Monday, August 30, 2021

The Slow Collapse of the Catholic Church

This image may have been created as a joke, but the fact that it exists is a symptom that something is deeply wrong with the Catholic Church. If it is true that the Church has been existing for nearly two thousand years, it is also true that no structure is too big to fail. The churches are empty, the faithful have been turned into masked zombies afraid of each other, and the very sanctity of the human body, one of the pillars of Christianity, is in doubt. Are we going to see the end of God-based religions, replaced by scientism as the state religion? According to the Seneca Principle "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."

 

It is a long story that of religions. The first forms of religious organizations go back to the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia, during the 3rd millennium BCE. At that time, there was no such a thing as a "Church," but there existed temples dedicated to local deities that were a mix of manufacturing centers and shopping malls. But what made temples unique in human history was their role as banks. The priests would assist economic transactions by weighing the silver and the gold involved. The benevolent local God would ensure honest weighing. In those times, there were no such things as moral codes or promises for the afterlife. Religion was a very down to earth enterprise in which you paid something for the favor of the God(s).

This role of the temples lasted for millennia and we still find traces of it in the gospels when Jesus chases out the money changers from the temple of Jerusalem. Actually, they were not "money changers," they are defined as "trapezitai" in the original, which translates as "bankers." But, at the time of Jesus, this role for temples was already a relic of the past. The invention of coinage during the 6th century AD had changed the rules of the game. Coins could simply be counted, and their weight was guaranteed not by God, but by the King or the Emperor. 

With the Roman Empire, religion took a position of complete subordination to the state. The priests would bless the troops leaving for battle, provide potions, charms, and amulets to those who could pay, but little more. From the time when Augustus Caesar took the title of Pontifex Maximum, in 12 AD, the religious and the political leader of the state were one and the same person: the Emperor. In time, the emperor started to be considered a living God himself. 

But the great wheel of history keeps turning and soon the mighty Roman Empire found itself in trouble. The mines that had made it rich were exhausted with the 3rd century AD. And one constant of history is that if you have no money you can have no empire. 

So, the Christian Church arose from the ashes of the Roman Empire as a structure that, within some limits, provided the services that the state could not provide anymore. The security once guaranteed by the once mighty Roman army was now in the hands of the ἐκκλησία (ecclesia), the gathering of the faithful, and the επίσκοπί, (episcopes, or bishops), the overseers. The Church replaced the old Empire in many ways and for centuries was a fundamental force in maintaining the cultural unity of Europe. It provided services that the small states of the time could not provide: a common culture, a common language, a common heritage.

Toward the end of the first millennium, the great wheel of history turned again. The discovery of new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe remonetized the European economy. In 800 AD, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, became powerful enough to have himself crowned "Holy Roman Emperor" by the Pope. The idea was to recreate the ancient Roman Empire, but the Church stubbornly refused to cede the title of Pontifex to the new emperors. It would have meant, again, the complete subordination of the Church to the State. 

There followed centuries of struggles, with the Church slowly losing ground. With the Church becoming more and more corrupt, in 1520 there came Luther's reformation that forever broke the unity of Western Christianity. The last time when the Church tried and failed to have an important political role in Europe was with the "Controversy of Valladolid" in 1550, an attempt to soften the harsh exploitation of the Native American peoples by the European colonists. Not only the Church was ignored, but the attempt backfired, generating the legend that it was the Church that had promoted the extermination of the natives. This is the way propaganda works. 

With the 19th century, the states were turning to a new kind of ideological support for their domination of society. It was "Scientism," usually called just "Science." The new set of ideas emphasized growth and expansion, providing also new weapons and technologies that allowed Europe to conquer most of the world. 

The last attempt of the Catholic Church to escape the growing encroachment by the state was with the encyclical letter "De Rerum Novarum" of 1891. It was an attempt to "reset" the huge, millenarian structure by returning to its original vision of a revolutionary force on the side of the poor and the oppressed. With the "De Rerum Novarum," the Church strongly reaffirmed its international status and its privileged relation with the poor.

It was a valiant attempt, but it failed for several reasons. One was that the Church had placed itself in direct competition with the Communist party for the souls of the workers. But the Communist party had better leverage because it wasn't contaminated with the superstructure of compromises with the rich that the Church carried along. Another was that the national states were simply too powerful to be contrasted by the internationalist movements (Communism, Socialism, and Christian reformism). By 1915, Europeans assisted to the disheartening spectacle of two Catholic countries, Austria and Italy, making war on each other. And, on both sides, Catholic priests were blessing the soldiers and exhorting them to kill their Christian brothers on the other side of the frontline. The same sad spectacle was taking place on all frontlines. Something was deeply wrong at the core of Christianity.

Both the Church and the Communist party managed to remain important political forces for most of the 20th century, but they faded with the turn of the millennium. The Communist Party went first with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Right now, it has no organized presence in the world, except in China. But the Chinese Communist Party has no pretense of organizing proletarian revolutions anywhere. 

The Church survived a little longer, but its decline is evident. In the 1990s, it received a heavy blow from a propaganda campaign that painted Catholic priests as pedophiles. It should go without saying that there is no evidence that pedophilia is a larger problem in the Church than it is in other organizations. But the accusation stuck and the polls show that, still today, a majority of people are convinced that the Catholic Church is a den of pedophiles. It is not known who started the campaign or why. In any case, it was another devastating blow.

The coup de grace may have arrived in 2020, with the Covid epidemic. The Catholic Church found itself completely defeated by a propaganda campaign that turned some of the basic tenets of Christianity over the head. Already in Roman times, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, considered one of the precursors of Christianity, had said "Homo Sacra Res Homini" -- "humans are holy to each other." And the Church had at its basis the sacred value of the human body. Just think how the central belief of Christianity is that God himself incarnated inside a human body, in flesh and blood, for the love of humankind. And that the believers are supposed to reincarnate in the flesh on the day of judgment.

Suddenly, the Church saw the human body turned from a holy image of the divine spirit into a receptacle of dangerous germs. Whereas St. Francis would kiss lepers, the devout Catholic is now advised to hide their face and keep at a distance from their Christian brothers and sisters. The holy water, a basic feature of Church rituals, was suddenly turned into a dangerous bacterial soup that no one sane in his mind would even dream to touch. Once, the Christian mass ritual required shaking hands with each other as a sign of peace. Now, the mass has turned into a gathering of zombies, unrecognizable and afraid of getting too close to each other. Even worse, the dead of Covid were denied the last sacraments and even a Christian burial. Their bodies were considered unclean and treated in the same way as urban waste is treated: first dumped into trucks and then into incinerators. 

Given the situation, you may understand how the Pope recommended to the faithful to vaccinate themselves "as an act of love". Of course, you may argue that it was not the business of the Pope to recommend that, not any more than recommending the use of flushing toilets as an act of love. But the pope was not alone: the whole Church hierarchy is recommending vaccination. They hope that with vaccines everything will return back to normal and the churches will fill again with unmasked people not afraid to shake each other's hands. 

Unfortunately, the Pope's recommendation may backfire. One problem is that by now it is becoming clear that the vaccines do not guarantee full immunity and that all the other "non-pharmaceutical measures," masks, distances, etc. will be maintained for a long time, perhaps forever. So, we may never return to what we once considered as "normal." Then, by recommending vaccines, the Pope was officially declaring that the Church was powerless and subordinated to the dominant Scientism. 

The Covid may well be the bullet at the head that kills the zombie that the Catholic Church has become. It managed to exist for nearly 2,000 years, one of the longest-lasting organizations in history, but no organization has ever been too big to fail when its moment comes.  Surely, the collapse will not be sudden, especially considering that the Church still has important economic assets, and even a small state, the Vatican City State, with a seat in the United Nations, a small army, a diplomatic corps, and much more. But, when things take a certain direction, the flow may be impossible to reverse. Sic transit gloria mundi.

