Monday, October 19, 2015

Conservative Talk Radio Case Study One: Sam Sorbo and Climate Change

To save you the trouble of listening to Conservative Talk Radio, I decided to occasionally publish an examination of the content that its hosts are spewing. Hopefully this will allow you to understand what those who object to scientific principles and ideas are coming from.

Case Study: Sam Sorbo 

A couple of weekends ago, CTR host Sam Sorbo (wife of Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo) was going off about the consensus on climate change. In her rant, Sorbo stated that she did not understand where the 97% consensus number came from and that consensus is irrelevant to science anyways. She illustrated this by explaining that 99.9% of scientists used to be geocentrists and that Copernicus was executed for his ideas about heliocentrism.

These statements will by mind boggling to anyone who has ever looked into the history and philosophy of science at all. For starters, Copernicus was not executed. De Revolutionibus was published when Copernicus was already on his way out. It is also a very big stretch to call geocentrism a scientific model.  This idea was held by intellectuals since ancient Greece when Aristotle argued in favor of it. This predated modern science by 1,500-2,000 years. Aristotle accepted this view because it fit with his metaphysics and it explained many features of the world (example: heavy objects fall down because they have a natural tendency to move towards the center of the cosmos).

If you want to consider Aristotle a scientist, then fair enough. He, however, did not do anything resembling science as we have understood it since the dawn of the scientific revolution. His methods were deductive (not inductive), he did not use mathematics to explain models (he provided teleological answers instead), and, to my knowledge, he did not perform nor believe in isolated, controlled experiments.

The people who opposed heliocentrism did so largely because it contradicted Dr. Angelicus. Since (at least) the time of his canonization in 1323, Thomas Aquinas' philosophy has been regarded as a definitive explanation of existence by the Roman Catholic church. A key feature of his philosophy is that it uses Aristotle's metaphysics and (by logical extension) and physics as its foundation. Without a lot of data, folk physics also seemed to provide a better explanation for why the world appears as it does. Keep in mind that, without a more complicated math and physics, heliocentrism did not have much more explanatory power than its rival. It, however, gained this evidence as it aged  and matured into a full fledged paradigm (thanks to the work of Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo).

If we want what happened during the dawn of the Scientific Revolution (with people like Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton) to influence how we understand the global warming "debate," then we must put these points to work. The first lesson is that we should not reject new ideas because we find them philosophically or theologically unappealing. The second lesson is that we should probably place our bets on those who have the evidence on their side. Unlike Copernicus who made appeals to simplicity, current climate science has robust evidence based on fundamental physics and chemistry (in other words, it is a mature science. Not a young one). This is the sort of thing that the geocentrists lacked and the heliocentrists eventually had. If we do this, then we ironically cannot help but come down on the side of the 97% consensus.

To preempt a possible objection Mrs. Sorbo might have, a scientific consensus is not a bunch of scientists deciding to cut off investigation. A consensus is when the experts in a particular field overwhelmingly agree to the extent that all of their independent and overlapping research comes to the same robust conclusion. This does not limit dissenters from publishing their ideas or other people from pursuing other lines of inquiry. In other words, a consensus is not a deductive argument from authority which states you must accept a science "because they said so." It is a strong inductive argument that states that we would place our bets on the people who know what they are talking about when they all come to the same conclusion.

This is the same reason why you get a surgeon to perform heart surgery and not your next-door neighbor. But where did that 97% come from? If Sam would have looked it up, she would have known that this estimate comes from a meta-analysis of over ten thousand peer-reviewed climate change articles (link). Out of these articles that stated an opinion one way or the other, 97.1% were in agreement that human driven global warming is happening.  If this is not enough, an analysis found that only 24 papers rejected this view in a span of twenty years (link) and yet another found that through 2012-13, only one paper rejected this consensus (link).

While I do not expect Mrs. Sorbo to read this or to change her mind, I just wanted to get it on the record that many of these radio personalities have no clue what they are talking about when it comes to science. I am by no means a prodigy (in fact, I just got stomped by a Calc III test today and I am going to have to put in some elbow grease to get a good grade out of the class), I do take the time to look stuff up and to see what the experts say. You do not have to be a scientist or a genius to do this. You just have to be curious and understand how evidence and expertise work.

