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Permit Me to Digress

by: Paul Kando

Back in 2009, an earthquake struck L'Aquila, Italy. Three hundred people died. A few days ago an Italian court sentenced seven scientists to jail terms for failing to report consistent findings about earlier, smaller tremors. Their confusing messages, according to the prosecution, resulted in the absence of timely advance warning about the earthquake and constituted a crime. Four hundred years ago the Inquisition forced Galileo Galilei to withdraw his "heretical" thesis that Earth circles around the Sun, not the other way around. Not until 1992 did the church apologize for that absurd trial.

These two trials effectively frame much of mankind's defective understanding of science. Galileo's was an attempt to bend science to serve pre-ordained conclusions. The recent Italian verdicts are an attempt to scapegoat science for events over which it has no control. In fact, Enzo Boschi, one of the sentenced scientists, did warn before the L'Aquila earthquake of a major tremor that "may soon occur in Italy". He could not say exactly where or when because that is beyond what science today is able to ascertain.

According to reports, Mt. Fuji could erupt at any time - tomorrow or fifty years from now. Given this degree of uncertainty, when should appropriate advance warning be given? When should such alerts be cancelled? People insist on living in danger's shadow. Japan is a known seismic area, yet it is full of nuclear plants. We know climate change leads to sea-level rise, yet we continue to issue permits to build on flood plains. Three-million people live around Mt. Vesuvio. We know how to stop emitting carbon to the atmosphere, cut our heating bills by 90%, and stop smoking cancer-causing cigarettes, yet we don't. We know our politicians lie to us and promise things they can't deliver, yet we fall for their bait. Like the medieval church, we like to arrange our facts in support of our preconceived conclusions. We want to believe in certainties and would rather suppress evidence than admit we may be wrong. So who are the guilty parties?

Our world order assumes that people are rational thinkers. If you are consistent, traditional economics and the social sciences consider you rational. You may believe in ghosts as long as the rest of your views are consistent with the existence of ghosts. Whether there is any evidence that ghosts exist is left out of consideration. Herein lies the crux of today's problems. The current state of the world suggests that our basic assumption of rationality is not valid. The consequences of our erroneous decisions, accumulated over time, are overwhelming the system. There are basic facts to understand or we end up creating more problems than we solve.

In home weatherization, for instance, efficiency improvements demonstrably pay for themselves and, therefore inaction makes no economic sense. In a house heat, air and moisture interact in predictable ways. Insulating does little good if the house remains leaky and moisture is free to invade the structure where it can cause harm. We must address heat, air and moisture simultaneously and, to do this effectively, it helps to understand the underlying science. Similarly, the global climate is the product of interactions between heat, air and moisture that follow the same laws of nature. Understanding our house helps us understand the climate - and vice versa. Basic science shows the way to sound energy management, both on the scale of an individual home and in terms of national policy.

Yet many people have a mental block about science because it requires analysis and consideration of as many relevant facts as we are able to discover. "Science is too complicated for me" someone told me the other day. For others, notably some politicians, science is simply inconvenient. It is, after all, an unrestricted quest for truth wherever it may be found. How do you spin that to support a political agenda, ideology, perceived interests of a political base, or personal ambition?

Since time immemorial powerful people with agendas - religious and secular - have been happy to provide illusions of certainty and security in exchange for allegiance and subservience to doctrine or party-line. As Galileo's case shows, at times merely thinking meant risking life and limb. Every era had its climate change denier-equivalents - people who act as if facts were optional subjects of opinion, belief, disbelief, or power-play. Simplistic schemes - "isms" - often surfaced as "The Answer". Communism, fascism, market fundamentalism and creationism come to mind.

We must begin anew, assuming that we are more likely than not to err in our judgments and that certitudes and security, in spite of all the hipe (especially around election time) are illusions. The best we can do is to seek truth and act on our latest-best understanding of it. Have the courage to admit and undo human constructs we find not working. Regardless of what science-deniers among us may opine, it is thanks to our capacity to evolve - keep on learning and unlearning - that makes us humans successful as a species. Others, including our less successful prehistoric fellow humanoids, have turned into fossils long ago.

Poor Neanderthals! We can continue to mindlessly pump their remains for fuel - or we can learn from their demise. In the end, after a difficult period of transition, those will prevail who take the time and trouble to dig out the facts from under the accumulated myths and falsehoods and act accordingly. There are no short-cuts to a sustainable world Ultimately all we have is science: an honest attempt to build more knowledge on what we already know, subject, always, to improvement. And wisdom is acting on the best available information.