Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kary Mullis, Global Warming, Deicide Bombing: A Parable of Inducing Opinion Reconsideration

This post likened atheism to a product for sale in the marketplace of belief systems, and the analogy was helpful to a certain extent. But lately I've been thinking that "marketing" is the wrong approach. Marketing is the kind of thing that induces people to raise their guard. In the end, most people's purchasing decisions are guided by factors other than the products' marketing.

What I've really been searching for is a way to make people change their minds; I've been trying to understand the process by which people adopt beliefs. And I think I've figured out a way to reverse, or at least combat, the indoctrination tactics used by organized religion, thanks to a recent experience in which I was prompted to doubt one of my own beliefs.

One of my first posts on this blog was about global warming, and the philosophical meat of it was essentially that scientists as a whole have too much at stake to ever engage in a wilful conspiracy, which is what global warming skeptics accuse them of. But my faith in this belief was weakened recently by a TED video, Nobel Prize-winner Kary Mullis talking about the nature of science. Mullis was speaking extemporaneously, so be prepared for some false starts and improvisatory sentence structures; I've transcribed a large section of the talk here, but emphasized the important parts via italics and larger font size:

Naturally honest, and naturally inquisitive, and that sort of leads to that kind of science. All scientists aren't like that, you know? A lot's been going on since Isaac Newton and all that stuff happened. One of the things that happened right around World War II, government realized, look scientists aren't strange dudes that hide in ivory towers and do ridiculous things with test tubes, scientists made WWII as we know it quite possible. They made faster things, they made bigger guns to shoot 'em down with, they made drugs to give the pilots if they were broken up in the process, they made all kinds of ... one giant bomb to end the whole thing. And everybody stepped back a little and said, you know, we ought to invest in this shit. Because whoever has got the most of these people working in the best places is going to have a dominant position at least in the military and probably in all kind of economic ways and they got involved in it, and the scientific-industrial establishment was born, and out of that came a lot of scientists who were in there for the money, because it was suddenly available. And they weren't the curious little boys that liked to put frogs up in the air, they were the same people that later went into medical school, yknow, because there was money in it, and then they all got into business. I mean, there're waves of going in to your high school [guidance] person [who] says "Wanna be rich? Be a scientist." Not anymore; you wanna be rich [now], you be a businessman. But a lot of people got in it for the money, and the power, and the travel. . . . Those people don't always tell you the truth. There is nothing in their contract, in fact, that makes it to their advantage always to tell you the truth. The people I'm talking about are . . . . the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And they have these big meetings where they try to figure out, how are we gonna continually prove that the planet is getting warmer? When that's actually contrary to most people's sensations. If you actually measure the temperature over a period, i mean the temperature's been measured pretty carefully for about fifty sixty years longer than that but in really nice precise ways and records have been kept for fifty or sixty years and in fact the temperature hasn't really gone up. The average temperature has gone up a tiny little bit because the nighttime temperatures at weather stations have come up just a little bit. But there's a good explanation for that. The weather stations are all built outside of town where the airport was, and now the town's moved out there, there's concrete all around, and they call it the "skyline effect," and most responsible people who measure temperatures realize you have to shield your measuring device from that and even then -- you know, because the buildings get warm in the daytime and they keep it a little warmer at night. So the temperature has been sort of inching up, it should have been, but not a lot. Not like -- you know, the first guy who got the idea that we were gonna fry ourselves, he didn't think of it that way, his name was Svarnte Arhenius, he was Swedish, and he said, if you double the CO2 level in the atmosphere -- this was in 1900 -- the temperature ought to go up about 5.5 degrees. He was thinking the earth is kinda like a completely insulated thing with no stuff in it, just energy comin' down, energy leaving. He came up with this theory, and he said, this'll be cool, because it'll mean a longer growing season in Sweden. And the surfers thought it was a cool idea. But a lot of other people later on started thinking it would be bad. But nobody actually demonstrated it. The temperature as measured -- and you can find this on our wonderful internet, just look for all NASA's records and all the weather bureau's records, and to look at it yourself and see -- the temperature has just -- the nighttime temperature measured on the surface of the planet has gone up a tiny little bit, so if you just average that with the daytime temperature it looks like it went up about 0.7 degrees in this century, but in fact. . . the daytime temperatures DIDN'T go up. And Arhenius's theory, along with all the global warmers, they would say, yeah, it should go up in the daytime too, if it's a greenhouse effect. Now, people like things that have names that they can