AS Science Forum Lectures have gone into recess until February I was casting around for ideas for a piece for December.
Then I heard about the talk to be given by Guy McPherson (which I emphasise was not organised by the Whanganui Science Forum).
I found the talk provocative more because of the implied off-stage action than the content itself.
I will mention a few of his points as they serve to illustrate my theme.
Prof McPherson's message is simple. Runaway global warming will make humans extinct in 10 or less years. With a message like that he needs credibility.
He told us that after 18 years successful teaching at the University of Arizona he was told in 2007 that he could no longer teach there.
Without elaboration, he claims this was because he asked his students to consider politically incorrect ideas. The University of Arizona website says much the same (excepting the bit about politically correct ideas) but gives no explanation.
In June of this year he says he received an email from someone who had been placed in his classes by the NSA (National Security Authority) for five years to spy on him.
McPherson came across in his talk as an intelligent, well-read but possibly a personally troubled man.
His main theme described the production and absorption of greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide and methane.
His point was that, once the mean temperature of the atmosphere goes beyond a certain level, these systems develop self-sustaining feedback. This is the same effect as the squeal you get if a microphone is too close to a loudspeaker.
Accumulation of the gasses reduces atmospheric cooling so temperatures rise. The temperature rise increases gas released from things such as melting permafrost causing the temperature rise to become ever faster.
When the tipping point has been reached, the system goes exponential. On a time scale of months after this point humanity becomes extinct.
Mechanisms he describes are well accepted. Where he differs from most other climate scientists is in degree, speed and reversibility. Many climatologists, while accepting that the effect of human action is real, regard it as small compared to naturally caused climate cycles that are totally beyond the scope of humans to affect.
I shall not debate the correctness of different climate models for a simple reason. I have a reasonable understanding of the mechanisms proposed but I have not studied the proposed models in sufficient depth to be able to genuinely compare them and, without being pompous, most people who know me would say I spend more time than most trying to understand how the universe works.
The question I am asking is broader than climate change.
McPherson convincingly littered his talk with the conclusions of other researchers. In the question time a well-informed man quoted evidence from several other sources which contradicted McPherson's findings.
I found the way that he essentially told this audience member to be quiet and dismissed his evidence out of hand rather rude but that is not the point.
A university researcher totally immerses herself in the research she is doing. She becomes an expert.
Most people have neither the time nor the training to understand her research in the same depth. It would be reasonable then to accept her opinions about her research.
Unfortunately, another, no less talented and dedicated researcher looks at the same evidence and comes to a contrary conclusion. How can we come to our own conclusions on such matters?
I admit that if I got to know Prof McPherson well I would probably not like him.
In my day job, I have spent countless hours explaining Isaac Newton's ideas about gravity to high school students.
This is the same sociopathic Isaac Newton who probably never had an emotional bond with anyone in his life. This is the same Isaac Newton who was keen to be present at "experiments" involving cutting open living dogs to see their hearts in action.
We cannot base our opinions about ideas on the likeability of the person who first discovered these ideas.
We have the self-proclaimed narcissist Guy McPherson predicting imminent climatic disaster and Donald Trump, the alleged narcissist and self-proclaimed expert on all things, telling us climate change is a hoax by the Chinese. Take your pick.
The latter part of the talk consisted of vague philosophical ramblings about how to spend the last years of humanity.
Although there was no overt religion in the talk, the final part felt rather like one of those people who stop you in Victoria Avenue, wave a handful of leaflets in your face and ask you how you would spend the rest of the day if the second coming and the rapture were going to happen tomorrow (weather permitting).
This is another way of coping with the problem of complex ideas. Simply accept that you cannot understand but instead put your trust (read faith) in a higher authority (read God) to look after things. Non-religious people defer to experts. In neither case is the problem of understanding solved.
In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for suggesting that stars may have inhabited planets and that matter is composed of atoms. Galileo spent his final 10 years under house arrest for suggesting that the planets orbited the Sun and not the Earth.
Guy McPherson could never claim to be a brain in the league of Galileo but he does claim to have been persecuted for his ideas. Do you call him paranoid or do you spend a few years of your life to become sufficiently learned to make a genuine choice?
One of the greater minds of the 20th Century, Bertrand Russell said, "If you cannot find out if something is true or not then you should suspend judgement".
I did not promise an answer!
**Frank Gibson is a semi-retired teacher of mathematics and physics who has lived in the Whanganui region since 1989.