Comfort Zone

I managed to get to the Little early enough to get a ticket to see Comfort Zone before it sold out — its solitary screening (for now). It centers around how climate change will affect Rochester. It was made by local filmmakers Dave Danesh, Sean Donnelly, and Kate Kressmann-Kehoe: all are concerned, but each have different perspectives, and their on-camera discussions help us understand where they are coming from.

I thought the film was brutally honest and pulled no punches. I presume the filmmakers used reliable sources — after all it's only pseudo scientists who refute climate change altogether, and only a tiny percentage of legitimate climatologists don't believe it is caused by human CO2 production. In other words, it's peer-reviewed, proven theory that the excessive carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels is causing a dramatic change in climate.

The climate of upstate New York will change over the next 50 years to be more like what it is today somewhere between South Carolina and Alabama, depending on how well we change out habits as a species. And that's only if a cataclysmic tipping point is not tripped — one that, say, changes the oceans so they no longer absorb as much CO2, or if the melting permafrost releases it's sequestered methane and, well, snowballs the whole greenhouse effect totally out of control. But assuming we don't have a cataclysmic disaster on our hands, we can expect changes in this area.

For instance, elm trees well all likely die since freezing temperatures over winter help them fight certain kinds of diseases — once hard freezes over winter are gone, so go the elm. Likewise, apples won't produce nearly a much fruit and lilacs will flower less. Numerous plant and animal species will disappear or go extinct entirely. Things are changing; they always change, but this is a lot.

The film, in a way, projects a bleak view of what's to come. But the focus is really on what can be done now to make things less worse, and given the predicted climate change, what is to come and how we should adapt.

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Watching Ghost Bird at the Dryden

I was curious (especially after reading Dayna Papaleo's positive review in The City Newspaper) and headed to George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Ghost Bird.

The film lays out a tale of hope and skepticism. The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, but logging of its natural habitat in the southeastern United States, and (to a lesser extent) hunting resulted in its extinction. Declaring something "extinct" is a fickle thing because something is only extinct until one is seen again. And that's what happened … sort of, anyway. A bird watcher managed to barely catch a few frames of video of a large woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp that was thought to be an ivory-billed. Years of searching yielded no conclusive evidence (nor any tangential evidence like the tell-tale large nesting holes). Further muddying the search was that pileated woodpeckers — common in that area — could be almost as large and (to all but the best-trained eyes) look a lot like the ivory-billed.

As such, it's more a documentary about the complicated interplay between science, money, and hope. True scientific research (that is, research that does not have a specific economic or ideological goal) seeks the truth. But as researchers rely on money and jobs as much as anyone else, this creates pressure to conduct research that gets research dollars rather than what should be done next (in an interview with director Scott Crocker by Ben Radford, Crocker relays (sans formal attribution) that the "process of acquiring funding for research [is] akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall: whatever project sticks gets the green light. This 'stickiness factor' of proposals is often determined by very unscientific agendas having more to do with commercial and public relation interests.") And then there's the hope — against all odds — that humans did not actually wipe out a species.

As a believer in scientific research, I was rather shaken to learn that a pair of scientists had their paper silenced because it called into doubt the video depicted an ivory-billed woodpecker. I firmly believed that science was immutable to outside forces — that reasoned dissent was so integral to science that it could not be bribed away. Finding that I'm wrong breaks a few of the fundamental rules I had about what to believe.

I had relied on peer-reviewed and approved studies as the gold standard. But that assumed the review process was open and any rigorous argument would be published for review. And so (as I did a couple weeks ago) I'll revisit global warming and specifically whether it's significantly caused by humans. I understood that the self-perpetuating nature of research funding meant that (at least today) research projects whose thesis supported human-caused global-warming theory would be more strongly funded through traditional means of government and educational institutions. However, other wealthy interests were equally providing funding to discredit the theory: petroleum companies in particular would derive great benefit if global warming were not caused by man, so I had a high level of confidence in human-caused global-warming because of that balance.

Alas, the publishers of reviews are biased. So given that new information, where do I turn? Unfortunately I'm cornered into the milquetoast "the results are inconclusive." In other words, if I can find a rationale for significant bias, I can only ascertain that I can't confirm or deny the claims made as a result.

So let me formally split global warming. I don't think there is significant bias in the study of global temperatures, so based on research I've seen, the global average surface temperature is increasing. But as for the human influence on that warming trend, because of the bias from political, social, and economic forces, I cannot determine a reliable source. That said, I have yet to see where the addition of car exhaust, tires, garbage, or pollution has improved a natural habitat, so I'll continue to work to reduce my ecological impact.

