Thursday, August 27, 2015

Apocalypse Now

Everything was as it should be, except that it wasn’t. We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.
—Carol Blue, widow of Christopher Hitchens, on his cancer diagnosis. In Hitchens, Mortality (2012).
A dry and smoke-filled sky [Flickr page]

This essay has sat lurking in my head for weeks now, threatening to force me into verbally confronting a reality that has borne silent witness in the hot forest and the burning skies. Instead of writing, I chopped wood and stacked it and then retreated into the stale artificial coolness of my air-conditioned house. When it was cool enough outside, I carried my folding chair to shaded places between the trees and read my books.

As the summer wore on, the ground went dusty and the birds grew quiet. The rich smells of my living forest faded into the dessicated air.

Then the wildfires began. Plumes of smoke drifted in, for days and then weeks. I stayed inside, obsessively checking fire update pages on Facebook. I drew the shades and watched movies in the dark.

For the first time, I took to watering the century-old trees within reach of my well. It may save them, for this year at least, from the bark beetles whose white larvae wriggled around the scarred surface of firelogs I’d cut from their dead neighbors. Several times per day for weeks now, I’ve pounded holes into parched earth near trunks six feet around, shoving the end of a long hose down to dribble fifteen gallons per hour into the dirt around their stressed roots. I have borrowed nearly twenty thousand gallons from the acquifer beneath me to pay the balance due to old ponderosa pines that expect more than what the skies have given them this year.

Getting worse by degrees1

Except for two tenths of an inch that fell one glorious day in July, it has not rained here since May. This summer has been hotter than these trees or I have ever experienced in these woods. And now they are burning, thousands of acres turned into smoke and ash, in all directions.

“Across the Northwest U.S., a region known for its damp climate, its rainforests, and for often cool and wet weather,” observes writer and outstanding climate blogger Robert Marston Fanney, “wildfires have been exploding. This summer, heat and dryness settled over the region in a months-long drought and heatwave.” And he adds something I’ve thought myself, having lived in Arizona for many years and now in Eastern Washington: “The climate of the Desert Southwest has been forced into Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana.”2

The forest floor is dry and gray and withered. Sad little clouds of dust stir up when I walk through it, coating pale stiff lichen and parched leaves of bearberry and Oregon grape. How much more of this can they take?

The closest fire to me, some twenty miles away, has scorched more than 40,000 acres. Meanwhile, Washington State has had over 280,000 acres burned out of its midsection from some giant fires that are still far from being contained. Considered together (though they have not yet merged, as of this writing), they form the largest wildfire in Washington state history. The previous record was set last year.3

Something is going terribly wrong.

Standing dead [Flickr page]

“Not even people who are preoccupied with climate change like to think about it anymore,” writes James Howard Kunstler in his excellent book Too Much Magic. “The more you explore the problem, the worse it seems and the more hopeless you feel.”4

“The whole idea of climate change is so overwhelming, you want to tune it out,” agrees Ted McGregor, publisher of Spokane’s alt-weekly newspaper. “But this summer, the smokey skies won’t let us. It might seem like an insensitive time to inject politics, but we need to face facts.”5

Those facts are daunting indeed. NOAA just reported that the “combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for July 2015 was the highest for July in the 136-year period of record.” That’s 1.46°F higher than the 20th century average. The previous record was set in 1998.6

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are restrained, the next four decades are likely to move many parts of the planet to “a new, permanent heat regime in which the coolest warm-season of the 21st century is hotter than the hottest warm-season of the late 20th century.”7 From this point on, we can expect about a third of the summers in the American West to be hotter than the hottest season we experienced between 1980-1999. By mid-century, most of them will be.8

That’s a drastic change for the climate of a big chunk of the United States. And as the following map shows (from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies), it’s one that’s been underway for some time now. For the past fifteen years, average July temperatures in the American West have been at least 1°F higher than they were between 1920-1980, perhaps nearly twice that.

July temps for past 15 years vs. 1920-80 average9

The Third National Climate Assessment, a report produced last year by more than 300 experts and “guided by a 60-member National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee,” shows that much of the U.S.–not just the West–was more than 1°F hotter on average between 1991-2012 compared to 1901-1960.10 “Summers are longer and hotter,” the report notes, “and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced.” And it speaks directly to what I’ve been seeing: “Hotter and drier weather and earlier snowmelt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage.”11

Where I live, it’s actually been worse than just earlier snowmelt: We got almost no snow to have melted this year. Another map from the Goddard Institute shows one reason why: Our winters are getting warmer, too.

Wintertime temps for past 15 years vs. 1920-80 average12

It does get cold here in the winter, with temperatures often in the teens and below. But that almost always happens under clear skies. When the clouds gather overhead and decide to dump some precipitation on us, temperatures are usually hovering right around the freezing mark.

One degree of average increase in that temperature can make for a lot more rain than snow. And it is snow, not rain, that remains on the shaded forest floor until March or even April in a slow melt that soaks the trees for a burst of bright green growth each spring.

