Sunday, September 07, 2008

Nebulous Notions

Here’s an interesting book: “The Cloudspotter’s Guide” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Well written as well as entertaining, this book is working against the twin prejudices of the commonplaceness of clouds and the bad press they get. The book has no truck with sayings like “I’m under a cloud” and does an excellent job of introducing the silver lining of the subject. Ever since reading it I’ve been looking up at the sky with renewed awareness and increasing understanding as I have honed my cloud categorization skills; if indeed something as woolly and varied as clouds lend themselves to categorization. As is often the case naming and categorization brings new recognition sensitizing one to a world often looked at but never really seen. In order to change my perspective I have tried to see cloudscapes as if I am looking down on them rather than up at them. This book not only opens up an understanding of clouds but also an appreciation of the beauty of the prosaic as it comfortably mixes art, science and adventure in one volume.

We may think clouds to be too banal a subject to lead to profundities, yet for Pretor-Pinney it occasionally leads into to some very deep waters indeed:

1. Like global warming….

According to Pretor-Pinney, “Clouds are the wildcards in climate change predictions.” Clouds blanket as well as reflect heat and so have competing effects on global warming. Moreover, according to Pretor-Pinney “..we are so ill equipped to anticipate what a rise in global temperatures would mean to the nature of cloud cover”. In the face of uncertainty Pretor-Pinney, taking a hint from Pascal's wager, adopts a ‘better safe that sorry’ policy toward CO2 emissions.

These questions over global warming reminded me of the occasional articles about the subject posted on William Dembki’s Intelligent Design blog, Uncommon Descent. Usually these posts are very critical of Global Warming sciences. See for example this post by DaveScott. In the comments section I express surprise at DaveScott’s claim that the CO2 scrubbing effects of precipitation aren’t taken into account in global warming models.

This is not to say that I’m a convert to Uncommon Descent’s jaundiced view of global warming sciences. Actually I’m not going to get into this argument as I’ve got my hands more than full with the ID/evolution issue. In any case I tend to go along with Pretor-Pinney’s better safe than sorry policy*. However, that Uncommon Descent should sing an off beat tune on global warming is perhaps not too surprising: as a result of their ID views they probably feel marginalized and beyond the pale of the larger scientific community, so perhaps the alienation and distrust they already feel toward the academic community makes it easier from them to revaluate global warming sciences and come to a contrary position.

One thing that my dabblings in the ID/evolution debate have shown me is just how far human factors drive the logical facades of scientific endeavour. It seems to me that it is not too strong a language to describe many evolutionists and ID aficionados to be “converted” to their cause and crowd factors are never far away: group identification, group protection, those you call liars and those you trust, those you hate and those you admire, those who repel you and those you follow. Above all there are strong vested interests in group worldviews and in their defence there even arises the old ‘champion’ idea. Dissenting scientists William Dembski and Michael Behe, in their resistance against the evolutionary scientific establishment, rerun the time honoured and archetypical battle of David and Goliath.

As an academic of conflict studies once put it: Opposing sides often have the feeling that their bastard is much worse than anyone else’s bastard, and so hatreds run deep. Nervous persecuted minorities and even majorities may fancy they see a malign and secret conspiracy behind their particular bastard. But perhaps I’m not immune from fancying I see conspiracy lurking behind the scenes: I am just a little concerned about Uncommon Descent’s connections and whether this impacts upon their view of global warming. Conversely many fear that global warming is a scare story used to excuse political control.

2. Like science verses art…

Using quotes from Thoreau and Keats Pretor-Pinney typifies how so often the poetic/artistic mentality sets its teeth against science:

Thoreau: You tell me [the colouring of the clouds] is a mass of vapour which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothung to the purpose, for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow… what sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination?

Keats: Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy? Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, conquer all mysteries by rule and line, empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine – unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made the tender-person’d lamia melt into the shade.

Pretor-Pinney observes humouressly:

I can see what Thoreau and Keats mean. But they do sound a bit like the arty kids in class taunting the science nerds. Having opted for all sciences at secondary school, I have painful memories of bullying classmates goading me for emptying the haunted air, and gnomed mine. OK, they might not have quite put it in those words, but the sentiment was the same.

And so the apparently competing polarities of science versus art, analysis versus intuition, cold description versus beauty, demystification versus mystery, knowledge versus feeling, head versus heart are sustained. But why? Why is this polarization such a common theme? Why does the elementalisation that science appears to introduce grate so with the poetic mentality, a mentality that revels in unreduced experience? Why do people hark back to an imagined rustic idyll when life was more instinctual and intuitive? Why are the objects and activity of science regarded as soulless? Why is science’s analytically reduced reality considered so profane in comparison with the unreduced reality of the mystic? Is the analytical left-brain to be forever at odds with the intuitive right brain? These are questions that I think I will leave for another post!

On the last page of his book Pretor-Pinney tells of the ‘right brain’ response of an Australian glider pilot who surfed the morning glory clouds of northern Australia: “Up in the clouds you can’t help have a belief in the creator”, said the pilot who I suspect would be unable to reduce this compelling intuition into its components. It is surely not a coincidence that the doyens of the intelligent design movement make so much of the concept of the irreduciblity of organic complexity as they seek the edge of knowledge, an edge beyond which heartfelt religious intuition is mooted as the guide rather than cold analytical skills (a view I would dispute).

As for Pretor–Pinney he favours a symbiotic rather than schismatic relation between left and right brain reactions (after all the two halves do live in the same skull and one therefore suspects a complimentary relation between such close partners). So let me leave the last words to him:

Cloudspotters will float above these petty divides between science and art – float above them like our fluffy friends. For us there is no contradiction in regarding the clouds in ways that both stir our blood by exciting our imagination and enrich our understanding with ‘cold philosophy’.
I heartily agree. Perhaps having your head in the clouds is not such a bad idea after all.

The web site of the cloud appreciation society can be found at:

* I’m inclined to follow Pretor-Pinney on this, but there seems to be unknowns round every corner. Who knows the perturbing effects on economic realites of the costs of emission efficiency?

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