© Christopher Essex. Republished with permission of Christopher Essex.
- Of Cavemen and Differential Equations
A debate takes place between a mysterious time traveler and a paleolithic shaman before an audience of paleolithics about the merits of cooking with microwave ovens. The mysterious traveler introduces the electromagnetic field, and discusses the merits of eating cooked versus raw. The shaman sings mystically about what the gods say. Meanwhile the audience chants, “Club. Club. Club. …”
It sounds bizarre, but I didn’t entirely make it up. I have lived it—well, mostly. There wasn’t any time travel, of course, and the subject was climate change rather than microwave ovens, but everything else was much the same, modulo some details. Naturally, objections to the paleolithic aspect may arise: this is the modern world, not the old stone age. Modern people are educated, supporters of science, and not just a bunch of superstitious cavemen, aren’t they? Well, let me relate some of my experiences in answer.
Sometimes I give a pop quiz before giving an interview on climate. Tell me, I ask the journalist, what you know about the Navier Stokes equations. It’s pretty vague, so nearly any puny, pathetic answer would do. But there is still one wrong answer: what’re the Navier Stokes equations? Despite the low standard, they never pass. Some think that’s unfair, but is it? Those equations tell us how water and air move—tough to have an intelligent conversation about climate without that.
Scientists are criticized for speaking in incomprehensible ways. But compromising has led to distorted, simplistic gibberish, making the full technicalities appear like a fraud to keep outsiders out. And then the near-gibberish gets set like concrete and called “science.” But, mathematical equations are precise language. While little known to popular culture, they’re essential to human understanding of Nature. Sadly, equations appear freely in public less frequently than pornography, and can prove to be even more socially unacceptable. Have you ever seen a differential equation in a newspaper? Claiming to discuss climate while trying to escape mathematics comes across to me like children wailing for dessert after refusing to eat their vegetables.
But if I forego the quiz and the journalist wants to talk about actual science, instead of the messenger (i.e. me), doing the interview with scientific technicalities off-limits is more challenging than doing charades. At least in charades, when you act out a movie title, you can count on the audience knowing what a movie is. After decades of slavering climate obsession, we are still admonished not to question the persistent and stunningly stunted level of discourse because it’s “unfair.” While many worry about climate, time and again they fail to truly discuss it because of awkward cultural attitudes about science. Instead, I’ve witnessed something else. It sounds an awful lot like, “Club. Club. Club. …” Saying it is unfair to question this makes a heartbreaking joke out of us all.
- Speaking for the Gods
The stranger from the future begins to explain how microwave ovens work. But Maxwell’s equations, and the dipole moment of the water molecule don’t seem to make much headway with the paleolithics. In desperation, he falls back to the gibberish method. “Well, the microwaves rub up against the water, causing heat from friction.” Oh, wait. That’s the explanation for microwave ovens given to modern humans.
Making fun of us on science is too easy. But given the torrents of prattling nonsense flowing endlessly from the mouths of our illustrious leaders, journalists, and academics on climate, it’s richly deserved. I would be sympathetic if I did not believe that people were capable of much better. Most underestimate their scientific side: you can do it human; it’s built in. It might seem hard, but like Brussels sprouts, differential equations are good for you. Some squirm to avoid their vegetables, and others enable their tortured avoidance. The enablers force us to indulge people who act like cats gingerly stepping around a puddle when scientific technicalities are in play. By all means don’t use microwave ovens if you think they infest your brain with leprechauns. However, if we are facing political decisions over policy affecting everyone, you should not get to step gingerly around the puddle. You should either step up and learn, or get out of the way in favor of those who have.
The usual method for dealing with what you don’t know is to consult an expert. People do that with physicians, auto mechanics, and plumbers all the time. It’s mostly okay. But there are issues where it isn’t. Climate is one of those. Oh yes, I know we can all understand droughts, heat waves, snow, floods, storms, and the wrath of the gods. But how do you know whether any of these phenomena are related to climate change? This isn’t a plumbing issue. Even if you don’t do your own plumbing, you know when your toilet does not work, and when it’s fixed afterward. That’s crucial. After farming out everything else to experts, knowing whether you got what you want or need is your last link to your own problem. It keeps you in charge.
However, if you farm out something like climate to experts, where you have no expertise yourself, outside of some prejudice and folklore, you are like a child, precisely because you cannot say, on your own, whether or not there is a problem, let alone whether it has been fixed or not. So, why not just put the experts in charge then? You would only vote according to what they tell you anyway. Isn’t that the concept? Think about that. If you don’t step up to learn new things when needed, what starts with plumbing flushes away democracy.
