The Human Condition:

Trust No One – December 18, 2011

We’ve recently had revelation 2.0, the second-anniversary outpouring, in the undying story that is “Climategate.” Whether by theft, internal leak, or public request under the Freedom of Information Act, we are getting a look inside the ruminations and not-for-public-consumption exchanges of opinion among the experts in the new field of climate science. Not having read more than the snippets that appear embedded in internet stories, I can’t say that the revelations are damning proof of anything. The consensus about human-made, or anthropogenic, global warming (AGW) may be God’s own truth, or a cynical hoax, or merely misplaced enthusiasm about some worrisome trends.1 But what the revelations do seem to show is disappointing.

Before I get into that disappointment, some caveats. First, I am thrilled by the internet and the access and transparency it makes available to the average person. The news of the world is no longer the private product of three broadcast networks, two wire services, and half a dozen major metropolitan newspapers. Now everyone can blog and respond online both to the mainstream media’s postings and to other bloggers, expressing personal opinions and beliefs that may or may not always be firmly fixed in the provable facts. The sunshine of the open exchange of ideas and beliefs is really the best disinfectant for private obsessions, hatreds, and manias.

Second, I am depressed by the internet and the access and transparency it makes possible under the rubric that “information wants to be free.”2 Everyone needs to have some secrets: the salary figure you’ll really accept in a job interview; your rock-bottom price for that car; what you actually do in the bathroom and the bedroom. Governments and other organizations also need secrets: what wild-guess alternatives they might discuss before deciding on the actions they officially take; how much risk they’re prepared to tolerate in pursuing those courses of action; and when the diplomacy will stop and the war begin. Some secrets and illusions are simply necessary to a functioning society. Total exposure to media and internet attention 24/7 is now burning up every public figure who’s even brushed by the spotlight.3 Public certainty about facts and findings, discoveries and statistics, is disappearing into a raging sea of personal beliefs, manias, and unpublished agendas.

Third, I’ve worked most of my adult life with engineers and scientists as a technical writer and corporate communicator. I have tremendous respect for these people. They are admirable because, in a world of opinion and fantasy, they treat data seriously and scrupulously. They have to, because if an inconvenient fact intrudes on their formula for a new medicine or biological assay, their design for a dam or nuclear reactor, then really bad things can happen, and their signature is on the reports and drawings. They may have opinions about statistical outliers and obvious errors—why some data can be ignored safely because, for example, the instrument or reporting conditions were known to be suspect—but such doubts are always revealed, addressed, footnoted, and explained for all to see and understand.

In the matter of anthropogenic global warming, that level of publicly available scrutiny does not—according to the email fragments I’ve seen—appear to have taken place in reaching the consensus among climate scientists. In order to make clear the picture of human carbon burning as the main cause of rapidly rising planetary temperatures, these scientists seem to have been cavalier about some inconvenient facts and findings. The scientists involved mention these facts privately but, in order to keep the picture clear and simple, they appear to agree among themselves that they will not treat such facts as meaningful.

In this matter, they step beyond the bounds of science and into the realm of science fiction.

The scientist’s job is to make observations, draw preliminary conclusions, make hypotheses about these observations, and devise experiments that will test and prove them—which means trying to falsify them, if possible. The final step is to open the whole question to other scientists, who are then invited to examine the original data, reproduce the experimental work, think of and try other tests, and finally either support or reject the hypothesis.

Only in science fiction does a scientist become the popular hero leaping into the breach. Only in stories does he or she become a partisan for the implications behind his or her test results and rush to a microphone in order to save humanity from disaster.4 In fact, to the extent that a scientist becomes a partisan for any particular point of view, his or her credibility declines. The scientist as advocate is distrusted, whether he or she works for a panel that reports to a drug company, a tobacco company, or an agency of the United Nations.

Consider Charles Darwin. If any scientist had ever fashioned a dagger to plunge into the heart of divine creation, he did. Darwin presented a convincing argument for the natural, cause-and-effect changes in environment and opportunity that transform one species into another. This was implicitly a criticism of the idea that each species was created in its perfection by an all-knowing deity. Yet Darwin merely presented his ideas and let them speak for themselves. He did not move on to attack the church or the country’s education system. In fact, he remained a churchman and, apparently, a believer throughout his life. His business was with the science, the knowing, not with changing his society’s attitude toward it.

