Strategy for Azimuth

Timothy Gowers posted a comment on the ‘Technology for Azimuth’ thread which deserves to be a post in its own right. So, I’ll move it here:

John, this isn’t to do with the technological questions, but it’s sort of relevant. One of the reasons I’ve done nothing about climate change is a feeling that even if the science were 100% clear to all serious-minded people in the world, there are enough non-serious-minded people and vested interests, and enough prisoner’s-dilemma type problems, that actually getting something done about the problem is hopeless.

My question therefore is what you mean when you say that you want to help save the planet. Or rather, I think I know the answer, but I want to check that I’ve got it right. Is it something like this: you want to create a resource that is so well-informed (it would get a reputation for being scientifically very sound) and so balanced (it would also get a reputation for being very clear about what is known and what is not known, and what the general certainty levels are) that it would become a recognised authority, and one that cranks would have a very hard time criticizing.

Why does that help save the planet? For precisely the political reasons I’ve just talked about. It is clear that actually changing policy is much much easier if you have most voters on your side. And to do that, people have to act as go-betweens, explaining the science in a clear and checkable way to non-scientists. In other words, you would be trying to help push the world towards a benign tipping point where it becomes politically easy to take measures against climate change rather than politically virtually impossible.

If something like that is your mission statement, then a general remark about the technology of the forum and wiki would be that it should be designed to optimize the result from that point of view. (That is supposed to be the very slight relevance of this comment to this thread, but really I’m interested in the question for its own sake.)

My reply:

Gowers wrote:

One of the reasons I’ve done nothing about climate change is a feeling that even if the science were 100% clear to all serious-minded people in the world, there are enough non-serious-minded people and vested interests, and enough prisoner’s-dilemma type problems, that actually getting something done about the problem is hopeless.

I agree, it’s hopeless. That’s an important realization. I was rather gloomy for a year or two after that sank in.

But then I came to my senses. I said: okay, so the problem is “hopeless”. But what does that actually mean? Is the world coming to an end? Will everyone die? Will all species go extinct?

I think the answer is obviously no.

If the world were coming to an end, and we knew that for sure, we’d be off the hook. We could say: “Nothing I do will have any really have any effect, so I might as well just relax and enjoy myself”.

But we are not off the hook. Even if a disaster of some sort is certain, there are different degrees of disaster, and it’s our responsibility to minimize the disaster.

I’m pretty sure that politicians and the mass of citizens will take significant action on global warming only when things get quite bad. By then, even drastically slashing carbon emissions won’t improve the climate for hundreds of years. Emission reductions will be necessary to keep things from getting worse, but not sufficient to make things better.

So, while we’re frantically struggling to cut carbon emissions, kicking ourselves for not starting sooner, we’ll presumably also do a mixture of:

1) adaptation,

2) geo-engineering, and

3) suffering.

(Under the heading of ‘geo-engineering’ I include actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere as well as various potentially riskier strategies to cool down the Earth — including strategies that could backfire and make things a lot worse.)

But how will it go, exactly? I think there’s quite a spectrum of possible futures to consider here, ranging from slightly bad to quite bad to very bad to very very bad. And I think we should all work hard to avoid the worst end of that spectrum.

And we have to do it now, because people don’t always get better at optimizing their collective behavior when things get worse. Sometimes they do things like start wars.

(Civilizations have collapsed due to climate change before. I’ve been reading about that a lot, and I’ll talk about it someday.)

My question therefore is what you mean when you say that you want to help save the planet.

I mean I want to do my best to achieve a future near the better end of the spectrum of possibilities.

But of course the question is then: how do I do it?

And the answer to this presumably depends a lot on the person asking it. We’re all good at different things, and if we take advantage of our particular skills, I think we can accomplish a lot more than if we do what’s ‘best’ in some general way but not particularly best for us.

So, while global warming is mainly a political issue, and we really need some brilliant politicians to tackle it, I have to figure out something else to do — something that I’ll be good at — since I’m not good at politics. And I’m still trying to figure this out. But I have some ideas.

Is it something like this: you want to create a resource that is so well-informed (it would get a reputation for being scientifically very sound) and so balanced (it would also get a reputation for being very clear about what is known and what is not known, and what the general certainty levels are) that it would become a recognised authority, and one that cranks would have a very hard time criticizing.

Actually that’s not quite my goal — though it’s close enough that I might try to do that too.

You see, I do think it’s important to make reliable and well-presented information about environmental issues more easily available. But I don’t think making it ‘hard for cranks to criticize’ should be a major goal. That strategy is too purely defensive. And cranks will criticize anything.

Of course you can try to provide information that’s so clear that ordinary citizens will see it makes much more sense than what the cranks are saying. And this is a good idea — though at least in the US, it would be quite hard to change a lot of minds that are already made up.

But I’m starting to lean towards something more like this: try to provide information that’s so clear that scientists and engineers will see it makes much more sense than what the cranks are saying.

And, simultaneously, provide these scientists and engineers with ideas about what they can do now. There are lots of projects to work on. Lots of scientists are already doing them — but where can you look to see all these projects, in a nicely organized way? Where can you see people with many different approaches discussing their relative merits? I think there might be a hole here.

Ideas are welcome! That’s one thing the Azimuth Forum will be about: what to do.

Bane wrote:

I don’t know what John’s “tactics” are, but here’s my personal “hopes”.

The view of vested interests, whilst certainly having some truth to it, doesn’t strike me as the whole story. Human beings are incredibly, amazingly bizarre creatures with almost often seemingly arbitrary obsessions. There are all sort of phenomena (for recent examples consider twitter, buying iPads, the tea party movement, owning a Prius, buying fairtrade, etc, as well as older examples such as “sending me to the moon”) where (in my personal analysis) an awful lot of the people involved don’t really have deep personally thought out reasons for their behaviour, they’re more responding to something in the collective atmosphere (“zeitgeist”) that vaguely resonates with existing personality and values. Note that I’m not saying that there aren’t some people engaged in any of those activities who haven’t thought long and hard about them and that they aren’t necessarily good things, just that most of the “followers” haven’t. And it seems like with increasing media ubiquity and commonality, the size of “group behaviours” is increasing all the time. (FWIW, I’m sure I have my own zeitgeist behaviours, it’s not an “I’m superior to them” point.)

As such, it doesn’t seem impossible to me that, if scientists and technologists come up with some “improvements” (whether it’s a gadget, technology, behaviour) that it could be marketed in such a way that they become various group behaviours that are big enough to affect the planet. (Whilst not impossible, it does strike me as unlikely, but orders of magnitude more plausible than governments acting on the basis of scientific reports, which I imagine we both think is virtually impossible.)

So what I’d hope is that the Azimuth resources point new scientists/technologists to both

(a) actual problems to work on responses

(b) areas where science doesn’t have any idea what’s going on so that they can be firmed up into concrete problems and feed into point (a).

Indeed, these are some of the things I hope we do!

I’m going to Bali for a while, but then I’ll come back and on September 27th I’ll open the doors to:

• the Azimuth Project (our wiki)

and

• the Azimuth Forum (our discussion forum).

The Azimuth Forum will be a great place to discuss issues of strategy as well as more day-to-day aspects of running the wiki. But for now let’s talk about strategy here.

We need to be smart about this to have any significant effect.

74 Responses to Strategy for Azimuth

  1. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    John, you might be interested in reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus if you haven’t already. There are some ideas there about group action and social media that might be fruitful if you plan on getting average citizens involved, if only in very minor roles.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks! Some of the principles here might also apply to ‘non-average’ citizens, that is, more specialized groups of people.

      Here’s an outline of the contents by M. M. McDonald at the Amazon link you gave:

      Clay Shirky captured the ethos of social media with his book Here Comes Everybody. He follows that book up with one that concentrates on the fundamentals of turning our cognitive surplus into value. Cognitive Surplus provides a compelling and clear description of the fundamentals of social media and collaboration as well providing principles that are guiding developments and innovation in this space.

      There are many books out there that either describe the social media phenomenon or profess to provide a `recipe’ for success. Neither of these approaches can provide you with the insight needed to effectively experiment and deploy social media for the simple reason that social media is changing too fast.

      The book is organized into seven chapters that outline a complete way of thinking about social media.

      Chapter 1: Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus sets the context of social change and evolution of free time. This chapter sets the context for the rest of the story giving you the perspective to think through the issues.

      Chapter 2: Means discusses the transition of the means of production from one of scarcity controlled by professionals to abundance and the participation of amateurs.

      Chapter 3: Motive captures the essence of the reasons why people contribute their time, talent and attention to collective action. Here Shirky talks about issues of autonomy, competence, generosity and sharing.

      Chapter 4: Opportunity recognizes the importance of creating ways of taking advantage of group participation. This chapter contains discussions of behavioral economics and the situations which generates group participation.

      Chapter 5: Culture discusses the differences between extrinsic rewards – where people are paid to perform a task and the culture of intrinsic rewards – where compensation comes outside of a formal contracted pay.

      Chapter 6: Personal, Communal, Public, Civic this chapter brings it all together giving the book a solid foundation illustrated by compelling examples.

      Chapter 7: Looking for the Mouse is as meaty a chapter as any in the book. Normally the final chapter wraps up, but here Shirky discusses 11 principles associated with tapping into cognitive surplus. These principles are among the best in the book.

      This book gives you a way to thinking about how people contribute their time, attention and knowledge and therefore how you can think about social media. In my opinion, this is THE BOOK to read if you are new to the subject of mass collaboration, social media, Web 2.0 etc.

