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The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi November 12, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note:

 “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

I believe in magic, the magic of an incredible sunrise, the magic of a tender kiss.  I do not believe in the magic of bending spoons with the mind.  This is not magic, it is fraudulent pandering to human susceptibility, to mindless superstition.  I believe that those who claim to have paranormal powers are not simply entertainers, but rather dangerous frauds.  Despite the unbelievable advances in all branches of science and the equally unbelievable expansion of human knowledge, we live in an a “dark” age where unscrupulous agents of enormous economic power and interests take advantage of the credulous instincts of human beings in order to override scientific fact (evolution, climate change) in favor of superstition and “faith.”  This often in the service of profit, war and environmental degradation.

I have faith.  I have faith in those who have shown themselves reliable enough to merit belief.  I do not have faith in fairy tales and myths that were created as metaphors but are taken as literal scientific truth by those who enjoy power through manipulation.

I have long followed the life and work of Henry Gordon, another Canadian magician (unfortunately not mentioned in this article) who dedicated his life to debunking the paranormal frauds.  These men are heroes in my opinion.

 

Photo

James Randi in front of a painting done by his partner, the artist José Alvarez. Credit Jeff  Minton for The New York Times

A few minutes before 8 o’clock one Sunday evening last July, around 600 people crowded into the main conference hall of the South Point casino in Las Vegas. After taking their seats on red-velvet upholstered chairs, they chattered noisily as they awaited the start of the Million Dollar Challenge. When Fei Wang, a 32-year-old Chinese salesman, stepped onto the stage, they fell silent. Wang had a shaved head and steel-framed glasses. He wore a polo shirt, denim shorts and socks. He claimed to have a peculiar talent: from his right hand, he could transmit a mysterious force a distance of three feet, unhindered by wood, metal, plastic or cardboard. The energy, he said, could be felt by others as heat, pressure, magnetism or simply “an indescribable change.” Tonight, if he could demonstrate the existence of his ability under scientific test conditions, he stood to win $1 million.

The Million Dollar Challenge was the climax of the Amazing Meeting, or TAM, an annual weekend-long conference for skeptics that was created by a magician named the Amazing Randi in 2003. Randi, a slight, gnomish figure with a bald head and frothy white beard, was presiding from the front row, a cane topped with a polished silver skull between his legs. He drummed his fingers on the table in front of him. The Challenge organizers had spent weeks negotiating with Wang and fine-tuning the protocol for the evening’s test. A succession of nine blindfolded subjects would come onstage and place their hands in a cardboard box. From behind a curtain, Wang would transmit his energy into the box. If the subjects could successfully detect Wang’s energy on eight out of nine occasions, the trial would confirm Wang’s psychic power. “I think he’ll get four or five,” Randi told me. “That’s my bet.”

The Challenge began with the solemnity of a murder trial. A young woman in a short black dress stood at the edge of the stage, preparing to mark down the results on a chart mounted on an easel. The first subject, a heavyset blond woman in flip-flops, stepped up and placed her hands in the box. After two minutes, she was followed by a second woman who had a blue streak in her hair and, like the first, looked mildly nonplused by the proceedings. Each failed to detect the mystic force. “Which means, at this point, we are done,” the M.C. announced. With two failures in a row, it was impossible for Wang to succeed. The Million Dollar Challenge was already over.

Stepping out from behind the curtain, Wang stood center stage, wearing an expression of numb shock, like a toddler who has just dropped his ice cream in the sand. He was at a loss to explain what had gone wrong; his tests with a paranormal society in Boston had all succeeded. Nothing could convince him that he didn’t possess supernatural powers. “This energy is mysterious,” he told the audience. “It is not God.” He said he would be back in a year, to try again.

After Wang left the stage, Randi, who is 86, told me he was glad it was all over. For almost 60 years, he has been offering up a cash reward to anyone who could demonstrate scientific evidence of paranormal activity, and no one had ever received a single penny.

But he hates to see them lose, he said. “They’re always rationalizing,” Randi told me as we walked to dinner at the casino steakhouse. “There are always reasons prevailing why they can’t do it. They call it the resilience of the duped. It’s with intense regret that you watch them go down the tubes.”

The day before the challenge, Randi was wandering the halls of the casino, posing for snapshots and signing autographs. The convention began in 2003 in Fort Lauderdale, with 150 people in attendance, including staff. This year, it attracted more than 1,000 skeptics from as far away as South Africa and Japan. Often male and middle-aged, and frequently wearing ponytails or Tevas or novelty slogan T-shirts (product of evolution; stop making stupid people famous; atheist), they came to genuflect before their idol, drawn by both his legendary feats as an illusionist and his renown as an icon of global skepticism.

One fan, in his early 20s, with a thick mop of dark hair, introduced himself with, “So, I read that you spent 55 minutes in a block of ice.”

“A cinch,” Randi replied.

Ajay Appaden was 25 and had come from the Indian city Cochin. He was attending the conference for the second year with the help of a travel grant from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which was established with donations from the Internet pioneer Rick Adams and Johnny Carson. In addition to offering grants, JREF holds the $1 million in bonds that back the challenge, and pays Randi’s annual $200,000 salary.

Raised as a Catholic, Appaden told me that he discovered Randi in 2010, when he watched the magician in an online TED talk discussing homeopathy. At the time Appaden was a student at a Christian college, struggling with his faith; two years later, during Randi’s first visit to India, he took a 13-hour bus ride across the country to see Randi in person. “It literally changed my life,” he told me, and explained that he now hopes to help teach skepticism in Indian schools.

The magician looked small and frail, lost in the folds of his striped dress shirt, leaning on his cane, but he mugged gamely for every acolyte. For many of his most zealous followers, the opportunity to meet Randi at TAM may be as close as they will ever come to a religious experience. “It’s an obligation, it’s a very heavy obligation,” he said. “I can’t stand one person being turned away and not being given the same attention that others have been given.”

A few days before the conference, I visited Randi at his home, in Plantation, Fla. The modest octagonal house was almost hidden from the street by a lush garden of finger palms, elephant ears and paperbark trees. As we sat upstairs, surrounded by some 4,000 books — arranged alphabetically by subject, from alchemy, astrology, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle to tarot, U.F.O.s and witchcraft — he said that he disliked being called a debunker. He prefers to describe himself as a scientific investigator. He elaborated: “Because if I were to start out saying, ‘This is not true, and I’m going to prove it’s not true,’ that means I’ve made up my mind in advance. So every project that comes to my attention, I say, ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to find out.’ That may end up — and usually it does end up — as a complete debunking. But I don’t set out to debunk it.”

Born Randall James Zwinge in 1928, Randi began performing as a teenager in the 1940s, touring with a carnival and working table to table in the nightclubs of his native Toronto. Billed as The Great Randall: Telepath, he had a mind-reading act, and also specialized in telling the future. In 1949 he made local headlines for a trick in which he appeared to predict the outcome of the World Series a week before it happened, writing the result down, sealing it an envelope and giving it to a lawyer who opened and read it to the press after the series concluded. But no matter how many times he assured his audiences that such stunts were a result of subterfuge and legerdemain, he found there were always believers. They came up to him in the street and asked him for stock tips; when he insisted that he was just a magician, they nodded — but winked and whispered that they knew he was truly psychic. Once he understood the power he had over his audience, and how easily he could exploit their belief in the supernatural to make money, it frightened him: “To have deceived people like that . . . that’s a terrible feeling,” he said.

Once Randi understood the power he had over his audience, it frightened him: ‘To have deceived people like that . . . that’s a terrible feeling.’

He turned instead to escapology — as The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold — and feats of endurance. He broke a record for his 55-minute stint encased in ice, and bested the time his hero Houdini had spent trapped in a coffin on the bottom of the swimming pool at the Hotel Shelton in Manhattan. But Randi never forgot the believers, and how susceptible they were to exploitation by those who lacked his scruples. And so, as his reputation as a magician grew, he also began to campaign against spiritualists and psychics. In 1964, as a guest on a radio talk show, he offered $1,000 of his own money in a challenge to anyone who could show scientific evidence of supernatural powers. Soon afterward, he began broadcasting his own national radio show dedicated to discussion of the paranormal. He bought a small house in Rumson, N.J., and installed a sign outside that announced randi — charlatan. He lived there alone, with a pair of talking birds and a kinkajou named Sam. Although Randi had known he was gay since he was a teenager, he kept that to himself. “I had to conceal it, you know,” he told me. “They wouldn’t have had a known homosexual working in the radio station. This was a day when you had to keep it completely hidden.”

