal ground with childish, solipsistic delusions about reality more than a little distasteful.

Religion is like junk food. As psychiatrist Andy Thomson has pointed out, the evolutionary psychology of religion is almost analogous to the evolutionary psychology of junk food. The reason we modern humans like junk food, despite the fact that it’s so bad for us, is an evolutionary one. Sugars, salt and saturated fats were hard to come by in prehistoric times, but they provided fast energy and nutrients, so our taste buds evolved to seek them out.

Humans have succeeded as a species because we also evolved to spot patterns, and this trait has allowed us to refine our resource-gathering skills. Today, junk foods are available in quantities sufficient to choke our arteries to death; but still, we eat them because we can reach them, just as our ancestors would have done.

As with junk food, humans are apt to become pattern-greedy. Religion provides humans with the comforting illusion of an invisible intentional stance to attribute to the random events that make up our lives.

Clinging to religion also gives us a sense of relief from the knowledge of our impending death, which seems to be an unfortunate consequence of our evolved conscious self-awareness. But if we really get to live forever in some magical hereafter, why bother taking responsibility for the future and improving life here, on this planet?

Finally, it gives the faithful the illusion of a kind of moral safety net; we know that we are in the Higher Order’s hands, and that’s why we don’t have to take responsibility for our prejudices. Southern Baptists don’t hate gay people, God does. Psychopaths can defer to the supernatural and be forgiven. Ethics are predicated on delusional whims and wishful thinking rather than a careful consideration of the effects of one’s actions on the well-being of others. This is no way to think about building a just society.

And the faith of global warming denial, like religious faith, brings people mental (and often material) comfort. It is predicated on the faith that the resources on our planet are inexhaustible, designated as ours for the taking, and that our use of them must be inconsequential — these assumptions absolutely fly in the face of the evidence.

These delusions are again rooted in our evolutionary history: the smaller tribes of our Pleistocene ancestors could not possibly exhaust all of the resources available to them. Greed then was indeed good.

The Higher Order, or the conveniently simplistic Greater Good that buttresses the faith underlying global warming denialism can be religious or political, but usually both. In any case, it is a comfortable delusion based on the denial of evidence. The precedent for such harmful denialism was set by our cultural respect for the odious institution of faith.

I submit that respecting religion does not respect the religious individual. The health department has no right to ban junk food, but it does have a right to circulate evidence-based dietary recommendations. (And maybe proposing extra taxes on fatty foods, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Secularists should not make the condescending and paternalistic assumption that religious people cannot live without their comfortable delusions. Everyone has a right to the best truth the evidence provides, and everyone who participates in a modern democracy has an obligation to the rest of society to at least be familiar with what constitutes the current best guess at the truth.

Faith therefore surrenders the modern mind to seductive delusions, to evolutionary hyper-stimuli. It is a fearful retreat to the terrified infancy of our species. The comparatively limited life spans of our ancestors have written a dangerous myopia into our genes; a disabling affliction that we must overcome.

Atavistic convictions only serve to placate yesterday’s evolutionary needs and they are not sufficient to address today’s problems. Evolution, with its blind brutality, does not intentionally furnish its products with the predispositions necessary for science or philosophy.

Those things are side-effects, perhaps glitches, emerging from our pattern-seeking minds. We can therefore ratiocinate, and today, we must ratiocinate if we want to overcome our evolutionary baggage. The ability to think is a happy accident, and we need to seize upon it to survive. We have to work at it and get better at it. Reason must become human nature.

All faith-based beliefs must be eradicated. We shouldn’t even say that we have “faith” in someone else’s abilities — instead, we should say that we have “confidence”, because confidence implies evidence. Even trust among adults typically involves the sort of basic reasoning and scepticism that faith must eschew.

We should not respect comfortable delusions aired in public space. We should be allowed to express hatred towards the idea of religion, and the notion of faith generally. For if we care about democracy, we should detest the precedent that such “toleration” sets. And we should respect our religious peers enough to tell them that their faith-based assertions poison our discourse.

Free market Lysenkoism

Trofim Lysenko (1898 – 1976) worked under Joseph Stalin as the director of Soviet biology. He was a remarkably egregious pseudoscientist whose claim to fame was a technique he termed ‘vernalization’, which promised to quadruple crop yields for the struggling collectivised Soviet agriculture sector.