  2. streamfortyseven says:

    One really effective thing we can do is to appeal to peoples’ baser instincts: greed, and the desire to save money, and laziness, and the desire not to expend energy.

    It takes money and energy to fight Nature, and in so doing you end up producing CO2, amongst other sorts of entropy. There are ways to avoid this, and still end up with a comfortable lifestyle.

    I’ll be looking into a couple of things myself: passive solar heating of a water reservoir, and thermoacoustic heating/refrigeration/electrical energy generation.

    • John Baez says:

      Streamfortyseven writes:

      It takes money and energy to fight Nature, and in so doing you end up producing CO2, amongst other sorts of entropy. There are ways to avoid this, and still end up with a comfortable lifestyle.

      Indeed. Using my superpowers, I think I can tell that you’re interested in permaculture. A multi-part interview on permaculture is coming up on This Week’s Finds. I think it’s very important to infuse our economy and agricultural system with a deep understanding of and respect for thermodynamics.

      I’ll be looking into a couple of things myself: passive solar heating of a water reservoir, and thermoacoustic heating/refrigeration/electrical energy generation.

      Great! If you want to do a blog post here, just let me know. I’d also love information about those topics on the Azimuth Project wiki.

  3. Peter Morgan says:

    On the difficulty of changing the political climate, at least in the US, Bill McKibben, of 350.org, has a post at TomDispatch,
    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175296/tomgram:_bill_mckibben,_the_enthusiasm_gap_in_the_white_house/
    Meeting bureaucrats in the White House as a result of a media-promoted “event” strategy can apparently be met with stone-walling condescension. Who knew? It’s possible that a Scientific Data-driven approach can contribute more to moving Executive and Legislative types than media creativity, but I suspect subtle Legislative Creativity would impress them at least as much as subtle Scientific and Technological Creativity. Get law-drafting in the mix.

    A small thing that I find particularly Hopeless is the difficulty of throwing stuff away. I don’t like to throw away working incandescent light bulbs, or, if I could afford it, to tear down the building I live in, sending its irreplaceable 1920s building materials to the dump, to reconstruct it with better insulation, geothermal and solar heating, etc, so that the new building could fall down in thirty years while saving energy. Now that LED lighting is looking so good, how can I throw away a working fluorescent light bulb, which is, as well, environmentally significantly worse than the incandescent technology?

    • John Baez says:

      It’s possible that a Scientific Data-driven approach can contribute more to moving Executive and Legislative types than media creativity, but I suspect subtle Legislative Creativity would impress them at least as much as subtle Scientific and Technological Creativity. Get law-drafting in the mix.

      Unfortunately I know very little about how to craft laws and get them passed — and the same is true for the people I talk to. You may not know me, but I’m sort of an ‘arch-nerd’. My reputation and charisma, if any, relies on the fact that I work on fancy math and physics, and spent huge amounts of time explaining this stuff on a column called This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics. So, I know tons of mathematicians and physicists, a few scientists of other sorts, but practically no politicians or lawyers. I’ve gotta work with what I’ve got.

      Bill McKibben, whose visit to the White House you pointed out, is doing a pretty good job of leading a grassroots movement, namely 350.org. Anyone who doesn’t know about McKibben or 350.org should instantly fix this. And anyone who wants to get involved in a grassroots movement on climate change should go to 350.org.

      Grassroots movements aren’t exactly the same as the political players who draft legislation. There are also environmental organizations deeply skilled in drafting legislation that actually passes. They are already hard at work on climate change. Within the United States, I recommend the Environmental Defense Fund. I also recommend this book:

      • Eric Pooley, The Climate War, Hyperion, 2010.

      Anybody who wants to get up to speed on the history of American climate change legislation has got to read this.

      I also recommend that people look into the The Alliance for Climate Protection.

      Anyway, it seems silly for Azimuth to compete with these and other organizations. It’s better if we do something new and learn to do it well:

      • create a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet,

      and

      • make clearly presented, accurate information on the relevant issues easy to find.

  4. Allan E says:

    Today you ask “the question is then: how do I do it?”

    Do you in any way anticipate that Azimuth (or somewhere like it) might become a focal point for action as opposed to just reliable information?

    If so perhaps a reputation system on the forum that awards points for distinguished “action posts” rather than just plain “comment posts” could be worth incorporating into a broader strategy?

    • John Baez says:

      Allan writes:

      Do you in any way anticipate that Azimuth (or somewhere like it) might become a focal point for action as opposed to just reliable information?

      Yes, though I’m imagining that it will focus on action of a scientific or engineering sort, rather than a political, legislative or economic sort.

      Action of a scientific sort often involves trying to find the truth, and is thus closely related to ‘reliable information’.

      Action of an engineering sort often involve building something that works well, so this is a bit different — but close enough that I’m open to including it. Science and engineering work synergetically; each by itself is incomplete.

      Political and legislative action often involves convincing lots of people to do something. While this is incredibly important, I think this would distract in a dangerous way from ‘trying to find the truth’.

      Economic action — for example, what streamfortyseven suggests — is also incredibly important. But I suspect that Azimuth will lose focus if it tries to get too directly involved in this. Instead of trying to sell people solar water heaters (for example), I’ll think we’ll do better if we 1) explain how the best solar water heaters work and how well they work, 2) find out what challenges face people who are trying to build better solar water heaters, and 3) see if we can get any ideas for building better ones. This will catalyze economic action, but still stay within the sphere of science and engineering.

      If so perhaps a reputation system on the forum that awards points for distinguished “action posts” rather than just plain “comment posts” could be worth incorporating into a broader strategy?

      That could be good!

      After September 27th, I plan to start blogging about different topics in a systematic attempt to find

      1) groups of scientists and engineers working on various specific problems,

      2) ideas these people have had,

      3) questions that they have,

      4) questions that they should be thinking about, but aren’t.

      This information can then be fed into the wiki. But yes, some sort of reputation or reward system might speed up this process. The current technology for the Azimuth Forum does not support this very well, but maybe someone will help us out.

      I’ve considered a system of monetary prizes!

      • The current technology for the Azimuth Forum does not support this very well, but maybe someone will help us out.

        It can. There are plugins for the underlying software that allow full-blown community moderation or just voting for comments/discussions. I’d just need to make sure that they played nicely with my own plugins. So let me know if these are wanted.

      • John Baez says:

        Andrew wrote:

        It can.

        Wow! Let’s wait until the grand opening on September 27th, and see who comes to the Azimuth Forum, and let them take a while to get to know the place and decide what they want it to be like. But it’s great to know that it could be an option.

  5. I have two comments on technology for GW:

    1. I realize this is a very controversial topic, but can we really neglect population control and reduction? It seems a bit disingenuous to me to do so.

    2. Would it not be a good idea to have a space to rebut the more sober and well argued of the climate skeptics? As a newcomer to this topic, I really am confused as to the strength of the evidence, though it does seem intuitively obvious that we are heating the earth.

    • John Baez says:

      Raghu – Since your comment is not about ‘technology for Azimuth’, but rather the strategy Azimuth should pursue, I’ve moved it to this thread.

      1. I realize this is a very controversial topic, but can we really neglect population control and reduction? It seems a bit disingenuous to me to do so.

      I’m not planning to neglect it: it was on my big list of topics in “week301″. I want to address all those topics on Azimuth, from the viewpoint of:

      • creating a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet,

      and

      • making clearly presented, accurate information on the relevant issues easy to find.

      There’s a lot of disagreement regarding ‘overpopulation’, in part because the birth rate is dropping quickly in most economically developed or highly urbanized areas. Azimuth can make a contribution by trying to assess this controversy in a fact-driven and dispassionate way.

      But of course, population is also very much a political issue. I plan to minimize the amount of politics on Azimuth, since when it comes to politics, people start arguing primarily based on convictions rather than evidence. That may be fine, and it seems unavoidable, but it’s hard to mix science and politics without science taking the back seat.

      2. Would it not be a good idea to have a space to rebut the more sober and well argued of the climate skeptics? As a newcomer to this topic, I really am confused as to the strength of the evidence, though it does seem intuitively obvious that we are heating the earth.

      Please answer this question: it’s very important to me. Do you want Azimuth to spend time rebutting climate skeptics because:

      1) you are unfamiliar with the many websites that do this, such as RealClimate, Skeptical Science, and Climate Change.

      or

      2) you have examined the arguments on these websites and find them insufficient

      ?

      Azimuth shouldn’t do something that’s already being done — it should do something new. If there’s something that already does the job you want, we don’t need to do that.

      (If the answer to my question is 1), I recommend spending a week looking over the introductory posts on the blogs I listed.)

  6. Hybrid Moiety says:

    I think there is still a lot to learn about the science related to global warming. There is also enough scope in green energy research that will take decades to fully develop.

    In terms of goal setting I am taught to think in terms of base goals, working goals, and stretch goals. It is often that you cannot achieve a goal alone, but a team of people can.

    • John Baez says:

      I agree, there’s plenty with climate change and energy technology to keep scientists busy for decades, and I’m also very interested in the science and technology surrounding water supplies, extinction of species, deforestation, ocean acidification and eutrophication, population issues, and more. I can’t help but feel these are all part of a single issue — perhaps because I’m sort of a generalist.

      So, my base goal is to start making it easy for scientists and engineers to learn about all these topics in an integrated way, instead of piecemeal, a bit here and a bit there. To do a really good job, I’ll need you, and everyone else who reads this, to help out. But if you don’t, I’ll just go ahead and do a crappy job.

