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Succinct planetary problem statement

It is really important that we can state the case for the planet being in peril very quickly without a lot of contentious data or opinion through a link very early in the home page and a few other places.

I think the most powerful data is conveyed simply through graphs but there needs to be some minimal narrative to tie things together. Since this will be early on the home page, it will be one of the most likely areas of the Library for new people to read, so it is important that it be succinct, powerful, and most of all the plain unadorned truth laid out in a simple unbiased manner.

The closest we come is on the Azimuth project goals page where we have this statement: "We're in serious trouble --- for a short rundown, read this." The link points to This Week’s Finds (Week 301) where John laid out the reasons he is concerned about the planet's health. I remember reading that post from the blog when it came out and thinking to myself: "Yikes! I knew it was bad but we really need to do something about this right now, and I don't see that happening."

I sort of wanted to put this link on the home page and the other few areas where talk about the planet needing saving. But the referenced article is from the Azimuth blog, was written before the wiki existed, and it seems like our succinct planetary problem overview ought to be part of the Azimuth Library instead where we can link it into the rest of the articles so readers can dig as far as they want into the various issues.

I'm willing to do the work to move the relevant sections of the blog post over. However, John, since you wrote the original blog entry, I thought you might want to do this yourself (or perhaps the first pass?).

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    edited January 2011

    I think this is something to think hard about, since making a very strong statement that someone new disagrees with may cause them to stop reading further. Firstly, it's not clear what it means for "the planet" to be in peril. There's change in climate (which is debated how bad this would be), biodiversity under threat, there's how humans can survive sustainably, the damage humans may do by not living sustainably. I know I'm much more a "fence sitter" (in the sense that I think things should be done given the uncertainties rather than postponed because of them) and this doesn't go down well on other forums, but I think the problems with making a bold, strong statement may be worse. (When I'm talking to someone, the argument I try and use is "If you had the same sort of data+model based predictions on your bank/pension fund that there are for climate change and sustainability, you'd be immediately moving your money. Why do different criteria apply to the climate change issues?" That encapsulates my personal view about the most compelling reason why people should feel the need to act.)

    I also try and avoid using the term "true", trying to use words like "accurate" instead. This isn't from a Rumsfeldian belief that truth is malleable, but because humans are used to thinking that a thing either is or isn't true and that remains constant, and people often use violation of this as an argument in discussion. In contrast, it's more psychologically acceptable to say that given what was known at the time, x was an accurate statement but with greater knowledge y is accurate.

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    edited January 2011

    I agree that a succinct statement of the problem is a good thing to have on the Azimuth Wiki. In our first phase of development I was too busy to write this, so I just linked to week301. But we can surely do better than that.

    As soon as I can get the Wiki rebooted I can easily copy week301 over to the Azimuth Wiki, to serve as raw material for a good statement.

    Some ways the statement could be improved:

    Firstly, it's not clear what it means for "the planet" to be in peril.

    Right. It's hard to talk about this stuff accurately, succinctly, and with a sufficient sense of urgency. A really good statement would do all three. I usually talk about "saving the planet" to convey a sufficient sense of urgency, but then instantly admit that it sounds pompous... and of course, if we ask what it really means, things get very complicated. That's why I included that quote of George Carlin in "week301" - making a joke is a good way to defuse people's tendency to nitpick about precise wordings.

    I'm sure we could do better if we really worked at it. I doubt our mission statement should quote George Carlin.

    When I'm talking to someone, the argument I try and use is "If you had the same sort of model based predictions on your bank/pension fund that there are for climate change and sustainability, you'd be immediately moving your money. Why do different criteria apply to the climate change issues?"

    This is very wise, and it will appeal to people who can be moved to action by dispassionate cost-benefit analyses. But it's not exactly a "rallying cry".

    Tim Palmer took the same line in "week306":

    JB: In a Guardian article on human-caused climate change you were quoted as saying "There might be a 50% risk of widespread problems or possibly only 1%. Frankly, I would have said a risk of 1% was sufficient for us to take the problem seriously enough to start thinking about reducing emissions."

    It's hard to argue with that, but starting to think about reducing emissions is vastly less costly than actually reducing them. What would you say to someone who replied, "If the risk is possibly just 1%, it's premature to take action — we need more research first"?

    TP: The implication of your question is that a 1% risk is just too small to worry about or do anything about. But suppose the next time you checked in to fly to Europe, and they said at the desk that there was a 1% chance that volcanic ash would cause the aircraft engines to fail mid flight, leading the plane to crash, killing all on board. Would you fly? I doubt it!

