Category Archives: George Monboit

Embracing idiocy: creationism, climate change denial and birthers

Beyond help?

Not doubt the idea that a conservative world view often equates with lower “intelligence” is going to court controversy.

Calling climate change deniers, creationists and birthers “idiots” is not going to advance the debate.


Coming via George Monbiot’s blog we have a recent study that shows a correlation between “lower” intelligence and conservatism.

“…drawing on a sample size of several thousand, correcting for both education and socioeconomic status, the new study looks embarrassingly robust. Importantly, it shows that prejudice tends not to arise directly from low intelligence, but from the conservative ideologies to which people of low intelligence are drawn. Conservative ideology is the “critical pathway” from low intelligence to racism. Those with low cognitive abilities are attracted to “right-wing ideologies that promote coherence and order” and “emphasize the maintenance of the status quo”(5). Even for someone not yet renowned for liberal reticence, this feels hard to write.

This is not to suggest that all conservatives are stupid. There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running think-tank’s, writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies.”

The end result is the creation of a counter-factual reality where the world is 5000 years old, evolution is a lie and climate change a conspiracy:

“….Don ‘t take my word for it. Listen to what two former Republican ideologues, David Frum and Mike Lofgren, have been saying. Frum warns that “conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”(6) The result is a “shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology” which has “ominous real-world consequences for American society.”

Lofgren complains that “the crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today”(7). The Republican party, with its “prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science” is appealing to what he calls the “low-information voter” or the “misinformation voter.” While most office holders probably don’t believe the “reactionary and paranoid claptrap” they peddle, “they cynically feed the worst instincts of their fearful and angry low-information political base”.

I do believe there is truth to the last assertion. Most of the material produced by the think tanks and deniers is propaganda cynically designed to deceive and to appeal to the prejudices of a conservative audience.

The original paper can be found here, titled “Bright minds and dark attitudes“.

It does note that there are many factors producing a conservative worldview:

“…Of course, prejudice cannot be explained solely by intelligence, ideology, or intergroup contact. Prejudice has complex origins, including personal factors, such as ignorance and a lack of empathy (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2008), and social factors, such as resource competition and intergroup hierarchies (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Simply perusing the reader’s comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog tends to support the view that prejudice and a lack of empathy are characteristics Bolt and his readers…

The authors conclude:

“….our investigation establishes that cognitive ability is a reliable predictor of prejudice. Understanding the causes of intergroup bias is the first step toward ultimately addressing social inequalities and negativity toward outgroups. Exposing right-wing conservative ideology and intergroup contact as mechanisms through which personal intelligence may influence prejudice represents a fundamental advance in developing such an understanding.”

However, Monbiot is perhaps more scathing of “liberals” for being, well… too nice:

“…But when I survey this wreckage I wonder who the real idiots are. Confronted with mass discontent, the once-progressive major parties, as Thomas Frank laments in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate, muzzled by what he calls “terminal niceness”(9). They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation. The conceptual stupidities of conservatism are matched by the strategic stupidities of liberalism.”

Intelligence by no means equates with political effectiveness, or with being “right”.

Sure, I’m comfortable calling out the idea that climate change is a socialist conspiracy as a ridiculous, far-fetched fantasy.

However I think idiocy is a universal trait that transcends politics.

To nuclear, or not to nuclear… is that the question? Or how George Monboit has dropped the ball again

CORRECTION – I’ve been further investigating the claims about Chernobyl, and George Monboit’s claims. It would appear some of the source I cited below have very little standing the scientific community. My mistake was to rush to print and not qualify my sources. It is an important lesson, not to accept evidence at face value and maintain a healthy scepticism and not let the facts fit the argument. No one is immune from that – even WtD!

In this I feel no embarrassment – indeed I hope it serves as testimony to the idea that scepticism is a wonderful thing.

Admitting mistakes is an important part of the learning process. I would rather acknowledge error then dig myself into an ideological hole.

On the question of nuclear energy itself, I don’t think it can be ruled out. I’ve been reading extensively on the issue and I’d recommend a recent issue of New Scientist (Issue 2805 25 March 2011) as a good place to start.

