Sunday Opinion: The Search For Solutions

For the better part of a year I have been searching my memory for the title of a book my scientist Mom gave to me when I was in my thirties.  Why is this forgotten book on my mind?  I am an old and fairly good gardener; I barely blink over new plant introductions, gardening trends, or horticulture portayed as fashion. I like to wait and see what shakes out once new things are exposed to the force of nature. However, the global controversy over “climate change” has gotten my attention.   I wrote a Sunday opinion essay late this past July entitled “Righteous Food”.  Though no scientific evidence exists to suggest eating organically grown food makes people measureably healthier, organic food is fashionable food.  I have no real objection to this; people are entitled to think and live how they choose.  I only object to a point of view that passes over the achievements of American farmers who feed the many, at reasonable prices. Equally impressive is how lots of that food gets quickly distributed; good food is first and foremost fresh food. At my local farmers market on any given Saturday morning, 150 vendors with small farms bring their produce to market in 150 individual trucks-many coming from great distances. I have no idea how many people purchase food here on a given day, and how much gets trucked home unsold. What would the data suggest? It is one thing to detail the advantages of buying locally grown food-it is quite another to conclude this way of growing and distributing fresh food makes for a better planet. 

I finally did remember the name of the book.  “The Seach for Solutions” was written by Horace Freeland Judson, and published in 1980.  The book is about how the human mind organizes to solve problems via a discussion of some of the most important scientific discoveries of the past 400 years (This I have paraphrased from the dust jacket).  What I remember vividly from the book had everything to do with what my Mom wanted me to remember.  In the foreward, Lewis Thomas states that “the most wrenching of all the transformations that science has imposed on human consciousness…(is that) we have learned that we really do not understand nature at all, and the more information we receive, the more strange and mystifying is the picture before us…Science is itself a kind of reassurance that we have the capacity to mature.”.  And finally, “Science then is a model system for collective human behavior, and has value because of this for all of us…”  In reading Judson’s description and analysis of the process of scientific discovery,  I learned that a hypothesis needs to be subjected to rigorous testing via experiments designed to account for all the variables.  The data collected has to independently and clearly support the idea. Scientists make models from the theories the information supports. Proven theories might be useful in predicting the future.  I recently read somewhere (I cannot remember where-sorry) that the accuracy of our collective models dealing with whether our climate is changing , the source of that change, and any resultant predictions about the future of our planet have little scientific impact.  The big impact of all this research is economic.  Should we as a planet invest untold trillions of dollars and unprecedented internationally cooperative efforts to mitigate the harm humans do to the environment, the science suggesting such an effort be made needs to be compellingly solid.  Any statement that the planet is on track to self distruct as a result of human activity that could be changed-the good science that needs to come ahead of such a claim is staggering.

Whatever opinions I might have about climate change are irrelevant.  Though I have as much access to the opinions of others as anyone else, I am skeptical that what information we do have points in any definitive direction.  Understanding the climate of a planet which existed billions of years before any technology existed to measure it suggests to me that current climate models might wait many lifetimes before the data could be collected to prove or disprove any theory. I like to think that as a gardener, my committment to making things grow also implies my good stewardship of my environment.  I would go on to say that all my years of gardening has only pointed me towards an apppreciation of the miracle of nature-and not so much to an understanding of nature that would allow me to draw conclusions.  I have always been interested in the fact that in all my years of gardening I have seen many methods of growing roses that work admirably, and no overall model which successfully accounts for this, and goes on to definitively suggest guidelines to which gardeners planet wide should subscribe.   A theory of climate change seems astronomically more complicated than this, and surely the purvue of formidably educated and stubbornly passionate scientists. Judson interviewed the experimental siesmologist Karen McNally, and I quote: “Predicting an earthquake in somebody else’s country…is something you do with great trepidation.” . 

I see lots of climactic conclusions lacking trepidation.  I do not find this particularly discouraging-after all we are all people first-whether we engage in science or horticulture, journalism, art or politics.  All of our pursuits are sociably noisy and equally imperfect-this goes without saying.  However I do find the distruction of original climate data collected by the Climate Research Unit in Britain disturbing.  I learned about the value and the necessity of primary source material in 10th grade.  So how is it that an internationally funded and respected climate study agency chose to destroy original data in favor of their “adjusted” data? What other scientist could take their data, repeat their experiments, and corroborate their findings? The only opinion I would stand behind-we all need to keep digging.

Comments

  1. This is a very important post. Searching for the book you remembered, I found a second, The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science By Horace Freeland Judson, with a limited preview on Google books.

    Then I found Dr. Olivia Judson, his daughter, and was off on yet another tangent.

    Getting back to … what was it we were talking about? The internet may help provide a spotlight to shine on bogus data and conclusions. On a very local level, I notice novices as well as self-styled ‘experts’ blogging about how to do certain garden tasks with no documentation at all that ‘this is how I read to do it,’ ‘tried in my garden with the following results,’ or ‘heard elsewhere.’

  2. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Thanks for this post. I am going to print it for my friend to read. She scorns computers.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Janie, the article you cite I had not read. It is thorough, readable-and well reasoned. I am not a scientist-just a citizen/gardener. But my basic good sense tells me we are a long way from a solution, as we are even further away from a theory that is solidly supported by a body of evidence that details exactly what the problem is.

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