envision, but people don't... get all excited about things like the actual evidence: "Evidence for Strengthening of the Tropical Circulation in the 1990s" [or] a paper that came out in February, "Evidence for Large Decadal Variability In the Tropical Mean Radiative Energy Budget." Those papers were published by NASA and some scientists at Columbia . . . and those two papers were published in Science magazine, February the 1st, and the conclusion in both of these papers. . . is that our theories about global warming are completely wrong. What these guys were doing, and NASA people have been saying this for a long time, that if you measure the temperature of the atmosphere, it isn't going up. It's not going up at all. We've been doing it very carefully for the last twenty years, from satellites, and it isn't going up. And, in this paper, they showed something much more striking. They did what they call a radiation -- I'm not gonna go into details of it, actually it's quite complicated, but it isn't as complicated as they might make you think it is by the words they use in those papers. If you really get down to it, they say, the sun puts out a certain amount of energy, we know how much that is, it falls on the earth, the earth gives back a certain amount, when it gets warm, it generates redder energy, like infrared. The whole business of the global warming trash, really, is that if there's too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the heat that's trying to escape wont be able to get out, but the heat that's coming from the sun, which is mostly down in the 350nm [range] is where it's centered, that goes right through CO2, so you still get heated but you don't dissipate any. Well these guys measured all those things. I mean, you can talk about that stuff and you can write these large reports and you can get government money to do it, but these guys actually measured it and it turns out that in the last ten years -- that's why [the paper] say[s] "decadal" there -- the level of what they call "imbalance" has been way the hell over what was expected. The amount of imabalance -- meaning heat's coming in and not going out -- that you would get from having double the CO2, which -- we're not anywhere near that, by the way, but if we did, in 2025 or something have double the CO2 we had in 1900 -- they say it would increase the energy budget by about -- in other words, one watt per square centimeter more would be coming in than going out, so the planet should get warmer. Well, they found out in this study -- these two studies, by two different teams -- that five and a half watts per square [centi]meter have been coming in, 1998, 1999, and the place didn't get warmer, so the theory's kaput. These papers should've been called "The End to the Global Warming Fiasco." But they're concerned, you can tell they have very guarded conclusions in these papers because they're talking about big laboratories that are funded by lots of money and by scared people. If they said, you know what, there isn't a problem with global warming any longer, so we can -- y'know, if you start a grant request with something like "global warming hadn't actually happened." They have to be very cautious, but what I'm saying is, YOU can be delighted, because the editor of "Science" who is no dummy, and both of these really professional teams, have come to the same conclusion and the bottom lines in their papers they have to say, what this means is, what we've been thinking, the global circulation model that would predict that the earth is going get overheated is all wrong. It's wrong by a large factor, not by a small one. There's obviously some mechanisms going on that nobody knew about, because the heat's coming in and it isn't getting warmer. . . . Some science is done for other reasons than just curiosity, and there's a lot of things like global warming and ozone hole and a whole bunch of scientific public issues that if you're interested in them, you have to get down into the details and read the papers called "Large Decadal Variability in the Tropic--" you have to figure out what all those words mean, and if you just listen to the guys who are hyping those issues and making a lot of money at it, you'll be misinformed.

When I listen to conservative pundits question the reality of anthropogenic global warming, it's easy for me to dismiss. But when I heard Kary Mullis do it, it was not possible for me to dismiss. Kary Mullis is at least something of an authority -- dude won the Nobel Prize for foundational biochemistry work -- who I also perceive as being in my "group" (TED). Conservative pundits lack authority on the subject and even if they didn't, I don't perceive them as being in my "group." That's just human nature; part of how we adopt ideas is by seeing whether people we look up to endorse them. Even though I know that scientific knowledge can be independently validated by anyone in principle, in practice it is much easier to simply take the word of an agreed-upon expert.

If another agreed-upon expert comes along and contradicts the first, that creates doubt. For beliefs in which the doubter has little invested (like whether one still needs to change a vehicle's oil every 3000 miles), the doubt alone can be enough to dislodge the belief from the doubter's mind. For beliefs in which the doubter has much invested, on the other hand, the doubt has a much longer climb ahead of it. The engines of denial will be working overtime to cope with it through various false strategies -- anger or righteous indignation or passive/aggressive philosophical rationalizing -- so the doubt must be the residue of some especially emotionally impressive event. In my experience there is no more emotionally impressive event than a trusted, even loved, benevolent authority figure flatly declaring, in public, "I was wrong."

