I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

What would it take to make me change my mind?

I was at Ravencon in Richmond, Va on Friday and Saturday. It's a great con. Very well organized, good attendance, and I thought the panels had interesting topics. There were plenty of actual science panels to go with the writing panels and gaming panels, etc. As a science fiction writer, and a science geek in general, I like being in the company of people who know what they are talking about.

On Friday, I moderated a panel on Global Warming. I went into the panel well prepared to make my argument that the case for man-made global warming isn't the slam-dunk, no further arguement needed conclusion presented by folks like Al Gore. I anticipated being a lone voice of dissent on the panel, so I tried to gather as much data as possible before going into the room. Instead, out of about 30 folks in the room, it turned out that fewer than five thought that man-made global warming was a reality.

I was actually somewhat bothered by this. Anytime I find myself on the side of a majority opinion, an instinct kicks in that makes me start questioning my own beliefs. And, beliefs is the operative word here.

One of the panelists who doubted global warming kept referring to scientists she knew who thought that man-made global warming was BS, so, ergo, it was BS. But, while I like talking to experts, I dislike relying on faith in experts as a foundation for my beliefs. To me, this is more faith than reason. Plus, it leads to the standard media "news" treatment of dueling experts. "My authorities are better than your authorities" begins to pass as reasoned debate. People no longer listen to evidence--they listen to "leaders," and this strikes me as a risky way to run a world.

I'm human. I have limited time and limited resources with which to judge the world. On a lot of important issues, it really isn't reason that guides me, but gut. I suspect the same is true of most people, and I don't find this a particularly bad human trait, as long as people retain the ability to listen to reason when they hear it, and follow reason instead of thier guts if needed. Over the years, I've found that I keep asking myself one simple question about my beliefs. As long as I know the answer to it, I feel that my beliefs are reasonably ones for me to hold; I'm not just being dogmatic to believe in evolution, or libertarianism, or whatever.

That question is: What evidence would convince me that I'm wrong?

As long as you are open to evidence that your beliefs are wrong, then you know you've still got a sliver of reason guiding your guts.

So, if you believe in God, what evidence would it take for you to believe that you are wrong?

If you don't believe in God, what evidence would you need to see to doubt that you were right?

If you believe in global warming, what evidence would make you think that the theory didn't have merit?

If you don't believe in global warming, what would it take to convince you that it's real?

Here are a few of my core beliefs. Here's what evidence I could encounter that would make me pretty sure I'd been wrong:

1. Atheism. This is simple: If I were to witness the rapture, I'd just sigh and say, "Well, I called that one wrong."

2. Evolution. This is also pretty easy: If we were to discover, clearly, repeatedly and predictably, human fossils through all geologic strata, then I think there's be a good case that humans were seperate creations from the rest of the world's biology.

3. Global Warming. This is a tough one, alas. I don't think you could gather enough data over a human lifespan to genuinely document a cause and effect relationship between the current warming trends and human emissions. You would need centuries of hard data; right now, the numbers before the last few decades are somewhat muddy. We're documenting changes of tenths of a degree. Today, we have thousands, if not millions, off hard data points from all over the globe, measured with digital instruments that are accurate and calibrated against all the other instruments. Unfortunately, we are comparing our increasingly precise numbers against data that was gathered for much of the last century by somebody looking out a window at a red-line on a thermometer and writing down the number it showed.

Still, I can think of one thing that could persuade me: As we get better data from Mars, if we were to document a multi-decade cooling trend there, or even temperature stability, while at the same time documenting a warming trend here on earth, then you could make the case that the warming isn't due to natural flucuations in the sun. Right now, though, Mars is showing a warming trend as earth is showing a warming trend. Of course, again, the data for Mars for more than a few decades isn't great data. Still, if I must form an opinion on this in my life time, then that seems like a good starting point. If Mars cools or remains stable between now and 2020, and earth warms over the same time span, then I think I'd swing over to believing in global warming.


Loren Eaton said...

But Al Gore says it's happening! Isn't that enough for you? [/ tongue in cheek]

James Maxey said...

Loren, I recognize that what you said was a joke, but I think it really helps me cut to the core of what bothers me about this "debate." I suspect there are some people who believe it's happening because Al Gore says it's happening. But I also suspect there are a whole lot more people who believe it's not happening solely because it's something Al Gore believes in, and he's a wacko liberal, so the idea of man-made global warming must be automatically false.

Unfortunately, most debate today boils down to "us versus them" style arguments, and actual facts and data are viewed only as "spin."

Loren Eaton said...

I have a great deal of frustration over how many so-called "environmental issues" have been declared settled (global warming included) and how you must club baby seals as a hobby if you question them. There's a good editorial about this in the Wall Street Journal from Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace who no longer associates with the organization.

rastronomicals said...

Clearly, Al Gore is the worst thing that has ever happened to the Global Warming "movement." His involvement has turned the exchange of ideas (in the US at least) about the topic into one that is almost exclusively about politics.

Pro-business conservatives, who would lean in the direction of denial anyway, can now attack the validity of the issue by attacking Gore.

I've never seen Gore's film, nor do I plan to. But the fact that "it's happening" is still apparent. I mean, ice shelves are cracking in half and falling into the sea. I don't need Al Gore to tell me that this is an effect of Global Warming.

