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How Round Is Your Table?

Dmitry Podborits, a climate change agnostic, finds the logic of some global warming deniers cause for concern, and sets about dissecting it.

​​​​I would like to start with an excerpt from a roundtable discussion between experts on a radioshow which (the discussion) I find absolutely hilarious. This is from The Financial Sense Newshour radioshow as of 10/1/2005 titled "Is the Global Warming Just Hot Air?" and dedicated to the climate change controvercy. The show was hosted by the famed radiocommentator and financier Jim Puplava; it can be streamed or downloaded from FinancialSense.com.

The panel of experts consisted of: Dr. Robert C. Balling, Jr., Professor in the climatology program, Dept. of Geography at Arizona State U., Alan Caruba, a veteran business and science writer, and Evelyn Garret, the editor and publisher of The Browning Newsletter. Participants' credentials, publications and achievements are listed on the above Web page full detail.

[I jotted the transcript down into a notepad while listening to this radioshow on my Creative MUVO MP3 player on a NYC subway ride. The dialog fragment starts from 0:45:25 and ends at 0:49:57 on the audiofile. Thanks to Jay Smith from NY OilAwareness group who reviewed this transcript and offered valuable editorial remarks to make it as accurate as possible.]

EG: "... And I somehow think that if peasants in Medieval Europe were able to survive the warm temperatures of the Medieval Warm period, with all our technology we might somehow struggle through. It is not the alarming catastrophy that they make it up to be!"

RCB: "No, I totally agree with Evelyn on that. Even if the world wormed up a degree or so, I think the benefits would far outweigh the cost, and the humanity and the biosphere will be better off. But the key is, the humanity and the biosphere have seen warming and cooling in the past, will see it again in the future, and we all evolved in the world with a highly variable climate; I don't see anything at all alarming in what has happened in the last 25 years."

AC: "Well, that's the good news. I think the bad news is that when people say 'Global Warming' they often mean different things; enviromentalists mean that it's going to happen very rapidly, and have a disastrous effect on human life, and all life on Earth; whereas climatologists say 'Global Warming' and they are thinking in terms of a couple of thousands of years"

RCB: "I don't think the public out there is loosing sleep that often over global warming, I really don't. I've seen these polls come out on 'what are you most concerned about?', and the Global Warming is off the radar screen, so the average guy on the street is not walking around shaking like a leaf because the world is warming. In most cases they've heard about it, they were skeptical of it, they've heard some guy on the radio making fun of Global Warming. I don't think the American public out there is that alarmed about Global Warming. I think that there are certainly people who are trying to get them alarmed, but I don't think that's sold at all across this country. And to this day, I would guess, the vast majority of Americans find it more of a hoax than they find it something to be alarmed at."

AC: "That's good. I am glad to hear you say that."

RCB: "I don't have any data to back it up, but that's my sense."

AC: "No, I think you are right; I've been watching now since the [19]70-s. I think I would have to agree with you -- I think, in general, when you say Global Warming people kind of.. err... snicker and laugh, because it's inherently a kind of a silly notion"

RCB: "Right. And I think Evelyn was right earlier: if you go to Europe and say 'Global Warming', there are people shaking like a leaf. They've done a better job -- 'they' meaning the enviromental groups -- selling Global Warming in Europe, and maybe Europeans were just leaning that way anyhow, and [they] jumped onboard, and have been on a crusade from the get-go. I can get into my car and drive three hours south of here and enter Mexico, and start asking people what they know and think about Global Warming -- and they have never heard of it, I mean -- they have no idea what you are talking about, so it's completely off their radar screen. If you go to Mexico City, and meet with officials, then certainly Mexican government has a stake and the presence at the U.N., but probably two-thirds of the people on this planet have never heard about Global Warming, ever."

AC: "Well, then, maybe the whole thing will just blow away..."

RCB: "Right. I was in the graduate school in the [19]70-s, when the Global Cooling was the big scare -- hey, you mentioned that earlier; Newsweek [inaudible] cover stories on the coming cooling, and the crisis of cooling, and that certainly disappeared; Global Warming has a lot more momentum; administratively, around the world, there is apparatus at work now, thousands of scientists -- it's a big business onto itself. There are billions of dollars being spent every year on research in Global Warming, meetings are being held all over the world. That really never got rolling for the Global Cooling scare back in the [19]170-s, there is much more momentum in this one, but it will run out of gas sometime. I guarantee... no, I can't guarantee that, but that's my suspicion."

