A Hyper-Skeptic Example – E. Calvin Beisner of Cornwall Alliance
Some of you may be familiar with the name E. Calvin Beisner, as I have mentioned him before on my blog, but for many of you, this name will be a mystery. Let me give you a brief introduction to him, courtesy of his website:
On top of this, he was actually one of the founders of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and one of the main voices behind the “Resisting The Green Dragon” phenomenon (which is a huge evangelical push against environmentalism on the grounds that it is “of the Devil”), and the “In His Image” campaign (which in their words hopes “to completely reshape the way Americans, and then people around the world, think of human beings and our role on Earth – to reassert the sanctity of human life and sexuality, the beauty and centrality of marriage, the goodness of human multiplication, and the dignity of human work and godly dominion over the Earth.”).
He is also a prime example of what happens when biblical literalism and evangelical Christianity meet hyper-skepticism.
I subscribe to the Cornwall Alliance newsletter, mostly at first just out of curiosity, but I soon found myself intrigued, then gobsmacked at the range of topics and the sheer willful ignorance shown in these newsletters. The emails I receive on a regular basis (every 2 weeks or so) have titles such as “Protecting the Poor on Energy Costs“, “A Humane Ethic for Beasts?”, and “Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ to Parents: Leave Your Kids’ Minds to Us!”. All emails I receive are anti-science, anti-choice, and anti-environment. Most of the emails are written by E. Calvin Beisner himself, and others are articles written by other members of The Cornwall Alliance. The Cornwall Alliance call themselves “climate-change skeptics”and “science skeptics”, but the truth of the matter is their skepticism is so unable to hear the overwhelming data coming from science that they have become “climate-change denialists” and “science denialists”.
What is the basis for being anti-choice, anti-science and anti-environment? Well of course it’s the bible, the inerrant word of God, that drives their skepticism of all claims scientific. Let me give you a few examples from the emails I’ve received.
In an email from October 5 2012 titled “A Humane Ethic for Beasts?”, which focuses on the apparent importance of placing humans above all other animals on earth because of certain passages of the bible, Beisner writes (bolding is mine):
What’s wrong with a “humane ethic toward beasts”?
Nothing—maybe. If all that’s meant is that we don’t treat animals carelessly or, worse, abusively; that we treat them with care appropriate to their status and the circumstances; that we not treat them sadistically—well, if that’s all that’s meant, it’s fine. But for lots of folks in the environmentalist movement, that isn’t all that’s meant.
And sometimes, unintentionally, they show what they really mean.”
The letter goes on to use the example of sharks being killed off the coast of West Australia (I wrote about this briefly in a guest post I did at Maria’s Blog BarrelOfOranges.com), and states that humans hold a far more important role on earth than “a fish”. He goes on to write:
As Syndrome said in The Incredibles, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
Right. And when everything’s sacred, nothing is.
This is a completely unfounded claim, which stands to promote humans above all other animals, both in rights to be on earth and to live in peace. It is sensationalist to claim that by giving animals rights, we take them away from humans. The simple fact that he calls them “beasts” shows the contempt he holds for other animals. And he backs it all up with words from the bible, Genesis 1:27–28 which reads:
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
A good precedent to placing humanity above the rest of the planet.
This is not an isolated incident, though, not by any means. Every email I get from him is packed with the same “human-centric” rhetoric (do not confuse “human-centrism” with humanism), telling its readers that humans are above everything EXCEPT God. Homo Sapiens Über Alles. Along with their anti-Green Dragon rhetoric, their words are those of delusional denialists.
In an email from October 17 2012 titled “Do We Need to Green the Golden Rule?“, Beisner asks whether other Christian groups, ones that are sympathetic with environmental causes, are at odds with the teachings of the bible. He calls out specifically Deborah Fikes, the executive advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance, telling his readers that the claims she recently made about the treat of man-caused global warming are not only false, but have been disproven (incidentally by Cornwall Alliance). The email reads, in part:
But then she cheered up: “the good news is that younger evangelicals in the U.S. really get this issue. It resonates with them. They see it as a moral imperative that we speak out, because not only is it good for our own self-interest, national security here in the U.S., but it is also part of our faith, of loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
Beisner then goes on to refute these claims (again, my boldings):
So his concern is for money and jobs? Where does it say in the bible “Thou shalt use emotional blackmail when preaching the words of the gospel”? The facts are, as far as any credible scientist can tell, humans are in fact having an effect on the environment, and that if saving humanity, and the planet, means that we need a new economic system, then so be it. This is the biggest strawman argument I have seen in his emails; Using content that is completely unrelated to the phenomenon of climate change, appealing to people’s emotional and religious weaknesses, and using a voice of authority, is a complete red herring. And what is worse, those on the outside can see that his motives are not coming entirely from his purported quest to glorify God and the bible. His anti-environmental stance stands to strengthen the resolve of those who support the Cornwall Alliance, namely the business-people who depend upon the use of coal and oil to keep their businesses afloat without any inconvenience.
His most recent email, titled “Science Publisher Calls for Better Communication—But Not of Science” is the most blatant display of denialism, under the guise of “climate-change skepticism”. In it he hopes to blind people with bullshit, to draw conclusions from unrelated information, and seizes upon “studies” coming from the very small pool of “experts” who agree with his hypothesis, that there is no such thing as “catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW)”. He tries to back this up with false claims about over-population (though those who really know how this works blow this claim out of the water), using the emotive stance that, in his words, “Impending population decline threatens to cause poverty, and poverty [sic], not prosperity, jeopardizes humanity and the Earth. Below-replacement birth rates burden the next generation with the care of many elderly by few workers.” As if that weren’t bad enough, use of sensationalist media headlines and snippets from these articles are used (probably with the hope that the reader won’t click-though, and which use selective data sets designed to only show the information which backs their position) to show that “the environment is just fine”.
Beisner is just one example of how a preexisting position, in this case that humans are incapable of destroying the world (because it says so in the bible), can cause a hyper-skpetical standpoint that is actually a form of delusional denial. Every time he comes forward with something new to back his neo-conservative Christian denialism, his “proof” comes from studies and articles which, when put to the test are proven to be false or at a minimum, misleading.
And it’s very telling when each email ends with:
The hyper-skeptic problem is one of preexisting standpoints; A person is skeptical of everything that doesn’t back their position. When coupled with the position of ultra-conservative Christian theology, the outcomes can be quite alarming. And all this would be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that people like Beisner are influential within certain circles. (I think it is important to point out here that not all evangelical Christians are hyper-skeptical, as seen above in the case of Deborah Fikes.)
A true skeptic, one worth their salt, will look at a situation, weigh the information for credibility, and come to a conclusion based on the evidence presented. Hyper-skepticism is already having a foregone conclusion, and denying any information that doesn’t conform to this. And while it is healthy to question everything, the answer will not always be dubious. Don’t believe everything you read or hear, but as the old adage says “Don’t open your mind so much your brains fall out.” One of the keys to a truly healthy and skeptically inquiring mind is the ability to change one’s opinion or stance when better and more complete information comes to hand. This is true also for the sciences.
The idea of hyper-skepticism was described to me earlier this week as “septicism – toxic to conversation and progress; septic to rational thought”. I think this description is apt, and I may adopt this term from now on when describing this phenomenon.
This quote from Carl Sagan sums up my position quite well: