Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 21, 2013

On the unwarranted hubris of mankind and Matt Ridley

A common reason for denial of the threat posed by AGW is related to man’s gross overestimation of his own historical experiences on this planet. One often hears, for example, expressions such as “we’ve been through some tough times before and we’ll will surely meet this challenge just as we have before”, or “I’ve heard these doomsday scenarios before and they never amounted to anything”. Statements such as these give the impression that man thinks he has been around a long time and has gained a great deal of relevant wisdom. He tends to think that he is prepared to solve just about any new problem he might be faced with and certainly is not going to be “fooled” by yet another cockeyed prediction of impending doom.

The great flaw in this line of thinking is that the total sum of all human experience and knowledge has been acquired only over an exceedingly short period of geologic time. Whether one views that period of man’s education concerning his environment to extend back 100 years to the beginning of the 20th Century, 240 years to the founding of our country, 2,000 years to the Roman Empire, or 10,000 years to the very beginning of human civilizations, the length of all of those periods constitute little more than a tick of the clock on the geological timescale. The lessons we have learned during these exceedingly short periods of time have definitely not prepared us for the global warming problem we face today.

No comparable changes in the Earth’s energy imbalance as is now being caused by AGW have ever occurred before in the recorded history of man. Nor have such changes occurred in the roughly three million years of glacial / interglacial oscillations prior to the Industrial Age of man. Therefore, if humanity hopes to maintain the environmental conditions that made his present state possible, it is essential that he realizes he has never faced a problem anywhere close to the magnitude and global scope of the AGW that his own presence has caused. It is also essential that he realizes that he will not find solutions to this problem in the “bag of tricks” he has acquired from the past. The fact that man has previously solved much less challenging problems is no reason to think he can be cool, relaxed, and confident in approaching this one. In addition, he can no longer be confident of even our immediate future largely because he has already ignored the problem for far too long and time for addressing it is running out.

Yet, the conclusions drawn by Matt Ridley in his latest book entitled “Rational Optimist” are exactly the opposite. That is, Mr. Ridley’s basic message is, “don’t worry, be happy, we’ve been through some similarly tough times before”. Thus, Ridley provides the perfect example of the unwarranted hubris of man. The only reason his opinion matters is that he is a well known and generally respected public figure. His area of scientific specialization was originally in the biological sciences and he is the author of the widely read book “Genome”. He is also a writer of many scientific articles for public magazines and is a (failed) businessman. Perhaps because of his public notoriety and the recent publication of his new book – which some apparently think is about the science of climate change – the Wall Street Journal unwisely published the opinion piece that I summarized in my previous post (called the BAU / Happy Science Approach to AGW).

The fact is that Ridley’s book, the Realistic Optimist, “is not about the science of climate change” – those are Ridley’s own words in Chapter Ten. It is instead little more than an account of the history of mankind in addressing some selected problems in the past (it will be noted that he does not dwell so much on the numerous failures of some once prosperous civilizations). After doing that, Ridley then takes the giant leap of concluding that there will also be a smooth continuation of prosperity in the future due to the ingenuity of man – regardless of the problem presently posed by AGW. Again, his argument is simply that mankind will be able to solve the AGW problem because he has solved other problems before. That’s it. There is no more to his “scientific argument” than that. Thus, Ridley offers the gullible of the world yet another view of “happy science” which is almost completely void of science.

I would not have been entirely surprised if in his book Ridley had referred his readers to the song and wisdom portrayed in the character “Bloody Marry” in the movie, “South Pacific” (see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwIddYGse9g). It is truly delightful and makes the argument for optimism san science much more persuasively than does the “Realistic Optimist”. After all “if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?” If I were a Denier, I think I would make this my theme song – the sincere wish for a happy life provided by a simple woman with no ulterior motives other than the welfare of her daughter – far more convincing than a pseudo scientist’s banter so obviously connected to his financial or political preferences.

In assessing Ridley’s book, a couple of thoughts should immediately erase any real sense of optimism he might manage to instill in the reader.

