Monday, June 20, 2011

Global Warming Did Not Cause That Tornado

I am not a global warming denier, although at times it can seem as if I am. I often refute claims made by global warming enthusiasts, for the mere fact that they are false. If you’ve followed my blog, by now you probably know that I value reality over bullshit, even in cases where it hurts — and I’m sorry my fellow liberals, but we tend to spout a lot of bullshit about global warming.

Any given week, tune into one of my favorite TV shows, Real Time With Bill Maher, and you may well see a celebrity like Tim Robbins or Janeane Garafolo or Ellen Page (or, most annoyingly, Maher himself) declaring that the latest monster tornado or hurricane was “caused by global warming.” It is presented not as opinion but as fact, citing the argument that because a warmer climate puts more water in the atmosphere, weather patterns are getting more extreme; therefore, all extreme events are the result of global warming.

Wrong! False! Complete, total, and utter bullshit!

Part of the argument is correct: Warmer air results in more evaporation and transpiration by plants, increasing the water-vapor content of the atmosphere. Water vapor and heat contribute to weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes. But that is where the facts end. To take the argument further and declare that climate change is therefore “the cause” of any individual event is, dare I say it, taking a leap of faith. The claim of direct causality is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, nearly as ridiculous as attributing a tornado to God’s wrath over gay marriage (with the obvious difference that there is evidence for global warming). A better analogy would be losing several thousand dollars on a one-day stock trade, and then blaming the loss on the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Index had been generally declining for the past year.

Here’s what can be truthfully said in these situations: Global warming is associated with a statistical increase in the gross number of (arbitrarily “extreme”) weather events, which are influenced by heat and water vapor. Similarly, a declining Dow is associated with a statistical increase in the number of declines of individual stocks over the period in which the Dow declines. That is the extent to which we can ascribe causality in these cases. To go further and attempt to single out “the cause” is a reductionist oversimplification — and if there’s one thing human brains like to do, it’s reducing and oversimplifying complex issues to the point that they’re so easy to understand, it’s downright stupid.

When someone is advancing their progressive policy agenda, it seems effective to declare, “The tornado was caused by global warming!” It is not particularly effective to say what’s actually true: “Although the atmosphere is a complex system and we cannot attribute causality of a single event to any one factor, global warming increased the likelihood of that particular tornado in the broadest statistical sense.” But the problem is, oversimplified bullshit begets even more oversimplified bullshit. A false reductionist argument makes it all the easier for the opposing side to say, “It’s cold today! Where’s your global warming now?” Or, more subtly, “If there’s more water in the atmosphere, then why is Texas experiencing a drought? Checkmate!” In other words, no debate will get closer to the truth if one or both sides are citing falsehoods and fallacies. Just because one side thinks/knows that they are right, that doesn’t give them license to leave logic and basic truths at the door when arguing their position.

Of course, this extends to other controversies besides the effects of global warming. For example, there’s the debate over whether the Stimulus Program “saved” the U.S. economy. Liberals: “It kept us out of a second Great Depression!” Conservatives: “It was a waste of money and didn’t create the jobs it was supposed to!” Hey, guess what? Both of these positions are completely unfalsifiable. They are made-up opinions, not arguments supportable by clear evidence, and certainly not facts. Without an alternate universe that we can observe as an experimental control, it’s anyone’s guess how an alternate scenario would have actually played out. It’s like in sports, when the TV announcer says, “If the double play hadn’t cleared the bases, three would have scored on that home run, and this team would be ahead right now.” Really? And you know this how?

Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not one bit simpler.” Remember, people are idiots, and idiots like to simplify the world and make it easier to grasp. Then, when they think they’ve grasped it, they start spouting reductionist bullshit — and in doing so, their idiocy becomes all the more apparent.

Don’t be an idiot.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bad Experiences Are Good Experiences

A few years ago, I came up with a way of looking at life that has helped me get through many miserable events. I've never seen it described anywhere, and if you know of any writers who have expressed a similar perspective, please tell me.

Say you're driving through the Mojave desert. What would you rather have happen to you: (1) You suffer a tire blowout, which leads to a 45-minute ordeal of changing the tire in 110-degree conditions, during which an overweight cop stops to hang out and watch for awhile, offering no physical help whatsoever. Or, (2) you don't suffer the blowout, and you spend the same 45 minutes in air-conditioned luxury listening to your favorite CD.

Most people would pick (2). If you were experiencing (1) right now — as my 85-year-old uncle did last year — you'd almost certainly elect to switch over to (2) if you could. I am here to tell you, though, that (1) is the preferable experience to have. Here's why.

There's a common expression that goes, "Someday, we'll all have a good laugh about this." Meaning, this may not seem like much fun now, but in the long run it won't matter; we'll remember it as being funny. I've taken this sentiment a bit further. Consider this: Five years after your trip through the Mojave Desert, what will you recall about it? If you experienced (2), probably nothing. But if you experienced (1), you'll have a rich memory of a miserable 45 minutes. You'll have a story with which to regale your friends, complete with the colorful character of the fat, gawking cop. I dare say that on your deathbed, scenario (1) will have provided you with a slightly richer, more memorable life than scenario (2). Did the fact that you were miserable at the time have any negative bearing on your life, long-term? Of course not. A few minutes of misery enriched you for a lifetime. In the big picture of things, it was the far better experience to have.

This manner of thinking applies best to annoying but ultimately benign events, as in the Mojave example; if you developed heat stroke changing the tire and sustained brain damage, that wouldn't be good at all. Similarly, some experiences, such as suffering a family tragedy, are unquestionably negative. However, even in the worst of times, you can comfort yourself somewhat by realizing that this experience can and will enrich you, make you stronger, make you more aware, better rounded as a person. The point is to try to zoom out and imagine the big picture, and think of how the present may impact your life in some way for the better. It isn't easy, but it's something to consider when your only other option seems to be wallowing in your misery.

To me, the worst way you can spend a day is to watch mindless TV on your couch. If you spent your whole life like that, sure, you might never endure a moment of discomfort — but in the end, what would you have to look back on? Nothing!

Think about what I've said the next time you can't believe "this" is happening to you. Just try to be glad that something is happening in your life — anything at all.