Category Archives: Evolution

Yes, Marco Rubio IS a creationist

Some people around the series of tubes are having a laugh at GOP rising star Senator Marco Rubio for saying not only does he not know how old the earth is, but that the issue is a matter of debate between science and creationism:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians… I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Yes, Senator Rubio, we certainly can answer that.

Some people have taken the devil’s advocate position that what Rubio is saying should be defended, because he makes some mention of deferring to experts, and that’s a step in the right direction relative to the broad anti-science sentiment on the American right.

I don’t think even a generous parsing of Rubio’s comments can support that reading, though. It seems pretty clear that he’s saying we should give false balance between reality and creationist twaddle. And when you look at Rubio’s history, his creationism isn’t all that hard to see.

In Florida in 2008, creationists tried to water down teaching on evolution by introducing SB 2692. Marco Rubio voted in support of this creationist legislation. Moreover, although Senator Rubio seems to indicate in the above quote that he thinks children should be taught both the creationist views of the parents as well as what science actually says, in reality, Rubio opposes public schools teaching science that conflicts with creationist parenting:

The “crux” of the disagreement [over teaching evolution in public schools], according Rubio, is “whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level. It goes to the fundamental core of who is ultimately, primarily responsible for the upbringing of children. Is it your public education system or is it your parents?”

Rubio added, “And for me, personally, I don’t want a school system that teaches kids that what they’re learning at home is wrong.”

Senator Rubio is a creationist, who supports creationist legislation, and does not want public schools to teach scientific reality because it conflicts with creationist parenting.

And just a reminder, creationist Senators are nothing particularly new, nor are they restricted to the Republican party:

Reality’s “Liberal” Bias – Presidential Polling Edition

I’ve been trying to avoid discussing the 2012 Presidential Election in the US for a number of reasons. I don’t think the Romney-Ryan ticket has been as terrible as the addition of Palin to the McCain ticket was in terms of climate (and science generally). I also sympathize greatly with the reluctance of non-“movement conservative” libertarians to vote for either front-runner given Obama’s foreign policy and civil liberties record and Romney’s rhetoric regarding the same.

That’s not to say I don’t have my own preferences or believe that there is no real difference between candidates. Rather this election seems to me, far more than the 2008 election, to be about issues that likely have much more to do with differing visions of the kind of America one wishes to see, rather than based on issues of objective fact.

But the above tweet, from conservative journalist Robert Stacy McCain (no relation to the 2008 Republican nominee), seemed worth commenting on. This idea that polling itself has somehow become part of the evil liberal-science nexus conspiring against conservatives is echoed by other conservative pundits and outlets, such as Townhall, Rick Wilson of Intrepid Media, the Weekly Standard, radio host Hugh Hewitt, the National Review, Fox (about 27 seconds in):

and even by the Romney campaign itself!

It has gotten to the point where conservatives have constructed an alternate reality in which the “liberal bias” has been removed from polling, showing Romney with an enormous lead:

If that sounds familiar, you might be aware of Conservapedia– the alternative to Wikipedia cleansed of filthy liberal lies about evolution, relativity, global warming, homosexuality, and the Bible.

In reality, what has changed recently isn’t so much the polling itself. Rather, it’s that the media has finally begun picking up on what the polling has been saying for quite some time. Media members will openly confess that their institutional biases (towards “balance” even where none might exist, towards conflict, towards drama, etc.) are in favor of making the race seem closer than it is. And for the most part, the media has until very recently been portraying the 2012 election as very much up in the air.

Meanwhile, polling-based election forecast models with good track records such as 538 and the Princeton Election Consortium have been projecting a likely Obama victory for months.

From 538:

And from (my preferred source for election polling) Sam Wang’s PEC:

I know that there are people who think partisanship is a zero sum game. If “your team” isn’t winning, it’s losing. The “other guys” are the enemy. And on and on. My vision of an ideal politics is similar to my vision of scientific skepticism. There is a loyal (to the advancement of knowledge or well-being) opposition between dissenting viewpoints. One that seeks to converge on solutions to problems based on an accumulation of evidence, rather than ideology. It’s probably a silly hope. But it’s what I wish for nonetheless.

So while some may cheer on the embrace of epistemic closure among many conservatives, knowing that will ultimately prove poisonous, I am saddened by it for the same reason.

Votes should be earned because of the merits of policies, not because one party loses its mind while the other (barely) does not. I don’t enjoy living in a world where scientists are pushed into the hands of a political party because the other is alienating them with this kind of idiocy.

