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Scientism and the Failure to Prevent Tragedy

. . . In other words, disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan confront us with the sobering reality that the deepest, deadliest and most intransigent problems we face today are social problems, not technical problems. We continue to deceive ourselves with the hope that if we can but increase our knowledge of the world, our technical know-how at problem-solving the riddles that nature poses for us, we can defeat death and disease.

Before this year, the tropical paradise of Leyte Gulf, a triangular 80-mile long bay nestled between the southeastern Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar, was best known as the site of the largest naval engagement in history.  For four days in late October 1944, the US and Japanese fleets split the air with the thunder of their shells and torpedoes and littered the shores with their wreckage.  On October 20th, Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his dramatic, long-promised return to the Philippines, coming ashore with a landing party at Palo in northeastern Leyte, a site now commemorated with a famous memorial.

That memorial, like much of the rest of the coast of Leyte Gulf, now lies shattered; history, it now seems probable, is much more likely to remember the region for a different and greater tempest that split the air, a deadlier force that came ashore, in the early morning of Nov. 9, 2013.  Supertyphoon Haiyan, stronger than any storm known to science, roared into Leyte Gulf that morning on the beginning of a 400-mile path of devastation it would carve through the central Philippines.  The dazed disbelief of meteorologists looking at the data the night before was soon to be shared by victims, and then the watching world, as the skies cleared and revealed what the typhoon had left behind.  Even in the westernmost islands along its path, where the storm’s ferocity had abated somewhat, devastation was extreme, with hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, crops flattened, and coastal communities washed away.  Further east, however, in Leyte and Samar, the destruction was hard to describe, much less comprehend.  The force of the wind decapitated four hundred year-old structures, pulverized concrete walls, and leveled forests of the hardiest coconut palms; trees left standing, in many cases, were stripped of all branches, foliage, and even bark. Much deadlier was the force of the water, which rose meters in minutes, wiping clean everything in its path, drowning the young, the old, the sick and the healthy without discrimination.

In the face of such catastrophes, we are apt to detach, check out, unplug, mentally marginalizing the disaster as just another one of those tragedies that always seems to happen to poor, third-world nations.  But for the Philippines, which weathers a dozen cyclones a year with surprising resiliency, this was not business as usual.  The death toll, whenever it finishes climbing, seems sure to end far higher than any other natural disaster in this island nation that has become so familiar with them.  Another response, of course, is to insert this tragedy, like so many others in recent years, into the climate change script, insisting that we are to blame for disasters like this, and superstorms like Haiyan will soon be “the new normal.”  While well-intentioned, such causation claims are best avoided, as they have little scientific backing at present, and simply succeed in politicizing the tragedy, inviting incorrigible denialists to respond by using bogus statistics to claim that this was just an average storm and it’s all hype.

Events such as these, rather, invite us to reflect with humility on why it is, in this advanced age of science and technology, such disasters continue to claim lives by the thousands.  For much of the past two centuries, our civilization bought into the scientist narrative that human mastery over nature was just around the bend, that the works of our hands could protect us against her onslaught, and that even those evils we could not prevent, we could successfully predict and escape as our knowledge grew ever more comprehensive.  And indeed, over the decades, declining death tolls from natural disasters seemed for awhile to corroborate this narrative.  Recent years, however, have dealt it some punishing blows.  The 2004 and 2011 tsunamis were humbling, but then again, earthquakes have always been almost impossible to prevent; much more troubling was the failure of forecasting to prevent Katrina from becoming the deadliest storm to hit the US in 80 years, or the Joplin tornado from becoming the deadliest in 60 years, and now to prevent Haiyan from becoming the deadliest storm to ever hit the Philippines.  Our ability to reduce disaster death tolls seems to have hit something of a ceiling of late.