We have been getting less of that sky water, lately, in either form. A so-called “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure has parked itself off the West Coast for much of the past three years, keeping moisture-bearing storms from making landfall. Last year, a team of Stanford University scientists “used a novel combination of computer simulations and statistical techniques to show” that this high-pressure region “was much more likely to form in the presence of modern greenhouse gas concentrations.”13 Their simulations came up with extreme high-pressure events significantly more often between a 1979-2005 interval compared to “pre-industrial” times, but only when “anthropogenic forcings” (greenhouse gas emissions) were included along with natural forcings. The “heightened probability cannot be explained without the anthropogenic contribution.”14

It’s a significant, unprecedented weather event that we are witnessing right before our eyes. And the likely reason we are seeing it is that we’ve spent the past two centuries dumping the carbon that nature accumulated over nearly 500 million years into those skies.15 “This isn’t a projection of 100 years in the future,” says one of the Stanford scientists. “This is an event that is more extreme than any in the observed record, and our research suggests that global warming is playing a role right now.”16

Given this, and with all the talk of present and future drought, I was surprised to see that the National Climate Assessment report actually predicts more precipitation for our region later in this century, between 10-20% more in fall, winter, and spring. More spring rain might helpful. But the summer forecast is a cruel one, calling for 20% less rain.17 That’s when the sap is really running and the trees are trying to use all the sunlight from endless days that barely dim, or to at least survive the blistering heat.

Still, for some reason, the report projects an increase of 1-5% in average soil moisture for my area by the middle of this century.18 I’ll take it, if that ridiculous ridge will just get out of the way.

Apocalypse Now [Flickr page]

In his book Climate Wars, Gwynne Dyer offers four conclusions that he reached “after a year of trailing around the world of climate change.” First is that “this thing is coming at us a whole lot faster than the publicly acknowledged wisdom has it. When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike, there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations.”19

Panic, and despair. You can feel it welling up from the scientists who were interviewed for John Richardson’s sobering article this summer in Esquire. One of them, Jason Box, is an outspoken climatologist who “escaped America’s culture of climate-change denial” by moving to Denmark. Now he tries not to talk about the magnitude of the problem because leaders of even that liberal country “still did not take kindly to one of its scientists distressing the populace with visions of global destruction.” He is thinking about a bug-out plan in Greenland, whose melting glaciers he studies.

“Among climate activists, gloom is building,” says Richardson, and then he lists some examples:

Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder–the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout” . . .

Anger is another of the emotions Dr. Box is dealing with. He has little patience for the climate-change denialists he says “are risking everyone’s future.” The Koch Brothers he calls “criminals” who “should be charged with criminal activity because they’re putting the profits of their business ahead of the livelihoods of millions of people, and even life on earth.” But he is relieved, at least, not to “have to bother with this bullshit anymore” in Denmark.20

Kunstler thinks it’s probably more accurate to call it reality denial. “It’s another of the universe’s jokes on us,” he adds, “that the humans who call themselves conservatives tend to be the most avid for squandering everything the planet affords us to live.” It’s more than politics, though. We just don’t want to face what we have done, and what’s in store for us. And that, says Kunstler,

has spawned a lively industry in climate change denial that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil, gas, and coal industries and a political subculture in its own right, aimed at defeating any policy consensus that would reduce the use (and sale) of oil, gas, and coal. Climate denial also happens to work nicely for that big chunk of the public at large that does not want to entertain any comprehensive change in the way we currently do things. And so the debate about what to do about climate change decays into incoherence as the deniers deliberately distort the facts while the science-minded are buffaloed by such mendacity and frustrated by a public that isn’t interested in the facts.21

I’m all too familiar with head-in-the-sand behavior, thanks to my studies of Christianity’s responses to evolution. Seeing such willful denial gets me angry, too, though I understand that there are many motivations for people to let themselves be misled. But, as William Catton observed 35 years ago, “real limits not seen are not limits repealed.”22

I also acknowledge my own complicity. My flights to Hawaii and back, to snorkel among coral reefs that will likely all be dead before I am, have added hundreds of pounds of carbon to the skies. I eat meat and drive a car, and had children (quite a few, as it turned out) who now do the same. Richardson asks one of his climate scientists if he think it would be wrong to take a transatlantic flight for his interviews. (Unlike Al Gore with his private jet, Richardson appears to have a healthy dislike for hypocrisy.) The scientist laughs and replies, “You have to answer that yourself.”

Perhaps there is some cold comfort for our collective guilt in Dyer’s second conclusion: Everyday lifestyle changes like changing light bulbs and reduced driving are “practically irrelevant to the outcome of this crisis.” Without “zero greenhouse-gas emissions globally by 2050 and, preferably, 80 per cent cuts by 2030,” we are in for a very rough ride. His third conclusion? That ain’t gonna happen. “Maybe if we had gotten serious about climate change fifteen years ago, or even ten, we might have had a chance, but it’s too late now.”