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Thoughts on Complicated Issues

Dealing with complicated issues is a complicated issue. I find that it is impossible for a non-expert to rationally debate a complicated issue. Instead, it all comes down to belief.

Take global warming, for instance. There are people in the world who have spent their lives studying this: climatologists. As scientists (the real climatologists anyway) they posit a theory, test it against empirical evidence, publish the results, and let their peers (other real climatologists) analyze, critique, and collectively approve or reject it. The Wikipedia article references a separate page that cites hundreds of scientific organizations who collectively agree that the world is warming overall, the climatological system is changing, and that these changes are attributable to human activities. More conclusive, though, is that aside from four groups who stand by non-committal statements, "no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion" (the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who updated their stance in 2007 with a non-committal statement.)

However, I am not a climatologist by any means. As such, I'm left to judge by belief alone: I believe that climatologists have studied this issue and agreed that humans are causing climate change, and that these climatologists do not have sufficient ulterior motives to lie. I don't think it's possible to predict exactly how these changes will manifest themselves, but as a believer that humans are well-suited to the current climatological situation, I can't see any change being likely to give advantage to us — almost all climatological changes will be unpleasant to our situation.

Some people choose instead to believe what they hear through the media, or from someone they respect (regardless of their true expertise as a climatologist), or from a celebrity or public figure, or from their personal experience, or from their non-climatological-expert analysis. Some believe much more strongly in the predictions than the assessment. But in all those differences, people are trying to debate with insufficient information. Belief is irrational and can't be debated: all that can be done is to explain one's rationale and listen to another's rationale and decide for yourself whether you want to change your mind.

Health care, on the other hand, has three sets of experts: one for the health facet, one for the money facet, and one for the moral facet: I have not encountered rigorous scientific analysis from any group, nor on the system as a whole. Doctors (while their medical practice is scientifically based) can only say that most people will live a comfortable life and may need temporary corrective care to maintain that, that any corrective effort is exponentially less severe the earlier it is started, and that a few people will require more constant care to permit a comfortable existence. Insurance companies and nations with nationalized health systems provide data indicating cost; as best I can tell, any system has approximately the same cost across its whole population. Finally, philosophers can provide the moral facet by asking, "is health valuable?" The answer transcends the other two groups as doctors' Hippocratic oath implicitly declares it so, and it is certainly a lucrative proposition as no parent would keep any wealth or a specific possession in preference to their child's life and health.

Without the benefit of a quality analysis, we are left to muddle through argument without full knowledge, again leaning on belief. Do we have more faith in government or corporations (as if they are different masters)? Should we help strangers? Will people we don't know exploit our generosity? Would we be willing to watch our own child die? Would we wish that on someone else?

My point of this exercise is to say that we all select where we get our knowledge and we use our beliefs to decide which knowledge informs our decisions. Implicit in that statement is my own belief that rational, reasoned discourse is the superior form of changing opinions.

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Bob Spahn Talks About Climate Change and Bird Migration at Thursday Thinkers

I went to The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) to check out the Thursday Thinkers lecture: Bob Spahn was to talk about The Earlier Springs, Later Falls in terms of whether birds are extending their migratory stay in the north owing to a warming climate. He rephrased the question: "do we have bird record data to show changes in arrival dates indicating warming climates?" and to that he said no.

He examined the data from several regional ornithological groups' records of arrival dates of birds in New York State but found no statistically significant difference in dates over 25 years of records. At first I wasn't satisfied with his analysis, but as the lecture continued, I realized it was the data that was the culprit. He mentioned that when you set out to analyze data, you need to carefully specify how to collect the data so it's relevant and useful.

The idea behind the data collection in New York State was to determine the number of each species of bird. As such, there were also notes of the first recorded sightings of each species. Additionally, the state is divided into 5-mile-by-5-mile regions for analysis. The criteria for observation seems specific, but even as Spahn noted: he recorded data for one region for several years until someone else took over and there was a huge disparity between their reports.

An alternative question to ask is, "is there a correlation between bird arrival dates and climate temperature?" The answer is "probably not". Spahn said that it's believed that bird migration is dictated by light levels. According to the WikiPedia article on bird migration, the purpose of migration is believed to do with the longer days in northern climates in the summer (i.e. more hours of daylight than the tropics) providing more hours to feed their young. Thus, even if there were climate change, it would likely not be shown in bird migration.

