Contra expectativas e previsões, mais uma vez o Brasil surpreende. A população brasileira vive nos últimos dois anos um boom de interesse por ciência, ocasionado pela pandemia e seus efeitos. Apesar de sermos uma sociedade desigual e apenas 5% da população ter curso superior concluído, a maioria apoia e quer conhecer mais a ciência. A eleição presidencial de 2018 foi combustível para a indústria de fake news e deu força a discursos que negam ou distorcem a realidade e as evidências científicas e históricas. Naquele momento, parecia que entraríamos fundo em uma fase de obscurantismo.
Mas a história deu sua volta, diante da tragédia imposta pela gestão do governo federal diante do coronavírus, a mobilização foi em sentido contrário. A sociedade brasileira, majoritariamente, reagiu ao negacionismo, impulsionada pela necessidade de lutar contra a pandemia, procurar informação confiável e defender a vida. Com o auxílio de cientistas, mídia e movimentos pela vida, vimos aumentar o interesse sobre ciência, universidades e institutos que produzem conhecimento.
Foi neste contexto que instituímos o SoU_Ciência. Um centro que congrega pesquisadores e cujas atividades estão voltadas para dialogar com a sociedade sobre a política científica e de educação superior, em especial sobre o que fazem as universidades públicas, que no Brasil são responsáveis por mais de 90% da produção de conhecimento e abrigam 8 entre 10 pesquisadores em nosso país. Em curto período de atuação, fizemos levantamentos de opinião pública, em parceria com o instituto Ideia Big Data, além de análises das mídias sociais, grupos focais e notícias. Descobrimos que o Brasil tem 94,5% da população a favor da vacinação contra Covid-19, e que a campanha antivacina liderada pelo próprio Presidente, tem apoio de apenas 5,5%. O que faz o nosso país ser diferente de países da Europa e dos EUA, onde os movimentos anti-vaxsão muito maiores, ainda podemos estudar. Certamente, a tradição em vacinações obtida pelo Plano Nacional de Imunizações (PNI), além do Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS), são fatores determinantes.
Em nossos levantamentos de opinião pública, 72% da população afirmou que seu interesse pela ciência aumentou com a pandemia. Isso fez 69,7% dos entrevistados declarar ter “muito interesse pela ciência” e apenas 2,2%, “nenhum interesse”. Entre evangélicos e os que consideram o governo ótimo/bom, o elevado interesse pela ciência também é expressivo: 63% e 62% respectivamente. Além disso, 32,1% da população declarou ter o hábito de pesquisar em sites, blogse canais das universidades e institutos de pesquisa na procura de informações confiáveis e, surpreendentemente, 40% gostariam de ler artigos científicos. Comparativamente, apenas 8,8% afirmam confiar no que o Bolsonaro fala sobre a pandemia, num claro distanciamento da população em relação ao presidente eleito em 2018.
A procura por informação confiável na pandemia levou a um fortalecimento do ecossistema que envolve universidades, instituições de pesquisa e cientistas na sua capacidade de comunicação e divulgação científica, com um ampliado espaço na mídia. Dois fenômenos merecem destaque. Em primeiro lugar, a competência que cientistas tiveram para se comunicar e alertar sobre o novo coronavírus e seus efeitos, utilizando redes sociais como o Twitter, e canais do YouTube, como monitorou o Science Pulseda Núcleo e IBPAD com apoio da Fundação Serrapilheira. Adicionalmente, muitos cientistas passaram a falar para a grande mídia, que por sua vez ampliou suas sessões de ciência e saúde e deu espaços para novos colunistas na área. Tem havido rápido aprendizado e maior mobilização de cientistas para utilizar os diferentes meios de comunicação.
O segundo fenômeno decorre do grande interesse da mídia e grande parte da população sobre os estudos clínicos das diversas vacinas que estavam sendo desenvolvidas em tempo recorde. Os estudos geraram grande audiência e expectativa. As universidades públicas, como a USP e a Unifesp, atuaram na coordenação dos estudos das duas primeiras vacinas licenciadas no País, ganharam enorme destaque. O Instituto Butantan e a Fiocruz, além das pesquisas, se tornaram mais conhecidos pelas pesquisas e produção dos imunizantes.
Diante de todos estes elementos, nos parece que, 120 anos depois da Revolta da Vacina, a revolta agora ocorre contra um governo que se recusou a comprar vacinas para sua população e propôs falsas alternativas, como apontou a CPI da Pandemia. A revolta em 2021, dado o enorme contingente a favor da vacina e em defesa da ciência, direcionou-se contra o governo federal e faz derreter a popularidade do presidente, passando a aprovação (ótimo/bom) de 37%, em dezembro de 2020, para 22% em dezembro de 2021, segundo o Datafolha; enquanto a rejeição (ruim/péssimo) passou de 32% para 53% no mesmo período. Dentre os fatores dessa virada de popularidade no “ano da vacina” esteve o contínuo embate presidencial contra a ciência, a partir da negação dos benefícios da vacina e da distorção nos dados. Isto vem ocorrendo de maneira renovada agora, na batalha da vacinação infantil e na fraca reação contra a variante Ômicron. Sem dúvida, em 2021 a maior oposição a Bolsonaro veio pela conscientização por meio da ciência e da aproximação dos cientistas junto à sociedade, mídia e redes sociais.
Tentando reagir nesse embate, o governo federal escalou alguns médicos e outros apoiadores para fazer o contraponto e distorcer dados científicos, criando novas interpretações fantasiosas. E atuou e segue atuando para o desmanche acelerado do sistema de ciência e pesquisa no Brasil, com ataques ao CNPq, CAPES e Finep, e cortes brutais de orçamento, cuja dimensão e impacto discutiremos noutros artigos deste blog. Ataques estes que não se reproduziram na opinião pública, já que levantamento do SoU_Ciência mostrou que somente 9% da população apoiam os cortes impostos.
Temos pela frente um grande desafio: consolidar a onda pró-ciência, para além da pandemia, e para tanto é necessária a recuperação do sistema nacional de ciência e pesquisa, com a recomposição efetiva de seu financiamento. Estamos diante da oportunidade de alcançarmos um novo patamar na relação sociedade-ciência com a formulação de políticas públicas baseadas em evidências científicas. Para isso, buscamos um “letramento científico” que colabore no combate às fake news e amplie a capacidade da população em tomar decisões racionais e fundamentadas. Os sinais são de esperança, mas nos pedem atenção e muito trabalho. A criação do Centro SoU_Ciência que terá neste blog uma voz, faz parte desse momento e pretende colaborar para fortalecer as conexões com a sociedade, na defesa da democracia, e na garantia de direitos para um novo momento da história de nosso país.
Soraya Smaili, farmacologista, professora titular da Escola Paulista de Medicina, Reitora da Unifesp (2013-2021). Atualmente é Coordenadora Adjunta do Centro de Saúde Global e Coordenadora Geral do SoU_Ciência;
Maria Angélica Minhoto, pedagoga e economista, professora da EFLCH-Unifesp, Pró- Reitora de Graduação (2013-2017) e Coordenadora Adjunta do SoU_Ciência;
Pedro Arantes, arquiteto e urbanista, professor da EFLCH-Unifesp, Pró-Reitor de Planejamento (2017-2021) e Coordenador Adjunto do SoU_Ciência.
Uma sala repleta de estudantes de agronomia assiste a uma palestra sobre mudanças climáticas no Brasil. Estão em uma faculdade no Estado do Mato Grosso, maior produtor de soja do país, ouvindo falar um professor da Universidade de São Paulo. Mas o que escutam é o contrário do que acredita a esmagadora maioria da comunidade científica do mundo. Ali, a mensagem transmitida é de que não existe aquecimento global causado pelo homem.
“Os objetivos [de quem fala em mudanças climáticas] são congelar os países em desenvolvimento. O Brasil é o principal foco dessas operações que envolvem meio ambiente e clima. A ideia da mudança climática e dessas questões ambientais são para segurar o nosso desenvolvimento”, afirmou o palestrante, o meteorologista Ricardo Felicio, sem respaldo científico, em uma entrevista concedida após o evento que aconteceu em 2019.
Na realidade, segundo o último relatório do Painel Intergovernamental sobre Mudanças Climáticas (IPCC), de agosto deste ano, o papel da influência humana no aquecimento do planeta é “inequívoco”. É para limitar as mudanças climáticas por meio da redução na emissão de gases de efeito estufa que líderes se reuniram nas últimas duas semanas na COP26 em Glasgow, no Reino Unido.
No Brasil, a maior causa de emissões de dióxido de carbono é o desmatamento feito para expansão da agricultura e da pecuária.
Mas, na contramão do que diz a ciência, associações do agronegócio — de fazendeiros de soja, passando por cafeicultores, sindicatos rurais, faculdades ligadas a agronomia e até uma empresa de fertilizantes — estão bancando palestras dos chamados “negacionistas climáticos”, pessoas que não acreditam que existam mudanças climáticas causadas pelo homem e que apresentam esse fato como uma fraude. As apresentações são direcionadas a outros fazendeiros, produtores rurais ou estudantes de agronomia.
A reportagem contou ao menos 20 palestras do tipo nesses ambientes nos últimos três anos feitas por Felicio e por outro professor. A citada no início desta reportagem aconteceu em 2019, e fez parte de um circuito universitário de um total de 11 palestras com o nome “Aquecimento global, mito ou realidade?” em nove faculdades e dois sindicatos no Mato Grosso. Todas elas foram bancadas pela Aprosoja Mato Grosso, a associação de produtores de soja e milho do Estado, maior produtor de soja do Brasil.
Ao mesmo tempo em que negam o aquecimento global antropogênico, as palestras pagas e vistas por ruralistas os absolvem de reconhecer seu papel nas mudanças climáticas. Elas seriam, de acordo com o conteúdo contrário ao consenso científico apresentado pelos professores, somente fruto de variações naturais, sem interferência alguma do homem.
Ao contrário desse setor “negacionista” do agronegócio, o presidente do conselho diretor da Associação Brasileira do Agronegócio, Marcello Brito, diz que a associação se pauta “pela melhor ciência” e que “jogar fora a ciência porque ela não nos traz só vantagens, mas também deveres, é no mínimo contraproducente, jogando contra a melhoria contínua”.
Felicio, o professor do departamento de Geografia da USP contratado pela Aprosoja Mato Grosso em 2019, é conhecido por suas posições controversas — ultimamente, em relação à pandemia de covid-19. Em um vídeo publicado em agosto deste ano em seu canal do YouTube, chamou a pandemia de “fraudemia” e disse, sem base científica, que vacinas causam danos maiores que a covid-19. Em outro, afirmou que máscaras não são efetivas contra a covid-19. É também um notório negacionista das mudanças climáticas causadas pelo homem. Ficou conhecido em 2012, quando foi convidado ao Programa do Jô, da Globo, e, sem provas, negou o efeito estufa.
Durante três semanas, a reportagem tentou falar com Felicio por telefonemas, mensagens de texto e e-mails, mas não obteve resposta. O vice-presidente da Aprosoja Mato Grosso, Lucas Beber, justificou o convite em entrevista à BBC News Brasil.
“A gente trouxe o Ricardo Felicio para fazer um contraponto com aquilo que é replicado na mídia hoje, que parece uma verdade absoluta. A gente não queria impor aquilo como uma verdade, mas sim trazer a um debate”, afirma. Para ele, as mudanças climáticas causadas pelo homem ainda são uma “incerteza” — embora já haja consenso científico em torno delas. Beber também disse não se lembrar quanto custou o ciclo de 11 palestras feitas por Felicio naquele ano.
No ano passado, o meteorologista também foi convidado para falar no Tecno Safra Nortão 2020, uma feira para produtores rurais, lideranças, técnicos, pesquisadores e estudantes organizada pelo sindicato rural de Matupá, município no norte de Mato Grosso.
Segundo o vice-presidente do sindicato, Fernando Bertolin, ao menos cem pessoas, entre pequenos e grandes agricultores, pecuaristas e outras pessoas da cidade assistiram à palestra. Ele defende o convite, dizendo que, à época, Felicio estava “bem forte na mídia” e que sua palestra “foi um pedido dos produtores”. “A gente ouve todo mundo. Ele tem o embasamento teórico dele e a gente queria saber por que ele dizia aquilo.”
Bertolin diz não se recordar do valor da palestra de Felicio de cabeça, mas afirma que nenhuma das contratadas pela feira custou mais de R$ 15 mil.
Em 2018, Felicio concorreu, sem sucesso, ao cargo de deputado federal pelo PSL, antigo partido do presidente Jair Bolsonaro.
Um ano antes, o presidente tuitou um vídeo de uma entrevista em que Felicio nega a existência de mudanças climáticas causadas pelo homem. Bolsonaro escreveu: “Vale a pena conferir”. Consultada pela BBC News Brasil sobre esta recomendação feita por Bolsonaro, a assessoria da Presidência não respondeu.
O professor não foi aclamado apenas pelo presidente. Em 2019, Felicio foi convidado para dar uma palestra no Senado ao lado de outro acadêmico que não acredita no aquecimento global causado pelo homem, o professor aposentado da Universidade Federal de Alagoas (Ufal), meteorologista Luiz Carlos Molion.
O convite para que os professores falassem em uma audiência pública conjunta das comissões de Relações Exteriores e de Meio Ambiente do Senado sobre as mudanças climáticas partiu do senador do Acre Marcio Bittar (hoje PSL, mas, na época, do MDB), um ex-pecuarista que faz parte da bancada ruralista.
Ao lado de Felicio, Molion é considerado um dos principais representantes do negacionismo climático no Brasil e autor das outras palestras contabilizadas pela reportagem.
Nos últimos três anos, Molion fez diversas palestras promovidas por entidades como a Cooperativa Agrícola de Unaí, em Minas Gerais, a Associação Avícola de Pernambuco, a Associação de Engenheiros e Arquitetos de Itanhaém, com o patrocínio oficial do Conselho Regional de Engenharia e Agronomia de São Paulo, a Central Campo, uma empresa especializada na venda de insumos agrícolas, a Feira Agrotecnológica do Tocantins, do governo do Tocantins, a feira de Agronegócios da Cooabriel, uma cooperativa de café com atuação no Espírito Santo e na Bahia, e o sindicato rural de Canarana, no Mato Grosso.
Molion também foi convidado para falar em universidades: o Instituto de Ciências Agrárias da Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) e a Universidade Federal da Paraíba (UFPB). A BBC News Brasil procurou todas essas instituições para comentar sobre os convites que fizeram a Molion — leia as respostas abaixo e no fim desta reportagem.
A maior parte dessas palestras tem como tema as perspectivas climáticas para o ano seguinte e as “tendências para os próximos 10 anos”. Nas palestras — a maioria disponível no YouTube e vistas pela BBC News Brasil —, Molion de fato faz previsões para o ano seguinte, útil para que os produtores rurais se planejem para as próximas safras, mas reserva a última parte da palestra para falar sobre como o “aquecimento global é uma fraude” — novamente, uma afirmação sem embasamento científico.
Ele mostra um slide na parte final em sua apresentação de Powerpoint, com suas palavras finais. O texto da apresentação diz que o clima “varia por causas naturais”, e que “eventos extremos sempre ocorreram”. Afirma, também: “Aquecimento global é mito. CO2 não controla o clima, não é vilão (…) Redução de emissões: inútil!”
Na palestra promovida pela Secretaria de Agricultura, Pecuária e Aquicultura do governo do Tocantins em maio de 2020, por exemplo, Molion afirmou, contrariando a ciência, que o “aquecimento global é uma farsa, é um mito”. “Reduzir emissões como quer esse Acordo de Paris de 2015 é inútil, o Brasil tinha que pular fora porque reduzir emissões não vai causar nenhum benefício para o planeta, para o clima, porque o CO2 não controla o clima”, disse, indo contra a esmagadora maioria da produção científica dos últimos anos e aos esforço global de selar acordos para diminuir as emissões dos gases de efeito estufa.
A secretaria disse que o convidou, ao lado de outros palestrantes, para “alinhar o setor agropecuário quanto às diversas correntes existentes e auxiliá-los no seu planejamento e tomadas de decisão mais assertivas para seu empreendimento rural”.
Depois, em outubro de 2020, em um seminário virtual promovido pela Central Campo, uma empresa mineira especializada na venda de insumos agrícolas, Molion fez as mesmas afirmações sobre o CO2 e o Acordo de Paris.
O diretor da empresa, Artur Barros, disse por e-mail à BBC News Brasil que a empresa “sempre soube do posicionamento do professor Molion, que é muito pragmático quanto às questões climáticas” e “o profissional que tem maior assertividade nas previsões”. “A Central Campo, assim como grande parte dos produtores atendidos pela empresa, está muito alinhada ao posicionamento do professor Molion”.
À BBC News Brasil, Molion afirmou: “Procuro usar minhas palestras para o agronegócio, que não são poucas, para no terceiro bloco falar sobre as mudanças climáticas e a farsa do CO2 como controlador do clima global. Faço um diagnóstico local, previsão para safra e depois falo sobre a tendência do clima dos próximos dez, 15 anos, que é de resfriamento.”
Segundo Molion, ele dá 50 palestras por ano, “a grande maioria, 80%, 85% para o agronegócio”, cobrando R$ 4 mil por cada uma. Barros, da Central Campo, afirmou que foi este o valor que pagou pela palestra do professor.
O meteorologista diz que não se incomoda de ser chamado de “negacionista”, embora, ressalte, nunca tenha negado que houve aquecimento no planeta em um período específico no passado. “Eu levo o que acho que está correto, pode ser que daqui a alguns anos me provem que estou errado e vou reconhecer isto. Não sou paraquedista. Eu tenho visão muito crítica do clima local e global graças ao meu treinamento.”
Um dos seminários mais recentes de que participou teve também a presença de membros do governo Bolsonaro: o vice-presidente Hamilton Mourão e o ministro de Infraestrutura, Tarcisio Freitas. Foi um seminário virtual sobre a Amazônia em agosto deste ano organizado pelo Instituto General Villas Bôas, ONG do ex-comandante do Exército.
Contrariando o consenso da comunidade científica sobre as mudanças climáticas, Molion defendeu que o clima global varia naturalmente, sem influência da ação humana, e apresentou um slide em que dizia que o efeito-estufa, “como descrito pelo IPCC, é questionável”. Antes de passar a palavra para o ministro Freitas, afirmou: “CO2 não é vilão, quanto mais CO2 tiver na atmosfera, melhor”.
A BBC News Brasil procurou a vice-presidência questionando por que Mourão aceitou participar de um seminário ao lado de um professor que nega que a ação do homem esteja contribuindo para o aquecimento global. Sua assessoria disse apenas que Mourão participou do evento a convite do Instituto General Villas Bôas e que “baseia-se em dados científicos para emissão de suas ideias e opiniões”.
A assessoria do ministro da Infraestrutura, Tarcísio Freitas, afirmou que ele participou do seminário após convite feito pelo próprio general Villas Boas. A ministra da Agricultura, Pecuária e Abastecimento, Tereza Cristina, foi inicialmente anunciada como um dos nomes de ministros que participariam do seminário, mas sua assessoria informou que ela não participaria do evento, sem responder por que desistiu.
Negacionismo climático no Brasil
A genealogia do negacionismo climático no Brasil começa nos anos 2000, quando a imprensa “dava pesos iguais para argumentos com pesos totalmente diferentes”, avalia o sociólogo Jean Miguel, pesquisador associado da Unifesp que estuda o tema. O debate sobre o assunto no Brasil se deu principalmente a partir do documentário americano Uma Verdade Inconveniente (2006), sobre a campanha do ex-vice-presidente americano Al Gore a respeito do aquecimento global.
Enquanto isso, um grupo pequeno de negacionistas na academia brasileira, incluindo Felicio e Molion, se pronunciavam publicamente sobre o tema. Para Miguel, eles são “verdadeiros mercadores da dúvida, trabalhando para destacar lacunas que toda ciência possui e amplificar incertezas”.
“[E quem os ouviu no Brasil] foi parte do agronegócio interessado na desregulamentação florestal”, responde Miguel.
