Unreasonable Doubt

I recall reading years ago about the results of a study that showed beyond doubt that the self-esteem movement was based on a faulty assumption. Telling kids they were great because they breathed in and out on a fairly regular basis did not, in fact, breed self-confidence. In California, where the self-esteem movement was started, the study was denied by at least one city councilman who said: “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In fact, the study showed that the kids who were told they were great knew damned well they were not and what was bred was not self-confidence but contempt for their elders. I worked with kids for years and, believe me, they know when they are being duped. They sense falsehood the way a dog senses fresh meat on the floor. They may not be able to articulate it, but they sense falsehood and pretense.

In any event, the doubting of science is not new and it seems to have been given new life in recent years as people who should know better insist that scientific evidence about climate change is bogus and science, in general, ought to be dismissed out of hand as an attempt to alarm and upset the rest of us. The people who make these outrageous claims are obviously in denial (or the pockets of Big Oil) as they proceed to make their coffee in electric coffee-makers, make office calls to their local physician when in pain, drive their automobiles, fly around the world in airplanes — all activities involving faith in scientific ingenuity. In a word, we have here a case of denial in the form of selective beliefs. We reject those beliefs we find uncomfortable and we adopt as certain those that make us feel good.

This would not be a serious problem, of course, if we weren’t talking about the survival of the human species and possibly even the planet itself. Selective belief has been around, I dare say, since the dawn of time. For all we know the saber-tooth tiger fell victim to it! But we are now living in an age in which the rejection of science borders on the insane. Science is not THE answer to all our problems. Heaven knows, Horatio, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in science. But, at the same time, science can provide us with a fairly certain guide to human conduct that will not only fly us anywhere we want to go, but also help us avoid the deep pitfalls that await those who insist upon walking around with blindfolds across their eyes.orwell-1

I am a firm believer in testing all claims to truth. Critical thinking is essential if we are to survive as individuals and as a species. But it is not critical thinking that insists upon the rejection of scientific truth; it is sheer stupidity, if not duplicity. There are certain things that are beyond doubt: the probability is so high as to approach certainty. When 97% of the scientific community agrees about the dangers of continued abuse of the planet, we can be fairly confident that this is true — even if we can’t follow their arguments and decipher their complicated data.

It pays us to be cautious when the stakes are as high as they are. And it pays to check for hidden agendas among those who deny climate change as well as those who insist it is a fact. The deniers have a great deal at stake, to wit, their increasing profits in the sort term. The affirmers are scientists who are simply concerned about the future of this planet and who have no hidden agendas — despite all the false charges laid at their feet. It might be the better part of wisdom to pay attention to those who are shouting alarms in increasingly louder voices and ignore those who insist on looking the other way. It just makes sense.

Aboard The Titanic

I am working my way through another of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels, titled Flight Behavior. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours, her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters, Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned, “For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.” Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.

Political Denial

While it appears that 74% of the Republicans in Congress publicly deny global warming, the insurance industry does not. The insurance industry trusts scientific research; many in Congress reject it. A recent story in the Bloomberg News is worth quoting at length.

Hurricane Irene’s residue is likely to include a confusing debate over whether insurers or property owners are responsible for storm-caused water damage. There’s no lack of clarity, however, over whether the insurance industry believes in climate change and its ties to lethal weather: It does.

As Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Sept. 5 issue, the industry has absorbed many lessons from Sept. 11 about anticipating risk. One is that the recent spate of weather extremes is likely to continue — and the insurance market must reflect that.

Interestingly, this puts the industry at odds with a number of Republican candidates who have made questioning climate change a not-insignificant part of their campaign strategy. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann dispute whether global warming is man-made. Perry suggests that climate is affected by many variables, which scientists can manipulate “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Mitt Romney is on the fence. Only Jon Huntsman Jr. has declared definitively that he trusts scientists on global warming.

