All posts tagged science

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The six main plays in the denialist’s playbook

Doubt the Science
Question Scientists’ Motives and Integrity
Magnify Disagreements among Scientists and Cite Gadflies as Authorities
Exaggerate Potential Harm
Appeal to Personal Freedom
Reject Whatever Would Repudiate A Key Philosophy

Do those look familiar? They should. They’re being used now during this pandemic. They’ve been used to deny climate change, and earlier, the harm caused by tobacco. They’ve been used for over 150 years to attack the reality of evolution. Since the 1950s, tragically, they’ve been used to attack the polio vaccines. While we’ve managed to bring the number of annual cases of polio down to near zero in spite of it, we could have done it sooner and more easily without the intense opposition. Many more people could have been spared. You can’t tell that to the deniers, though. They’re still clinging to their beliefs, and using the same playbook.

From the Scientific American article by Sean B. Carroll:

The purpose of the denialism playbook is to advance rhetorical arguments that give the appearance of legitimate debate when there is none. My purpose here is to penetrate that rhetorical fog, and to show that these are the predictable tactics of those clinging to an untenable position. If we hope to find any cure for (or vaccine against) science denialism, scientists, journalists and the public need to be able recognize, understand and anticipate these plays.

The denialist playbook is now erupting around the coronavirus. Although COVID-19 is new, the reactions to public health measures, scientific claims, and expert advice are not. Attitudes and behaviors concerning the threat posed by the coronavirus (doubting the science), the efficacy of lockdowns and mask wearing (freedoms being eroded) and alternative treatments (gadflies over experts) are being driven as much or more by rhetoric than by evidence.

Go check out the article for the full picture.


I’ve just finished reading the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It’s a lesson in how wrong we are about the state of the world, and an attempt to teach us how to be more right about it. Rosling spent his life as a teacher, from students to world leaders and heads of international organizations. A feature of his talks was the quizzes consisting of a question with three possible answers. Although random guesses would result in a 33% success rate — he uses chimpanzees for this — educated people regularly score worse than that. People who in many cases should be expected to know, do worse than chimpanzees.

The questions have to do with things like how many of the world’s children are getting vaccinated against crippling and killing diseases, what percentage of girls are going to primary school and how many people live in extreme poverty. Our tendency to get it wrong is the result of the many fallacies and blind spots we have affecting our ability to think rationally. Rosling takes us through them, showing how they work and suggesting how to overcome them. He presents ten of them, including our tendency to generalization, our propensity to want to lay blame and our irrational reaction to a sense of urgency. He believed that we could control them by learning how to identify them and how to counteract them. He was not optimistic that we would learn in time to deal with the five big potential problems he thought we face: global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change and extreme poverty. He was not optimistic, but he did think it was possible.

One of the big things he wanted to show us is how it’s wrong to divide up the world population into two groups: us and them, rich and poor, developed and developing. He thought four would be more accurate, with 75% of us in the two middle groups between extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Us and them is one of our great fallacies. One of the good features about Factfulness is how it helps us see through the veil of our paleolithic filters. It’s not us and them with a big gap in between. You can’t generalize about people based on their ethnicity or religion or nationality. There is more variation within each of those groups than there is between the groups. We have more in common with the people in those other groups who share our economic status than we realize. Here’s a link to Dollar Street, a website that helps to make that clear. I was fascinated by the pictures of hands. I found that when you look at a lot of pictures of hands, they start to look weird.

Factfulness is a good book that shows us where we’re getting it wrong and that shows us how to work toward the better possibilities in our future.


It seems you can’t talk about entropy without mentioning the second law of thermodynamics. That law states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time. This creates the asymmetry between the past and the future, the irreversibility of natural processes and the arrow of time. It is entropy that ensures that, on the macroscopic scale, time can only pass in one direction — from a state of lower entropy to one of higher entropy.

This is often simplified to define entropy as the increase in disorder with time. This is particularly favored by creationists who latch onto their own simplified version of the second law to convince themselves that evolution is impossible. Their version of the second law, usually stated something like, “Disorder increases over time,” assures them that a supernatural power is required to support life and evolution. Coupled with their mistaken belief that evolution is a force for directed improvement, this explains some of the crazy things they say.

