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Scaring ourselves to death
February 3, 2012 - Stephen Browne
Chicken Little was right, the sky is falling.
There is a tremendous uproar in certain circles because of an open letter/op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal, signed by 16 prominent scientists with credentials and expertise you can't ignore. The article is a concise statement of mutterings of discontent that have been gathering for a while now.
What they're saying herein is, global warming is hype. Current data show the average temperature of the earth hasn't been rising for at least 10 years. Effects of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere appear to have far smaller effects than computer models predicted.
Worse, the whole argument for global warming has been marred by sloppy data collecting, flawed computer modeling, outright fraud, and the shameful intimidation of dissenting scientists. This, to say the least, is not how science is supposed to be done.
Furthermore, if there is any climate change going on that will have long-term problems for us, it's more likely to be global cooling and a new Ice Age.
One nice thing about getting older is the sense of perspective it gives you. I remember when The Next Ice Age was the fashion disaster de jour. I guess if you hang onto your old things they'll come back into fashion eventually.
I remember Paul "Population Bomb" Ehrllich's predictions of worldwide famine to come without fail in 1980. Now we've seen the overpopulation disaster scenarios overtaken by the reality of alarmingly low birth rates in all developed countries.
On the other hand, there are real possibilities of real catastrophes that don't seem to get the press these over-hyped disasters do.
Astronomers have cataloged an alarming number of what they call "earth grazing" asteroids, i.e. big chunks of rock that if they hit the earth, would cause the kind of disaster they think wiped out the dinosaurs. Chances of any one actually hitting the earth are slim, but slim chances repeated again and again...
Geologists have identified a number of "super volcano" sites around the world. If one erupted as they have in the past, the effects would be quite similar to a giant asteroid strike. Oh, and one of them happens to be the site of Yellowstone National Park. Now you know where all those colorful geysers and fumaroles came from, the seething hell to close to the surface for comfort.
Then there's earthquakes. Everybody in California knows The Big One is a "when," not an "if." Californians however know how to build for earthquakes. But how prepared are we for a repeat of the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812 that hit Arkansas and Missouri, and made church bells ring in Boston?
So my question is, why are disaster predictions of doubtful likelihood so popular, while serious possibilities get little or no attention?
Well, one reason might be that sad to say, most people are not really very scientifically literate. That doesn't just mean they don't know much about any given branch of science such as biology, climatology, astrophysics, and who does? It's that they don't know how science is done. How hypotheses are made and tested, and what is considered proof of likelihood.
But I think another reason is that the popular disasters offer people a way to get involved. Politicians with the support of large groups of laymen activists can propose dramatic action, such as shutting down industrial civilization, that makes people feel they are personally involved in a solution to a scary catastrophe.
Diverting an earth-grazing asteroid however, is a job for a space program that involves scientists and construction workers in specific industries. There is no real place for fun demonstrations, no villains to denounce for "corporate greed," no real function for anyone who doesn't have a high level of scientific and engineering knowledge and technical skill.
Likewise earthquakes. Advanced countries deal with the possibility of earthquakes by designing and building structures that can withstand them. You can't demonstrate against an earthquake. You can demand and enforce appropriate building codes, but what fun is there putting that on a sign?
"We demand Richter 7 building standards!"
Doesn't do much for me either.
And as for a super volcano eruption, there is absolutely nothing we know of to do about it. If it happens, it happens. It's beyond our control, and that makes it too scary to think about.
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