    My real point is that in assessing whether emissions cuts are too expensive, given the uncertainty in climate predictions, we need to assess how much we value things like the Amazon rainforest, or of (preventing the destruction of) countries like Bangladesh or the African Sahel. If we estimate the damage caused by dangerous climate change — let’s say associated with a 4 °C or greater global warming — to be at least 100 times the cost of taking mitigating action, then it is worth taking this action even if the probability of dangerous climate change was just 1%. But of course, according to the latest predictions, the probability of realizing such dangerous climate changes is much nearer 50%. So in reality, it is worth cutting emissions if the value you place on current climate is comparable or greater than the cost of cutting emissions.

    Summarising, there are two key points here. Firstly, rational decisions can be made in the light of uncertain scientific input. Secondly, whilst we do certainly need more research, that should not itself be used as a reason for inaction.

    We probably need a good two-sentence "rallying cry", a good one-paragraph mission statement, and a good page-long "summary of the problem". Or something like that. Not just one thing.

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    instead of "scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet" I personally like something along the lines of:

    "scientists and engineers interested in establishing a comfortable steady-state human inhabitation of the planet with tolerance for other lifeforms"

    PS I add comfortable because otherwise I get the critique that I'm promoting a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. While I do think that many places are overpopulated, and there is lack of nature (at least in Western Europe), I'd prefer to achieve a steady-state future without having to live like ancient hunter-gatherers. For one thing, there would be no time to study fancy math due to constraints in food resources ;-) And also, farming would be reinvented again, etc.

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    This is going into areas where I don't have figures to back stuff up, but I gather there's a view that hunter gatherers actually have more "free time" than you'd think. The big problem with hunter-gatherer lifestyles is that it only supports very low population density. Arable and livestock farming apparently allows larger popoulation density, but then also requires much more work.

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    Ok, maybe you're right. I guess the human hunter-gatherer lifestyle is probably closer to that of a tiger than to that of an antelope. So there's spare time to be lazy :)

    Anyway, even with the extra free time, I'd still not prefer to go back to that lifestyle the whole year round ;-)

    Arable and livestock farming apparently allows larger population density, but then also requires much more work.

    I would say, there's more work for the farmers, but the farming also allows to create "specialist jobs" to manage the larger population density. I would say the spare time is not distributed evenly among everyone but is consumed by these specialists (writers, soldiers, chiefs) who consider that spare time to be work.

    Well, I hope that's what I remember from Diamond's GGS.

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    edited January 2011

    This is very wise, and it will appeal to people who can be moved to action by dispassionate cost-benefit analyses. But it's not exactly a "rallying cry".

    If your child is ill, and 95% of doctors say that immediate treatment is necessary, while 5% say there is no need to do anything, what would you do?

    If I remember rightly, this analogy was used by a Republican senator, in a video clip that you (JB) pointed to.

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    it is very good that you bring this up and here are some personal reflections. my gut feeling when i see when i see titles in the bookstore with titles like eg _the revenge of gaia__ (TRG) is not to by it even though i´m perfectly aware that its a metaphor he uses. now.

    i read them and they are full of relevant stuff. so maybe many people misses out on Lovelock wisdom and argument and compare with outher and my ownn internal debates. Maybe this is something we need to consider; simplify the message - see Psychology of sustainability and game theory applied . The latter is also overtaken by primal fears and reactions.

    "utterly terryfying and constantly provocative" (TRG) , Eearth had similar . so if i was a teenager id love em as fiction but it bothers most people too i assume.

    then there is scientific language and the risk of mis-communication - or missing out on communicating completely. So in a summary you should be prepared to loosen distinctions you know about weather/climate, energy/power , energy markets/taxes and stick to that - even if it hurts your professional integrity. The other thing is to be provocative about the state of the planet (sotp) and then skip the decision under uncertainty debate completely irrelevant to potential member.

    maybe turn it around concrete solutions first and then sotp as i also imagine there is a fatigue among most people . "oh here they go again frightening us and no solutions" i heard many times, even though most of the documentary was about solutions.

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    edited January 2011

    John wrote

    This is very wise, and it will appeal to people who can be moved to action by dispassionate cost-benefit analyses. But it's not exactly a "rallying cry".

