Murphy was an optimist, and so am I

I have been enjoying the ongoing discussion of my blog entry about the importance of paying attention to what the climate experts are telling us. Some people have accused me (courteously) of presenting a picture of “doom and gloom.” It made me think of my optimistic interpretation of “Murphy’s Law.”

In response to one anonymous poster, who noted that Leonardo DiCapria raised the issue on Oprah but then credited me with citing more reliable sources, I responded with the following, repeated here verbatim. (You may want to click the above link to the previous post for full context.)

I certainly don’t rely on what celebrities say on TV talk shows.

I do rely on credible scientists reporting analysis in peer-reviewed journals and then speaking in public forums so that the scientific conclusions are available to voters and policy-makers. The most significant scientific dispute I have seen about the data for 2005 is that perhaps it is not significantly warmer than the previous record setter, 1998. I’m not an authority on how good records have been in the past, but scientists who measure such things as global average temperatures always report uncertainties and don’t claim records unless the differences are statistically significant. The consider all kinds of variations, including limits to the instruments, the selection of sites in the datasets, changes in urbanization, etc. In short, they consider everything that reasonable people might use to discredit their conclusions.

Even with all that, the conclusions are remarkable. I am drawing this from memory, so it may be slightly off, but I think it is true that five of the ten warmest years of the twentieth century came in the 1990s, and the years since then have continued the pattern.

I believe it is irresponsible for people to distort or obfuscate the value of the emerging scientific consensus just because they have ideological or economic reasons to advocate the status quo. It allows people to indulge in wishful thinking instead of facing the real possibility of problems ahead.

Your message seems more like wishful thinking than ideology, but don’t tell me I’m predicting gloom and doom because I think we need to face what science is revealing to us. I’m an optimist, and I have confidence that we can understand this problem and figure out the best way to deal with it. I’m against gloom and doom, which is why I favor paying attention to possible problems and acting to avoid them.

To get a sense of my attitude, read my book for young readers entitled Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success, a Selector’s Choice on the National Science Teachers Association list of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children for 1996. When I sign the book, I usually include this message: “Respect the power of failure–and succeed!” I’d say that’s a message of confidence in the future, not doom and gloom.

The book begins with the true story behind “Murphy’s Law,” which, when interpreted according to the original Murphy is that you can succeed by paying attention to what may go wrong and addressing it. What can go wrong will go wrong — unless you act to avoid it.

As far as considering the past interglacial period, the current conclusions are pointing to dramatically faster changes in global climate in recent years than at any times in Earth’s history, except for periods around “tipping points.” That’s what experts are beginning to say.

As a non-expert but a voter who is concerned about the future of our nation and the world, this is what I want my government to know: The signs of failure are beginning to appear, so it’s time to respect what the data are telling us and act accordingly. Catastrophes are not inevitable if we pay attention to the warning signs.

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