Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Correlation and Causation

I haven't read geologist Bill McGuire's book Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes so I don't want to be unfairly critical, but I do have a couple of questions.

According to an article in New Scientist McGuire cites evidence that "catastrophic outbursts of geological activity accompanied past periods of rapid climate change, for instance, when we shifted in and out of ice ages."

But he concludes from this (again, according to the New Scientist article) that:
The stresses and strains of rising and falling sea levels and the creation and loss of ice sheets triggered these outbursts. Climate change, he says, may already be shaking up the Earth anew.
My question is that if we accept the claim that climate change and geological activity are historically correlated, how does that justify the conclusion that climate change caused the geological activity? What evidence precludes the possibility that the reverse was the case, that increased geological disturbances like vulcanism, which spews massive amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, caused climate change?

The article continues with this:
During the last ice age, the weight of ice suppressed volcanic eruptions. When the ice melted the land surface lifted, sometimes by hundreds of metres, reducing pressure below and turning solid rock to liquid magma. The pent-up rage of the Earth was released. As the ice age faded, the number of volcanic eruptions grew 50-fold. Global warming threatens a reprise.
That's a plausible account of what could have happened, but no more plausible to my untutored mind than the possibility that increased volcanic activity produced the climatic changes that melted the glaciers.

New Scientist closes this unfortunate piece with a bit of unscientific nonsense:
It could be that something is afoot. Six years ago, McGuire suggested shrinking glaciers in New Zealand's Southern Alps might trigger an earthquake. Cue Christchurch [earthquake]last year.
In logic this is called the post hoc fallacy: Just because one event follows another it's assumed that the second event was caused by the other. It's the same sort of reasoning resorted to by astrologers: Ten years ago there was a conjunction of Mars and Jupiter and today Jeremy Lin is an NBA sensation, ergo the conjunction must have caused Lin's emergence as a superstar.

The final sentence is this:
The climate, we know, has been unusually stable in the past 10,000 years. That meant the world was more geologically stable as well. Now, as we face future climate chaos, we may also face geological mayhem.
Or, of course, we may not, who knows, but being scientifically accurate, sticking to the evidence, and being responsible wouldn't be as much fun as throwing a gratuitous scare onto the table.

Two and a Half Men Nation

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has been criticized for emphasizing social issues in his campaign, allegedly to the exclusion of pressing economic issues facing the country. I don't think the criticism is accurate, but even if it were, he'd be justified for doing so.

Our economic problems are largely a consequence of the social disintegration that has been occurring in this country ever since the 1960s. Our biggest economic problem is our national debt which results from deficit spending year after year, and we spend more than we take in because we've decided that as a nation will absorb the consequences of the breakdown of the family.

When families unravel children often wind up being raised by one parent which almost always makes them poorer. Society compensates with welfare programs and medicaid. Society also bears the increased cost burden that accrues to schools, prisons, and remediation and rehabilitation facilities as more and more children, having never been effectively taught the disciplines and values needed for a successful life, become more difficult to handle and more of a burden on society's resources.

Moreover, in a society in which the family as an institution is disintegrating there are fewer families which can or do care for their elderly so the cost of this care also gets shifted to the taxpayer in the form of medicare and social security.

Why is the family less strong today? Because our sexual ethic has changed from one where sex was seen as appropriate and moral only within the context of deep commitment and marriage to where it has become a form of casual recreation expected of people almost as soon as they reach puberty. The entire culture has become sexualized, and the idea of a lifetime union with, and sexual fidelity to, one person has become a droll anachronism. Love is no longer seen as a commitment for life but rather as a burst of passion which, like a spring thunderstorm, is over almost as soon as it arrives.

Women are often viewed by young men as little more than baubles, receptacles for male yearning, and the male, having satisfied himself, quickly exits the woman's life leaving her and the taxpayer responsible for whatever issues from his touch-and-go landing. Indeed, women often, in a multitude of ways both implicit and explicit, encourage young men to think of them as ornaments and the object of their fantasies, and then they're embittered when the man abandons them to raise their children by herself (with taxpayer assistance) as soon as an even more desirable fantasy presents itself.

Our sexual ethic has morphed from My Three Sons to Two and a Half Men in the space of a generation, and the social costs have exploded apace.

Santorum is right. We'll never get a grip on our economic problems until we address the moral issues that underlie their source. Even some atheists agree.