Hoje, “as palestras fazem massagem no ego do produtor rural e criam a mentalidade de que esses grupos de agronegócio estão sendo injustiçados enquanto estão contribuindo para o PIB nacional”, diz o pesquisador.
Não significa que todos os produtores rurais sejam negacionistas. “A briga hoje é entre dois lados: o setor de agroexportação, que está mais em contato com compradores internacionais, portanto mais pressionado pela questão reputacional, e que faz investimentos a longo prazo, pensando na questão produtiva na próxima década, não na próxima safra”, diz Raoni Rajão, professor de gestão ambiental na Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG).
“Outro lado do setor são os produtores, mais politizados e fortes apoiadores de Bolsonaro e toda sua agenda. Eles de certa forma compram esse discurso que toda a narrativa de mudança climática é algo para poder impedir o desenvolvimento do Brasil.”
Apesar de não começar no governo Bolsonaro, o negacionismo “encontra terreno fértil para proliferar” em sua gestão, avalia Miguel, citando algumas ações do governo atual, como o fechamento da secretaria responsável por elaborar políticas públicas sobre as mudanças climáticas, no início da gestão Bolsonaro (ela foi reaberta em meio a críticas no ano seguinte) e a desistência em sediara COP-25 que ocorreria no Brasil em novembro de 2019. Em sua campanha, em 2018, Bolsonaro também prometeu acabar com o que chamava de “indústria das multas” ambientais.
O ex-ministro das Relações Exteriores Ernesto Araújo, que ficou no cargo do começo do governo Bolsonaro até março de 2021, chegou a colocar em dúvida que as mudanças climáticas seriam causadas pela ação humana, na contramão do consenso científico.
“Eles estão altamente informados pelo negacionismo climático. Mesmo que não digam que é uma fraude, de uma maneira interna vão criando as possibilidade de sabotar a ciência e as políticas climáticas nacionais, com formas práticas de negacionismo climático”, afirma Miguel.
Mas ações práticas terão de ser adotadas para que o Brasil cumpra as metas anunciadas pelo governo durante a COP-26: zerar o desmatamento ilegal no país até 2028, reduzir as emissões de gases do efeito estufa em 50% até 2030 e atingir a neutralidade de carbono até 2050.
O desmatamento, causado pela expansão da agricultura e da pecuária, é responsável pela maior emissão de CO2 no Brasil.
Só entre agosto de 2019 e julho de 2020, uma área de 10.851 km2 — mais ou menos metade da área do Estado de Sergipe — foi desmatada na Amazônia Legal, segundo dados do sistema Prodes, do Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE). O valor representou um aumento de 7,13% em relação ao ano anterior.
Esse crescimento teve um claro reflexo nas emissões de gases poluentes pelo Brasil em 2020. Houve um aumento de 9,5%, segundo dados do Sistema de Estimativas de Emissões de Gases de Efeito Estufa (SEEG), do Observatório do Clima, principalmente por mudanças no uso da terra e floresta, que inclui o desmatamento, e a agropecuária. O aumento aconteceu na contramão do mundo que, parado por conta da pandemia de covid-19, diminuiu as emissões em 7%.
Para Tasso Azevedo, coordenador do SEEG, a boa notícia é que, se o Brasil conseguir controlar o desmatamento, “as emissões cairão muito rapidamente”. “Se controlarmos o desmatamento, não há país no mundo que vai ter emissões menores proporcionalmente do que temos no Brasil, então acho que é uma oportunidade. Teremos um resultado incrível para o Brasil e para o planeta.”
Apesar de pertencer ao setor responsável pela maior parte de emissões de gases do efeito estufa no Brasil, parte dos ruralistas diz acreditar ser injustamente acusada por ambientalistas.
As palestras do meteorologista Felicio no Mato Grosso, em 2019, “foram bem numa época em que era moda dizer que o agricultor era quem estava acabando com o mundo”, diz o produtor rural Artemio Antonini, presidente do sindicato rural de Nova Xavantina, no Mato Grosso. Também cético em relação às mudanças climáticas, Antonini ajudou a organizar a palestra de Felicio na região.
Na opinião de Rajão, da UFMG, “o agro como um todo toma as dores e se sente ofendido quando se fala de desmatamento”. “A reação é negar o desmatamento e a existência das mudanças climáticas.”
“Tomar as dores” porque, de fato, quem desmata primariamente não é produtor rural. Uma área desmatada começa com uma onda de especuladores – quem demarca a terra e serra dali a vegetação depois quem tenta regularizar a área -, em seguida vem o pecuarista e depois vem o agricultor, explica Rajão. “Por isso que quando dizem que não estão envolvidos com o desmatamento, é verdade, boa parte deles não está. Mas se beneficiam de um fornecimento de terra barata, que vem de todo o processo de desmatamento ilegal que às vezes aconteceu 10 anos antes.”
A ilegalidade é bastante concentrada. O estudo “As maçãs podres do agronegócio brasileiro”, de Rajão e outros pesquisadores, mostrou que mais de 90% dos produtores na Amazônia e no Cerrado não praticaram desmatamento ilegal após 2008. Além disso, apenas 2% das propriedades nessas regiões eram responsáveis por 62% de todo desmatamento potencialmente ilegal. O trabalho foi publicado na revista Science no ano passado.
O agricultor de soja Ilson Redivo também esteve na plateia em uma das palestras que o professor Ricardo Felicio deu em 2019, no município de Sinop, norte do Mato Grosso.
Redivo migrou do Paraná para Sinop em 1988, inicialmente trabalhando, como a maioria dos migrantes, no setor madeireiro. “Era um grande polo madeireiro, e era o que dava retorno na época”, diz. Hoje, ele possui uma fazenda de 4200 hectares de milho e soja na região, e é presidente do Sindicato Rural da cidade.
Ele diz ter gostado da palestra de Felicio. Como ele, o produtor rural também rejeita a ciência estabelecida sobre o aquecimento global. Ele diz que é uma “narrativa econômica”, não ambiental, criada para conter o desenvolvimento do Brasil.
“Eu estou há trinta anos aqui, foi desmatado um monte e o clima continua da mesma forma, tá certo? Não houve alteração climática”, diz Redivo à BBC News Brasil.
Ecoando argumentos já usados por Bolsonaro, o agricultor diz que o Brasil é “um exemplo para o mundo em preservação ambiental”. “O produtor brasileiro é o cara que mais preserva.”
O argumento é repetido por outros produtores rurais. “Ninguém fala que o agricultor está deixando 80% e só usando 20% da área para produzir”, reclama o produtor rural Antonini.
Eles se referem à Reserva Legal, um dispositivo criado no Código Florestal Brasileiro que obriga os proprietários de terras na Amazônia a preservar 80% da floresta nativa (no Cerrado, o valor é de 35%; em outros biomas, 20%), algo que beneficia o próprio agronegócio, por meio dos serviços ambientais prestados pela floresta. Muitos agricultores acham isso injusto. Mas, na prática, nem todos respeitam essa exigência.
A pesquisadora do Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazônia (Imazon) Ritaumaria Pereira conduziu entrevistas com 131 criadores de gado no Pará em 2013 e 2014 e descobriu que mais de 95% deles declararam preservar menos do que a quantidade exigida. Segundo ela, argumentam que, quando chegaram, a terra já estava nua, ou que no passado tinham o estímulo para desmatar, ou que não tinham recursos para regenerar 80%.
Para Pereira, da Imazon, para que o Brasil consiga cumprir as metas anunciadas durante a COP-26, será preciso investir em fiscalização na Amazônia, fortalecendo órgãos como o Ibama e o ICMBio.
Também será preciso combater o discurso do negacionismo climático. A mensagem transmitida a produtores rurais, diz ela, legitima o desmatamento, e “traz mais pessoas para esse pensamento, para que, num futuro próximo, validem assim tudo o que já desmataram”.
Para Rajão, da UFMG, é uma narrativa “que no curto prazo é confortante, mas no longo prazo contribui para o chamado ‘agrosuicídio'”.
Posicionamentos de empresas que convidaram professores para palestras
Cooperativa Agrícola de Unaí (Coagril)
A Cooperativa Agrícola de Unaí Ltda (Coagril) diz “ter contratado o professor Molion no intuito de obter informações acerca do regime de chuvas para a região de sua atuação, visando ao planejamento estratégico dos seus negócios e de seus cooperado”.
Associação Avícola de Pernambuco
“A AVIPE reforça seu caráter plural onde preza pela diversidade de ideias onde o debate de todos os pontos de vista precisa ser exaurido constantemente com o intuito da busca eterna de uma conclusão contingente sobre quaisquer assuntos. (…) Como associação, não nos cabe acreditar ou não se os fatos humanos causam mudanças climáticas, pois nosso papel não é de credo, mas sim de apoiar o debate científico por aqueles que se dedicam toda uma vida em pesquisa. Não condiz com nossos princípios, condutas e valores, selecionar uma parcela de opiniões do mundo científico para apoiar determinada conclusão com fins casuísticos ou individuais. Aspectos financeiros são reservados apenas aos nossos associados.”
Associação de Engenheiros e Arquitetos de Itanhaém, com o patrocínio oficial do Conselho Regional de Engenharia e Agronomia de São Paulo
A Associação de Engenheiros e Arquitetos de Itanhaém recebeu o pedido da BBC News Brasil por e-mail e WhatsApp, mas não respondeu.
O Crea-SP respondeu que “tem como missão legal o aperfeiçoamento técnico e cultural dos profissionais da área tecnológica, conforme a Lei 5.194”.
“Os eventos com essa finalidade, realizados pelas associações, são de responsabilidade de seus idealizadores e não necessariamente representam a posição do Crea-SP.
O Conselho reforça ainda que acredita em mudanças climáticas causadas pelas ações humanas e, como forma de apoiar medidas para combatê-las, é signatário dos 17 Objetivos de Desenvolvimento Sustentável da ONU.”
Cooperativa de café Cooabriel
Recebeu o pedido da BBC News Brasil por e-mail, mas não respondeu.
Sindicato rural de Canarana
O presidente do sindicato, Alex Wisch, respondeu, por mensagem via WhatsApp: “Propomos que vocês indiquem um cientista de mesmo nível acadêmico do Prof. Molion para que todos possam ter conhecimento da verdade científica sobre esse tema. Podemos colaborar financeiramente com esse evento e inclusive sediar o evento.”
Instituto de Ciências Agrárias da Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG)
Por telefone, o vice-diretor do Instituto de Ciências Agrárias da UFMG, Helder Augusto, afirmou: “Na universidade, há diversidade de ideias e contrapontos. Não é um posicionamento da UFMG. É um ponto de vista dele, é uma fala relativa. A pessoa veio, fez palestra e pode falar o que bem entender porque é um ambiente público. A universidade não paga palestra para ninguém.”
Universidade Federal da Paraíba
“O evento foi realizado no auditório do Centro de Tecnologia da UFPB, organizado no âmbito do Departamento de Engenharia Mecânica, que aproveitou que o palestrante já estava em João Pessoa (PB) e o convidou para ministrar palestra na UFPB, portanto, neste caso em particular, sem ônus para a UFPB.
A iniciativa de convidar o pesquisador para ministrar palestra sobre seus estudos não se confunde com a visão, missão e valores da UFPB, entre os quais destaca-se o caráter público e autônomo da Universidade.
A UFPB defende o papel da academia e apoia a ciência e a pesquisa, o conhecimento gerado a partir de métodos científicos, no intuito de encontrar soluções para desafios em todas as áreas e geração de benefícios para a sociedade. Por meio da ciência, as teorias são constantemente testadas, visando sua comprovação ou substituição por outra teoria que resista à checagem. Não compete à Universidade aplicar censura prévia à ciência.”
For many years, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, has been warning that our planet’s climate is changing, and speaking plainly about what needs to be done to slow and ultimately stop the human-caused warming trend.
Early in her career, however, her attention was focused elsewhere. “I was studying physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto,” she recalls. “I needed an extra class to finish my degree. And there was this new class that was being offered on climate change. And I thought, well, that looks interesting. Why not take it?”
The course changed her perspective in multiple ways. First, while she was aware of the perils of climate change even then — this was the mid-1990s — the course hammered home just how urgent the situation was. Second, she began to see just how unfair the harms caused by climate change were; how poor nations were suffering more than wealthy ones, for example. As an evangelical Christian, this troubled her deeply.
“Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World,” by Katharine Hayhoe (Atria/One Signal Publishers, 320 pages).
She admits that those conversations aren’t always easy. As she details in the book, we live in extraordinary polarized times, and some people, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, believe that climate change isn’t a big deal, or even that it’s a hoax. According to a group of researchers at Yale University who track people’s attitudes toward global warming, about 8 percent of Americans fall into the “dismissive” category, believing that global warming isn’t happening, or isn’t human-caused, or isn’t a threat; many in this group endorse conspiracy theories, for example, claiming that global warming is a lie. Still, the vast majority are willing to listen, Hayhoe maintains, especially to those they are close to. And in spite of our differences, she is convinced there is much more that unites us.
This week, she’s attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) currently underway in Glasgow, Scotland.
Our interview was conducted recently over Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.
Undark: Scientists often emphasize that climate and weather are not synonyms. But as you point out in your book, the last few years have brought a string of unusually severe weather events, from hurricanes to heat waves to wildfires. Even The New York Times has described the past year’s weather as “unprecedented in modern times.” What can you say about the relationship between our planet’s unusual recent weather, and climate change?
Katharine Hayhoe: Ten years ago, if you interviewed a climate scientist and you said, “Could this current heat wave be attributed to climate change?” they would say: “Well, no single event can be attributed to the impacts of a changing climate. But we know that climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of heat waves.” Well, fast-forward to today, and we can put a number on it. We can see that crazy heat wave they’ve had out West. It’s at least 150 times more likely because of climate change. We can look at Hurricane Harvey, and we can say 40 percent of the rain that fell during Hurricane Harvey would not have occurred if it weren’t for climate change.
UD: How politically charged are conversations about climate change in the U.S.?
KH: When you survey people and you ask them about all kinds of different issues like immigration, gun control, abortion, racial justice, Covid, climate change — climate change is at the top of the most politically polarized issues in the whole U.S. And it’s been that way since the Obama administration. The number one predictor of whether you agree with simple scientific facts we’ve known since the 1800s is not how smart you are, how educated you are, or how much science, you know — it is simply where you fall on the political spectrum.
UD: How did it become so political?
KH: Nobody wakes up in the morning and decides, “I’m going to reject 200 years of physics, the same physics that explains how airplanes fly and how stoves heat food.” What do people do? They wake up in the morning and they pick up their phone and they scroll through the social media feeds of people in their “tribe.” They listen to news programs of people who they agree with. They read blogs and listen to podcasts of people whose values they share, whose opinions they respect, and who they agree with.
So we are all “cognitive misers.” We don’t have the time to dig into every issue. So what we do is, we go to people whose values we share on issues that are near and dear to our hearts, and we say, “Well, I don’t really understand this other issue, but they say it’s not real, so it must not be real.”
UD: And yet, the people who actually deny the reality of climate change — in your book you call them the “dismissives” — make up only a small minority, right?
KH: Yeah. They are a tiny fraction of the population, yet they are very loud. They get a lot of air time. They’re in the comments section of every newspaper. They’re on Twitter every single day. And so we overestimate their numbers and their reach.
UD:So they’re a minority, and as you say in the book, they might be impossible to reach anyway. So who should we be reaching out to, to have conversations with?
KH: The most important people for each of us to speak with are people who we have something in common with. So it could be that we both live in the same place, or we’re both on the same Ultimate Frisbee team, or we both play hockey, or we both love birding or kayaking, or we both have kids that go to the same school, or we both go to the same type of church, or we don’t go to the same type of church. Whoever we have something in common with, that is the best place to start the conversation. Start, from the heart, with something we share.
And in the book, I talk about how I’ve started conversations about knitting and cooking. And I have stories about Renée, who’s a ski racer — she talks about skiing. And Don who works in a hospital — he talks about the pension fund that they all pay into. So have a conversation that starts with something that you have in common, then connect the dots to how climate change affects that, and to a solution that is consistent with your values, your priorities, and that issue that you both care about.
UD: It’s clear from your book that your Christian faith is important to you. How does your faith affect your approach to doing climate science?
KH: What really changed my life, and my perspective, was when I realized that climate change is profoundly unfair. It disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized people — the very people who’ve done the least to contribute to the problem. The statistics from Oxfam today are that the [3.1 billion] poorest people produce 7 percent of emissions, yet they are bearing the brunt of the impact. And that is absolutely not fair.
And so for me, my priorities, my values, are informed by my faith. And one of the core tenets of my faith is to love others and to care for others — and how loving or caring is it to just close our eyes and our ears to the suffering that rich countries are inflicting on those who don’t have the voice?
KH: Well, two things. First of all, we don’t have enough actions, policies, pledges, plans — enough independently determined national contributions. We don’t have enough on the table yet to meet the Paris goals. Countries have only promised to do enough to get us to a 66 percent chance of holding temperatures below 2.7 degrees [Celsius above pre-industrial levels] — and, of course, the Paris goal is 2 to 1.5.
So we need every country to step up and bring their proportional mitigation contribution to the table in terms of how they’re cutting their carbon emissions, consistent with their contribution to historical emissions.
But there’s a second half of the Paris agreement that we don’t often talk about in the United States and Canada and wealthy countries, and that’s the Green Climate Fund, the fact that, again, the poorest people in the world have contributed 7 percent of emissions, yet they’re bearing the brunt of the impacts. And so in Paris, all of the high-income, high-emitting countries promised to contribute to this fund, to help low income countries develop, mitigate their emissions, and adapt or prepare for the impact of climate change.
And there was just a stunning summary that came out in Nature. According to this, the U.S. has only given 20 percent of their fair contribution. Canada is at about 40 percent. Norway is the only country that’s given 100 percent [in grants alone]. So I would like to see those contributions. Because, again, climate change is not fair. It’s already increased the gap between the richest and poorest countries by 25 percent. We have literally benefited off the suffering of the low-income countries.
From discs in the sky to faces in toast, learn to weigh evidence sceptically without becoming a closed-minded naysayer
by Stephen Law
Stephen Law is a philosopher and author. He is director of philosophy at the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford, and editor of Think, the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal. He researches primarily in the fields of philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and essentialism. His books for a popular audience include The Philosophy Gym (2003), The Complete Philosophy Files (2000) and Believing Bullshit (2011). He lives in Oxford.
Many people believe in extraordinary hidden beings, including demons, angels, spirits and gods. Plenty also believe in supernatural powers, including psychic abilities, faith healing and communication with the dead. Conspiracy theories are also popular, including that the Holocaust never happened and that the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. And, of course, many trust in alternative medicines such as homeopathy, the effectiveness of which seems to run contrary to our scientific understanding of how the world actually works.
Such beliefs are widely considered to be at the ‘weird’ end of the spectrum. But, of course, just because a belief involves something weird doesn’t mean it’s not true. As science keeps reminding us, reality often is weird. Quantum mechanics and black holes are very weird indeed. So, while ghosts might be weird, that’s no reason to dismiss belief in them out of hand.
I focus here on a particular kind of ‘weird’ belief: not only are these beliefs that concern the enticingly odd, they’re also beliefs that the general public finds particularly difficult to assess.
Almost everyone agrees that, when it comes to black holes, scientists are the relevant experts, and scientific investigation is the right way to go about establishing whether or not they exist. However, when it comes to ghosts, psychic powers or conspiracy theories, we often hold wildly divergent views not only about how reasonable such beliefs are, but also about what might count as strong evidence for or against them, and who the relevant authorities are.
Take homeopathy, for example. Is it reasonable to focus only on what scientists have to say? Shouldn’t we give at least as much weight to the testimony of the many people who claim to have benefitted from homeopathic treatment? While most scientists are sceptical about psychic abilities, what of the thousands of reports from people who claim to have received insights from psychics who could only have known what they did if they really do have some sort of psychic gift? To what extent can we even trust the supposed scientific ‘experts’? Might not the scientific community itself be part of a conspiracy to hide the truth about Area 51 in Nevada, Earth’s flatness or the 9/11 terrorist attacks being an inside job?
