Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Science and religion

December 9, 2011

I posted an entry this week over at Qideas about science and evangelical religion. Columnists are hyperventilating at what they perceive to be the anti-intellectualism of the Republican candidates, and more than a few are drawing conclusions about evangelicals from what they hear. But survey data on attitudes toward science among evangelicals are more encouraging, and show that they more faithfully Christians actually practice their religion (for example by reading the Bible!), the more sympathetic they feel toward science and its findings.

One study showing that religiosity leads to harmony between science and religion comes from Baylor University, where researcher Aaron Franzen finds that increased frequency of Bible reading is tied to, among other things, improved attitudes toward science. “Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading,” according to David Briggs, who reported the Baylor study for Association of Religion Data Archives. (Interestingly, higher rates of Bible reading were also correlated with greater support for social and economic justice, simple lifestyles, humane treatment of criminals, and with lower support for abortion, same-sex unions, the death penalty, and the expansion of the war on terrorism.)

Interesting this week that the Obama administration was derided for giving in to “anti-science” pressure when it blocked over-the-counter access to the “morning after” pill for minors. Those pundits are willfully ignorant about what is science and what is morality, thinking that measurements of a drug’s effectiveness ought somehow to determine whether a minor should be able to access it without adult guidance or parental input. The same goes for claims that opposition to fetal stem cell research is somehow anti-scientific. One can certainly accept that experimenting on human embryos may lead to advances in scientific knowledge, while at the same time affirming that it is entirely immoral to conduct such research.

Evangelicals Advocate Mercury Reductions to Protect the Unborn

October 19, 2011

by Rusty Pritchard

Creation care opponents have thrown caution to the wind. Emboldened by demagogues like Glenn Beck, they’re not averse to painting as “totalitarians” anyone even slightly concerned about pollution, resource conservation, biodiversity loss, or energy efficiency.

The Washington Times published a piece on May 19, 2011, by creation care critic Cal Beisner purporting to reveal the “hidden dangers” in the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Among their “dangerous” prayer requests: reducing mercury pollution that passes from pregnant mothers to their unborn babies.

Aside from being a worthy cause in its own right, the campaign seemed to me to be good apologetics as well. Here were evangelical Christians claiming publicly that God’s call to compassion and wise dominion extends to stopping air pollution that affects our most vulnerable citizens, growing the credibility of the pro-life witness by linking it to more than fighting abortion (the frequency of which, we must all admit, remains our greatest current national travesty), and doing so with smart, well-documented research and policy recommendations. I personally know of formerly pro-choice environmentalists who have changed their positions on abortion because of encountering pro-life evangelical environmental advocates.

But the most visible anti-environmentalists never let concerns about the church’s witness in the world overcome their fundamental desire to fight even the suggestion that democratically elected governments might use their regulatory authority to protect the environment. The libertarian ends consistently trump the means, and evangelism tends to be the first casualty, with regard for truth a close second.

In Beisner’s critique, he constructed two straw-man claims that EEN’s materials didn’t make; and even the way he rebuts the fictitious claims reveals a lot about his commitments.

Beisner said EEN claimed “the main source of mercury pollution is dirty air released by coal-burning power plants” and that international sources are more important. Beisner apparently didn’t read the materials he was criticizing, because they didn’t say what he said they did. Apparently the Washington Times can’t afford fact-checkers. EEN gave a quite detailed explanation on the sources of mercury pollution, and the relative contribution of domestic and international sources, which varies from place to place (they even provided a map).

But the reason Beisner invented that red herring is that he sniffed out an attempt to strengthen regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants. He challenged a fictitious version of EEN’s claims about sourcing, because he didn’t want to draw attention to their well-researched claims about the economic benefits from regulating mercury emissions (which predict $60-140 billion in total health benefits, or a return of $5-13 for every $1 invested in meeting the regulations).

It wouldn’t be surprising, when we look back from the future, if the costs of limiting mercury went down relative to predictions and the benefits went up. That’s been the case with other environmental regulations as well—something even those opposed to regulations at the time now admit. Since we enacted the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the economy has grown 64 percent while air pollution has gone down 41 percent, a puzzle to those who predict economic collapse in the face of strong environmental regulations.

