Saturday, February 10, 2007

I like having dissenters around.

They can help keep us humble, which helps keep us honest. Even Voice of the Faithful is right in reminding us not to cover up a scandal. Yes, sometimes it is easier for an educated person to tell a recalcitrant ignoramus "Shut up and trust me," but being easy doesn't always mean it's always appropriate.

Most people aren't experts in all, or any, of the subjects that are major, contentious policy issues in this country, but they're not stupid, either. They can be duped by a propaganda campaign but respond thoughtfully when accurate and balanced information is made available. Sometimes people need to be reminded, but with flawed policy as with heresy, the danger is in unbalancing a complementary set of principles and emphasizing one at the expense of the others. We generally take it with a grain of salt when it's commercial advertising or political campaigning, but it's often confusing when it comes from a different source, and sometimes the paralysis of confusion is the biggest defense against would-be policy makers with strange agendas.

Generally this paralysis can be pushed through with a persevering united front of public institutions, either by getting the honest word out or by spinning a convincing story otherwise. There are several examples--pro-abortion activists perpetually recasting the debate in terms of "women's rights and safety versus oppressive men and their brainwashed wives," war opponents defending Saddam (and I'm not saying the Iraq thing has been clean on any level) and conveniently forgetting UN weapons inspectors' reports of being stopped outside of facilities and watching convoys leaving through other exits, people claiming the APA has certified homosexuality as healthy because it took it off its list of disorders (the real reason being, with no apparent means of treatment, reducing the stigma would at least be palliative), and environmentalists warning us that deleterious climate change is such an urgent matter that we can't take the time to study it before trying to fix it.

I'm going to focus on this last point today. I'm not going to say there isn't good science out there, but I'd like to talk about how science isn't the only thing in play, and how if there weren't skeptics of global warming asking these questions, the stop-industrial-emissions-in-developed-countries program would be a lot farther along, and the climatological evidence would either be undiscovered or underreported (because, hey, if crackpots couldn't make skeptics out of normal people, why divert efforts trying to prove anything to them?).

To wit, Dr. Stephen Schneider, a high profile activist for the global warming theory, as quoted in Discover in 1989:

To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

In the same quote he also said that scientists are also humans who care about people and how they live, and I do sympathize completely with his motivation; mentioning any single piece or small assemblage of evidence and letting it drop might elicit no more than "How interesting. What's next, evidence of an inflationary universe?" I also can't blame him for oversimplifying--we see it everywhere, with some of the most dramatic examples coming from the field of nutrition, where we were at first told to cut out all fats because they didn't think we could distinguish HDL from LDL, so people binged on low-fat and later low-carb snacks (well, all right, I won't blame the talking heads for people consuming far more than normal because "good in the right amount" was confused with "harmless")--and it's hard to tell when you're above the "a little knowledge is dangerous" threshold but below the "too much information is confusing to the untrained mind" point. However, what Schneider is talking about isn't science, it's propaganda, plain and simple. While making efforts to convince people of something is just a natural part of society, we have to remember the difference.

"Oh, but now we understand the science better than we did before," says many a disciple of global warming. Yeah, and in a decade we'll understand it even more. Thirty years ago, we were sure there was global cooling because scientists were in consensus. After years of propaganda that got way out ahead of the science, do you really think we're just supposed to pretend that enchanting us with doomsday stories has something to do with reality? Fool me once, fool me twice. Why should we believe your story is true just because you want us to find it engaging? If it was clearly overstated from the beginning, but you advertised it as fact anyway, then it's either pure marketing or part of some other agenda.

We can handle the truth, even if it's bad news. We might want it with a pinch of sugar, but if you're just trying to manipulate us into pressuring the Powers That Be into funding your project, into stopping your pet apocalypse, whatever, we're going to be suspicious because unmixing the truth from the propaganda isn't easy. Show us the science--try not to water it down too much--because trying to convince us to believe it because everyone is believing in it is just calling us to jump on the bandwagon.

Oh, and the Atlantic "conveyor belt" isn't in such bad shape, after all (see the 1117-06 issue of Science). Was this oceanic current supposed to be one of those smoking guns that we can trust, or just a curiosity? Will there be any others?

