Sunday, October 11, 2009

Science, and the Lack Thereof

Science is the most important technique we have to move human discourse beyond the limitations of personal opinion. This is why the authoritarians are so anti-science, so new-agey. Because if all human knowledge is mere opinion, if there is no standard of objective truth, then whoever shouts the loudest, wins. And this is exactly what’s been happening for the past 40+ years.

When I was growing up during the 50s and 60s, we took science for granted. It had its gee-whiz aspects (like Mr. Wizard showed us), but for the most part it was stolid and rather dull. We had no idea how quickly and easily the authoritarians could use mass communications to dumb things down.

The essence of science is simple: make accurate observations, and draw the logical conclusions from these observations. I’ve always been a scientist (my brain is hard-wired that way), but I was repelled by how science is practiced within the Empire, so I chose to become an amateur non-specialist rather than becoming a professional specialist, which requires devoting one’s career to one small minutiae of knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s your cup of tea, but I had other things I’d rather be doing.

But I’m still a scientific loyalist. I admire and respect what scientists are doing. I trust the process. I believe that whenever scientists reach a consensus on anything, they are quite likely barking up the right tree. (There is always opportunity for contrarian scientists to overturn the consensus, but they’ve got to prove their point, and they’re got to be persistent. This tends to keep the consensus honest over the long term.)

So... when you have an entire scientific discipline – climatology – reach an overwhelming consensus that global warming is real, and is caused by human activities, I tend to take a good hard look at what they’re saying.

And when you have individual climatologists speaking out to the press, and when climatologists have conferences devoted to the oncoming climate catastrophe, I’m impressed. Chilled to the bone is more like it. Because scientists tend to be a sedate lot -- doing their research, publishing their conclusions in peer-reviewed publications, pretty much staying within their insular realm. Climatologists, figuratively speaking, are now climbing to the mountaintops and screaming at the top of their lungs. Scientists usually aren’t so bold. Obviously, something big is happening.

So I’m watching this (as I’ve been watching for the past 25 years at least), and saying, “Oh shit; this is really happening, isn’t it? We’re really in the deep doo-doo now.”

It’s impressive how easily the denialists were able to deflect the conversation, how easily they introduced confusion into the proceedings, and by so doing, prevented meaningful action from being taken when it could have made a difference. And as we will find out when they hold the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change in December, the powers-that-be STILL won’t take meaningful action. They are obviously nihilists with a death wish, and they're in charge.

We’re watching a tragedy playing itself out in slow motion. Science has once again been relegated to the sidelines, and the loudest, most aggressive males are once again, as usual, in control, preening and strutting, spouting the non sequiturs they love so well.

Sitting out here in the left field bleachers as I am, I’m able to see the whole playing field at once glance. I have no career to protect, so there’s nothing to keep me from jumping to whatever conclusion seems obvious. When I first heard in 2003 about the melting permafrost contributing vast quantities of methane and CO2 to the atmosphere, I immediately realized that we were potentially looking at a runaway greenhouse effect. I knew it would take scientists several years to publicly articulate this obvious conclusion, because they’ve got to marshal their facts before they present their reasoned conclusions. This is as it should be.

For them to now be holding conferences devoted to, in effect, shouting out a warning, is unprecedented. These people are freaked out. Having freaked-out scientists shouting at the top of their lungs should give one pause.

Since 2003 I’ve been paying close attention to any information having to do with the “melting Arctic” situation. For years it’s been “melting permafrost” here, “release of methane and CO2” there. Now scientists are starting to put numbers on the amount of greenhouse gases to be released. (It’s already too late to stop them.) Next, scientists will start making predictions about how this will contribute global warming. Finally, the obvious terminology, “runaway greenhouse effect” will enter the mainstream. (There are already 68,500 hits for “runaway greenhouse effect” on Google.)

I think there’s every reason to believe that the upcoming runaway greenhouse effect will eliminate most, if not all, life on this planet. For one thing, we’re not talking about just temperature rise. We’re also talking about the acidification of the oceans, which will be devastating to everything living there. We’re talking about the final destruction of the rainforests, “lungs of the planet.” Many other factors are in play at well. And why not include human madness, when nuclear weapons are finally unleashed in a final spasm of nihilism? Why not indeed?

Such thinking inevitably has consequences. I can feel a cold chill upon my shoulder. My own personal paradigm of meaning and purpose for my own little life is being shaken like never before. (I’ve semi-successfully kept my focus on my own little projects up until now.) A hard rain’s a-gonna fall, gosh, who said that? I think I’ll stop writing now and go out and irrigate my garden, appreciate the gentle beauties of the little reality bubble I’ve constructed for myself here. But I can feel more blog posts boiling over on the back burner. More episodes are yet to come, no doubt.