Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You do not need to consider worst-case scenarios to become alarmed.

In normal times, the apocalypse bored me. Any discussion of catastrophic events put me in a mood of defensive skepticism. This was true whether I was considering an asteroid, a supervolcano, or rampant artificial intelligence—events that are so far out of my control that I would immediately dismiss them from my mind. However, the current coronavirus situation prompted me to read a book by epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, which includes a detailed prediction of what the next pandemic could look like. The experience of reading a scientist predicting, with considerable accuracy, what I was living through was profoundly eerie. And as a result, I was prepared to take a book about how climate change will play out a little more seriously

The picture is not rosy. Much like a pandemic, climate change it not localized, but strikes everywhere at once. If a bad hurricane hits one city, we can rush resources to the area. But if we are battered by massive hurricanes, destructive floods, severe droughts, raging wildfires, and deadly heatwaves, in many different parts of a country, over and over again, then we cannot effectively respond. To put it mildly, dealing with ever-escalating natural disasters will take an increasingly severe economic toll—measuring in the hundreds of trillions, by Wallace-Wells’s calculation—and will also put huge pressure on political systems, thus further reducing our ability to respond.

Wallace-Wells paints this coming future in such vividly chilling detail that even the most stoic reader will have an elevated pulse. Indeed, in this future world, the term “natural disaster” will start to lose its meaning, since disasters will be so common as to become simply become “weather,” and they will be, in part, caused by human activity. Millions may be displaced because of rising sea levels, at a time when we face food and freshwater shortages from drought and desertification. This is not a world that any of us would freely choose.

The tone lightens somewhat—from pitch-black to ashen gray—in the third section, where Wallace-Wells shifts from painting the looming threat to making some predictions about how our culture might respond. His conclusion, in a nutshell, is that the scope of the threat is so all-encompassing that we cannot psychologically come to terms with it. For example, many Americans are tempted to blame climate change on Republicans; but this obscures the fact that the Republican party is the only major climate-change denying party in the world, and the United States does not produce the majority of the world’s carbon emissions—not by a long shot.

Other common reactions to the crisis come in for criticism as well. One is to focus on individual behavior, trying to reduce consumption and to purchase the most eco-friendly items possible. But individual choices do not, Wallace-Wells thinks, have the potential to make more than the tiniest difference. For example, though there is much scolding of people, say, watering their lawns during a drought, personal water consumption is only a small fraction of the society’s total. Only large-scale changes in infrastructure can make the difference, and that must come from political pressure.

In both of these above cases, the common thread is the inability of our normal moral circuitry to deal with the problem. We want to tell a story with heroes and villains who are directly responsible through their personal choices for the crisis we are facing. But the reality, as Wallace-Wells says, is that culpability is widely-dispersed and our responsibility is collective, not individual. This goes sharply against the grain of our psychology, which I think partly accounts for our inaction.

One more common reaction is to think that technology will save us. There is, of course, very little evidence for this, and what it amounts to is using a blind faith in timely innovation to justify inaction. At the moment, carbon-capture technology is so inefficient that we would need hundreds of acres of such plants to make a difference. One other option is to start pumping ammonia into the air, in order to make the atmosphere more reflective of sunlight. But of course this would have quite awful effects on the environment and human health. And as Wallace-Wells points out, we have reached quite an odd stage in history when these ideas strike people as more practicable than reducing consumption of fossil fuels—as if the market were a more unbending force than the climate itself.

Advocates have a variety of emotions to choose from if they wish to motivate people—hope, outrage, and fear being the most common. Wallace-Wells leans heavily on fear, which arguably puts this book in the same tradition as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But is fear the right choice? Certainly Carson was effective; and since Uninhabitable Earth was a #1 best-seller, it seems that Wallace-Wells achieved his goal. However, the challenge of getting rid of pesticides pales to nothingness in comparison with the challenge of reconfiguring our economies, infrastructures, and ways of life. Can fear propel us through this great transition? Personally, I found the tone of the book so bleak that I was exhausted even before reaching the end. But I suppose everyone will react their own way.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic make us more inclined to trust the warnings of scientists? I hope so, though perhaps that is asking too much. And as we collectively recover from the economic downturn, will we use the opportunity to pass something like the Green New Deal? I hope so, too, though I very much doubt it. Indeed, for me, one of the biggest lessons of this pandemic has been that we need not resort to selfish evil as an explanation for climate inaction. Virtually nobody had anything to gain from the pandemic, and it came anyway, catching every Western nation with its proverbial pants down—despite repeated warnings from epidemiologists. Human stupidity, then, is a sufficient explanation for our climate inaction. And, unfortunately, that will be around until the earth truly is uninhabitable.

