Scientists Speak A Different Language

There is a considerable amount of intentional distortion of science by the right wing on issues such as evolution and climate change, but part of  public misunderstanding of science is due to the way in which scientists use words different from the general population. One frequently seen example is when people misunderstand how the word theory is used in science. While the theory of evolution is well established science, some believe that a theory is little more than a guess or hunch.

The New Scientist shows that similar confusion over language is contributing to public misunderstanding of climate change. Use of certain words and phrases gives the public the impression that scientists are less certain about their predictions and findings than they actually are. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) adopted seven verbal expressions of certainty:

• “Virtually certain” (considered more than 99% likely to be correct)

• “Very likely” (more than 90%)

• “Likely” (more than 66%)

• “More likely than not” (more than 50%)

• “Unlikely” (less than 33%)

• “Very unlikely” (less than 10%)

• “Exceptionally unlikely” (less than 5%)

These expressions trickled down from the literature into coverage of their findings, but the general public interpreted these expressions differently:

Participants tended to underestimate the certainty of the sentences. Three quarters of respondents thought “very likely” meant less than 90% certain, and nearly half thought “very likely” meant less than 66% certain.

They found that public understanding was better if a legend was available. Use of these actual numbers along with the expressions should help readers better understand the degree of certainty which the author indicated.

Right Wing Smears Against Cass Sunstein on Animal Rights

Earlier today I received an anonymous comment which claims Cass Sunstein has a secret animal rights agenda. Being an anonymous comment without any links to back up its claims the comment did not get past moderation but I ultimately decided to do a little checking on this. It turns out that the comment, as is frequently the case in situations like this, was cut and pasted word for word from  a right wing site,  The Center for Consumer Freedom.

The title gives them quite a bit of artistic license with the truth: OPINION: Cass Sunstein has Secret Animal Rights Agenda. By calling this a secret agenda they can make their claims without basing it on what Sunstein has actually written on the subject.

Their arguments have the look a typical right wing smear as they distort what I have read of Sunstein’s views on animal rights. Sunstein does support rational measures against animal cruelty but they twist ideas which are hardly radical to make them sound outright bizarre. In order to encourage more vigorous enforcement  of current laws he would allow interested parties to file suit on behalf of animals when current laws are being violated. They twist this to sound like he envisions animals bringing suit themselves with humans acting as mere representatives in court.

Another frequent tactic in this article is to claim that Sunstein calls for banning a number of uses of animals he has never advocated banning. Of course this is billed as their opinion of his secret agenda, so it cannot be dis proven by review of his actual writings. In some cases Sunstein has suggested that unless conditions can be made to reduce animal suffering that the act be banned. In such cases they claim Sunstein outright supporting banning the activity. Having actually read Sunstein’s works, my impression is that his “secret agenda” is actually to nudge people into changing actions to bring about decreased suffering by animals, using the possibility of banning as a last resort.

Perhaps his most important argument is in favor of disclosure of animal conditions. For example, he supports disclosure of the treatment of animals and how each food product is made. Again this is intended as a nudge to promote better treatment of animals. The Center for Consumer Freedom distorts this to claim he would ban eating meat. Actually, while he might hope to see less use of animals for food, he has written “a legal ban on meat-eating would be extremely radical, and like prohibition, it would undoubtedly create black markets and have a set of bad, and huge, side-effects. ”

As in most of the right wing smears floating around against many of Obama’s appointees, this is written with the premise that the views of any appointee will result in changes in government policy to reflect their views. Any one appointee, regardless of the position, has limited influence on overall government policy. Policy in the Executive Branch is ultimately up to Obama, who has chosen advisers with a wide variety of views to advise him. While it might not have seemed this way in the Bush years, policies of the Executive Branch also face checks and balances from the other branches of government. Sunstein’s views are hardly as radical as this group claims, and his views on animal rights are unlikely to even have a significant impact. Sunstein’s appointment will not lead to the government stopping you from hunting or eating meat. These claims are no more credible than past Republican claims that the Democrats will take away everyone’s guns and bibles.