Monday, February 28, 2005


How to destroy the Earth

This brilliant article made my day:

Destroying the Earth is harder than you may have been led to believe.

You've seen the action movies where the bad guy threatens to destroy the Earth. You've heard people on the news claiming that the next nuclear war or cutting down rainforests or persisting in releasing hideous quantities of pollution into the atmosphere threatens to end the world.


The Earth was built to last. It is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron. It has taken more devastating asteroid hits in its lifetime than you've had hot dinners, and lo, it still orbits merrily. So my first piece of advice to you, dear would-be Earth-destroyer, is: do NOT think this will be easy.


For the purposes of what I hope to be a technically and scientifically accurate document, I will define our goal thus: by any means necessary, to render the Earth into a form in which it may no longer be considered a planet. Such forms include, but are most definitely not limited to: two or more planets; any number of smaller asteroids; a quantum singularity; a dust cloud.

I'm partial to the "Eaten by Von Neumann Machines" method. It's almost poetical in it's simplicity and beauty.

Anyway, read the rest.

- Merlijn


Give us real Christianity - no protestant shit!

I am not a Catholic - I've never been baptized - and neither were my parents until my father converted when I was well into my teens. Nevertheless, I attended Catholic primary school and every now and then - not every sunday - I would attend mass. Now, my hometown is a pretty dreadful backwater and perhaps it is because of that that I found the Church absolutely beautiful. And terrifying. During mass, I used to stare at the chiseled demons - depicting the seven sins, I believe - underneath the pulpit, wondering if they were real and hoping they were not, and at the stern faux-medieval imagery of penance and hope in the stained-glass windows, the grim-faced statues of saints, the panels depicting Jesus on the Via Dolorosa... Compared to the Catholic Church, the protestant churches in my town looked like the cafetaria of the local football club. But the Catholic Church let you into a world very different from the rest of the town - one so much bigger, so much more beautiful, and so much more frightening.

I have since been trying to read the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament. I found it to be a generally boring archive of names and generations punctuated by moments of absolute brilliance. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is a beautiful metaphor for the way language, and self-awareness makes us human but also seperates us from the comforting fog of infancy and animalhood. But my favourite part must be the story of Abraham and Isaac. Anyway, why am I telling this?

I read on the Swedish tele-text - I haven't been able to confirm it through any internet source - that two of the main Danish parties are intending to make an introduction to Christianity and the Bible an obligatory part of primary education.

If this means supplanting Godless Evolution with some or another more Bible-friendly, theory - I'd be dead against it, obviously. If it is a desperate attempt to salvage the "Judeo-Christian" roots of Western European civilization from the non-abating flood of dark-skinned people heading our way - I'm against it, too. If the Abendland is to survive, it will only based on considerably more universal foundations. But if this measure has been taken because the Bible, and Christianity in general, has had such a stupendous, founding role in Western civilization that it is impossible to understand quite a bit of art and literature - not to speak of real, historical events, without a cursory knowledge of the Bible, I'm all for it.

The reason I'm ambivalent is that I don't think these three reasons are so neatly seperable.

Anyway, I'd have one condition. Any Biblical incursion into primary education must not be of the Protestant variety - whether we are talking about bleak, pallid "we're doomed anyway" Calvinism (ever wonder why it takes only roots in countries known for their terrible, nasty weather? The Netherlands, Scotland, Northern Scandinavia?), or the softie humanistic Dorothee Sölle-version of protestantism. If you're going to religion up your education, take a religion with priests who look like real priests - big and terrible and awe-inspiring. Not one where the priests look like social workers. Instead it should be founded upon Catholicism - meaning, the terrible and beautiful daemon-exorcising, incense-laden, ham-fisted-nun version of Catholicism. Not any of its odious decaf derivatives.

- Merlijn


Update: pornography

A short update on the previous post about pornography.

