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Archive for the 'Science' Category

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

The Journey Ahead

The Thirteenth Step

“[F]or now at least, any promise of “cure” is somewhere between naïve and dishonest, depending on who makes it and why. But it is equally true that these chronic relapsing disorders can now be managed so that most people with such disorders can decrease their risk for relapse, allowing them to live productive, good lives.” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. For the final day of our giveaway, we are happy to present an excerpt from “The Journey Ahead,” the final chapter of The Thirteenth Step.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

PTSD and addiction

The Thirteenth Step

“Here’s a dream: A future in which every patient with alcohol problems, man or women, is thoroughly evaluated for PTSD, treated with evidence based behavioral interventions, and given the opportunity to benefit from synergistic effects of psychotherapy and pharmacology. Wouldn’t that be something?” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. In today’s post, Heilig discusses the deep connection between PTSD and substance addiction which scientists are still trying to fully understand.

And don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

PTSD and addiction
By Markus Heilig

The public is clearly waking up to the fact that much of the toll of PTDS comes from substance use. Hard drinking may appear as the only way to temporarily escape the intrusive memories of traumatic events, face people at the grocery store, or fall asleep without the torment of nightmares. Up to 75% of combat veterans with PTSD also have alcohol problems. Conversely, between a third and half of patients seeking treatment for alcohol problems have PTSD.

But here’s something else to think about: The vast majority of PTSD patients are actually not veterans of wars. Firefights or explosive devices are not the most common causes of PTSD. Rape, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence are. Even with the recent wars, PTSD is twice as common among women as it is among men, affecting 8 – 16% of adult females in the US. Yet women suffering from PTSD are not much talked about. When they seek treatment for alcohol problems, the questions that would allow a PTSD diagnosis to be made are rarely asked. And even if the diagnosis is obvious, people look the other way. Traumatic events are so hard to talk about. Excuses are plentiful. Maybe bringing back traumatic memories will trigger cravings and relapse? So this difficult material is left for a “later” that never comes. (more…)

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Us and Them

The Thirteenth Step

“In this book I will share some of the amazing advances the neuroscience of addiction has made over the years I have been in the field. I will offer a personal take on what addiction is: a malfunction of some of the most fundamental brain circuits that make us tick, and a disease that is not much different from other chronic, relapsing medical conditions. I trust it will be clear what addiction is not: a moral failing, a simple inability to say no, or a condition that can be cured by mystic incantations.” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from “Us and Them,” the first chapter of The Thirteenth Step, in which Heilig explains his experiences working with addiction, and lays out his hopes for what his book will accomplish.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Why breakthroughs in addiction research have not changed addiction treatment

The Thirteenth Step

“But the size of the addiction research enterprise is dwarfed by a $35 billion a year or so treatment industry in this field. This is a booming entrepreneurial world, where treatment centers charge people tens of thousands of dollars for various offerings. And despite all the investment in science, few of those treatments make much use of the scientific advances in the area of addiction. In fact, treatment approaches have not changed much at all over the past quarter century.” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. To open the week’s feature, Heilig has written a powerfully argued guest post in which he contrasts the advances in the science of addiction and the stagnation in the way that addiction is actually treated.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

Why have breakthroughs in addiction research not changed addiction treatment?
By Markus Heilig

The US taxpayers fund the overwhelming majority of addiction research in the world. Every year, Congress channels about $1 billion to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). An additional almost 0.5 billion is separately given to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), my own workplace for the past decade. That may sound impressive, and in many ways it is. With the help of these resources, there have been truly amazing advances in the understanding of how addiction works. “Brain reward systems” have become part of the general parlance. The NIDA director has become a celebrity who has appeared on 60 Minutes. New findings on how alcohol and drugs get people hooked have shown a rare ability to fascinate people far outside the circle of scientists. And there has been perhaps a more modest, but still significant progress in figuring out better treatments.

