I was reading a rebuttal to global warming written by a 16-year-old girl (see here and here for some unintentional comedy), and came across a familiar phrase. In the girl’s actual essay bashing “An Inconvenient Truth”, she makes the following comment about an Al Gore claim that the numbers of tornadoes have increased:
“Al’s claim that global warming is increasing the number of tornadoes is also misleading because new radar and satellite technology allows us to see more of them.”
That kind of a statement should ring familiar to scientists in lots of different fields. New technology allows us an unprecedented view of the universe. Our increased understanding of our brain and body makes conditions clear that weren’t clear even a decade ago. The by-product of that perspective is that we experience the sensation that some things are on the rise, even though we’ve only been watching for a few years.
I call this modern technological by-product: “The Epidemic Sensation.” And now, you can too!
People that work with brain disorders are all too acquainted with the Epidemic Sensation. Remember when it was reported that depression was on the rise? What was the argument against the claim? The arguers said that depression had only been diagnosed in its current DSM-IV definition for a limited amount of time, and therefore any speculation about its increase or decrease may be innaccurate. The same thing occurred with Alzheimer’s, ADHD and the autism spectrum disorders.
Astronomers don’t deal with this because everything that we see happening has been happening for billions of years. The time lapse dulls the senses. This idea also doesn’t translate to some economic problems, like whether or not we’re in a recession, because those problems are defined by the passage of time (that’s the same reason why you aren’t an epileptic until you’ve had two seizures, and you aren’t actually missing unless you’ve been missing for over 24 hours. Sorry, people who have been kidnapped for only 12 hours– wait your turn…and keep reading!)
The great big problem with the Epidemic Sensation is that it makes our observation of current trends more difficult. The actual number of tornadoes may very well be on the rise, but the skeptics win out because we haven’t been able to see them all. Autism may be increasing dramatically, but again, we can’t say that because we can’t show any history of consistent measurement.
The larger issue here is the burden of proof that rests with scientists. It’s the job of the researcher to prove that something is happening, and if there are holes in the data of any kind, especially historical ones, then the skeptics have all the fuel they need. There isn’t any way around that quandary without acting on whims and hoping that you side with the group that ended up being right.
Or is there?
I propose that there is a way around this scientific debacle, and I challenge anyone who makes waaaaaay more money then me to this challenge a priority. Clearly, what we desperately need to understand our modern universe is…
A Time Machine: the Best X-Prize ever.
We don’t need a machine that will send humans back. We just need to send back data samplers. We need to sample atmospheric carbon content and temperature in the same, accurate way that we do today. We need to take blood samples and track viruses and test for meteor dust at the end of the Cretaceous. That would make our lives much easier, and it would help us to make more informed choices (unless the rise in autism was caused by the future use of technology that warped space-time, in which case we screwed.)
Some of you physicists may say that time travel is impossible, but as we’ve seen time and again, things are only impossible until a billionaire pays for them.
So let’s eliminate the Epidemic Sensation once and for all. Let’s redo the Past the way it was meant to be done. And while we’re at it, let’s start measuring things the way that we’ll be measuring them in the year 2050. Who knows what will be on the rise then?