Why Science?

After addressing the U.S. Congress recently the young, courageous Greta Thunberg who was warning us all of the dangers of global warming (which we euphemistically call “climate change”) was asked by one of our feckless leaders “why should we pay any attention to science?” Or words to that effect.

The man then almost certainly left the House, climbed into a taxi and drive to the airport where he boarded an airplane to fly home to hob-nob with his corporate sponsors. I dare to say he saw no contradiction whatever between his question and his behavior. But the fact is that science is all around us and it almost always provides us with the truth of things. Not always, but almost always. And the evidence of global warming and the role humans have played in the drama has gone beyond the level of mere conjecture and is now a virtual certainty.

So the answer to the man’s question (if it deserves an answer) is “because it is giving us a warning and whether or not we want to listen to that warning it would be prudent to do so.” Our situation is not unlike that described by Pascal when he told us that we would all be better off to believe in God than not. In both cases, the chance we might be wrong to believe in science or God results in altered behavior, simply. But if Science is right and if God does exist then we would be wise to believe and act accordingly. In the case of global warming it is a matter of life and death. It may not appear so, but it is and that fact is supported by overwhelming evidence. Evidence that only the most stupid among us can continue to ignore.

As one who taught both logic and the philosophy of science for many years, however, I am fully aware that neither tool will deliver all the goods. Life does not always (seldom?) accord with logic and science cannot tell us about things that are deeply important to us — such as how to live our lives. Or how to resolve a moral dilemma, or how to judge a work of art.

But the denial of science in an age such as ours is not borderline stupid: it crosses the border into insanity. There is a point at which the evidence is so heavy that we cannot bear it even though we must. The changes in our behavior that might make a difference in the rapidly warming globe on which we live are minimal when compared to the alterations in all our behavior that must occur when the consequences of global warming are felt by us all — when, for example, we cannot afford the cost of basic foods in our grocery stores whose shelves are nearly empty because the earth simply cannot produce enough food to support a growing human population.

The problem with blog posts such as this, of course, is that they border on preaching and the congregation listening, or reading, already knows whereof I speak and write. But that doesn’t make it any the less important to continue to shout fire in a burning building, because if things remain as they are at present the building will burn down around us and we shall perish in the aftermath. There is no Plan B.

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If, I say

If, as they say, wisdom — or at least practical wisdom or prudence — demands that we seek to control those things within our province and ignore those things we cannot possibly change, if, I say, that is what wisdom demands, then we need to ask a few questions. To begin with, we need to be able to recognize those things within our province. What things are within reach, as it were? What things CAN we control? Please note that this demands not only self-awareness, but knowledge of the world around us.

We are faced with many very large problems, nationally and globally. There is not much we can do about many of those problems except to elect leaders who seem to mean what they say and hope they are not simply lying in order to be elected. They may have the power and position to do something about, say, nuclear disarmament. We do not. Based on the historical record, however, we should not be too optimistic on that account.

Let’s stay a bit closer to home. Take global warming. Again, this is a huge problem and we can only hope that those we elect to public office realize the problem and are willing to risk their careers to take on the corporations that are determined to deny the problem in the name of larger and larger profits. Radical change requires a major commitment on the part of governments and those who support governments. But there are things we can do as well.

We can recycle; avoid plastics whenever possible; turn the heat down in the winter and put on a sweater; turn the air conditioning up in the Summer; drive economical cars or, better yet, walk or ride a bicycle; replace inefficient heating and lighting systems with more efficient and economical ones. You know, small things that matter. We can become engaged in movements to save the planet if we determine that those movements show promise. We can support them financially and, better still, become involved personally. And there are other things of this sort that we can determine are “within our province” — if we are serious about addressing the problem.

But closer than that to home are the folks around us who are homeless and without food. Those of us who can help with donations to worthy causes can do that; those who are in position to do so can help out at food kitchens and participate in drives to raise money for food and clothing for those around us who suffer. It appears that there are many in this country who do genuinely care and who grab their checkbooks when they read or hear that there are those in need. There are some who belittle this effort, saying that it is the easy way out. But for many this is the only option if they are to help at all. And it is something that helps those who need help.