But the size of the addiction research enterprise is dwarfed by a $35 billion a year or so treatment industry in this field. This is a booming entrepreneurial world, where treatment centers charge people tens of thousands of dollars for various offerings. And despite all the investment in science, few of those treatments make much use of the scientific advances in the area of addiction. In fact, treatment approaches have not changed much at all over the past quarter century. If someone were to be pulled out of a 12-step meeting then and transported through time to one today, he or she would probably not notice much of a difference. Here is, perhaps unsurprisingly then, something that the investment in research has not bought us: Any measurable dent in the damage done by addictions.

Some basic facts: Alcohol continues to kill about 80,000 Americans each year. Death from prescription pain killers adds almost 20,000 more, and has been on the rise for over a decade. As we have begun clamping down on these prescriptions, heroin has become resurgent instead. Why is it that all the passionate research efforts by dedicated scientists have such a hard time producing much of a change in the lives of real people with addictions? Only about one in 10 people with alcoholism ever receive treatment. For most of those, that is synonymous with joining Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a movement formed three-quarters of a century ago, when medicine had little to offer addicts beyond perhaps treating the shakes of acute alcohol withdrawal. (more…)

Monday, May 18th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig

The Thirteenth Step

“Heilig makes the science accessible to both lay and professional audiences alike by using a strong, conversational tone interspersed with humor and illustrative vignettes. He draws the reader in and effectively consolidates complex concepts. I applaud his efforts to bring the plight of the addicted to the attention of others and for calling upon the field to do its very best to help.” — Valerie J. Slaymaker

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its subject, and its editors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Thirteenth Step. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, May 22nd at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

An interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Theatre and Evolution, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

The following is an interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett:

Question: What initially struck the connection between the theatrical arts and evolutionary theory? What specifically drew you to evolutionary theory as a lens?

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr: I had written about it before for my book Science on Stage in 2006, where I devoted each chapter to an area of science, such as physics, evolution, math, medicine, etc. After I finished it, the chapter I really wanted to pursue in a lot more depth was the one on evolution. Then around 2009 everyone was gearing up for the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and Darwin’s 200th birthday so there was this massive worldwide interest in Darwin. I was asked to do a panel on “Darwin and the Theater” for the International Darwin Festival in Cambridge. I brought together two playwrights and a neuroscientist who had been a theater director earlier in his career. I did a lot of research for the panel and it revealed to me how much there was to still delve into. And the other piece of the puzzle was that I had come across fantastically interesting books on Darwin and the novel, but nothing on Darwin and drama. It struck me that there was so much to say about theater and evolution and it became very clear to me that it was going to go way beyond Darwin. It’s not just a 19th century phenomenon, either; it’s looking over the past 200 years at evolutionary theory’s development.

At the festival in Cambridge, there was a wonderful exhibition on Darwin and the visual arts. They had mounted these huge canvases by famous painters of wildlife and scenes of survival and great drama in the natural world. There was a kind of underlying message there, a more oblique engagement with Darwin, not necessarily obvious, but doing it in a more subtle way. You have to sniff it out. It’s not necessarily going to be this overt reference to Darwin. It’s about the texture of the play rather than the direct references.

Q: What does theatre specifically ask from evolution that establishes a relationship different from other art forms?

KSB: The number one thing that struck me in the broader field in literature and science is that generally there is a sense that George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and other novelists of the time had a real understanding of Darwin’s work and incorporated it in a more or less positive way. There is almost the opposite reaction in theater. The plays I was studying tended to be questioning. There was much more probing skepticism going on. Why would that be? Theater is a live art form. And the potential there in terms of evolution is just so great. You’re putting a human body on stage, a physical signifier of evolution. When you stick an actor on stage you’re signaling physiological processes that all humans have in common. You have an evolutionary process in front of you. Evolution is such a long-term 19th century spectacle, you have these huge dramatic scenes, waterfalls on stage even, and they are all part of a larger process.

In many ways my real starting point is the discoveries of Lyell, whose work Darwin was reading during his voyage on the Beagle, seeing the things he’s reading about. He is absorbing this concept of deep time and is then incorporating that as he formulates his own evolutionary ideas. The connection is this idea of the spectacle, particularly seen in British theaters in the mid-19th century, where effects, machinery, sophisticated and ambitious stagings, displaying natural settings like waterfalls, are pointing to what’s going on in the sciences, telling us the earth is much older than we thought. There really has to be a connection there, it’s not a coincidence.

