Of Candy Bars and Climate Change

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Leave it to my 14-year old to sum up a generation’s dismay and bewilderment in five words.

What prompted the above statement was an adult’s diatribe on how this past January had been awfully cold, and how the sheer amount of snow should convince even the dumbest climate-change believer that it was all a giant hoax. Invented, of course, by China.

Image result for snowball senate
Behold, The Snowball. We are saved.

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he was. Deadly serious. And the crux of the matter is, that both the teen and the adult stared at each other in a deadlock of mutual incomprehension. Each of them thinking:”How can you not see what is so clear, so obvious, right before your eyes? How is this possible?”

“Dude, you can’t be serious.”

Alas, he could. The approximately fifty year old man, who could not or would not believe that his generation might have tragically, disastrously erred somewhere along the way and handed the teenager standing there in disbelief a gigantic mess. Please don’t be serious. Tell me you’re not looking me in the eye and disavowing any responsibility. Tell me you’re not washing your hands off me. You’re supposed to be the elder, the wiser, the one who looks out for me. Tell me you didn’t sell my future for your comfort, and now explain to me I am stupid for asking what you’ve done? Tell me you’re joking. That you didn’t mean to make a mess, but now you realize what’s happening and you’re going to man up and try to fix it. Please don’t be serious…

“I can’t even.”

Leave it to 17 to express ultimate defeat in one pithy sentence.

But 14 would not surrender her guns just yet. After a brief recovery period involving the stages of denial (“He isn’t serious”) , anger (“That son of a biscuit IS serious!”), bargaining (“Maybe if I act all sweet and stereotypical good girl he’ll at least listen ….”) , depression (“I want piiiizzaaa! And ice cream! Buckets!”), she arrived, not at acceptance, but at:

“How do you talk to people like that?” 

Oh child of mine, if I knew that, we might well not have this problem.

So, although mom “can’t even” either, nor uneven (I can do odd if it’s any help), here’s what our customary after-dinner talk produced:

Maybe just KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Image result for candy bars bagBasic: If mom brings home a bag of candy with 20 bars, and I have 4 friends over, I don’t need to be a math genius to make sure everyone gets their fair share.

Intermediate: If I need to figure out when those two trains will meet, or want to balance my checking account, or want to build a shed for the chickens that won’t collapse the first time one of the feathered darlings sneezes, I need a basic understanding of numbers. You know, so many square yards for the roof. Does a steeper angle mean more lumber or less? What angle is more practical anyways? Does anyone have a calculator? Paper and pencil?

Advanced: If I want to figure out the coalescence rate of massive black hole binaries, or what the einsteinspeed of light has to do with time dilation … I need an aspirin. Or find a university that will teach me such things, along with a large supply of aspirin. I’ll need people who studied these things for years to explain to me why the increased relativistic mass of a body comes from the energy of motion of the body divided by the speed of light squared, and why this is important. I need books. I need research. I need the shoulders of giants to climb onto and have a look around.

What in the name of Frigga’s cat has this to do with climate?

Well, it sort of is like the climb from candy bars to general relativity.

Basic: If I step outside to feed my chickens (frolicking outside their new shed I hope) and see big balls of gray on the horizon, I don’t need to be a meteorologist to smell the rain. If after a sweltering hot day the wind suddenly picks up and the sky turns dark, I need no weather channel telling me that Thor is about to start a ruckus.

Intermediate: My hometown in in upstate NY. We have four seasons. (Or two, known as Image result for shrieking brass monkeyWinter and Construction). If we’ve had snow every winter for as long as I can remember, safe bet is we’ll have snow next winter, too. If I believe my elders who say it’s been the same for them, and their elders, and theirs … I’ll just keep the big coat handy. But if I want to know whether the coming one will be rough or mild, it helps to have lived there a while. How early, or late, did the geese leave? Did we need two or three layers under our Halloween costumes? I don’t need to go to college to know that if February was “Shrieking Brass Monkey cold” 34 years out of 36, mom is likely sitting under a pile of blankets right now. But a newbie to our region might not realize that planting your tomatoes in early May is a spectacularly bad idea.

