Of Gout and Global Warming

Phil Hansten | July 27, 2012

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

[Please welcome our newest contributor, Phil Hansten! -ed.]

What we can’t think about: The possibility that climatologists are correct to warn of potential catastrophic climate change.

“Prediction is very difficult. Especially if it’s about the future.” This sounds like a quote from Yogi Berra… you know, the guy who said things like “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” But actually the quote is from the Danish Physicist, Niels Bohr. And he is right. Prediction is indeed difficult, particularly in complex systems such as climate change, or how combinations of chemicals will react in a particular human body. After spending the past 50 years trying to predict outcomes in people taking interacting drugs, I think the principles involved are almost identical to those that could be profitably used in dealing with the risk of climate change. Since climate change denial is a central focus of EBF, I thought we might explore this idea.

Prediction of Magnitude. Suppose you are on colchicine for gout, and you start clarithromycin for a sinus infection. Clarithromycin can produce colchicine toxicity, which in turn can cause fatal bone marrow suppression. Some people have less serious reactions, but we cannot determine ahead of time how bad it will be in any given person; there are too many variables. Climatologists have the same dilemma; they know that the CO2 buildup is risking catastrophe, but they cannot make precise predictions of timing and magnitude; again… too many variables. Precise prediction of outcomes, however, is not required for a rational assessment of risk.

Tipping Point. There is another similarity. Once serious colchicine toxicity begins, it is difficult to stop. Colchicine can inhibit its own elimination by the kidneys, and dialysis doesn’t work. So by the time a serious reaction is detected, it is often too late. Climatologists tell us a similar story; we may get to a point where mutually reinforcing effects are set into motion, and no amount of remedial action will stop the inexorable march to disaster.

Threshold for Action. There is scientific consensus among experts regarding both climate change and colchicine. Some refuse to accept the science, usually because they don’t understand it or they benefit from their denial. But it is not a matter of whether the specific predictions of climatologists will prove true 30 years from now…  rather, the question is whether global warming presents a non-trivial risk of catastrophe. The threshold for taking action when dealing with complex problems that can potentially lead to disastrous outcomes often occurs long before definitive scientific data are available. One can always say, “the jury is still out” to justify inaction; look at the delaying tactics of Big Tobacco after the health risks of cigarettes became clear. But in science, the jury is always still out, so the question is not about juries… the question is whether or not the data suggest we should take vigorous action.

But despite all the similarities, there is one striking difference between colchicine and climate change; ignoring a colchicine-clarithromycin drug interaction puts one person at risk of death; ignoring climate change could be fatal to billions.

29 Comments

  1. An interesting analogy. Unfortunately, in a culture conditioned to distrust science and scientists for the “elite”, Liberal, atheists (out to turn your children’s feet away from the path of righteousness) that they clearly are…. you have a problem being taken seriously.

    There is no big money in denying gout or sinus infections. There IS big money in denying global warming.

    Becker pretty well covered every aspect of this unfortunate situation in one book or another and, quite frankly, I don’t see a way out of ignorance and denial that, at least in the short run, is that profitable.

    Perhaps we should be rereading Orwell and brushing up on the various shades of dystopia.

    …”Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”… (G Orwell)

    So how free are we?

    • Sad, but true. I agree that the big money backing global warming denial has completely distorted the discussion, just as big Tobacco did a few decades ago. I also agree that our culture has adopted a self-destructive anti-scientific bent… only half of the US population accepts evolution, for example. So we have polluting corporations feeding lies to a scientifically illiterate populace, and at the same time buying off elected officials… not a prescription for good public policy.

      But despite the odds, I think it is important for scientists to use their understanding of the way science actually works to show the poverty of the denial arguments. I think it is also useful to introduce principles from the history of science and philosophy of science for the same reason. Too many scientists have shirked these responsibilities, and some well-meaning and competent scientists (like Freeman Dyson who assured his wife that the polar bears will be just fine) have strayed far from their field of expertise.

