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Surrendering to fear brought us climate change denial and President Trump

Posted on 17 July 2017 by John Abraham

This story picks up where an earlier post left off a few weeks ago. Then, I discussed some of the political realities associated with inaction on climate change. In that post, I said I would revisit the question of why so many people deny the evidence of a changing climate. Now is the time for that discussion.

What continually befuddles people who work on climate change is the vehement and indefensible denial of evidence by a small segment of the population. I give many public talks on climate change, including radio and television interviews and public lectures. Nearly every event has a few people who, no matter what the evidence, stay in a state of denial. By listening to denialist arguments, I find they fall into a few broad categories. Some of them are just plain false. Examples in this category are ones like:

There was a halt to global warming starting 1998.

Humans are only responsible for a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Scientists are colluding to create this fraud.

Others are not false but are completely irrelevant. For example:

Climate is always changing.

We didn’t have thermometers a million years ago to measure global temperatures.

Cities are hotter than their surroundings.

Why would people think things or repeat statements that are known to be false or irrelevant? I am convinced that for the vast majority of people, they are not intentionally being incorrect. Something must be forcing them to be wrong. What could that be? Why are people so willing to believe and repeat lies?

That brings me to the connection with President Trump. His sheer number of falsehoods and flip-flops is so great, you lose track of them all. For instance, let us take the so-called wall to stop illegal immigration. First he said Mexico will pay for it and it will be “so tall;” now, he wants it to be paid by the US taxpayer. He falsely exaggerated the number of jobs that have been created since he came into office. He made false statements about the size of his electoral win. He made false statements about President Obama’s birthplace. He has made false and unsupported claims about voter fraud. He has made false claims about climate scientists. 

Finally, there is the current investigation into his and his administration’s potential collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. I could go on and on and likely will get complaints from readers that I forgot this or that falsehood, but I have to limit the length of this post.

In a sane world, everyone would understand the threat of climate change and our ability to take meaningful action to handle it. In a sane world, no one would believe a president who has misled them time and time again.

So that raises the question - what is the reason people still discount the incontrovertible climate change evidence? What is the reason a persistent minority still support this dishonest president? I think I have figured it out, and if I’m right, it makes it much easier to reconcile the generally logical people I know with their seeming indefensible belief systems.

In a certain respect, this reason is something we as humans are nearly powerless to counteract. Before I give the reason, I want to be clear that I am sure others have noticed this too. I am sure others have written learned papers articulating this much more clearly than I can. My discovery is just a personal observation; something I should have recognized long ago. I am also not a psychologist so this is just my observations as a physical scientist.

The reason isn’t religion, it isn’t political ideology, it isn’t lack of scientific knowledge, it isn’t politics, it isn’t tribal identification. It’s none of those things.

The reason is fear.

Whether people are reciting a litany of falsehoods about climate change or whether they are contorting themselves to justify support for this president, they are doing so because they have to. They have to, because they are afraid of what happens if they accept reality.

With climate change, people are afraid for two reasons. First, they are afraid there is nothing they can do about it. Humans hate to have threats that are beyond our control. We are more afraid of Ebola than heart disease. We are more afraid of flying than driving, we are more afraid of sharks than toasters. We afraid of things we feel we cannot directly control.

Secondly, we are also afraid of bad news. How often have you not checked your bank account because you don’t want the bad news? Have you ever known someone who didn’t go to a doctor because they just didn’t want to know what their ailment was? It is so much easier to pretend a problem doesn’t exist. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that people like to be lied to when it quiets their fear.

So with respect to climate change, that puts the population into two groups. The first group (which I am part of) knows that there is a problem, wants to face it head on, and solve it together. The second group cannot bear to look the problem honestly in the face and finds it easier to deny its existence.

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Comments 51 to 99 out of 99:

  1. Nigel. "But would very high intelligence people really have poor critical thinking skills?"

    I think "black hat" thinking about our own positions comes as naturally as breathing water. What highly intelligent people are good at is defending their positions. Furthermore, intelligence often leads to discovering/adopting right answers anyway so you can get away with minimal critical thinking skills. This leads to very good scientists "going Emeritus" all the time.

    The best critical thinkers I know among my colleagues are ones who found themselves in a wrong position early in career and were then forced to examine how they made that decision and practise the skills to not have it happen again.

    The pat answer to critical thinking is "what data/result/observation would make you change your mind". Sounds easy. Now think of a popular (not fringe) political party you dont like and then a policy of theirs that you abhor. What data/result would make think they were right? Chances are you would answer "none" and the reason for that is that it offends your political values. Working hard on a problem, it is all too easy to love a potential solution with the same strength as a value.

    In fact, as humans we suck at this. The best examination of a position is by getting others to look at this. Peer review - especially submit your paper suggesting the person who will hate your conclusions most as a reviewer. Science is filled will flawed humans, but the long process of review and examination makes the discipline of science our best invention for modelling reality.

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  2. thoughts,

    Please explain why you consider the sources of information you refer to to be more reliable providers of good information/understanding than the sources you imply are more misleading.

    There is undeniably a group of people who focus on any single 'error' by a media source as all the evidence they need that the source is unreliable Fake News, while at the same time having only rare cases when their preferred sources are actually correct about something.

    A rational person would seek the "more reliable" source, understanding that even the most reliable source will have occassional cases of error. An example is the case of the typo on one page of the entire IPCC report where some missed zeros presented a point of information that was clearly incorrect. It was reported by media such as WUWT as evidence that the entire IPCC report process was fraudulant.

    However, having personally reviewed WUWT in detail many years ago, I concluded it was a highly unreliable provider of information. A case in point was the nonsense article about a US submarine in the Arctic many decades ago claimed to be proof that the Arctic was ice free many decades ago. It took me less than 10 minutes to find correct reports about that incident including the actual ship's log. The submarine had pushed up through ice that was thin enough to be broken through and was not at the area of the thickest ice at the time. WUWT had failed to even spend that small amount of time, 10 minutes, to verify that story before re-spawning it. And my review at the time found many similar easily debunked or misleading or just plain wrong reports on WUWT. I occassionally return to the site and can always quickly find one easily debunked report. WUWT is a very unreliable source of good understanding.

