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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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Silent Partners
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Apes, Men, & Language
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EDITORIAL MISCHIEF


Saturday October 19, 2013

Every now and then, the editors of The Wall Street Journal take flight to remind us of the meaning of the word casuistry. One such day was Oct. 1, the lead editorial jumped all over the latest IPCC report (a massive consensus document on climate change compiled from the work of more than a thousand scientists and policymakers from around the globe) because the report seemed to modulate its expectations of future warming. Here’s a couple of my favorite sentences from the editorial: “If emitting CO2 into the atmosphere causes global warming, why hasn’t the globe been warming?” and then, “Translation: Temperatures have been flat for 15 years…”

Except that they haven’t. The World Meteorological Association documents that the first decade of the new millennium was the warmest on record, breaking the record established by the previous decade, which in turn broke the record that was established during the one prior. The trend continues as every year seems to be in the top ten warmest.

Most sophistry builds upon something that looks factual, and denialists have seized on distortions introduced by the extremely hot year of 1998, where warming was supercharged by one of the strongest El Ninos in 200,000 years. The 1998 record  skewed subsequent trend lines. It was so warm that 1998 wasn’t bumped from the number one spot until 2005 (which in turn was displaced by 2010). Some flattening!

Focusing on temperature obscures the derivative impacts of global warming. For instance, the editors neglect to mention that the same report significantly revised upwards its estimates of sea level rise.  They also might have asked themselves: why, if the report implies global warming has halted, its assessment would be raising estimates of sea level rise.

There’s barely a sentence in the editorial that holds up under scrutiny. In the Orwellian world of the editorial it’s the climate scientists who are “bullies,” which is stammer-inducing when one thinks of the vitriol visited on Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist who has been hounded and even physically threatened by deniers for sticking to his assertion that recent temperatures have risen so fast recently that a graph of the record looks like a hockey stick. As attorney general of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli (now candidate for governor) pursued a Joe McCarthy-like campaign of intimidation of Mann that basically drove the distinguished scientist out of the state.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone who knows anything the role of the deniers in forestalling action on climate change. The enduring question is why? I’ve no doubt the editors are smart. They know that cherry-picking is a bogus form of argument. I’m sure they can see the economic damage of out-of-season extreme storms, droughts, wildfires, floods, and other byproducts of changing climate. My guess is that this obstinate blindness is something visceral rather than intellectual: with an acute dislike of the other side feeding on a combination of ideology and economic self-interest. 

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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