April 21, 2010

What a Piece of Work Is Man: Hubris and the Scientific Illiterates in the MSM

As a scientist, I try to maintain a relatively respectful tone when discussing the lamentable state of journalism vis-à-vis environmental and scientific issues, though I may pepper in the occasional wisecrack designed to spice things up. But when Science correspondent Eli Kintisch’s Op-Ed piece that recently ran in the Los Angeles Times was brought to my attention, I threw up repeatedly. In this case, nothing but a rant will do.

Kintisch collected a few salient facts, but he just couldn’t seem to put them together. It was like playing Pictionary with your disturbingly dimwitted cousin. You draw a creature with big, floppy ears and a fluffy tail and you trace a series of arcs that indicate hopping, but after cousin Dave peers intently at the picture for half a minute, he turns to you and ventures: “Is it a horse?”

In much the same way, Eli Kintisch observes a world in which air pollution emissions have been drastically reduced over the past forty years, duly considers the state of the planet and then concludes: we need more air pollution!

You’re likely to hear a chorus of dire warnings as we approach Earth Day, but there’s a serious shortage few pundits are talking about: air pollution. That’s right, the world is running short on air pollution, and if we continue to cut back on smoke pouring forth from industrial smokestacks, the increase in global warming could be profound.

Cleaner air, one of the signature achievements of the U.S. environmental movement, is certainly worth celebrating. Scientists estimate that the U.S. Clean Air Act has cut a major air pollutant called sulfate aerosols, for example, by 30% to 50% since the 1980s, helping greatly reduce cases of asthma and other respiratory problems.

But even as industrialized and developing nations alike steadily reduce aerosol pollution — caused primarily by burning coal — climate scientists are beginning to understand just how much these tiny particles have helped keep the planet cool. A silent benefit of sulfates, in fact, is that they’ve been helpfully blocking sunlight from striking the Earth for many decades, by brightening clouds and expanding their coverage. Emerging science suggests that their underappreciated impact has been incredible.

And why do we need more air pollution, pray tell? To combat the myth of global warming, of course.

If we there were more fine particulate and aerosols in the atmosphere, more of the sun’s rays would be reflected and we would be able to counteract the evil effects of greenhouse gases. Simple!

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Kintisch is correct in every particular – though I don’t for a minute, nor do thousands of my colleagues. Still, let’s assume that a weak greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide can drastically influence the climate of a planet subject to so many other, much more powerful, influences. Let’s assume that man is capable of understanding all of those complex forces so perfectly that we could introduce precisely the right amount of particulate and aerosols so as to create an ideal climate. Even if all of that were true, Kintisch’s “solution” would still be even more idiotic than it sounds.

We are one major volcanic eruption away from freezing our collective butts off. We live on a planet that, in recent geologic time, prefers Ice Ages far more than our current temperate climate, for reasons that nobody actually understands.

And, oh yeah, about that whole volcano thing: when Eyjafjallajokull erupts (the volcano in Iceland currently playing havoc with air travel in Europe) history tells us that Katla – a far larger and much more dangerous volcano – will blow soon afterwards. When Katla goes, and it’s overdue, it will spew so much ash into the atmosphere that we’ll be begging for a little global warming.

Following Eli Kintisch’s advice, that we should pour even more crap into the atmosphere, would only exacerbate and extend such a catastrophic (and natural) cooling event.

There’s only one word to describe people who actually believe that mankind can control nature: MSM journalists.

The editors of the Los Angeles Times are of course free to print any opinion they choose, but it says something about the state of mainstream journalism when those editors can read a piece like Kintisch’s and decide that it merits publication, rather than dumping it in the circular file alongside would-be contributors who are certain that the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group runs the world, or who report that the CIA has planted a mind-control chip in their cranium.

Opinions like Kintisch’s aren’t cutting-edge, they’re over the edge. But when it comes to science and the environment, the “journalists” struggling to right the sinking ship that is the old media can’t begin to tell the difference.


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