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Sunday, September 7, 2014

"The Age of Denial"

the age of denial

 The Deniers

 On August 22, 2013 professor of physics and astronomy Adam Frank, in an op-ed page in The New York Times decried what he described as “The Age of Denial,” citing that in 1982 44% of Americans believed that “God had created human beings in their present form,” while currently 46% of Americans described themselves as “creationists.” Even back in 1989 63% of our countrymen understood that “climate change”—which was not yet perceived as a central issue by journalists—was a major problem, while today only 58% of Americans see it as anything to worry about, some of those, one might add, holding major political positions. In North Carolina, for example, state planners are banned from using data from climate studies in their projects of future sea levels, evidently only allowing them to work in the dark.

      “Creation science,” although appearing in various forms throughout the 20th century (we, of course, recall the memorable Tennessee “Monkey Trial” of 1925 (see my review of Inherit the Wind below), has now made its way even into some states’ textbooks, while anti-vaccine campaigners “brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.” So many parents in Oregon have refused vaccination that the state was forced to revise its school-entry policies. In short, Frank argues, that things have so degenerated that we live in an age in which our society “is ambivalent, even skeptical, about the fruits of science.” He warns what we know from history that “even the most enlightened traditions [in which he includes science] can be broken and lost.”

     In early May of this year, U.S. scientists announced through Whitehouse-backed study, that climate change had already resulted in major changes for almost all of the United States. As Justin Gillis noted in The New York Times, “water [is] growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains [are] increasing in wet regions, heat eaves [are] becoming more common and more severed, wildfires [are] growing worse, and forests [are] dying under assault from heat-loving insects.     None of this, of course, will come as a surprise for those of us who have read of climatic effects throughout the U.S. during the year so far, although connecting up these various manifestations makes the overall view even more frightening. What we now know is that it is already too late to effect some changes that will have a long term effect on climate, crops, and daily life throughout the country, and these, in turn, are surely to be further effected by global climatic changes.

     One might imagine that such a study, like others before, would finally convince American citizens of the dire conditions of planetary change. Yet Americans, particularly when compared with citizens of other wealthy countries, burying their heads in the sand, still express far greater belief in the effects of global warming. According to a Pew Research Center report, only 40% of US citizens said that global climate change was a major threat to their country, while more than 50% of Australians, Canadians, French, and Germans answered similarly. 60% of Italians and Spaniards saw climate change as a problem, and 70% of Japanese citizens saw this as a problem. Only citizens of the Middle East, other than the US, did not perceive a major problem with global warming.

     One might also imagine that such a study, like others before, would finally convince American citizens of the dire conditions of planetary change. Yet Americans, particularly when compared with citizens of other wealthy countries, still express far greater disbelief in the effects of global warming. According to a Pew Research Center report, only 40% of US citizens said that global climate change was a major threat to their country, while more than 50% of Australians, Canadians, French, and Germans answered similarly. 60% of Italians and Spaniards saw climate change as a problem, and 70% of Japanese citizens saw this as a problem. Only citizens of the Middle East, other than Americans, did not see environmental issues as a major problem. In another conclusion from the Pew Research Center, this along party lines, they found that 46% of Republicans said that there was no solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades, while only 11% of Democrats expressed this belief.

      Presuming that such scientific deniers were simply uneducated in the facts, several scientists and progressive organizations have worked to simply provide “correct information,” attempting through different methods to reeducate those of the population who held such contrarian viewpoints.

      A recent Yale study by Law School professor Dan Kahan, however found, as The New York Times writer Brendah Nyhan observed (July 6, 2014), that the problem may not be a lack of information, but simply that when what scientists argued viewpoints that came up against their religious or social values, “they just weren’t willing to say that they believed in it.”

     As Nyhan argues:

                  Factual and scientific evidence is often ineffective at reducing mis-
                 perceptions and can even backfire on issues like weapons of mass
                 destruction, health care reform and vaccines. With science, as with
                 politics, identity often trumps the facts.

 The important question that arises by Nyhan’s observations is how “to break the association between identity and factual beliefs,” by helping individuals to perceive that, for example, you can believe in in human-induced climate change and still be a conservative Republican.

