Monday, 24 March 2014

Religion and climate change

Here's a question: if a scientist starts a blog, how long before they start arguing against religious fanatics and climate-change deniers? You know it's going to happen -- and why not? There's no harm in attracting a few more readers, and google's hit statistics count a click from a crazy the same as from everyone else. In my case it was only six weeks before these dull topics bubbled to the surface.

Why dull? It's a variant of that Samuel Johnson split: parts of those subjects are interesting, and parts of them are science; but the parts that are interesting have nothing to do with science, and the parts that are scientific are not interesting. Sure, evolutionary biology, which you can ship in by the container-load to argue against religion, is an extremely interesting subject, but it's hardly relevant. It does not provide direct scientific evidence for the nonexistence of God. You might think that evidence for the nonexistence of anything is hard to come by, but when you consider real scientific questions, it's very easy: you postulate that your particular doubtful phenomena does exist, and you measure it. For example, I can assume that there are some meaningful scientific statements related to religious belief, and go out and try to find them. One day I might discover an entire shelf of books on the subject (perhaps when I stumble into the public library in the lost city of Atlantis), but for now my measurement is zero. When you show me upper limits on the Deity Field, then we can start talking.

Now, obviously there is some science related to climate change, but it's not at all interesting. I'll explain. When I was an undergraduate physics student looking ahead to graduate school, and wondering what topic I might like to research, I looked through the list of research groups at various universities around the world. There were loads of fascinating subjects. Quantum gravity, cosmology, chaos. And all these wild phenomena, black holes, superfluidity, even people starting to study consciousness. But every so often there would be these little groups who studied grimy, dull, really boring-sounding topics, like "geophysics" and "atmospheric physics". I didn't even find out what they were, they sounded so dull. Well guess what? Those are the people now studying climate change. They are at the centre of the hottest scientific topic of the 21st century. So either I accept that I was seriously wrong, or I conclude that, deep down, climate change science is truly dull. Refusing to admit you're wrong is something those guys are entirely familiar with, so I'm sure they'll understand if I go with the latter.

Fine: but didn't I admit that there were parts of these topics that are interesting, they just have nothing to do with science? Yes, but I was leaving off some important qualifiers. They may be sociologically interesting -- it is certainly very interesting that so many people persist in beliefs for which we have not, after several centuries of staggeringly precise and deep measurements and observations of the natural world, obtained one single piece of evidence, and that some of those people are even smarter than I am. It may be politically interesting to engage in the struggle to convince the general public and, more importantly, their governments, of the imminent dangers of climate change, so that we can combat the effects with sufficient force and ingenuity that our long-suffering grandchildren will agree to our Facebook friend requests [1]. But these issues are not intellectually interesting. There are a few mildly interesting arguments for and against the existence of God, but for most of us their novelty wore off at age 15, with no clear resolution. The case for climate change is based on terabytes of data and thousands of lines of climate-modelling code, which I suspect few on either side of the debate have much familiarity with (I have certainly never pored over screeds of ocean-temperature data or attempted to construct a computer model of the Earth's climate), so in the end it comes down to weight of authority and personal abuse. And that's only at ground level. Up where it matters, it's all about political influence and funding. I've no doubt that's fun for those in the thick of it, but it's not very interesting to talk about.

So why are these things so tempting to talk about? Because it makes us feel important and useful: fighting superstition and saving the world! For a theoretical physicist to feel useful is a rather rare thing. The temptation is much like Hemingway going to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Do you feel inadequate as merely an alcoholic with a catchy prose style? Want to prove that you will risk your life in the fight for justice? Never fear: there's a bloody conflict less than a day's journey away! Arguing about climate change has an even loftier goal, with far less blood.

If there's a reward in it for my beloved ego, I'm sure I can find something interesting to peck at, just to feel like I'm taking part. There must be a way. By all accounts Richard Dawkins, who I name-dropped in the last post as well, in addition to engaging in daily hand-to-hand combat with creationists, also writes fascinating and beautiful books. The only one I've read is The Ancestor's Tale, and I can attest that it was indeed an incredible read and, in contrast to everything I've said so far, a fabulous intellectual experience. There's no discussion of religion anywhere, but as an oblique attack on religious belief it wipes the floor with, for example, the supposedly oblique defence of religious belief in The Brothers Karamazov  [2]. So you don't have to spend all your time repeating the same basic arguments over and over, or even just trying to make them in a new way [3]. It's possible to raise the level of discussion, even if, for some of us,  we can only manage it in the footnotes [4,5].


1. I've never understood the selfish obsession with what out grandchildren will think of us. If they despise us, it will be for the same reason grandchildren always have: we give them terrible Christmas presents.
- "What would I want with a critical edition of the complete novels of Dostoevsky?"
- "What are you talking about? This is great stuff. They say -- in one of the critical essays at the end of the book, in fact -- that Dostoevsky's characters didn't live life, they burnt it. They didn't breathe regular air, but pure oxygen."
- "You mean just like I do, if I mess up the adjustments in my breathing mask?"
- "I think that's pushing this apocalyptic vision of the future a little too far."

2. Did I just say that Dawkins is a better writer than Dostoevsky? That's going a bit too far. It's like saying that an applied mathematics textbook is better written than War and Peace, just because its author clearly has a better understanding of differential equations than whatever motivated Tolstoy to end his masterpiece with that disappointing 100-page diatribe on the calculus of Napolean. Or perhaps it read better before the advent of chaos theory?

3. To digress yet further, and get back to Dostoevsky: I never could make sense of the claim that, after the Grand Inquisitor gave God a pummeling that wouldn't be matched until that glorious chapter in Catch 22a, the rest of the book as a quiet, but complete, rebuttal. I didn't see any rebuttal at all. Maybe I need to read it again? Once more I'm presented with that painful choice of how to divide up the limited reading time I have in my life. Do I re-read The Brothers K, or catch up with Game of Thrones? Tricky.
a Chapter 18, if you want to relive the experience. And you do.

4. With so much reliance on footnotes I'm liable to be accused of aping David Foster Wallace. For the record, I consider footnotes a sign of authorial laziness, which are only almost acceptable in the most casual and unpolished pieces of writing. A blog, for example.

5. I should add that I have the utmost respect for those who do have the patience to engage with vacuous arguments again and again. A good example is my old friend from graduate school, Mark Rupright.

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