But is this so bad? Sometimes, change needs to be radical, otherwise it does not occur. Even the pope emeritus, Cardinal Ratzinger, said that the Church "needs a reset" in a recent interview. In the book "Niente Sarà Più Come Prima" (2021), the Catholic theologian Stefano Didoné says, 

"The collapse of the religious form that Christianity had taken in the West does not automatically mean the collapse of the very experience of the Faith, but its transformation in a human experience characterized by the strong desire of authenticity. <..> A formal religiosity without relations and without love does not attract the young (and not even the adults). This would open the way  to new (and urgent) theological interpretations of this post-secular age."

In other words, there is no religion without an authentic experience of Faith. And in the Christian tradition, no one can save himself or herself alone, praying in front of a TV screen. There is no salvation except in the gathering of the faithful, the ecclesia. Religion intended in this way has existed since the times of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna and will not disappear so soon. New forms of religion or renovated forms of the old ones may appear. It may be a good thing that we badly need to get rid of the current vision of the world that sees everything (including human beings) as an economic resource to be exploited.


(*) This analysis of mine does not pretend to be exhaustive and it deals mostly with the Catholic Church, which I know reasonably well. Other organized religions are facing the current situation in different ways. If we take the resistance to vaccination as a proxy for independence from the state, the data show that Protestants are less integrated than Catholics in the US. In Eastern Europe, the Orthodox Church has suffered a long period of persecution from the state and has emerged out of it rather wary of everything that the state recommends. Asian religions, such as Buddhism, have ceased all attempts to affect politics, at least from the time of the Japanese warrior-monk, Benkei. Finally, about Islam, we have a completely different organization. Whereas in the West the state and religion are two separate entities, in Islamic countries religion is the state. Muslims have a historical diffidence on the tricks created by Western-style states. For the time being, Islam generally recommends vaccination, but things might change. As they always do.

 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Climate Change: What is the Worst that can Happen?

A Brontotherium, a creature similar to modern rhinos that lived up to some 35 million years ago in a world that was about 10 degrees centigrade hotter than ours. In this scene, we see a grassy plain, but Earth was mostly forested at that time. We may be moving toward similar conditions, although it is not obvious that humans could fare as well as Brontotheria did (image from BBC).

 

As it should have been predictable, the IPCC 6th assessment report, sank like a stone to the bottom of the memesphere just a few days after it was presented. Put simply, nobody is interested in sacrificing anything to reverse the warming trend and, most likely, nothing will be done. Renewable energy offers hope to mitigate the pressure on climate, but it may well be too late. We may have passed the point of non-return and be in free fall toward an unknown world. 

A disclaimer: I am not saying that nothing can be done anymore. I think we should keep doing what we can, as long as we can. But, at this stage, we can ask the question of "what is the worst thing that can happen?" Models can't help us too much to answer it. Complex systems -- and Earth's climate is one -- tend to be stable, but when they pass tipping points, they change rapidly and unpredictably. So, the best we can do is to imagine scenarios based on what we know, using the past as a guide.

Let's assume that humans keep burning fossil fuels for a few more decades, maybe slowing down a little, but still bent at burning everything burnable, deforest what is deforestable, and exterminate what is exterminable. As a result, the atmosphere keeps warming, the ocean does that, too. Then, at some point -- bang! -- the concentrations of greenhouse gases shoot up, the system goes kinetic and undergoes a rapid transition to a much hotter world.

The new state could be similar to what the Earth was some 50 million years ago, during the Eocene. At that time, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was of the order of one thousand parts per million (today it is ca. 400) and average surface temperature was about 10-12 degrees C higher than the current one. It was hot, but life thrived and Earth was a luxuriant, forested planet. In principle, humans could live in an Eocene-like climate. The problem is that getting there could be a rough ride, to say the least.

Nobody can say how fast we could get to a new Eocene, but tipping points are fast, so we don't need millions of years. We are thinking, more likely, of thousands of years and significant changes could occur in centuries or even in decades. So, let's try an exercise in looking at the worst-case hypothesis: assuming a warming of 5-10 degrees occurring over a time span of the order of 100-1000 years, what would we expect? It depends not just on temperatures, but on the interplay of several other factors, including mineral depletion, economic and social collapse, and the like. Let me propose a series of scenarios arranged from not so bad to very bad. Remember, these are possibilities, not predictions.


1. Extreme weather events: hurricanes, and the like. These events are spectacular and often described as the main manifestation of climate change. Nevertheless, it is not obvious that a warmer world will show violent atmospheric phenomena. A hurricane is a thermal engine, it transfers heat from a hot area to a cold area. It is more efficient, and hence more powerful, the higher the temperature difference. From what we know, in a warmer world these differences should be lower than they are now, so the power of hurricanes would be reduced, not enhanced. We may have a lot more rain because a hot atmosphere can contain more water, and this is an already detectable trend. Extreme weather events would be mainly local and hardly an existential threat to human civilization. 

2. Fires. Higher temperatures mean higher chances of fire, but the temperature is not the only parameter that enters into play. The trends over the past decades indicate a weak increase in the number of fires in the temperate zone and, of course, fires wreak havoc for those who didn't think too much before building a wooden house in a forest of eucalyptus trees. Nevertheless, as far as we know, fires were less common in the Eocene than they are now, which is what we would expect for a world of tropical forests. Fires should not be a threat for the future, although we may see a temporary rise in their frequency and intensity during the transition period.

3. Heat Waves. There is no doubt that heat waves kill, and that they are becoming more and more frequent. An Eocene-like climate would mean that the people living in what is today the temperate zone would experience summers in the form of a continuous series of extreme heat waves. Paris, for instance, would have a climate similar to the current one in Dubai. It would not be pleasant, but it is also true that people can stay alive in Dubai in Summer using air conditioning and taking other precautions. As long as we maintain a good supply of electricity and water, heat waves don't represent a major threat. Without electricity, instead, disaster looms. Heat waves could force a large fraction of the population in the equatorial and temperate zones to move northward or relocate on higher grounds, or, simply, die where they are. The toll of future heat waves is impossible to estimate, but it could mean the death of millions or tens of millions of people. It may not destroy civilization, but humans would have to move away from the tropical regions of the planet

4. Sea level rise. Here, we face a potential threat that goes from the easily manageable to the existential, depending on how fast the ice sheets melt. The current 3.6 mm/year rate means 3-4 meters of rise in a thousand years. Over such a time span, it would be reasonably possible to adapt the harbor structures and to move them inland as the sea level rise. But if the rate increases, as it is expected to, things get tough. Having to rebuild the whole maritime commercial infrastructure in a few decades would be impossible, to say nothing about the possibility of catastrophic events involving large masses of ice crashing into the sea. If we lose the harbors, we lose the maritime commercial system. Without it, billions of people would starve to death. In the long run, the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will have to melt completely, causing the sea level to rise by about 70 meters, but nobody can say how long that would take. Sea level rise has the potential for substantial disruption of the human civilization, even for its total collapse, but not to cause the extinction of humankind.

5. Agricultural collapseIn principle, climate change, may have disruptive effects on agriculture. Nevertheless, so far warming has not affected agricultural productivity too much. Assuming no major changes in the weather patterns, agriculture can continue producing at the current rates as long it is supplied with 1) fertilizers, 2) pesticides 3) mechanization, 4) irrigation. Take out any one of these 4 factors and the grain fields turn into a desert (genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may not need pesticides, but they have other problems). Keeping this supply needs a lot of energy and that may be a big problem in the future. Photovoltaic-powered artificial food production could come to the rescue, but it is still an experimental technology and it may arrive too late. Then, of course, technology can do little against the disruption of the weather patterns. Imagine that the Indian yearly monsoon were to disappear: most likely, it would be impossible to replace the monsoon rain with artificial irrigation and the result would be hundreds of millions of people starving to death. The lack of food is one of the main genocidal killers in history, directly or indirectly as the result of the epidemics that take advantage of weakened populations. As recently as a century and a half ago, famine directly killed about 30% of the population of Ireland and the toll would have been larger hadn't some of them been able to emigrate. If we extrapolate these numbers to the world today, where there is no possibility to migrate anywhere (despite Elon Musk's efforts to take people to Mars), we are talking about billions of deaths. Famines are among the greatest threats to humankind in the near future, although climate change would be only a co-factor in generating them. Famines may wreck sufficient damage to cause an economic, social, and cultural collapse. 