Lysenko took his cues from the ideas of Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin (1855-1935), an honourable member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In a characteristically extensive academic propaganda campaign, the Soviet regime sold Michurin as the father of so-called Soviet biology, which was considered superior to the ‘capitalist’ (and accurate) theory of Mendelian genetics.

The Soviets believed that adopting Lysenko’s agricultural practices, they would be able to fight off famine and demonstrate the greatness of the Soviet social model to the world. Questioning Lysenko’s theories was seen as an act of sedition; sceptics were smeared as bourgeois fascists. This is not to say that the people behind the Soviet propaganda machine didn’t believe in Lysenkoism – most of them probably did. Today, most of Lysenko’s research is rightly considered fraudulent; junk science manufactured to support unstable and paranoid politics.

Lysenko and his Soviet comrades frequently publicly decried proponents of evidence-based biology as ‘fly-lovers’, ‘people haters’, and ‘wreckers’. Mendelian genetics was seen as an impediment to communist productivity and national progress; a pitiful manifestation of Malthusian capitalist nay-saying.

Now, the term ‘Lysenkoism‘ is used to refer to the distortion of science to support a particular political ideology.

Yesterday’s leak of thoroughly incriminating internal documents from the Heartland Institute (check out the source) got me thinking – I mean about more than the fact that nine documents contained a hell of a lot to worry about compared to the tepid contents of the thousands of emails and hundreds of documents that made up the entire ‘climategate’ package. (But that is worth pointing out.) We also already knew that climate denialism was little more than a racket.

It actually reminded me of a point that had always seemed so obvious to me, but that I rarely see discussed. It stems from the fact that anthropogenic global warming deniers will often call mainstream climate science ‘Lysenkoism’ in the media. The obvious question to ask is: who are the ones skewing science for politics? Certainly Al Gore is no central-planning socialist.

What do almost all of the AGW deniers and lukewarmists have in common? Let us list some names, and we’ll see if we can isolate a common variable:

Penn Jilette; Matt Stone; Trey Parker; Alex Jones; Alan Jones; Christopher Monckton; Andrew Bolt; S.E. Cupp; Anthony Watts; Glenn Beck; Ron Paul; Matt Ridley; Bjørn Lomborg; the staff of (the unfortunately named) media outlet Reason TV; the signatories of this letter

The answer? An infatuation with the so-called free market. Really, check Google; or better yet, read some of their books.

Even die-hard fans of the free market know that if scientists are right about anthropogenic global warming, effective solutions will necessarily begin with top-down market intervention. Moreover, the fact of global warming also contradicts the ideal that free trade, unfettered by oversights, can only be a good thing for humanity. People who are committed to ideas – especially utopian political ideas – tend to get a bit clingy.

Former doubter Michael Shermer explicated this sentiment when he came out as accepting climate science. To wit:

Nevertheless, data trump politics, and a convergence of evidence from numerous sources has led me to make a cognitive switch on the subject of anthropogenic global warming.

Though, later on he did add some free market caveats.

Let’s watch Chris Monckton push for an Australian Fox News:

His talk of discrediting climate science is firmly within the context of promoting the free market. Interesting, no?

And this can be found on the Heartland Institute’s About page:

Mission: Its mission is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.

We can easily note a clear trend of one of humanity’s greatest achievements in science (ie, figuring out what could kill most of us before it happens) being subverted, corrupted and bastardized for political purposes. So, apparently, for many, data does not trump politics. To disseminate global warming denialism, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is the praxis of free market Lysenkoism.

Practically every single prolific climate change sceptic utilizes propaganda originating from someone who has some connection the Heartland Institute. The kind of media manipulation for dissemination of discredited theories, paying off scientists and, the cherry atop this outrageously pernicious pie, promotion of the indoctrination of school children in the discipline of junk science, all expressly advocated in the Heartland Institute’s documents, leave me wondering why anyone in their right mind could continue to take the global warming denial/dilution project seriously.

I do mean to write up my developed take on the free market in the near future, but I’m a little busy for the moment. In the meantime, I’d like to urge the free market cadre who are responsible for most of my hate mail, and the more well-spoken and intelligent free market advocates who have raised the issue of my blog in real life, to do something to quell the disturbing trend of Lysenkoism flourishing among their colleagues. It’s making you all look ridiculous.

