Unconvinced Environmentalist

Your main article in the March issue (Skeptic, #23), “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Vincent Gray, is perhaps the worst I have ever read. It consists almost entirely of bald assertions, all un- referenced and mostly false, vilifying unspecified “environmentalists”. I shall take room to correct only the worst of these assertions; my main complaint about the piece is more formal, namely that it is unrelated to the NZCSICOP’s aims, and on that ground alone should never have been printed in the magazine.

On the level of fact, Gray is almost completely astray. He admits “there are still people without enough to eat” but claims there’s lately been a “reduction in the likelihood of famine”. This is but one of a dozen major falsehoods in the article. More people are starving than ever, half a billion are severely malnourished, and the prospect is for yet worse famines. The “world glut of food” which Gray asserts is a cruel myth”.

Gray asserts “Green policies are unlikely to help solve these problems. Indeed they may exacerbate them.” No reasoning, or fact, is offered to support these contentions. The truth, by contrast, is that erosion of ecosystems’ productive capacities has already proceeded very far. I entreat readers to seek out the reputable sources which I have mentioned, and ascertain the facts on these crucial matters.

Gray’s main method is the well known “straw man” technique. He claims we have made exaggerated statements which he then knocks down, but many of the statements I have never seen before. Yet others that he mocks are not exaggerated, e.g., that human activities have “depleted resources”. Why would anyone want to mock that accurate statement?

He tries to make out that environmentalists have avoided the issue of population growth (while also accusing us of scaremongering with the term “population explosion”). I would concede that some sections of the environmental movement have indeed underplayed this issue, but as a generality, he’s wrong. It has been widely agreed that the four main categories of environmental problem are pollution, overpopulation, resource depletion and militarism. To the extent that population growth has been insufficiently curbed, the blame must be found largely elsewhere, not in failure of advocacy by environmentalists.

Gray suggestes that because weather forecasting is of limited reliability (though not totally unreliable as his unspecified “one study” claims) climate projections, e.g. nuclear winter, must be implausible. This is fallacious. A major global perturbation, such as a huge sooty cloud spreading over much of the planet or a 30% increase in the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere, will cause results more confidently predictable than the very delicate quasi- random day-to-day changes of mere weather. Artificial climate change (a more accurate term than “global warming”) is accordingly predicted by almost all the relevant experts who have examined the issue. Gray does readers a severe disservice by trying to present a different picture.

Perhaps his gravest accusation is “lack of attention to human welfare when it conflicts with environmental dogma”. The leading environmentalists (such as Edward Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist) have consistently maintained that it is only by taking care of Nature that humans can prosper. Trying to set up a phoney conflict “environment versus humanity” is an ignorant and mischievous distraction.

I cannot fathom why the editor of NZ Skeptic would contemplate such deceptive rubbish which furthermore is irrelevant to the purposes of NZCSICOP, to which I therefore do not renew my subscription.

Robert Mann, Editor, NZ Environment

CO2 and the Economy

While I agree with the points in Dr Gray’s article that some environmentalists use bad science and may appear to ignore population pressures on resources, I find the remainder of the article flawed.

The uncritical acceptance of the statement that a 20% reduction in CO2 will deepen New Zealand’s current recession, create more unemployment and inhibit exports is particularly disappointing.

Obviously a CO2 reduction strategy will produce growth and investment in some businesses, such as the large insulation manufacturer I work for and reduce the importance of othr businesses such as coal mining.

Overall, I see a net economic and social benefit to New Zealand from a considered strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. The research by many energy specialists both in New Zealand and overseas seems to support my understanding.

If global warming due to CO2 proceeds as predicted by a majority of the world’s climatologists, it will result in massive and costly environmental damge. After CFCs, acid rain and DDT, perhaps it is better to be cautious rather than careless.

I feel it was unfortunate that such a polarised view of environmentalists was published without a counter point.
Mark Stacey, Auckland

Scientific Reasoning

The views expressed by school teachers cited by M Carol Scott (Skeptic 23) exemplify a widespread shortcoming of science education at secondary and indeed tertiary level: its failure to inculcate scientific reasoning modes.

