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Cascade of Catastrophes

January 6, 2020

To those who get excited about the changing of digits in the tens place, happy new decade! To those who bristle at the idea that the first “decade” of the Common Era had only nine years in it (there was no “Year 0”), happy new year! To those who don’t care either way, oh look it’s Monday oh well.

I was away last week, and times being what they are, it was a week of Things Getting Worse. But maybe a bit more so.

Lowlights of the past week or so include these gems:

The Trump administration tells its agencies to explicitly ignore the impacts any infrastructure projects might have on climate change.

But it’s not just climate science the Trump administration is ignoring, it’s pretty much all science. Brad Plumer and Coral Davenport report at the Times om how the administration is dismantling science in policymaking across the board:

“When we decapitate the government’s ability to use science in a professional way, that increases the risk that we start making bad decisions, that we start missing new public health risks,” said Wendy E. Wagner, a professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the use of science by policymakers.

“Start” making bad decisions? Lordy, we’re way past “start.”

The Washington Post declares the 2010s the “lost decade” for climate, or as a 15-year-old activist told them, a “decade of disappointment.” (I refer you now to the wisdom of They Might Be Giants who tells us, “If it wasn’t for disappointment/I wouldn’t have any appointments.”) Let us count the ways:

Right now, most aren’t on track to meet even their most modest targets. The world is already about 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was before humans started burning fossil fuels. Global annual emissions have increased 4 percent since the Paris agreement was signed. And the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [. . . ] is the highest in human history.

Meanwhile, improved scientific models found that even 2 degrees of warming — once thought to be a reasonable target — could be practically intolerable in parts of the world. To get on track to achieve a less disastrous 1.5-degree temperature rise, a landmark U.N. report found that nations must nearly halve emissions by 2030.

Paul Krugman says we’re already in the middle of the climate crisis, so much so that we are becoming accustomed to a cascade of catastrophes:

. . . while there’s a lot of randomness in weather outcomes, that randomness actually makes climate change much more damaging in its early stages than most people realize. On our current trajectory, Florida as a whole will eventually be swallowed by the sea, but long before that happens, rising sea levels will make catastrophic storm surges commonplace. Much of India will eventually become uninhabitable, but killing heat waves and droughts will take a deadly toll well before that point is reached.

Put it this way: While it will take generations for the full consequences of climate change to play out, there will be many localized, temporary disasters along the way. Apocalypse will become the new normal — and that’s happening right in front of our eyes.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to play messiah by kicking off a series of “Evangelicals for Trump” rallies. The president assures his fans that “we have God on our side,” adding, as proof, “or there would have been no way we could have won.” So now we know his pet name for Putin.

Anyway, you will not be surprised to know that, according to PRRI, Trump’s approval rating with white evangelicals has remained more or less steadily stratospheric.

Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, writing at the Times, explain what makes the anti-secularist Bill Barr tick:

. . . at least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion. [. . . ] Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

At the Post, Matthew Dallek, of my alma mater the George Washington University School of Political Management, says Trump didn’t usher in the era of conspiracy theories, but is rather its inevitable product:

. . . in truth, the stew of “alternative facts” has been simmering for more than half a century on the right fringe. The GOP had endless opportunities across the decades to banish these theories — about scheming bureaucrats, Jews, the Federal Reserve, the United Nations — and its leaders often saw them as absurd. But they were also useful, helping to rally support from an aggrieved government-hating base. So the party’s mandarins allowed them to fester and grow until they spread from the toxic fringe to the mainstream, which they have finally overtaken. It’s no wonder someone who embraced those ideas would become successful; Trump validates notions that his voters have long believed, ideas that the party refused to condemn and failed to repudiate.

Trump, then, isn’t what caused these conspiracy theories. He’s what happens when nobody stands in their way.

Remember Cardinal McCarrick, who was kicked out of his job for the sexual abuse of children? Seems he liked to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to church officials involved in assessing abuse claims.

According to the AP (in a report that ran in the National Catholic Reporter, to their credit), all those big lists of names of sexual-predator priests are woefully incomplete, as more than 900 additional names have not been put on these lists. And that’s not all!

More than a hundred of the former clergy members not listed by dioceses or religious orders had been charged with sexual crimes, including rape, solicitation and receiving or viewing child pornography.

On top of that, the AP found another nearly 400 priests and clergy members who were accused of abuse while serving in dioceses that have not yet released any names.

Can’t afford health insurance? Don’t worry, you can pay into a nonprofit Christian cost-sharing ministry, which will of course then not pay for anything they don’t want to, because they don’t have to, because they’re not health insurance.

The United Methodist Church is going to break into two different churches. Why is that bad news? Because one faction hates the gays so much that they can’t even be in the same religion with those who would allow for same-sex marriages. Man, you really have to be afraid of gay people for this.

More than 200 Republican Members of Congress have filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court urging them to overturn Roe v. Wade in the current June Medical Services Louisiana abortion case.

