About This Site
For better or worse, the human race now has more power over the natural world and it's own communities than ever before in history. This power brings great responsibility along with its possibilities, and more than ever it is of the utmost importance that we approach environmental and social problems with science, humility and compassion. But despite this, American civic dialog is being driven more and more by controversy and hysteria rather than honest inquiry. Increasingly, politicians and media forums are dwelling on highly inflammatory issues that will raise their ratings instead of actively seeking answers to the problems that plague our nation and our world. Analysts are now saying that since the year 2000 elections, America's swing voter contingency has been shrinking and Americans, driven by anger and/or ideology, are moving further to the Right or Left than ever before in recent history. Year 2004 presidential campaigns, we are told, are concentrating not on attracting a thoughtful community of swing voting Moderates, but of "energizing their base". As more and more of us choose to respond to this, a steady diet of poisonous rhetoric is built up that polarizes us all into mutually hostile factions. Cooperation and understanding are becoming nearly impossible, much less solutions. Throughout all this, science, humility and genuine dialog take a back seat.
And too many of us encourage this.
By some estimates tens of millions of Americans tune in regularly to nationally syndicated talk shows which even on good days rarely progress beyond feeding frenzies against individuals or groups hated by the hosts. Books on the Left and Right alike with titles like "Slander", "Hillary's Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton's Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House", "The Bush Hater's Handbook", and more fill bookstores, along with countless periodicals which claim to be delving into the "hot issues". Books and periodicals like these remain best-sellers despite the fact that they are composed almost entirely of scandalmongering and personal attacks on individuals or groups the authors dislike and have little if any properly researched data about the issues they claim to address. At times these attacks are unusually vicious. For instance, noted author and conservative columnist Ann Coulter recently said in an interview that that the only regret she had about the Oklahoma City bombing was that Timothy McVeigh hadn't targeted the New York Times instead1—a publication she takes issue with politically (bear in mind that this bombing killed nearly 200 innocent people, including many children). Examples of print and broadcast forums that depend on this sort of journalism abound—journalism which depends almost exclusively on ad-hominem attacks, highly selective research, and confrontational partisanship to promote views.
Broadcast media is seldom any better. My day job as a Network Operations Center administrator requires me to have cable news on round the clock, and in the 5 or 6 months prior to this writing I have watched literally hundreds of hours of it. In any given 2 hour period I saw perhaps 10 or 15 minutes of original news content. The rest was either a repeat of the same stories and footage, or talk shows that dwelled almost entirely on scandals or hot-button subjects. Fox News (now America's most watched cable news channel) is particularly egregious in this regard. One typical example of their "in-depth" analysis was a recent episode of Hannity and Colmes entitled "Environmental Extremists". The show featured a Florida professor of "Religion and Environmental Ethics" doing his best to respond thoughtfully to interruptions, sweeping generalizations with no supporting documentation, and in-your-face challenges and by Hannity about "criminals" who "blow up SUV's". A criminologist, or FBI terrorism expert might have provided hard data about environmental terrorism and groups like the Earth Liberation Front. No such person was part of this show. Nor was any mainstream ecological scientist or environmental policy expert who might have discussed real environmental issues and put the motives and activities of such groups in context. Least surprising of all, no attempt was made at any time during this show to discuss how groups like the ELF differ from the overwhelming majority of thoughtful and legitimate environmental organizations worldwide.
In short, the program offered no knowledge base and no perspective—only controversy.
The subject and guest appear to have been chosen not because they would deepen our knowledge of environmental issues or even of environmentally motivated crimes, but because the they would inflame the passions of Fox's predominately conservative, and anti-environmental audience. This may raise their ratings (no one ever accused Rupert Murdoch of being a poor businessman!), but it drowns out reason and compassion with hysteria.
A sampling of other "investigative" news programming across during the same period included topics like "The 'Real Deal' on the Clintons", "Why Hollywood Leans Left", "Will Hillary Run for Office?", "Half an Education—the Left Half", and countless programs promising us "the latest" on the Laci Peterson case (as of this writing, the most recent example I saw inquired whether or not Scott Peterson hired neo-nazis to kill Laci), and more. There has even been a recent flurry of attempts in some ultra-liberal publications to tie George W. Bush to the Nazi party through some alleged activities of his paternal grandfather from decades ago2 (as though this would somehow make him a Nazi!).