The culprit, it appears, is not lack of technology.  Forecasters nailed the track and landfall intensity of Hurricane Katrina nearly three days in advance, and of Hurricane Sandy a full five days in advance.  Moreover, the high long-term threat to both New Orleans and New York City had been analyzed and discussed for years.  Even in the case of the fast-moving and freakishly intense Haiyan, forecasters had it pinned as making a landfall at Category 5 intensity northern Leyte more than 48 hours out.  And although the failures of both media and governmental officials to accurately convey the danger to citizens have been scrutinized in recent years, especially following Katrina and Sandy, this does not seem to be the main culprit either, either in those disasters or in Haiyan.  Rather, the main problem is more straightforward: people in harms’ way simply didn’t evacuate.

When we put it like this, we are apt to sound callous and judgmental: the victims were too stupid or too rashly self-reliant to heed warnings; they were asking for trouble.  Of course, this is to underestimate how prone we all are to distrust experts when it comes to forecasts of impending doom (climate change, anyone?) and to rely instead on an optimistic extrapolation of personal experience—”I weathered the last storm all right, so I’ll manage this one.”  This independence of mind is simply human nature (and a valuable part of human nature at that), and there will always be a few too stubborn to listen to warnings.  But in Haiyan, as in Katrina, to peg the death toll on this stubbornness would indeed be callous.

It is all very well for we rich white people, with our cars and our spare cash and inland relatives to stay with, our homes protected with safes and security systems, to wonder why these people don’t get out of harm’s way.  But for the average Filipino villager, not unlike the impoverished masses of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, evacuation is hardly such a simple proposition.  Burdened by elderly relatives and young children to care for, travel is difficult for those with good means of transportation, and all but impossible for those without.  Besides, how to pay for days or weeks in safe lodgings, away from their only livelihood?  And then how to survive after the storm if they return to homes looted in their absence, stripped of all their worldly possessions?  Faced with the uncertainties, perils, and crushing expense of evacuation, it is no wonder that many in the most vulnerable areas decide to take their chances facing the storm instead; especially as, with less access to education, they have few reference points to come to grips with the dire warnings of official bulletins.  These are problems that no mere improvements in scientific knowledge or technological innovation can fix.

In other words, disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan confront us with the sobering reality that the deepest, deadliest and most intransigent problems we face today are social problems, not technical problems.  We continue to deceive ourselves with the hope that if we can but increase our knowledge of the world, our technical know-how at problem-solving the riddles that nature poses for us, we can defeat death and disease.  We have made enormous strides, to be sure, but have reached a point of diminishing returns.  All the advances in nutritional knowledge and agricultural production are no good as long as poverty prevents access to a supply of healthy food.  All the advances in neuroscience do little to solve the epidemic of alcoholism and drug abuse, so long as despair, isolation, and poverty drives people into addiction. The solution to poverty does not lie just around the next bend of scientific discovery; there is no research paper about to be written that will show us the trick to just distribution of resources.  While our societies concentrate more and more of their efforts on technical advances, the underlying evils continue to fester and their solutions continue to elude us.

Our scientists and meteorologists, our inventors and innovators, have done their best over the past century, and we must applaud and thank them for their accomplishments.  But we must stop expecting them to prevent great human tragedies like we have observed this last week.  The task now lies with us, the sociologists, the ethicists, the theologians and political theorists, to undertake the much harder and longer labor of resolving the social problems that leave much of the world so vulnerable to the forces of nature.  And the task lies with all of us, as humans, to cultivate the self-sacrifice, empathy, and love that alone can ultimately succeed in breaking the bonds of oppression and lifting the poor out of their suffering.

6 thoughts on “Scientism and the Failure to Prevent Tragedy

  1. I entirely agree with the thrust of this piece – “the deepest, deadliest and most intransigent problems we face today are social problems, not technical problems”. I would only add two comments.

    First, I would say “social and spiritual” problems, since social problems are entwined with spiritual failures in all kinds of complex ways.