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, popular interest in the paranormal grew: There was a fascination with extrasensory perception and the Bermuda Triangle and best sellers like “Chariots of the Gods,” which claimed Earth’s ancient civilizations were visited by aliens. There were mystics, mind-readers and psychic surgeons, who were said to be able to extract tumors from their patients using only their bare hands — and without leaving a mark. Randi continued on his crusade. Few of his fellow illusionists were interested in exposing the way that conjuring tricks were used to dupe gullible audiences into believing in psychic abilities. “Everybody else just kind of rolled their eyes,” Penn Jillette, a good friend of Randi’s, told me. “’Why is Randi spending all this time doing this? We all know there is no ESP. It’s just stupid people believe it, and that’s fine.’ ”

Randi kept up his $1,000 challenge — and eventually increased it to $10,000 — but found few takers. Then in 1973, he met the nemesis who would define his struggle: Uri Geller, who had recently arrived in the United States from Israel. Geller was a charismatic 26-year-old former paratrooper who performed mind-reading feats similar to those with which Randi baffled audiences as a young mentalist. But Geller said that his powers were real and also claimed to have psychokinetic abilities: He could bend spoons, he said, using only his mind. His supposed gifts were studied by a pair of parapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute, who were persuaded that some of them, at least, were genuine. Randi told me that he met Geller soon afterward. “Very flamboyant,” he recalled venomously. “Very charming. Likable, beautiful, affectionate, genuine, forward-going, Handsome — everything!” His manner, Randi explained, was the key to the techniques employed by Geller and others like him. “That’s why they call them con men. Because they gain the confidence of the victim — and then they fool ‘em.”

Geller provided Randi with an archenemy in a show-business battle royale pitting science against faith, skepticism against belief. Their vendetta would endure for decades and bring them both international celebrity. Recognizing that the psychic’s paranormal feats were a result of conjuring tricks — directing attention elsewhere while he bent spoons using brute force, peeking through his fingers during mind-reading stunts — Randi helped Time magazine with an exposé of Geller. Soon afterward, when Geller was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the producers approached Randi, who had been a frequent guest, to help them ensure that Geller could employ no tricks during his appearance. Randi gave Carson’s prop men advice on how to prepare for the taping, and the result was a legendary immolation, in which Geller offered up flustered excuses to his host as his abilities failed him again and again. “I sat there for 22 minutes, humiliated,” Geller told me, when I spoke to him in September. “I went back to my hotel, devastated. I was about to pack up the next day and go back to Tel Aviv. I thought, That’s it — I’m destroyed.” But to Geller’s astonishment, he was immediately booked on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He was on his way to becoming a paranormal superstar. “That Johnny Carson show made Uri Geller,” Geller said. To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real: If he were performing magic tricks, they would surely work every time.

Randi decided Geller must be stopped. He approached Ray Hyman, a psychologist who had observed the tests of Geller’s ability at Stanford and thought them slipshod, and suggested they create an organization dedicated to combating pseudoscience. In 1976, together with Martin Gardner, a Scientific American columnist whose writing had helped hone Hyman’s and Randi’s skepticism, they formed the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Csicop, as it became known, was funded by donations and by sales of a new magazine, which became The Skeptical Inquirer. Randi, Hyman and Gardner and the secular humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz took seats on the executive board, with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan joining as founding members. Soon Randi was traveling across the globe, often “as the ambassador” of Csicop, Hyman told me recently, “the face of the skeptical movement all over the world.”

In his new role as a paranormal investigator, in books and on TV shows, Randi debunked everything from fairies to telekinesis. But he also stalked Geller around the chat-show circuit for years, denouncing him as a fraud and duplicating his feats by levering spoons and keys against the furniture while nobody was looking. In 1975, Randi published “The Magic of Uri Geller,” a sarcastic but exhaustive examination of the psychic’s techniques, in which he argued that any scientist investigating the paranormal should seek the advice of a conjurer before conducting serious research. The campaign helped make them both more famous than ever. Even today, Geller credits Randi with helping him become a psychic phenomenon — “My most influential and important publicist,” as Geller described him to me.

In 1989, Randi and Geller were booked to appear together on a TV special, “Exploring Psychic Powers, Live!” According to Randi, before the broadcast, Geller pulled him into his dressing room and offered to end the feud. “There’s no way that we are going to make peace until you level with your audiences,” Randi replied. “Until you say that you are a magician like the rest of us, and that you don’t have supernatural powers.” Geller refused. (Geller says he does not recall the incident.) Soon after, Geller brought the first of several libel actions against Csicop and Randi — who, among other things, had characterized him as a sociopath and suggested his psychic feats had been learned from the backs of cereal boxes. Geller’s suits in the United States were eventually dismissed. But the legal costs of fighting the cases were overwhelming, and Randi went through almost all of a MacArthur Foundation grant of $272,000 awarded to him in 1986 for his paranormal investigations. Finally, the struggle with Geller even cost Randi his place in Csicop; when Paul Kurtz told him it had become too expensive to keep going after such a litigious target, and demanded he stop discussing Geller in public, Randi resigned in fury.

Geller, who now lives in a large house beside the Thames River in England, says he long ago put the feud with Randi behind him. He claims to have used his show-business career as a cover for paranormal work on behalf of Mossad and the C.I.A., but he no longer calls himself a psychic. “I changed my title to ‘mystifier,’ ” he told me. “And I love it — because it means nothing.” But Randi’s contempt for him still burns brightly. “He knows he is deceiving these people — individuals, in most cases — and he doesn’t care what damage he does to them,” Randi said. “They depend on the paranormal after they have met Geller, and you cannot talk them out of it. And that has crippled them for life.”

Early one morning last summer, on a visit to Randi’s house in Florida, I drew up outside a few minutes later than we had agreed. Randi, wearing a canary yellow sweatshirt, was waiting at the front door, holding his watch in his hand. “You’re late!” he barked, and it was hard to tell if he was joking. We sat down in the living room to talk, and Randi spent half an hour laboriously adjusting his watch, winding the hands to display the correct date. “I am a little bit obsessed with having the right time,” he said. “I’ve always been very, very, big on knowing what time it is. That’s one of my connections with reality.”

Randi has never smoked, taken narcotics or got drunk. “Because that can easily just fuzz the edges of my rationality, fuzz the edges of my reasoning powers,” he once said. “And I want to be as aware as I possibly can. That may mean giving up a lot of fantasies that might be comforting in some ways, but I’m willing to give that up in order to live in an actually real world.”

That fixation on science and the rational life — and a corresponding desire to crusade for the truth — has a long history among magicians. John Nevil Maskelyne, who founded a dynasty of English conjurers in 1855 and became a prolific inventor, began his career by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and reproducing their tricks. Houdini turned to debunking mediums in his middle age as his career as an escapologist went into decline. He offered his own $10,000 reward to any spiritualist who could perform a “miracle” he could not duplicate himself. Martin Gardner, whose book “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science” is a founding text of modern skepticism, was also fascinated by magic, and became well known for his books explaining how many conjuring and mind-reading tricks rely upon strict laws of probability and number theory. Penn and Teller have since followed Randi down the path of conjurers who have become debunkers.

Randi now sees himself, like Einstein and Richard Dawkins, in the tradition of scientific skeptics. “Science gives you a standard to work against,” he said. “Science, after all, is simply a logical, rational and careful examination of the facts that nature presents to us.”

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CreditCharles Reynolds

 

Although many modern skeptics continue to hold religious beliefs, and see no contradiction in embracing critical thinking and faith in God, Randi is not one of them. “I have always been an atheist,” he told me. “I think that religion is a very damaging philosophy — because it’s such a retreat from reality.”

When I asked him why he believed other people needed religion, Randi was at his most caustic.

“They need it because they’re weak,” he said. “And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”

In the 1980s, Randi turned his talent for deception to debunking the supernatural. He set out to expose New Age channelers, mediums who — on shows and in profitable public appearances — purported to be possessed by ancient spirits. One, JZ Knight, a former cable TV saleswoman, claimed to be the terrestrial mouthpiece of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from Atlantis who could predict the future.

To show how credulous audiences could be in the face of such claims, in 1987 Randi collaborated with the Australian version of “60 Minutes.” He invented Carlos, a 2,000-year-old entity who, his publicity material stated, had last appeared in the body of a 12-year-old boy in Venezuela in 1900 but had now returned to manifest himself through a young American artist named José Alvarez. He prepared to take Alvarez on a tour of Australia.

Alvarez, at the time a 25-year-old student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, was in fact Randi’s boyfriend, and also his assistant. They met the year before in a Fort Lauderdale public library, where Alvarez was seeking visual references for a ceramics project. Randi, who had only recently relocated to Florida from New Jersey, struck up a conversation with him. They talked all afternoon and moved in together soon afterward.

Randi coached Alvarez carefully for his role as Carlos, rehearsing him through mock news conferences and TV appearances. He taught him how to squeeze a Ping-Pong ball in his armpit so that his pulse would appear to slow as he became “possessed” — “an old, old thing from Boy Scout camps,” Randi told me. Before the trip, Randi sent out press kits to Australian TV networks and newspapers, filled with reports charting the apparently sensational — but fictional — progress of Carlos across the United States.

Soon after they arrived in February 1988, Alvarez was booked on many of the country’s leading TV shows. Through an earpiece, Randi fed him answers to interview questions and the lines of doomsday prophecies. The climax of his tour was an appearance at the Sydney Opera House, after which the audience was invited to place orders for crystal artifacts, including the Tears of Carlos, priced at $500 each, and an Atlantis Crystal, offered at $14,000. Each proved popular — though Randi’s team never accepted any money for them.

When the hoax was revealed a few days later on “60 Minutes,” the Australian media was enraged at having been taken in; Randi countered that none of the journalists had bothered with even the most elementary fact-checking measures.

