Saturday, December 15, 2012

sentio ergo sum

Andrew at Highriser consistently publishes interesting posts and, from time to time, they are provocative. Depending on how emotionally disturbed I am about an issue I can comment briefly, or find myself heading off into a rant it would be rude to put anywhere but in a post of my own.

Climate change is always worth a rant.

When it comes to climate change, do some of us think we know better than scientists who base their opinions on evidence?

We can’t know everything and so, yes, we must rely on those who specialise in a field to inform us. Naturally we tend to go with what the majority of experts believe.

But the idea of a simple majority opinion in a scientific field is weird. My thing is economics, so indulge me for a second. Current, provable majority opinion in economics is easy to identify. Keynes was right. Or Milton Friedman. Or Adam Smith. No wait, what about the Supply-siders?

Some test-tube type scientists would argue that economics is not really an objective science. I would argue the more complex the issues scientists study, whether test-tubers or economists, the more difficult it is for them to establish controls for all factors.

Yes, we tend to go with what the majority of experts believe. If it suits us, or if it matches our belief set.
Well, until we realise the world can’t be flat because when a ship appears on the horizon it appears to be climbing a hill.

We might believe stuff for a while until we can no longer deny it – until we learn about falsified study results. Or that a lot of drug trials are funded by drug companies. Or we hear someone has decided vaccination vastly increases the risk of autism when, truth is, there is no way of knowing whether autism has increased at all or is now simply acknowledged for the first time in history.

Well, okay, we would like to go with a majority opinion, if only we knew that it was a genuine majority rather than something as artificial as a papal bull. If only we could be sure what passes as the majority opinion of scientists is not just the most widely publicised interpretation. Or the most easily understood.

No, I’m not siding with Andrew Ostri Bolt. If his leg was on fire he would deny it, regardless of the consequences. But he gathers followers because he is more in touch with his readers’ feelings than most. Acknowledging how people feel he is able to sell ridiculous ideas. Using the same method – Hitler’s, in fact – caring journalists would be able to sell sensible or upright ideas, but they are few and far between.

Arguments against climate change may be straw men - something Bolt exploits quite well – but again, Bolt is one of the few people prepared to acknowledge peoples’ doubts or questions. He might not provide the right answers, or even any answers, but he listens.

I know I’m sick to death of politicians – let’s not call them leaders – who peddle patently stupid ideas using the “the public are stupid we just need to educate them” approach. If I can’t trust them with things I can understand, why on earth would anyone hope I should trust them with things I can’t understand?

Why should I be impressed or suddenly feel educated and informed when a government spends millions of dollars getting over-consumers and hypocritical sellairbrities to tell me – in simplistic and patronising tones – that I’m wrong?

Yes, to be accessible to most, complex ideas must be couched to some extent in simplistic terms. But for every force there is an equal and opposite reaction, and simplistic explanations will draw simplistic responses. And patronising dictates will draw negative responses from those of us who are averse to being told we are naïve.

In a world of information overload, it is perfectly human to draw grand conclusions based on our own experiences, or personal stories we hear whether these are statistically significant or not. It is also easy to accept that many political policies sold as ‘noble’ have had a negative, personal impact on a lot of real, individual people with few financial resources.

Blind faith is required for us to believe something we cannot see or understand. We do see people struggling now, but it is harder to "see" tomorrow with any certainty. 

It is much easier to see the tonnes and tonnes of manufactured crap we can buy, before and after it all too quickly becomes landfill. The pollution and waste of resources caused by all of this are a lot easier to understand or believe than consequences repackaged as “a scientific theory of climate change”.

Climate change is a big issue, but an unfortunate side effect of it being so big is that it has been set apart from other forms of pollution. If the crap churned out in factories all over the world is not contributing to climate change I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. If this crap is not really the root cause of climate change then, okay, prove it is not and I’ll call myself an idiot. Well, okay, you don’t even need to prove it, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t doubt there is a link between human activity and weather conditions. I also have no doubt that the earth once experienced an ice age – climates cycle in the medium term, and climates will change over the very very long term no matter what we do. And in Melbourne the climate changes every two minutes.

What I have doubts about are the motives and competence of those who make grand policies about what we must do next. If I disapprove of the carbon tax this does not make me a denier, it simply means I personally disapprove of the tax and the way it has been implemented.

If climate change is caused by humans, the only way to effect change is to change human behaviour. Ideas might be proven in laboratories, but they can only be effected in the real world, where real people must live.

The only way to achieve real change is to confront the reality of people’s feelings. A paradigm shift in scientific theory is one thing, but a paradigm shift in social thinking at the individual level and on a global basis will not be achieved by assertion or bullying.

A majority of scientists might be passionate, sincere and quite right about climate change, but they will be tainted by association with politicians. The best and most successful ideas come from below – pushed from above ideas will achieve little.