    I sometimes forget UK news may not be big news abroad. In the UK a couple of years ago we had a bank run (people taking an impromptu time off work to queue on the streets) on an institution called Northern Rock initiated by a couple of TV news reports (which was aborted after a day by the government making and publicising special guarantees being instituted), so in some ways I think of people's reactions about their money as not dispassionate but really quite emotional. (It's an unclear analogy since if it's known that any bank needs customers who believe it's safe to remain viable, once the belief that a given bank is safe is gone -- whether the trigger event was valid or not -- arguably it's a very well-supported action to join the queues trying to remove your money. The enivronment is clearly unaffected by our sentiments about it.)

    But I agree that it's unlikely to make a good rallying cry.

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    It seems to me that our target audience is those who are already aware enough of the scientific consensus and respectful enough of that consensus to conclude that the problems are real before they ever get to our site. This site is not aiming for a general audience. We are not competing for the mindshare of the general audience of humans. We are very specifically not aiming at those who:

    • Don't believe the science on global warming or its human causation,

    • Don't understand or believe in science.

    Still there is a good reason not to oversell. We are aiming specifically at engineers who, from my experience, tend to be a lot more skeptical of specific claims. They are used to dealing with the real world, and have seen examples of scientific theory not matching up with reality in their work life. So they are likely to believe the level of uncertainty may be high, and our ability to predict the specific outcomes may be far less than advertised. Nevertheless, for these engineers to even get to our site, they probably self-select to a population of engineers who see a problem, and who are looking for more information or some way they can specifically help. So if we are truthful and open about the problems and uncertainties of the science, these engineers will continue reading.

    So I believe it is reasonable to provide a problem statement that appeals specifically to the groups of non-climatologist scientists and engineers who are already drawn to the site.

    I don't think we are going to convince anyone of anything here. The best we can hope for is to get them to have an increased sense of urgency as well as to see a few concrete ways that they can help. The mental process might be something like:

    1. Concerned individual comes to site with vague notion of wanting to help;

    2. Reads about problem and becomes more interested in helping with an increased sense of urgency;

    3. Finds some specific ways they can help and starts interacting here on the forum or by editing the wiki.

    So the succinct planetary problem statement, IMHO, should only attempt to start 2. above, moving the level of interest and sense of urgency without overselling the science. That is why we should present data and largely let the reader draw their own conclusions.

    Our primary goal is to get them started helping in concrete ways. That first step is the most difficult decision to make, and the one that most people avoid.

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    John Baez wrote:

    We probably need a good two-sentence "rallying cry", a good one-paragraph mission statement, and a good page-long "summary of the problem". Or something like that. Not just one thing.

    Yes, good point. We need all these things and the "rallying cry" and short paragraph should be sprinkled here and there where appropriate.

    Even the page-long summary should provide sufficient linking into the rest of the Library to make it very easy for someone to dig deeper without immediately getting bogged down into too much detail. Those links should go to the overview pages and the high-level summary.

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    Curtis said:

    We are aiming specifically at engineers who, from my experience, tend to be a lot more skeptical of specific claims. They are used to dealing with the real world, and have seen examples of scientific theory not matching up with reality in their work life. So they are likely to believe the level of uncertainty may be high, and our ability to predict the specific outcomes may be far less than advertised. Nevertheless, for these engineers to even get to our site, they probably self-select to a population of engineers who see a problem, and who are looking for more information or some way they can specifically help. So if we are truthful and open about the problems and uncertainties of the science, these engineers will continue reading.

    This is a rather accurate description of both myself and the people that I have in mind.

    Originally, I think, John had strong hopes that many of his friends from pure math and mathematical physics would feel the same way and join Azimuth, which has not yet come to pass. I guess (and surely it is not more than a guess) that one of the most important questions of mathematicians and mathematical physicists is "what could I contribute at all, since my expertise is orthogonal to all the topics discussed on Azimuth?" To provide a partial answer to that was part of my motivation to write about stochastic differential equations, since these involve sophisticated mathematics, have some connections to statistical physics and field theory, and are still very successful in certain areas of application (stochastic control, mathematical finance, approximation to turbulence).

    Oh, and I also added a reference to a recent paper about the connection of the Navier-Stokes equations and the vacuum Einstein field equations, so people specialized in GR can now jump in and revolutionize climate models with their expertise. (This is ca. 60% a joke, and 60% earnest, with an extra 20% for the overall importance of the topic.)

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    edited January 2011

    Tim wrote:

    I guess (and surely it is not more than a guess) that one of the most important questions of mathematicians and mathematical physicists is "what could I contribute at all, since my expertise is orthogonal to all the topics discussed on Azimuth?"

