Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Problem with Nige and Frank

Okay, wise men and good friends that they are, Nige and Frank Wilson stand this morning in need of a little refutation after their comments on Climate Change Again. Sorry, guys. 
The particular occasion for the scepticism is this paper. Fair enough. But for every one such paper there are thousands - fully peer-reviewed, Frank - that say the exact opposite. Basing one's convictions on the tiny fraction of the science that flatters your own prejudices - now that is faith, not reason. Furthermore both Nige and Frank justify their scepticism on cultural/moral considerations. Nige sees climate change as one more pseudo-religion 'filling the vacuum left by the withdrawing sea of faith'. Frank adds, 'the same people who tell is we are just another product of blind, pitiless evolution then turn round and place the entire burden of saving the planet on us - having first blamed us for being the cause of every bad thing in the world.' Both of these points are irrelevant and Frank's, I'm afraid, is close to being meaningless. The way climate change is being used is, indeed, religious, but that is the way human beings are, it is of no significance to the science. The link between evolution and blaming humanity/ saving the planet is, of course, purely rhetorical. Frank imagines a peculiarly unpleasant individual and then uses this person as an excuse to doubt climate change. Apart from anything else, the issue is not saving the planet - that certainly is beyond our powers -  but saving ourselves. We may also be incapable of this, but at least we may, in the meantime, extricate ourselves from these bizarre moral formulations. You may be irritated by these people, Frank, but I gather Newton and Mozart were both lousy house guests.
Nige also says these matters are 'just too big' and, therefore, beyond our understanding. This is a misconception. It is certainly true that accurate climate modelling is beyond our most powerful computers and most of the more precise green scare forecasts should be treated with scepticism. All that can be said is that there will be an increase in extreme weather events and a lot of melting ice - both these are happening. I know people will say it's cyclical, but all these cycles seem to be peaking within the same narrow time frame. A tossed coin can, in theory, come up heads one hundred times, but you'd be a fool to just dismiss the event as 'cyclical'. And the big thing that is definitely not beyond our understanding is that a single, rapacious, tribal, carnivorous species has increased its numbers to 6.5 billion and is burning carbon in oxygen in ever increasing amounts. It is the idea that such a planetary event is not disturbing the earth's equilibrium that is incredible, not the conviction that it is. 
Sceptics see the earth, rightly, as a vast, self-stabilising mechanism, but then, wrongly, assume that this mechanism will somehow accommodate any and all human activity. Why should it? How can it? The truth is, Nige, that it is the sceptics that overstate the importance of humanity.
But, of course, it is true that humans have always consoled themselves with their particular versions of the apocalypse and that may be a reason to be sceptical of this one. I agree with this and it makes me somewhat sceptical myself. The reason I seldom find time to explain this is that I become preoccupied with the irrationality of the sceptical case as a whole. Also I am impatient with the idea that the apocalypse is always some sort of banal superstititon. We assume that apocalypticism is wrong because the apocalypse hasn't happened. But it has. Repeatedly. Civilisations that were seen as entire worlds have come and gone. Any prophet of doom driven by whatever faith will be proved right in finite, historical time. Climate change may be our apocalypse. Humans will survive and, perhaps, one day laugh at our superstitious conviction that the world was about to end. But that is not what we believe, only that our way of life may be about to end. One way or another, that will definitely happen. Apocalypticism is realism.
The scientific apocalypse is similar to the pre-scientific version in that it is based on the intuition that there is something not quite right about our occupation of the planet, that we are fallen creatures. But it is different in that it is driven by a series of discoveries - plate tectonics, ocean currents, meteor impacts, super-volcanic eruptions, previous extinctions and, indeed, climatic change - that exactly define the fragility of our existence. We are here by the skin of our teeth and, science also tells us, we have not been here long. This should inspire reverence and humility.
Specifically it should refute the idea that we can do what we like to our only home and get away with it. Which is all I ever really meant to say. Knowing Frank somewhat and Nige very well indeed, I can't see how they can disagree.