Most of us really struggle when it comes to assessing such ‘weird’ beliefs – myself included. Of course, we have our hunches about what’s most likely to be true. But when it comes to pinning down precisely why such beliefs are or aren’t reasonable, even the most intelligent and well educated of us can quickly find ourselves out of our depth. For example, while most would pooh-pooh belief in fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the quintessentially rational detective Sherlock Holmes, actually believed in them and wrote a book presenting what he thought was compelling evidence for their existence.
When it comes to weird beliefs, it’s important we avoid being closed-minded naysayers with our fingers in our ears, but it’s also crucial that we avoid being credulous fools. We want, as far as possible, to be reasonable.
I’m a philosopher who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the reasonableness of such ‘weird’ beliefs. Here I present five key pieces of advice that I hope will help you figure out for yourself what is and isn’t reasonable.
Let’s begin with an illustration of the kind of case that can so spectacularly divide opinion. In 1976, six workers reported a UFO over the site of a nuclear plant being constructed near the town of Apex, North Carolina. A security guard then reported a ‘strange object’. The police officer Ross Denson drove over to investigate and saw what he described as something ‘half the size of the Moon’ hanging over the plant. The police also took a call from local air traffic control about an unidentified blip on their radar.
The next night, the UFO appeared again. The deputy sheriff described ‘a large lighted object’. An auxiliary officer reported five lighted objects that appeared to be burning and about 20 times the size of a passing plane. The county magistrate described a rectangular football-field-sized object that looked like it was on fire.
Finally, the press got interested. Reporters from the Star newspaper drove over to investigate. They too saw the UFO. But when they tried to drive nearer, they discovered that, weirdly, no matter how fast they drove, they couldn’t get any closer.
This report, drawn from Philip J Klass’s bookUFOs: The Public Deceived (1983), is impressive: it involves multiple eyewitnesses, including police officers, journalists and even a magistrate. Their testimony is even backed up by hard evidence – that radar blip.
Surely, many would say, given all this evidence, it’s reasonable to believe there was at least something extraordinary floating over the site. Anyone who failed to believe at least that much would be excessively sceptical – one of those perpetual naysayers whose kneejerk reaction, no matter how strong the evidence, is always to pooh-pooh.
What’s most likely to be true: that there really was something extraordinary hanging over the power plant, or that the various eyewitnesses had somehow been deceived? Before we answer, here’s my first piece of advice.NEED TO KNOWTHINK IT THROUGHKEY POINTSWHY IT MATTERSLINKS & BOOKS
Think it through
1. Expect unexplained false sightings and huge coincidences
Our UFO story isn’t over yet. When the Star’s two-man investigative team couldn’t get any closer to the mysterious object, they eventually pulled over. The photographer took out his long lens to take a look: ‘Yep … that’s the planet Venus all right.’ It was later confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that what all the witnesses had seen was just a planet. But what about that radar blip? It was a coincidence, perhaps caused by a flock of birds or unusual weather.
What moral should we draw from this case? Not, of course, that because this UFO report turned out to have a mundane explanation, all such reports can be similarly dismissed. But notice that, had the reporters not discovered the truth, this story would likely have gone down in the annals of ufology as one of the great unexplained cases. The moral I draw is that UFO cases that have multiple eyewitnesses and even independent hard evidence (the radar blip) may well crop up occasionally anyway, even if there are no alien craft in our skies.
We tend significantly to underestimate how prone to illusion and deception we are when it comes to the wacky and weird. In particular, we have a strong tendency to overdetect agency – to think we are witnessing a person, an alien or some other sort of creature or being – where in truth there’s none.
Psychologists have developed theories to account for this tendency to overdetect agency, including that we have evolved what’s called a hyperactive agency detecting device. Had our ancestors missed an agent – a sabre-toothed tiger or a rival, say – that might well have reduced their chances of surviving and reproducing. Believing an agent is present when it’s not, on the other hand, is likely to be far less costly. Consequently, we’ve evolved to err on the side of overdetection – often seeing agency where there is none. For example, when we observe a movement or pattern we can’t understand, such as the retrograde motion of a planet in the night sky, we’re likely to think the movement is explained by some hidden agent working behind the scenes (that Mars is actually a god, say).
One example of our tendency to overdetect agency is pareidolia: our tendency to find patterns – and, in particular, faces – in random noise. Stare at passing clouds or into the embers of a fire, and it’s easy to interpret the randomly generated shapes we see as faces, often spooky ones, staring back.
And, of course, nature is occasionally going to throw up the face-like patterns just by chance. One famous illustration was produced in 1976 by the Mars probe Viking Orbiter 1. As the probe passed over the Cydonia region, it photographed what appeared to be an enormous, reptilian-looking face 800 feet high and nearly 2 miles long. Some believe this ‘face on Mars’ was a relic of an ancient Martian civilisation, a bit like the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. A book called TheMonuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever (1987) even speculated about this lost civilisation. However, later photos revealed the ‘face’ to be just a hill that looks face-like when lit a certain way. Take enough photos of Mars, and some will reveal face-like features just by chance.
The fact is, we should expect huge coincidences. Millions of pieces of bread are toasted each morning. One or two will exhibit face-like patterns just by chance, even without divine intervention. One such piece of toast that was said to show the face of the Virgin Mary (how do we know what she looked like?) was sold for $28,000. We think about so many people each day that eventually we’ll think about someone, the phone will ring, and it will be them. That’s to be expected, even if we’re not psychic. Yet many put down such coincidences to supernatural powers.
2. Understand what strong evidence actually is
When is a claim strongly confirmed by a piece of evidence? The following principle appears correct (it captures part of what confirmation theorists call the Bayes factor; for more on Bayesian approaches to assessing evidence, see the link at the end):
Evidence confirms a claim to the extent that the evidence is more likely if the claim is true than if it’s false.
Here’s a simple illustration. Suppose I’m in the basement and can’t see outside. Jane walks in with a wet coat and umbrella and tells me it’s raining. That’s pretty strong evidence it’s raining. Why? Well, it is of course possible that Jane is playing a prank on me with her wet coat and brolly. But it’s far more likely she would appear with a wet coat and umbrella and tell me it’s raining if that’s true than if it’s false. In fact, given just this new evidence, it may well be reasonable for me to believe it’s raining.
Here’s another example. Sometimes whales and dolphins are found with atavistic limbs – leg-like structures – where legs would be found on land mammals. These discoveries strongly confirm the theory that whales and dolphins evolved from earlier limbed, land-dwelling species. Why? Because, while atavistic limbs aren’t probable given the truth of that theory, they’re still far more probable than they would be if whales and dolphins weren’t the descendants of such limbed creatures.
The Mars face, on the other hand, provides an example of weak or non-existent evidence. Yes, if there was an ancient Martian civilisation, then we might discover what appeared to be a huge face built on the surface of the planet. However, given pareidolia and the likelihood of face-like features being thrown up by chance, it’s about as likely that we would find such face-like features anyway, even if there were no alien civilisation. That’s why such features fail to provide strong evidence for such a civilisation.
So now consider our report of the UFO hanging over the nuclear power construction site. Are several such cases involving multiple witnesses and backed up by some hard evidence (eg, a radar blip) good evidence that there are alien craft in our skies? No. We should expect such hard-to-explain reports anyway, whether or not we’re visited by aliens. In which case, such reports are not strong evidence of alien visitors.
Being sceptical about such reports of alien craft, ghosts or fairies is not knee-jerk, fingers-in-our-ears naysaying. It’s just recognising that, though we might not be able to explain the reports, they’re likely to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not alien visitors, ghosts or fairies actually exist. Consequently, they fail to provide strong evidence for such beings.
It was the scientist Carl Sagan who in 1980 said: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ By an ‘extraordinary’ claim, Sagan appears to have meant an extraordinarily improbable claim, such as that Alice can fly by flapping her arms, or that she can move objects with her mind. On Sagan’s view, such claims require extraordinarily strong evidence before we should accept them – much stronger than the evidence required to support a far less improbable claim.
Suppose for example that Fred claims Alice visited him last night, sat on his sofa and drank a cup of tea. Ordinarily, we would just take Fred’s word for that. But suppose Fred adds that, during her visit, Alice flew around the room by flapping her arms. Of course, we’re not going to just take Fred’s word for that. It’s an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence.
If we’re starting from a very low base, probability-wise, then much more heavy lifting needs to be done by the evidence to raise the probability of the claim to a point where it might be reasonable to believe it. Clearly, Fred’s testimony about Alice flying around the room is not nearly strong enough.
Similarly, given the low prior probability of the claims that someone communicated with a dead relative, or has fairies living in their local wood, or has miraculously raised someone from the dead, or can move physical objects with their mind, we should similarly set the evidential bar much higher than we would for more mundane claims.
4. Beware accumulated anecdotes
Once we’ve formed an opinion, it can be tempting to notice only evidence that supports it and to ignore the rest. Psychologists call this tendency confirmation bias.
For example, suppose Simon claims a psychic ability to know the future. He can provide 100 examples of his predictions coming true, including one or two dramatic examples. In fact, Simon once predicted that a certain celebrity would die within 12 months, and they did!
Do these 100 examples provide us with strong evidence that Simon really does have some sort of psychic ability? Not if Simon actually made many thousands of predictions and most didn’t come true. Still, if we count only Simon’s ‘hits’ and ignore his ‘misses’, it’s easy to create the impression that he has some sort of ‘gift’.
Confirmation bias can also create the false impression that a therapy is effective. A long list of anecdotes about patients whose condition improved after a faith healing session can seem impressive. People may say: ‘Look at all this evidence! Clearly this therapy has some benefits!’ But the truth is that such accumulated anecdotes are usually largely worthless as evidence.
It’s also worth remembering that such stories are in any case often dubious. For example, they can be generated by the power of suggestion: tell people that a treatment will improve their condition, and many will report that it has, even if the treatment actually offers no genuine medical benefit.
Impressive anecdotes can also be generated by means of a little creative interpretation. Many believe that the 16th-century seer Nostradamus predicted many important historical events, from the Great Fire of London to the assassination of John F Kennedy. However, because Nostradamus’s prophecies are so vague, nobody was able to use his writings to predict any of these events before they occurred. Rather, his texts were later creatively interpreted to fit what subsequently happened. But that sort of ‘fit’ can be achieved whether Nostradamus had extraordinary abilities or not. In which case, as we saw under point 2 above, the ‘fit’ is not strong evidence of such abilities.
5. Beware ‘But it fits!’
Often, when we’re presented with strong evidence that our belief is false, we can easily change our mind. Show me I’m mistaken in believing that the Matterhorn is near Chamonix, and I’ll just drop that belief.
However, abandoning a belief isn’t always so easy. That’s particularly the case for beliefs in which we have invested a great deal emotionally, socially and/or financially. When it comes to religious and political beliefs, for example, or beliefs about the character of our close relatives, we can find it extraordinarily difficult to change our minds. Psychologists refer to the discomfort we feel in such situations – when our beliefs or attitudes are in conflict – as cognitive dissonance.
Perhaps the most obvious strategy we can employ when a belief in which we have invested a great deal is threatened is to start explaining away the evidence.
Here’s an example. Dave believes dogs are spies from the planet Venus – that dogs are Venusian imposters on Earth sending secret reports back to Venus in preparation for their imminent invasion of our planet. Dave’s friends present him with a great deal of evidence that he’s mistaken. But, given a little ingenuity, Dave finds he can always explain away that evidence:
‘Dave, dogs can’t even speak – how can they communicate with Venus?’
‘They can speak, they just hide their linguistic ability from us.’
‘But Dave, dogs don’t have transmitters by which they could relay their messages to Venus – we’ve searched their baskets: nothing there!’
‘Their transmitters are hidden in their brain!’
‘But we’ve X-rayed this dog’s brain – no transmitter!’
‘The transmitters are made from organic material indistinguishable from ordinary brain stuff.’
‘But we can’t detect any signals coming from dogs’ heads.’
‘This is advanced alien technology – beyond our ability to detect it!’
‘Look Dave, Venus can’t support dog life – it’s incredibly hot and swathed in clouds of acid.’
‘The dogs live in deep underground bunkers to protect them. Why do you think they want to leave Venus?!’
You can see how this conversation might continue ad infinitum. No matter how much evidence is presented to Dave, it’s always possible for him to cook up another explanation. And so he can continue to insist his belief is logicallyconsistent with the evidence.
But, of course, despite the possibility of his endlessly explaining away any and all counterevidence, Dave’s belief is absurd. It’s certainly not confirmed by the available evidence about dogs. In fact, it’s powerfully disconfirmed.
The moral is: showing that your theory can be made to ‘fit’ – be consistent with – the evidence is not the same thing as showing your theory is confirmed by the evidence. However, those who hold weird beliefs often muddle consistency and confirmation.
Take young-Earth creationists, for example. They believe in the literal truth of the Biblical account of creation: that the entire Universe is under 10,000 years old, with all species being created as described in the Book of Genesis.
Polls indicate that a third or more of US citizens believe that the Universe is less than 10,000 years old. Of course, there’s a mountain of evidence against the belief. However, its proponents are adept at explaining away that evidence.
Take the fossil record embedded in sedimentary layers revealing that today’s species evolved from earlier species over many millions of years. Many young-Earth creationists explain away this record as a result of the Biblical flood, which they suppose drowned and then buried living things in huge mud deposits. The particular ordering of the fossils is supposedly accounted for by different ecological zones being submerged one after the other, starting with simple marine life. Take a look at the Answers in Genesis website developed by the Bible literalist Ken Ham, and you’ll discover how a great deal of other evidence for evolution and a billions-of-years-old Universe is similarly explained away. Ham believes that, by explaining away the evidence against young-Earth creationism in this way, he can show that his theory ‘fits’ – and so is scientifically confirmed by – that evidence:
Increasing numbers of scientists are realising that when you take the Bible as your basis and build your models of science and history upon it, all the evidence from the living animals and plants, the fossils, and the cultures fits. This confirms that the Bible really is the Word of God and can be trusted totally. [my italics]
According to Ham, young-Earth creationists and evolutionists do the same thing: they look for ways to make the evidence fit the theory to which they have already committed themselves:
Evolutionists have their own framework … into which they try to fit the data. [my italics]
But, of course, scientists haven’t just found ways of showing how the theory of evolution can be made consistent with the evidence. As we saw above, that theory really is strongly confirmed by the evidence.
Any theory, no matter how absurd, can, with sufficient ingenuity be made to ‘fit’ the evidence: even Dave’s theory that dogs are Venusian spies. That’s not to say it’s reasonable or well confirmed.
Of course, it’s not always unreasonable to explain away evidence. Given overwhelming evidence that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at 1 atmosphere, a single experiment that appeared to contradict that claim might reasonably be explained away as a result of some unidentified experimental error. But as we increasingly come to rely on explaining away evidence in order to try to convince ourselves of the reasonableness of our belief, we begin to drift into delusion.
Key points – How to think about weird things
Expect unexplained false sightings and huge coincidences. Reports of mysterious and extraordinary hidden agents – such as angels, demons, spirits and gods – are to be expected, whether or not such beings exist. Huge coincidences – such as a piece of toast looking very face-like – are also more or less inevitable.
Understand what strong evidence is. If the alleged evidence for a belief is scarcely more likely if the belief is true than if it’s false, then it’s not strong evidence.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If a claim is extraordinarily improbable – eg, the claim that Alice flew round the room by flapping her arms – much stronger evidence is required for reasonable belief than is required for belief in a more mundane claim, such as that Alice drank a cup of tea.
Beware accumulated anecdotes. A large number of reports of, say, people recovering after taking an alternative medicine or visiting a faith healer is not strong evidence that such treatments actually work.
Beware ‘But it fits!’ Any theory, no matter how ludicrous (even the theory that dogs are spies from Venus), can, with sufficient ingenuity, always be made logically consistent with the evidence. That’s not to say it’s confirmed by the evidence.
Why it matters
Sometimes, belief in weird things is pretty harmless. What does it matter if Mary believes there are fairies at the bottom of her garden, or Joe thinks his dead aunty visits him occasionally? What does it matter if Sally is a closed-minded naysayer when it comes to belief in psychic powers? However, many of these beliefs have serious consequences.
Clearly, people can be exploited. Grieving parents contact spiritualists who offer to put them in contact with their dead children. Peddlers of alternative medicine and faith healing charge exorbitant fees for their ‘cures’ for terminal illnesses. If some alternative medicines really work, casually dismissing them out of hand and refusing to properly consider the evidence could also cost lives.
Lives have certainly been lost. Many have died who might have been saved because they believed they should reject conventional medicine and opted for ineffective alternatives.
Huge amounts of money are often also at stake when it comes to weird beliefs. Psychic reading and astrology are huge businesses with turnovers of billions of dollars per year. Often, it’s the most desperate who will turn to such businesses for advice. Are they, in reality, throwing their money away?
Many ‘weird’ beliefs also have huge social and political implications. The former US president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were reported to have consulted an astrologer before making any major political decision. Conspiracy theories such as QAnon and the Sandy Hook hoax shape our current political landscape and feed extremist political thinking. Mainstream religions are often committed to miracles and gods.
In short, when it comes to belief in weird things, the stakes can be very high indeed. It matters that we don’t delude ourselves into thinking we’re being reasonable when we’re not.
Links & books
The Atlanticarticle ‘The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain’ (2018) by Ben Yagoda provides a great introduction to thinking that can lead us astray, including confirmation bias.
The UK-based magazineThe Skeptic provides some high-quality free articles on belief in weird things. Well worth a subscription.
The Skeptical Inquirermagazine in the US is also excellent, and provides some free content.
The RationalWiki portal provides many excellent articles on pseudoscience.
The British mathematician Norman Fenton, professor of risk information management at Queen Mary University of London, provides a brief online introduction to Bayesian approaches to assessing evidence.
My bookBelieving Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole (2011) identifies eight tricks of the trade that can turn flaky ideas into psychological flytraps – and how to avoid them.
The textbookHow to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (2019, 8th ed) by the philosophers Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, offers step-by-step advice on sorting through reasons, evaluating evidence and judging the veracity of a claim.
The bookCritical Thinking (2017) by Tom Chatfield offers a toolkit for what he calls ‘being reasonable in an unreasonable world’.
Não existe multipartidarismo sobre a lei da gravidade ou pluralismo ideológico acerca da teoria da evolução
30.out.2021 às 7h00
O veterano meteorologista Luiz Carlos Molion é uma espécie de pregador itinerante do evangelho da pseudociência. Alguns anos atrás, andou rodando o interiorzão do país, a soldo de uma concessionária de tratores, oferecendo sua bênção pontifícia às 12 tribos do agro. Em suas palestras, garantia às tropas de choque da fronteira agrícola brasileira que desmatar não interfere nas chuvas (errado), que as emissões de gás carbônico não esquentam a Terra (errado) e que, na verdade, estamos caminhando para uma fase de resfriamento global (errado).
Existem formas menos esquálidas de terminar uma carreira que se supunha científica, mas parece que Molion realmente acredita no que fala. O que realmente me parece inacreditável, no entanto, é que um periódico científico editado pela maior universidade da América Latina abra suas portas para as invectivas de um ex-pesquisador como ele.
Foi o que aconteceu na última edição da revista Khronos, editada pelo Centro Interunidade de História da Ciência da USP. Numa seção intitulada “Debates”, Molion publicou o artigo “Aquecimento global antropogênico: uma história controversa”. Nele, Molion requenta (perdoai, Senhor, a volúpia dos trocadilhos) sua mofada marmita de negacionista, atacando a suposta incapacidade do IPCC, o painel do clima da ONU, de prever com acurácia o clima futuro deste planetinha usando modelos computacionais (errado).
O desplante era tamanho que provocou protestos formais de diversos pesquisadores de prestígio da universidade, membros do conselho do centro uspiano. Na carta assinada por eles e outros colegas, lembram que Molion não tem quaisquer publicações relevantes em revistas científicas sobre o tema das mudanças climáticas há décadas e que, para cúmulo da sandice, o artigo nem faz referência… à história da ciência, que é o tema da publicação, para começo de conversa.
