Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


MAY 16, 2009 10:34PM


Rate: 30 Flag

When I was around the age of five, my parents gave me a little stuffed bear, [George] who I named George.

He was no ordinary bear, of course. He had eyes that seemed very deep and knowing, and for a while he had a felt red mouth, though that fell away at some point.

Inside, he had a music box. There was a metallic key extending from his chest—the kind that's probably unsafe and illegal in the modern world where doubtless they must be made of fireproof, non-toxic, biodegradable, nerf-like sponge foam. But this old-fashioned key just jutted out harshly with a piece of metal like a penny that attached to the pole allowing you something flat to hold while you twisted it to wind him up. Thus armed, he would play a bit of the song Around the World in Eighty Days, which I came to like quite a lot.

One day the music box broke, though. I must have been in first or second grade and wasn't sure what to do. Twisting it didn't manage to catch something it needed to catch, and when you let go after twisting it would just play all the notes really fast in a kind of single quick metallic zing sound that took only a second or two to complete. It was quite disappointing.

So I did what kids do. I threw George against the wall. To my surprise, that fixed him, and the music box played again. I was thrilled.

Sometime not too long after, though, he broke again. But fortunately, I was now a skilled bear repairman. Or so I thought. Sadly, no matter how many times I threw George against the wall, and I tried it quite a lot before giving up, it just didn't seem to help and mostly seemed to be scratching up the wall with that bit of metal that stuck out.

Later in life, I'd had more school and learned that there were “best practices” for fixing broken things, and that bashing them against the wall mindlessly was not among them.

And yet, sometimes I look at the way certain people approach the world and think it sad that they never had a George to teach them this lesson. Failing to understand science and causality, they resort to mysticism and a belief that if something once worked, even by accident, it will somehow find a way to work again, even without knowing why it ever worked or whether that reason is still in play.

Periodically I hear people referring to Climate Change as a natural process, as if that implies it will fix itself. They say the climate has corrected itself before, and so they seem comfortable that it will happen again. They don't say how or why or even when this will happen, so I must infer they are expecting it to happen by magic—and just in time to avoid any inconvenience to mankind.

Maybe it's just my personal experience that leads me to say this, but ... I'm just not so sure we can rely on either repeated good luck or outright magic.

It's time for some serious science.

If you got value from this post, please "rate" it.


I still have George. He's threadbare here and there, but still loved. My parents tried to get me to throw him away when they thought me too old for him, but I refused. I'm glad I still have him. His music box still doesn't work on its own, but if you help him by holding the key just right and refusing to let the key unwind faster than it should, you can still get him to play his tinny tune. It still makes me smile.

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Alright Kent. A blog with a link to strange koans (as if any arent strange). This must be a first!
But great set up for the discussion of global warming science. I have only heard one slightly credible argument supporting completely natural processes being the reason for global warming, and that from a friend with a PhD in Geology.
But then again, he's into drilling oil wells.

I am very glad you wrote this and used your clear descriptions to take us through the accident of your childish actions and the discovery of causality in our natural and manufactured world. You made an excellent tie in to a type of thinking that happens all too often. Great post Kent!!
Kent: A smart and telling post. You were able to use the saga of George to illustrate an important point. And while I don't subscribe to the magical thinking you describe vis a vis global warming, I feel I have to say a good word for the slow learners among us, those of us (me, for example) who, faced with a silent teddy bear, are content -- tickled pink, actually -- if we can repair it by throwing it against the wall. This is, indeed, a magical moment for us, and what makes it magical is how rarely the method works. It may not win us the regard of our more scientifically inclined or gifted friends, and I hope to God it doesn't contribute to ignorance about the world's ways, but, most of the time, a magic moment is still something to treasure.
charming story about a child's discovery of the scientific method, complete with fuzzy stuffed animal

I read this as a major insight into the motivations and practices of another and scarier George. His prescription seemed to be: take the US economy, throw it against the wall by starting two wars, by not enforcing the existing regulations for wallstreet and the shifty mortgage and equities markets, gut the tax structure by making sure the wealthiest americans pay fewer taxes while schools and hospitals are defunded. and oh yes, repeat by escalating wars, tax breaks, etc. ad nauseum.

(the scary thing is I'm sure he'd be willing to throw the economy against the wall again and again by doing exactly the same steps as before; look at the party platform...nothing's changing).

but also rated for the cute bear.
Tim, I'm glad to hear someone followed the link on bashing them against the wall mindlessly. The stories on that page are all about friends of mine, and I find I have many occasions to tell them.

Gary, thanks for stopping in. Glad you liked the story!