You can read more about the Heartland leaks themselves herehere and here (especially for Australians). Nothing on any of the Australian Murdoch newspaper websites, though.

Sixteen scumbags on global warming

Yesterday The Wall Street Journal published a letter, signed by sixteen proper scientists, with real degrees and everything, that declared “There’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy.” Take a look.

Now, I don’t claim to be smarter than Claude Allegre, J. Scott Armstrong, Jan Breslow, Roger Cohen, Edward David, William Happer, Michael Kelly, William Kininmonth, Richard Lindzen, James McGrath, Rodney Nichols, Burt Rutan, Harrison H. Schmitt, Nir Shaviv, Henk Tennekes, or Antonio Zichichi. But it seems like I know more about climate science than they do. Which is sad, because I really don’t know a hell of a lot. I’m more of a neuroscience kind of guy, and I don’t even have an undergraduate degree yet.

I think it’s important that knowledgeable people correct the misinformation on global warming percolates into the wider public consciousness. So I’m now going to wipe the floor with each of the fatuous and demonstrably false points that apparently substantiate this affront to human progress. I’ll try to quote sparingly, so if you’re interested in following along, refer to the link provided above.

This mediocre diatribe begins with an invocation of Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever’s resignation from the American Physical Society because he doesn’t accept the evidence of anthropogenic global warming. This is just an appeal to authority – in this case, a solid-state physicist who won a Nobel Prize in 1973. Beginning a serious contrarian letter on such a dire issue with fallacious reasoning is not a great way to establish credibility.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that there are roughly 50,000 members of the American Physical Society, making it the world’s second largest organization of physicists. Also, I assure you, Ivar Giaever wasn’t the only Nobel laureate in the club. So who cares if he walked out over the word ‘incontrovertible’? And on that note, who cares if the number of so-called ‘heretics’ is growing? The number of scientists who accept global warming is too. Taking sides on a politicized topic like this one is a byproduct of what’s called ‘general awareness’. Not worth a mention, ladies and gentlemen?

The second claim is just embarrassing. Pathetic, even. Here’s a slice:

Perhaps the most inconvenient fact is the lack of global warming for well over 10 years now. This is known to the warming establishment, as one can see from the 2009 “Climategate” email of climate scientist Kevin Trenberth: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

Perhaps the most inconvenient fact here is that Kevin Trenberth was talking about modelling the climate’s short term energy budget, not a simple ‘lack of warming’, and energy budget modelling is a mite more complicated than Trenberth’s critics were prepared to even consider. The fact is that we did observe a long-term trend in warming and the hottest decade on record. (See also: my own post on the basics of global warming if this is new to you, otherwise read Tamino on the 2011 temperature data and how it fits the AGW signal.)

Next, they take aim at the predictions made by the IPCC over the last 22 years. I don’t know why they’d even bother. This is kind of like trying to construct a smart phone based on patents registered in the ’60s. The 2007 report is much better and it draws on a great deal more research. The predictions made most recently in IPCC reports have – for the most part – held up.

The next claim is that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. In itself, CO2 is not a pollutant. CO2 molecules don’t literally suck up heat (which is energetic molecular motion for those of us who slept through physics, and this is roughly what Trenberth was referring to), but rather they capture and radiate heat. CO2 isn’t a pollutant, but it is a greenhouse gas. That’s the important bit.

The atoms that make up CO2 molecules are readily excited by energy in the form of thermal radiation from the sun. Excited molecules are highly mobile. This sets off a chain reaction; excited molecules excite other excitable molecules by colliding with them. Because energy is conserved, elevated levels of greenhouse gases diffuse more heat through the totality of molecules that make up the atmosphere. Basically: the more greenhouse gas molecules there are in the atmosphere, the more solar energy goes into the planet’s climate energy budget (the aforementioned subject of Trenberth’s study); ergo, high atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will cause the atmosphere to retain more heat than it would otherwise. By far the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution has been human activity.

Any scientist – or any high school student – should know that without the greenhouse effect, the Earth’s effective temperature would be too low to support an ecosystem like our own.