  1. Excellent, Bryan. One of the few arguments for a balanced reaction. Where the realisation that the 4x4 is in itself not the problem but its efficiency. Where heating London, means inside not the atmosphere. Where recycling is not a new fad. It is less than twenty years that RETURNABLE was removed from glass bottles.

  2. That's a superb piece Bryan - thanks. I particularly love "Basing one's convictions on the tiny fraction of the science that flatters your own prejudices - now that is faith, not reason". There's passionate debate in my household as my son approaches his MMR vaccination date...

    Also - "Apocalypticism is realism" Scary, but that's what you get when you write posts at 4am :)

  3. Thanks, Vince and Ran. The clock is always wrong, it was close to 6am.

  4. First, Mock the Week and now Thought for The Day. thank god for caption competition!
    Saving the planet was due, it's the closest some of us come to religious belief now that God is pronounced dead. It makes you feel good about stuff again. It's the new paganism.

  5. I clicked-on this morning hoping for confirmation that the caption competition had become a daily highlight. So, Bryan, you can imagine my disappointment when I read that, instead of posting a picture of, say, a post-coital Aberdeen Angus, you had launched an attack on Nige and Frank.

    Disappointment aside, I'm in your camp, but I think Frank's reference to evolution, which you dismissed with contempt, points to an important issue which appears now to be linked to global warming. It is a fact beyond refutation that man's evolutionary journey will eventually take him back to a posture that is best visualised as 'on all fours'. Scientists in the US, Europe and Australasia have produced compelling evidence that this change is now taking place at a pace that Darwin would have described as "the speed of many antelopes." Scientists have pointed out that primary evidence can be found in any number of victorian family photos. If you have one to hand, you will notice that all the men stand ramrod straight. Now compare this posture with, for example, Nige (2007). Notice the dramatically increased curvature of the spine. Astronomers in Edinburgh believe that, at the current rate of change, by 2090 man's natural posture will allow him to view the Aurora Borealis from between his legs (I understand telescope manufacturers have been asked to consider design implications).

    One further piece of evidence of dramatic change embedded in the sepia prints of circa 1880 is the proliferation of facial hair, even on the women. By the demise of Lloyd George the shedding of facial hair had gathered only a sluggish momentum. But if you take the short period since 1945, the changes are quite dramatic (the 1970s should be discounted as an evolutionary 'blip'). Take British prime ministers from that date, not a hint of fuzz, and this is replicated in all walks of life.

    The next question for public debate, therefore is: Is climate change placing intolerable pressure on the evolutionary process, or is it vice versa?

  6. The argument over whether climate change is man made or cyclical is now polluted by a Consensus Science being taken up by big business - this will put many people off the man-made answer.
    As for me, I accept a cyclical argument, but can man's contribution be placed on top of that?
    I always double check science with commonsense, and make a simple deduction: if something is taken out of the biosphere/atmosphere over hundred of millions of years, and then spurted back in less than two centuries, it has got to have an effect.
    What this effect is, we have no idea - which is the problem. I tend to use a simple analogy in defining the argument.
    When a car is balanced on the edge of a cliff, the pressure of a human finger can send it over the edge.

  7. It may not be of any relevance but there was an interesting moment recently on US radio involving one of the intellectual backers of the global warming hypothesis.
    David Mayer de Rothschild's recent book, 77 Essential Skills to Stop Climate Changes was used as part of the PR blitz to accompany the Live Earth project.

    ALEX JONES: "The polar icecaps of Mars are receding at several miles a year, much faster than ours and that the moons of Saturn and Jupiter are melting, in fact several of their moons were ice and are now liquid seas - how are SUV's causing that David Rothschild?
    ROTHSCHILD: "Because those planets are closer to the sun, my friend."
    ALEX JONES: "No, Jupiter and Saturn are not closer to the sun and neither is Mars."

    Why is an obvious scientific idiot from an incredibly powerful banking family being embraced by the likes of Albert Einstein Gore to help push this agenda? With friends like these, who needs refuters?