    So in the interest of better understanding what the thoughts are of a person who trusts a clearly unreliable source such as WUWT more than the far more reliable MSM, it would be helpful if you could reflect on your thoughts and share why it is you developed the preferences for media you considered to be more reliable, even though it is fairly easy to determine that they are actually less reliable/less correct.

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  3. Thoughtful @50,

    Thanks, but here are a few thoughts in response:

    You said "I read that it is has been practically impossible to get any research paper published unless it supports the AGW view, that a scientist can lose funding / job if not on board with the AGW view."

    You don't say where you read this, and certainly provide no proof or credible information. Anyone can make outrageous claims like this so, surely you dont take them at face value?.

    Willie Soon and Nicolas Scafetta are climate sceptics, and have published papers, just do a simple google search. They have not complained that anyone is stopping them publishing to my knowedge. The trouble is their ideas have not stood up to scrutiny and are in a minority.

    It just seems that in general terms you take sceptical material on wattsup and places like this at face value, without checking any of it.

    "I read that NASA has been falsifying data to support the AGW agenda,"

    Where and on what basis? Wheres the evidence? You provide nothing of any substance.

    Again anyone can make any ridiculous claim? Do you always believe such simplstic claims without checking them? Even if  you just checked a few things on denialist websites the holes would become apparent to you.

    We are also not reliant just on nasa. For example there are numerous sets of temperature gathered in different ways by different organisations. Even the raw, unadjusted data shows strong warming. 

    "I have no way of knowing which scientists and which organizations on which sides are really not motivated by personal agendas "

    Yes you do. Just do some research and I have already given you specific examples on specific scientists.

    Polls discussed on this website show conservatives are more sceptical of climate change than liberals. Clearly political agendas / ideologies have at least some influence. I'm not claiming they are the only thing.

    There is also a big diffrence depending on funding. I think its rather unlikely that governments would want scientists with public funding to come up with some global warming nightmare. No government wants this! Scientists have simply discovered a problem by doing what they do: namely research. In comparison scientists funded by the fossil fuel lobby will be expected to find a certain result, if they want more work. Ultimately just apply some commonsense, as well as critical thinking.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Please do not respond to the rote denier sloganeering and obvious baiting.  If the user to which you are responding cannot abide by this venue's Comments Policy, they will very soon be recused from further participation here.

  4. Scaddnp @51, I suppose you are right. In fact you make some good points.

    I don't claim to be super exceptionally  intelligent, but I  defended myself in a couple of civil courts cases, and was very inventive and focussed at the exercise, and I won both cases. This seems to be consistent with your theory.

    I agree its hard for us to do be objective about politics, as its so tempting to let instincts take control.  However I have worked at it and become rather good. I do now accept parties I despise sometimes get specific things very correct. Its also made me a political  / economic moderate because the extreme positions just dont convince when carefully examined.

    I totally suck at many other things in life, but I would claim to be a reasonable critical thinker.

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  5. So-called "thoughts" is engaging in nothing more than concern trolling as cover for spreading run of the mill science denial claptrap.

    Cut off his oxigen by not responding to them.

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  6. Moderator:  You did not see Nigelj, to whom I was responding, as  sloganeering and inflammatory?  Here is a snip from there of what i was responding to:

    "Of course the sceptics look at wattsup for opinions that the science is allegedly wrong, as it gives them an excuse. They exercise a total lack of critical analysis of what they read. Five minutes checking the usual denialist myths shows they are genuinely absurd. But perhaps they dont "want" to exercise any critical analysis? Because the whole climate issue threatens various beliefs they have and political views."

    I think that this site is meant only to discredit anyone who questions its position, mostly with name calling and insults, this is not for real discussions.    My mistake. 

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] "I read that it is has been practically impossible to get any research paper published unless it supports the AGW view, that a scientist can lose funding / job if not on board with the AGW view."

    That is sloganeering. You have making statement without supporting evidence.

    This site exists to debunk those who lie, misinform and otherwise create myths. These myths are debunked by quoting published science, unlike the sites you seem to look at.

  7. Moderator: You did not see the sloganeering, inflammatory, and ad-hominem in the post  above it, to which I was responding?  It would seem fair to call both sides on this.  This is not a site for discussions.  My mistake.    

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Moderation complaints are always offtopic. This is site where science can be discussed but only in conformance with comments policy. For you that means backing your assertions.


  8. Bob Loblaw@9

    Thanks for briging in the evidence that we're dealing with authoritarian system that US democracy is just morphing into. John himself stops short of using that term although his article argues this case without a doubt.

    We know many examples of more or less authoritatian states, past and present. US in its current form is not yet as strong authoritatian state as the ultimate example of Nazi Germany (and likely will cannot be because their constitution would not easily allow it) but what is unique is the absudly low level of their leader (T-man) who can only be described as an abomination of a human being. Calling those who elected such an abomination to the WH, a "basket of deplorables" is politically incorrect but a very accurate characterization. T-man ridiculed himself so many times, called that he could kill someone and still be voted in for president, lost all presidential debates in the opinion of all experts, yet still absurdly got elected. Simply the ultimate denial in the minds of authoritarians (both leaders and followers): the denial of reality. So strong are the phychological mechanisms leading to the formation of authoritatian states, that they defy any reason.

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  9. As to the reason why so many of the "skeptical" viewpoints are not particularly convincing, it's because as a group they are mutally contradictory and often defy standard physics. As they say, you want to be open-mineded, but no so open-minded that your brain falls out.

