Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘catastrophe’

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This post was first published in 2009. I am aware that the climate debate has moved on. However, from a Bahá’í point of view the debate that still rages around this issue needs to be conducted in the right spirit, as this piece explains, and also needs to be addressing the most fundamental issues as the Universal House of Justice is keen we should understand. The most important principle here is expressed in its letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran in March 2013:

The deepening environmental crisis, driven by a system that condones the pillage of natural resources to satisfy an insatiable thirst for more, suggests how entirely inadequate is the present conception of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Unless that is addressed we are likely to be applying a sticking plaster to a bullet hole. 

Sometimes experience transmits an insight that should never be forgotten. I have benefited from at least one such insight, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. Until that ‘aha!’ moment,  I had tended to trust much of what I read about areas of which I knew little, prepared to accept that the experts knew best.

When I began to study the mind systematically, in the early days I retained this rosy view of things. As I delved deeper, and also at the same time as I became more experienced in applying what I studied to individuals in great need and great distress, the picture darkened. The more I knew and the more I tried to use what I knew to help those with whom I came in contact, the less I understood. Brains, genes, environments, families, cultures swirled around in my head with competing explanations of what was going on. And when I finally decided to specialise in psychosis, it all got a whole lot worse. I discovered that, even though people saw me as an expert, my hard-won understanding was honeycombed with doubt.

I remember also hearing at that time that, were an ‘expert’ to read the newly published literature in her field at the rate of a page a minute 24 hours a day for a whole year, she would be further behind at the end of the year than she was at the beginning.

Now compared to the planet earth we live on, the human head is pretty small. We shouldn’t let that deceive us though.  Wikipedia estimates that there are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, as many as there are stars in our galaxy. Each of these nerve cells can potentially contact as many as 10,000 other nerve cells. This means that there are something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible connections in the brain (this is 10 to the power of 20, I think: I’ve always had a shaky grasp of the idea of ‘power’ in any context and most of all in this one. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the total atoms in the universe number 10 to the power of 80.) Another scientist sheds doubt on a widespread factoid that there are more connections in the brain that there are atoms in the universe and prefers to state the issue more cautiously by saying there are are more connections in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.

For source of image see link

Neuronal Connections – For source of image see link

Even though none of us will manage to establish connections between all our neurons, it’s clear the brain is extremely complex. Once we get to that level of complexity in one element of a complex system which involves DNA (the human genome occupies a total of just over 3 billion DNA base pairs), societal variables (I’ve no idea how many: try class, race, nationality, gender, age just for starters) and cultural memes (virtually infinite even if they can be organised into classes), we can see that the hope of achieving absolute clarity about what’s going on overall with absolute certainty is pretty slim indeed. Finding a fleck of gold in the sands of the Sahara would be a doddle by comparison.

As for keeping up with the literature across so many disciplines, we would need several lifetimes, rather in the way that we in the West will need more than one planet to satisfy our idea of our needs. Of course, if everyone else had several lifetimes to write the stuff I had to read, there’d be no hope at all of catching up.

That’s why in Mental Health we ended up with a multitude of different disciplines each looking at the situation from a different angle and generating complementary but not always entirely compatible explanations — models of reality, if you like. There was no way that any one model could justifiably claim it had successfully captured the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Nature of Truth

That was my epiphany. I discovered the full value of Oscar Wilde‘s insight, one that I had in my youth dismissed as a clever joke: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ And I realised that anyone who thought they understood the truth in any of the fields I was familiar with was seriously deluded. At that point as an individual I gave up the quest for certainty about anything reasonably complex even when achieving certainty seemed really important. In fact I came to the conclusion that certainty of that kind is usually dangerous across the board in every specialty.

Only by having sceptical people with divergent views openly exchanging perspectives from a position of humility within a group which is trying to decide what to do in a specific situation was there any hope of doing something helpful rather than destructive. Mutual respect and the ability to listen carefully to those whom you felt might well be wrong even before they opened their mouths to speak, were imperative.

Those factors were all that prevented us from inflicting further pain on those in our care who were already suffering more than they could bear.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognise that a disturbed planet is a touch more difficult to diagnose and help than a disturbed person. And not only are there many more variables to consider, but the time scales that we need to encompass are huge. If I try to use my adult experience of the climate (say, 45 years) to make a judgement on the matter, it would be as though I was trying to assess a complex personal problem and define an effective solution in just over eight minutes. I’d have barely scratched the surface.

