Biodiversity and the Charlatans at The Daily Caller

The Daily CallerLast week, The Daily Caller published, Global Warming Is Increasing Biodiversity Around the World. That caught my eye because apart from the obvious practical problems of global warming in the case of humans simply surviving, biodiversity is probably the most important issue. And here’s the thing: a warmer world could really bring about more biodiversity. Of course, it would mostly be more kinds of insects and algae. There are already thousands of species of termites and over ten thousand species of ants. There are perhaps a million species of algae. So this is really not the kind of biodiversity that we’re looking for.

I smelled a rat anyway. After all, there have been all kinds of papers that have indicated that species are dying off. If one paper found that biodiversity was increased by global warming, that does not means that “global warming is increasing biodiversity around the world.” But what do you expect from a libertarian website? Some kind of reasonable discussion of the facts? But I was interested to find out what this paper had to say. Did extreme weather manage to give us another kind of termite while killing off a dozen bird species? Did we have a million and one species of algae in exchange for more damage for our coral reefs? What could be this great news that The Daily Caller was trumpeting?

Well, Media Matters was interested in the same question, so Denise Robbins contacted the lead author of the study, Maria Dornelas. The scientist was kind of angry that her research was so obviously distorted for political ends. But it was hardly necessary to talk to her about it. The paper is titled, Assemblage Time Series Reveal Biodiversity Change but Not Systematic Loss. But before I explain what the paper reported, I have to explain a bit about the science.

There is what we call α-diversity. This is how much diversity there is in a single environment. Think of it like your house: if you have people from different background, the α-diversity is high. For example: if I lived with Bill Gates, we’d have a very high α-diversity. There is also what we call β-diversity. This is how much diversity there is between environments. So if the people in the house across the street were Warren Buffett and some other poor guy, then the β-diversity would be very low. Got it?

What Dornelas and her colleagues found was that α-diversity was pretty much unchanged. So in any particular forest (for example), there was just as much diversity as there was before. They don’t know what’s happening to the more important β-diversity. But they have a hunch. Dornelas provided the following thought experiment for how to think about this:

[L]ets imagine three islands, one has blue birds, one has green birds and one has yellow birds. Blue bird island gets warmer, and our imaginary blue birds are particularly sensitive to climate variation, and so they go extinct. But their island is now suitable for green birds, which colonize it. Green bird island stays the same, but green birds are also introduced to yellow bird island. Yellow birds cannot fight the competition and go extinct. At the end we have the same number of species in each of the islands (1), but the species that live there are different, and in total we have lost 2/3 of the species.

Got that? The α-diversity is exactly the same, but the β-diversity has gone way down. The fact that the α-diversity is the same on each island is meaningless.

I don’t really mind people disagreeing with me and being totally ignorant of the science they are talking about. But that’s not what The Daily Caller is doing. They are just lying. And what for? They are lying so that oil companies and others who are already really rich can continue to get even richer. It is times like these that I wish I believed in God and could take comfort in their eternal torture in a deep level of Dante’s Inferno.

Instead, at best, 20 years from now we’ll get a meek, “Oops!”

0 thoughts on “Biodiversity and the Charlatans at The Daily Caller

  1. Are you sure that what is involved here is ‘lying’ rather than ‘motivated belief’?

    Perhaps the difference is not important. But the capacity to believe the conclusively disproven seems to be strong in contemporary conservative and libertarian ‘intellectuals’.

    Not liars and charlatans perhaps, but ideological cranks. The word ‘crank’ needs to be revived in contemporary public discourse.

  2. @RJ – No no no! We can call them "hacks" but not "cranks." I consider myself a crank. Cranks are important because they push against institutional norms. Erich von Daniken is a crank. A wonderful, ignorant, fascinating crank! We need people like him.

    The folks at [i]The Daily Caller[/i] are hacks. They are just doing the dirty work of powerful interests.

    As for the rest: yes, I am being hyperbolic and imprecise. But that’s part of how I’m a crank!

  3. Hmmm. We need some sort of institutional memory dealing with climate issues. Perhaps the internet will suffice. And maybe some mechanism for securing retribution.

    An example: It’s 2060, the state of Florida is considering a bill to spend 30 billion dollars per year for twenty years to construct dikes about Miami and Orlando to preserve them from rising sea waters. The Governor goes on TV to read a list of Florida politicians who on either the state or national level engaged in climate change denialism, and insists that Florida has the right to sue any survivors of those politicians for the damage they brought about. Courts, legislators, and ordinary citizens enthusiastically agree.

