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.