In happier times [Flickr page]

It is already too late for the Colorado forests that Dr. Box left behind. They “are dying,” he says, “and they will not return. The trees won’t return to a warming climate. We’re going to see megafires even more, that’ll be the new one–megafires until those forests are cleared.” I look around at the green landscape that I cherish, sullied by smoke for weeks now, and wonder. Will my trees also die, and not return?

Dyer’s fourth conclusion is that “mass movements of population, the number of failed and failing states, and very probably the incidence of internal and international wars” are correlated with increased global temperature. There is an important point to this: International mayhem from failed states and wars, “if they become big and frequent enough, will sabotage the global cooperation that is the only way to stop the temperature from continuing to climb.”23 This is a geopolitical positive feedback mechanism, one involving human behavior: Bad may prevent the prevention of worse.

Positive feedback is what makes the PA system squeal when a microphone gets too close. Something about the current output of a system causes future outputs to increase even more. There are natural positive feedbacks to the global climate system, too, and they are scary because they are completely out of our control. Once we have dumped the carbon dioxide from our planes and cars and the methane from our cows’ burps and farts (seriously, they are an issue), the resulting rise in temperatures “feed back” in various ways to make temperatures rise even faster.

Michael Mann’s hockey stick. (We’ve now passed 400 ppm.)24

That’s why increases in temperature are so dangerous even though they look small as mere numbers–unless you are sweating out a hot summer or wondering why it hardly snows anymore. “So far we’ve been the cause for the sudden surge in greenhouse gases and hence global temperatures,” says Bill McKibben,

but that’s starting to change, as the heat we’ve caused has started to trigger a series of ominous feedback effects. Some are fairly easy to see: melt Arctic sea ice, and you replace a shiny white mirror that reflects most of the incoming rays of the sun back out to space with a dull blue ocean that absorbs most of those rays. Others are less obvious, and much larger: booby traps, hidden around the world, waiting for the atmosphere to heat.

The biggest of those booby traps is found in the ground and under the seas of the Arctic, which is warming faster than any part of the planet. There are “immense quantities of methane natural gas locked up beneath the frozen tundra, and in icy ‘clathrates’ beneath the sea. Methane, like carbon dioxide, is a heat-trapping gas; if it starts escaping into the atmosphere, it will add to the pace of warming.” And it is doing just that. “In 2007, atmospheric levels of methane began to spike.”25

“Arctic permafrost ground that has been frozen for many thousands of years is now thawing because of global climate change, and the results could be disastrous and irreversible,” warns the Woods Hole Research Center. It’s releasing not just methane but also carbon dioxide. And then, after these additional greenhouse gases have been added to what we are continuing to dump into the atmosphere, you can guess what happens: The temperature goes up faster still. There is an acceleration of climate change, “which in turn causes more thawing of the permafrost. This potentially unstoppable and self-reinforcing cycle could constitute a calamitous ‘tipping point.’”26

Another example: The forests and oceans are getting less efficient as carbon sinks as we add more carbon.27 The trees are stressed from heat and drought. Millions of them are getting killed off by bark beetles that aren’t being controlled by cold enough winters or the trees’ natural defenses.

We started this mess in just the past century, mostly, when we began extracting and burning fossil fuels. Once the temperature had gone up enough, the feedback mechanisms got established. Now, the freight train is moving down the tracks, heading downhill, and it’s getting away from us. We’re not even trying to slow it down; we just continue to add more and more carbon, faster than ever. Drill, baby, drill.

What I stand to lose. That cottonwood is already dead. [Flickr page]

After attending a community meeting a few days ago about the monster of a fire near us, I realized that yet another nasty feedback mechanism is at work in the forests of Eastern Washington. It involves bad consequences of over-stressed resources, system collapse.

When lightning sparked a small fire in the Huckleberry mountains west of here, thousands of acres were already burning to the north. Our local fire chief had lent out resources for other fire districts to help fight those. That’s just what you do. It was a terrible night, with dry lightning sparking fires seemingly all around us and then strong winds fanning the flames.

Unfortunately, when yet another chief called him for help with a few acres burning in the Huckleberry Mountains, he was forced to decline. It pained him to do that, he said, both personally and professionally, but there was no choice. He couldn’t leave his own fire district defenseless, especially on such a night as that. The whole state–indeed the entire American West–was stretched to the breaking point. Yet if he had been able to answer that call, the fire might have been stopped with just dozens of acres burned instead of thousands.

And so another tipping point was reached. The local fire fighting system was overwhelmed and the Carpenter Road fire has burned forty thousand acres of forest near our home. What else is in store for us, this year, and next year, and the one after that?

It’s stressful enough just thinking about next week. Despite aggressive efforts and over four hundred personnel working the fire, the monster has just jumped its main fire line, Springdale-Hunters Road. And there is yet another “red flag warning” heading our way tomorrow. “CRITICAL FIRE WEATHER CONDITIONS ARE LIKELY,” shouts the all-caps message from the National Weather Service. “A COMBINATION OF GUSTY WINDS, LOW RELATIVE HUMIDITY, AND WARM TEMPERATURES WILL CREATE HIGH FIRE GROWTH POTENTIAL.”

They might as well just extend a red flag warning to the entire planet, from this point on.

