Neptunists and the Vulcanists

I like reading about the history of science, and one of its more famous chapters is the debate between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists in early 19th century Great Britain.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the debate was over whether the earth's features (and life on it) were formed slowly over long periods, or relatively quickly through catastrophes.  Secondarily, it was about heat and fire vs. water as forces shaping the Earth (thus the names).  Eventually a consensus  (an actual consensus, not a declared one) developed that they were both right in some ways and both wrong in others. 

What struck me reading about this again over the weekend was that it took decades, and sometimes centuries, for this to sort out.  Take the part of this debate over extinction.  The initial consensus was that extinction was due to catastrophes, ala the Biblical flood.  Then Darwin came along and shifted the consensus away from catastrophes, showing that extinctions occurred in the normal order of species action-reaction to threats and opportunities.  And then in the 20th century, revisiting the K-T geologic layer we have come around to dinosaur extinction being catastrophic as a result of a big meteor.  Except nowadays there are scientists who think this is too simplistic.  Geology, in turn, made it all the way until the 1960's before anyone was even talking about plate tectonics, something that was still being derided in the 1970's but is fundamental to our understanding of numerous aspects of the earth today.

And so it goes in normal scientific inquiry.   Scientists expect it to take decades and generations to really shake out new theories and areas of inquiry.  Sometimes, as with Newton's laws of motion, we still accept the theory, though even here we have tweaked at the edges (e.g. relativity when things are moving fast) and exempted certain regions (e.g. quantum mechanics and the very small).  Other times, we have thrown theories that were cherished for decades completely away (e.g phlogistan).   After decades of work, string theory in physics could easily be thrown out completely and looked upon as the 20th century's phlogistan, or it could really be the theory of everything Einstein searched for in vain.

Which is all fine and expected, except when governments are standing by to make trillion-dollar choices, as they are in global warming, a scientific body of inquiry that is barely 20 years old.  Go back to any new scientific theory in its first 20-years, and think about the governments of the world betting the entire global economy on scientific understanding of that theory at that point in time.  It's pretty scary.  We'd probably have a 5-trillion dollar government controlled medical leach industry.


  1. Josh:

    Of course we do have a medical leech industry... ;)

    The problem with global warming is that, as with the Neptunists vs. the Vulcanists, both sides have some good points. To me, the most important point seems to be that, even if the current science is flawed and humans have played little or no part in the current warming trend, global warming is still an observable phenomenon and will still affect humanity on a global scale. Maybe cutting our emissions won't stop or even reverse it, but if it is in our power to stop or reverse it, shouldn't we anyway?

    Technology exists so that we humans are no longer at the whim of our environment. Since the first time some person used a rock to make up for the fact that we lack claws or sharp teeth, we've have been steadily improving our ability to change the world around us to suit our design. If not now, then at some point probably not that far in the future, we will have the technology that allows us to consciously affect global climate.

    The Andes, the Alps, and the ice caps all point toward the reality of global warming and the reality that it may very well adversely affect the lives of people all over the planet. Why shouldn't we try and fix that problem even if we weren't the ones to cause it?

  2. Jody:

    but if it is in our power to stop or reverse it, shouldn't we anyway?

    Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

  3. Josh:

    Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

    And sometimes the disease kills you...

    In either case it seems best to err on the side of caution. And until we know for sure what role we play if any in the global climate, it seems prudent to do what we can to minimize that role (not to mention the other benefits that would come from doing so).

  4. Tim:

    Josh, you gotta be kidding me!

    You said: "Why shouldn't we try and fix that problem even if we weren't the ones to cause it?"

    Hows about fixing this; twice a day there is water in my back yard and I would like you to "fix" the problem for me. That water is also called "The Tide". Make it stop!

    Natural events are better adapted to than fixed. Adaptation is what humans do the best.

  5. Rob:

    "Natural events are better adapted to than fixed. Adaptation is what humans do the best."

    And adapting to change is what progressives do poorly... they want to keep things constant (Mr. Coyote has some interesting blogs on this topic).

    Of course the quick response is that "fixing" the climate is adaptation, which it isn't. Adapting involves adjusting oneself to new conditions, not changing the conditions. The logic that we should change the global climate is paramount to wanting to get rid of winter instead of putting a jacket on. Most environmentalist frame the argument as being in your house with a window open, the air coming in is getting colder and colder, why should you put a jacket on when you can close the window (ie. why adapt when we can fix the climate problem).

    To that I say, the global climate is not a closed system (there are influences on the system outside the planet). Zero sum games can only exist in closed systems, which is one of the underlying problems with understanding man's impact on the climate and the modeling techniques to be used (linear modeling is great for boxing in a system (creating zero-sum), whereas complex adaptive system modeling allows for stochastic models and predictions)

  6. Jody:

    In either case it seems best to err on the side of caution.

    A wise choice when erring on the side of caution is (or near) costless.

    However, the most frequently discussed of the proposed approaches is far from costless and from economic analyses I've seen will cost far more than we would gain.

    For example, I think Branson's $25 million dollar prize is terrific. Forcing the US to operate at 1990 level CO2 emissions (disregarding our massive population and economic growth since) with commisserate drops in energy production is a horrible idea.

    Streamlining the construction and authorization of modern nuclear plant designs so private industry can build lower emitting energy sources - super idea! We need more energy production anyways. Studying techniques to adjust the earth's albedo? Super (near costless to study and addresses the issue if it's the sun or the CO2). Studying the impact of seeding the oceans with iron (for plankton growth)? Super. Might even help repopulate the oceans. Burying and replanting forests? Sure. That's relatively low cost (and I always hated the Lorax).

    However, what I see discussed are a) massive reductions in the economy (Kyoto), b) economically inefficient subsidies of biofuels (not certain how burning less efficient carbon based fuels will help with CO2 emissions, but it's proposed for CO2 reduction nonetheless), c) travel restrictions, d) aggressive zoning for denser population centers. All of which carry significant burdens and from my perspective have little chance for any significant CO2 reduction.

    The combination of a) the fact that the solutions pushed appear to be the most damaging ones imaginable (with little upside as to the actual problem)b) the fact that I find the global warming science sketchy (CO2 is less important than methane or H20 as a greenhouse gas) and c) the fact that I suspect that ceteris paribus warmer will actually be better makes me quite fearful of the cure being worse than the disease.