Thinking Globally

I lived in the coccoon of academia for quite a long time. One of the surprises I had upon my emergence was the slowly dawning realization of the unconscious ignorance in which so many people seem to swim. I am still convinced that most people are far more intelligent (loosely defined as "able to learn") than they believe themselves to be (and teaching for nearly 20 years actually confirmed this belief). But everyone is ignorant. Maybe the most important thing a good education does is to show you just how profoundly ignorant you are. It makes you humble and careful - or it should.

It is a continuing source of amazement to me that so many people think they can have informed opinions about "global warming." I know a bit of science - quite a bit of biology, a little physics, a little computer programming, a very little mathematics, and a smattering of other things in the natural sciences.  All that education makes it quite clear to me that I know absolutely nothing about climate modeling. Several years thinking about "complex systems" from the outside - and watching people who do know about complex systems - gave me a sense of how to think about some of these issues. I used to teach about climate change - and we used to talk about how hard it is for politicians and political systems in general to deal with issues of uncertainty. But I see now how naive and foolish I was. I really did not understand how unconscious of their own ignorance many people are. It reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld's infamous quip about "unknown unknowns" - he was exactly right, those are the ones that will get you. It is so jaw-droppingly astounding to hear people talk about climate change issues as if they have opinions that mean anything. It makes one quite mad with frustration. Ignorance is no sin - it is curable. But unconscious ignorance masquerading as knowledge is dangerous. Of course one unfortunate corollary of this is that in instances such as climate modeling we simply have no choice but to rely on the opinions of experts. And this is dangerous and regrettable. It is why we should put our cautious confidence in the consensus of many experts. Who might indeed be wrong even then - but it is the best we can do. And to make matters worse, as Thomas Homer-Dixon notes in his recent editorial,

"Climate change has become an ideologically polarizing issue. It taps into deep personal identities and causes what Dan Kahan of Yale calls “protective cognition” — we judge things in part on whether we see ourselves as rugged individualists mastering nature or as members of interconnected societies who live in harmony with the environment."

I am really not sanguine about the future. We are almost certainly rocketing into a world we are not prepared to accept or understand. Homer-Dixon's essay seems to me very much worth reading:

Disaster at the Top of the World
NYTimes: August 22, 2010

"... experts are especially concerned that new patterns of air movement in the Arctic could disrupt the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams — which are apparently weakening and moving northward. This could alter storm tracks, rainfall patterns and food production far to the south. The limited slack in the world’s food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions. Remember that two years ago, when higher oil prices encouraged farmers to shift enormous tracts of cropland from grain to biofuel production, grain prices quickly doubled or tripled. Violence erupted in dozens of countries. Should climate change cause crop failures in major food-producing regions of Europe, North America and East Asia, the consequences would likely be far more severe." READ THE ENTIRE EDITORIAL

Image here.


  1. I think there is a third argument here
    While we have experts on the problem. It does not appear there are experts with the solutions.
    Taxing seems to be historically a bad model from preventing anything. Gasoline tax has not diminish consumption.
    Those at the bottom might suffer the most.
    But if i cannot afford solar panels now, how will taxing make me more affordable?
    Who gets this money? who decided they will get this money and why are they an faceless body. What happens if they become corrupt and use it for there own power. What recourse is put i place?
    Why are there not scientists on this panel?
    If the problem to a huge effect is due to deforestation, no amount of control will cause the CO2 to be absorbed.


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