Beisner goes on to accuse EEN of being a mouthpiece for the environmental lobby, repeating someone else’s suspect talking points about how bad mercury is for fetuses. But he ignored the peer-reviewed scientific literature the EEN documents clearly cite—again, he simply makes stuff up about EEN and its campaign to suit his own rhetorical purposes.

Beisner gives a drastically lower figure for unborn babies afflicted with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood—but he doesn’t say where he got his figures. So it turns out that Beisner committed the vice he (wrongly) accuses EEN of. EEN cited multiple studies that demonstrate not just how many infants are affected by mercury in utero but also to what degree, and (crucially) puts a dollar value on the health benefits of mercury pollution reductions.

I’m sympathetic to the problems of exaggeration and the nuances of weighing costs and benefits. I railed in the past about the irrational fears some parents have about the tiny amounts of mercury in vaccines, when the private and public health benefits from being vaccinated so far outweighs any negligible risk. Atmospheric mercury emissions are a different case—but it’s an empirical question, not an ideological question. Because Beisner is motivated chiefly by a libertarian worldview, he simply assumes that the costs of reducing mercury emissions will outweigh the direct and indirect benefits, when the best evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.

Beisner is certainly a devoted advocate. He is faithful to his ideology and political positions and tireless in their defense. There is indeed a strong case to be made for the free market and for capitalism; environmental policies for a flourishing economy would be much better if they reflected the concerns of economic conservatives. That case is not made stronger, however, by a sloppy critique that runs roughshod over facts or by deafness to reasonable counterarguments.

Beisner cites, without apparent sense of the irony, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in reference to prophecies, the readers are told to “test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”). Free market advocacy and creation care advocacy can be done with care, rigor, and honesty. When the lost world is watching the way we argue, it is a necessity.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the cofounder and president of Flourish (, a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.

Faux-skepticism: Conspiracy theories about science

June 1, 2011

faux skeptics aren't a part of the conversationI keep forgetting to come back here and note things I’ve been writing elsewhere! Here’s a piece on conspiracy theories in science that I’ve been wanting to write for awhile. One version was published at Q Ideas, and a longer version was published at Biologos.

The main point is that an identifier of denialism (what I call faux-skepticism in the article) is the complete lack of skepticism about one’s own position.

Related to this is the tendency of denialists (which I should think more about) to discount the sheer weight of a consensus position. They cherry-pick evidence and publications, but also completely underestimate the imbalance of opinion. This is different from maintaining that the majority might be wrong (of course they might–that’s how science moves forward). But real skeptics realize when they’re in the minority, and they take on the task of convincing the majority. Faux skeptics either don’t realize they’re in the minority, or they refuse to believe it. They waver between saying that numbers don’t matter and publishing outrageous claims about the size of the skeptic community.

Of course, in the end, numbers don’t really matter, because the majority might be wrong. The theory of plate tectonics held on as a minority view among geologists for a long time after it was proposed, because there was no way to make the observations that could build credibility. But the early skeptics of the consensus view knew they were a minority, and they knew that only by making credible scientific observations and advancing testable hypotheses could they prevail.

Why do outdoorsy kids avoid the near-sightedness epidemic?

January 14, 2010

Americans are losing their vision. Literally.

In the past 30 years the prevalence of myopia in the U.S. has increased 66 percent (from 25% of Americans aged 12-54 in the early 1970s, to over 40% of Americans today, according to researches at the NIH’s National Eye Institute). Genetics are known to be a factor, but that’s a dramatic increase, so researchers figure something else has changed.

It turns out your parents were wrong about why you need glasses–at least in the case of near-sightedness. For many years we all heard the same advice: don’t read in dim light, don’t use a flashlight to read under the covers, don’t watch too much TV.

Researchers are learning that the real reason for the dramatic surge in myopia is that we are becoming a nation of dedicated indoorsmen. (more…)

Environmental Stewardship and Virtue

December 11, 2009

Courage is a virtue...

