Letters – Vol. 44 No. 4

The New Climate War

Michael E. Mann is correct when he says that we cannot allow the profits of a few companies to destroy our planet and that the misinformation tactics of Exxon and other major oil firms are criminal (Commentary, “How to Win the New Climate War,” March/April 2020). However, the hydrocarbon producers are not the major problem. Certainly, extracting the raw material, transportation, and refining of products does release greenhouse gases, as do other manufacturers. But they are not the major polluters. Gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are perfectly innocuous materials. It’s the consumers of these liquids who are the culprits. There are about 1.2 billion automotive vehicles on Earth, plus nearly 40,000 planes and large numbers of construction machines, almost all fueled by hydrocarbons. As long as they exist, someone will supply their fuel. We must somehow replace them with equipment that doesn’t emit CO2. Perhaps we should be blaming Ford, GM, Toyota, and Nissan, not Exxon and Shell.

Art Davison
Edmonton, Alberta

I applaud Michael Mann for his exhortation that we make systemic changes to how we run the planet and that we remain science-based on how we do it. In that spirit, however, I offer a couple of caveats about personal actions: First, avoiding flying is not the right thing unless you live in a corridor providing appropriate rail service. The airline industry is obsessed with reducing fuel burn; if General Motors pushed efficiency the way Boeing does, every car on the road would achieve 60 mpg. The problem lies with the kinds of air service we want, not that we fly. Second, eating vegan is fine, but the idea that we could save the planet by turning vegan is overly simplistic. As food technology advances, however, we will have better options. Finally, renewables by themselves cannot provide the ever increasing amounts of power we need. Most available evidence shows that a mix of 50/50 nuclear and renewables does the trick.

Ron Arye
Reno, Nevada

The struggle against the tobacco industry’s misinformation was helped a lot by lawsuits. Is there enough clear evidence to start considering lawsuits against some of the industrial giants for damages as a result of climate change?

Don Martin
via email

After what I think is an insightful article by Matthew C. Nisbet in SI (January/February 2020) making the case that on climate change “we gamble with the future by dehumanizing our opponents,” I had a strong, negative, visceral reaction to Michael Mann’s commentary “How to Win the New Climate War.” I am aware of the political manipulations, disinformation, and misinformation that Mann outlines and strongly agree that we need to inform people of this, but labeling those who promulgate this as “the enemy,” dehumanizing them, will most likely drive readers into the polarized thinking that is a root of our problem. Mann may be influenced by the merciless attacks he has endured to think in terms of “the enemy,” but I think it seriously erodes what he is trying to convey. I would like to have been able to give his article to people I am trying to educate on climate change, but I will not do so. I regret the article was not written as Nisbet suggests: “There can be no progress on climate change until we rebuild our civic capacity to discuss, debate, and disagree in ways that do not turn every aspect of climate politics into an identity-driven tribal war between good and evil.”

Clinton Brooks
Media, Pennsylvania

Who’s Happier?

Stuart Vyse states that there is a “substantial body of research showing that religious people are happier than nonreligious people (“Are Atheists Sadder but Wiser?,” March/April 2020). The studies he cites indicate that the respondents’ happiness is self-reported in answer to a direct question rather than objectively measured by more detailed psychological testing. It is worth considering that in major world religions such as Christianity and Islam, gratitude to a god is entwined in the belief systems and offering thanks to a god are integral parts of each faith’s religious service. In other words, a failure to show gratitude might rise to the level of apostasy in a believer, thus manifesting a bias toward religious believers claiming a higher level of happiness than they may actually feel.

Dan Vance
Valley Center, California

Mr. Vyse’s column suggesting the (not conclusively established) possibility shown in various studies that religiously active persons generally are happier than atheists/agnostics was surprising—not because of the results but because of a basic consideration apparently omitted by researchers.

He noted that the studies determined happiness based on self-evaluation by the participants.

Anyone who’s lived in a theocracy or areas of de facto theocracy can attest there’s overwhelming pressure from religious leadership for the faithful to find positivity and happiness in their lives. This appears especially true with cult/quasi-cult organizations.

There are cultural pressures everywhere in the United States to suppress sad feelings, but in those de facto theocratic cultures, there’s massive pressure to find fault with oneself every time sad feelings emerge. Members of such cultures are often reluctant to admit unhappiness even to their most intimate partners, much less to academics conducting research. 

Better indications of unhappiness among religiously inclined persons might be to determine numbers of anti-depressant prescriptions filled in areas with high religious affiliations—possibly combined with vital records searches of the same areas determining suicide frequencies.

Otherwise, depending on people to identify themselves as happy or unhappy is like trying to get people to identify themselves as sociopathic or non-sociopathic.