On a panel about Inside Deep Throat, leading, erm... light of feminist wing of the Neo-Victorian stormtroopers, Catherine McKinnon, hilariously demonstrated her, may I say, modest amount of factual knowledge:

Mitchell looked on helplessly as McKinnon did her thing, claiming that the film we had just watched was promoting the acceptance of rape. At one point, however, her righteous zeal became unhinged when she claimed that it was not possible to do deep throat safely, that it was a dangerous act that could only be done under hypnosis. "What's so funny?" she snapped as the audience rippled with mirth. Todd Graff's hand shot up - "I can do it," he said, and the room echoed with a chorus of gay men going "me too!" (Gigi Grazer - wife of Brian - later told Graff to stop bragging and that she could do it better than him and had the rocks on her fingers to prove it. Touché). But La McKinnon was not to be discouraged; she claimed that emergency rooms were filled with women victims of throat rape, not to mention the ones who hadnt even made it that far and had died in the act.

Funny as this may be, one could ask how much distance there really is between the way women are portrayed by such activists as McKinnon - as asexual, innocent, wide-eyed creatures perpetually preyed upon by men - and between the idea, prominent not so long ago, that there was no such thing as a female orgasm, or further down, the medieval idea that women had no soul, the way the ancient German laws made the relatively humane punishment of beheading a male privilege, since a woman, fickle creature as she is, would not be able to keep from fainting before it, and essentially, all the noxious crap handed down through the ages ever since the serpent preferred to seduce Eve rather than Adam. Is there such a long way from all that to the eerily familiar second coming of all those clichés within contemporary difference feminism? Sorry, I am indulging in rhetorical questions here.

Via God-knows-where I ended up at the Anti-Porn resource center. I am not going to waste time to deal with the many instances of spurious argumentation and tortured logic found on this site, particularly as the maker of it, one "One Angry Girl" makes very clear in the disclaimer that it is meant only for the True Believers anyway. Most of it seems to consist of context-less (and reference-less) quotes designed to show how hideous pornographers are, such as the following howler from Larry Flynt:

"Women are here to serve men. Look at them, they got to squat to piss. Hell, that proves it."

Which forms all of the "On Biology" section. Ummm, would One Angry Girl have taken into account the distant possibility that Flynt was, well, perhaps not entirely serious? That he even might have been engaging in a, perhaps slightly self-deprecating joke?

Anyway, I note with some amusement, though, that she helpfully provides a pocket-sized cheatsheet full of ready-made anti-pornography arguments. This reminds me of the odious way I used to unimaginatively rote-learn arguments when I was sixteen years old or so. Four legs good, two legs bad! The Anti-Porn resource center is hereby going to the sidebar under the heading "Know Thy Enemy", together with FreeRepublic, the main virtual gathering place of the U.S. proto-fascist yeehaw right, and the unimitable GodHatesFags. Warning: do not try to ingest any fluids while visiting last-mentioned page. The PSSST(KA) won't cover the costs of a new keyboard.


Friday, February 18, 2005



Some new links that are going to the sidebar: FredOnEverything, a brilliant libertarian columnist; Thomas Knapp's blog, an eminently readable anti-war libertarian blog, Dead Men Left, a socialist blogger who does a nice job of skewering the bizarre phenomenon of a "pro-war left", among other things, as does Apostate Windbag.

I am also adding the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom which I should have added long ago had I heard about it, and Feminists for Free Expression.

East of the Sun, a feminist friend from Finland who just started her own blog, is going to the "Other Sensible" category.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Freedom, pornography, De Sade, etcetera

NOTE: Slightly edited and expanded on Feb. 18.

Warning: this is going to be a long, rambling post.

One of my favourite novels is Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. In it, he presents a profoundly unsympathetic protagonist, Alex, who is deeply into extreme violence, rape, you name it. Eventually Alex gets arrested and treated in a novel fashion: an experimental medication removes all his violent, dark impulses. However, in doing so, it turns him into something less than human: unable to enjoy the bad things in life, he is also unable to enjoy the good things. He cannot listen to classical music anymore, and is defenseless and vulnerable. Alex eventually gets “cured” but, at the end of the book, when his mates want to go on the usual rape/violence/plunder spree, he makes a conscious decision not to. He conquers his own impulses by himself in a rational fashion. To me, the book is one of the most beautiful statements of Enlightenment values like individual autonomy and liberty: not the liberty to commit crimes, but the liberty to be in control of our own minds, of the light sides as well as the dark.