Wendell Berry said in The Unsettling of America that “the environmental crisis is a crisis of character” (thanks Aaron James, for the reference). That idea reminded me of a lecture I heard given by N.T. Wright, talking about the nature of virtues (at last year’s Intervarsity “Following Christ” Conference, audio files available) . As a prelude to talking about the Christian notion of virtue, he talked about the classical notion. It’s an important idea for the tasks of environmental stewardship, decisionmaking, and action, because we so often drift into following rules, or “getting in touch with our hearts”–weak and unreliable methods for getting to right actions. Wright began by talking about the virtue of courage:

Take one of the classical virtues, namely, courage. What does courage consist of? Some might imagine that courage, if you’re going in to battle, say, consists in taking a very large swig of a very strong drink and then charging off into battle waving your sword around you, yelling some awful war cry and hoping for the best. That’s not courage in any kind of classical virtue sense.

Courage as a virtue, is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions over a period of time, consciously to place the safety and security of someone else ahead of your own safety and security, so that on the thousand-and-first occasion, when suddently a real crisis or danger appears you act in that way as though by instinct.

It isn’t instinct–we humans are self-preserving animals–but if you train yourself by conscious mental and moral effort to practice in the little things the virtue you know you ought to be developing it can become second nature–second instinct, if you like. Virtue is a matter of acquiring habits the way you acquire tastes, by sustained practice.

Seen like this, the moral life is not a matter simply of learning and remembering rules. Rules can help while you’re on the way, they may well point in the right direction, we are foolish to ignore them, but we need to practice the virtues which will enable us to keep them by transcending them.

Nor is it a matter of being true to whatever impulses you find within yourself–it’s more like learning a language, practicing it so that eventually you can go to the country and speak it like a native. It takes time, there is vocabulary to learn, there are irregular verbs to master, there are nuances and metaphors and emphases that make a living language the lovely but difficult thing it is. You’ll often get it wrong, but it is worth persevering for the goal-the telos–of what lies ahead.

Or you might think of it like learning a musical instrument: you have to master the basic technique, the angle of the bow on the cello, the position of the shoulders for the brass player. You have to practice scales and arpeggios not so that you can go on stage and play scales and arpeggios, but so that when you are suddenly faced with a complex sheet of music, you will know, as though instinctively, but in fact by second nature, by force of habit, what to do. It will seem to happen automatically, but that automatic behavior will be the result of practicing things which certainly didn’t feel automatic at the time. Now that’s how virtue ethics works.

Knowing that, the thing that we can’t do is simply experience a “conversion” to the project of creation care–an awakening to the need to exercise environmental stewardship–and expect that we are equipped to respond to the “environmental crisis”. That’s true for the Christian church as much as it is true for any individual. We don’t automatically have the skills, the virtue, to act courageously or prudently or justly when faced with environmental issues. Neither do we, as a Christian community, possess the automatic ability to distinguish between sound and unsound environmental claims. Those virtues and abilities, like a foreign language or musicianship, must be cultivated. And that takes time.

Having ignored environmental issues for so long, we may wish we could simply look up some Bible texts, or trust our hearts,  to determine what to do–how to steward the earth well. We can’t. We wind up aping the ideologies and practices of the left and the right, without much to contribute ourselves, being either uncritically accepting or unreasonably dismissive of claims of environmental crisis. The way to learn a virtuous approach to creation care, is to begin with small, repeated, steps of faithfulness, knowing that we will make mistakes, but concerned more to develop a virtuous character than to “follow rules” or “follow our hearts”.

In the end, we will find that sometimes it will be right to act swiftly, sometimes to wait and learn more, sometimes to make peace. But we can’t discern that by being thrown in the deep end of a cultural debate we’ve ignored until now, simply “choosing sides” without training in interpreting both special and general revelation (more on that in another post).

The classic virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The “theological” virtues are faith, hope, and love. I’ll be covering some of these ideas in more depth in the future. But for now, which virtues do you think will help us be better stewards? How can we cultivate them?

Climate scientists, skeptics earn a “great big time out”

December 9, 2009

That's a time out for you, young man

By now you’re bound to have heard of the great “Climategate” scandal of late 2009. Hackers broke into the computer archives of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and stole data and email archives dating back 10 years. Then, somehow (who can say?) these files found their way into the hands of climate uber-skeptics. It was discovered that–shock, horror–climate scientists were saying rude and very unscientific things about their most relentless critics. (A good synopsis and discussion, written by someone outside the conflict, is the one by Peter Kelemen at Columbia University.)

