Letters – Vol 44 No. 3

Climate Tribalism?

Matthew Nisbet asserts that “today’s ubiquitous branding of Republicans as the party of ‘denial’ greatly exaggerates the intensity of opposition to climate and clean energy solutions among those on the center right. …”  (“Against Climate Change Tribalism: We Gamble with the Future by Dehumanizing Our Opponents,” January/February 2020). This statement is irrelevant even if true: the “center right” does not control the national Republican party, which is in thrall to a hard right coalition of racists, nationalists, evangelicals, and business interests who adamantly oppose taking action to remedy climate change. As a result, we have a Republican president who is gutting environmental regulations and has begun the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, as well as a Republican congressional delegation that has very largely supported these moves.

The majority of Americans think that climate change should be addressed “right now” (see www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-most-americans-say-climate-change-should-be-addressed-now-2019-09-15/). The “further dialogue” with climate change opponents that Nisbet supports will not result in immediate action on climate change. This action will occur only if the majority who favor it vote for candidates who recognize the problem and are willing to support measures to fix it.

Barry Wolf
Los Angeles, California

I do not accept the idea that climate activists are behaving with tribal irrationality.

Political tribalism has been fueled by the fossil fuel industry’s overwhelming support of the Republican Party. Richard Nixon disbanded the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1973. Ronald Reagan removed solar panels from the White House and appointed James Watt as Interior Secretary. George Bush Senior promised to combat the greenhouse effect with the White House effect, and instead of supporting the 1989 UN effort to combat global warming directed his Chief of Staff, John Sununu, to torpedo it. George Bush Junior may have been the most antiscience leader in history. Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science will bring you back to a time of presidential science ignorance surpassed only by Donald Trump. Congressional Republicans have largely been mute. The EPA and other science agencies are being gutted under their noses without protest. Have we forgotten the Paris Climate Agreement?

Scientists have politely and professionally defended their work in front of Congress with no meaningful response from Republican politicians.

There are many science-minded Republicans, but they seem powerless to change their party’s path of environmental and climate destruction.

Greyson Morrow
Wakefield, Michigan

A check of Kalmoe and Mason (2019), which was reported on in The New York Times and can be read in full online, states that “in two nationally representative surveys, we find large portions of partisans embrace partisan moral disengagement (10–60%) but only small minorities report feeling partisan schadenfreude or endorse partisan violence (5–15%).” Furthermore, the authors report that “partisanship was measured with a 7-point response scale ranging from strong Democrat to strong Republican, plus other/don’t know options. We treated party categorically as Democrat or Republican, including ‘leaners.’” A better gauge of partisanship would have been the presidential election results of 2016: of eligible voters, approximately 23.7 percent voted for Trump, 24.8 percent for Clinton, and 51.5 percent for other candidates or not at all. For these reasons, I think Nisbet exaggerated the significance of Kalmoe and Mason’s findings.

Decrying the dehumanization of opponents is certainly commendable, but when it comes to human contributions to global warming, no change will occur as long as fossil fuel producers and users are not compelled to change their behaviors. The simple fact is that, at present, almost all the elected politicians protecting the status quo in the United States are Republicans. Criticizing The Washington Post and The Guardian for saying as much, as Nisbet does, is unfair.

J.M. Unger
Emeritus Professor
The Ohio State University

Regarding Matthew Nisbet’s analysis of political polarization and climate change tribalism, I am concerned that Nisbet truncated the “Robbers Cave” study strategy by omitting its primary focus. In the 1954 experiment, Muzafer Sherif directed a classic study in which the objective was “the reduction of intergroup friction and conflict” reviewed in the text An Outline of Social Psychology, revised edition by both Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif (1956, 301–328). Following a stage in which two competing groups of adolescents were in conflict, “superordinate goals” were introduced requiring the cooperation of both groups for their accomplishment. For example, a rope previously used for competitive tug-of-war games was retrieved to free a stalled truck that brought food to the adolescent campers. Pulling the bumper-attached rope required the combined effort of both groups to move the truck. After several such superordinate goals prompted cooperation, the boys also showed increased evidence of friendship. Unfortunately, climate change improvement as a superordinate goal has not done the same for this existential conflict.