And we can love those around us, family and friends, who need our support and who support us in our hour of need. There are many things we can do to “be there” for those close to us. This sounds trite, but it is a step toward the wisdom we seek, the wisdom that eventually leads to happiness.

 

Not My Problem!

I wrote this more than six years ago, but my readership today, while still small, is quite different, and the point seems to me to be worth repeating. 

Some have said that it is the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Ohio Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.” In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Otherwise, it’s not MY problem!

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including the president and many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unaffordable or even unavailable to us. When it is about us we will start to pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and since freedom implies responsibility that implies a moral responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point. And many of these problems are so severe we must make an effort to continue to ignore them, though our electronic devices are a big help in keeping our attention elsewhere (how many “likes” do I have??). Some of the problems we ignore are right next door. Or in the air and water around us.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, obligations which require — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address it, if not remedy it, implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.

The Virtue of Stupidity

Temperatures around the country have recently been plunging and the nay-sayers once again point to the thermometer and tell us why they deny that the globe is warming. They ignore the fact that South Africa is experiencing the hottest summer on record and that what happens in Alabama or Alaska (or South Africa) is beside the point. Global Warming is a fact and it is not to be identified with passing weather events in particular parts of the world. Confusing the two and ignoring hard science are marks of the “virtue of stupidity” among those who remain with their heads in the sand — or somewhere equally dark. (This is a repost, which I have updated.)

In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 [over twenty-four years ago!] there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of the next century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their disappearing homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.

And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress, not to mention our president — still doubts that climate change is a reality and/or that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful.

How can they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have once had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media, 91 % of which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress.

According to Pierce, it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:

‘Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert “not proven,” smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.'”

In a word, as you would if your son who attended a posh private school in, say, Kentucky were to attend an anti-abortion rally in Washington and testify to the truly ugly racism in this country by appearing in a MAGA cap staring down a dignified elderly Native American, you might hire a PR team. In this case they would cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact, it is precisely the strategy the vested interests have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002

“a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context. ‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'”

In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure that lackeys remain in political office and that corporate profits continue to rise.

What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used-car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust. Yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not have to bother about such disturbing truths. In fact, what many of us do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any fixed meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling or the word of a chronic liar.

Because of this, I have devised a new law. “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest  whatever in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.

Collision Course

I suggested in a response I made to a comment on a previous post that humanity is most assuredly on a collision course between global warming, on the one hand, and the expanding human population, on the other hand. The irony of ironies is that the growing human population seems to be, for the most part, oblivious to both of these problems! Perhaps it is denial on a grand scale? To be sure, most of us would prefer to ignore unpleasant facts. But be that as it may, the two opposing forces cannot possibly survive together. Something must give.

As long as we continue to think it is better to drive our gas-guzzlers and turn up the thermostat rather than ride a bike, drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, or put on a sweater when we are cold — while at the same time we embrace the notion that large families are preferable to small — we cannot avoid the collision of which I write. And exacerbating the situation is the persistent conviction on the part of a great many people, including many in Congress, that there are no problems we cannot solve with our technical expertise. This is, of course, patently absurd. To begin with, our faith in the abilities of our fellow humans is unwarranted in light of the fact that we also regard education as a low national priority. Where are the folks coming from who will solve our technical problems? Seriously, though, are we foolish enough to think there are no problems even the brightest among us cannot solve?

Global warming will surely bring about shortages of food and the water that an expanding population requires in order to survive. If we continue to ignore this problem there will be growing numbers of people who cannot afford the rising prices of food and the water which will become increasingly rare and precious. As a result, we can expect violence among those who cannot feed themselves and those who can afford black market prices for dwindling supplies of essentials. Prior to that taking place, I would predict, governments will become more repressive and those liberties we take so much for granted will be denied us as a growing centralized power seeks to ward off the violence that is likely to take place when food and water become scarce. That way lies tyranny.

