What's Tony Thinking

“The Science”


Our book group started a new series on Climate Science the other evening. We had a choice of two books. I chose Unsettled by Steven E. Koonin, a Cal Tech physicist who had been the Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama Administration.

The book was a surprise to me. I had imagined the title meant the author was, and we readers were to be “unsettled,” as in disturbed, by the state of the climate and what we humans were doing to it. In reality, Koonin was arguing that “the science” regarding climate change is more unsettled than we, or at least many of us, have come to think.

Here’s Koonin, “How many times have you heard it? Humans have already broken the earth’s climate. Temperatures are rising, sea level is surging, ice is disappearing, and heat waves, storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires are an ever-worsening scourge on the world. Greenhouse gas emissions are causing all of this. And unless they’re eliminated promptly by radical changes to society and it’s energy systems, ‘The Science’ says Earth is doomed.”

Yes, the earth is warming and human activity is one cause, says Koonin, but beyond that there is much that is unsettled about the causes and the consequences of the earth’s warming. While Koonin certainly has his critics (including some in our book group), he spoke to my skeptical side, especially my side that is skeptical about doom-sayers and extremists.

I also appreciated Koonin’s implicit challenge to the reification of “science.” Of late, “science” has become another cudgel in the culture wars with various actors claiming “the science” for their side or cause, asserting “The Science is settled.” Yes, we must learn from and pay attention to the scientific findings, but “The Science” implies a unanimity and finished quality (as if someone thundered THE SCIENCE!) This is at odds with the actual enterprise of science.

Worried that I may have fallen into the clutches of a “denier,” I asked a friend who is a biologist what he thought. He hadn’t read Koonin’s book, but responded to my description of it with the following:

“Ah, an eternal and infernal problem with communicating science. Scientists always want to qualify results by context and their sense of certainty (nothing is ever certain in science . . . a pal likes to say that science does truth with a little t, but never with a big T. Only mathematicians ever ‘prove’ anything — everything in science is always open to questioning), but journalists and 90% of people hate that.”

He continues, “Our teensy-tiny wee brains are wired to like dichotomies and black-and-white situations. We are generally pretty terrible at thinking long-term, thinking beyond our personal experience, taking more than one factor into  account at a time (i.e. doing network or systems thinking), and analyzing risk. We tend to way overplay bad news and overcompensate in response to perceived threat, and focus on extremes. Some commentators have noted that climate change is the perfect storm in terms of playing into all the weaknesses in our cognitive proclivities/ limitations.”

I found that both eloquent and helpful. The bit that I’ve italicized seems to me to apply not only to the climate doom-sayers, but to a whole lot of the contemporary scene. If we need to take action to lower the temperature of the globe, we also need to lower the temperature on a good deal of our rhetoric.

I know, I know. Aren’t we facing an “existential crisis,” and not only one? Threats to our very way of life on every front or so we told by those on both the left and the right (whose business model is alarm and outrage, back to the lizard brain!). But the upshot of such thinking doesn’t seem to be courage and hope, or actions rooted in those virtues. The result in more often discouragement and despair. Everything is going to hell in the proverbial hand-basket. I’m as susceptible to all that as anyone else.

So I was grateful to read Koonin’s less alarmist report and his challenge to the doom-sayers. By the way, I understand that the doom-sayers are now considered a bigger threat to making progress on the challenges we confront than “the deniers.” In their efforts to sound the alarm, they have pushed many into a disempowered despair. “What’s the point? We’re doomed!”

Chances are that are next book selection will be Bill McKibben’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? McKibben has been one of the most vocal climate change/ environmental activists for a long time. So Koonin will be contested, or at least balanced out. Stay-tuned! But in the meantime, turning down the temperature on our rhetoric and personally emitting less hot air seems a good idea for us all, moi aussi!



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