Apocalypse Now is of course the title of a great old movie. The pictures with Flickr links are my own, and you can click on them to enlarge, as usual. Clicking on the others takes you to links from their original sources. And please take a look at the excellent if horrifying RobertScribbler blog.


  1. From​temp-and-precip/​state-temps. In fairness, it’s worth noting that the maximum summertime temperatures, while also on an upward trend over the past forty years, experienced anomalously high values averaged over the years 1920-1930, and that there were two very hot years way back around 1960. As with the prediction of higher soil moisture in my area, such isolated records of previous hot weather are hopeful little islands in a sea of awful upward trends. 

  2. “US Experiencing Worst Fire Season on Record as Blazes in Washington and Oregon Explode Twelvefold to Over 1 Million Acres,” robertscribbler blog, August 24, 2015 posting

  3. The Carpenter Road fire started by a half-dozen or so lightning strikes near Fruitland, WA and was quickly fanned by high winds into a monster that raised evacuation alerts just miles away from my home. This information comes from an information meeting I attended at the local Grange hall. Regarding the other, larger fire, see​wiki/Okanogan_Complex_fire. As of this writing, the “Okanogan Complex fire has not merged into a single fire,” so, technically, last year’s “Carlton Complex remains the state’s largest single fire.” 

  4. James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. (Grove/​Atlantic, 2012), Kindle loc. 3185. 

  5. “The New Normal,” Publisher’s Note, The Inlander (Aug. 19, 2015),​spokane/the-new-normal/​Content?oid=2540653

  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminisration, Global Analysis–July 2015,​sotc/global/​201507. It gets worse: “As July is climatologically the warmest month of the year globally, this monthly global temperature of 16.61°C (61.86°F) was also the highest among all 1627 months in the record that began in January 1880.” As you might expect from that, the trend doesn’t look good: “The July temperature is currently increasing at an average rate of 0.65°C (1.17°F) per century.” 

  7. Noah S. Diffenbaugh and Martin Scherer, “Observational and model evidence of global emergence of permanent, unprecedented heat in the 20th and 21st centuries.” Climatic Change (Springer, 2011), No. 107, pp. 615-624. Accessible online at​article/10.1007/​s10584-011-0112-y

  8. These predictions are drawn from the climate modeling maps shown in Fig. 1 on p. 618 of Diffenbaugh and Scherer. 

  9. Generated from an interactive web page hosted by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Earlier this year, the Institute “was threatened with 30 percent budget cuts by Republicans who resent its reports on climate change” (John H. Richardson, Esquire, Jul. 7, 2015). 

  10. Jerry M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, doi:10.7930/​J0Z31WJ2, Fig. 2.7 (p. 29). PDF available at​downloads

  11. Melillo et al., p. 1. 

  12. Generated from the Goddard Institute interactive web page for Northern Hemisphere winter, with a time interval of 2000-2015 and a base period of 1920-1980. 

  13. Ker Than, “Causes of California drought linked to climate change, Stanford scientists say,” Stanford Report (Sept. 30, 2014),​news/2014/​september/drought-climate-change-092914.html 

  14. Daniel L. Swain, et al., “The Extraordinary California Drought of 2013/14: Character, Context, and the Role of Climate Change,” special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Vol. 95, No. 9, Sept. 2014),​doi/suppl/​10.1175/1520-0477-95.9.S1.1/​suppl_file/​10.1175_1520-0477-95.9.s1.3.pdf 

  15. Kunstler, loc. 3278. 

  16. Noah Diffenbaugh, quoted in Than, Stanford Report

  17. Melillo, et al. (Fig. 2.14, p. 34). 

  18. Melillo, et al. (Fig. 2.22, p. 41). See also Kunstler, loc. 3366 (“Rainfall over landmasses has increased by about 2 percent through the twentieth century. Global warming increases the evaporation of moisture from oceans. It eventually precipitates out as rain or snow”). 

  19. Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats (Oneworld Publications, 2010), loc. 112. 

  20. John H. Richardson, “When the End of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job,” Esquire (July 7, 2015),​news-politics/​a36228/ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists-0815 

  21. Kunstler at loc. 3221, 3490. 

  22. Willam R. Catton, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1982). 

  23. Dyer at loc. 121. 

  24. Graph from​climate_resources/24. Regarding the “hockey stick,” see Richardson’s Esquire article: Mann “was a young Ph.D. researcher when he helped come up with the historical data that came to be known as the hockey stickthe most incendiary display graph in human history, with its temperature and emissions lines going straight up at the end like the blade of a hockey stick. He was investigated, was denounced in Congress, got death threats, was accused of fraud, received white powder in the mail, and got thousands of e-mails with suggestions like, You should be “shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.” Conservative legal foundations pressured his university, a British journalist suggested the electric chair. In 2003, Senator James Inhofe’s committee called him to testify, flanking him with two professional climate-change deniers, and in 2011 the committee threatened him with federal prosecution, along with sixteen other scientists. 

  25. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Henry Holt and Co. (2010), p. 20. 

