Postmodern Climatology

By Sean Carroll | February 26, 2008 2:26 pm

Arts & Letters Daily is a useful website, sort of a proto-blog, that brings together links to all sorts of interesting articles about, you know, arts and letters. If you follow it just a little bit, a decided political bent becomes clear, as you read headlines like “Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?” and “Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby…” The site’s impresario, Denis Dutton, is a right-tilting philosopher and entrepreneur, who occasionally enjoys ranting against the postmodern obscurantism of the left-tilting academy.

But Prof. Dutton has apparently discovered that a touch of relativist anything-goes-ism can be useful in certain circumstances: in particular, when science is telling you something you don’t want to hear. These days, science is telling us that we are bollixing up the planet by dumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The very idea that the unchecked engines of capitalism could somehow lead to something bad, rather than all-pervading and unalloyed good, offends Prof. Dutton’s free-market sensibilities. So he has launched Climate Debate Daily, where both “Calls to Action” and “Dissenting Voices” are given equal time in a different free market, this one of ideas.

Some scientists might object that giving equal credence to all possibilities is not always appropriate in a scientific context; that one position may be “right,” and one might be “wrong,” and a preponderance of evidence may convince us which is which and allow us to act accordingly. But this sort of old-fashioned objective-reality based thinking has been left behind by such advanced intellects as Prof. Dutton, who delight in overturning hierarchies, casting suspicion on metanarratives, and problematizing binary oppositions all over the place.

At least, sometimes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • R. Totale

    The very idea that the unchecked engines of capitalism could somehow lead to something bad, rather than all-pervading and unalloyed good, offends Prof. Dutton’s free-market sensibilities.

    nice knee-jerk reaction, Sean. Also, cherry-picking a couple of right-wing seeming (oh no, shudder) headlines to prove Prof. Dutton’s rightwingedness is just silly. Why not include this one to prove he is a sensible person:

    “If this is to be a “change election,” how about changing America’s destructive drift into anti-rationalism and pig ignorance?..”

    or this one:

    “The Iraq War has been everyone’s loss, whatever side you were on. For many Iraqis it was a chance for a decent life, says George Packer. ”

    or this one (which proves I know not what):

    “Golf in decline: the number of people who play the game 25 times a year or more fell to 4.6 million in 2005 from 6.9 million in 2000..”

  • Phased Weasel

    “nice knee-jerk reaction, Sean. Also, cherry-picking a couple of right-wing seeming (oh no, shudder) headlines to prove Prof. Dutton’s rightwingedness is just silly. Why not include this one to prove he is a sensible person:”

    Just because Dutton wrote some reasonable pieces doesn’t mean he doesn’t also write destructive and right-leaning pieces. Sean chose the pieces that made his case: Dutton is a right-leaning voice pushing an agenda.

  • R. Totale

    he doesn’t write the pieces. he is just linking to them.

  • TomR

    You hit that one right on the head. I’ve always been amused by the irony that the same right-wing folks who used to rail against relativisim and postmodern thinking in general are now the ones who insist that we “study both sides of the issue” “teach the debate” and, in general, make their living by using “mytho-poetic thinking” to obscure scientific reality.

  • http://wbmh.blogspot.com wolfgang

    I think Sean makes a good point and real scientists should only read the left column of this website.
    Nobody can deny that giant Burmese pythons are going to strangle the southern parts of the US.

  • Peter Shor

    Giant Burmese python stew, anyone?

  • Haelfix

    I fail to see the problem. This site has decidedly leftwing commentary, and is also about physics, whereas if you read the Reference frame you will get conservative commentary and also read about physics.

    Its rare to find a big blog that doesn’t interject individual politics in some form at some time or another, since everyone has opinions.

    The silliness arises when you try to correlate politics and science in such a way that one side has it right, and the other has it wrong. It might be true in individual cases of policy, but is certainly not the case in general.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Then I will spell out the problem more explicitly. There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about being right-wing or left-wing, nor was that implied anywhere above. The wrongness accrues to being a hypocrite — for example, by casting yourself as a defender of objectivity and truth, and then discarding those virtues when the objective truth interferes with your political preferences.

