Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Baseball, Asimov, And Galen Can Teach Us About Global Warming

What Baseball, Asimov and Galen Can Teach Us About Global Warming

There is a terrific short story by Isaac Asimov, “The Red Queen’s Race,” which imagines an unhinged scientist inventing a method of time travel, translating a chemistry text into Hellenic Greek and sending the book back in time to ancient Greece.  When government officials realize what he has done, they wait for the “butterfly effect,” expecting this new knowledge to change the course of human history and perhaps their very existence.

Galen was a prominent Roman physician of the second century, and likely the greatest of the medical researchers of antiquity.  Galen created new surgical techniques and contributed immensely to the understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology.  His genius was such that many of his observations were particularly acute -- medical students in the 19th century were still using some of his drawings.  But his influence was so powerful that his ideas, both correct and incorrect, held sway for more than a millennium, and were adopted as dogma by the Catholic Church.  You could not dispute “The Dead Hand of Galen” no matter what your eyes told you.

I was reminded of Galen and “The Red Queen’s Race” while reading a post and comments from the excellent baseball blog High Heat Stats (highheatstats.com).  High Heat uses modern baseball metrics to evaluate the performance of past and present players.  At one point, the conversation focused on Bobby Richardson, a second baseman for the Yankees from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. The “modern” numbers show he was over-rated -- in fact, they show he was sub-par.  But this is a player who, in his own time, was considered a star.  He won five Gold Gloves, was an All Star seven times, and got MVP votes in seven separate seasons.  How does a consistent, then-contemporary evaluation deviate that much from a back-checked data analysis?  Were the people who saw Bobby Richardson on a daily basis so wrong?  Or are the modern formulas used to evaluate players wrong?  And what does this have to do with Global Warming?

I decided to experiment.  First, I commented on HHS (a remarkably sane and rational place) and got back some responses that dispassionately examined the statistical evidence and came to a reasoned conclusion -- Richardson was probably somewhat over-rated but the modern metrics also may not fully reflect his worth, in part because both strategy and expectations have changed.  Sane people, baseball fans, finding a middle ground.

Then I commented on two articles in the Washington Post on global warming -- the first was an opinion piece by James Hansen (of NASA), and the second on the threats warming in the Artic have had on native populations.  To give you an idea of how intense the discussions were, the Hansen piece received over 5000 comments, and most of them were scabrous and insulting.  The deniers claim global warming is not occurring, or if it is occurring it is completely natural, and if it's not completely natural whatever man produces has an infinitesimal impact, and even if man-influenced changes are having a impact, it’s a beneficial one, and, in any event, it's all a liberal plot.  One thing they are sure of is that every scientist is on the take, and that every bit of scientific data is either falsified, or proves nothing.  In one of my posts, I said that I understood the economic arguments against doing anything about global warming (costs to industry, higher costs for consumers) but couldn’t accept the idea, pushed by the deniers, that absolutely nothing was going on in the climate.  I was shot out of the water.  These folk have constructed for themselves a fortress against any ideas to the contrary, and literally swarm anyone who suggests otherwise.

Obviously, global warming is a lot more important than Bobby Richardson -- at least in some quarters.  But the thought process in these two forums reflects Asimov’s in The Red Queen’s Race -- there is both an absolute truth and a relativism that has to be contextualized.  Those moderns who waited, tensely, for the butterfly effect, and perhaps the end of their world, never saw it come, and, after a while, they realized it never would.  There was no magic in sending an advanced chemistry book back to ancient Greece -- the people who opened it didn’t have the accumulated knowledge that made it useful, nor the infrastructure to support it. So the information was effectively useless; since it could not be integrated it fell on deaf ears and could not be acted upon. The global warming deniers end up in the same place; while they have the intellectual capacity to analyze the data, they lack the emotional range to accept it. 

Is ignorance, willful or not, permanent?  How did the Dead Hand of Galen begin to lose its grip?  Galen had based some of his anatomical writings on dissections of monkeys and pigs, assuming that physiology would be consistent across mammals.  Eventually, variations between observation and reality could not be reconciled.  But “eventually” is a very long time.  Galen’s position held for more than 1300 years, until 1543, when Andreas Vesalius published “De Humani Corporis Fabrica.”  The “Fabrica” is based on direct observations--Vesalius’s dissections—that had to be done by candlelight after sneaking into graveyards in the dead of night. Reality struggled through to reach the light.

I am not suggesting that the global warming deniers will still be denying 1300 years from now, although if they do so, they better be doing it from very tall and climate controlled towers surrounded by mammoth sea-walls.  I did ask the Washington Post crowd an obvious question:  when 98% of scientists, after looking at all the available data, confirm the impact of human activity on global warming, how could the deniers take the position they did?

The response?  Scientific consensus is not scientific fact.

Spoiled a perfectly good day for me.  Let’s hope these folk don’t like baseball.