Afterward, Randi and Alvarez returned to Florida together, and Alvarez’s reputation as an artist blossomed. For the next 14 years, he toured the Carlos persona around the world as part of a performance piece, appearing onstage in Padua, Italy, and sitting for photographs on the Great Wall of China re-enacting the hoax. In 2002, the work Alvarez created from the Carlos episode was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Meanwhile, the establishment of the James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996 allowed Randi to continue his own pursuits with the foundation’s headquarters, a Spanish-style stucco building in Fort Lauderdale, as his base of operations. He created the Million Dollar Challenge and regularly wrote bulletins for the foundation’s website, where the message boards formed an online hub for skeptics worldwide. In recent years, he began making regular podcasts, and he also created his own YouTube channel to discuss everything from Nostradamus to cold fusion. In 2007, during his TED talk taking aim at quackery and fraud, Randi delighted his audience by gobbling an entire bottle of 32 Calms homeopathic sleeping tablets — which Randi speculated was certainly a fatal dose.

Disappointed by what he saw as the media’s indifference to the Million Dollar Challenge, that same year Randi revised the rules and announced a plan to take the challenge to high-profile psychics, including Sylvia Browne, John Edward and — once again — Uri Geller. None of them agreed to participate. He had more success in 2008, when he invited James McCormick, a British businessman, to take the challenge. McCormick had built equipment that could supposedly detect explosives from afar, which Randi recognized was simply a telescoping antenna swiveling on a plastic handle — a dowsing rod. Randi publicly offered the million-dollar prize to McCormick if he could prove that the device worked as claimed. McCormick, who was selling his product to security forces in the Middle East, never responded. But the British Police began an investigation, and last year McCormick was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison, having sold at least $38 million worth of his miraculous device to the Iraqi government.

Photo

Randi with his partner of more than 25 years, the artist José Alvarez, at their Florida home.CreditJeff Minton for The New York Times

Recently, age and illness have begun to slow Randi down. In 2009, following chemotherapy for intestinal cancer, he presented the opening address at TAM from a wheelchair. Earlier this year, JREF’s Fort Lauderdale building was sold, and its reference library and collection of memorabilia were boxed up and relocated to Randi’s home. When I visited, many of the cartons remained unpacked; the portrait of Isaac Asimov that once hung above the fireplace in the JREF library was propped against a wall.

Randi was all but marooned in the house — he was forbidden to drive while he awaited cataract surgery — and Alvarez had been forced to surrender his driver’s license, after a series of events that began on Sept. 8, 2011. That morning there was a knock on the front door. When Randi opened it, a pair of federal agents stood before him. They asked to speak to Alvarez. Outside, Randi could see two unmarked S.U.V.s blocking the driveway and at least half a dozen agents surrounding the perimeter of the property. When Alvarez came downstairs from his room, the agents explained there was a problem. They wanted to talk to him about passport fraud. They cuffed him and took him out to the car. Randi was left alone in the house, holding business cards from State Department agents, who, Randi said, gave him instructions to wait 24 hours before calling them.

The agents took Alvarez directly to Broward County Jail, where he was photographed, issued a gray uniform and registered as FNU LNU: “first name unknown, last name unknown.” In an interview room at the jail, he told an agent everything: He had fled homophobic persecution in Venezuela and had come to the U.S. on a two-year student visa. He met Randi and knew he wanted to stay with him. But when his visa expired, there was no way to renew it. He said he was given the name and Social Security number of José Alvarez by a friend in a Fort Lauderdale nightclub, and used it to apply for a passport in 1987. Alvarez told the agent he was deeply sorry for the trouble he had caused the real Alvarez — who he believed was dead but turned out to be a teacher’s aide living in the Bronx. FNU LNU said his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga.

Charged with making a false statement in the application and use of a passport and aggravated identity theft, Peña faced a $250,000 fine, a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and deportation to Venezuela. After six weeks in jail, he was released on a $500,000 bond, and he subsequently agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of passport fraud. At a sentencing hearing in May 2012, the judge considered letters of support from Randi and Peña’s friends from the world of art, science and entertainment, including Richard Dawkins and Penn Jillette, as well as from members of charities to which Peña had given his time and work. The judge considered Peña’s long relationship with Randi, and Randi’s failing health. He gave him a lenient sentence: time served, six months’ house arrest and 150 hours’ community service.

But Peña still had to contend with the immigration authorities. After the sentencing hearing, he had been home for five days when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents appeared at the door. “Say goodbye,” they told him. Peña assured Randi he would be back that afternoon. He was taken to the Krome detention center in Miami, and remained there while his lawyer tried to find a way of keeping him in the United States. After two months of incarceration, Peña was finally released from Krome on the evening of Aug. 2, 2012, to find that Randi had spent half the day waiting outside the front gate for him. The couple were married in a ceremony in Washington the following summer.

Today, Peña remains on probation and no longer holds any identity documents except a Venezuelan passport with his birth name. United States immigration authorities have agreed not to deport him for now, but he has no formal immigration status in the United States: were he to leave the country, he would be unable to return. Since his arrest, Peña has not entirely shrugged off his former persona. He signs his paintings with the name he has exhibited under for 20 years — but now followed by his true initials, D.O.P.A.

Sometimes when Randi forgets himself, he still refers to his partner as José. Yet exactly how much Randi — the master of deception and misdirection — knew about his partner’s duplicity, and how complicit he may have been in it, is unclear. When Randi first met him in the Fort Lauderdale public library, it seems certain that Peña would have introduced himself by his real name: A profile of Randi published in The Toronto Star the following year describes the magician’s young assistant, named David Peña, struggling through La Guardia Airport with Randi’s luggage. When they traveled to Australia together for the “60 Minutes” stunt, Randi may have been masterminding a deception one level deeper than he ever acknowledged: Deyvi, pretending to be José, masquerading as Carlos, the 2,000-year-old spirit from Caracas. What followed might be the longest-running hoax of The Amazing Randi’s career.

When I asked Randi how much he knew about Peña’s true identity before the federal agents came to his door, he demurred, citing legal concerns. “This is something I don’t think I’d like to get into detailed discussion about,” Randi said. “Simply because it could prejudice our status in some way.”

When he was still a young man appearing in Toronto nightclubs and pretending to predict the future, Randall Zwinge created what he hoped would be his greatest trick. Each night before he went to bed, he wrote the date on the back of a business card along with the words “I, Randall Zwinge, will die today.” Then he signed it and placed it in his wallet. That way, if he were knocked down in the street or killed by a freak accident, whoever went through his effects would discover the most shocking prophecy he ever made. Zwinge kept at it for years. Each night, he tore up one card and wrote out a new one for the next day. But nothing fatal befell him; in the end, having wasted hundreds of business cards, he gave up in frustration. “I never got lucky,” he told me.

Since then, Randi has had several brushes with death. But nothing has shaken his steadfast rationalism: neither the heart attack he suffered in 2006, nor the cancer that followed. Nor, for that matter, did a conversation he had with Martin Gardner a few years before Gardner’s death in 2010, when his friend confessed to having chosen to believe in the possibility of an afterlife. “That really surprised me, because he was the rationalist supreme,” Randi recalled. “He said: ‘I don’t have any evidence for it, you have all the arguments on your side. But it brings me comfort.’ ”

Randi told me that he now feels mild trepidation each time he goes to sleep at night, and pleasant surprise that he wakes up in the morning. But he insists he does not need the sort of reassurance that Gardner sought in his own last days. “I wouldn’t have any comfort from it — because I wouldn’t believe in it,” he said. “Oh, no, I have no fear of my demise whatsoever. I really feel that sincerely.”

Most mornings, Randi is already awake at 7 o’clock, when Peña comes in to check on him; sometimes he’s up at 6. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, still,” he told me, “and I’ve got to make use of my viable time.” He is currently completing his 11th book, “A Magician in the Laboratory,” and spends several hours a day responding to emails from his desk in the chaotic-looking office he maintains upstairs. He Skypes with friends in China or Australia once a week. Peña likes to cook, and paints downstairs, beside the framed lithograph recalling the triumphs of the Man No Jail Can Hold. The couple have spent much of the last year traveling to film festivals and screenings across the United States, helping to promote a new documentary about Randi’s life, “An Honest Liar,” which will be released in February. Randi has been surprised by the response. “Standing ovations, the whole thing,” he told me.

In July last year, Randi came closer than ever to the end. He was hospitalized with aneurysms in his legs and needed surgery. Before the procedure began, the surgeon showed Peña scans of Randi’s circulatory system. “Very challenging, a very difficult situation,” the surgeon told him. “But he lived a good life.” The operation was supposed to take two hours, but it stretched to six and a half.

When Randi began to come to, heavily dosed with painkillers, he looked about him in confusion. There were nurses speaking in hushed voices. He began hallucinating. He was convinced that he was behind the curtain before a show and that the whispering he could hear was the audience coming in. The theater was full; he had to get onstage. He tried to look at his watch, but he found he didn’t have it on. He began to panic. When the hallucinations became intensely visual, Peña brought a pen and paper to the bedside. It could prove an important exercise in skeptical inquiry to record what Randi saw as he emerged from a state so close to death, one in which so many people sincerely believed they had glimpsed the other side. Randi scribbled away; his observations, Peña thought, might eventually make a great essay. Later, when the opiates and the anaesthetic wore off, Randi looked at the notes he had written.

