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.