Jeremiah, I agree we all want to believe in magic and to treasure those occasions where something happens that we are able to regard as such in our after-the-fact realization. As long as we're not relying on it to occur on schedule and to spec in critical future situations, I'm all for it.
Roy, good to see you. Glad the story hit the mark.

Dolores, indeed, the lesson has broader applicability. I held it narrow just because I had this specific point about Climate Change in mind all along as I was writing. But your point about the parallel with the Bush administration was quite apt. He saw Reagan win by doing certain tricks, and decided he could do those same tricks out of context and win just as well with them. (This was the significance of the “enlightenment” koan that I cross-referenced.)
This is delightful, even as it conveys a serious point. My son had a little stuffed bunny when he was young and I still have it. I will have it until I die, and then he will have it back.

It is my sincerest hope that science will get renewed respect under the Obama administration, not just among the government, but among the citizenry. Of course, we have the magical thinkers who won't ever understand how science works (and "work" it does), and the cynical manipulators of public opinion, like those who sow seeds of doubt about climate change so that they don't have to give anything up or lose their profits. They will continue to attempt to undermine efforts to get people to understand science.
Aww. George is adorable. And a great lesson to take from it, too. I agree with everything Susan says above, too.
Susan and Saturn, I'm hopeful about Obama, too, although I have to say he's moving way slower than I thought he would. I honestly thought he'd have a Climate Change task force up and running under Gore's direction before he took office, not making rules but at least getting organized so they could hit the ground running as soon as he was in office. I admit the Economy thing is high priority, but we have to do both.
Apparently, people in high places haven't learned the lesson you learned as a child. They continue to believe "bashing them against the wall mindlessly" is the best way to get prisoners to sing.
Another good application of simple childhood lessons, Tom. Thanks for adding to the mix.
interesting point Kent.
I think I'm still learning this lesson. I love the way you tied George in to an issue like climate change. This post was a pleasure to read. Thank you.
Very picturesque in your lead-in.

Global warming and the environmental issues this ties into either directly and/or tangentally fascinate me.

I humbly suggest our pursuits to stem the tide with our trivial efforts (mostly lip service) will be inadequate without action to stem the tsunami that is human population.

I posted on this not too long ago and was hoping you'd give your opinion (Oblivion Sweet Oblivion).

When people show me a picture of their 18 kids and tell me they bought a Prius to go along with their bus, it's clear they don't understand.

But at least they feel better.
Julie and Natalie, thanks for stopping in. :)

jay, I agree, population growth is a major issue. The math of it seems pretty obvious.
Taking liberties with the metaphor, would it be unsound to posit that if we throw the 'cyclical' climate change pundits hard against a wall, that they might sing for us something more-agreeable?
I'm glad to hear that your childhood friend is still around and still able to teach you (and us) valuable lessons. Thank you for sharing him with us.
A hammer and duct tape can fix most anything. Your point about global warming is very well taken. We've been warned for years, but I doubt that we will do much about it until it is far too late to be "fixed".
I am glad you still have the teddy bear. I know it was not the main message of your writing but as a parent I need to remember such stuff as bears might need to be saved for the children's memories later. Einstein has an often quoted saying that I do not have memorized which my brother repeats to me every time I complain that I can't solve certain problems. It is that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. That sorta applies to what you are talking about ;0)
Pablo, it's within the realm of human experience that if a crisis occurs and there is sufficient inaction by organized authority, people take matters into their own hands. I'd like to believe that wasn't necessary, but in truth I'm not sure I'm equipped to evaluate that question.

Coyote, thanks—I'm happy to have had an opportunity to share George's raw good looks and ability to inspire.

Larry, you wrote a post saying you thought it was too late to stop global warming and yet that it could be survived anyway. I'm not sure there's enough data to make the first claim, but if there is, I'm pretty sure there's not enough data to make the second claim. But in any case my thoughts on that were placed in the appropriate venue, your thread, which you then subsequently deleted. That's a shame, but I'd like not to replay that entire event here on this thread. This post is not a discussion of methodology or direction, it is a discussion of the meta-concept that Science and Reason must inform action. If you wish to allege that such things should not inform action on matters of potential global significance, you're welcome to speak to that here, but honestly even though we disagree on both the analysis and the recommendation, I don't think you and I disagree on the notion that Science should be involved. And since that's my sole point here, I think you should be agreeing with me. If you'd like to discuss either the analysis or the recommendations that Science should make, please take it to another thread, though; it's off-topic here.
Michael, I hope you're wrong, but the social/psychological/political data so far is not encouraging on the matter of timely reaction. We don't react strongly to things we don't viscerally perceive.

