Missionary Zeal, Tender Toes, and a Modest Proposal

Bumper stickers

America is a nation of missionaries.  Not necessarily in the religious sense, although certainly there are plenty of scrubbed young men in white shirts and ties going around pounding on doors. But there are also many other causes that people are passionately attempting to recruit for. It has become a national trend for just about any conviction or set of values to be an object of religious fervor and persuasion. Just look at all the billboards, bumper stickers and Facebook soapbox updates.

Being a nonreligious person, I’ve always been lectured by Good Christians about how I’m going to hell if I don’t adopt their beliefs.  As a vegetarian, I’ve been lectured by meat devourers about how I’m going to wither away if I don’t get some animal flesh into my system, and just who do I think I am for not liking hamburgers anyway. (You might think that vegetarians are more likely to preach; but if my own experience and observation are any indication, it’s carnivores by a landslide.) As a gunless citizen, I’ve been lectured by gun fanatics about how they have a constitutional right to own guns, and guns make us safer, and I’m being anti-American by questioning either tenet. As an essentially apolitical person who’s only voted twice in my life, I’m lectured by “conservatives” about how if I love my country and want to save it from certain destruction and save us all from certain enslavement, I have to vote Republican. (Democrats also have their missionary element, of course; but it’s not nearly as extreme, as abrasive, as apocalyptic, or as deranged.)

That missionary zeal is often accompanied by a strong identification with the values in question, to the extent that when someone is opposed to those values, the zealot feels that his/ her intelligence or integrity is being impugned. Which is to say, if you reject someone’s religion, politics or whatever, they take it as a personal insult, or react as if you’d raped the Statue Of Liberty. Quite often you don’t even have to criticize; all you have to do is fail to live by someone else’s principles, and that will be interpreted as stepping on someone’s toes.  American ideological fanaticism seems to be connected to the world’s most tender toes.

But this phenomenon is not limited to ideology. It also spills over to personal preferences of any kind, such as taste in music or TV shows. When I was a film critic, it was not unheard of to receive death threats for panning the wrong movies.  And then, God yes, there’s sports.  Spectators have been known to attack and even kill each other over soccer matches or Little League games. In 2011, a baseball fan wearing San Francisco Giants attire to a game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was jumped by two men in the parking lot who brutally beat him and left him unconscious – he spent several weeks in a coma and was left permanently disabled. Not to be outdone, some Giants fans got into an altercation with Dodger fans outside a bar near the San Francisco stadium, and one of the latter was fatally stabbed.

Which brings us to the real problem: missionary zeal sometimes morphs into crusader zeal; in which case the zealot is no longer content to convert or assert by persuasion, but resorts to force. On those two or three occasions in the past when I tried sporting bumper stickers myself, I had people throwing eggs and lighted cigars at my vehicle, and honking as they drove past so I’d be certain to observe them presenting their middle digits for inspection.

How did we get to this point? Is it the fast-pace, intensely competitive, angst-ridden contemporary lifestyle aggravated by the threat of terrorism? Is it confusion, alienation, and/ or just plain boredom? Is it an impressionable public whipped into an irrational froth by trash-talking media? Well, perhaps, but there’s certainly nothing new about being patronizing and/or antagonist toward The Others. There was a time when “heretics” could be horrifically tortured and murdered for deviating even one hair’s breadth from official religious dogma.  This kind of savage behavior has been around for a long time. Still, it seems likely that whatever remnants of it linger in modern American culture are either exacerbated by Limbaughism, or else Limbaughism just makes it appear worse than it really is. Or both.

Sorry to break the news, but the world is not holding its breath to hear your beliefs and convictions. Other people have their own, and are none too eager to have them compromised. If we lived in a rational world, people would gather all the information they could before committing to a belief. This is not a rational world. And most people first decide what to believe, then zero in on facts that seem to support the belief, while tuning out those that don’t.

Gun enthusiasts are not interested in hearing that guns mostly just create the illusion of safety — or that the so-called “constitutional right” to be armed is founded not on what the Second Amendment actually says, but on a highly subjective speculation about what the framers were thinking when they wrote it. “Pro-life” activists don’t want to hear that banning abortion is ineffective and probably even counterproductive. Climate science deniers and anti-vaxxers aren’t interested in scientific or medical research (except the “research” pushed by crackpots and quacks). Fox “News” devotees don’t want to hear that they’re being played like a cheap fiddle at a barn dance.