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The Death of Hope

I started thinking about how it's the start of 2008 and what I can be hopeful for. And by "hope", I'm referring to a "belief that things will be better in the future". Not necessarily a specific time period, but I guess "in my lifetime" or "reasonably soon". Something like that.

I watched this video on YouTube called How It All Ends by a high-school science teacher named Greg. In it he outlines the response to the possibility of global warming in terms of risk-assessment. Either global warming is happening and caused by us, or it isn't, and either we do something about it or do nothing. His argument is that there are two positive outcomes: we do nothing and the threat of global warming was false, or we do something and it was true but we fix it. However, if we do something and global warming wasn't happening then — the worst case — is that we have a large economic hit; if we do nothing and global warming is happening, then — the worst case again — is that there are floods, droughts, and famines on a scale humanity has never seen. His bet, therefore, is to just take the economic hit and not worry about it.

But remember the last "catastrophic event" that was to happen?: the Y2K bug. And what happened? Nothing. And why? Because we took the economic hit of fixing everything we could find. And what did people believe? It was all a lie to start with.

So likewise with global warming, if I'm out there saying "travel less" and "use less energy" and that becomes forced upon people and then nothing bad happens, people will simply believe that global warming was a myth. They'll blame us "global warming freaks" for ruining their lives. And then if catastrophe does strike, they'll blame us "global warming freaks" for doing the wrong thing and not fixing everything for them. Therefore, my best bet is to quietly go off and figure out how to live in the catastrophic post-global-warming world without being seen. But that's not really hopeful at all — it's just surviving disaster.

The catalyst for this post, though, was in trying to do taxes. I wanted to get my taxes done early because I'm self-employed and need to hand over checks to the U.S. Government on a regular basis. If I don't estimate correctly, I get hit with a huge fine. But I can avoid it entirely if I file by January 31 and pay everything I owe. The only problem is that the forms I need from my bank and mortgage company won't arrive until after January 31, so it would be essentially illegal to file before January 31. So I've got my fingers crossed that I won't get in trouble.

I really wish taxes were simpler, but it's only me and other small business owners that even see it. I remember puzzling about how bad it really was in the 1990's — after all, the company I worked for handled all the hard stuff, and at the end of the year I'd fill out a few lines on a 1040EZ and get a check in the mail. Awesome! What's wrong with that system?

But worse is that I actually write a check to the government. If I don't, I'd go to prison which I don't want to do. I don't want the government to kill more people in Iraq, but my voice is not represented in the U.S. Government — I still have to pay taxes, though. [And here I thought that's why we fought that big war 230 some-odd years ago against England.] My big lament, though, is that I voluntarily sign the check to pay fund the war. If I were just a regular working person, I could claim that I don't get a choice — that taxes automatically come out of my paycheck.

And it's not like we're getting out of Iraq any time soon. It's a question of "how many Iraqis do we need to kill before they believe in freedom?" The real answer is, "we are the problem," but W. doesn't believe in being wrong. By the way, what ever happened to Osama bin Laden? We apparently failed to hang him, so I can only imagine he's planning another 9/11. I don't see any hope at all on that whole situation.

It used to be fashionable to help the poor — to ensure they have food, shelter, and water. Somewhere along the way "shelter" got eliminated, so it was just to feed the poor, but lately it's food stamps and welfare that are crippling the country. And water? Well if you can't afford to buy the clean stuff in the bottles you deserve what you get. What's next, air?

What about providing youth programs to keep kids off the street? Nah: just get more police to shoot them when they form gangs and start killing people. Health care? Hopeless. Public education? Hopeless.

The other day I was riding home from the Public Market — I took my bike with the trailer to get stuff — and I went to turn onto my street. I had to get into the left lane and I didn't see anyone behind me. As I turned into the turn-lane, someone tried passing me just at that moment and broke off the mirror on my bike. I was less than an inch away from getting knocked off the bike, and barely a foot away from being killed.

But did they stop? Hell no. I was just an obstacle in their way — a nuisance. Probably some worthless beggar who'd be better off dead than alive. I mean, can you believe that I thought I was permitted to ride on the street? That's for cars, moron!

And so goes the last shred of human decency: that nearly killing someone else is okay — in fact, it was my fault anyway for making them decide whether they needed to touch their brakes.

With that goes the last of hope.

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