      The money may win (any humanity lose) in the end, but the stakes are too high to stop speaking out… no matter how bad the odds are of our comments making any difference in the outcome.

      • Going straight to your point about “too many scientists have shirked these responsibilities” is a book by Michael Brooks, “Free Radicals”. It deals with the unfortunate fact that far too many scientists put their funding streams and chances of advancement in our corporate culture ahead of the welfare of their species and their planet. Rachel Carson didn’t have a very easy time after “Silent Spring” and very few scientists wanted to hear we were destroying the ozone layer with highly profitable chemical products…. until it became utterly undeniable.

        With regard to evolution: I live in Virginia where “Liberty (so called) University” received MORE government money in loans and grants than Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia. At Liberty the faculty signs an agreement that they will teach NOTHING that deviates from scripture. The earth is 6000 years old there and human children once played with dinosaurs. Global warming is a Liberal plot to destroy America. Round here, everybody knows that!

    • >>>Becker pretty well covered every aspect of this unfortunate situation in one book or another

      Interesting Becker interpretation. Can you expand on this?

      • You want me to “expand” on what Becker had to say about ignorance and denial? No, I don’t think so for fear that it will give you license to expand on your Olympic coverage.

      • For some reason there is no reply option to mrs neutons garage last comment hence thread formatting my appear a little screwy.

        if you think that Becker had alot to say about human ignorance and denial then I think you have mis-read him. I have read all three books and there is precisely zero, zilch about human ignorance and denial, that was not the purpose he had in mind. Things must be pretty bad in Virginia for you to have such a strong one on, not that the rest of the world gives a jack about virginia. You seem like one of those new Ayfeeists what with your blog linking the delusional Richard Dawkins, and OMG! A C Grayling, you have no idea the damage that that idiot did to British society as a major influence on Tony Blair/New Labour, a total disaster.

        But lets leave the criminality (be it Dawkins mis-representing Dostoevsky or Grayling’s garbage “third way”) I want you to back up your claim that Ernest Becker has something to say about human ignorance and denial. Quote him on human ignorance, go on where does he say humans are ignorant?

  2. Death culture spectacular:

    The show took the watching world through “great revolutions in British society”, from an agricultural setting through to the Industrial Revolution itself.

    Steelworkers began forging material that transformed into golden Olympic rings, which lifted into the air to be suspended above the performers.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19008471

  3. Oh, that’s not all that appears “screwy” ….”Smashy”.

    I wrote this… “Becker pretty well covered every aspect of (this unfortunate situation) in one book or another and, quite frankly, I don’t see a way out of ignorance and denial that, at least in the short run, is that profitable.”

    I was writing in response to the article above by Mr. Hansten.

    If you are itching for a fight I’m not your man. This is not the place.

  4. FYI – a quick word search of Becker’s complete writings reveals that he used the word “ignorance” 26 times, “stupid” 115 times and “stupidity” 88 times. Of course one would have to examine the context of each usage, but I do think it is justified from the general thrust of Becker’s work to conclude that he did, indeed, steer us toward the concept of human ignorance, esp. if we understand ignorance to revolve generally around a lack of understanding about what it really happening. In this case, we could even say then, he points us towards humanity’s stubborn and willful ignorance.

    • OK, fair enough, and i apologise for my aggressive tone to the poster above, also my terrible inaccuracy/mistake in regard to an advisor to the New Labour Gov. I just think that the nature of the conversation needs to change, New Atheists piss me off no end, I mean its complete garbage to suggest that evolution arrived humans at a point where they are on this planet to engage in combative ‘reasoning’ – check the fossil record – Freuds Ego and the Id, Beyond the Pleasure Principle – the new atheists are wrong. As for the idea of giving some Redneck in the Blue Ridge mountains George Orwell to read, what the hell do people think that would result in other than increased personal armoury and ammo stash. Lack of understanding thats fine, got no truck with that, that could be described as ignorance yes, but everyone is guilty of it. When you say ‘subborn and wilfull ignorance’ perhaps we could re-phrase this in Beckerian terms:

      “the problem with enlightenment thought is that it is not grounded on the science it espouses”

      “there is no basic understanding of human motivation underlying modern western civilisation”

      These are paraphrases from memory, if my gist is wrong let me know. I was in Kuwait recently and there is alot to be critical about such places. But look at the “west”, at least middle-eastern civilisation is grounded in a religious frame, at least its leaning toward a bit more honesty and humility. Delusional consumerism as religion – thats the “west”

      The conversation needs to change; what does the human aminal want, why does the animal have a need to believe in dieties, what psychological function does this serve. These are the questions we need to ask each other.

      People dont like being called ignorant, why cant we except that we are actually ignorant about death and the paradoxes we experience in life are just part of life?

      I don’t know, its all a bleedin’ disaster, climate change, energy depletion habitat destruction. Feckin’ tragedy man.

      • Now sir you have gone too far!

        … “giving some Redneck in the Blue Ridge Mountains George Orwell to read,”…

        Indeed!

        1. You “claim to have read Becker” and seem to have entirely missed the reason he chose “The Denial of Death” for a title.
        2. Are you telling us you are a “Creationist”?

        3. Remember, it was former Blue Ridge Mountain “redneck” neighbors of mine (just a few miles up the road actually) named Jefferson, Madison & Monroe that changed the world with their backward thinking while you lot were lining up to kiss some Royal behind.

        4. You sir are free to admit to yourself that you are “ignorant about death”. But, don’t speak for the rest of us. I have seen death and decomposition and find no magic in it at all.

      • I’ve gone too far in what exactly? Are we or are we not talking about the incredibly poor levels of education in the US (13% illiteracy rate last time i checked). I’m all for Orwell but given what we know about the default condition of the human animal Orwell wont mix well with paranoid poorly educated hillbilly’s with racoon defences.

        I know exactly what Becker was getting at with Denial of death – its something to do with it “being the final destiny of man”.

        No, i am not a creationist in the sense you might be thinking. The character Smashy was created out of the human condition in the face of divine mystery. I wish emphasise i have only ever experienced life, death I aint a frickin’ clue – thats something else I’ve go no idea about.

        Jefferson, Madison and Monroe? who they? These the founding fathers of the USA? That magnificent country that grew into a completely unsustainable military industrial complex, armed to the teeth with WMD and cowardly attacking defenceless, resourse rich, others? Fantastic! At least you’ve got God on your side.

        You have no idea about my personal experiences about death.

        Sorry brother.

  5. “Smashy” says… “I know exactly what Becker was getting at with Denial of death – its something to do with it “being the final destiny of man”.”…

    “Exactly” and “something to do with”, of course, being synonymous to anyone who isn’t a “paranoid poorly educated hillbilly’s with racoon defences”.

    1. I don’t think you ever read “The Denial of Death”.

    2. If I am in error my only suggestion is that you do it once again, but, this time, turn it right side up.

    3. This article that you are commenting on is about the perils associated with the denial of global warming. You ask… “Are we or are we not talking about the incredibly poor levels of education in the US…” We are not.

    4. I don’t think a person CAN have “personal experiences about death”. Especially a person who just recently posted the question… “why can(‘)t we except that we are actually ignorant about death”. The two statements, together, don’t make any sense, but, I applaud your consistency. Forgive me now for breaking off our stimulating correspondence, but, I have to go skin a raccoon. My wife is in need of a new hat. (Raccoon is spelled with 2 c’s by the way and “defen(s)es with an “s”.)

  6. OK, lets get things back on track and discuss climate change (and denial) as I believe that this is THE major threat to humanity. Although the world is changing rapidly and there is a gradual power shift to China and elsewhere taking place it cannot be denied that the US has subbornly refused to show any leadership whatsoever on this existential threat. The US has been more than just dithering – its been sending over clowns, total clowns as delegates to climate conferences and expecting to be taken seriously when demanding emmision figures should be adjusted to account for naturally occurring carbon sinks. You get a cream pie in the face and globally humiliated in Holland for that nonesense mister ! Lets not forget the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg in 2002, where the US didn’t even attend in a proper sense.

