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Ptolemy, Manbearpig, Global Warming and Epistemological Humility


As a teenage lad, I ventured off to study the "great books" program at St John's College in Santa Fe, surveying the history of Western civilization from the beginning, starting with Homer and Plato and Greeks in general. In the math tutorials, they start with Euclid. Then came the part of the whole deal that made the least sense at the time: Ptolemy.

Ptolemy was a critically important Greek astronomer. We spent about half a year of math classes studying The Almagest. Ptolemy plotted the positions and movements of planets and stars, recorded them carefully and explained the movements of the celestial bodies to account for all these scrupulous readings.

The result was the top classic astronomy book of antiquity. It was accurate enough that ships at sea used it to guide themselves across the world for 1,000 years and more.

Thing was, Ptolemy was completely, all wrong. His whole system was geocentric. His whole system was based on the premise that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything revolved around us.

As a young grasshopper, I was most puzzled by why we were spending so much time learning details of theories that we now know were all wrong. We're studying his wrong stuff for months why exactly?

In retrospect, the Ptolemy study was one of the best couple of sections of my time at St John's. I didn't realize it then, but over time the idea of Ptolemy has been highly significant to me. He's been a big influence on parts of my thinking that might be described as "conservative," but not just in a simple political sense. It's a bit difficult to explain in a sentence or two, but Ptolemy has been a critical lesson in the limits of human knowledge.

I take it as something of a lesson in humility, as Ptolemy was a greater man than me and by all appearances a scrupulous scientist. This guy was smart and honest and had good, reasonable explanations for his data. Take Ptolemy as a warning to epistemological modesty.  Ptolemy represents the limits of even the best, smartest and most careful scientific mind.

But that's not what we came here to talk about.  We're here to talk about the limits of the venal human spirit.  We're here to talk about global warming, Manbearpig, and his creator Al Gore.  In South Park episode 1006, the former vice president shows up totally obsessed with a made-up Bigfoot-type monster from which he is desperate to save the world.  Naturally a lot of misery, death and destruction result from his efforts- far more than a real Bigfoot monster could have ever caused even if they were real.

Gore's got this new movie An Inconvenient Truth based on his slide show supposedly factually proving all the global warming theories that some people have been touting as settled facts for twenty years or more. Even the title of this movie reeks of petty egotistical smugness.  Half the country is liable to be underwater in 50 years or some such.  It's sort of like an environmentalist version of Josh McDowell's imfamous "proof" of Christianity, Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

As to Al Gore specifically, he's known to be a serial liar from his campaigns. In the typical manner of do-gooders, he knows what needs to be done, and the important end of saving humanity from Manbearpig more than justifies the means of consciously bending the facts, or just making crap up wholecloth, or pretending to be the Manbearpig. One shouldn't be surprised to hear Gore claiming that we've got no more than 10 years to change our evil high-living ways Or Else- and telling an environmental website interviewer

In the United States of America, unfortunately we still live in a bubble of unreality. And the Category 5 denial is an enormous obstacle to any discussion of solutions. Nobody is interested in solutions if they don't think there's a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis.

Over time that mix will change. As the country comes to more accept the reality of the crisis, there's going to be much more receptivity to a full-blown discussion of the solutions.

Then again, it wouldn't be fair for me to dismiss global warming just because of Al Gore. There are plenty of sincere, honest people -smart scientists, even- not just lying politicians grasping for power and prestige who think the world is in a global warming crisis.

There are scads of empirical data and dramatic photos for slide shows that would be consistent with their theories. Adding six or eight layers of qualifying "ifs" (if the data is really and accurately measuring the same things over 500 years, for starters), it appears that the tea leaves of data suggest that mean Earth temperatures have risen perhaps half a degree in the last half century or so. Could cause problems if such trends continue- whether they were caused by human activity or not.

But then, what do we really know? Generally, you can reasonably make more out of things that are closer and direct. Bunches of people in this town are getting sick, full of XXX nasty carcinogen. You can measure that this specific chemical is in the local water table, and that this factory is dumping just that chemical into the lake. That's very real in the harm, and provable beyond much doubt. We have to stop that kind of stuff.

But global warming isn't anything near like that. It might or might not be real, might or might not be that humans are actually causing some of it. But before I'm going to believe it's true I'm going to need a lot of convincing to endorse some one-world-government or accept the propriety of the US government presuming to dictate our lives to anything like the degree that would be necessary to significantly impact human production of CO2.

And here's the type of convincing I'm NOT interested in, but which will only make me more recalcitrant in my non-belief. From ABC News:

Witnessing the impact of global warming in your life?

ABC News wants to hear from you. We're currently producing a report on the increasing changes in our physical environment, and are looking for interesting examples of people coping with the differences in their daily lives. Has your life been directly affected by global warming?