It doesn’t help things that we have a sitting president and Congress determined to ignore these problems while many nations around the globe are becoming more and more accepting of the fact that if we are to survive we must make sacrifices. Things cannot go on as they are now without the collision of which I write taking place. And to this point our country prefers to officially deny the problem while continuing to refuse to cooperate with other nations that are taking steps to confront the problem of global warming, if not overpopulation.

I am fully aware that this post will be found unpalatable by some (most?) of the readers of my blog — whose numbers seem to shrink as a result of my determination to “tell it like it is,” perhaps. But the number of readers was never very large in the first place and I do think it is better to face the truth than to dismiss it, or cast it aside as a bundle of “false facts” — an oxymoron of the first order, and one which reflects an attitude of mind that will never undertake the difficult task of addressing real facts and seeking workable solutions. I do believe the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates told us long ago — despite the fact that so many people seem to prefer it. But then, as I said above, most of us would prefer to ignore unpleasant facts.

However, there are facts that we simply must face if we are to survive on this planet. And the first thing we must do is to admit that global warming is a problem of the first order, and it must be addressed — and soon. We might be able to survive the expanding human population if we are able to grow sufficient food in the oceans; if new diseases continue to emerge that we cannot cure; or if there are global cataclysms that eradicate a great many people. But with things as they now stand the forces that simmer below the surface at this moment will surely boil up at some point in the future and collide.

 

 

 

Healthy Skepticism (A repost)

In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of this century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.

And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress — still doubts that climate change is a reality and that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by people hired by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful. How do they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have ever had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress.

According to Pierce, it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:

‘”Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert ‘not proven,’ smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.”

In a word, get your PR team to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact, it is precisely the strategy the vested interests, like the Koch brothers and others of their ilk, have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002 “a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context.

‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'”

In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure your ability to maintain your political office and the continued rise in profits for those who have placed you there and will keep you there in the future. This works in the case of global warming as well, as we have seen.

What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense the politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust — and yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not to have to bother about disturbing truths.

In fact, what we do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any real meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling. Because of this, I have devised a new law. (You may be familiar with Curtler’s First Law, which is that “The academic strength of a college or university is in inverse relation to the success of its football team.”) Well, here’s Curtler’s Second Law: “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company or a political group that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.

Minimal State

There are those among us who see the political state as a Big Brother who watches everything we do and tells us NOT to do those things we want to do. Or it takes our money. They would minimize the role of the state, if not eliminate it entirely. They call themselves “libertarians” because they are convinced that without a political state watching over us we would be free as birds. What they don’t realize is that the sort of freedom they envision is chaos, like a crowd trying to escape from a burning theater. Without restraint we do not have freedom. Quite the opposite.

In any event, the economist Robert Heilbroner, who wrote The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, has a chapter in the book that addresses the relative roles of the state and capital and their need for one another. Those who would do away with what they regard as state interference would cut off their very noses to spite their faces. Ugly, to say the least. And stupid. The state does tend to become bigger and bigger, that’s certainly true. And we all hate to pay taxes (those of us who do pay taxes, that is). But the role of the state has become absolutely necessary to the preservation of our society and for the continuered prosperity of those who would do away with it. As Heiolbroner notes:

“It is equally evident that the designation of capitalism as ‘self-ordering’ . . .must be understood in a qualified sense. The term applies that all essential activities connected with the material process can be, at least in principle, consigned to the markets. [This is untrue] not alone in the case of such goods as defense, without which no marketing system seems imaginable, but in the broad historical reality of capitalism as a self-reproducing social formation. Here the state, both as defender and promoter of the economic realm, has played so prominent a role that even the most abstract scenarios of the system unwittingly assign it a central and indispensable place when they take as their unit of conceptual analysis the state. Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain, although it might change dramatically; remove the state and the regimen of capital would not last a day.”