AC: "Well, I obviously messed up when I went to college -- I should have started meteorology [laughter]."

RCB: "I did, and I never anticipated when I was a doctoral candidate in climatology that the subject I was focusing on would one day be frontpage news all over the world. I never knew that when I was studying at that level, I never dreamed of it. So, it did worked out well. And here is another little signal -- the scientists themselves have seen a lot of good things happen because of their involvement in Global Warmimg. I mean, I am looking around here -- I have students like we've never had before, we have resources like we've never had before; so the scientists themselves, sittin' on airplanes, flyin' around the world, sittin' in the business section of the plane, sippin' on champaign, and havin' a lobster bisque -- yeah, their take in it -- it's a pretty good deal!"

AC: "[With laughter, mockingly] It comes down to money!.. And if they pay you enough, you can play with the figures long enough, and make them come out to mean almost anything."

Even if you find the above quoting excessive, I certainly hope that you don't find it boring. I most definitely didn't, as the dialog above is much fresher, more vivid and more character revealing than many made-up dialogs in sitcoms or movie scripts (Mssrs. Larry David and Quentin Tarantino, if you are reading this, it is my hope you are not offended).

I need to say right away that I didn't sit down to write yet another environmentalist text and have no stake in the pro- and anti-Global Warming debate (at least, no more of a stake than any other denizen of the Great Industrial Civilization of the early 21st century, anyhow). I have deep respect for Jim Puplava who over the years hosted and made available for download hundreds of interviews with experts and authors, many of them top-notch.

But now, having savored in all of its (considerable) entertainment value the above roundtable discussion of experts, I'd like to attempt to pose some questions, to most of each I don't know (and will probably never know) the answer.

The conventional thinking is that actions come from policies and priorities, which in turn come from views and opinions. But how do views and opinions come to be what they are? Do we arrive at what we believe by deductive reasoning? By inductive generalizations? Through the influence of tradition, i.e. by following the steps of our cultural forebears? By repeated trials and errors? By all of the above? By none of the above? It completely baffles me.

There is a sociopsychological phenomenon mentioned by Nassim Taleb in his seminal Fooled By Randomness that he called "the firehouse effect". The concept is that firemen often have lengthy idle periods between fire alarms, so they spend a lot of time within the same group of people of a similar background (other firemen) discussing the same issues, expressing the same views and having the same discussions over and over again. Over time this leads to the following effect: they stop questioning, and start to agree with each other on many things that most outside, impartial observers would find ludicrous. Their opinions and views converge, as after a while, opinions constantly perpetuated in the same group stop being considered with skepticism. Obviously, in the case of the fire emergency personnel, this convergence process plays a positive role; however it becomes a huge liability in the case of experts or analysts. Experts or analysts often exhibit ridiculous views and opinions which do not become subject to questioning or skepticism by their colleagues -- not because they are stupid, but because the tendency to question disappear over time, and as views become a part of the group's tradition, or worldview.

Would it be justified to speculate that the firehouse effect in a group of experts may make appear as a discussion on issues what really is a caricature of a discussion? As analysis what really is bastardization of analysis? As a balanced opinion what really is sheer and utter nonsense? The lines appear to be completely blurred.

Suppose it turned out that one of the above analysts served as an advisor to a holder of a Very Powerful Political Office and, by giving advice and providing concil, impacted various Policies and Priorities. Is it hard to imagine such a scenario? Can we trust that people advising, say, senators, chairmen, or even Presidents on issues such as energy, public infrastructure or climate change exercise more balance and substance in their judgement than the experts in the above panel? I honestly doubt it because more often than not people advising office holders are the same people as those who comprise roundtable discussion panels.

Even large-scale societies such as cities and nations succumb to the firehouse effect syndrome. For example, in the above discussion, one of the experts dismisses a concern regarding a highly complex and poorely understood phenomena due to its European origin, and "the Europeans were leaning that way, anyhow", which by definition, in his view, is grounds for dismissing it outright. By this, presumably, he intends to score points with his listeners, fellow Americans. No further justification is warranted. I wonder, if the experts ever not just express opinions, but also pose questions to themselves (in a sort of a reflexive excercise of navel gazing): what was the logical chain of reasoning that brought me to this or that conclusion? Can I retrace that logical steps and double-check them? Are there independently verifiable intermediate results that I could regression-test (to borrow a term from software engineering)? For example, if I reject the idea of global warming because it is European, would it be logical to also reject the idea of coffee because it's Brazilean (for example), or toilet paper, because it's Chinese in origin?