    Hope that helps.

  • sokol

    “If you follow it just a little bit, a decided political bent becomes clear, as you read headlines like “Do professors indoctrinate students by expressing a political ideology in the classroom?”…..

    If you had actually taken the time to read the article behind the headline you might have discovered that this evidence of right wing political bent is a Chronicle of Higher Education piece profiling two professors from Penn State who argue that the lack of conservatives in academy is not a product of liberal bias, but rather stems from the fact that, “personal priorities of those on the left are more compatible with pursuing a Ph.D.”

  • R. Totale

    I think providing a clearinghouse of opinion about climate change and what is to be done about it is a good idea. If nothing else, it provides a convenient source to find out what people I disagree with are saying about the issue. The issues are orders of magnitude more complex than some evolution vs. creationism nonsense. That being said, I am being paid handsomely by Prof Dutton (just kidding).

  • http://www.pha.jhu.edu/~npa N. Peter Armitage

    Sean,

    Right on all accounts, but you need to agree that…

    1.) The ‘Bad Writing Contest’ was a good idea

    and

    2.) Duttons is a great bookstore.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    sokol, if you had actually taken time to become familiar with A&L Daily, you would understand that bias against conservatives in academe is a favorite topic of Dutton’s, which is why his blurb ends with “Watch this space…”

    Again: there is nothing wrong with being conservative. There is nothing wrong with having a website, regardless of your political views. The claim that Dutton, or A&L daily, lists to the right is neither shocking nor controversial, even to Dutton himself. Please pay attention to the argument being made before leaping to disagree with it.

  • R. Totale

    Question for Sean:

    Is it possible to be critical of “postmodern obscurantism” and to view the science behind anthropogenic global warming as incomplete without being a hypocrite?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    That depends on what you mean by “view as incomplete.” If you mean “admit that not every interesting question has been answered with complete certainty,” then yes. If you mean “believe that `calls to action’ and `dissenting voices’ are equally reasonable,” then no.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    IIRC, Denis Dutton is the brother of Doug Dutton the bookstore owner. Also, Dutton’s is apparently finally finally closing in a few months. I don’t know how the relatives of the Vromans (http://www.vromansbookstore.com/) feel about climate change.

    Denis Dutton’s new climate website is a clearinghouse (aka edited link dump), like A&L Daily. That’s fine, but one of the things that made A&L Daily interesting (no matter what your politics) is that it mostly separates wheat from chaff. Denis Dutton can do this for arts and letters because he is a knowledgeable literate person with an editor’s eye. I’m not confident that he can do it for climate science, especially since there is so much chaff, he’s not a scientist or a science editor, and what’s on the web tends more towards summaries and polemics – the actual science is getting done away from the internet, or takes long enough that it doesn’t feed the blog posting cycle.

  • Chris

    I have been to a few of Prof Dutton’s lectures here at the University of Canterbury. I have no problem with the things he says, apart from the climate change stuff. He teaches about Popper, UFOs, religion, logical fallacies, limitations of human memory, conspiracy theories, etc. All good stuff; he was a prominent critic of the so-called recovered memory movement back in the day.

    As to the climate change stuff, he makes it clear that he’s not a climate scientist. I have heard him bring up points like ‘why did it cool in the middle part of the 20th century’ and ‘scientists in the 70s predicted a ice age’, among others. He is firmly in the ‘maybe it’s happening, but if it is we should wait until we can afford to adapt’ – he says that the world’s economy in a few decades time will be much richer than today’s and will be able to pay for any mitigation/adaption.

  • Melusine

    “Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby…”

    What a riot! I definitely want the better career and smaller waist. Who do these people talk to? Thanks for the laugh.