    On the contradictions side, SkS has a page devoted to the subject:

    On the incoherent side, Benestad et al wrote a paper on it:

    and it has been discussed over at RealClimate:

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  10. While I'm at it, this is the thread that made me think of the carton I posted over on the newer thread:

    An Inconvenient Truth

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  11. Thoughts.  

    I'm not going to comment further on the scientific specifics you have doubts about , like the nasa thing, as I have been told  not to. Its sloganeering, and getting off topic, concern trolling etc,etc.

    I wasn't sloganeering. Please note where I have made specific and controversial claims about specific scientists I have backed it up with some sources.

    I haven't engaged in any ad hominems. This is attacking the person, rather than their views.  I have not insulted anyone and have no wish to. I haven't criticised anyones political / religious / employment leanings and associated fears, simply noted that those leanings may influence their perception of climate, and that there is evidence of this, which I'm not going to repeat yet again. It's important to clarify theres a big distinction.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Thank you!

  12. thoughts @50.

    You say "I am trying to point out that some people seem to deny evidence for good reasons. I have probably said that too many times already."

    Too many times? Indeed so. And as your "trying" seemingly cannot be improved upon, I suggest it is time for you to stop.

    Of course, the OP does rather support the idea that the reasons underlying denial can be "good" in that the OP concludes by stating that such reasons are not "bad".

    "These factors don’t mean climate deniers are stupid, nor are Trump supporters. It doesn’t mean that they are bad people or immoral in any way. Rather, it tells me that their brain handles fear differently than mine and yours."

    That said, the contrary idea that climate deniers are indeed stupid is given support by none-other-than than JS Mill who sees the stupidity infecting right-wing politics as undeniable:-

    "I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it."

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  13. Perhaps rather than fear, it is resentment which is a prominent motivation of climate-denialists.   (And resentment is but one point on the calm-versus-anger spectrum.)

    In a changing world, conservatives look backward to a halcyon time — and resent whatever/whoever is causing a different future.   Denial, resentment, anger, come together in a rejection of "the new reality" which is coming down the tracks.   Immigration and demographic change bringing more of the ethnically/culturally/racially "different", who produce change in society & customs; and "unconservative" pressures, leading to alterations in governmental styles & taxation systems : these things can be resisted & voted against, to some extent.

    But the physical alterations of the world with rising sea levels, melting ice, and altering climate/weather-patterns ..... those physical changes are resented so much, as to be better dealt with by steady denial.  By ramming the head into the sand, so that an unpleasant reality need not be faced & addressed.

    The tip of the denier pyramid is the wealthy group whose cynical selfishness impels them to propagandize & manipulate the lower orders of the pyramid — to postpone social change for as long as can be achieved.

    Strictly speaking, all this climate-denialism is insane — insanity defined (in practical terms) as : "dealing with reality inappropriately".

    Combine that insanity and anger — and we get that outspoken denialism which we see in the Anglophone world particularly.  And we also see the on-line insanity & bizarre non-logic exhibited repeatedly by [for example] "CosmoWarrior" in his past (& current) iterations.  And the on-line insanity & bizarre non-logic of WattsUpWithThat and similar websites.

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  14. To MA Rodger  above, re your response below to thoughts @50.

    You say "I am trying to point out that some people seem to deny evidence for good reasons. I have probably said that too many times already."

    Too many times? Indeed so. And as your "trying" seemingly cannot be improved upon, I suggest it is time for you to stop.

    I will stop now.  This site seems convinced that anyone who questions  the AGW agenda is stupid, fearful,  or self-interested.  My suggestion that maybe that is not the case  will not be heard.   Thank you for your time. Carry on among yourselves!

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] This user has recused themselves from further participation here, finding the burden of compliance with this venue's Comments Policy too onerous.

    Inflammatory and sloganeering snipped.

  15. I too will recuse myself because this site is unreliable and incapable of accepting anything but an alarmist point of view.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Unsupported nonsense. This site sticks to published science. You need to go elsewhere for fantasies.

  16. adrian smits @65

    When the reality is alarming, there is good reason to be alarmed.  Pretending everything is fine will not save you.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] If you put adrian smits into Google, you get a feel for hsi take on reality. The very first entry into The Borehole.

  17. Re moderator PS question about politicians resisting scientific consensus - once classic example is Eugenics and the compulsory sterilisation programmes. There was a scientific consensus in favour, many university courses in the USA on the principles and practice, and laws passed in many states as State politicans followed the consensus.  Here in the UK there was some political resistance which was enough to prevent compulsory sterilisation becoming law - although to our shame it still happened in some institutions for "medical reasons".  I am not trying to be provocative here - my point is still simply that consensus isn't enough. Science cannot put itself above criticism. 

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH} You state:

    There was a scientific consensus in favour, many university courses in the USA on the principles and practice, and laws passed in many states as State politicans followed the consensus.

    Please document and link to the source(s) of your claims. 

  18. For new readers this question concerns whether scientific consensus should be challenged by politicians.  I cited the case of Eugenics. Steven A Farber from the Carnegie Institute wrote in 2008:

    "It is important to appreciate that within the U.S. and European scientific communities these ideas were not fringe but widely held and taught in universities. The report of the Eugenics meeting was the lead story in the journal Science on October 7, 1921, and this opening address was published, in its entirety, beginning on the first page of the issue."

    Source: "U.S. Scientists' Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907–1939): A Contemporary Biologist's Perspective"

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Thank you for providing the source of the first half of the statement you made in Comment #67, i.e.,

    There was a scientific consensus in favour, many university courses in the USA on the principles and practice, and laws passed in many states as State politicans followed the consensus.

    What is the source for the second part of your statement?

  19. Mike Evershed,

    At the time of Eugenics and Nuclear Weapons development the global community did not have clearly presented and well justified governing objectives like the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and their earlier presentation in the results of the 1972 Stockholm Conference. It could be argued that humanity did not have any sense of its global future responsibility back then. Everyone was focused on being the Winner realtive to Others any way they could get away with - even through actions that could be understood to be globally net-negative actions (as long as the Winner could percieve that they were better off than those Others).

