Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, July 22, 2011

We're having a heat wave

Breaking news has come in from noted climatologist Rush Limbaugh, with regard to all of you people in the Midwest and on the East Coast who think it's been a bit hot out for the last week:  you're wrong.  If you think it's hot, you're falling prey to a government conspiracy.  Here are his exact words, which I transcribed myself at the cost of uncounted millions of brain cells that I can ill afford to lose:
They're playing games with this heat wave again.  It's gonna be 116 degrees in Washington DC... no, it's not, it's gonna be 100, maybe 99.  The "heat index" is manufactured by the government.  They tell you what it "feels like" when you add the humidity!  When's the last time the heat index was reported as an actual temperature?  It hasn't been, but it looks like they're trying to get away with doing that now...  It's 100, maybe 97, it's gonna top out at 102, 103.  It does this every year.  We have this heat dome over half the country.  It's in the Midwest, moving east, and it happens every summer.
Well, sorry, Rush, but the heat index is not a "game," or an invention of the government.  It's a number calculated based on the rate of heat loss by the human body, which is lower when the humidity is high (thus resulting in your feeling hotter).  Even if you're equally hydrated, a temperature of 100 is more dangerous in Philadelphia than it is in Phoenix, because when it comes to health, what matters isn't the ambient air temperature, what matters is your core body temperature -- which rises faster if the humidity is high, because your body can't throw off excess heat as quickly.

Which is why, so far, there have been 22 heat-related deaths from this heat wave that "happens every year."

What bothers me most about all of this is that science should not have a political agenda, either liberal or conservative, and the facts of climatology (such as the fact that this summer the Arctic pack ice is melting at the fastest rate ever recorded) get spun as having a political bias.  Whatever your political beliefs, facts have no bias at all.  The heat index comes from a calculation that anyone with sufficient brainpower can perform.  The rate of the pack ice melt is something that anyone with access to the data could calculate.  Limbaugh, and others like him, are playing the dangerous game of pretending that the facts themselves are suspect -- they have gone beyond accusing the scientists themselves of skewing their theories to forward a political agenda, they now have sunk to claiming that even the raw data is being cooked by the politicians.

For the record, I am well aware that scientific theories can have political ramifications, and that science itself is never free from biases of various kinds.  I also understand the difference between climate and weather, a distinction that seems to escape people like Sean Hannity, who claimed last winter that the enormous snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast in February "buried the idea of global warming."  And, for the record, I don't think that the warm-up we've seen to date (which is a fact) has been absolutely demonstrated to have a solely anthropogenic origin (which is a theory).

However, what bloviating blowhards like Limbaugh and Hannity do is to pump up the distrust by the public of the facts generated by science, and call into question the scientific process itself.  As I've commented before, I find it curious that people are perfectly willing to believe that the scientific process discerns the truth when it comes to things they'd like to trust (such as medicine, engineering, and materials science) and yet gives wildly wrong answers when it comes to things they wish weren't true (such as evolutionary biology and climate science).  I'd like someone to explain to me how the same process, applied in the same way, can find the truth in certain instances and be crazily wrong in others -- especially when the times it's crazily wrong seem to fall coincidentally in line with the political agenda of the speaker.

And while you're explaining that, will someone get me a glass of iced tea?  'cause it's freakin' hot in here.

1 comment:

  1. Now that is a solid post Gordon. Truly enjoyable reading. You hit the nail on the head.

    On that note, can i just say that last week, here in Northern Europe (Sandwich, England to be exact), grown men wore ski caps while playing golf in July. There is decidely NO heat wave happening here. How would Rush explain that one? Or would we rather not have him pontificate on European politics?

    Thx for your insightful writing.