6. Ecosystem collapse. The history of Earth has seen several cases of ecosystemic collapses involving mass extinctions: the main ones are referred to as "the big five." The largest one took place at the end of the Permian, about 250 million years ago. In that case, the ecosystem recovered from the catastrophe, but it went close to losing all the vertebrates. Most large extinctions are correlated to volcanic emissions of the type called "large igneous provinces" that generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. The result is a warming sufficiently strong to disrupt the ecosystem. The current human-caused emission rate is larger than anything ever experienced by the ecosystem before, but it is unlikely to arrive to levels that could cause a Permian-like disaster. While volcanoes don't care about the biosphere, humans would be wiped out much before they could pump enough CO2 in the atmosphere to cause the death of the biosphere. Nevertheless, a substantial ecosystemic collapse could be caused by factors as the elimination of keystone species (say, bees), erosion, heavy metal pollution, arrest of the thermohaline oceanic currents, and others. The problem is that we have no idea of the time scale involved. Some people are proposing the "near term human extinction" (NTE) taking place in a few decades at most. It is not possible to prove that they are wrong, although most of the people studying the issue tend to think that the time involved should be much longer. The collapse of the ecosystem is a real threat: if it has happened in the past, it could happen again in the future. It may not be definitive and the ecosystem would probably recover as it has done in the past. But, if it happens, it may well be the end of humans as a species (and of many other species). 

7, The unexpected. Many things could cause an abrupt and unexpected change of the state of the system. The stopping of the thermoaline currents is a threat that could wreck disaster on the biosphere, but we don't know exactly what could happen, despite spectacular movies such as "The day after tomorrow"). Then, concentrations of CO2 of the order of 1,000 ppm could turn out to be poisonous for a biosphere that evolved for much lower concentrations. That would lead to a rapid ecosystem collapse. Then, heavy metal pollution could reduce human fertility so much that humans would go extinct in a couple of generations (we are especially sensitive to pollution because we are top predators). In this case, the human perturbation on climate would quickly disappear, although the past effects would still be felt for a long time. Or, we may think of a large scale nuclear war. It would cause a temporary "nuclear winter" generated by the injection of light-reflecting dust into the atmosphere. The cooling would disrupt agriculture and kill off a large fraction of the human population. After a few years, though, warming would return with a vengeance. How about developing an artificial intelligence so smart that it decides that humans are a nuisance and it exterminates them? Maybe it would keep some specimens in a zoo. Or, a silicon-based life would find that the whole biosphere is a nuisance, and proceed to sterilize the planet. In that case, we might be transferred as virtual creatures in a virtual universe created by the AI itself. And that may be exactly what we are! These extreme scenarios are unlikely, but who knows?

 


So, this is the view from where we stand: the peak of the Seneca Cliff, the curve that describes the rapid phase transitions of complex systems on the basis of the principle that "growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid." We see a green valley in the distance, but the road down the cliff is so steep and rough that it is hard to say whether we will survive the descent. 

The most worrisome thing is not so much the steep descent in itself, but that most humans not only can't understand it, but they can't even perceive it. Even after the descent has started (and it may well have started already), humans are likely to misunderstand the situation, attribute the change to evil agents (the Greens, the Communists, the Trumpists, or whatever) and react in way that will worsen the situation -- at best with extensive greenwashing, at worst with large scale extermination programs.

So, we may well disappear as a species in a non remote future. But we may also survive the disaster and re-emerge on the other side of the climate transition. For those who make it, the new Eocene might be a good world to live in, warm and luxuriant, with plenty of life. Maybe some of our descendants will use stone-tipped lances to hunt a future equivalent of the ancient Eocene's brontotheria. And, who knows, they might be wiser than we have been. 

Whether humans survive or not, the planetary ecosystem -- Gaia -- will recover nicely from the human perturbation, even though it may take a few million years for it to regain the exquisite complexity of the ecosystem as it was before humans nearly destroyed it. But Gaia is not in a hurry. The Goddess is benevolent and merciful (although sometimes ruthless) and she will live for several hundred million years after that even the existence of humans will have been forgotten.

 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Human Stupidity Explained: A Study Published on "Systems"

 

The original representation (1976) of the four "quadrants of human interactions" according to Carlo M. Cipolla. Clockwise from the top left quadrant: the behavior of hapless, intelligent, bandits, and stupid people. According to Cipolla, stupid people are the most dangerous people in the world.


We (myself and Ilaria Perissi) just published a new study on human stupidity in the scientific journal Systems. It is an open-access paper and you can download it for free at this link. I had already announced this paper in a post this April as a preliminary version published on ArXiv. Now, it is a regular paper appearing in a regular journal. 

Among other things, I can tell you that the experience of publishing this paper has been interesting (in the sense of the ancient Chinese malediction: may you live in interesting times!) It highlighted one of the many problems of the current system of scientific publishing: when you try to publish something that crosses the boundaries of established fields, you find yourself facing reviewers who think that it is their sacred duty to prevent your insults against orthodoxy from seeing the light of the day. But it is a long story and let me not harp on this.

So, what is the point of our paper? The paper is written in a light mood, but I think it makes an interesting point: what is the reason for human stupidity?

Let me explain: we all know that we are surrounded by stupidity: it truly pervades everything (the recent example of the end of the occupation of Afghanistan is just one of the many). This point had already been noted in the 1970s by Carlo Cipolla, an enlightened economist and historian. Cipolla had proposed "five laws of stupidity." The "third law," the basic one, is expressed as "A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."

That rings true, no doubt. But why, exactly? Cipolla didn't say that, he proposed the law but could not find a biological or physical reason for it to exist. So, we used a simple dynamic model, the Lotka-Volterra one, to explore how the interactions among people are regulated by a "financial potential" that governs the exchanges of goods and money. 

You may have heard of the Lotka-Volterra model as the one dealing with foxes and rabbits in biology. In reality, it is much more general than that (and incidentally, neither Lotka nor Volterra ever mentioned rabbits when they developed it independently, in the 1920s). It is a model that can be applied also to socio-economic systems, the interdisciplinary element that enraged the referees of our paper. The beauty of this model is that it is relatively simple and that it works! We applied it to such different fields as gold digging at the time of the gold rush and whaling at the time of Moby Dick (see, e.g., this paper). 

With a little twisting, we could use the Lotka-Volterra model for a qualitative description of Cipolla's "quadrant" that describes the four types of human strategies: intelligent, helpless, bandits, and stupid.

 


So, why do stupids exist? Simply because they exploit their resources (other people) so fast that they don't have the time to reform (or people do not have the time to regain their wealth). It is the phenomenon called "overexploitation." 

The idea came to us after having studied the history of whaling and of several other fisheries (that we report in our book "The Empty Sea"). A stupid whaler kills all the whales and is left with no resources to exploit, and then he goes bankrupt. It is exactly what happened in the 19th century when excessive hunting depleted the whale stock so much that the whaling industry collapsed. 

Why did whalers (and many other categories) behave in such a stupid way? Because they operated on a too short time scale, emphasizing short-term gains. This is the basis of the problem of overexploitation that has led us to the situation in which we are. 

