The Devil’s in the Data

The Devil’s in the Data

So…..I try to avoid talking about topics that people tend to find inflammatory, with politics right at the top of that list. People are just too polarized these days and frankly, political partisanship is a matter pf personal belief and opinion and there is little to be gained by a discussion that may be contrary to another’s position – at least in such a forum as this. But there is a topic I want to touch upon that is a “hot button” of late: climate change.

I just (finally) watched the movie “Snowpiercer” last night. The story is set in the not too distant future; a dystopian SciFi tale of an earth with a warming climate – science intervenes and introduces a chemical agent into the atmosphere to “help” the climate by cooling it. And as a result the planet froze, killing everything except some number of people now riding a train that circles the globe. The climate portion of the movie takes up all of 30 seconds in the start of the film, there mainly to reveal the story line; the results of that action being the reason they are on the train. The bulk of the film focuses on class and station in life, the passengers being a microcosm of society overall. It is a brilliant film and worth seeing if you enjoy this genre.  But it dovetails into this post for another reason.

Climate change is on everyone’s lips these days it seems, and there appears to be only two camps, the most vocal of which are (of course) diametrically opposed; “we broke the earth and all is doomed” on one side and “it’s all made up and not real” on the other.

With basically everything else in this world, the extremes represent the far outer edges of the bell curve and the majority resides in the middle under the big old bell. But in this case, it is hard to find a middle ground; all I hear or read is from folks who have pitched their tents at the opposite edges. Like so many other issues these days, this one seems to be pretty much a discrete one, digital – one extreme or the other and nothing in between. And of course, that just isn’t how these things work. But it is symptomatic of the polarized stances that our society is increasingly taking on issues. We ignore the empirical data, disregard the science, dismiss objective thought, willfully disregard facts that contradict our opinion, dogmatically stand our ground, and we concede nothing.

The fault here, is not with completely with society or with science – it is largely with the media. They are ever increasingly sensationalistic, always angling to find a way to provide greater shock and alarm to the stories that satisfy their agenda. Facts are disregarded or manipulated for those that contradict their agenda and fiction becomes fact for those that do. Disagree if you will, but first please stop and reflect on how many “storm of the centuries” you’ve heard shouted out from all the major news media in recent years. And up here in New England, they are no longer nor’easters – they are bomb cyclones. 

The hype with the recent hurricane Dorian was the worst yet, a large and powerful storm to be sure. Its impressive size and strength however, was not enough for the news media, despite how frequently they drilled the Category 5 rating into us. Having overhyped every storm to come along in the last 10 years, the media is now piling climate change into each and every storm forecast; how the manmade climate change has caused the new and next storm of the century.

Frankly, there is a long and distinguished list of notable and respected scientists and climatologists who are not just in disagreement with the connection between climate change and hurricanes, but who are alarmed by how irresponsible the media has become in selling news for ratings, done with complete disregard for the empirical scientific facts and data. I urge you to read a little of Judith Curry’s work and her total disdain for the climate alarmists that insist the end is immediately here.

Animal rights groups fell prey to this in their attempt to raise awareness to their cause. Their commercials became so melodramatic and over the top that they became almost laughable. And people who embraced animal rights deeply within their hearts and souls were outraged as the public laughed and ridiculed the commercials due to their heavy-handedness and ended up missing the entire message about animal cruelty. To be clear here, I think everyone agrees that animals should never be harmed and that they should be rescued from cruel conditions. But when the “facts” become obfuscated with melodrama and hyperbole, the message ends up being lost and ultimately dismissed. And worse, those delivering the message are left looking as foolish and alarmist with no credibility. They end up getting labeled as Chicken Little or some such moniker.

Whatever the impetus behind their agenda, the media are locked into a rhetoric intended to associate climate change with any and every weather event. And that behavior is intended to incite. I would love to be an optimist and believe that they are merely trying to draw our collective attention on the issue. It certainly deserves our attention. But they are so heavy handed and unrepresentative of the facts that people turn away in disgust and disbelief. Hyperbole can be an effective tool, but not on issues as critical as this; using it in conjunction with something as grave as climate change has a deleterious effect on the subject with many people and is actually irresponsible journalism. They, seemingly intentionally, drive a wedge in between fact and fiction, ever widening the gap.

The problem – or rather, one of the problems – with this tactic is the predictable reaction of people. Think of Newton’s laws of motion; one of them states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Push someone and they will push back equally as hard. Try to force people to hear and believe your perspective (that magic word once again) and they will push back. Human nature and while not the intent of Newton, at least partially explained with his law. And you can actually witness this behavior, howsoever difficult. Take a trip onto Facebook or your choice of social media and once there do two things: focus solely on posts concerning politics and try really hard to forget your position on the issue. Rather than reading them as informational, read the posts as intent – what the write is trying to do with their words. And study the interactions between posts; the exchanges. One pushes and the other pushes back; one lies and the other lies back. It is truly fascinating.

My personal take on the subject is simple; scientific data indicates that our climate is changing. The average temperature of the planet has risen over 1.5 degrees in the last 135 years with the greatest rise in the last quarter century. The oceans are (empirically) warming, the ice sheets are shrinking, the glaciers are retreating, the snow cover has decreased, and the sea levels have risen – a full 8” in the last 100 years. You simply cannot deny what is happening. But you need to temper how you frame and attempt to explain what is happening.