[I did not scrupulously check for errors, but I still caught two. Well-Wallace says that “1 in 6” people die from air pollution, but the true figure is about 6-7%—still a lot, but much less than 1 in 6. Later on, Wallace-Wells says: “H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which depicted a distant future in which most humans were enslaved troglodytes, laboring underground for the benefit of a pampered and very small aboveground elite…” But of course this is an incorrect description of the book: most humans are not enslaved, but prey; and they live above ground, while the predators live below. It seems odd to me that he would reference a book that he clearly did not read. I am sure there are more errors lurking about.]


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Review: Defending Science—Within Reason

Review: Defending Science—Within Reason

Defending Science - within Reason: Between Scientism And CynicismDefending Science – within Reason: Between Scientism And Cynicism by Susan Haack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is quark theory or kwark theory politically more progressive?—the question makes no sense.

Ever since I can remember I was fascinated by science and its discoveries. Like Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, I grew up in New York City going routinely to the Museum of Natural History. I wondered at the lions and elephants in the Hall of African Mammals; I gazed in awe at the massive dinosaur fossils, which dwarfed even my dad in height and terror; I spent hours in the Hall of Ocean Life gaping at the dolphins, the sea lions, and the whales. The diorama of a sperm whale fighting a giant squid—two massive, monstrous forms, shrouded in the darkness of the deep sea—held a particular power over my childhood imagination. I must have made half a thousand drawings of that scene, the resolute whale battling the hideous squid in the imponderable depths.

Growing up, I found that not everybody shared my admiration for the process of science and its discoveries. This came as a shock. Even now, no intellectual stance upsets me more than science denial. To me, denying science has always seemed tantamount to denying both the beauty of the world and the power of the human mind. And yet here we are, in a world fundamentally shaped by our scientific knowledge, full of people who, for one reason or another, deny the validity of the scientific enterprise.

The reasons for science denial are manifold. Most obviously there is religious fundamentalism; and not far behind is corporate greed in industries, such as the coal or the cigarette industry, that might be hurt by the discoveries of scientists. These forms of science denial often take the form of anti-intellectualism; but what troubles me more are the various forms of science denial in intellectual circles: sociologists who see scientific discoveries as political myth-making, literary theorists who see science as a rhetoric of power, philosophers who see knowledge as wholly relative. Add to this the more plebeian forms of science denial often encountered on the left—such as skepticism about GMOs and vaccines—and we have a disbelief that extends across the political spectrum, throughout every level of education and socio-economic status.

And all this is not to mention the science-worship that has grown up, partly as a response to this skepticism. So often we see headlines proclaiming “Science Discovers” or “Scientists Have Proved” and so on; and time and again I’ve heard people use “because, science says” as an argument. Scientists are treated as a priestly class, handing out truths from high up above, truths reached by inscrutable methods using arcane theories and occult techniques, which must be trusted on faith. Needless so say, this attitude is wholly alien to the spirit of the scientific enterprise, and ultimately plays into the hands of skeptics who wish to treat modern science as something on par with traditional religion. Also needless to say (I hope), both the supinely adoring and the snobbishly scorning attitudes fail to do justice to what science really is and does.

This is where Susan Haack comes in. In this book, Haack attempts to offer an epistemological account of why the sciences have been effective, as well as a critique of the various responses to the sciences—from skepticism, to cynicism, to paranoia, to worship, to deference—to show how these responses misunderstand or mischaracterize, overestimate or underestimate, what science is really all about. Along the way, Haack also offers her opinions on the relation between the natural and the social sciences, science and the law, science and religion, science and values, and the possible “end of science.”