But we also have something optimistic to say. People can learn! And systems can adapt. The Lotka-Volterra model, in the version called "competitive," shows how even a short-term attitude may self-correct in the long run. After several interactions, the system reaches homeostasis: predators (exploiters) and prey (exploited) find an agreement for mutual benefit. The beauty of this point is that you don't need to be especially smart to adapt. On the contrary, if you are truly stupid, you may adapt faster to a quick changing situation. In the end, it may well be that the origin of human stupidity is human intelligence. We are too smart for our own good.

Unfortunately, no matter how stupid we are, adaptation takes time. In the worst case hypothesis, the time needed may be infinite, since the exploited resource may be non-renewable, or gone extinct, like the dodo. Fortunately, that is not the case for whales and we may still hope that they will return to the oceans in large numbers. But for the ecosystem of our planet, it will be a long and difficult story. The problem is always the same: too much intelligence makes us too good at destroying things!


 My Coworker Ilaria Perissi with our recent book "The Empty Sea," her first book in English.

 

 




 

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From "The Seneca Effect" April 2021

I remember having met Carlo Maria Cipolla in Berkeley in the 1980s. At that time, I wasn't involved with biophysical studies, but I was already a fan of his work. His treatise on stupidity was truly a masterpiece of intelligence and humor. Then, his description of money forgers in Florence during the Middle Ages included also a mention of some of my remote ancestors, no doubt very enterprising people, actually too much! Cipolla was an incredibly brilliant writer and, in real life, he was charming, generous, and modest.

Cipolla's work on stupidity has been in my mind for a long time. His ideas on the matter were so simple and yet so deep. And he was expressing these deep concepts in a plain language that everyone could understand. The "third law," the basic one, is expressed as "A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

So simple, and it happens all the time. We are surrounded by stupidity, embedded in stupidity, accomplices of stupidity, perpetrators of stupidity. It seems to be a sort of cosmic ether that permeates everything and, unlike the ether of physics, it really exists. But why is it so common?

Recently, we got together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi, and we started thinking about making a model of Cipolla's law. Ilaria has been modeling the production cycles of fisheries using the biophysical model called the "Lotka-Volterra" model and, together, we published an entire book, "The Empty Sea," on that subject starting from those studies.

As you probably know, the Lotka-Volterra model is supposed to describe the interaction of two populations: predators and prey. It is often called the "Foxes and Rabbits" model. But it is much more than that. It is a simple model that goes very deep into the concept of "potential dissipation" that dominates the functioning of complex systems in the real world. 

So, not surprising that the Lotka-Volterra model could give us some deep insight into Cipolla's intuition. According to our interpretation, stupidity occurs when the dissipation of an energy potential goes too fast: the result is what we call "overexploitation" in which people exploit a resource to the point of destroying it, and damage themselves in the process. Fortunately, we also found that these systems can adapt in the long run. In an evolutionary system, stupidity punishes itself, but it takes time. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of what could be the greatest stupidity wave that the ecosystem ever saw in its nearly four billion years of existence.

 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Lev Tolstoy on Afghanistan: "It Happened Because it had to Happen"

When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. (Lev Tolstoy, "War and Peace")



Excuse me if I return to the Afghanistan story. I don't claim to be an expert in international politics, but if what happened is the result of the actions of "experts", then it is safe to say that it is better to ignore them and look for our own explanations.

So, I proposed an interpretation of the Afghan disaster in a recent post of mine, together with a report on the story of how the oil reserves of the region of the Caspian Sea were enormously overestimated starting with the 1980s. Some people understood my views as meaning that I proposed that crude oil was the cause of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. No, I didn't mean that. Not any more than the story of the "butterfly effect" means that a butterfly can actually cause a hurricane -- of course it would make no sense.

What I am saying is a completely different concept: a butterfly (or dreams of immense oil reserves) are just triggers for events that have a certain potential to happen. Take a temperature difference between the water surface and the air and a hurricane can happen: it is a thermodynamic potential. Take a military industry that makes money on war, and a war can take place: it is a financial potential. A hurricane and a military lobby are not so different in terms of being complex adaptive systems.

So, let me summarize my opinion on the Afghanistan conflict. I think that these 20 years of madness have been the result of a meme gone viral in the mid-1980s that triggered an event that happened because there were the conditions to make it happen: the invasion of Afghanistan.

It all started in the mid-1980s, when an American geologist, Harry Cook, came back from Kazakhstan with a wildly exaggerated estimate of the oil reserves of the Caspian area. He probably understood the uncertainty of his numbers, but statistical thinking is not a characteristic of American politicians. Cook's numbers were taken at face value and further inflated to give rise to the "New Saudi Arabia" meme: resources so abundant that they would have led to a new era of oil prosperity. At this point, the question became about how to get the (hypothetical) Caspian bonanza.

Even before the presence of these reserves was proven (or disproved), in the mid-1990s negotiations started for a pipeline going from the oil fields of Kazakhstan to the Indian Ocean, going through Afghanistan. That involved negotiating with the Taleban and with a Saudi Arabian oil tycoon named Osama Bin Laden. Something went wrong and the negotiations collapsed in 1998. Then, there came the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan. It was only in the mid-2000s that actual drilling in the Caspian area laid to rest the myth of the New Saudi Arabia. But the occupation of Afghanistan was already a fact.

Does this story explain 20 years of US occupation of Afghanistan at a cost of 2 trillion dollars and the humiliating defeat we see now? No, if you think in terms of cause and effect. Yes, if you think of it in terms of a diffuse meme in the minds of the decision-makers. I can't imagine that there ever was someone masterminding the whole folly. But there was this meme about those immense oil reserves north of Afghanistan that influenced all the decisions made at all levels. Memes are an incredibly powerful force.

To explain my point better, I can cite Lev Tolstoy's description of what led millions of Western Europeans to invade Russia in 1812, a decision as foolish as that of invading Afghanistan in 2001. Tolstoy says that "it happened because it had to happen."

Tolstoy means that it was the result of a series of macro- and micro-decisions taken by all the actors in the story, including the simple soldiers who decided to enlist with Napoleon. But there was no plan, no grand strategy, no clear objectives directing the invasion. Even Napoleon himself was just one of the cogs of the immense machine that generated the disaster. "A king is history's slave," says Tolstoy.

Tolstoy's had an incredibly advanced way of thinking: what he wrote could have been written by a modern system scientist. You see it in nearly every paragraph of this excerpt from "War and Peace." An amazing insight on the reason for the folly of human actions at the level of what Tolstoy calls the "hive," that today we would call the "memesphere."

 

From "War and Peace" - Lev Tolstoy Book 9, chapter 1

On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on. Consequently, it would only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: ‘My respected Brother, I consent to restore the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg’- and there would have been no war.

We can understand that the matter seemed like that to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the way was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178.

It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence- apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes- to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.

Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes- myriads of causes- coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power- the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns- should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes. We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.

Each man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his personal aims, and feels with his whole being that he can now do or abstain from doing this or that action; but as soon as he has done it, that action performed at a certain moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance. There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.

‘The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.’
A king is history’s slave.

History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes. Though Napoleon at that time, in 1812, was more convinced than ever that it depended on him, verser (ou ne pas verser) le sang de ses peuples*- as Alexander expressed it in the last letter he wrote him- he had never been so much in the grip of inevitable laws, which compelled him, while thinking that he was acting on his own volition, to perform for the hive life- that is to say, for history- whatever had to be performed.

The people of the west moved eastwards to slay their fellow men, and by the law of coincidence thousands of minute causes fitted in and co-ordinated to produce that movement and war: reproaches for the nonobservance of the Continental System, the Duke of Oldenburg’s wrongs, the movement of troops into Prussia- undertaken (as it seemed to Napoleon) only for the purpose of securing an armed peace, the French Emperor’s love and habit of war coinciding with his people’s inclinations, allurement by the grandeur of the preparations, and the expenditure on those preparations and the need of obtaining advantages to compensate for that expenditure, the intoxicating honors he received in Dresden, the diplomatic negotiations which, in the opinion of contemporaries, were carried on with a sincere desire to attain peace, but which only wounded the self-love of both sides, and millions and millions of other causes that adapted themselves to the event that was happening or coincided with it.

