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Mayer Hillman

Because I’ve been soft-pedalling my blog recently, I’ve not been regularly sharing snippets from what I read in the way I used to. However, the other day I came across an article on the Guardian website and felt that I just have to spread the word. It’s about an interview Patrick Barkham had with Mayer Hillman. The force of it is compelling. I am not a climate change sceptic but I am wondering whether I might just have been minimising the problem, wrapped in a cocoon of comfortable self-deception. Perhaps I needed a wake up call. Anyway, judge for yourselves. Below is a short extract. For the full post see link.

The 86-year-old social scientist says accepting the impending end of most life on Earth might be the very thing needed to help us prolong it.

We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”

Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, does say so. His bleak forecast of the consequence of runaway climate change, he says without fanfare, is his “last will and testament”. His last intervention in public life. “I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said,” he says when I first hear him speak to a stunned audience at the University of East Anglia late last year.

From Malthus to the Millennium Bug, apocalyptic thinking has a poor track record. But when it issues from Hillman, it may be worth paying attention. Over nearly 60 years, his research has used factual data to challenge policymakers’ conventional wisdom. In 1972, he criticised out-of-town shopping centres more than 20 years before the government changed planning rules to stop their spread. In 1980, he recommended halting the closure of branch line railways – only now are some closed lines reopening. In 1984, he proposed energy ratings for houses – finally adopted as government policy in 2007. And, more than 40 years ago, he presciently challenged society’s pursuit of economic growth.

. . .

While the focus of Hillman’s thinking for the last quarter-century has been on climate change, he is best known for his work on road safety. He spotted the damaging impact of the car on the freedoms and safety of those without one – most significantly, children – decades ago. Some of his policy prescriptions have become commonplace – such as 20mph speed limits – but we’ve failed to curb the car’s crushing of children’s liberty. In 1971, 80% of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today it’s virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Hillman has pointed out, we’ve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children – and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. He calculated that escorting children took 900m adult hours in 1990, costing the economy £20bn each year. It will be even more expensive today.

Our society’s failure to comprehend the true cost of cars has informed Hillman’s view on the difficulty of combatting climate change. But he insists that I must not present his thinking on climate change as “an opinion”. The data is clear; the climate is warming exponentially. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world on its current course will warm by 3C by 2100. Recent revised climate modelling suggested a best estimate of 2.8C but scientists struggle to predict the full impact of the feedbacks from future events such as methane being released by the melting of the permafrost.

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Pollution in Shanghai

I meant to share this Guardian July article by David Runciman some time ago but it somehow slipped through the net. However, I think it makes so many important points, I still need to post a link no matter how late in the day. It resonates for me not just because the issue itself is so critical, and not just because discussion of it has become ensnared in the fake-news zeitgeist, but also because it highlights the importance of asserting uncertainty, one of my hobby horses:

We live in an age when mistrust of politics has spilled over into mistrust of expertise, and vice versa. To respond with ever-greater certainty in the name of science is a big mistake. Expertise doesn’t just need humility. It also needs to reclaim the idea of scepticism from the people who have abused it. Experts need to find a way of expressing uncertainty without feeling it undermines their expertise. Voicing doubt has been allowed to become a synonym for admitting you were wrong. The way out is to stop insisting that you were right in the first place.

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

Last month Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. For his supporters, it provided evidence, at last, that the president is a man of his word. He may not have kept many campaign promises, but he kept this one. For his numerous critics it is just another sign of how little Trump cares about evidence of any kind. His decision to junk the Paris accord confirms Trump as the poster politician for the “post-truth” age.

But this is not just about Trump. The motley array of candidates who ran for the Republican presidential nomination was divided on many things, but not on climate change. None of them was willing to take the issue seriously. In a bitterly contentious election, it was a rare instance of unanimity. The consensus that climate is a non-subject was shared by all the candidates who appeared in the first major Republican debate in August 2015 – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and Trump. Republican voters were offered 10 shades of denialism.

As Huckabee quipped in January 2015, any talk of global warming was a distraction from the real dangers the country faced: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Trump’s remarks on climate may have more been erratic (“I want to use hairspray!” he said at one point, confusing global warming with the hole in the ozone layer) but their consistent theme was that manmade climate change is a “hoax”, perpetrated by the enemies of the US, who may or may not include China.

Climate science has become a red rag to the political right. The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels. But the mere existence of this consensus gets taken by its political opponents as a priorievidence of a stitch-up. Why else would scientists and left-leaning politicians be agreeing with each other all the time if they weren’t scratching each others’ backs? Knowledge is easily turned into “elite” knowledge, which is tantamount to privileged snobs telling ordinary people what to think. Trump’s stance reflects the mutual intolerance that now exists between those promoting the scientific consensus and those for whom the consensus is just another political racket. Trump didn’t create this division. He is simply exploiting it.

It is tempting for anyone on the scientific side of the divide to want to apportion all the blame to the “alt-facts” crowd, who see elite conspiracies everywhere. But there is more going on here than dumb politics versus smart science. The facts are not just the innocent victims of politics. The facts have long been put in the service of politics, which is what fuels the suspicions of those who wish to deny them. The politicisation can cut both ways.

