A Hyper-Skeptic Example – E. Calvin Beisner of Cornwall Alliance

Posted by on October 25, 2012 in Featured, Science, Thoughts | 3 comments

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:

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and is also an author and speaker on the application of the Biblical world view to economics, government, and environmental policy. He has published over ten books and hundreds of articles, contributed to, or edited, many other books, and been a guest on television and radio programs. A ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he has spoken to churches, seminars, and other groups around the country for nearly twenty years.

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):

“My friend,

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:

And if, believing that all life is equally sacred, we try to apply a humane ethic to beasts, we easily wind up with a beastly ethic toward humans because we hold them no more sacred than the beasts.

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:

27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

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:

Saying she represented the WEA with its 750 million people in 129 countries, she said, “climate change is not a controversial issue, as it is in the United States. The United States is the only country that I work in that this issue has been so controversial and so politicized.” She expressed sorrow that “What you hear most of in the media are evangelicals who are very opposed to climate change advocacy,” and “It’s been very discouraging and very challenging to work with my generation on this issue.”

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):

But does the Golden Rule—“whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12)—necessarily entail believing every claim from the environmentalist community about eco-disaster lurking around the corner? Does the second Great Commandment—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)—require mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to fight global warming, at a cost of trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, and delayed economic development for poor countries around the world?

Clearly not.

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:

Will you please help us now with your generous gift of $50, $100, $250 or more? Will you prayerfully consider joining those who support us with automatic monthly donations—the most effective form of support because it enables us to budget for the coming year? And above all, will you pray for us?

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:

In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. [Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address]
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  1. I really like this article because I see this sort of blind denial in much of the *religious* (mostly Christian, in my experience) so-called ‘free thinkers.’  Those who claim they support science and are skeptical of bias, but seem unable to identify their own bias. 
    For example, not too long ago on Twitter I had an exchange that went something like this:
    We were discussing the historical & contemporary religious underwriting of child maltreatment. I asked if she’d read Janet Heimlich’s book: “Breaking their Will: shedding light on religious child maltreatment.’  She said she hadn’t but was “skeptical” because the author is a journalist. So I asked if she was skeptical of Lee Strobel (author of “The Case for Christ” & “The Case for a Creator,” based on his vocation as a journalist. She claimed they were unrelated issues. So I asked if she was skeptical of journalists or just ones who criticised her religion. She didn’t have an answer for me.
    Thanks for this post, Marty, and for always exposing religious terrorism.

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  2. This is a really good example of extreme hyper-skeptical thinking. There are some I know right of the political center who irritatingly equate the scientific process with their own political thinking and motivations.
    Needless to say, I mostly try to avoid the temptation to argue on those topics where strong biases (theirs and mine) may come into play, mostly because I get easily annoyed when rules of valid argumentation are ignored in favor of ideological talking points, and more heat than light is generated as a result.
    “Septicism” is a good term, and I hope it catches on in the community — Kudos to the one who came up with it!
    I’ll have to poke around to find my own pet hyper-skeptics to put under the lens of critical inquiry. That may even be fun.
    Good post, Martin.

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  3. Sound like your friend is approaching the Child Maltreatment question exactly the way Marti is saying one ought to approach the Climate question: “…look at a situation, weigh the information for credibility, and come to a conclusion based on the evidence presented.”
    Moreover, when I consider the highly emotional nature of the former question (and the latter too these days) it seems highly unlikely to me that the human animal can robotically resist “having a foregone conclusion” and “denying any information that doesn’t conform to this”. Skeptics ought to heed what psychologists are telling us.
    I see many examples of skeptics asserting the superiority of heroically researching and thinking for themselves, rather than merely modestly heralding the contemporary professorial opinion. A very human mistake imho. Because we’re human? Or because expert opinion –say when spelled out simplistically in wikipedia– even when scientifically shown to be highly reliable is still inherently impersonal thus difficult to trust??

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  1. The Trouble with Facts | Martin S Pribble - [...] opposed to “hyper-skepticism”, which I have recently written about on two occasions, it is not the questioning of information…
  2. A Hyper-Skeptic Example – E. Calvin Beisner of Cornwall Alliance … | The Environmentalism - [...] Posted by Martin S Pribble on October 25, 2012 in Featured, Science, Thoughts | 2 comments [...]

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