Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Derrida on an airplane, or Real Climate reality

A new post at RealClimate, along with reading Matthew B. Crawford's new book "Shop Work as Soulcraft," has got me thinking about perceptions of reality and their importance.

Engineers, natural scientists, farmers, gardeners, and mechanics have something important in common: We daily experience the natural world in its purely physical manifestation, and by trial and error, otherwise known as scientific method, we make it conform to human needs.

This gives us a fairly rare perspective -- rare in today's rarified world, that is -- of having a physical yardstick against which to measure ourselves and our competence. Essentially, you can't make it up, as you often can in the post-modern bureaucracies that host most "professional" level jobs. There's no boss to fool. The motorcycle, or rototiller, or airplane, is either working or not working, and the consequences are direct and in the case of my former career as an airplane technician, they can be deadly.

For several decades now, in philosophy, social science, in some westernized eastern religions, and certain of the arts, it has been trendy and popular to express the countervailing view that reality is made up by individuals and societies using cultural construction, and that, in fact, there is no such thing.

The reductio ad absurdum is easy enough to find: whenever a physical or mechanical device on which we depend breaks down, a car, an air conditioner, an airplane over the Atlantic ocean, we don't call for a postmodern philosopher to change our perception of the thing, but instead for a mechanic or handyman or engineer to come make it work again. In the case of the airplane, we may not be able to get that engineer, but we're definitely in a very immediate reality.

As a former medic and rescue troop, and a current SAR leader, I often see folks in this kind of situation. The immediate and hugely physical shock of the reality of a lost loved one, say a child, or a spouse, in the Maine woods, is a life-changing feeling for most close relatives of the victim of an SAR incident. And for the rescuer, the person is either found or still lost, either alive or dead. There's no room for reconstructing or deconstructing perceptions, no room for negotiation about what the reality means. Lost, found, live, dead, are physical states, easily measured, by which you judge the competence of the rescue team.

(If it's my rescue team, it had better be a good one, tough, fit, hard-working, high morale, no bullshit.)

I wonder how much the lack of such physical yardsticks has caused the recent recession. Derivitive holdings, for instance, or hedge funds, are yet further abstractions of the physical economic process. One huge factor in the recent bidding down of the stock price of what were otherwise still productive companies that were still turning out goods that people still wanted to buy, albeit in reduced numbers, was that the hedge fund managers and stock jobbers in the short market were controlling the perceptions of traders for their own short-term ends. The physical reality of still-turning assembly lines was ignored as short sellers ran down the market on purely speculative visions of doom. The great physical capital of the western world, the product of decades of engineering prowess and labor, was rapidly devalued on paper or electronically. But what had really changed? In the physical manifestation of those stocks and shares, the factories and machines, nothing was being altered while the ticker was falling.

No wonder that when the market turned around, it regained so quickly.

And of course, we of the science persuasion are terribly worried about climate change. But it's very hard to explain to ordinary folks how the climate works and how hugely devastating to civilization a climate tipping point, such as the methane feedback, may be. While the solution, reducing climate emissions, is conducive to direct measurement and verification. But we keep having to explain ourselves again and again, while the naysayers and denialists peddle the same old lies. As RealClimate says in this most recent blog post, "the concept of an objective reality against which one should measure claims and judge arguments is not something that is universally shared."

No s**t, Sherlock.

For anyone who is interested, a nice long essay by Crawford is available here. But I recommend buying the whole book too.

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