(more…)

Friday, April 24th, 2015

The Drugs Do Work (Sometimes) — Nessa Carey on Junk DNA and Medicine

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

“One day science will probably be able to interpret all the pos­sible epigenetic modifications that are found in the genome and predict precisely what their consequences will be for gene expres­sion. But unravelling the rea­sons behind the triumph of hope over experience in the investment community? Be realistic.”—Nessa Carey

In the final post for our week-long feature on Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, by Nessa Carey, we’ve provided an excerpt from the penultimate chapter, “The Drugs Do Work (Sometimes). In the chapter Carey explains how drug companies are building on new discoveries relating to junk DNA to develop new drugs. However, as Carey points out, the time and money they’re willing to devote to research and development is not consistent and often results in slowing down progress:

Billions of dollars are spent every year by companies trying to cre­ate new drugs to treat human diseases. They hope to find ways to tackle unmet medical needs, a situation that is becoming ever more urgent with the increasing age profile of the global population. The breakthroughs in the understanding of the impact of junk DNA on gene expression and disease progression are triggering a slew of new companies seeking to exploit this field. Specifically, most of the new efforts are in using non-protein-coding RNAs as drugs in themselves. The basic premise is that junk RNA – long non-coding, smallRNAs or another form called antisense – will be given to patients, to influence gene expression and control or cure disease.

This is very different from the way we treat diseases at the moment. Historically, most drugs have been of a type known as small molecules. These are chemically created and are relatively simple in shape. More recently, we have learnt how to use proteins as drugs. Probably the most famous is insulin, the hormone that diabetics use to regulate their blood sugar levels. Antibodies are another very successful type of protein drug. These are engineered versions of the molecules we all produce to fight infections. Drug companies have found ways of adapting these so that they will bind to over-expressed proteins and neutralise their activities. The bestselling antibody is one that treats rheumatoid arthritis very effectively, but there are others that treat conditions as diverse as breast cancer and blindness.

(more…)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Nessa Carey Introduces Us to Dark Genomic Matter

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

“It’s becoming apparent that junk DNA actually has a multiplicity of different functions, perhaps unsurprisingly given how much of it there is.”—Nessa Carey

We continue our week-long feature on Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, by Nessa Carey, with an excerpt from the chapter “An Introduction to Genomic Dark Matter:

For years, scientists had no explanation for why so much of our DNA doesn’t code for proteins. These non-coding parts were dismissed with the term ‘junk DNA’. But gradually this position has begun to look less tenable, for a whole host of reasons.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for the shift in empha­sis is the sheer volume of junk DNA that our cells contain. One of the biggest shocks when the human genome sequence was completed in 2001 was the discovery that over 98 per cent of the DNA in a human cell is junk. It doesn’t code for any proteins.

Let’s imagine we visit a car factory, perhaps for something high-end like a Ferrari. We would be pretty surprised if for every two people who were build­ing a shiny red sports car, there were another 98 who were sitting around doing nothing. This would be ridiculous, so why would it be reasonable in our genomes? While it’s a very fair point that it’s the imperfections in organisms that are often the strongest evidence for descent from common ancestors—we humans really don’t need an appendix —this seems like taking imperfection rather too far.

A much more likely scenario in our car factory would be that for every two people assembling a car, there are 98 others doing all the things that keep a business moving. Raising finance, keep­ing accounts, publicising the product, processing the pensions, cleaning the toilets, selling the cars etc. This is probably a much better model for the role of junk in our genome. We can think of proteins as the final end points required for life, but they will never be properly produced and coordinated without the junk. Two people can build a car, but they can’t maintain a company selling it, and certainly can’t turn it into a powerful and financially successful brand. Similarly, there’s no point having 98 people mopping the floors and staffing the showrooms if there’s nothing to sell. The whole organisation only works when all the components are in place. And so it is with our genomes.