     Yet, increasingly, in our politically polarized society, in which local and national political organizations use these very issues to assert their moral values, it become more and more difficult to help people from dismissing scientific information, as if it were no more important than a decision over what one likes or dislikes. Perhaps, we may fear, that science no longer can claim its own reality, but has become an area which its advocates simply assert their own conclusions. In short, it may be that we are witnessing, I would argue, the end of the scientific revolution that began with the Renaissance, was extended in the 18th century, and has seemingly survived until today.   

Los Angeles,May 8, 2014 / July 5, 2014. 

The Politics of Denial

In yet further evidence that Americans continued to be unreachable to scientific logic and years of scientific research, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, claimed that he did not believe that human activity was a cause of climate change.

                                 I do not believe that human activity is causing these
                                dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists
                                are portraying it,

 Rubio argued in response to the National Climate Assessment released this past week by the White House. Evidently Rubio believes that the vast release by human industries of pollution and chemicals that effect global warming, that the vast use of gasoline-based automobiles and other forms of transportation throughout the world had no effect on the change in planet temperature, even though scientists have declared these as major sources since the earliest of their researches. Dismissing the current drastic climate changes, destined to alter all aspects of human life in the US and throughout the planet, Rubio argued “Our climate is always changing,” as if nature were one thing and human behavior an entirely unrelated event. In short, Rubio clearly has no scientific logic to his own arguments.

      Such points of view, I would argue, are not only irresponsible in their absurd conclusions, but are dangerous, particularly for those in our society who might cling to these uneducated sentiments and clearly intend to do nothing for the whole of society to help change the effects of climate change. If there were only a handful of deniers such as Rubio, one could simply laugh them all and point to their ridiculousness. Let us hope that if he runs for presidential power in 2016, all intelligent men and women will do precisely that. But the fact is that Rubio, although at odds with the majority of Americans, he is hardly alone in his viewpoint among Republications. Only 1 in 4 tea party Republications agreed with the belief of the majority that there was “solid evidence the Earth is warming.” And among tea party Republicans, who seem to be a particularly uneducated group of the American population, over 40% said climate change was “just not happening.”

      In an article from Climate Progress writers Tiffany Germain and others estimate that 58% of the congress are among those who deny human-created carbon emissions have any effect on climate changes; and many of these same congressmen and women have accepted large sums of money from producers of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. 90% of the Republican  leadership in both the House and the Senate deny all climate change.

      The prognosis for change seems more and more doubtful in a country where such views are not openly challenged.

     Despite the inability of Rubio and many others to comprehend human interaction with climate change, we might keep in mind that, in just one instance, as Dr. John H. Mercer of the University of Ohio wrote in a recent document and reported in The New York Times on May 12, 2014, “the rapid human-driven release of greenhouse gasses” has already had an irreversible effect of the West Antarctica ice sheets, which throughout this century will continue to melt off, resulting early in the next century in a marked acceleration that through water-level rises will throw world societies “into crisis.” As the scientists suggest, this is no longer something that is correctible; it has already occurred to such an extent that the effects are unchangeable and certain to occur within the upcoming decades.

     The Los Angeles Times reported just two days later that, as the headline read “Human factor may be quake trigger,” arguing that the rise of small earthquakes in central California is a direct result of “heavy pumping of groundwater for agriculture in the Central Valley.” Citing new GPS data, “the scientists found that mountains closest to California’s thirsty Central Valley were growing at a faster-than-expected rate compared to nearby ranges. “…Groundwater is very heavy, and its weight represses the Earth’s upper crust. Remove the weight, and the crust springs upward—and that change in pressure can trigger more small earthquakes….” From this study, we might conclude, we can learn that not only are many of the increasing effects of climate change human-induced, but that they, in turn, lead to other related crises, that, in the end, result in a whole network—here global warming resulting in a drier climate that, in a search for the remaining sources of water, results in clusters of earthquakes that, one might wonder, could trigger larger earthquakes elsewhere?

As if we needed further evidence of the incompetency of the members of the United States House of Representatives, yesterday, May 23rd, that body, according to the Huffington Post voted, as part of National Defense Authorization Bill, to longer fund any research regarding climate research by the Pentagon. The vote larger followed party lines, with the Republicans voting to cease funding.