They were indecipherable.

Rallies Across Canada Ask Canadians to ‘Stand Up for Science’ September 15, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note: I loved it when I read that at one of the rallies of scientists you would hear this chant: “What do we want? / Peer review! /  When do we want it? /  Now!”

 

 

New advocacy group fighting for the survival of public science

 

by Natascia Lypny

The future of science in Canada is grim, warns a new advocacy group fighting for its survival.

Last July’s Death of Evidence rally at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. On Monday September 16 there will be a nation-wide follow-up on this protest against the Harper government’s cutbacks in science and its efforts to muzzle scientists. Scientists and politicians will speak at the Dalhousie Student Union Building at 1 pm. (Photo: Richard Webster)

Evidence for Democracy, a national non-partisan group comprised largely of scientists, journalists and concerned citizens, is asking the federal government to reverse what it sees as disconcerting trends in how science has been treated in Canada since the Conservative Party took power in 2006.

On Monday, it will host Stand Up for Science events across Canada — including Halifax — to bring attention to the deterioration of federally funded research, the dearth of evidence-based policy decision-making, and broken communication between scientists and the public.

“This isn’t just about scientists and our careers, but really what we’re trying to get across is the fact that science really does matter to all Canadians, that we all have a vested interest in keeping science healthy in Canada,” says Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy.

A recent PhD recipient from the University of Ottawa’s biology department, Gibbs helped organize last July’s Death of Evidence rally at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. The mock funeral shed light on what was at the time fresh wounds to the scientific field.

Last April, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut lost its funding, closing the doors of a centre critical for the collection of data on air quality, climate change and the ozone.

The following month, the federal government announced it would cease funding the Experimental Lakes Area, a large operation that monitored everything from ecological systems to climate change.

The month after that, the government passed Bill C-38, also known as the “omnibus bill,” over one quarter of which had direct impacts on science-based decision making at the federal level. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was ditched and its agency crippled; the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act was nixed; the Fisheries Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Species at Risk Act were weakened; several environmental monitoring programs were killed; the list goes on.

“You’d be hard pressed to find somebody that’s not affected by the cutbacks,” says Prof. Thomas Duck, who works with the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University.

He’s also a former PEARL researcher and will be participating in Halifax’s Stand Up for Science. On top of seeing his Arctic studies crumble, Duck has seen much of his high-tech laser radar work in Halifax disappear, and his beloved colleagues leave the country for opportunities elsewhere.

It’s not just the lack of funding that has dissuaded them; Duck, who has been vocal about the cutbacks, says the government has muzzled scientists, breaking off critical communication lines with the media and the general public.

Although cuts to scientific research have occurred across many fields, Duck and Gibbs agree that environmental science has been the hardest hit.

“This government certainly hasn’t hidden the fact that one of the goals of their mandate is to make Canada an energy super player, and it’s suspected that a lot of the cutting of environmental monitoring was to help expand oil development without having to run into science saying that that’s not good,” says Gibbs.

Cuts to environmental monitoring have also led to a lack of publicly available evidence to inform discussions across Canada on the oil sands, says Duck.

“It appears now that our current government would like to be governing in the dark,” he says. “They would rather develop their policies based on something other than evidence. How they’re going to do that is anyone’s guess.”

The ramifications can already be felt on the ground, says Duck. In Nova Scotia, a local Environment Canada team that tracked mercury levels in the province was eliminated, potentially endangering the ecosystem and residents.

Duck says Environment Canada “is a really damaged organization” that could take a “generation or more” to rebuild.

Outside of the environmental field, Gibbs says Canada is reeling from the 2010 decision to eliminate the mandatory long form census. This May, when the first results of the National Household Survey since the change were released, statisticians lamented a lack of confidence in the numbers.

Whether they agree with these changes or not, Duck says it is difficult for provinces to counteract them. Many, like Nova Scotia, have little money for scientific research funding, a budgetary item historically taken up by the feds. However, Duck says provinces can impose their own safeguards against changes to environmental protection policy by putting their own regulatory acts and bodies into action.

Gibbs says Stand Up for Science serves as a message to the federal government that now is the time to correct some of its decisions before its too late.

The Halifax event, featuring Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie, will take place at the Dalhousie Student Union Building (6163 University Ave.) on  Sept. 16 at 1 p.m.  Scientific research projects by Dalhousie faculty and students will also be on display.

Censorship is alive and well in Canada – just ask government scientists February 24, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Civil Liberties, Media, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note: Canada under the leadership of J. Edgar Harper.

Elizabeth Renzetti

The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Feb. 22 2013, 8:27 PM EST

Last updated Saturday, Feb. 23 2013, 9:01 AM EST

 

Freedom to Read Week begins on Feb. 24, bringing with it the perfect opportunity to kick the tires of democracy and make sure the old jalopy’s still running as she should.

What’s that you say? The bumper fell off when you touched it? The engine won’t turn over? That’s not so good. Better look under the hood.

We like to think of censorship as something that happens over there, in the faraway places where men break into houses at night to smash computers, or arrive in classrooms to remove books they don’t like. Not in lovely, calm, respectful Canada. Here we don’t necessarily notice freedoms being eroded slowly, grain by grain, “like sands through the hourglass,” if you’ll allow me to quote from Days of Our Lives.

Just ask Canada’s government scientists. Oh wait, you can’t ask them, because they’ve got duct tape over their mouths (metaphorical duct tape, but hey – it’s still painful). This week the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and Democracy Watch asked federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault to investigate claims that scientists are being prohibited from speaking freely with journalists – and through them, the public.

In a report called Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, the UVic researchers present some chilling findings: Scientists are either told not to speak to journalists or to spout a chewed-over party line, rubber-stamped by their PR masters; the restrictions are particularly tight when a journalist is seeking information about research relating to climate change or the tar sands; Environment Canada scientists require approval from the Privy Council Office before speaking publicly on sensitive topics “such as climate change or protection of polar bear and caribou.”

You wouldn’t want the average citizen to learn too much about caribou, now. Who knows how crazy he could get with that kind of information? It could lead to panel discussions about Arctic hares, town halls on ptarmigans. The report states that government scientists are “frustrated,” which is hardly surprising. It’s like hiring Sandy Koufax and never letting him pitch.

The other thing that the report makes clear is how deliberate this strategy is: “The federal government has recently made concerted efforts to prevent the media – and through them, the general public – from speaking to government scientists, and this, in turn, impoverishes the public debate on issues of significant national concern.”

This is not an issue that’s going away. The Harper government’s heavy-handed control of scientists’ research has raised concerns across the world for a few years, including condemnation from such bastions of Marxism as Nature magazine.

A couple thousand scientists from across the country marched on Parliament Hill last July to protest cuts in research (many in the highly sensitive area of environment and climate change) and restrictions on their ability to speak freely about their work. They created what might be the best chant in the history of political protest: “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!”

Last week, Margaret Munro of Postmedia News reported that a University of Delaware scientist was up in arms over a new confidentiality agreement brought in by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “I’m not signing it,” Andreas Muenchow told the reporter. What does this mean for bilateral co-operation on research? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

The Vise-Grip on information is tightening and Ottawa is the muscle. Last month, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression released a report about the dire state of freedom of information requests: “Canada’s access to information system is in a deep crisis and without urgent reform could soon become dysfunctional,” the report noted. That means fewer requests being processed, at a more glacial pace, with more of the juicy bits blacked out by the government censor’s pen. This is the good stuff, people. The stuff the government doesn’t want you to know about. The stuff that’s kept in a filing cabinet in Gatineau under a sign that says, “Nothing here. Nope. Just a three-week-old tuna sandwich. And it’s radioactive.” This is the information we need to keep an eye on the government’s internal gears – and it’s being withheld.

Canada recently plummeted 10 places to No. 20 in the World Press Freedom Index, which measures how unfettered a country’s media is. Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, is concerned about the access-to-information issue and about the protection of journalists’ sources. The beacon we should now follow is Jamaica, whose press freedoms rank highest in the region.

It’s the perfect time to welcome Freedom to Read Week. There are events all over Canada and countless ways to celebrate our precious liberties. Bring your kids to the library. Read something you shouldn’t. Even better, write something you shouldn’t. A letter to your MP, perhaps?

Should Taxpayers Be Funding Private Schools That Teach Creationism? February 1, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology.
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Roger’s note: What is at issue here is not only the question of publicly funding the idiotic notion of creationism, but the very substance of public education.  Public education (advocated by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto) is a sine qua non of democracy.  The massive effort by the extreme right to privatize public education, aided and abetted by Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is aimed at replacing what is left of democracy in the United States with theocratic tinged militarized corporatism.

John Scalzi (CC BY 2.0)
Part of an exhibit at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.

