A Moment on the Earth By Gregg Easterbroook, Viking Press, New York, 1995, 745 pages, $12 paper A Moment of Truth, Correcting the Scientific Errors in Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth By Leonie Haimson, Environmental Defense Fund, New York, Part I (1995, 52 pages), Part II (1996, 110 pages), free at www.edf.org.
In 1995, Gregg Easterbrook published a much-publicized and detailed book on the environment. Shortly afterwards, the Environmental Defense Fund published 162 pages of rebuttals, focusing only on facts. During 1996-7, I taught a graduate course "Quantitative Aspects of Global and Environmental Problems" at the University of Maryland and at EPA. For their term papers, several of my students carried out a side-by-side comparison of Easterbrook's, A Moment on the Earth with the Environmental Defense Fund's rebuttal, A Moment of Truth. I recently got re-interested in this debate when writing a chapter on climate change, so I will only address that issue here.
Good news on Easterbrook. He raises some good points. The environmental movement has made great strides to be proud of since the first Earth Day in 1970. He concludes that we should work on the environmental disasters in the lesser-developed countries, and relax somewhat in the U.S. He infers that the environmental movement has great difficulty in prioritizing its agenda. He comments on some of the errors of the environmentalists, but on balance he seems to be somewhat happy with the status quo. Some of this strikes a familiar cord since asbestos removal and carcinogenic electricity have been handled poorly, wasting billions of dollars. Have the environmentalists harmed themselves by pushing some issues beyond reason? Of course one cannot trust either side. We all know that industry will try to cut corners to make money. On the other hand, the environmental movement has many leaders, little direction, and can exaggerate to get our attention. Industry has to be more careful with its statements or it will end up in court, while judicial action is not much of a threat to the environmentalists. But the perception of the environmentalists as a whole is politically important if they want to fulfill their agenda. It is politically difficult for environmental groups to comment on the overstatements of other environmental groups, to separate the goats from the sheep. I agree that the planet has problems and I don't mind spending our money to fix things, but it would be nice if they could discipline themselves. In this sense Easterbrook's book is useful.
Bad news on Easterbrook's Substance. Unfortunately for Easterbrook, when I did a side-by-side comparison, EDF won hands down. He claims only one inch of ocean rising, when in fact it is 4 to 8 inches. He claims that some environmental scientists are claiming a "runaway" greenhouse, but this is a false argument. The GCM models calculate 2-5 degrees C from a doubling of carbon dioxide, not a runaway greenhouse. As a journalist he talked too much to the critics and fails to discuss the weakness in their arguments. He seems not to believe that the planet is getting warmer, of which there is little doubt. True, the strong correlation between higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide does not prove causality, but it certainly is important. He avoids the science of explaining how a doubled carbon dioxide level warms the atmosphere. I found several errors beyond those on the EDF list, so I can't give him a passing grade on climate change substance. Interestingly enough, he accepts the suggestion of carbon reductions from better technology, which he thinks we ought to adopt. He concludes in the chapter on Global Cold as follows: "Current alarms about global warming appear exaggerated. But even if there exists but a slight chance that artificial greenhouse emissions will engage the geologic gears that summon the next ice age, it is in society's urgent interest to prevent that day." (Yes, he alludes to the "next ice age".) In the next chapter on Global Warmth, he concludes as follows: "Climate change might lead [to global extinction]. Any reasonable policy that reduces the odds of climate change is more than worth the price." After 48 pages of "it is not likely", he strangely concludes that society should spend lots of money to avoid either warm or cold climate change, but without defining his criteria for effectiveness.
Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time By Michael Shermer, W. H. Freeman and Company, New York, 1997, ISBN 0-7167-3090-1 (hardback edition), 306 pp.