We've also got The Weather Channel quashing open discussion of doubt in global warming, in the interest of raising science above the level of politics. Science isn't about silence. Honest science--I admit, with humans as scientists, egos often get in the way on all sides--requires listening to all hypotheses and their criticisms, finding evidence for the accurate ones and against the inaccurate ones, and addressing the inadequacies that dissenters can more easily see. The answer to "your theory doesn't cover a few discrepancies I'd like to address" is not "Never mind, and listen to us; we're the ones with the consensus." Sometimes criticism is easily answered, but for the sake of us unwashed masses, please make the effort.

It's doubly important when there's public policy to downplay the facts, whatever they may be. The antidote to propaganda is not contradictory propaganda; it's truth. When someone calumns your position, your first responsibility is not to play that game. Present what you know, admit what you don't, address the criticism, but don't incite panic. There's more to being right than just being persuasive.

"The world's about a degree warmer than it was a century ago!" Look, I'll give you shrinking ice caps, but you've got to come clean so we can all try to solve the problem, whatever shape it's taken: Are you measuring temperatures in 1907 the same way you're measuring them in 2007? What's your confidence interval in each case? Just tell us, and show us how. Obviously being patronizingly vague has gained you as many enemies as it has sycophants, neither of which will convert the other.

One degree doesn't tell us much, anyway. We have decades of detailed meteorological data, including some studies of historical outliers like the little ice age and the warm middle ages, and still have trouble predicting a week in advance. Are we putting a reasonable amount of faith in the predictions made for decades and centuries into the future?

Besides, it's not just a question of what some planetary thermometer can tell us. Just being hotter may not mean much; we also need to look at heat capacity, how thermal energy is stored; at the difference between isothermal climate change and adiabatic climate change. Some extra heat energy is hypothetically converted to mechanical energy in the form of more severe and numerous storms, but there hasn't been much of a change there at this point, as well as in the conversion of ice to water, which we have seen (although they're getting thicker--more snowfall is another meteorological effect of heating in current science; this quickening of the polar water cycle might be another means of buffering the atmosphere from greenhouse gases).

"It's our fault! Temperatures are changing more quickly than they should!" How do we know how quickly they "should" change? Are there studies out there using human-excluding models that have much flatter "hockey stick" graphs than what we're really seeing? I saw one presentation where a researcher from, I believe, NOAA presented a model and findings where the opposite was true, where our impact didn't appear to be sufficient to cause what we're seeing. Just one man, yes, verses a horde of environmental activists and journalists who can't distinguish context from slant assuring me that some expert or plurality of experts somewhere is sure that we're mostly responsible. Whatever studies are out there, once they're in the public sphere, they seem to be suffering from the Bush Dictator effect: badly paraphrased, vaguely cited.

Not to mention methane, which is more potent than CO2, but not anthropogenic, and the fraction of greenhouse gases that are artificially produced. Actually, they don't mention methane nearly as much. Is it because it's not as important, or just because there's less we can do about it? Why don't we plant a few trees and try to reign in a little our enthusiasm for government oversight, and then look at what we can't do without federal or international cooperation?

Don't get me wrong, I'm concerned about the place we live, too. Even if the Earth were on the verge of another ice age and this shrinking ice cap thing were just a fluke, I'd be in favor of trying to minimize our environmental impact in every sphere--fertilize or irrigate when necessary, but try to do no harm along the way. I'd be a little wary of trying to tame the weather when our knowledge of how climate is is so limited we can hardly even ask the question of how the climate should be. I just don't see the loudest advocates treating it like the emergency they tell us it is. Al Gore--not a scientist--is up for a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing American industrial waste gases even more to the public's attention. To paraphrase a recent letter in the local paper, we shouldn't confuse activism, activity, with accomplishment; but I suppose if Yasser Arafat deserved the prize, Gore is no less qualified.

Not to pick on him, but he's a dramatic example.

Come on: he tools across the country on a private jet that puts out more emissions in a single flight than the average SUV does in a year, in order to warn us even more about global warming, including promoting America as being to blame for being so productive. When he lands, he takes an SUV. Conservation for thee but not for me? Is saving the world too important to bother saving the world along the way?

An Inconvenient Principle?

1 comment:

Ed Pie said...

Er, methane is not as anthropogenic in the industrial sense. The only way to cut down on man-directed production is to get rid of livestock and stop eating beans. Silly propositions.