Politicians have been known to dissemble about risk because voters generally don’t like to hear bad news. The insurance industry makes its money telling it to you straight — how long you’ll probably live, what price your home will fetch, whether to repair or trade in your car.

For this reason, it’s worth noting that insurers already factor climate change into their models for measuring, pricing and distributing risk. Insurers have no incentive to lie. If they are more scared than they should be in pricing risk, shareholders will punish them. If they aren’t scared enough, nature will do the job.

No one can say for certain that any single weather event flows from the warmer air caused by carbon emissions, which in turn lead to more rainfall, floods and snowfall over some parts of the planet, and more drought in other parts. But last year was the hottest on record. Arctic ice is at record low levels. Regardless of what politicians say, insurers must factor all this into premiums.

[Rick Perry’s comment is especially interesting. Apparently he thinks scientists doctor the facts so they can increase funding for their pet projects. The man has a lively imagination. I always wondered what motive reactionary politicians attributed to scientists for their dire predictions.  I know what motives to attribute to the corporations and politicians for denying the obvious — it’s all about votes and ultimately profits. This helps clarify things for me.]

But in the end, as Diane Keaton said, “Climate change, like gravity, doesn’t give a damn whether you ‘believe’ in it or not. It’s happening regardless. While we sit around and debate its existence, it’s taking full advantage of the situation and using the time we’re giving it to make life miserable.” Indeed so.

Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

Like An Ostrich

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, recently spoke to a crowd of 600 people at Oregon State University on the topic of global warming. From the story in the local newspaper covering McKibben’s lecture, we read: “McKibben discussed the history of 350.org, the worldwide organizing movement he helped found in 2008. The group’s name stems from research that claims anything more than 350 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unsafe and will disastrously impact the environment. Scientists estimate the environment currently contains 390 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide.” He is a self-styled “bummer-outer” and yet he continues to draw crowds and sell books while dealing with a very disturbing issue. His message is bleak “It’s the worst thing to happen in the history of our Earth — at least since we’ve been on it.” But the crowds he draws are encouraging  (600 people in attendance at a lecture of this type is quite a remarkable thing!) and he hopes that social networking will help address the problem.

The interesting question here is why we continue to ignore this problem — much as we continue to ignore the problem of overpopulation? The answer, I suspect, is the size of the problem and our reluctance to think about unpleasant, indeed deeply troubling, issues. Further, we tend to ignore problems if they are not in our backyard. The disturbing thought here is that this problem is in our back yard, whether or not we want to admit it. But we prefer, ostrich-like, to keep our heads buried in the sand of our own ignorance and pretend that things will turn out OK. This is what Jacques Ellul once told us was our response to “the technological imperative,” which focuses on means rather than ends.  We think there is no problem that we cannot fix: someone will come along with a gadget and fix it.

The truth of the matter is that there is no gadget that will fix this problem. And it isn’t simply going to disappear. It is real and it requires, at the outset, that we avoid denial. — which is understandable, but inexcusable.  There are still many people who insist that global warming is a myth. They look at the thermometer, see the low temps and draw the unwarranted conclusion that the globe is not warming. But we must keep in mind the modifier, “global.” In 2010, for example, nineteen nations around the world recorded record high temperatures. And regardless of whether my thermometer reads low temps today, the average here and everywhere else is going up. It is a global issue.

Once we have advanced beyond denial, there are some things we can do to help matters — from the small things like turning down our thermostats and driving more fuel-efficient cars to the larger things like writing our congressmen, supporting companies that are known to be environment friendly, and boycotting those we know to be ignoring their global responsibilities. For example, McKibben’s efforts recently resulted in enough pressure on the President to send the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project back to the State Department for thorough review, effectively killing the project. There is hope and political activism and citizen petitions can be effective even against the giant corporations that would pollute the earth in the name of higher profits for a few. McKibben’s web site expands on these themes. But it all starts by pulling our heads out of the sand and admitting that there is a problem and it is one we need to address. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to our children’s children.