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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker


As of last night, there were 1,194 wildfires burning in the United States, almost all of them in the West. Most of them are in the five states that form the western and northern border of the West: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Yosemite National Park is burning. Glacier National Park is burning. Crater Lake National Park is burning. The Columbia Gorge is burning. The Columbia Gorge fire was caused by some idiots playing with fireworks, but almost all the rest have been caused by lightning. Record heat and lack of rain have turned the western forests into a tinderbox. Thunderstorms have intensified in recent years. We are currently living with the result.

More than 100 of those 1,194 wildfires are within 80 miles of my home in Medford, a city of 80,000 just north of the California/Oregon border. We are at the center of a maelstrom. A thick pall of smoke has hung over the city, without break, since early August. Pm 2.5 levels - considered unhealthy at 35 micrograms per cubic meter - regularly spike over 200. And as I sit here with bronchial coughing, swollen nasal membranes, and red rheumy eyes, unable to see more than a quarter mile in any direction, I think it is fair to ask: How the hell did we get here, anyhow?

Let us dispense with a couple of things. First, this is not normal. My wife and I have lived here in Oregon's Rogue Valley for nearly 50 years; we have never seen anything like this before. Second, it has not been caused by negligence on the part of state and federal land-management agencies. I've seen this argument raised, but it is false. There can be more than 1,000 lightning strikes in a good strong thunderstorm, any one of which can set off a wildfire. The agencies have limited human and financial resources. Some fires must always be ignored in favor of others which appear more threatening. It is inevitable that a few of the "safe" fires will escape, and grow.

Third - and this is important - just because it is not possible to attribute any one fire's cause directly to global climate change does not mean that global climate change is not the cause of the fires. It is the pattern that must be looked at, not the individual events. The pattern is more, hotter, and longer-lasting fires each year, with all three trends rising in sync with warming planetary temperatures. There is a cardinal rule in science that association does not prove causation: nevertheless, when a link can be demonstrated between two phenomena, there is a strong presumption that one causes the other. Several such links exists between a warming climate and burning forests. Higher summer temperatures cause forests to dry out and become more flammable. More energy in the atmosphere leads to thunderstorms that are more intense and more frequent. And changes in the energy balance of the atmosphere vs. the oceans cause shifts in rainfall patterns. Some areas inevitably become drier. Here in the West, most of which has marginal rainfall for forest growth anyway, those climate-driven drying areas have been grenades waiting to explode for several decades now. This summer, all of them are going off.

And now I want to shift gears, because the real issue here isn't wildfires, or smoke - as tired as I am of it - or even climate change. The real issue is science. Why do Americans reject it? Science has been warning us for decades that human-caused climate change is happening, and has been predicting the other things - stronger hurricanes and forest fires among them - that would inevitably follow. The pattern was well enough established in the early 1990s that I proposed a book on it to my agent; he advised against it, on the assumption - probably accurate - that the book-buying public couldn't be interested. Where did that come from? In the 1950s and 1960s, science education was almost a fetish among Americans. How did we get from there to climate-change denial and a widespread belief that autism is caused by vaccinations?

There are probably many causes. I'd like to pinpoint a few of them.

First, science doesn't always tell us what we want to hear. Science is dedicated to finding objective truth; humans are hard-wired to defend our own versions of it. In the aftermath of World War II, which science helped us win, science was widely touted as always beneficial, and it was a rude shock when Rachel Carson showed that it wasn't. (There was the hydrogen bomb before that, of course, which science had developed; but that was supposed to be harmful. It was just doing its job. Pesticides were supposed to be good for us.) It was easy for pesticide manufacturers to claim that Carson was wrong, because the public already wanted to believe she was wrong. For many people, the evidence she presented was far less convincing than the fact that they could run spray trucks through residential neighborhoods and stop being bothered by mosquitos.

Second, even the beneficial findings of science began interfering with our daily lives. Science found a way to clean up the air, but cars were required to be equipped with catalytic converters. It found a way to clean up the water, but we had to stop using PCBs and many other benzine-ring-based chemicals, and we had to build expensive sewage treatment plants. Science could guarantee that the forests would always come back, but only if we allowed the scientists to decide where and when to cut timber. These were benefits of science, but they proved as unpopular as the harmful effects, and for the same reasons: Americans don't like to be told what to do, especially if it might cost money, and double-especially if that money has to come from their taxes.