A resposta do editor do periódico Khronos e diretor do centro, Gildo Magalhães, não poderia ser mais desanimadora. Diante do protesto dos professores, eis o que ele disse: “Não cabe no ambiente acadêmico fazer censura a ideias. Na universidade não deveria haver partido único. Quem acompanha os debates nos congressos climatológicos internacionais sabe que fora da grande mídia o aquecimento global antropogênico é matéria cientificamente controversa. Igualar sumariamente uma opinião diversa da ortodoxa com o reles negacionismo científico, como foi o caso no Brasil com a vacina contra a Covid, prejudica o entendimento e em nada ajuda o diálogo”.
Não sei se Magalhães está mentindo deliberadamente ou é apenas muito mal informado, mas a afirmação de que o aquecimento causado pelo homem é matéria controversa nos congressos da área é falsa. O acompanhamento dos periódicos científicos mostra de forma inequívoca que questionamentos como os de Molion não são levados a sério por praticamente ninguém. A controvérsia citada por Magalhães inexiste.
É meio constrangedor ter de explicar isso para um professor da USP, mas as referências a debate de “ideias” e “partido único” não têm lugar na ciência. Se as suas ideias não são baseadas em experimentos e observações feitos com rigor e submetidos ao crivo de outros membros da comunidade científica, elas não deveriam ter lugar num periódico acadêmico. Não existe multipartidarismo sobre a lei da gravidade ou pluralismo ideológico acerca da teoria da evolução. Negar isso é abrir a porteira para retrocessos históricos.
Gregorio Duvivier explica a “positividade tóxica” do atual governo e de personalidades famosas nas redes sociais. Ele cita TikTokers, a Fundação Cacique Cobra Coral e “aquilo que faz com que o governo acredite que ele vai contornar a crise hídrica apenas com a força do pensamento”.
“É aquela positividade que consiste em simplesmente ignorar as coisas negativas, controlar qualquer pensamento pessimista e fingir que a vida não tem problema”, explica. Para o humorista, isso nos faz “ter versão mais infantil das situações” e “perder a capacidade de encarar momentos difíceis”.
“Positividade tóxica é grande aliada do capitalismo”, diz Duvivier
A escala do problema, avalia Duvivier, atinge toda a sociedade. “Positividade tóxica é uma grande aliada do capitalismo ao estimular responsabilização individual pelas injustiças que o próprio sistema capitalista gera”, critica. Para Gregorio, “essa lógica de acreditar que a gente pode ter tudo o que quiser se tiver pensamento positivo é justamente o que sustenta uma economia de mercado”.
“Tem um outro terreno no qual a positividade tóxica pode ser uma arma muito poderosa, a ponto dela se tornar perversa. É aa política. Sim, é no âmbito da política que a positividade tóxica vira um instrumento de controle social e manter as pessoas num estado de imobilidade”, prossegue Duvivier. Ele cita que o instrumento é usado para cessar a indignação da sociedade, que gera protestos e afins.
João Paulo Charleaux – 13 de out de 2021 (atualizado 13/10/2021 às 00h26)
Laurent-Henri Vignaud, historiador da ciência na Universidade de Bourgogne, fala ao ‘Nexo’ sobre as ideias, à direita e à esquerda, por trás do movimento antivacina nos últimos 300 anos
A resistência à vacinação é um fenômeno antigo e persistente, que encontra adeptos à esquerda e à direita – sempre nas franjas mais extremas desses setores –, e não está ligado à falta de educação, mas ao excesso de informação e à dificuldade de saber em que acreditar, de acordo com o historiador da ciência Laurent-Henri Vignaud, da Universidade de Bourgogne, na França.
O autor do livro “Antivax: Resistência às vacinas, do século 18 aos Nossos Dias” esmiuça, nesta entrevista concedida por escrito ao Nexo nesta quarta-feira (6), os argumentos dos que ainda resistem a se vacinar contra a covid-19 em todo mundo, e faz um retrospecto desse movimento antivacinal ao longo da história.
Vignaud fará uma conferência virtual sobre o tema no dia 14 de outubro, no ciclo de palestras sobre a Covid promovido pelo Consulado da França em São Paulo em parceria com a Unesco, órgão das Nações Unidas para educação e cultura, e com os Blogs de Ciência da Unicamp. A transmissão é ao vivo e os vídeos ficam disponíveis nos canais do Consulado da França na internet.
Quais são os argumentos daqueles que se opõem à vacinação? Como esses argumentos variaram nos últimos 300 anos?
Laurent-Henri Vignaud Esses argumentos são muito diversos, assim como os perfis “antivax”. Muitos têm dúvidas simples sobre a qualidade das vacinas ou sobre os conflitos de interesse de quem as promove. Outros desenvolvem teorias extremas de conspiração, dizendo que as vacinas são feitas para adoecer, para esterilizar, matar ou escravizar. No meio, há aqueles que “hesitam” por tal ou tal motivo.
Aqueles que recusam explicitamente uma ou mais vacinas – quando falamos estritamente dos “antivax” – o fazem por motivos religiosos, políticos ou alternativos e naturalistas. Há certas correntes rigorosas, em todas as religiões, que recusam a vacinação em nome de um princípio fatalista e providencialista, numa afirmação da ideia de que o homem não é senhor de seu próprio destino.
Já os que se opõem às vacinas por razões políticas atacam as leis impositivas em nome da livre disposição de seus corpos e das liberdades individuais, no discurso do “meu corpo me pertence”.
Outros, muito numerosos hoje, contestam a eficácia das vacinas e defendem outras terapias que vão desde regimes de saúde a fitoterápicos e homeopatia – o que aparece em discursos como “a imunidade natural é superior à imunidade a vacinas” e “as doenças nos fortalecem”. A maioria desses argumentos está presente desde o início da polêmica vacinal no final do século 18, mas se atualizam de maneira diferente em cada época.
Historicamente, o movimento antivacinação é de direita ou de esquerda? Isso é algo que mudou ao longo do tempo ou permanece o mesmo?
Laurent-Henri Vignaud Atualmente, as duas tendências existem: há uma postura “ecológica” antivacina que é bastante esquerdista e burguesa – um modelo muito difundido por exemplo na Califórnia entre funcionários de empresas digitais. E há uma postura “libertária” ou “confessional” antivacina, que é de direita, presente sobretudo na América, em círculos religiosos conservadores e partidários de líderes populistas como [o ex-presidente dos EUA Donald] Trump ou [o presidente do Brasil, Jair] Bolsonaro.
Historicamente, a inoculação, técnica que antecedeu as vacinas no século 18, foi promovida por filósofos como Voltaire [iluminista francês, 1694-1778] e contrariada por homens da Igreja. Portanto, podemos classificar essa oposição como uma oposição à direita. No século 19, a dureza das medidas de vacinação obrigatória levou à revolta de setores mais pobres que não podiam escapar da injeção. O vacinismo aparece aí como higiene social e o antivacinismo, como algo protagonizado por movimentos operários, feministas e de defesa dos animais, mais marcadamente à esquerda, portanto.
A Revolta da Vacina, de 1904, no Brasil, foi desencadeada por uma campanha de vacinação forçada pretendida pela jovem República, que gerou motins na classe trabalhadora. No século 20, o antivacinismo está representado à direita e à esquerda, mas quase sempre nos extremos.
O que explica por que a França, país desenvolvido, rico, cientificamente avançado, onde não faltam fontes confiáveis de informação, tenha hoje uma resistência tão elevada à vacinação, mesmo entre os profissionais de saúde?
Laurent-Henri Vignaud Esse é um fenômeno recente. A França não está isenta da tradição antivacinal. Na verdade, essa era uma tradição até bastante virulenta na época de Pasteur [século 19], a ponto de atrasar o estabelecimento de uma obrigação de vacinar contra a varíola, mas esta não é uma opinião muito difundida até o início do anos 2000.
Por exemplo, nossa primeira liga “antivax” apareceu em 1954 após a entrada em vigor da obrigação do BCG, mas, à época, os ingleses e os americanos já tinha ligas “antivax” há quase um século.
Durante a última epidemia de varíola na Bretanha em 1954-1955, na altura em que o prefeito decretou o reforço da vacinação obrigatória, mais de 90% dos habitantes concernidos já tinham sido vacinados voluntariamente.
Essa confiança foi abalada durante o debate sobre a vacina contra a hepatite B em meados da década de 1990, até porque os políticos se contradiziam sobre sua possível periculosidade. E, na crise do do influenza A em 2009, a campanha de vacinação falhou. Os franceses não acreditavam na possibilidade de uma pandemia e não entendiam por que deveriam ter sido vacinados contra uma doença na qual não viam perigo. Talvez o choque da pandemia de covid reverta essa tendência.
Como você explica o fato de que os boatos, o misticismo e a irracionalidade persistam, mesmo em uma época em que a ciência se desenvolveu tanto, mesmo em uma época em que a educação formal alcançou tantos? Essa adesão às teorias da conspiração seria uma característica humana inextinguível?
Laurent-Henri Vignaud A suspeita de riscos tecnológicos – porque a vacina é um produto manufaturado – não se alimenta da falta de informação, mas de seu transbordamento. É por sermos inundados com informações e por não podermos lidar com um décimo delas que nós duvidamos.
Quem de nós pode explicar, ainda que de forma grosseira, como funciona algo tão difundido como um telefone celular? Diante dessa superabundância de quebra-cabeças técnico-científicos e de conhecimentos que não podemos assimilar, os cidadãos 2.0 fazem seu mercado e acreditam no que querem acreditar de acordo com o que consideram ser do seu interesse.
A maioria confia em palavras de autoridade e no pouco que conseguem entender de tudo o que chega a si. Alguns ficam insatisfeitos com as respostas que lhes são dadas e passam a duvidar de tudo, chegando a imaginar universos paralelos e paranóicos. Não é, portanto, na ignorância que estas crenças se baseiam, mas sim num “ônus da prova”, que pesa cada vez mais sobre os ombros dos cidadãos contemporâneos.
Nessa “sociedade de risco”, os cidadãos contemporâneos são cada vez mais instados a assumir a responsabilidade por si próprios e julgar por si próprios o que é verdadeiro e o que é falso. Em alguns, o espírito crítico se empolga e leva a uma forma de ceticismo radical da qual o antivacinismo é um bom exemplo.
Frances Haugen’s testimony at the Senate hearing today raised serious questions about how Facebook’s algorithms work—and echoes many findings from our previous investigation.
October 5, 2021
On Sunday night, the primary source for the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files, an investigative series based on internal Facebook documents, revealed her identity in an episode of 60 Minutes.
Frances Haugen, a former product manager at the company, says she came forward after she saw Facebook’s leadership repeatedly prioritize profit over safety.
Before quitting in May of this year, she combed through Facebook Workplace, the company’s internal employee social media network, and gathered a wide swath of internal reports and research in an attempt to conclusively demonstrate that Facebook had willfully chosen not to fix the problems on its platform.
Today she testified in front of the Senate on the impact of Facebook on society. She reiterated many of the findings from the internal research and implored Congress to act.
“I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” she said in her opening statement to lawmakers. “These problems are solvable. A safer, free-speech respecting, more enjoyable social media is possible. But there is one thing that I hope everyone takes away from these disclosures, it is that Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own.”
During her testimony, Haugen particularly blamed Facebook’s algorithm and platform design decisions for many of its issues. This is a notable shift from the existing focus of policymakers on Facebook’s content policy and censorship—what does and doesn’t belong on Facebook. Many experts believe that this narrow view leads to a whack-a-mole strategy that misses the bigger picture.
“I’m a strong advocate for non-content-based solutions, because those solutions will protect the most vulnerable people in the world,” Haugen said, pointing to Facebook’s uneven ability to enforce its content policy in languages other than English.
Haugen’s testimony echoes many of the findings from an MIT Technology Review investigation published earlier this year, which drew upon dozens of interviews with Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. We pulled together the most relevant parts of our investigation and other reporting to give more context to Haugen’s testimony.
How does Facebook’s algorithm work?
Colloquially, we use the term “Facebook’s algorithm” as though there’s only one. In fact, Facebook decides how to target ads and rank content based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of algorithms. Some of those algorithms tease out a user’s preferences and boost that kind of content up the user’s news feed. Others are for detecting specific types of bad content, like nudity, spam, or clickbait headlines, and deleting or pushing them down the feed.
Unlike traditional algorithms, which are hard-coded by engineers, machine-learning algorithms “train” on input data to learn the correlations within it. The trained algorithm, known as a machine-learning model, can then automate future decisions. An algorithm trained on ad click data, for example, might learn that women click on ads for yoga leggings more often than men. The resultant model will then serve more of those ads to women.
And because of Facebook’s enormous amounts of user data, it can
develop models that learned to infer the existence not only of broad categories like “women” and “men,” but of very fine-grained categories like “women between 25 and 34 who liked Facebook pages related to yoga,” and [target] ads to them. The finer-grained the targeting, the better the chance of a click, which would give advertisers more bang for their buck.
The same principles apply for ranking content in news feed:
Just as algorithms [can] be trained to predict who would click what ad, they [can] also be trained to predict who would like or share what post, and then give those posts more prominence. If the model determined that a person really liked dogs, for instance, friends’ posts about dogs would appear higher up on that user’s news feed.
Before Facebook began using machine-learning algorithms, teams used design tactics to increase engagement. They’d experiment with things like the color of a button or the frequency of notifications to keep users coming back to the platform. But machine-learning algorithms create a much more powerful feedback loop. Not only can they personalize what each user sees, they will also continue to evolve with a user’s shifting preferences, perpetually showing each person what will keep them most engaged.
Who runs Facebook’s algorithm?
Within Facebook, there’s no one team in charge of this content-ranking system in its entirety. Engineers develop and add their own machine-learning models into the mix, based on their team’s objectives. For example, teams focused on removing or demoting bad content, known as the integrity teams, will only train models for detecting different types of bad content.
This was a decision Facebook made early on as part of its “move fast and break things” culture. It developed an internal tool known as FBLearner Flow that made it easy for engineers without machine learning experience to develop whatever models they needed at their disposal. By one data point, it was already in use by more than a quarter of Facebook’s engineering team in 2016.
Many of the current and former Facebook employees I’ve spoken to say that this is part of why Facebook can’t seem to get a handle on what it serves up to users in the news feed. Different teams can have competing objectives, and the system has grown so complex and unwieldy that no one can keep track anymore of all of its different components.
As a result, the company’s main process for quality control is through experimentation and measurement. As I wrote:
Teams train up a new machine-learning model on FBLearner, whether to change the ranking order of posts or to better catch content that violates Facebook’s community standards (its rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the platform). Then they test the new model on a small subset of Facebook’s users to measure how it changes engagement metrics, such as the number of likes, comments, and shares, says Krishna Gade, who served as the engineering manager for news feed from 2016 to 2018.
If a model reduces engagement too much, it’s discarded. Otherwise, it’s deployed and continually monitored. On Twitter, Gade explained that his engineers would get notifications every few days when metrics such as likes or comments were down. Then they’d decipher what had caused the problem and whether any models needed retraining.
How has Facebook’s content ranking led to the spread of misinformation and hate speech?
During her testimony, Haugen repeatedly came back to the idea that Facebook’s algorithm incites misinformation, hate speech, and even ethnic violence.
“Facebook … knows—they have admitted in public—that engagement-based ranking is dangerous without integrity and security systems but then not rolled out those integrity and security systems in most of the languages in the world,” she told the Senate today. “It is pulling families apart. And in places like Ethiopia it is literally fanning ethnic violence.”
Here’s what I’ve written about this previously:
The machine-learning models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism: put simply, people just like outrageous stuff.
Sometimes this inflames existing political tensions. The most devastating example to date is the case of Myanmar, where viral fake news and hate speech about the Rohingya Muslim minority escalated the country’s religious conflict into a full-blown genocide. Facebook admitted in 2018, after years of downplaying its role, that it had not done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
As Haugen mentioned, Facebook has also known this for a while. Previous reporting has found that it’s been studying the phenomenon since at least 2016.
In an internal presentation from that year, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, a company researcher, Monica Lee, found that Facebook was not only hosting a large number of extremist groups but also promoting them to its users: “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the presentation said, predominantly thanks to the models behind the “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” features.
In 2017, Chris Cox, Facebook’s longtime chief product officer, formed a new task force to understand whether maximizing user engagement on Facebook was contributing to political polarization. It found that there was indeed a correlation, and that reducing polarization would mean taking a hit on engagement. In a mid-2018 document reviewed by the Journal, the task force proposed several potential fixes, such as tweaking the recommendation algorithms to suggest a more diverse range of groups for people to join. But it acknowledged that some of the ideas were “antigrowth.” Most of the proposals didn’t move forward, and the task force disbanded.
In my own conversations, Facebook employees also corroborated these findings.
A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.
In her testimony, Haugen also repeatedly emphasized how these phenomena are far worse in regions that don’t speak English because of Facebook’s uneven coverage of different languages.
“In the case of Ethiopia there are 100 million people and six languages. Facebook only supports two of those languages for integrity systems,” she said. “This strategy of focusing on language-specific, content-specific systems for AI to save us is doomed to fail.”
She continued: “So investing in non-content-based ways to slow the platform down not only protects our freedom of speech, it protects people’s lives.”
I explore this more in a different article from earlier this year on the limitations of large language models, or LLMs:
Despite LLMs having these linguistic deficiencies, Facebook relies heavily on them to automate its content moderation globally. When the war in Tigray[, Ethiopia] first broke out in November, [AI ethics researcher Timnit] Gebru saw the platform flounder to get a handle on the flurry of misinformation. This is emblematic of a persistent pattern that researchers have observed in content moderation. Communities that speak languages not prioritized by Silicon Valley suffer the most hostile digital environments.
Gebru noted that this isn’t where the harm ends, either. When fake news, hate speech, and even death threats aren’t moderated out, they are then scraped as training data to build the next generation of LLMs. And those models, parroting back what they’re trained on, end up regurgitating these toxic linguistic patterns on the internet.
How does Facebook’s content ranking relate to teen mental health?
One of the more shocking revelations from the Journal’s Facebook Files was Instagram’s internal research, which found that its platform is worsening mental health among teenage girls. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” researchers wrote in a slide presentation from March 2020.
Haugen connects this phenomenon to engagement-based ranking systems as well, which she told the Senate today “is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content.”
“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers,” she continued. “There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.”
In my own reporting, I heard from a former AI researcher who also saw this effect extend to Facebook.
The researcher’s team…found that users with a tendency to post or engage with melancholy content—a possible sign of depression—could easily spiral into consuming increasingly negative material that risked further worsening their mental health.
But as with Haugen, the researcher found that leadership wasn’t interested in making fundamental algorithmic changes.
The team proposed tweaking the content-ranking models for these users to stop maximizing engagement alone, so they would be shown less of the depressing stuff. “The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?” he remembers.
But anything that reduced engagement, even for reasons such as not exacerbating someone’s depression, led to a lot of hemming and hawing among leadership. With their performance reviews and salaries tied to the successful completion of projects, employees quickly learned to drop those that received pushback and continue working on those dictated from the top down….
That former employee, meanwhile, no longer lets his daughter use Facebook.
How do we fix this?
Haugen is against breaking up Facebook or repealing Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, which protects tech platforms from taking responsibility for the content it distributes.
Instead, she recommends carving out a more targeted exemption in Section 230 for algorithmic ranking, which she argues would “get rid of the engagement-based ranking.” She also advocates for a return to Facebook’s chronological news feed.
Ellery Roberts Biddle, a projects director at Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that studies social media ranking systems and their impact on human rights, says a Section 230 carve-out would need to be vetted carefully: “I think it would have a narrow implication. I don’t think it would quite achieve what we might hope for.”
In order for such a carve-out to be actionable, she says, policymakers and the public would need to have a much greater level of transparency into how Facebook’s ad-targeting and content-ranking systems even work. “I understand Haugen’s intention—it makes sense,” she says. “But it’s tough. We haven’t actually answered the question of transparency around algorithms yet. There’s a lot more to do.”
Nonetheless, Haugen’s revelations and testimony have brought renewed attention to what many experts and Facebook employees have been saying for years: that unless Facebook changes the fundamental design of its algorithms, it will not make a meaningful dent in the platform’s issues.
