Friday, November 7, 2008

Coffe Break Response

I enjoyed some of Crichton's fiction, (but Congo was atrocious, one of the worst books ever). However, he was best when it was transferred to movies or TV [ER is an all time classic], which is a genius and gift in its own right. I was sad and shocked by his death, but he was what he was. A gifted creator, an entertaining writer - not so much of literature - who happened to have gone to Harvard medical school, and thus, was granted credibility beyond his merit. His attacks on consensus science are well known, and difficult, if not impossible, to refute. How can one argue that consensus science isn't infallible- look at history? No one disputes this. (BTW- linking Sagan's Drake equation to an issue like consensus science is an oustanding tactic, since there is no real science associated with Drake's equation- I just don't think that is 'consensus science' though.) However, I would hardly point to him or his thoughts as reliable on this philosophy.

Quick digression- Gamma, your post somewhat misstates the larger point in the link, there is a distinction between Crichton's bugaboo of consensus science and your problem with model generated data, (although Crichton does also link the two). I respect your point more. Crichton is simply a devil's advocate who says just because everyone believes something doesn't make it true, and it isn't true until its infallibly proven. Computer models are used to support consensus science, but the "mavericks" can just as easily use computer models to refute consensus science. Similarly, computer models are often used to support "real" science. If a computer model based upon theories comes to fruition, the theories are given that much more credibility. Computer models are just that, computer models. A healthy skepticism of computer models is fine because anyone can make a model say anything, its a fancier form for statistics, and recall Twain's axiom of statistics and lies.

Back to it- Now let's look at global warming. Let's say we have a credible (but not infallible) computer model that indicates we are destroying the earth in 50 years. Let's say most every respected scientific mind on the Earth agrees global warming is anthropogenic and the model is most likely correct, but without a control experiment and a variable experiment, this theory is doomed to "consensus science." Oh well, let's ignore it until its proven. Will you write the apology to the next generation when there is extensive agricultural and fishery damage (of course, wars as a result), an increase in natural disasters, etc.? Say, "Sorry, but the science was consensus and based on a model, and I just wasn't 100% sure- you know, Einstein was right (kind of) and he bucked consensus science, so I was following his footsteps. Still, now that I know, I'll leave a note for the next round of humans, so they react accordingly." I could stop there because the easiest argument is, the risk in not acting far outweighs the benefit of being able to say I successfully challenged "consensus science." (BTW- if we all jumped on Crichton's boat, then we are in consensus there is no global warming, so by definition, there suddenly is gloabl warming.)

How many advancements have come from the routine plodding forward of consensus science versus the Eureka moments of the mavericks? I'm wagering 99.9999% of of our lives today result from multiple, like minded scientists working together under set assumptions rather than the genius maverick who bucked the trend. Sorry, attacking consensus science may put you with the cool kids, (yes, I'm talking to you, Penn and Teller and [GammaBoy]), but its still somewhat ridiculous to say we can't rely on it. Just have your healthy skepticism and be done with it.

There are books on global warming- the science and assumptions - so I'm not going to get into it on post. Let's simplify on the macro level- Average temperatures have risen almost 2 degrees since we began taking data around 1880. The rate of increase in temperatures is also increasing at a record rate. Polar ice caps are melting, glaciers and mountains snow caps too, coral reefs (a canary in a coal mine barometer) are being destroyed by ocean temperature change. Okay, now everyone agrees on this (the same naysayers wouldn't even grant these facts until recently), but does it follow that it won't stop on its own or isn't related to human causes?

Well, the greenhouse effect itself is not disputed. That is "real" science. Other than water vapor (which increases b/c of the global warming), the greenhouse effect on earth is primarily caused by methane and CO2. It is undisputed that our human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning and deforestation, lead to increases of these in the atmosphere. So we're still on solid science ground here. We can measure historic gas levels from ice cores and compare to today; we're off the charts from at least 650,000 years, so again, pretty safe science. When it comes down to it, the only real gripe is the differentation in models in just how shitty it will get and how fast. No one disputes it is getting shittier if we don't change; the "deniers" for example, just claim we'll run out of fossil fuel before we get there, and the models fail to take this into account. All I can say is take a look at the various models and see what assumptions you agree and disagree with, and plan for your children accordingly.

As for me, Gamma, you may be the smartest guy I know, but at the end of the day, I'll side with these guys and allow you to hang with Penn, and Crichton and the former tobacco lobbyists.

1 comment:

GammaBoy said...

That was a great response, GBB, and there is nothing I can disagree with, especially the risk/reward analysis, which with it is difficult to argue.

My problem is that people have become religiously fervent about global warming, so that more reasoned discussion such as your post gets lost in hyperbole and demonization of people who question some of the conclusions of the environmental movement. It is therefore difficult for a non-expert like me to separate sober analysis from hysteria.