  • Big Vlad

    “Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby…”

    I think the point here is that with women increasingly opting for careers rather than housewifery, many of them are getting to 40 and wishing they had children. Conversely those who have kids etc often wish they’d tried out the career thing. For men it’s easier to have both – that’s where the inequality lies, and that’s what our society needs to address.

    In addition, I think there is a strong biological imperative in both sexes, but particularly in women, to have children and it doesn’t pay to ignore this.

  • http://nlightnmnt.tumblr.com/ nlightnmnt

    I think the point here is that with women increasingly opting for careers rather than housewifery, many of them are getting to 40 and wishing they had children. Conversely those who have kids etc often wish they’d tried out the career thing. For men it’s easier to have both – that’s where the inequality lies, and that’s what our society needs to address.

    Don’t worry – with advances in genetic engineering, it will soon be possible to grow artificial uteruses and implant them into men so that they can gestate their own offspring!

    Yes, I’m being sarcastic – men don’t have children, they get women to have children for them; it’s going to be difficult to come up with a societal fix for this fundamentally biological inequality.

  • Big Vlad

    hehe, I was thinking more along the lines of arranging working practices to offset the biological inequality. Nobody’s implanting anything into me…

  • sokol

    Which argument in your post should I be paying attention to Sean?

    1) That Denis Dutton is a climate change skeptic who’s starting up what appears to be a mendacious website devoted to the topic? Ok, I’ll go with that.

    2) That his other endeavour, A&L Daily, is an ideologically conservative hothouse—a townhall.com for the smart set, if you will? As a regular reader of A&L Daily I find this claim laughable as the vast majority of the articles highlighted there have no explicit political axe to grind. As for coverage of debates over bias toward conservatives in academia: I am shocked, shocked! that a site owned by the Chronicle for Higher Education would take interest in this topic.

    3) That opposition to ‘postmodern obscurantism’ necessarily entails a rejection of ‘relativism’ if one doesn’t wish to be a hypocrite? Bollocks. There is no logical relationship between obscurantism and relativism.

    And since when does a critique of ‘postmodern obscurantism’ equate a right-wing attack on the left? Or did I miss the memo that Martha Nussbaum is now a neo-con?

  • http://orgprepdaily.wordpress.com milkshake

    Sean Carrol politics do not match Denis Dutton politics – and that’s fine with me.

    As far as I can tell Dutton is consistent – in going after fashionable baloney. He has a rationalistic bent and dislikes pompous fools – that’s why Dr. Carroll is so upset.

    Contrary to Dr. Caroll would like everyone to believe, there is no real consensus about the major causes of the global climate changes and its extent. The debate tone is shrill: again we have political corectioneers chastising their oponents for saying appaling things. That’s certainly something in which D.Dutton had plenty of experience.

    (From my past participation in enviro movement, I can tell you the worst diletantes, scaremongers and media whores are the enviromental activists like Greenpeace. Their independent experts are neither independent nor expert. They are just a crazy pressure group akin to animal activist and anti-abortion nuts.)

    The prolem with climate modeling is that you can get from it any answer that you like – and that producing catastrofic prediction is profitable. Until the methodology improves and we have a better understanding one should not be burned on stake for questioning the global warming activism.

  • http://orgprepdaily.wordpress.com milkshake

    I should add that Freeman Dyson has a dim view of our knowledge about the climate change. As a Jason he was closely involved in climate modeling and advising the government – among others on the impact of all-out thermonuclear war.

    Well, it turned out that the “nuclear winter” everybody heard about probably would not happen, because the extent of the dust + smoke effect was terribly over-dramatised and the whole modeling of the atmosphere cooling was an incredibly shaby science. Some of Dyson’s colleagues started talking about “nuclear Fall” instead but they were shushed by progressives.The problem is that no-one is willing to demolish a fake argument against the nuclear holocaust.

