SimEarth: Global Warming and the Great East Anglia Geek Betrayal

1 12 2009

So, unless you’re living under a rock or are only getting your news from the mainstream media, you may already be familiar with ClimateGate. If you haven’t, in a nutshell, a bunch of e-mails stolen (or possibly leaked) from the University at East Anglia in the UK reveal a major pattern of lying, obfuscation and data fudging that casts a huge shadow over the entire theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming. This is not a small scandal either. East Anglia casts a disproportionate shadow over climate research and their findings make up a huge chunk of the data on which the work the UN’s IPCC and other climate scientists relied on to come to the conclusion that global warming is a huge threat that needs trillions of dollars and a complete realignment of the world’s economic and political systems to address.

Or maybe not.

Now I’m not a climate scientist or a statistician or even a computer scientist. That will immediately bring out cries from global warming’s true believers that I am therefore not qualified to comment on this issue and should therefore shut up. This completely ignores the fact that most of those doing the yelling are also not scientists and are no more qualified to comment on this than I am. There is however, one area in which I believe I am an expert — in geeks and geek culture and it was my knowledge of geeks that started sending up red flags on this issue a number of years ago.

One of the first red flags came when I first heard the phrase “computer models” offered as proof that AGW was happening. My first thought at the time was that I hoped that the climate model that these scientists were using was better than SimEarth, one of the forgotten “Sim” games created by Will Wright and Maxis back in the ’90s. The game modeled the Earth and the evolution of life based on James Havelock’s “Gaia” theory and allowed the player model various climactic and geological developments to build whatever sort of Earth one wanted.

As it turns out, the leaked emails reveal that the programs these scientists were using may actually have been worse predictors than SimEarth. According to the leaked e-mails — especially the Harry_Readme.txt programmer comments file — the code in these climate models was abominable. It was so bad that these guys were essentially making stuff up as they went along to make the climate models do what they wanted them to do — and sometimes to just make them work at all. They really were playing SimEarth and a lot of grandstanding politicians, glory-seeking scientists and radical environmentalists looking for their “emergency” went along for the ride.

What really set me off on the climate models was everything I read about how getting data sets impossible because the scientists in question did everything they could to hide the raw data and the details of the climate models they were using from skeptics. These were people who did everything they could to subvert the very peer-review process that is supposed to insure that science is reliable. That betrays everything that geeks usually stand for. I know geeks. Geeks welcome skeptical inquiry. Geeks are very into the whole “radical honesty” thing. I know plenty of engineers in the gaming biz and one of the most important lessons any PR person learns is “Don’t let engineers without media training talk to the media.” Otherwise your programmer will tell a journalist just how crappy your latest game is turning out. Scientists, like engineers, are geeks and it’s this welcoming attitude toward skepticism that’s supposed keeps the wheels of scientific research turning.

Global Warming was different. The more this issue dominated the media and government policy, the more red flags started going up. Calling skeptics “denialists” (subliminally bringing up the spectre of of Holocaust deniers). Demonizing those who question conventional wisdom on Global Warming. Burying, ignoring or evading questions that even a lay person could see poke serious holes in the AGW theory. Claiming that the science was “settled” when a growing body of evidence (including the statements of obviously reputable scientists) says it isn’t. Ignoring the work of statisticians (climate science places enormous weight on statistics) who said that the numbers of global warming just didn’t add up. Global Warming started to look more and more like a flame war on a gaming forum. Too many people had too much invested in global warming being real to ever admit that they might be wrong — and billions of dollars and a tremendous amount of political power are much better motivators than being right about which Final Fantasy was the best.

Finally comes this piece of news — much of the raw data that’s supposed to underlie these climate models was destroyed by the scientists involved. To go back to my SimEarth example, this is rather like dumping the source code and expecting everyone to just believe what comes out on the screen. It’s no longer just about the climate science — it’s about what was revealed about the statistical methods and coding methods of the scientists involved. There are a lot more geeks in those disciplines than compromised scientists and as people with expertise really begin to dig into these emails and the trail of tainted data spreads across the work of climate scientists around the world, it may at least bring some sense of balance back into something that was beginning to take on the disturbing overtones of a new secular religion with Al Gore as its high priest.

As for me, I’m still a Global Warming skeptic. I don’t know that it’s happening, I don’t know that it’s not. But I do know a few things. I know that if global warming isn’t real, these guys deserve to be in jail because we may have just avoided a huge waste of time, money aqnd energy into solving the wrong environmental disaster when we really do have environmental issues to deal with. That’s always been my response to people who ask me “How could you be against cleaning up the environment?” I’m not. I consider myself a conservationist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold. If there is no global warming, we were about to destroy our way of life for a lie that might not even help with real environmental problems.

If it is real, these guys deserve to be shot. They’ve given environmentalism and the process of scientific peer review a black eye from which it may take decades to recover all while global warming really does wipe out our world. This is a real issue and our decisions have real consequences and we need better data than can be generated from a 20-year old video game.