We want to hear and see your stories. Have you noticed changes in your own backyard or hometown? The differences can be large or small altered blooming schedules, unusual animals that have arrived in your community, higher water levels encroaching on your property.

Show us what you've seen. You can include video material of the environmental change, or simply tell your story via webcam. Please fill out the form below, and be sure to include captions or other descriptive information if you're sending video. We hope to hear from you. Thank you.

To say that stuff like this ABC News plea is unscientific would be an insult to witchdoctors and faith healers. It's a plea to the kind of stupid faith-based emotionalism exemplified by Bill Maher's retort to a global warming skeptic, "Can't you just FEEL it?"

But here's something at least vaguely like science, in which Congress gets a report from the National Academy of Sciences. From the Houston Chronicle:

The Earth is warmer today than at any point the last 400 years, and likely the last millennium, a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded in a report released Thursday.

Congress sought the 155-page analysis of Earth's past temperatures after a dispute erupted a year ago, when Texas Congressman Joe Barton sharply questioned the methods of Michael Mann and two other researchers, who had published scientific papers stating the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the late 20th century than at any time in the past 1,000 years.

Upon presenting its report to Congress, the scientific panel said its findings generally support the research by Mann and his colleagues.

"It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries," said Gerald North, the committee's chairman and an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University.

As for the period from A.D. 1000 to 1600, North said many, but not all locations where temperatures were measured support Mann's research.

This doesn't impress me much at all. Again, I don't have a degree in geology or other related specific scientific expertise. But the statements and presumptions here seem far less than convincing. For starters, how do we know what average temperatures were 500 or 1000 years ago? Even to the extent that there were humans actually taking readings, how accurate were they, how comprehensive, and how comparable are they to modern data? Are they trying to extrapolate temperatures from levels of such and such chemical in some thousand year old sediment? Over questions of a couple of degrees of mean temperature around the whole planet, I would need a hell of a lot of convincing that they had true and meaningful data.

Beyond that though, this wouldn't impress me that much even if it's true. Let's assume just for a moment for the sake of argument that they're saying something true and accurate. Let's say that average temperatures in the last couple of decades have been higher than they have been in 500 years. So what? In the big picture, 500 years is the blink of an eye. "Your blue eyes blink, the sea evaporates" as per Geoff Reacher's classic "You Like My Song."

Why were temperatures higher 500 years ago? It obviously wasn't because of evil white American men driving SUVs. Perhaps they had global warming caused by dinosaur flatulence. That temperatures were higher than this perhaps as recently as a few hundred years ago looks to me like evidence AGAINST the theory of man-made global warming. Perhaps it's just totally run of the (very slow cosmic) mill that temperatures will fluctuate a couple of degrees per century. I'd find that very easy to believe- which is the reason that I would take my own explanation here with a grain of salt. Still, that seems reasonable to me.

Also, remember that the global warming proponents are Christians, not just deists.  They don't just generally believe in a God, but a very particular version, with a crucifixion and resurrection.  True Believers in global warming are not just saying that the Earth is getting warmer, but specifically that human use of fossil fuels is the cause. 

I could be all wrong. I'm just as vulnerable to emotional mammalian inaccuracies entering my thinking as the next guy- and so are the scientists in their lab coats working their various substrata of scientism and scientologisms. From the same Houston Chronicle story:

Neal Lane, a physicist at Rice University and former science adviser to President Clinton, said the year-long dispute has showcased the "ugly, political side" of climate science research in the United States.

"It has really gotten quite outrageous," Lane said. "These new questions that were raised are just one more example of many, in which people are scrambling to find the slightest little reason to question important scientific results, and then blow it way out of proportion."

I can just hear the wounded indignance in this no doubt highly learned physicist's voice. They've got Important Scientific Results.  They wrote a big paper on it, and everything.  They're super cereal, as South Park Gore would say.  Who are the rest of us to question them?  They're scientists, damn it. Respect my authorita! Smart scientists are just as vulnerable to ego problems and self-justification as any of us other human mammals

How much more so the masses of scientifically illiterate people advocating global warming? As Robert Anton Wilson would put it, the "thinker" part of our brains comes up with an idea to believe in, and the "prover" part sets about finding data and making it fit to prove that we're right. People do that with all kinds of ideologies.

Ol' girl once went through a Larry Flynt-like religious conversion, and became prone to seeing signs and wonders. There was a bluebird on her windowsill one morning. It was a sign from God, proof of His wonderful love. Yes, dear.

More than most, global warming proponents very often seem religious in just this same way. They seem, by my admittedly subjective judgment, to make this all into a secular version of historically common apocalyptic religious faith, which seems to satisfy some weird perverse psychological needs in our mammalian brain stems. Being apocalyptic though, they're looking for dead birds as signs. I've seen people arguing that bird flu is somehow caused by global warming, a pending Old Testament style plague on the pharoh and the wicked SUV driving heathen under him.