In the wake of the Kansas Board of Education decision to effectively drop the teaching of evolution and the big bang from the science curriculum it is particularly fortunate that Michael Shermer's 1997 book is now expanded and available in paperback. This book has generated a good deal of interest among scientists and non-scientists alike, and for good reason. The author teaches the history of science, technology and evolutionary thought at Occidental College and is the director of the Skeptics Society as well as the publisher of Skeptic magazine. His book consists of a series of essays confronting popular beliefs about various natural phenomena, psychological and paranormal experiences, and historical controversies. The thrust of Shermer's message is summed up in the phrase that concludes the preface: Cogita tute, "think for yourself"
The importance of this message is under-emphasized in today's society, according to Shermer, and has led to the inability of the general population to distinguish scientific claims from New Age pseudoscience and other contemporary muddleheadedness. The goal set out, and admirably achieved, is to introduce the notion of skepticism and critical analysis to everyday life. The first section includes three chapters describing the skeptical approach, including a presentation of 25 common fallacies that often lead one astray in the human quest to understand the physical world. In this section Shermer contrasts the exponential growth in professional scientific literature and our increasingly technologically dependent society with the overwhelming popular interest/belief in the paranormal, the supernatural, and the unexplained. Shermer argues that it is imperative to understand science as a method, not a subject (that is, as an approach to problem solving or understanding, not a compendium of facts) in order to counter these trends. These early chapters would serve as a useful primer in any introductory science course.
The remaining four sections, Pseudoscience and Superstition, Evolution and Creationism, History and Pseudohistory, and Revolutionaries and Heretics, present synopses of various popular beliefs and the application of Shermer's "skeptics' tool kit." The section on evolution and creationism is concise and well done; Shermer presents the "evolution" of the creationist arguments and the scientific rebuttals. He includes a humorous account of his debate with arch creation scientist and co-founder of the Institute for Creation Research, Duane Gish. Gish and his colleagues have led the fight for the exclusion of evolutionary theory and the inclusion of "creation science" in the public school curriculum for the past 30 years. The account presented here elucidates some of the common confusions regarding evolutionary theory, and provides clear definitions and responses to specific creationist arguments. This type of treatment is imperative for all scientists concerned with the public understanding of science. Biologists and physicists alike will gain from the Shermer's treatment.
For cosmologists, Shermer's penultimate chapter, "Dr. Tipler meets Dr. Pangloss" applies the skeptic's eye to John Barrow and Frank Tipler's 1986 work The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and Tipler's more recent The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead. Each of the above analyses point out where the authors depart from the materialist scientific account of phenomena and move into the realm of the mystical and spiritual. Shermer is at pains to explain why these pseudo-scientific claims are so appealing to the public at large, as well as presenting coherent philosophical criticisms of the theories themselves. Ultimately, the answer to the question of why people believe weird things is because they want to; because it is comforting, or familiar, or easy. As pointed out in the foreword by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, the task of debunking these beliefs, like garbage disposal, seems unglamorous or unworthy of celebration but is absolutely necessary for a safe and sane life. This reviewer concurs whole-heartedly.
Mark E Borrello
Climate change articles in Science Several articles in the 29 October 1999 issue of Science emphasized the problem of diffusion in the analysis and interpretation of isotopic ratios in paleoclimatology. Proper interpretation of the diffusive context of gas bubbles, or anything else, in ice, requires consideration of the diffusivity of all species involved. The diffusion coefficients, and their nonlinear, higher-order bounding brethren, determine the accuracy of all inferences on greenhouse gas effects, of all estimates of climatic sensitivity to global temperature, and of many models of the lability of ocean currents or survival of the life forms they support. In a Science Perspective article "Calibrating the Isotopic Paleothermometer," pp. 910 - 911, Jean Jouzel introduces the main factors in converting spatial concentration gradients to temporal ones, in the estimation of residence times of oxygen isotopes and rare-gas ratios. With reasonable assumptions, the initial conditions creating entrapped bubbles can be recovered, yielding ancient air or water temperatures derived from Greenland or Antarctic ice cores. Rapid initiation of drastic climatic change obviously is a potential danger to modern society as we know it. What we don't know, is whether human efforts to counteract global warming can have an effect. We suspect that the atmospheric carbon concentration, mainly CO--2 and methane, might be a control point. We have to assume we have at least a little influence over climate, in the long term. The cost of relatively moderate measures to prevent drastic climatic change, as agreed in the Kyoto Protocol, is reviewed by Hayhoe, et al, in "Costs of Multigreenhouse Gas Reduction Targets for the USA" (pp. 905 - 906).