    Given the fact that the US is by far the greatest emmiter of CO2 per capita this is a very serious situation one that needs some closer scrutiny, something like a psychoanalysis, to get to the bottom of what is exactly going on.

    In Europe, very few, very few people are so daft as to believe that human fossil fuel burning is not having an effect on the climate. From what i can gather about the US its totally rife, but yet we are presented with an image of the US as the world leader and most advanced nation on the planet.

    Could it be that its US culture that is the problem? I mean US patriotism and national identity is totally infused with divine provenance. Its a God given right not to think twice about driving a 6 litre SUV on a 10mile journey to pick up a packet of powdered custard so that the apple pie is served correctly. Hell, i reckon that such stratospherically idiotic behaviour as ‘coon hunting with an assault rifle wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in many parts of the US. These freedoms have, of course, been imparted to US citizens by God – and the terrible circle of self deception is welded shut with the ‘right to bare arms’ and Allah only knows what else, that wouldn’t, naturally, mix with frightened animals to positive result.

    So when Mr Virginia claims that climate change denial is not issue of poor education standards, don’t believe him. Its poor education plus national identity infused with the divine. Mixed with scared animals this is a dangerous potion, lets at least be honest and recognise that maybe the promised land (beit the USA or Israel) is an illusion, lets not make a really big mistake.

    • …”So when Mr Virginia claims that climate change denial is not (an) issue of poor education standards, don’t believe him.”…

      I don’t see where anyone claimed anything about education standards, anywhere.

      …”the terrible circle of self deception”…

      Well, at least you are now getting close to what Becker wrote about, even if you never read any of his work. But, it is here that I must take exception to what the author of this piece wrote.

      …”Some refuse to accept the science, usually because they don’t understand it or they benefit from their denial.”…

      I see this as a mistake. I don’t think anyone doesn’t, or can’t if they wish to, understand that polluting our collective atmosphere “could” be catastrophic. Instead, I think they refuse to accept it because it causes them MORE of an inconvenience (psychologically & economically) than rejecting or ignoring it does. Logic, never being the motivational strong suit of humans, is clearly not in play here. What else is new?

      Even the most educated individuals are not immune to being human. Patients still demand antibiotics for viral infections and doctors still prescribe them.

      We live in a reality of our own construction. The only question really worth answering is, at what level of illusion do we function optimally? I think evolution is and has been working that out on earth from the very beginning of sentience in matter here. It is my understanding that things worked out quite differently on the planet Vulcan. By no stretch of the imagination should we conclude that success is a given.

      That being said I would like to add that no one in America hunts raccoons with assault rifles, or, puts custard on a perfectly good apple pie. Birds Dessert Powder is, indeed, available, but, I’m the only one I know who has ever purchased it. For Christmas pudding of course.

      • >>>We live in a reality of our own construction. The only question really worth answering is, at what level of illusion do we function optimally?

        >>>It is my understanding that things worked out quite differently on the planet Vulcan. By no stretch of the imagination should we conclude that success is a given.

        Yeah, i’ll go along with that.

        I’m glad we ended with raccoons and custard, a very nice flourish that

        cheers brother.

      • Wow! I have trouble keeping up with this entertaining conversation! Raccoons and custard indeed! Basically I think we all agree that we are in deep yoghurt regarding a potential climate change catastrophe. And Smashy is right that we in the US have the unfortunate distinction of producing the most CO2 per capita, yet we have the highest percentage of people who deny climate change. I also agree with many of the statements by “Mrs. Neutron’s Garage” including the point that most people can understand that we *could* be headed for catastrophe due to climate change.

        It is not true, however, that more than a few hundred (okay, maybe a few thousand) people in the entire world understand climate science well enough to rationally evaluate the scientific data. It is an incredibly complex field, and we simply have to take their word for it.