(more…)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

VIDEO: Nessa Carey Discusses Junk DNA

Courtesy of Icon Books, the British publisher of Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, comes this excellent video in which Nessa Carey discusses her book and some of the most important challenges confronting the current study of genetics:

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Earth Day Video: Michael Mann on the Climate Wars

As today is Earth Day, we thought it worthwhile to feature this video featuring Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. The video is a powerful reminder of the continuing challenges faced by scientists and others to develop policies to protect the environment. In the video, produced by the Yale Climate Forum, Michael Mann discusses his work as a climate scientist as well as the political objections and obfuscations that have served to muddy scientific research and stymied efforts to create productive policies to combat climate change.

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

An Interview with Nessa Carey, Author of “Junk DNA”

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

The following is an interview with Nessa Carey, author of Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome:

Question: Junk DNA explores the massive amount of excess DNA that do not directly create genes and make up proteins. Your last book, The Epigenetics Revolution focused on all of the different influences that can affect our genome as it is being written. Would you say you have a fascination with the imperfectness or the vulnerability of our own biology?

Nessa Carey: I think what I am drawn to are the areas of biology that are ambiguous. The ambiguity is both in terms of the biology itself, but also in how we view it. So I love that epigenetics is a discipline that takes us aware from genetic determinism and into situations where the genome can be affected by the environment but also by random fluctuations. With junk DNA I like that there is a vast network of subtly interacting factors that work together but are very hard to predict. But I am also drawn to what these areas tell us about the way scientists think—particularly how we create terms to describe things of which we have a very incomplete understanding, and then we get trapped in defending these inappropriate terms.

Q: In Junk DNA, you write that only 2% of our DNA is devoted to coding amino acids while the rest is “junk.” You ask the question, “What on earth is the other 98% doing?” Is this question and its prospect of the unknown ever terrifying to you? Or is it one that simply fuels more curiosity?

NC: That’s the fun bit. When I was choosing what to specialize in for my degree—biochemistry, microbiology or immunology—I chose immunology because it was the topic where my questions most often got the response of “we don’t know”.

(more…)

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Junk DNA, by Nessa Carey

This week our featured book is Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome by Nessa Carey.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Junk DNA to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 24th at 1:00 pm.

Junk DNA provides a cutting-edge, exhaustive guide to the rapidly changing, ever-more mysterious genome.”—Linda Geddes, New Scientist

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

VIDEO: Peter Piot and the Science and Politics of AIDS

In the following video, Peter Piot, author of the just-published AIDS Between Science and Politics discusses with the Financial Times his experiences as an AIDS researcher and how communicable diseases can be prevented in the future:

Friday, March 6th, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs Discusses Sustainable Development at Columbia University

In the University Lecture (see below) delivered at Columbia University, Jeffrey Sachs, author of The Age of Sustainable Development, discusses sustainable development as an emerging scholarly discipline and as an urgent policy imperative, and describes the evolving role of universities and other social institutions in addressing these complex challenges:

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Sustainable Development and the Future of the Planet — Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, The Age of Sustainable Development

“Achieving sustainable development on our crowded, unequal, and degraded planet is the most important challenge facing our generation.”—Jeffrey Sachs

In the following excerpt from the introduction to The Age of Sustainable Development, Jeffrey Sachs outlines some of the core concepts of sustainable development and the role of governments and multinational corporations:

Thus we arrive at sustainable development. As an intellectual pursuit, sus­tainable development tries to make sense of the interactions of three complex systems: the world economy, the global society, and the Earth’s physical environ­ment. How does an economy of 7.2 billion people and $90 trillion gross world output change over time? What causes economic growth? Why does poverty per­sist? What happens when billions of people are suddenly interconnected through markets, technology, finance, and social networks? How does a global society of such inequality of income, wealth, and power function? Can the poor escape their fate? Can human trust and sympathy surmount the divisions of class and power? And what happens when the world economy is on a collision course with the physical environment? Is there a way to change course, a way to combine eco­nomic development with environmental sustainability?