If and when people decide it’s time to reevaluate their convictions, they’ll do so without being prompted. In the meantime, there is nothing to be gained by telling them what idiots they are for not seeing eye to eye with you. Proselytizing is pointless unless the recipients are ready to make a change, and you just happen to be offering the change they’re looking for. (Actual missionaries tend to target people who are so desperate they’re willing to try just about anything.)

Which is why this blog is addressed to an audience of fellow skeptics, iconoclasts and freethinkers rather than an audience of die-hard ideologues or even the general public. My purpose is just to present information and ideas for people who might be interested. I have little interest in trying to change anyone’s mind about anything — I know how futile the attempt is. I have no cause to promote except uncovering the truth.

But surely it won’t be a contradiction of that directive to make a modest proposal with regard to both preachiness and thin-skinned toes: just lay off already, will ya? Why do you feel you have to let people know if you are offended by whatever they say about your beliefs and preferences? Why do you have to feel offended at all? How exactly do their words have any impact on you? Either they’re right, in which case you should reflect rather than react; or they’re wrong, in which case they’re exposing their own ignorance rather than any flaw of yours; or they’re neither right nor wrong, in which case you’re just two people agreeing to disagree, which is one thing that made America great.

And why would you feel that the rest of the world is entitled to your opinion? Perhaps you should consider that your own life is your best PR. In other words, if your values and convictions are really as great as you think they are, it will show; people can’t help noticing, so you don’t have to bring it to their attention.

Whatever your cause may be, you’re not helping it any by smearing it in people’s faces. Or by throwing a hissy fit when someone fails to go along with it.

Myths, Misconceptions and Mindless Misinformation About Global Warming

Global warming has been the subject of an absolutely phenomenal amount of propaganda, distortion, misinformation, disinformation, balderdash, poppycock, baloney, drivel and other crap. In fact, with the exception of health care, there’s probably no subject that has inspired more lunacy in the past… well, two years or so. Here are the more common inane and insane utterances that you probably have heard, are hearing, and will continue to hear:

1. “Global warming is a politically motivated liberal hoax.

Actually, the cult of denial about global warming is a politically motivated hoax. Scientists simply studied and reported the facts; but they stepped on some toes in the process. Because the conclusion that carbon emissions contribute heavily to the problem carries with it the recommendation that polluters need to clean up their act. And those polluters have some very powerful allies in Washington and in the media. Thus the intense and well-financed campaign to shoot the messengers and create the impression that there is still a debate going on about the reality of global warming. Sorry to break the news, but the debate ended long ago.

2. “But the evidence is inconclusive.”

Read my lips. If you inherit a million dollars, that means you’re richer. If you gain ten pounds, that means you’re heavier. If the Giants score more runs than the Rangers, the Giants win. If temperatures rise, that means it’s getting warmer. What’s the least bit ambiguous about any of that?

And there is no doubt that temperatures are rising, and have been for some time. Since at least 1880, when reliable measurements began to be taken, temperatures have risen in every decade except 1930-39 and 1970-79. During those two decades, they remained essentially level. But the rest of the time, they climbed steadily.  And the first decade of the Twenty-First Century was the warmest decade on record. Furthermore, this is the first time in the past 650,000 years that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its current level. And high CO2 levels are always followed by warmer temperatures.

3. “But scientists disagree over the evidence.”

It’s practically impossible anymore to find a competent scientist who disputes the evidence and who is not on the payroll of oil companies or affiliated with a right-wing think tank.

4. “But scientists can’t be trusted.

So from whom would you like to obtain your information about science? Politicians? Pundits? Televangelists? If you’re going to reject the work of scientists, then stop driving your car, taking medication, eating food you don’t grow and develop yourself, watching television, and wearing clothes. And while you’re at it, turn off the damn Internet!

Scientists in fact are extremely efficient at policing themselves, with a system of checks and balances that would be the envy of many governments. Yes, there are occasional instances of scientific fraud. And it’s almost always scientists who detect them. On the other hand, Fox “News” has no accountability whatsoever; they know they can say absolutely anything and some people will believe it.

5. “But those leaked emails prove that scientists fudged data.”

Those leaked emails prove that leaked emails need context; and that whenever they can’t find a scandal, the media will invent one. There was absolutely nothing in those emails that negate any of the research on global warming, much less indicate deliberate manipulation of data. (See Fact Check’s analysis.) But if you’re going to talk about leaked memos, maybe you should look at this one in which Fox instructs its talking heads to deliberately cover up the evidence. Or this report, which shows that the Bush administration did likewise.

6. “But it wasn’t long ago that most scientists believed in global cooling.”