Conspicuously absent from all this was any program offering in-depth analysis of real problems like poverty, inadequate education and health care for many, pollution, hunger, global warming, etc. Scientists, medical researchers, economists, and other professionals who might have provided information on any of these subjects were conspicuously absent from virtually every guest list I saw. Consider for instance, the subject of global warming—one that is in the forefront of current news and national policy, is controversial, and has a considerable scientific knowledge base behind it that would be readily available to any serious investigator. I recently conducted several extensive searches of Fox News' web site covering a two year period looking for information on global warming related issues. These did not turn up even a single feature that examined any aspect of the subject in depth, and virtually no interviews with any published climate scientist or professional in a related field. Only a few short news blurbs (not one of which was properly cited), a brief opinion statement from Bill O' Reilly on one of his shows, and op-ed pieces.
What little content there was in these reflected a glaring lack of experience with the subject. Nearly all of it was demonstrably incorrect, out of context or irrelevant to the subject. Even 10 or 20 minutes worth of literature search would have exposed the errors. The few remarks that were not were at best indirect and highly selective of the existing knowledge base. Many were based on research that was at least 10 to 15 years old and long ago superceded. Nowhere was there even a single properly cited reference to any of the published science in the field. Beyond this, there was an almost continuous barage of sarcasm and cheap shots directed at "greens" or "the eco-inquisition".
The amateurish scholarship displayed here is not surprising. Nearly all of the op-ed was from Steven Milloy and Dennis Miller (of Saturday Night Live fame). Milloy, an "adjunct scholar" at the ultra-conservative Cato Institute, is best known for his "Junk Science" web site. He got his start in the early 90's as a lobbyist for Philip Morris and was paid top dollar to argue against the substantial body of scientific evidence linking second-hand smoke to cancer. From there he moved into a number of industry funded anti-environmental front groups and at various times has fought climate change science, clean air and water standards, public health standards, and food safety regulations. Throughout his career he has gained a reputation for confrontational rhetoric and for the extreme viciousness of his personal attacks on those he disagrees with.3 He has no formal training in any climate change related field. Dennis Miller, whose only degree is in journalism, is a comedian who has no science education of any kind. Two other editorials mentioning global warming during this period were from a University of Washington undergraduate student studying "political economy4 and an Australian journalist whom we were told "first encountered the horror of environmentalism as a grade school student, when a bearded teacher told him that all the fossil fuel in the world was about to vanish and everybody would soon be driving electric cars.5 Again, no scientific training, professional experience, or relevant background of any kind was mentioned for either of these people. Nor were we told anything about the alleged "horror" of the "bearded" teacher's statements, what was so terrifying about beards and electric cars, or why a grade school student would be in a position to properly evaluate any of this.
This was the extent of Fox News' "in-depth" examination of the subject of global warming over a period of 2 years! Other environmental and social issues didn't fair much better. It would be interesting, and perhaps frightening, to find out how many of those who depend on forums like this for their information have actually visited a library in the last year seeking hard, broadly based factual data about any matter that concerns them. This sort of unprofessionalism and shoddy scholarship is more than just an exercise in controversy and should seriously concern all of us. Forums like these frequently gain the attention of national policy makers, and audiences who depend on them uncritically for their "information" vote these politicians into office.
The result is a complete breakdown in civility and literacy—and in damaging public policy. The voices of science and compassion are silenced and our nation takes great long steps away from the best that is in us—the best that is in our individual and national souls.
We have to wonder why this is happening. What makes us think that we can solve our social and spiritual problems with the same mindset that created so many of them? Perhaps it is because many Americans have become disillusioned. They fear for the future, but do not see any real lasting solutions on the horizon to the problems that plague their lives or how they could be part of any solution that would create hope. They feel invisible to their leaders and even their churches - both of whom seem to be offering little more than empty promises and homilies without real useful content. Or worse, mere moralizing and condemnation from a safe distance. The result is a sense of disempowered cynicism and even a loss of the ability to care much anymore. Those who find themselves adrift in this sea often need to be shocked or enraged to feel empowered—or even to feel alive. It is no wonder that so many people need to project their frustration and find controversy so irresistable.
I believe that it is because of this loss of empowerment and direction in our lives that inflammatory forums like those described above enjoy wide circulations that their actual content cannot justify. But there are no easy solutions to society's problems. Knowledge is a long, humbling, and often tentative journey with many detours and few obvious road signs, and we must be willing to walk this road patiently with self-examination and personal repentance as well as scholarship. This means taking up a Cross of our own and become disciples rather than just critics (Matt 16:24). Sadly, it is far easier to settle for the self-gratification of blaming others and the false sense of empowerment that rage brings.
