Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The intellectual "Drift" of former mining company geologist Naomi Oreskes

LYELL, prophet of Victorian Optimism
Unlikely indeed is it to expect that the expert on the scientific debates of 100 years ago on geological Continental Drift  will turn up one day,  reborn , as the expert on present day Climate Change debates !

The head-spinning requires makes one's neck hurt to even to think about it.

Of course if continents do "drift", they do change and if they change, why not the climate as well ? One begins to see a possible connection. And both subjects do involve dissecting furious debates among scientists.

So we have some inklings of Oreskes' possible metamorphosis.

Still she IS a rarity : a former mining company geologist who stoutly defends climate change rather than climate denial.

The key may lay in a just few paragraphs on Page 199  in her first - very long - book on the debates around continental drift.

The historical geologist Charles Schuchert (1858-1942)  seems heaven-sent to make one of the "bad guys" in present day popular books about the decades-old battle over accepting the theory of tectonic plates ( with Alfred Wegener as the much-maligned "good guy").

But Oreskes doesn't fall into that trap.

Like a patient - and fair - bloodhound she goes through all information we have on Schuchert's long and troubled internal debate on the worth of Wegener's theory, rather than featuring only his few - but overheated - verbal outbursts on the subject.

To over simplify, basically in his own area of scientific expertise, Schuchert saw nothing but support for Wegener's ideas.

But like about half of all scientists, Schuchert was too overawed by strong comments of the "big guns" from other scientific disciplines, to actually put his own mind to work to consider the evidence first, through what ever he or she had learned of that discipline's methods .

The other half of scientists share the reverse flaw : believing that being an expert in say, nuclear physics, makes one an expert in every other science.

It is a quite a trick, trying to be intellectually honest, without falling down either of these slippery slopes.

Schuchert rejected his own (literally) "world-class" knowledge of the fossil record ,on the mere second-hand say so that all the "experts" in climate agreed that the climate in the past, at each latitude, was the same as it is today : climate uniformitarianism.

In 1912's intellectual "climate"  it seemed internally self evident that if climates can't change, then neither can continents.

In 2012's intellectual "climate", it is equally self evident, to what Modernists call "warmists",  that if continents can change, why not the climate as well .

Oreskes , Dawson & Daly 

I pay a lot of attention to Oreskes because I suspect that she came to see that yesterday's house wine of Modernity - the theory  of uniformitarianism - was still today's house wine of the climate deniers .

 Just as I have come to that conclusion as well - albeit coming at the subject of climate change via the distinctly odd angle of the Modernist debates over the worth and meaning of Martin Henry Dawson's  Natural Penicillin and Transformative DNA.

I think Herman Daly has also come to see the enduring strength of 1840s uniformitarianism in mainstream 21st century economics.

Given the wampum-like characteristics (In the Flanders & Swann sense of that word)  of this hyper-flexible meme, I almost hesitate to call "Uniformitarianism" a scientific theory : it seems - today - to be more a pseudo-scientific cover story, designed to  assure exuberant Victorians that their intuitive optimism had a  basis in scientific fact.

A dangerous truism today - just as uniformitarianism was in its heyday - is that in 1945 , Modernity fell and Post-Modernity arose.

I used to hold this position myself.

But now I believe that Modernity's hegemony fell apart and that modernity existed uneasily along side post-modernity (aka Global Commensality) in today's post-hegemonic era.

Now this  view at least lets us see the climate wars as the tippy-top of a much larger battle between modernity and commensality for hegemony (while the fate of the planet hangs in the balance) ....

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