Casaubon's Book

I knew I could count on my fellow Science Blogger Dr. Klemetti for a good take on the physical reality of the Chilean Earthquake, so I checked in this morning, only to see him, quite property, take the MSM to task for inane rhetoric, notably an MSNBC headline that reads “Is Nature Out of Control?”

Klemetti rightly observes that this is bad science. He points out:

Earthquakes happen, and they happen in a random distribution (more or less), meaning sometimes we get more, sometimes less. Spend any time looking at the USGS earthquake feed and you’ll see sometimes we have lots of M3+ earthquakes in a day, sometimes we can go a day or two without really any around the world. More importantly, looking at any of these earthquake patterns in a short timescale (geologically – which means in a human lifetime, maybe two lifetimes) is not sufficient to understand the pattern. MSNBC found one scientist who said that in the last 15 years (relative to the 20 years before that), “the Earth has been more active” – whatever that means – and have blown it up into an armageddon-like story. What does “more active” even mean? Does it mean more total earthquakes? More big earthquakes ? More total seismic energy being released? Does it include volcanoes? What about landslides? Hurricanes? That sort of throwaway line is the sort of thing that feeds the doomsayers and gives science a bad name.

Most news content that isn’t simply the reporting of fact is an attempt to find – or manufacture – deeper meaning in events. This isn’t trivial work, of course, because there often is deeper meaning. But the inability to recognize coincidence or understand how patterns are established means that the habit of drawing conclusions from like events can look, well, stupid.

What struck me about this as interesting, though, is that MSNBC’s headline is perfectly accurate, and conveys precisely the right amount of fear and worry-making, about precisely the wrong thing. That is, nature is out of control. In a fundamental way, that’s the definition of climate change – nature gone wildly out of control, destabilized and with all that implies. We know this is happening because it is already happening – we can document that natural disasters related to climate change are happening more often. The mainstream media is trying to whip up fear about something that is actually occurring – but when it comes to climate change, the mainstream media mostly publishes “he said, she said” articles that lend wait to the denialists, implying that there was an equally credible case on both sides. We know that there is every reason to be afraid that more and more people will endure floods, droughts, wildfires, famines, heatwaves, storms…. – and we’re trying to find meaning in coincidence.

More subtly, however, is the implication of the headline “Nature is out of control” – because it implies that nature has at some point been in our control. Human beings developed in a period of remarkable climate stability, a period that is coming to an end, in large part because of our interventions. Although most people intellectually know that our natural environment was never fully in our control, much of our modern project has involved its mastery – we’ve even imagined that our ultimate destiny must be to leave nature (at least on this planet) wholly behind, abandon all material constraints and move into space.

This covert belief that we have some real measure of control over natures leads many people, I believe, to assume they won’t experience the worst depredations of “nature out of control,” that they don’t really have to think too much about climate change, resource depletion or deforestation, because in some measure our basic technologicaly mastery over the environment will protect us. Because we have been insulated, and because our cultural myths do indeed tell us that control of nature is within our grasp, we fail to recognize that in fact, we are ultimately dependent on a nature that has never been in our control for every sip of water, every bite of food, every warm fire, every bit of shelter – that we are both fully part of nature and fully vulnerable to its shifts . Our economy our culture, our hope of security and for our posterity is built upon a nature that has always been out of our control, and is now becoming deeply unstable.

“Nature is out of control!” is a headline on the order of “Elephants are big!” or “Squirrels like acorns!” that sounds like it could have been written by the Onion. Of course it is out of control – and always has been. And this is precisely the argument for the use of precautionary principles in dealing with nature – and precisely the arguments we least fully grasp or believe.

And if you want to donate to Chilean Earthquake Relief, here are some resources. I also have a particular fondness for Doctors Without Borders/MSF.

Sharon

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Daniel J. Andrews
    February 28, 2010

    Thanks for tackling that “nature out of control” meme, a pet peeve of mine. Another related one is that humans have ‘tamed’ nature. Sure, you can kill off the big carnivores, alter ecosystems, destroy entire areas, but that isn’t taming nature—all it takes is one big power outage or storm to knock the gentle folks back into an age they’re completely unequipped to deal with (present blogger excepted, no doubt). “Nature” is quite capable of giving us a good whomping, and the more we attempt to ‘tame’ it through industrialization, urban sprawl, etc., the more likely we’ll get ourselves whomped more than a few times.

  2. #2 Ian Tindale
    February 28, 2010

    But nature is endangered — we must protect it or it’ll die out completely. There’ll be no more earthquakes or floods or droughts, and their descendants will consist of entirely synthetic equivalents with harmful chemicals – colouring and flavouring. Anyway, I expect that in a few years we’ll have the chihuahua equivalent of earthquakes — small and furry and acceptable — no longer related to the dangerous wolves that other natural disasters clearly are.

  3. #3 vertalio
    February 28, 2010

    Nature is only out of control afa h. sapiens goes. She let us blossom and fill every niche, to the point that our waste products threaten our continued ‘dominance.’
    We think ourselves clever. We’ll see; it’s time for mid-term exams.

  4. #4 Adrienne
    March 1, 2010

    Earthquakes might be the one natural disaster that humans *don’t* cause or influence. That I know of, anyway.

  5. #5 RPC
    March 1, 2010

    “…but when it comes to climate change, the mainstream media mostly publishes “he said, she said” articles that lend wait to the denialists…” Whether that pun was deliberate or accidental, I at least found it funny enough that the other livestock in my cube farm must have wondered what was going on in my stall!

  6. #6 chlewis
    March 1, 2010

    Adrienne, 4:

    If you build something big enough, you might be able to set off an earthquake:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/world/asia/06quake.html

    That’s an example from China, but I think Aswan had one, too.

  7. #7 Paul S.
    March 1, 2010

    To me it seems like humans haven’t been so much trying to “tame” or “control” nature as they have been trying to use nature’s own processes to alter the environment in ways that make it more hospitable to humans. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly can be risky to try to modify systems that one doesn’t fully understand in the first place.

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    March 2, 2010

    Bloody typos – but I think I’ll leave that one, it is funnier this way ;-).

    Paul, I’d find that more compelling if the language we use hasn’t been one of control.

    Sharon

  9. #9 Paul S.
    March 2, 2010

    Yes, the language used in the general public has often been one of control. I’m just saying that this isn’t exactly what is being done. I’m also pretty sure that most of the scientists and engineers who’ve made new discoveries and developed new technologies over time have also realized that humanity is not in “control” in the way that most people understand the word.

    I can understand why people would like to have control over nature, though. People have been at the mercy of nature so often throughout history that it’s not surprising that they would jump at the opportunity to have some more control over their environment.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    March 2, 2010

    “Earthquakes might be the one natural disaster that humans *don’t* cause or influence. That I know of, anyway.”

    Erosion of topsoil in the American Midwest, and its deposition as sediment in the Gulf of Mexico, has redistributed weight over the North American Plate, resulting in earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault. I actually felt the 5.4 magnitude quake in 1968, as a kid growing up in Illinois.

  11. #11 Ormond Otvos
    March 5, 2010

    Ah yes, the precautionary principle. Is that the one where your parents didn’t breed because there are so many bad things that could happen genetically?

  12. #12 Wayne Williamson
    March 5, 2010

    Ormond…What in the world are you trying to say…