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A new species?

No, I’m not proposing homo birtherus, even though sapiens does sound like a counterintuitive label for this bunch. I think that just as chimps and humans share most of the same DNA, birthers are not all that different from the rest of us, varying only in the orientation of their biases, and in the degree that they exhibit some errors in thinking common to us all.

Street scene showing Lymanfest vendorsThe local village festival, Lymanfest, was held yesterday and for the first time I was in town and able to attend. At such events various groups set up tents and distribute literature. We stopped by one that looked civic minded, but I soon found myself confronted with a climate change denialist. This is not a topic I know a lot about (invoking the Dunning-Kruger effect, I probably know more than I think) and I’m not prepared to go head to head on the street against a practiced partisan without my friend Google to back me up. I said I had seen retreating glaciers in the Andes, and he said the amount of ice in the world was increasing (it isn’t). I moved on.

Previously I mentioned the idea that if someone believes that the government always lies to them, then they will believe anything. Reflecting on my Lymanfest experience, I thought about another excuse to abandon reason: technical complexity. I’m not a climatologist, and neither are most of us. I cannot get deeply into the weeds of the climate change debate. I’m afraid that when some people confront technical complexity that is beyond their training and ability, they take that as a license to believe whatever they want.

This error in thinking is something that I’m not immune to. As for climate change, I have watched the Cosmos documentary episode, “The World Set Free” and was able to follow its argument in favor of climate change. I’ve read NOAA web pages on the topic. I think I’ve been a reasonably responsible thinker on the topic. Still PBS documentaries are part of my automatic comfort zone and my bias. (As I wrote that last bit I was reminded of an article I wrote way back in 1997, “A FAQ about Facts.” I’ve worried about my own bias for along time.) I believe, although I can’t provide any evidence in support, that at least being aware of the errors in thinking we make leads us to make fewer errors.

Readers might, as a diversion, come up with their own proposals for a genus and species for birthers.

28 Responses to A new species?

  1. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy May 17, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

    Australopithecus gullibilis?

  2. avatar
    Pete May 17, 2015 at 11:44 pm #

    I’m afraid that when some people confront technical complexity that is beyond their training and ability, they take that as a license to believe whatever they want.

    Very obvious in birthers’ belief that Obama’s birth certificate PDF indicates a “forgery.”

    And it’s reinforced by “social proof” and appeals to (false) authority — “Other birthers also believe this, and Shurf Joke says it’s definitely a forgery, and he’s a REEL INVESTIMIGATOR. Therefore, it’s 110% !!!!!! True!(TM)”

  3. avatar
    Pete May 17, 2015 at 11:50 pm #

    Dr. Conspiracy:
    Australopithecus gullibilis?

    Homo deceptus credulus.

  4. avatar
    Andrew Vrba, PmG May 18, 2015 at 12:48 am #

    Lymanfest. Isn’t that the festival where people celebrate Odie’s original owner, who mysteriously vanished some time in the 1970s?

  5. avatar
    Benji Franklin May 18, 2015 at 1:28 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy: Australopithecus gullibilis?

    Lunaticabyss infectus

  6. avatar
    bgansel9 May 18, 2015 at 1:34 am #

    Intellectus Rescindo

  7. avatar
    Lupin May 18, 2015 at 2:06 am #

    The anti-science bias in the US’s general population is something that puzzles a great many of us on the other side of the pond. It certainly wasn’t so during the 60s and 70s.

  8. avatar
    J.D. Sue May 18, 2015 at 3:09 am #

    homo degeneratus

  9. avatar
    Keith May 18, 2015 at 3:10 am #

    First a couple of primers on AGW that can help you sort the wheat from the chaff:

    Climate change: A guide for the perplexed (Includes a link to the very good article : “Climate myths: Assessing the evidence” and “Climate myths special : history of Climate Science”) and Explaining climate change science & rebutting global warming misinformation

    Honestly, I know next to nothing either, but it really isn’t difficult to understand the fundamentals.

    As for a scientific name, I reckon we first have to determine whether or not they really are a new species.

    Dr. Wikipedia says:
    A species is often defined as the largest group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, the difficulty of defining species is known as the species problem. Differing measures are often used, such as similarity of DNA, morphology, or ecological niche. Presence of specific locally adapted traits may further subdivide species into “infraspecific taxa” such as subspecies (and in botany other taxa are used, such as varieties, subvarieties, and formae)…

    A usable definition of the word “species” and reliable methods of identifying particular species is essential for stating and testing biological theories and for measuring biodiversity. Traditionally, multiple examples of a proposed species must be studied for unifying characters before it can be regarded as a species.