By Zack Kopplin

According to so-called education reform advocates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his Foundation for Excellence in Education, school vouchers, which allow parents to direct state money to private schools of their choice, are essential because “families need the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.” From Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, to Newark, N.J.’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, these programs are backed by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they enjoy the support of powerful interest groups such as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and the American Federation for Children.

Voucher programs have been established in 12 states and the District of Columbia, and they are spreading as Texas and Tennessee attempt to create ones of their own. As the use of vouchers has expanded across the country in recent years, new questions have arisen that extend beyond concerns about their appropriateness and legality. We’ve pushed standards, testing and accountability for public schools, so why shouldn’t private institutions receiving vouchers have to meet those same requirements? Should private institutions be allowed to ignore state science standards and teach their students creationism while receiving taxpayer money? Does learning about biblical creation, rather than evolution, really help to meet students’ needs?

I first investigated the relationship between creationism and voucher programs after reading an AlterNet article in June about Eternity Christian Academy in Louisiana. Now removed from the state’s voucher program, the school was using the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum to teach students that the mythical Loch Ness Monster existed and somehow disproved evolution. As I looked further into Louisiana’s program, I found that there wasn’t just one school but at least 20 private ones getting vouchers and thus receiving millions of taxpayer dollars. After reviewing my research, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist James Gill wrote that “vouchers have turned out to be the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”

This isn’t just a Louisiana problem. It seems clear that the U.S. is facing a national creationism epidemic. In an exposé I wrote posted by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, I identified hundreds of additional voucher schools in nine states and the District of Columbia using dozens of different creationist curriculums. These schools are receiving tens of millions of dollars, and maybe even hundreds of millions, to teach religious beliefs in violation of state science standards. With 164 such campuses, Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program contained the highest concentration of creationist voucher schools I was able to uncover. Indiana, which has been marketed as the “gold standard” for voucher accountability, has at least 37 such schools teaching creationism. A couple of its campuses proudly advertise that their students are taken to the Creation Museum on field trips. So far, I’ve discovered 311 creationist voucher schools across the country.

Those 311 schools are not the only taxpayer funded institutions teaching creationism. There are likely hundreds more. Although many are difficult to find, either because they don’t have websites or don’t advertise their creationist curriculum, lots of voucher schools fit the profile of creationist campuses that are already known. On top of this, two states, Arizona and Mississippi, have voucher programs but don’t release the names of participating schools. Officials with the Arizona Department of Education confirmed to me that every private school in the state is eligible to participate in the program, and since I’ve identified private creationist schools there that could be involved, there is little doubt that Arizona is funding some of them. I believe it’s a safe bet that every school voucher program in the country is financing creationism.

These campuses would be shut if they were subject to the same standards as public institutions. The courts have shot down the teaching of creationism and intelligent design with public money over and over again, so why are we letting taxpayer funded private voucher schools teach them? The scientists and educators who devised both state science standards and the national common core standards knew creationism was pseudo-science that would not help American students get the education they need to succeed in a global, 21st century economy. That’s why we don’t teach creationism in public schools. Taxpayers should be outraged that their hard-earned dollars are enabling the mis-education of private school students.

Aside from not meeting these basic academic standards, many voucher schools suffer from other significant problems. Louisiana bloggers have exposed profiteering prophets who sought to capitalize on taxpayer funding for private schools. The Miami New Times reports that voucher schools in Florida are being run by administrators who “include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.” A school in Louisiana’s program was slated to receive millions of dollars from vouchers but lacked the facilities needed to house new students.

Proponents of vouchers argue that diverting money from public to private schools will help students learn by increasing inter-campus competition. But when voucher programs contain institutions that teach creationism instead of science, it’s easy to see that damage is being done to students whose futures are jeopardized by poor education.

Although a judge recently ruled that the way Louisiana funds its school voucher program is unconstitutional, it continues to operate as the state appeals the decision. Similarly, the voucher program in Colorado has been halted by a court injunction. But given the aggressive activity of taxpayer funded voucher programs across the country, we need to fight to make sure that no additional ones are created. And we need to stop politicians in states such as Indiana and Wisconsin from following through on plans to expand already existing programs. Today’s students and our nation’s future demand it.

Zack Kopplin is a science education advocate and winner of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education and the National Center for Science Education’s Friend of Darwin Award.

U.S. election: Charles Darwin gets 4,000 write-in votes in Georgia November 9, 2012

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David Beasley
Reuters

ATLANTA- A Georgia congressman who attacked the theory of evolution found himself with an unlikely opponent in Tuesday’s U.S. election, when 4,000 voters in one county cast write-in ballots for the 19th century father of evolution, British naturalist Charles Darwin.

In a Sept. 27 speech, Paul Broun, a physician and member of the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee, called evolution and the Big Bang Theory, “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Since Broun, a Republican, had no opposition in the general election, a University of Georgia plant biology professor, Jim Leebens-Mack, and others started a write-in campaign for Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution.

“We don’t feel our interests are being best served by an anti-science fundamentalist representing us on the Science, Space and Technology Committee,” Leebens-Mack told Reuters on Friday.

The write-in votes in Athens-Clarke County will not count officially since Darwin was never certified as a write-in candidate, but Leebens-Mack hopes the campaign will encourage a strong candidate, Democrat or Republican, to challenge Broun in 2014.

“I think there could be Democratic opposition, but even more likely is having a rational Republican who understands issues like global warming, scientific reasoning more generally,” said Leebens-Mack.

Broun received 16,980 votes in Athens-Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia, Broun’s undergraduate alma mater.

Broun’s office issued a statement on Friday that did not directly address Darwin, saying that the congressman “looks forward to representing the … constitutional conservative principles” of his constituents.

The statement also noted that Broun “received a higher level of support from his constituents in Athens-Clarke County this election cycle than in any of his previous campaigns.”

The New Anti-Science Assault on US Schools February 14, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology.
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Published on Sunday, February 12, 2012 by The Guardian/UK


In a disturbing trend, anti-evolution campaigners are combining with climate change deniers to undermine public education
by  Katherine Stewart

You might have thought it was all over after the 2005 decision by the US district court of Middle Pennsylvania (pdf), which ruled in the case of the Dover Area schools that teaching intelligent design is unconstitutional. You might have guessed that they wouldn’t come back after the 1987 US supreme court decision in Edwards v Aguillard, which deemed the teaching of creationism in Louisiana schools unconstitutional. Or maybe you figured that the opponents of evolution had their Waterloo in the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee.

They are back. There are six bills aimed at undermining the teaching of evolution before state legislatures this year: two each in New Hampshire and Missouri, one each in Indiana and Oklahoma. And it’s only February.Charles Darwin, circa 1854: 12 February, his birthday, is marked by International Darwin Day. (photo: Corbis)

For the most part, the authors of these bills are singing a song we’ve heard before. Jerry Bergevin, the Republican sponsor of one of the New Hampshire bills, says of evolution that “It’s a worldview and it’s godless.” He blames the teaching of evolution for Nazism and Columbine. Josh Brecheen, the sponsor of the Oklahoma bill, wants to stop the teaching of “the religion of evolution.” These legislators, and their colleagues in Missouri and Indiana, trot out the hoary line that evolution is “just a theory” and that real science means saying that every point of view is just as good as any other.

Most of these bills aren’t likely to get anywhere. The Indiana bill, which specifically proposes the teaching of “creation science”, so obviously falls foul of the supreme court’s 1987 ruling that it’s hard to imagine it getting out of committee. The same could be said for the Missouri bill, which calls for the “equal treatment” of “biological evolution and biological intelligent design”.

Still, it’s worth asking: why is this happening now? Well, in part, it’s just that anti-evolution bills are an indicator of the theological temperature in state houses, and there is no question that the temperature has been rising. New Hampshire, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri turned deeper shades of red in the 2010 elections, as did the US Congress.

But there are a couple of new twists that make this same-old story more interesting than usual. One has to do with the temperature in a less metaphorical sense. The Oklahoma bill isn’t properly speaking just an “anti-evolution” bill; it is just as opposed to the “theory” of “global warming”. A bill pending in Tennessee likewise targets “global warming” alongside “biological evolution”. These and other bills aim their rhetoric at “scientific controversies” in plural, and one of the New Hampshire bills does not even bother to specify which controversies it has in mind.

The convergence here is, to some degree, cultural. It just so happens that the people who don’t like evolution are often the same ones who don’t want to hear about climate change. It is also the case that the rhetoric of the two struggles is remarkably similar – everything is a “theory”, and we should “teach the controversy”. But we also cannot overlook the fact is that there is a lot more money at stake in the climate science debate than in the evolution wars. Match those resources with the passions aroused by evolution, and we may have a new force to be reckoned with in the classroom.

The other significant twist has to do with the fact that the new anti-evolution – make that anti-science – bills are emerging in the context of the most vigorous assault on public education in recent history. In Oklahoma, for example, while Senator Brecheen fights the forces of evolution and materialism, the funding for schools is being cut, educational attainments are falling, and conservative leaders are agitating for school voucher systems, which, in the name of “choice”, would divert money from public schools to private schools – many of them religious. The sponsor of Indiana’s anti-science bill, Dennis Kruse, who happens to be chairman of the Senate education committee, is also fighting the two battles at once.

