Dumb and Dumber

If you’ve ever heard a public-address system screech, you’ve heard a feedback loop in action. The microphone picks up a little noise, the amplifier makes it louder, sends it out through the speaker, whereupon it is picked up by the mike and amplified again until it turns into a primal scream.

Feedback loops are accelerating the impacts of the greenhouse effect on global climate. Increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, acting like the glass in a greenhouse, trap solar radiation near the earth’s surface, raising the temperature. As it gets warmer in the northern reaches where the tundra and taiga are permanently frozen, they start to thaw in summer. When they thaw they release large amounts of carbon dioxide, which increase the greenhouse effect. Feedback loop.

Feedback loops, most of them unforeseen, have accelerated the effects of global warming well beyond the worst-case scenarios of just a few years ago. The Paul Revere of global climate change, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute, describes¬†in the current edition of Newsweek how badly those scenarios — many of which he wrote himself — have been trampled.

Well, stupidity has feedback loops as well. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and consensus, the number of Americans who believe that the world’s climate is changing because of air pollution by humans has dropped by 12 per cent in the past year. Among Republicans who have apparently convinced themselves that there is a liberal climate and a conservative climate, the drop is more than 20 per cent.

And it gets worse. According to a recent book about the disconnect between scientists and people, a substantial number of the latter believe that if we allowed the hole in the ozone layer to get bigger again, the heat trapped by greenhouse gases would escape through it. If that strikes you as a reasonable thing to believe, stop reading this right now and go send all your money to Senator James Inhofe (who will still be denying the existence of global warming when his beloved Oklahoma slips beneath the waves of the Patlantic Ocean.).

Here’s where the feedback loop comes in. The industrial media treats poll results with the same deference as the statements of a Dr. James Hansen, so the inattentive tend to think of them as real information about the world. So after CNN tells us 13 times in an hour that fewer people “believe” in global warming (as if it were a question of faith), we will find ourselves in a conversation later saying something about what “they” say about global warming — and doubt spreads. Doubt based not upon any grappling with the impossibly complex data about what is actually happening, not upon any new insight or information, but upon what “they” say. Thus does stupidity reinforce itself.

Now, it is well known that most politicians get elected by 1) conducting a poll to find out what people think, and 2) spending a gazillion dollars on ads telling people that that’s what they think, too. That is, of course, as long as what people think is what the people who donate the gazillion dollars want them to think. It follows, then, that if what the people polled believe is dumb, what the politicians subsequently say and do will be dumb, too, and their votes and their power may have vastly unfortunate results.

It is less well known that science proceeds on the backs of grants, and the scientist who wants a grant of gazillions of dollars generally has to convince the gazillionaires that his project is going to make them happy and get them headlines. When a theory such as global climate change is gathering adherent and headlines, it is comparatively easy to fund a project designed to confirm it. When it starts going the other way, so does the research money.

That many scientists are as manipulative, deceitful and arrogant as many politicians has most recently been exposed by the purloined emails of the University of East Anglia. Researchers at this previously obscure institution have been raised to international fame because they were fudging data and spinning results. Wow. Climategate.

The stupidity loops are everywhere, from the animated-cartoon sales pitches for various medicines to the bumper-sticker philosophies of political candidates to the simplistic rants of the media hucksters. Pretty soon, if we do not insist on an injection of fact and actual thought into the public disclourse, it will all amplify itself into a primal scream.

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