Nope. Sorry. This is another myth tirelessly circulated by the media and other right-wing establishments.  Despite the fact that climate science was still in its infancy and despite the fact that there had indeed been a temporary cooling trend, most scientists of the 1970s still believed the earth was getting warmer. The “theory” of global cooling was never embraced by the scientific community.

7. “But scientists often change their minds”

That’s one way of looking at it. Science, unlike anti-science and other forms of dogma, is a living, evolving thing.  Scientists are in the business of uncovering facts; so if they “change their minds”, it’s a sign they’re doing their job.

Again, it’s a question of expertise. Chances are if you were on trial with your life at stake, you’d want to be represented by someone who’d spent years studying and practicing law rather than a hairdresser who’s never changed her mind on legal matters. And if you needed brain surgery, you’d probably want it performed by a medical expert rather than a plumber. So why would you want to rely for answers about science on someone whose sole expertise lies in manipulating public opinion?

8. “But skepticism is healthy.”

It certainly is, and scientists aren’t suggesting otherwise; science is built on skepticism.  But who is more deserving of your own skepticism: thousands of the world’s most brilliant and dedicated researchers including several Nobel laureates – or media hacks with perhaps one basic college science course under their belts and a fiercely ideological agenda to push?

9. “But we still have a lot of snow and cold weather.”

This is perhaps the silliest statement of all, so naturally it gets repeated quite a bit. Every time there  is a snow flurry, you can count on someone saying, “well, so much for global warming”, and you can count on someone like Sean Hannity saying something like, “I wish Al Gore would explain where all this snow is coming from”. In fact, Al Gore has done just that; and as always he was met with hoots of derision from demagogues like Hannity. And as always, since he was simply relaying what scientists say, he was right and they were wrong.

Folks, folks. There is a difference between climate and weather. Weather is what’s falling from the sky right now, or over a period of days, or weeks, or even months. But climate is the normal weather for a given area based on a much longer period of weather cycles. Global warming refers to climate, not weather, and just because climate is warming doesn’t mean that all cold weather will suddenly disappear. In fact (write this down) warmer climate can actually cause cooler weather. Really. Ask a scientist to explain it to you. And maybe to Sean Hannity as well.

10. “But Al Gore rides around in big jets and lives in a big house that uses a lot of energy.”

I take it back. This is surely the silliest of them all. So naturally it gets an incredible amount of mileage. Do a search for “Al Gore” and “energy” or “ecology” or some such and you’re guaranteed to get a gazillion stories about his “hypocrisy” and/or “elitism”. But a fair and honest evaluation of his habits is much, much more difficult to find. So what? Do you really want to sacrifice the future of the entire planet in order to make the point that one person is unqualified for sainthood? If so, then please, please PLEASE take a closer look at Mr. Gore’s  “carbon footprint”.

11. “But human activity can’t possibly have an effect on atmospheric conditions.”

Never been to Los Angeles in the summer, eh?

12. “But God will take care of it.”

As Hercules said to the man whose wagon was stuck in the mud, “the gods help only those who help themselves.”

13, “But there’s nothing we can do about it, anyway.” 14.”But it would be too expensive.”

The “expensive” objection is not even a legitimate argument, since all the money in the world isn’t much good if we don’t survive to use it; and the costs (financial and otherwise) of ignoring the problem will be astronomical. But it’s also wrong.  First of all, practicing sound ecology opens up new sources of revenue, such as alternative sources of energy.  Second of all, there are many simple steps that could be taken to have a dramatic impact.

A few years ago, one study concluded that simple conservation measures could reduce energy consumption by 47% (memo to Glenn Beck: that’s  nearly half) and of course carbon emissions would also be greatly reduced. Shortly thereafter Dick Cheney, who was in charge of the nation’s energy policy (An oil tycoon deciding energy policy??? See anything wrong with this picture?) decreed that conservation would play no role in his administration’s energy policy.   Presidents Ford and Carter, however,  implemented more stringent automobile standards which, if left in place, would not only have greatly reduced pollution, but might have totally eliminated the need for foreign oil. And then along came Ronald Reagan.

Speaking of politicians (if we really must) we can’t help noting that among the current crop of congressional Republicans, 53% of those in the House and a jaw-dropping 74% in the Senate claim to know more about climate science than scientists do. Surely it would make a significant difference, and cost nothing to boot, if the American public simply stopped electing characters like these.

IN SUMMARY: Global warming is real. Climategate isn’t. (We’re not sure about Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.) Al Gore didn’t invent global warming, nor did he claim to. It may not be too late to avert disaster. But we probably won’t anyway. In a war between scientists and loonies, the loonies will probably win. Because they have a powerful propaganda machine that no scientist could ever invent.