Monday, August 11, 2014

On the Democratization of Credibility: Global Warming Experts

Even as late as 2013, as if the mounting evidence of global warming and our carbon footprint were some new kind of faith narrative whose white-coated high priests preside over a new political religion distinctly American, some members of Congress, political commentators, and lay apostates recoiled with the declaration, "I don't believe in global warming." Epistemologically, to believe is less rigorous than to know. Actually, what they mean is that they know that our industries and carbon-emitting vehicles are blameless, even pure. It is the sheer declarativeness and the underlying epistemological assumption that I want to make transparent, as being inherently problematic and yet likely "hard-wired" in the very fabric of human brain. 

In mid-February, 2014, Charles Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist turned political analyst after his paralyzing accident, sarcastically asked on a Fox "News" show how the "Global Warming Religion" was doing since the polar vortex had drifted southward, well into several U.S. states unaccustomed to such frigid air, in January. He also pointed to the severe drought in California as discrediting the scientists' belief that warmer temperatures would bring more, not less, rain. Were global warming a religion, belief would be the appropriate currency and the political commentator would be entitled to protest the established civic religion by preaching his own belief. Unfortunately for Krauthammer, who strikes me as a natural in analyzing politics, the abundance of scientific evidence on the warming planet and a human contribution made him look ignorant rather than as a prophet chastising zealots. 

Perhaps most incredibly, Krauthammer was ignorant of the actual scientific position on rainfall. Rather than increasing precipitation everywhere, the pattern is expected to shift closer toward the poles. So, while Alaska, Canada, and Europe gain, regions already lean on rainfall, like California, Arizona, Texas, and North Africa, would tend to face even more severe droughts. Not only was the political commentator unaware of the "more extremes" nuance even in the planet warming over all; he also missed the ubiquitous refrain of climatologists that 1) it is extremely difficult to assess the impact that climate change has on a particular storm or season's weather in a given region in part because 2) the predicted changes from global warming are tendencies rather than the case for every storm or season. 

Let's take the extreme cold dipping unusually southward in North America in the winter of 2013-2014 as an example. Can we conclude that the onslaught of frigid Arctic air would occur every winter thereafter? No. We can say that the occurrence is more likely to occur. Because the poles are warming disproportionately over the warming going on closer to the equator, the differential from the latter to the poles reduces (i.e., a less steep downward slope). Less energy in "riding" the slope downward means the resulting "river of air," or jet-stream," is weaker, hence more loopy (not unlike some tired people). Similarly, the circular "river of air" going around the Arctic (and AntArctic) air weakens too (the temperature differential there too being less). As a result, this polar vortex "relaxes" in circulating further southward and with greater lopsidedness. 

Combine the Northern Hemisphere's jet-stream and the Arctic’s spinning polar vortex fencing in the Arctic air, and you have a vortex elongating more and being "enabled" by the elongated loops of the jet stream. The video and pictures (from NASA) below tell the tale. The jet stream looks like a white noodle winding around the Northern Hemisphere. The elongated loop southward in North America captured here on December 16, 2013, opens a sort of void into which the Arctic air can slip because the vortex "river of air" is more pliable or stretchable. 

Can we say therefore that the cold winter of 2013-2014 resulted from climate change (paradoxically the way in which the planet warms causes both warm and cold extremes in various regions)? Perhaps if the extreme cold weather is understood as a more likely tendency, though here too factors idiosyncratic to that winter had a significant impact. Namely, the low-pressure system over Hudson's Bay in Canada meant that a counter-clockwise movement of air around the low would facilitate the Arctic air's trip southward. 

Therefore, to claim that a cold winter in North America (and Siberia too, as shown in "The Big Chill" picture above) invalidates global warming shows just how substantial ignorance of the science can be. Similarly, to claim that a drought in California also invalidates "the religion of global warming" rather than adding support to it shows the same sort of gross over-simplification. Charles Krauthammer's innate insight into politics does not translate into scientific knowledge on climatology. The same can be said of many other self-declared "experts" on global warming on both sides of the political debate.

Being active in political public-discourse is not sufficient to count oneself as knowledgeable on the underlying science. Similarly, having a college degree in medicine does not necessarily mean that a person knows something about climate change, not to mention climatology. In fact, few Americans know that the M.D. degree in medicine is the first degree in medicine, and thus a prerequisite to the doctorate in medicine, the D.Sci.M. (Doctorate in the Science of Medicine). In being a terminal degree, a doctoral degree (even those of professional schools like law, medicine, and business) cannot be a prerequisite to a higher degree in the same discipline or body of knowledge (e.g., medicine). Perhaps the sheer extent of esteem in American society for the well-compensated practices of law and medicine relative to the irrelevant academics in the "ivory towers" (e.g., "those who can't do, teach.") has enabled the undergraduate degrees in medicine (MD) and law (LLB a.k.a. JD) to be counted as if they were doctoral degrees (i.e., terminal rather than prerequisite to another degree, comprehensive exams by professors (not industry boards), and a substantial contribution of original research (typically a book-length dissertation, defended in front of professors in the specialty)).

Therefore, Americans are particularly susceptible to the fallacy that a psychiatrist, physician, or lawyer can be taken as a credible mouthpiece on another discipline, such as climatology. Put another way, Charles Krauthammer was not even entitled to use the title of the doctorate even as he presumed he had earned a degree equivalent to the D.Sci.M. degree (which would be illogical, as only graduates of medicine (i.e., holding the M.D. degree) can be admitted to the doctoral program in medicine), assuming he had even heard of the doctorate in his own field. As though arrogance on stilts during a flood, the political pundit could leap from that presumption to the one I have detailed in this essay. Put another way, presumption can be addictive, even perhaps becoming a personality disorder. This disorder can even be part of the collective unconscious of a society. Now, to round this circle (of hot air?), might it be that presuming we know more than we do has a genetic basis in our species' DNA?  

Human nature may contain the seed of its own destruction to manifest as extinction due to human-induced climate change? That carbon emissions hit a record high in 2012 (rather than being on a downturn by then) may point to such a basic dysfunction in the species that had ironically done so well in terms of natural selection (i.e., multiplying DNA via population growth). We fail to realize that too much success for a species can spell disaster as a result.