At 6:36 in this video the following exchange takes place between Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris:

DAWKINS: Dan Barker's making a collection of clergymen who've lost their faith but don't dare say so because it's their only living -- it's the only thing they know how, what to do.

HARRIS: Yeah. I've heard from one of them, at least.

DAWKINS: Have you?


According to a 2002 article in the UK's Telegraph, as many as one third of British clergy fall into this category. As far as I can tell, such figures are unavailable for American clergy. My guess is that the percentage is lower, but the raw number is higher.

I wonder what would happen if one of these clergymen "came out"? He would lose his job, certainly -- but what would the effects be on individual members of his flock? He is ideally positioned to influence their opinions on this subject: a designated authority on God and spirituality who they perceive as being "on their side" or "in their group." This is the kind of person who marries people, confirms their children, speaks at their parents' funerals, helps them get through dark times, or otherwise forms meaningful bonds with people. Imagine if such a figure were to lay it all on the line in front of 300 followers and say "Look, this is bullshit, wake up." Imagine if his sermon told the story of his own journey from religious believer to atheist, letting them know it's OK to leave it all behind.

That would be quite something. You could almost call it a "conceptual suicide bombing." But it would be even cooler to call it a "deicide bombing."

Al Qaeda and other organizations that rely on real suicide bombing set aside a sizeable portion of their budget to compensate the families of suicide bombers after their martyrdom.

Wouldn't it be great if atheists formed a non-profit that provided economic relief to deicide bombers in the same way Al Qaeda takes care of its suicide bombers' kin?

I'm looking to talk to people in three industries: (a) professional religious orators who have secretly lost their faith and are intimidated by the prospect of switching careers in midlife, (b) people with experience in educational finance, i.e. setting up and/or running scholarship/grant programs, and (c) people with experience in setting up and/or running nonprofits or charities. Eventually, after enough conversations, I'll have a clear idea of what it would take to create a nonprofit organization called Deicide Bombers, Inc. I already have the domain name reserved.

Here's how it would work, at a very high level: a closeted atheist clergyman publicly comes out as an atheist, before his flock, as his final sermon. Volunteers videotape this and upload it to YouTube. The clergyman gets fired, presumably without any kind of severance package. Deicide Bombers, Inc. works with various universities, scholarships, educational grant programs, and other collegiate funding sources to procure a free Ivy League education for this clergyman. Everything would be covered -- tuition, housing, books.

There would be a few details to work out. The clergyman would have to consent to having his tax records during the time he was employed by the church audited by an accountant retained by Deicide Bombers, Inc. This would be to ensure that total compensation is commensurate with the clergyman's original church salary: if there isn't parity here, it will lend the religious opposition credence when they argue that the only reason people are willingly engaging in deicide bombing is for the money.

The Deicide Bombers, Inc. organization would need to come up with some broad guidelines for the clergyman in preparing his coming-out sermon. The sermon must be authentically from the heart -- it must be written in the clergyman's own voice, sharing his or her own journey from "person of faith," through the beginnings of doubt, all the way to atheism. Once both parties sign off on the text of the sermon, a date is set.

The date would be disseminated to a sort of closed-circuit social network of volunteers who would have to be willing to, with at least one week's notice, drive to any random church or other religious building in their area at which one of these deicide bombings was scheduled to occur. These volunteers would converge on the site prior to the worship service and set up video or audio recording devices to make sure there is at least one video documenting the delivery of the coming-out sermon.

Once the "martyrdom" has taken place, the coming-out sermon, all recordings, and all supporting financial and contractual documentation are all uploaded to the web for the public to see -- and the martyr gets set up with a free shot at starting over. An intellectual get-out-of-jail-free card.

Total openness (after the fact) is the key to making this work. Religious authorities will immediately claim that the only reason anyone is agreeing to deicide bombing is for the money. Deicide Bombers, Inc. would need to be able to refute such a claim instantly. It would calibrate its stipend and scholarship packages so that it constitutes a purely lateral move, salary-wise, and publish all the documentation required to prove that. Essentially they would provide the severance package that the clergyman's own church will not, and maybe some scholarship money to help switch careers, but that's it.

So, is there anybody out there who has a clue how to actually get this going? I'd love to pick your brain.