    So, since at least 1972 what is understood to be acceptable has significantly changed regarding climate science. Leaders today have no excuse for still trying to get away with delivering Poor Excuses rather than delivering Good Reasoned Leadership based on the fullest awareness and best understanding currently developed to improve the future for all of humanity by acting to correct understandably unacceptable developed popular and profitable activities in the sub-set of humanity that they are leading.

    In retrospect, politicians arguing against Eugenics were probably acting more responsibly based on the current best understanding of what leaders are supposed to do than people in positions of leadership who defended the activity with Poor self-interested Excuses.

    Science is not the question or concern. The proper/helpful/ethical application of science is the issue.

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  20. Mike Evershed,

    If eugenics were "not fringe but widely held and taught in universities" that is not the same as consensus.  97% of researchers studying AGW agree with the IPCC reports.  The fact that papers were published in scientific journals shows that scientists were discussing the merits of this idea.  That does not mean that a consensus, or even a majority of scientists thought that Eugenics were a good idea.  From your reference it appears to me that Eugenics was always a fringe scientific idea, not a consensus idea.  Often politicians use fringe scientific ideas to justify what they want to do (look at the Republicans use of Climate Deniers).

    According to your reference Eugenics was only debated slightly (there were only two primary proponents of Eugenics in the USA) in the Scienitfic literature for 20 or 30 years.  By contrast, AGW has been reviewed for over 150 years with the last 50-70 years being intense study.

    Eugenics is an interesting discussion, but Eugenics was never a scientific consensus.  You need to find a situation where scientists were actually in consensus on a subject, not just debating the topic.

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  21. People are getting too defensive about the idea of consensus. It's accurate to say some scientific consensus positions have been wrong, or at least been partly wrong. The consensus positions on intake of saturated fats and salt have both been partly changed recently. I'm assuming everyone is aware of this, its been in the media enough.

    The consensus position is of course extremely important and generally proves to be correct. It is a majority position. It reflects years of research and a slow testing of ideas before arriving at a settled view.

    But it is also going to vary in veracity. Theories on saturated fats and salt were based on a limited number of studies, and pretty old research done when techniques had limitations.  Climate science is based on a huge number of up to date studies, debated and examined ad nauseum. This gives me more confidence.

    If politicians want to question climate science, and its fair that they do, they better be prepared to listen and think calmly and put ideology aside. They better be open minded about the answers, because the answers are not guesswork. One hopes they have enough brains to see that there are obvious holes in the usual denialist myths.

    Its also about the degree of consensus. 90 - 97% is pretty high and is a global consensus, so deserves more respect than a few scientists in America going on about eugenics.

    But the bottom line is this. When it comes to decision making by politicians, you either go with a consensus, or the claims of some fringe group or individual. We have had many such fringe alternative views which have proven to be nonsense, like homeopathy. 

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  22. Just going back to this climate denialism and fear issue. I think most of us have some healthy scepticism about climate science, but we see that the denialiist myths are nonsense and we move on. We may own autobobiles, but are not ruled by fears of change.

    We see more stubborn denialists, and they mostly seem to have political issues, or vested interests, and thats the big difference. You only have to read internet blogs etc. I would say genuine contrarian denialists would be in the minority.

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  23. A quick glance at papers at the time would suggest eugenics was largely a sociopolitical movement and the biological principles claimed in support were controversial, not consensus within the scientic literature. However, I cannot find any attempt to measure concensus on the subject, or even whether undesirable traits could be extinquished from breeding.

    Nonetheless, I am with Nigel in saying that scientific consensus can be wrong. The food pyramid is example of an ever-shifting consensus as knowledge increases. However, it should be noted that a strongly held scientific consensus is very seldom wrong. Setting policy against the advice of a strong scientific consensus in favour of ideology is irrationale.

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  24. Thanks to nigelj and scaddencap others for good contributions to the debate on consensus.  I don't want to prolong this, but just to complete the eveidence trail, the source for the second part of my statement (on the adoption of eugenic laws across the USA) is "A Century of Eugenics in America" edited by Paul A Lombardo in which it is stated that:

    "In 1907 Indiana passed the first involuntary sterilization law based on the theory of Eugenics. In time more than 30 states and a dozen foreign countries followed Indiana's lead". 

    This isn't the right thread to say where I think the anthropogenic warming hypothesis is most vulnerable to challenge (NB not wrong, but most vulnerable to challenge). But I'll try and find one.

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  25. By all means find an appropriate thread. However, I remain unconvinced by "There was a scientific consensus in favour". Science literature seems very lean, nor did "university courses" appear to be science courses. It did most certainly rest on finding from evolutionary theory, but science, unlike many social or political theories is bounded on empirical constraints and the rigor by which a theory/model can account for observations. Biologists (eg Haldane, Holmes, Muller), strongly questioned it's assumption and the long bow it was drawing from evolutionary biology. The Hardy-Weinberg equation was published in 1910 and more or less rips the floor from under it. That it could be promoted despite this discovery smacks mightily of racism and politics. Reconciling the desire for "pure stock" for humans while frantically breeding hybrid plants takes that special attribute of human irrationality so common in "pseudo-skeptics".

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  26. Re: Scadenp: I think it is fair to say that the nature of the scientific "consensus" on eugenics was different from that arising from the climate change literature. Perhaps "widely accepted" would be better?  Anyway the reason for posting was that I looked up Haldane's views, which were rather interesting . Here is a brief exerpt from the introduction to his book "Heredity and Politics" from 1938, written when the whole idea was starting to become discredited (not leats by the Nazis): Haldane says: 

    "It may well be that an increase in our knowledge will fully justify the application to man of certain measures which have led to improvements in the quality of our domestic animals. As one who is endeavoring to increase this knowledge, I can even say that i hope it will do so. But I believe the facts on human heredity are far less simple than many people think them to be. And I hold that a premature application of our rather scanty knowledge will yield little result, and will merely serve to discredit the branch of science in which i am worikng"

    Incidentally - for non biologists - I would say the Hardy-Weinberg equation is irrelevant here as it applies to populations not subject to selection pressure. The whole point of Eugenics was to apply such pressure. 