Why do I mention this? I'll get to that. Essentially, there were a number of news items that drew my attention lately, among for example:

That, apparently, porn company Extreme Associates has the state on its back again. Extreme Associates, as far as I know, publishes flicks with humilation, simulated rape, etc. Alberto Gonzales, the man behind the appeal against Extreme Associates, is co-responsible for the very real humilation, rape, torture and murder of largely innocent prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. He was the one that advised George Bush to flaunt the Geneva Conventions. And this miscreant believes the kinky movies of Extreme Associates to be obscene! News like this makes me want to go outside at night to wait for the spaceship to come and pick me up, since it's obviously I'm on the wrong planet.

In CounterPunch, Chyn Sung writes an article about Gonzales' censorship drive, but, while criticizing it (fortunately) she also is deeply concerned about the supposed degrading, anti-woman nature of porn:

Most of the women and men I interviewed first watched pornography in their early teens or even younger. In other words, pornography is sex education. In an already male-dominant society with epidemic levels of sexual and intimate violence, pornographic messages help further solidify and normalize male supremacy in the bedrooms and elsewhere.

Three decades ago, radical feminists began to raise concerns about pornography's link to sexual aggression and violence, and despite the ways in which the culture avoids the issue, it is still crucial. But pornography and a pornographic culture also affect "consensual sex," sexual identities and relationships.

Pornstar and progressive activist Nina Hartley writes a spirited response:

Professor Sun's reportage dwells at length on the most distasteful aspects of what she saw and heard, but makes no mention of any attempt to establish direct communication with any of the women who work in the adult video industry. No wonder she finds it so effortless to ignore our opinions and dismiss our perceptions of our own lives. It's that much easier to characterize all female sex workers as degraded, humiliated and unhappy if you've never talked to any of us. That we might be involved in constructive, effective efforts to improve our own working conditions, and that our employers might take our concerns seriously, clearly doesn't fit Professor Sun's pre-cut template for who we are.

Final news item: the internet provider which hosted the website of MARTIJN, the Dutch equivalent of NAMBLA, has removed that webside in order to get a takeover deal done. Here, I'm ambivalent. I think it's extremely important that organizations like MARTIJN are able to exist, for reasons I'll come to speak to below. But, I also believe that a website provider does not have to host material that it finds objectionable. It's their server space, after all.

Now, I can hear you groan. Two items about legal pornography and one about pedophiles. Surely I'm not painting with too broad a brush here? Be patient – I'll explain below.

My own ethics basically boil down to the simple “If it harms no-one, it's not morally objectionable or legally sanctionable” line. Applied to pornography, it means that I believe that everything except non-virtual child pornography (the production of which involves the very real harming of children), pornography involving animal abuse, or “real” snuff movies (the existence of which seems to be dubious) should be permissable. So-called virtual child porn I would probably find offensive – I do not exactly know, since I do not intend to expose myself to it – but as it “harms no-one”, it is outside of my moral judgement. Same with pornography involving animals but no animal abuse – not my cup of tea, but not morally objectionable. And definitely not a matter for government intervention.

An objection one could make to this is that by being a consumer of pornography, one reinforces a sex industry in which women get exploited; that pornography reinforces the attitudes that lead to oppression and abuse of women in real life; or that pornography may tempt the watcher to commit violent acts against women – therefore, it “does” cause harm.

The first objection first. There's most probably a big seamy side to the adult industry. However, there is massive exploitation in most of every industry, and I think one could seriously question whether a woman working in the porn industry is worse off than one spending her days in a poultry factory or in a clothes sweatshop. Most of the world economy is built upon the exploitation of labour – and often a pretty vicious exploitation at that. Why pick out the adult industry? I suspect that the real issue here is still sex and society's schizophrenic attitude towards it. As Nina Hartley points out in the linked article, the answer to exploitation would be to unionize and organize, and to work for the betterment of the conditions women have to work in there. Not to call for government bans supported by an unholy alliance between the Christian extremist right and sections of the feminist left.