When a party can depend on a demographic’s vote merely because it’s not the “other guys”, it becomes less sensitive to constituent needs, and democracy as a whole suffers.

Just a thought for those who might believe the conservative turning away from reality is a good thing for their team.

Credit Where Credit Is Due: Jon Huntsman Edition

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has been earning some praise and concern for sending this reality-based tweet yesterday. Praise from those of us who wish desperately that science will not become a victim of the GOP’s identity politics. Concern from many who believe it already is, and that this effectively has ended Huntsman’s campaign.

While the beltway press seems to be obsessing over the antics of Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman, Huntsman has been flying more or less under the radar. For those who wish to know a little more about Huntsman, you could do worse than this recent Vogue profile.

As I said over at Kloor’s, it’s a sad day when politicians have to be applauded for mild acceptance of mainstream science, but applauded they should be.

The age of polar bears

In a paper recently published in PNAS entitled “Complete mitochondrial genome of a Pleistocene jawbone unveils the origin of polar bear” Charlotte Lindqvist and coauthors performed genomic sequencing and analysis on the oldest polar bear fossil discovered to date, finding that it was surprisingly genetically and temporally proximate to the brown and polar bear’s last common ancestor:

Intriguingly… this ancient polar bear, which exhibits a very short branch length, lies almost directly at the branching point between polar bear and the genetically unique clade of ABC [from the Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands -TB] brown bears (Fig. 3B). Thus, both cladistically and anagenetically, this ancient specimen existed very close to the most recent common ancestor of polar bears and brown bears.

Phylogenetic network of complete mt genomes (excluding the VNTR repeat) of 11 polar and brown bears based on Neighbor-Net analysis with LogDet distances (see scale bar).

Along with stratigraphic dating of the fossil to ~110-130 kya (thousand years ago), their work enabled them to peg the “birth” of polar bears at ~150 kya, meaning that they survived the Eemian (AKA Riss-Würm, Ipswichian) interglacial:

The discovery of this jawbone confirms that the polar bear was already a distinct species at least 110 kya…

…we estimated the mean age of the split between the ABC bears and the polar bears to be 152 ky, and the mean age for all polar bears as 134 ky, near the end of the Eemian interglacial period and completely in line with the stratigraphically determined age of [this fossil].

This finding, which should have been celebrated as a coup for our knowledge of polar bear evolution, has instead become yet another target of global warming denialism.

It has been touted by those who refute the reality of and/or problems posed by man-made (anthropogenic) warming of the climate as evidence that anthropogenic warming poses no threat to polar bears, as they had survived previous episodes of warming before. And some of these claims actually go back to the jawbone’s initial discovery, years earlier.

A similar claim has been made that anthropogenic warming poses no threat to polar bears because their numbers are actually increasing.

Let’s take these in reverse order. UCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group Chair, Dr. Andrew Derocher:

The various presentations of biased reporting ignore, or are ignorant of, the different reasons for changes in populations. If I thought that there were more bears now than 50 years ago and a reasonable basis to assume this would not change, then no worries. This is not the case.

The bottom line here is that it is an apples and oranges issue. The early estimates of polar bear abundance are a guess. There is no data at all for the 1950-60s. Nothing but guesses. We are sure the populations were being negatively affected by excess harvest (e.g., aircraft hunting, ship hunting,self-killing guns, traps, and no harvest limits). The harvest levels were huge and growing. The resulting low numbers of bears were due only to excess harvest but, again, it was simply a guess as to the number of bears…

Comparing declines caused by harvest followed by recovery from harvest controls to declines from loss of habitat and climate warming are apples and oranges. Ignorant people write ignorant things.

Derocher is saying that such claims are at heart a combination of two forms of fallacious reasoning, the cherry pick (polar bear populations are increasing during a certain interval) and the non sequitur (therefore they are not threatened by anthropogenic warming). The claim that polar bear populations are rising only holds true for a subset of populations, and only does so then because the period is selected to begin at a low point brought about by unregulated hunting. Once hunting restrictions were put in place, populations began returning to their historic norms. This dynamic can be seen in recent assessment reports of the two Alaskan polar bear stocks-

US Fish and Wildlife Service’s January 2010 Southern Beaufort Sea (SBS) Polar Bear Stock Assessment Report:

Prior to the 20th century, when Alaska’s polar bears were hunted primarily by Natives, both the Chukchi/Bering seas and Southern Beaufort Sea stocks probably existed near carrying capacity (K). Once harvest by non-Natives became common in the Southern Beaufort Sea in the early 1960s, the size of these stocks declined substantially (Amstrup et al. 1986, Amstrup 1995). Since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, both Alaska polar bear stocks seem to have increased…