  7. Tim van Beek says:

    JB said:

    Political and legislative action often involves convincing lots of people to do something. While this is incredibly important, I think this would distract in a dangerous way from ‘trying to find the truth’.

    I’d second that and add that you cannot do both a political and a scientific discussion at the same time, and very few people have the capability to excel in both disciplines.

    Example: As a political candidate during a campaign, it is one of your duties to clearly state your opinions to the electorate and stick with those. People need to know what they vote for if they vote for you. As a scientist it is your duty to carefully evaluate every aspect and to always question your opinions. You cannot do both at the same time.

    This is one reason for the common cultural clash between scientists and politicians (scientist: “they always simplify anything until its either wrong or not even wrong”; politician: “one can’t get a clear-cut instruction what to do from them anyway, no use in asking, we have to figure it out ourselves”.)

    JB said:

    I’ve considered a system of monetary prizes!

    Huh?

    (How about an “Azimuth Federal Cross of Merit”? One that I can download and print out? Anyway, I don’t accept Singapore dollars.)

  8. gowers says:

    It strikes me that the more modest-sounding goal you mention of getting all (apart from a few crazy) scientists and engineers to accept whatever facts about climate change deserve to be accepted might not be so modest after all. Most people like to form their opinions on things they don’t know about by looking at what relevant authority figures are saying. If all scientifically (in the broadest sense) educated people agreed about certain propositions to do with climate change, and not just specialists in the area, then that would filter through to a much wider class of people (though obviously not to the Sarah Palins of this world).

    Having said that, in Britain the Royal Society is entirely sensible in its pronouncements about climate change, and that doesn’t stop there being large numbers of sceptics. Nevertheless, I think it is realistic to hope for climate change scepticism to become as eccentric as thinking that there is no link between AIDS and HIV, or that the theory of evolution is false (i.e., not as eccentric as one would like, but still pretty eccentric).

    • John Baez says:

      There’s been some interesting research on these questions. From Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog:

      • Dan M. Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith, and Donald Braman, Cultural cognition of scientific consensus, Journal of Risk Research, (February 7, 2010). Forthcoming. Available at SSRN.

      Abstract: The goal of the study was to examine a distinctive explanation for the failure of members of the public to form beliefs consistent with apparent scientific consensus on climate change and other issues of risk. We hypothesized that scientific opinion fails to quiet societal dispute on such issues not because members of the public are unwilling to defer to experts but because culturally diverse persons tend to form opposing perceptions of what experts believe. Individuals systematically overestimate the degree of scientific support for positions they are culturally predisposed to accept as a result of a cultural availability effect that influences how readily they can recall instances of expert endorsement of those positions.

      They did a study, which found, among other things, that the American public in general is culturally divided on what “scientific consensus” is on climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and concealed-handgun laws.

      “The problem isn’t that one side ‘believes’ science and another side ‘distrusts’ it,” said Dan Kahan. He said the more likely reason for the disparity “is that people tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.”

      • gowers says:

        I find that very plausible, and the conclusion I would want to draw from it is that the scientific consensus on climate change would have to be very strong indeed if wider public attitudes are to change. But that still seems a realistic enough goal to be worth pursuing.

        To draw on my own experience, when I saw Bjorn Lomborg’s book in bookshops a few years ago, it appealed (after a glance through — I didn’t actually buy and read it) to my contrarian instincts, as well as to my wish that climate change would turn out to be like other end-of-world scares that have come to nothing, and as a result I became what one might call a mild sceptic: that is, I thought that perhaps the threat had been exaggerated, but I did not think that as a result of any kind of careful consideration. I was shaken out of that by a geologist colleague who was depressed about the methane-in-permafrost problem, and who so clearly took it for granted that climate change was a big danger that disagreement felt silly. And since then, I’ve noticed that people who say that there’s a problem tend to have much better arguments than people who say there isn’t.

        The point I’m making by relating this is that the degree of scientific consensus had a noticeable effect on me, as someone with a broadly scientific attitude combined with emotional reasons for wanting climate change not to be a problem.

        • gowers, I like to second your story on your geologist colleague with my story of how I got convinced that climate change is a serious problem:

          My conversion took less than 1/10th of a second:
          It was ca. 1997 when I met this guy on a bus in northern Greece (far away from any academic institution). When he told me he’s doing atmospheric physics I played devil’s advocate and made a silly denialist joke on climate change. And then I saw his face drop in disgust and horror… That I found more convincing than his later elaborations on the science.

          (And he had fascinating things to tell on cloud modeling and Banach space valued stochastic differential equations – oh sweet dreams of math! While back at university I got bored to death with SDEs in financial math, never ever hearing about their fascinating applications in climate science. I had to travel to that Greek forest to learn this… Now I hope to hear more such math sweeties in This Week’s Finds here…)

      • Eugene says:

        I looked at the paper (perhaps too briefly) and I rather disagree with its conclusions.

        I, as a member of the public, am unwilling to defer to some experts. For example, if a doctor funded by a tobacco company tells me that smoking is safe, I am dubious. If a nuclear engineer tells me that a particular nuclear reactor design is perfectly safe, I think of the Three Mile Island. On the other hand, if a Green Peace scientist recommends construction of nuclear power plants with a particular design, I am willing to take it a lot more seriously. I believe that there is a more to the story than “cultural congeniality.” I am not a complete idiot. Look at all the ghost-written medical “research.”

        Another aspect of the study that very much troubles me is that the authors sort the respondents into “hierarchical individualists”
        and “egalitarian communitarians.” This completely ignores many other dimensions. The one dimension that would provide a rather different explanation of their results is scientific literacy. It would have been more interesting and revealing if the authors, in stead of investigating believes on global warming, nuclear safety, and concealed handguns, had focused instead on Darwinian evolution and tried to correlate that with amount of scientific education of the subjects.

        I have a friend of many years who attended religious schools and never had a science course in college either. We have had many entertaining discussions. The discussions changed after the friend took a physics course at a community college.

        • John Baez says:

          Eugene: you are an overly educated, overly intelligent, prickly sort of person who deliberately defies all the classification schemes of social scientists.

          I am not a complete idiot.

          Like I said.

          So one question is how many people like you there are. While there might be very few — say, 1% of the population or less — these people could still be very important, because they do important things. Indeed, it could be these people that I’m trying to reach with Azimuth. I’m not sure.

      • bane says:

        In response to Eugene:

        Part of the problem is that people always think they “analytically believe” they believe for good reasons. (In my original post mentioning “zeitgeist behaviours”, I tried hard to put enough variety on the list that everyone would find something they think “But that’s a genuinely good thing” so that it wouldn’t be interpreted as “all these group behaviour things are also stupid things”.) I believe it’s a lot easier to pick something that resonates with one’s beliefs whilst thinking it’s a completely evidence based choice than we’d like to think.

        As a simple example, I don’t account Greenpeace any credence at all, based purely on an incident in the UK where they mounted a big campaign about the environmental damage of one policy relative to another, only to have it revealed that they’d picked an option they intuitively liked and then claimed to have evidence to back it up (when later scrutiny revealed they were diametrically wrong). Now maybe they’ve improved in recent years and I should scrutinise what they say on their own merits, but being honest they’re probably for me in a mental category of “untrustworthy entities” and that colours my views of what they say.

        FWIW, I suspect if you did a study on evolution you’d probably find that educated religious people just have more complicated arguments for why they either disbelieve in evolution or believe evolution is actually what is implicit in their religious teachings.

      • Tim van Beek says:

        Some questions and thoughts after a quick glance at the paper:

        Isn’t the “hierarchy-individualism” versus “egalitarianism-communitarianism” classification simply the same as “Republicans versus Democrats”?

        Haven’t the authors simply rediscovered “cognitive dissonance”?

        What is the “cultural availability effect”? Isn’t most information available to almost everyone in the USA through TV and internet?

        There are certainly many people who do not believe in science as the most trustworthy authority at all.

        There are continents where most people would not agree that every of the posed questions are scientific questions, like Europe and “GUN”. (I know that some people do believe that the crime rate in Switzerland is low because every able man is required to keep a gun in his home – that’s because there is general conscription in Switzerland and national law dictates that people are responsible for their own military equipment. Try to tell anyone in Switzerland that allowing people to carry guns on them during times of peace is something worthy to discuss.)

        • Eugene says:

          John, apologies for being prickly. I am afraid my bullshit detector went off. I believe that the data in the paper can be interpreted as follows: who a given person would regard as a trustworthy source of information would depend on what that given person knows and believes. This is a bit different from the conclusion that the authors reach.

          But let me get back to a larger point that you are making, so it won’t get lost in nitpicking. I agree with you that global change is happening, that human activity has a lot to do with it (if not directly driving it) and that it is a problem. I also agree with you that unless a sizeable group of people in the position of influence shares these believes, the problems are unlikely to be addressed.

          So how do you persuade people? My impression is that there is a large body of literature on belief formation and maintenance. My favourite non-technical book on the subject (discovered through a random browsing in the library) is Mistakes were made (but not by me) by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris.

          Another book I’d like to bring to everyone’s attention is related to a discussion of climate engineering (probably on a different thread). It left an impression on me:

          Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott.

        • John Baez says:

          Eugene wrote:

          John, apologies for being prickly.

          I don’t mind your prickliness! It’s one of your valuable traits. I was just trying to say that you shouldn’t try to refute a sociological study based on your own personal example: you’re too much of an outlier.