The state provides capital with avenues of transportation for their goods as well as avenues of communication to open up new markets and keep those open that are at present offering the owners large profits. The state also provides the capitalist with trained (if not educated) workers and health care for the employees in order to enable them to continue to work and produce commodities and goods. This is in addition the huge military machine that, as Heilbroner suggests above, defends the capitalist from those who would threaten his profit-making activities. In addition, as we have seen especially in recent times, the government stands ready to bail out struggling or failed businesses, — as in the case of such things as farm subsidies and the recent bailouts of the banking industry and two of the three major auto companies in this country.  Government is absolutely necessary to the continued existence of business and the health of our economy. It is perceived as Big Brother watching and nay-saying, but it is in fact Big Brother who makes it possible for those who would do away with it to prosper.

At present, of course, we have a president in this country who is a staunch advocate of minimal state, because he also sees the state as having outgrown its usefulness. He would do away with those regulatory agencies that protect the citizens and their health, forgetting in the process that upon their good health depends the continued prosperity of such things as, oh I don’t know, say, the hotels and resorts that have made the man a fortune? The desire to minimize the state and reduce, if not eliminate altogether, its role in our economy is myopic, to say the least. It sees only what it wants to see in its paranoid condition, and ignores the fact that the political state is the underpinning of everything they regard as valuable, namely, those things that have made (and keep) them healthy and wealthy. It is short-sighted, if not simply stupid — not unlike the continued ignorance of global warming that is a direct threat to their continued existence, not to mention the continued growth of their obscene wealth.  It’s as stupid as, say, thinking this nation can go it alone in the day of international conglomerates and global business in which the economies of the nations of the world depend upon one another as never before. Isolationism is not the answer; it’s not even a desirable option. Neither is libertarianism. We all depend upon one another in so many ways — as never before.

Gruesome Prospect

In an extremely interesting, if at times gruesome, article in the New York Times, we read about cannibalism in various animal species — including among human animals. Apparently it is not that uncommon, even though in humans recently  it has become less common since our “civilized” tendencies would rule it out as unthinkable. Still, we have read about crises and so-called “life-boat” situations in which humans have drawn straws to see who shall be sacrificed to save the rest. Our skin crawls at the very thought. None the less, as the article concludes,

As scientists have come to understand, factors like overpopulation and a lack of alternative forms of nutrition lead to cannibalism among animals, and it is clear that even modern humans have been driven to the behavior on many occasions. What, then, of the future?

Populations are growing. Resources are dwindling. Deserts are spreading. And the societal rules that bind us together are proving more fragile than we ever imagined they could be. Maybe it is wise to remember that human cannibalism, so unthinkable now, was not uncommon not so long ago

In a word, as humans continue to populate the earth and food becomes increasingly scarce — especially with global warming making food production more and more difficult and major storms destroying food supplies– this unthinkable possibility looms large.

I recall reading many years ago a novel by the prolific British novelist Anthony Burgess entitled The Wanting Seed. It is a dystopia, as those novels are called, about a possible future in which there are far too many people and food is scarce. This is fiction, of course, and we all know it is at best an “alternative fact.” In the real world this could not possibly happen. Right.

In any event, in Burgess’ novel, the powers that be conjured up a bogus war in which thousands of young lives are taken; the dead are then chopped up and placed into cans to feed the remainder of the population — which knows not wherefrom the food they eat has come. Now, again, this is fiction (gruesome fiction at that), but it is not beyond the realm of possibility given the state of things as they appear on the horizon. Needless to say if the powers that be resemble in any way, shape, or form the powers that are at present sitting in Washington this possibility seems even less remote. Those folks seem to lack any moral sensibility and are willing to do whatever might advance their own particular agendas. And, clearly, survival would be among those agendas.

The point of this strange post is that we really need to recognize the elephant in the room in the form of a human population that increases daily — a problem which may well be at the root of all the other problems we face at this time. We also need to stop and think about what we are doing to the planet — and also think the unthinkable. What if food production falls off precipitously and there simply isn’t enough to go around? Who makes the decisions about which mouths to feed and who should go hungry? And is it totally beyond imagining that humans might indeed start to eat one another — as they did in 1846 at the Donner Pass when desperate times demanded desperate measures? If we continue to ignore the so-called “population explosion” and continue to turn a blind eye to the fate of the planet earth on which we all depend we may face desperate measures before we know it.