The January 2010 Chukchi/Bering Seas (CBS) Polar Bear Stock Assessment Report similarly states:

Prior to the 20th century, when Alaska’s polar bears were hunted primarily by Alaskan Natives, both stocks probably existed at near carrying capacity (K). The size of the Beaufort Sea stock declined substantially in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (Amstrup et al. 1986) due to excessive sport harvest. Similar declines could have occurred in the Chukchi Sea, although there are no population data to support this assumption. Since passage of the MMPA, the southern Beaufort Sea population grew during the late 1970’s and 1980’s and then stabilized during the 1990’s (Amstrup et al. 2001b).

So in these stocks, polar bear numbers are up from a low brought about by unregulated, non-Native hunting.  But what are the current population trends? SBS Stock Assessment Report [following emphases mine]:

The Southern Beaufort Sea stock experienced little or no growth during the 1990’s (Amstrup et al. 2001b). Declining survival, recruitment, and body size (Regehr et al. 2006, Regehr et al. 2007), and low growth rates (λ) during years of reduced sea ice during the summer and fall (2004 and 2005), and an overall declining growth rate of 3% per year from 2001-2005 (Hunter et al. 2007) indicates that the Southern Beaufort Sea population is now declining.

CBS Polar Bear Stock Assessment Report:

Based on demographic data 2001 to 2006, the overall population growth rate in the Southern Beaufort Sea population declined approximately 0.3% per year (Hunter et al. 2007). Until 1992 it is likely that the Chukchi/Bering seas stock mimicked the growth pattern and later stability of Southern Beaufort Sea stock, since both stocks experienced similar management and harvest histories. However, since 1992 the CBS population has faced different stressors than the SBS population. These include increased harvest in Russia (150 – 250 bears/yr) (Kochnev 2006, Ovsyanikov 2006, Eduard Zdor personal communication) and greater loss of summer sea ice habitat from global warming (Overland and Wang 2007), which suggest that using the growth rate for the Southern Beaufort Sea may not be applicable. The status of the Chukchi/Bering seas stock was listed as data deficient (Aars et al. 2006) due to the lack of abundance estimates with measurable levels of precision. The population is believed to be declining and the status relative to historical levels is believed to be reduced based on harvest levels that were demonstrated to be unsustainable in the past.

Moreover, the long term concern about polar bear survival is not based solely on whatever the current population trend happens to be (whether one of increase or decrease), nor only on the effects of the anthropogenic warming that they have already experienced. The concern is based upon not only existing stressors but also the additional threat posed by future anthropogenic warming on top of those already in play.

A similar case of fallacious reasoning is at work in claims that polar bears surviving the Eemian interglacial means that they aren’t threatened by anthropogenic warming- i.e., “If polar bears survived the warming of the previous interglacial, they aren’t threatened by anthropogenic warming.”

How does the Eemian compare in terms of climate? At its warmest, modeling and paleoclimatic evidence (e.g. here) suggest that the Eemian was as much as 1-3°C warmer in the Northern Hemisphere vs. the preindustrial Holocene climate, with even higher seasonal values occurring at high latitudes- perhaps 4-5°C warmer in the Arctic summer, with a concomitant substantial reduction in seasonal sea ice (e.g. here).

So, the thinking apparently goes, if polar bears survived that, a little man-made global warming should be a walk in the park, right?

Not so much. As in the Eemian, expected anthropogenic warming will not be globally uniform, and polar amplification will ensure that the Arctic warms up more and more quickly than the global average. The mid-range of the fossil fuel intensive end (A1FI) of the AR4 projections for the global average by the end of this century is ~4°C, which translates to July Arctic temperatures ranging in some areas more than 5°C higher than their modern (2000 CE) average values. Seasonal sea ice reductions equivalent to or greater than Eemian maximums are expected by the end of this century, and perhaps in as little as 30-50 years (e.g. here, here, here).

Whereas Eemian polar bears had thousands-to-tens of thousands of years to adapt to changes in their environment, today’s polar bears are facing equivalent or greater changes on time scales at least an order of magnitude more rapidly, on top of their reduced population levels and other modern stressors like pollutants.

As in many aspects of the physical world, it’s not simply the amount of something, it’s also the rate and other variables that make a difference. I drink about 2 liters of water a day. If I were stupid enough to increase my rate of water intake by an order of magnitude, I’d be risking death. Expecting polar bears to shrug off unchecked global warming because they survived the Eemian is no less foolish- and may have an equally lethal result.