While Nisbet cautions that tribalism among Democrats and Republicans is current, namely, “The best educated and informed partisans tend to be the most intensely tribal …,” improvement in climate change such as attention to the Green New Deal has been stifled due to this bipolar congressional rigidity. A plea for hometown neighborhood conversation regarding climate change to increase commonsense solutions for “energy decarbonization” is urged by Nisbet. Yet thus far, with some notable exceptions, the null hypothesis cannot be rejected.

William F. Vitulli
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
University of South Alabama
Mobile, Alabama

Millennials in Transition

This is a brief fact-check request regarding the comment that “The millennials have felt the impact of the Great Recession and have fewer financial resources compared to generations that preceded them” (Jeanne Goldberg, “Millennials and Post-Millennials—Dawning of a New Age?” January/February 2020, 43).

The facts are quite different. The millennials are even now beginning to receive, from their immediate ancestors in the greatest and silent generations, what the Wall Street Journal has frequently headlined as “the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history,” based on present U.S. household net worth totaling over $100 trillion. They presently have a lot more than we did at comparable median age.

With the U.S. population at 320 million and median household size at 3.2, it’s statistically safe to conclude that, as the two bequeathing generations depart, all that savings and investments will go to the X’s and M’s, 100 million households, from the $100 trillion total, or $1 million per household on average. Of course, it won’t go out that evenly, and with about half of all U.S. households with equity investments and savings, it is safe to say that it will go primarily to their children.

We silents were not nearly so well endowed by our parents. Yes, the M’s have had stresses we didn’t have: e.g., high college tuitions and health care. They can’t very well complain about housing costs; as another WSJ chart has shown, the median single family house value today, adjusted for inflation, is just about what it was a century ago—and the modern version is a lot larger and better mechanically equipped.

Martin A. Harris Jr.
Consultant and columnist
Jonesborough, Tennessee


Jeanne Goldberg responds:

I find Martin Harris’s letter interesting, but I feel the portrait of millennials’ financial status, currently and in the future, is much more complicated. So many other factors are involved such as the longevity of boomers (and greatest and silent generations!), thereby lessening the amount of inheritances and also delaying the time that millennials receive the inheritances; the inequality gap among earlier generations, with just about half owning equities to pass on, thereby perpetuating inequality in the millennial generation; the expanding need for health care (nondiscretionary) expenditures among earlier generations, and also the prevalent discretionary spending habits of boomers for travel, hobbies, and other luxuries.

God and Atoms

Regarding Stanley Rice’s article “God Plays with Atoms” (“Creationist Funhouse, Episode Three,” January/February 2020). A substantial fraction of the readers of these pages are teachers who are interested in the facts surrounding the Creation dispute as well as effective ways of presenting a scientific perspective on it. Professor Rice has the factual part down pat. However, his pedagogy leaves much to be desired.

Committed creationists are unlikely to be persuaded by the evidence or by explanations of the underlying flaws in their reasoning. It is the uncommitted students that teachers can influence. After sixty years of teaching the subject to freshmen, I can tell you with high confidence that ridicule and dismissiveness don’t help. Dr. Rice’s beginning students would mostly be much more receptive to the compelling evidence he has at hand if he would simply present it directly without editorializing.

For instance, when I start this section of the discussion, I write on the board (yes, some of us still use black boards), “When the things I see disagree with the things I think, I gotta change what I think.” That little sentence encapsulates observability, testability, and falsifiability. The rest can be couched in terms of an inquiry that emphasizes good scientific practice. The method also has the virtue of keeping the adrenalin levels lower.

Jim des Lauriers
Claremont, California


Stanley Rice replies:

I want to thank Jim des Lauriers for the letter. He is entirely correct that the approach I use in my Skeptical Inquirer articles is unsuitable for teaching high school or freshman students. I do not use this approach even when I teach college seniors, much less freshmen. Just this morning, I taught a class about some positive influences of religious thought on the development of science. I intended my article for my fellow skeptics who have already heard the evidence and might appreciate a humorous approach to it. I want to make you laugh, then make you think. Again, thanks for the letter. 