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 Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian

Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian

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 will be posting links to related topics as and when I find them as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is an extract from a thought provoking Guardian article by  on the urgent need for action concerning climate change. It adds useful background thinking to the outline I described from Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilisation which focused on the cost in entropy of our global culture: for the full post see link.

“For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes – population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels – concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.” That was Margaret Thatcher, in a speech to Britain’s scientific elite in 1988. Thatcher was no climate change denier. She told the Royal Society that her government supported the idea of sustainable economic development, and concluded: “Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world, provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late 20th century.”

It was, though, just one speech at a time of great global upheaval: China was liberalising its economy; apartheid was in its death throes in South Africa; above all, the cold war was coming to an end with defeat for the Soviet Union. “We know what works,” US president George HW Bush said at the time. “Free markets work.”

The market model spread quickly to parts of the world that previously it could not touch: to China, where the reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping were accelerated; to India, where the idea that the world’s biggest democracy could go it alone was abandoned; to the Soviet Union and its former satellites, which received a strong dose of economic shock treatment. Within five years, the reach of the market economy had been extended to an additional 3 billion people. . . .

To have a realistic prospect of preventing global temperatures from rising by more than the previously recognised danger threshold of 2C, scientists say it is not possible to burn all the proven fossil fuel reserves owned by companies and governments. Between two-thirds and four-fifths will need to be left in the ground.

The question, therefore, is whether it is possible to marry two seemingly contradictory objectives. Can we imagine a future that is cleaner, greener and sustainable – one that avoids climate armageddon – without abandoning the idea of growth and, thus, forcing living standards into decline? The answer is that it will be hellishly difficult, but it is just about feasible if we make the right choices – and start making them now.

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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.

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climateThough their whole post about the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is well worth reading, it is more than halfway down the thorough NY Times article, posted on 31 March, that we find the important indictment below. For my own recent feelings on a closely related matter see Winter Song.

The poorest people in the world, who have had virtually nothing to do with causing global warming, will be high on the list of victims as climatic disruptions intensify, the report said. It cited a World Bank estimate that poor countries need as much as $100 billion a year to try to offset the effects of climate change; they are now getting, at best, a few billion dollars a year in such aid from rich countries.

The $100 billion figure, though included in the 2,500-page main report, was removed from a 48-page executive summary to be read by the world’s top political leaders. It was among the most significant changes made as the summary underwent final review during an editing session of several days in Yokohama.

The edit came after several rich countries, including the United States, raised questions about the language, according to several people who were in the room at the time but did not wish to be identified because the negotiations were private. The language is contentious because poor countries are expected to renew their demand for aid this September in New York at a summit meeting of world leaders, who will attempt to make headway on a new treaty to limit greenhouse gases.

Many rich countries argue that $100 billion a year is an unrealistic demand; it would essentially require them to double their budgets for foreign aid, at a time of economic distress at home. That argument has fed a rising sense of outrage among the leaders of poor countries, who feel their people are paying the price for decades of profligate Western consumption.

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David Tennant’s Hamlet

When I was away over Christmas I couldn’t watch Dr Who — sorry David Tennant — playing Hamlet at the time of its showing.  I’ve only just got round to watching my recording of this Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production now in the middle of this second big freeze of the winter — its power took me by surprise. At the same time I’m in the middle of reading Peter Taylor’s demanding but rewarding book Chill. Much to my surprise these experiences are for me connected, each echoes the other.

Perhaps I need to clarify from the off that it’s not the ‘bitter cold’ referred to in the first ten lines of Hamlet that I’m thinking about here though it is a strongly common element. It’s to do with seeming, actuality and action. Both Hamlet and Chill at their core share a concern with the relationship between appearance and reality and the implications of that for both understanding what is likely to happen and deciding what to do. In both works there is a political dimension to complicate the way things work themselves out.

I realise of course that there are a small number of trivial differences. The Danish court that Hamlet experiences as a prison is not wracked by angst about its carbon emissions or living in fear of a rising sea disrupting its conspiracies: regicide trumps CO2 for them. Similarly, Chill is not written in blank verse, there are no kings and queens, no ghosts appear and no one, not even the Chair of the IPCC, is poisoned in an orchard while asleep. So, am I forcing the point here a bit?

I don’t think so.

On page 200 of his book Taylor writes:

. . . we need to be clear that it is the duty of science to state clearly the boundary conditions of its knowledge and to draw attention to what currently lies upon the fringe – the place where breaking knowledge will inevitably appear and transform the current view. If science strays from this duty, it becomes a tool of the political or religious order of the day.

In Hamlet, the eponymous hero is confronted with a stark choice: to kill Claudius or not. Whether he does so depends upon what view of appearances he takes. Is the apparition that discloses his father’s murder to him really the ghost of his father or is it the devil come to tempt him to destruction? The wheels of the first two acts of the play revolve around this axle.  After his encounter with the players at the end of Act II and his decision to have them stage a representation of his father’s alleged murder, he knows he has set up an experiment of a kind to determine if at all possible where the truth lies (I’ve always found that those last two words have an interesting double meaning in our language).

