Doug : Linear Thinking in the Environmental Sciences: The Fundamental Flaw

This from a colleague

Doug

The fundamental flaw in linear thinking, as it is commonly applied in the environmental sciences’ is this:

No matter which direction one follows on an unlimited straight line, it inevitably leads one to apocalyptic conditions, e.g. the zero-threshold concept gives us “magic” cancers at miniscule, ineffectual doses, while “Global Warming” leads inexorably to planetary meltdown.

In reality, however, all natural systems are generally obliged to fluctuate within normal limits that are imposed by negative feedback mechanisms. Positive feedbacks do, of course, exist. However, only in the event of total system failure, which characterizes the deaths of stars & living organisms, do positive feedbacks run amok, unchecked by negative feedbacks.

All of which raises the question: “Why are the obvious logical flaws of undisciplined linear extrapolation tolerated in the environmental sciences, & can the problem be “fixed.”

“Why?” is a question that could be answered, but not without getting this author into way too much trouble. As to how the problem can be “fixed”: That depends entirely on whether the problem is (1) the unintentional result of a misguided, but genuine, concern for the health of humans & other natural systems (in which case the problem can be fixed), or (2) the intentional result of a cynical political agenda governed by the need to “keep the fear alive” (in which case, the problem cannot be fixed). Unless you’re a cat, you probably don’t have enough lives to give this issue the attention it deserves. In the meantime, just in case, we could try honest & accurate risk communication, and see if it has any impact. Or, maybe not.

Herr Doktor Schnell

Volume 2 of “Herr Doktor Schnell’s heretical thoughts & Pithy Remarks.”

Consensus vs. Science

If you want the answer to a question, you can 1) blindly accept the dictates of the authority of your choice, 2) embrace what someone else tells you is the “consensus” opinion, 3) hop on the bandwagon of a charismatic iconoclast, or 4) trust your own intellect, critically weigh the available evidence, and decide for yourself.

The problem with the first option is that, no matter how famous, big and powerful authorities are, they can still be wrong, especially if the authority in question is pontificating outside its area of expertise and/or making arguments based less on fact than on ideology and emotion.

Also, the larger and more powerful the “authority” is, the easier it is for it to be wrong, but force compliance with its views, anyway, thereby appearing “right”. (Witness the Roman Inquisition versus Giordano Bruno (burned at the stake) and Galileo Galilei (sentenced to house arrest for life) in the early 17th century.) Nor is it always easy to distinguish Sense from Nonsense based solely on an organization’s description of itself, because everybody, without exception, applies the same universally recognized “good” descriptors to themselves.

For example, the avowed aim of the Flat Earth Society is “to carefully observe, think freely, rediscover forgotten fact, and oppose theoretical dogmatic assumptions.” (If you ever hear an organization state that its official mission is to spread misinformation, defraud the public, and victimize widows and orphans, then it’s safe to assume that Hell has, indeed, finally frozen over.)

The problem with option #2 is that, historically, consensus opinion actually has been wrong, more often than not. That’s why scientific progress has always depended on the confirmation of individual discoveries, rather than on the outcome of a majority vote on controversial issues. It is also why people with bizarre, counter-intuitive ideas often compare themselves to Galileo, or some other famous dissident, implying that their non-mainstream status is actually an argument in favor of their theory. (It’s sort of like running for President and claiming to be a Washington outsider.)

Which brings us to option #3 (hopping on the bandwagon of a charismatic iconoclast). Unfortunately, coloring outside the lines does not automatically make one an artist, any more than coloring inside the lines does. A thousand year ago, everyone “knew” the Earth was flat. (And, the afore-mentioned Flat Earth Society still does.) A few people disagreed, however. And they were right. In the twentieth century, it was the consensus of nuclear physicists that cold fusion was impossible. But, in 1989, two electrochemists disagreed. And, they were wrong. The problem with the last option (trusting your own intellect, critically weigh the available evidence, and deciding for yourself) is that it requires effort, and that effort could prove both time-consuming and mentally taxing.

In the middle Ages, ordinary people didn’t have to worry about this, because books were generally unavailable, so personal research wasn’t even an option for the general public. But, now, we have public libraries and the internet. “Still,” one might say, “Public libraries and (especially) the World Wide Web contain a lot more inaccurate information than they do accurate information. How can I be expected to tell which is which? I’m not an expert.”

Which is why option #4 requires effort and could even prove time-consuming and mentally taxing. Fortunately, there are always talented writers out there who understand the problem, can explain it well to novices, and even provide credible documentation for those who want to explore the issue further. Granted, many “experts” claim that their field is just too complicated to explain to outsiders. But, that is not so much a comment on the difficulty of their subject matter as it is an admission of their inadequacies as communicators. Besides, the questions that most often pique the interest of non-academics tend to be, not the abstract, arcane ones (like quantum physics) but the more concrete ones with practical implications (like environmental issues). And, if you can’t find an expert on such a topic who has the ability to explain it clearly to the average high school student, then you just aren’t looking hard enough. The resources are, in fact, out there, and they are readily available. It’s just a matter of being curious enough to seek them out, and confident enough in your own intelligence to independently evaluate them.

Herr Doktor Schnell

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