She begins, as all worthy philosophers must, by criticizing her predecessors. The early philosophers of science made two related errors that prevented them from coming to grips with the enterprise. The first was assuming that there was such a thing as the “scientific method”—a special methodology that sets the sciences apart from other forms of inquiry. The second mistake was assuming that this methodology was a special form of logic—deduction, induction, probability, and so on—used by scientists to achieve their results. In other words, they assumed that they could demarcate science from other forms of inquiry; and that this demarcation was logical in nature.

Haack takes issue with both of these assumptions. She asserts that, contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a special “scientific method” used only by scientists and not by any other sort of inquirer. Rather, scientific inquiry is continuous with everyday inquiry, from detective work to historical research to trying to find where you misplaced your keys this morning: it relies on the collection of evidence, coming up with theories to explain a phenomenon, testing different theories against the available evidence and new discoveries, using other inquirers to help check your judgment, and so on.

Because of this, Haack objects to the use of the adjective “scientific” as an honorific, as a term of epistemological praise—such as in “scientifically tested toothpaste”—since “scientific” knowledge is the same sort of knowledge as every other sort of knowledge. The only differences between “scientific” knowledge and everyday knowledge are, most obviously, the subject matter (chemistry and not car insurance rates), and less obviously how scrupulously it has been tested, discussed, and examined. To use her phrase, scientific knowledge is like any other sort of knowledge, only “more so”—the fruit of more dedicated research, and subjected to more exacting standards.

What sets the natural sciences apart, therefore, is not a special form of logic or method, but various helps to inquiry: tools that extend the reach of human sensation; peer-reviewed journals that help both to check the quality of information and to pool research from different times and places; mathematical techniques and computers to help deal with quantitative data; linguistic innovations and metaphors that allow scientists to discuss their work more precisely and to extend the reach of the human imagination; and so on.

Haack’s most original contribution to the philosophy of science is her notion of ‘foundherentism’ (an ugly word), which she explains by the analogy of a crossword puzzle. Scientific theories have connections both with other scientific theories and with the observable world, in much the same way that entries in a crossword puzzle have connections with other entries and with their clues. Thus the strength of any theory will depend on how well it explains the phenomenon in question, whether it is compatible with other theories that explain ‘neighboring’ phenomena, and how well those neighboring theories explain their own phenomena. Scientific theories, in other words, connect with observed reality and with each other at many different points—far more like the intersecting entries of a crossword puzzle than the sequential steps of a mathematical proof—which is why any neat logic cannot do them justice.

It is possible that all this strikes you as either obvious or pointless. But this approach is useful because it allows us to acknowledge the ways that background beliefs affect and constrain our theorizing, without succumbing to pure coherentism, in which the only test of a scientific theory’s validity is how compatible it is with background beliefs. While there is no such thing as a “pure” fact or a “pure” observation untainted by theory, and while it is true that our theories of the world always influence how we perceive the world, all this doesn’t mean that our theories don’t tell us anything about the world. Observation, while never “pure,” still provides a real check and restraint on our theorizing. To give a concrete example, we may choose to interpret a black speck in a photograph as a weather balloon, a bird, a piece of dirt that got on the lens, or a UFO—but we can’t choose not to see the black speck.

Using this subtle picture of scientific knowledge, Haack is able to avoid both the pitfalls of an overly formalistic account of science, such as Popper’s deductivism, and an overly relativistic account of science, such as Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. There may be revolutions when the fundamental assumptions of scientists radically change; but the test of a theory’s worth is not purely in respect to these assumptions but also to the stubborn, observed phenomenon—the black speck. Scientific revolutions might be compared to a team of crossword puzzle-solvers suddenly realizing that the clues make more sense in Spanish than in English. The new background assumption will affect how they read the clues, but not the clues themselves; and the ultimate test of those assumptions—whether the puzzle can be convincingly solved—remains the same.

One of the more frustrating things I’ve heard science skeptics assert is that science requires faith. Granted, to do science you do need to take some things for granted—that there is a real world that exists independently of whether you know it or not, that your senses provide a real, if imperfect, window into this world, that the world is predictable and operates by the same laws in the present as in the past and the future, and so on. But all this is also taken for granted when you ruffle through your bag to find the phone you dropped in there that morning, or when you assume your shoelaces will work the same way today as they did yesterday. Attempts to deny objective truth—very popular in the post-modern world—are always self-defeating, since the denial itself presupposes objective truth (it is only subjectively true that objective truth doesn’t exist?).