Please see the following:

George Monboit – reviled by deniers everywhere – has come out in defence of nuclear power, even though he has enormous reservations about the industry itself:

I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green: all experience hath shown that, in most countries, the companies running it are a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags, whose business originated as a by-product of nuclear weapons manufacture. But, sound as the roots of the anti-nuclear movement are, we cannot allow historical sentiment to shield us from the bigger picture. Even when nuclear power plants go horribly wrong, they do less damage to the planet and its people than coal-burning stations operating normally.

However he then goes on to repeat what is the worst meme spouted but pro-nuclear shills… that the actual death toll was tiny:

Coal, the most carbon-dense of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of manmade climate change. If its combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far. Yes, I really do mean millions. The Chernobyl meltdown was hideous and traumatic. The official death toll so far appears to be 43: 28 workers in the initial few months and 15 civilians by 2005. Totally unacceptable, of course; but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change – through its damage to the food supply, its contribution to the spread of infectious diseases and its degradation of the quality of life for many of the world’s poorest people – is likely to be responsible.

Actually there is enormous controversy over the figures, and it is now acknowledged that the death toll is considerably higher.

How high is a matter of controversy.

Indeed, had George taken an extra five minutes research he would have seen even the most conservative estimates put the related deaths in the thousands. George may have been relaying on some of the Guardian’s (the paper he writes for) own reporting which states that low figure based on a 2005 WHO report:

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl almost 20 years ago has so far claimed fewer than 50 lives, according to a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN Development Programme and the World Health Organisation.

But about 4,000 people could eventually die from exposure to radiation released when a reactor caught fire in the Ukrainian forest and showered Europe with a plume of radioactive particles.

This is the same report Andrew Bolt has been waving around.

However, since 2005 further studies indicate that the death toll could be much larger. A 2006 Guardian article indicates the figure may be higher than the 50 plus:

Yesterday Belarus said that one-sixth of the country was still contaminated and the disaster had cost it $235bn (£131.5bn) so far. In a separate study, scientists said the health of the 200,000 people in Ukraine who took part in the cleanup had been badly affected. Across the region, hospitals said they were overwhelmed by people with thyroid cancers, children with genetic mutations and adolescents with radiation-linked illnesses.

But while five independent scientific studies in the last two weeks, including one by the Russia’s academy of sciences, have estimated that between 30,000 and 250,000 people have died so far as a result of the disaster, yesterday the World Health Organisation maintained its figure that only 50 people died and that it expects perhaps 9,000 to die eventually from the accident

A more recent study (2010) indicates the death toll could be even higher. The reason for estimates where much lower was because the Soviets – remember them, the one party totalitarian dictatorship – lied about the impact of the explosion.

Now that the Soviet archives have been opened, it is suggested the death toll, mostly associated with the effects of radiation, could be closer to 1 million:

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences.

It is authored by three noted scientists:

Russian biologist Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the Russian president;

Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, a biologist and ecologist in Belarus; and

Dr.Vassili Nesterenko, a physicist and at the time of the accident director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

Its editor is Dr. Janette Sherman, a physician and toxicologist long involved in studying the health impacts of radioactivity.

The book is solidly based — on health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports — some 5,000 in all.

It concludes that based on records now available, some 985,000 people died, mainly of cancer, as a result of the Chernobyl accident. That is between when the accident occurred in 1986 and 2004. More deaths, it projects, will follow.

The book explodes the claim of the International Atomic Energy Agency– still on its website that the expected death toll from the Chernobyl accident will be 4,000. The IAEA, the new book shows, is under-estimating, to the extreme, the casualties of Chernobyl…

…As to deaths, the list of countries and consequences begins with Belarus. “For the period 1900-2000 cancer mortality in Belarus increased 40%,” it states, again based on medical data and illuminated by tables in the book. “The increase was a maximum in the most highly contaminated Gomel Province and lower in the less contaminated Brest and Mogilev provinces.” They include childhood cancers, thyroid cancer, leukaemia and other cancers.