Advanced: If I want to know why the horses are giving me dirty looks even though there is not a cloud in sight, I might rely on my experience and add “muggy weather plus a weird wind” to equal “Maybe not go for a ride down by the lake just now”.  Or I might turn on the TV and see satellite images of a massive storm brewing over Canada, and know for certain  (score one for the equines though, it turned south faster than the weatherman thought). But- I have no satellites, no high tech weather stations measuring temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed, wind direction, and I most certainly have never studied how to interpret those massive heaps of raw data. Which is why I’m constantly amazed just how often they get it right (and the express delivery of buckets and buckets of rain did arrive – from Canada with love I’m sure …)

Photograph by NASA

If I want to know why the U.S. military is worried about Norfolk and Camp Pendleton and bases in Alaska … I need another aspirin. Or find someone who can explain to me the correlation between the data gathered from buoys in the oceans and satellite images, between the Gulf Stream and the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean, between what the guys up on the ISS are measuring, and observing with their own eyes, and the numbers on old, yellowing paper that talk about summer in Queensland, Australia, in 1907.

Not enough aspirin in the western hemisphere. But lots of people who studied this stuff for years and years. Who might not know a stellar nursery from a pulsar (or in some cases, where the hell their glasses are again), but can look at a chunk of Antarctic ice and tell me how much CO2 there was in the atmosphere 400 000 years ago.

I see smart people …

So, does that mean we should just take the experts’ word on everything because they studied their respective subjects a long time and are, you know, experts?

Credit: SG Atlantis “Brainstorm”

If they’re self-respecting scientists, their answer will be a resounding NO!

If you know the very first thing about scientists, it’s that there’s nothing they enjoy more than poking holes into each others’ hypotheses, theories, statements, papers, and offhand remarks about why deep dish is better than thin crust. It’s their favorite sport, and climate research is almost akin to the Super Bowl.

If you know the first thing about good scientists, it’s that they want you to look at their hypotheses, theories, statements and papers (stay away from their pizza), double checking their numbers, criticizing their methods, questioning their conclusions. Of course, if their paper is bulletproof in the end – that is oh so sweet. But if it isn’t? New stuff learned. New data to add. More knowledge. Poking holes in the old paper just helped them make a new paper. A better one. Thank you.

If they had a credo, it might well be: “Show me where I was wrong. Tell me why you think so. What verifiable data do you have to prove … oh hold on, this is interesting. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that. It’s your own paper. Can we call that guy on the ISS to confirm the readout? Whaddaya know, we were both wrong. Unless McMurdo goofed. Call them, too. And order some pizza, it’ll be a long night.”

οὐδὲν οἶδα – don’t look at me, I’m as clueless as you

So, should I trust every hypothesis, theory, statement and paper to be 100% correct and accurate and applicable?

If I want to graduate from aspirin to vicodin, maybe.

Should I pay attention when this squabbling mass of smart people who constantly explain to each other why that equation there contains a goof of Iliad-epic proportions, and “by the way, Frank disproved that data from the Phillipines last year, catch up willya”, actually agree on something?

Maybe? I don’t know. Let me check the numbers. Florida may be six feet under by the time I’m done, but at least I’ll be 100% sure. Wait, what?


Fork Bomb :(){:|:&};:

But they’re all elitist eggheads, looking down on simple folks like me with my haphazard chicken shed and my deep, deep knowledge of Canadian goose migration. They could tell me the sky is purple and prove it, and I could tell them a thousand times to look up, “Look, it’s blue!”, and they’d call me stupid. Because data. Because complex equation that doesn’t mean squat to me (the horse seems to think there’s something to it, though…). Because lots of big words designed only to make me feel more stupid.

You know what? Maybe I should get over my insecurities one of these days. Maybe I might Image result for blueberry clipartacknowledge that a meteorologist (BIG word alert) doesn’t call them “big fluffy grey clouds” the same way I don’t call wild blueberries “weird round things, can I eat those?” (The answer is yes. Yes, you can Mr. Egghead).

Maybe … maybe they’re trying to talk to me (revolutionary concept, I know) and they assume I’m smart. That I understand, and will start poking at their numbers, asking things like “why” and “where did you get that” and “but Frank said it’s only half a degree Fahrenheit”. Maybe they think that if I don’t understand, I’ll tell them.

Maybe, if I feel stupid, I could ask myself “But can they make blueberry jam that countries would rightfully go to war for, can they soothe a skittish horse so nana can remove the splinter?” and then I would not feel small and defensive when I say: “Once more from the top please, and this time assume I have no idea what you just said?”

But, but … conspiracy! China!

Seriously, dude?