Terracide

 

 

The Pillory at Charing Cross in Microcosm of London 1809

 

 

 

It is now nearly three decades since physicist James Hanson, then head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, warned the United States Senate in formal testimony of the dangers of continued CO2 emissions .  The mountains of supportive evidence accumulated since then is surely enough to convince any reasonably thoughtful person of the urgency of the problem.  In spite of this a recent Yale University survey found that 30% of Americans continue to deny that the earth is warming and 45 % deny that human activity is a major contributor. 

 

Those deniers, I believe, fall into three categories  The majority are likely those never adequately exposed to critical thinking.  Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds – poor schooling, family dysfunction, lack of mentors or role models, economic hardship – all colluding to give daily survival and momentary pleasure precedence over learning the skill of thinking things through or carefully considering the sources of information.  Others are unfortunate in very different ways, living lives so privileged, thanks to the work and good luck of forbears, that it is simply a fact of life that good things happen – the refrigerator is always full, college admission comes as a result of family philanthropy, inheritance is carefully tended by “wealth managers” who magically open doors to “the goals you set”.  There is no need for critical thinking on their part either.

 

But there is a small, sinister third group who, for reasons of rank self-interest, have used their wealth and/or power to sponsor a sophisticated campaign designed to convince others that talk of human-induced climate change is “fake science.”  Experts in climatology are accused of grandstanding and industry-sponsored research is trotted out to support claims that the issue is not yet settled. Without the disinformation campaign paid for and promoted by this third group things would be different. Our country would still be a member of the Paris Climate Accord, the fraction of our energy coming from green sustainable methods like sun and wind would be much greater and we would be rivalling Europe in the speed of our pivot away from fossil fuels.  But instead the Denial Bogeyman thrives.

 

The crime presently being committed by those wealthy and powerful individuals who have been leading the charge merits adoption of a new word. “Terracide” comes to mind..  Though the term has cropped up now and then ( The Hammer of God by Arthur C.Clark, 1993; Ethics for a Small Planet,  by Daniel C. Maguire & Larry L. Rasmussen 1998; Greenstone Rising by Andrea Wright 2013),  it has yet to have achieved wide enough usage to merit an entry in the Merriam-Webster online or print Dictionary).  Nonetheless, it surely deserves more widespread use. For unless the by-now highly improbable happens and humanity is able to drastically reduce its CO2 production, the heinousness of this crime will surely surpass mere genocide as not only millions of humans die of disease, displacement and famine but in addition untold numbers of other living species and whole ecosystems disappear forever.  Like the perpetrators of genocide, however, many of the influential leaders of denial will try to slink into the shadows and scrub history of their complicity.  I think they deserve something different.

 

Though the concept of “war crimes” can be traced from the 1400’s, it took nearly 600 years for a widely agreed upon legal definition of inappropriate wartime behavior to be formally codified at the Hague Conventions of the early twentieth century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_crime.  And despite the fact that “crimes against humanity” was a phrase introduced to describe actions taken by Leopold II in the Congo Free State in 1890 and  was used frequently in the war crime trials following both world wars, codification of such a crime in international law has not yet occurred.  So there is no reason to imagine that there will be conventional legal tools to punish perpetrators of terracide within the foreseeable future.  Indeed, there is not even a way to assure that history, as it unfolds, will appropriately vilify the major leaders of the denial conspiracy.

 

Fortunately, there are many well-intentioned ongoing efforts to discredit this group of climate criminals. Non-profits like 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists and many others have all fought back.  Not surprisingly, many of these organizations have a long history of other types of environmental protection but sadly this is like waving a red flag in front of the bulls of industry and those espousing less government intervention on any front.  The arguments raised in support of climate science are also, paradoxically, undercut by their reliance on detailed careful research and sophisticated modeling – epistemological  methods many of the deniers…….well…… simply deny.  So if facts and reason are ineffective, and there is no reason to expect deterrence to come from a threat of punishment imposed through a national or global legal system perhaps we might consider public shaming.  