    Justice is finally done. Well, we can dream.

  4. @mike shupp – Two problems. First, 2060 will be way too late I’m afraid. All the predictions we (and I do mean we since I was part of it then) made have turned out to be [i]way[/i] optimistic. I don’t think people appreciate just how terrifying this all is.

    Second, our instinct is to forgive. It would be seen as wrong to hold those people accountable. And I pretty much agree: I’m a big forgiver. But these people know this and use it against us. They are so evil–like right out of a horror film.

    But yes: let us dream!

  5. Frank, you are not like von Daniken. You are not a crank. And he was not wonderful. In fact, my inner amateur sociologist is telling me that guys like him helped pave the road for the endless right-wing bullshit storm you discuss here and elsewhere.

  6. @RJ – Thanks for the defense. Von Daniken is more than just a crank, though; he’s also a quack. But the problem is really not with him. Under normal circumstances, a crank is largely ignored except for a small group of people who think he’s super keen. When the crank goes viral, we have a problem. In von Daniken’s case, he really should have reconsidered his theory, because so many people have destroyed it. Instead, he just kept on writing the same thing over and over. Hence: quack. But I don’t think you can lay the anti-intellectual trend on him. He published [i]Chariots of the Gods?[/i] in the 1960s. Velikovsky (another great crank) wrote [i]Worlds in Collision[/i] in 1950. And you can go further back. Actually, you can go all the way back.

    But I really do think that cranks are important. In this country, socialists are cranks. So are what I would call "real" libertarians. At one time, there were cranks who argued against climate change. Now it’s an industry. James Lovelock was a marvelous crack, who argued for years that there could be no ozone hole because the earth was a homeostatic system that would not allow that. But as the evidence mounted, he changed his theory. Remember: this is the man who first measured CFCs in the atmosphere. Cranks are usually wrong, but that’s more than made up for because sometimes they are right and usually they cause other people to do important work that proves them wrong.

    I can imagine a global warming denier crank. He would say, "Algae is destroying coral reefs because of a small amount of global warming. But the algae removes huge amounts of CO2 and so acts as a negative feedback that will offset global warming going any further." That’s at least a mechanism. (BTW: it happens to be true, but the effect is only about 7%, so more algae is a bad thing.) But we don’t even hear this kind of stuff. It’s just, "Well, Exxon says it’s a hoax so it must be!"

    I do think von Daniken and Velikovsky and Carlos Castaneda are great because they lie so beautifully. I still can’t believe that the UCLA anthropology department was fooled by Castaneda. At 13, I could tell the books were fables.

    And notice: once the question of the historicity of Jesus was considered complete crank nonsense. George Wells was thought to be a complete crackpot. Now, I think the best you can say for Jesus is that any historical person has been lost–papered over entirely by folklore. And serious people argue that he was never meant to have been a man who walked the earth and that the stories were just meant to be allegories. It is more generally agreed among Judaic scholars that Moses never existed.

    But I would like to put myself in a different category from von Daniken. I still meet a people who believe his claptrap and it seems the History Channel is always doing shows about aliens creating humankind. And this is really terrible because the archaeological and anthropological research of human evolution is so interesting!

  7. ‘Crank’ does not mean heterodox. Historical Jesus deniers were considered cranks, but in fact they were not. They were pointing out the clear and undeniable fact that there is no serious evidence for the existence of Jesus. It was their detractors who were cranks.

    There you go with that word ‘liar’ again. Castaneda surely was a charlatan, but that seems unlikely with von Daniken and Velikovsky. They did not lie; they were convinced of their own bull.

    I’m not sure why you are so bullish on those guys, nor why you are so certain they have made no contribution to the wackiness of contemporary discourse. They are not, were not ‘great’; they helped bring on a new culture of creating one’s identity from your beliefs. That, more than anything, seems to describe the reason Kansas is wrong.

    I’d like to see some detailed study of the evolution of wacky beliefs and how they’ve entered the mainstream, but as you note, the people who really ought to be studying this are sometimes (I say usually) the sort of ‘scholars’ who thought, as many still think, that Castaneda was on the level. Bigoted anti-intellectuals; same shit, different pile, than Glen Beck.

    We’re dead. Tell me again why I bothered to give up brown sugar.

  8. @RJ – Okay, I think I’m using an unusual definition of "crank," probably taken from Charlie Pierce.

