I don’t know why the hand-wringing over “climate change” bemuses me so. Perhaps, because once upon a time, I earned a degree in theology and it amuses me to see that Humanity is as smug as it was in the Garden of Eden days. Adam, you’ll recall, was the world’s first scientist, and not a bad one. He established the nomenclature for all the animals and that achievement alone gives him pretty good standing, but having named them, he started to think that he created them, too.
Adam’s problem as a scientist, you see, was that he lacked perspective. All he knew was the Garden of Eden; he couldn’t see outside it, and so he thought he knew everything there was to know. In fact, he began to “know” things that were not true. To ensure that he knew it all, he ate from the Tree of Knowledge—with a good degree of encouragement from his new lab assistant. This was a mistake because what good is knowledge if you already know it all? Adam gained wisdom, but found out the hard way that he didn’t really know much.
As Adam’s descendants, most of us have inherited this lack of perspective and the notion that we know everything. In theology, we call that hubris, which brings me back to my bemusement.
Back in the early part of this century we fretted over “global warming,” but it turns out that our perspective was limited on the matter of warming and cooling, so, we moved over to the slogan “climate change.” Worrying about the climate changing is akin to worrying about the sun setting. Imagine if our perspective was just a tad shorter. Along about dusk every day we would begin to worry that the sun was disappearing and we couldn’t be sure that it was coming back. Before midnight, we’d have a sun tax, and by 2 a.m. there would be a fully staffed, fully funded federal Department of Solar Disappearances. Next morning, long about dawn, we’d realize we were wrong, but by then, people would be emotionally invested in the thing, and hating their neighbor for scoffing at their overwrought feelings. And of course, that tax and that bureaucracy will still be around on the day the sun does finally extinguish itself in a billion years or two, because solar systems may come and solar systems may go, but taxes and bureaucracies never leave us.
Perspective is the key ingredient in scientific thinking. The amount of time that the Earth has been forming a climate, compared to the amount of time that humans have been measuring what’s going on in our climate is about the same proportionally as all that time between when Adam was calling a striped horse a zebra up to supper-time tonight, compared to the time it takes you to eat that supper.
I’m reminded of all this by a passage from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in which Twain, who had been a pilot on the river before becoming one of the greatest chroniclers of jackassery in human history, illustrates in the quotation below what scientific perspective is all about; in this case, it illustrates what we now call, “the danger of extrapolating from inadequate sample size.” In Chapter 17 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain devotes a passage to the phenomenon that the river has shortened itself through the centuries by cutting through 242 miles of capes and necks:
Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and “let on” to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! . . . Please observe:
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oőlitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
It’s all a matter of maintaining the right perspective, you see.