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.