Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Helfand, A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

David J. Helfand, a bearded, bespectacled, Santa Claus-like astronomer, taught at Columbia for 38 years and recently served as president of the experimental Quest University Canada. He is on an impassioned mission: “to provide a set of tools to be used in promoting a rational and attainable future for humankind.” He is doing battle with “blind faith—in God during the Middle Ages, in creativity during the Renaissance, in reason during the Enlightenment, and in technology today,” which he describes as “a shibboleth, … a fantasy ungrounded from a rational assessment, in quantitative terms, of what is possible and what is not.” (p. ix)

In A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind (Columbia University Press, 2016) Helfand argues that the defining characteristics of science “stem from a mindset built upon a specific set of habits that are employed when interacting with the world. … Cultivating these habits is the most efficacious approach to surviving the Misinformation Age—and for helping one’s fellow citizens to survive it as well.” (p. 28)

What kinds of habits distinguish a scientific mind? Skepticism heads the list, with an emphasis on falsifiability. Scientists also insist on the temporary nature of models. They have “the ability—and willingness—to make rough estimates of unknown (and often unknowable) quantities.” (p. 56) Fermi problems, such as “How many piano tuners are there in New York?,” are good examples of these back-of-the-envelope calculations.

The proper use of probability and statistics is also critical to scientific thinking. “[P]robability now shapes our understanding of the physical world, and statistics stands as the arbiter between our theories and the observations we use to test them. They are core habits of a scientific mind and provide a bulwark against skullduggery and exploitation.” (pp. 132-33)

Helfand applies the scientific habits he describes in his book (far more than I’ve mentioned here) to the problem of climate change. His goal, he claims, is not to draw a conclusion but rather to provide the tools for coming to “informed and independent judgments.” (p. 239)

He does, however, share the list of things most people “are conditioned by the media” to worry about and the list of things he himself worries about. The former list includes stronger and more frequent hurricanes, rising sea levels, hotter summers and more deaths from heat stroke, and the demise of polar bears.

Helfand argues that the hurricane scare is fictional, sees no secular trend in heat-related deaths, and more or less debunks the near-term concern over, and the purported causes of, rising sea levels. The seas are rising at a little over three millimeters per year, not enough to “transform the world economy or shake up the geopolitical order in the next few years.” And the reason for rising sea levels is not melting Arctic sea ice because floating ice does not increase the volume of water when it melts. Melting glaciers do add water to the oceans, but this is a minor cause of rising sea levels. “In fact, the real explanation for most of the sea-level rise is that the oceans are expanding as the temperature rises. … Today, roughly two-thirds of the rise we observe is likely a consequence of [thermal expansion]; over the next century, with a four-degree Celsius increase in global temperature, the total effect could be measured in meters, not millimeters.” (p. 238)

Helfand’s own list of near-term worries includes “the spread of tropical disease vectors and emerging zoonotic diseases, the collapse of biodiversity, CO2 from boreal bogs, and freshwater exhaustion.” (p. 241)

Unfortunately, most of the people who read this “survival guide” will undoubtedly be sufficiently scientifically inclined that they will not need to be persuaded that Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma is—well, let’s say kindly—off base when he states: “The Genesis 8:22 that I use says that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.” (pp. 205-06)

But even though Helfand’s readership will be self-selecting, even this readership often gets things wrong when it comes to science. This book will help to redirect them.

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