Saturday, February 15, 2014

why is it so hard for people to focus on staying alive

I posted this today to the "lifeboat" discussion list, which focuses on threats of extinction to the humans species as a whole:

Next -- this week I have visited again one of the two threats which **I** view as having the highest probability of "directly pulling the plug"
and killing us all within the next few millennia. The two threats at the top of my list are:

(1) Death by nucs -- e.g. impacts from nuclear proliferation and terrorism, pushed on by all kinds of complex politics;

(2) Death by H2S emission from the oceans (aka "brimstone").

A major part of coping with such threats is understanding what is keeping us from fully understanding them. So we can discuss the H2S threat directly -- and immediately see SOME of why many humans find it hard to think like sapient beings in the face of such threats. But those of us who are at least willing to allow for some POSSIBILITY of threat also need to have some discussion at the "meta" level, trying to disentangle the complex network of why we insist on being blind, and of what it would take for some of us to see a bit more clearly.

But let me begin with some facts about the H2S threat.

(1) From rational decision theory and common sense, we know that "uncertainty" does not mean "something to ignore."  Even Ronald Reagan spoke up very loudly about the need for more RESEARCH on the issue of CO2 emissions, to try to focus our brains on trying to understand what is going on and what is at stake. Why can't we do the same for the H2S threat? What gets in the way?

(2) In 2009, the Geosciences directorate of NSF introduced Peter Ward as the world's number one expert on the actual mass extinctions of life which have occurred about a dozen times before in the history of the earth. His paperback book, Under a Green Sky, is only $7 from Amazon. It describes very clearly the "biomarker" data which tells us that H2S in the atmosphere has several times been high enough to kill every human being on earth. What is it that keeps us from directly, effectively and scientifically focusing on the key questions -- how far are we from a new such H2S event, and what are the drivers of that threat? 

I have heard that there is a new book on "focus" from Goleman, the author of a famous earlier book "EQ -- the Emotional Quotient." In fact, a lot of our advanced work on neural networks helps us understand the nature and importance of "focus" more than was possible in the past.  Human inability to focus on large issues of survival itself is an important testbed for this aspect of human intelligence (and of any attempt to enhance it).

Here I am not asking about those many extreme people (more than half the Republican Party, says Pew) who literally believe in Adam and Eve, and are not really part of the resources we would have to understand things. I am thinking more about folks like those who would say good things about Ward and his book and his politically correct concerns -- and then somehow manage to remain utterly useless in the effort to understand the threat which Ward portrays.
Are they like the folks who say they revere Jesus and the Bible, and then go out to starting stoning women in a way which fully resonates with the folks whom Jesus called "Lawyers! Pharisees! Hypocrites!" 
Maybe they were not motivated to actually read the book? Maybe they said to themselves: "He has shown it is righteous to be as we are, to worry about CO2 and acid rain -- so what more do we need to know? Our ego is supported, so what else do we need?" Well, staying alive is an important part of "what else" -- unless they are so alienated from reality that they, just like the more mindless folks on the right, act on teh assumption that this is all just some kind of great game? Could it be that the next stage of spiritual evolution for the far left and the far right would be to admit that they have all become a certain kind of Buddhist, believing that everything in this world is just a game and a delusion which doesn't really matter?   

I am especially aghast at the folks who say:"H2S? Brimstone? Having read the Bible, I can confidently say that God has promised us there is no possibility of brimstone killing us all in  the future." Hey, guys, I don't believe in all the details of that chapter about Noah, but I did at least READ the story! And if you want to build an Ark, what about the words about an "Ark in the Heavens" -- which sounds a lot more like an RLV than  a wooden boat?

TIbetan Buddhism really can be interesting... but if you get a whiff of even a bit of the H2S stuff, aka "brimstone"... it's real enough  to be worth some real attention.

When Ward speaks, and a certain kind of person listens (like some energetic, young well-meaning but nonquantitative and inexperienced Congresssional staffer) -- they may do better than those extremists. They may say "Maybe we really ought to pay some attention to this. 
But of course, we MUST live up at 300,000 feet; the boss would insist on that, and that's all I have a right to do, given my own limitations. So let's encourage some new effort to understand worst case scenarios, and possibilities for abrupt climate change. Then let the real experts, the stakeholders and the folks who run big research programs, figure out the details, whatever they are."