When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.

Equally right or wrong is he who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander desired his destruction, and he who says that an undermined hill weighing a million tons fell because the last navvy struck it for the last time with his mattock. In historic events the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself. Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.



*"To shed (or not to shed) the blood of his peoples.’


Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Collapse of Scientism and the Rebirth of Science

 

The oldest image (1228-1229) we have of Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226). Not a portrait, but probably not far from the real aspect of Francis. He engaged in a bold attempt to reform the corrupt Catholic Church in Europe. He failed, but he left a trace in history from which we can still learn much. In our times, the corrupt organization that we need to reform is Science, turned now into a state ideology to oppress people and destroy nature. Maybe we need a new St. Francis to reform it, or maybe it needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from scratch in a new structure. Here, I discuss this story and I also reproduce a post by Luisella Chiavenuto (a little long, but worth reading) who has perfectly understood the situation and proposes that what we call "science of complexity" is a completely new kind of science, different from the old Galilean version.

By Ugo Bardi

 

With the turn of the 2nd millennium in Europe, the Catholic Church had gone through the involution that's typical of all large organizations. It had become huge, bureaucratic, corrupt, and inefficient. A once idealistic and pure organization had been defeated by the arch-corrupter of everything human: money. 

Earlier on, Europe had emerged out of the collapse of the Roman Empire as a lean, non-monetized society that had no impulse to grow and conquer outside lands. But the re-monetization of Europe started when rich silver mines were found in Eastern Europe with the turn of the millennium.

At that time, Europe was bubbling with a new wealth, a new assertiveness, a new way of seeing the world. Once you have money, you can have an army. Once you have an army, you can search for enemies. And once you have enemies, you can attack them and make more money. With the first crusade, started in 1096, Europe started its transformation from a sleepy peninsula of Eurasia to a military and financial machine that would engage in the conquest of the world. It succeeded at that over half a millennium of conquests. 

Against all this, a man surged. His name was Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) and he perfectly understood the root cause of the corruption: money. In Francis's view, money was the "Devil's Dung" and neither himself nor his followers would touch it.

It was a bold plan to reform the Church from the inside. The impact of Francis was enormous on his contemporaries, so much that we still remember him and love him. But, ultimately, he and his followers failed. Money is a truly powerful demon. 

In 1517, nearly three centuries after Francis, things came to a head when Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany. Selling salvation for money was too much, and it was then that Martin Luther nailed the text of his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittemberg. 

It was the start of the decline of the "Catholic" ("universal") Church that ceased to be universal at that time. It survived for a few centuries as a regional Church, until it was replaced with scientism as the founding myth of the Western world. The decline seems to be complete nowadays with empty churches and bewildered flocks, terrorized by TV scientists predicting doom for them. It is the triumph of scientism.

But things never stand still, cycles are always ongoing, and the triumph of scientism already shows signs of decline. Science is corrupted from inside by the same demon that corrupted the Church in the late Middle Ages: money. 

It is a tall order that of reforming such a huge and entrenched organization as science is nowadays, but for everything there comes the day of reckoning; redde rationem villicationis tuae: iam enim non poteris villicare. (Luke, 16:2)

So, we need to reform science to turn it from a support for the oppression of humankind to what it was at the beginning: "natural philosophy," which means "love for the knowledge of the natural world," not "knowledge for destroying the natural world" as it is understood in the "scientism" paradigm. In short, we need a human science, otherwise it is not science.

In the following, a post by Luisella Chiavenuto who perfectly understands these points and describes them in detail. It is not impossible to reform science and see its rebirth in a new form. The key point is that the science of complexity is a new science, very different from the old Galilean science. We need to recognize this difference and move onward to tackle a new world using new instruments.

 ____________________________________________________________________


The Paradigm of Scientism and Complexity

By Luisella Chiavenuto -- Translated and condensed from "Umanesimo e Scienza"

 

We live in a period of rapid change and redefinition of any kind of identity, including scientific identity. It is no longer just a matter of a normal scientific debate (which has become more and more impossible) but of a real internal split in Science.

The scientism paradigm was based on the research of domination over nature - and more and more on its reprogramming, according to the interests of humanity - for a certain period has improved the conditions of life.

Then the trend reversal started. And now the main planetary problems are caused and aggravated by the current techno-scientific model that reached the height of its power and at the same time the peak of its unsustainability, in every sector.

A model in which almost all of what we call "Science" is merged with technology and economy - so as to be inseparable in every aspect. And the large transnational corporations are dominated by the transversal power of the IT corporation.

It is a model in which the war against "the human" - and within the human psyche - tends to replace the physical war. The planetary battlefield is now our feelings and our cognitive - and epistemological - patterns.

However, there is also a new, emerging model based on a radically different scientific and cultural paradigm that proposes a science capable of self-criticism, and a technology that is more humble and friendly to the Nature that sustains us - and to our own human nature from which we are constituted.


The clash between different scientific models

The two models, the dominant and the emerging one, thus give rise to two different scientific methods - based in turn on two different worldviews and visions of the knowledge process.

In the case of the dominant paradigm, scientism, knowledge derives from an exclusive use of scientific rationality, which considers truth preeminently, if not exclusively, only that which is "measurable," and to be pursued only what is conveyed by increasingly powerful technologies, with immediate and sectorial effectiveness and whose negative effects at a distance of time and space are not - in principle - taken into account,

The philosophy on which this type of science is based is declaredly neo-Scientism, therefore for certain important aspects, it is in relation of continuity with the Cartesian paradigm. The interpretative metaphor adopted is that of the world seen as a network of computers interconnected and guided by the computational cognitive model - within a technocratic and reductionist conception of the concept of "system".

This model of science is proposed as an exclusive model, based on the principle of established authority, i.e. the major international and local scientific institutions - within which, however, there are also different positions, although marginal ones.

In the case of the emerging paradigm, on the other hand, scientific rationality becomes one of the possible cognitive dimensions - assumed, therefore, not to impose themselves, but to integrate harmoniously with the other cognitive faculties from which we are constituted: the historical and social dimension (historical experience, philosophies, social disciplines ...) and the symbolic dimension (art, music, literature, spirituality ...)

The philosophy at the base of this emerging paradigm can be defined as a vision of reality based on the concept of complexity of unlimitedly stratified interconnected systems. The interpretative metaphor is that of the world seen as a living organism, in which each element is constitutively connected and interdependent on the others.

It is a vision that leads to the concept of symbiont, which means forms of life not only physically associated, but that evolve together in a co-evolution. The concept of phylogenetic symbiont in turn leads to the concept of holistic symbiont - with infinite levels of stratification, in turn, included in a universal Totality.

This model of science is proposed as an inclusive model, based on the principle of freedom of thought - It also includes the Dominant Paradigm, but in a relativized form, that is subjected to radical critical revision and placed within a wider conceptual framework.


The dynamics of the paradigms

In synthesis, we can say that we are seeing a clash between the scientism paradigm and the paradigm of complexity.  Of course, these are abstract concepts, useful for orientation. Moreover, they must be considered as "paradigms" by their very nature composed of different elements: only the combination of these elements - and of their historical roots - can provide a valid criterion of judgment.
 
In particular, the concept of "System" is very important for both paradigms, but it is conceived and developed in a very different way. This is due mainly because the two paradigms have origin from cognitive models so different that they can be defined as substantially opposite to each other. But the boundaries between these paradigms are never traced in a clear-cut stable way.

