10 Nov 2009

Another Equation of "Religion" With "Falsity"

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Folks, don’t flip out, I totally get why Tom Palmer and now Joe Romm are writing in this fashion. But strictly speaking, to call something “a religion” doesn’t mean it’s thereby false. Even in a secular context, all it means is that the people who believe in the claims aren’t being objective and rational about it. So you can argue that they have no basis for believing they’re right, but strictly speaking you can’t pat yourself on the back for blowing somebody up just by demonstrating “the belief system is a religion to him.”

Earlier I mentioned Jerry O’Driscoll’s take-down of Palmer on this particular point. In this post I want to document a similar thing in Joe Romm’s saga against the Superfreak writers. Romm starts his post by asking: “Is calling global warming a religion the same thing as denying global warming science?”

This is a rhetorical question, but it’s clear from the rest of his post that Romm thinks the answer is “YES!!” After his rhetorical question, Romm writes:

While the authors of Superfreakonomics, which is riddled with basic scientific errors, have started to issue some retractions, they continue to embrace self-contradictory denial of the basic science.

In mid-October, economist Steven Levitt wrote a blog post titled, “The Rumors of Our Global-Warming Denial Are Greatly Exaggerated,” which asserted:

Like those who are criticizing us, we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve. Where we differ from the critics is in our view of the most effective solutions to this problem.

Then in another red-herring-filled post from last month, “The SuperFreakonomics Global-Warming Fact Quiz,” Levitt asserted that “we believe” it is “TRUE” that “The Earth has gotten substantially warmer over the past 100 years.” And he writes of that statement — that “fact” — (and 5 others), “It is our impression that none of the six scientific statements above is at all controversial among climate scientists.”

Duh. In fact, the most recent survey of the scientific literature signed off on by every major government in the world, including the Bush Administration, concluded “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

Unfortunately for the Superfreaks, their book is once again searchable on Amazon, so everyone can confirm it contains the following sentence — the very first one I criticize them for in my original debunking when I broke the story of their error-riddled book:

Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.

That is a staggeringly anti-scientific statement. It should be retracted. It should certainly not be repeated, as Levitt is now doing on his blog! [Bold in Romm’s original.]

I’m actually really glad that Romm wrote this post up, because I think it will make my case a lot better than if I tried to prove my point with actual religion. In the theological case, I would have said that even though Christianity is (obviously) a religion, stating that fact doesn’t prove that therefore Christian beliefs are incompatible with science. They could be, of course, and I fully concede that in practice many Christians–especially evangelicals hopped up on Genesis–will literally attack science. But my point is that to call a belief system “a religion” is not the same thing as saying “it’s opposed to science” or especially “it yields false answers.”

I think we can see this very clearly in a less controversial area, namely the global warming debates. Levitt and Dubner wrote that global warming is a religion that has its heretics. Everybody knows exactly what they are talking about.

Now Romm is trying to say, “No no no! If you concede that the globe is warming and that it is caused by man’s activities, then you must retract your claim that ‘global warming is a religion and it has heretics.'”

Of course there’s nothing contradictory in Levitt and Dubner’s claims here. They can endorse the basic scientific claims behind anthropogenic global warming, and still point out that people like Joe Romm treat the issue as a religious one, complete with man’s sin, the need for painful atonement, and the punishment of heretics.

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