But, cluelessness not withstanding, children and cavemen insist on decision making anyway. There are a number of popular methods. The most primal of these is to decide whether you trust some particular expert. Where would you begin? Maybe you can discover whether the expert had any shady real-estate dealings. Were there extramarital affairs, prior convictions, drunk driving charges? How about cheating on taxes? Exposing moral turpitude as a way to make up minds about climate experts may sound a bit hyperbolic, but it isn’t. It’s the first approach to the climate problem. Aficionados decide on physics through moral turpitude. Reality check: that should sound bonkers.
The moral turpitude of choice is fraud. Allegations are made that false opinions are bought and paid for from experts by forces that aim to deceive. If identified, the next step is to just ignore the offending experts, after some primal Paleolithic vilification. Simple enough. But how can you find fraudulent experts out? You could turn to an “expert” at investigating the experts. But this is just another expert problem. Do you trust the experts on experts? Is this a concern? Well, yes. There is a rich industry of activists anxious to share their “expertise” in implicating putative climate experts in evil deeds. But thoughtful people soon catch on that something is amiss.
Many of their claims are outrageous smears that are probably actionable. Nevertheless, celebrities, government officials and even heads of state deal freely in them. It’s fashion, like narrow lapels and short skirts. There are any number of libelous websites that claim to expose climate experts who do not practice “right thinking.” Why is this injustice spree allowed to stand? Ironically, despite allegations of being on the take, many of the libelous sites could probably be closed down if the experts in question actually had money for libel actions.
Real climate experts are real scientists. They don’t test the morality of experts to decide what’s true in Nature, because they don’t believe any experts. That’s science. They don’t worry about deception, because we humans do an excellent job at getting things wrong even without lies! For them, the issue is finding out the falsehoods irrespective of motives. Test things, not persons. That’s science at its best. It follows that real scientists find the moral turpitude test, and the accompanying primal politics, bewildering. It’s a farce to them. So, let’s set moral turpitude aside.
Another popular tactic for asserting control, when you know nothing, is to test qualifications: the competency method. Maybe you can decide on which expert to believe based on whether the expert is qualified. I once heard from a journalist who was compiling a list of those qualified to speak publicly about climate. His dream, simply put, was that qualified experts speak and everyone else shuts up. He approached me to determine whether I should be on his list.
I asked him what made him qualified to decide who was qualified? Silence. It borders on a self-referential paradox. Who is qualified to choose who is qualified to compile such a list? It wasn’t even necessary to point out that self-appointed qualification deciders might just rule out experts holding views they don’t like. So much for the competency method. It would be simpler if all experts were to say the same thing. This is easily achieved, if you are up for some mathematical madness. Simply define experts as those holding a particular prescribed position. All experts then agree by definition. Other views, equally by definition, are not from experts. It’s simple. Forget about distinguishing between experts; they’re all alike, by definition. Your contribution to important discussions need only be to reply to doubters with, “the experts all agree.” It’s liberating. Who cares who agreed or what they might have agreed to. Try it: ask people who and what. It’s no wonder that climate journalists, who have never heard of the equations that govern the motions of air and water, could survive despite a quarter century of boiling climate fervor.
But, despite the madness of it, if you don’t actually know anything, how can this even be achieved? Any prescription for what’s “correct” requires at least some knowledge to set the definition. Maybe you could farm that out too. But you do need to be reassured that some canonical position has actually been set by someone, even if you avoid learning what it is. Moreover, you still need to know specific tasks that you are called on to do by the inscrutable, duly defined experts. While the paleolithics might not be able to help you with microwave ovens, they would recognize at once who you need. You need a shaman to intercede for you with the gods. The experts recede into the background as unknowable entities of power (the gods). They’re interpreted for you by some bold, charismatic personality (the shaman). Al Gore is a shaman.
So, in the end, despite our democracy, modernity, sophistication, and technology, we return to the old stone age, because it all boils down to what the shaman tells us the gods say, while the supplicants chant, “Club. Club. Club…” And if you do not agree that this is “science,” then you believe in smoking and that the earth is flat, or something like that. But the modern supplicants actually chant something else equally devoid of scientific content: “climate change is real; the science is clear; the scientists all agree.” I suggest you look off into the distance, hold your arms wide, and repeat it full voiced, three times, to get the full inspirational effect. I’ve tried it. It’s a compelling ritual. Perhaps it could be put to music.
- Enablers and Oracles
These methods aren’t for everyone. But there’s a fourth, very hip, alternative. It was once explained to me by a certain sociologist. She told me that it did not matter that she knew nothing about science. She knew what to do anyway. Her explanation was so smooth it was like a song,
Don’t know much about climatology; Don’t know much about astronomy;
Don’t know much about a physics book; Don’t know much about the math I took;
But I do know what we should do;
and I know that if you do too, what a wonderful world this would be.