And so, some big fat cats are somehow bemused and happy that there is a new flow of cash to support their machines, and they have new meetings to hold to discuss how to allocate the spoils among their various troops.

It reminds me of my very first tenured job, long long ago, when from DOE we funded a group at Oak Ridge to study DOE's leading model of the long-term energy future. We could ask these folks any question we wanted -- but NEVER would they actually think about the question!
Instead, they would always try to translate it very quickly (and superficially) into ways to use specific very formal methods 
taken from nuclear engineering, to define runs of the computer model, without asking a lot about what they mean and whether they capture the essence of the question., Now matter what the quetsion, it would always get the same answer. Throughout engineering, anyone with real experience remembers the old adage: "When your only tool is a hammer, you see the whole world as a collection of nails." My boss at DOE said: "I used to be a supporter of nuclear fission, but now that I really understand how they do the safety analysis, I am a lot more scared.' There was also a joke told in the halls, "Since the folks running the Soviet Union are all like the folks at Oak Ridge, we can be confident that it will be falling apart pretty soon."
(This was in the early to mid 1980s!)

And so, there are lots of studies of ocean currents in the North Atlantic, and of possibilities for abrupt climate change, which pretty much stay "in the box." When one guy, Bryden, starting seeing a bit past the conventional wisdom, all the voices of political correctness left and right ganged up in a very vicious way on him, setting an example, and convincing him he needed to stay silent on some things. Having studied his story, and Ward's, I do NOT agree with either of them in detail -- but by neglecting or repressing their stories,
instead of building on them, we lose the ability to see what is really going on. It was ever so sad, a few years ago, when I did a google plus kind of search on Bryden, and saw how the mainstream agreed that (1) everything he said about the Gulf Stream was sheer lunacy, proof of his being a crank; (2) great praise and awards he received recently for the very best ocean modeling inputs to global climate change efforts such as IPCC.  And then I saw how he had to handle the press to survive in such a mixed environment.course

Of course for me, I am not in the Geosciences Directorate of NSF, and none of this is my job. For all the words you see here (and a few other places), I put less than 2% of my time into this. Note that this is a Saturday, and of course I am not representing NSF here. Yet, I actually care about staying alive... and even about the lives of children and grandchildren and such. Why should that be so rare?

Glenn of tried to tweak my conscience last year:
'Hey, Paul, you say that the first need here is for the kind of R&D which would really help us understand the dimensions of this problem.
Well, hell, YOU work for NSF, and IT'S one of the key players who ought to be able to fill in this research need. So why don't YOU take action where you are, to start getting the gap filled in?"

For me, there is not much difference between having a conscience and having a sense of reality -- but I did try to put in a LITTLE effort to be a good citizen, and try to fill in, even if it is a thankless kind of effort. After all, what kind of a human would just stand by and ignore a threat to life itself on this planet? (Yes, I remember lawyers who said "no good deed goes unpunished" -- and then actively work to make it so! But I remember better lawyers too. It makes a difference how good THOSE folks are.)

Most recently, I tried to encourage some action from various folks who are at the front lines of ocean modeling, the field which has the key variables in its domain. I had better not name names! There are even some intellectual types issues here.

One issue is that some folks rely very heavily on huge computer models, built under very restrictive circumstances, while others believe both that these models are the only clear source of information  here and that one really should not pay much attention to them at all.  These extreme viewpoints are as bad in their own way as the polarization in Congress, a way of freezing the brain so that it cannot look out past the ideology in the skull through the eyes to focus on something big beyond one's own room (and job).

And there -- I guess I have an unfair advantage. My first normal full-time job at MIT involved lots of debugging of other people's codes, doing complex statistical analysis, which turned out to be important to my first tenured job at DOE. I was basically the only guy who actually knew what was going in a half dozen of the important models, because I could read the FORTRAN, and verify what was REALLY in the models as opposed to what was in the fuzzy documentation  and the partial memories of the scattered people who had developed and bought the various pieces they glued together.  There are certain things one can learn about big integrated modeling systems, both strengths and weaknesses, which are certainly NOT clear n the minds of either extreme debating climate models.