Rob Ethington
Spokane, Washington

Stuart Vyse replies:

Dan Vance points to the use of self-report measures in studies of happiness and religion and suggests that happiness could be more “objectively measured by more detailed psychological testing.” Happiness, like other emotions, is a subjective state. Psychologists have done considerable research on the implications of various self-report measures for happiness, but so far science has not produced a happiness thermometer that might get at the true measure of happiness below the self-report. Similarly, opinion pollsters have found no better way to measure people’s attitudes and beliefs than to simply ask them. There are good and bad ways to pose the question, but ultimately, we must rely on what the person says.

Vance also suggests that members of religious communities are obligated to report that they are happy; however, the methodologies used in these studies offer some protection against this concern. For example, several studies of happiness and religion are based on large social science surveys, such as the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey in the United States or the European Social Survey. These annual surveys ask people their opinions on a wide variety of social and political issues. Each respondent also answers several demographic questions, such as their age, race, gender, and religious preference. Researchers in a variety of fields use this publicly available data for many different kinds of studies, and participants respond to the survey anonymously and without knowing in advance the kinds of investigations that might result from their participation. Thus, the obligation to present oneself as happy because you are a member of a particular religious community should be minimized.

Rob Ethington also points to the use of self-report measures and suggests that antidepressant use and suicide rates among religious and nonreligious people might be better alternative measures. I’ve not made a comprehensive review of that literature, but contrary to Ethington’s speculations—and consistent with the finding of higher happiness among religious people—there are several published studies showing lower suicide rates and lower antidepressant use among the religious people in comparison to nonreligious people.

Science/Religion: War or Harmony?

In his well-structured and informative review article “No War between Science and Religion? Many Scientists Disagree” (March/April 2020), Howard Feldman insists that a war is going on despite the contentions to the contrary by the scholars he cites. To support his otherwise-refuted belief in the war, Feldman cites the obvious and numerous examples of anti-evolution creationism in the United States. Yes, indeed, the struggle over Darwinian evolution in the public schools is real. But what Feldman hides behind his smoke and mirrors is this simple fact: All soldiers in the war over evolution love science. No one, not even the most conservative evangelical Christian, is antiscience. Evangelicals and even fundamentalists strongly affirm mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine … you name it. They object to one and only one science: evolution. And some object to Darwin’s version of evolution on scientific, not biblical, grounds.

Now, I personally believe that creationist objections to Darwinian evolution are flatly misguided and even wrong. But, that’s beside the point. No creationist (or anybody else for that matter) is at war against science on religious grounds. So, I ask, why does Feldman wish to fire up embers that have already gone out?

Ted Peters
Pastor, Cross and Crown Lutheran Church and School
Rohnert Park, California

Howard Feldman replies:

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my review. Your statement that creationists love science has been repeated many times by people such as Kent Hovind, Creation Magazine Live (a YouTube channel), and others, as I describe in the review. However, the love stops at evidence that contradicts their strict biblical chronology, and this is the point. It is not just evolution but also plate tectonics and cosmology, all of which forms the core of just about everything in science. Just where do the creationists think the very elements that make up chemistry come from? In my own field of petroleum geology, unraveling the long and complicated history of the earth is a significant part of modern petroleum exploration. So, it is not just an academic exercise; it has real-world economic implications.

My point is that the modern conflict is far more profound than described in the book or in your letter. Creationists love science but deny the succession of fossils that indicates evolution happened (Darwinian or not). They love science but deny the cosmological origin of the microwave background radiation (despite it being predicted to exist decades before it was discovered) without offering any physics-based alternative to its origin. They love science but deny the observations from modern stratigraphy and sedimentology that are wholly inconsistent with a flood origin.

I am glad that you have found harmony between religion and science and accept evolution and, I assume, all that goes with it. However, the embers of conflict have not gone out; they are burning brightly in certain communities.

Origin of Religion

Regarding David Ziegler’s article “Religious Beliefs from Dreams” (January/February 2020), I have another take on the origin of religion that I wrote about in my book in 2015.

Homo sapiens went nearly extinct some time between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago. Because today’s humans show a very low genetic diversity, it is most likely that every human alive can be traced back to a small group of survivors of that period (per Dr. Curtis Marean of Arizona State University).

I propose that this group regarded the air, the great spirit, as a life force, because it gave life to a baby with its first breath and departed at death when the last breath rejoined the Great Spirit, a universal belief that spread throughout the world. The breath (spirit) is considered a life force in old Scandinavian religions, in China chi or qi, in India prana, in Tibet tranta, in Abrahamic religion spirit or soul. Even in Mayan religion one of their various “souls” is breath.

Using Occam’s razor, I propose that this original belief could be the “belief” that echoes throughout many, even very different, religions and might have been a common source of the current religions. I also suspect that dreams might have played an important part when religions developed independently from each other.

Benjamin Vande Weerdhof Andrews
Barrie, Ontario

The New Climate War Michael E. Mann is correct when he says that we cannot allow the profits of a few companies to destroy our planet and that the misinformation tactics of Exxon and other major oil firms are criminal (Commentary, “How to Win the New Climate War,” March/April 2020). However, the hydrocarbon producers are not …

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