  8. If man is a "rapacious, tribal, carnivorous species" then those are dispositions hard-wired in by evolution, presumably. In which case, it seems unlikely that humanity will be able to change itself and look at the world in a different way. More likely, the planet will do that for us: a forcible and probably huge reduction in our numbers as a by-product of the planet's self-regulating mechanisms, to a point at which our rapacity no longer clashes with them. And evolution will change us anyway, but in ways we cannot predict and over an unimaginably long timescale. To this one might add that a religious impulse seems hard-wired into us and that most religions - though not all, I think - encourage even more rapacity.

    So it's very hard to be an optimist whatever the science may say. This may not be what you meant or said, Bryan, but that's the one of the messages I got from your piece. Thanks very much for such clear and inspiring thoughts.

  9. Just one thing (I'm tired) - all these extreme events peaking simultaneously in a narrow time frame - couldn't that be because it's the only time frame that's ever been, or ever could be, subjected to such intense scrutiny and precise measurement, and where everything is out there, thanks to global communications? The impact of observation on what is being observed, all that stuff....
    Anyway, it's time for another caption contest. Unless you want a story about man-eating vultures...

  10. there are far too many opinions (we have collected them all in and a prize will be awarded at the end of the world). Nige, hit us with the vultures! are these dead people? I mean, vultures do eat people...

  11. If anyone is interested in learning about the subject, then
    google 'Climate+Stanford' and you should find an excellent video of a google tech talk on climate change and carbon trading.

    It is rather long, but there is a lot of of useful material towards the beginning.

  12. Well, at least we can be sure now that Bryan and Nige are not one and the same.
    The paper I linked to asserts that, following "an audit of Chapter 8 of the IPCC’s WG1 Report," the authors "found enough information to make judgments on 89 out of the total of 140 principles. We found that the
    forecasting procedures that were used violated 72 principles. Many of the violations were, by
    themselves, critical. We have been unable to identify any scientific forecasts to support global warming." (Emphasis mine.)
    Now I don't know whether or not their assertion will stand up to scrutiny, but I do think it is worth considering. I also know that Freeman Dyson is not in the back pocket of the oil companies and that he too is a global warming skeptic. He says: "... I have studied their climate models and know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics and do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.

    "The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That's why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

    "There's no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. The warming happens in places and times where it is cold, in the arctic more than the tropics, in the winter more than the summer, at night more than the daytime.

    "I'm not saying the warming doesn't cause problems, obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it. I'm saying that the problems are being grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and important. Poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health. Not to mention the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans."
    Dyson is only one of several bright people of good will who doubt that we can accurately predict what the climate will be 50 years from now. There is plenty of observed data that runs counter to global warming theory. The ice on the Antarctic mainland is growing, not melting.

    Now, regarding those - not you, Bryan - who tell us that our "single, rapacious, tribal, carnivorous species" is simply a product of blind, pitiless evolution. My point was only that, if that is the case, if we are simply what our chain of causation has made us, then talk of how important it is for us to do something about the consequences of our behavior is bizarre: The only hope for the world being that a completely determined creature having to decide to start acting contrary to its chain of causation.
    I don't think, practically, we differ all that much, Bryan. I live a far greener life than Al Gore does. I don't need an apocalyptic theory to convince me that we ought to be doing more to reduce our dependence on oil (your friend James Lovelock advocates greater use of nuclear energy). Instead of playing games with carbon credits, what about advocating - this is most emphatically not a joke - steam cars .

  13. Frank:

    Now, regarding those - not you, Bryan - who tell us that our "single, rapacious, tribal, carnivorous species" is simply a product of blind, pitiless evolution. My point was only that, if that is the case, if we are simply what our chain of causation has made us, then talk of how important it is for us to do something about the consequences of our behavior is bizarre: The only hope for the world being that a completely determined creature having to decide to start acting contrary to its chain of causation.

    Sorry, but that really doesn't make any sense. That man is the result of aimless evolution (which he is, but there's nothing 'simply' about it) has no bearing on what he ought to do now.

  14. It makes a great deal of sense. What doesn't make sense is to say man's present is the product of a random, aimless process but his future can be purposeful, conscious and forward-looking. Or that the impersonal, aimless process determined the fate of conscious, purposeful creatures.

  15. If you believe Gaia's Revenge, it's too late now anyway. All we can do is prepare for trouble but we cannot avoid it.