Back when it was an issue of energy demand, there were lots of big models which were grossly unreliable, for reasons beyond the scope even of this long email. To a great extent, I was able to solve those problems for projecting energy demand in industry or transportation, by taking a more empirical approach, relying heavily on actual time-series data. Carl Wunsch of MIT has done something similar for the usual kinds of global climate models, and there are a few other folks here and there who should be mentioned -- IF this were an essay on the IPCC stuff.
But for the ocean currents, which are the key to Ward's extinction scenario, this advanced methodology is still not enough. Why? Because the time-series we are using come from periods within the past million years, all of which contain the same great "lungs of the planet" ocean currents. It's as if you were trying to predict the output of a television, with a big database of what it does when it is turned on, but no data on what happens when you pull the power plug or turn the power switch off.

In energy modeling, we certainly ran across a case where a few simple equations in a spreadsheet, which normal humans can understand, could make forecasts much more accurate than gigantic models whose behavior as dynamic systems was basically left to chance. Here, we really have clear, simple and decisive information about where the "off" switch is located, which would totally change the game, and open the door much more quickly than we assume possible to scenarios like what Ward recounts.

Ward calls it "thermohaline currents," and urges new R&D to get into deeper understanding of how those currents led to problems in the past and better prepare us for the future. When I first read his book, "thermohaline" was a kind of fuzzy term to me, and it remained fuzzy when I read learned but convoluted papers applying big models to some of those issues.  But later... the word 'thermohaline" now conjures up a very simple, solid graph I saw on the web, with two curves plotted. On the Y axis was temperature, and on the X axis salinity. One curve gave the freezing point of water, as a function of salinity., The other gave the temperature at which water has maximum density, as a function of salinity. Understanding and using this simple information is the key to any serious feeling for what goes on with these thermohaline currents -- and their potential to be simply shut off,
changing the regime of earth very abruptly from the dynamics we have seen in the last million years (and still see, even with climate change)
to something quite different, exactly like what we saw at the time of all the great mass extinctions. We need to follow up exactly on what we can 
learn about the prospects of that switch being turned off, either at the North Pole or at both Poles.  And on what happens.

As best I can tell, for water as salty as the North Atlantic, the switch goes off when the water at the surface, near the poles, gets up to zero degrees C. (That's what I see on the curve.) It looks as if we are only a decade or two from that at the North Pole, based on the empirical reports on ice melting I read. (The empirical reports show a lot faster melting than the big models have predicted.) Idiots respond by saying, "OK, but there is other evidence where global warming is not going as fast as predicted -- including even what you see out your window near DC this very morning!" They are idiots, because they don't understand that I'm NOT talking about orthodox IPCC here! The North Pole and the South Pole are crucial in their own right, regardless of what warming we get or not at other latitudes. This is not about the Great Debate between Warmism and Denialism; there is (for now) life beyond those debates. There is the issue of life itself.
Why don't we understand that automatically?

But, from Ward, black water and anoxia RESTRICTED to the North Atlantic would not be enough to kill all mammals on earth.  When it happened in the paleocene/eocene event (the most recent mass extinction), it was enough to kill every mammal bigger than a mouse, but not the mouse itself. (Given a few million years, cats and primates re-evolved from the mouse.) So if it's JUST the North Pole, it may not be SO bad... 

I have had a chance to speak to real, recognized experts on thermohaline currents who understand this physics, and told me: "Yes, Paul, many of us understand that it's all a lot worse than anyone will let us talk about openly now. The social restrictions are really heavy. You know about the guys who had to retire, even under Obama. Our only hope now lies in geoengineering, so that's where a lot of us want to reallocate our efforts."

But who has viable ideas for geoengineering of the ozone layer,
which might well be the first point of death (not just "brimstone," H2S, but the "fire" from radiation consequent on heavy sulfate production)? None that I can find. Ward mentioned measurements BOTH for H2S and for radiation, both fatal. Still, putting some effort into geoengineering looks more and more rational, along with some other things.

I do know a bit more about this now, but this email is already pretty long. Let me just say: we DO need to learn more, and work hard to understand the pdfs here, and it's weird that we humans somehow haven't been able to wrap our heads around the rather important questions here. 

Best of luck,


1 comment:

  1. This is fantastic to know and we need to teach all people especially the young. This also the Greenland melt truth along with the Himalaya's lower level ice decrease.
    This proves our need for Space Solar Power+ or Energy From Sun (EFS) systems ASAP!