  • chris

    so, do i understand this correctly: since global warming caused by greenhouse gases is now an established fact as recognized by the un, any discussion of the correctness of this statement is now strictly unscientific?

    wow. another unspeakable. like the scientifically established iq difference that nobody may mention lest he be fired from all offices.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    It’s interesting to conmpare the scientific consensus on manmade global warming and the dissent about this to dark matter and the dissent there (e.g. MOND). I think that the consensus about manmade global warming is far stronger than dark matter. There are very few (perhaps non at all?)peer reviewed publications in the leading journals that dispute manmade global warming.

    So, unlike alternative models to explain away dark matter, the dissent on manmade global warming is largely pseudoscientific in nature.

  • Malo Juevo

    As somebody who seriously considered climate physics in my youth, I discovered that both sides in the public debate on the subject are spectacularly dishonest. Yes, at this point there is a consensus in the scientific community that the planet is almost certainly warming and that the cause is extremely likely to be anthropogenic. That does not prevent shrill voices from both sides of the political spectrum from distorting the data. I’m sure that those on the left who do so willfully believe that the end justifies the means, but I personally find their behavior reprehensible.

    (For those interested in getting into the study of climate, I would say that it’s an extremely interesting topic, but it’s a political minefield. My mentor when I was interested in the subject had been funded for nearly three decades, but he lost his support for several years after he published the results of a long-term study of equatorial air temperatures that did not show any evidence of warming. He was at that time a believer in the reality of global warming, but he was pilloried for not finding evidence of it in the particular data set that he studied. After that happened to him, I decided I should take my scientific inquiries elsewhere.)

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    milkshake on Feb 27th, 2008 at 2:45 am

    Contrary to Dr. Caroll would like everyone to believe, there is no real consensus about the major causes of the global climate changes and its extent. The debate tone is shrill: again we have political corectioneers chastising their oponents for saying appaling things. That’s certainly something in which D.Dutton had plenty of experience.

    —————-

    The science on climate perturbation is becoming very clear. About 95% of professional articles on the subject pretty clearly point to a CO_2 induced climate change which correlates with our production of the gas. Interestingly in the popular nonscientific press the pro/con runs about 50%.

    This idea of teaching problem by giving equal time, giving dissenting voices their equal time etc, is not too different from the idea of giving creationists their equal time, or their wedge strategy of “discussing the controversy.” There is a lot of money behind putting the wraps on global warming. The science is not very good for business which makes a lot of money by burning carbon.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Ironic enough, perhaps, but not unexpected. Here is something I wrote about the dangers of relativism in 1996:

    “[ … ] My concern is that the weaponry of relativism is only coincidentally and temporarily associated with the rhetoric of freedom and dignity. Less developed versions of the same thing have been used in the Stalinist and Nazi tyrannies. This is a central fact of the history of twentieth century science. In developing a rhetoric of willful uncertainty and confusion (somehow ignoring manifest and spectacular success) and conferring some sort of academic respectability upon it, the relativists are developing a weapon that can and would be used by spectacularly malevolent forces in the process of subverting and eliminating the very sorts of human dignity contemporary proponents believe themselves to be promoting. Ultimately it comes down to the triumph of the ad hominem over the substantive. In that case, it is a trivial matter to move the trusted class from tofu munching bicycle commuting book collecting casual buddhist environmentalist utopians (I have described the class so as to include myself) to gun totin beer guzzlin angry racist tax paranoids. If such people ever get the sort of power they aspire to, they will need a front of intellectual respectability, and the machinery of radical relativism will prove remarkably malleable. [ … ]”

    http://www.swin.edu.au/chem/complex/vp/vp04/vp04.html

  • ike

    It’s worth looking at climate from the perspective of planetary science, and to state the issue as a physical problem: given a rocky or gaseous planet a given distance from the sun, with a certain atmospheric composition and pressure, can we predict what the climate will be like? Can we predict how changes in the atmospheric composition and on the land surface will affect the climate?

    The answer is yes, within certain limits. We can predict the average climate fairly well, but not the day-to-day weather – just as one can predict that the house in a casino will make a net profit over time, but not on an hourly basis.