The Heartland Institute – which has received funding in the past from oil companies and is a leading source of climate science skepticism – also lobbies strongly for school vouchers and other forms of “school transformation” that are broadly aimed at undermining the current public school system. The Discovery Institute – a leading voice for intelligent design – has indicated its support of exactly the same “school reform” initiatives.

If you can’t shut down the science, the new science-deniers appear to be saying, you should shut down the schools. It would be a shame if they succeeded in replacing the teaching of science with indoctrination. It would be worse if they were to close the public school house doors altogether.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2012

 

Katherine Stewart

Katherine Stewart is a journalist and author. She has written for the New York Times, Reuters and Marie Claire, and her new book is The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (2012)

 

 

New Hampshire’s New Scopes Trial January 7, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology.
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Saturday 7 January 2012
by: Staff, Diatribe Media                 | Report

New Hampshire took an early lead this year in the effort to dumb down school students and erode the separation of church and state in the education system by introducing two anti-evolution bills to its state legislature (h/t Mother Jones). The two laws are the first of their kind in the state since the late 90’s. According to the National Center for Science Education, House Bill 1149 would:

“[r]equire evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.”

House Bill 1457 would:

“[r]equire science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.”

State Representative Jerry Bergevin, who introduced HB 1149, believes such legislation is necessary because he thinks evolution is tied to Nazis, communists, and the shooters in the 1999 Columbine massacre. According to Bergevin, the political and ideological views of Darwin and other believers and evolutionary scientists, along with their positions on atheism, must be taught to students as well. The New Hampshire Republican told the Concord Monitor:

“I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It’s a worldview and it’s godless. Atheism has been tried in various societies, and they’ve been pretty criminal domestically and internationally. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the Nazis, China today: they don’t respect human rights.”

He added “As a general court we should be concerned with criminal ideas like this and how we are teaching it. . . . Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That’s evidence right there.”

Rep Gary Hopper, who introduced HB1457 said that “science is a creative process, not an absolute thing” and he wants creationism taught in classes “so that kids understand that science doesn’t really have all the answers. They are just guessing.”

The most troubling and ridiculous part of the comments from the legislators introducing these bills is not only the anti science nature of them, but the idea that atheism is on par with murder, totalitarianism, and other “criminal ideas.” The idea that the lack of faith in God by an individual is somehow a violation of human rights shows just how little these Representatives understand of both atheism and human rights. (Full disclosure – I am not an atheist. I have my own faith and religious beliefs and hold them closely and don’t evangelize or prosthelytize)

In a country which touts itself as being the freeist in the world in respect to practicing religion, a representative has no ground to call another person’s spiritual beliefs “criminal.” Furthermore, if anything in the United States violates human rights, it’s the fact that our prison system is out of control, or that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed thousands of innocent civilians, or that our President signed legislation making indefinite detention for Americans a real possibility. It’s simply incredible that these elected representatives can turn a blind eye to real human rights violations while inventing others.

To boot, both Hooper and Bergevin seem to completely misunderstand what teaching evolution involves. The belief that species evolve and change over time does not necessarily invalidate the idea that God exists. Charles Darwin once said that man “can be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist.” Even the Catholic Church accepts evolution, with the caveat that God played a role. Bergevin’s idea that a belief in evolution makes murderers implies that plenty of his own faithful friends in Christendom should be treated as criminals.

Seven other states saw similar proposals in 2011, and thankfully, all of them were defeated. The bills in New Hampshire should be pretty quickly and easily defeated, according to the National Center for Science Education. Executive Director Eugenie Scott told the Monitor:

“Evolutionary scientists are Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Greens and everything. Similarly, their religious views are all over the map, too. . . . If you replace atheism in the bill with Protestantism, or Catholicism, or Judaism or any other view, it’s clear to see it’s not going to pass legal muster.”

While that’s good news, it’s still troubling to even see this debate on the floors of legislative houses in this day and age. If America is to get out of the mess it’s currently in, its legislators need to start tackling present problems, rather than rehash debates settled long ago.

Why the Anti-Science Creationist Movement Is So Dangerous September 13, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Right Wing, Science and Technology, Uncategorized.
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They want to wipe out all the findings of hundreds of years of scientific investigation and have taken to schools, the courts and political leaders to get things done.
 

 

September 8, 2011 |  

AlterNet / By Adam Lee

 
 
 

A few weeks ago, Jon Huntsman torpedoed his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination by making the following announcement: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

It’s a pathetic commentary on the anti-intellectualism rampant in American politics that this is newsworthy. A major-party candidate announces that he doesn’t deny a foundational theory of modern science! In fact, given the political atmosphere in the Republican party, it’s not just newsworthy but a daring act: polls have shown that almost 70 percent of Republicans deny evolution.

Huntsman is clearly trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. But while that strategy might play well in the general election, it won’t do him any good unless he can get the Republican nomination. And to win that nomination, he has to get past a huge obstacle: a solid bloc of Republican primary voters who are emphatically anti-science. This isn’t an exaggeration for polemical effect; it’s the plain truth. The modern Republican party has made a fervent rejection of scientific consensus its defining attribute — both on evolution and climate change, as well as in other fields — and Huntsman’s refusal to submit to party orthodoxy is likely a fatal blow to his chances.

But opposition to climate change is something new in the Republican platform. As recently as a few years ago, both Mitt Romney and John McCain supported cap-and-trade laws, and Newt Gingrich appeared in pro-environment ads with Nancy Pelosi. The party’s rejection of climate science is fairly new, and probably comes from its increasing dependence on campaign cash from dirty-energy barons like the Koch brothers.

By contrast, the Republican party’s denial of evolution is much older and more grassroots in nature, dating at least to when the national parties traded places during the civil-rights era. The conservative South, in addition to its other charming qualities, has a long history of passing laws hostile to science, from Tennessee’s Butler Act, the 1925 law prohibiting the teaching of evolution that led to the Scopes trial, to Louisiana’s 1981 Balanced Treatment Act, which decreed that “creation science” had to be given an equal share of classroom time.

But while fundamentalists have always been hostile to evolution, the modern creationist movement got its start in the 1960s, primarily due to the influence of an evangelical author named Henry Morris. Morris’ 1964 book The Genesis Flood argued, among other things, that Noah’s flood happened just as the Bible describes it — in other words, it was reasonable to believe that eight people could care for a floating zoo containing at least two members of every species on Earth.

Imagine trying to run the entire Bronx Zoo with just eight employees. Now consider that Noah’s leaky tub, by even the most forgiving estimates, would have to have had far more kinds of animals (including dinosaurs, which creationists believe existed simultaneously with humans, a la the Flintstones). Imagine how much feeding, watering, and manure-carrying that would be. Imagine all this frenetic activity taking place in the cramped, dark, foul-smelling confines of a wooden boat, with predators and prey side-by-side in narrow pens, during the most violent and catastrophic storm in the history of the planet, with an absolute requirement that not a single animal get sick or die. Now try not to laugh too hard at the people who seriously believe all this really happened.

As already mentioned, the creationist movement’s original strategy revolved around getting friendly state legislatures to decree that their ideas had to be taught in public schools, regardless of scientific merit or lack thereof. This strategy hasn’t fared well in court: aside from a Pyrrhic victory in the Scopes trial, judges have repeatedly recognized this for the obvious violation of separation of church and state that it is. And each time they lost, the creationist movement responded the same way: like a snake shedding its skin, they rebranded themselves with a new name, then tried again with the same ideas. “Creation science” became “scientific creationism,” which became “abrupt-appearance theory,” and so on. The currently preferred nomenclature is “intelligent design” (which is totally constitutional and not at all religious, because we’re not saying who we think the intelligent designer is — nudge nudge, wink wink!). But even this watered-down creationism met with defeat in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005, when a judge appointed by George W. Bush handed down a resounding ruling that teaching intelligent design in public school is unconstitutional.

It remains to be seen how they’ll rebrand themselves next, though we can be confident their basic strategy won’t change. One of the most hilarious parts of the Dover case was evidence showing that, after a court ruling which made it illegal to teach creationism in public schools, the authors of a creationist textbook did a find-and-replace to change “creationism” to “intelligent design” and “creationists” to “design proponents.” At one point, someone mistyped and left a transitional fossil in an early draft: a paragraph that referred to “cdesign proponentsists.”

But while creationists keep bumbling on the legal front, they’ve had more success in the cultural arena, by infiltrating the public schools with creationist teachers who flout the law and preach their religious beliefs in class. There are some notable and egregious examples, such as David Paskiewicz, the New Jersey high school teacher who advocated creationism in class, in addition to telling a Muslim student she belonged in hell. There’s also John Freshwater, a creationist science teacher who was fired for breaking school rules about proselytizing in the classroom. Among other things, he allegedly used a Tesla coil to burn a cross onto a student’s arm!

And it’s not just the teachers, either. Creationist churches are training students at all educational levels to refuse to learn about any science their religion rejects, as in this story: 

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.”I refuse to answer,” Bryce wrote. “I don’t believe in this.” 