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  27. In this discussion of "consensus", it is worth remembering that the studies looking at the level of consensus in climate science are not trying to make an argument that "climate science is correct because there is a consensus". Rather, they are a counter-argument to the "skeptic" false argument that there is widespread disagreement in climate science.That argument is currently #4 on SkS's list of climate myths.

    The finding af a very high degree of consensus on the key points of anthropogenic climate change is direct emprical evidence that disproves that key "skeptic" zombie myth. That the "skeptics" then switch to an argument that "consensus doesn't prove the science is right" is an example of shifting the goalposts. It is largely an attempt to divert attention away from the fact that their "no consensus" argument has been disproven. Of course, once the "debate" on "the consensus can be wrong" quietens down, the "skeptics" will usually return to the "there is no consensus" argument, and the cycle continues. That is why it's a zombie myth.

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  28. Mike Evershed and others, the problem we have is no apparent study trying to measure the alleged scientific eugenics consensus. It may have been nearer a 50 / 50, or 60 / 40,  so a weak sort of consensus. We will probably never know of course as too much time has gone past.

    And the  alleged scientific consensus on eugenics could have been more of a political consensus, or even a consensus of clinicians who felt they may benefit from implementation. 

    But I appreciate the point being made, some consensus positions have been abandoned or changed.

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  29. Bob Loblaw  @77, yes exactly we get these endless, frustrating denialist arguments, and one only hopes the public see the contradictions.

    In a couple of years we will probably get a la nina, and they will be back to "global warming has stopped." Another zombie resurrected.

    Some of these denialists should look in a mirror occassionally, and ask themselves how they would feel if their friends or family fed them a constant line of lies, deceptions, and nonsense every day.

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  30. How would they feel? That depends on how strong their Morton's Demon is. They possibly would not notice, and for sure would not see a parallel with their own behaviour.'s_demon

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  31. Bob Loblow @80,

    Thank's for that reference. I had never heard of Mortons Demon. The science explanation on the perpetual motion things is interesting, and it's actually a better analogy for how a transistor amplifies a current. 

    Of course denialists do indeed filter out everything they don't want to hear. They have a big mortons demon.

    I think a lot of people would also look in the mirror and simply not care. The psychopathy, sociopathy demon.

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  32. Mike, one of us is misunderstanding derivation of H-W equation. As far as I can see and literature would seem to support it, H-W implies that sterilization of individuals expressing a rare defect would make negliable difference to incidence in the general population.  T J Norton did the calculations for Punnett in 1915.  Consider also fatal defects (eg cystic fibrosis until recently) which dont require sterilization to ensure those expressing it dont breed. Still prevalent in the population. 

    Some eugenists knew this at least - Jennings goes for rhetoric  "propagation of even one congenitally defective individual puts a period to at least one line of operation of this devil. To fail to do at least so much would be a crime." Others believed "genetic feeble-mindedness" wasnt rare, despite data from LR Penrose, who was expert on mental deficiency genetics, demonstrating the hetrogeneity of causes. I remain unconvinced that support for eugenics was rooted in science rather than in sociopolitical values of the time - and I do accept that the turning tide on eugenics and close examinations of its assumptions was due to more to changing political values (rise of nazism) than further advances in science. 

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  33. nigelj @78, some idea of the prevalence of suport for eugenics can be gained from membership in the American Eugenics Society:

    "Peak membership of the AES was in 1930 with 1,260 members. Although New York, California, and Massachusetts were the states with the highest memberships, every state in the US had at least one member. The 1930 cohort of the AES consisted predominantly of wealthy men and women, and few scientific professionals from fields relating to eugenics. However, in reaction to the eugenic atrocities of World War II, support for eugenics and AES membership began to drop. By 1960, the AES has less than 400 members, most of whom were male scientists and medical professionals. After that time, the AES's focus shifted to genetic analysis and to the investigation of the factors driving human evolution."

    For comparison, in 1930, 2071 PhDs were awarded in the sciences in the United States (p387).  Of those, 318 were awarded in medicine or biology (excluding agricultural science).  The total membership of the American Eugenics Society was, therefore, equivalent to just four years worth of additions to the relevant expert group, with the scientists being members being equivalent to perhaps one years addition.

    It would be wrong to suppose that all scientists who supported eugenics supported it strongly enough to join the American Eugenics Society, but it would be hard to argue from these figures that even a majority of relevant experts supported eugenics.

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  34. Tom Curtis @83

    I agree.

    Eugenics is probably not even a great example of an alleged scientific consensus that eventually changed, because it has two elements that can be confused.

    The first is the belief that genetics leads to inherited disabilities etc. Theres truth in this with some, and I assume most scientists at the time agreed, although I don't know.

    The second is eugenics proper, including forced sterilisation etc,etc. This is more of a political, engineering and ethical issue. It appears plenty of politicians supported this, as laws were passed, and I can see why, but its wrong to assume some majority of biologists supported such a thing, and theres no evidence they did. It could have a small minority, and your membership numbers suggest it was unlikely to be a majority. 

    Eugenics was taught in schools, no question, but this doesn't even mean all teachers believed in it, and many may have had doubts. Such things are largely curriculum decisions, made by politicians and the authorities.

    My understanding is the whole Eugenics thing fizzled out after the awful abuses of Nazi Germany. For what its worth I'm instinctively sceptical and a bit repulsed by anything remotely like  eugenics, as in the measures promoted like enforced sterilisation, etc, for all sorts of reasons.  There would have to be compelling reasons for anything like this, and I havent seen any. Maybe some people meant well, to prevent problems, but the cure was worse than the disease.