    We can also predict (using complex computer models of the sun-driven fluid dynamics of the oceans and the atmosphere) how changes in land surfaces and in atmospheric composition will affect the climate – with limits. We also have data from the polar regions and mountains and oceans that all show a clear warming trend over the past 50 years that match these predictions. We also know that the Earth’s climate is sensitive to small influences, as the record of ice ages shows, and that the climate, and the atmospheric composition, has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years of human civilization, allowing agriculture and nation-states to take hold.

    If you take all three lines of evidence – the climate record, the climate models, and the recent data, you find they all agree with one another. The remaining uncertainties mostly revolve around the predicted rate – how fast will things warm up? At least in the Arctic, the rate of warming is exceeding the predictions of the climate models, perhaps due to dynamic interactions involving winds and ocean circulation.

    Even if we were to halt fossil fuel use and tropical deforestation today, we’d still see another 50 years of gradual warming before things stabilized, most likely. If we continue ahead full tilt, we’ll see 500 years of steadily increasing warming, most likely.

    That’ll be a small change compared to the climates of Venus or Mars – but then, those planets don’t support life.

  • macho

    Nice summary ike.

  • md

    So “milkshake”, who as one can tell from his blog is a climate specialist, tells us what he thinks Dr Carroll wants “everyone” to believe.

  • anonymous

    #8 – “The wrongness accrues to being a hypocrite — for example, by casting yourself as a defender of objectivity and truth, and then discarding those virtues when the objective truth interferes with your political preferences.” (lol at the irony of this statement in light of Sean’s hypocrisy on certain subjects of scientific study)

    This is unreal. Are all you rock-star physicist bloggers such tossers?

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    What do you folks think of claims that the Earth cooled a lot over the past year, and that AGW is now in doubt as a likely outcome? (Some details please, not just denunciations.) Drudge has been sporting the following link lately:
    http://www.dailytech.com/Temperature+Monitors+Report+Worldwide+Global+Cooling/article10866.htm

    In any case, you can hardly go wrong referring to CO2 as a “global warming stimulus”, since stimulus means a given influence and is not directly defined in terms of the result (which can be affected by a combination of stimuli.) One thing about CO2 it is hard to get a good summary on: since they have similar IR absorption spectra, how to separate the influence of water vapor from that of CO2. The influence of water vapor is about three times more, so the CO2 is a forcing mechanism.

    PS: R. Totale at top, you basically missed the point. Sean was implying that Dutton had trouble thinking that a certain process could produce undesirable results. That is a basic failure of objectivity since we shouldn’t assume such things. Making a hit against that is similar to exposing a logical fallacy, not e.g. like complaining about liking limited government per se.

  • Ergonomic Slingshot

    So a website opens up that offers a convenient service for those interested in becoming better informed on all sides of a crucial public debate. A forum that publishes items at odds with some kind of imaginary consensus right alongside items seeking to cement it OF COURSE seems like a terrible idea to those, like Mr Carroll, who themselves seek to cement it and close off rational deliberation on the subject. However, to the curious intellectual reader, who wishes to not make politics of science, it becomes pretty immediately apparent, reading these items, that there is indeed a real scientific debate to be had. Since this immediately falsifies the idea that there is a solid scientific consensus, Mr Carroll is dismayed. But it is not clear why we should care. Mr Dutton is indeed some kind of libertarian conservative. He is also an articulate advocate of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, and what he is doing here is obviously very far from the post-modern obscurantism that Mr Dutton actively deplores, but is an outstanding example of a liberal, sceptical, scientific attitude. Kudos to him and Climate Debate Daily.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    I note the irony that just before the reports of lower solar activity and associated solar cooling perhaps preventing GW etc., many skeptics were saying that the explanation for GW up to that point was the sun getting hotter rather than the increase in CO2.

  • http://different-eye.blogspot.com md

    ach…i wade in, where angels etc…”ergo”, read # 8, or # 29, before emoting here…this topic attracts non-experts as a magnet. I am not a scientist, but have apparently advanced reading-comprehension skills, and come here to learn from my betters in science.