The geological record seems to show truly enormous climatic changes at certain points in time. An examination by Severinghaus and Brook of the diffusive mechanisms of climate inference, "Abrupt Climate Change at the End of the Last Glacial Period Inferred from Trapped Air in Polar Ice" (p. 869 editorial; pp. 930 - 934) seems to have validated the occurrence of temperature changes big enough to impoverish the modern world and occurring over a period of a few decades. A shift equal to the average difference between summer and winter in much of the present world is described in "16-deg C Rapid TemperatureVariation in Central Greenland 70,000 Years Ago" by Lang, et al (pp. 934 - 937).
The 23 July 1999 issue of Science also includes several articles relevant to global warming. "Pacemaking the Ice Ages by Frequency Modulation of Earth's Orbital Eccentricity" by J. A. Rial, pp. 564 - 568, postulates an unknown mechanism with phenomenology of a frequency modulation (FM) of the form Asin[Ft + Bsin(ft)] of certain astronomical frequencies. The fit to the glaciation data, which are oxygen isotope ratios, reveals a hitherto missing ~410 kiloyear (ky) component in the climatic power spectrum. The evidence of this component is in the the presence of FM-like ~100 ky sidebands. This reviewer finds it interesting that the formula above may be viewed as the magnitude of the (dual) odd part of Aexp[Gz + Bexp(gz)], an expression of a form sometimes used in models of growth.
"The Role of Sub-Milankovitch Climatic Forcing in the Initiation of the Northern Hemisphere Glaciation" by K. J. Willis, A. Kleczkowski, K. M. Briggs, and C. A. Gilligan, pp. 568 - 571 reports sediment-core pollen evidence of short-wave components changing in frequency and amplitude at glaciation period temporal boundaries. Again, a nonlinearity is supposed. Readers may recall that a free gyroscope only can rotate; a child's gyroscope precesses or nutates because of the reaction force against its supporting surface. The main driving forces of the Milankovitch cycle are said to be gravitational, by the Sun and Moon. One gathers from these papers that two other possible driving forces, reactions of the Earth's crust against vertical changes in the Earth's (a) interior or (b) atmosphere, have been neglected. Rial suggests that the linear extent of the ice sheet may be the primary cause of the frequency modulation he has postulated. The question of whether it should be astronomically driven or climatically driving, is left to the reader.
A Science Perspective, "Methane in the Deep Blue Sea" by B. U. Haq, pp. 543 - 544, reviews some properties of gas hydrates, including CO2, which are widely dispersed in sea sediment. The total carbon mass may exceed that of all known fossil fuel sources. Solid hydrates are stronger mechanically than water ice and are sensitive to temperature or pressure changes, which may convert them to gas phase. They may store energy on the continental shelves which may be released suddenly, thus sharpening the climatic effect of ice redistribution or sea level change. Better knowledge of hydrates may make it possible to use them as an energy source or for waste-carbon disposal.
Another Science Perspective, "The Not-So-Big U.S. Carbon Sink" by C. A. Field and I. Y. Fung, pp. 544 - 545, introduces "The U.S. Carbon Budget: Contributions from Land-Use Change" by R. A. Houghton, J. L. Hackler, and K. T. Lawrence, pp. 574 - 578. The context is that of the difficulties and lack of consensus on the quantitative aspects of the Earth's carbon cycle. The very thorough Houghton, et al, data review suggests that there is a North American carbon sink, but that its size may have been exaggerated because it is not in a steady state.
John Michael Williams