Her intervention also raises the prospect that if Facebook cannot put its own house in order, policymakers may force the issue.
“Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is now causing,” Haugen told the Senate. “I came forward at great personal risk because I believe we still have time to act, but we must act now.”
Opinion | The Climate Has a Gun (The Wall Street Journal)
Those who dismiss risk of climate change often appeal to uncertainty, but they have it backward.
Aug. 17, 2021 1:14 pm ET 2 minutes
In “Climate Change Brings a Flood of Hyperbole” (op-ed, Aug. 11), Steven Koonin put himself in the unenviable position of playing down climate change precisely while we are experiencing unprecedented heat waves, storms, fires, droughts, and floods that exceed model-based expectations.
Mr. Koonin claims that regional projections are “meant to scare people.” But the paper he cites for support addresses the “unfolding of what may become catastrophic changes to Earth’s climate” and argues that “being able to anticipate what would otherwise be surprises in extreme weather and climate variations” requires better models. In other words, our current models cannot rule out a catastrophic future.
Model uncertainty is two-edged. If we’d been lucky, we’d be discovering that we overestimated the danger. But all indicators suggest the opposite. Those who dismiss climate risk often appeal to uncertainty, but they have it backward. Climate uncertainty is like not knowing how many shots Dirty Harry fired from his .44-caliber Magnum. Now that it’s pointed at our head, it’s dawning on us that we’ve probably miscalculated. By the time we’re sure, it’s too late. We’ve got to ask ourselves one question: Do we feel lucky? Well, do we?
Adj. Prof. Mark Boslough – University of New Mexico
Opinion | Climate Change Brings a Flood of Hyperbole (The Wall Street Journal)
Despite constant warnings of catastrophe, things aren’t anywhere near as dire as the media say.
Steven E. Koonin – Aug. 10, 2021 6:33 pm ET
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued its latest report assessing the state of the climate and projecting its future. As usual, the media and politicians are exaggerating and distorting the evidence in the report. They lament an allegedly broken climate and proclaim, yet again, that we are facing the “last, best chance” to save the planet from a hellish future. In fact, things aren’t—and won’t be—anywhere near as dire.
The new report, titled AR6, is almost 4,000 pages, written by several hundred government-nominated scientists over the past four years. It should command our attention, especially because this report will be a crucial element of the coming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Leaders from 196 countries will come together there in November, likely to adopt more-aggressive nonbinding pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Previous climate-assessment reports have misrepresented scientific research in the “conclusions” presented to policy makers and the media. The summary of the most recent U.S. government climate report, for instance, said heat waves across the U.S. have become more frequent since 1960, but neglected to mention that the body of the report shows they are no more common today than they were in 1900. Knowledgeable independent scientists need to scrutinize the latest U.N. report because of the major societal and economic disruptions that would take place on the way to a “net zero” world, including the elimination of fossil-fueled electricity, transportation and heat, as well as complete transformation of agricultural methods.
It is already easy to see things in this report that you almost certainly won’t learn from the general media coverage. Most important, the model muddle continues. We are repeatedly told “the models say.” But the complicated computer models used to project future temperature, rainfall and so on remain deficient. Some models are far more sensitive to greenhouse gases than others. Many also disagree on the baseline temperature for the Earth’s surface.
The latest models also don’t reproduce the global climate of the past. The models fail to explain why rapid global warming occurred from 1910 to 1940, when human influences on the climate were less significant. The report also presents an extensive “atlas” of future regional climates based on the models. Sounds authoritative. But two experts, Tim Palmer and Bjorn Stevens, write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the lack of detail in current modeling approaches makes them “not fit” to describe regional climate. The atlas is mainly meant to scare people.
A perversidade do negacionismo recai em jurar que se está dizendo o contrário do que de fato se diz. Nesta novilíngua, negacionismo veste o sapatênis do antialarmismo. Chega a ser tedioso, posto que mofado, o argumento de Leandro Narloch nesta Folha na terça (10). Mofado pois —como relata Michael Mann em “The New Climate War”— não passa da mesma retórica negacionista 2.0.
Em essência, Narloch defende que há atividades nocivas ao clima que devem ser “celebradas e difundidas” por nos tornar “menos vulneráveis à natureza”. Narloch está cientificamente errado. E o faz subscrevendo a uma das formas mais nefárias de negacionismo: mascara-o, vendendo soluções que não só não são capazes de mitigar e adaptar as sociedades à crise climática como possuem o efeito adverso. Implode-se a Amazônia para salvá-la, eis o argumento.
Esses e outros discursos negacionistas já tinham sido mapeados na revista Global Sustaintability, de Cambridge, em julho de 2020: não são novos. Em vez de mexer em tabus do século 21, vendem-se inverdades como se ciência fosse. Narloch erra no conceito de vulnerabilidade: dos incêndios florestais na Califórnia às inundações na Alemanha, não estamos protegidos contra a natureza porque nela estamos inseridos. Ignora, ademais, a vasta literatura do Painel do Clima sobre vulnerabilidade.
Narloch desconsidera o conceito da ciência climática de “feedback loops”: a crise climática aciona uma série de gatilhos de dimensão incalculável, uma reação de cadeia nunca vista. Destruir o clima não nos protegerá do clima, porque é a ausência de uma mudança drástica energética que tem aprofundado a crise climática. É ineficiente o investir no contrário.
Se o relatório do Painel do Clima acendeu o sinal vermelho, não é com desinformação que o jornalismo contribuirá ao tema. Pluralismo é um rio onde as ideias se movem dentro das margens da verdade e da ciência. Não reclamem quando o rio secar, implodindo as margens que o jornalismo deveria ter protegido.
On Monday, a weighty draft report on how to halt and reverse human-caused global warming will hit the inboxes of government experts. This is the final review before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues its official summary of the science.
While part of the brief was to identify barriers to climate action, critics say there is little space given to the obstructive role of fossil fuel lobbying – and that’s a problem.
Robert Brulle, an American sociologist who has long studied institutions that promote climate denial, likened it to “trying to tell the story of Star Wars, but omitting Darth Vader”.
Tweeting in November, Brulle explained he declined an invitation to contribute to the working group three (WG3) report. “It became clear to me that institutionalized efforts to obstruct climate action was a peripheral concern. So I didn’t consider it worth engaging in this effort. It really deserves its own chapter & mention in the summary.”
In an email exchange with Climate Home News, Brulle expressed a hope the final version would nonetheless reflect his feedback. The significance of obstruction efforts should be reflected in the summary for policymakers and not “buried in an obscure part of the report,” he wrote.
His tweet sparked a lively conversation among scientists, with several supporting his concerns and others defending the IPCC, which aims to give policymakers an overview of the scientific consensus.
David Keith, a Harvard researcher into solar geoengineering, agreed the IPCC “tells a bloodless story, and abstract numb version of the sharp political conflict that will shape climate action”.
Social ecology and ecological economics professor Julia Steinberger, a lead author on WG3, said “there is a lot of self-censorship” within the IPCC. Where authors identify enemies of climate action, like fossil fuel companies, that content is “immediately flagged as political or normative or policy-prescriptive”.
The next set of reports is likely to be “a bit better” at covering the issue than previous efforts, Steinberger added, “but mainly because the world and outside publications have overwhelmingly moved past this, and the IPCC is catching up: not because the IPCC is leading.”
Politics professor Matthew Paterson was a lead author on WG3 for the previous round of assessment reports, published in 2014. He told Climate Home that Brulle is “broadly right” lobbying hasn’t been given enough attention although there is a “decent chunk” in the latest draft on corporations fighting for their interests and slowing down climate action.
Paterson said this was partly because the expertise of authors didn’t cover fossil fuel company lobbying and partly because governments would oppose giving the subject greater prominence. “Not just Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They object to everything. But the Americans [and others too]”.
While the IPCC reports are produced by scientists, government representatives negotiate the initial scope and have some influence over how the evidence is summarised before approving them for publication. “There was definitely always a certain adaptation – or an internalised sense of what governments are and aren’t going to accept – in the report,” said Paterson.
The last WG3 report in 2014 was nearly 1,500 pages long. Lobbying was not mentioned in its 32-page ‘summary for policymakers’ but lobbying against carbon taxes is mentioned a few times in the full report.
On page 1,184, the report says some companies “promoted climate scepticism by providing financial resources to like-minded think-tanks and politicians”. The report immediately balances this by saying “other fossil fuel companies adopted a more supportive position on climate science”.
One of the co-chairs of WG3, Jim Skea, rejected the criticisms as “completely unfair”. He told Climate Home News: “The IPCC produces reports very slowly because the whole cycle lasts seven years… we can’t respond on a 24/7 news cycle basis to ideas that come up.”
Skea noted there was a chapter on policies and institutions in the 2014 report which covered lobbying from industry and from green campaigners and their influence on climate policy. “The volume of climate change mitigation literature that comes out every year is huge and I would say that the number of references to articles which talk about lobbying of all kinds – including industrial lobbying and whether people had known about the science – it is in there and about the right proportions”, he said.
“We’re not an advocacy organisation, we’re a scientific organisation, it’s not our job to take up arms and take one side or another” he said. “That’s the strength of the IPCC. If if oversteps its role, it will weaken its influence” and “undermine the scientific statements it makes”.
A broader, long-running criticism of the IPCC is that it downplays subjects like political science, development studies, sociology and anthropology and over-relies on economists and the people who put together ‘integrated assessment models’ (IAMs), which attempt to answer big questions like how the world can keep to 1.5C of global warming.
Paterson said the IPCC is “largely dominated by large-scale modellers or economists and the representations of others sorts of social scientists’ expertise is very thin”. A report he co-authored on the social make-up of that IPCC working group found that nearly half the authors were engineers or economists but just 15% were from social sciences other than economics. This dominance was sharper among the more powerful authors. Of the 35 Contributing Lead Authors, 20 were economists or engineers, there was one each from political science, geography and law and none from the humanities.
Wim Carton, a lecturer in the political economy of climate change mitigation at Lund University, said that the IPCC (and scientific research in general) has been caught up in “adulation” of IAMs and this has led to “narrow techno-economic conceptualisations of future mitigation pathways”.
Skea said that there has been lots of material on political science and international relations and even “quite a bit” on moral philosophy. He told Climate Home: “It’s not the case that IPCC is only economics and modelling. Frankly, a lot of that catches attention because these macro numbers are eye-catching. There’s a big difference in the emphasis in [media] coverage of IPCC reports and the balance of materials when you go into the reports themselves.”
According to Skea’s calculations, the big models make up only 6% of the report contents, about a quarter of the summary and the majority of the press coverage. “But there’s an awful lot of bread-and-butter material in IPCC reports which is just about how you get on with it,” he added. “It’s not sexy material but it’s just as important because that’s what needs to be done to mitigate climate change.”
While saying their dominance had been amplified by the media, Skea defended the usefulness of IAMs. “Our audience are governments. Their big question is how you connect all this human activity with actual impacts on the climate. It’s very difficult to make that leap without actually modelling it. You can’t do it with lots of little micro-studies. You need models and you need scenarios to think your way through that connection.”
The IPCC has also been accused of placing too much faith in negative emissions technologies and geo-engineering. Carton calls these technologies ‘carbon unicorns’ because he says they “do not exist at any meaningful scale” and probably never will.
In a recent book chapter, Carton argues: “If one is to believe recent IPCC reports, then gone are the days when the world could resolve the climate crisis merely by reducing emissions. Avoiding global warming in excess of 2°C/1.5°C now also involves a rather more interventionist enterprise: to remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, amounts that only increase the longer emissions refuse to fall.”
When asked about carbon capture technologies, Skea said that in terms of deployment, “they haven’t moved on very much” since the last big IPCC report in 2014. He added that carbon capture and storage and bio-energy are “all things that have been done commercially somewhere in the world.”
“What has never been done”, he said, “is to connect the different parts of the system together and run them over all. That’s led many people looking at the literature to conclude that the main barriers to the adoption of some technologies are the lack of policy incentives and the lack of working out good business models to put what would be complex supply chains together – rather than anything that’s standing in the way technically.”
The next set of three IPCC assessment reports was originally due to be published in 2021, but work was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Governments and experts will have from 18 January to 14 March to read and comment on the draft for WG3. Dates for a final government review have yet to be set.
A new study suggests that the conflict between science and religion is not universal but instead depends on the historical and cultural context of a given country. The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
It is widely believed that religion and science are incompatible, with each belief system involving contradictory understandings of the world. However, as study author Jonathan McPhetres and his team point out, the majority of research on this topic has been conducted in the United States.
“One of my main areas of research is trying to improve trust in science and finding ways to better communicate science. In order to do so, we must begin to understand who is more likely to be skeptical towards science (and why),” McPhetres, an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University, told PsyPost.
In addition, “there’s a contradiction between scientific information and many traditional religious teachings; the conflict between science and religion also seems more pronounced in some areas and for some people (conservative/evangelical Christians). So, I have partly been motivated to see exactly how true this intuition is.”
First, nine initial studies that involved a total of 2,160 Americans found that subjects who scored higher in religiosity showed more negative implicit and explicit attitudes about science. Those high in religiosity also showed less interest in science-related activities and a decreased interest in reading or learning about science.
“It’s important to understand that these results don’t show that religious people hate or dislike science. Instead, they are simply less interested when compared to a person who is less religious,” McPhetres said.
Next, the researchers analyzed data from the World Values Survey (WEVs) involving 66,438 subjects from 60 different countries. This time, when examining the relationship between religious belief and interest in science, correlations were less obvious. While on average, the two concepts were negatively correlated, the strength of the relationship was small and varied by country.
Finally, the researchers collected additional data from 1,048 subjects from five countries: Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. Here, the relationship between religiosity and attitudes about science was, again, small. Furthermore, greater religiosity was actually related to greater interest in science.
Based on these findings from 11 different studies, the authors suggest that the conflict between religion and science, while apparent in the United States, may not generalize to other parts of the world, a conclusion that “severely undermines the hypothesis that science and religion are necessarily in conflict.” Given that the study employed various assessments of belief in science, including implicit attitudes toward science, interest in activities related to science, and choice of science-related topics among a list of other topics, the findings are particularly compelling.
“There are many barriers to science that need not exist. If we are to make our world a better place, we need to understand why some people may reject science and scientists so that we can overcome that skepticism. Everyone can contribute to this goal by talking about science and sharing cool scientific discoveries and information with people every chance you get,” McPhetres said.
To hear some experts tell it, science denial is mostly a contemporary phenomenon, with climate change deniers and vaccine skeptics at the vanguard. Yet the story of Galileo Galilei reveals just how far back denial’s lineage stretches.
BOOK REVIEW — “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 304 pages).
Years of astronomical sightings and calculations had convinced Galileo that the Earth, rather than sitting at the center of things, revolved around a larger body, the sun. But when he laid out his findings in widely shared texts, as astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in “Galileo and the Science Deniers,” the ossified Catholic Church leadership — heavily invested in older Earth-centric theories — aimed its ire in his direction.
Rather than revise their own maps of reality to include his discoveries, clerics labeled him a heretic and banned his writings. He spent the last years of his life under house arrest, hemmed in by his own insistence on the expansiveness of the cosmos.
Nearly 400 years later, the legacy of denial remains intact in some respects. Scientists who publish research about climate change or the safety of genetically modified crops still encounter the same kind of pushback from deniers that Galileo did. Yet denialism has also sprouted some distinctly modern features: As Alan Levinovitz points out in “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” sometimes we ourselves can become unwitting purveyors of denial, falling prey to flawed or false beliefs we may not realize we’re holding.
Levinovitz passionately protests the common assumption that natural things are inherently better than unnatural ones. Not only do people automatically tend to conclude organic foods are healthier, many choose “natural” or “alternative” methods of cancer treatment over proven chemotherapy regimens. Medication-free childbirth, meanwhile, is now considered the gold standard in many societies, despite mixed evidence of its health benefits for mothers and babies.
BOOK REVIEW — “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science,” by Alan Levinovitz (Beacon Press, 264 pages).
“What someone calls ‘natural’ may be good,” writes Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University, “but the association is by no means necessary, or even likely.” Weaving real-life examples with vivid retellings of ancient myths about nature’s power, he demonstrates that our pro-natural bias is so pervasive that we often lose the ability to see it — or to admit the legitimacy of science that contradicts it.
From this perspective, science denial starts to look like a stunted outgrowth of what we typically consider common sense. In Galileo’s time, people thought it perfectly sensible that the planet they inhabited was at the center of everything. Today, it might seem equally sensible that it’s always better to choose natural products over artificial ones, or that a plant burger ingredient called “soy leghemoglobin” is suspect because it’s genetically engineered and can’t be sourced in the wild. Yet in these cases, what we think of as common sense turns out to be humbug.
In exploring the past and present of anti-science bias, Livio and Levinovitz show how deniers’ basic toolbox has not changed much through the centuries. Practitioners marshal arguments that appeal to our tendency to think in dichotomies: wrong or right, saved or damned, pure or tainted. Food is either nourishing manna from the earth or processed, artificial junk. The Catholic Church touted its own supreme authority while casting Galileo as an unregenerate apostate.
In the realm of denialism, Levinovitz writes, “simplicity and homogeneity take precedence over diversity, complexity, and change. Righteous laws and rituals are universal. Disobedience is sacrilege.”
The very language of pro-nature, anti-science arguments, Levinovitz argues, is structured to play up this us-versus-them credo. Monikers like Frankenfood — often used to describe genetically-modified (GM) crops — frame the entire GM food industry as monstrous, a deviation from the supposed order of things. And in some circles, he writes, the word “unnatural” has come to be almost a synonym for “moral deficiency.” Not only is such black-and-white rhetoric seductive, it can give deniers the heady sense that they occupy the moral high ground.
Both pro-natural bias and the Church’s crusade against Galileo reflect the human penchant to fit new information into an existing framework. Rather than scrapping or changing that framework, we try to jerry-rig it to make it function. Some of the jerry-rigging examples the authors describe are more toxic than others: Opting for so-called natural foods despite dubious science on their benefits, for instance, is less harmful than denying evidence of a human-caused climate crisis.
What’s more, many people actually tend to cling harder to their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. Studies confirm that facts and reality aren’t likely to sway most people’s pre-existing views. This is as true now as it was at the close of the Renaissance, as shown by some extremists’ stubborn denial that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous.
In the realm of denialism, “simplicity and homogeneity take precedence over diversity, complexity, and change.”
In one of his book’s most compelling chapters, Livio takes us inside a panel of theologians that convened in 1616 to rule on whether the sun was at the center of things. None of Galileo’s incisive arguments swayed their thinking one iota. “This proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy,” the theologians wrote, “and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” Cardinal Bellarmino warned Galileo that if he did not renounce his heliocentric views, he could be thrown into prison.
Galileo’s discoveries threatened to topple a superstructure that the Church had spent hundreds of years buttressing. In making their case against him, his critics liked to cite a passage from Psalm 93: “The world also is established that it cannot be moved.”
Galileo refused to cave. In his 1632 book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” he did give the views of Pope Urban VIII an airing: He repeated Urban’s statement that no human could ever hope to decode the workings of the universe. But Livio slyly points out that Galileo put these words in the mouth of a ridiculous character named Simplicio. It was a slight Urban would not forgive. “May God forgive Signor Galilei,” he intoned, “for having meddled with these subjects.”
At the close of his 1633 Inquisition trial, Galileo was forced to declare that he abandoned any belief that the Earth revolved around the sun. “I abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies.” He swore that he would never again say “anything which might cause a similar suspicion about me.” Yet as he left the courtroom, legend goes, he muttered to himself “E pur si muove” (And yet it moves).
In the face of science denial, Livio observes, people have taken up “And yet it moves” as a rallying cry: a reminder that no matter how strong our prejudices or presuppositions, the facts always remain the same. But in today’s “post-truth era,” as political theorist John Keane calls it, with little agreement on what defines a reliable source, even the idea of an inescapable what is seems to have receded from view.
Levinovitz’s own evolution in writing “Natural” reveals how hard it can be to elevate facts above all, even for avowed anti-deniers. When he began his research, he picked off instances of pro-natural bias as if they were clay pigeons, confident in the rigor of his approach. “Confronted with a false faith, I had resolved that it was wholly evil,” he reflects.