Science teaching appears to exhibit two main modes of transmission:

The “Gospel Truth” delivery style: “this is how things are,” usually employed when dealing with noncontroversial “hard facts,” such as acid/alkali reactions, Newton’s laws, or the digestive system of a rat.

  • The “Article of Faith” approach: “scientists believe that,” used when dealing with potentially controversial or non-deductively demonstrable models like stellar and biological evolution.

Laboratory work in educational institutions is usually only to illustrate what has been pre-taught; in my day “experiments” at school were “to prove that…” They were not at all experimental, and contained not a vestige of the epistemological processes which characterise “real” science in their design or execution. Since then, Discovery Learning methods have become more fashionable, but I would debate the assertion that they achieve little more than the Classical methods do in practice.

Do most degree holders in science really have a background in which scientific thinking was paid much formal attention to? To what extent do secondary science teacher training courses train aspirants to develop scientific reasoning processes in school pupils? In the case of my own first degree and teacher training, these questions are purely rhetorical. Now that I am on the other side of the lecturer’s bench, I am giving such matters a great deal of thought.

Science is not what scientists “believe” (that word describes the claims of both fundamentalists and palaeontologists!) and science is not an amorphous compendium of “facts.” It is an epistemological process which has evolved since the Renaissance. It is a way of thinking.

An introduction to science at first-year university level (compulsory for all BSC students) should feature a priming session of several weeks on the history and philosophy of science, and scienitific epistemology (The Scientific Method, as opposed to “scientific methods”). School science should similarly aim less for fact-cramming and more for cognitive development and the inculcation of scientific reasoning abilities.

Until we do just that, I believe that words like “evidence,” “theory,” and “chance” will remain forever incomprehensible to the general public, not to mention many of the teachers wbo produce that general public.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek, Goroka, PNG

If we are to teach epistemology in a basic science course, which epistemology is appropriate? In my experiance, Popperian falliblism is the most useful way to introduce philosophy of science to science students. Popper is hardly the last word (philosophical questions don’t have last words), but he does give students a useful structure for distinguishing legitimate science from religion and — most importantly — from pseudoscience. -DD

Light Hats

That photograph of the “light hat” (Skeptic 24) is a beauty! But as foolish as it seems, there may well be some reasonable scientific evidence to support its use.

There is a good body of scientific literature regarding seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and its treatment (including shining light on the patient and by taking a variety of medicines), despite the rather convenient-sounding acronym. There are four subtypes noted in DSM-III- R, the well-known psychiatry manual.

Research into the aetiology and treatment of SAD was sparse prior to the 1980s, but came of age rapidly in the middle of that decade, mainly under the impetus of Rosenthal and colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, Maryland, in the United States. Numerous well-designed clinical studies were published by this group.

The mechanism of the action of “phototherapy” (shining light on the patient, as in the photograph) remains controversial. Many researchers agree on the involvement of melatonin, suggesting that undiminished melatonin secretion during the months of shorter photoperiod may have a depressant effect. This is based on the observation that light exposure during phototherapy suppresses melatonin secretion; the first treatments with phototherapy were based on the original biological observation that seasonal rhythms in animals depended on photoperiod. The mismatch of melatonin and photoperiod in the human has been described as a “phase delay,” and as a “desynchronisation between solar and biological clocks.” Phototherapy aims to artificially extend the sufferer’s photoperiod. The first report of a portable unit was I think in 1990.

Drug therapy is not usually the first line of treatment for recognised SAD, but at least four groups of compounds have been used: beta- blockers, serotonin precursors and serotonin releasing compounds, benzodiazepines and monoamine-oxidase inhibitors.

There are obvious difficulties in carrying out conventional blind cross-over placebo-controlled trials in the assessment of the usefulness of phototherapy, but results thus far have prompted some to suggest that it would be wise to screen patients with major depression for a seasonal component.

A line in Morin’s 1990 paper states that SAD frequently improves with “travel toward the equator”. Suffering as we are now through a Christchurch winter, it’s easy to agree!

John Britten, Christchurch