Thursday, March 19, 2015

California’s Elongated Drought: Warming to a Changing Status-Quo

With the winter of 2014-2015 failing to deliver much of a snowpack to California, Californians entered a fourth year of drought. The measurement on March 3rd of the snowpack was the water equivalent of five inches, or 19% of the average for that date.[1] The drought’s extension ran counter to the conventional wisdom that droughts last three years in California. Such “wisdom” is problematic not only for its specific content in this case, but also because of the underlying presumption of epistemological infallibility. Ok, I’ll unpack this bit of creative verbosity. Without being aware of it, we tend to assume that we can’t be wrong about things we have not studied. In fact, we even dismiss the knowledge of those who are learned in a given subject in favor of our own belief that we can’t be wrong about what we suppose we know. This tendency of the human brain gets our species in a lot of trouble, yet we as a species are nearly blind to underlying drought.
Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said at the time, “Last year people thought we were in a regular three-year drought cycle and it would rain next year.”[2] Even though people were aware of global warming, they presumed that what they thought they knew of the drought cycle was still applicable. Underlying this assumption is the more basic one that tomorrow will be like today and yesterday.

Problematically, the three-year drought-cycle presumption may have made California’s water-situation even worse. With the rain in December 2014, Californians generally may have taken longer showers and left their bathroom facets on while brushing their teeth under the mistaken assumption that drought must be ending. The following month was dry, so people watered normally dormant landscapes.

Even in trying to explain the elongated drought, people were getting it wrong in concluding that the cause was changing precipitation patterns. Global warming, evinced in California’s record average temperature in the winter of 2014-2014 of 45.6 degrees (F), is the actual cause. “The normal cyclical conditions in California are different now from what they used to be, and that’s not because the long-term annual precipitation changed,” Noah Diffenbaugh at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment explains. “What is really different is there has been a long-term warming in California . . . (a)nd we know from looking at the historical record that low precipitation years are much more likely to result in drought conditions if they occur with high temperatures.”[3]  Yet in spite of such evidence and that of the Earth’s atmosphere as warming above and beyond normal cycles, enough people cling to their antiquated knowledge as if they cannot be wrong that I suspect that a human tendency is involved.

“It’s a three year drought,” someone in Sacramento says. The sheer declarative tone has the ring of hubris because the person has not read anything on the drought. The assumption of knowing nonetheless is precisely where the problem lies, if I am correct in my theory here. The human mind may put too much stock in its own machinery and its output. Another Californian says in San Diego, “Southern California is suffering from a shift in the precipitation pattern.” Let’s say he has not read this; it is his conclusion, or one of his friends has told him. Even without reading anything on the science of climate change even in a newspaper like The New York Times, the San Diegan may dismiss Diffenbaugh’s statement out of hand. It is the sheer dismissiveness that strikes me as arrogant, even strange. The Californian may even say (as I have heard before), “I don’t need to read the science; I know it is in dispute.” Well, actually it is not, but such a person—such a mind—would not know it because it is closed off—a closed system—and yet it is utterly unaware of what it itself has done to itself. Like the light from the most distant star, the news of the deed has not reached the doer yet—the doer who presumes to know beyond what any actual learning can bestow legitimacy.

Abstractly, I hypothesize (i.e., propose) that the human brain contains a vulnerability in bringing to experience—structuring it rather than from it (i.e., a priori rather than a posteriori)—the presumption of knowing more than is actually known and furthermore not being capable of being wrong even about such “knowledge.” It is as if a person were to go to some neighboring houses and without entering any of them proceeding nonetheless to speak in a tone of definitiveness to the occupants about what they should clean up inside. The mere tone would ooze out arrogance and presumption, and yet the speaker could be oblivious to what he is projecting from his or her own mind onto experience and thus the world—structuring it as he perceives it.

Philosophers may recall Kant’s claim that the mind provides its own structure on space and time themselves—and not from experience. Such synthetic, a priori ideas as we bring to our perception of space and time are like the epistemological assumptions that we carry around with us all the time. In both cases, we have no clue that we are bringing these ideas to the dance because we have them constantly with us. Noticing them would be like fish noticing the water in which they spend their entire lives. That which is a constant for us can easily be invisible rather than transparent to us, and thus escape our notice. Yet as Kant points out, we can notice, through reasoning.

Probing a person on knowledge we know lies beyond his or her reach, we can see the problematic assumptions in the absurdity to which he or she will go to defend the purported knowledge. Like arrogance on stilts during an increasingly common flood from a storm surge in Miami, the presumption should be under water rather than held above as if it were Moses incarnate coming down the mountain with a new tablet. Unfortunately, the mind’s internal defense-mechanisms can block the reception of even such obvious feedback, so it is probably pretty rare for the mind to “see” the “water” in which it has always resided. If I am correct, the mind itself—hence not out of experience—structures knowledge in terms of presumptuousness. That is to say, the problematic assumptions are not in the knowledge; rather, they come from the human mind and are projected onto the purported knowledge such that learning or becoming informed are assumed to be optional rather than requisite. The mind itself presumes itself so entitled even though the assumption is untenable. The fallacious thinking should be under water (naturally oblivious to it) rather than looking down from stilts as if not only legitimate at water-level, but also an authority above.

[1] Adam Nagourney, “Alarm Rises For a State Withered By Drought,” The New York Times, March 18, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.