Friday, June 10, 2005

Sorry to bum the vibe, but we are screwed

We are about to enter a new Dark Age. No, we really are. The pressure has been coming from a number of directions but the ONE bulwark that could stop us sliding back has been irrepairably damaged.

Of all the things in the world that anyone can slap with their palm and say "This is Truth" there was one where this actually was the case: scientific inquiry. The scientific method is the single best way we have of ascertaining whether something is true or not. The problem is that science has been politicised so much that non-scientists who formerly took-it-as-read or accepted it out of awe can now, justifiably, cast aspersions on anything scientific they want.

There have been great non-battles in the scientific arena: the most obvious and stereotypical being evolution versus creationism. The beauty of this was that evolution holds all the aces, so all creationism could do was chuck a tanty. Creationism was never a threat to science, because it was so easy to disprove creationist arguments, and only those who were wilfully ignorant could accept that evolution doesn't happen.
The problem is that now a particular branch of science - one so popular and well known - has entered the realm of belief. This new belief is The Greenhouse Effect. Sure there has been dogmatism in scientifical circles before. Sure there have been deleterious rivalries and embarrassing gaffs due to personalities and such like, but these are all dwarfed by The Greenhouse Effect, because now everyone has buy in. In this newest incarnation of mob-rule, fostered by the likes of Howard and Bush and their ideological compadres, you don't need to defend what you think.
Why is this bad?
Because that most idiotic of phrases "Everyone is entitled to their opinion" actually has currency now. Because that other obviously stupid concept "My opinion is as valid as yours" has weight.

Why do I think the grey clouds of doom are approaching?
Because this new belief is that the Greenhouse Effect is fact, instead of a credible warning. The debate has degenerated into a swapping of evidence on something that simply cannot be proved, nor disproved.

Ask yourself this question: Why are weather forecasters unable to predict accurately what is going to happen in a week's time?
I mean, we have decades of data; and big computers; and thousands of people working in the field of meteorology: so it seems obvious to make the conclusion that we should be able to do medium-range weather forecasting.
Well we can't.
And we can't because the weather is chaotic. That is, the Chaos branch of science.
Go read "Chaos" by James Gleik for the full skinny.
The basic idea is that a chaotic system is one where there is no end to it's complexity; where there are instantaneous tipping points; and where there is an impossibility of it behaving the same way twice. By definition a chaotic system is unpredictable. There is no way you can look at the previous points of data and accurately predict where the next data point will be. Sure, you can get close. You can get close for the first few data points, but after a certain number your predictions become no different than random chance. That is why weather forecasts are not given for a week: because the only thing you can guarentee about a forecast made seven days in advance is that it will be wrong.

The reason we can't predict the weather is the same reason we can't predict when the earth's magnetic field will reverse again or when the next ice-age will start. They are all chaotic systems.
You will have heard detractors of The Greenhouse Effect say that the computer models that are forecasting long term Greenhouse Effect are unreliable because they show either a desertworld or an iceworld. This is true: some models show an iceworld, some show a desert world. Many show the temperature becoming stable at various temperatures.
The usual defence of these models is that it needs more data points.
This simply isn't true.
No amount of data will help these models. Why? Because in a chaotic system you cannot tell from the previous data points what will happen in the medium to long term.
The irony is that all of these models could very well be right - yes all of them.
Unfortunately, the only way we will know that the "Earth stablises at 10degrees above today's temperature" model is the correct one is when the Earth actually stabilises at 10 degrees above what it is today.
We simply don't know. And we can't know. Not unless there is a scientific breakthrough of such proportions that it makes combination of The Big Bang, Relativity and the discovery of DNA look like the deductions of a mentally deficient two year old. Who doesn't have a head.
Somehow, I don't think that's going to happen. Might as well start praying to God to give you a pristine new Earth.

The problem is that the pro- Greenhouse Effect camp have nailed "We can prove it" to their mast. It is no more than cold comfort to know that it cannot be disproved either, but to the anti-GE camp this is irrelevant.
The point is we can't prove it. And someone's gonna spill those beans pretty soon. And then one of two things happens:
1) The pro-GE camp settles into dogmatism because it has invested too much political capital in their position to ever change without it looking like a rout.
2) The pro-GE says 'Yep it's a fair cop".

Either way the anti-GE camp will cry their victory, false as it may be, from the belfrys. And gleefully go about pouring mercury, PCBs, Patagonian Toothfish and Dioxins into baby formula saying "They lied about the Greenhouse Effect - we need never listen to an environmental scientist ever again. They have nothing but an ideological position."

And when the world gets to that stage I shall take up my sword.

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