Yet he later concedes that a favoritism toward nature is logical in domains like sports, which celebrate the potential of the human body in its unaltered form. He also accepts one expert’s point that it makes sense to buy organic if the pesticides used are less dangerous to farm workers than conventional ones. By the end of the book, he finds himself in a more nuanced place: “The art of celebrating humanity and nature,” he concludes, depends on “having the courage to embrace paradox.” His quest to puncture the myth of the natural turns out to have been dogmatic in its own way.
In acknowledging this, Levinovitz hits on something important. When deniers take up arms, it’s tempting to follow their lead: to use science to build an open-and-shut case that strikes with the finality of a courtroom witness pointing out a killer.
But as Galileo knew — and as Levinovitz ultimately concedes — science, in its endlessly unspooling grandeur, tends to resist any conclusion that smacks of the absolute. “What only science can promise,” Livio writes, “is a continuous, midcourse self-correction, as additional experimental and observational evidence accumulates, and new theoretical ideas emerge.”
In their skepticism of pat answers, these books bolster the case that science’s strength is in its flexibility — its willingness to leave room for iteration, for correction, for innovation. Science is an imperfect vehicle, as any truth-seeking discipline must be. And yet, as Galileo would have noted, it moves.
Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer based in San Jose, California. Her most recent book for children is “The Life Heroic.”
A grant to a New York nonprofit aimed at detecting and preventing future outbreaks of coronaviruses from bats has been canceled by the National Institutes of Health, Politico reports, apparently at the direction of President Donald Trump because the research involved the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. The virology institute has become a focal point for the idea that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from the laboratory and caused the current COVID-19 pandemic, a scenario experts say is not supported by evidence. Instead, virologists The Scientist has spoken to say the virus most likely jumped from infected animals to humans.
The grant, first awarded in fiscal year 2014 and most recently renewed last year, went to EcoHealth Alliance, which describes itself as “a global environmental health nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease.” The aims of the funded project included characterizing coronaviruses present in bat populations in southern China and conducting surveillance to detect spillover events of such viruses to people. The project has resulted in 20 publications, most recently a March report on zoonotic risk factors in rural southern China.
EcoHealth Alliance’s partners on the project include researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a BSL-4 facility that has for months been a focus of conspiracy theories that SARS-CoV-2 escaped or was released from a lab. On April 14, the The Washington Post published a column highlighting State Department cables about concerns regarding safety at the institute. (Experts tell NPR that, even in light of the cables, accidental escape of the virus from a lab remains a far less likely scenario than a jump from animals.)
Then, in an April 17 White House coronavirus briefing, a reporter, whom Politico identifies as being from Newsmax, falsely stated in a question that “US intelligence is saying this week that the coronavirus likely came from a level 4 lab in Wuhan,” and that the NIH had awarded a $3.7 million grant to the Wuhan lab. “Why would the US give a grant like that to China?” she asked. “We will end that grant very quickly,” Trump said in his answer.
An NIH official then wrote to EcoHealth Alliance to inquire about money sent to “China-based participants in this work,” Politico reports, and the organization’s head, Peter Daszak, responded that a complete response would take time, but that “I can categorically state that no fund from [the grant] have been sent to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, nor has any contract been signed.” Days later, NIH notified EcoHealth Alliance that future funding for the project was canceled, and that it must immediately “stop spending the $369,819 remaining from its 2020 grant”—an unusual move generally reserved for cases of scientific misconduct or financial improprieties, according to Politico.
In a statement about the cancellation, EcoHealth Alliance says the terminated research “aimed to analyze the risk of coronavirus emergence and help in designing vaccines and drugs to protect us from COVID-19 and other coronavirus threats,” and that it addresses “all four strategic research priorities of the NIH/NIAID Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, released just this week.” The organization will, it says, “continue our fight against this and other emerging diseases.”
Carl Bergstrom’s two disparate areas of expertise merged as reports of a mysterious respiratory illness emerged in January
Julia Carrie Wong, Tue 28 Apr 2020 11.00 BST
Carl Bergstrom is uniquely suited to understanding the current moment. A professor of biology at the University of Washington, he has spent his career studying two seemingly disparate topics: emerging infectious diseases and networked misinformation. They merged into one the moment reports of a mysterious respiratory illness emerged from China in January.
The coronavirus touched off both a pandemic and an “infodemic” of hoaxes, conspiracy theories, honest misunderstandings and politicized scientific debates. Bergstrom has jumped into the fray, helping the public and the press navigate the world of epidemiological models, statistical uncertainty and the topic of his forthcoming book: bullshit.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been teaching a course and have co-written a book about the concept of bullshit. Explain what you mean by bullshit?
The formal definition that we use is “language, statistical figures, data, graphics and other forms of presentation that are intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener with a blatant disregard for truth or logical coherence”.
The idea with bullshit is that it’s trying to appear authoritative and definitive in a way that’s not about communicating accurately and informing a reader, but rather by overwhelming them, persuading them, impressing them. If that’s done without any allegiance to truth, or accuracy, that becomes bullshit.
We’re all used to verbal bullshit. We’re all used to campaign promises and weasel words, and we’re pretty good at seeing through that because we’ve had a lot of practice. But as the world has become increasingly quantified and the currency of arguments has become statistics, facts and figures and models and such, we’re increasingly confronted, even in the popular press, with numerical and statistical arguments. And this area’s really ripe for bullshit, because people don’t feel qualified to question information that’s given to them in quantitative form.
Are there bullshit narratives about the coronavirus that you are concerned about right now?
What’s happened with this pandemic that we’re not accustomed to in the epidemiology community is that it’s been really heavily politicized. Even when scientists are very well-intentioned and not trying to support any side of the narrative, when they do work and release a paper it gets picked up by actors with political agendas.
Whether it’s talking about seroprevalence or estimating the chance that this is even going to come to the United States at all each study gets picked up and placed into this little political box and sort of used as a cudgel to beat the other side with.
So even when the material isn’t being produced as bullshit, it’s being picked up and used in the service of that by overstating its claims, by cherry-picking the information that’s out there and so on. And I think that’s kind of the biggest problem that we’re facing.
One example [of intentional bullshit] might be this insistence for a while on graphing the number of cases on a per-capita basis, so that people could say the US response is so much better than the rest of the world because we have a slower rate of growth per capita. That was basically graphical malfeasance or bullshit. When a wildfire starts spreading, you’re interested in how it’s spreading now, not whether it’s spreading in a 100-acre wood or millions of square miles of national forest.
Is there one big lesson that you think that the media should keep in mind as we communicate science to the public? What mistakes are we making?
I think the media has been adjusting really fast and doing really well. When I’m talking about how to avoid misinformation around this I’m constantly telling people to trust the professional fact-based media. Rather than looking for the latest rumor that’s spreading across Facebook or Twitter so that you can have information up to the hour, recognize that it’s much better to have solidly sourced, well-vetted information from yesterday.
Hyper-partisan media are making a huge mess of this, but that’s on purpose. They’ve got a reason to promote hydroxychloroquine or whatever it is and just run with that. They’re not even trying to be responsible.
But one of the biggest things that people [in the media]could do to improve would be to recognize that scientific studies, especially in a fast-moving situation like this, are provisional. That’s the nature of science. Anything can be corrected. There’s no absolute truth there. Each model, each finding is just adding to a weight of evidence in one direction or another.
A lot of the reporting is focusing on models, and most of us probably don’t have any basic training in how to read them or what kind of credence to put in them. What should we know?
The key thing, and this goes for scientists as well as non-scientists, is that people are not doing a very good job thinking about what the purpose of different models are, how the purposes of different models vary, and then what the scope of their value is. When these models get treated as if they’re oracles, then people both over-rely on them and treat them too seriously – and then turn around and slam them too hard for not being perfect at everything.
Are there mistakes that are made by people in the scientific community when it comes to communicating with the public?
We’re trying to communicate as a scientific community in a new way, where people are posting their data in real time. But we weren’t ready for the degree to which that stuff would be picked up and assigned meaning in this highly politically polarized environment. Work that might be fairly easy for researchers to contextualize in the field can be portrayed as something very, very different in the popular press.
The first Imperial College model in March was predicting 1.1 million to 2.2 million American deaths if the pandemic were not controlled. That’s a really scary, dramatic story, and I still think that it’s not unrealistic. That got promoted by one side of the partisan divide. Then Imperial came back and modeled a completely different scenario, where the disease was actually brought under control and suppressed in the US, and they released a subsequent model that said, ‘If we do this, something like 50,000 deaths will occur.’ That was picked up by the other side and used to try to discredit the Imperial College team entirely by saying, ‘A couple of weeks ago they said a million now they’re saying 50,000; they can’t get anything right.’ And the answer , of course, is that they were modeling two different scenarios.
We’re also not doing enough of deliberately stressing the possible weaknesses of our interpretations. That varies enormously from researcher to researcher and team to team.
It requires a lot of discipline to argue really hard for something but also be scrupulously open about all of the weaknesses in your own argument.
But it’s more important than ever, right? A really good paper will lay out all the most persuasive evidence it can and then in the conclusion section or the discussion section say, ‘OK, here are all the reasons that this could be wrong and here are the weaknesses.’
When you have something that’s so directly policy relevant, and there’s a lot of lives at stake, we’re learning how to find the right balance.
It is a bit of a nightmare to put out data that is truthful, but also be aware that there are bad faith actors at the moment who might pounce on it and use it in a way you didn’t intend.
There’s a spectrum. You have outright bad faith actors – Russian propaganda picking up on things and bots spreading misinformation – and then you have someone like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp who I wouldn’t calla bad faith actor. He’s a misinformed actor.
There’s so much that goes unsaid in science in terms of context and what findings mean that we don’t usually write in papers. If someone does a mathematical forecasting model, you’re usually not going to have a half-page discussion on the limitations of forecasting. We’re used to writing for an audience of 50 people in the world, if we’re lucky, who have backgrounds that are very similar to our own and have a huge set of shared assumptions and shared knowledge. And it works really well when you’re writing on something that only 50 people in the world care about and all of them have comparable training, but it is a real mess when it becomes pressing, and I don’t think any of us have figured out exactly what to do about that because we’re also trying to work quickly and it’s important to get this information out.
One area that has already become contentious and in some ways politicized is the serology surveys, which are supposed to show what percentage of the population has antibodies to the virus. What are some of the big picture contextual caveats and limitations that we should keep in mind as these surveys come out?
The seroprevalence in the US is a political issue, and so the first thing is to recognize that when anyone is reporting on that stuff, there’s a political context to it. It may even be that some of the research is being done with an implicitly political context, depending on who the funders are or what the orientations and biases of some of the researchers.
On the scientific side, I think there’s really two things to think about. The first one is the issue of selection bias. You’re trying to draw a conclusion about one population by sampling from a subset of that population and you want to know how close to random your subset is with respect to the thing you’re trying to measure. The Santa Clara study recruited volunteers off of Facebook. The obvious source of sampling bias there is that people desperately want to get tested. The people that want it are, of course, people that think they’ve had it.
The other big piece is understanding the notion of positive predictive value and the way false positive and false negative error rates influence the estimate. And that depends on the incidence of infection in the population.
If you have a test that has a 3% error rate, and the incidence in the population is below 3%, then most of the positives that you get are going to be false positives. And so you’re not going to get a very tight estimate about how many people have it. This has been a real problem with the Santa Clara study. From my read of the paper, their data is actually consistent with nobody being infected. A New York Citystudy on the other hand showed 21% seropositive, so even if there has a 3% error rate, the majority of those positives have to be true positives.
Now that we’ve all had a crash course in models and serosurveys, what are the other areas of science where it makes sense for the public to start getting educated on the terms of the debate?
One that I think will come along sooner or later is interpreting studies of treatments. We’ve dealt with that a little bit with the hydroxychloroquine business but not in any serious way because the hydroxychloroquine work has been pretty weak and the results have not been so positive.
But there are ongoing tests of a large range of existing drugs. And these studies are actually pretty hard to do. There’s a lot of subtle technical issues: what are you doing for controls? Is there a control arm at all? If not, how do you interpret the data? If there is a control arm, how is it structured? How do you control for the characteristics of the population on whom you’re using the drug or their selection biases in terms of who’s getting the drug?
Unfortunately, given what we’ve already seen with hydroxychloroquine, it’s fairly likely that this will be politicized as well. There’ll be a parallel set of issues that are going to come around with vaccination, but that’s more like a year off.
If you had the ability to arm every person with one tool – a statistical tool or scientific concept – to help them understand and contextualize scientific information as we look to the future of this pandemic, what would it be?
I would like people to understand that there are interactions between the models we make, the science we do and the way that we behave. The models that we make influence the decisions that we take individually and as a society, which then feed back into the models and the models often don’t treat that part explicitly.
Once you put a model out there that then creates changes in behavior that pull you out of the domain that the model was trying to model in the first place. We have to be very attuned to that as we try to use the models for guiding policy.
That’s very interesting, and not what I expected you to say.
What did you expect?
That correlation does not imply causation.
That’s another very good one. Seasonality is a great example there. We’re trying a whole bunch of things at the same time. We’re throwing all kinds of possible solutions at this and lots of things are changing. It’s remarkable to me actually, that so many US states are seeing the epidemic curve decrease. And so there’s a bunch of possibilities there. It could be because people’s behavior is changing. There could be some seasonality there. And there are other possible explanations as well.
But what is really important is that just because the trend that you see is consistent with a story that someone’s selling, there may be many other stories that are also consistent, so inferring causality is dangerous.
“Government should be doing little or next to nothing,” Richard Ebeling wrote in a post about COVID-19 republished on March 24 by the Heartland Institute. “The problem is a social and medical one, and not a political one.”
“I just think we’re going to be fine. I think everything is going to be fine,” Heartland editorial director and research fellow Justin Haskins said about COVID-19 during a March 13 episode of the podcast In the Tank. “I really don’t think this is going to be a problem even two to three months from now.”
On Dec. 31, 2019, “a pneumonia of unknown cause” was first reported to the World Health Organization’s China Country Office — and in the months following that report, the disease now known as COVID-19 spread to infect millions of people worldwide and seems well on its way to killing hundreds of thousands — while experts warn that the presumed death toll may be significantly higher than we yet know.
As the virus spread, so too did misinformation: baseless predictions that the disease would not cause significant harm, claims of miracle cures, and conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins. That misinformation was often circulated by white-collar professionals — including many who have a history of casting doubt on climate science or seeking to debate issues that were already laid to rest within the scientific community. The overlap was so striking that it caught the attention of both former President Barack Obama and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel in March.
Some of that misinformation on COVID-19 came straight from President Trump. But a river of faulty information on the coronavirus also flowed from think tanks, experts (some self-proclaimed), academics, and professional right-wing activists who also have spurned climate science and sought to slow or stop action to respond to the climate crisis.
Some compared COVID-19 to the flu or other threats, suggesting that the flu was a larger threat and that action to slow the spread of the novel virus was an overreaction. As the toll from COVID-19 grew, others argued that the virus was the most important threat and that action to slow climate change was superfluous. Some circulated false or unproven cures and remedies while others touted the benefits of single-use plastics during the pandemic (without regard for the health of those living in places where plastics and petrochemicals are produced — like Saint John the Baptist parish, Louisiana, which on April 16, had the highest per-person COVID-19 death rate in the U.S.)
Some attacked renewable energy, some the Green New Deal, and others the World Health Organization (WHO). Some framed efforts to “flatten the curve” of infections as infringements on liberty or simply unnecessary while others persisted in using terms that the WHO has warned can lead to dangerous stigma and discrimination. And some climate science deniers have circulated conspiracy theories, like claims that the virus was a foreign “bioweapon,” that it’s linked to “electrosmog” and 5G networks, or alleged that “the World Health Organization has carried out the greatest fraud perhaps in modern history.”
The decades that fossil fuel companies spent funding organizations that sought to undermine the conclusions of credible climate scientists and building up doubt about science itself ultimately created a network of professional science deniers who are now deploying some of the same skills they honed on climate against the public health crisis at the center of our attention today.
Many of the operatives spreading COVID disinformation have influence because of the fossil fuel industry.
COVID denial reveals the deadly threat that climate denial poses to all aspects of public health and science.
The American Petroleum Institute’s 1998 “Victory Memo” outlined a broad roadmap to erode public confidence in climate change that went well beyond just the science. Their strategy included plans to “identify, recruit and train” messengers who could “participate in media outreach” on “the climate change debate.” It called for the use of both individuals and third-party organizations to assist in the industry’s efforts to stir doubt about climate science.
To delay climate change-related regulation and policy-making, the oil and gas industry sought to mislead the public and Congress and create distrust of the media.
Decades ago, an industry report drafted by a Mobil executive concluded that theories that had been advanced by climate “contrarians” didn’t hold water —— but the industry nonetheless funded their work on climate change, and now some of those same professionals are speaking out about COVID-19. In 1995, Lenny Bernstein, a Mobil executive, examined the work of climate “contrarians” in a draft report for the Global Climate Coalition (later published omitting that assessment). Bernstein’s draft concluded that “The contrarian theories raise interesting questions about our total understanding of climate processes, but they do not offer convincing arguments against the conventional model of greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change.” One of the arguments that the report draft specifically labeled “not convincing” was credited to Prof. Patrick Michaels, then based at the University of Virginia. In 2010, Michaels — at that point based at the Cato Institute — estimated in a CNN interview that perhaps 40% of his funding came from oil and gas companies.
In a March 9, 2020 article in the Washington Examiner, Michaels — now a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — predicted that a proposed European Union law (one intended to slow climate change) would be far more damaging to the economy and to “environmental resilience” than COVID-19. “Make no mistake,” Michaels wrote. “The proposed EU climate law will reverse a lot more progress and a lot more economic and environmental resilience than any probable climate change or, for that matter, coronavirus.” (Another of the scientists whose work was discredited in the draft Global Climate Coalition report, Richard Lindzen, signed onto a March 23, 2020, open letter calling climate change a “non-problem” compared to COVID-19. “As a very first step, designated Green New Deal money must be redirected and invested in a significantly better global health system,” the letter argues. “The past 150 years also show that more CO2 is beneficial for nature, greening the Earth and increasing the yields of crops. Why do world leaders ignore these hard facts? Why do world leaders do the opposite with their Green New Deal and lower the quality of life by forcing high-cost, dubious low-carbon energy technologies upon their citizens?”)
COVID denial should forever discredit climate science deniers.
These attempts to exploit a global pandemic to further the climate denial machine’s anti-science agenda will mean loss of life, and unnecessarily imperil frontline medical personnel by allowing the virus to spread further and more quickly.
Some climate deniers have pushed outright conspiracy theories on COVID-19: claiming, as Piers Corbyn did, that the pandemic is a “world population cull” backed by Bill Gates and George Soros; alleging, as a former member of British Parliament did, that COVID-19 is just a “big hoax”; or, like Alex Jones, seeking to profit directly off of COVID-19 through false marketing, according to the Food and Drug Administration and the New York Attorney General, both of which have warned Jones to desist from marketing a toothpaste he claimed “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”
Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit claiming that COVID-19 “was prepared and stockpiled as a biological weapon to be used against China’s perceived enemies.” Principia Scientific International claimed that economies were about to be shut down because “the WHO Director caused a global coronavirus panic over a basic math error,” (referring to early World Health Organization fatality rate numbers). Steve Milloy tweeted out a link to a New York Times op-ed by Dr. Cornelia Griggs, who described working in a New York City hospital amid the pandemic, calling her a “Hysterical doc” and writing “Stop the panic.” (Less than a week later, Milloy tweeted that “#Coronavirus has given us the #GreenDream: —Deprivation — Destroyed economy — Police state”). On April 10 — at a time when over 92,000 deaths had been reported worldwide — Bjorn Lomborg wrote that “Significant data indicate corona is no worse than the common flu.” And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani tweeted out a list of leading causes of death on March 10, writing “Likely at the very bottom, Coronavirus: 27.” Six weeks later, more than 14,400 people in New York City had died after contracting the virus.