 

Shaming is hardly new.  Among the better known examples – albeit a fictional rendition – is the punishment undeservedly meted out to Hester Prynn for adultery in The Scarlet Letter.  But public humiliation as punishment goes back a long way.  Dr. Mathew Green, author of London, a Travel Guide Through Time notes a variety of shaming techniques in medieval London including shaming parades,  scold’s bridles, cucking stools and pillories.  Dr. Green reports use of the latter for a variety of specific crimes including “conjuring, fraud, blasphemy, perjury, slander, attempted sodomy, and spreading false news……” (bold italics mine!) .   Shaming by pillory was hardly restricted to the dark ages or to the Old World.  A public pillorying apparently occurred in Delaware in 1901.  And in modern academic journals of law there is ongoing discussion of shaming as an appropriate form of punishment and deterrence. 

 

Shaming certainly deserves consideration as punishment and deterrence for the perpetrators of denial but it would be ideal if, at the same time, we preserved for future generations the identities of the powerful and wealthy who still are obfuscating the science and dragging around red herrings – even now as record storms pummel our coasts, species disappear at a dizzying rate and the planet’s temperature marches upwards.  Here is a modest proposal.

 

Visualize a Mount Rushmore-scale rock carving – done, of course on private, property and paid for by a crowd-funding campaign drawing from the millions of citizens dismayed by what the eminences grises behind climate denial have done.  There, in gigantic scale, the visages of Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry and Edward Koch would stare wide-eyed out at a fitting barren desert landscape – beads of sweat prominently carved on their brows, handkerchiefs mopping their foreheads as stylized flames lick up from the surrounding earth giving the setting a hellish ambiance.  Carved into the rock beneath each towering diaphoretic bust would be a memorable quote.  “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Donald Trump: November 2012.   “I would not agree that it’s (CO2’s) a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Scott Pruitt: March 2014.  “China and India are going to do what they’re going to do anyway. So we just hurt ourselves, even under their theory. And their theories aren’t working very well, because they keep predicting all these theories that aren’t happening..”Charles Koch: June 2016 . “…..this idea that science is just absolutely settled and if you don’t believe it’s settled then somehow you’re another Neanderthal, that is so inappropriate from my perspective.” Rick Perry: June, 2017. “The problem is that we don’t understand what the effects [of climate change] are. There are no models that exist…” Ryan Zinke June 2017

 

Such a monument will at least preserve the identities of some of the key perpetrators of terracide and who knows, the shame it communicates might even begin to have some deterrent effect as the steadily mounting evidence for major  human-induced climate change becomes more and more undeniable.

 

 

 

 

 

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Do Facts Merit a Taxonomy?

Tyco Brae’s instrument for measuring the angle between celestial objects.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about alternate facts.  I don’t have anything to add to that conversation that hasn’t already been said, but it has gotten me thinking about another kind of fact – namely “scientific” ones.  Truth be told, that phrase always sets my teeth on edge.  Here’s why.

Is there something about a scientific fact that makes it, unlike other facts, require an adjective?  Does being a scientific fact make a fact more or less believable than some other kind?  

I suppose there are non-scientific facts.  If I awaken in the morning with a headache, that surely is a fact for me, though not really a scientific one. And the kind of facts historians work to document are not usually referred to as “scientific” ones – unless, of course, they are unearthed using some special techniques such as documentation of a past poisoning by chemical analysis of an exhumed body.  Then so and so’s death by poisoning would rise (or fall) to the level of scientific fact.

But a scientific fact is a fact, plain and simple.  Unfortunately I think that for many, calling a fact a scientific one describes a phenomenon or cause and effect relationship not immediately accessible to all.  It might be a truth uncovered with the help of some kind of complex sensing device that identifies things beyond our five senses – think electron microscope, pH meter, volt meter, x-ray telescope – things like that.  But there are other kinds.  Surely Gregor Mendel had no more fancy instruments than paper and a quill pen in his studies of pea genetics which revealed previously unrecognized ground-breaking facts.  All he did was make multiple systematic observations in his monastery’s garden, carefully record and organize them and think logically about what he had observed.

And then there are the kind of facts that emerge from varying specific conditions and observing the result.  An example that comes to mind is mixing  antibodies (the chemicals our bodies make to fight infection) with antigens (a substance – usually a protein – that is not one made by the same organism creating the antibodies).  If one begins to add antibodies to a solution of antigen nothing happens initially.  As more antibody is added a cloudy precipitate forms  as the  antibodies combine with the antigen and are no longer kept in solution,.  But if still more antigen is added the precipitate re-dissolves.  Discovering that kind of antigen-antibody binding relationship by systematically changing the mixing ratios was important in unravelling how immune systems work.