Third, and most important: Americans really have no idea what science does. All that science education back in the fifties and sixties did more to glamorize science than to show how it actually worked. Students were dazzled by the flash, but they missed the substance.

Here is what you need to understand: science is not a body of data. It is not a collection of theories, proved or unproved. It is a method - a means of testing truth to discover whether or not it is really true. It seeks truths that are independent of the truth-seekers.

It is a means of verifying reality.

People think that the tools of science are test tubes and Bunsen burners and spectrophotometers and similar paraphrenalia. That is wrong. These are instruments for gathering scientific information, but they are not instruments of science; science is what is done with the information after it has been gathered. For this, the main instruments are a pair of abstract principles: peer review and duplicable results.

"Peer review" means that you have to have your work approved by other experts in your field before you can publish it. This applies to scientists of long standing, to students, and to everyone in between. Peer review allows your work to be tested for errors, omissions, made-up data ("dry-labbing") and anything else that might be wrong with it. It is an adversarial process, but most scientists put up with it cheerfully, because it helps along the search for objective truth that is the reason for science in the first place.

"Duplicable results" means that the same materials manipulated in the same manner must be shown to always result in the same answer. This filters out noise, accidents (someone sneezes on your bacterial culture), misbehaving equipment, and the thousands of other things that may cause errors to show up in the data. One experiment done in one lab proves nothing. One hundred experiments done in the same lab show promise, but they still don't prove anything. One hundred experiments done in one hundred labs establish objectivity. In this way, science remains dependable as it advances.

It is wrong to say that you "believe in" science. Belief is for things that can't be proved; science works exclusively with things that can be proved. It is also wrong to think of science as a cabal collaborating to defend a specific set of secret knowledge. Scientists are human: they get attached to their own ideas as much as any of us. But it is the mark of a good scientist to always be prepared to abandon well-established theories if those theories can be proved wrong.

A well-known example of this concerns the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington State. This humoungous maze of huge dry canyons, dry waterfalls bigger than Niagara, and potholes that could swallow New York City has now been conclusively linked to repeated forming and melting of ice dams at the mouth of Idaho's Cabinet Gorge, at the close of the last Ice Age. Each time the dam formed, it would block what is now called the Clark Fork River, which would back up behind it; each time it melted, it would release enough water to fill Lake Erie in a matter of days. The resulting floods scoured the scablands. When this theory was first proposed by J Harlan Bretz around 1915, it was derided as ludicrous. But as evidence mounted, other scientists came around, until eventually only one prominent geologist remained who still rejected the reality of these Missoula Floods (as they have come to be called). Sometime in the late 1960s, this geologist was convinced to come to Washington and tour the scablands in person - something he had never previously done. Those who acted as his guides say that he was silent for most of the tour. Finally, as the tour concluded, he burst out: "How could anyone be so wrong for so long?" That is how science works. When presented with indisputable evidence for an idea, scientists are willing to reject and condemn their own theories, even if they hold them very dear. What matters isn't who comes up with an idea; what matters is whether or not the idea can stand scrutiny.

Which brings us back to anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change. When a few scientists began proposing this during the second half of the 19th century, other scientists thought them mad. But as evidence slowly accumulated, the weight of opinion began to shift. Today it is still possible to find climatologists who don't accept the idea that human activities are causing the earth to warm, but they are few. They will be fewer after this summer. This summer, when Houston has received its third 500-year-flood in three years. This summer, when large parts of the west are burning, and thick smoke fails to dissipate for weeks at a time. In the Kalmiopsis Wilderness of southwest Oregon, firefighters report that the fires are so hot that even the soil is burning. Whole communities are under evacuation notice. Homes and businesses are being lost. At some point, it will be impossible any longer for any scientist to ignore the evidence.

Here in Medford, under the pall of smoke from those 100+ wildfires around us, I am trapped in the house. Outside, the pm 2.5 count spiked at 432 three hours ago; it is now at 390. (Remember? 35 is considered unhealthful.) We have the fan running constantly on the HVAC, pulling air through the most efficient, state-of-the-art particulate filter I could find locally. My eyes still water and my throat is still scratchy; I have a deep, dry cough. I cannot explain to our two cats why I won't let them go outside. I probably can't explain science to the climate-change deniers, either. But, dammit, I have to try.
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