          By now, others here have called this study into question in quite a number of other ways…

          So how do you persuade people? My impression is that there is a large body of literature on belief formation and maintenance.

          One more thing we need to learn about, over on the Azimuth Project!

      • John F says:

        So many words, so little data. Much social science reminds me of consumer products “research”.

        One of the singularly obvious effects they always leave out of survey-type analyses is our human presumption of the possibility of fraud. We are cognitively biased against others’ cheating. The main reason, and only reason in many cases, that people don’t believe what experts say is that they think the experts may be lying or that what is said is being presented deceptively e.g. to advance an agenda.

        I am aware of this bias and try to correct for it, but can’t eliminate it. I even tend to play games, such as chess, as though the rules might get broken or change ever so slightly.

      • John Baez says:

        Tim wrote:

        Isn’t the “hierarchy-individualism” versus “egalitarianism-communitarianism” classification simply the same as “Republicans versus Democrats”?

        Yes, it sounds suspiciously similar.

        Now that I live in Singapore (and even more now after attending a full moon ceremony in a small village in Bali), I have become sensitized to the annoying tendency of American sociologists to treat local and temporary features of human behavior as universal human traits.

        The paper we’re talking about, ‘Cultural cognition of scientific consensus’, did a survey of Americans… but the abstract presents the conclusions in universal terms, never mentioning America. That’s bad science! It’s like doing an experiment to measure the melting point of aluminum and concluding that “metals tend to melt at 660 °C”.

        It’s perfectly valid to study just Americans. But when it comes to climate change, it’s just as interesting and perhaps more important to understand Chinese and Indians — and we should not blindly extrapolate from one society to another.

        I recently heard a philosopher jokingly define ‘sociology’ as the study of ‘us’ and ‘anthropology’ as the study of ‘them’. Now that the world is a tightly interlinked system, we need to change this.

        What is the “cultural availability effect”? Isn’t most information available to almost everyone in the USA through TV and internet?

        Not really: for one thing, many people in the USA only speak English, and there’s a lot of important information that’s not in English. More generally, there’s a lot of information that you can get if you work hard enough, but a much smaller amount that reaches you even when you don’t try. We can expect most people’s decisions will be based on this smaller selection.

        • Tim van Beek says:

          JB said:

          It’s perfectly valid to study just Americans.

          A certain amount of egocentricity is healthy, but it is e.g. helpful to read a foreign newspaper regularly. (The occasional article about about the country you currently live in will always be surprising!)

          Not really: for one thing, many people in the USA only speak English, and there’s a lot of important information that’s not in English.

          Sure, but the authors took a look at the average US-American citizen, classified those into Republicans and Democrats and posed the question if there is a correlation with the opinion what science says about…well, you know.

          The “cultural availability” aspect seems to introduce one additional degree of freedom, which renders the measurement meaningless (which it is anyway, IMHO, for other systematic problems and errors). In order to eliminate this degree of freedom and to come to the same conclusion as the authors did one needs to assume that the availability of information is independent of the classification of the test persons.

          I suspect this paper does not tell us anything new about the “Psychology of Climate Change Communication” and more about the mantraps of social sciences. (But have a look at the paper Tom and Eugene mention below).

  9. Giampiero Campa says:

    This TED talk from Nic Marks is something that I think many people here would enjoy. I think that what he says in the first part of the talk is partially related to the problem of selecting the right strategy, at least for the wiki.

    • Giampiero Campa says:

      Ok i’ll forget HTML i promise :)

      • John Baez says:

        I fixed your HTML. I don’t mind fixing it — but you can also just type the URL, and people here will see the URL as a clickable link.

        For example, you can just type:

        http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html

        and we’ll see this URL as a clickable link, as above.

        Or, you can type:

        <a href = “http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html”>this TED talk</a>

        which produces this:

        this TED talk

        Both you and Zoran recently made the same syntax error in your HTML, which suggests that you were fooled by the little list of HTML commands that now appears when you try to post a comment. You wrote the opening

        <a href = ”

        and then the URL, but not the

        “>rest of the stuff</a>

        which creates the clickable link and says where it stops.

        It ain’t really hard, but don’t worry too much about HTML — the important part is passing on useful information that might help save the planet.

  10. An HTML detail I recommend warmly is adding a target=”_blank” attribute to links. The linked page will then open in a new browser tab (or window if the browser has no tabs), so you have both pages, referring and linked, open.

    E.g.:

    <a href=”http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html” target=”_blank”>this TED talk</a>

    produces this:

    this TED talk

    • John Baez says:

      It seems this target=”_blank” feature does not work for comments on Azimuth.

      (You left it out of your original comment, but I added it, and added a sample to demonstrate what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is produce a non-functioning link — at least, here on this blog.)

      At least on Firefox, at least on my computer, I can right-click on any link and choose “open link in new tab” to achieve the effect you mention.

  11. Tom Leinster says:

    The Guardian carried a directly relevant piece today: What psychology can teach us about our response to climate change. The subhead reads

    Calls to ‘save the planet’ or ‘do it for our grandchildren’ do not engage people, says psychology professor

    and the article describes a lecture at the Royal Society.

  12. Charlie C says:

    Let me ask in a slightly different way a question that has been raised above. There is a vast and rapidly growing collection of books, papers, articles, seminars, articles, etc. related to the topics targeted by Azimuth. There is a growing community of intelligent, technically articulate scientific experts in those areas as well; but each of them is probably incompetent (in the non-pejorative sense) in many of the areas being covered. Experience has taught me that effective human communication is probably the most difficult “technical” problem of all. Confronted with all that, now fast-forward two years. Wave the magic wand and assume that all roadblocks in pursuit of the ideal Azimuth outcome are instantly removed – funding, no problem; blog technology, solved; hours in the day to do the work, infinite; enthusiasm and acceptance within the target community, A+. In that idealistic world, what would the perfect outcome of Azimuth be? A carefully classified and well-structured (whatever that means) bibliography of everything ever written and otherwise recorded on the topic. A central archive for all relevant publications and activities, provided to the scientific community at large? A place where the top areas of contention are highlighted, with pro’s and con’s carefully articulated with comments on work being done to resolve the disagreements? A clearing house where scientists come before being interviewed by the press on what the latest progress is?

    I’m just trying to get a fairly concrete picture of “the” ideal outcome of this ambitious and exciting new enterprise – not so much how it will function on a day-to-day basis, but rather what it will look like when one logs in two years from now. Of course, in the real world, nothing will work out as we expect, and the ideal outcome will change every few months. So these types of questions will have to be revisited often. But nevertheless, it is still important to have a fairly concrete target in mind for a major project such as this, even though we all know that the requirements will change, the budget will be exceeded, the schedule will slip, and the product will ship late. But that’s OK – the potential value of the outcome is worth the effort. Perhaps in the new blog, there should be a place for “Today’s View of the Perfect Outcome”, with a history of all the previous views available, just so we can see how all of this evolves as time goes on.

    • John Baez says:

      Charlie wrote:

      In that idealistic world, what would the perfect outcome of Azimuth be?

      Your question here is a great one — but today I’m a bit distracted: I’m just back from Bali, and I’m finally opening the doors to the Azimuth Project and Azimuth Forum! So, I’ll take a crack at it later.

      For now, I’ll take the liberty of copying your comment over to the Azimuth Forum. There’s a section of the forum devoted to discussing strategy… and yours is the first comment there!

      I hope you join the forum, Charlie. Step-by-step directions for how to join can be found here.

      • John Baez says:

        Charlie: I am still too busy developing the Azimuth Project to step back and say what its ideal outcome will be. This state of ebullient and chaotic rapid growth may go on for a few months… the overall outline is just beginning to take shape.

        • Charlie C says:

          John, I totally understand. Meanwhile, I’ve been considering ways to summarize some of the information and ideas that are appearing here at an ever-increasing rate. One thought involves a tree structure depicting the percentage of total greenhouse gasses generated at each node of the tree, with the first level of nodes being something like land, sea, and atmosphere, with each of those being further divided, etc. Something like this might help to focus attention on areas which could most affect climate change. Whether those are appropriate classifications, and whether greenhouse gas generation is even a useful measurement are certainly debatable. A discussion of this type of summary display and how to implement it might lead to something useful. If you think this might be helpful/interesting, do you have any suggestions as to how/when/where best to proceed? Later is fine with me, but I just want to jot this idea down now so I don’t forget it.

        • John Baez says:

          We definitely need to get a grip on the information that’s already been placed here on Azimuth. I don’t yet have a visionary overarching systematic scheme for doing this. So for now, I’m just planning to go through the various blog entries and transfer the most interesting information over Azimuth Project pages. David Pollard has already begun this for the discussion you started — see the Peak uranium page. It would be great if we could all do a bit more of this. Adopt an Azimuth Project page today! Make it nice!

          But we also need people thinking about the overall structure of the Azimuth Project, to make sure it presents the kind of ‘synoptic view’ that the world so desperately needs. Greenhouse gas production / elimination might be one nice organizing principle. But there are others, too: for example, energy production and consumption. Indeed one can imagine one such principle for each approximately conserved quantity: energy, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc. There are probably plenty of other organizing principles of completely different sorts.

          Luckily, a wiki can have a number of ‘synoptic view’ pages based on different principles, each of which can link to lots of other pages. So, we don’t need to fight about the single best organization!