    I think the point about "single, rapacious, tribal, carnivorous species" comes down to this: the idea that we can reduce carbon emissions significantly and mend our ways is essentially utopian. It depends on everyone voluntarily making big chances to their way of life and the way they look at life.

    Is this likely to happen? Nope, not without the authoritarianism that utopianism usually breeds. In any case, it only takes a handful of psychos to undo the good work of millions and put the dial to where it would have been if nothing at all had been done.

    So it comes down to individual conscience. Yes, I ought to do my bit. But I shouldn't do so under the illusion that it's likely to make a difference. What we know about the human animal argues too strongly the other way. No one is going to volunteer to live in a hut on a dollar a day unless they are forced to.

  16. If everything is caused, Brit, nothing can be motivated. If I am simply the product of a chain of causation, then what I am writing is also the product of that chain of causation. I may feel as if I am acting autonomously, but that is an illusion born of ... my chain of causation.

  17. Frank:

    But you can take a hard line on determinism whether you believe that homo sapiens is the product of natural evolution or God's will or indeed anything else you care to name.

    If you're under the impression that natural evolution by definition cannot produce autonomous creatures, then you don't undertand evolution.

    (I'm not saying determinism is wrong, mind. I've no idea - that's a dilly of a philosophical pickle. I'm just saying it doesn't necessarily follow from the fact of evolution any more than it does from any other theory of man's origins.)

  18. don't let this man ever attempt to paint a floor - choose autonomy! choose life!

  19. Oh, boys. Who cares? Let's go have some ice cream and enjoy the sun!

  20. Well, if I misaunderstand evolution in this respect, Brit, I guess Richard Dawkins does, too. In The Selfish Gene, he writes: "Even when we’re adults and we think we’re in charge of our lives,
    the reality is that we’re being told what to do. All the time. Every time." And I confess I cannot see how autonomy can be an outcome in a purely determined world.

  21. Frank:

    First, you're conflating the evolution of homo sapiens with the causes of and influences on the daily decisions made by individual members of the species homo sapiens (of which genetic predisposition may be one, but I'm fairly sure even Dawkins doesn't claim it's the only one).

    Second, while 'evolution' can be the correct answer to a question like "Why do humans walk upright?", 'evolution' can also describe the net effect on a population of many individual autonomous decisions.

    Susan: climate change where I live does not currently amount to much in the way of sunshine, but I appreciate the sentiment.

  22. First, Brit, I better make it clear that I am not an evolution-denier. I think Darwin's idea is fine - the sort of thing a really cool God would do. But Dawkins - and, I am pretty sure, Daniel Dennett - are determinists. My argument is directed at those claiming to be determinists but also asserting we must choose to do something about, well, the course of determinism. I gather that you are not a determinist. Neither am I. And, while I believe in God, the God I believe in is not some everlasting Edison puttering about in his celestial laboratory tinkering with species.
    And why does everyone insist on ignoring steam cars?

  23. Excellent post, Bryan, although I don't necessarily think we need to respond with reverence and humility; we just need to solve the environmental problems with rationality and practicality.


    Under evolution by natural selection, the evolution of homo sapiens is a contingent fact rather than a necessary fact. So if a "really cool God" wanted to produce a species of mammal just like homo sapiens, it wouldn't use evolution by natural selection. A really cool God would have created the Earth, along with the human species, 6,000 or so years ago, just as the 'creationists' used to argue before they staged a tactical retreat into 'intelligent design'.

    Secondly, if the choices made by our species of mammal are part of a deterministic process, then the existence of choice, and the existence of motivation, is most certainly compatible with determinism.

  24. Frank,

    I'd suggest you re-read The Selfish Gene (preferably the 2nd Edition - the endnotes are illuminating).

    Anyway to quote Dawkins on his supposed determinism:

    "Critics have ocasionally misunderstood The Selfish Gene to be advocating selfishness as a principle by which we should live! Others, perhaps because they the read the book by title only, or never made it past the first two pages, have thought that I was saying that, whether we like it or not, selfish and nasty ways are an inescapable part of our nature. This error is easy to fall into if you think, as many people unaccountably seem to, that genetic determination is for keeps - absolute and irreversible. In fact genes determine our nature only in a statistical sense.... There is no reason why the influence of genes cannot easily be reversed other influences."