Can you see where they went wrong in appealing to the second law? That’s right. They left out the part about where it applies to an isolated system. An open system, such as the Earth, can receive energy from an outside source, like the sun. Under those conditions the total entropy on Earth can certainly decrease, but only because the total entropy of the Earth-sun system is increasing as the sun dissipates its energy. Their other mistake is to misinterpret “can never decrease” as “always increases.” This whole process of misunderstanding and misinterpreting and misusing the second law is unironically a very good demonstration of entropy, which can never decrease in a closed mind.

The reason entropy is linked to thermodynamics is that it started out as a description of waste heat or energy loss in steam engines and other mechanical devices. Such things are never 100% efficient at turning energy into work, and the people working on the problem needed a term for their bookkeeping. It was only later as we understood more about the physics underlying thermodynamics that other definitions, such as “disorder,” evolved. It also applies to the dispersal of concentrated energy, and even the dispersal of particles.

Another way to define entropy is as the amount of energy (usually thermal energy) in a closed system that is unavailable to do work. You can have a lot of energy in a closed system — a boiler, for instance — but if the energy is evenly distributed throughout the system, then there’s no way you can get it to do work within the closed system. Therefore it has high entropy. The only way to get work out of it is to pair it up with an external system that is at a different energy level, and then tap into the energy that is transferred between them as they seek equilibrium.

Here is one more way to think of entropy. When a system is in a configuration that has few ways for its parts to be arranged, it has low entropy. A configuration that has many possible arrangements has high entropy. So a glass of water that has an ice cube in it has lower entropy than the glass of water after the ice cube has melted. In the first, all the coldest water is in the ice cube — fewer ways to do that, lower entropy. In the second, all the water is evenly distributed at the same temperature — more ways to do that, higher entropy.

So, entropy is inexorably increasing in the universe overall. It can decrease locally under the right conditions, but only at the expense of a greater increase elsewhere. It doesn’t prevent evolution, which actually depends on increasing entropy. It is entropy that tells us which way time flows — from low to high.


“Enchanted Light | New Mexico” by Jim Crotty is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Since the last report where the drought level was easing due to low temperatures and wet conditions, things are picking up again. While Droughtman seized the opportunity to point out that the wildfire hazard was low, it didn’t last. We’ve had a few hot, dry days and the scale is back up to very high, just short of an extreme hazard. — Breaking news: it just went up to extreme. — July was the only month to exceed normal during this period when we expect to get a good share of our annual precipitation, and it didn’t even reach 115%.

It looks as if the jet stream might be thinking of moving into its usual summer position, which is well to the north of us. When that happens we settle in for that long period of summer heat that we’ve usually had, or at least begun by now. This year, though, the jet stream seems to have stalled with an arm of it looping down to the west of us. That means there’s an avenue for a series of weather systems to pass nearby or right over us. Hence the lower temperatures and wetter weather.

The fire suppression crews got control of the big fire that was threatening to come over the mountain and descend on us. Those people are champs.

One of these times I’m going to have to talk about the deep duff.


“Enchanted Light | New Mexico” by Jim Crotty is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Already we have surpassed the average rainfall for July, at only the three-quarter mark. This has allowed the drought level to be reduced from 3 to 2. That means our conditions have gone from “very dry” to “dry.”

What has Droughtman got to say about this? He says that 2019 has been very rainy, even though July has been the only month this spring/summer to reach normal levels of precipitation. He reiterates that the big lakes have a lot of water. To his credit, this time he didn’t say that means there’s no drought. Maybe he forgot to mention it.

Here’s hoping this unusually cool and wet July continues and carries over into August. It has been a nice change and we can use it. The wildfire hazard is down, a relief after the last two years of big fires. If we keep getting rain, maybe the aquifers will have a chance to recharge. With higher temperatures in the forecast, it would be good to build up a bit of a buffer.

We had a splendid thunderstorm pass through last night, with near-continuous lightning and some rain. Hopefully the lightning-caused fires can be knocked down before they do too much damage.

Don’t stop now, rain.