    I think "lie" was perhaps a bad word choice. But they did indeed spread falsehoods, however much they may have believed them. Although by now, I have a hard time believing that von Daniken doesn’t know.

    The reason is that the society elevated them to uber-cracks. Chomsky talks about this a lot: there are movements and [i]they[/i] elevate "great men" to lead them. It doesn’t really work the other way around. That’s not to say that MLK wasn’t a great man, but it is more important that he was the right man at the right time.

    Velikovsky didn’t exist in a vacuum. There was a movement dating back a couple of centuries that tried to explain the miracles in the Bible with rational science. So Jesus didn’t create bread the fish; he just shared his own and that caused everyone else to follow suit and they all shared and had a grand old time.

    Oh, one of the greatest cranks of all time: Heinrich Schliemann and the search for Troy. But my point is that you don’t have to be right to be a great crank.

    There is a problem that today, cranks can get so much more attention. In the past, Alex Jones would just be this guy who sold mimeographed pamphlets on college campuses. Instead, he is a deeply dangerous social force. I know a woman who will not work in her garden some days because of contrails. He is literally reducing the quality of her life.

    I would challenges you a bit on Castaneda. I think I actually learned things from him. And when I was a kid, I [i]loved[/i] von Daniken, which taught me a lot about ancient civilizations. But I yield your main point that these guys have a bad influence. But if not them, then it will just be someone else. Much worse are the Exxon-backed global warming deniers.

    But by far the most outrageous thing you’ve said is that you’ve given up brown sugar! Why would you do that?! How do you make cookies?

  9. Seeing as he was a chemist and philosopher (the best sort of person), obviously I love Charlie. Can you tell me where he said ‘crank’? Possibly that meaning (‘dude viewed as a whacko’ as opposed to actually talkin’ whacky) was idiomatic at the time he was writing.

    I was big on the UFO books when I was a kid, along with ghosts, ESP. just about everything. Possibly there were some salutatory effects in getting some people – maybe you and me – interested in science and other areas of knowledge.

    of course, ol’ Noam is widely regarded as a crank, and while I’m less taken with him than before, the fact remains that his critics generally dismiss him basically claiming it’s too crazy to bother with. Thus, not a crank, just unjustly regarded as one in my opinion.

    Just to be clear, I’m not much interested in playing a blame game with the pantheon of weirdos. nonetheless, I remain committed to a genuine possibility of a more rational public discussion – an Enlightenment view.

    I’m convinced that everything always is going to be more bullshit than not, but still I think the ratio could be much more favorable than it is today. Can we imagine a life where the Daily Callers of this world receive the regard they really deserve? If not it’s difficult to see a way out.

  10. @RJ – I’m pretty sure it was [i]Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free[/i], which is more or less what we’re talking about. I think his argument is that cranks are great as long as they don’t get power. But more and more they get more and more power. As I mentioned: Alex Jones.

    Chomsky’s interesting. Is he a crank? Probably. But what I’ve noticed is that most of his arguments can’t be refuted, so they are simply ignored. That’s not to say he’s always right. But he definitely has America nailed as an empire. But he is what a crank should be: opinions well outside the Overton Window with a small but loyal following.

    I would like it if more people watched Nova than listened to Alex Jones. I’m with you on that. And truthfully, I think of "crank" as a playful word. I shouldn’t apply it to Alex Jones who is the kind of guy whose rhetoric leads directly to people getting killed. Maybe I’ll pass on the word crank and come up with another.

    When I was in grad school in the early 90s, respect for science was higher in the US than in Europe. I’ll bet that has reversed. The problem is that [i]Fox News[/i] and related outlets have vilified science because it really does have a well known liberal bias. And I hate the people who claim that global warming denial is the same as liberal discomfort with GMOs. For one thing, the numbers are not even close to the same. For another, there are actual problems with GMOs, although I think they are safe to eat. I’m concerned about farming and monocultures and the fact that they really haven’t been all that great for farmers. They are just a way for Monsanto to make more money.

    "Conservative" actually means careful. But in politics it means closed minded. And as Corey Robin has shown "reactionary." Even if I were a free market guy, I’d still call myself liberal, because conservative is mostly a pejorative.

    I’m afraid there is no way out. It has always been and will always be the best of times and the worst of times. Wait, I take that back. It could get a lot worse. I could see global warming having huge impacts that eventually lead us back to small tribes or feudalism or even extinction.

    Not that I think that would be the worst thing in the world. Humans are amazing, but we aren’t a millionth as great as most of us think we are.

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