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Thunberg on Science

Greta Thunberg is one of those hard-to-pin-down thinkers whose ideas are widespread and influential without being well-defined. Like Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, and Russell Brand.

Of course, she has written them down.

In a book, published by Penguin Science.

With an average of six lines of writing on each page.

Like a Noddy book, though without the illustrations.

Personally, I’d rather read the ingredients on a bottle of barbecue sauce.

Aloud.

In Public.

Over and over again.

But then I’m suffering from Aspirational Aspergers. I have a secret yearning to know what it’s like to be the world’s most boring loony. Alas. Fame, letters signed by thousands of the world’s greatest scientists and personal meetings with Mrs Merkel are not for me. I will have to make do with you, dear readers.

[Has no-one ever remarked Greta’s striking physical resemblance to that other delightful Swedish creation, the Snork Maiden? Not that Ms Jansson’s delectable heroine would ever sit on a cold pavement.]

In a new article in the Guardian accompanied by another by Guardian environment editor Damien Carrington, Greta and her chums outline what they are going to say to the forty-gigaton-a-day-smoking Merkel. It’s the same old same old that the Guardian’s best have been publishing since before Greta was born, on the lines of “It’s worse than we thought. It’s later than you think. And the fact that the worst hasn’t happened since the last time I warned you only goes to show how much worse it’ll be when it does happen.”

I’m Warning You…”

Isn’t that the helpless cry of every desperate parent since the beginning of time, or at least, since the invention of family therapy? I’m not being funny now. What happens when one unhappy, unusually intelligent infant understands that cry, and understands the parental impotence it reveals, and the sense of power it gives the infant, who throws it back to the parents, and transmits his or her insight to a million other unhappy adolescents? (And a few thousand intelligent sensitive journalists who are still unhappy adolescents at heart?)

And that’s where we’re at.

Which you won’t be reading in any Noddy book published by Penguin Science.

This article by Greta, Luisa, Anuna, and Adélaïde, does in one short and seemingly insignificant paragraph, actually get down and dirty with the science and make some assertions that can be tested. Here they are:

Science doesn’t tell anyone what to do, it merely collects and presents verified information. It is up to us to study and connect the dots. When you read the IPCC SR1.5 report and the UNEP production gap report, as well as what leaders have actually signed up for in the Paris agreement, you see that the climate and ecological crisis can no longer be solved within today’s systems. Even a child can see that policies of today don’t add up with the current best available science.

If science “merely collects and presents verified information,” then why continue studying after the age of fifteen? After all, as Greta has observed elsewhere, the science has already been done. All we have to do is “study and connect the dots.” And then publish our results at the Guardian.

But in this paragraph Greta et al. cite their sources, which are IPCC SR1.5 and the UNEP Production Gap Report

Taking the latter first: UNEP says, in its executive summary:

Governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

What they don’t say is that there is a margin of error of a degree or two around any estimate of warming due to a doubling of CO2 (which doubling is expected to happen, from a base circa 1950, some time this century.) And that the 2°C and 1.5°C are measured from about 1860, or the onset of the industrial revolution. And that estimates of warming during the 20th century vary from a half a degree to one degree, depending on thwhim of the time travellers at NOAA, thus adding an additional 0.5°C of uncertainty either way to any estimates of future warming(Climate science is a young discipline, and its practitioners are still at the stage of fourth century Platonists or Church fathers who knew what Plato or Jesus really meant to say, and adjusted their data accordingly. Unfortunately for our study of Christianity and Plato, the Wayback machine doesn’t go back that far. But it’s just fine for 20th century warming adjustments, which, as Greta observes, a child can verify.)

So what the UNEP Gap report is telling us is that current planned fossil fuel use is inconsistent with limiting warming to somewhere between nothing and something, and may even be inconsistent with preventing a cooling. What the report doesn’t say is that the world is going to end. Or, as Greta puts it, that:

it is … unrealistic to believe that our societies would be able to survive the global heating we’re heading for.

The evidence of the UNEP report is that our societies would survive, but just be a tiny bit warmer, or possibly cooler, or possibly the same as before.

Turning to IPCC SR1.5

The 1.5°C limit was inserted into the Paris COP25 report at the insistence of the conference’s co-president Fiji, representing the fears of all those Pacific small island states threatened by sea level rise. Fiji is two bloody great volcanic rocks rising vertically out of the ocean, and has as much chance of being overwhelmed by rising sea levels as I have of being eaten by a famished polar bear. Which didn’t stop the media reporting the removal of Fijians from huts in a swamp to bungalows a half a mile inland as a climate refugee disaster story. But journalists are born liars, as you have often noted Greta.