Pascal’s Wager

I am re-blogging a (slightly modified) post from over a year ago in light of the fact that our president-elect is convinced that global warming is a hoax and the Wisconsin D.N.R. has declared that global warming is merely a “subject of scientific debate.” Both of these positions are irrational and, worse yet, a gamble with the lives of countless folks who will be affected if and when the scientific community is proven to be correct. In the meantime, I argue here that we should all err on the side of caution: it is the only sane position to take in light of the probable consequences of being wrong about a situation that is so deeply serious to us all.

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming (both of which are extremely unlikely), we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. If we are unwilling to do these small things, and continue to deny the evidence that is considerable, the consequences will almost certainly be dire.

Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet and if we turn out to have been wrong (or the science was wrong) it has cost us little. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and 97% of the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which the mathematician/philosopher recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would still lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the joys of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional. . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.

 

Expertise

One of the things that defines the times in which we live is our suspicion of anyone who presumes to know what he or she is talking about. We deny expertise. It’s one of the sadder effects of our egalitarianism. We move from the moral fact that all are equal to the absurd conclusion that no one knows any more than anyone else. Aside from our medical people and our auto mechanics, whom we must trust, we think all other opinions are of no great weight, certainly no better than our own. We forget what George Berkley once said: all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Some opinions are heavy and others are so light they float away in the wind, many of our own included.

But if it is my opinion I am convinced that it weighs as much as yours, no matter who you are. “It’s just Plato’s opinion,” as one of my students said in reading a Platonic dialogue, with the clear implication that it weighed no more than this particular American college freshman’s did. “We are all entitled to our opinion” translates for many into “my opinion is just as good as yours.”

Take the issue of global warming, as an example. There are a great many people in our Congress who think that 97% of the scientists are wrong despite the fact that those scientists have examined the situation carefully and are reluctant to draw conclusions that cannot be corroborated by their peers. That is to say, those who sit on their butts every day making huge salaries think they are as smart as those who are paid very little to study the appropriate evidence and draw conclusions, many of which are unpalatable to them as individuals. Science is disinterested and a very strict task-master. Yet, those sitting on their butts in Congress, or running for president, claim to know better than they what is happening to our world. The problem is, of course, those who do not know control the mechanisms that might make our world a safer place in which to live and plan our collective future.

Expertise, if you think about it, is based on knowledge of one’s field. An expert in biology may not be the best person to ask about the literary value of a new novel. But in his or her field the opinions uttered have weight. We do ourselves a great disservice to ignore the experts in an age in which we are overwhelmed by information and have so little knowledge about so many things. Like it or not, we must trust others to help us understand what is going on in our world. If we have pain in the gut which we think results from listening to political lies, and it the pain persists, we really ought to visit the physician and listen carefully to what she has to say.

At some point we must trust the experts and acknowledge that there are people who know a great deal more than we do. We must trust those who know and know those who are worthy of our trust. But those people who stand up before us running for political office and who claim to know things that are patently absurd should not be trusted. We must always be on the alert for those who claim to be experts but who know less than we do, while at the same time acknowledging that there are experts who know a great deal more than we do. It requires judgment and scrutiny of every word and gesture — and a suspicious eye on the possibility that there is a hidden agenda somewhere that we might not want to embrace.

In a word: ask ourselves whether or not the person who is making the claim has something to gain from our believing what he or she has to say. The scientists who predict that our planet is in dire straights have nothing to gain from our accepting their conclusions. Those fat cats who sit in Congress and are paid to vote as the corporations want them to definitely have something to gain from the rejection of what the scientists have to say. And that politician with the strange hair who stands there making outrageous claims wants us to believe everything he says even though so much of it is bollocks. His agenda is not even that well hidden.

In a word, we must suspect all those “experts” who have a hidden agenda. But this is no reason to reject expertise altogether: there are some who really do know more than the rest of us. But, to my knowledge, none of them has strange hair.