  26. “U.S. scientists warn leaders of dangers of thawing permafrost,” Woods Hole Research Center, Aug. 27, 2015.

  27. McKibben at p. 22. 


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Faith vs. Fact: Two Opposing Sides of the Coyne

The methodological conflicts between science and religion cannot be brokered, for faith has no reliable way to find truth. It is no more compatible for someone to be a scientist in the lab and a believer in the church than it is for someone to be a science-based physician who practices homopeathic medicine in her spare time.
Faith vs. Fact
Faith vs. Fact, fascinating folio from fellow feline fan
Book Review: Faith vs. Fact by Jerry A. Coyne. New York: Viking Penguin (2015).

I’ve read about a dozen books during this hot summer of broken weather records and burning forests, most of them relating to a scientific issue that is but should not be contentious: drastic, ongoing, and potentially devastating human-caused climate change. Three of these works stand out in my mind.

Under a Green Sky by paleontologist Peter Ward tells an engaging tale about cataclysmic extinction events while cautioning about our headlong rush into what might well be another one, caused not by volcanic activity or an asteroid but our reckless burning–in a slim century of explosive human activity–of fossilized carbon that took millions of years to accumulate. Paolo Bacigalupi makes similar warnings using fiction in The Water Knife, “a near-future thriller that casts new light on how we live today and what may be in store for us tomorrow.” (Hint: You’re screwed, especially if you live in Arizona or Nevada.)

And then there is an autographed hardback volume that especially weighed heavy in my hands as I sat sweating in the evenings among my drying trees. It’s significant to me not just because it addresses the mindset of those who deny the slow changes happening right outside their windows, but because it represents the single biggest shift in my own little life: from faith to fact. The goal of its author, evolutionary biologist and religion critic Jerry Coyne, is for people to do what came so hard for me as a Christian fundamentalist, and apparently does for millions of Americans in the thrall of our fossil-fueled Western lifestyle: “produce good reasons for what they believe–not only in religion, but in any area in which evidence can be brought to bear.”1

“Nothing less than the future of our planet is at stake” when it comes to climate-change denialism, and Dr. Coyne devotes a few pages of his book to a discussion of that.2 Despite “the nearly unanimous view of climate scientists that the earth is warming because of human-generated emissions of greenhouse gases,” a dismaying number of Americans and their congressional representatives have no interest in slowing our massive dumping of carbon into the atmosphere. To him and me both, the “ability of people to ignore inconvenient truths that conflict with their faith, whether or not the faith be religious, is astonishing.”3 Yet I had that ability myself, too, ignoring and denying all the evidence against the Laestadian Christianity that long had been the most important aspect of my life.4

That form of faith was a religious one, of course, which is almost entirely the focus of Coyne’s book rather than some secular faith in Fox News pundits and talk radio. They are not entirely disconnected: He notes a correlation between church attendance and acceptance of scientific realities about evolution, the Big Bang, the Earth’s age, and human-caused global warming.5 (You can guess which way the correlation goes; sermons are not known for encouraging scientific thinking.)

Faith vs. Fact is a personal book to me for a couple more reasons that are worth mentioning before (finally!) proceeding into a detailed review of it. The odd little sect in which I was raised gets mentioned: “Laestadianism, a conservative branch of Lutheranism, considers itself the only true faith: only its roughly 60,000 adherents are eligible for salvation, with the billions of others on earth doomed to eternal torment.” Not at all inaccurate, but possibly not the way Laestadianism would like to be introduced to thousands of people.6

Laestadianism gets some exposure (Faith vs. Fact, p. 84)

And it was a real thrill to see my name listed alongside various personal heroes of mine–Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, Peter Boghossian, Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, John Loftus, the late Victor Stenger–when Dr. Coyne thanked some “diverse friends and colleagues” for help and encouragement on his acknowledgements page. After his reading and offering comments about a book of my own, some enjoyable correspondence, and a warm conversation about cats and atheists (not unrelated topics, really) at a conference where we finally met, I would be honored to call Dr. Coyne a friend.

So, full disclosure, an unbiased reviewer of this book I am not. But let’s go ahead and take a deeper look.

Competitors for Truth

“Science and religion,” writes Coyne in his Preface to the book, “are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe.”7 This pretty much summarizes his thinking on the topic, and he makes it abundantly clear which side he judges to be the winner.

All the revelations in all the world’s scriptures have never told us that a molecule of benzene has six carbon atoms arranged in a ring, or that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It is this asymmetry of knowledge that, despite religion’s truth claims, make its adherents embrace the fallacious claim that religion and science occupy separate magisteria.8

That NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) claim was advanced by Stephen Jay Gould in hopes that religion and science could get along somehow. Coyne devotes several pages to dismantling Gould’s idea of a “potential harmony through difference of science and religion, both properly conceived and limited.” The problem, Coyne says, is that one word properly, because “real religion is frequently and stubbornly improper.” Religion tends to trespass on the boundaries of science, even though it rarely happens the other way around: The “vast majority of scientists are happy to pursue their calling as an entirely naturalistic enterprise.”9 This “reliance on naturalism” is

not an assumption decided in advance, but a result of experience–the experience of men like Darwin and Laplace who found that the only way forward was to posit natural rather than supernatural explanations. Because of this success, and the recurrent failure of supernaturalism to explain anything about the universe, naturalism is now taken for granted as the guiding principle of science.10