    #22 is apparently your boy-genius, or rogue truth-teller, (who has the cheek to advertise his site here), or however he fashions himself, telling “truth to power” as the cant goes, which I guess is how Dutton sees himself. #32 may laugh aloud to himself– but it must be galling to be a scientist in a public forum, sometimes.

    i indicate my own site here too, so as not to seem to hide…now there is a place open to criticism, though dull..

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single woman what she most longs for, and she likely won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waist: she wants a man and a baby…

    Well, I’m exactly 40, and I can assure you that I would much rather take the career and the trim waistline than the moaning kid and big fat handicap.

  • Pingback: Does Libertarianism Cause Brain Damage? : Sharp Sand()

  • http://sharpsand.net jd

    Does libertarianism cause brain damage? Many of the comments to this post suggest that it does.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Ergonomic Slingshot on Feb 27th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Mr Dutton is indeed some kind of libertarian conservative. He is also an articulate advocate of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science

    ——————

    There are a number of scientific domains which don’t fall into Popper’s philosophy very neatly. Subjects such as astronomy, paleontology, cosmology, etc, don’t have the sort of ergodic principle that Popper implicitely invoked. The same goes for global warming and climate models. There are no repeatable experiments, we can’t repeat climate experiments on “identical Earth’s,” we don’t directly observe the life forms which left fossil imprints, we don’t have other universes to compare data on our own with, and … . Yet we are able to conduct studies of these areas as science.

    Climate perturbation and change is a new science in that it involves a runaway uncontrolled experiment our species is conducting and the science correlates our perturbing activities (CO_2 production) and correlates them with observed changes in climate. This is also backed up by complex models run on supercomputers. This is not a clean abstract type of science, but instead it’s complicated, messy, filled with uncertainties and ambiguities in categorizing influences and effects. Yet given the efforts of thousands of scientists the data and models are pretty clearly pointing to an emerging paradigm.

    At the core many people don’t like global warming for much the same reason that environmental issues are shunned by many people. The implications of this is that we human beings are garbage making forms of vermin that walk on two legs. Ask youself the question: Has there ever been in the natural history of this planet an animal of our size and dietary requirements that number 6.7 billion at one time? Do you think that ever has happened? Now factor in with our energy use that each of us is an energy user multipied by about 100. Homo sapiens has for thousands of years been on an exponential rampage of tearing down every natural system we can on this planet and converting it to trash. These are not comfortable thoughts.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://albatross.org Albatross

    It’s a very clear situation for those not blinded by denial. Put bacteria in a petri dish, and the bacteria will expand to consume all the resources in the dish, polluting it with wastes, until the resources are consumed. Then the bacteria will die back to a level that the remaining resources can support – including possibly completely dying off.

    Humans on the face of the Earth are absolutely no different from bacteria. Among the many kinds of waste we produce are heat and carbon, which just so happen to interact in a positive feedback loop with solar energy to increase the rate at which heat pollution increases.

    Like a bacteria, humans will continue to expand and consume all resources until the resources no longer support the population. Then the human race will die back to whatever level the remaining resources can support.

    This is an implacable law of Nature. The only way we can get around this law by exploiting characteristics that differentiate us from bacteria – self awarenesss and problem-solving ability. But in order to bring our problem-solving abilities to bear, we have to be able to acknowledge the problem.

    If we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by denial, we will not address the problem, and we will go the way of bacteria in a petri dish. If we acknowledge the problem we have the ability to clean up our waste, limit our population, and limit our consumption of resources.

    One of the best ways to reduce population, by the way, is to improve the standard of living of a given culture. Developed nations actually experience population declines.

    So the best way to save the world is to somehow overcome the denialists, and to work to fight pollution and increase the standard of living worldwide.

    It’s simple, but you have to start by acknowledging the problem.