One would imagine that, in describing a possible global catastrophe, a person of honest and humane intent would naturally include a discussion of variability in the data—what are called “error bars” on a graph—and any possible alternative conclusions to be drawn from the data. And if there is a recommended course of action that is difficult or demanding, then the importance of open and free discussion of the variables rises in direct relation to the difficulty of the task. We all want to be sure we’re right before causing major disruptions.

However, as I understand it, the scientists who report so absolutely on anthropogenic global warming have:

1. Chosen to track the concentration of one gas, carbon dioxide, out of a complex atmospheric mix, including water vapor and methane among other greenhouse gases. The choice was apparently made because CO2 is the one gas whose concentration has been widely affected by human activity in the last 100 years and it’s also the one that scientists can actually show to be increasing.

2. Tracked regularly and reliably recorded temperature fluctuations from only about the last 100 to 150 years. The rest of the temperature data points are estimates, interpreted from other data series like tree ring patterns, which are themselves susceptible to other influences.

3. Fed these concentrations and temperatures into various models of the planet’s climate. Weather and climate are complicated phenomena, with many variables in play. So the construction of these models, including the assumptions they make and the dependencies they describe, is critical to shaping the results.

4. Come up with a prediction, within a span of degrees and with narrow error bars, of conditions that will exist 100 years into the future.

5. On the basis of this temperature prediction, prophesied a number of possible related effects on conditions like ocean level, rainfall, storm severity, agriculture, and other phenomena of interest to humans.5

Making a prediction based on a model is what I would call a conjecture. A conjecture about the Dow Jones Industrial Average for a century from now, based on similar data sets and model types, is not something I’d bet on. A prediction is not a fact, like the tested strength of a steel bar or the measured activity of an enzyme.

The corrective course that these scientists are advocating will be neither easy nor undemanding. They suggest that carbon burning in the developed western world has already caused irreparable damage to the Earth’s climate. They and the politicians, economists, government administrators, and citizens who accept their findings are demanding immediate and rapid changes in our energy infrastructure. They want to replace coal- and oil-based electric generation (currently about half of our installed capacity) with wind and solar (currently just a few percent) over the span of a decade or so—much faster than any economic replacement program.6 They also want to increase the prices of motor fuel and electricity so that the average customer will use less. These actions will result in misallocation, deprivation, rationing, lower economic activity, and declining lifestyles.

It won’t be a global catastrophe to ask Americans, Europeans, and upscale Chinese and Indians to accept these hardships. Certainly, a lot of people in less developed parts of the world already live that way. But the sudden collapse of economic activity will be a dislocation approaching within one or two orders of magnitude the projected dislocations that might occur, a century from now, because of a warmer climate.

Now, if all this advocacy is based on scrupulous attention to and treatment of the data—collected, evaluated, annotated, open to discussion and dispute—and based on the operation of models whose variables, source code, dependencies, and assumptions are open to review, criticism, and reproduction, then it would still be advocacy, and so suspect.

But if the advocacy is based on a belief or predilection that comes before the data and the models—that is, if the climate scientists are no better than tobacco company scientists—then who can you trust?

We have a long-standing tradition in our democracy that anyone has the right to scream, wave his arms, and call for massive and immediate societal changes right now! in order to correct some perceived injustice or avoid some prophesied catastrophe, based purely on personal opinion and belief.7 But we also have a tradition of letting the average citizen look critically at the screamers and arm-wavers, decide whether or not their arguments are persuasive, and vote accordingly.

If the climate science consensus is based on sincerely held belief and a willingness to trim the data and nudge the model in the direction of that belief, then the public is in danger of accepting a false proposition. The proposition is that the conclusions are the result of good, honest, respect-the-data science—such as has provided us with new views of and advances in biology and medicine, physics and electronics, chemistry and materials over the past two centuries. But the honest intent may not be present in climate science and its predictions. Even if these scientists are pursuing the noblest of motives to avert the direst of catastrophes, the published emails hint at a basic dishonesty in their approach. And anyone who accepts the consensus because it has been couched in the language of science and attested to by scientists is in danger of accepting that false proposition.

