Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Folly of Our Times

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, few dissenters voiced their opposition to the unsubstantiated and disproportionate response of the Bush Administration. Measures like the Patriot Act passed virtually unopposed with little critical debate. So to for the invasion of Afghanistan... then Iraq... Over time some dissenters voiced concerns, then more, and more. But while dissent slowly grew, many lives were lost and Bush drove the American economy into the ground.

With the benefits of hindsight, many would now agree with those who initially dissented from the Bush response to 9/11 and probably wished those dissenting voices had been louder. But we cannot go back and change history. But we can change our future actions. And that is why I have decided to write this post.

The folly of our times today is that this story dominates the headlines and public policy while this story, which addresses what really is the greatest challenge facing humanity this century, is ignored.

Rather than championing the unrealistic, unproven, and extremely expensive goal of trying to control the uncontrollable (i.e. the temperature), those who want to promote the health and economic prospects of the world's population ought to champion realistic, proven and cost-effective ways of combating disease and poverty.

The greatest threat to humanity comes not from the weather, but from the evolutionary neglect that has left our species vulnerable to the chronic diseases of aging. And the solution to humanity's greatest challenge today lies not in measuring ocean temperatures and monitoring ice caps and polar bears, but understanding the chronic diseases (like cancer and heart disease) that kill millions every year. It is vital that public policy be premised on the facts and sound science. Unfortunately "Panic! Governance" prevails.

If the promises made by the politicians at the G8 are to be believed, they have committed their countries to the largest, most expensive, scientific experiment in human history. Make no mistake about it, this is an *experiment*. Furthermore, it is the first time this experiment has ever been done (no clinical trials have been run). And thus it is important to ask: what is the reasonable attitude to take towards such an experiment?

Consider this hypothetical. Imagine your next door neighbour (who is a scientist that studies aquatic ecosystems) told you that he was planning to do an experiment that, if successful, could control the local temperature in your city next week. He promises to ensure that the weather next Sunday would be sunny and between 23- 25 degrees (ideal for his golfing tournament). The only problem is he needs help getting funding to try his experiment out. He asks you to lend him $3000. What would you say?

Well, the leaders of the developed world have just made you a similar proposal. Granted their intentions are more laudable than that in my hypothetical example, but the cost is much, much higher and the scientific basis for believing the real experiment would work is not substantially higher than in my hypothetical example.

No doubt many would contest my last point. But the reality is that there is no scientific basis (i.e. based on actual experiments) for believing that the proposed global experiment will work the way people hope it will. We do not know what the consequences of a reduction on greenhouse-gases will be on the planet. Why don't we know? Because there are many variables at play here and we have never done this before (and if anyone claims they have, it would be interesting to know what planet they did this experiment on and when!).

To help people think sensibly about what their attitude towards climate science should be, consider your attitude towards two other laudable aspirations- eliminating cancer and securing economic prosperity. Unlike experiments involving cancer drugs or economic policies (which, as we all know, do not always have the consequences experts hope for), we have never undertaken a climate experiment before. So we have no track record to base our faith in this science on. This means the amount of faith we do have should be less than the faith you invest in the latest cancer drug or economic stimulus package rolled out by government. How many drug sceptics and economic sceptics are there out there? Well, you have even less of an empirical basis for believing what most environmentalists promise you. So pick your sceptical attitudes wisely! When there is no evidence the benchmark should be scepticism. That applies to unproven drugs, untried economic policies and climate policies.

Controlling the global temperature is much more grandiose than trying to control tumours or the economy. Furthermore, numerous experiments have been done on cancer and the economy. We have evidence that some things work pretty well against cancer and some things don't. But climate science is a virgin science. There are no past experiments we can turn to to reassure us that the intended consequences of this first (and most expensive) experiment of its kind in human history will be a success (nor is it possible to confirm or disconfirm that it was a success in a 100 years time!).

When it comes to an experiment that has never been done before we should all have a sceptical attitude, especially with something as complex as the climate. "But what about helping the poor?" you ask. I'm all for that! So let's pursue the more immediate, probable and cost-effective measures that will help promote the health and economic prospects of those in the developing world.

What science might help the world be a better place? Well, for starters it would help if Charles Darwin's scientific contributions had 1/10th the policy influence that Al Gore's contribution has had!