Rush is Wrong on Religion

I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.

Rush Limbaugh’s view on scientific issues has always bothered me, even when I was a fan of his show. He has always had an alarming tendency to misquote and misuse science data. In this particular case, he takes an incorrect claim (that Arctic Sea Ice is recovering) and misquotes it (to say that Arctic Sea Ice is at record levels). The quote also illustrates his tendency to conflate any environmental concern with radical environmentalism and to be more concerned with who is pushing environmental dangers (i.e, liberals, Al Gore) than whether those environmental dangers are real or not.

But there’s something else that I wanted to tuck into. Here is a recent quote from Rush, claiming that if you believe in global warming, you can’t believe in God. This is not out of context and it is not unprecedented. He has said this sort of thing before: that it is arrogant presumption for human beings to think we can affect the climate.

On my shelf, I have copies of The Way Things Ought to Be and See I Told You So. Even when I followed Limbaugh, the chapters on science and the environment were painful to read. The chapter on environmentalism of both books starts out with Rush’s profession of faith and his belief that the Earth was created perfectly by God and can not really be harmed by man.

It’s particularly illuminating, 20 years later, to look at how he related this to specific issues. At that time, CFCs and the ozone layer were one of the primary environmental concerns, the way global warming is now. And in both books, Rush denies that CFC’s destroy the ozone layer. (That’s not even the worst part; he also denies acid rains and criticizes the government for allowing wildfires to burn to clear out dead wood). I remember being a bit skeptical when I read that chapter 20 years ago. It’s shocking to read now.

But here is a claim that is particularly relevant, when he’s claiming ozone depletion is a fraud. Notice the pattern that we have seen repeated with Rush and everyone else over and over again. First, the strawman:

Scientists say a supernova 340,000 years ago disrupted 10 percent to 20 percent of the ozone layer, causing a sunburn in prehistoric man. Wait a minute — I thought only man could destroy the ozone. I thought only modern technological innovation and the horrible products of human progress were lethal enough to damage the planet.

This is a ridiculous statement. No one ever claimed this. The most destructive events in history — asteroid strikes, supervolcanic eruptions, super-earthquakes, ice ages, melts — have been natural. No one ever claimed this was not the case.

Now the misquote:

Has anything man ever done ever approximate the radiation and explosive force of a supernova? And if prehistoric man merely got a sunburn, how is it that we are going to destroy the ozone layer with our air conditioners and underarm deodorants and cause everybody to get cancer?

Here is the NYT article on the Geminga supernova (which, interestingly, quotes the future PI of my mission). Here is the relevant quote:

The explosion that gave birth to Geminga, the two new studies show, may have been close enough to the earth to destroy up to 20 percent of the earth’s high-altitude ozone layer, which shields the surface from dangerous ultraviolet radiation emitted both by the sun and the supernova. The supernova apparently occurred less than 195 light-years from the earth — not so near as to cause any mass extinctions, but close enough that the resulting sunburn might have impaired the health of human beings and other creatures, said Dr. Neil Gehrels, the author of one report. Solar ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer and cataracts in human beings and damage marine organisms.

So my good colleague simply noted that Geminga may have damaged the ozone layer enough to cause harm but not extinctions. It was mostly a scientific aside in the larger story: the discovery of the Geminga supernova. Moreover, even if we put that aside, this was a sudden short event that occurred nearly 200 light years away. The relevance of this to the ozone debate was not that we didn’t have to worry; it was that we did. If a sudden short event 200 light years away could cause enough ozone disruption to harm human beings, what could the collective sustained actions of several billion human beings over decades do?*

And that is the point. The skeptics claim that the planet is too big and grand for us to harm. And … they have a very tiny point. Driving your car to work is not going to destroy the planet. Buying an LED light bulb is not going to save it either. We, as individuals, are tiny compared to the Earth. But the collective actions of billions of us integrated over decades or centuries can affect the Earth.