      The implications of this are immense given that researchers and political spokesmen alike have argued that the U.S. military will increasingly be facing issues in deployment of weapons and outbreaks of future problem regions based on climatic changes. As the Huffington Post observed:

      Research suggests, however, that the Department of Defense has a number of reasons to be worried about climate change. The department said in its own evaluation last year that climate change presents infrastructure challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, a March Pentagon report found that climate change impacts are "threat multipliers," and that the rapid rise of global temperatures and associated extreme weather events could exacerbate issues like "poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence."

    Nor is climate change a threat that the Obama administration dreamed up to distract the DOD. A National Intelligence Assessment issued during the George W. Bush administration concluded that climate change poses a significant threat to national security. And just this week, Tom Ridge, who served as homeland security secretary under Bush, said that climate change is "a real serious problem," one that "would bring destruction and economic damage" if we ignore it.

     Once again, implied the opposition, including Democrats Henry Waxman and Bobby Bush, the denial of science is at the center of this government decision, despite the admission of some members of congress that climate change is inevitable. If so, it appears they simply do not want to face it, or see it as a partisan issue that has nothing to do with the society at large.

Los Angeles, May 12-24, 25

The information above was based on an essay by Brian Bennett, “Rubio disagrees with scientists on climate change” in the Los Angeles Times on May 12, 2014 and The New York Times on the same day. The Los Angeles Times reported on the relationship between earthquakes and climate change on May 15. The Huffington Post report appeared on May 23rd.

Denying Education is one thing for adult humans to express their disbelief of established scientific facts. We know, obviously, that former scientific truths over centuries have been proven to be mistaken, and one might even welcome such questioning by informed individuals using established methods of scientific inquiry.

     What angers me even more, however, is when younger people are influenced by ignorant deniers—a nearly inevitable event given parental influences and the attempts of communities such as those in the early 20th century Scopes trials to determine what information their children will be taught (see my piece on Inherit the Wind below). Even more troubling, moreover, are situations in which students simply exploring truths, are harried or denied in their efforts.

     On July 21st of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported, in an article by Eryn Brown, that students of Carlsbad, California High school involved in that school’s award-winning broadcast journalist program had come under fire by those individuals and authorities who oppose immunization. The so-called “signature program” is their regular CHSTV broadcast, reporting from school studios on a wide range of subjects, “ranging from final exams to nearby wildfires, delivered by a teenage staff.”

      Another related program is the production of documentaries, produced by an “extracurricular offshoot of the program,” CHSTVfilms. The idea for the film on immunization came from a local Rotary Club group, who had been working on for 20 years to promote immunization in San Diego County. Group members were worried about the fact that the vaccination rate “was starting to slip,” and that increasingly larger groups of kindergartner parents in the county were seeking exemptions from immunizations.

                       Health advocates were alarmed to see diseases like measles and
                      and whooping cough…emerge anew. In neighboring Orange
                      County, 22 people came down with measles in the first five months
                      of 2014—part of a frightening nationwide surge for the virus,
                      which was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 20000

     The students involved and their advisors felt that the Rotary proposal “seemed boring,” and “they bristled” when the Rotarians began to dictate how the movie should be made.

     Ultimately, they determined to do the movie only on their own terms, exploring the subject from both sides of the controversy surround immunization.

      Club officials agreed, and the students proceeded on their production, although the Rotary raised the $60,000 to cover the student effort.

      Reading studies, talking to medical experts and interviewing parents and a well known local osteopath who had spoken out against the vaccines, the students came to their own conclusions. If, in the beginning, the article reveals, “some of the students…believed vaccines and autism were linked, …they changed their minds as they researched.” As one of the students, Allison DeGour, responded, “It was all social controversy. There was no science controversy.”

     The final version of their film, titled “Invisible Threat.” was completed in the Spring of 2013, and was shown to select audiences. The student work took a strong pro-vaccine position.

      Critics soon began actions against the film, particularly when the film was set to be screened on Capitol Hill. Groups such as Focus Autism and AustismOne complained about the film’s Rotary backing and the involvement in the script by teacher Douglas Green. Although Green admits that he operated the camera in some scenes, he states that the students all had a hand in the writing, editing and filming of the film.

     Because of the controversy and threats the school has received if they dared to air the film, school authorities have delayed the launch of the film, which one student—now a sophomore in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication’s broadcast journalism program—described as “disheartening.” Most students and parents at the Carlsbad school have still not seen the student film.

