Saturday, February 22, 2014

Hacks, Climate Change, Science & Decisions

Charles Krauthammer, hack writer
I don't often read Charles Kruthammer. I perceive him to be a hack, a tool, a shill--in a word, predictable. I say that with some hesitation because I stopped reading him years ago. I now only glance. I don't want to call people with whom I disagree hacks or other demeaning terms because we disagree. After all, I could be wrong. I can fail to learn by ignoring new information and perspectives. But some writers on both the right and the left are too predictable. They bend the facts to fit their perspectives. We all do that do some degree, but at some point, you just have to stop reading. So why did I read Kruthammer today? 

For reasons that sometimes escape me, our local paper of choice, The Hindu, carries columnists from the NYT & WaPo. Do Indians really get Maureen Dowd? In any event, today I read Krauthammer because I suspected he was full of baloney when I read his title: "The myth of settled science". Here's his opening: 

I repeat: I'm not a global warming believer. I'm not a global warming denier. I've long believed that it cannot be good for humanity to be spewing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I also believe those scientists who pretend to know exactly what this will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years are white coat propagandists.
Let's unpack this. Healthy skepticism, open-mindedness, continuing inquiry: all are hallmarks of good science. However, this scientific agnosticism, like patriotism, if often the last refuge of scoundrals. Flat-earthers and creationists love to spout it, along with climate change deniers. There is a huge body of science upon which we can have no rational disagreement. Science lives in a double-world: both agreed and open to revision. We have to use sound judgment to distinguish the two. 

In matters concerning global climate change and human carbon-loading of the environment, we have to maintain both attitudes. However, we do have to choose on the basis of the best evidence. We have to make decisions on what we believe to be the truth based on empirical evidence. From this we have to discern  the hypothesis most likely to approximate the truth (facts) that will arise in the future. When it's the future we're considering--and it certainly is in this case--we have to constantly revise our theories and understanding. Double that thought when we're talking about the uber-complex world of the biosphere, perhaps the ultimate complex system that evolves over eons and that fluctuates moment-to-moment. 

Krauthammer unleashes a shotgun spray of arguments in an attempt to hit Obama on this issue. We can't know for sure, so we can't say that "The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."

Yes, we can. 

It's true to say that we're not sure of how fast change will continue to come, how it will affect weather patterns, and so on. We don't know these things with a high degree of certainty. So does this prevent us from acting? No, we act, regardless. We only can choose whether to act in ignorance or by informed and educated science. We are now acting, only foolishly. What Obama and a decisive majority of the science community are recommending is that we act rationally based on the strong consensus of the scientific community. (I know about Freeman Dyson, but isn't there one in every crowd? Einstein didn't accept quantum theory, either. Even geniuses make mistakes.) Climate change is undoubtedly occurring, even though we don't know with certainty its parameters or trajectory.

We need to act according common law standards for torts (harm to others with whom we don't have a contractual relationship). In other words, we need to gaudge the liklihood of harm, the magnitude of the possible harm, the cost of avoiding the harm, and act accordingly. Climate change-deniers (yes, an apt name for them) ignore the context that we should apply to this type of issue and attempt to make it an all-or-nothing proposition. Nice work if you can get it, but don't expect it in serious issues about the future.

We should recall that we on planet earth are running an N=1 experiment. In doing so, we need to remember that we can't run it again, at least not in this iteration of the universe. Therefore, we ought to be pretty damn careful. I don't like the thought of using less energy--energy is eternal delight. But I don't want to mess up the planet permanently. Especially if we do so by paying attention to hacks like Charles Kruthammer.



Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler



Between 1936 and 1940, Eric Ambler published six thrillers that changed the genre. After John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, the genre had become stale. Ambler came along and introduced clean, efficient prose, appropriately paced plots, and the theme of the common man pulled into the treacherous world of Europe in the shadow of war. Journey into Fear (1940) is one of these six novels. 

Graham is a British engineer on assignment in Turkey helping with Turkish armaments. At a nightclub, a lady of the house notices a man staring at him and points this out to Graham. He shrugs it off. Later, back in his hotel, quite alone, someone takes a shot at him. As a result of the shooting he is taken to see the Turkish officer, Colonel Haki. Haki, the worldly and streetwise voice of experience, tells Graham that his life is in danger and that he will have to make special arrangements to return to Britain--to his job, his pleasant wife, their house, their car, to the happily normal life of a British engineer. Needless to say, complications intervene as he travels by ship to Italy on his journey to return home. 

Ambler has the touch in these novels. The prose is set just right and the pacing is near perfect. Scenes work, and the characters are drawn to just the right focus. But perhaps most importantly, Ambler perfects the problem of an ordinary person drawn into the intrigues of spies and criminals. His influence on Hitchcock’s famous films like The Man Who Knew Too Much (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day on a trip to Morocco) or North by Northwest (at least the initial plot conceit) is apparent.  

How good is Ambler in these this classic? Among the very best. Read and enjoy.