          I’m sort of imagining that there’s not enough sheer stuff on the Azimuth Project yet… and that when there’s enough, it will attract more people who try to shape it into an organized tool. So, right now I’m mainly trying to do a ‘brain dump’, and get everything I know about environmental issues onto this wiki before I learn too much. My next step would be to generate lots of interesting questions for scientists and engineers to work on. Then, later, try to craft it all into an easily readable package, where you go to the front page and quickly learn all the big environmental problems we face, strategies for tackling them, and what scientists and engineers can do to push these strategies forward.

          But maybe a more top-down, systematic startup would get more people excited. It could be that people want to see more clearly where this is all heading.

        • DavidTweed says:

          I definitely think that it would help in achieving the aims of Azimuth to have ways of visualising the relative sizes of various things (contributors to pollution, energy users, biodiversity, etc) semi-automatically. (Without hot air has lots of cumulative bar charts on energy to visualise magnitudes.) I don’t have any great ideas, but there’s a lot of work on ways to automatically and understandably visualise how space is used on disk drives that might be adaptable, eg,

          http://grandperspectiv.sourceforge.net/

          But maybe there’s better ways.

  13. John Baez says:

    Over on the n-Category Café, the mathematician André Joyal posted a reply to my comments here. I replied as follows:

    Dear André:

    I applaud your goal of reforming or even revolutionizing the way people do mathematics. I’m glad you think the nLab is a step in the right direction. I wish more mathematicians would become involved in projects like this.

    The nLab takes a very specific point of view, the ‘n-categorical point of view’, as explained here. This is the nLab’s great strength. Developing a particular point of view fills mathematicians with enthusiasm. It makes them attempt grand projects — think of Bourbaki, for example. And it keeps them focused, so they don’t get lost in the infinite labyrinth of possible ideas.

    But not all mathematicians like the n-categorical point of view.

    It would be great if other mathematicians with other points of view would start their own grand projects. But this will only happen when a group of them become sufficiently enthusiastic. What mathematical viewpoints other than n-category theory command intense enthusiasm at this moment in history — enough to attempt great deeds?

    My own enthusiasm has left pure mathematics and moved on to another big issue of our time: the well-being of our planet. I don’t really want to discuss this issue here; a more appropriate place would be on the thread Strategy for Azimuth. But I feel I must react to your remark that I’m “overly pessimistic”.

    It’s true that “succumbing to pessimism” can prevent people from taking action, but that’s not happening to me! I’m excited to be starting work on environmental issues. I feel young again. I’m happy with how the Azimuth Project is progressing, and I have endless energy for it.

    When it comes to climate change, I’m worried about people “succumbing to optimism”: thinking that this problem can be dealt with some other day, by someone else, with minimal changes in our own behavior, without much pain. I think otherwise: I think that a major disaster is in progress, and that it’s up to us to take action now to minimize the suffering. This doesn’t make me apathetic: quite the opposite!

    You mention World War II. I consider the “optimists” to be like Neville Chamberlain, hoping that Hitler could be contained by diplomacy. I feel more sympathetic to the “pessimist” Churchill, who knew this wouldn’t work. When Churchill first took office in 1940, he gave a famous speech:

    I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

    We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there
    is no survival.”

    He could be considered a “pessimist”, but certainly not a defeatist.

    • John Baez says:

      André Joyal replied to my comment, saying:

      Dear John,

      I very much appreciate your involvement into fighting the ecological disaster. The task is enormous and few peoples have decided, like you do, to dedicate an important part of their time to it. With science and engineering, you are bringing in your personal style. I hope many scientists will join.

      I have also a great admiration for a politician like Winston Churchill. He was not afraid of moving against the dominant current, in this case to tolerate the Nazi, if not to collaborate with them. His words are extremely clear. He was not a defeatist!

      I must say I was quite disappointed in reading the philosophy of the azimuth project:

      http://www.azimuthproject.org/azimuth/show/Azimuth+Project

      In the front page, one can read: “But isn’t it hopeless?

      Yes, it’s hopeless. That’s an important realization.”

      I am sorry, but these are words of a defeatist! I can’t believe that they are yours! There must be a misunderstanding. Are you giving to the word “hopeless” a meaning that I don’t know? Hope, hoffnung, espérance, esperanza, speranza are very powerful words in all languages and they can carry the highest spiritual meanings. “Hope” can be the last thing you have when you have lost everything.

      Ok, you also wrote in the front page of the Azimuth Project:

      “But that’s just the first step. Then you have to say: okay, so the problem is “hopeless”. What does that actually mean? Is the world coming to an end? Will everyone die? Will all species go extinct? The answer is obviously no.”

      At first, it seems encouraging: “Will everyone die? obviously no”. But there is a second reading which may have escaped you: “Many will die but some will survive”. It is kind of suggesting that we should accept that many will die. Billions of peoples could actually die, dwarfing the total casualities of all past wars. You may say this is just my interpretation. But your message is ambiguous, unlike Churchill’s speech. I really **hope** you will rethink the philosophy of the Azimuth Project.

      With warmest regards,

      André

    • John Baez says:

      Since I want to discuss the Azimuth Project here, not on the n-Café, I’ll reply to André Joyal’s comment here.

      Okay – I’ve changed my remarks on the Azimuth Project, because they were confusing. Thanks for finally getting me to understand why they’re confusing.

      When I originally said “it’s hopeless”, I was replying to a remark by Tim Gowers, and there was a fairly specific concept of “it”. When I first quoted this conversation on the Azimuth Project, I originally included the remark by Gowers that I was responding to. Then I deleted that, and the meaning of “it” became fatally ambiguous.

      Don’t worry: I have a lot of hope when it comes to taking action on climate change!

      I really hope you will rethink the philosophy of the Azimuth project.

      I don’t think it’s the “philosophy of the Azimuth project” which needs fixing, so much as my remarks on that page. I’ve tried to improve them. They need to be improved more. Luckily, since this is a wiki, everyone in the world can improve this statement.

      For me, it has been psychologically important to find a stance that avoids the problem most people seem to have when it comes to climate change. Most people seem to oscillate between two attitudes:

      1) it’s not hopeless, so people will solve it without my help: I don’t need to do much,

      and

      2) it’s hopeless, so nobody can solve it, even with my help: I don’t need to do much.

      The one thing in commmon: “I don’t need to do much”.

      My own attitude is: I need to do a lot. I believe we’re heading for a big disaster, and I don’t believe we’ll avoid massive suffering. Personally, I have no hope that we will avoid this: too many people are behaving too stupidly, and there is too little time to change their minds. I had to work my way through this hopelessness to find a kind of hope at the other end. I had to say: “Okay, suppose a disaster is inevitable. Does that mean I can relax?” And the answer, after some thought, was clearly no! Even if a disaster is inevitable, we have the power to affect the magnitude of the disaster, and it’s our responsibility to minimize it. Even a small action that I take now may save someone’s life. And when I realized that, I finally quit making excuses and started taking action. Before then, I kept bouncing back and forth between positions 1) and position 2).

      But all this is just my own attitude. There’s no need to agree with this to work on the Azimuth Project.

      • André Joyal says:

        Dear John,

        I am very happy you have corrected your description of the philosophy of the Azimuth project. I find the new description very clear and I can agree with it.

        I think that the planet cannot be saved without some deep world-wide cultural transformations. The image of the blue planet floating alone in the dark sky has already changed our perception of things, including ourselves. The planet has become our spaceship, our home. It is more beautiful than these artificial pieces of territory called countries. We may not know who or what created the universe, but science is teaching us that we are the children of evolution. The story of the biosphere is our story. It took humanity only a few hundred thousand years to conquer the planet. From hunter-gatherers we became gardeners (and scientists). The biosphere could become litterally our garden, possibly our Eden. But we are presently destroying it, by innocence and necessity, but also by stupidity and greed. But the time of the final judgement maybe approaching rapidly for us. We will have to grow up, becomes responsible and take charge of the biosphere, or we will quickly disappear from the face of Earth, and from this universe.

        aj

        • John Baez says:

          Dear André -

          I’m glad you can agree with the Azimuth Project statement now. Thanks for helping improve it.

          I think that the planet cannot be saved without some deep world-wide cultural transformations.

          I agree. George Mobus has said that we lack sufficient ‘sapience’, and he has launched a project to understand this quality and perhaps figure out how to enhance it. This project may seem difficult, but it’s one of many difficult projects we should start now.

          Mobus writes:

          As a species we lack, ironically, a sufficient level of the very capacity for which our species was named, what the Greeks called sapience — wisdom. Carrolus Lineaus named us Homo sapiens, man the wise, thinking, I suppose, that to be the defining character of our kind (and to make a clear distinction between man and the rest of animal life!) Indeed, humans possess some capacity for wisdom. Occasionally persons of greater than normal wisdom shine forth and the rest of us intuitively recognize them. But that is really the problem. The occurrence is all too infrequent. Moreover, the common level of wisdom seen in the average human is simply not sufficient to provide benefit in the modern fast-paced and complex world produced by our cleverness and passions. If we are to succeed in surviving our own foolish mistakes, made from not having wisdom to make the right choices, we had better take a closer look at this mental capacity and see if we might not have a way to expand it in the future. We need to understand where wisdom comes from. And that means understanding not only what it is, but where in the brain it is ‘processed’.