The last reason can be countered with the fact that there seems not to be much evidence to support a causal relationship between consumption of pornography and sexual violence. As the Feminists for Free Expression point out:

No research, including the Surgeon General's report, finds a link between "kinky" or "degrading" images and violence. Exposure to such material does not cause people to change their sexual preferences or commit acts against their will. The derailed impulses of child abusers and rapists are caused by childhood traumas. ''They are not," wrote leading researcher John Money, "borrowed from movies, books or other people."

Studies on violent pornography are inconsistent. Some find it increases aggression in the lab; some find it does not. Research also finds that aggression will be increased by anything that agitates a subject (that raises heart rate, adrenaline flow, etc.), not only violent movies but riding exercise bicycles. Agitation will boost whatever follows it, aggression or generosity.

Dr. Suzanne Ageton, measuring violence out of the lab, found that membership in a delinquent peer group accounted for 3/4 of sexual aggression.

Studies in the U.S., Europe and Asia find no link between the availability of sexual material and sex crimes. The only factor linked to rape rate is the number of young men living in a given area. When pornography became widely available in Europe, sexually violent crimes decreased or remained the same. Japan, with far more violent pornography than the U.S., has 2.4 rapes per 100,000 people compared with the U.S. 34.5 per 100,000.

The same points are echoed by Arne Hoffman in a provocative defence of violent pornography, pointing out that (my translation):

In 1991 Professor Kutchinsky presented a study at Copenhagen University, which showed that between 1964 and 1984 non-sexual violent crime rose with about 300 percent in Danmark, Sweden and Germany, but the number of sexual crimes decreased. This effect could not be related to other factors such as less reporting or less attention on the part of the police.

And the Kinsey-Institute, which questioned 1.356 convicted sex offenders, found out that these men were even less interested in pornographic literature than the rest of the population. So it is not surprising that pornography is actually used in the therapy of sex offenders. Marcia Pally is convinced of the cathartic effects of such literature. Pornography, she argues, is for adults what fairy-tales are for children: a possibility to express their most primal emotions, desires and fears.

So, the relationship between pornography and sexual violence is a dubious one at best. As for the second reason, that's the only one that has me in a bit of trouble. Some people would argue that any depiction of a naked woman is inherently misogynistic and sexist. I disagree, of course, and even the lion's share of hardcore pornography does not seem, generally, misogynist to me. A subset of it does, however, seem to me to have a misogynistic streak in it. However, that does not mean that there is a causal relationship between the consumption of pornography and sexism in society, in that removal of the first would lead to less of the latter. Or that simplistic equations of pornography, sexism and racism as made by some of the anti-porno wing of the left have any value. Things are not that simple at all.

Between amoebe and modern man, about 600 million years have past. The human brain, that most complex material object in the known universe, has been cobbled together during those millions of years in a rather haphazard fashion. Some of the deepest structures in our brain do not differ much from that of a modern crocodile, and indeed, have been inherited in a relatively unchanged fashion from the time our ancestors walked on all fours and had scales. And also a lot of things relating to sexual drives, to our perception of the other sex, etcetera, is inherited straight from the animal kingdom.

Racism, however, is a political construct not that much older than the colonial age. The ancient Greeks were xenophobic – but they did not care much for the skin colour of various barbarians. The pragmatic Romans were not particularly racist at all.

What I mean by this is that a lot of the stuff that makes us human is detritus inherited from pre-human times, which is not going to go away by government bans, Politically Correct language, diversity training, etcetera. And this evolutionary flotsam may also quite well include the drives that cause some men to find degradation, humiliation of women or the infliction of pain sexually arousing.

(Small excursus, as if this post isn't becoming long enough: it is very much regrettable that the left, during the 1970s, chose to ignore or even to oppose evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, leaving it to the right to interpret their results. I, for one, do not believe that the fact that a lot of our behavioral patterns may be explained through biological evolution makes the struggle for Communism futile. I could add that the biologist Richard Dawkins, who has often been inaccurately presented as a crass genetic determinist, regards modern history partially as a struggle to liberate ourselves from the necessity imposed upon us by our genes. Dawkins is a passionate opponent of social darwinism).