Rather, they are osmotic, contradictory, and fragmented processes that unfold over time, giving rise to a "dynamic of paradigms "  taking place simultaneously on a historical scale and on an individual scale, that is, in the realm of the personal psyche. Finally, and increasingly frequently, the keywords of the scientific and political debate undergo a process of mimicry, through which their meaning is turned upside down.

Sometimes this reversal occurs through the deliberate use of advertising techniques - sometimes it is the result of a confusion of thought. The line between the two is blurred, and often very blurred.


The Current Crisis

In this period, we have witnessed an epochal nemesis of the enlightenment reason. With a unilateral and unrestrained development, technoscience has definitively reversed itself into its opposite: an obfuscation and a radical repudiation of rationality itself. Having severed any link with the complexity of life, this approach becomes structurally obtuse.

A good fraction of the political and economical sectors make use of this obfuscation of reason by using the crisis and the implosion of scientific thought for power purposes - or sometimes of declared impotence. In turn, they feed a market of technological products in which the military and civilian sectors are structurally intertwined, as it was from the beginning. Every macro-economic sector is by now structurally interwoven - and dominated - by the companies that manage the backbone of IT tools.  (The new era of epistemic dominance).

The information corporation, being a network of power transversal to all the great corporations (energy, financial, material, cognitive, and media) - unifies them and allows similar cultural and political lines shared on a planetary scale. These convergent choices occur both through deliberate and centralized public decisions - and through processes of involuntary "systemic" automatism, parceled out and not made explicit.

State Science, therefore, proposes solutions that are dead ends. That is, it imposes a framing in hyper-sectorial complications, deadly for the social, economic, and ecological fabric - and for the human psyche. This framing is deadly for the very concept of humankind and civilization, because
- through the practice of misdirection/distancing/masking - is eroded at the root of the bond of mutual trust between people, which is the foundation of the human interaction.

Moreover, the pact of trust between citizens and institutions is also eroded, because with the health passport, and the like, it is established that basic human rights are granted only to those who accept the decisions of the State, which can suspend human rights on the basis of health conditions (all sick until proven otherwise) and behavior in the most personal choices (denying the freedom of care - and so the way is paved for any subsequent abuse).

For over a year now, the State has been heavily entering the private and emotional life, the choices of the most intimate sphere and the very body of all people, without limits and without counter-balances. Hence, also, the need to resort to a surrogate of religious faith - in science and in vaccine miracles - to be able to support what is not sustainable with a reasonable use of reason.

Moreover, all the premises (scientific, legal, and customary) remain in place for the same model of management of the epidemic to be proposed again at the seasonal resumption of variants, or other threats. Finally, this approach seems destined to become the basic political-scientific model, usable in its basic lines to face all emergencies.

So not only the upcoming health threats but also the climate emergency, much more impressive and complex, - as well as the crises of energy and food resources, also related to overpopulation - and caused by an economic model centered on the destruction of essential resources: land, air, water, and natural and social ecosystems. A model that imposes the massive increase of every technology in every field. 

The suspension of human and constitutional rights, increasing computer control for political purposes (Chinese style social control), and the dehumanization of life, in every field. That is the New Normal, presented, and believed by many, as an inevitable choice. But, in addition to confusion, in this madness, there is also a method, whose paradigmatic constants can be recognized.

Recognizing this method can help us understand (in part) why the vast majority of the scientific, academic, and intellectual world has adhered to an irrational and failed description and management of the pandemic.

The Knowledge Process

In this context, the "Humanism and Science" website - and the related Association - propose to use the strong and difficult energy released by the crises, directing it towards a new culture of complexity,
through a dialogue - self-critical and integrative - between science and humanism.

In a similar way, an integration between the different dimensions and cognitive languages from which we are constituted as individuals has also sought: the rational dimension, the historical-social dimension, and the symbolic dimension.  
   
This progressive integration can lead to qualitative leaps, to changes of great intensity in personal and collective life. (Of course, the interaction described here is only a "method", and as such can have different outcomes, depending on the purposes and the general vision of those who practice it).

In this site, we deal with ideas, art, and music: not to create entertainment but on the contrary to look for creative interaction, a mutual influence that brings depth, beauty, and harmony in the process of research and knowledge - both personal and collective.

The basic orientation can be condensed into Dostoyevsky's phrase: "Beauty will save the world". Remembering also the meaning of the word "beauty" in ancient Greek: kalòs, which means at the same time "Beautiful, True, Good".

It is an orientation that, however, does not forget the ambivalence of Nature, with its dual aspect of "mother and stepmother". Awareness of the seriousness of systemic breakdowns - both ongoing and future - can, however, join with a vision of life that is not exhausted within what we commonly define as "physical reality."

In turn, this shift may imply a Metanoia, or even a "repentance," not in the superficially moralistic sense, but in the etymological meaning of the terms: a profound change of thought, of concrete life, of vision of the world and of oneself - a change provoked by restlessness, by pain, and by a crisis with no apparent way out - but also provoked and sustained by an intuition of happiness and intensity of life,  presented as real and endowed with intrinsic truth.

In order to identify this kind of truth, one can resort to a concept that is often misrepresented in its original meaning, and which can be summarized by the word "Transcendence" - in a meaning that does not devalue immanence, but rather includes it in a more infinite and indefinable horizon.

The Evaluation of Time

With this horizon open to the dynamics of different cultural paradigms, one can understand the fascinating complexity and the (critical and self-critical) encounter between humanistic culture and scientific culture. And the necessity of such an encounter to illuminate with a new light, and at the same time an ancient one, the ethical choices to which we are called. Dramatic choices that seem to lack, literally, a ground on which to base themselves.

In fact, the scientism ideology is based on the devaluation of the past - in the name of the magnificent fates and progressions of Technoscience, capable of solving all problems by increasing its power. In this way, it implements a split from the past, closing itself to the possibility of learning from historical experience. That is, it precludes the possibility of seriously understanding our cultural roots - through a revision that is critical, but - even before being critical - capable of studying and grasping their deepest meaning.

The result of this split (which is also a split from our deepest psyche) is the present poverty in cultural and human depth, radically alien to any form of charm, beauty and depth. The foreshadowing of the future is thus delegated, mainly, to the literary genre of science fiction - in which the technical power of reshaping nature usually appears as a nightmare, or at least an obligatory solution, and in turn the generator of new and greater nightmares.

However, in the immediate future, technoscience offers ephemeral solutions of "safety," and its social consensus on that.
 
The Ideological side

Scientism as an ideology is proposed as a faith that often borders on the religious exaltation of man's power over life, a substitute that fills the void left by traditional religions - a form of "fundamentalist" exaltation - blind to any warning of the Nemesis in action.

But the collapse of intellectual and ethical credibility of the Scientism ideology causes a consequent strengthening of its authoritarianism, even if it coexists with a strand of theories and practices, including neuro-technologies, self-declared as having a "democratic" purpose).   

In the Emerging Paradigm, instead, the past-future opposition is overcome, and the intimate link between the past and the future is grasped, both on the level of ideas, and on the wider, life-giving human level. This link can also be defined as a sense of "nostalgia".  Nostalgia for the past combined with nostalgia for the future, that is, desire and hope.

These are much more than just feelings: they are powerful archetypes. endowed with great creative energy - indispensable for a life that is not mere survival of the body, and for this reason constantly on the verge of suicide for lack of horizons and meaning.

"... I was a fireplace, inhabited by flame.
Invaded by a subdued and burning joy.
I was not just a stone fireplace,
but a messenger
Of lost Confidence.