Ponyo and the Art of the Unsaid

23 08 2009

Warning: Spoilers ahead

I don’t particularly care for profanity from stand-up comics or explicit sexuality in movies. It’s not that I have any moral objections to four-letter words or people doing the nasty (particularly the latter), it’s more that I believe that great art comes as much from what is not shown as what is. The tighter the boundaries a piece of art must push against, the greater the breakthrough when something really works within a particular set of conventions. I think great art is found in the negative space where the audience is forced to dig in and work. It’s not for nothing that the term Anvilicious was coined to mock the heavy-handed “This is the message, people!” moments that pass for social commentary in movies and TV shows. I thought about this a lot today while watching the new Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo with the kids.

Ponyo of course, is the latest animated film from the genius behind Spirited Away (among others). It’s the light-hearted tale of a magical goldfish named Ponyo that falls in love with a five-year boy named Sosuke and wants to become human. There’s more to it, of course. There are a number of plots running though the piece including bits about Sosuke’s mother’s job at an old-age home, worries about his father who’s the captain of a ship that may be lost at sea and the cosmic rift that Ponyo has unwittingly opened that threatens to destroy the Earth. Of course the real reason to see it is absolutely spectacular imagery that Miyazaki created using the kind-of old-school animation techniques that would have been recognizable by Walt Disney himself.

What’s really amazing about Ponyo however, is how much of what the movie’s actually about is left unsaid. There’s only a single truly anvilicious moment in the film when Ponyo’s father (a formerly human sorcerer who now lives in the sea and struggles to maintain the “balance of nature”) mentiones that he really doesn’t like humans because of the way they mess up the ocean floor and get in the way of his work — and I’m not sure whether that’s actually the product of Myazaki or the translated English screenplay produced by E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison. Make no mistake about it though, environmental degradation and humanity’s responsibility for it are a big part of Ponyo’s story, but one has to dig deeply into what’s not said to find it.

The beginning of the film, for example, shows the viewer some absolutely spectacular imagery of the living seas — jellyfish, fish, diatoms and all kind of beautiful undersea lifeforms wheeling about in a spectacular dance. It’s a stunning “Circle of Life” moment. Ponyo then escapes from her controlling father and heads for the surface world. What follows is an absolutely brutal yet lovely sequence of Ponyo’s Dad struggling through the trash-strewn harbor waters around Sosuke’s home searching for Ponyo and Ponyo’s near death from a dredger and a discarded fruit jar. This is followed by what on the surface is a lighthearted comedic moment that’s actually bitterly ironic where Sosuke’s mother takes Ponyo’s father to task because she believe the spray pumper he uses to keep himself wet on land is some sort of weed-killer and “we don’t use weed-killer around here.”

It’s this kind of subtlety that’s at work throughout the entire film. Miyazaki never comes out and says that humans are evil for messing up the environment or that there’s a Captain Planet-like conspiracy to befoul our home. Indeed, this is a film notable for the fact that there are no villains. Everyone in the movie is doing what they do out of the best possible motives. The real villain of the movie is parochial self-interest — being so narrowly focused on one’s immediate concerns that one doesn’t take the time to revel in the world around oneself and appreciate the magic and wonders that lie right in front of our noses. At one point, Sosuke’s mother Lisa casually tosses off the practiced line “Life is full of wonders” — casually dismissing the miraculous appearence of a little girl who came to them running on a wave. Indeed, Ponyo herself is the greatest perpetrator of this — being so focused on her affection for Sosuke and her desire to become human that she nearly destroys the world.

This sort of parochialism is shown again and again throughout the film. After a storm has ravaged Sosuke’s tiny fishing community, Sosuke and Ponyo go on a quest in a tiny boat to find Sosuke’s mother. As they travel, the audience is treated to incredible undersea vistas showing the now-drowned landscape with Devonian fish swimming along underwater freeways and through submerged forests. Much of this is shown from the height of the children;s waists, looking down as their feet pass over these marvels while they look ahead, completely unaware. Yet when a fleet of brightly colored flag-bearing rescue boats evacuating villagers comes by, Sosuke says “It’s like a parade!” completely unaware of the potential human tragedy that these boats represent. When the residents of the nursing home where Lisa works are miraculously healed and saved from drowning by a jellyfish-like air bubble provided by Ponyo’s dad, their main concern is eavesdropping on Lisa’s conversation.

Indeed, it doesn’t seem to me that Miyazaki believes that humanity is evil for what it does to the Earth. The vibe I got from the film was more one of sadness that responsible stewardship of the planet seems to require two characteristics that are awfully hard to reconcile with each other. The first is the child-like capacity to accept, appreciate and utilize all the wondrous and magical things that the universe provides. The second is the adult-like capacity to be a responsible caretaker with the hard-headed practicality to get things done. Ponyo herself is forced to give up magic to become truly human and Sosuke is asked to make the grown-up choice to take responsibility for her and Ponyo does indeed, get her happy ending. The central conundrum of the movie, however, is left unresolved. Is it possible to have both sides in the same person? Ponyo’s father would seem to be a likely candidate, but his gaunt, haggard appearance and acknowledgment that he’s long since left his own humanity behind don’t bode well for those trying to split that balance.

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