In any event, I am not convinced of the argument that pornography perpetuates oppression of women through attitudes and convictions it installs in (male) consumers of it. I think the relationship presented here between outside stimulus and behaviour or consciousness is far too simplistic. Moreover, pornography is more a product of our society, which includes gender oppression and sexism, than the foundation of it.
That does not, in my view, invalidate the struggle against sexism, social and economical inequality between men and women, etc.

Finally, even if the second reason were valid, it would not be an argument for a government ban, for the simple reason that it is not the business of the government to change people's attitudes or opinions by forceful measures. If you wish to fight misogyny, fight the social causes at the roots of it – but respect the right of the individual to be a misogynist or a feminist, to be a nice and gentle person or to be a cold bastard, to be a liberal, a communist or a conservative.

Getting back to the main issue: I do not believe sexual fantasies as such to be open to any moral judgement, no matter how brutal, degrading or sick they are. The same would go for pedophilia – as long as it is not translated into actions. The reason why I do believe child porn should remain illegal is that children are abused with the express purpose of producing child porn, and consumers of child porn perpetuate this wretched industry. Most other (visual) pornography, however, is produced with the consent of anyone featuring in it – a consent as valid as anyone's consent is, in a society where inequality and exploitation reign.

The problem pedophiles have to deal with, I think, is that a) it is not that hard to think up rationalizations to sexually abuse children and b) opportunities abound. Compare that rape fantasies seem to be common with both men and women. However, it takes a lot to actually make the step to rape someone – it is an act of violence, which negates our humanity and alien to most normal people. A pedophile, however, might easily come up with such arguments as that the age of consent is much higher in today's society than it used to be, that sex with adolescent boys was common in ancient Greece, that perhaps in the future the sexual nature of children will be “discovered”, etcetera. You get the picture. Also, children are relatively defenseless, may easily “consent” out of fear – don't forget that most child molesters are father or uncle to the victim - whereas a rapist usually needs brutal force to gain control over an adult victim.

This is the challenge that society poses to pedophiles. They must, much like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, make an ethical decision not to act out their fantasies or desires in real life. There is a popular and well-intentioned notion that pedophilia is a "disease" - and that, instead of the usual hanging or disembowelling that Jow Public generally proposes when asked about pedophilia, we should "cure" pedophiles of their disease. However, I feel extremely uncomfortable with talk about pedophilia being a “disease”, as it seems to me to externalize, in a way, something that the person in question should try to master and put under control as a part of himself.

I do not believe the attitudes of current society towards pedophilia to be very helpful in this. Particularly laws like “Megan's Law” in some parts of the US, which make the residence of released sex offenders a public matter, effectively prevent any possible reintegration into society. Essentially, convicted child molesters have not much of a life inside jail - where every local hoodlum will project his own unresolved feelings of guilt upon him ("I may be a murderer, but at least I don't hurt children!"). With the current atmosphere being as it is, a released convicted child molester will have not much of a life outside of jail either. Child abuse is a very grave crime - depending on the specifics, arguably graver than rape of adults - but worse than murder? I don't think so.

I do believe the unhindered existence of organizations such as NAMBLA and, in the Netherlands, MARTIJN to be of enormous importance here, in that they may help pedophiles to deal with their desires without them actually harming children.

And as a fantasy, I do not believe fantasizing about children to be more open to moral judgement than fantasizing about rape, which is, as the following article reports, very common in both men and women:

Dominance and submission fantasies. In these, sexual power is expressed either ritualistically - in sadomasochistic activities - or through physical force, as in rape fantasies. Such fantasies are surprisingly common. Person reports that 44 percent of men have had fantasies of dominating a partner. Other studies found that 51 percent of women fantasized about being forced to have sex while a third imagined: "I'm a slave who must obey a man's every wish."