Although there are different kinds of creationists, the most fervent and most influential are the so-called young-earth creationists, who believe the world and every species on it is about 6,000 years old. The young-earth creationists, or YECs for short, believe the universe was created in seven 24-hour days, that there was a literal Garden of Eden, a literal Adam and Eve, and a literal talking snake just as the Book of Genesis describes.

To anyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with real science, these myths are on the same level as believing in a literal wolf who blew down the houses of literal pigs. Anyone who knows anything about genetics can see the impossibility of a healthy species arising from a single breeding pair. A population starting from such a tiny gene pool just wouldn’t have enough genetic diversity to adapt to environmental changes — not to mention the obvious problem of inbreeding depression, where sex between close relatives results in a far greater likelihood of the offspring inheriting the same rare and harmful mutations from both parents. (For fun, ask a creationist to explain about how they believe the prohibition on incest didn’t apply in the beginning. After all, once Adam and Eve had sons and daughters, where was the next generation of human beings going to come from?)

Likewise, the geologic record shows that the Earth has an enormously long and intricate history. Preserved in the rock record, we see evidence of continents drifting and colliding, thrusting up mountain ranges that are then slowly worn down by erosion; glaciers advancing and retreating, carving and scouring the landscape; sedimentary rock layers slowly built up by eons of deposition, then cut into deep canyons by rivers or metamorphosed by heat and pressure; the same land becoming shallow sea, swamp, forest, plain, desert and back to sea again, as sea levels rise and fall over the ages. This grand tapestry stands in stark contrast to the creationists’ cartoonish view of geology, in which Noah’s flood was the only geological event of significance to happen in the planet’s brief history. Geologists knew well before Charles Darwin that there was no evidence for a global flood, and modern scientists can add the evidence of radiometric dating, which shows the precise ages of ancient rocks and artifacts and proves that they’re far older than the creationist worldview permits.

And then there’s the direct evidence for evolution, in all its sprawling grandeur. We know evolution is true from genetic studies which show that all species share deep similarities at the genetic level. In fact, by charting which species’ genomes share the same one-off mutations, we can build evolutionary trees which show the patterns of relationship between species and allow us to estimate when they branched from each other. This nested hierarchy, the pattern produced by descent with modification, binds all living and extinct species together in an unbreakable web of heredity and kinship, every bit as real as the one that connects you to your ancestors and your living relatives.

We know evolution is true from transitional fossils which preserve snapshots of evolutionary change, such as the bird-like feathered dinosaurs; the therapsids that are intermediate between reptiles and mammals; the primitive whales with legs that are ancestors of today’s cetaceans; and in our own family lineage, the humanlike hominids that show how modern Homo sapiens arose from more ape-like ancestors. (Hilariously, the creationists all agree that there are no transitional fossils and that all fossil hominid species are either fully human or fully ape — but they can’t agree on which is which, exactly as we’d expect from true intermediates.)

We know evolution is true from the kludges, hacks, and jury-rigs we find in the anatomy of living things, including us — evidence not of a wise and forward-looking designer, but of a slow, mindless, tinkering process of change, a “blind watchmaker” as Richard Dawkins famously termed it. From the useless goosebumps we get when cold or frightened, to the backward-wired human retina, to the babies occasionally born with vestigial tails, human bodies bear the indelible stamp of our species’ history.

The creationists are forced to deny all this and much more besides. That’s not a figure of speech: major creationist organizations and religious colleges require their faculty to sign statements promising to reject any evidence that contradicts their worldview. The official statement of faith of the group Answers in Genesis, for example, requires members to affirm that “No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.” And when people affiliated with these groups do express doubt or flirt with unorthodoxy, retribution is invariably swift and harsh.

But as laughable as the creationists’ beliefs are, the creationist movement is no joke. They want to wipe out all the findings of hundreds of years of scientific investigation, erase everything we’ve learned about the vast and majestic history of the universe, and replace it with a cartoon version that grotesquely magnifies our own importance, treating human beings as the crowning glory of creation and diminishing the immensity of the universe to a tiny stage crafted only so that the Bible’s small stories could play out on it.

Why does this matter so much to them? It’s not just an arcane scientific debate: in their minds, only Christianity can produce virtue, and Christianity can be true only if evolution is false. It follows that they believe – and they’ve said that they believe — that evolution underlies every moral problem they see in the world, from drug use to pornography to people voting Democratic. Tom DeLay infamously blamed the Columbine school shootings on the teaching of evolution, stating that “our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup.”

The larger lesson to be drawn from this is that the religious right isn’t just targeting the theory of evolution. By their own words, they can’t be. They believe that a person’s morality is completely determined by their factual beliefs — that being a good person depends on believing the right things about the origin of the universe. And since they believe that all truths worth knowing have already been revealed in the Bible, it follows that science is at best unnecessary and at worst a fatal deception that leads people away from salvation. Why, then, do we need science at all?

To those who hold the creationist worldview, everything has been going downhill since the Enlightenment. The willingness of people to think for themselves, to question authority, to investigate the world for truth – they see all this as a disastrous trend, one that only takes us farther from their ideal vision of a medieval, theocratic state. They seek nothing less than to turn back the clock of progress by several centuries, abolish the rational, reality-based view of the world, and return to the superstitious mindset in which blind faith is the answer to every problem. And, again, these are the people who’ve completely captured one of America’s two major parties. What kind of havoc will result if they gain political power again?

 

What the latest antimatter breakthrough means August 17, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Science and Technology.
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Monday, Aug  8, 2011 17:01 ET

CERN scientists isolated a few of these particles for about 1000 seconds. Here’s why that matters

By David Wroe, GlobalPost

AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus
The globe of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, is illuminated outside Geneva, Switzerland, early morning Tuesday, March 30, 2010.

GENEVA, Switzerland — In the antimatter department at CERN, the world’s biggest science facility, a picture hangs on the wall showing the filmmaker Ron Howard surrounded by beaming scientists.

Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown novel Angels & Demons centers around a secret society that steals a small quantity of antimatter from CERN and hides it in the Vatican.

The book and the film’s scientific accuracy was limited to the convenient plot point that, when brought together, antimatter and matter annihilate one another in a terrific burst of energy, just enough, in this case, to wipe out Vatican City.

Now to reality: scientists at CERN announced recently that they had managed to create, isolate and hold a small quantity of antimatter for over 16 minutes — the longest by far that had been achieved.

So far so frightening? Not exactly. The Vatican can rest easy, explains Joel Fajans, a physicist from the ALPHA project, which made the breakthrough. There are fundamental reasons why an antimatter bomb will never be made.

The purpose of creating and holding antimatter, rather, is to study this strange twin of matter in the hope of solving one of the great riddles surrounding the creation of the universe — and thereby explain why we are here at all.

Basic laws of physics postulate that matter and antimatter should have been created in equal quantities in the Big Bang and gone on to cancelled each other out, leaving behind only energy. That means no stars, no planets, no people.

Instead, for reasons physicists can only guess at, matter gained a slight advantage over antimatter in the fiery moments after the Big Bang. A fraction of a percent of matter survived the mutual destruction and went on to form the galaxies, stars and planets.

But why should nature be so arbitrary as to choose one over the other? Why are we here at all? And, given that we are, why are we not made of antimatter instead?

“People are confounded by this. The question of what happened to antimatter is one of the grand challenges of physics,” Fajans told a GlobalPost reporter on a visit to CERN, located just outside Geneva near Switzerland’s border with France. “It is astounding, and it’s also embarrassing, that no one knows why this is the case.

“Matter and antimatter annihilate one another … We shouldn’t be here. But we are here. There is clearly an excess of matter … which means something is likely wrong with the theory of the Big Bang.”

The laws of physics say that matter and antimatter are exactly the same, only with reversed charges. Matter, which makes up everything around us, contains positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. Antimatter contains the opposite, negatively charged protons (called anti-protons) and positive electrons (called positrons.)

Other than that, they should be the same, at least theoretically. If the ALPHA team’s investigations prove that they are actually different, antimatter will be in violation of one of physics’ most cherished laws, the charge, parity and time, or CPT, theorem.

CPT basically says that processes in physics should turn out the same even when you flip the charges, turn everything inside out and run it backwards. Put another way, CPT gives the universe a nice, harmonious symmetry. If antimatter contradicts it, other theories may unravel.

“As soon as you open a little crack, your imagination and ability to discover can run wild. Any difference will open up possibilities.

“It would show that there is some bigger, as yet unknown, set of laws. It would truly be the proverbial Big Deal.”

Fajans, an animated 53-year-old MIT graduate and tenured professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spends about half of his time at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. His workplace is a massive warehouse in the middle of which sits a bewildering array of machinery. It is here that Fajans and the ALPHA team managed to trap 309 anti-hydrogen atoms for up to 1,000 seconds, or just over 16 minutes, an achievement they announced in June’s edition of Nature Physics.

People have been creating antimatter for decades. Indeed it occurs naturally, albeit rarely. If you eat a banana, for instance, some of the potassium will emit positrons as it decays in your body. Sodium also emits positrons and, by combining these with antiprotons created in a CERN particle accelerator (and then slowed down in a proton decelerator), they can make anti-hydrogen atoms.