Selling out the Truth

There is a spreading sense of unease about how the real complexity of the issues is being sold out by other interests in the climate change debate. Frank Furedi‘s description captures one aspect of this exactly:

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

I am not competent to determine whether the case for man-made global warming has been conclusively proved as against the real possibility that natural processes are contributing the lion’s share to significant fluctuations in the world-wide climate. It’s about as much as we can do as lay people to get hold of one idea, such as man-made CO2 leads to global warming, and be convinced something needs to be done. Reading Nicholas Stern‘s book makes it clear that understanding all the implications even of that one idea is an extremely demanding task. Following the oscillating swings from doubt to conviction and back again in such books as The Sceptical Environmentalist, The Hot Topic and Chill exposes the unprepared mind to a bewildering welter of complex interacting variables whose exact significance lies beyond my capacity to disentangle. You can get a strong taste of the complexity of the issues by looking at Peter Taylor‘s book ‘Chill.’

He also writes about something I can potentially understand –  the unhealthy way dissent has been treated in the debate (page 9):

It is an issue central to the evolution of science and sound policy – in that dissent needs to be acknowledged, respected and given its voice not just at the level of scientific working groups, but at the policy level in the treatment of uncertainty. If dissent is marginalised, science travels down the slippery slope directed by the needs of policy makers for simple single cause answers and targets, and in this, ultimately, the truth suffers.

He concludes (page 10), rather as Furedi does, that ‘[p]olitics had intruded into science on a grand scale.’

Honouring Complexity

This really worries me. In spite of the many uncertainties that attend this degree of complexity,  all too often the debate is not being conducted in the necessary spirit of humble inquiry into the truth and respect for all those similarly engaged. A recent example was when a prominent political figure described as flat-earthers the sceptics who question whether global warming is entirely attributable to human CO2. The use of arguments like that generates more heat than light – surely an undesirable consequence at this juncture if those who use this kind of ploy are in fact correct.

I may not be an expert in the theories whose elaborate structures overshadow our mental landscape at the moment but I can surely smell a rat in the drainage system of the processes that underpin the conclusions that have been reached. For simplicity’s sake I am going to assume that Peter Taylor has been reasonably fair in his description of the flaws in the conduct of the debate on this issue. He tone seems measured and he doesn’t descend into invective. He coolly describes what he sees. The book is not called Chill for nothing.

The individual human mind is not able to grasp extreme complexity and ambiguity. Many minds have to be brought to bear upon the problem, and the search for the kind of simple certainty so often felt to be necessary if action is to be undertaken should not be allowed to dangerously distort our perception of reality.

Our culture is unfortunately founded upon the assumption that competition is healthy and the basis for progressing our understanding and enhancing our prosperity. Michael Karlberg, in Beyond the Culture of Contest, digs deeply into the problems of this world view and questions whether it is the only paradigm available. He argues (pages 36-38):

Normative adversarialism, as I use the term, refers to the assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organisation. This assumption is deeply embedded in the codes of western-liberal cultures. . . . . [M]y intent is not to imply that cooperative and mutualistic practices are entirely absent  . . . . . Rather, my intent is to show that adversarialism has become a normative ideal . .

He sees this ideal operating across the economic, legal and political spheres of activity. Crucially in the context we are considering here he concludes (page 64):

By privileging single perspectives over multiple perspectives, the adversary paradigm favours reductionistic and absolutist thought.

In a complex presentation at the end of his book he offers an alternative model drawn from his experience of the Bahá’í experiment in community functioning which this blog also explores in detail from time to time. He explains (pages 142-143):

. . . Bahá’ís believe that only within an atmosphere of mutual respect, support and encouragement, rather than aggression and intimidation, can clarity of thought prevail and the perspectives of all people be heard . . . These prescriptions . . . do not imply the need to gloss over conflicts by demanding that participants bury their differences and speak to each other in artificially polite civil tones. On the contrary, they imply finding and facilitating modes of expression that allow conflicting perceptions and interests to be critically examined but in an atmosphere of tolerance and a spirit of mutual commitment within which problems become soluble challenges.

With a topic as complex and, to many, as terrifying as global warming, this kind of approach is clearly imperative.

Dan Gardner makes a shrewd point near the end of his book on risk (page 316):

One would think that catastrophists would learn to be humble about their ability to predict the future but there is a noticeable absence of humility in the genre.

