Solar Science

A blog of solar physics

The Apocalyptic Temptation: A plea for scientific rationality – part 1

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The Prologue

Although some might construe this as an attack upon people I like and respect, that isn’t the intention and I don’t believe that the people I quote here would take it as a personal attack because they’re grown-up, mature people. If its a criticism of them, then its also a criticism of myself.

The Apocalyptic Temptation

It is historically axiomatic that humankind is obsessed with the future, the “undiscovered country”. It is also axiomatic that humankind has tended to fear the future, based mainly on a lack of imagination coupled with a willingness to extrapolate current trends well into the future, often beyond all reason.

If the Global Warming Panic has taught us anything, its taught us the strong propensity of highly educated people to construct trends from noisy data and make startling pronouncements, projections, predictions of future catastrophe if current trends continue. This latest Apocalyptic scare has come at a time when, at least in the Western culture, formerly dominant religious beliefs have fallen by the wayside – those beliefs of course having an Apocalyptic Day of Judgment to represent the final gambit to believe in the final triumph of a particular religious orthodoxy over its enemies, ie non-believers.

It also appears to be a constant of human history that those who claim to be able to predict the future are given unusual privilege within the society, rather than scorn or skepticism. Apparently successful short term predictions give the would-be prophet a measure of gravitas and even elevated position within the society. It appears that no society is immune to this process – from the earliest recorded stories about the Pharoahs of Egypt through to the current President of the United States, the person or group who makes successful short-term predictions gains political, social and economic power.

Its not difficult to see why.

The obsession of any State, of any civilization is focussed upon a few key levers to retain power. Amongst them, possibly the most important lever of power is the price and availability of food to the population – lose control of that key lever and without exception that State or civilization will fall soon after, regardless of the might of the military to suppress dissent, because even soldiers have got to eat.

A lesson from ancient history

A classic example of the power of the prophet and the realities of political power occurs in the book of Genesis. The Pharoah came from a long dynasty of people who were credited by some divine power with mastery over the course of the climate including the regular flooding by the Nile which would restore soil fertility. The Pharoahs were believed to cause the rising and setting of the Sun, and were believed to be avatars of the Gods of Ancient Egypt.

So when a particular Pharoah has a recurrent dream about seven fat cows, followed by seven thin cows who ate the fat cows but remained thin, followed by seven big ears of wheat and seven withered stalks of wheat that appeared to eat the fat stalks but remained withered, the Pharoah knew that this vision was important and checked through with all of his regular entourage of soothsayers, astrologers and scryers, none appeared to give a reasonable answer until Joseph, a jewish slave offered to interpret and what he said (in effect) was this:

The seven fat cows and seven fat ears of wheat represent seven years of agricultural properity, but then the thin cows and the withered stalks represent seven years of famine.

So what did Pharoah do? He instituted an immediate agricultural intervention program to build and maintain grain stores and set a price floor in food commodities to encourage the farmers to grow as much as possible knowing that there was a minimum price upon it.

Why did Pharoah do that? Basic economics – had he not started the intervention program then during the seven years of abundance the price of food would have fallen through the floor and the farmers would have planted and herded less and less otherwise they would have lost a lot of money. Then, when the famine hit, the price of food would rocket, the people would go hungry, then so would the army and then Pharoah’s dynasty would end in a bloodbath.

What happened to the prophet? He became part of the Pharonic Entourage, given power and prestige (and one of the Pharoah’s daughters as well). Joseph, according to Genesis, became the key person in charge of the Egypt Food Intervention Programme, a Bronze Age version of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. He died a wealthy man.

Price stability in food is all important in the stability of nations, always has been and always will. Civilization collapse is intimately related to the price and availability of food, and by extension to the vagaries of climate change.

So from the very earliest times, the importance of predicting future climate (or appearing to) is a key lever to the continuation of power by any State. When control over the price and availability is lost, then down comes the State, like the Soviet Union in 1989 or Suharto’s Indonesia in the 1990s after the price of food skyrocketed when it became scarce. Its happening now in Zimbabwe and if it wasn’t for China, it would be happening in Burma as well.

Little wonder therefore that people who appear to predict the future course of food production (or at least construct scenario that point to the same thing) are given extraordinary credence by people in power. That’s how a mountebank named Trofim Lysenko managed to become President of the Russian Academy under Stalin and have Russian orthodox geneticists sent to gulags when they opposed his pseudoscience – because he promised Stalin a quick agricultural fix that would feed the masses.

If the lure of being a saviour to a civilization didn’t mesh so well with the needs of leaders of all kinds to maintain political power, then its doubtful that anyone would do it. The risks are extremely high that circumstances will turn against the prophet, and the leader anxious to preserve his or her own skin, will very quickly dismiss a prophet who failed in his forecasts.

I’m sure that everyone who reads this, can think of many occasions in history where leaders have been beguiled, for a time, by a charlatan who foretells certain disaster unless a certain program, usually having political or economic ramifications,  and must be enacted with that very person in charge.

The modern cause of science using the scientific method, which we think of as foundational to our Western societies is a relatively recent iteration of a process which has been going on for centuries. It is not perfect, nor has science ever eliminated the human factors that distort science and bring discredit to its practitioners.

In the next part, I want to discuss the modern fascination with prophecy and the failures to enact even basic safeguards against charlatanism and the latent human desire for apocalyptic sensationalism.

And it involves all of us.

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Written by John A

June 15, 2008 at 2:33 pm

2 Responses

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  1. New update from David Hathaway at NASA:

    You know, the only thing that truly bothers me about this release is the statement by Hathaway that states: “The sun is now near the low point of its 11-year activity cycle,” says Hathaway. “We call this ‘Solar Minimum.’ It is the period of quiet that separates one Solar Max from another.”

    That would be a lovely statement if SC23 hadn’t started in May of 2006. Last time I checked, eleven years rolled by in May of 2007. It’s July of 2008. We’re two months into year twelve of SC23. Shouting “eleven years, eleven years, eleven years” with your fingers in your ears isn’t going to make May of 2007 come back.


    July 11, 2008 at 3:00 pm

  2. It has been months since Part 1, where is Part II? 🙂

    Thanks for the blog, I check it regularly. You don’t say much but it is always well-reasoned. I BS’d in Physics in the ’70’s, had SKY & CLOUD been on the horizon then I expect I’d not have gone over to the dark side, Engineering.

    Greg Goodknight

    December 5, 2008 at 7:35 pm

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