Trust no one. If these physical scientists can disrespect the data to prove their point, then who can you trust? Not some politician or social scientist who has joined hands with the physical scientists because he or she shares their viewpoint. Not a government of such people elected by a population of voters who blindly accept whatever a scientist says and writes. And if we can’t trust the scientists on this, a scientific question, then how will we ever know? Anthropogenic global warming may be God’s honest truth, a cynical hoax, or misplaced enthusiasm about some worrisome trends. Who is to say?

Frankly, I’m more afraid of certain economic collapse brought on by massive infrastructure change attempted over the next nine years than I fear possible collapse due to predicted temperature and environmental changes over the next ninety. But then, I’m not a scientist.

1. My personal belief? It doesn’t much matter what humankind does. As a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide is only one of several atmospheric components regulating heat re-radiation. And greenhouse gases are only one of several factors influencing climate. Solar output is a bigger factor, and we seem to be ending a recent sunspot maximum (where more sunspots yield higher energy output) and heading into some kind of sunspot minimum. Whether that minimum is short-lived or prolonged, no one can predict. But even if we could prove—unequivocally, undeniably, without the slightest doubt—that every shovelful of coal burned serves to dig the grave of an innocent human being, it still wouldn’t change a thing. No society—not ours, nor the Europeans, Chinese, nor Indians—will seriously handicap their economy to prevent a temperature rise of a few degrees over the next century, no matter what the predicted effects. Individuals may be smart and have free will, but societies are like a wave in the ocean: a million water molecules pushing and pulling each other along, all going somewhere—and eventually getting there.

2. I also firmly believe—although it’s off topic for the discussion here—that the information an individual or group has worked to produce must be adequately compensated. Yes, the novelist has used the language’s public-domain words and the society’s publicly discussed themes to create his or her new and exciting story that others want to read, but the novelist’s effort in arranging those words and displaying those themes is a product that should no more be stolen and handed around than the products of Ford and GM should be stolen off the streets and taken for a joyride. The same goes for the work that a scholar does in uncovering old facts and presenting them in support of new conclusions; or a musician does in putting together common notes and song lyrics to create new music; or a photographer does in framing a public sight and capturing it in values of light exposure, contrasts, and shadows to express a new vision. Intellectual property is not theft, and it shouldn’t be forced into surrendering its labors as a gift.

3. For example, as a young man I enjoyed the inspiration of John F. Kennedy’s speeches without having to know he was, apparently, an oversexed, promiscuous cad who routinely cheated on his beautiful and articulate wife.

4. And yes, my characters have done that—most notably the geologist Ariel Ceram in The Doomsday Effect. But that was science fiction.

5. And when they do change—when sea level rises against the shore and the band of arable land moves north and upslope—what will happen to people? They’ll adapt. Will there be dislocations? Disruptions? Hardship? Yes, certainly. But consider that much of the investment we’ve made in sea-level infrastructure and current farming methods did not exist a century ago. Or it existed in more primitive forms, like wooden docks or horses and plows, all of which have since been rebuilt to handle changes in technology like containerization and factory farming. If sea level were going to rise twenty feet in ten months, that would be a screaming catastrophe. But if it rises that much over 100 years, then sea level simply becomes another factor in your investment decision and lifestyle choices: move or stay, put down roots along the shoreline or go live inland? And believe that the climate and sea level will change, one way or another, in the next century. Go ask the Ephesians.

6. Personally, I think coal, oil, and natural gas are all too valuable as chemical feedstocks to be burned for electricity or motor fuel. My preferred energy solution is to take solar power from orbit, where the number of available kilowatts per square meter is about ten times the number that reach the ground. For a possible way to do this—and kick start our entire use of space in the process—see my novel Sunflowers.

7. In fact, we’re seeing some of that behavior in the Occupy Wall Street crowd.