Our special sixteen then raise the point that CO2 is exhaled by humans. Here we have lame spin, the implication being that if those Green socialists are to be believed, breathing is bad for the environment, man! Humans do exhale CO2, but by doing so we do not increase the concentration of CO2 on the planet. The CO2 that humans exhale is converted from the oxygen we inhale. Oxygen is ‘exhaled” by plants, because plants ‘inhale’ carbon dioxide. This is a facet of that all-important planetary carbon cycle. We simply don’t add anything by breathing.

In the same paragraph, we find this:

Plants do so much better with more CO2 that greenhouse operators often increase the CO2 concentrations by factors of three or four to get better growth. This is no surprise since plants and animals evolved when CO2 concentrations were about 10 times larger than they are today.

This is true, but again, misleading. During the late Ordovician period, roughly 450 million years ago, the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 concentration was around 5,600 parts per million (ppm) – but some how, glaciers managed to form during that time. This is probably the most seductive myth spread by the better read deniers, but it illustrates that they really should know better. As the title I’ve given this post might suggest, I think it’s plausible to assume that they do know better and they don’t care.

What isn’t mentioned above, or anywhere in the article, is that the output of the sun also significantly drives the climate. Without the energy from a star, the greenhouse effect cannot heat a planet. During the Ordovician period, the sun put out about 4% less energy than it does now. In order for glaciers to form on the planet during that time, CO2 levels would need to drop below 3,000 ppm.

(For perspective: with the sun’s current energy output, CO2 levels need to stay below 500 ppm in order for our planet to have glaciers.)

The main sources of the ridiculously high levels of CO2 present in the atmosphere during the Ordovician were a lot of very active volcanoes. Major warming produced by volcanoes is mildly self-mitigating, because volcanoes also give off sulfate aerosols which have a mild, transient cooling effect on the climate by scattering incoming solar energy in the upper atmosphere (while wreaking havoc on the ozone layer, but that’s another story). This fact alone is not sufficient to explain how glaciers managed to form during the late Ordovician.

We know that when CO2 reacts with water molecules, it converts them into carbonic acid. This process plays a part in producing deadly acid rain (sulfur dioxide, also spewed out by volcanoes and today, coal plants, makes acid rain much more corrosive than it would be if carbon dioxide were the only gas in the picture – thanks to yikess for pointing this out) and this process is also behind the acidification of the ocean. Calcium carbonate, or limestone, reacts to carbonic acid molecules in rain to produce yet another chemical: calcium bicarbonate, which isn’t a greenhouse gas. This is known as rock weathering – and as any architect can tell you, it can have a pretty dramatic effects even over a few decades without full-blown acid rain. So, over long periods of time, on a planet with a lot of limestone, a steady high level of CO2 in the atmosphere, acid rain will slowly but effectively ‘react’ carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

446 million years ago, volcanic activity went into a lull, but acid rain continued to fall, and the ocean remained acidic, which weathered rocks. This lead to CO2 concentrations dropping below 3,000 ppm long enough for glaciers to form. I know that’s not a very simple or elegant explanation, but this isn’t a simple subject. I think my explanation is well-complemented here. (This entry owes a lot to the good people at Skeptical Science.)

It should go without saying that the plants that evolved from green algae during the Ordovician period were the very different ancestors of today’s plants, and were adapted to the harsher environment of the era. Today’s plants are evolved for the modern ecosystem. And while a comfortable concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide molecules does indeed help plants grow, any more simply destroys their environment through climate destabilization via global warming. This occurs most obviously through drought, and less obviously through stronger storms (fuelled by extra energy retained by greenhouse gases) and other phenomena, like acid rain.

By the very late Ordovician period, greenhouse gas levels had dropped far below the levels necessary for glaciation, and this caused the unstable icy mass-extinction events that ended the era. In the hotter Silurian period that followed the Ordovician with the return of greenhouse gases, flora did diversify – the first vascular plants emerged – but during the Silurian period atmospheric oxygen levels were much lower and the ocean was sporadically anoxic. High levels of oxygen stresses plants. So again, the plants that were adapted to that environment would not thrive today.

The next point I’d like to undermine is this one:

In 2003, Dr. Chris de Freitas, the editor of the journal Climate Research, dared to publish a peer-reviewed article with the politically incorrect (but factually correct) conclusion that the recent warming is not unusual in the context of climate changes over the past thousand years.