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    This is an implacable law of Nature. The only way we can get around this law by exploiting characteristics that differentiate us from bacteria – self awarenesss and problem-solving ability.

    Well put, Albatross! Although I’m not sure that humans are much more self-aware than bacteria. If we want to solve the population problem whilst retaining freedom in our lives, it is clear we must engineer a society where not everybody wants to have children, and developed nations show that this is possible, and not just a dream. Perpetrating the idea that women who don’t want children are ‘evil’ is a serious threat to our survival.

  • improbable

    If you mean “believe that `calls to action’ and `dissenting voices’ are equally reasonable,” then no.

    I think you’re taking this website far too seriously. The very first article linking to it I read explained that, unable to reach agreement over lunch, he and a colleague decided to start a website to take their argument to the public. The 50-50 split accurately represents the number of people in that lunchtime argument, that’s all.

    I also don’t see the contradiction you seem so offended by between his views on this and on relativism. The science of global warming is one thing, but what also clearly exists is a snowballing movement of people driven more by feelings of sin / communist control dreams. (If you doubt this then subject yourself to the Guardian’s columnists for a week or two!) Attacking the latter is precisely in line with attacking postmodern blah.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The simple fact is that species of life do not limit their impact on the environment by limiting their numbers or resource extraction. They are limited by their interaction with other species of life. Notice that as human slash and burn out rain forests that microbes previously kept in check are being introduced into ourselves or our livestock. Intelligent life is able to always remove what ever constraints the world imposes on it. It might have begun with Homo erectus which took themselves off the predatory menu and began to put more living things on their menu with the aid of fire and chipped flint axes. Nature is not able to impose constraints on us, for with our brain we are able to figure a way around them, eliminate them and push on committing more of the world to our resource larder.

    In effect we have manufactured ourselves into a situation not that different from the bacteria on the agar filled petri dish. By exploiting the planetary biosphere, mineral resources and energy stores we have approximately turned this planet’s open thermodynamics to a closed thermodynamics. In doing so we may face the ultimate constraint of maximal entropy. It is not certain where that is. We face in the near future a peak oil problem, but in the long run we may face a “peak planet” problem, or as Edward O Wilson puts it, “We will run out of environment.” We are already pushing 20,000 species to extinction every year, so we may well be engineering the next great mass extinction.

    To be honest I suspect that we are not collectively that much smarter than the bacteria in a petri dish or the exponential explosion of grassshoppers in a locust swarm, at least “modulo scale.” In part this is reflected in our history, which illustrates how on average our political leaders through history have been the most inferior of people, and this extends to our current President. I suspect that political leaders will dance around this issue, make window dressing solutions, and do the same with equally pressing problems such as rainforest destruction. I think the safe bet is that our species will collapse the planetary biosphere into a mass extinction and that we will go down with it.

    In 50 million years if there is a repeat of the intelligent life experiment we will have left lots of interesting stuff for them to dig up.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Peter Sattler

    This may be the first time if written to CV in a spirit of disagreement – specifically with the characterization of Arts and Letters Daily as a site with a decided rightward bent. And, yes, I know that this was hardly the main point of the post, but it was still used to bolster Sean’s subsequent claims about Dutton’s climate skepticism, or rampant free-marketism, or whatever. (Where does one get a sense of his economic views from ALDaily?)

    I admit that there is a standard – almost standardized – contrarianism to the links at AL Daily. They usually take the form: “It’s obvious that a certain thing is true, right? Well it’s not!” or “Everybody thinks that X. Well, think again!” And since this “reactionary” style is often directed at academic humanities targets – who are themselves often left-leaning – a rightward tilt does seem to occur.

    (As a rhetorical tick, however, this easy contrarianism can be found at many online sites. Just visit Slate or Salon for a moment. At its best, however, Dutton’s page reminds me more the spirit and tone of Lingua Franca.)

