Documentaries and the truth

I have trouble believing how naive we can be. The National (Canada’s national daily news program) ran a story tonight asking if we should expect documentaries to tell the truth. Their example was Michael Moore and his movies, saying that Moore’s work was not all true and were more entertaining than informative. You expect the truth from the media? Don’t.

Why would documentaries tell us “the truth”? Do we expect the truth from newspapers and news programs? The truth is a very complex idea–there is no natural, objective truth out there because everyone sees things differently. No one person, medium or religion will ever tell you the truth. If you keep your mind open for debate, like I said in my last post, you will learn. Michael Moore provides but one point of view in the sea of opinions we call the media. Seeking the truth is like digging for gold in your backyard: there may be some there, but you’ll be digging a long time.

So keep digging if you like, but a better idea would be to listen to everyone’s case and never completely make up your mind.

No more debate on climate change? Let’s hope we don’t die of ignorance instead

Why do we hear people tell us that climate change is proven, there is a consensus in the scientific community on it and there is no more debate on the subject? These assumptions scare me more than climate change itself.

Of all the books that exist on the environment, the Menso Guide to Life’s recommendation is the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. His thesis is that the environmental alarmists are wrong. Through careful analysis of data that is available to all of us, we can see that many environmental “problems” such as air and water pollution, depletion of natural resources such as minerals, forests and arable land are not problems at all. Instead, postulates Lomborg, we should put our precious human resources to work tackling the real problems, such as sustainable management of fresh water where it is scarce, and reducing air pollution in big cities in the developing world. We have the data; our next step should be to prioritise. If climate change is a priority, it deserves rigorous debate.

Bjorn Lomborg and I are not cynical people. Cynics are people who automatically do not believe what they hear. Skeptics, on the other hand, are those who question the knowledge of themselves and others, and educate themselves on the many different sides to the issues that concern them. Cynical versus skeptical is the difference between an open and a closed mind. Be skeptical whenever someone attempts to close a debate. Be suspicious even when someone tries to narrow the discourse by, say, dismissing evidence of beneficial effects of climate change or confining blame for it to humans. Discourse that closes minds rather than opening them is not discourse at all. “Consensus” is a pretty suspicious word in itself: it rhymes a little too well with “groupthink”.

Losing argument on any subject implies that you are no longer thinking critically about it. I see argument as an excellent way to gain (and spread) new perspectives. When we have decided there is no more debate, we’d better be damn sure we are not discarding our critical inquiry into the subject along with it. Debate keeps our brains sharp and reminds us that we can be certain about very little. And in case you need an impractical reason to argue, do it as a middle finger to any self righteous environmentalists who refuse to admit they might be wrong.

One problem with any debate is that everyone exaggerates to make their point. If we all take that into account, it is fine; but exaggerating to extremes or lying is wrong. Fearmongering is not the right way to get people on your side because they will turn against you when they see you are wrong. Alarmists want to make the situation more dire than it is because even in the best of times, hardly anyone stands up to act for a cause. If they say that there is no problem (or just a small problem), no one will do anything to combat it at all, and sooner or later it will be a problem. But if they say we’ll all die if we don’t act now, then best case, a few people start conserving energy, etc, and the small or nonexistent problem does not become big. But after fifty years of hearing about the impending crises caused by humankind’s mistreatment of the planet, and fifty years of being afraid of something that has not happened yet has led to three things: a militant environmental movement, a populace that makes misguided choices and a lot of cynicism about preserving the environment.

Many environmental theorists set limits that we have not reached and may never reach. A classic example is the best selling book Limits to Growth from 1972, which predicted we would run out of minerals like gold, silver and zinc by the 1990s, and most significantly, oil would be gone by 1992. In fact, if I had a penny for every chart I have seen with the year we will run out of oil on it, I would live in Beverly Hills. Not only do I think we have another century of oil left, I will go as far as to say we will never run out of oil. If you disagree, I encourage you to read this article and see where I’m coming from. But the limits imposed on us by the alarmists are unnecessary. For many reasons these people do not take into account (partly because no one predicted all the variables and partly because the future is never what we imagine), we have not run out of any of these “scarce” resources. Moreover, these alarmists seem to forget how adaptive humans are.

Part of the alarm comes from a belief that these limits are significant because our economies, our institutions, our society will collapse if we exceed them. Climate change will wreak havoc on the world because we are unprepared and foolish. I don’t believe it for a second. First of all, barring the possibility of a “Day After Tomorrow” type disaster, nothing happens suddenly. As things get worse, we will accord them a higher priority for our time and money, our human resources. Second, we have an unprecedented understanding of science today that, combined with our unprecedented wealth, will enable us to overcome environmental crises if and when they come. Third, humans are smart. We have always found ways of recovering after a crisis or turning crises into opportunities. We find solutions to all of our problems. If the sea levels rise, we will relocate people, and perhaps we will make new land or construct floating structures to live on. If oil runs out, we will create alternatives (for that matter, we already have them). If fish stocks go too low, we will regulate them even more, or we will learn to farm them sustainably. If the air becomes too polluted, we will stop driving and start planting more trees. Before you know it, we will have clean air again.

So stop worrying and get back to arguing like you should be. Here are some things we could be debating.

1. The effects of our behaviour on the environment. That means what are the most likely outcomes 50, 100 and 200 years from now. It includes the good that can come from climate change as well as the bad.

2. How we should allocate resources. If we are going to find solutions, we should know what are the most pressing problems. If we spent all our money on recycling or took every last car off the road we might feel good about ourselves for a while but we would not have solved anything. If climate change is the most pressing environmental issue, we must decide how to allocate resources to take it on.

3. What the individual’s role should be. I have two suggestions. You could live among the trees and the forest creatures, give up your wordly possessions and be at harmony with all nature. If you don’t want to do that, my second suggestion is continue to educate yourself on environmental issues and engage in debate about it with those around you. When we cease learning and debating, we have lost something even more precious than a stable climate.

How to choose a president

This post is in response to the Economist’s most recent article on the Democratic presidential candidates, found here.

The Economist is a fine news magazine and I agree with most of what it says most of the time. However, in this article, they seem to believe that policy is more important than personality. I used to hold that view myself, until I realised that most politicians change their policies the minute they find an excuse to do so. I believe a politician’s personality, though difficult to ascertain of course, is a more accurate map to their tenure. Take, for instance, the Nixon-Kennedy race in 1960, and the famously televised debate they underwent. Many felt Kennedy had lost the debate because his policy was lacking. However, those who saw him on television believed he would be courageous, noble and decisive, and he was. Nixon appeared insecure and shifty, and his presidency turned out to be one of the most notoriously secretive and closed ever.

Mrs Clinton may have sound policy but she has certainly not persuaded me she is as honest or compassionate as Mr Obama. I expect her to cash in her chips of her political capital as soon as the tide turns against her.