In 2003, Chris de Freitas did allow a paper that said as much to be published in Climate Research. A shitstorm did indeed ensue, and half of de Freitas’ colleagues on the editorial team promptly resigned. The paper in question was by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas. Review by the wider scientific community has shown to us civilians that this paper does not qualify as worthy research. And once again, perspective tells us that we’re talking about a diminutive minority. If you’re interested in the supposed case against anthropogenic global warming in the peer-reviewed literature and how it weighs up against the immense bulk of the data, I recommend starting here (then going here, then here).

Then we come to some misdirection framed by the story of an infamous insane Soviet pseudoscientist. I’ll deal with the misdirection, and then like the article, I’ll return to the Lysenko fallacy. Here’s the misdirection:

Why is there so much passion about global warming, and why has the issue become so vexing that the American Physical Society, from which Dr. Giaever resigned a few months ago, refused the seemingly reasonable request by many of its members to remove the word “incontrovertible” from its description of a scientific issue? There are several reasons, but a good place to start is the old question “cui bono?” Or the modern update, “Follow the money.”

Indeed. The trouble is that our sixteen sellouts (either money or politics) have to contend with the fact that tracing a credible conspiracy amongst cadres of ‘sceptics’ to distort the facts for financial gain is trivial compared to trying to implicate almost every climate scientist on the planet in one. I’m enjoying my summer break right now, so I’m on a break from journalism. I’ll leave the job of following these particular cases up to others. Further:

Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet. Lysenko and his team lived very well, and they fiercely defended their dogma and the privileges it brought them.

Clearly the letter gets a bit vague at this point. Trofim Lysenko is invoked to contribute to the emotional, rather than the logical flow of the argument.

Lysenko was a key figure of the Soviet revolutionary religion, and a symbol of the wish for the strength of the totalitarian ideology of Stalinism alone to rewrite the laws of nature. (Funny, that.) Lysenko rejected Mendel’s gene theory and claimed to have developed agrarian praxes that would quadruple crop yields for good Soviet workers. Lysenkoism was the epitome of junk science, and implying even a spurious or figurative link between modern climate science to Lysenkoism is both cretinous and disingenuous; it’s also a bit like comparing Peter Higgs with Pope John Paul II. I’m guessing that their point here is to conjure up the ghosts of the Red Menace in the minds of the American taxhaters who didn’t mind a bit of Cold War demagogy.

It isn’t surprising that no attempt to elucidate the structure of the ostensible commie conspiracy has been made. We only get the accusation, with its nature surreptitiously alluded to and left to percolate through the grey matter of any old-school Republicans who might actually be reading. Classic propaganda, in other words.

It then goes off on a tangent, which insinuates that those dreaded ‘Keynesian’ top-down efforts to de-carbonize the economy will somehow destroy society; courtesy of the projections of an economist who failed to predict the global financial crisis (unlike, say, Steve Keen). At this point, they have no credibility, so it isn’t surprising I have the distinct feeling of being fed half-truths here too, so I’m a bit reluctant to slam William Nordhaus based on what this article says about him.

It’s such a shame, really. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish that the world wasn’t warming. But it is, and that makes examining these bullshit articles that much more depressing.

Why Science Matters

Format: Amazon Kindle
Release Date: Febuary 2012

In an age retarded by the fundamentally anti-intellectual and multifarious scourge of cognitive relativism, Why Science Matters draws on the rich literature of classical and contemporary philosophy (including Plato, Russell, Kuhn, Wittgenstein, Popper, Lakatos and Gödel, among others) to make a stand for the primacy of science. I argue in Why Science Matters that an adherence to science’s underlying ethos (moreso than any particular method) uniquely furnishes humanity with the powerful ability to generate accurate and reliable knowledge about life, the universe and everything.

Apologies for the lack of posts this month; as you may have surmised, I’ve been busy.

Who are the real sceptics?

Did you hear about this Climategate 2.0 bullshit? Why are journalists not getting fired for all this ridiculously irresponsible misreporting?

Over the last couple of days, we’ve been graced with the news that 5,000 personal emails exchanged by climate scientists have been leaked to the public. These aren’t recent emails, mind you, these emails cover the same time span as those released in the last ‘shattering’ leak. So hack journalists and parties with vested interests are forcing us to discuss yesterday’s news today.