But no matter how mellifluous the explanation, reasoning matters. If we don’t act, she reasoned, things may or may not turn out bad, but if we do act then things will be fine. Therefore, we must act. Her thinking is sometimes described as the “precautionary principle.” The precautionary principle originates from medicine, where it’s more of a do-no-harm kind of thing. Inaction, instead of action, is the prudent course there. The climate version is upside down. So instead we’ll call it the “wonderful world method” for ditching science (WWM).
It takes talent to make science in a scientific issue disappear, which WWM does. But where did it go? If the WWM cases are put into a table, listing “action” and “inaction” against “bad” and “fine”, there are four possibilities, not three. The “action and bad” case is missing. You can’t rule it out by being hip. Instead you need to define things precisely. For example, what’s “action?” What’s “bad?” How does “action” or “inaction” lead to “fine” or “bad?” The missing case seems like a stray thread, but if you pull on it everything unravels. The scientific questions didn’t disappear; they were just embroidered over. There are surely more methods to avoid learning the science needed. As any parent knows, there are boundless excuses to avoid your vegetables, and there are also always enablers who feel it’s cruel to make the kiddies eat them. The climate policy process is a no-vegetable enabler’s paradise. That process envisions policymakers standing before the single closed door of an otherwise sealed room. A note, written in mystic runes, is slipped under the door. Imagine visiting an oracle in ancient Greece. Policymakers leave with the word of the gods. It’s so simple: scientists figure out science; policymakers listen to what they have to say; policymakers make policy that doesn’t contradict the laws of nature.
Then we all ride off into the sunset basking in a warm utopian glow. Problem solved.
Vegetables successfully uneaten.
This process embraces all four methods for ducking science. The unseen within the sealed room are the gods. The policymakers visiting the oracle are the shamen. Who is selected to be in the sealed room? Well, only competent experts of unquestioned morality (as long as they’re in the room) are selected. Who selects them? Only the shamen know.
But where’s WWM here? This is the really interesting part. No one actually cares about what the oracle wrote, let alone why. In reality, of course, the note is not a piece of paper, but rather a huge tome: the scientific report of the UN’s climate panel. Not only do few ever read it, but policymakers actually doctor it after they receive it. That is, as the policymakers walk away from the door with the note, they scratch out some lines, and reword parts, while inserting little somethings here and there. That way the note will agree with what they think the oracle ought to have said.
What! You didn’t know? It’s no secret. It’s standard operating procedure for the UN panel. What difference does it make! WWM makes the scientific issues irrelevant anyway. The frank purpose of the UN climate process, according to its founding head, is to “orchestrate” scientific opinion. The current head is less frank, uttering things like “climate change is real” instead. I don’t think he sang it to music though.
- On being Smarter than a Screwdriver
People are much smarter than they are given credit for, when given half a chance, a bit of encouragement, and are not trumped by fashion. If everyone involved put as much effort into learning and explaining over the last 25 years, as they put into avoiding, enabling, and groupthink, we would not be living the life Kafka. But no matter how Kafkaesque our approach to this problem is, an inexplicable toe hold remains when the nonsense is alleged to be backed by computers.
Computer cachet is a pernicious part of the superstitious cloud of confusion stopping us from thinking. Computers aren’t oracles either. They are just tools, like a screwdriver. The first rule when using a screwdriver is to be smarter than the screwdriver. You can hurt yourself if you aren’t. It’s the same for computers. The question is sometimes put to me as to whether computer climate models are ready for policymaking. Climate models are the best we have, but they are far from good enough. Even many experts are unaware of the extent of their limitations.
Computers can only hold a finite number of numbers. Computer scientists call that a “finite representation.” Because of that you can get garbage out even when you don’t put garbage in. It alters arithmetic; it alters the equations themselves, and it means important physics has to be faked because modern computers are far too slow and their representations are far too small for climate. No climate model fully employs the known physics. They are empirical. But climate forecasting is not an empirical problem. If one had a computer large enough it is easy to estimate how long a typical modern computer would take to do one 10-year forecast without some of this fake (empirical) physics. With a Kolmogorov microscale of about a millimeter for air, one gets numbers like 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.* That is longer than it took for Douglas Adams’s famous fictional computer, Deep Thought, to answer the cosmic question. (See answer below)
I could elaborate, but in a time of neo-shamanism, moral turpitude experts, and WWM does it matter? The climate fervor was never about “science.” That word is just a gimmick and a weapon. Policymakers can get little from computer climate models if they fail to grasp their deep, unredeemable limitations, while being distracted by para-scientific agendas. It’s no good wondering whether climate models are ready for policy, when most policymakers are not ready for models. They are not smarter than this screwdriver.
*Or…the age of the Universe, squared.
Pop-Quiz for Journalists
Read “Taken By Storm”
Ron Clutz of “Science Matters” offers a collection of cavemen-climate cartoons.
Deep Thought – Answer To The Ultimate Question – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – BBC