Apocalypse Soon?

In one of Woody Allen’s movies, his partner accuses Allen of being neurotic.  When asked for an example, she reminds him of the time he thought he had melanoma and it turned out to be a spot on his shirt.

When I was in college, the spot on our collective shirt was global cooling.  This prediction was, by the way, not associated with Carl Sagan’s “nuclear winter,” whereby the dust from bombs clouds the atmosphere much like the asteroid that did in the dinosaurs.  This was purported to be a climate trend.  A couple of decades later we found a different spot–global warming.

Let’s be clear.  The fact that our predictions have changed has nothing to do with their veracity.  We could have been wrong then and right now or right then and wrong now.  Or, we could have been wrong both times.  The final authority is the evidence, not the “consensus” of the moment.

This is perfectly natural.  Science progresses by getting things wrong.  When a model or a theory fails to explain something, a search for a better theory is prompted.  It may be wrong as well, but chances are it is a little better than the previous one.  The process works–sometimes at a painfully slow pace–but it works.

If the Earth were warming and the results of that warming were a threat to humanity, we would want to know that.  If it were caused by something we were doing, we would probably want to stop doing it.  That is, unless the solution proved to be more harmful than the threat.

Imagine Woody showing up at his doctor and saying, “Doc, I have this spot…”

“Oh my GOD!  Let’s start chemo-therapy RIGHT NOW.”

“Well, I mean, that would be a good idea, except I hate, mmmm, needles.  And chemicals give me hives.  How about an aspirin and I promise to call you in the morning.”

“No, we have to act now.  Let’s jump right to the highest dose.  No sense taking chances.”

“My wife is a nut case and I think she is seeing another woman, but she thinks we should take a look at my shirt…”

“My god, man, how can you think about laundry at a time like this?  Nurse, bind him to the gurney.”

In the next scene, we see a heavily sedated Woody being wheeled to the chemo-therapy room, mumbling incoherently.  Weeks later, he emerges, weakened and without his immaculate hair and former good looks.

If asked to believe that a disaster were imminent, we might reasonably ask what kind.  An alien invasion?  Hordes of super-intelligent crickets?  Bigfoot taking over nuclear silos?  More celebrity talk shows?  None of those would cause much of a stir because we would recognize that most of them are worries only for the hopelessly neurotic.  But tell us that the Earth will become hotter, storms will get worse, and polar bears will drown and we bow down before the gods of “consensus,” ready for our chemo treatments.

I don’t know whether the planet is warming and if it is whether we are causing it.  You don’t either.  But I do know how science works.  This is not now, nor has it ever been, a settled question.  Loads of bright people are working on it, but they have much more to do before they can recommend in good conscience any drastic measures.  In fact, given the complexity of weather patterns, they may never know.

In this case, our treatments are cap and trade schemes and a godlike EPA dictating draconian regulations daily.  We may not know exactly what our climate future holds, but we sure as hell know what happens when we put sugar in the fuel tank of economic progress.  Real people get hurt.  Let’s not all go bald and wither away when all we needed to do was wash our shirts.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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