Students’ Learning Styles

Ms. Viskontas (and others in previous articles denigrating teaching to a student’s learning style) thoroughly misunderstands the classroom applications of this technique (“Dubious Claims in Psychotherapy for Youth, Part 1,” January/February 2020). In practice, a good teacher teaches material through several different approaches. This is because not all students learn best in one particular manner. Some learn with lots of visual aids, some learn with hands on activities, some learn with a lot of guided practice, etc. Most learn better when taught in a method addressing their preferred learning style.

She seems to insist that it should be hard for a student to acquire knowledge. In my experience as one who has won national honors as a high school science teacher, the easier I can make it for students to learn, the deeper will be their learning and the more complex the problem solving they’ll be able to do. I endeavor to address all student learning styles, and I’ve had great success not only with classroom and standardized test achievement but with later college successes.

Kathy Crandall
Los Angeles, California

Icelandic Explorers to America

Brian Regal’s article “Everything Means Something in Viking” (November/December 2019) contains some questionable statements. To quote: “The idea that Leif Eriksen discovered America was, and still is, a desperate claim that America, as well as the United Kingdom and Western Europe in general, is a whites-only homeland settled right from the start by Nordic supermen … The particular Leif Eriksen story of Vinland has no supporting evidence. It is a wish-fulfillment fantasy to satisfy a troubling emotional need for everything to mean something in Viking.”

The relevant accounts are preserved in the Icelandic sagas. The name of the explorer was Leifr Eiríksson, or Leifur Eiríksson in modern Icelandic spelling. Eiríksson was an Icelander, born around 970 AD. His father, Eiríkur rauði (Eric the Red), was a Norwegian who, after being exiled from Iceland, spent three years exploring Greenland and established two colonies on the west coast. His son, Leifur, was an explorer and a missionary, not a warrior or a Viking. The accounts in the Icelandic sagas of his travels to the American continent are detailed, wholly believable, and not inconsistent with archaeological findings. Eiríksson was followed by other Icelanders who attempted to establish a settlement on coastal North America. This story, studied by scholars and taught in schools, has nothing to do with Nordic supermen or Vikings.

Thorsteinn Saemundsson
Reykjavik, Iceland

Origins of Religious Belief

Zeigler’s “Religious Belief from Dreams?” (January/February 2020) adds another element to the origin of religiosity in our species. But can the placebo effect also play a role? Our species’ cognitive skills present us with the question of our mortality, and as religious history supports, initially only kings and rulers seemed to survive death via building of pyramids (or hundreds of terracotta warriors as found in China) to provide their future needs. Then religion evolved—surprise—to provide everyone with the opportunity for eternal life by accepting the beliefs.

A version of this is the widespread cultural placebo effect found today. This effect is known to be activated in approximately 30 percent of patients when deceived by administering sugar pills to cure them. When patients are very involved physically and emotionally in preparing for health problems such as surgery for a cardiac stent, the beneficial effects go up to 100 percent! This finding in a ten-year British study (Lancet, volume 391, issue 10115, pp. 31–40, January 6, 2018) found that in both control (N=105) and placebo (N=95) stent surgeries (all processes except placing the stent), groups had no difference in outcomes six weeks post-surgery in double blind evaluations. One’s role in the health process has been repeated, finding that greater involvement (pills vs. surgery) equals greater acceptance of the falsehood that the placebo will work.

Is it the same cognitive ability that allows for both acceptance of a placebo for health and a religious belief of a soul spirit forever in heaven?

Rodney Sobieski
Emporia, Kansas

Pharmacy and Smart Pills

I have always respected the work of Dr. Harriet Hall. However, her recent column on smart pills (“Smart Pills? Beware the PIED Piper,” January/February 2020) was filled with insults to pharmacy that I found profoundly disheartening.