  25. But Gordon, under evolution by natural selection, the evolution of every species is a contingent fact. I don't see what's so cool about the creationists' God myself, but to each his own. Economy of means is what's cool about mine.
    And Graham, in the passage you cite, Dawkins is simply indicating that genes are not the only determining factor. He is not saying things are not determined.
    I must say we've come a long way from global warming. I'm sorry I made any mention of evolution - it so upsets people's religious convictions.

  26. Gordon:

    Sounds like you have a bestseller in the making: God is not Cool!

  27. Strangely enough, Peter, God is not cool was the original title for my book, The Structure and Interpretation of the Standard Model. "Only 3 left in stock--order soon (more on the way)." But perhaps they only ordered 5 originally.

  28. I enjoyed that. Great post, Bryan. Great debate.

  29. I am not sure, Gordon, if I understand your second sentence, but insofar as I may it seems that your premises are the same as your conclusion, which I believe is a petitio.

  30. Frank, you're assuming from the outset that determinism is inconsistent with the existence of choice, because you define choice, from the outset, as something whose outcome cannot be determined. The function of my 'second sentence' is to point out that this is not necessarily true, that in a deterministic world, choice processes are simply part of the overall deterministic process.

  31. Well, it seems to me, Gordon, that to be free to choose means not to be determined. So perhaps what I have left out of the discussion is the concept of freedom. You may have something resembling choice in your determined world, but I don't see that you have anything resembling freedom. So we are still left with the conclusion that any sense of free choice in such a determined world would be illusory.

  32. It depends what you mean by free, Frank. Free choice is an epistemological concept, whereas determinism is an ontological concept. In a deterministic world, you don't know what you're going to choose until you do so, but the choice you make is, nevertheless, determined.

  33. Who says that free choice is an epistemological concept as opposed to a state of being "exempt from external authority, interference, restriction, etc., as a person or one's will, thought, choice, action, etc.; independent; unrestricted"?
    I think you and I know perfectly well what it means to be free and what it does not mean is to be determined in your choices by forces or factors outside our control. When I talk about freedom I mean actually being free, not simply having the illusion of being free.

  34. Who says that free is an "epistemological concept" as opposed to a state of being "exempt from external authority, interference, restriction, etc., as a person or one's will, thought, choice, action, etc.; independent; unrestricted," as the dictionary would have it? I think you and I know perfectly well what it means to have free choice, Gordon, and what it does not mean is having you choice determined by forces and factors outside your control.

  35. Being free from external authority, interference, restriction, and having something under your control, is perfectly consistent with free choice being an internal process, which is part of the overall deterministic process. The ontological process is deterministic, and the separation of the world into things under our internal control, and things outside our control, is an epistemological act.

    Free choice does, indeed, occur when your choice is not determined by factors outside your control, but the process of having choice under your control is simply a sub-process in the overall deterministic process.

  36. "... the process of having choice under your control is simply a sub-process in the overall deterministic process." Which means, Gordon, that it is an illusion - "something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality." In other words, in a determined world, we are not free, however much we may feel we are.

  37. Choice is only an illusion if you define it, at the outset, to be something which it cannot be.

    In a deterministic world, acting under compulsion from an external authority, and acting through internal choice, are two different types of sub-process in the overall deterministic process. The distinction between these two different types of process is far from illusory.

    An action which is chosen is ontologically determined, just as much as an action which takes place under external compulsion. The distinguishing feature of the chosen action is that you don't know what you're going to choose until you choose it, hence such freedom of choice is an epistemological concept, and, again, far from illusory.

  38. "In a deterministic world, acting under compulsion from an external authority, and acting through internal choice, are two different types of sub-process in the overall deterministic process. The distinction between these two different types of process is far from illusory."
    The distinction may not be illusory, but the outcome is the same: To be determined is not to be free, and to think that you are free, or to feel that you are, in a world that is determined, is to be mistaken.