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Fri., Nov. 16, 2007

Enough information

Two weeks ago, a paper in Science magazine reported the curious fact that, despite mountains of new data and several generations of improvements in computer modeling, we are no better at predicting the outcome of climate change today than we were 20 years ago.

What’s more, we are not likely to get better at it, even as we gather more and more data and feed them into faster and faster computers. That’s because the system itself is, for all intents and purposes, organic and infinitely complex.

Written by Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, the study showed that, as global temperature rises, we encounter greater and greater levels of uncertainty predicting its consequences. Since greater uncertainty widens the range of possible outcomes, I predict that their findings will fuel arguments on both sides of the global-warming issue, from the dwindling No-Worries camp to the Run-for-Cover crowd.

I like this study for a reason that has nothing to do with climate change. It suggests a broader truth, one that has to do with the difference between knowledge and wisdom. It says that knowing more does not necessarily lead to greater understanding. It may just cause more confusion.

As I understand it, the problem with climate modeling is feedback. If one factor changes in the planet’s atmosphere, say, the temperature, it causes many other things to change, and each of those changes triggers still more change. The most widely accepted outcomes for global warming are the melting of the ice caps (which is happening), which leads to higher and higher sea levels, possibly bigger tropical storms, etc. But melting ice caps could also increase water vapor in the atmosphere, forming more cloud cover, blocking more sunlight, and cooling the planet, perhaps just enough to offset the warming, perhaps enough to turn Manhattan into the North Pole – as in the scary eco-disaster movie “The Day After Tomorrow.”

If there is big climate change coming (and there might not be), then apparently it will vary widely from place to place. The Earth, it seems, doesn’t have a global climate, but a mosaic of micro ones. One model, out this summer, has projected that, while North America is in for a thorough roasting in coming decades, there will remain a comfy cooler pocket in the Midwest. Invest in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa real estate? (It should be noted that universities in Missouri and Iowa employ the scientists who discovered this projected “hole” in the warming trend. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but, hey, it’s worth knowing.)

So which is it? Warmer or cooler? Drier or rainier? Should I invest in sunblock or home insulation? Apparently, we should expect no clear answer, and without a clear answer we should expect lots more political debate. But maybe we already know enough.

One of the unique features of modern times – perhaps the one thing that makes our daily experience different from that of every human being who came before – is that we live in a constant storm of information.

Television, newspapers, magazines, movies, radio, Internet, podcasts, e-mails, text messages – am I missing anything? Without even trying, we all know very little about a lot. We stand not in a sea, but something more like a vast puddle of knowledge. It spans the Earth, but is only inches deep. Most of us know, vaguely, that martial law has been declared in Pakistan, there is genocide and civil war in Sudan, anti-Americanism in Venezuela, anti-Semitism in Iran, insurrection in the Philippines and religious oppression in China, but few of us know much more. Very few of us know enough about any of these things to hold an opinion that matters.

This is no barrier, sadly, to the exploding market for opinion. If a small amount of knowledge is dangerous, then we should all be very afraid. Instant global communications may some day help cure cancer and bring about world peace, but they also have fueled suspicion that the 1969 moon landing was a hoax, that the attacks of Sept. 11 were a government conspiracy, that Bill Clinton was a mass murderer, and that the Holocaust is a myth.

At a certain point, information becomes noise. Wisdom is the ability to tell the difference, and to know when you know enough to act. What is required is not more data, but better judgment. Sometimes you don’t have to have a house fall on you. This climate-change issue is one of the best examples I know.

More than 20 years ago, I traveled to Mauna Loa Observatory, on the slopes of a volcano in Hawaii, where scientists were taking regular measure of the pristine air blowing in from vast open expanses of the Pacific. The idea was to get clear of atmosphere muddied by local sources of pollution in order to observe planetary changes. The data were clear then, and have grown clearer since: We are dramatically increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

You don’t need more data or staggering genius to conclude that this is a bad idea and that we ought to stop doing it as fast as we possibly can.

There is always the chance that higher levels of carbon dioxide will make the planet nicer for us, or that it won’t make any difference at all. But given the billions of years it took for the Earth to cook the mix of gases that sustains us, and that our thin ribbon of atmosphere is all that stands between us and an endless lethal void, I vote for keeping it the way it is.

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