Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are we doomed?

This is a question raised by Bill Bryson’s “A short history of nearly everything”, which I have just finished reading. I am not sure when I started reading this book; it must have been at least a couple of years ago. On this basis, some people might suggest that I should do a speed reading course. But that suggestion is not entirely appropriate because I set the book aside after reading the first 500 pages. Perhaps the problem is that my attention span is too short.

Bryson doesn’t explicitly raise the question of whether our species is doomed, but the question is certainly implied. The main context in which the question arises is in consideration of the fact that humans have been around for no more than about 0.0001 per cent of Earth’s history and “even existing for that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune” (p 573-4). He suggests that in terms of climate the time in which we live is a period of unusual tranquillity - and there is not much reason to believe that this will last much longer (p 519). “The extraordinary fact is that we don’t know which is more likely: a future offering us aeons of perishing frigidity or one giving us equal expanses of steamy heat. Only one thing is certain: we live on a knife edge” (p 251).

Bryson is himself on a knife edge in writing this book because he clearly doesn’t want readers to come to the conclusion that the human species is doomed no matter what we do. He wants to leave us with the thought that even though the odds are stacked against the human species, what we do could matter: “We are really at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a lot more than lucky breaks” (574).

I like the way Bill Bryson writes, but I find it hard to maintain much interest in what might happen to the human species more than a few generations into the future. If the probability that the human species will become extinct at some time in the next million years (to pick a large number out of the air) is close to 100 percent, so what? We might like to speculate about such things in the same way as we might speculate about the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But our speculations on such matters do not have obvious implications for the way we live our lives. By contrast, the things that we are doing now that will affect the lives of our children and grandchildren are intensely interesting because it is in our nature to feel responsibility for the things we do that affect their well-being.

Another way in which the question of whether we are doomed arises from Bill Bryson’s book is terms of his descriptions of the way science has been conducted. I like to think of scientists as spending their lives testing competing theories in order to choose between them. In reality, the more common method has been to adopt a pet theory and then to spend a lifetime gathering evidence to support it, while playing political games to elicit the support of others to achieve a scientific consensus. This makes amusing history, but in these days when a consensus of scientists is able to influence public policies on issues such as CO2 emissions it is also alarming.

It seems to me that governments have been asking climate scientists the wrong question in asking them to perform the political task of coming to a consensus view on climate change. Governments should be asking climate scientists to focus their efforts on the scientific task of testing whether the mainstream scientific view is robust – or how likely it is that it is a long way too optimistic or too pessimistic. When governments ask scientists to play politics we are doomed to suffer the consequences of poor public policy.

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