Rhetoric Roulette

Stein_viaGageSkidmoreThe precautionary principle is critical and useful tool for addressing risk. Put simply, it encourages us to resolve uncertainty judiciously and carefully, with an awareness of possible risks. It gives us a check on unbridled enthusiasm, and a check that is altogether important. In fact, many of the regulations we have in place in society are built around precaution rather than simply assuming something is worthwhile.

So the precautionary principle has value in many uncertain circumstances, but we shouldn’t assume that it has value in any uncertain circumstance because, to be perfectly frank, all circumstances are uncertain. The question is of degree. And improperly applied, the precautionary principal can be unbridled and dangerous—the exact attitude it is intended to keep in check.

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The Wisdom of a Fiction

Windmill_viaJavierLineraWhen Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.

There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading

The Collective Endeavor

Philae on Comet 67P Churyumov-GerasimenkoWe know very well that science is not truth—indeed, central to science is the idea that we must acknowledge both the subjectivity of human perception and the limits of individual knowledge. So science does not aim to replace those perceptions; it aims instead to refine them. Science strips away the biases of the individual, the biases of the community, the biases of particularity, and the biases of variable conditions. In so doing it aims not for a pure and incontrovertible view of the world, but merely a verifiable view.

Science is thus not truth, merely the lens through which we view truth. Yes, its role is to bring truth as nearly into focus as it may, but greater than that is its role of ensuring that we are all using the same lens. By prescribing the method, science drives us all to view the world with the limits of our collective understanding rather than the limits of our personal understanding.

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No Reason to Lie

Pinocchio_ViaJean-EtienneSometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”

“Look, he has no reason to lie.”

“Why would he lie?”

“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”

However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.

And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.

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On the Pleasure of Finding Things Out

puzzle_viaLetIdeasCompeteRichard Feynman famously described science, and curiosity broadly, as “the pleasure of finding things out.” There are certainly few things I enjoy more than to turn over ideas and work them through to some new place, even moreso in quick and intelligent company. I consider it a life philosophy to avoid stopping at the obvious conclusions, and instead to see what more may be learned with a few judicious questions. It isn’t science per se, but it has in common a reliance on method. In learning, as in science, one must start with the assumption that one is wrong.

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Infectious Ideas


The qualities that lead to an idea going viral and the qualities that make an idea credible, apparently, do not overlap. Personally, I think this is because many of us have bad ideological immune systems: we accept ideas based on whether they fit what we already agree with, not based on whether they are well-supported by the evidence. That’s what the research seems to show so far, anyway.

The latest wrinkle in the puzzle of how bad ideas spread as easily as good ones comes from a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read the abstract or the full study online, but the shorthand version is that Vicario et al. looked at conspiracy theories and science news to see how they spread on Facebook and to try to learn something about the dynamics of that spread. Like a number of studies in the past, the results showed that both kinds of ideas tend to spread in “homogeneous clusters” of users (essentially echo-chambers), slowly diffusing through a cluster over a period of days or weeks.

What I find interesting about this study is that it also shows that assessment of information is lost along the way; science news and conspiracy theories both rapidly become background information as they diffuse through an echo-chamber. By a few weeks out, users in a group will consider the new information fact and resist attempts to change it.

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Ecological Jenga

jenga_viaKellyTeagueOne quality of human societies is that we shape our environment to fit our needs. Sometimes we do this intentionally, such as when we clear land for agriculture or human occupation. Sometimes we do it as a byproduct of our actions, such as greenhouse gas emissions leading to runaway warming of the global climate. In the past, human societies have endured, or collapsed, or adapted, depending on how much their environment could withstand change.

I think this begs the question, how resilient is our global ecosystem? How much can it handle? What are the limits?

Those with a narrower view tend to dismiss environmental concerns as frivolous, uneconomical, or overblown. The earth has always carried on, they sometimes argue, and even if it doesn’t, we can invent technologies to replace and improve on anything an ecosystem can do. Yet I wonder.

Ecosystems around the world have evolved to be both diverse and redundant, with animals and plants and insects and microbes all functioning together to support the system. Most of that diversity and redundancy is structural—the evolution of an ecosystem, like the evolution of any given species, does not tend to generate and maintain traits with no purpose. I don’t mean that an ecosystem is designed with a place for everything and everything in its place, but rather that diversity and redundancy in a natural system are present because regular stress on the system requires them. They are buffers that protect the system from failure.

From the human perspective, redundancy is usually perceived as an abundance of parts—a river full of salmon, a forest full of old growth trees, a sky full of passenger pigeons. This leaves us with the comforting sense that however many we take away, there are more than enough; the system will not falter.

That can be true on a small scale, but global human society does not act on the small scale. We have an economic engine dedicated to mobilizing resources, and it is very good at it. If a resource is found, there is an effectively unending line of people ready to use it and transform it into human economic capital. But that engine is very bad at asking questions of stability; if a resource is abundant, we use it rapidly and heavily without concern for the broader system. That old individual view, that taking a few doesn’t matter, seems to have evolved into the idea that natural systems can be processed and repurposed by humans without consequences.

Unfortunately, the data says otherwise. The declining biodiversity of forests and the strangled flow of major rivers are examples of what happens to natural systems when their natural buffers are carted off for human purposes. Current complex systems science shows us that the natural systems we rely on are being driven to the edge of catastrophic failure. Ecologists and complex system scientists call this “overshoot,” a state in which the key ecological foundations of a system are exploited much faster than they can regenerate.

Put more simply, we are playing ecological Jenga. Globally, systematically, we are stealing away the foundations of critical natural systems to build a human superstructure on top. Yet questions about that same foundation receive more derision than consideration; with a curious bootstrapping logic, we convince ourselves that the titanic edifice of human society is unsinkable.

That ideological position is so much stranger in the face of the evidence. We have known for some time that we are drawing down natural capital much faster than the rate of replenishment. In the U.S., California is a poster child for depletion of water. In Canada, Alberta is scraping off their largest intact natural forest to dig up tar sands. In the tropics, slash-and-burn agriculture is depleting nutrient-rich topsoil that took thousands of years to form.

As we busily remove the redundancy of natural systems that sustain us, the growing specter of climate change looms large. We are carefully pulling bricks from the base of our tower, scarcely noticing the wind of change ruffling our shirtsleeves. Systems evolved redundancy to cope with stressors, and the biggest stressor for an ecosystem is a changing climate.

Some say human ingenuity will avert any catastrophe. I think they’re right that it could, if we would just look honestly at the implications of our choices. If we could bring ourselves to take them seriously. If we could bring ourselves to alter those choices.

But the tower is getting taller, and the wind is getting stronger.

The science shows us that we can’t continue the game into perpetuity. Natural systems will reach points of change; many already are. Many already have. Some have collapsed.

So let’s hear it for human ingenuity, and let’s fix it. But I have a sneaking suspicion that ingenuity isn’t our problem now. We’re plenty ingenious. What we’re not, is honest.