As a scientist (or an engineer, to add my own experience into the mix), you don’t gaze upward for answers when you’re working in the lab, except maybe if a buzzing light fixture is generating electromagnetic interference. Coyne offers the amusing yet powerful example of someone who spends their life looking in vain for the Loch Ness monster. After all that effort, “stalking the lake with a camera, sounding it with sonar, and sending submersibles into its depths,” they find nothing. Which is more sensible at that point, he asks,

to conclude provisionally that the monster simply isn’t there, or to throw up your hands and say, “It might be there; I’m not sure”? Most people would give the first response–unless they’re talking about God.11

The reason, of course, is that there is so much at stake–an eternity of reward or punishment, one’s entire social network–when it comes to talking about God. I remember consciously denying myself the mental luxury of even allowing for the possibility of His absence. What a delicious relief it was when I finally could!

One scientist who has taken Coyne’s difficult but honest first option, after 20 years of investigation, is Dr. Susan Blackmore. “At some point something snapped,” she writes in a 2010 essay. “Instead of struggling to fit my chance results into yet another doomed theory of the paranormal, I faced up to the awful possibility that I might have been wrong from the start that perhaps there were no paranormal phenomena at all. I had to change my mind.”12 It’s an inspiring story, and I find Blackmore’s absence in this section of the book a bit unfortunate, a lost opportunity to point out that it can be done by a principled thinker.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Coyne has little patience for NOMA, for the efforts by theologians and science popularizers alike to avoid the appearance that a competition even exists between science and religion. Simple self-preservation makes it attractive for the liberal religious, while a strategic desire “to avoid alienating religious people” motivates scientific organizations.13 For their separate reasons, they all want to let religion save face by granting it some invisible sphere of truth outside the world of observation and explanation. That he terms “accommodationism,” a harmful “weakening of our organs of reason by promoting useless methods of finding truth.”14

Accommodationist cat: Will trade much-tabbed book for tummy rub

Some science-savvy theologians claim that their sophisticated forms of faith offer “other ways of knowing” what science hasn’t yet explained. There are indeed plenty of those questions; one that Coyne mentions is why the speed of light is constant in a vacuum. Fine, he says: Provide some concrete faith-based answers, and “tell us not only what those answers are, but how they would convince either nonbelievers or members of other faiths. And let those ‘other ways of knowing’ make predictions in the same way that science does.”

But of course they don’t, and can’t. He offers a parallel to the challenge Christopher Hitchens made to believers for an example of ethical behavior only they could perform. The Coyne challenge is this: “[G]ive me a single verified fact about reality that came from Scripture or Revelation alone and then was confirmed only later by science or empirical observation.”15 Neither challenge has ever had a credible response.16

It’s not just that religions are incompatible with science, Coyne says. Unlike science, whose many different disciplines “share a core methodology based on doubt, replication, reason, and observation,”17 religion is splintered into countless varieties that are incompatible with each other. Yet “this incompatibility wasn’t inevitable: if the particulars of belief and dogma were somehow bestowed on humans by a god, there’s no obvious reason why there should be more than one brand of faith.”18

This argument resonates with me for a reason Coyne probably never thought of when he made it: patent law. I’ve obtained over a dozen patents, for commercially successful technology. What those pieces of paper give you is the right to exclude others from making and using what you’ve invented, a right that you can then license and sell to others, or exercise yourself to avoid competition during the 20-year patent term.19 Now, an omnipotent God has the ultimate patent. He could just squash everything but the One True Religion that he supposedly invented, and that would be that. But that doesn’t happen, because there is no such patent holder.

Something else I’ve done is to spend an embarrassing number of hours studying and writing about those “particulars of belief and dogma” in all their hair-splitting details–not just between Protestantism and Catholicism, not just between different forms of Lutheranism, but between different forms of Laestadian Lutheranism. So I offer a hearty secular Amen to another excellent point Coyne makes along those lines: “Given that most religious people acquire their faith through accidents of birth, and those faiths are conflicting, it’s very likely that the tenets of a randomly specified religion are wrong. How can you tell if yours is right?”20

Uh, because the guys in suits who are telling you that it is too right are really, really sure of it–because their fathers in suits who told them about it were, too? Never mind those other guys at the “heretic” church one town over, who are telling a story whose differences are slight but of incomprehensible importance, and who have no less basis for making their own claims. Yeah, right.

At this point in my review, and in my life, I have the blessed freedom to offer the real answer to that dilemma, for those uncomfortable pew-sitters reading this who are suffering through the churnings of doubt: Revelation without observation is bullshit. A more refined and civilized statement, perhaps, is Coyne’s summary of his claims about the co-existence of religion and science. But it is no less direct. The two

are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge, and, in the end, arrive at conflicting conclusions about the universe. “Knowledge” acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge, but also with knowledge professed by other religions. In the end, religion’s methods, unlike those of science, are useless for understanding reality.21

Come on, now, Jerry. Stop being all nice and diplomatic and vague, and tell us what you really think!

