Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Those Enticing Alternatives...

I tend to avoid discussions of politics, climate change and other hot topics, especially with persons who are passionately tied to their beliefs rather than guided by science and reason. Occasionally, however, I find a rational thinker who is eager to engage in honest discourse, but who has been inundated with corrupted (or at least heavily skewed) data. I was recently sent this Wall Street Journal article by one such person, and I felt compelled to respond. My response will seem quite soft by the standards of this venue -- attenuated, perhaps, by the value I place on my relationship with the sender of the article -- but I thought I'd share it anyway, partly as a means of pushing myself back into some sort of blogging activity, and partly to have an opportunity to explore yesterday's rather off-the-cuff response more thoroughly through readers' comments.

Climate change happens regardless of human activities. In that human activities contribute to the acceleration of such changes to rates that outstrip our abilities to respond appropriately, I continue to believe that it is worth our while to make every effort possible to curb emissions of CO2, CFCs, and other greenhouse gases. Perhaps all such efforts will prove to have been in vain with regard to climate change (either because they were achieved too late or because their targets were insignificant compared to other factors), but in that they will have contributed to making the world a healthier place in which to live, they will not have been truly in vain. Combustion of coal, diesel, ship fuels, heating oils, biomass, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) gasoline, produces airborne pollutants that are probably contributing more to the global burden of cardiovascular disease than all the fatty foods and cigarettes ever consumed (note: global burden -- not individual risk), so if combustion of such pollutant sources is reduced for any reason, whether the reason is bogus or not, I'm all for it.

As for the article... exciting stuff, and probably (I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to particle physics) scientifically plausible (one of the key ingredients to establishing causality in the absence of randomized controlled trials, which are, unfortunately out of the question without access to a decent sized sample of Earth-type planets and a study period of at least several millenia). The response from the scientific community is neither appropriate nor surprising. Science is rarely allowed to proceed as it should -- in an unbiased vacuum -- and scientists rarely behave as they should. Science is typically funded by government entities or corporate powers and they both have their agendas. Even when the scientists are allowed to perform their investigations unhindered and report their findings without censorship, there is always a bias, in that only the scientists who have already declared an interest in a "fundable" field will get funding, while great minds and ideas that seek to explore alternatives are left to wither. As for the implications of this research, well I guess there's not much that can be done about cosmic rays, but there's not really much that can be done to prevent climate change at this point regardless of its cause(s). No matter what humans do, fail to do, or choose not to do, we're likely to see some dramatic climate change over the next several decades (at least), and it would behoove us to start directing efforts and resources towards preparations. The danger that I see in propagation of any theories of climate change that shift the burden of responsibility away from humans is that it is likely to result in widespread environmental irresponsibility. Perhaps it's not entirely honest to state with an air of absolute certainty that humans are solely responsible for global warming-induced climate change, but if enough people can be convinced of it, they may start forcing governments and corporations to take the welfare of the planet seriously and some of the environmental damage that has been wrought since the dawn of the industrial age might be allowed to slowly heal itself.

I'm all for discovery, development, technological progress, etc, but not in the irresponsible manner in which it's been conducted for the past couple of centuries. Of course much of what is now known about the adverse effects of industrialization and high energy consumption was not understood at the time that processes were set in motion, but now that we do have a good idea of what we've done, it's time to clean up our act... and to freely share technology and knowledge across the globe, allowing the developing world to leap-frog over the most destructive phases of development and join us in (what the most optimistic part of me hopes will soon be) a responsible and sustainable existence. So... if a little fear and guilt might possibly help spur progress towards a greener, cleaner, healthier world, with freer sharing of technology, information and resources, I guess I'm generally OK with the possibility that one of the many contributors to climate change might be receiving a little too much emphasis relative to the others. I don't like the idea of filtering or weighting information, but I'm not sure what other options there are. The information is far too complex, and all of it is surrounded by too much uncertainty to expect people to be able to digest it and rationally make decisions based on it. We're dealing with a population of scientifically and mathematically bereft individuals who aren't equipped to employ reason and logic, nor to deal with uncertainty, quantification of uncertainty and relative levels of uncertainty, so decisions end up coming down to who can make the biggest emotional impact on the greatest number of decision makers (voters, congresspersons, shareholders, etc). Climate change is but one of a host of disastrous problems affecting the globe (and perhaps the one about which we can do the least), but it's an easy one around which to rally... and if it can be used to get people to start thinking globally -- to start recognizing themselves as members of a global population rather than citizens of nations, adherents of religions, or employees of corporations -- then let it be the one that gets used.


