Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hard Things: Admitting ignorance when stakes are high

OK, I'm taking off the white gloves for this one. We have a long way to go on such public matters as "Climate Change". LiveScience published this a while back, but AFAIK it's still current.
The bottom line, according to a group of experts not involved in any of these studies: Scientists don't know much about how sunlight interacts with our planet, and until they understand it, they can't accurately predict any possible effects of human activity on climate change.
BINGO. Read it all, for it is good. Even such worthies as Dr Brin seem to take Michael Crichton's most recent book State of Fear to task, along with taking him to task -- such being human nature. But, modulo the cardboard (and card-carrying) pseudo-eco-baddies, what I'd paraphrase him as saying in that book is "We really don't know a hell of a lot about a great deal of crucially-important stuff, and all the hand-wringing and hand-waving isn't bringing us any nearer to finding out." He is not saying that humans are not messing things up, either. As one small example, in a speech for the National Press Club this year ("The Impossibility of Prediction", located on this page), he said:
I still believe that environmental awareness is desperately important. The environment is our shared life support system, it is what we pass on to the next generation, and how we act today has consequences—potentially serious consequences—for future generations. But I have also come to believe that our conventional wisdom is wrongheaded, unscientific, badly out of date, and damaging to the environment. Yellowstone National Park has raw sewage seeping out of the ground. We must be doing something wrong.
In an afterword in State of Fear, Crichton writes:
Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon. Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made. Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century.
But it feels good to be doing something, and what if humans are messing things up -- there's no time to waste!, and, and, and.

Because, it's tacitly assumed, the only alternatives to it being beyond doubt that [recent human activities are causing a measurable increase in the average temperature of the planet that presents hazards to life as we know it] are:
  1. You're an ignorant or selfish stooge
  2. You're a selfserving fat cat. Finally, the really scary one...
  3. We're all totally powerless!
Right? Right? Those are the only alternatives, right?!

Humans. I weep for the species. And for mainstream media such as Knight-Ridder, who call up a bunch of scientists that are at the front of their Fil0faxes and (surprise!) mostly find opprobrium for State of Fear. And of course, for Dr Crichton.

Note that I have bones to pick with the works of Dr Crichton, as well. But that's for another time.

"What else could it be but..." works best if you don't listen afterwards. They go together like peas and carrots. OTOH, "We [just] don't know..." can be, or sound like, a cop-out.

Coaxing feedstock from the research funding trough can proceed apace either way.


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