IPCC SR1.5 is billed on its opening page as:

An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

In other words, it is wholly concerned with predicting what would happen if average temperatures rose by a certain amount (generally thought to be about 0.5°C above the current level.) It has nothing to say on whether or when this might happen, and nothing to say about the fact that this regularly happens already, with monthly average temperatures a degree or two above or below any average global temperature anomaly you care to mention. Of course, butterflies die by the million, people swelter and curse their governments and invest in air conditioning, and the cleverer ones look for ways of creaming off a percentage of the trillions that government will throw at any crazy scheme you and your fellow ex-schoolgirls care to propose. But none of this is science. IPCC SR1.5 has nothing to say about science and what science can tell us abut the future. Because the IPCC doesn’t do science and science doesn’t do the future. Which the IPCC makes clear in their very next paragraph, in a quote from the French aviator and author of “Le Petit Prince” (literature’s first prepubescent treehugger:)

Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prévoir, mais de le rendre possible.” 
Antoine de Saint ExupéryCitadelle, 1948

As far as the future is concerned, the point is not to predict it, but to make it happen.”

Quite. Which he said in 1948, according to the IPCC, despite the fact that he died in 1944. But that’s climate science for you. Or it would be, if the IPCC did science, which it doesn’t. It does quotes, and nothing else. And so do I, but the difference is that I know what I’m doing.

What Thunberg does is something else. Temper tantrums possibly. Which are certainly justified, given the way our society treats the young. Greta’s elder brothers and sisters have been saddled with debts for a crap education which barely entitles them to an Uberised short contract work environment, with no prospect of property ownership or freedom from debt in their childbearing age. This is social suicide. Greta thinks it’s all about a half a degree rise in average temperatures, but it’s more complicated than that. She may be right to be revolting, but for the wrong reasons.

13 thoughts on “Thunberg on Science

  1. Averaging six lines of text per page, huh? But does it have any equations? They are considered the kiss of death to book sales.

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  2. Recently reading a thread of comments regarding the essay on the Challenge of Marxism, I came upon a searing explanation of how Greta and her ilk have come to be. Here’s the nub of it:

    Comment by Geary_Johansen2020 on the Challenge of Marxism

    A great essay which does much to shed light on the relationship between liberalism and Marxism. However, it fails to address a couple of points. First, there is the emotional level and the fact that we do our children a disservice when we lie to them before we send them out in to the world. The principle lie we tell our children is that we allow our teachers to give them a false sense of the role they will play when they go out into the world.

    The child-centred approach allows children to ‘discover’ learning for themselves. It gives them an overrated and inflated view of their own powers of reason and casts them as decision-makers in solving society’s problems, as though one could become a doctor or a scientist by simply donning a white coat. It belies the very real commitment to specialism which is required to make a substantial contribution to our cooperative effort, or the couple of hundreds of hours of research that is necessary to make passing observations on any subject, speaking with authority and knowledge.

    This is perhaps why they are prone to experiencing Maths-trauma and tend to gravitate towards the humanities over science. Because whilst one can substitute ‘skills’ for knowledge in other domains, both Maths and Science still require a commitment to the memorisation of knowledge in order to get to grips with the next level of the pyramid of knowledge. This is how the mystique of critical theory comes in so handy when they reach university, because it gives them a prepackaged excuse for why they inevitably fail when they go out into the world.

    The simple fact is that they have been lied to all their lives. Most organisations don’t want their thoughts, opinions or ideas, they want their labour. This might be acceptable if they had been taught to see service to others as something inherently valuable- to anticipate the pleasure a chef feels when he ends his shift in the bar with a drink, and gets to hear the delight of his customers with his days efforts. But this is not what they have been trained to want or expect.

    They want to have impact. They have been taught all their life that there ideas will be valuable and important, when it takes huge amounts of effort to just be able to make a small contribution to someone else’s pet project for incremental improvement. If they have a certain gift with words or possess in inherent charisma, they might possess the requisite abilities to enter journalism or become an influencer, where they get to pass comment on subjects that they know nothing about, acting as cheerleaders for politicians, or leading a group of similarly inclined dimwits, but these sorts of roles really are a zero-sum game, because they rely upon a hugely disproportionate imbalance between commentators and listeners or readers.

    Against this backdrop of being lied to their entire life, is it any wonder that they end up feeling disabused and resentful. And its not as though their more able, less ideologically committed teachers knew any better, because most lack experience in the real world and do not realise that their own role is a necessarily protected throwback to a softer Keynesian imagining of society, where full employment required that people make do with less, materially, in return for a measure of employment security for most.

