Sunday, August 26, 2012

What is the root cause of denialism?

denialism (usually uncountable; plural denialisms)

  1. describes the position of those who reject propositions that are strongly supported by scientific or historical evidence and seek to influence policy processes and outcomes accordingly[1].

In recent years the messages of politically conservative groups in the US have become increasingly at odds with scientific findings. The latest example is the recent claim by US Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that “legitimate rape,” in his words, rarely causes pregnancy. I initially thought this was a brain-addled individual making things up on the fly during a radio interview. However, I’ve since learned that this is the official position of American Right to Life, The American Family Association, and the Human Family Research Center, three anti-abortion groups (Dan Horn, “Science Suffering in the Debate Over Rape,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 8/26/2012). The groups make this claim because they believe it will make it easier to pass legislation that bans abortion without exceptions for rape and incest, but the scientific evidence does not support their claim that rape is less likely to result in pregnancy. As in other current controversies involving social issues, conservative groups not only ignore scientific evidence when it doesn’t support their views, but make claims that are at odds with the evidence.

Increasing numbers of politically and religiously conservative groups are adopting this anti-science approach. The conservative John Birch society started the anti-Agenda 21 movement opposed to sustainable development and the anti-fluoridation campaign[2]. The Tea Party gave birth to the “Birthers” movement that claims President Obama is not a US citizen because he was born in Kenya, despite the overwhelming evidence that he was born in Hawaii. Currently the most important scientific claim that deniers dispute is that the Earth is warming due to release of the greenhouse gas CO2 during burning of fossil fuels, again despite overwhelming evidence supporting this claim.

How did this all start? I believe that conservatives embarked on the slippery slope of denialism beginning with the Creationist movement that arose in response to the scientific theory of evolution. Motivated by their religious beliefs, which are rooted in a literal interpretation of the bible, fundamentalist Christians either passively choose to ignore evidence of evolution or actively fight to stop the teaching of evolution in public schools. It seems that once people become accustomed to denying evidence, they become increasingly adept at it. No amount of evidence will convince active climate change deniers that climate change is occurring. Based on my personal observations (I would love to see a study that tests this claim), it seems that most climate change deniers are politically conservative, fundamentalist Christians who also deny the reality of evolution. Such individuals will crow about scientific findings that support their views, but will ignore or attack findings that are at odds with their views rather than change their views. This dogmatic approach is rooted in political ideology. Recent studies suggest that the only way to persuade climate change deniers to adopt climate change mitigation measures such as cap and trade is to convince them that even if climate change claims are false, mitigation measures will have a positive effect on social welfare such as greater technological and economic development[3]. While this may treat the symptoms of denialism, it doesn’t address the causes. What can cure the disease of denialism? Effective teaching of evidence-based science in public schools is a start, but society needs to find new ways to stem the spread of denialism, which is making our country less competitive and harming future generations.


[2] The John Birch Society also opposed the civil rights movement and promotes claims that the UN is plotting to take over the world.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Does urbanization make a society more sustainable?

A recent iCreate Sustainability debate ( asked "Does Global Urbanization Lead Primarily to Undesirable Consequences?" In the "Yes" column is Environmental Magazine, whose writers "suggest that the world's cities suffer from environmental ills, among them pollution, poverty, fresh water shortages, and disease." So does urbanization increase or decrease levels of sustainability?

To answer this question we will use the ecological footprint, which is the best measure of sustainability. It is well known that cities have lower per-capita ecological footprints than suburban and rural areas. For example, citizens of Manhattan have the lowest ecological footprint in the U.S. (see Stewart Brand's 2009 book "Whole Earth Discipline"). Environmental problems may appear to be caused by urbanization because the environmental impact of humans is concentrated in cities as a result of high population density. If urban residents migrated to rural areas, their aggregate environmental impact would be greater. However, their impact would be less obvious because it would be spread out over a larger area. The concentration of environmental impact in urban areas leads to the misconception that cities are the cause of negative environmental impacts.

One important unanswered question: Does urbanization lead to higher fertility? This question is important because overpopulation is one of the primary reasons we are currently in a state of global ecological overshoot. The 2010 World Bank report "Determinants and Consequences of High Fertility: A Synopsis of the Evidence" states "Fertility is almost always lower in urban as compared to rural areas." (see So the evidence is clear: urbanization slows population growth and decreases the per-capita ecological footprint. Together these reinforcing effects greatly slow the rate of growth of the environmental impact of societies over time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ineffective Consumer Guides: Energy Star Labels

I've heard for several years that Wal-Mart was becoming more sustainable, but a purchase I just made makes me doubt that. I bought a Haier mini-fridge for my daughter's college dorm. When I opened the box in her dorm I found the US EPA Energyguide label taped to the refrigerator, inside the box. The label showed that the fridge was at the high end of the cost range for similar models, meaning it is the least energy efficient. It bothers me that Wal-Mart is selling the most energy inefficient model, but it bothers me even more that the information was hidden inside the box. The label should be on the outside of the box so it can inform consumers; hiding it inside the box seems like a deliberate attempt to hide from the consumer that the fridge is not energy efficient. So who is at fault? Certainly Haier shares some blame for making such an energy-inefficient product and for placing the label inside the box. However, Wal-Mart sets the rules for their vendors, and their rules should include that the products they sell must be energy efficient, and that the Energyguide labels should be clearly displayed. Finally, the US EPA shares blame: their rules should require that the label be displayed outside the box or printed on the box.