Now, as to attribution, I of course lack the expertise to make a decision on this myself. However, if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--people charged with studying the matter by the closest thing we have to a consensus World Government--find with a 90-99% confidence level that mankind's activities are responsible, that's the way I'm gonna lean.

I understand about the Little Ice Age and I understand how not all scientists sign on to what the IPCC says.

But it's very difficult for anyone to deny that the establishment scientific consensus is now that man does have a causal role in the current period of rising temperatures.

I'll grant you your right to be an iconoclast. Iconoclasts have periodically been right about scientific issues throughout the ages, and they may be right this time, as well.

But I'm going with the percentages.

Oh, and I'll believe in God when he speaks to me. If he doesn't exist, the silence speaks volumes. And if he does exist, but can't be bothered with me, then I can't be bothered with him.

James Maxey said...

"However, if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--people charged with studying the matter by the closest thing we have to a consensus World Government--find with a 90-99% confidence level that mankind's activities are responsible, that's the way I'm gonna lean."

Ras, I'm by nature just going to be naturally distrustful of anything approaching "a consensus world government." I didn't get to vote for this world government.

Here's the thing that gets me about people who turn to reports by panels to decide what is or isn't factual science: Science isn't voted on. Evolution wasn't voted on. Newtonian physics weren't voted on. Quantum mechanics weren't voted on. DNA and genetics weren't voted on. Science is presented, tested, argued, tested some more, argued some more, and truth emerges because eventually someone has presented a model that makes solid, testable predictions that can be matched up against reality.

The climate change people haven't done this yet, in my opinion. So far, they make predictions, then model their predictions on computers. Unfortunately, the weather of the world is too chaotic to model accurately yet.

Melting ice sheets are interesting data, but, they are also subject to natural climate fluctuations.

I'm not dogmatic about this. I can think of evidence that could be gathered over a decade that would make me change my mind. As I said, show me a cooling trend or a stability trend on Mars while Earth is on a warming trend over a decade, and I'd probably tilt toward the man-made global warming camp.

I'm going to do another global warming post now. Because, whether or not it's happening, I'm in favor of one specific action to fight it. See the next article.

Bellily said...

I should read all the comments, yes, the entire starting post, more carefully before I write, but can't help a quick comment that wants to come out:

My pa works for the electric company that supplies Al Gore and his complex/homestead its power. A funny story shared was about Gore being very mad at his electric bill doubling (the starting point being 4 figures, maybe 2 grand, to twice that) because he was testing how fast the heating elements would heat the water in his pool and hot tub (draining them, filling them, heating them, measuring how fast the desired temp was reached I imagine), after he - I think (don't remember the details, just the gist) - converted some of these systems from gas to electric. Interesting. Apparently he was very peeved. Knowing he was peeved at his bill after he's knowingly been using lots of energy for what I consider frivolities, brings a bitter and disappointed expression to my face. Where are his solar panels that pull the energy weight in a clean way?


oil prices.... does anyone know if any headway is being made to create Star Trek transporter? We have so many other things that seemed crazy and miraculous when the show was first aired.

I'm praying for transporter beams.
I don't know how they're going to materialize, but pray that they do. T'would solve a lot.

James Maxey said...

Bellily, I can confidently predict that no progress is being made on those transporter beams in this universe. However, we could go to a matrix future--everybody signs onto Second Life to such a degree that most of us start working there and making our living in virtual reality. Then we can teleport to work virtually.

Somehow, as much as I hate my morning commute, the idea of arriving at my job in the blink of an eye just depresses the heck out of me.

John Brown said...

I agree with your post on beliefs. We've got to be open to new data.

Of course, the next interesting question is what we allow in as evidence on any given topic.

My gut feel is that our beliefs lead us to exclude large areas of evidence. And we do it on gut feel. And so I don't think the "rational" mind really exists. Reason is based, in a large measure, on the feelings we have in past experiences and about certain individuals for or against.

James Maxey said...


I'm not even sure how I'd define the "rational mind." If you think about it, if our brains did evolve through chance mutations, there is no particular reason to think we would wind up with a brain that trusts reason more than instinct. We would wind up instead with minds that are more mish-mashes of contradictory impulses, which seems to be the case. But, though our minds aren't rational, I'm not prepared to say that there is no such thing as reason. There are plenty of times when I've followed reason into areas that my guts and emotions didn't want me to go.

John Brown said...

I'm not prepared to say that either :) In fact, in performing cognitive therapy I have reasoned myself into different emotions. And thank heavens I have.

I find the model of mind and emotion posed by current emotion theory much more compelling than anything I've ever read on the subject.

Based on this model, the body doesn't have a separate rational mind. We have thoughts, we can reason and logic, and they do affect our emotions. But our emotions affect what we perceive. And they affect our thoughts and logic. The feedback goes two ways.

And so it seems to me that when we say something like "I'll believe it when," we've already made judgements on the types of evidence we'll allow. It's not a purely rational mind speaking. It can't be becasue there is no switch that turns off the emotional part of our minds. Nor do I think we'd want that because emotions are what keep us alive.

As for the chance mutation natural selection mind, I don't know why we'd suppose that a non-contradictory mind would be better or sign of some type of design. I'm thinking about that road race in the Baja with autonomous robot vehicles and it seems that a system with checks and balances always does better in dealing with a complex and changing environment.