  1. Hey there, nice to see you! I'm not trying to make you feel guilty, I promise! It's good to have a blogger here who is less of a hothead than the demented founder of the forum.

    As for the CERN results, I guess I'm not sure why they should be considered a big deal. Yes, it does seem like there was some politics behind the funding of the CERN project. But nothing like the massive scandal right wingers are always hoping for. And the results of the project aren't really anything to get excited about in any major way.

    The conservative media in general -- not just the WSJ -- are portraying the CERN results as a fundamental challenge to the science of climate change. But that isn't true. Not just "it's kind of misleading" or "from a certain point of view, the CERN results could be seen as the prelude to overturning the anthropogenic theory of climate change causation." Nope, in this case, it's simpler and more accurate just to say: it isn't true.

    The CERN results, as described by the authors of the Nature article and by informed scientists, are -- unless I am gravely mistaken -- interesting data having to do with one tiny strand in the causal web of climate change. That's it.

    See, in particular, this post at is a web site run by mainstream climate scientists who go out of their way to be cautious and non-alarmist in communicating the current state-of-the-art on climate data and interpretation. Their post makes it pretty clear that the CERN paper on cosmic rays and cloud formation begins to fill a tiny gap in existing data about the behavior of aerosols in the atmosphere.

    This finding is so very, very far from "cosmic rays, not humans, cause climate change" that lay people will have a very hard time understanding how great that distance truly is. The way I read the post, saying the CERN results are significant in casting doubt on anthropogenic climate change would be like using a paper on measurement errors in some gene frequency models to cast doubt on the validity of Darwinian natural selection. The doubt just isn't there, and anybody who says otherwise is just wrong. End of story.

    So the WSJ article really is just conservative disinformation, with nothing new or interesting about it. End of story. See also

    The main problem remains: how to communicate with people who deny the science of climate change (and other scientific and technical findings, e.g. on evolution or birth control).

    I have no answers on that score. In the future, if I do get drawn into conversations with a denier, my main strategy will be to talk about friends and acquaintances of mine who are real-life climate scientists. I will ask the denier: can you tell me how my friend helps advance the global warming hoax? Is my friend simply being duped, or rather consciously deceiving me or others?

    If the answer is "being duped," how, exactly, does my friend with a PhD allow so much obviously flawed data into daily research and teaching activities? Is my friend simply stupid, or incompetent? Would you be willing to talk to my friend in person to explore the answers?

    Or, if you feel my friend is actively deceiving me, colleagues, and students, how exactly does my friend get away with this? Does my friend actively instruct graduate students in advance that only certain results are acceptable in experiments, field work, and papers? Would you like to have coffee with my friend to explore this issue?

    I have a feeling that this approach won't get very far, but it will be interesting to try.

  2. Oh... and lest I be accused of bias, I should mention my favorite anti-rational delusions of left wingers:

    (1) Vaccines are a hoax.

    (2) 9/11 was an inside job.

    (3) Renewable energy can replace fossil fuels and keep our economic growth going the same as before.

    As I said, I don't really know what to do to get people thinking in a scientifically literate fashion about probability, causation, logic, and so forth.

    One thing occurs to me: material reality doesn't care what deniers of material reality think. It simply obeys the rules that they try to deny. If deniers jump off a building believing their telekinetic powers will allow them to fly, they'll make a bug-like splat on the pavement upon impact.

    Unfortunately, it's hard to turn that observation into any sort of useful approach to dealing with deniers. Someone who thinks vaccines are a hoax will continue to dismiss any number of preventable deaths from vaccine avoidance. Unless maybe it's, say, their own child who dies. Someone who denies human-caused climate change will go on insisting that cosmic rays are causing the storms and droughts and collapsing ice caps. Unless they find an emotional, personal reason to do otherwise.

    Human existence, in the end, is an existential absurdity. All of our efforts to do pretty much anything are kind of a farce, in the grand scheme of things. Still, we have to try do good, as we see the good, and seek the truth, even in the face of the overwhelming obstacles. Because humans are hard wired to do that. Climate deniers, too.

    I'm not sure where I'm even going with any of this. Other than to conclude that yes, it's hard to carry on in the face of climate change denial -- or other viewpoints contradicting the laws of nature, as determined by the most reliable system of knowledge confirmation ever developed by human beings.

    But we have to try, and also try to have a bit of fun along the way, while we're here.