        • mtakuo says:

          It is interesting to me that Dr. Joyal describes development from hunter-gatherers to gardeners (and scientists) as “conquer” of the planet. I think this is a trap that people from the “old world” can get into so easily. This tells about how typical person with background in a Eurasian civilisation view what civilisation is. My own view is that civilisation is not about wealth, and not even about knowledge. I think it is about wisdom. (Or if this is not the definition of the word in English language, I am talking about something which is more worthwhile thinking about than what is meant by the word “civilisation”.) What I admire about people who did not have efficient methods of recording (like a writing system) is that they never got distracted by knowledge and were always focused at wisdom. For example, knowing *what* justice is is probably not as important as empirically having an idea of *how* people can achieve justice (whatever justice may be!). Peoples who had writing systems try to know *what* justice is and wrote unreadably thick volumes of law books. How people reacts to this is to try to avoid rules which may interfere with their unethical acts from getting into a volume, and to try to find holes in the already written laws. On the other hand, the approach of people who did not write laws seems to be to try to achieve justice through education and ensuring of equality, so people will naturally be willing to behave in a manner respectful to all others. If this is your approach, then remaining to be hunter-gatherer and having less wealth can even be an advantage since it makes it easy to achieve equality.

          It is not that I want to deny the value of knowledge. I do not think it is a good idea to try to prevent knowledge from growing. That will be impossible and such try will just make your life uninteresting. However, knowledge should not just be collected but should be used to really help ourselves. So far it seems to me as if knowledge has been used more in wrong ways than in right ways because philosophy of so many people is wrong.

  14. Bill Richter says:

    John, I definitely agree with two things you wrote in your reply to Tim Gowers:

    actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere as well as various potentially riskier strategies to cool down the Earth [are] strategies that could backfire and make things a lot worse.

    people don’t always get better at optimizing their collective behavior when things get worse. Sometimes they [...] start wars.

    But both you & Tim are thinking about politics, and I’m only thinking about Science. Do we have the technological capability to beat climate change? You & Tim didn’t discuss this. Here’s what I think:

    Climate change is a possible pollution problem, and we have other extremely serious known pollution problems, as we’re filling the biosphere with poisons (e.g. endocrine disruptors) that we have no idea how to defuse, and we also have extremely serious known power problems: we can’t get enough abundant non-polluting power.

    Solving these power & pollution problems will require technological breakthroughs that sound like miracles, the miracles biotech folks confidently promise, e.g. physicist-turned-global-warming-skeptic Freeman Dyson’s carbon-gobbling trees.

    So I think of fixing biotech as the main priority, and the only one that I’m willing to work on, and my 11-yr old son is planning to work on this when he grows up. I see two huge problems in Biology: not enough Math, and foolish life-is-machines dogma. There’s no compelling evidence that we’re biochemical machines, let alone genetically programmed robots. Evelyn Fox Keller does a good job in her books (I especially like The Century of the Gene) rebutting the idea of a genetic program, but she proposes instead a full body program where the code is distributed through the cell and in fact the entire body. Nobody would believe that unless they started with the belief that we’re biochemical machines. I’m willing to assume the prevailing unproved mechanist dogma that the life (as part of the universe) is a scientific phenomenon, having failed to concoct an alternative. But saying that Life is Math doesn’t imply that Life is Biochemistry. Maybe there’s Physics we ought to consider as well. And you’re a physicist! So maybe you’re a good person to ask.

    • Bill Richter asked:

      But saying that Life is Math doesn’t imply that Life is Biochemistry. Maybe there’s Physics we ought to consider as well. And you’re a physicist! So maybe you’re a good person to ask.

      One of my favorite questions. But I’m no JB or Carl Sagan. Perhaps a quite relevant answer (given that perfect moral storm of this century) is Life is Thermodynamics

      Sounds like Florifulgurator is blathering again.

      But again and again I get into trouble making this moral picture clear to folks. Perhaps some thermodynamicist can help me with some coherent and convincing arguments. Those folks just can’t imagine the utter (me fail words here) perversity of the ongoing destruction of millions and millions of years of hard work of Mother Evolution. They have no sense or feeling of the value of that work. Perhaps some science buzz can help: If they don’t pity the demise of the Yellow River Dolphin, etc. etc. etc., perhaps they would pity the waste of negentropy or exergy…

      • John Baez says:

        Florifgulgurator wrote:

        Those folks just can’t imagine the utter (me fail words here) perversity of the ongoing destruction of millions and millions of years of hard work of Mother Evolution. They have no sense or feeling of the value of that work. Perhaps some science buzz can help: If they don’t pity the demise of the Yellow River Dolphin, etc. etc. etc., perhaps they would pity the waste of negentropy or exergy…

        I think the branch of thermodynamics you’re looking for hasn’t quite been invented. There’s a nice relation between entropy as describe in thermodynamics and “algorithmic entropy”, which is roughly the length of the shortest program that prints out a given string of bits. But there’s something else that comes closer to being the answer to your question. Namely, Charles Bennett’s notion of “logical depth”:

        • C. H. Bennett, Logical depth and physical complexity, in The Universal Turing Machine – a Half-Century Survey edited by Rolf Herken, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 227-257.

        The logical depth of a string of bits is roughly the runtime of the shortest program that prints this string.

        It took a long time for the Yellow River dolphin to evolve. So maybe this animal — encoded as a bit string, poor thing! — has a lot of logical depth. And so, when you kill it off, you are doing something that is very hard to undo.

        There are problems with this idea, which I won’t go into here, but at least Bennett is beginning to capture the sort of “complexity developed through long evolution” that we intuitively think of organisms as having.

        The abstract of Bennett’s paper gives the basic idea:

        Some mathematical and natural objects (a random sequence, a sequence of zeros, a perfect crystal, a gas) are intuitively trivial, while others (e.g. the human body, the digits of π) contain internal evidence of a nontrivial causal history.

        We formalize this distinction by defining an object’s “logical depth” as the time required by a standard universal Turing machine to generate it from an input that is algorithmically random (i.e. Martin-Löf random). This definition of depth is shown to be reasonably machine-independent, as well as obeying a slow-growth law: deep objects cannot be quickly produced from shallow ones by any deterministic process, nor with much probability by a probabilistic process, but can be produced slowly.

        This passage goes into more detail, but I hope is still readable by all:

        The relation between universal computer programs and their outputs has long been regarded as a formal analog of the relation between theory and observation in science, with the minimal-sized program representing the most economical, and therefore a priori most plausible, explanation of its output. This analogy draws its authority from the ability of universal computers to execute all formal deductive processes and their presumed ability to simulate all processes of physical causation. Accepting this analogy, one is then led to accept the execution of the minimal program as representing its output’s most plausible causal history, and a logically “deep” or complex object would then be one whose most plausible origin, via an effective process, entails a lengthy computation. Just as the plausibility a scientific theory depends on the economy of its assumptions, not on the length of the deductive path connecting them with observed phenomena, so a slow execution time is not evidence against the plausibility of a program; rather, if there are no comparably concise programs to compute the same output quickly, it is evidence of the nontriviality of that output.

        A more careful definition of depth should not depend only on the minimal program, but should take fair account of all programs that compute the given output, for example giving two k + 1 bit programs the same weight as one k-bit program. This is analogous in science to the explanation of a phenomenon by appeal to an ensemble of possible causes, individually unlikely but collectively plausible, as in the kinetic theory of gases.

        The last paragraph is the reason I said “roughly” earlier.

        Unfortunately I don’t know of any work that makes significant progress relating Bennett’s ideas to biology, evolution, etc.

  15. John Baez says:

    Bill wrote:

    Solving these power & pollution problems will require technological breakthroughs that sound like miracles…

    These days I don’t tend to imagine ‘solving’ these huge problems. Like John Holdren, I imagine a mixture of

    • mitigating
    • adapting

    and

    • suffering.

    I think a lot of the technological breakthroughs — the sort that can lead to really good ‘mitigating’ — will come too late for us to avoid the need to do a lot of ‘adapting’ and ‘suffering’. I still think it’s important to seek these breakthroughs, though. Late is better than never!

    So I think of fixing biotech as the main priority, and the only one that I’m willing to work on…

    That’s a good long-term strategy. I’m fairly optimistic that some sort of high-tech civilization will survive long enough for it to bear fruit.

    There’s no compelling evidence that we’re biochemical machines, let alone genetically programmed robots.

    I’ve never understood you when you say this, and I understand you even less now. Literally speaking, “machines” and “robots” are human-made entities; living organisms aren’t. So, you must be speaking metaphorically. But what exactly do you mean by this metaphor? It would be great if you could say it without using this metaphor.

    Similarly, I don’t understand exactly what you mean by speaking of a genetic “program”. A program is a human-made entity, designed to make another human-made entity — a computer — carry out a desired series of actions. It’s clear that the genetic code is not a program in this sense: it’s not human-made, it’s not “designed” for a specific purpose, etc. It just evolved to be the messy and beautiful thing it is. So what about this “program” metaphor is sufficiently interesting that you feel the need to rebut it?

    (And on another note: I hope you’ve heard that thanks to epigenetics, Lamarckian evolution has been shown to be an important part of the story. It’s really cool.)

    • John F says:

      Horizontal gene transfer is the major process for Lamarckian inheritance. Although viruses, plasmids, and other well known vectors for horizontal transfer of e.g. antibiotic resistance have long been shown to be the *dominant* processes driving evolution in many prokaryotes.

      Gene transfer agents provide yet another mechanism. Although known in the lab for decades, their role in nature has been debated. Evidence is mounting that they may be more important than previously thought.
      “High Frequency of Horizontal Gene Transfer
      in the Oceans”
      http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/330/6000/50
      Although often called virus-like, they aren’t: just globs of seemingly random size and usually noncoding sequences of nucleic acids.

    • Bill Richter says:

      Thanks for replying, John, and I had heard of your epigenetic Lamarckian evolution, although I’d like to learn more.