    Yeah, I underestimated how smart specialists underestimate their ability to learn new things outside their speciality.

    Or maybe I overestimated their ability, or their desire.

    But I really do think most academics have a sad tendency to forget that they are, actually, extremely good at learning things.

    Anyway, I'm very glad Tim has continually pushed the 'stochastic process' theme here on Azimuth. And I'm delighted to see that the wild biochar-loving hippie Florifulgurator has magically transformed into someone named Martin Gisser who knows quite a bit about stochastic processes.

    I'm hoping that as time passes, the stochastic process theme will interact more and more strongly with themes that David Tweed, Graham Jones and Nathan Urban like: probability theory, statistical reasoning and decision theory.

    It's all about living in an uncertain world.

    Over here at the Centre for Quantum Technologies, I have revitalized my interest in probability and statistics by studying 'information geometry' and 'algorithmic entropy'. I've also formed a discussion group called the Entropy Club. (None of the other members know it's called this, but they'll find out on Monday.) We're discussing the relation between information, energy, and... money! There's also someone here interested in applications of entropy to bioinformatics, and I'll invite them to join. I'm going to keep pushing the discussion towards biology, ecology and economics.

    I'm also developing a branch of applied category theory that focuses on the kind of networks one sees in 'systems biology', 'systems ecology' and the like. I'm not sure exactly who this will appeal to, but I suspect that someday soon it will appeal to lots of people.

    Anyway, I'm digressing a bit. But one of my goals for Azimuth is to help scientists get over their 'learned helplessness' and see that they can do things to help save the planet.

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    John Baez wrote:

    Yeah, I underestimated how smart specialists underestimate their ability to learn new things outside their speciality.

    Or maybe I overestimated their ability, or their desire.

    But I really do think most academics have a sad tendency to forget that they are, actually, extremely good at learning things.

    There are many types of personalities. From my experience, most people are not risk takers. They prefer clear plans and paths to success over nebulous ones. In most of science, the beginning of the paths seems to me to be pretty laid out. You take certain classes, you learn what is set out before you, you apply to grad school, you help do research, you find something that interests you and work with an advisor to develop your Ph.D, you apply for post-doc positions at places that interest you, or a research position in industry, you continue working incrementally on something fairly closely related to what you once did, or something dictated by your bosses in industry.

    There are some scientists, who are more willing to go travel without a map. They are willing to jump from math, to physics, to saving the world, but most people aren't because the risks are too high for their personal comfort level. They can't see how they could make a difference so the jump doesn't make sense from their perspective. Even helping out in a small way seems impossible because they don't think they'll meet the standards of excellence they expect in own their specialty. They don't realize that their outsider's perspective can be very useful, or that they can do much to help.

    So I think the best you can do is lower the perceived risks by helping create a plan where more and more people can see how they can individually help over time, help figure out how to keep people employed as they switch, and collect together all the people who have personalities suited to working on the project, as is.

    Perhaps some active recruiting would work. Right now, for example, there are a lot of amateurs working independently on various sustainability-related projects, or math and science projects that know of you. It might be good to go out and solicit their help individually. For example, there is a guy who goes by the name "marcus" on physics forums. He is very bright and seems to keep up on every detail of loop quantum gravity developments. He writes a lot, is very good at explaining the details of complex math, and he is a very nice guy. He'd be an awesome addition to the project. I don't know if he'd join Azimuth or not, but he just might if you asked him. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if you knew him. I'm sure there are some people like him at the Oil Drum and other venues, too.

    I also think it would be a great topic for a blog post. If you explained what you expected when you started and asked people what keeps them from helping out, you'd get some honest answers.

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    edited January 2011

    I don't think your characterisation of academia is right: most people desiring a career in academia are incredibly energetically trying to find the set of activities that will maximise the volume of "career enhancing output". One example of this is the way that leaders will make dramatic switches in their research group's direction into a suddenly hot topic (which is inherently risky but also believed to have the highest expected reward).

    Indeed, part of my current point in life results from my trying to refocus my work as much as I could in good conscience away from what my employers had initially planned into a slightly different area that I thought had better chances of success. It was a big risk, and maybe it was wrong due to a misanalysis of the situation, but there certainly wasn't any risk aversion there.

    I forget who said it first, but the biggest problem with crossing between specialisms X and Y is being "that guy who the X-ers think doesn't really get X but is amazing at Y, and the Y-ers think doesn't really get Y but is amazing at X".

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