When risk rises humility becomes increasingly scarce. That though is the most important moment for humility to trump arrogance in the way we explore and compare our views of reality. We should be doing all we can to ensure that our experts and our politicians remain open to all possible sources of enlightenment as we seek to understand and respond to the immensely powerful and complex forces at work in the biosphere.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Sometimes experience transmits an insight that should never be forgotten. I have benefited from at least one such insight, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. Until that ‘aha!’ moment,  I had tended to trust much of what I read about areas of which I knew little, prepared to accept that the experts knew best.

When I began to study the mind systematically, in the early days I retained this rosy view of things. As I delved deeper, and also at the same time as I became more experienced in applying what I studied to individuals in great need and great distress, the picture darkened. The more I knew and the more I tried to use what I knew to help those with whom I came in contact, the less I understood. Brains, genes, environments, families, cultures swirled around in my head with competing explanations of what was going on. And when I finally decided to specialise in psychosis, it all got a whole lot worse. I discovered that, even though people saw me as an expert, my hard-won understanding was honeycombed with doubt.

I remember also hearing at that time that, were an ‘expert’ to read the newly published literature in her field at the rate of a page a minute 24 hours a day for a whole year, she would be further behind at the end of the year than she was at the beginning.

Neuronal Connections – For source of image see link

Now compared to the planet earth we live on, the human head is pretty small. We shouldn’t let that deceive us though.  Wikipedia estimates that there are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, as many as there are stars in our galaxy. Each of these nerve cells can potentially contact as many as 10,000 other nerve cells. This means that there are something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible connections in the brain (this is 10 to the power of 20, I think: I’ve always had a shaky grasp of the idea of ‘power’ in any context and most of all in this one. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the total atoms in the universe number 10 to the power of 80.) Another scientist sheds doubt on a widespread factoid that there are more connections in the brain that there are atoms in the universe and prefers to state the issue more cautiously by saying there are are more connections in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.

Even though none of us will manage to establish connections between all our neurons, it’s clear the brain is extremely complex. Once we get to that level of complexity in one element of a complex system which involves DNA (the human genome occupies a total of just over 3 billion DNA base pairs), societal variables (I’ve no idea how many: try class, race, nationality, gender, age just for starters) and cultural memes (virtually infinite even if they can be organised into classes), we can see that the hope of achieving absolute clarity about what’s going on overall with absolute certainty is pretty slim indeed. Finding a fleck of gold in sands of the Sahara would be a doddle by comparison.

As for keeping up with the literature across so many disciplines, we would need several lifetimes, rather in the way that we in the West will need more than one planet to satisfy our idea of our needs. Of course, if everyone else had several lifetimes to write the stuff I had to read, there’d be no hope at all of catching up.

That’s why in Mental Health we ended up with a multitude of different disciplines each looking at the situation from a different angle and generating complementary but not always entirely compatible explanations — models of reality, if you like. There was no way that any one model could justifiably claim it had successfully captured the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Nature of Truth

That was my epiphany. I discovered the full value of Oscar Wilde‘s insight, one that I had in my youth dismissed as a clever joke: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ And I realised that anyone who thought they understood the truth in any of the fields I was familiar with was seriously deluded. At that point as an individual I gave up the quest for certainty about anything reasonably complex even when achieving certainty seemed really important. In fact I came to the conclusion that certainty of that kind is usually dangerous across the board in every specialty.

Only by having sceptical people with divergent views openly exchanging perspectives from a position of humility within a group which is trying to decide what to do in a specific situation was there any hope of doing something helpful rather than destructive. Mutual respect and the ability to listen carefully to those whom you felt might well be wrong even before they opened their mouths to speak, were imperative.

Those factors were all that prevented us from inflicting further pain on those in our care who were already suffering more than they could bear.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognise that a disturbed planet is a touch more difficult to diagnose and help than a disturbed person. And not only are there many more variables to consider, but the time scales that we need to encompass are huge. If I try to use my adult experience of the climate (say, 45 years) to make a judgement on the matter, it would be as though I was trying to assess a complex personal problem and define an effective solution in just over eight minutes. I’d have barely scratched the surface.