The Chimpanzee in the Room

For most everyone in the United States and probably many other places around the world, mentioning science and religion together will evoke a third topic: evolution. “While not the only scientific theory that contradicts scripture,” Coyne observes, “evolution has implications, involving materialism, human exceptionalism, and morality, that are distressing to many believers.”22 But, as I observed in my first book after confronting those issues, then still a troubled believer of sorts in theism if no longer my childhood fundamentalism, theological imperative does not equal truth.23

The truth about evolution is simply undeniable to any reasonably informed and thoughtful individual. As Coyne (who has spent decades working directly in the field) notes, “it is supported by mountains of scientific data–at least as much data as support the uncontroversial ‘germ theory’ that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms.”24 Indeed, we see the deadly results of evolution in action, right before our eyes, whenever new generations of those microorganisms acquire new resistances to our dwindling stocks of effective antibiotics.

And yet denial persists, to an astounding degree. Coyne summarizes the results of a 2014 Gallup poll: “fully 42%” of Americans polled “were straight biblical young-Earth creationists, agreeing that humans were created in our present form within the last ten thousand years.” Fewer than one in five “accepted evolution the way biologists do, as a naturalistic, unguided process.” The reason is not a lack of evidence, which is simply overwhelming–countless thousands of published findings from numerous scientific disciplines. Nor is it a lack of opportunity for people to learn about that evidence; Coyne notes that “we live in an age of unprecedented science popularization.”25 Indeed, he has been one of the forces behind that with his own book, deservedly a best-seller, Why Evolution is True.

This is not about the evidence. It is about a fearful, irrational denial of reality by those who cannot afford to deviate from the party line of their precious religions. In the concluding pages of Evolving out of Eden, Dr. Robert M. Price and I reflected on the mindset of the Christian fundamentalist, a place I myself had still been uncomfortably occupying not long earlier. Things get difficult for him, we wrote,

if he peers outside the safety of church society and “healthy” reading materials to glean some awareness of the many other theological problems lurking in the tall grass of science. He may recognize himself (and Jesus!) as an evolved primate, and Original Sin as an absurd doctrine built on unscientific sand. The very rationale of the atonement collapses, along with all those “sins” his pastor carries on about, which come to look like natural, even healthy traits that allowed his ancestors to replicate and eventually produce him. The God of all Creation he once praised while musing over every tree and sunset goes quiet and cold, fading into an impersonal set of laws and forces that forms life out of randomness shaped by countless acts of suffering and death.

It should be no surprise to see so many Eden dwellers turn away from all this and scurry back to retrenchment and denial, the burden of intellectual dishonesty and cognitive dissonance still lighter than the terrifying alternative. The only other options are to water down one’s faith with accommodationism, which brings its own dishonesty and dissonance, or abandon it altogether. But science has set forth the flaming sword, and the Garden cannot remain occupied for long.26

Coyne provides some useful discussion of the theological dangers in that tall grass, too, including a crystal-clear falsification of the whole Adam and Eve idea (pp. 126-27), experimental demonstrations “that no external force seems to be producing mutations in an adaptively useful way” (p. 138), and a thorough debunking of the “fine-tuning” argument (pp. 160-66). Faith vs. Fact is not a book limited or even really focused on the theological problems posed by evolutionary reality, but it certainly gives the reader a flavor of what is keeping those poll numbers so high, one decade after the next, while the science marches on.

Facing Facts

“The vast majority of believers don’t want their faith examined skeptically,” Coyne observes in his concluding chapter about why this all matters. Nor “do they honestly examine other faiths to find why they see their own is true and those others as false.” What religion does, instead, is to defend “its claims by turning them into a watertight edifice immune to refutation.” The preachers and imams and their faithful listeners aren’t really interested in what is true; if they were, they would acknowledge that what they are currently thinking might not be. But that is a step they do not and cannot take, despite Coyne’s eminently sensible proposition that it is “better to find out how the world really works instead of making up stories about it, or accepting stories concocted centuries ago.”

I am no longer so concerned about religion as I used to be, and I hope for the same world that Jerry Coyne wants: “one in which the strength of one’s beliefs about matters of fact is proportional to the evidence . . . where it is okay to reserve judgment if one doesn’t know the answer, and where it’s not seen as offensive to doubt the claims of others.”27 I want that world, too, and I try to live my life as if it has already arrived.

But our culture is pervaded with irrationality and stubborn beliefs in what is palpably not true, and that has a way of creeping into one’s life regardless. It is not just felt in the aftershocks of religion rejected–the loss of a social network, the worries about superstitions being taught to children, the difficulties experienced by loved ones still inside the church walls. It also manifests in outbreaks of measles caused by vaccine deniers, in the disparaging and defunding of our educational system by a disinterested and even hostile public, and in what has concerned me most during this summer of heat and drought and smoke: climate change whose human causes and even whose very presence so many are still denying.