A messenger of the indefinite Hope
That abandoned in the smoke, rises ...
Wounded and powerful in its pain,
rises to cover the roofs
and the distant rocks... "


    
Luisella Chiavenuto June 2021

                        


Bibliography
- Plato "Dialogues"
- F. Capra "The Turning Point" - T. Kuhn "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".
- U. Bardi "Seneca Effect"  "Who is the Emperor of the World?
The new era of the epistemic dominion"




Saturday, August 7, 2021

Consensus Building: an art that we are losing. The Case of Climate Science

In 1956, Arthur C. Clarke wrote "The Forgotten Enemy," a science fiction story that dealt with the return of the ice age (image source). Surely it was not Clarke's best story, but it may have been the first written on that subject by a well-known author. Several other sci-fi authors examined the same theme, but that does not mean that, at that time, there was a scientific consensus on global cooling. It just means that a consensus on global warming was obtained only later, in the 1980s. But which mechanisms were used to obtain this consensus? And why is it that, nowadays, it seems to be impossible to attain consensus on anything? This post is a discussion on this subject that uses climate science as an example.

 

You may remember how, in 2017, during the Trump presidency, there briefly floated in the media the idea to stage a debate on climate change in the form of a "red team vs. blue team" encounter between orthodox climate scientists and their opponents. Climate scientists were horrified at the idea. They were especially appalled at the military implications of the "red vs. blue" idea that hinted at how the debate could have been organized. From the government side, then, it was quickly realized that in a fair scientific debate their side had no chances. So, the debate never took place and it is good that it didn't. Maybe those who proposed it were well intentioned (or maybe not), but in any case it would have degenerated into a fight and just created confusion.

Yet, the story of that debate that was never held hints at a point that most people understand: the need for consensus. Nothing in our world can be done without some form of consensus and the question of climate change is a good example. Climate scientists tend to claim that such a consensus exists, and they sometimes quantify it as 97% or even 100%. Their opponents claim the opposite

In a sense, they are both right. A consensus on climate change exists among scientists, but this is not true for the general public. The polls say that a majority of people know something about climate change and agree that something is to be done about it, but that is not the same as an in-depth, informed consensus. Besides, this majority rapidly disappears as soon as it is time to do something that touches someone's wallet. The result is that, for more than 30 years, thousands of the best scientists in the world have been warning humankind of a dire threat approaching, and nothing serious has been done. Only proclaims, greenwashing, and "solutions" that worsen the problem (the "hydrogen-based economy" is a good example).

So, consensus building is a fundamental matter. You can call it a science or see it as another way to define what others call "propaganda." Some reject the very idea as a form of "mind control," or practice it in various methods of rule-based negotiations. It is a fascinating subject that goes to the heart of our existence as human beings in a complex society. 

Here, instead of tackling the issue from a general viewpoint, I'll discuss a specific example: that of "global cooling" vs. "global warming," and how a consensus was obtained that warming is the real threat. It is a dispute often said to be proof that no such a thing as consensus exists in climate science. 

You surely heard the story of how, just a few decades ago, "global cooling" was the generally accepted scientific view of the future. And how those silly scientists changed their minds, switching to warming, instead. Conversely, you may also have heard that this is a myth and that there never was such a thing as a consensus that Earth was cooling.

As it is always the case, the reality is more complex than politics wants it to be. Global cooling as an early scientific consensus is one of the many legends generated by the discussion about climate change and, like most legends, it is basically false. But it has at least some links with reality. It is an interesting story that tells us a lot about how consensus is obtained in science. But we need to start from the beginning.

The idea that Earth's climate was not stable emerged in the mid-19th century with the discovery of the past ice ages. At that point, an obvious question was whether ice ages could return in the future. The matter remained at the level of scattered speculations until the mid 20th century, when the concept of "new ice age" appeared in the "memesphere" (the ensemble of human public memes). We can see this evolution using Google "Ngrams," a database that measures the frequency of strings of words in a large corpus of published books (Thanks, Google!!).

 

You see that the possibility of a "new ice age" entered the public consciousness already in the 1920s, then it grew and reached a peak in the early 1970s. Other strings such as "Earth cooling" and the like give similar results. Note also that the database "English Fiction" generates a large peak for the concept of a "new ice age" at about the same time, in the 1970s. Later on, cooling was completely replaced by the concept of global warming. You can see in the figure below how the crossover arrived in the late 1980s.

 


Even after it started to decline, the idea of a "new ice age" remained popular and journalists loved presenting it to the public as an imminent threat. For instance, Newsweek printed an article titled "The Cooling World" in 1975, but the concept provided good material for the catastrophic genre in fiction. As late as 2004, it was at the basis of the movie "The Day After Tomorrow."

Does that mean that scientists ever believed that the Earth was cooling? Of course not. There was no consensus on the matter. The status of climate science until the late 1970s simply didn't allow certainties about Earth's future climate.

As an example, in 1972, the well-known report to the Club of Rome, "The Limits to Growth," noted the growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it did not state that it would cause warming -- evidently the issue was not yet clear even for scientists engaged in global ecosystem studies. 8 years later, in 1980, the authors of "The Global 2000 Report to the President of the U.S." commissioned by president Carter, already had a much better understanding of the climate effects of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, they did not rule out global cooling and they discussed it as a plausible scenario.

The Global 2000 Report is especially interesting because it provides some data on the opinion of climate scientists as it was in 1975. 28 experts were interviewed and asked to forecast the average world temperature for the year 2000. The result was no warming or a minimal one of about 0.1 C. In the real world, though, temperatures rose by more than 0.4 C in 2000. Clearly, in 1980, there was not such a thing as a scientific consensus on global warming. On this point, see also the paper by Peterson (2008) which analyzes the scientific literature in the 1970s. A majority of paper was found to favor global warming, but also a significant minority arguing for no temperature changes or for global cooling.

Now we are getting to the truly interesting point of this discussion. The consensus that Earth was warming did not exist before the 1980s, but then it became the norm. How was it obtained?

There are two interpretations floating in the memesphere today. One is that scientists agreed on a global conspiracy to terrorize the public about global warming in order to obtain personal advantages. The other that scientists are cold-blooded data-analyzers and that they did as John Maynard Keynes said, "When I have new data, I change my mind." 

Both are legends. The one about the scientific conspiracy is obviously ridiculous, but the second is just as silly. Scientists are human beings and data are not a gospel of truth. Data are always incomplete, affected by uncertainties, and need to be selected. Try to develop Newton's law of universal gravitation without ignoring all the data about falling feathers, paper sheets, and birds, and you'll see what I mean. 

In practice, science is a fine-tuned consensus-building machine. It has evolved exactly for the purpose of smoothly absorbing new data in a gradual process that does not lead (normally) to the kind of partisan division that's typical of politics. 

Science uses a procedure derived from an ancient method that, in Medieval times was called disputatio and that has its roots in the art of rhetoric of classical times. The idea is to debate issues by having champions of the different theses squaring off against each other and trying to convince an informed audience using the best arguments they can muster. The Medieval disputatio could be very sophisticated and, as an example, I discussed the "Controversy of Valladolid" (1550-51) on the status of the American Indians. Theological disputationes normally failed to harmonize truly incompatible positions, say, convincing Jews to become Christians (it was tried more than once, but you may imagine the results). But sometimes they did lead to good compromises and they kept the confrontation to the verbal level (at least for a while).

In modern science, the rules have changed a little, but the idea remains the same: experts try to convince their opponents using the best arguments they can muster. It is supposed to be a discussion, not a fight. Good manners are to be maintained and the fundamental feature is being able to speak a mutually understandable language. And not just that: the discussants need to agree on some basic tenets of the frame of the discussion.  During the Middle Ages, theologians debated in Latin and agreed that the discussion was to be based on the Christian scriptures. Today, scientists debate in English and agree that the discussion is to be based on the scientific method.