    On the other hand we have this modern  issue of designer babies, etc. So ethical issues and freedom of parental choice issues are back again.

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  35. Good points Nigel. I think that you could say that there is social consensus that it would be better if defective alleles that lead to say Huntington's, cystic fibrosis, etc didnt exist. I doubt that geneticists now or then would have contested the point that a species would be better without "bad" genes. Even now, many countries would be taking measures of one sort or another ("genetic counselling") to prevent baby-making where there is a high probability of a major defect.

    From that point on, however, things become more complicated.

    1/ Do you have an effective means of removing or siliencing defective genes? - Norton's calculation shows sterilization is pretty ineffective for instance.

    2/ Is that means ethical? This has historically been the main battleground and strictly speaking is outside science.

    3/ What is "defective"? The other major battleground. Early eugenist also clearly had a belief in single gene to characteristic mapping that was unsupported by science.

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  36. Scaddenp @85

    I agree there was probably a social consensus that it would be better defective genes did not exist. However I have seen a few people argue let nature take its course, possibly sometimes for religious reasons and other reasons.

    Genetic counselling makes plenty of sense to me. This leads to the issue of how we really define eugenics, and there’s nothing wrong with counselling, but the trouble is if you say this you get labelled a nazi by some people. Its the forced or coercive aspects of Eugenics of most concern.

    Regarding your points:

    1) I will accept you can’t silence these genes effectively with sterilisation. I take your word for it because I haven’t done university level genetics.

    However doesn’t the new crisper technology have huge potential to fix these problems?

    2) Regarding is forced sterilisation ethical, this set’s off big alarm bells for me. It’s a huge use of state power, authoritarian power, to dictate biological function of private individuals. Children born with defects are of no great harm to society, and it’s normally harm caused that would justify state intervention. The procedure is open to considerable potential abuse.

    I wouldn’t rule it out 100%, because we always have to balance desirable individual rights and freedoms, with justified rights of community expressed through state power and law, but you would need a solid justification like a widespread problem or emergency. As you point out sterilisation doesn’t work too well, and I’m not sure the problem is large enough to justify something forced, even if it did work. The one issue is whether children become a burden on the state, in state care, but we aren’t seeing a massive problem in my country.

    It may be that simply discouraging some of these pregnancies is enough by simply providing parents with good information. Alternatively there would be nothing wrong with state incentives, but this would get complicated and contentious.

    The new crisper technology might be such an easy solution it resolves the issue.

    It’s also like vaccinations. I’m in favour, but nervous about the idea of making it compulsory.

    However we make manufacturers add iodine to salt. But the reasons appear overwhelming so this is a case that appears justified and safe.

    3)What is defective? Yeah exactly where do you draw the line and who decides, doctors, the state, family?

    This leads on to designer babies where people want blue eyes, genes that encourage intelligence or stamina, whatever. Of course nobody in their right mind would force these things on anyone, that would truly be Orwellian, but it leaves the questions of a) should doctors be allowed to provide these options? b) should parents be encouraged or discouraged?

    It opens the pandoras box of a genetically engineered civilisation. Better and smarter, perhaps, but this would probably come with risks. We would be narrowing the gene pool wouldn’t we?

    Just generally, I’m an advocate for parents having good information on genetic problems. I think the state has a role to ensure this happens, but going beyond this is harder to say. However it’s hard to stop the march of technology, and if we can develop technology that can genetically engineer humans, it’s tough to know what we should do.

    There’s something scary about the notion, yet its hard to see a non emotive reason that such procedures would be banned. I suspect it may be a case of looking at specific issues, or classes of issues on their merits and having some ethical guidelines and laws, and limits if there appear to be risks with specific procedures or issues, or they are done for trivial and badly informed reasons. The process will need to be managed I would say.

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  37. Well consensus doesnt necessarily imply unanimity.

    I do agree that gene technologies are arriving that are leading to questions about a "new eugenics". It has to answer the same questions about effectiness, ethics and targets. Science can inform that debate (eg what percentage of time you can expect CRISPR to miss the target) but the bigger questions are not  for science to answer. That debate is very different to the one about AGW.

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  38. Scaddenp @87, yes consensus doesn't require unanimity. Anything above 90% is very strong I would say.

    I wasn't being clear. It was really just an observation of how a few people come up with various objections even to changing genes that cause disease, however they might do this more out of concern with the methods and politics. 

    Yes science can inform on genetics and the big questions appear largely ethical. On the other hand, science might have something to say about ethics. Quite a lot is being published on evolutionary origins of morality and ethics. For example "Behave, by Robert Sapolsky".

    However ethical decisons and issues are sure challenging and may come down to what society agrees on as a whole, and will no doubt become politicised as well!

    I'm just an interested lay person on all this and suspect you have more knowledge of the hard science of genetics.

    I would bet society will do what it often does and compromise. Some genetic engineering will be allowed but with various approvals required and ethical guidelines, and thats not a bad approach. The thing will be approached slowly  and cautiously like drug liberalisation moves around the world, to see if there are any hidden problems.

    Yes the AGW debate is at least largely different and more about the science, and methods of emissions reduction, and costs etc. Although OPOF has raised an interesting ethical / political perspective on it.

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  39. On ethics, I think science is doing very interesting investigations on how with think ethically and why etc. However, those descriptive models are not that useful in my opinion for actually deciding ethical questions.

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  40. Scaddenp @89, yes the work on ethics is really more an understanding of the issue in a psychological sense, of what some of our deep seated traits are and their biological origins. It doesnt do a lot to help us decide what to do.

    Questions of right and wrong, good and bad are partly matters of conviction and belief, or value judgements. There are no convenient equations  that tell us what to do. The science of ethics can give us some clues, or inform the debate, but can't direct the decisions.

