Magical Thinking

You probably haven’t noticed that I’ve been away for awhile. But I have. In fact, this is my first post of 2012. I have no excuse other than to say that being the chair of an academic department is a time sink. Despite my absence, there have been a number of things over the last five months that have caught my attention and that I thought, “I should write a blog entry about that.” I’m sure I’ll get to many of those topics as I renew my resolve to write this blog regularly. But today, I encountered a topic so important, so unbelievable, so ludicrous, that I have to write about it.

One of my friends posted a link to Stephen Colbert’s The Word segment from last night. Go watch it. It’s smart and funny but incredibly scary for its implications. For those of you who don’t watch it, I’ll summarize for you. The word is “Sink or Swim” (and yes, I’m sure Colbert knows that isn’t a word–he’s ironic). Colbert is commenting in this segment on the fact that North Carolina legislators want to write a law that scientists can only compute predicted sea level rises based on historical data and historical rates of change rather than using all data available. In other words, scientists are not allowed to predict future rates of change in sea levels, only future sea levels. They cannot use the data that they have available that show that the rate of change itself is increasing dramatically. Instead, they can only predict the sea level based on how fast it has risen in the past. Colbert has a great analogy for this. He suggests that his life insurance company should only be able to use historical data in predicting when he will die. Historical evidence shows that he has never died. Therefore, his life insurance company can only use that evidence in setting his life insurance rates. Never mind the fact that there is strong evidence from elsewhere that suggest it is highly likely that he will die at some point in the future. The analogy is not perfect but I think it illustrates the idea.

Using all evidence, scientists are predicting sea levels will rise by about a meter (Colbert makes a funny comment that no one understands what this means because it’s in metric–that’s the subject of another post) before the end of the 21st century. If this is true, anyone who develops property along the coast will see their property underwater in a relatively short amount of time. Insurance rates for such properties will probably be astronomical and it might even be impossible for such development to occur because without insurance, loans may not be able to be secured. That’s not good for business. In what can only be called “magical thinking,” the North Carolina legislature is putting it into law that climate change models can only use historical sea level rising rates to make predictions about future sea levels. Such models ignore the data that suggests that the rate of rise in sea levels is increasing. This will make the historical rates of increase look incredibly slow. In fact, the bill actually says, “These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly … .” So despite evidence that sea levels are rising in a non-linear manner (because the rates of increase are actually increasing), predictions cannot use this fact. When scientists use a linear rate of increase, the models predict that sea levels will rise by “only” 8 inches by the end of the century. I think even these rates are scary, especially for coastal development projects, but scientists are pretty sure they vastly underestimate the extent of the danger. It’s as though these legislators think they can simply wish away climate change.

We live in a society where saying something is so is often as good as it being so. Is Barack Obama a citizen of the US? Evidence indicates that he actually is but critics persist in saying that he isn’t. As recently as 2010, 25% of survey respondents believed that he was born in another country and so isn’t eligible to be president. Were the 9/11 attackers from Iraq? Despite the objective evidence, 44% of the American public believe that several of them were Iraqis, which would then presumably be justification for the war in Iraq. Is global warming caused by humans? Despite overwhelming scientific opinion that it is, only 47% of the American public believe it is. Why do people believe these erroneous claims? Because the media (or at least parts of the media) advocate such positions. And because we are guilty of magical thinking. Say something is true and it will be true.

Scott Huler of Scientific American says it better than I can: “North Carolina legislators are now tossing around bills that not only protect themselves from concepts that make them uncomfortable, they’re DETERMINING HOW WE MEASURE REALITY.” Meanwhile, sea levels rise non-linearly, no matter what the North Carolina legislature legislates. And because we refuse to accept reality, we lose valuable time for an effort to reverse or at least to slow down this scary trend. So I have a tip for you: don’t buy any coastal property.

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