Commentary Magazine


Re: Re: Big Bang Machine Felled by Frenchman from the Future

Anthony’s and Rick’s posts on the now interrupted effort to recreate the Big Bang reminded me immediately of two things: Dr. Strangelove, and recent developments in climate science. Anthony’s “Dr. [THREE NAMES]” sounds, for one thing, eerily like Peter Sellers’s turn as Dr. Strangelove in the eponymous 1964 movie. For another, Rick’s quotation from the Lederman and Teresi book evokes — inevitably, once Dr. Strangelove is in view — the mushroom clouds with which the movie concludes, and the voice of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.”

These images, with their overtones of surreal Cold War irony, are a reminder that politics is incapable of infinite sweet sadness. Politics is all about definite and identifiable causes, and effects crying out for “management.” That’s why politics can’t be entrusted with speculative cosmology — or with speculative climatology.

It now turns out that there is some French bread gumming up our effort to understand, and attach cosmological import to, the behavior of our climate. What we might call the “butter” on the French bread is this eye-opening conclusion, from a 2009 study of 15 years’ worth of satellite data by MIT scientists: that the “greenhouse effect” does not behave as predicted by climatology models. When carbon and temperatures increase, the earth releases more heat energy as opposed to trapping more of it.

Now that’s a big pat of butter. But the “French bread” itself is more informative still: an acknowledgment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that when it comes to the actual processes of climate feedback — the processes that create (or mitigate) the greenhouse effect — we have no accepted way to measure or directly analyze them. Climate scientist Roy W. Spencer calls this admission “amazing.” Citing the relevant passage in the IPCC report, he puts the inconvenient truth as follows:

Despite the fact that the magnitude of anthropogenic global warming depends mostly upon the strengths of feedbacks in the climate system, there is no known way to actually measure those feedbacks from observational data.

I’d agree that that’s amazing, particularly in light of the certainty with which global-warming proponents assert that we can not only understand but also predict those feedbacks.

It’s good to be reminded at such a time that even supercollider scientists can come off, in expressing the idea of there being a parsable algorithm at work in the universe, just like ancient Greeks explaining their cosmos through Promethean myth. Faith that there are systemic explanations for big things, if we can only demonstrate them, is a key element of scientific inquiry. We shouldn’t disdain such lines of thought.

But it’s also a relief to know about the French bread. Until the proposition of the “God particle attacking us” can be measured and tested, the “French bread in the collider” explanation will do, for the human purposes that matter. When it comes to the politics of climate science, we should keep our eyes on the French bread as well.