Dorinda, thanks for your comments about George himself. And I know the quote you're talking about for Einstein, and thought about whether to include it in this post, but went for simplicity. It is relevant, though. Regarding the matter of what it takes to help us remember, I don't know if you saw my poem last year, The URLs of the Mind, but it's quite relevant to what you wrote.
Karin, I'm glad you liked it. Feel free to Digg it or whatever. (That's the Internet equivalent of that these days.)

As for David Suzuki, I found him on the web, and his bio does mention he has a PhD in Zoology, which would seem indeed to make him a scientist. In fairness, Climate Change is not the same science as Zoology, but unless Larry is alleging that anyone who is not a Climatologist should be excluded from the debate, I don't quite get that.

I personally don't mean to say that it should be an elitist debate, I just mean to say that we should focus on issues that are, to the extent possible, subject to scientific analysis. Some things about Climate Change will never be subject to before-the-fact analysis, but it's still our job to involve Science where possible. To dismiss people's opinions on the basis of who they are rather than what they're saying is an ad hominem mode of attack I'd like to see avoided.
I once repaired a water heater using a combination of verbal abuse and hitting. I don't think I could do that to anything with a face, though. The guilt would eat at me, causing wakefulness at 3 a.m. when the world is divided into sleepers of clean conscience, and me.

Even for the water heater I feel some small regret. It didn't ask to be born a faceless object. It tried its best. I said some awful things.
That final picture of the bear captures so beautifully a beloved item, loved to the bitter end. I used to anthropomorphize my stuffed animals to such a degree I would make sure I carried ALL of them with me around the house, setting them ALL under a blanket wherever I would stop so none of them got hurt feelings being left out. It was ridiculous. But it's the beginning of loving animals (and people) and so, not such a bad thing. Such a charming tale (and liked how you wove in the climate change thread... ).
I've found few few people in my wanderings that acutely understand the difference between causation and correlation. Unfortunately, a lot of those people tend to gravitate towards politics. Can't figure it out.
Good stuff, Kent, rated. :-)
If there were "Lifetime Achievement Award" buttons, I would click those too. I know it would be too early, but still...
Larry, thanks for the several clarifications. :)

"Hello", I'm sure the water heater has forgiven you by now.

dcv, that's a lot of effort. I'm glad my animals were more low-maint.

rolling, thanks for stopping by. Ratings always appreciated. :)

Jon, not sure if there was a missing “not” in there, but in any case, it does matter that we get politicians that understand the difference.

Galaxy guy, thanks for the support!
Aaron, I think you're poking at straw men here. I wrote this article with you and Larry personally in mind, because both of you have stated your opinions on this before. There is not a sentence in there that says anything about a specific agenda. The sentence "delaying is bad" does not occur; rather, there are remarks that amount to "delaying because you think it will fix itself is bad". Your reasons for delaying are not those, so this article does not speak to you and deliberately so. Moreover, this article does not establish a priority of Climate Change over other environmental issues, so saying that there are more important issues does not address this article. Nor does this article say we must rely on government or private enterprise either. This article does not mention CO2 even though you used that in your rebuttal. I avoided all the standard pitfalls as carefully as I could, hoping to make it a universal positive message of "let's just talk about science", that is, "let's put a set of refutable claims on the table" and talk about worries, timelines, options, etc. in a way that is organized in a way that allows participation, centralized/cross-indexed discussion, debate, access to data and conclusions, etc. I wasn't even so detailed as that last sentence in the article, though I do think that going that far is still politically neutral. I think you could reach a little farther to sign up for a neutrally worded message. I certainly reached quite a ways to write it.
Aaron, for all I disagree on conclusions with Larry, I largely agree with his remark, “I would dearly love to see a committee of scientists formed to winnow through the "facts" and make a definite determination of what is happening, its causes, its probable outcome, and what might be done to mitigate its effect on our chances of survival.” There exist such committees globally, but the US is not integrated with them.

If nothing else, I'd like to see funding made available for people who are sufficiently expert in this area to feel like they are able to do what they need to do to be sure. But, alas, the entire politics of it is that some people distrust these people exactly because they think they're after a meal ticket. Of all the stupid things. We need people freed of the need to chase money in order to be able to (a) make sure they're spending their time on what matters and (b) make sure they are not influenced by someone else offering money. And we must do it even at the risk that someone might actually get paid for doing what they are good at. If the government funds no such ventures, only oil companies will, and we'll deserve what we get from such things.

And I'm not talking NSF grants, etc., where the game is to compete for attention by coming up with the coolest claim. Better to make a permanent place that people can feel seriously employed and stop thinking about the competition aspect and start thinking about contributing to what needs doing.