Not something I want to lose. [Flickr page]

“Doctrines may be a frightful burden,” Willam Catton wrote a generation ago in Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, another of the worthy books I’ve read during these past months. For, “with the prestige of antiquity and tradition, they deprive the living generation of an open-minded capacity to face facts.”28 It is a piece of the same puzzle that Coyne describes, just focused on a different form of faith–in limitless growth without consequence.

To avoid despairing of our ongoing ecological disaster, we have constructed ourselves a giant cargo cult, in which our modern “faith in science and technology as infallible solvers of any conceivable problem can be, in a post-exuberant world, just as superstitious” as the Melanasians who constructed runways in anticipation of John Frum’s return with piles of loot. Catton describes this in a chapter of his 1982 work with the eerily identical title to Coyne’s book: “Faith versus Fact.” He writes that the “modern Cargoist who expects to be bailed out of this year’s ecological predicament by next year’s technological breakthrough holds similar beliefs because of his inadequate knowledge of ecology and of technology’s role in it. Both Cargoist faiths rest upon the quicksand of fundamental ignorance lubricated by superficial knowledge.”29

This is not a faith from which I can just walk away, as I did with Christian fundamentalism, difficult as that was. So I do my empty penances (Catton: “We may come to feel guilty about stealing from the future, but we will continue to do it”) and look outside the window, air conditioner running, at my big trees that have lived through a hundred summers. They may not survive many more as hot and dry as the one that is burning the American West right now. And I find myself wishing for a sanctuary in which I might sing, to keep those facts away. But I know better, and this is the way I will always live, with a mind clear and free, still with more joy than sorrow just the same.

See Jerry Coyne’s book page for more information about Faith vs. Fact, a highly recommended read. If you are wrestling with doubts about a religion that you’re not sure is true anymore, and science has any part in that struggle, give yourself a few days with this work. Reality can be difficult, but the pain of trying to deny it when you know better is far worse.
My thanks to Jerry for his nice write-up of this review.


  1. Faith vs. Fact, p. xxii. 

  2. p. 246. 

  3. p. 245. 

  4. See my first book, The Examination of the Pearl

  5. Faith vs. Fact, p. 245. 

  6. The situation is actually worse than Dr. Coyne may realize. You also have to be the right kind of Laestadian to be saved, a faithful member of the correct one of at least five different splinter groups who all make their own extreme exclusivity claims. 

  7. p. xvi. 

  8. pp. 195-96. 

  9. p. 108. 

  10. p. 92. 

  11. p. 95. 

  12. “Why I Had to Change My Mind.” In Richard Gross, Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 6th ed. (London: Hodder Education), pp. 86-87. The quote is from a draft version available online at​Chapters/Gross2010.htm

  13. p. 93. 

  14. p. xxi. 

  15. pp. 91. Back when I was a faithful Bible believer, I would have responded to the challenge with Jesus’ examples of saved and unsaved people at the moment of his second coming: “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left” (Luke 17:34-36, NASB). They didn’t realize the earth was round back when that was written, I used to think, so how would a human author know to use workday examples along with a nocturnal one? But, alas, that last part about men working in the field wasn’t in the original text, and the odds of such an accidental “revelation” never occurring in thousands of lines of Scripture are very low indeed. 

  16. pp. 227-28. 

  17. p. 86. 

  18. p. 85. 

  19. The twenty years begins on the day you file the patent application, although there are no enforceable rights until claims appear in an issued patent. Some limited term extensions are possible due to certain administrative delays in getting the patent grant, but overall, patents differ from the Mickey-mouse charade of perpetual legislative updates to copyright terms in that patented ideas do usefully pass to the public good. I expect to see Walt’s precious mouse in the public domain when he can skate over frozen hellfire, perhaps to the tune of Let it Go

  20. p. 85. 

  21. p. 64. 

  22. p. 59. 

  23. An Examination of the Pearl (2012), §4.3.1: “But theological imperative does not equal truth. It couldn’t do so even when the Church had the rack and the stake at its disposal. The facts just sit there, mute, uncaring about how vehemently people deny their existence. . . . The only alternative to accepting the overwhelming evidence of man’s non-Adamic, evolutionary origins is to say that the evidence is false and was planted by God in fossils, vestigial body parts, patterns of speciation, ongoing and directly observed evolutionary changes, and a newly discovered treasure trove of information in our own DNA that matches up remarkably with all the observations that had been made beforehand. There is absolutely nothing contradicting that evidence except some ancient Hebrew writings (which themselves contradict each other) and the mountain of theology that has piled up on top of those writings over the centuries.” 

  24. Faith vs. Fact, p. 59. 

  25. p. 60. 

  26. Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen, Evolving out of Eden. Valley, WA: Tellectual Press (2013), p. 311. 

  27. Faith vs. Fact, p. 260. 

  28. Willam R. Catton, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (1982), Ch. 5, “The End of Exuberance.” Citing an 1896 essay by sociologist William Graham Sumner. 

  29. Catton, Ch. 11, “Faith versus Fact.”