      By `robots’, I mean the non-metaphorical idea that organisms are well described by computable mathematical functions. By the Church-Turing thesis, this means that Life is computer programs. By `biochemical machine’, I really mean `chemical reaction’, and I’ll use that term in the future. Science is ultimately a reduction of phenomena to Math, and I’m willing to assume that the universe is a scientific phenomenon, although perhaps not well described by modern Physics in terms of the Big Bang & the Standard Model. Perhaps, as physicists Penrose & Davies claim, there are non-local laws of Physics we don’t understood yet. But either way, I’ll assume that Life is Math. But not all Math is computable (there’s Chaos, e.g.), and maybe organisms are not self-contained chemical reactions.

      If you and your audience don’t understand how important the non-metaphorical idea of a genetic program has been in Biology, you should read Evelyn Fox Keller’s books The Century of the Gene and Making Sense of Life, where she explains how luminaries Shroedinger, Jacob-Monod and Davidson (who did stellar work on the Endo16 sea urchin embryonic development gene) pushed the idea of a genetic program. I think Keller convincingly refutes this genetic program idea that an organism is described by a computer program contained in the DNA, executed by the body somehow. Now genes are turned on or off by an often extremely complicated collection of proteins glommed onto a promoter region near the gene (see Endo16), and these proteins themselves of course have partial protein recipes (i.e. genes), so folks (e.g. Davidson) misleadingly say there’s genetic programming code here: If promoting-genes are turned on/off, then turn on/off this-gene. But of course the cell had to make all those promoting proteins, using their partial protein recipes (i.e. genes, which don’t explain the geometry or the splicing & dicing the cell does to the RNA template of the gene), and then the cell must glom those proteins on to the promoter region. That’s not a genetic program, although maybe it’s what Keller calls an irreducible full-body program.

      Perhaps you’ll say that nobody believes in genetic programs, so they don’t need to read Keller and there’s nothing to refute. Fine. That means Biology doesn’t have a useful paradigm. Biotech is then moving forward on the non-useful idea that organisms are chemical reactions in which genes are important molecules whose role is poorly understood.

      The point is that Keller refuted Biology’s only working paradigm, the genetic program, and so the biotech miracles that I claim we need (e.g. Dyson’s carbon-gobbling trees) to beat the Eco-crisis are at this point pipe dreams. That’s the serious problem my son Ben and I want to work on: coming up with a better paradigm.

      And a place to start is by understanding the heretical sounding point that we now have no compelling argument that life is even a scientific phenomenon. That we believe that the universe, and therefore Life, is Math, because we reject the religious ideas that folks used to believe. So at this point, Life is Math is a theology that we prefer to standard Hindu or Christian theologies. Fine. Let’s understand why Life is Math is a more useful theology, instead of blindly believing it.

      • Graham says:

        I don’t really understand what you are saying, although it sounds like it might be interesting. I found this article by Keller. It doesn’t seem revolutionary or controversial to me, but it made good sense.

        http://www.ias.ac.in/jbiosci/feb2005/3.pdf

        Perhaps you can position yourself relative to this article?

      • John F says:

        Bill,
        You may have heard of the several artificial nucleotides: new DNA “letters” in *coding* sequences. And surely you heard about Venter’s 100% synthetic whole genome? The genomic program is very very well understood. I’ll venture to say that for many years all advancing work in bioinformatics has been in transcriptomics (and higher domain -omics). Ed Perkins is one name in gene expression in environmental applications; one publication is Garcia-Reyero et al. 2009
        http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es803702a

        FWIW as a religious scientist I have my own views, but I like to think I am not cognitively biased against actual data. “It ain’t bragging if they can do it” etc. Not to belabor the point but noncomputability of something doesn’t imply antiscientism.

        • Bill Richter says:

          Graham, thanks for the Keller article, and I’ll get back to you.

          John, they’re bragging because they can not do it. They can not make a compelling argument that life is a scientific phenomenon. I have no idea why you think the genomic program is very very well understood. Or maybe I don’t know what you mean. Maybe we’re talking about different things, so let’s take it slow. By compelling, I mean an argument which would basically force someone to believe that science explains life. No such compelling argument exists. If you talked to someone who didn’t believe that science explains life, you might have a discussion like this:

          Science shows that organisms are chemical reactions.

          Huh? What makes you think that’s true?

          We completed the Human Genome Project, which (as Keller quotes Watson) was supposed to show ‘what it truly means to be human.’

          And did it show what it truly means to be human?

          Well, we found our 25,000 partial protein recipes (i.e. genes). All the actors is our cells are proteins, and some of these proteins (in exceedingly complicated ways) turn genes on and off.

          Uh, and that means you understand this chemical reaction? What about the rest of the protein recipes? How does our cell knows when to make proteins, and what to get them to do? How does the whole organism work? Are you saying that you haven’t found a computer program in the DNA that tells the organism what to do?

          We’re working on these problems night & day, and many fascinating details are being found all the time, but no, there is nothing like your computer program in the DNA.

          So there’s no compelling argument that life is a scientific phenomenon. Perhaps scientists don’t worry about this, as they’re working really hard and getting some results. But I worry about it, because I think the lack of a useful paradigm for life may well doom the Biotech effort to produce the miracles that we need, including perhaps Dyson’s photoelectric plants, which we will engineer to use silicon.

          And of course, noncomputability doesn’t mean beyond science: think of Poincare’s homoclinic bifurcations in the 3 body problems, which you understand better than I do. But a genetic program happens to be computability, like any computer program. I would think that thoughtful physicists like you would be interested in pursuing noncomputable scientific explanations of life.

        • John F says:

          Bill, certainly there’s More to It, where for It you can put Life, the Universe, or virtually anything. Anyway to get back to the concrete point: yes, the “exceedingly complicated ways”, the “recipes”, when, how, etc. Yes. The chemical mechanisms have been worked out.

          The genomic information, as you’ve alluded, isn’t the simple computer program input you’ve strawmanned others believing. Since figuring out transcription factors, for about forty years working geneticists have known about expression variability, polygenic effects, *and* the molecular mechanisms (wobble etc.)

          Towards answering What does It Mean, where It is specifically the DNA sequence, in probably the most accessible recent publication along those lines, in April in Cell, King and McClellan argued in “Genetic Heterogeneity in Human Disease” that rare changes with severe effects explain a lot of things a lot better than common changes with minor effects. That’s quite a sentence to graph if you’ve a mind to.

          That implies, among other things, that ubiquitous plug-and-chug statistics of single nucleotide polymorphisms won’t be discovering much useful in the future, just like in the past. But like I said, “they” aren’t doing just that anyway: they actually are doing transcriptomics.

      • John Baez says:

        It’s good to be talking about this in public, Bill, because while it’s slower, it lets other people join the fun.

        I’m confused by certain things you’re saying, though, and I need to address this before I can say anything really interesting.

        John, they’re bragging because they can not do it.

        I don’t know who ‘they’ are.

        I’d rather not talk about what ‘they’ think, because there are lots of ‘them’, and they think lots of different things, so it’s hard to discuss ‘them’ en masse. I’d much rather talk about biology, unless your primary concern is people’s perceptions of biology. We could spend a lot of time figuring out what other people think — but it would be more fun spending that time figuring out what’s true.

        They can not make a compelling argument that life is a scientific phenomenon.

        I also don’t know what a ‘scientific phenomenon’ is. Nature presents us with phenomena; some of us struggle to understand them using science. The phenomena are not in themselves scientific! We can also struggle to understand them using art, religion, etc.

        By ‘scientific phenomenon’, do you mean ‘phenomenon completely understood by science’? It is obvious to me that life is not completely understood by science — regardless of what ‘they’ say.

        I have no idea why you think the genomic program is very very well understood.

        John F may think the ‘genomic program is very well understood’, but John B does not.

        First of all, I’ve said I don’t like this metaphorical talk of ‘programs’.

        To me, a program is a finite string of symbols that specifies how a system moves through a discrete set of states in a deterministic way. All the classic results about computability involve programs in this sense. The classic example of this sort of program is the instructions on the tape of a Turing machine.

        When we consider a living organism, its set of states is not discrete and its time evolution is nondeterministic, because an organism is an open quantum system, interacting with its environment. So, the whole concept of ‘program’ is not relevant. And as I’ll point out below, the idea that all inheritable information is summarized in a finite string of A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s (the ‘genetic code’) is flat-out wrong.

        Second of all, I don’t believe that the way genes work is ‘very very well understood’. We understand some things about them but there’s a lot we don’t. And right now, many different developments are revolutionizing our understanding of genetics! For example:

        • We are just beginning to understand the importance of so-called junk DNA — which is better called ‘noncoding DNA’, because it ain’t junk.

        • We’re just beginning to understand epigenetics, which is roughly the study of inheritable cellular information that’s not stored in the DNA. People are discovering real shockers, like how histone methylation allows for the inheritance of acquired characteristics a la Lamarck!

        • We’re just beginning to grapple with the importance of horizontal gene transfer: genes passed laterally from one organism to another, often of another species. This happens in a lot of funky ways: for example plasmids, endosymbiosis and those gene transfer agents that John F just told us about. The whole idea of a ‘tree of life’ has fallen, or at least grown a bunch of new branches that criss-cross and reconnect in an incredibly complex way.

        These are just some of the revolutions currently underway that are transforming our understanding of genetics. Since I’m not an expert on this stuff there’s probably a lot more that I’m missing! And I don’t think we’re anywhere near done yet!