This planet is – according to the best science available – over 4.5 billion years old. We’ve only been keeping temperature records for 135 years. So we don’t have a strong baseline for understanding natural and cyclic temperature variations. But we do have solid and accurate data on carbon dioxide levels. And that data shows that carbon dioxides levels on our planet are now at far above levels ever seen in the last 800,000 years with basically all of the increase taking place in the last 100 years or less. One simply cannot ignore the fact that we have altered our atmosphere – accidentally, unintentionally, and blindly – but altered for sure.

Eventually, I hope, the hyperbole will yield to cold hard objective presentations of facts and data. And finally everyone (well, most everyone) will come to recognize that we need to take action. But what I fear more than anything else is the kneejerk reaction; the “Snowpiercer” movie response with a complex, complicated, and completely manmade plot to control our climate and cool our atmosphere. The earth is a marvelously constructed, incredibly intricate, brilliantly engineered compilation of a myriad of different systems, all of which work seamlessly together. Every hair on the back of my neck and every red flag I have all go up when I think about man trying to intervene and interrupt a natural function of earth. We are a bright species, but we are dust on the bottom of the shoe of the universe when it comes to understanding the universe; we are simply not that smart.

Please consider the “facts” that society has accepted as fact over just the last 500 years: the earth is the center of the universe and the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is flat; bloodletting to cure most any disease; tomatoes are poisonous; eggs are good for – no, wait – they are bad for you – no, sorry – good for you; and countless others. We gullible humans have swallowed speculative scientific fodder as factual for thousands of years.

But today’s society is an overwhelmingly digital one; yeah or nay, yes or no, right or wrong. And each group has an amazingly steadfast tendency to not only pitch their tents at either of the two opposite polar ends of the bell curve, but to allow fiction and misinformation to replace any factual evidence that contradicts their beliefs. We have become a society that is not just stubborn; we have become a stupidly and strongly stubborn society. We no longer see the truth if it’s lit up with flares and dancing in front of us, if that truth is in disagreement with our perspective.

To be so limited in our knowledge, and simultaneously arrogant, creates a dangerous circumstance. We are simply not qualified or capable to attempt to change any of earth’s systems. Consider the recent uproar when the President suggested we drop a nuclear bomb into a hurricane to disperse it (an idea that has been thrown on the table at least once a decade going back over 50 years). That uproar was justified – we can’t just go running off willy-nilly trying to alter nature with our feeble manmade objects. Think back over how many thousands of times someone in a position of authority became convinced we could alter the path of nature by intervening; we’ve introduced plants and animals into non-indigenous situations in a misguided attempt to stop something we deemed dangerous or undesirable. And in almost every single case, what was introduced became the dominant species and turned into an invasive force dominating the ecosystem and destroying it. This is because we do not have the prerequisite knowledge necessary to understand and intervene in nature. We always get it wrong.

But that is not to say we should do nothing and I am surely not forgiving those who dismiss the issue; those who ignore it and sticking their heads in the sand. The climate is changing, whether because of us or because it is merely time for the earth to once again morph. If there are things we are doing as inhabitants of this earth that are harming the earth, we absolutely need to change and stop those behaviors.

The best example I can offer at this moment is the American Bald Eagle; on the precipice of extinction due exclusively to the actions of humans: a DDT pesticide. We stopped the use of DDT and that, along with new laws and regulations further protecting them, removed them from the endangered species list. Of course, it was the smug arrogance of man that determined we were perfectly OK in the first place in developing and spraying that insidious chemical pesticide throughout nature that caused the problem. And there, in all its glorious duality, is the crux of the matter!

For those things we know, empirically, that we are doing which are harming the climate, we need to stop. Immediately. But much like the eagle commentary above, we need to focus on the things we are doing that we know, factually, are causing issues. We need to stop any and all of those manmade actions that we started, initially oblivious to the eventual harmful outcome. There should be no argument about that. If aerosols are proven to be depleting the ozone layer and causing climate change, we need to stop using them, or at the very least, change propellants. If we are polluting the air or water with something, we should stop that – change the process. That’s just responsible stewardship of this planet.

What we shouldn’t do however, is blame every single weather anomaly, every single storm, and every single strong wind event on climate change. We can’t let the media develop new “explosive” adjectives designed to incite wild fear. We can’t let them “invent” facts and disseminate them as factual and create a grotesque misunderstanding of reality. And we can’t allow anyone to begin taking drastic intervening actions using our technology in a foolish attempt to change nature. We just are not smart enough to meddle in the systems of nature and will end up destroying the planet far more rapidly than the current climate change will.

Those in the “action now” camp are playing their hand as “all in”; that is pedal to the metal, full throttle, we need to make massive change now. Meanwhile, the other camp is yawning, looking the other way, and ho-humming the whole topic as an insane alarmist theory; and doing absolutely nothing. And of course the truth is that neither position will benefit humanity or the earth. We need to drop the “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude and admit that we need to have a rationale and intellectual, factual discussion. So go plant a tree….plant a lot of them; God knows we’ve cut down far too many. Just another disgruntled growl from this old Wolff.

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