    So they tend bar, wait tables or serve coffee as baristas, with some waking up to the knowledge that they will require technically specific knowledge for careers. Many more wallow in the unfairness of the world, mired in student debt from courses with little practical application and stuck in low paying service jobs, having swallowed the oppressor and oppression narrative. They fail to recognise that they have been sold a line from the very beginning, and instead blame entrenched interests for their own lack of impact, when those who have succeeded simply had the luxury of parents who were more brutally honest about their future prospects in the world, and the requirement to acquire huge masses of knowledge to be of any relevance in the world.

    We could have taught them to be entrepreneurs, to risk everything repeatedly for the chance to own their own little enterprise somewhere, bringing retail joy to others. Or scientists, doctors, lawyers and engineers. But we didn’t, because we didn’t want to acknowledge the basic truth of the world, instead opting for a second chance at success through vicarious immortality. The system requires inequality, both in terms of income, but far more importantly in terms of our ability to have impact in the world.

    At its most basic and material level, inequality is necessary because a huge portion of any society relies upon it for labour. Consider the gardener and the doctor, where the gardener is still part of the native population. There should a substantial gap in the hourly earnings of the doctor and the gardener. Why? Well because the doctor has to invest a substantial part of their twenties getting qualified, often stacking up huge amounts of debt in the process. The gardener can start work at 16, and by 25 if they are smart they will have taken on a couple of lads to supplement their income.

    The gardener may have to work a few hours to equal even a relatively short amount of the doctor’s labour, but this doesn’t mean the process is unfair or unequal, because their labour intrinsically holds different value. The gardener is happy when he takes his daughter to the doctor and he prescribes pills that cure her sickness, and is happy to get paid for tending the doctors garden. Economic transfers can be used to equalise this basic inequality, but not as much as many liberals would like.

    They don’t seem to understand that most restaurants would shut if there wasn’t inequality, that the gardener would be unemployed, or the doctor would need to pave over her lovely garden with concrete to save time from her busy schedule. That there wouldn’t be coffee shops offering high quality coffee, or that cinemas would need to dispense food and drinks from machines, to stay open. They don’t understand all of this because they weren’t adults before the seventies (or the fifties in America).

    There is a flaw in capitalism, but it is not one they are psychologically inclined to look for or to deal with. The flaw actually lies in exactly the area they obsess over, but is a fundamentally different problem from the one they imagine. The fact is that people are unequal, often hugely so, despite our urge of some to not want it to be so and despite our best intentions to treat everyone equally under the Law. The flaw in the market is, if we leave it to itself, the competition inherent to the market will leave a significant number of people unable to compete, dispossessed and a burden on our collective resources through taxation.

    We need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about whether it is wiser to select the most able for a job, or the best suited. At the top rungs of society, this is a no-brainer- because the most able candidate will inevitably achieve much better results over time, than the next most able. It’s a simple Law of the Pareto distribution, and one which has been proven time and again in any number of enterprises and institutions. But in the bottom 60% of the talent and ability distribution, this may not be the case.

    We need to ask ourselves what is the wisdom in requiring a farrier to sit a written exam, when this necessarily squeezes someone who is perfectly able to do the jobs out of the market, and effectively making it the province of someone too able? The boss in the bar needs to ask himself whether hiring someone who is 10% faster and requires less supervision, is really that a smart a move, if they are likely to get bored after a year, requiring the added expense of training someone new. A more loyal, but initially less able employee might be a better fit, when we understand that the cognitively less able can come to match their more gifted counterparts over time, with less demanding roles.

    All of this requires a sea change in corporate ethos, and the way we as a society understand problems. It requires a fundamentally more truthful and realistic understanding of the way we view the world, and the people in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’d be an excellent summary even absent the funny bits so I have filed it away for reference. But, a question and a quibble:

    Q: Is it too late for a man in his twilight years to apply for Aspirational Aspergers? If not, where do I go?

    Q: I have to take issue with “given the way our society treats the young”. The Thunbergs and their rich chums – recall who lent her a yacht and elite crew to get her (sustainably, doncha know) to some UN do – are precisely that part of “society” that seeks to impose its dismal vision of the future on another part, in this case, the young.

    Or, now that you mention it, the old and even the in-betweens. After all, her gigs pay a deal better than those of some poor bastard delivering pizzas. On his/her own moped, insured at his/her expense, ne’er a cent from Pierre Casiraghi.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for the “like” but my comment was added to the wrong post . . . It was in fact aimed at – and even appeared at – Geoff’s post on St Greta.

    Ah, well.

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  5. It’s getting misteerier by the minute – I see my comments are appearing on both threads though I promise I never asked them to. Apologies all round.

    But look on the bright side: I’m a troll at last. And how Nordic is that?

