“The world’s oceans are degenerating far faster than predicted and marine life is facing extinction due to a range of human impacts – from overfishing to climate change – a report compiled by international scientists warned Tuesday.
“The cumulative impact of ‘severe individual stresses,’ ranging from climate warming and sea-water acidification to widespread chemical pollution and overfishing, would threaten the marine environment with a catastrophe “unprecedented in human history.”…
“The report warned that damage to marine life would harm its ability to support humans, and that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation.”
(Full article at SFGate.)
On Wednesday, June 22, I woke up to this report and I let it ruin my morning.
I know. It’s not the first panicky report from scientists about the ocean’s demise and the apocalyptic scenarios arising therefrom. And I know that the more scientifically sophisticated members of the H+ community has dealt with and — in some sense — discarded this issue, either by leaning on alternative findings that the situation is not that bad and/or by proposing a technological fix or, finally, by accepting that the goals of the extended and expanded human may take place amidst massive species disasters and die offs, possibly including our own.
My purpose in this article is not to try to surmise who — or what — is correct about this particular scenario or about any of the dozens of other disaster scenarios that seem to confront us. My purpose is to examine how people deal with the intrusion of “scientific” information that may not only disrupt their models of reality but their projects-already-in-progress.
To wit: What if you were, say, on a book tour or promoting a movie or organizing a conference dedicated to the proposition that we were looking forward to a (relatively) glorious transhuman (or singularitarian) future; and on the flight from Chicago to London you read a scientific paper that would convince all but the most well defended psyches that we were pretty much totally hosed? Would you accept the conclusions? And if you did, would you change your plans? Would it depend on how much you were being paid or how much you really need that book to sell lots of copies?
The life altering info drop, of course, generally only happens in movies. No matter how compelling the evidence for a disaster or its opposite (say, inevitable hyperlongevity) presented, it usually takes repeated findings and lots of argumentation to bring about a shift in someone’s point of view, if ever. This is partly because “scientific” forecasting can never be scientific, in the sense that an actual scientific fact can be verified by the scientific method. Predictions, ultimately, can only be proved by being lived, which always leaves some wiggle room for dispute.
These thoughts were shifting around in my head as I prepared my daily task of finding juicy transhumanist links and amusing oddities for my new website, Acceler8or, and reading a book about techno-optimism in preparation for interviewing the author. Fortunately for me, I don’t feel compelled to advocate consistently for pessimism or optimism, but merely to sift through the detritus of our info soaked world for possibly useful or amusing temporary gestalts.
Still, it raised for me this interesting corollary to one of my favorite observations. In his mindbending book, Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson wrote, “What the thinker thinks, the prover proves.” My corollary observation is that the deeper the thinker’s practical commitment is to what (s)he thinks, the less available (s)he is for having his/her mind changed. If, somewhere deep in the night, John Stossel learns about something that can only be resolved by strong state intervention, by morning he will begin constructing an alternative narrative in which the problem can only be resolved by deregulation. If, deep in the night, Keith Olbermann becomes convinced that social spending by the federal government is counterproductive, by morning he will be disproving — to his own satisfaction — that which he thought he realized the night before.
Among science enthusiasts (and particularly among futurists) this tendency to build a memeplex and then to defend it — with the weapons of statistics and argumentation — as one would defend a fortress takes a wide variety of forms.
At the start of this article, I indicated one form — the optimist defending against the inconvenient intervention of evidence for environmental disaster extreme enough to change the course of human progress. The big ongoing debate or area of conflicts in this context is, of course, around the issue of climate change or global warming. With the exception of a few scientists studying in fields related to the issue, the first people who believed that warming was real and caused largely by human activities were environmentalists. As a cohort group, you would find among them many people who believed that western industrial capitalist societies were a bad thing; and many would be broadly hostile to human behaviors that they would perceive as being greedy or insensitive or “consumerist.” After a time, as evidence accumulated to the satisfaction of most scientists who worked in related field in favor of human-caused climate change — and as those scientists made statements and released unanimous reports — most educated people shifted towards the belief that climate change was real, largely human caused, and a major crisis. By far, most of the remaining members of the educated public who remained skeptical of these claims were people who believed that western industrial capitalist societies were so unqualifiedly good that they should repeal all restrictions on gainful activity and/or those who were extremely optimistic about the awesomeness of the oncoming future.
On the other hand (or on another wing, perhaps), there is a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are not harmful, but there is a broad public consensus in much of Europe that they are. And so we have gazed upon comfortable white European hippies stomping on evil food. And then, of course, Republican candidates for president of the US have to renounce evolution. Among those who sneer at the crazies who renounce evolution are many who will hold their breath until they turn blue if it is suggested that — just like the other biological species — human behaviors and social structures might be very influenced by evolutionary principles. Ad infinitum.
Again, my purpose here is not to advocate for one or another view about the weather or food etc., but to examine how and why people react — or don’t react — to informational or quasi-informational interventions.
Actual data about weather patterns is the same whether you’re a member of Earth First or the Ron Paul campaign. And the weather doesn’t care about which political and economic systems you hold to be true and good in your mind… or even if you pray to it in a peyote ritual. And human behavioral tendencies will be what they are regardless of what you think. It is what it is… as the popular saying goes. And most arguments about what it is are probably pointless. I suggest remembering that “the prover proves what the thinker thinks” and its corollary, “Don’t interrupt me while I’m thinking!” whenever you allow yourself to become irate over such discussions.
As for me, I’ll continue to operate according to my belief that I shouldn’t believe anything absolutely, but given the contingencies, changing the human situation and, ultimately the human itself through technology is probably the best of a lot of bad bets. But I will also allow myself to be interrupted by news that indicates otherwise; and I’ve made a promise to myself that I won’t immediately go running to internet search for a counterargument for every presentation that makes me uncomfortable.
Unless I’m on a book tour.