    But the apparent conservative bias doesn’t much survive a reading of the AL Daily page itself. Just look at the page’s current right-hand column, from top to bottom. It contains the offending “What women want” link, as well as others which challenge the concept of a “rape crisis” on college campuses or reference William Saletan’s articles on race and IQ.

    But the same column also sends you to articles by Umberto Eco, E.O. Wilson, Phillip Pullman, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Slavoj Žižek, Alan Wolfe. These appear alongside links to pieces defending John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Heidegger, and the radicalism of the Luddites.

    What does this show? Not much. Other than, perhaps, that even good scientists can cook their data a bit when politics enters the picture.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Peter Sattler on Feb 29th, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    What does this show? Not much. Other than, perhaps, that even good scientists can cook their data a bit when politics enters the picture.
    —————

    For enough money it can happen. Even Jimmy Stewart was tempted for a moment in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Potter offered him a lot of cash. Money is the basis for the “alt-climate science.”

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • John Merryman

    With the current meltdown of the credit markets, possibly we could reconsider the paradim of money. After years of privatizing every possible aspect of public works, it’s time to consider what should be nationalized. One thing. Period. The banking system. Currency is already a form of public utility, similar to a road system, so we should start treating it as such. Rights and responsibilities go together, just like everyone obeys the laws of the road, rich and poor. Make banks a function of local government, with public oversight and the resulting income, since reasonable interest rates are necessary to make wise investment decisions, public income and reduce other taxes. Yes, lots of people will be turned off by this, but that’s an advantage as well. If people didn’t obsess over collecting money, since it is viewed as public property in the first place, people would invest more effort into improving their communities and environment, as a way of storing value and building their sense of personal worth. It slows the more cancerous forms of economic growth and that’s a long term benefit.

  • Rich

    Neil B. Here’s the explanation from Jim Hansen of GISS NASA:

    Local weather anomalies (dynamical fluctuations, more-or-less independent of forced long-term climate change) are much larger than the global mean temperature change of recent decades. Weather fluctuations or ‘noise’ have a
    noticeable effect even on monthly-mean global-mean temperature, especially in Northern Hemisphere winter. Weather has little effect on global-mean temperature averaged over several months or more. The primary cause of variations on time scales from a few months to a few years is ocean dynamics,
    especially the Southern Oscillation (El Nino – La Nina cycle), although an occasional large volcano can have a cooling effect that lasts a few years. The 10-11 year cycle of solar irradiance has a just barely detectable effect on global temperature, no more than about 0.1°C, much less noticeable than El Nino/La
    Nina fluctuations. The past year (2007) witnessed a transition from a weak El Nino to a strong La Nina (the latter is perhaps beginning to moderate already, as the ocean waters near Peru are beginning to warm). January 2007 was the warmest January in the period of instrumental data in the GISS analysis, while October 2007 was # 5 warmest, November 2007 was #8 warmest, December 2007 was #8 warmest, and January 2008 was #40 warmest. [Out of roughly 150 years of records.] Undoubtedly, the cooling trend through the year was due to the strengthening La Nina, and the unusual coolness in January was aided by a winter weather fluctuation.

    Dr. Hansen has also commented on the satellite record:

    If you like to see how unusual the global temperature in January was go to http://discover.itsc.uah.edu/amsutemps/ and click on the channel LT data (global lower troposphere, about 900 mb level). You can see that the temperature was actually above the 20 year mean, and today the temperature is back up to the level of last year, far above the 20-year mean. Note that this is the web site of John Christy, a contrarian. He has been very quiet about the fact that the satellite data now show that the position he was taking for years is way off base.

  • Pingback: The Postmodern Science Skeptic: A Strange New Breed. « Life, the Universe, and Everything.()

  • Peter

    “But this sort of old-fashioned objective-reality based thinking has been left behind by such advanced intellects as Prof. Dutton, who delight in overturning hierarchies, casting suspicion on metanarratives, and problematizing binary oppositions all over the place.”

    Really, Sean. Why so snotty? Clearly, you know Dr Dutton even less than I do.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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