One is that he views the public, including its scientists, to be split into two groups. One group, in which he includes himself, are the optimists and the other are the pessimist. I have lived my entire life working in the field of science and have not noted such sharp distinctions among my colleagues. Most scientists, it seems to me, do their work largely by “following their nose”, so to speak. That is, they follow the thread of science that interests them and let the cards fall where they may. Sometimes the results provide potentially “good news” and sometimes they do not. In my own work back in the ’70s and 80’s, for example, my research group sometimes discovered new man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in the background atmosphere and sometimes discovered naturally-occurring, chlorine-containing compounds. The CFC’s were tied to man’s detrimental impact on the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer and the chlorohydrocarbons generally reflected natural causes of ozone depletion. Thus, our measurements provided both “good news” and “bad news” concerning the chemistry of stratospheric ozone depletion. Usually new insights do provide reasons for both an improved world and for concern. Both should and generally are considered. Ridley’s bipolar view of scientists suggests to me that he thinks most professional scientist are pessimist. This, in turn, very strongly suggests to me that he is no longer a scientist himself and does not know that community.

And there does appear to be a very good reason why Ridley’s book has very little real science in it. When he does offer comments of a real scientific nature, he quickly reveals his weak understanding of the basics involved. In my previous post, I commented on his poor understanding of the Earth’s system for temperature regulation as revealed in his recent WSJ article and will not repeat those assessments here. In Chapter 10 of his book, however, he also holds forth on the benefits that increased atmospheric CO2 might also provide for life in our oceans. In particular, he suggests that increased CO2 levels might be good for our shelled critters and our coral reefs. Conventional wisdom (as well as that related in any General Chemistry textbook) suggests that the acidification of any aqueous solution would increase the solubility of CaCO3 in that solution. This, of course, would make it more difficult for shelled critters to produce their own protective CaCO3 shells in sea water. Ridley argues, however, that the higher levels of atmospheric CO2 would have the opposite effect for a reason that he suggests has been overlooked by professional oceanographers. In support of this game changing suggestion, he provides only a single peer-reviewed reference while the journals are full of evidence to the contrary. Thus, is appears that he is very content to throw out any random thoughts he can find in order to add a bit of doubt into the lay-readers mind concerning a very well-established detrimental effect of increased CO2 levels. In short, Matt Ridley offers little more than off-the-wall suggestions that help create his view of happy science.

Ridley’s book reminds me of another book that was widely read by the public several years ago. I am now referring to Michael Crichton’s novel “State of Fear”. Mr. Crichton (deceased) was one of America’s most successful and popular writers of science fiction. This book was about a self-important public figure who hyped the science of the global warming in order to further the ends of a group of distinctly evil eco-terrorists. The inevitable conclusion of the book was that global warming is a non-problem. In private interviews, Mr. Crichton also admitted to his own very strong personal doubts about the notion of AGW, and therefore, became a useful “reference” for the denial movement. Of all the authors of articles and books on the subject of climate change, Michael Crichton is the only one I know of that was invited to the White House for a one-on-one visit with President George W. Bush. While I had also admired the life work of Mr. Crichton, I hoped that his invitation by President Bush was not the result of his contributions to the subject of climate change. As evidenced by Matt Ridley’s recent appointment to the House of Lords in Great Britain, he appears to also be highly regarded by the leadership of his country. In his case, also, I hope this high level of esteem has nothing to do with his “work” in the area of climate science. Due to his strong affiliation with the Conservative Party of GB, however, I fear that it might be (I don’t know for sure, but suspect that the conservatives of Great Britain might not be any more scientifically literate than those of ours).

In closing this post, I’ll let Mr. Ridley have the last word by directing you below to a short video featuring him and his ideas concerning the future of our planet. In viewing it, you will understand why his message is so well received by many BAU advocates of the world, including the specific organization that sponsored this video. You will also note, however, that the science of climate change, including the words, carbon dioxide emissions, are not even mentioned. That, in a nutsell, is my beef with Mr. Ridley. He is suggesting that the science will take care of itself if we just let the economic motivations of people continue to do its thing – as indeed, it almost always has – isn’t that how we got to our present state?

This video can be seen at http://perc.org/articles/environmental-optimist.


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