Yes, Rush Limbaugh IS a creationist

And yes, this directly informs his climate denialism. Via Media Matters:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

While CO2 does indeed play a role in photosynthesis, the idea (frequently touted by industry front groups) that this process somehow provides an unlimited buffer to the addition of massive amounts of carbon to the atmosphere is simply absurd, as is the idea that humans are incapable of severely damaging their environment.

Some will no doubt consider this to be unworthy of attention and discussion, as Limbaugh (in order to avoid accountability for his disinformation) likes to hide behind the fig leaf that he is only an “entertainer” and has no real political power. This is quite obviously false. Limbaugh is seen by many as the face of conservatism in the United States.

For more on the problematic coupling of antiscience religious sects and climate denialism in the American scientific and political discourse, see Yes, Sarah Palin IS a creationist and Yes, Roy Spencer IS a creationist.

For a look at a path towards replacing religious-based climate denialism with climate reality from faith-friendly groups, see Katharine Hayhoe‘s (and husband’s) A Climate For Change and

Yes, Sarah Palin IS a creationist

Contra some in the comments all those months [edit: over a year!] ago, Sarah Palin’s memoir is unambiguous on this issue:

Elsewhere in this volume she talks about creationism, saying she “didn’t believe in the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or from “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.”


“But your dad’s a science teacher,” Schmidt objected. “Yes.” “Then you know that science proves evolution,” added Schmidt. “Parts of evolution,” I [Palin] said. “But I believe that God created us and also that He can create an evolutionary process that allows species to change and adapt.” Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows. In the dim light, his sunglasses shifted atop his hear. I had just dared to mention the C-word: creationism. But I felt I was on solid factual ground.

Although this has obviously disturbing implications re: the kind of leader millions of Americans want to see in the White House, there are two finer, interrelated points to be made which actually bring this post back on topic.

The first is that creationism and climate denialism overlap a great deal, not just among the average evangelical Christian and biblical literalist, but also at the highest levels of US legislature and amongst the “foremost” climate change “skeptics”.

The second is that this is no accident, no mere co-incidence of ideologies (i.e. Christianism and anti-regulation fundamentalism). As I wrote regarding Palin previously, people who live in a world where the ultimate cause of everything is literally “God did it” are not going to accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Palin expresses exactly such a worldview in her memoir:

In everything that happens to her, from meeting Todd to her selection by Mr. McCain for the Republican ticket, she sees the hand of God: “My life is in His hands. I encourage readers to do what I did many years ago, invite Him in to take over.”

To see how this manifests in climate policy, once again, the great Senator from Oklahoma proves to be an illuminating if disheartening example.


I think he’s [a radio caller] right. I think what he’s saying is God’s still up there. We’re going through these cycles.

And of course Inhofe is neither an inconsequential figure (he was the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for many years and is its current Ranking Member), nor alone in the US Government

Joe Barton is former Chair and the current Ranking Member of the House of Representative’s Committee on Energy and Commerce, and argued against using wind turbines to generate electricity because it would interfere with God’s regulation of the climate:

Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about.

Representative John Shimkus is also on the Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as its Energy and Environment subcommittee. He has argued against curbing emissions because:

The earth will end only when God declares its time is over.

As I wrote previously, someone’s religious beliefs do not a priori invalidate what he or she has to say about a subject, scientific or otherwise. However, it is undeniable that there are religious sects that are clearly hostile to reality as described by science, and whose adherents have no trouble either lying about or dismissing scientific evidence when it conflicts with their beliefs. Attempting to convince the Sarah Palins, Roy Spencers, and James Inhofes, et al. of the necessity of reducing emissions simply via the merits of the science is a fool’s errand. They need to be bypassed (or co-opted through a top down religious campaign), as they will not be won over through evidence and reason.

[UPDATE: Palin is of course out promoting her book, and had this to say about climate science on today’s Rush Limbaugh’s radio show:

I think there’s a lot of snake oil science involved in that and somebody’s making a whole lot of money off people’s fears that the world is… It’s kind of tough to figure out with the shady science right now, what are we supposed to be doing right now with our climate. Are we warming or are we cooling? I don’t think Americans are even told anymore if it’s global warming or just climate change. And I don’t attribute all the changes to man’s activities. I think that this is, in a lot of respects, cyclical and the earth does cool and it warms.

Just in case anyone was in doubt about her climate denialism bona fides.]