The handwriting is on the wall! Repent from your sins of living rich and happy! The invention of the internal combustion engine becomes our original sin. In short, a lot of this looks to me like Seventh Day Adventist apocalyptic nonsense.

They seem to operate on some kind of God-type premise that someone has set the Earth up with climate control, with a thermostat set at a constant temperature. Whereas in my godless universe, it looks more like a dynamically changing primordial soup that is constantly slowly shifting and stirring about in ways that in the broad picture generally have little to do with anything us puny humans do. We can certainly screw up a lake or cause local smog, but I'm pretty skeptical about our ability to affect the big picture. But again, I could be wrong.

Ptolemy was certainly far more scientific- though that doesn't necessarily mean that we're NOT creating global warming. As some Iraq policy apologists have said about the absence of WMD stockpiles, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence... But perhaps I've spoken too soon. Even as I'm typing this humble narrative, reports are coming out that US soldiers have found about 500 munitions in Iraq containing mustard gas or sarin.

Still, Ptolemy had far better basis for his theories than do modern global warming advocates. He had to precisely explain very specific measurements. Venus was here on Tuesday night, and 15 degrees west two days later. Whereas, much of the global warming argument is general aggregate type stuff being thrown together. Pretty much any change in local climatological patterns or any weather anomaly is evidence of global warming.

For example, we've just had an unusually cool spring. Ninety degree plus temperatures are normal June weather here in southern Indiana. I've generally got an air conditioner in my bedroom window by the end of April. Yet here it is solstice day 2006, and I haven't yet found it necessary. In fact, a couple of days ago -barely 36 hours before the solstice- I was walking in the cool afternoon down the Sanes Creek when the weather turned, and suddenly it's hailing chunks of ice on my head.

Obviously this is a sign of global warming. Around the time of the first Earth Day in the 1970s, the big theory about which there was little doubt was global cooling. Our below normal local temperatures would be more obviously proof of that theory. But this data can readily be made to fit the global warming picture, I'm sure.

This brings us to Ptolemy's counter-revolutions. You can readily see how tricky it was to make bunches of specific astronomical data prove something that just wasn't true. This planet was over here, then over there, then appeared to move backwards. Ptolemy perfectly reasonably explained the data with subsystems- wheels within wheels. This one is a moon going backwards around another planet from the orbit in which that planet is going around the Earth. Looking at it knowing now that it's wrong, it might seem jerry-rigged and overly complicated. However, this was still many centuries before William of Occam, and did reasonably explain the data.  People steered their ships at sea for a millenium based on his explanations.

I think of Ptolemy's counter-revolutions frequently. They're my personal classic example of Wilson's "thinker" and "prover." They symbolize to me the ingenuity with which our brains can shoehorn the empirical evidence coming in the front door of our senses to fit whatever thing it is that we've talked ourselves into believing. It wouldn't take anyone nearly as clever as Ptolemy to make a lot of this broad data prove the point of global warming.

On the other hand, what do I know? Perhaps I'm too smug in my little Sun centered heliocentric universe. Perhaps we don't yet understand everything. Perhaps MY thinker has decided that global warming is bunk, and my prover is working overtime to prove it. Global warming might be real, and caused or exacerbated greatly by human activity. Manbearpig COULD be coming to get us. It's tricky knowing what to think.

Perhaps we should presume the worst, and act as if global warming is real and man caused, just in case. Of course, that's a hell of a "just in case." It reminds me of a similar argument I've heard seriously propounded by religious folk who have talked themselves into believing stuff that they know better than, down in the truthy parts of their guts. I've had folks suggest that even if you're not really sure it's true, you should CHOOSE to believe anyway- just in case it is. What have you got to lose?

The answer is: my soul and my human liberty in the only life I know I've got. I mean my freedom of conscience and my general freedom to lead my life unmolested. I'm not giving up my soul to a church, or my political liberty to priests wearing lab coats without some pretty compelling proof of the necessity. In short, I fear the dangers of Al Gore much more than those of Manbearpig. I'd about as soon have the goddam sky fall in on me as to have to answer to Al Gore. Human history has shown far more suffering caused by do-gooders than by the weather.

Manbearpig - Al Gore is super cereal


I find it unlikely that gases floating in the atmosphere are really that significant. Then again, I have similar problems believing in the Holy Ghost of the Christians. Perhaps I just lack imagination, but I'd find it easier to believe in Manbearpig.









PTOLEMY EPICYCLE VIDEO Do the paths of Ptolemy orbits trace a picture of God?

God and Country index and explanation


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