Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Reality denial

What does it take for people to look at a belief they hold and say, "Okay, I guess I was wrong?"

I ask this because there is still a sizable number of people who call themselves "climate skeptics."  The better term would be "reality deniers."  They tend to fall into two groups -- ones who agree that the Earth is warming up but deny that humans have anything to do with it, and ones who say the Earth isn't warming at all.  Lately, the evidence has been piling up so soundly against the latter claim that more of the reality deniers are ending up in the first class, but honestly, they don't have any more evidence on their side than the ones who deny anthropogenic climate change outright.

It's a little like the anti-vaxx nonsense.  How many studies, with how many thousands of test subjects, do you need before you admit that there's no connection between vaccination and autism?  Or that the risks of vaccination are far outweighed by the benefits?  The evidence is incontrovertible at this point, yet we still have people refusing to vaccinate their children -- which is why measles has been rearing its ugly head in the United States in the past few months. 

Look, on the one hand, I get it.  If you've been vocally in support of a claim, and it turns out the claim was wrong, it's kind of embarrassing to admit it.  Plus, there's the sunk-cost fallacy working against you -- if you've put a lot of energy and time supporting something (or someone), and it turns out your support was unwarranted, it can be less emotionally wrenching to put on blinders and continue your support rather than to admit you were taken in.

But honesty is more important than pride, here.  Especially since in the case of climate change, the long-term habitability of the Earth is at stake.

So at the risk of ringing the changes on a topic I've already beaten unto death:  just this week, three more studies were released showing that climate-wise, we're in big trouble.

[Image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA]

First, we have a paper in the Journal of Glaciology, authored by Regine Hock, Andrew Bliss, Ben Marzeion, and Rianne Giesen, of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, looking at the rate of mass loss from glaciers, and finding that just taking into account the smaller land-based ice sheets, there will be a thirty to fifty percent loss in the next eighty years, contributing 25 centimeters to the sea level.

When you consider the fact that this does not take into account the far greater contribution of the huge Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets -- which are melting at an unprecedented rate -- you'd be right to be alarmed.

You'd also be right to relocate away from the coast.

"The clear message is that there’s mass loss—substantial mass loss—all over the world," said lead author Regine Hock, in a press release from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks.  "The anticipated loss of ice varies by region, but the pattern is evident.  We have more than 200 computer simulations, and they all say the same thing...  Even though there are some differences, that’s really consistent. Our study compared 214 glacier simulations from six research groups around the world, and all of them paint the same picture."

The second study, released by the European Space Agency, takes data from the GlobPermafrost Project, using data from the Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite program to estimate the rate of loss of permafrost from the Arctic -- and are finding that what we are seeing is the beginning of a positive feedback loop.

And don't read "positive" as "good."  Here, "positive" means something that keeps getting worse -- i.e., the "snowball effect."

The problem is, when permafrost melts, it unlocks (literally) millions of tons of carbon that had been stored in the frozen subsoil.  This not only leads to slumping (one of the factors the GlobPermafrost Project measured) but causes the release of both carbon dioxide and methane, each of which is a significant contributor to the greenhouse effect.

If you're not scared enough yet, the main finding of the project is that our estimates of the rate of permafrost melting were too small -- by an order of magnitude.

The last study is the one that should cause the deniers to admit defeat and retreat in disarray -- but probably won't.  The paper, which has already passed full peer review, will be released in the Journal of Geophysical Research in June.  What it does is look at the data from GISSTEMP, one of the main computer models used to predict temperature change, and backpedals the model over a hundred years to see whether it's in agreement with what the global average temperature actually did...

... and found that the model predicted the temperature to within an inaccuracy of 0.09 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We’ve made the uncertainty quantification more rigorous, and the conclusion to come out of the study was that we can have confidence in the accuracy of our global temperature series," said lead author Nathan Lenssen, a doctoral student at Columbia University, in a press release from NASA.  "We don’t have to restate any conclusions based on this analysis."

"The Arctic is one of the places we already detected was warming the most. The AIRS [Atmospheric Infrared Sounder] data suggests that it’s warming even faster than we thought,” said Gavin Schmidt co-author of a study that supported the Lenssen et al. results.  "Each of [these analyses]  is a way in which you can try and provide evidence that what you’re doing is real.  We’re testing the robustness of the method itself, the robustness of the assumptions, and of the final result against a totally independent data set."

And this result -- like all of the studies that have gone before it -- is unequivocal.

At this point, there's only one question we should be asking the politicians who are still in denial about what we're doing to the Earth.  "What would it take to change your mind?"  Because if what we've already seen from the climatologists isn't convincing, it's hard to know what would be.

And if the politicians answer, "Nothing would change my opinion, my mind is made up," it's time to vote them right the hell out of office, and elect some people who actually care about reality -- and about whether the world our grandchildren inherit will still be habitable.

***********************************

In 1919, British mathematician Godfrey Hardy visited a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, in his hospital room, and happened to remark offhand that he'd ridden in cab #1729.

"That's an interesting number," Ramanujan commented.

Hardy said, "Okay, and why is 1729 interesting?"

Ramanujan said, "Because it is the smallest number that is expressible by the sum of two integers cubed, two different ways."

After a moment of dumbfounded silence, Hardy said, "How do you know that?"

Ramanujan's response was that he just looked at the number, and it was obvious.

He was right, of course; 1729 is the sum of one cubed and twelve cubed, and also the sum of nine cubed and ten cubed.  (There are other such numbers that have been found since then, and because of this incident they were christened "taxicab numbers.")  What is most bizarre about this is that Ramanujan himself had no idea how he'd figured it out.  He wasn't simply a guy with a large repertoire of mathematical tricks; anyone can learn how to do quick mental math.  Ramanujan was something quite different.  He understood math intuitively, and on a deep level that completely defies explanation from what we know about how human brains work.

That's just one of nearly four thousand amazing discoveries he made in the field of mathematics, many of which opened hitherto-unexplored realms of knowledge.  If you want to read about one of the most amazing mathematical prodigies who's ever lived, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Thomas Kanigel is a must-read.  You'll come away with an appreciation for true genius -- and an awed awareness of how much we have yet to discover.

[Note: If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds will go to support Skeptophilia!]





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