        If I were to tell you, for example, that it is dangerous to take a particular HMG Co-A reductase inhibitor with a particular inhibitor of cytochrome P450 3A4, or with a particular inhibitor of the ATP binding cassette transporter called organic anion transporting polypeptide, you would probably have to take my word for it. (Some of these combinations can be life-threatening.) Less than a thousand people in the world truly understand that science as well.

        But like climate change, there is a consensus among qualified drug interaction scientists regarding which of these combinations are likely to be dangerous. We cannot predict what will happen in any given patient, but we can predict that it is courting disaster to take certain combinations, and we advise against it.

        Likewise, it is not possible for those of us who are not climatologists to truly understand all of the nuances and limitations of the data in their field. But we can still make rational decisions by focusing on issues such as the history of science and philosophy of science (and logic). So far, I admit, it isn’t working out very well.

  7. …”But we can still make rational decisions by focusing on issues such as the history of science and…”

    No. I see no evidence of this. If anything I see the predominant thinking in America and many other cultures turning away from science rather than toward it. Science and the scientific method may have changed our physical condition for the better, but, supernaturalism remains foundational to what it means to be human. I think the ubiquitous Washington DC Prayer Breakfast, the move in Texas to remove “critical thinking” from the school curriculum and the bold declaration by so many of our up-and-coming political class that evolution is an unproven theory pretty well demonstrates that, at best, logic gets the silver, if not the bronze.

    People can be expected to show concern about the accumulation of garbage when the sign at the entrance to the dump reads [CLOSED]…

    …”but we can predict that it is courting disaster”…

    To a creature who understands, at least subconsciously, that “disaster” is his inevitable, individual, destiny…. You can expect them to pray on it rather than make moves to fix it.

    See you at The Creation Museum. (Smashy, you bring the custard, OK?)

  8. I agree completely that the overwhelming majority of people are incapable of this kind of thinking, and you gave some good examples to demonstrate that point. But when I said “we can predict that it is courting disaster” I was, of course, referring to people who are true experts in climate change or drug interactions (as the preceding sentence stated), not non-experts as you interpreted it.

    Same thing goes for people focusing on history of science and philosophy of science… these are not topics that most people study, so I was referring to those of us who do study such topics. Perhaps I should have said “it is possible to make rational decisions” rather than “we can still make rational decisions” to avoid anyone thinking that the “we” referred to the public at large.

    Actually, I think we are in complete agreement on the important issues under discussion… namely, that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, and that most people do not understand that threat. I guess we should expect a low level of understanding of climate change (or any other complex topic) from people in the US, who watch on average 30 hours of TV per week. Marshall McLuhan must be spinning in his grave to see how his “vast wasteland” has metastasized!

    Finally, the significance of our discussions pales in comparison to the chilling arguments in Bill McKibben’s recent article… http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719 (This is one of the best summaries of our predicament that I have seen.)

    • That was a great article. So, now lets get down to business.

      What do you think the chances are that America (as a country) will lift even one little finger to attempt to correct this situation before it is too late? How about the rest of the world?

      I’m betting not a damn thing gets done. NOTHING!

      There is a very good reason the Koch Bros. and the Republican Party are such great pals with fundamentalist christians. Where I live people look at you as if you had two heads if you hint that you believe in global warming. In Virginia this is ALL a part of God’s Plan. The Preachers preach it. The politicians proclaim it and, believe it or not, the public school teachers teach it with few exceptions.

      So, be honest. Do you REALLY think people will give up the only way of life they know because someone who DOESN’T share their culture or their beliefs says they should? When have the rich and powerful EVER given up their position voluntarily?

      Nothing will be done. We will crash.

      I chose to live in the epicenter of Christian Fundamentalism to spend my declining years studying a doomed culture. If you ever read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy…. you can think of me as a Second Foundationer.