This web site was created in the hope of being an alternative to all this. My goal is to provide a scientific and social knowledge base that will circumvent the obscurantism and mean-spirited hysteria described above and help me and others regain a sense of hope. Given that I care deeply about the issues addressed at this site (deeply enough to devote nearly two years of my life to preparing it!), my opinions and frustrations will be apparent throughout. Yet I will always ground them in factual data rather than empty ad-hominem attacks or hand waving. Visitors are more than welcome to independently investigate anything they find here and inform me of all documentable errors they uncover - I would not have it any other way. Commenting on the Challenger disaster, Nobel-laureate Physicist Richard Feynman said,
"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Environmental and social issues are no different. Liberal vs. Conservative, Christian vs. Non-Christian, American vs. Unamerican—as long as these or any other partisan conflicts are allowed to take precedence over Fact vs. Falsehood, no problem will ever be solved and there will be no healing of our disillusionment and loss of empowerment—because nature cannot be fooled. Rhetoric about "criminals who blow up SUV's" or "liberals in Hollywood" might make some vindictive people feel better. It may raise the ratings of cable news channels. It may even get someone in the White House for a few years. But science and compassion will always win the war. When people are compelled to discard them and resort to ad-hominem and empassioned partisanship in defense of their views, it's because there is no good evidence for those views and they cannot be defended credibly. The best defense there is against a bad idea is the demonstration of something better. I welcome any comments that might help me to better achieve this.
- Coulter, Ann. Quoted in "Coultergeist", Gurley, George. New York Observer, Aug. 26, 2002. Available online at jacq.org/Politics/coultergeist.htm. Accessed Jan. 15, 2004.
- Conason, Joe. Bush ‘Nazi’ Smear Unworthy of Critics. New York Observer, Oct. 22, 2003. Available online at www.workingforchange.com/printitem.cfm?itemid=15851. Accessed Jan. 15, 2004.
- One can gather the extent of Milloy's viciousness by considering that in October 1999 when Dr. David Rall, founder of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a widely renowned public health expert, was killed in a tragic car accident, Milloy actually rejoiced over his death publicly. At his Junk Science web site he posted an "Obituary of the Day" in which he wrote, "Scratch one junk scientist... ", and then proceeded to elaborate on how much better the world was with Rall dead. His comments drew sharp criticism from the scientific and environmental communities, and the Environmental Working Group sent a letter of protest to the Cato Institute (where Milloy was, and still is, currently employed). Then Cato president Edward Crane, who was equally shocked, disavowed the institute from Milloy's comments referring to them as an "inexcusable lapse in judgment and civility." A few days later after the Washington Post carried a story about the incident (October 12, 1999), a thoroughly unrepentent Milloy responded saying, "he was a bad guy when he was alive... Death did not improve his track record - no matter how many letters the Environmental Working Group sends to the Cato Institute." Grist magazine also ran an article about the incident titled, Death Don't Have No Mercy (October 18, 1999). Rall, who by all accounts of colleagues and those who knew him was a gracious man and a consumate professional, left behind a wife, two children, and two grandchildren—a fact that apparently is of no consequence to Milloy.
- Chambers, Jason. The Sky Is Falling. Fox News Online, May 14, 2003. Available online at www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,86905,00.html. Accessed Jan. 15, 2004.
- Blair, Tim. Defending Autos Against the Environmentalists. Fox News Online, March 1, 2002. Available online at www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,46306,00.html. Accessed Jan. 15, 2004.
Blair, an Australian journalist who writes for a number of Far-Right publications (including Fox News), is an example of just how lacking in intellectual and professional integrity Far-Right media can be at its worst. He has a web site where he posts some of the most vicious ad-hominem in print against anyone who favors environmental protections. Seldom if ever are any of his claims defended with any relevent science or cited properly to sources (this Fox editorial is typical of his work, and even gracious compared to some of his writing). There, he enjoys a large following of like-minded antienvironmental devotees who are every bit as abusive as he is--four-letter words abound in his Comments section. Even more revealing though, is the fact that he has a stated policy of banning all comments that are critical of his statements, even if constructively. On at least one occasion he even went so far as to threaten legal action against someone who published such a critique elsewhere. The lengths these people will go to keep their beliefs from being exposed to the light is almost beyond belief.