What these examples have in common is that they reveal realities not immediately apparent to the casual bystander.  Of course, when such findings appear for the first time on our intellectual radar they can cause trouble.  Unfortunately, as the sensing devices become more complex, the observations more numerous and the logic of interpreting them more involved it becomes easier to reject the findings either because they fly in the face of previously held beliefs or they inconveniently  threaten vested interests.

In his eagerly anticipated annual lab session on chemical energy my 11th grade science teacher held a match under a hydrogen-filled balloon. The shock wave from the resulting explosion nearly blew his glasses off.   The class applauded.  Mr. Kilgour had made his point. Science was cool!  A few weeks later he convened the class after dark one evening to watch the reflected light of Sputnik – the Soviet Union’s first-in-the-world satellite – as it orbited  Earth.  That clinched it.  I was going to be a physicist.

But college sophomore physics convinced me otherwise.  Courses in Quantum Mechanics and Probability, Statistics and Random Error separated sheep from goats and I was definitely a goat.  Struggling over those equations and laboring long into the night to solve the problems was humbling.  I could get through most eventually, but for some of my classmates it came quite naturally.  I passed, all right, though my colors were definitely at half mast and I did learn some important things.

For one, those courses were usually accompanied by hands-on lab exercises where one learned  how meticulously conditions had to be controlled to get consistent results.  Those labs also made clear that one could prove the correctness of an idea by performing an action which depended on it.  Like so many of his ideas, Galileo’s intuition that the gravitational force acting on an object was independent of the object’s mass was greeted with skepticism by many.  Today an introductory physics lab can easily demonstrate its veracity by dropping a feather and a lead ball in a glass tube from which all the air has been evacuated and watching them hit the bottom at precisely the same time.  The right action performed carefully under the right conditions turn a theory into a fact – one of many such facts that allowed mankind to walk on the moon and launch a rocket from earth to land a  motorized vehicle on the surface of Mars!

And one of the other things those science classes taught me was that science comes in many different flavors: be it combining or separating materials as in chemistry, measuring the way matter and energy interact as in physics, systematically observing life forms as in biology or combining these modalities as in biochemistry or physical chemistry.  And most rewarding of all is when different methods of seeking truth converge, as they did when Mendel’s observations of pea characteristics fell into place with Watson and Crick’s biochemical unravelling of DNA’s double helix and the two fit elegantly with Darwin’s observations of natural selection – creating a set of harmonies as beautiful as Bach’s “B Minor Mass” or, if you prefer, The Beatle’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.

This convergence of different scientific disciplines on the same slice of reality from multiple different perspectives is what might be called “settled” science.  Sadly, a recent poll in England found that 35% of the population felt that scientific findings are adjusted to give the answers a researcher wants  and nearly as many think research is never, or only occasionally, checked by other scientists.  The wrongness of these beliefs is clear to anyone who has submitted an article to an established peer reviewed scientific journal.   The unblinking critique one gets back from the journal’s editors pointing out every possible weakness of the data and the conclusions drawn from them makes clear how very far off the mark those beliefs are! Similar survey information doesn’t seem to be available for the US but given our current political dialogue it is hard to believe the numbers would be any different.  And these are polls from countries with highly educated populations!

So let’s face it.  All facts are bits of verifiable truth, plain and simple. To describe something as a scientific fact is a redundancy.  It is a superfluity. It is a prolixitous pleonasm.  It is longwinded logorrhea!  It is like saying something is a cow cow or a chair chair to distinguish them some other kinds of cows or chairs.  

And what is most sinister, it frames the concept in a way which can imply a hierarchy of facts.  In fact (sic), it paves the way for that most oxymoronic of oxymorons – the alternative fact!

All things considered, then, I think it’s time to do away with subcategorizing facts.  Other beliefs or beliefs expressed as words might be called hunches,  suspicions, guesses, best judgements, feelings, impressions, conjectures, inklings, ideas, notions, intuitions, or instincts but let’s agree to let the word “fact” stand on its own.  Let’s keep it free of modifiers that create the dangerous impression that on any given subject there are a cluster of different kinds of facts from which one is free to choose a favorite out of which to construct one’s beliefs