Lest you think I am just being my normal, cynical self here, think of Ghandi and Indian independence, or the moratorium movement against the war in Vietnam
Think of Rosa Parks.

It is easy to see the obscene hypocrisy in selling coal – and let’s not forget uranium – just because we can, or because if we don’t then someone else will.

It is easy to imagine how smug the west must seem, telling third world countries they cannot or should not do this or that when we have benefited for centuries from an “excuse” like scientific ignorance. Our hypocrisy will do more harm than good in the long run, because it feeds or generates a quite reasonable suspicion the west is, as always, intent on keeping privilege for itself. That all our reasons for suppressing growth in developing countries are just bullshit and propaganda.

Whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, living in the west or the third world, we are most of us the same. “Do as I say, not as I do”, or “Because I said so” do not cut the mustard. Most of us would rather walk with someone than walk behind.

We are human, not silly, and while we are happy to follow a real leader we are loathe to be pushed. Understanding this is the first and most important step to addressing climate change; nothing else will come close.


  1. I do not have high hopes for the changing of human behavior, so let the droughts continue. :)

    1. And if the droughts continue, there's a strong chance I'll have my head in the sand for years to come, Rubye. :)

  2. Well fleshed out. It has been suggested that scientists have not communicated the climate change message with the people very well at all. But should they? Is that their job? I think probably not. I have a bit of faith in humans, perhaps misplaced. I doubt there is a person who does not feel a little guilt when they put their old crt monitor out on the nature strip for collection. A practical E-waste scheme should have been set up in the seventies. The changed behaviour and attitude towards recycling in Australia over the past decade or so has been remarkable.

    1. The question of whether or not it is the job of scientists to communicate the climate change message is an interesting one - and an important one. Scientists probably make a career of science because they are scientists at heart - not reporters or spin doctors. But if scientists cannot sell the message in accessible language should Josephine Bloggs, factory worker 8 hours a day and full time mum, be expected to work it out? So many important issues compete for our attention and many of them are complex and demanding. I wouldn't even assume non-scientists who understand and care about climate change would find it easy to communicate the message well. I simply wish those who do would hurry up and find a way to do it that doesn't involve blaming Josephine Bloggs for her failure to understand.

      Your faith in humans is not misplaced. Humans can and do achieve remarkable things, show remarkable spirit, ingenuity and even compassion when they see what is happening and feel there is something they can do. And this is the point I was trying to make. Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved on a grand scale if it does not consider and allow for human nature. Tapping into human nature is what leaders do - even Hitler understood that quite clearly. What he also understood is that words are not enough. He did not just take stuff away from the people he wanted support from. He didn't just promise every family the chance to own a car, he built one to show them. He gave them the means to own one by allowing them to "save" a little out of each pay packet so they could eventually own one. He made a dream real and possible. He reduced the power of Christian churches by offering something in exchange - out with the bells and smells and in with the torchlight rallies, pomp, ritual, and a sense of inclusion.

      Rosa Parks did not start the civil rights movement because she believed in some great moral principle like equal opportunity. She simply refused to stand up on a bus because she was tired of being treated like crap. It was a spontaneous reaction to something that happened to her, personally. She did it for herself, nobody else. And that's the human angle.

      When we put our old pc monitors out for collection, some of us do feel guilty because we know instinctively that it is wrong. But it has no immediate and direct personal impact on our quality of life. Melting ice-caps, or the predicted rise of the earth's temperature over the next fifty years are as remote from us as the moon.

      Blatant hypocrisy aside, no carbon tax will stop humans from wanting a new, bigger, brighter, cleverer iPhone every 12 months. It won't stop the rise of the iPad as a third "necessary" product [talk about creating a market - brilliant]. All the tax can do is make these more expensive.

      Action will start with an e-Rosa. We won't stop the march of tech change, but someone - who feels a personal connection with change and who has passion - will develop a phone thingy that can be upgraded over several generations. When they replace their e-phone model F with a model G it will re-use the model F casing, just providing better software. Well, this is probably a crap example and I'm not talking about artificial improvements in the Windows software which are forced on people whether they like it or not.

      But yes, today's approach to recycling is a good example. If we want someone to help us, we must help them to help us - whatever we want. Providing a recycling bin seems so obvious, but without one how many of us would put recycling in the too hard basket?

      If people are in denial about climate change, or seem indifferent, only two things will bring about effective change. Firstly, stop blaming or judging people who don't get it, and be a little more realistic. Secondly, if it really matters that much, work out what you want people to do and help them do it. Gosh, these two things alone would even help despite the blatant hypocrisy of selling coal and uranium.

  3. What annoys me about advances in technology, they are forced on you whether you want them or not.

  4. OMG I did it again..I'm giving up FC this bloody iPad is doing my head in!!!!!! See my point haha..

  5. There is no point even trying to 'educate' Jo Bloggs until she can no longer see the inconsistencies and double standards that speak to her so much more loudly than the most erudite scientist on earth.