People are so distrustful of government organizations to do this but really who else can do this and on a time schedule? I don't think academia can match the pace and deal with the unglamorous grunge stuff that needs doing. And I don't think industry can do it if they're all bottom-line focused. And so the choice is whether we have scientists in the loop or not, with a lot of pressure to just use what they happen to contribute rather than what we really need in some organized way.

I don't see why you would be distrustful of that, but I'm somehow imagining you'll say.
Aaron, you wrote, “You can't put a committee together to parse through the facts when there are no facts.”

First of all, you can put together a committee for any purpose notwithstanding the fact that the purpose cannot be achieved. So certainly your claim is wrong on that basis. What you presumably mean is either that you shouldn't put one together because it will be a waste of time or because you fear that the committee will have power to act on the basis of non-facts.

If you worry about the latter, then you're agreeing with me that we need to act based on science. Certainly any committee put together should be well-founded on general expertise.

But if you're worried about the former, then you have to have a competent authority to say there are no facts. You allege there are not, but with all due respect, the entire reason I and others would like to see this committee is to know whether or not to believe any given individual's claim. In general, proving a negative existential quantification such as you're claiming is not easy to do. You are implicitly making the universal quantification that you are personally aware of all facts and that for each of them you are personally aware that they are not relevant. I think you're a sharp guy but I question your ability to say that. If such a committee comes together and finds you're right, of course, then it can shut down or figure out what to do. But it would be a material step forward even to just do that, in my opinion.

Saying we should not try to get even a consensus on that seems inappropriately negative.

And no, they do not have to have, as their first order of business to come up with a plan. Certainly that's not what I would ask them to do. As a first order of business, I'd ask them to enumerate the known facts and to enumerate the known sets of plans and to label them all up as a set of options for the sake of public dialog.

I think getting a plan soon is important but I think for a plan to work we have to have public consensus and we cannot have that if we don't have a full accounting of what the issues and options are. And I don't think we can do that without a centralized effort because merely having a lot of distributed, uncoordinated plans means they are not comparable.

Coming up then with a decision procedure is important. Can more than one be pursued independently? Are there budget reasons they cannot? Does one undo the other? Are there things that favor one group or another politically? (I wish that wouldn't come up but it will.) Is one more reversible in the case of error than another. (This is a personal concern of mine that I think too little attention is paid to.) Which plans make a mess of things if resources fall away too soon and we're left with something half done? Etc. We need to know all of this before moving forward.

That is the committee I want to see. This is what I mean by governmental transparency. If we don't have that, we might as well not be a democracy.
Aaron, you're missing my point if you're thinking I'm trying to have government-run science. I'm saying that the nouns in the sentences used by government need to be science things. But what I'm concerned with is political action. And that cannot be done in the way you say. Science will, as you say, suggest scientific solutions. Politics needs to listen to those solutions as they come out but it needs to decide things to do (or not do) based on what is known today. I am not saying we have to do something today, but we have to convene to decide whether there is something we have to do today and we have to decide that on the basis of best available science mixed with the needs of society. That is not an inherently science activity and cannot be done by the science community. To make a loose analogy, it is a form of engineering. Engineers apply science toward a particular tactical real-world end. This is a kind of engineering too. It may involve the tasked people saying "best available science says there is nothing to do yet" but if there is no competent authority to say that, then there is no way to know whether that's the answer. You're effectively asking that your personal word be taken on whether it's the right time, and hence you are substituting your personal word for democratic process. Let me put it a completely different way: I often say that where there are no rules, bullies rule. I'm not accusing you of being a bully in the "mean guy" sense but structurally there's little difference between a bully and a person who's just asserting they're just right and hoping people go along with it. What makes a proper public consensus process is a sense of orderliness, process, notice, inclusion, etc. Things that allow those who have something to say to know that some decision might be made and to get information to the decision makers in a timely way. Your saying "nothing to be decided" is a decision by you personally, and I simply don't agree that you individually are competent to make that decision.

My post here was about the notion that I want either government or some active entity acting on behalf of people to sit down and do the consensus-building (not science, but an inherently political action regardless of whether undertaken by private individuals or a standing government) to do this, and I want them to do it based not on who's going to make money or whose religion says it's good/bad/plausible/implausible that this is happening. I want the science to come into play in informing the discussion. You're speaking for the entire scientific community in saying there needs be no discussion, and frankly that's equivalent to religion in my eyes. I'm not asking for the democratic participation of every person in the world, but I am asking for a sizable body of knowledgeable people to start to do better than be lone voices.
Aaron, I have made what I regard as a very simple suggestion: That we need to see more urgent attention paid to this issue, and that it be based on science. You have gone out of your way to suggest that this is not only not necessary, but inappropriate.