Not only does their pandemic messaging undermine climate science deniers’ credibility, it also puts on display some of the faulty thinking that can be seen in their discussions of both topics — you see the same logical fallacies at play. There’s the rejection of basic modeling techniques (and early models on both COVID-19 and on climate have ultimately proved tragically accurate). There’s a failure to grasp the ways that an exponential problem can accelerate. There’s a willingness to make assertions that aren’t supported by evidence as well as a willingness to issue blanket assurances that things will be fine without taking into account the evidence. And there’s a reliance on ad hominem attacks and innuendo. These communications tactics used on both issues mirror each other.
The individuals and organizations responsible for spreading disinformation on climate science and COVID-19 will forever cement their reputations on the wrong side of history.
Climate change and the COVID pandemic are both crises.
Some climate science deniers argue that COVID-19 is the “real” crisis — but that’s another logical fallacy, because it’s entirely possible to be confronted with multiple crises at the same time. Some claim that we have to choose between action to fight COVID-19 and action to fight climate change — but that ignores policy options proposed by some advocates who have highlighted ways to respond to the urgencies of COVID-19 and the climate crisis simultaneously.
Some climate science deniers conflate the impacts of slashing carbon emissions through a managed transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles with the slashed emissions that resulted from the dramatic drop in travel caused by shelter-in-place orders — two very different ways to arrive at a similar point. “Brendan O’Neill, editor of Koch-funded website Spiked, argued that ‘this pandemic has shown us what life would be like if environmentalists got their way.’ In a column titled ‘COVID-19: a glimpse of the dystopia greens want us to live in,’ O’Neill claimed government responses to the virus represent a ‘warped dystopia’ that environmentalists like George Monbiot have been calling for,” DeSmog UK reported.
By taking a close look at where those who advocate inaction on climate change erred or misled their audience about the pandemic, it’s possible to learn a great deal — and not only about who has provided reliable information about COVID-19 and who has misled.
There are striking parallels between this pandemic and the climate crisis. The virus’ spread has proven capable of accelerating at an exponential rate.
Similarly, climate scientists have warned for decades that climate change can accelerate exponentially. That means that for both crises, the earlier action is taken, the more effective it is, and more cost efficient too.
Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm, April 22, 2020
A network of right-leaning individuals and groups, aided by nimble online outfits, has helped incubate the fervor erupting in state capitals across the country. The activism is often organic and the frustration deeply felt, but it is also being amplified, and in some cases coordinated, by longtime conservative activists, whose robust operations were initially set up with help from Republican megadonors.
The Convention of States project launched in 2015 with a high-dollar donation from the family foundation of Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican patron. It boasts past support from two members of the Trump administration — Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development.
It also trumpets a prior endorsement from Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida and a close Trump ally who is pursuing an aggressive plan to reopen his state’s economy. A spokesman for Carson declined to comment. Cuccinelli and DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment.
The initiative, aimed at curtailing federal power, is now leveraging its sweeping national network and digital arsenal to help stitch together scattered demonstrations across the country, making opposition to stay-at-home orders appear more widespread than is suggested by polling.
“We’re providing a digital platform for people to plan and communicate about what they’re doing,” said Eric O’Keefe, board president of Citizens for Self-Governance, the parent organization of the Convention of States project.
A longtime associate of the conservative activist Koch family, O’Keefe helped manage David Koch’s 1980 bid for the White House when he served as the No. 2 on the Libertarian ticket.
“To shut down our rural counties because of what’s going on in New York City, or in some sense Milwaukee, is draconian,” said O’Keefe, who lives in Wisconsin.
Polls suggest most Americans support local directives encouraging them to stay at home as covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, ravages the country, killing more than 44,000 people in the United States so far. Public health officials, including epidemiologists advising Trump’s White House, agree that sweeping restrictions represent the most effective mitigation strategy in the absence of a vaccine, which could be more than a year away.
Still, some activists insist that states should lift controls on commercial activity and public assembly, citing the effects of mass closures on businesses. They have been encouraged at times by Trump, whose attorney general, William P. Barr, said in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday that the Justice Department would consider supporting lawsuits against restrictions that go “too far.”
The swelling frustration on the right coincides with major policy changes in some states, especially those with Republican governors. Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee have all begun relaxing their restrictions in recent days after bowing to pressure and imposing far-reaching guidelines.
The protests are reminiscent in some ways of the tea party movement and the demonstrations against the Affordable Care Act that erupted in 2010, which also involved a mix of homegrown activism and shrewd behind-the-scenes funding.
For the Convention of States, public health is an unusual focus. It was founded to push for a convention that would add a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. That same anti-government impulse is now animating the group’s campaign against coronavirus precautions.
“Heavy-handed government orders that interfere with our most basic liberties will do more harm than good,” read its Facebook ads, which had been viewed as many as 36,000 times as of Tuesday evening.
Asking for a $5 donation “to support our fight,” the paid posts are part of an online blitz called “Open the States,” which also includes newly created websites, a data-collecting petition and an ominous video about the economic effects of the lockdown.
The group’s president, Mark Meckler, said his aim was to act as a “clearinghouse where these guys can all find each other” — a role he learned as co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. FreedomWorks, a libertarian advocacy group also active in the tea party movement, is seeking to play a similar function, creating an online calendar of protests.
“The major need back in 2009 was no different than it is today — some easy centralizing point to list events, to allow people to communicate with each other,” he said.
Meckler, who draws a salary of about $250,000 from the Convention of States parent group, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service, hailed the “spontaneous citizen groups self-organizing on the Internet and protesting what they perceive to be government overreach.”
So far, the protests against stay-at-home orders in states including Washington and Pennsylvania have captured headlines and drawn rebukes from some governors and epidemiologists. Experts say a sudden, widespread reopening of the country is likely to worsen the outbreak, overwhelming hospitals and killing tens of thousands.
The protesters so far have not aimed their ire at Trump, though it is his administration’s experts whose guidelines underlie many of the states’ actions.
Trump’s public comments — including his recent tweets calling for supporters to “liberate” states including Michigan, a coronavirus hot spot — have catalyzed some of the broader public reaction. Following those tweets, tens of thousands of people joined Facebook groups calling for protests in states including Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the efforts are coordinated by a trio of brothers who typically focus their efforts on fighting gun control.
In recent days, conservatives have set their sights on Wisconsin, where a few dozen protesters turned out at the Capitol to air their frustrations with Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, after he extended his state’s stay-at-home order until late May. Ahead of the demonstration, Moore, the Trump ally, revealed on a live stream that he was “working with a group” in the state with the goal of trying “to shut down the capital.”
Moore, who served as a Trump campaign adviser in 2016, said he had located a big donor to aid in the effort, though he never elaborated. “I told him about this, and he said, ‘Steve, I promise to pay the bail and legal fees for anyone who gets arrested,’ ” Moore said in the video. He likened his quest to the civil rights movement, adding, “We need to be the Rosa Parks here and protest against these government injustices.”
Moore, who has also worked at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, did not respond to a request for comment.
In Michigan, among those organizing “Operation Gridlock” was Meshawn Maddock, who sits on the Trump campaign’s advisory board and is a prominent figure in the “Women for Trump” coalition. Funds to promote the demonstrations on Facebook came from the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by Greg McNeilly, a longtime adviser to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
McNeilly said the money used to advance the anti-quarantine protests came from “grass-roots fundraising efforts” and had “nothing to do with any DeVos work.”
Many of the seemingly scattered, spontaneous outbursts of citizen activism reflect deeply interwoven networks of conservative and libertarian nonprofit organizations. One of the most vocal groups opposing the lockdown in Texas is an Austin-based conservative think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which also hails the demonstrations nationwide.
“Some Americans are angry,” its director wrote in an op-ed promoted on Facebook and placed in the local media, telling readers in Texas about the achievements of protesters in Michigan.
The board vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, oil executive Tim Dunn, is also a founding board member of the group promoting the Convention of States initiative. And the foundation’s former president, Brooke Rollins, now works as an assistant to Trump in the Office of American Innovation.
Neither Dunn nor Rollins responded to requests for comment.
The John Hancock Committee for the States — the name used in IRS filings by the group behind the Convention of States — gave more than $100,000 to the Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2011.
The Convention of States project, meanwhile, has received backing from DonorsTrust, a tax-exempt financial conduit for right-wing causes that does not disclose its contributors. The same fund has helped bankroll the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which is encouraging protests of a stay-at-home order imposed by the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little.
“Disobey Idaho,” say its Facebook ads, which use an image of the “Join or Die” snake woodcut emblematic of the Revolutionary War and later adopted by the tea party movement.
In 2014, the year before it launched the Convention of States initiative, Citizens for Self-Governance received $500,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation, a donation Meckler said helped jump-start the campaign. Mercer declined to comment.
While groups and individual activists associated with the Koch brothers have boosted this far-flung network, Emily Seidel, the chief executive of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity advocacy group, sought to distance the organization from the protest activity, which she said was “not the best way” to “get people back to work.”
“Instead, we are working directly with policymakers, to bring business leaders and public health officials together to help develop standards to safely reopen the economy without jeopardizing public health,” Seidel said.
But others see linkages to groups pushing anti-quarantine uprisings.
“The involvement of the Koch institutional apparatus in groups supporting these protests is clear to me,” said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University whose research has focused on climate lobbying. “The presence of allies on the board usually means that they are deeply engaged in the organization and most likely a funder.”
Brulle said the blowback against the coronavirus precautions carries echoes of efforts to deny climate change, both of which rely on hostility toward government action.
“These are extreme right-wing efforts to delegitimize government,” he said. “It’s an anti-government crusade.”
The coronavirus has given rise to a flood of conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda, eroding public trust and undermining health officials in ways that could elongate and even outlast the pandemic.
Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark.
Rumors of secret cures — diluted bleach, turning off your electronics, bananas — promise hope of protection from a threat that not even world leaders can escape.
The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.
“It has all the ingredients for leading people to conspiracy theories,” said Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain.
Rumors and patently unbelievable claims are spread by everyday people whose critical faculties have simply been overwhelmed, psychologists say, by feelings of confusion and helplessness.
But many false claims are also being promoted by governments looking to hide their failures, partisan actors seeking political benefit, run-of-the-mill scammers and, in the United States, a president who has pushed unproven cures and blame-deflectingfalsehoods.
The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.
The feelings of security and control offered by such rumors may be illusory, but the damage to the public trust is all too real.
It has led people to consume fatal home remedies and flout social distancing guidance. And it is disrupting the sweeping collective actions, like staying at home or wearing masks, needed to contain a virus that has already killed more than 79,000 people.
“We’ve faced pandemics before,” said Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.”
This growing ecosystem of misinformation and public distrust has led the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic.”
“You see the space being flooded,” Mr. Brookie said, adding, “The anxiety is viral, and we’re all just feeling that at scale.”
The Allure of ‘Secret Knowledge’
“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr. Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.
If the truth does not fill those needs, we humans have an incredible capacity to invent stories that will, even when some part of us knows they are false. A recent study found that people are significantly likelier to share false coronavirus information than they are to believe it.
“The magnitude of misinformation spreading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming our small team,” Snopes, a fact-checking site, said on Twitter. “We’re seeing scores of people, in a rush to find any comfort, make things worse as they share (sometimes dangerous) misinformation.”
Widely shared, Instagram posts falsely suggested that the coronavirus was planned by Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. In Alabama, Facebook posts falsely claimed that shadowy powers had ordered sick patients to be secretly helicoptered into the state. In Latin America, equally baseless rumors have proliferated that the virus was engineered to spread H.I.V. In Iran, pro-government voices portray the disease as a Western plot.
If the claims are seen as taboo, all the better.
The belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer. “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr. Douglas said.
Italian media buzzed over a video posted by an Italian man from Tokyo in which he claimed that the coronavirus was treatable but that Italian officials were “hiding the truth.”
Other videos, popular on YouTube, claim that the entire pandemic is a fiction staged to control the population.
Still others say that the disease is real, but its cause isn’t a virus — it’s 5G cellular networks.
One YouTube video pushing this falsehood, and implying that social distancing measures could be ignored, has received 1.9 million views. In Britain, there has been a rash of attacks on cellular towers.
Conspiracy theories may also make people feel less alone. Few things tighten the bonds of “us” like rallying against “them,” especially foreigners and minorities, both frequent scapegoats of coronavirus rumors and much else before now.
But whatever comfort that affords is short-lived.
Over time, research finds, trading in conspiracies not only fails to satisfy our psychological needs, Dr. Douglas said, but also tends to worsen feelings of fear or helplessness.
And that can lead us to seek out still more extreme explanations, like addicts looking for bigger and bigger hits.
Governments Find Opportunity in Confusion
The homegrown conspiracists and doubters are finding themselves joined by governments. Anticipating political backlash from the crisis, government leaders have moved quickly to shunt the blame by trafficking in false claims of their own.
A senior Chinese official pushed claims that the virus was introduced to China by members of the United States Army, an accusation that was allowed to flourish on China’s tightly controlled social media.
In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro suggested that the virus was an American bioweapon aimed at China. In Iran, officials called it a plot to suppress the vote there. And outlets that back the Russian government, including branches in Western Europe, have promoted claims that the United States engineered the virus to undermine China’s economy.
In the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, leaders praised bogus treatments and argued that citizens should continue working.
But officials have hardly refrained from the rumor mongering in more democratic nations, particularly those where distrust of authority has given rise to strong populist movements.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League Party, wrote on Twitter that China had devised a “lung supervirus” from “bats and rats.”
And President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has repeatedly promoted unproven coronavirus treatments, and implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all took the extraordinary step of removing the posts.
President Trump, too, has repeatedly pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists and despite at least one fatal overdose of a man whose wife said he had taken a drug at Mr. Trump’s suggestion.
Mr. Trump has accused perceived enemies of seeking to “inflame” the coronavirus “situation” to hurt him. When supplies of personal protective equipment fell short at New York hospitals, he implied that health workers might be stealing masks.
His allies have gone further.
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and others have suggested that the virus was produced by a Chinese weapons lab. Some media allies have claimed that the death toll has been inflated by Mr. Trump’s enemies.
A Parallel Crisis
“This kind of information suppression is dangerous — really, really dangerous,” Mr. Brookie said, referring to Chinese and American efforts to play down the threat of the outbreak.
It has nourished not just individual conspiracies but a wider sense that official sources and data cannot be trusted, and a growing belief that people must find the truth on their own.
A cacophony arising from armchair epidemiologists who often win attention through sensational claims is at times crowding out legitimate experts whose answers are rarely as tidy or emotionally reassuring.
They promise easy cures, like avoiding telecommunications or even eating bananas. They wave off the burdens of social isolation as unnecessary. Some sell sham treatments of their own.
“Medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves,” Daniel Jolley and Pia Lamberty, scholars of psychology, wrote in a recent article.
Such claims have been shown to make people less likely to take vaccines or antibiotics, and more likely to seek medical advice from friends and family instead of from doctors.
Belief in one conspiracy also tends to increase belief in others. The consequences, experts warn, could not only worsen the pandemic, but outlive it.
Medical conspiracies have been a growing problem for years. So has distrust of authority, a major driver of the world’s slide into fringe populism. Now, as the world enters an economic crisis with little modern precedent, that may deepen.
The wave of coronavirus conspiracies, Dr. Jolley and Dr. Lamberty wrote, “has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.”
Many of you will already be familiar with the FLICC graphic which shows the 5 main characterstics of (climate) science denial, namely fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking and conspiracy theories. It was first introduced when our MOOC “Denial101x – Making sense of climate science denial” launched in April 2015.
In the five (!) years since, John Cook and colleagues have been busy refining and enlarging this fallacy taxonomy as explained in a series of three new videos for Denial101x. Here is the first of them:
We recently received an email from a current Denial101x student suggesting to make the fallacy icons available as emojis to have them readily available when responding to comments on social media. While this might not be quite as easy as it sounds (anybody know?), it gave us another idea: make the current set of fallacy icons available on Wikimedia commons! So, this is what we did! The significantly larger taxonomy makes for a good entry point:
And to state the obvious: these fallacies not only plague climate science but also many other scientific discussions. It for example didn’t take long for them to appear with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as John Cook noted in a recent tweet sharing the taxonomy graphic:
“Seeing the same fallacies & science denial techniques proliferate with coronavirus as they do with climate science denial inspired me to post the latest version of the FLICC taxonomy, documenting many of the techniques found in science misinformation.“
The individual icons will therefore hopefully come in handy to call-out fallacies regardless of the topics they show up with!
WELLSTON, Ohio — To Gwen Beatty, a junior at the high school in this proud, struggling, Trump-supporting town, the new science teacher’s lessons on climate change seemed explicitly designed to provoke her.
So she provoked him back.
When the teacher, James Sutter, ascribed the recent warming of the Earth to heat-trapping gases released by burning fossil fuels like the coal her father had once mined, she asserted that it could be a result of other, natural causes.
When he described the flooding, droughts and fierce storms that scientists predict within the century if such carbon emissions are not sharply reduced, she challenged him to prove it. “Scientists are wrong all the time,” she said with a shrug, echoing those celebrating President Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
Mr. Sutter during his Advanced Placement environmental science class. He was hired from a program that recruits science professionals into teaching.Credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
For his part, Mr. Sutter occasionally fell short of his goal of providing Gwen — the most vocal of a raft of student climate skeptics — with calm, evidence-based responses. “Why would I lie to you?” he demanded one morning. “It’s not like I’m making a lot of money here.”
She was, he knew, a straight-A student. She would have had no trouble comprehending the evidence, embedded in ancient tree rings, ice, leaves and shells, as well as sophisticated computer models, that atmospheric carbon dioxide is the chief culprit when it comes to warming the world. Or the graph he showed of how sharply it has spiked since the Industrial Revolution, when humans began pumping vast quantities of it into the air.
Thinking it a useful soothing device, Mr. Sutter assented to Gwen’s request that she be allowed to sand the bark off the sections of wood he used to illustrate tree rings during class. When she did so with an energy that, classmates said, increased during discussion points with which she disagreed, he let it go.
When she insisted that teachers “are supposed to be open to opinions,” however, Mr. Sutter held his ground.
“It’s not about opinions,” he told her. “It’s about the evidence.”
“It’s like you can’t disagree with a scientist or you’re ‘denying science,”’ she sniffed to her friends.
Gwen, 17, could not put her finger on why she found Mr. Sutter, whose biology class she had enjoyed, suddenly so insufferable. Mr. Sutter, sensing that his facts and figures were not helping, was at a loss. And the day she grew so agitated by a documentary he was showing that she bolted out of the school left them both shaken.
“I have a runner,” Mr. Sutter called down to the office, switching off the video.
“It was just so biased toward saying climate change is real,” she said later, trying to explain her flight. “And that all these people that I pretty much am like are wrong and stupid.”
Classroom Culture Wars
As more of the nation’s teachers seek to integrate climate science into the curriculum, many of them are reckoning with students for whom suspicion of the subject is deeply rooted.
In rural Wellston, a former coal and manufacturing town seeking its next act, rejecting the key findings of climate science can seem like a matter of loyalty to a way of life already under siege. Originally tied, perhaps, to economic self-interest, climate skepticism has itself become a proxy for conservative ideals of hard work, small government and what people here call “self-sustainability.”
Jacynda Patton, right, during Mr. Sutter’s class. “I thought it would be an easy A,” she said. “It wasn’t.”Credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
The Alliance for Climate Education, which runs assemblies based on the consensus science for high schools across the country, received new funding from a donor who sees teenagers as the best means of reaching and influencing their parents.
Idaho, however, this year joined several other states that have declined to adopt new science standards that emphasize the role human activities play in climate change.
At Wellston, where most students live below the poverty line and the needle-strewn bike path that abuts the marching band’s practice field is known as “heroin highway,” climate change is not regarded as the most pressing issue. And since most Wellston graduates typically do not go on to obtain a four-year college degree, this may be the only chance many of them have to study the impact of global warming.
But Mr. Sutter’s classroom shows how curriculum can sometimes influence culture on a subject that stands to have a more profound impact on today’s high schoolers than their parents.
“I thought it would be an easy A,” said Jacynda, 16, an outspoken Trump supporter. “It wasn’t.”
God’s Gift to Wellston?