While Sam may sound very outlandish and crazy, you need to keep in mind that the ideas she is proposing here are absolutely in line with the climate denial of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage. I could have picked any of these hosts and they would parrot nearly the same talking points.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Conservative talk radio and why you should listen to it.

What its like to be a listener of CTR

Since I was a young child, I have been a listener of CTR (conservative talk radio). At first, I listened simply because I happened to be in the car when my father listened to Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy. As I grew older, however, I listened because I believed what they said. This belief was largely the result of two major factors that I think are true for many other fans of CTR:
  1. The GOP-fundamentalist worldview has mechanisms in it that allow you to discount the beliefs of outsiders. It teaches you that the people who disagree with you are trying to push a false philosophy so that they can remake the USA as an atheistic-socialist state without freedom. We know this because conservative intellectuals have pointed out these holes and have shown their motives. This is just as true for scientific ideas (especially evolution, global warming, and the big bang), they assert, as it is for things like gay marriage.
  2. The schools in the South and many other areas that are strongholds for GOP-fundie ideas do not teach critical thinking and science in any meaningful sense. Given this, I had no idea how evolution or any other major scientific theory worked until I was in college. This lack of education is the result of people who are convinced by factor 1 that we need to keep such things out of the public school system. The result of this is a feedback loop between factors 1 and 2. 
My interest in CTR, however, started to wane when I was in college. For the first time in my life, I took classes where my teachers were experts in both pedagogy and their subject matter. My Civ 1 professor taught "just the facts" of comparative religion and never stated what his own opinions were. This was the first time in my life that I was able to learn about religions without being told which one, if any, was right. My psych teacher (the experimental-biology kind) asked my class to write down any questions or objections we had about psychology or evolution. He then told us to hold on to them until after we covered the material. If we still wanted to ask them, then he would happily answer them (by the time this day arrived, almost all of these questions had either been answered or shown to be nonsensical). Experiences like these that are features of having a real education popped the bubble I was living in.

About a year ago, however, I started listening to it again. Unlike my first go around, I am not listening because I am a true believer. Instead, I tune in because I think that it is important to give people who disagree with you a chance to voice their opinions.  If you are a skeptic, this may sound like the worst thing ever. After all, a lot of what these people say is absolutely crazy.

Glenn Beck being Glenn Beck.

I certainly agree with this sentiment. As a listener to these people, I can name all sorts of nutty shit that they have said. Glenn Beck, for example, is legendary for the excrement that comes out of his mouth. A couple of days ago (8/11/15), he dismissed evolution, the big bang, and climate change.  His reasons for doing so were that Piltdown Man showed evolution to be false, scientists "used to think it was cooling," and scientists have now announced that the big bang never happened. This was done in a span of about 10-15 minutes. Today (8/13/15), he had on pseudohistorian David Barton to demonstrate that divine providence guides the USA and to argue against the separation of church and state. Neither one of these days was special or out of the ordinary. He pushes this sort of baloney every day.

With all of that said, I think that it is important that you fight these natural urges and listen anyways.This helps to prevent you from making a straw man out of other people's views. When you get your news of what someone you disagree with says from someone who is on your side, there is a good chance that you are going to get a straw man. This is very hard to do when you skip the middle man and get the ideas from the horse's mouth  It also prevents the type of cognitive closure that I experienced when I was a true believer. Regardless of what you believe, you do not want to live in a bubble where opposing views are sealed off from you. This has the potential of making you smug and cut off from the cultural zeitgeist.

Always keep in mind that CTR listeners are plentiful and passionate about voting. If you want to understand the electorate of the USA, then it is essential that you listen to the sources from which they get their information. We have a two party system and this is a way to tap into the minds of a voting block that has control over one of them. It also allows you to anticipate the type of complaints that GOP-fundies have and what their underlying moral concerns are. By getting the moral reasons why people like Beck and Mark Levin reject science, you can have more meaningful discussions with your family and friends. This is especially true of that uncle who you only see on Thanksgiving. You know the one I am talking about.

If you think that you are ready for this plunge, then I recommend that you listen to all of the normal guys such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck. Find the one of them that annoys you the least. After you build up a tolerance for them, then you can branch off. If you do not drive or have the time to listen to them on the road, then you can find clips of their "best" stuff online.