    Some biologists may view species as statistical phenomena, as opposed to the traditional idea, with a species seen as a class of organisms. In that case, a species is defined as a separately evolving lineage that forms a single gene pool. Although properties such as DNA-sequences and morphology are used to help separate closely related lineages, this definition has fuzzy boundaries. However, the exact definition of the term “species” is still controversial, particularly in prokaryotes, and this is called the species problem. Biologists have proposed a range of more precise definitions, but the definition used is a pragmatic choice that depends on the particularities of the species of concern…

    It is surprisingly difficult to define the word “species” in a way that applies to all naturally occurring organisms,[21] and the debate among biologists about how to define “species” and how to identify actual species is called the species problem. Over two dozen distinct definitions of “species” are in use amongst biologists.[22][better source needed]

    This problem dates as early as to the writings of Charles Darwin. While Darwin wrote the following in On the Origin of Species, Chapter II:

    “No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species. Generally the term includes the unknown element of a distinct act of creation.”

    Most modern textbooks follow Ernst Mayr’s definition, known as the Biological Species Concept (BSC) of a species as “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups”. It has been argued that this definition of species is not only a useful formulation, but is also a natural consequence of the effect of sexual reproduction on the dynamics of natural selection.

    Various parts of this definition serve to exclude some unusual or artificial matings:

    * Those that as a result of deliberate human action, or occur only in captivity (when the animal’s normal mating partners may not be available)
    * Those that involve animals that may be physically and physiologically capable of mating but, for various reasons, do not normally do so in the wild.

    With that said, I think it is reasonable to look for a new species name for the birthers because the two proposed groups are:

    * potentially interbreeding (physically and physiologically capable), and
    * reproductively isolated from other such groups (we have examples reported in this blog that families are torn apart on this subject and who would breed with a lunatic if they could help it?)

    Sure they could breed under artificial circumstances for example, if held in captivity (notice that the USA has the highest prison population in the world, and many of the birthers seem to want to bring back human bondage for some folk), but basically they do not normally do so in the wild.

    I don’t think there is any justification for a new Genus however.

    So suggestions for the new species:

    * Homo Devo(lved)
    * Homo Assininius
    * Homo Regressive
    * Homo Struthiocamulus (after the Ostrich)
    * Homo Ouroboros

  10. avatar
    Keith May 18, 2015 at 3:18 am #

    hmmm, formatting defeated me on the above post. Great swathes of it are cut and paste from Dr. Wikipedia and there is no way to distinguish it from my words. My bad.

  11. avatar
    RanTalbott May 18, 2015 at 3:32 am #

    Lupin: It certainly wasn’t so during the 60s and 70s.

    It wasn’t the same, but it was around. You could almost do a simple word search-and-replace in many of the anti-climate-science arguments made today, and get a good match to the ones made about acid rain and other environmental issues of the 60s and 70s. And probably also to the debate about burning coal in London long before that.

    People have always resisted science when it tells them they need to make difficult changes for benefits that are not fairly clear and relatively short term. It’s worse today partly because we’ve become spoiled by the easy life we have in the industrialized world. We expect everything to be solved by the end of the hour when they roll the credits.

    Another factor is how much more complex, and less understandable to the average person, science and technology have become. My grandparents grew up in a world where you could fix almost anything in everyday home use with a small box of hand tools, and amateurs were making significant advances in science and technology in their home labs. My father built our family’s first hifi, as good as the state of the art in mass-market equipment, from scratch. A smart college graduate could at least get the gist of any but the most esoteric bleeding-edge scientific discussions.

    Today, most people can’t even name most of the parts in their everyday technology, much less figure out how to diagnose and repair it. And many PhDs from my generation can’t understand the leading edge concepts in their own fields.

    Arthur C. Clarke posited that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, so it’s once again gotten easier to baffle average people with BS. When “science” says “We’ve got a problem, and it’s going to take a little work and sacrifice to solve it”, but “magic” says “Nothing’s wrong. It’ll take care of itself”, and people can’t tell who’s right, many will resent and suspect the science advocates.

  12. avatar
    RanTalbott May 18, 2015 at 7:31 am #

    Lupin: Of recent interest:

    Obviously, birthers aren’t the only idiots incapable of understanding how grownups do things.

  13. avatar
    bovril May 18, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    I believe I posted my views previously on how Birfers carry many of the attributes of a virus, cancer and parasitic infection, as such giving them a genus of their own lauds them too highly…. 😎

  14. avatar
    Curious George May 18, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Ran Talbott:

    “My father built our family’s first hifi, as good as the state of the art in mass-market equipment, from scratch.”

    My dad did the same thing in 1968, and the system still works in 2015!

  15. avatar
    Randall Morrison May 18, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    I think Homo Ignoramus works nicely. That’s my lurker contribution for 2015.

  16. avatar
    The Magic M (not logged in) May 18, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy: Australopithecus gullibilis?

    Birther: “Homo sapiens? I ain’t no steenking homo!”