Considering health data of people in all nations impacted by the fallout, the “overall mortality for the period from April 1986 to the end of 2004 from the Chernobyl catastrophe was estimated as 985,000 additional deaths.”

Further, “the concentrations” of some of the poisons, because they have radioactive half-lives ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 years, “will remain practically the same virtually forever.”

The book also examines the impact on plants and animals. “Immediately after the catastrophe, the frequency of plant mutations in the contaminated territories increased sharply.”

How can we judge the validity of this study? It is hard to say… the Wikipedia article gives a good summary of the controversy over the issue.

This recent Friends of the Earth article provides a summary of recent studies which put the death toll in the tens of thousands:

…Nuclear advocates frequently claim that the death toll from the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster was 30-60 deaths. They also claim, as the Uranium Information Centre (2004) does, that “there is no scientific evidence of any significant radiation-related health effects to most people exposed” to fallout from Chernobyl.

Such claims are ill-informed and/or misleading. It is widely acknowledged that it is difficult for epidemiological studies to demonstrate statistically-significant increases in cancers or other pathologies caused by Chernobyl fallout for various reasons such as the relatively high incidence of the diseases, the latency period of cancers, and limited data on disease incidence. However, difficulties in measuring impacts is no justification for trivialising or ignoring them…

…The estimated death toll rises further when populations beyond those three countries are included. For example, a study by Cardis et al (2006) reported in the International Journal of Cancer estimates 16,000 deaths. Dr Elisabeth Cardis (2006b), head of the IARC Radiation Group, said: “By 2065 (i.e. in the eighty years following the accident), predictions based on these models indicate that about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers may be expected due to radiation from the accident and that about 16,000 deaths from these cancers may occur.”

Other studies estimate a still higher death toll. UK radiation scientists Dr Ian Fairlie and Dr David Sumner (2006) estimate 30,000 to 60,000 deaths. A 2006 report commissioned by Greenpeace estimates a death toll of about 93,000. According to Greenpeace (2006): “Our report involved 52 respected scientists and includes information never before published in English. It challenges the UN International Atomic Energy Agency Chernobyl Forum report, which predicted 4,000 additional deaths attributable to the accident as a gross simplification of the real breadth of human suffering. The new data, based on Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused by Chernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographic data, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died in Russia because of the Chernobyl accident,

The WHO report, which people such as Andrew Bolt and George Monboit cite is acknowledged to be flawed, as this New Scientist article notes:

…Zhanat Carr, a radiation scientist with the WHO in Geneva, says the 5000 deaths were omitted because the report was a “political communication tool”. “Scientifically, it may not be the best approach,” she admitted to New Scientist. She also accepts that the WHO estimates did not include predicted cancers outside Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The health impact in other countries will be “negligible”, she says, adding that there is no epidemiological research showing otherwise. The WHO “has no reasons to deliberately mislead anyone”, she insists. “WHO’s position is independent, free from political issues, and based on scientific evidence of the highest quality.” The IAEA refused to comment.

Fairlie and Sumner’s accusations are backed by other experts. The IAEA/WHO report “misrepresents reality by significantly underestimating the number of cancer deaths”, says Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. A paper co-authored by Mousseau and published this week in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2006.01.008) points to studies suggesting that fallout from Chernobyl has already caused germline mutations in animals and plants.

Clearly the death toll of Chernobyl is considerably higher than the “fifty or so”. Just like climate, it appears partisan politics drives people’s perceptions and acceptance (or rejection) of the evidence.

Monboit makes the mistake of wanting nuclear to be perfectly safe to counter the impact of climate change. Indeed, I’d say it is own form of denial as he is earnestly hoping for a quick and easy “fix”.

I admire Monboit writing, but I acknowledge he frequently “drops the ball” – witness is “disappointment” with climate scientists and his calls for Phil Jones to resign.

George – do your homework.

It took me all of 15 minutes to get an appreciation of the issue.

Given that you’re paid to do this, take the time to get it right. I blog/write/research in my free time.

We all want the climate problem “solved”.

But we need to take a hard look at the alternatives, and not place our hopes in wishful thinking that nuclear will be the panacea to “fix” the climate issue.

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