Which does not mean, of course, that women want to get raped. There is a big line between finding something arousing to think about and between actually wanting something. But the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for men as well. In my understanding, the BDSM scene acts as an opportunity for many people with non-consensual fantasies to act them out in a consensual manner (by which I do not mean that all people into BDSM have such fantasies).

I think such fantasies are extremely common, though. Even imagery of eroticized torture and eroticized death are common in our culture, from medieval passion plays which had a tendency to, over time, grow much more gruesome and bloody than the legend originally was, to, according to this page by, of all people, the Satanists, a recent movie such as The Passion of the Christ. But there is a taboo on enjoying such imagery for its own sake. As John Dolan of The Exile describes his dissertation on Marquis De Sade in a brilliant article:

You could write on Sade, but only if you tricked him out in borrowed jargon. Jane Gallop was the model: she wore boots to conferences, which was considered wild and daring, and was about as far as anybody was willing to take Sadean studies. As I discovered when I read her book, though, she had never read Sade. This was my disadvantage: I had read Sade, all of him, several times. Sometimes with one hand, sometimes with two. Well, as Nurse Hardcastle says, "You won't find anybody any good at this job who doesn't enjoy it."

Well, to make a bitter decade short: the dissertation went down badly. It sounded like I was a Sade fan, instead of an embroiderer. Which I was. It all seemed so natural; how could anybody who went through puberty uncool not think of every torture Sade listed? It was, I can't avoid the word, "obvious."

And, in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with such fantasies either, or with pornography depicting them (meaning, in a fantasized or simulated way). I'd not be surprised if these things, too, are a result, ultimately, from the many millions of years we have spent as minor predators hiding in trees or hunting in the savannah. The big gulp between fantasy and reality should be upheld here as well.

Of all people, it's that cartographer of the dark sides of the soul, Marquis de Sade, himself, who has brilliantly depicted an atheist ethic which I would hold myself to as well, in his short piece Dialogue between a priest and a dying man, widely available on the Internet. The dying man has just rejected the concept of an afterlife, a final judgement, or the reality of the Christian God:

PRIEST - Then we should not shrink from the worst of all crimes.

DYING MAN - I say nothing of the kind. Let the evil deed be proscribed by law, let justice smite the criminal, that will be deterrent enough; but if by misfortune we do commit it even so, let's not cry over spilled milk; remorse is inefficacious, since it does not stay us from crime, futile since it does not repair it, therefore it is absurd to beat one's breast, more absurd still to dread being punished in another world if we have been lucky to escape it in this. God forbid that this be construed as encouragement to crime, no, we should avoid it as much as we can, but one must learn to shun it through reason and not through false fears which lead to naught and whose effects are so quickly overcome in any moderately steadfast soul. Reason, sir - yes, our reason alone should warn us that harm done our fellows can never bring happiness to us; and our heart, that contributing to their felicity is the greatest joy Nature has accorded us on earth; the entirety of human morals is contained in this one phrase: Render others as happy as one desires oneself to be, and never inflict more pain upon them than one would like to receive at their hands. There you are, my friend, those are the only principles we should observe, and you need neither god nor religion to appreciate and subscribe to them, you need only have a good heart. But I feel my strength ebbing away; preacher, put away your prejudices, unbend, be a man, be human, without fear and without hope forget your gods and your religions too: they are none of them good for anything but to set man at odds with man, and the mere name of these horrors has caused greater loss of life on earth than all other wars and all other plagues combined. Renounce the idea of another world; there is none, but do not renounce the pleasure of being happy and of making for happiness in this. Nature offers you no other way of doubling your existence, of extending it.

I do not believe in an afterlife – except in the memories and feelings of those we leave behind, and in the traces, big or small, that our work has left on earth. And the way I would like to be remembered is the basis of my own ethics and morality.

Marxism is “merely” one statement of a worldview which regards history as a long, protracted struggle for freedom – freedom of the necessities outside circumstance poses us, freedom of the necessities our own evolutionary heritage poses us, the freedom to control our own destiny, to become masters of our own history. A similar view has been expounded by the Jesuit priest and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin in his The Phenomenon of Man, and, brilliantly, in Dan Simmon's magesterial science fiction novel Hyperion and successors, which is partially based upon de Chardin's works, who regarded the whole of natural evolution, including human evolution, as a directional process, ultimately culminating in the emergence of God itself.