        So no, the full story of genetics is not ‘very well understood’.

        One last nitpick:

        And of course, noncomputability doesn’t mean beyond science: think of Poincare’s homoclinic bifurcations in the 3 body problems, which you understand better than I do.

        Time evolution in the gravitational 3-body problem is computable, at least away from states where the particles collide. Chaos does not imply uncomputability!

        And I really don’t understand why you want stuff to be uncomputable…

        • John F says:

          Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

          The point I am trying to communicate by “the genomic program is well understood” on the one hand and “they are working on the transcriptome” on the other hand is maybe better communicated by the Tamarian example illustrating the inherent difficulties of machine translation in the context of (wait for it) context. But let me emphasize again that both the code and machinery of the genomic code are very well understood, mostly because they are easy to get at: DNA is easily extracted with combinations of detergent and hot water, and it wants to express itself, including bits and pieces.

          For years it has been as if there had been millions of examples of hieroglyphs, lots of Rosetta stones, and many scribes. Initially somebody with gumption would work on understanding how automate the translating process. And they did – all of the translating process, all of the code, coding, decoding, is all understood.

        • Tim van Beek says:

          John F. said:

          Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

          For those readers who do not recall every episode of Star Trek: Next Generation, here is the link to Wikipedia:

          Darmok

        • Bill Richter says:

          John B, thanks for the interesting post about the exciting new developments in Biology that show how little we know. By a `scientific phenomenon’, I mean a phenomenon that can ultimately be explained by the laws Physics. I don’t of course mean that we human scientists possess such an explanation. To give a simple example from Ian Stewart’s book The Collapse of Chaos, everyone believes that the salt cubic crystal structure has a Quantum Mechanics explanation, but no one knows what it is. I did not speak metaphorically about `programs’, and neither did Keller or the luminaries she quotes, even if you can easily refute the notion of a genetic program. I didn’t understand your `open quantum system,’ but your interaction with the environment is not a refutation: a program may take data. The concept of `program’ is quite relevant, if we’re going to talk about how biology is discussed in the media and in classrooms. A grade school book recently written contained the wildly false statement every trait is controlled by one gene. A middle school biology text falsely stated that the gene is the fundamental unit of heredity. You said you would refute this, but folks believe it. I’ll talk about whatever you like, but maybe we ought to talk about genes in public discourse, as your Azimuth project seems to involve trying to change how folk think.

          We’re having some confusion because I was responding to others, which I’ll try not to do anymore (folks can find me on the net if they like), but I said I’d discuss Keller’s 2005 followup to her book The Century of the Gene (CotG). I found her article to be revolutionary and controversial, as she continues her CotG opposition to `reductionism’ but is skeptical about the new highly touted `systems biology.’

          On p 3, Keller repeats her ending to CotG, that Gelbart wrote that “the term `gene’ … might in fact be a hindrance to our understanding.” Sec 3 starts with Keller continuing in her CotG vein with,

          “The human genome has been sequenced, but it has failed to tell us who we are.”

          On the top of page 4, Keller explains that genes (partial protein recipes) are even more partial than CotG said, as there are proteins for which “no corresponding sequence can be found on the DNA even after shuffling and splicing.”

          Sec 5 begins with Brenner arguing “that the prime intellectual task of the future lies in constructing an appropriate theoretical framework for biology”. Keller writes,

          “Will `Systems Biology’ provide us with such a framework? The answer, I think, is no.”

          Keller writes glowingly about new interdisciplinary progress toward Systems Biology, following her long habit of encouraging new approaches, but at the end makes it clear that she feels no new paradigm has really arisen:

          “What will it take to bring the genome to life, to formulate an appropriate theoretical framework for understanding living systems?”

          So as in her books, Keller’s article gives persuasive evidence that there is no compelling evidence that life is a scientific phenomenon at all, even though she does not make this point, and seems very much to believe that organisms are chemical reactions.

          I certainly thought Chaos implies uncomputability. If you have sensitive dependence on initial conditions, then any computer trajectories will be inacurate soon enough. Did you mean that if you stay away from the `chaotic regions’ that you can do reasonable long term computer models? I’d agree with that, but I didn’t know that collisions were the source of 3-body problem Chaos. I only like noncomputability because the non-metaphorical genetic program has been such a failure to explain life as a scientific phenomenon.

        • DavidTweed says:

          It might be you’re using a term which unbeknowst to you has a specific technical meaning: a noncomputable (or uncomputable) decision problem is one for which, over an entire infinite set of possible inputs a computer program cannot always yield a yes/no answer. This is different from the issues in chaos where you can’t track with finite precision arithmetic the detailed behaviour from a given starting point for unbounded time. However, in principle there’s nothing stopping you tracking an initial state to a given finite time if you’re allowed to restart with increased arithmetic precision each time you detect it’s insufficient (excepting cases of exact singularities in the maths).

          However, even if you did mean genuinely non-computable it’s not clear whether that’s meaningful in a situation where (depending what physics actually turns out to be) you’ve got a finite number of elements behaving for a finite number of timesteps.

          The final point that I’d make is it’s not clear that a “genetic program” metaphor, with numerous extensions, has been a failure explaining the “procedures of life”: it just hasn’t been a comprehensive success yet, but it’s not clear that this isn’t due to the scale of the task, which vastly exceeds almost all of the tasks considered in physics and chemistry.

  16. John Baez says:

    Bill wrote:

    By a `scientific phenomenon’, I mean a phenomenon that can ultimately be explained by the laws of Physics. I don’t of course mean that we human scientists possess such an explanation. To give a simple example from Ian Stewart’s book The Collapse of Chaos, everyone believes that the salt cubic crystal structure has a Quantum Mechanics explanation, but no one knows what it is.

    Okay, now I understand what you mean by a ‘scientific phenomenon’.

    I’m trying to become more practical these days, so I don’t have much enthusiasm for a discussion about whether life can ultimately be explained by the laws of physics.

    One key problem here is agreeing on a definition of ‘explained’, and that promises to be a lengthy and tiresome business.

    Another problem is that it’s hard to definitively settle questions about ‘what we can ultimately do, even though we can’t do it now’.

    So, I’ll just say this: I’m optimistic that we already know all the fundamental laws of physics that we’ll need to know in our study of life on Earth.

    (Here ‘fundamental law’ has a specific technical meaning that physicists know. I am not saying that we know enough physics yet: for example, we probably need to get a lot better at nonequilibrium thermodynamics. Nor am I claiming that we’ll ever ‘explain’ life using physics: for that, again, we’d need first to agree on a definition of ‘explain’.)

    I’ve gotta run… more later.

    • Bill Richter says:

      John, I know you’re busy, and thanks for taking the time to explain fusion to me via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_binding_energy. I see from your hovercard that you’re working on Quantum Technologies. Cool!
      Your first two points are easily settled:

      Almost everyone believes that life can ultimately be explained by the laws of Physics, in a very straightforward way: Physics explains Chemistry which explains life through DNA. Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen state this forthrightly in their excellent book The Collapse of Chaos, and they also clearly explains what `explain’ means: there is some explanation (basically a proof) using the laws of Physics (or Chemistry, if you will), a proof that might be so long that humans will never discover it. They say that Complexity Theory really ought to be called Simplicity Theory, as it’s basically a branch of Mathematical Logic trying to prove some version of the Goedel Incompleteness Theorem, and that we await a real Complexity Theory that will involve geometry as in e.g. Catastrophe Theory.

      I’m only willing to doubt that Physics-explains-life to speculate that we’re missing key laws of Physics, perhaps the non-local laws that Paul Davies The Fifth Miracle: : The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life. If you don’t want to discuss this, fine; you’re the physicist. I’m not willing to speculate about souls or vital forces being needed. I couldn’t get very far. My important point is that Physics-explains-life is a conjecture that we’re not close having a compelling argument for. We don’t e.g. know enough about genes. It’s importance to recognize the weakness of the Physics-explains-life dogma in order to speculate about our chances to pull off the Biotech miracles that I think we’ll need to beat the Ecocrisis. I’m hoping of course that such a theoretical discussion will actually pay off with better Biotech. But even if it doesn’t, the beliefs (which I think are uninformed and unfounded) that people, businesses & governments have about Physics-explains-life are really important in politics of Global Warming and environmentalism. To give one example, Dyson says we’re free to burn coal now because we’ll have carbon-gobbling trees in 50 years.

  17. Aron says:

    I am sorry to comment on such an old post, but I couldn’t track down the post I remembered where geo-engineering was discussed. I would ask if anyone saw this and what your thoughts are?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/31/pipe-balloon-water-sky-climate-experiment

    • John Baez says:

      Don’t be sorry about commenting on old posts! I put a lot of work into my posts and I’d like to continue discussions on all of them. I think you’re referring to my interview with Gregory Benford in Week 310 of This Week’s Finds—that was our main discussion of geoengineering so far. It’s actually very relevant to our current discussion of melting permafrost, since Benford suggests doing experiments to test the feasibility of keeping the Arctic cold by putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere over the Arctic. This could be the best way to keep the permafrost from melting and releasing lots of greenhouse gases.

      I’ll read this Guardian article and try to comment on it. Thanks!

    • John Baez says:

      That’s a cool article. I’m glad someone is trying an experiment! I think the people who don’t want to even try experiments in geoengineering are overly optimistic: overly optimistic that we can solve the global warming problem without exploring all possible options.

  18. Aron says:

    Definitely, though not without some local community critics.

    Yes, week 310, is exactly the one I had in mind.

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