Mr. Sutter, who grew up three hours north of Wellston in the largely Democratic city of Akron, applied for the job at Wellston High straight from a program to recruit science professionals into teaching, a kind of science-focused Teach for America.
He already had a graduate-level certificate in environmental science from the University of Akron and a private sector job assessing environmental risk for corporations. But a series of personal crises that included his sister’s suicide, he said, had compelled him to look for a way to channel his knowledge to more meaningful use.
The fellowship gave him a degree in science education in exchange for a three-year commitment to teach in a high-needs Ohio school district. Megan Sowers, the principal, had been looking for someone qualified to teach an Advanced Placement course, which could help improve her financially challenged school’s poor performance ranking. She hired him on the spot.
Mr. Sutter walking with his students on a nature trail near the high school, where he pointed out evidence of climate change.Credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
But at a school where most teachers were raised in the same southeastern corner of Appalachian Ohio as their students, Mr. Sutter’s credentials themselves could raise hackles.
“He says, ‘I left a higher-paying job to come teach in an area like this,’” Jacynda recalled. “We’re like, ‘What is that supposed to mean?”’
“He acts,” Gwen said with her patented eye roll, “like he’s God’s gift to Wellston.”
In truth, he was largely winging it.
Some 20 states, including a handful of red ones, have recently begun requiring students to learn that human activity is a major cause of climate change, but few, if any, have provided a road map for how to teach it, and most science teachers, according to one recent survey, spend at most two hours on the subject.
Chagrined to learn that none of his students could recall a school visit by a scientist, Mr. Sutter hosted several graduate students from nearby Ohio University.
On a field trip to a biology laboratory there, many of his students took their first ride on an escalator. To illustrate why some scientists in the 1970s believed the world was cooling rather than warming (“So why should we believe them now?” students sometimes asked), he brought in a 1968 push-button phone and a 1980s Nintendo game cartridge.
“Our data and our ability to process it is just so much better now,” he said.
In the A.P. class, Mr. Sutter took an informal poll midway through: In all, 14 of 17 students said their parents thought he was, at best, wasting their time. “My stepdad says they’re brainwashing me,” one said.
Jacynda’s father, for one, did not raise an eyebrow when his daughter stopped attending Mr. Sutter’s class for a period in the early winter. A former coal miner who had endured two years of unemployment before taking a construction job, he declined a request to talk about it.
“I think it’s that it’s taken a lot from him,” Jacynda said. “He sees it as the environmental people have taken his job.”
And having listened to Mr. Sutter reiterate the overwhelming agreement among scientists regarding humanity’s role in global warming in answer to another classmate’s questions — “What if we’re not the cause of it? What if this is something that’s natural?” — Jacynda texted the classmate one night using an expletive to refer to Mr. Sutter’s teaching approach.
But even the staunchest climate-change skeptics could not ignore the dearth of snow days last winter, the cap to a year that turned out to be the warmest Earth has experienced since 1880, according to NASA. The high mark eclipsed the record set just the year before, which had eclipsed the year before that.
In woods behind the school, where Mr. Sutter had his students scout out a nature trail, he showed them the preponderance of emerald ash borers, an invasive insect that, because of the warm weather, had not experienced the usual die-off that winter. There was flooding, too: Once, more than 5.5 inches of rain fell in 48 hours.
The field trip to a local stream where the water runs neon orange also made an impression. Mr. Sutter had the class collect water samples: The pH levels were as acidic as “the white vinegar you buy at a grocery store,” he told them. And the drainage, they could see, was from the mine.
It was the realization that she had failed to grasp the damage done to her immediate environment, Jacynda said, that made her begin to pay more attention. She did some reading. She also began thinking that she might enjoy a job working for the Environmental Protection Agency — until she learned that, under Mr. Trump, the agency would undergo huge layoffs.
“O.K., I’m not going to lie. I did a 180,” she said that afternoon in the library with Gwen, casting a guilty look at her friend. “This is happening, and we have to fix it.”
After fleeing Mr. Sutter’s classroom that day, Gwen never returned, a pragmatic decision about which he has regrets. “That’s one student I feel I failed a little bit,” he said.
As an alternative, Gwen took an online class for environmental science credit, which she does not recall ever mentioning climate change. She and Jacynda had other things to talk about, like planning a bonfire after prom.
As they tried on dresses last month, Jacynda mentioned that others in their circle, including the boys they had invited to prom, believed the world was dangerously warming, and that humans were to blame. By the last days of school, most of Mr. Sutter’s doubters, in fact, had come to that conclusion.
“I know,” Gwen said, pausing for a moment. “Now help me zip this up.”
Confidential documents show that Shell sounded the alarm about global warming as early as 1986. But despite this clear-eyed view of the risks, the oil giant has lobbied against strong climate legislation for decades. Today we make Shell’s 1991 film, Climate of Concern, public again.
By Jelmer MOMMERS
Shell Oil Company has spent millions of dollars lobbying against measures that would protect the planet from climate catastrophe. But thanks to a film recently obtained by The Correspondent, it’s now clear that their position wasn’t born of ignorance. Shell knows that fossil fuels put us all at risk – in fact, they’ve known for over a quarter of a century. Climate of Concern, a 1991 educational film produced by Shell, warned that the company’s own product could lead to extreme weather, floods, famines, and climate refugees, and noted that the reality of climate change was “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists.”
The question, ladies and gentlemen, is what did Shell know and when did they know it. The Correspondent would like to enter into evidence Exhibit A: Climate of Concern.
Researchers have coined this trend the ‘anti-enlightenment movement‘, and there’s been a lot of frustration and finger-pointing over who or what’s to blame. But a team of psychologists has identified some of the key factors that can cause people to reject science – and it has nothing to do with how educated or intelligent they are.
In fact, the researchers found that people who reject scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, and evolution are generally just as interested in science and as well-educated as the rest of us.
The issue is that when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they ‘cherry pick’ the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true.
So if someone doesn’t think humans are causing climate change, they will ignore the hundreds of studies that support that conclusion, but latch onto the one study they can find that casts doubt on this view. This is also known as cognitive bias.
“We find that people will take a flight from facts to protect all kinds of belief including their religious belief, their political beliefs, and even simple personal beliefs such as whether they are good at choosing a web browser,” said one of the researchers, Troy Campbell from the University of Oregon.
“People treat facts as relevant more when the facts tend to support their opinions. When the facts are against their opinions, they don’t necessarily deny the facts, but they say the facts are less relevant.”
This conclusion was based on a series of new interviews, as well as a meta-analysis of the research that’s been published on the topic, and was presented in a symposium called over the weekend as part of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual convention in San Antonio.
The goal was to figure out what’s going wrong with science communication in 2017, and what we can do to fix it.
The research has yet to be published, so isn’t conclusive, but the results suggest that simply focussing on the evidence and data isn’t enough to change someone’s mind about a particular topic, seeing as they’ll most likely have their own ‘facts’ to fire back at you.
Instead, the researchers recommend looking into the ‘roots’ of people’s unwillingness to accept scientific consensus, and try to find common ground to introduce new ideas.
So where is this denial of science coming from? A big part of the problem, the researchers found, is that people associate scientific conclusions with political or social affiliations.
New research conducted by Kahan showed that people have actually always cherry picked facts when it comes to science – that’s nothing new. But it hasn’t been such a big problem in the past, because scientific conclusions were usually agreed on by political and cultural leaders, and promoted as being in the public’s best interests.
“Rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes directly, tailor the message so that it aligns with their motivation,” said Hornsey. “So with climate skeptics, for example, you find out what they can agree on and then frame climate messages to align with these.”
The researchers are still gathering data for a peer-reviewed publication on their findings, but they presented their work to the scientific community for further dissemination and discussion in the meantime.
Hornsey told the LA Times that the stakes are too high to continue to ignore the ‘anti-enlightenment movement’.
“Anti-vaccination movements cost lives,” said Hornsey. “Climate change skepticism slows the global response to the greatest social, economic and ecological threat of our time.”
“We grew up in an era when it was just presumed that reason and evidence were the ways to understand important issues; not fear, vested interests, tradition or faith,” he added.
“But the rise of climate skepticism and the anti-vaccination movement made us realise that these enlightenment values are under attack.”
Study confirms steady warming of oceans for past 45 years
January 4, 2017
University of California – Berkeley
Scientists calculated average ocean temperatures from 1999 to 2015, separately using ocean buoys and satellite data, and confirmed the uninterrupted warming trend reported by NOAA in 2015, based on that organization’s recalibration of sea surface temperature recordings from ships and buoys. The new results show that there was no global warming hiatus between 1998 and 2012.
A new UC Berkeley analysis of ocean buoy (green) and satellite data (orange) show that ocean temperatures have increased steadily since 1999, as NOAA concluded in 2015 (red) after adjusting for a cold bias in buoy temperature measurements. NOAA’s earlier assessment (blue) underestimated sea surface temperature changes, falsely suggesting a hiatus in global warming. The lines show the general upward trend in ocean temperatures. Credit: Zeke Hausfather, UC Berkeley
A controversial paper published two years ago that concluded there was no detectable slowdown in ocean warming over the previous 15 years — widely known as the “global warming hiatus” — has now been confirmed using independent data in research led by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Berkeley Earth, a non-profit research institute focused on climate change.
The 2015 analysis showed that the modern buoys now used to measure ocean temperatures tend to report slightly cooler temperatures than older ship-based systems, even when measuring the same part of the ocean at the same time. As buoy measurements have replaced ship measurements, this had hidden some of the real-world warming.
After correcting for this “cold bias,” researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded in the journal Science that the oceans have actually warmed 0.12 degrees Celsius (0.22 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade since 2000, nearly twice as fast as earlier estimates of 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade. This brought the rate of ocean temperature rise in line with estimates for the previous 30 years, between 1970 and 1999.
This eliminated much of the global warming hiatus, an apparent slowdown in rising surface temperatures between 1998 and 2012. Many scientists, including the International Panel on Climate Change, acknowledged the puzzling hiatus, while those dubious about global warming pointed to it as evidence that climate change is a hoax.
Climate change skeptics attacked the NOAA researchers and a House of Representatives committee subpoenaed the scientists’ emails. NOAA agreed to provide data and respond to any scientific questions but refused to comply with the subpoena, a decision supported by scientists who feared the “chilling effect” of political inquisitions.
The new study, which uses independent data from satellites and robotic floats as well as buoys, concludes that the NOAA results were correct. The paper is published Jan. 4 in the online, open-access journal Science Advances.
“Our results mean that essentially NOAA got it right, that they were not cooking the books,” said lead author Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group.
Long-term climate records
Hausfather said that years ago, mariners measured the ocean temperature by scooping up a bucket of water from the ocean and sticking a thermometer in it. In the 1950s, however, ships began to automatically measure water piped through the engine room, which typically is warm. Nowadays, buoys cover much of the ocean and that data is beginning to supplant ship data. But the buoys report slightly cooler temperatures because they measure water directly from the ocean instead of after a trip through a warm engine room.
NOAA is one of three organizations that keep historical records of ocean temperatures — some going back to the 1850s — widely used by climate modelers. The agency’s paper was an attempt to accurately combine the old ship measurements and the newer buoy data.
Hausfather and colleague Kevin Cowtan of the University of York in the UK extended that study to include the newer satellite and Argo float data in addition to the buoy data.
“Only a small fraction of the ocean measurement data is being used by climate monitoring groups, and they are trying to smush together data from different instruments, which leads to a lot of judgment calls about how you weight one versus the other, and how you adjust for the transition from one to another,” Hausfather said. “So we said, ‘What if we create a temperature record just from the buoys, or just from the satellites, or just from the Argo floats, so there is no mixing and matching of instruments?'”
In each case, using data from only one instrument type — either satellites, buoys or Argo floats — the results matched those of the NOAA group, supporting the case that the oceans warmed 0.12 degrees Celsius per decade over the past two decades, nearly twice the previous estimate. In other words, the upward trend seen in the last half of the 20th century continued through the first 15 years of the 21st: there was no hiatus.
“In the grand scheme of things, the main implication of our study is on the hiatus, which many people have focused on, claiming that global warming has slowed greatly or even stopped,” Hausfather said. “Based on our analysis, a good portion of that apparent slowdown in warming was due to biases in the ship records.”
Correcting other biases in ship records
In the same publication last year, NOAA scientists also accounted for changing shipping routes and measurement techniques. Their correction — giving greater weight to buoy measurements than to ship measurements in warming calculations — is also valid, Hausfather said, and a good way to correct for this second bias, short of throwing out the ship data altogether and relying only on buoys.
Another repository of ocean temperature data, the Hadley Climatic Research Unit in the United Kingdom, corrected their data for the switch from ships to buoys, but not for this second factor, which means that the Hadley data produce a slightly lower rate of warming than do the NOAA data or the new UC Berkeley study.
“In the last seven years or so, you have buoys warming faster than ships are, independently of the ship offset, which produces a significant cool bias in the Hadley record,” Hausfather said. The new study, he said, argues that the Hadley center should introduce another correction to its data.
“People don’t get much credit for doing studies that replicate or independently validate other people’s work. But, particularly when things become so political, we feel it is really important to show that, if you look at all these other records, it seems these researchers did a good job with their corrections,” Hausfather said.
Co-author Mark Richardson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena added, “Satellites and automated floats are completely independent witnesses of recent ocean warming, and their testimony matches the NOAA results. It looks like the NOAA researchers were right all along.”
Other co-authors of the paper are David C. Clarke, an independent researcher from Montreal, Canada, Peter Jacobs of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and Robert Rohde of Berkeley Earth. The research was funded by Berkeley Earth.
Zeke Hausfather, Kevin Cowtan, David C. Clarke, Peter Jacobs, Mark Richardson, Robert Rohde. Assessing recent warming using instrumentally homogeneous sea surface temperature records. Science Advances, 2017; 3 (1): e1601207 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601207
Com menos dinheiro no orçamento, ciência pode ser uma das áreas mais afetadas
COLABORAÇÃO PARA A FOLHA
A eleição de Donald Trump pode pressagiar um período de declínio para a ciência nos Estados Unidos.
Noves fora a retórica que lhe ganhou a Casa Branca, os planos que ele apresenta para a próxima gestão podem significar cortes orçamentários significativos em pesquisas.
A campanha do republicano à Presidência bateu fortemente em duas teclas: um plano vigoroso de corte de impostos, que reduziria a arrecadação em pelo menos US$ 4,4 trilhões nos próximos dez anos, e um plano de investimento em infraestrutura que consumiria US$ 1 trilhão no mesmo período.
Na prática, isso significa que haverá menos dinheiro no Orçamento americano que poderá ser direcionado para os gastos “discricionários” -aqueles que já não caem automaticamente na conta do governo por força de lei. É de onde vem o financiamento da ciência americana.
“Se o montante de gastos discricionários cai, o subcomitê de Comércio, Justiça e Ciência no Congresso receberá uma alocação menor, e eles terão menos dinheiro disponível para financiar suas agências”, diz Casey Dreier, especialista em política espacial da ONG Planetary Society.
Entre os órgãos financiados diretamente por esse subcomitê estão a Fundação Nacional de Ciência (NSF), a Administração Nacional de Atmosfera e Oceano (Noaa) e a Administração Nacional de Aeronáutica e Espaço (Nasa).
Existe a possibilidade de o financiamento sair intacto desse processo? Sim, mas não é provável. Algum outro setor precisaria pagar a conta.
Ao menos no discurso, e fortemente apoiado por nomeações recentes, Trump já decidiu onde devem ocorrer os cortes mais profundos: ciência climática.
Que Trump se apresenta desde a campanha eleitoral como um negacionista da mudança do clima, não é segredo. No passado, ele chegou a afirmar que o aquecimento global é um embuste criado pelos chineses para tirar a competitividade da indústria americana.
(Para comprar essa versão, claro, teríamos de fingir que não foi a Nasa, agência americana, a maior e mais contundente coletora de evidências da mudança climática.)
Até aí, é o discurso antiglobalização para ganhar a eleição. Mas vai se concretizar no mandato?
Os sinais são os piores possíveis. O advogado Scott Pruitt, indicado para a EPA (Agência de Proteção do Ambiente), vê com ceticismo as políticas contra as mudanças climáticas. E o chefe da equipe de transição escolhido por Trump para a EPA é Myron Ebell, um notório negacionista da mudança climática.
O Centro para Energia e Ambiente do Instituto para Empreendimentos Competitivos, que Ebell dirige, recebe financiamento das indústrias do carvão e do petróleo. Colocá-lo para fazer a transição entre governos da EPA pode ser o clássico “deixar a raposa tomando conta do galinheiro”.
Como se isso não bastasse, durante a campanha os principais consultores de Trump na área de pesquisa espacial, Robert Walker e Peter Navarro, escreveram editoriais sugerindo que a agência espacial devia parar de estudar a própria Terra.
“A Nasa deveria estar concentrada primariamente em atividades no espaço profundo em vez de trabalho Terra-cêntrico que seria melhor conduzido por outras agências”, escreveram.
Há consenso entre os cientistas de que não há outro órgão com competência para tocar esses estudos e assumir a frota de satélites de monitoramento terrestre gerida pela agência espacial.
Além disso, passar as responsabilidades a outra instituição sem atribuir o orçamento correspondente é um jeito sutil de encerrar o programa de monitoramento do clima.
Se isso faz você ficar preocupado com o futuro das pesquisas, imagine os climatologistas nos EUA.
De acordo com o jornal “Washington Post”, eles estão se organizando para criar repositórios independentes dos dados colhidos, com medo que eles sumam das bases de dados governamentais durante o governo Trump.
Ainda que a grita possa evitar esse descaramento, a interrupção das pesquisas pode ter o mesmo efeito.
“Acho que é bem mais provável que eles tentem cortar a coleção de dados, o que minimizaria seu valor”, diz Andrew Dessler, professor de ciências atmosféricas da Universidade Texas A&M. “Ter dados contínuos é crucial para entender as tendências de longo prazo.”
E O QUE SOBRA?
Tirando a mudança climática, a Nasa deve ter algum suporte para dar continuidade a seus planos de longo prazo durante o governo Trump -talvez com alguma mudança.
De certo, há apenas a restituição do Conselho Espacial Nacional, criado durante o governo George Bush (o pai) e desativado desde 1993.
Reunindo as principais autoridades pertinentes, ele tem por objetivo coordenar as ações entre diferentes braços do governo e, com isso, dar uma direção estratégica mais clara e eficiente aos executores das atividades espaciais.
Isso poderia significar uma ameaça ao SLS (novo foguete de alta capacidade da Nasa) e à Orion (cápsula para viagem a espaço profundo), que devem fazer seu primeiro voo teste, não tripulado, em 2018.
Contudo, o apoio a esses programas no Congresso é amplo e bipartidário, de forma que dificilmente Trump conseguirá cancelá-los.
O que ele pode é redirecionar sua função. Em vez de se tornarem as primeiras peças para a “jornada a Marte”, que Barack Obama defendia para a década de 2030, eles seriam integrados num programa de exploração da Lua.
(Tradicionalmente, no Congresso americano, a Lua é um objetivo republicano, e Marte, um objetivo democrata. Não pergunte por quê.)
Trump deve ainda dar maior ênfase às iniciativas de parcerias comerciais para a exploração espacial. Em dezembro, Elon Musk, diretor da empresa SpaceX e franco apoiador da campanha de Hillary Clinton, passou a fazer parte de um grupo de consultores de Trump para a indústria de alta tecnologia.
Assessores de Trump querem tirar da agência a função de estudar a Terra em favor da exploração espacial
Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr
Imagem feita pela Nasa
Scott Pruitt, indicado para Agência de Proteção do Ambiente, já processou o órgão por limitações impostas à indústria petrolífera. A agência pode perder força e deixar certas regulações a cargo dos Estados
Spencer Platt-7.dez.2016/Getty Images/AFP
Scott Pruitt chega a Trump Tower, em 7 de dezembro, para encontro com Donald Trump
Rex Tillerson, executivo da petroleira ExxonMobil, foi indicado para o posto de secretário de Estado, o que dá mais sinais de que o governo Trump não deve se esforçar para promover fontes de energia limpa