Whatever the specifics, freedom within one's own mind is a precondition to any freedom relating to the outside world. I mentioned earlier that Marxists should be unconditional defenders of free speech as any infringement on it serves to strengthen the bourgeois state. The same goes, obviously, for pornography as an expression of free speech (and one that, usually, is the earliest to be challenged). But that is not the only reason. The main reason is there are no prospects for human liberation without, as a first principle, the autonomy of human reason over any extraneous force – religion or state - that would impinge on it. It is only by that that we, much like Alex, gain control over ourselves – all of it. The "The personal is political" navel-staring that took over the left probably sometimes in the 70s or so is inimical to that end.

- Merlijn

Friday, February 04, 2005


Strange weather - PSSST(KA) keeps head cool

(You got the pun in the title, J.? "Keeps head cool"? Har, har)

Johann Hari put up a somewhat overheated (I'm on a roll! Har, har) column on impending catastrophical climate change. This after a new computer simulation suggested temperature increases of around a whopping eleven degrees celsius (as it is, the 11 degrees celsius number is the high end of a range whose low range is at a very modest 1.4 degrees celsius). Now, as a linguist by trade, I shouldn't really be commenting on issues like climate change. And I would have gladly kept my mouth shut, were it not for the fact that Greenpeace and other professional environmental lobbies want me, and everyone else, to have an opinion on climate change - preferably theirs. So I'll present my opinion.

First off, to enable the reader to form an accurate opinion about my objectivity, I should probably mention that some members of my family have owned shares in an oil company - but only a tiny number, and I think they may have sold them off by now. Furthermore, two of my uncles, my sister and my brother-in-law all happen to be bus drivers, providing me, of course, with a vested interest in the continuation of our fossil-fuel based economy. Oh, and my dissertation research on 17th century Finnish verbal syntax is funded by Exxon-Mobil.

The last sentence is a joke. But it does point me to a red herring used annoyingly often by environmentalists of the "shout-em-down" school of debate. As anyone with any basic schooling in the scientific method knows, in deliminating what is good research and what is crap, the funding sources of the individual scientist are as irrelevant as his religious or political convictions (they may become relevant once it is established that we are dealing with crap). Science consists in the transparent application of methods to a given subject - which should be repeatable and therefore controllable - in which factors like the identity of the scientist have no meaning. Only in the bizarre twilight zone of Postmodernist "Science Studies" and some such manure are political preconceptions and values irretrievably thought to colour the results of research.

So when Johann Hari claims that:

So I talked to dozens of distinguished climatologists seeking confirmation - and I have to tell you: it's not good news. They all agreed: the sceptics have no more scientific credibility than the people who insisted for decades that there was no relationship between smoking and lung cancer. There is legitimate dispute about the extent of climate change, but - as one climatologist told me off the record - "find me a scientist who denies the link between the actions of man and the changes in the climate, and I'll find you money from the oil, gas and energy companies."

He has been told something irrelevant, regardless whether it is true or not (as it probably is not).

My apologies for banging on about this - but there is a point here. There seems to me to be a strange prejudice that privately funded research - and particularly by commercial outfits from Monsanto or the tobacco companies - is crap by definition, whereas state-funded research is, of course, a selfless search for truth. I think there is no reason at all to assume such a thing. At root is a naive supposition that the private sector is only interested in misleading the public (as opposed to, say, the government, which as we all know, is always interested in the truth). To wit, they would not be particularly successful capitalists if that were true.

And as an ultimate example of the independence of funding sources and scientific results, I might mention that a fair share of Noam Chomsky's research has been funded by... the Pentagon. And it is not invalidated by that fact at all.