Now, to put things in context, you should know something about my two boys, ages 7 and 9. Although they get on fine most of the time, and even like each other, there is some sibling rivalry. (more…)

The Best Climate Book Yet

December 2, 2009

Well the Copenhagen talks are upon us, and expectations are being played down for what can be accomplished. Even more notable is recent data that shows public enthusiasm on global warming has cooled significantly, indicating that the skeptics are right about one thing: much of the recent attention has been driven by media hype, not by informed concern. That doesn’t change our obligation to learn or to act on what we know. Whatever policies we enact on climate change will need to be sustained for decades, if not centuries, and will have to endure many changes of ruling political parties, so it is worth continuing to work on a public consensus. So why not start with some Christmas reading?! (more…)

Overpopulation: The environmental problem that isn’t

November 16, 2009

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In an opinion leader and an associated issue briefing, the Economist newsmagazine last week (Oct 29 issue) reported on the worldwide decline in fertility rates, which mollify concerns about how to address the “overpopulation” of the planet. (The “fertility rate” is a technical term from demography–how many children a woman has during her lifetime.) In the undergraduate teaching program in Environmental Studies I helped found in 1999 at Emory University, I would survey incoming freshman on what they thought the world’s most pressing environmental issues were. Nearly always, they expressed grave concerns about “overpopulation”, by which they mostly meant population growth in less developed countries. Never mind that the United States and other first world nations consume far more than their share per capita of the world’s resources–these students were worried about the sheer number of people the planet would be called on to support.

What to do about it? I shudder to think about the despotic and manipulative practices a few of the students advocated. Some were insufficiently repulsed by China’s draconian “one child” policy. So many had already picked up their not-so-latent misanthropy in old-school environmentalism–the evil “lifeboat ethics” of Garrett Hardin and others. Others, more enlightened, figured that easier access to contraception would help reduce birth rates, although the Economist article shows that this is rarely the case. Families the world over have about the number of children they want to have.

Falling fertility is most obviously a result of the demographic transition–first infant mortality declines due to modern medicine, leading to a short-lived population boom. Then other factors make large families less attractive, and enlightened public policy has reduced birth rates as a side effect. When stable financial systems make it possible to save for old age and even participate in pension programs, when education for girls, rising pay and job opportunities for women make employment possible, when industrialization moves people off farms, it is no longer so attractive to have large families for economic survival, as the article details.

So the “problem of overpopulation” is taking care of itself. Public policy should focus more directly on the things that make people better off, rather than trying to control their reproductive decisions. Coercive population control is immoral, and other efforts at regulating population are less effective than helping families lead productive, rewarding, and flourishing lives.

[I’ll be posting a longer essay on this topic in the next few weeks, based on my recent lectures on population and environment.]

Should You Worry about Mercury in Swine Flu Vaccine?

November 6, 2009

Q: Should you worry about mercury in Swine flu vaccine?

Vaccination: Photographer James Gathany--CDC Judy Schmidt

Photographer James Gathany--CDC Judy Schmidt

A: Good question. Ok, it’s not really an “environmental” issue, but it does concern our physical bodies (and those of our children) so it is a “creation care” issue. The underlying real connection is whether we are willing to trust scientific consensus on some issues but not others. Hint: if you wear a seat belt but also believe that thimerosal preservatives in vaccines cause autism, you may be inconsistent. Similarly, if you buckle your kids up but don’t believe people are causing global warming, you may be inconsistent in your attitude toward expert opinion. (more…)

Global Warming’s Six Americas

September 29, 2009

Climate week is upon us, and as world leaders gather at the UN and the G20 to nibble away at the problem of international cooperation to address the problem, popular American responses seem to veer from cheerleading to condemnation. On Tuesday morning, President Obama gave his first real climate speech (finally). And last week at the Value Voter Summit, a religious right confab in DC, one workshop seemed intent to link climate change action with a pro-death, pro-abortion agenda, with slanderous accusations and exaggerated rhetoric  (but the speaker, a leading climate skeptic, wisely backed away from that language when several prolife Christians, including me, showed up to challenge those assertions). (more…)