First, she quoted the claim that pharmacists recommended Prevagen over all other memory aids. Did she take any time to find out how many, if any, pharmacists were actually consulted? How many times have you seen a business claiming they had the best of some product, without any citation?

Second, and most distressing, was her claim that the average pharmacist can’t be trusted to be scientifically accurate and ethical, based on the homeopathic remedies on the shelves of large chain pharmacies. I believe you will find that pharmacists have very little say as to what is on the over-the-counter shelves. I worked in a small retail pharmacy and would constantly find homeopathic medications placed there by the pharmaceutical wholesaler we used. They were immediately pulled for return, but that didn’t stop them from doing the same thing the next time they checked our shelves. Making assumptions without solid data is not the mark of a good scientist.

Patricia Hoppe, PharmD
Ontario, California


Harriet Hall, MD, responds:

I had no intention of insulting pharmacy in my article. What I said was, “If pharmacists are recommending it [Prevagen], they shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t work.” And that’s only consistent with pharmacy’s own code of ethics, which requires them to practice in accordance with scientifically acceptable data.

The claim that Prevagen is the number one pharmacist-recommended memory support brand is based on a survey of pharmacists published online in the 2019 Pharmacy Times, which reaches over 1.3 million retail pharmacists. It tallied 550,210 recommendations per month for over-the-counter products, and of the recommendations for memory support products, 72 percent of them were for Prevagen. The survey did not specify the number of pharmacists who recommended it, but if even one is recommending it, isn’t that too many?

The McGill Office for Science and Society recently surveyed 150 Montreal pharmacies and found that two-thirds of them stocked the homeopathic flu remedy Oscillococcinum. In the other third, some employees apologized for not stocking it or offered to refer the caller to a naturopath.

Can the average pharmacist be trusted to be scientifically accurate and ethical? Obviously not all of them can. How many can? I couldn’t find any data on that. If you pick one at random, there’s no guarantee. That’s what I meant when I said “the average pharmacist”; perhaps I should have worded it better. But even if the statistically “average” pharmacist can be trusted, how could you trust one you picked at random? 

Over-Populated Planet

Regarding Kendrick Frazier’s article “Hot Month, Hot Year, Hot Planet” (November/December 2019), it seems that all the world’s media have focused on climate change. Excessive human birthing is ignored. I suggest you shame the world’s media into diverting their focus from climate change to this horrendous population explosion and join hands with CAPS of California, Population Connection, NPG, and other population stabilization groups throughout the world.

Climate change is an effect, not the cause, and the cause is ignored. Everyone profits from personal or business growth in human numbers. Every mayor in the world hustles for population growth. Their reward is more taxes, new customers for industry. Religions are the prime cause of this excessive birthing. Forests and fish are disappearing. Our fertile farms that once grew produce for the people are now growing houses for the new billions arriving upon earth.

Of course, there is climate change; more than seven billion humans are gobbling up earth’s resources.

Scott Austin Hunter
Phoenix, Arizona

For the Record

Some changes made during late production of the March/April 2020 issue unfortunately resulted in some errors.

The paragraph at the bottom of p. 16 should read: “False and fallible memories are bad enough, but today the situation has worsened with the prevalence of digitally doctored photos and fake news. Computer programs can now make anyone be saying anything you want.”

The sentence beginning at the bottom of p. 23 should read: “With the most damaging evidence excluded, Lizzie choosing not to testify this time, and there being public sentiment for what the New York Times called ‘this unfortunate and cruelly persecuted woman,’ the jury took just over an hour to acquit her on June 20, 1893 (Pearson 1987, 253, 263; Kurland 1994, 48–49).” A line was also duplicated on pp. 24–25.

We regret the errors.

Climate Tribalism? Matthew Nisbet asserts that “today’s ubiquitous branding of Republicans as the party of ‘denial’ greatly exaggerates the intensity of opposition to climate and clean energy solutions among those on the center right. …”  (“Against Climate Change Tribalism: We Gamble with the Future by Dehumanizing Our Opponents,” January/February 2020). This statement is irrelevant even …

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