Montenegro passes an absurd law saying that any religious groups need to prove that they owned property in the country before 1918. What? Reuters reports:

The pro-Serb Democratic Front (DF) and other critics of the legislation say it is an attempt to promote the small Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognised by other major churches, at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the dominant church in the country of 620,000 people. [. . .] The Church suspects the Montenegrin state of planning to seize its assets, something the government denies. Djukanovic has accused the Church of promoting pro-Serbian policies with the aim of undermining Montenegrin statehood.

Some good news maybe? Let’s see.

A judge in Texas is making Alex Jones pay $100,000 in court costs and legal fees to a Sandy Hook parent after he ignored court orders to provide documents and witnesses.

A Nepali man who banished his sister-in-law to a cow shed during her period (because women are scary and impure!), adhering to a superstition and thereby killing her, has been jailed, and the country as a whole seems to have had it with this backward ritual:

After hearing what happened, Nepal’s attorney general, Agni Prasad Kharel, stepped in and ordered police officials to open an investigation, which quickly led them to the brother-in-law. The police arrested Mr. Raut and are holding him in a small jail. He faces a three-month sentence if found guilty of breaking the chhaupadi law, which makes it a crime to pressure a woman into seclusion.

Kedar Nath Sharma, a spokesman for the Home Ministry, said that any members of a family still practicing chhaupadi would not get the usual government allowances for elderly people and single women, concessional loans or recommendations for a school scholarship or government job.

He said the Nepali government was serious about ending this tradition once and for all.

“Women are dying in these huts,” he said.

We have two new videos from CSICon 2019: Janyce Boynton on the scam that is Facilitated Communication and Kevin Andersen on what brought us to our “post-factual,” “post-truth,” “fake news” moment.

New Hampshire State Rep. Amanda Bouldin has introduced legislation to repeal a state law that allows for prayer in public schools.

Bernie Sanders unloads on lawbreaking churches:

I don’t think anybody’s exempt if you break the law. You know, I believe, absolutely, in the fundamentals of American society where we have freedom of religion. You want to join a religion… go to the church you want, synagogue you want, that’s your business. But, you know, we have all seen what has happened over the last many decades in terms of the Catholic Church and the terrible abuse — sexual abuse — so I don’t think anyone’s exempt from law enforcement.

Harriet Hall says there might be something to the health claims about elderberries for cold and flu, but I remind you that you wouldn’t want to smell like one, lest you endure taunting from French knights.

A palm reader who bilked a client out of $71,000, claiming the woman was possessed by a demon, has been arrested.

Jayson Jacoby of the Baker City Herald sings the praises of the local library, where he enjoys reading, yes, Skeptical Inquirer.

The Impossible Burger will not cause men to grow boobs. That’s only good or bad news depending on your personal goals.

And now some more, I guess, neutral items. Ed Yong at The Atlantic looks at why we should do away with Nobel Prizes for science:

[Critics say] they are an absurd and anachronistic way of recognizing scientists for their work. Instead of honoring science, they distort its nature, rewrite its history, and overlook many of its important contributors. [. . .] In as much as they propagate the myth of the lone genius, that lone genius is almost always white and male.

Joe Nickell is cited in a History.com piece on why extraterrestrials are so often depicted as big-headed, big-eyed little men. Two words: barn owls.

Harriet Hall at Skeptical Inquirer demolishes the argument for alt-med that says one can’t really speak to a particular treatment if one hasn’t tried it for oneself. And don’t listen to Aunt Tillie:

Psychological and social effects can convince patients they are better when they are not; they want to feel better and they want to get better to please that nice doctor who is trying to help them. Temporary mood improvement may be confused with cure. Memory is fallible. A questionable treatment may get the credit for a cure that was actually due to the surgery or chemotherapy they also got. People are naturally more impressed by stories than by studies, and every snake oil salesman and charlatan can produce impressive testimonials from their customers. And then there’s Aunt Tillie. “Science says homeopathy doesn’t work, but I know it does because my Aunt Tillie swears it cured her.”

David Gorksi wants to find ways to keep crowdfunding sites from propping up pseudoscience and fake cures.

Benjamin Radford looks at the film Richard Jewell and the many lessons it holds for media literacy and skepticism.

The Pope is sorry he smacked that lady’s hand.

And we’ll end this first-of-the-decade-unless-you’re-a-pedant-like-me edition of the Heresy with this eye toward the year 2029. Ryan Burge says:

This is the point when the model says that if the so-called nones grow at the slowest rate, they will still be larger than any other group, regardless of the margin of error. [ . . . ] Obviously, projecting religious demography into the future is a difficult proposition and a number of factors could make these predictions look very silly, including national tragedies or spiritual revival. However, it’s undeniable that American culture and politics will slowly begin to change as the nones continue to rise.


Linking to a story or webpage does not imply endorsement by Paul or CFI. Not every use of quotation marks is ironic or sarcastic, but it often is.