We don’t have to speculate; we’ve seen it. Rush noted that American forest were healthier than ever. That’s true. But in the same sentence, he notes that they were in severe decline until the 20th century. Lake Erie is gigantic, with a surface are of nearly 10,000 miles. It was so polluted at one point that it was almost dead. It has now recovered thanks to human action, spurred by the environmental movement. The Cayahoga River is massive. It was so polluted that it actually caught fire. Farm runoff from the plains states annually creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has ranged up to 8000 square miles in size. Many people believe the Mayan civilization collapsed of poor land management. Ours teetered when awful land management created the Dust Bowl.

The environmentalist aren’t always right. Overpopulation turned out to be overblown, for example, and Paul Ehrlich turned out to be a crank. But that doesn’t mean that all environmental dangers are baloney.

And Rush was wrong in this specific case. Ozone depletion, which Rush regarded as a hoax, did happen and has stopped since the CFC ban and there is evidence that the hole may be closing now. But Rush doesn’t bat an eye. He turns over those arguments, pencils in “global warming” for “ozone depletion” and rolls them out again. And once again, the base of the argument is the magnificence of God’s creation and the inability of man to harm it.

The idea that God’s creation is too amazing for us to harm finds its apotheosis in this quote from The Way Things Ought To Be

I refuse to believe that people, who are themselves the result of Creation, can destroy the most magnificent creation of the entire universe.

..

The fact is that we couldn’t destroy the Earth even if we wanted to. The Earth is over 4 billion years old [not sure how Rush reconciles this with his creationism]. The archenemy of nature, man, has been on the planet no more than 200,000 years. Man can not even come close to creating the powerful forces of nature — many of them damaging and destructive — yet these forces have been around for the same four billion years the Earth has. … Even if we dedicated all our resources to destroying the planet, even if we put Daryl Gates in charge of the effort, we couldn’t do it.

No, but we can make it a much more hostile environment for human beings.

The thing is that there is some sense in some of the stuff that Rush says on the environment. He points out the superior environmental record of free-market (but regulated) economies over command-and-control ones. He calls out the environmental hysterias of Alar, overpopulation and oil spills. He talks about environmental problems that have been solved, like the Cayahoga (although he ignores the regulation and environmental activism that produces those cleanups and his intellectual predecessors who denied it was a problem).

But in the end, he falls back on a pseudo-religious view that creation is too magnificent for us to affect it and it is arrogant and blasphemous presumption to assume that we can.**

This is dangerous thinking. It is destructive thinking. This specific line of thought has already been destructive. During the 19th century, numerous species were wiped out because people believed that God would not allow a species to be destroyed and that to assume we had the power to render a species extinct was blasphemous presumption. In fact, the initial objections to Darwin’s theories were based partially on opposition to the idea of species extinction. (Not that this is a problem for Rush. He uses the rediscovery of the coelacanth to argue that extinction may be a myth too).

I’m a religious person. But the danger of religion is that it can be abused to justify whatever point of view someone wants. And given the nature of human beings — we are OK at reasoning but dead awesome at rationalizing — it provides a means for people to justify ignoring environmental concerns (or hyping them, as John Kerry tried to in the lead-up to Rush’s quote) completely divorced from fact or logic.

Much of Earth’s environmental history has been defined by the actions of inhabitants: the first oxygen-breathing creatures, for example radically changed the environment. Seven billion human beings all burning fossil fuels and pumping out billions of tons of carbon dioxide can have an impact on the planet. The scale of that affect and its secondary and tertiary impacts on our lives can be debated. But the basic fact can not.

That’s not blasphemy. That’s not atheism. That’s math.

*(In another passage, Limbaugh claims that the Pinatubo eruption put out thousands of times more CFC’s than human beings ever have, therefore we have a tiny impact on the planet. This was, in fact, completely false. It’s difficult to find a link because scientists aren’t usually in the business of falsifying completely bogus claims plucked out of the air. When I write a paper, I don’t usually have caveats about how my results are irrelevant to global warming or species extinction)

**(Rush’s relation of religion to science is not his only problem. He also has a problem relating religion to economics. As was pointed out at the time, Rush took the story of Joseph in Egypt to claim that Joseph averted the famine by cutting taxes. In fact, Joseph took grain from the farmers, sold it back to them during the famine and, when they ran out of money, nationalized their land and cattle and did a massive land redistribution. That’s … not supply side economics.)

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