Selling out the Truth

There is a spreading sense of unease about how the real complexity of the issues is being sold out by other interests in the climate change debate. Frank Furedi‘s description captures one aspect of this exactly:

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

I am not competent to determine whether the case for man-made global warming has been conclusively proved as against the real possibility that natural processes are contributing the lion’s share to significant fluctuations in the world-wide climate. It’s about as much as we can do as lay people to get hold of one idea, such as man-made CO2 leads to global warming, and be convinced something needs to be done. Reading Nicholas Stern‘s book makes it clear that understanding all the implications even of that one idea is an extremely demanding task. Following the oscillating swings from doubt to conviction and back again in such books as The Sceptical Environmentalist, The Hot Topic and Chill exposes the unprepared mind to a bewildering welter of complex interacting variables whose exact significance lies beyond my capacity to disentangle. You can get a strong taste of the complexity of the issues by looking at Peter Taylor‘s book ‘Chill.’

He also writes about something I can potentially understand –  the unhealthy way dissent has been treated in the debate (page 9):

It is an issue central to the evolution of science and sound policy – in that dissent needs to be acknowledged, respected and given its voice not just at the level of scientific working groups, but at the policy level in the treatment of uncertainty. If dissent is marginalised, science travels down the slippery slope directed by the needs of policy makers for simple single cause answers and targets, and in this, ultimately, the truth suffers.

He concludes (page 10), rather as Furedi does, that ‘[p]olitics had intruded into science on a grand scale.’

Honouring Complexity

This really worries me. In spite of the many uncertainties that attend this degree of complexity,  all too often the debate is not being conducted in the necessary spirit of humble inquiry into the truth and respect for all those similarly engaged. A recent example was when a prominent political figure described as flat-earthers the sceptics who question whether global warming is entirely attributable to human CO2. The use of arguments like that generates more heat than light – surely an undesirable consequence at this juncture if those who use this kind of ploy are in fact correct.

I may not be an expert in the theories whose elaborate structures overshadow our mental landscape at the moment but I can surely smell a rat in the drainage system of the processes that underpin the conclusions that have been reached. For simplicity’s sake I am going to assume that Peter Taylor has been reasonably fair in his description of the flaws in the conduct of the debate on this issue. He tone seems measured and he doesn’t descend into invective. He coolly describes what he sees. The book is not called Chill for nothing.

The individual human mind is not able to grasp extreme complexity and ambiguity. Many minds have to be brought to bear upon the problem, and the search for the kind of simple certainty so often felt to be necessary if action is to be undertaken should not be allowed to dangerously distort our perception of reality.

Our culture is unfortunately founded upon the assumption that competition is healthy and the basis for progressing our understanding and enhancing our prosperity. Michael Karlberg, in Beyond the Culture of Contest, digs deeply into the problems of this world view and questions whether it is the only paradigm available. He argues (pages 36-38):

Normative adversarialism, as I use the term, refers to the assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organisation. This assumption is deeply embedded in the codes of western-liberal cultures. . . . . [M]y intent is not to imply that cooperative and mutualistic practices are entirely absent  . . . . . Rather, my intent is to show that adversarialism has become a normative ideal . .

He sees this ideal operating across the economic, legal and political spheres of activity. Crucially in the context we are considering here he concludes (page 64):

By privileging single perspectives over multiple perspectives, the adversary paradigm favours reductionistic and absolutist thought.

In a complex presentation at the end of his book he offers an alternative model drawn from his experience of the Bahá’í experiment in community functioning which this blog also explores in detail from time to time. He explains (pages 142-143):

. . . Bahá’ís believe that only within an atmosphere of mutual respect, support and encouragement, rather than aggression and intimidation, can clarity of thought prevail and the perspectives of all people be heard . . . These prescriptions . . . do not imply the need to gloss over conflicts by demanding that participants bury their differences and speak to each other in artificially polite civil tones. On the contrary, they imply finding and facilitating modes of expression that allow conflicting perceptions and interests to be critically examined but in an atmosphere of tolerance and a spirit of mutual commitment within which problems become soluble challenges.

With a topic as complex and, to many, as terrifying as global warming, this kind of approach is clearly imperative.

Dan Gardner makes a shrewd point near the end of his book on risk (page 316):

One would think that catastrophists would learn to be humble about their ability to predict the future but there is a noticeable absence of humility in the genre.

When risk rises humility becomes increasingly scarce. That though is the most important moment for humility to trump arrogance in the way we explore and compare our views of reality. We should be doing all we can to ensure that our experts and our politicians remain open to all possible sources of enlightenment as we seek to understand and respond to the immensely powerful and complex forces at work in the biosphere.

Read Full Post »