But I was going to give you my opinion on climate change:

1) Surface temperatures seem to have been warming over the last few decades. But even that is not the whole story: satellite records seem to indicate a far slighter warming, whereas observations from weather balloons even indicate a slight cooling.. The satellite records have been criticized on the grounds, if I recall, that slight changes in the height of their orbits caused anomalous readings. However, the surface temperature records suffer from such uncertain factors as quality of maintenance of individual weather stations and environmental changes (if the area around a weather station got urbanized during the last few decades, you will notice this in temperature records).

2) The climate has always been changing - with high temperatures around 800-1300 (the colonization of Greenland!), low temperatures during the "Little Ice Age" from 1400-1800, and a gradual rise since then. More here. During the last century, however, temperatures have been falling from about 1940 to well into the 1970s. This probably contributed to the Allies winning the Second World War: German troops went into the Soviet Union in 1941 way too lightly dressed and were confronted with an unusually cold winter. Needless to say, this does not correspond with a drop in atmospheric CO2.

These variations in climate over the past millenium have recently been ignored in a model - the so called "hockeystick" - which basically suggested a steadily cooling climate until a dramatic rise in temperatures at the end of the 20th century. Critique on this model here.

3) Atmospheric rise in CO2 is far from the only factor acting on climate change: there are many, and they typically interreact (a rise in CO2 could unleash mechanisms that strengthen temperature increase, or that dampen it). There seems to be a fascinating correlation between temperature (in this case, mean Northern Hemisphere temperature) and the length of solar cycles which does seem to fit in well with the 1940-1970 cooling and subsequent warming - but the causal mechanisms that could underly such a correlation are, as I know, not really known. More about that here and here.

4) Most of the predictions of warming are based on computer models, which are about as good as the data fed into it. In climate change, this seems to me to be a problem - as the number of variables involved is very high and some of them (remember the sunspot cycles) poorly understood.

5) I think there is no basis at all for Johann Hari's alarmism. Human influence on the climate probably precedes the industrial revolution by more than ten millenia, as Philip Stott points out:

Secondly, do humans influence climate? Again, the answer is: 'Of course they do.' Hominids and humans have been affecting climate since they first manipulated fire to alter landscapes at least 750,000 years ago, but possibly as far back as two million years. Recent research has further implicated the development of agriculture, around 10,000 years ago, as an important human factor. Humans influence climate in many ways, through altering the albedo (the reflectivity) of the surface of the Earth, through changing the energy balance of the Earth, by emitting particles and aerosols, as well as by those hoary old favourites, industrial emissions.

Here we encounter the second major difference between the science and the myth. In fact, human influences on climate are multi-factorial. Unfortunately, we know precious little about most of them. My own instinct is that our ability to change the reflectivity of the Earth's surface will, in the end, prove to have been far more important than industrial emissions. After all, if Lex Luthor covered the Tibetan High Plateau with black plastic sheeting, even Superman might have problems dealing with the monsoons.

I strongly doubt future climate change to be any more catastrophic than the past. A new ice age is probably waiting in the wings at some point in the future, though.

6) Mick Hume has a good column on the issue of consensus in science and the "all climate change deniers are in the pay of Exxon-Mobil" crap, and mentions a pretty shocking government-funded advertisement:

The most shocking advert today is the one about the apocalyptic dangers of climate change from the government-funded Carbon Trust. Unlike the other two ads it has not provoked public controversy, but to my mind its message is as crude as a Tory pig or an amphibian flasher.

The Carbon Trust advert on television begins with an actor playing Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the A-bomb”. The portentous voiceover tells us: “One man has been where we all are today. When he saw what he had done, he said, ‘I am become the destroyer of worlds’ (cue shot of atomic explosion). Now we all have to face up to what we’ve done. Our climate is changing . . . ”

Patronizing and despicable. It's not important, but it's even misquoted. Oppenheimer, in fact, quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: I am death, the destroyer of worlds. He wasn't saying that he (Oppenheimer) was Death, but that a personified atom bomb was death.

7) Finally, here I found a quote that Johann Hari should perhaps take to heart:

"Journalists often confuse science with philosophy," says Steve Ross, a professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. "Whether you believe global warming is happening now or is centuries away has less to do with science--we don't really know--than our own personal philosophy regarding political and environmental issues," he explains.

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