Reading an article co-authored by a genuinely clever dude I know, Tom Swann, I had a few of my thoughts on climate change crystallise. Or maybe they glaciated. Apparently Harvard University doesn’t want to divest from fossil fuels because doing so would be a political position and universities should be apolitical. Many would disagree with that last idea. Regardless, if you call climate change a political issue you are actually just wrong. Continue reading Climate derange
To take Nassim Nicholas Taleb seriously one first needs to unsubscribe from his Twitter feed, then un-like him on Facebook and then read his books, especially Antifragile and Black Swan: his daily output is somewhat erratic, whereas his books are quite profound. Continue reading If we take Taleb seriously
So the other day I saw an interview with a very kindly, warm-hearted woman who claimed to have survived inoperable cancer by praying to Mary Mackillop: a long dead Earthling organism whose remains are now presumably so decomposed that barely a fragment of what was previously her living self remains and therefore one of the least qualified people to do anything to affect another person’s biological health.
You might be wondering what help or counselling we are offering this clearly harmless, but delusional or stupid lady who believes in such, as it were, rot. None. In fact, the interviewer didn’t question her extraordinary claim at all. You might further wonder why the remainder of the news program and the remainder of the news week weren’t devoted to this extraordinary discovery of several magical processes which invalidate most of the claims about the universe on which you and I base our actions every day.
Well, Gzorgax, on our planet we have an interesting relationship to knowledge about the world, which I’ll try and outline as simply as I can. When knowledge is very well established, through experiment, data collection, peer-review, etc., like the claim that the Earth is getting warmer owing to post-industrial age human activity, we approach with incredulity. In fact in such cases of near unanimity of opinion among the very people who have learnt the most about the topic, we make sure to give equal credence to dissenting, ill-informed voices, in some bizarre obeisance to favouring even pathological scepticism. Which is fine I guess.
But we relax a little bit when talking about something where there is some written, historical record of events, intermingled with obvious confabulation. Take, say, Islam, which is a system of belief founded by a middle ages warlord who shagged a nine year old girl and who claimed to speak regularly to a god no one else could hear or was even allowed to claim to be able to hear, lest they be slaughtered by armies of that selfsame child-statutory-rapist. In such cases we challenge adherents only when they go too far and actually put their beliefs into practice by killing non-believers.
The least amount of scepticism is reserved for those who profess to believe in stories of creation which aren’t even written down and based on historical record, but are instead oral traditions of indigenous peoples. In such cases, because of a mix of condescension, respect and guilt for wrecked cultures, we generally don’t judge these claims at all, despite their obvious status as sub-standard fairy tales rather than coherent ontologies.
You might be worried that our civilisation is on the verge of collapse because we employ this reverse burden of proof for claims based on an inverse relationship to how much evidence the claimant can furnish. But luckily we have a failsafe called “hypocrisy” which means that people don’t actually believe any of this fluff and live their lives as if we live in a causal universe based on scientific laws and not mumbojumbo. So even while they’re praying, they still see their doctors and take their medicine.
This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2012.
Climate change is perhaps the most important issue of our time and undoubtedly involves complex science, geopolitical implications and subtle moral and ethical arguments. Owing to its inherently interdisciplinary nature, it is impossible for any one person to be an expert in all the relevant fields. So Rule 9 of being a PI applies here: the more difficult something is to understand, the easier it is to pretend to others that you understand it.
Climate change will be brought up in conversation in one of two contexts: (1) someone decides they are a denier after reading an article by Freemon Dyson, Bjorn Lomborg or some other twonk; or (2) someone argues that we should be doing more to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Luckily a very small amount of factoids will cover you in both instances.
First off you need to get used to mentioning the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and their Fourth Assessment Report (2007). Rule 7 of being a PI is that acronyms are worth double the value of actual words; but Rule 7 subsection 7.2 notes that further expanding the acronym if someone asks you what it means, is worth double that value again. Don’t read the report but tell people you have and that it contains all the information they need to learn more about climate change — don’t worry, you won’t get caught out because they won’t read it either. Rule 18 of being a PI is one of my favourites and is relevant here: it’s not who’s read the most things, but who’s heard of the most things that should be read.
The tricky bit is memorising the following technical phrases which can be jumbled around a bit and if deployed will exude the sweet, false odour of erudition: solar forcing (the sun getting hotter or something), aberrant volcanic activity (volcanoes pumping bad gasses into the air) — actually that’s about it. Then you can just say that all the factors which are known to have affected the climate in the past can be ruled out today, leaving only human industrial activity and our production of CO2 and other gasses like methane (always say “and other gasses, like methane” even if you don’t know any others). Then explain that simply cutting emissions is futile and that we need larger interventions (throw in “carbon sequestration” and “geo-engineering”). This will show that you are gravely concerned, but it will also absolve you from actually doing anything unpleasant like protesting about emissions targets.
This article originally appeared in Woroni in 2011.