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  6. ALAN
    I can’t swear to the six lines per page. I saw Thunberg’s Penguin in Waterstones next to Professor Chris Rapley’s “2071” and they both had a minimal number of words per page written in very big type (an educational Ladybird book would probably be a fairer description.) One of them even had a note saying that the big type and space between the lines was on purpose to allow the reader mental space to reflect, or some such guff.

    Penguin Science has previously disgraced itself publishing Stephen Emmott’s ludicrous “Ten Billion” doomfest. That one had graphs – some of them with two data points. I wrote about them here:
    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/07/07/the-thirteen-worst-graphs-in-the-world/

    That crap books get published is hardly news. But by the Science section of Penguin Books? That’s where our generation learned about evolution and modern physics. The Pelican is a threatened species, if not already extinct.

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  7. RON CLUTZ
    That’s a most insightful comment by Gary Johansen. My only problem with it (and probably with the article, which I haven’t read) is its use of the word “Marxist” to describe the mass hysteria which has infected modern academic and intellectual élites. That many dozy professors describe themselves as Marxists as a way of distinguishing themselves from run-of-the-mill Democrat-voting liberals is confusing, but probably unavoidable. When conservative commenters start using it of looters and their supporters with silly slogans on their t shirts, confusion becomes absolute.

    What I find fascinating is how foreign Gary’s very common sense comments seem to this Englishman. They could have come straight out Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, but I can’t imagine them being uttered by any British conservative. Why is that? And why do I as a European socialist find them largely acceptable? (The only quarrel I’d have with Gary is over the permissible discrepancy between the salaries of the doctor and the gardener. But that disagreement would probably be fundamental.)

    Otherwise, the analysis of what we’ve done wrong to the young is fine. Something that struck me reading it is that what’s acceptable as a social attitude when limited to a minority of society becomes a problem when that attitude is adopted more widely. Greta, as the daughter of theatrical people, was never going to become an obedient cog in society. Actors are there to entertain us, and their way of live, their mores, their attitudes and opinions are all part of the fun. But when the entire educated section of society starts singing “Hi Fiddle di Dee, an Actor’s Life for Me” you get problems. The Theatre can survive very well based on a structure of backscratching, exchange of favours and partners, and general low level corruption. But not the political world or academia. Juvenal and Petronius described it happening in ancient Rome, but the Roman Empire survived for another four centuries, so maybe I’m worrying too much.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am a retired book printer who, sad bastard that I am, has always been interested in the history of Penguin, Jan Tischold and all that. I was even briefly a member of The Penguin Society, a group I soon learned was as pompous as it was scholarly. Whatever, the Pelican imprint first appeared in 1937 and lasted until 1984. (I have a few hundred treasured ‘proper’ Pelicans.)

    I hadn’t even realised the imprint had been relaunched in 2014. By that time, any trace of Allen Lane’s fierce commitment to quality publishing (and, in passing, free speech and open debate both – see e.g. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book as dull as it was controversial) had been crushed by the corporate mediocrity of Random House, which ‘merged’ with Penguin in 2013. Other mega-publishers such as Bertelsmann also have snouts in the trough though, thankfully, I forget the details.)

    If you’re right – and I’m sure you are – it seems that Pelicans are an endangered species and that it’s worse than we thought.

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  9. Geoff:

    “I can’t swear to the six lines per page. I saw Thunberg’s Penguin in Waterstones next to Professor Chris Rapley’s “2071” and they both had a minimal number of words per page written in very big type (an educational Ladybird book would probably be a fairer description.) One of them even had a note saying that the big type and space between the lines was on purpose to allow the reader mental space to reflect, or some such guff.”

    Not very green, is it?

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  10. Geoff, your reference today’s youth along with Gary’s comment rang bells with me because of an earlier essay by Ed West, who had noticed the majority of BLM protesters were whites with elitist advantages. Included was this reference:

    “Meanwhile, the expansion of the university system has created what Russian-American academic Peter Turchin called ‘elite overproduction’, the socially dangerous situation where too many people are chasing too few elite places in society, creating “a large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable… denied access to elite positions”.

    I suspect your take on the issue of inequality differs from mine, but I like how Jordan Peterson drew his line between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. I concur with him that the later cannot be socially imposed or state-dictated without tearing the fabric and triggering class warfare. Of course, the wealth must also shared among those who produce it more generously than some paltry trickle-down scheme, or you get to the same place.

    Anyway, my synopsis of the Challenge of Marxism essay by Israeli writer Yoram Hazony is Democracy in Peril https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2020/08/18/democracy-in-peril/

    Ed West’s article is here: https://unherd.com/2020/06/why-the-rich-are-revolting/

    Liked by 1 person

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