Sustainable development is also a normative outlook on the world, meaning that it recommends a set of goals to which the world should aspire. The world’s nations will adopt Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) precisely to help guide the future course of economic and social development on the planet. In this normative (or ethical) sense, sustainable development calls for a world in which economic progress is widespread; extreme poverty is eliminated; social trust is encouraged through policies that strengthen the community; and the environment is protected from human-induced degrada­tion. Notice that sustainable development recommends a holistic framework, in which society aims for economic, social, and environmental goals. Sometimes the following shorthand is used: SDGs call for socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth.

To achieve the economic, social, and environmental objectives of the SDGs, a fourth objective must also be achieved: good governance. Governments must carry out many core functions to enable societies to prosper. Among these core functions of government are the provision of social services such as health care and education; the provision of infrastructure such as roads, ports, and power; the protection of individuals from crime and violence; the promotion of basic sci­ence and new technologies; and the implementation of regulations to protect the environment. Of course, this list is just a brief subset of what people around the world hope for from their governments. In fact, all too often they get the reverse: corruption, war, and an absence of public services.

(more…)

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

The Nation Interviews Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, The Age of Sustainable Development

“I believe that a large majority of Americans know the score right now…. They know that we should move to renewables, but the Koch brothers have more power than all of them in the way that money moves our political system right now.”—Jeffrey Sachs

Below are excerpts from a recent interview with Jeffrey Sachs published in The Nation. In the interview, Sachs discusses many of the issues from his new book The Age of Sustainable Development, including the technical and and political challenges that must be addressed to ensure the success of capping carbon emissions and paving the way for sustainable development. He also focuses on the importance of the forthcoming summit in Paris of world leaders to negotiate a binding agreement to reduce global carbon emissions.

On the importance of China and the United States working together:

“It’s a real watershed in that the two big emitting countries said we’re going to sign an agreement next year in Paris. That’s very important. The substance of it is mixed. China, for example, said it will peak by 2030. It didn’t say peak at what level, and 2030 is, after all, sixteen years from now. That offer can and should be improved considerably. The US said that it will reduce emissions by around a quarter by 2025, also not a breakthrough. And the administration said that’s what can be done using EPA regulations, rather than trying to get something through this obstructionist Senate.

So is this sufficient? No. Is it an opening gambit? I hope so. If it’s the final story before Paris, it’s not good enough. But I don’t think it will be the final story.”

On the challenges for poorer, developing countries to be green:

“Poor countries need the incremental help to develop in a clean, green and resilient way. Those who can and should pay—because they’re so rich or because they’re emitting a lot of pollutants— should put up some of the resources that are absolutely vital for poor countries. Poor countries need to be able to manage both the ongoing changes of climate and to enable the mobilization of large-scale renewable energy. Climate finance, and the broader issue of development finance, is going to be on the table in Addis Ababa in July, and there are no shared concepts yet on this. It’s one of the most difficult and still unformed parts of the whole agenda.”

On the role of oil companies:

“I think at the end of the day, the world is going to want to save itself. And this kind of traditional behavior, which after all has been the way the oil industry has worked for the hundred forty years or so of the sector, has to change. And it will change, but how fast? Tobacco use is coming down, but so gradually that there’s huge loss of life and suffering that continues decades after the dangers were discovered. With fossil fuels, it is so slow it’s threatening the planet in fundamental ways, and the whole point is we’ve got to dramatically speed up.”

(more…)

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs Discusses “The Age of Sustainable Development” on “Morning Joe”

In the following video form Morning Joe, Jeffrey Sachs discusses a wide range of subjects, including his new book The Age of Sustainable Development, the threat of climate change, the dangers of over-population, the growing importance of infrastructure for our cities, what individuals can do regarding sustainability, and what the killing of Boris Nemtsov means for Russia:

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Age of Sustainable Development, Jeffrey Sachs

This week our featured book is The Age of Sustainable Development, by Jeffrey D. Sachs; Foreword by Ban Ki-moon.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Age of Sustainable Development to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 6th at 1:00 pm.