     After months of postponement and fears of showing the film, school authorities now promise that they will post the film on their Web site on August 1st, in conjunction with National Immunization Awareness Month. Given the reported sophistication of the film, however, one can imagine that the film’s makers might have sought a larger audience for their work, still basically censored through the efforts of deniers.

Los Angeles, July 22, 2014

Risking Their Childrens’ Lives

    As if in response to the above incident of what I would describe as censorship, the Los Angeles Times reported on September 9, 2014, that more and more parents throughout the state were seeking vaccination exemptions. The long and thoughtful article by Paloma Esquivel and Sandra Poindexter states that children of kindergarten age remained unvaccinated for measles, whopping cough, and numerous other diseases at twice the rate of seven years previous, contributing to the national reemergence of measles and other serious diseases (mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, chicken pox, diphtheria, and tetanus) throughout the country.

     The article was accompanied by a frightful looking map revealing where more than 8% of students of kindergarten students had been given “belief exemptions” as opposed to those areas where less than that same percentage of children remained unvaccinated against measles and whooping cough in Los Angeles County. Locally the most highly unvaccinated areas included wealthy communities such as Malibu, Santa Monica (where the rates were as high as 14.8%) as well as east-side regions throughout the city, but as an aggregate, the “belief exemption” rate of the County was 2.2%, well below the overall state percentages, which were highest in San Luis Obispo county, in the western counties of Tuolumme, Calevaaras, Mariposa, and Madera, and most of the northern counties (with exceptions of Del Norte and Modoc and Lassen) with rates of 8-20% of non-vaccination and Nevada and Trinity counties, where the “vaccination exemptions had reached over 20%.

     As the article reiterated, the increased rates are significant became in order to protect the society at large it is necessary to have a 92% immunization of all children (what is described as a “herd immunity.”). Accordingly, increasing outbreaks of measles and several other diseases have occurred not only in California but throughout the country.

     Part of the increasing trend of parents refusing to immunize their children is sparked from unscientific theories such as those voiced by figures such as model Jenny McCarthy, who has claimed that her son’s autism was caused by such childhood vaccines. She has written books and spoken widely on television including The Oprah Winfrey Show and Larry King Live arguing against vaccination. Scientists have regularly argued that there is no logical evidence to support any of her claims, but her arguments apparently appeal to deniers in both wealthy communities and in rural areas throughout California. The connecting link is, likely, the fact that the highest percentages of children who remain unvaccinated by “belief exceptions” attend private schools. The rate in 2013-14 in private schools is 5.7% as opposed to public schools, where only 2.9% of the students remain unvaccinated.


    That suggests, perhaps, that the parents who fear the vaccinations may be simply more independent-minded. As an administrator at a Montessori school, Thomas Kraut argued—despite his own support for vaccination—the parents who choose his school are “attracted to an alternative life style of education,” and, accordingly, “have different views about health.”

     But perhaps it also reveals that these same people, in their search for life “alternatives,” have increasing, as Frank argued, has lost touch with the formerly liberating concepts that science had previously offered to society its assertion that the ideas the scientific community promoted had been objectively deduced, and were not the product of rumor, fear, and prejudice—precisely those elements that seem most dominant in notions such as those argued by McCarthy and others. It is one thing to have an open mind, and quite another to accept any mindless notion seems to explain things away, such as the apparent increase in autism.

     If these parents truly are open-minded to ideas, they might try assimilating the facts that, as the Times reports, “the incidence of measles reached a 20-yer high in the United States this year, with California reporting the second-largest number of cases at 61. Orange County, also one of the counties with a higher rate of non-vaccination, was the “hardest hit, with 22 reported cases.” California is also experiencing a whooping cough epidemic, with more than 7,500 cases this year. With schools reporting a “personal belief exemption” of well above 50%, it appears that California (as well as other states in the U.S.) is ripe for new outbreaks of diseases once thought to have been brought so completely in control as to almost be extinct! In short, these parents so desperately seeking alternatives are apparently ready to risk their own children’s lives.
In a kind of follow-up piece on the above, the Los Angeles Times reported on September 7, 2014 on an Orange County, California doctor, Robert Sears, who, having written The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child, encourages his “alternative-seeking” patients to wait with vaccines
beyond the suggested ages, and to “delay or eliminate certain immunizations.” Reportedly, half of his patients “forgo vaccines altogether.”