. .  . . The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this; the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

(Act II, Scene 2: lines 530-537)

The word ‘relative’ here is used more in the sense of ‘relevant.’

It is interesting to note that it is through a play, not through a controlled scientific experiment, that Hamlet proposes to test for the truth. Jonathan Bate, in his introduction to Hamlet in the carefully researched and beautifully presented RSC edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, points this up very clearly (page 1920):

[Hamlet] comes to the truth through a ‘fiction’ and a ‘dream of passion.’ In this he can only be regarded as an apologist for the art of his creator.

Is there no hard distinction then between imagination and reality? Perhaps it is not as absolute as we would like.

Chris Frith (The Psychologist: October 2009: page 843) reminds us of some fascinating points about the reality/perception issue:

This Helmholtz/Bayes framework had a number of interesting implications, and I suspected that many people might be quite shocked by them.

*Our experience of having a direct perception of the world is an illusion. This illusion is created by our lack of awareness of the inferences being made by our brain.
*There is no qualitative difference between perceptions and beliefs. A perception is a belief about the world that we hold to have extremely high probability.
*Perceptions are created by combining bottom-up, sensory signals with top-down, prior beliefs.
*Our perceptions are an estimate of the state of the world and never the true state of the world. However, we can constantly improve our estimate by making and testing predictions. For survival it is more important to be able to predict the state of the world than to have a very good estimate of what it was in the past. Furthermore, for survival all that matters is that our model of the world makes useful predictions.

But this issue of prediction is a tricky one when we are dealing with complex global phenomena like climate change. Taylor argues (page 220):

We have to ask the question whether there is any value in prediction when the science is so uncertain. In my view the answer is no. In fact, any pretence at prediction may proffer an unreliable knowledge upon which quite counter-productive policies could be based.

But that does not mean we are powerless to act.

. . . it is better to assume no knowledge of the future climate, but to examine current vulnerability to change in any direction. This is the concept of resilience or robustness that ecologists apply to ecosystems. We need to know what a robust human support system looks like. We certainly do not have one now . . .

In terms of possibly counter-productive policy, Taylor feels that there is a high probability that we are in for a period of global cooling which will, for example, have a massive impact on food production exacerbated by such measures as the extensive use of land for the production of bio-fuel. He explains this at some length in the following YouTube video along with the sociopolitical dynamics that in his view are perpetuating the probably erroneous opposite view (more fascinating footage can be found at this link):

There is at least as much at stake here for us as a collective as there was for Hamlet as an individual. Much will depend upon the choices we make as a society. Claudius’ murder of a king who was his brother and Hamlet’s reaction to that crime cost Polonius (Laertes’ father killed by Hamlet, who by that act became as culpable in Laertes’ eyes as Claudius was in his), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother who married his father’s killer), Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet their lives, and Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter) her sanity as well as her life. The personal scale of these consequences plays to the strengths of our way of processing experience and assessing risk (see Gardner’s excellent book for a full analysis of this).

The havoc we could wreak by responding wrongly to the rise in global temperature experienced in the final two decades of the 20th Century (and Taylor does not dispute that there was such a rise — he simply does not accept the case as proven that CO2 played more than a very minor role in that rise) would dwarf the ‘havoc’ (i.e. mound of bodies) confronting Fortinbras in the final moments of the play (not in the TV version sadly). If so much damage can be done when the situation is basically confined within a court and our stone-age brains are well adapted to calculating the risks involved, just think what we can do when the whole world is our stage and we don’t really have a clue what’s going on.

At this point it is hard to be absolutely sure who is right but the next few years will tell. What I am clear about is that, in confronting the choices we have to make, we need to remain as open-minded as possible. Keats defined an attitude of mind that is very relevant to this. To describe this quality, Keats used the term “negative capability” in a letter to his brother dated Sunday, 21 December 1817. He says:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Bahá’u’lláh reminds us in the Arabic Hidden Words that our capacity to understand has limits:

O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

(Number 67)

However, as other posts on this blog have attempted to describe (see the link for an example), our understandings are enhanceable by dispassionate and principled consultation, the difficult art of spiritual conference whose usefulness extends to all realms of human discourse including that of science, especially when such consultation is conducted in the light of experience.

So, here we stand at a crucial choice point. Perhaps we can empathise with Hamlet when he groans:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

(Act I, Scene 5: lines 205-206)

Fortunately, we are not bound by the conventions of a Revenge Tragedy and do not have to murder anyone to solve this problem. We just have to do the best we can to make sure that as few people as possible lose their lives as a result of our making a bad situation worse, and making this bad situation situation worse is what we will do if we end up combining a failure to recognise the extent of our ignorance with that most dangerous fuel of all with which to power the juggernaut of human action – an absolute conviction born of panic.

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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.

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