The Age of Sustainable Development is my candidate for most important book in current circulation. Inspirational, encyclopedic in coverage, moving smoothly from discipline to discipline as though composed by multiple experts, Sachs explains why humanity must attain sustainability as its highest priority—and he outlines the best ways to do it.”—Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

For more on the book, you can read an excerpt from the introduction:

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Proposed 1920s Orphanage Study Just One Example in History of Scientific Racism — Michael Yudell

Race Unmasked, Michael Yudell

“Racism has indeed left its stain on scientific thought.”—Michael Yudell

The following post is by Michael Yudell, Drexel University and author of Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century. The essay was originally published in The Conversation:

In the late 1920s, scientists hatched an outrageous plan to settle a question at the heart of American racial thought: were differences between racial groups driven by environment or by heredity? In other words, was the racist social order of the time – white over black — an inevitable and genetically driven outcome? Or did the environment in which all Americans lived create the deep disparities and discord between races that defined the social, economic and political reality of the United States?

A committee on “Racial Problems,” jointly sponsored by the venerable National Research Council and the Social Science Research Council, discussed an experiment: create racial orphanages, separate institutions where children of different races would be received as close to birth as possible. The idea was to compare white and black children under similar conditions. Scientists could closely monitor the institutionalized children as they developed to figure out whether differences were due to innate characteristics or environmental influence. Nursery schools and foster homes were proposed as places of comparative study too, but most of committee’s discussions focused on the idea of racial orphanages.Science has made claims about race in America since the late 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson hypothesized that the differences between races are “fixed in nature.” In the 19th century, anthropologists such as Samuel Morton argued for a racial hierarchy of intelligence and believed human races evolved from separate origins. Eugenicists tried to quantify the hereditary nature of race difference in the early 20th century, using their science to develop social policy, including forced sterilization and anti-immigration laws. Racism has indeed left its stain on scientific thought.

(more…)

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air: The Denial of Global Warming — James L. Powell

James Lawrence Powell, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences

“As bad as the effects of smoking have been and will be, they pale beside the death and destruction that global warming is set to visit upon us. Will Big Oil one day find itself in the courtroom?”—James Lawrence Powell

The following is by James Lawrence Powell, author of Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth. Powell examines the persistence of the denial of global warming and the forces behind it:

Why, in spite of the undeniable scientific evidence, do so many mem­bers of the public and so many politicians fail to accept global warm­ing? Mainly for two reasons. First, for several decades, newspapers have bent over backward to present global warming as though it were the subject of a genuine debate—and not just the sensationalist press, but mainstream papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. When one of these papers runs an article on some new finding that supports global warming, the reporter feels compelled to add, “but some scientists disagree,” going on to quote one of the always available deniers. The reader is presented with “both sides” of an issue on which, as far as science is concerned, there is only one side. This has happened too many times to be put down to sloppy journalism. It must be the result of a policy decision made at the upper echelons of each newspaper’s decision makers.

As evidence, consider this example. In the first five months of 2010, the New York Times ran twelve prominent articles about global warm­ing. Judging from the headlines, ten were about the alleged contro­versy: “Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons” and “Skeptics Find Fault with UN Climate Panel,” for example. Only two articles were about the science of global warming, and one of them was writ­ten in such a way as to give the impression that scientists might have cooked the evidence. During 2010 the evidence for global warming was growing stronger, but from the paper whose masthead proclaims “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” readers got exactly the opposite im­pression. Television has done no better. The major network news re­ports spend less and less time on climate, leaving the field to Fox News, which has denied global warming at every opportunity.

The second reason that the public has been misled is that fossil fuel companies and conservative foundations have poured scores of mil­lions of dollars into propping up denial propaganda groups with such names as Competitive Enterprise Institute ($2,005,000), Frontiers of Freedom Institute ($1,002,000), and the Heartland Institute ($561,500). The figures are the amounts that ExxonMobil alone provided each or­ganization from 1996 through 2005. But these front groups and dozens more like them used the money to deceive the public and Congress about the true state of climate science. According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists,

like the tobacco industry, ExxonMobil has:
Manufactured uncertainty by raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence.

• Adopted a strategy of information laundering by using seemingly independent front organizations to publicly further its desired message and thereby confuse the public.

Promoted scientific spokespeople who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-pick facts in their attempts to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists [about] global warming.

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