    But I think we can have a few ethical principles that might be useful: We have the principle of rights of individuals to do as they wish, provided they dont significantly harm others, and this is the basis of many laws. It could be applied to questions of whether genetic engineering should be allowed, but its unlikely to be a sufficient criterion. The issue is very large and so will need a lot of thought.

    And who would decide limitations on genetic engineering and ethical standards? The experts? Politicians using a conscience vote? Or do we put fundamental issues about genetic engineering to the public in some referendum? 

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  41. nigelj@90,

    I would strongly advise against the belief that important matters should be allowed to be based on popularity or profitability. History is full of cases where what is popular or profitable was actually well understood to be unacceptable while it maintained popular support or profitability.

    There seems to be more of that type of unacceptable popularity and profitability in some developed/advanced societies. So things are not really advancing in spite of new artificial technological things being developed.

    Perceptions and desires appear to be more easily made 'popular' than increased awareness and better understanding. That means that 'leaders' have to be tasked with the responsibility to be more aware and better understand what is going on and apply that to actually sustainably make things better for everyone, no one unjustifiably harmed by actions that help others (justified harm is changing or correcting a person's incorrectly developed perceptions of prosperity, superiority, or opportunity and that is something that responmsible leaders would 'have to do'. And though that is not really 'harmful' the person being corrected will perceive it as a harm to them, as a threat to be feared).

    And anyone in a position of leadership that acts contrary to the above requirement deserves to 'legally' have their power and influence curtailed (until they can prove they have changed their mind and become responsibly helpful).

    That is how significant threats are being dealt with today. All that remains regarding 'climate science and the required changes of human activity that it has identified' is the global recognition that people in leadership roles who act less responsibly deserve to be legally removed from those roles regardless of their potential for regional election popularity or popularity among shareholders because of the short-term profitability they can get away with by willingly behaving less responsibly, less acceptably.

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  42. Eugenics is often brought up by deniers as we see here as an error in "consensus". I disagree. It was much more an error of extrapolation based heavily on fears. First, there is a grain of truth in eugenics: I have no doubt that we could breed, oh, women who produce more milk and a subgroup of men who produce sperm that leads to more women who will have high milk production just as farmers have done with dairy cattle. But extrapolating to "feeble-mindedness" never had solid scientific support no matter how politically attractive the notion was. Fears of havng defective babies are prettty deep and common in all of us, after all.

    In climate science, it would correspond to if the ultra-greens were able to pass some extreme legislation based on an error in extrapolating climate research. For example, let's say the worst case scenarios we have recently seen in the NY Times gained high public traction. It is easily possible to imagine the public to pressure politicians to pass legislation that "seems" sensible but has only minimal scientific support. Or, as actually happened, recall the great oil embargo fears of the 70s. Corn-based ethanol for cars is indeed a good example of fear-based legislation with only minimal scientific support and "consensus".

    Eugenics was heavily influenced by a rather "alarmist" economic notion that bad genes caused a great economic drain on society. A 1911 Scientific American editorial put it thus:  

    ADA JUKE is known to anthropologists as the "mother of criminals." From her there were directly descended one thousand two hundred persons. Of these, one thousand were criminals, paupers, inebriates, insane, or on the streets. That heritage of crime, disease, inefficiency and immorality cost the State of New York about a million and a quarter dollars for maintenance directly. What the indirect loss was in property stolen, in injury to life and limb, no one can estimate."

    Suppose that Ada Juke or her immediate children had been prevented from perpetuating the Juke family. Not only would the State have been spared the necessity of supporting one thousand defective persons, morally and physically incapable of performing the functions of citizenship, but American manhood would have been considerably better off, and society would have been free from one taint at least."

    Note the argument about "destroying the economy" and consider who most invokes this argument today.

    Immigration fears, particularly fear of immigrants from Catholic and Slavic areas, also influenced the prevailing thinking as much or more as it was influenced by science. Race, of course, entered in too.

    It is important also to note that eugenics was always shunned by central figures in genetics like Morton and Bateson in the US and others elsewhere. 

    Eugenics makes a bad example of showing the supposed problem of scientific consensus on climate. It simply misses as a good analogy in very many ways. It makes a very good example of showing how widespread fears can be allied with minimal science to make bad politics. The confluence of widely felt fears that eugenics tapped was wide and deep and that political action ensued is understandable if not rational. Surrendering to fears really is a problem as this blog entry shows. 

    Another scientific debate brought up by denier types as an example of the "dangers of consensus" is the population bomb proposed by Erhlich. In this case, while Erhlich attained much public support, as did the eugenicists, it had even less support from basic researchers than did eugenics. And as an analogy it fails even more deeply.

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  43. Jgnfld @92

    Yes interesting comments.

    My understanding is eugenics is essentially controlled breeding. It is a very bad example of scientific consensus for another reason, as controlled breeding is more of a technology, or applied science, with all sorts of political and ethical overtures. Even if biologists were in general agreement on the scientific principles, there's no evidence they supported the practice.

    I agree eugenics would work to some extent in theory, in that some traits can be encouraged. Eugenics happens anyway in an informal, voluntary sense. Intelligent people (with degree based educations) are tending to marry more these days, and so presumably this leads to slightly more intelligent offspring, which is not a bad outcome. It does however raise questions about potential downsides, like increasing economic inequality.

    I guess that it's a question of whether society consciously does this sort of thing in some sort of planned way. That becomes much more challenging and dubious idea. Its not like breeding plants for bigger, brighter flowers. Humans are far more complicated.

    For example if you had blue eyes,  do you seek out a partner with blue eyes hoping to increase the odds of blue eyed children? It becomes slightly dubious, and who is to say what is preferable anyway or that a blue eyed population makes any kind of sense. We might find blue eyes have some hidden negative feature.

    It's slightly clearer with intelligence. And  its slightly clearer with genes associated with inherited diseases. But I'm comfortable with people and couples having good information on that, and making their own minds up in a voluntary sense.