The mass media is once again doing the public a gross disservice through an unbridled flexing of staggering incompetence. Many reporters are defiantly refusing to even look beyond the now infamous text file (itself consisting almost entirely of shamelessly mined quotes) when writing their stories. What makes this myopia so damning is that in most cases, a fucking glance at the actual email the mined soundbite came from will lay the context bare – effectively refuting the entire article.

There are countless examples of such vacuous hype on Google News. No doubt you’ve already seen some. If you haven’t, you can start with this gem (shared courtesy of none other than Rupert Murdoch’s own glorified histrionic soap box). All we have here are the veritable peacocks of mindless dogmatism splaying dazzling shows of confirmation biases in defence of their stock holdings.

Even the better articles succumb to the deluded trap of giving ‘the opposition’ a voice on matters of science. If high school science was taught the same way, it would sound something like this: “That’s chemistry for today, class; now don’t be late for alchemy after the break!”

You have to stand in awe at the scandalous behaviour of these so-called ‘journalists’. I would love to see a dump of their leaked email exchanges. This is intellectual suicide at its most intrepid.

What can’t be disputed is that the the biggest sceptics of man-made global warming appear to be the scientists themselves, and that’s the way it should be. This is how science is done. We wouldn’t know that the planet is warming if no one tried to disprove it. Thankfully the scientists attack the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis at every angle, and they do so thoroughly; and to our collective despair, AGW has repeatedly proven itself bulletproof.

Frankly, it warms my heart to read about scientists critiquing their colleagues’ work ruthlessly. I like my scientists second-guessing themselves. I also like them doing what they can to stamp out any interference in their research by the militantly ignorant.

Only a public horribly ignorant of the methods of science could possibly be taken in by such a travesty of lazy, biased reporting.

The timing of the leaks is obviously calculated to disrupt the upcoming UN climate change conference in Durban. Representatives of developing countries already affected by global warming are considering ‘occupying’ the talks to try to push for an international action plan. That this isn’t getting more coverage alongside the leaks is another media scandal.

With each new piece of data in the public sphere, I find myself even more dumbstruck by the sheer selfishness of the denier project. Irresponsible reporting makes journalists part of the problem. It’s no wonder that journalists are the least trusted group of professionals in Australia.

That a few people seem to think climate scientist Phil Jones is an incompetent dick is hardly newsworthy, and it says a lot less about the validity of climate science as a whole. Phil Jones has already responded to the latest leaks.

Have the media already forgotten that massive independent study – funded by deniers – that was published last month and showed unequivocally that the planet is inarguably warming? Earlier this month, more data was released indicating that we only have another five years to drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to avert catastrophic global warming.

The current fixation on what was happening in the world of climate science last decade is also plainly ridiculous. Science isn’t static. Anyone who thinks it is simply doesn’t know anything about science, and therefore isn’t qualified to make credible comments on the work of scientists.

It’s also interesting to note that the contents of the dump totalled at around 5,000 emails. Perhaps the most brazen demonstration of the stupidity of the leakers isn’t that they intentionally quote-mined emails they released alongside the original emails, but that they added this little nugget to their maliciously deficient little text file:

The rest, some 220.000, are encrypted for various reasons.
We are not planning to publicly release the passphrase.

Why the fuck not? I’m sceptical; I want to know these ‘various reasons’. They saw fit to include emails containing little more than holiday greetings and similar banalities. How do these disingenuous tools decide on which emails to withhold? 220,000 emails is an awful lot to withhold.

Even the worst of the so-called deceptions alleged to have been perpetrated by the scientists at the centre of the current propaganda campaign are nothing on those perpetrated by their denialist detractors. I covered some of these demonstrable crimes in my defence of the science behind anthropogenic global warming, which you can read here.

Urgh.

I invite you to look through the emails themselves here. There is a remarkable preponderance of no absolutely evidence of scientists trying to mislead the public. In fact, they appear to have been making every effort to not mislead the public. I know, right?

You can read some worthy coverage here and here.

Update: Check out the RealClimate team’s responses to this whole drama here. (Link thanks to the amazing Tamino.)