Last year, the ALPHA team became the first scientists to trap anti-hydrogen, though only for a split second. Even this was a remarkable feat given antimatter is instantly annihilated when it touches anything, even air.

“Basically we had to make a bottle with no sides,” Fajans explained, referring to the web of magnetic and electric beams that held the atoms in suspension in a perfect vacuum.

By trapping anti-hydrogen for 16 minutes, the scientists are getting closer to being able to hold it in a state of calm and actually study it closely.

One method is to look at the effects of gravity. There is a theory, albeit an unlikely one, that antimatter will “fall upwards.” But first the ALPHA collaboration will look at the spectral qualities of antimatter — that is, does it glow the same color as ordinary matter when blasted by microwaves or light? This might reveal differences in the basic structure of antimatter.

Sadly none of this will provide an unlimited energy source of the kind that drives the Enterprise in Star Trek nor, happily, the kind that makes the bomb in Angels & Demons. The energy economics are unfeasible, Fajans explains. It takes far more energy to create antimatter than we can ever get out of it — a fact of physics that won’t change.

On the bright side, positrons are already used in medical diagnostics, in positron emission tomography, known as PET scans. Antimatter might also prove useful in the treatment of cancer by annihilating tumors without damaging surrounding tissue.

But most of the work is being done in the name of pure discovery. Fajans expects it will take another five to ten years before scientists have solid answers about antimatter, though he and his team plan to start experimenting on it this year.

As it happens, he is cautious about the prospects of finding anything unusual. The current laws of physics are built on a very solid foundation and revolutions don’t come that often.

But physics is by nature iconoclastic. Take the neighbouring Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most famous scientific experiment, which is hunting for the Higgs Boson, the so-called God Particle (a term physicists, not surprisingly, loathe.) Physicists need the Higgs Boson to exist in order to confirm their overarching theories. But it would be more interesting if it turned out not to exist, Fajans said.

“The fun starts when theories are broken,” he said, somewhat mischievously. “The LHC is on a campaign to find the Higgs Boson. They’ll probably find it, but it would be much more interesting if they didn’t.”

Is Climate Science Disinformation a Crime Against Humanity? November 3, 2010

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Published on Wednesday, November 3, 2010 by The Guardian/UK

Deeply irresponsible corporate-sponsored programmes of disinformation have potentially harsh effects upon tens of millions of people

by Donald Brown

Although there is an important role for scepticism in science, for almost 30 years some corporations have supported a disinformation campaign about climate change science.

While it may be reasonable to be somewhat sceptical about climate change models, these untruths are not based upon reasonable scepticism but outright falsification and distortions of climate change science.

These claims have included assertions that the science of climate change has been completely “debunked” and that there is no evidence of human causation of recent observed warming. There are numerous lines of evidence that point to human causation even if it is not a completely settled matter. Reasonable scepticism cannot claim that there is no evidence of causation and some other claims frequently being made by the well-financed climate change disinformation campaign, and they amount to an utter distortion of a body of evidence that the world needs to understand to protect itself from huge potential harms.

On 21 October, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times, reported that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it”.

According the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has “created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global warming studies, paid for rallies and websites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”

Disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily – if not criminally – irresponsible, because the consensus scientific view is based upon strong evidence that climate change:

• Is already being experienced by tens of thousands in the world;

• Will be experienced in the future by millions of people from greenhouse gas emissions that have already been emitted but not yet felt due to lags in the climate system; and,

• Will increase dramatically in the future unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced from existing global emissions levels.

Threats from climate change include deaths and danger from droughts, floods, heat, storm-related damages, rising oceans, heat impacts on agriculture, loss of animals that are dependent upon for substance purposes, social disputes caused by diminishing resources, sickness from a variety of diseases, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, the inability to use property that people depend upon to conduct their life including houses or sleds in cold places, the destruction of water supplies, and the inability to live where has lived to sustain life. The very existence of some small island nations is threatened by climate change.

As long as there is any chance that climate change could create this type of destruction, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that these dangers are not yet fully proven, disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily morally reprehensible if it leads to non-action in reducing climate change’s threat. In fact, how to deal with uncertainty in climate change science is an ethical issue, not only a scientific matter, because the consequences of delay could be so severe and the poorest people in the world as some of the most vulnerable.

The corporations that have funded the sowing of doubt on this issue are clearly doing this because they see greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies as adversely affecting their financial interests.

This might be understood as a new type of crime against humanity. Scepticism in science is not bad, but sceptics must play by the rules of science including publishing their conclusions in peer-reviewed scientific journals and not make claims that are not substantiated by the peer-reviewed literature. The need for responsible scepticism is particularly urgent if misinformation from sceptics could lead to great harm.

We may not have a word for this type of crime yet, but the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity.

© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited

Donald Brown is associate professor in environmental ethics, science and law at Penn State University. The full version of this article was first published on the Penn State website.
Published on Wednesday, November 3, 2010 by The Guardian/UK

Barack Obama’s Green Agenda Crushed at the Ballot Box

With a slew of new climate change deniers entering Congress, Barack Obama’s environmental ambitions are now dead

by Suzanne Goldenberg

Californians decisively rejected a measure to roll back the state’s landmark climate change law yesterday, the sole win for environmentalists on a night that crushed Barack Obama‘s green agenda.With that lone victory in California, environmentalists managed to keep alive a model for action on climate change, preserving a 2006 law that had set ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reductions and had attracted tens of millions in clean-tech investment.

[Many new members of Congress are at best sceptical on climate change, and Republican promises to reduce the role of government could spell the end for progressive energy legislation and could herald a new era of environmental deregulation. (AFP/Steen Ulrik Johannessen) ]Many new members of Congress are at best sceptical on climate change, and Republican promises to reduce the role of government could spell the end for progressive energy legislation and could herald a new era of environmental deregulation. (AFP/Steen Ulrik Johannessen)

But many new members of Congress are at best sceptical on climate change, and Republican promises to reduce the role of government could spell the end for progressive energy legislation and could herald a new era of environmental deregulation. 

In California though, there was celebration at the overwhelming defeat of Proposition 23 by a broad climate change coalition that ranged from the outgoing Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists to environmental groups.

With 95% of precincts reporting, some 61% of Californians voted against a measure brought by Texas oil refiners, Tesoro and Valero, and the oil billionaire Koch brothers that would indefinitely halt a 2006 law mandating ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are beating Texas again,” Schwarzenegger told supporters at an election night party.

“Even though they spent millions and millions of dollars, today the people will make up their mind and speak loud and clear that California’s environment is not for sale.”

It was the first time voters had been asked directly for a verdict on a climate and energy plan.

Had the ballot measure passed, it would have scuppered the chances of other states following California’s lead.

But it was an expensive win, with opponents of Proposition 23 spending $31m to assure its defeat. The oil companies put up more than $10.

And the coalition, with their intense focus on Proposition 23, failed to anticipate its evil twin: Proposition 26, which will also hinder action on climate change. The measure, backed by Chevron, requires a two-thirds majority before imposing new taxes or fees. It gathered 54% support, blocking government efforts to get industry to pay for pollution.

In Washington, there was only devastation. 2010 is shaping up to be one of the warmest years on record, but that is unlikely to weigh heavily on the minds of many of the Republican newcomers to Congress.

Obama in interviews on the evening of the elections, admitted there was no change of sweeping climate and energy legislation in the remaining two years of his term. He said he hoped to find compromise on “bite-sized” measures, such as encouraging energy efficiency or the use of wind and solar power.

A cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions was the sleeper issue in the mid-term elections, a galvanising force for Tea Party activists. It saw the defeat of a handful of Democrats from conservative states who voted for last year’s climate change bill – such as Tom Perriello and Richard Boucher, in Virginia.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it, cap-and-trade was the issue in the campaign,” Boucher’s former chief of staff, Andy Wright, told Politico. “If Rick had voted no, he wouldn’t have had a serious contest.”

It also installed a heavy contingent of conservatives hostile to the very notion of global warming in Congress – and solidified the opposition of establishment figures to co-operation with Democrats on energy legislation.

The new speaker of the House, John Boehner, once said: “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical.” Vicky Hartzler, who took out the 34-year veteran Ike Skelton in Missouri, has called global warming a hoax.

A number of the victorious Tea Party candidates in the Senate, including Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida have said they do not believe in man-made climate change.

Some of the surviving Democrats are just as opposed. Joe Manchin won his Senate seat in West Virginia by, literally, shooting his rifle at Obama’s climate agenda.

In her election night stint as a Fox news commentator, Sarah Palin singled out the Environmental Protection Agency as an example of big and wasteful government. The Republican leadership has signalled they it is opposed to a whole array of EPA regulations, including those on ozone and mercury. The EPA is seen as a fallback route for the Obama administration to deal with the regulation of greenhouse gases after the US senate dropped its climate bill in the summer.

The new crop of Republican leaders in the house are way ahead of Palin, with plans for sweeping investigations of climate science and of Obama administration officials such as Lisa Jackson, who heads the EPA.

As far as the leaders are concerned, the science of climate change is far from settled. “We’re going to want to have a do-over,” Darrell Issa, a favourite to head the house oversight and investigations committee, told a recent interviewer.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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