    I disagree with ideas like forced sterilisation or  any coercion, or state planning / encouragement. 

    And do you you seek out passive, non agressive people to breed together? We arent 100% sure what behavioural traits are inherited, or whether a totally passive population is desirable (although I would prefer a bit less agression in the world). We just dont know enough to know what we would be doing.

    Regarding criminal traits, Australia was founded as a penal colony. It's a country of immigrant criminals, but actually now has quite low rates of crime. So criminal behaviour may be mostly determined by environment and childhood rather than some inherited factor, or maybe its caused by a complex mixture of both.

    Even if we encouraged some form of selective breeding, we just dont know enough. And imagine trying to sort out so many different attributes.

    Forcing the issue on people is just plain creepy. I think there is more future in gene therapy with crisper technologies that can target attributes that cause disease. This could eventually extend to behavioural attributes, but that is likely a fair way in the furure and right now we just dont know enough.

    Agree about Erlich. It  was never a scientific consensus, but the climate denialists deliberately muddy the waters.

    The denialists pick on that book "Limits to Growth" on resource scarcity as another example of so called failed consensus, but it  was only the view of a few people. It was also only a modelling exercise based on known knowledge about resources at the time, and openly admitted reserves were likely larger.

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  44. @93

    Eugenics, as practiced in the US and elsewhere was most definitely NOT "controlled breeding". It was uncontrolled culling. That is, in practice it was used to sterilize "undesireables" who were already in the population and to keep out any "undesireables" who might try to immigrate into the population.

    There were--believe it or not--"Better Baby" contests, but in general there was no intentional selective breeding to develop various human lines together with culling--which would be standard if actual controlled breeding techniques of the time were used--of which I am aware.

    Eugenics was extremely popular among the educated classes in the early-to-mid years of the 20th century, there is no doubt about that. It's just that the science and technology of genetics and breeding were never the point of the political legislation. Fears were. And if the science and technology of breeding of the time had actually been applied and tested scientifically, it would have become obvious pretty quickly that "feeble-mindedness", "shiftlessness", "criminal propensities", the vast majority of "disabilities" and the like were not traits amenable to much change through selective breeding. But this never occurred as basic science research was never the point.

    There are behavioral propensities that are amenable to selective pressure. Certainly in domestic animals various behaviors have been successfully selected for. But "criminality", say, isn't one of them. Aggressiveness/reactivity might be as one example--certainly is in some dog lines. But how the dog is brought up decides whether the aggressiveness/reactivity is "criminal" or not.

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  45. Jgnfld@94

    Thank's for your comments.

    I'm aware America promoted odious practices like forced sterilisation, as in my comments further above. I assume you scanned through previous comments, always a wise thing to do.

    I wasn't disagreeing with you on anything, if you read my comments.

    I find your tone agressive,  unfriendly, and patronising and have done nothing to deserve it. Some people on this website should take a course in basic communication skills. I won't be continuing this discussion. 

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  46. Nor was I was not disagreeing with you. Simply elaborating on specific parts of the history of eugenics that denier types gloss over or completely ignore. But OK.

    The real point is that eugenics really does not provide a great example of a wrong scientific consensus among basic researchers in the field. Eugenics may, however, provide a good example of why we have a large program in the marginal area (w.r.t. climate amelioration, anyway) of corn-based ethanol. Further history than that probably is getting well off topic, anyway.

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  47. Jgfnld @96

    Ok fair enough. I appreciate your explanation.

    Just putting eugenics aside, you noted the following (and I don't think its off topic).

    "In climate science, it would correspond to if the ultra-greens were able to pass some extreme legislation based on an error in extrapolating climate research. For example, let's say the worst case scenarios we have recently seen in the NY Times gained high public traction. It is easily possible to imagine the public to pressure politicians to pass legislation that "seems" sensible but has only minimal scientific support. Or, as actually happened, recall the great oil embargo fears of the 70s. Corn-based ethanol for cars is indeed a good example of fear-based legislation with only minimal scientific support and "consensus"."

    Just a few random thoughts, as it got my attention. I gather you mean the Wells scaremongering article about some doomsday scenario of run away climate change, turing earth into something ilke Venus? I have just been reading this myself recently, just briefly, and some commentary on it.  I feel climate change needs more urgency of language, but this doomsday stuff is a step much too far. I actually don't think the public would buy into it, as even the dumbest person would realise it's a very low probability scenario (incredibly scientifically low). Its treating adults like children, and they are unlikely to take it seriously or be moved. It wont convince denialists, in my opinion anyway.

    But I agree with your point about how some scary, exaggerated stuff does catch on with the public, or politicians, or both . It seems hard to predict which will, and not much logic to it.

    We had a curious reaction to the oil embargo of the late 1970s. The government went into panic mode with "carless days" and building synthetic petrol plants! The public were less worried, as it was obviously political and thus unlikely to last.

    Corn ethanol always seemed nonsensical to me. Biofuels of that type using crops seem like a dead end to me and totally impractical. But I thought the corn ethanol thing was more driven by farmers lobbying government for subsidies or something?

    I have seen promising experiments converting waste and algae or something into biofuels.

    But you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. A few mistaken decisions are inevitable. with this whole climate issue and they can only be minimised.

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  48. nigelj,

    There is a powerful political reason for the scientifically questionable and socially unethical "corn ethanol" promotion program. A massive part of the USA economy is based on the growth and diverse uses of corn materials. That government subsidized "corn" industry has a big lobby group thta is a powerful influence on all matters related to corn, including mis-information campaigns to protect the corn-derived sugars industry as well as the promotion of a 'new subsidized use of corn - ethanol producton'.

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  49. OPOF @98

    Thank's for the details. I thought I had read something like that. Those high fructose corn syrup sugars are also particularly bad for the health. It's all the money influence in politics problem again.

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