The entire reason for my suggestion is that there has thus far been no agency of credible competence which all sides can believe who have built a case for whatever must or must not happen. Your response is to say, as nearly as I can tell, “of course there is no such agency because there should not be. I have personal knowledge and complete confidence that it's better that way.”

I am not trying to personally criticize you but I am trying to say as clearly as I can: The whole point is that no single individual can be compelling on this. That is not what a consensus process is about. No one has elected you the Czar of All Climate Science Consensus. (And I hope you can see how nonsensical it would be to have Czar and Consensus in the same title.)

This is really no different than the torture inquiry. Many, many of us know in our hearts what we expect to find if a torture inquiry comes up. But though we consider ourselves compentent on the matter, we are not calling for a lynching. We believe in process. Process, in fact, is part of what's been denied by the Bush administration. (Other things have been denied, too. The torture thing is about Rights as well. But much of it is about process. In fact, the torture is justified conversationally by many on the basis of how bad these guys are, and yet these guys have not been tried in a court and are, under our law, innocent until proven guilty. Hence, in effect, not only has there almost certainly been torture but torture of people who are definitionally innocent.)

However, due process requires that for the torture matter to be resolved, a court of competent power be constructed to rule on the basis of us as a group, not as us as individuals. A mob mentality is what we are not about, and an organized thoughtful body of people wanting to go step by step according to our laws is what we are about. But that doesn't mean we have to go slowly step by step. We could move quite quickly to engage the proper process. If the process tells us there is no controversy, then action can be swift. If the process tells us there is more to look at, then we can go more carefully. But what we need is to have the matter resolved not by individuals but by processs. That is who we are. It is our collective identity. It is what we did not have for 8 years. It's what we have back.

In the case of Climate Change, rights are implicated only indirectly in the sense that we all need the right to survive. But some of us don't know if we're being denied that most basic of rights. You're asserting that there is no reason for concern because you have the knowledge of what would happen if we got together as a body politic to decide this matter and you call for us to simply believe you. And I simply do not.

Process is what's due. You are arguing against process due, as I see it. I have no desire to paint you in any way personally but if you elect yourself the obstacle to that process, then I will paint you that way because I see no other way.

I have a lot of respect for your scientific and mathematical position, but you simply cannot be the one to decide on your personal authority. No one can. Not Stephen Hawking. Not the Science Guy. Not Michael Crichton and Albert Einstein working together if they could come back. A group that represents us is a group that represents us. These guys are no more our representatives and you are no more our representatives than Bill Clinton even if a poll showed that he'd be elected in a vote to replace Obama. Our representatives are our representatives. Individuals not elected are not our representatives.

You are the one who advanced your credential in Science as if credential was King. But you have no credential in politics even if there were such a thing. The credential in politics is not a PhD, it is “being elected.” No one elected you. So if this were a credential war, by your own criterion, you'd have disqualified yourself.

But really this is not such a war. This is just a nation that is partly full of people who are very scared and people who are not very scared. And we need to know which ones are right, or more likely, how we can get to some decision based on probabilities (since there will be no certainty) and best available science (since that's all we'll have at any time) about whether we should get more people scared or more people unscared.

The value to me of what you have to say is directly correlated to your ability to work within a consensus process in support of a consensus determination on this matter. If you wish to fight the notion of consensus political process (an inherently different different matter than the science process), I consider you out of your field of authority and personally in opposition of everything I hold dear in life.

If Climate Change is the threat I believe it to be, nothing else in the world matters. If it is possible to delay, that means I'm wrong. I can live with being wrong and being told I'm a bit too concerned. Worse things can happen. I do not fear being told I'm wrong. But I do fear being told that we should have acted and that we failed to because someone who thought he was really cool and knew a lot of really important stuff turned out to have made a grave error.

I like you, but I am not willing to trust you or any one single person with the fate of the entire world. And the entirety of my point is that I'm tired of and confused by listening to individuals opine on this matter. I want to know what the US as a collective body plans to do. I do not see the Bush administration position on the subject to have offered me this because I think they went outside the Constitution in their consensus practices, suppressing truth. I do think Obama can and should correct that. I think he's been busy. I'd like to see him move ahead.
Oh. My. God.
My heart just literally skipped a beat.

I missed this back in May and glad you linked in my post today, but how bizarre! I had a teddy bear named George also! I must have had him since about 5 as well, and I still have his stuffed little worn-out bear body safely packed away.
He didn't have a music box, so I never threw him against the wall.
Thanks for bringing back a fond memory.