Don’t shoot the scientific messenger

(October 9, 2018)

Since ancient times, shooting the messenger has been a favourite way to deal with the arrival of bad news.

Of course, it doesn’t change the news — and it makes it hard to recruit the next messenger.

While I agree with Scott Forbes’ defence of science (“Why does science get no respect?” Sept. 29), his dismissal of the “secular prophets” such as David Suzuki involves shooting the messenger, not dealing with the news they bring.

Granted, trying to figure out the difference between “real” and “fake” science is as fraught with difficulties these days as figuring out the difference between “real” and “fake” news. On any issue, there are experts on at least three sides, some of whom are funded to promote confusion.

But while the “prophets of doom” grab bold headlines, there are many smaller headlines generated by those intent on maximizing the “profits of doom” for themselves.

Plan for retirement! Freedom 55! Ads featuring laughing seniors, usually white and always wealthy, sitting by the pool or cruising the oceans in luxury. All this creates a picture of a “don’t worry, be happy” future that disrespects the findings of science much more than jokes about nerds. Their fantasy will become our nightmare.

An alarmist is someone who yells, “Fire!” before his own barn actually starts to burn. The numbers tell us we are in trouble — the fires of a warming planet are on the way. What’s in dispute is exactly when the flames will arrive.

Compare this to medicine — after all the tests and examinations are done, one of the hardest things for any doctor is delivering a terminal diagnosis. Even harder is answering the inevitable question, “How long do I have?”

If a doctor tells a patient they have six months to live and they survive for a year or two, no one dismisses doctors (and medicine in general) as a waste of time. Nor do people ridicule that doctor as a “prophet of doom” if the patient happens to live another 20 or 30 years.

You get my point. Our biosphere’s diagnosis is terminal because of how humans have chosen to live in the Anthropocene. The fact that the final act is taking longer than predicted is good news for those of us who still have hope for ourselves and for our children. It means we still have time to do something, rather than just watch the world burn and choke.

This is what science tells us — what is going on, and why. If the timeline of scientific climate prognosis is inaccurate, that’s because the systems it tries to interpret are too complex for easy answers, and the data we have to work with is inadequate and incomplete.

In the same way, a doctor can tell you how big the tumour is and how fast it is growing or spreading, but it’s much harder to know when the body’s systems will fail. That depends on the patient’s determination and a host of other things that vary from person to person; the outcome, however, will still be the same.

To be fair, if we can’t accurately predict the weather on the Prairies — even a day ahead — why would any “real” science even try to predict global conditions 20 years out?

Scientists try, for the same reason the doctor tries to give an answer — because we ask them to tell us how much longer we have.

It’s our problem, therefore, not theirs. The headlines are bold, because we are not listening to common sense any more than we are heeding “real” science. We are trying to avoid doing anything that requires changing our lifestyle, waiting for someone to tell us things will magically improve. We will listen to the fake science as readily as we believe the fake news, if it means we can keep golfing.

David Suzuki recently described his work to me as a failure; other environmentalists have expressed the same sentiment about their work. For despite all of their warnings, the laws and regulations they have inspired, as well as promoting recycling and whatever else they have done, we are increasing our speed toward a future in which no sane person wants to live.

I’m not a scientist — I am one of those “artsies” who just as often gets dismissed by scientists, as happens in reverse. I do study science and technology — their history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and whatever else is needed to understand the whole picture of what “real” science presents. It’s never only “just the facts,” but also what they mean.

After all, sustainability is not a scientific or technological issue. It is a social and cultural problem, requiring practical answers from all of us, if we want to avoid the catastrophes that otherwise certainly lie ahead.

We need to listen carefully to what the messengers of science are saying — and not shoot them.

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Speaking of pirates…

(September 24, 2018)
The G7 environment ministers conference opened in Halifax on Wednesday, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

These international conferences always need a theme. While plastic pollution in the ocean might seem like a good theme to the public, it is very hard to organize fun side events on something so ghastly. (Besides, plastic-filled sushi for lunch is hard to digest.)

So, (pirate) hats off to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna for her sense of timing and clever choice of locale. Instead of focusing on boring speeches that go nowhere and proposing actions that are always too little, too late, the visiting ministers could have opted to wear eye patches and go on the sailing ship Pirate Tour of Halifax Harbour.

Afterward, they could have followed up with a solemn inspection of the Titanic artifacts in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and perhaps some gawking at the devastation depicted in the exhibits of the Halifax Explosion that wiped out much of the city in 1917. The day could have been rounded out by stepping across the street into the Alexander Keith’s brewery for something local.

Pirates, the Titanic and giant explosions, with beer as a chaser to escape the reality of the G7-led buccaneering, plundering, arrogant miscalculations and mistakes that have brought the whole planet to the brink of disaster — what a perfectly themed first day to their conference!

Aaarr, mateys…

Now, I am too much the nice Canadian to suggest these G7 ministers should all have been made to walk the plank in the Halifax Harbour, but there would have been some justice in doing that.

After all, given the pathetic efforts being made internationally to address global warming and stop rising sea levels that threaten to swamp small island developing states, the G7 is effectively telling the people in these countries to tread water.

McKenna has been having a grand time lately, touring about Canada and showcasing cool stuff to take everyone’s minds off pipelines, but her tone would be more sombre if, like the government of Kiribati, she was trying to figure out where in the world Canadians could move after the water levels rise and wipe out the whole country.

Thankfully, the island of Fiji has agreed to let the Kiribatians come aboard, but as the planet warms, moving to another small island is only a temporary solution.

At the same time the G7 environment ministers might have been adjusting their eye patches and getting to know their parrots, United Nations secretary general António Guterres was giving an impassioned speech saying we have less than two years to dramatically change course if we are to have any hope of avoiding runaway climate change.

Paris was not enough, he said. We have to do more, and much faster, if we want to have anything more than a nightmare future after 2020.

Manitoba might be one of the few places where people can mostly avoid the effects of rising sea levels and, to a lesser extent, extreme weather. We just watched a Category 4 hurricane hit the U.S. East Coast, at the very same time as a Category 5 super typhoon hit the Philippines and spun off toward China. As the planet warms, we could see several such storms hit, one after the other, in the same season.

Droughts, wildfires, floods, heat and tornadoes — we’ve seen them all this year. The cost in economic and human twerms has been enormous… and will get worse, rapidly, if we do not do something definitive about changing how we live together.

That sense of urgency is clearly not felt by our three levels of government. The mayoral candidates could not even all agree on getting rid of single-use plastic bags. Nor would everyone agree that our transportation systems need to be reworked to eliminate the fossil fuel consumption that (literally) drives climate change.

At the provincial level, Premier Brian Pallister has to stop congratulating himself for not being as bad as Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Ontario’s Doug Ford. His government has an appalling record of inaction, dithering and poor decisions on those crucial environmental issues that threaten not just our children’s future, but our own.

No doubt he will swap out the sustainable development minister again before the next election, so the new one can shrug helplessly in response to the inevitable critique and say, “I just got the file,” when Pallister himself has been the roadblock to green opportunities all along.

There isn’t enough space left here to say much about our pirate-in-chief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It seems naive to complain you were cheated or misled by a pirate, after all — that is what they do, whether it is about promises of gold aplenty or oil pipelines.

As the world continues to burn, we are all walking the plank together.

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Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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