Wednesday, December 28, 2016

tweeblaarkanniedoods in paradise

A week ago, at just before 4 am Mountain time, the sun was directly over the Tropic of Capricorn somewhere offshore of the current Kuiseb River delta. The delta moves around with the shifting sands of the Namib through which it flows, when it is flowing, into the East Atlantic. The Kuiseb river is the usually accepted southern boundary to the range of the Welwitschiaceae; a cryptobotanic family of plants that contains but one species called tweeblaarkanniedood in Afrikaans. They are ugly (came in 4th, with 12% of the votes, in a 2009 Daily Telegraph poll to determine “The World’s Ugliest Plant”) shriveled poorly differentiated plants that some think may include individuals that are more than 2,000 years old.

Being able to sense the directly-over-headedness of the sun requires relatively simple tools. You can use a plumb-bob to make a fairly vertical pit, and then see how far down the circle of light from the sun illuminates the pit before hitting the side. You can use this to tell time, and the more modern sundial is sort of an inverted version of the vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter.

Using a vertical pole-style (which can also be constructed using a plumb-bob, but not as easily as a pit) and a vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter a Greek fellow in Egypt determined the diameter of the earth at about the same time some of the oldest tweeblaarkanniedoods were just germinating. The measurement was to about 0.4% over of the currently accepted value, which is mind-blowingly amazing. What is even more amazing is that those newly germinated tweeblaarkanniedoods would be over 1,500 years old before the idea that the Earth was spherical (roughly), and therefore even had a diameter, would really catch on.

The fact that the data that showed that the earth was round, and even showed what size it was, were available to anyone with access to a shovel and a bit of string (a plumb bob is just a piece of string with a weight –like a rock- at one end) did not mean that just anyone could accept the conclusion. There were many competing theories about the size and shape and placement of the earth, and they used the tactics of facilitated cognitive dissonance that work so well with the human brain to out-perform actual reality in the arena of believability.

The triumph of cognitive dissonance over reality has a long and twisted history in human culture. It also rarely turns out well, and, somewhat unfairly, it often turns out very bad for those who cling to reality in the face of very popular or very powerfully supported cognitive dissonance. Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed, until it was formally abolished on the 14th of June 1966, many ideas –like Galileo’s heliocentric solar system- whose authors were censured for believing in the apparently heretical portions of reality. Yes the list changed over the years, and Galileo was not in the last edition, but it was always a list of writings that communicated ideas that were deemed dangerous to the Catholic church for people to know.

The human context in which ideas are avoided is usually one filled to bursting with ideas of questionable worth; at least history would see the ideas put to the question. Few still believe in the veracity of “The Protocols of Zion” or subscribe to the concept of the “blood libel” conspiracy, yet they, and their counterparts, steered the course of history as much as, if not much more than, mundane truths proven by documented observation.

In a few short weeks the USA will inaugurate a new presidency. Donald John Trump ran a campaign that appeared to be more successful because of his support for stupid, verging on crazy, conspiracy theories; chief among them the bizarre “Birther” ideas and vague “Truther” notions. Even people who do not believe the nonsense conspiracies will state that the Donald would “tell it like it was” even though some of his more popular notions of how it was were inconsistent with a reasonable concept of reality based on simple observable information.

There are so many ideas which could run afoul of the rapidly approaching Trump administration. I am not even sure where to start. Stem cell research? Cancer research? Infections disease research or epidemiology? The banner denial issue does, however, appear to be climate change.

I have introduced indicators of climate change many times in this blog. Mostly I talk about sea ice as I think that is a clear and unbiased indicator statistic. It is mostly a lag indicator. It is true that decreasing sea ice in the arctic can increase the amount of heat adsorbed by the earth, and increase the rate of warming. However, the amount of sea ice statistic mostly tells us how warm the planet has become. It takes heat to melt ice so less ice usually means more heat. We do not expect the amount of sea ice to tell us much about how much the temperature of the global climate will rise in the future.

There are lead indicators. Because of the newness of many aspects of climate research it is impossible to pull up some archival data to determine how much the temperature of the earth will increase in response to increases in a particular set of lead indicators. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels, for instance, are expected to cause an increase in global temperatures, so the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is a lead indicator of global climate temperature increase; Carbon Dioxide goes up, and then temperatures increase.

Graph from

One potential lead indicator, that has a lot of scientists worrying a lot, is the increase of atmospheric Methane. Rising temperatures have begun to cause the release of what could be immense amounts of methane in the frozen, or more precisely previously frozen, north. In Siberia escaping Methane has blown giant plugs of permafrost out of the ground, and left strange craters that look a lot like what I imagine the result of some huge alien space laser blast to look like. The reason Methane release is such a scary lead indicator has less to do with alien invasion, and a lot to do with the fact that it is many times as effective a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide, and we have no real control over the rate it is being released. Some estimates have the climate impact of the rate of increase of Methane concentration in the atmosphere equaling the impact of the current increase in Carbon Dioxide; if Methane release rates continue to increase it could become the major driver of future temperature increases.

Yamal hole in 30 kilometres from Bovanenkovo

This runaway increase in global climate temperature is what climate scientists call a “positive feedback loop”. It had previously appeared to me that Climate Change Deniers (CCD) were evolving along with the preponderance of the evidence. The primordial CCD simply denied that the climate was changing. Later versions simply refused to entertain the notion that human generated greenhouse gasses could have any effect on the planet. I expected a new species who begrudgingly acknowledged that humans were causing a problem, but insisted that the problem was manageable because there was no such thing as a positive feedback loop.

It appears as if the new administration will (attempt to at least) reset the clock and seed a new crop of primordial class CCD. Will we see brave scientists standing against this wave of cognitive dissonance, or will we see smart scientists, who have understood the uncomfortable positions in history, and just step aside as the new truth is unveiled for all to genuflect at and believe?

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