In the early times of science, one-to-one debates were used (maybe you remember the famous debate about Darwin's ideas that involved Thomas Huxley and Archbishop Wilberforce in 1860). But, nowadays, that is rare. The debate takes place at scientific conferences and seminars where several scientists participate, gaining or losing "prestige points" depending on how good they are at presenting their views. Occasionally, a presenter, especially a young scientist, may be "grilled" by the audience in a small re-enactment of the coming of age ceremonies of Native Americans. But, most important of all, informal discussions take place all over the conference. These meetings are not supposed to be vacations, they are functional to the face-to-face exchange of ideas. As I said, scientists are human beings and they need to see each other in the face to understand each other. A lot of science is done in cafeterias and over a glass of beer. Possibly, most scientific discoveries start in this kind of informal setting. No one, as far as I know, was ever struck by a ray of light from heaven while watching a power point presentation.

It would be hard to maintain that scientists are more adept at changing their views than Medieval theologians and older scientists tend to stick to old ideas. Sometimes you hear that science advances one funeral at a time; it is not wrong, but surely an exaggeration: scientific views do change even without having to wait for the old guard to die. The debate at a conference can decisively tilt toward one side on the basis of the brilliance of a scientist, the availability of good data, and the overall competence demonstrated. 

I can testify that, at least once, I saw someone in the audience rising up after a presentation and say, "Sir, I was of a different opinion until I heard your talk, but now you convinced me. I was wrong and you are right." (and I can tell you that this person was more than 70 years old, good scientists may age gracefully, like wine). In many cases, the conversion is not so sudden and so spectacular, but it does happen. Then, of course, money can do miracles in affecting scientific views but, as long as we stick to climate science, there is not a lot of money involved and corruption among scientists is not widespread as it is in other fields, such as in medical research.

So, we can imagine that in the 1980s the consensus machine worked as it was supposed to do and it led to the general opinion of climate scientists switching from cooling to warming. That was a good thing, but the story didn't end with that. There remained to convince people outside the narrow field of climate science, and that was not obvious. 

From the 1990s onward, the disputatio was dedicated to convincing non-climate scientists, that is both scientists working in different fields and intelligent laypersons. There was a serious problem with that: climate science is not a matter for amateurs, it is a field where the Dunning-Kruger effect (people overestimating their competence) may be rampant. Climate scientists found themselves dealing with various kinds of opponents. Typically, elderly scientists who refused to accept new ideas or, sometimes, geologists who saw climate science as invading their turf and resenting that. Occasionally, opponents could score points in the debate by focusing on narrow points that they themselves had not completely understood (for instance, the "tropospheric hot spot" was a fashionable trick). But when the debate involved someone who knew climate science well enough the opponents' destiny was to be easily steamrolled.

These debates went on for at least a decade. You may know the 2009 book by Randy Olson, "Don't be Such a Scientist" that describes this period. Olson surely understood the basic point of debating: you must respect your opponent if you aim at convincing him or her, and the audience, too. It seemed to be working, slowly. Progress was being made and the climate problem was becoming more and more known.

And then, something went wrong. Badly wrong. Scientists suddenly found themselves cast into another kind of debate for which they had no training and little understanding. You see in Google Ngrams how the idea that climate change was a hoax lifted off in the 2000s and became a feature of the memesphere. Note how rapidly it rose: it had a climax in 2009, with the Climategate scandal, but it didn't decline afterward.



It was a completely new way to discuss: not anymore a disputatio. No more rules, no more reciprocal respect, no more a common language. Only slogans and insults. A climate scientist described this kind of debate as like being involved in a "bare-knuckle bar fight." From there onward, the climate issue became politicized and sharply polarized. No progress was made and none is being made, right now.

Why did this happen? In large part, it was because of a professional PR campaign aimed at disparaging climate scientists. We don't know who designed it and paid for it but, surely, there existed (and still exist) industrial lobbies which were bound to lose a lot if decisive action to stop climate change was implemented. Those who had conceived the campaign had an easy time against a group of people who were as naive in terms of communication as they were experts in terms of climate science. 

The Climategate story is a good example of the mistakes scientists made. If you read the whole corpus of the thousands of emails released in 2009, nowhere you'll find that the scientists were falsifying the data, were engaged in conspiracies, or tried to obtain personal gains. But they managed to give the impression of being a sectarian clique that refused to accept criticism from their opponents. In scientific terms, they did nothing wrong, but in terms of image, it was a disaster. Another mistake of scientists was to try to steamroll their adversaries claiming a 97% of scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Even assuming that it is true (it may well be), it backfired, giving once more the impression that climate scientists are self-referential and do not take into account objections of other people. 

Let me give you another example of a scientific debate that derailed and become a political one. I already mentioned the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth." It was a scientific study, but the debate that ensued was outside the rules of the scientific debate. A feeding frenzy among sharks would be a better description of how the world's economists got together to shred to pieces the LTG study.  The "debate" rapidly spilled over to the mainstream press and the result was a general demonization of the study, accused to have made "wrong predictions," and, in some cases, to be planning the extermination of humankind. (I discuss this story in my 2011 book "The Limits to Growth Revisited.") The interesting (and depressing) thing you can learn from this old debate is that no progress was made in half a century. Approaching the 50th anniversary of the publication, you can find the same criticism republished afresh on Web sites, "wrong predictions", and all the rest. 

So, we are stuck. Is there a hope to reverse the situation? Hardly. The loss of the capability of obtaining a consensus seems to be a feature of our times: debates require a minimum of reciprocal respect to be effective, but that has been lost in the cacophony of the Web. The only form of debate that remains is the vestigial one that sees presidential candidates stiffly exchanging platitudes with each other every four years. But a real debate? No way, it is gone like the disputes among theologians in Middle Ages.

The discussion on climate, just as on all important issues, has moved to the Web, in large part to the social media. And the effect has been devastating on consensus-building. One thing is facing a human being across a table with two glasses of beer on it, another is to see a chunk of text falling from the blue as a comment to your post. This is a recipe for a quarrel, and it works like that every time. 

Also, it doesn't help that international scientific meetings and conferences have all but disappeared in a situation that discourages meetings in person. Online meetings turned out to be hours of boredom in which nobody listens to anybody and everyone is happy when it is over. Even if you can still manage to be at an in-person meeting, it doesn't help that your colleague appears to you in the form of a masked bag of dangerous viruses, to be kept at a distance all the time, if possible behind a plexiglass barrier. Not the best way to establish a human relationship.

This is a fundamental problem: if you can't build a consensus by a debate, the only other possibility is to use the political method. It means attaining a majority by means of a vote (and note that in science, like in theology, voting is not considered an acceptable consensus building technique). After the vote, the winning side can force their position on the minority using a combination of propaganda, intimidation, and, sometimes, physical force. An extreme consensus-building technique is the extermination of the opponents. It has been done so often in history that it is hard to think that it will not be done again on a large scale in the future, perhaps not even in a remote one. But, apart from the moral implications, forced consensus is expensive, inefficient, and often it leads to dogmas being established. Then it is impossible to adapt to new data when they arrive. 

So, where are we going? Things keep changing all the time; maybe we'll find new ways to attain consensus even online, which implies, at a minimum, not to insult and attack your opponent right from the beginning. As for a common language, after that we switched from Latin to English, we might now switch to "Googlish," a new world language that might perhaps be structured to avoid clashes of absolutes -- perhaps it might just be devoid of expletives, perhaps it may have some specific features that help build consensus. For sure, we need a reform of science that gets rid of the corruption rampant in many fields: money is a kind of consensus, but not the one we want.

Or, maybe, we might develop new rituals. Rituals have always been a powerful way to attain consensus, just think of the Christian mass (the Christian church has not yet realized that it has received a deadly blow from the anti-virus rules). Could rituals be transferred online? Or would we need to meet in person in the forest as the "book people" imagined by Ray Bradbury in his 1953 novel "Fahrenheit 451"?

We cannot say. We can only ride the wave of change that, nowadays, seems to have become a true tsunami. Will we float or sink? Who can say? The shore seems to be still far away.


h/t Carlo Cuppini and "moresoma"