  17. avatar
    RanTalbott May 18, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    Homo impervius? It’s real Latin, and a cognate that even some birfers might get. As a free bonus, some of the ones who don’t get it will try for a spelling flame that can be rebuked with a pithy “You just proved my point” 😈

  18. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy May 18, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    Leading to homo phobus.

    The Magic M (not logged in): Birther: “Homo sapiens? I ain’t no steenking homo!”

  19. avatar
    RanTalbott May 18, 2015 at 10:51 am #

    Dr. Conspiracy: Leading to homo phobus.

    Try that one on Bird Boy, and see whether he moons you.

  20. avatar
    donna May 18, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    The Conservative Case for Taxing Carbon Pollution

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/05/inglis-jfk-carbon-tax

  21. avatar
    Bob May 18, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    Troglodytes

  22. avatar
    Keith May 18, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    The Magic M (not logged in): Birther: “Homo sapiens? I ain’t no steenking homo!”

    Well they ain’t Australians either. 😎

  23. avatar
    Slartibartfast May 18, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    I had the equations describing your viral theory on a white board in my old apartment. I think birtherism has a strange epidemiology. It is the next best thing to incurable, but it can easily be inoculated against and the pool of those susceptible to infection is small so it isn’t very virulent. In other words, it’s probably an evolutionary dead end.

    As for climate change, I think the problem is the politicization of science—both by those with a vested interest in the result funding research in a biased way or by those who try to repudiate peer-reviewed research by falsely claiming political bias.

    bovril:
    I believe I posted my views previously on how Birfers carry many of the attributes of a virus, cancer and parasitic infection, as such giving them a genus of their own lauds them too highly….

  24. avatar
    Pete May 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

    I propose that there are a couple of different sub-species of birthers.

    First, we have flimflamicus griftericus, the more flamboyant of the species.

    After that, we have lunaticus batcrapicus, the purest and most intense variety (I’m sure we can all think of a birther or two of this species).

    And finally, dumwiticus gullibilis, also known as the Common Birther.

    It seems to me that dumwiticus gullibilis is the species most often sighted in these parts. The other two varieties tend to be a bit skittish, although flimflamicus griftericus can be extremely flamboyant and vocal if it perceives it’s in a hospitable environment.

    Lunaticus batcrapicus can also be very vocal, with a cry that sounds oddly like, “Let me feeeeeenisssh!”

  25. avatar
    Keith May 19, 2015 at 1:50 am #

    Slartibartfast: As for climate change, I think the problem is the politicization of science—both by those with a vested interest in the result funding research in a biased way or by those who try to repudiate peer-reviewed research by falsely claiming political bias.

    I urge you to check out Merchants of Doubt by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. (book and film) (link is a google search)

    From Dr. Wikipedia:


    Oreskes and Conway write that a handful of politically conservative scientists, with strong ties to particular industries, have “played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions”.[5] The authors write that this has resulted in “deliberate obfuscation” of the issues which has had an influence on public opinion and policy-making.

    The book criticizes the so-called Merchants of Doubt, some predominantly American science key players, above all Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. All three are physicists: Singer was a rocket scientist, whereas Nierenberg and Seitz worked on the atomic bomb. They have been active on topics like acid rain, tobacco smoking, global warming and pesticides. The book claims that these scientists have challenged and diluted the scientific consensus in the various fields, as of the dangers of smoking, the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, and the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Seitz and Singer helped to form institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Marshall Institute in the United States. Funded by corporations and conservative foundations, these organizations have opposed many forms of state intervention or regulation of U.S. citizens. The book lists similar tactics in each case: “discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt”…

    The main conclusion of the book is that there would have been more progress in policymaking, if not for the influence of the contrarian experts, which tried on ideological reasons to undermine trust in the science base for regulation. Similar conclusion were already drawn, among others on Frederick Seitz and William Nierenberg in the book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (2010) by Australian academic Clive Hamilton.

    I would posit that the tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry have been adopted by every conservative and reactionary ‘movement’ since for the purpose of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about science, education, and every concept they think might be tainted by liberalism or progressivism what-so-ever; in other words, a threat to the privileged oligarchy they have in mind to strengthen.

  26. avatar
    Lupin May 19, 2015 at 2:09 am #

    Keith: I would posit that the tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry have been adopted by every conservative and reactionary ‘movement’ since for the purpose of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about science, education, and every concept they think might be tainted by liberalism or progressivism what-so-ever; in other words, a threat to the privileged oligarchy they have in mind to strengthen.

    I could not agree more!

  27. avatar
    The Magic M (not logged in) May 19, 2015 at 5:05 am #

    Keith: I would posit that the tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry have been adopted by every conservative and reactionary ‘movement’ since for the purpose of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about science, education

    And they only took from the older playbook invented by religion. “Scientists are evil libruls” is just a modification of “scientists are evil atheists”.