Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jigsaw Vs. House of Cards

The Economist has an interesting article about climate change. I'm still agnostic on whether human activity is forcing an imminent environmental catastrophe and I'm not fond of the term "climate change" which sounds almost meaningless to me. But what I did think was interesting in the article was the way in which the author thinks the two sides perceive the argument:

In any complex scientific picture of the world there will be gaps, misperceptions and mistakes. Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down. When it comes to climate, academic scientists are jigsaw types, dissenters from their view house-of-cards-ists.

I'm sure there will be some climate change dissenters who will also dissent from this characterization of themselves but I have noticed that those who think "climate change" is a myth have a tendency to declare victory very hastily. Some of them certainly did after those e-mails from the University of East Angular were leaked and they did so again when the IPCC got their predictions wrong on the melting of glaciers.

The Economist takes the view that it is best to err on the side of caution with this one and assume that it is happening, partly on the basis that no one can possibly have the expertise to say one way or the other but because there are agreed upon changes that are anthropogenic the effects need to be studied.

I think I can agree with that.

Update: Greywolf, in characteristically temperate manner, enquires:

If climate change sounds almost meaningless to you, why are you ready to agree that it is best to err on the side of caution?

Well, this is a reasonable question, and I'd sooner ditch the term and replace it with what some others have called Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. This is far more explanatory. I agree with the Climate Resistance article that says the debate shouldn't be framed in terms of "climate change is happening" and "climate change isn't happening", because the proposition "climate change is happening" can easily be true in a trivial sense.

Daniel Dennett came up with a word for statements like this. He called them "deepities" which sound like profundities but are only true in a trivial sense.

I made a post on that.

Dennett uses the example of "Love is just a word" and says, sure that's true in a completely trivial sense. In the sense that "Dog is just a word" or "House is just a word" but it isn't true in any earth-shattering way (in this case he points to something called a use-meaning error).

So, I can agree that "climate change is happening" is true in a trivial sense but what's important is whether or not it is true in a profound sense. In that case I would agree with those who prefer to frame the debate as "Is catastrophic anthropogenic global warming happening?"

But I think the conclusion is the same. That it is better to err on the side of catastrophic anthrological global warming happening. In fact, the debate about whether or not it is happening seems to be a minor one compared to the one about the correct response to it in terms of hot air produced so it isn't really a mainstream argument.


Greywolf said...

As always, Soba, you are far too busy trying to piss on people you disagree with and to suck up to authority to have anything worth saying on the subject. But that's just you. It's what makes you so loveable.

If climate change sounds almost meaningless to you, why are you ready to agree that it is best to err on the side of caution? Isn't it because your default mode is to defer to authority, just like any orthodox believer?

There was a really interesting article at CLIMATE RESISTANCE on Tuesday about the very compound noun you find almost meaningless, It lays out the politics of this non-debate very clearly.

The expression, “climate change is happening” seemingly stands for a scientific theory, empirical observation, a projection and its human consequences, a moral imperative, and of course, a political response – all at once. We have pointed out before how this progression works and the problems that exist with it. Unpacking the argument reveals (in our view, at least) a presupposition that climate’s sensitivity to CO2 (and other GHGs) is equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. That is to say that society is as vulnerable to atmospheric CO2 as the world’s climate system’s current state is. As we have pointed out, this statement of equivalence in turn presupposes society’s impotence, or put more explicitly, it denies human agency. If this isn’t clear, what we’re saying is that the getting from climate science to climate politics in less than one step – by saying “climate change is happening” – presupposes a great deal.

Moreover, that the expression can be unpacked in such a way reveals its emptiness. It is a mere container for prejudices and preconceptions. It is a box, with the word “SCIENCE” painted on the side to flatter the bearer. The proposition “climate change is happening”, then, says more about the person saying it than it says about the material world.


angrysoba said...

As always, Soba, you are far too busy trying to piss on people you disagree with

Who did I piss on?