Let's imagine, for example, Evelyn Garret in some high profile gathering, such as a congressional hearing, setting forth the above quoted argument:

"... And I somehow think that if peasants of Medieval Europe were able to survive the warm temperatures of the Medieval Warm period, with all our technology we might somehow struggle through. It is not the alarming catastrophy that they make it up to be!"

-- followed by Dr. Robert C. Balling, Jr., Professor in the climatology program, Dept. of Geography at Arizona State University, going on record with the following:

"I don't think the American public out there is that alarmed about Global Warming. I think that there are certainly people who are trying to get them alarmed, but I don't think that's sold at all across this country. And to this day, I would guess, the vast majority of Americans find it more of a hoax than they find it something to be alarmed at."

What should the people on the receiving end of the experts' advice make out of it? Well, honestly, absolutely nothing. These are non-falsifiable statements replete with weasel words, non-sequiturs, circularities, as well as glaring examples of other falacious arguments (notably, "not invented here"). Basically, an impartial observer might note that the experts exhude extreme confidence whose sole basis is their own extreme confidence, ad infinitum.

Should, for example, the standards of living and the life expectancy of Medieval European peasants become the acceptable "floor", it would be very easy to sell The Long Emergency message. If the public is ready for this minimalist approach, then I think people like Jim Kunstler can find their life work complete and retire to Cayman Islands. Because we have such a long way to fall between today and Medieval Europe, we have virtually nothing to worry about (even considering that the population density has increased by a factor of ten since then). Consider, for example, that in order to fall that low we have to pass the 1970-s level first, then 1930-s level, then 1900-s level, and so forth -- and still have a long way to fall. Imagine a politician reporting to his constituents: "Yes, the life has become a lot harsher for many of our fellow cuntrymen, but, considering how low it could have fallen by now, I believe that, as a public servant, I am doing a pretty darn good job! Comparing where you could have been today, I represent a huge value for your hard-earned tax money".

Also note how this argument can be used as a sort of a an image of a knight on a sheet of cardboard paper with a hole for a face, a time-honored prop used by generations of professional photographers. For example, imagine Kunstler come along and utter something like "We are facing huge difficulties, but the life in The Long Emergency with an advanced and well-maintained raiload system will be much more tolerable and much more orderly than the life without one".

To which Evelyn Garret responds: "I somehow think that if Medieval peasants were able to survive without the railroads, with all our technology we might somehow get by".

After which, say, an advocate of fiscal responsibility comes along, and to his arguments Evelyn responds "If Medieval Peasants managed to survive without worrying about budget deficit and fiscal responsibility, with all our technology we must somehow get by".

To which standing nearby Professor Robert C. Bailing would add: "I don't think the American public out there is that alarmed about fiscal responsibility. I think that there are certainly people who are trying to get them alarmed, but I don't think that's sold at all across this country. And to this day, I would guess, the vast majority of Americans find it more of a hoax than they find it something to be alarmed at."

I really wanted to avoid asking climate change-related questions in this text, as I didn't set out to write on that topic, but more on the topic of how we think, how we analyze and who we receive advice from. And I plead almost complete ignorance on the climate change issues.

But here is a question that I just can't help asking. A professor of climatology, a Ph.D. at Arizona U., is publicly stating: "I can get into my car and drive three hours south of here and enter Mexico, and start asking people what they know and think about Global Warming -- and they have never heard of it, I mean -- they have no idea what you are talking about, so it's completely off their radar screen".

But are't Mexicans the wrong people to ask? Maybe, a three hour trip south from Arizona is not such a great idea? Maybe Dr. Bailing should be asking the Eskimos instead, should he not? After all, the claim is that the climate change manifests itself in the permafrost thawing, ice shields turning into icebergs, snowcaps melting and tundra greening? What would Mexicans have to say about all that?

That is, of course, if one wishes his publicly pronounced opinions to be at least somewhat correlated with reality.

It is really disturbing to think that Dr. Bailling is somebody's advisor on climate issues, however, a cynic in me tells me that he probably is, and a very successful one.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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