     Sears argues that he is not against vaccinations, but is simply attempting to help parents find approaches to the multiple vaccinations required that help them to make careful choices. Yet, Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, summarizes what might be described as the general feeling among the medical profession:

             We eliminated endemic measles in the U.S. in 2000. It’s now 2014
             and we’re at 400 cases. Why? Because people listen to Bob Sears. And,
             I blame him far more than I do the Jenny McCarthys of this world.
             Because he’s a doctor. And he should know more.”

 His book, Offit and an associate have elsewhere, “underplays the dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases, wrongly suggests that vaccines don’t receive in-depth testing and research, and confuses reported vaccine-related side effects with proven effects.” “Unfortunately, Sears, who wants parents to make informed decisions, has written a book that will largely misinform them.”


     Having written the above in a sort of self-righteous huff, I might also pause a bit to return to Adam Frank’s implied question, why is it that Americans have apparently begun to oppose what we used to perceive as inconvertible fact? Why have we as a people begun to deny what at another time we might have simply accepted as the truth. And why, if such statistics are to be believed, do we lag so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to such seeming logical conclusions.

     In part, we may have to blame the scientific method itself as being part of the problem. In our overly vigilant society where we are daily presented hundreds of conflicting reports about everything, a concatenation of various scientific speculations, so necessary in the trial-and-error methodology that scientists use in order to form a community of thought, seems to the layman to represent a series of contradictions—creating a world in which, as Woody Allen satirized in his early film, Bananas, in which we may wake up one day to be told that everything our mother’s had warned as bad to eat was now the best thing for our health. This week’s diet guidelines reported by The New York Times, quoting new studies that suggests a diet of low-carbohydrates will help individuals to lose weight better than a low-fat diet—the latter of which was argued for years to be preferable to better health—proves Allen’s point. Variances in scientific data that once appeared only in medical journals are often now reported, in far less sophisticated language, in daily newspapers, magazines, and radio and television news coverage. Add to this the fact that we are daily faced with dozens of self-proclaimed “experts” in various scientific areas who proffer conflicting advice to their audiences. Is it any wonder that individuals, perhaps those who are most attune to media, have become confused, even skeptical to what we might describe as the truth?

      Just as importantly, the scientific community has itself often authoritatively held on to certain viewpoints that proved disastrously mistaken. Too often the medical profession, already associated with it rising costs, has publically held hands with greedy drug companies whose products have proven harmful and even murderous to the population at large. One doesn’t have to return to the 1950s treatment of pregnant women’s morning sickness with Thalidomide— which resulted in thousands of babies with malformed limbs—to remind us that some doctors over-proscribe medicines, resulting in many cases in the drug dependencies of their patients. Others in the medical profession have abused their positions to prescribe unneeded surgeries and other procedures.

      The rise of horrific weaponry such as the atom bomb, most notably, has created an almost universal wariness of the scientific profession represented by the thousands of science fiction films and novels. From the late 1940s on, if scientists might be seen as startling innovators, they were also depicted in popular culture as mad men possibly bent on destroying the world.

      In short, the deniers have always been there. But just as the drug companies have grown in media-savvy salesmanship, proscribing over TV and computer networks the necessary remedies for their audiences’ complaints, so too have would-be do-gooders, well-meaning doubters, and outright quacks sold alternative solutions not only to solve their customers’ bodily complaints but to salve their fears of all the possible disasters of which science and their spokesmen warn. To the fearful amongst us, they assure us that the changes in our planet are not as serious as reported or, in half-truths, have not yet been proven. They comfort people whose religious creeds and values are stranded still on the far-side of the 18th century. They soothe the worries of the anxious mothers and fathers amongst us who are skeptical of whatever might enter their sacred childrens’ bodies, including anything have to do milk, food, medicines, and love. There is little logic, it appears, that might convince the growing legions of these deniers that their positions are mistaken, dangerous, and unjust. As a woman convinced by Dr.Sears’ prescription to delay her child’s vaccines, responded “It’s not really research-based. It just feels better and safer to me.."

Los Angeles, September 7, 2014




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