We simply cannot operate in the world, or say anything about the world, without presupposing that, yes, the world exists, and that we can know something about it. Maybe this sounds obvious to you, gentle reader, but you would be astounded how much intellectual work in the social sciences and humanities is undermined by this inescapable proposition. Haack does a nice job of explaining this in her chapter on the sociology of science—pointing out all the sociologists, literary theorists, and ethnologists of science who, in treating all scientific knowledge as socially constructed, and therefore dubious, undermine their own conclusions (since those, too, are presumably socially constructed by the inquirers)—but I’m afraid Haack, in trying to push back against attempts like these, is pushing back against what I call the “Lotz Theory of Inquiry.”

(The Lotz Theory of Inquiry states that you cannot be a member of any intellectual discipline without presupposing that your discipline is the most important discipline in academe, and that all other disciplines are failed attempts to be your own discipline. Thus, for a sociologist, all physicists are failed sociologists, and so on.)

Because I am relatively unversed in the philosophy of science, I feel unqualified to say anything beyond the fact that I found Haack’s approach, on the whole, reasonable and convincing.

My main criticism is that she puts far too much weight on the idea of “everyday inquiry” or “common sense”—ideas which are far more culturally and historically variable than she seems to assume. This is exemplified in here criticism of religious inquiry as “discontinuous” with everyday forms of inquiry, since it relies on visions, trances, supernatural intervention, and the authority of sacred texts—normally not explanations or forms of evidence we use when explaining why we got food poisoning (the Mexican restaurant, or an act of God?).

While it is true that, nowadays, most people in the ‘developed’ world do not rely on these religious forms of evidence and explanation in their everyday life, it was not always true historically (think of Luther explaining the creaks in the walls as prowling demons), nor is this true across cultures. One has only to read Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande to see a society in which even simple explanations and the most routine decisions rely on supernatural intervention. In cultures around the world, trances and visions, spirits and ghosts, are not seen as discontinuous with the everyday world, but a normal part of sensing and explaining the world around them.

Thus Haack’s continuity test can’t do the trick of demarcating superstitious or theological inquiry from other (more dependable) forms of inquiry into the observable world. It seems that something like Popper’s falsificationism (if not exactly Popper’s formulation) is needed to show why explanations in terms of invisible spirits and the visions caused by snorting peyote don’t provide us with reliable explanations. In other words, I think Haack needs to say much more about why one theory ought to be preferred to another in order to provide a fully adequate defense of science.

This criticism notwithstanding, I think this is an excellent, refreshing, humane book—and a necessary one. It is not complete (she does not cover the relation between science and philosophy, and science and mathematics, for example), nor is it likely to appeal to a wide audience—since Haack, though she writes with personality and charm, is prone to fits of academic prolixity and gets into some syntactical tangles (such as when she begins a sentence “It would be less than candid not to admit that this list does not encourage…” This, by the way, only supports what I call the “Lotz Theory of Academic Writing”—that the quality of prose varies inversely to the number of years spent in academe—but I digress.) Yet for all its flaws and shortcomings, this book does an excellent job of capturing what is good in science and defending science from unfair attacks, without going into the opposite extreme of deifying science.

As the recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement shows, science denial is an all-too-real and all-too-potent force in today’s world. Too many people I know—many, smart people—don’t understand what scientists do and misconstrue science as a body of beliefs, with scientists as priests, rather than a form of inquiry that rests on the same presuppositions they rely on every day. Either that, or they see science is just a “matter of opinion” or as a bit of arm-chair theorizing. Really, there must be something terribly wrong with our education system if these opinions have become so pervasive. But perhaps there are some reasons for modest optimism. The United States shamefully backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement, but nearly every other country in the world signed on.

So maybe we naive people who believe we can know something about the world need to take a hint from the sperm whale, with its enormous head, preparing to descend to the black depths of the ocean to battle the multi-tentacled squid: hold our breath, have patience, and buck up for a struggle. We may get a few tentacle scars, but we’ve pulled through before and we can pull through again.

[Cover image by Breakyunit. Taken from the Wikipedia article on the Museum of Natural History; used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license.]

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