      • two posts while I write one and digest the rolling stone piece, now my post below maybe be a bit out of context. How are the Blue Ridge Mountains MNG? They were beautiful when i was there some years ago. Here in London the inequality is so rampant you simply wouldn’t believe – you got a million bucks bruv? thats what you need to have something resembling a comfortable lifestyle, just for a little house that I could build myself for 70,000 but i can’t because the Queen is in cahoots with the property developers.

        I can sympathise with what you are saying, and you probably aint gonna like this but we haven’t a choice but to forgive.

  9. Unfortunately for humanity, I think you are being very realistic about the situation; the big money is on the wrong side of this issue, and money almost always wins. I sure hope we are wrong, but Becker warned us that there are no guarantees of the human race surviving… Smashy, where’s that custard? Can you put a little vodka in it?

  10. Well, i was going to post a contrived, hopefully witty, comment making out that an Englishman is getting confused with the names of US SUV models, its an absolute cracker so i’ll save it for another time.

    Philip, thanks for the rolling stone piece, yes, that is an excellent summary that communicates the science, the politics and economics of climate change and where we are at now very well. Its first time i’ve seen the 6 degrees mentioned but as the piece points out this is actually already on the table due to the way our ‘economy’ works. 6 degrees – we’re fooked. I was very encouraged by some of the posts in the comments section, theres obviously the fossils and denial lobby at work there but they don’t appear to be doing that well.

    MNG, liked this:

    >>>To a creature who understands, at least subconsciously, that “disaster” is his inevitable, individual, destiny…. You can expect them to pray on it rather than make moves to fix it.

    Yes, totally, thats it, thats the cogntive dissonance of the human animal. So when Becker said something along the lines of:

    “The problem of man drops you right on the doorstep of faith and god”

    We know what he meant.

    Its all about correctly orientated faith. I hope this might explain my attack on you above in regard to atheism.

  11. Smashy Old Thing….

    The “problem of man”, as you put it, is not the problem of all men.. It is indeed the problem of most men and they make it the problem of mankind.

    The concept of “correctly orientated faith” leaves me cold. I want nothing to do with it other than to study it.

    • see my newest post above, especially the last word.

      • The Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful, lush and the weather is great. The taxes and real estate prices are ridiculously cheap. The public schools are so poor it is not to be believed. That is because education is not valued by the local population. This life is meaningless when compared to “the next one” around here. It is a wonderful place to retire AFTER your children are educated and off on their own. I’m from the NY Metro area. My mother was a war bride and an air raid warden in London during the Blitz, when she was a teenager. Her ancestors were from Broadway in the Cotswolds. My son spent time at Oxford and now teaches law to the sons and daughters of the abominably rich at an Ivy League University that shall remain nameless. My daughter lives in The Netherlands where her husband designs electron microscopes. Before she had children she taught philosophy at the University of Virginia, or, as we like to call it around here… Mr. Jefferson’s school.

        That’s my story. As far as not having a choice with regard to forgiving…. Nothing doing! It isn’t personal Smashy, it’s business. If mankind is my business there can be no forgiveness for those who willingly and knowingly harm earth and its inhabitants for profit and power.

        Never!

  12. Whoa! back up will ya. Firstly, this narrative you present is not your story, its the age old generic narrative of the human story – one that has yet to be fully told. You sound like a fella that should be laughing like fvck, you got a veranda and a having barbecue in the shadow of the blue ridge mountains? spare a thought for poor old Mr Smashy why dont ya!

    >>>>>>That’s my story. As far as not having a choice with regard to forgiving…. Nothing doing! It isn’t personal Smashy, it’s business. If mankind is my business there can be no forgiveness for those who willingly and knowingly harm earth and its inhabitants for profit and power.

    Everyones got a story, just like opinions and assholes, most are acutely boring.and self righteous.

    Those with the best human stories however can psychoanalyse the acutely boring ones quite easily, like in a split second — Mister Nu Ayfeeist.

    Full circle, feel the venom of the Ourobos……

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