    Second (and as you may expect), I disagree that highlighting the climate connexion is a distraction. If you’re concerned about politicisation, then why raise poverty, race and privilege? I would say that the charge of politicisation is itself a distraction. Most major disasters are already political. To acknowledge this is to take us into, not away from, the required descriptive task. And it is possible for us to walk and chew gum at the same time (or in the non-bowdlerised version of LBJ’s comment, to fart and chew gum); it is entirely possible to address the suffering of the victims and discuss the causation and politics simultaneously. And as for the science, while the connexions between tropical cyclones and warming is complex, it is not entirely opaque. And the data for this part of the world has a stronger connexion between cyclone intensification and warming than elsewhere. But at the least disputable level, storm surges (which, as you well know, are generally the most destructive element of tropical cyclones) are coming on a sea level measurably higher than it was decades or centuries ago. The link between sea level rise and global warming is one of the most well established parts of climate science. Thus this is a pretty straightforward link to make, WUWT and other loonies notwithstanding.

    Thanks again for your stimulating piece!

    PS Think you need to update your bio. 😉

    1. Thanks for the comment, Byron (and the reminder to update my bio—done).
      To your first point—absolutely, amen.

      To your second—well, let me clarify my objection. I was trying to avoid getting sidetracked and so was overly concise, with a resulting loss of clarity. “Politicization” is not really my concern as such; you’re quite right that there’s nothing wrong with discussing the political dimensions of a tragedy when those are part of the equation—as indeed I suggested in my final paragraphs. But there is a good way to politicize and a bad way, a nuanced way and a crude, simplistic, sloganeering way. My concern is that the attempt to enlist events like this as poster children for climate change, when the science is debatable, is prone to backfire, simply providing the militant denialists an easy chance to score points and confuse the public still more. There are a zillion different things happening on the planet that are clear and incontrovertible negative effects of human changes to the environment—there is more than enough for us to talk about, and bring constantly before the public eye. Unfortunately, most of these things are slower-motion changes (i.e., fish extinction or arctic ice retreat), and so the temptation arises to use extreme events with arresting images to make the case. But when the scientific links between those events and anthropogenic climate change are poorly understood and highly debatable (as in the case of very intense tropical cyclones), I don’t think it’s honest, or in the end effective, to use those events as climate change red flags. (FWIW, with Superstorm Sandy, I think it was a bit more justified, since there was a potentially compelling link between arctic warming and the intense blocking high over Greenland that contributed to the Sandy disaster.) I know we’ve gone around this particular mulberry bush about a half-dozen times, and no doubt will do so several more times in the coming years.

      Now, you’re right that there is a direct link between rising sea levels and storm surge dangers, but this is more of a forward-looking concern, not a “climate change caused this tragedy” concern (the extra few inches of sea level on top of a seven-metre surge in this case didn’t make a whole lot of difference). If there are people out there saying, “Deadly storm surges like that of Typhoon Haiyan are a wake-up call to the whole world, at a time when climate change is leading to rising sea levels, which will make more and more areas vulnerable to tropical cyclone storm surge,” then good for them, more power to them. But I have more misgivings about the people out there saying, “This was the strongest storm we’ve ever observed. Clearly, that must be because we are altering the atmosphere.” No doubt Haiyan will be the subject of a great deal of research, and perhaps in the end it will be clear that without climate change, it never could have become so strong, but as yet, there isn’t really evidence to back that up, and we don’t really have enough of a database to know what the global return period is on a cyclone of this intensity (even if it did top the theoretical maximum intensity, which is pretty crazy).

      1. Sure. I agree with most of that.

        Again, two exceptions.

        1. I’d say that the relationship between TCs and ACC is not “poorly understood”, I’d say “moderately understood with some significant open questions”. This is what I meant by “not entirely opaque”. Indeed, I’ve just been reading some more of IPCC AR5 WG1 and I see that they give medium confidence to many of the key claims regarding TCs. When we move from confidence levels (a subjective assessment of the quality of the evidence) to uncertainty levels (a statistical assessment of the likelihood of certain outcomes), it is judged “likely” (i.e. between 66% and 100% certain) “that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged, concurrent with a likely increase in both global mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and rainfall rates”. Furthermore, “the frequency of the most intense storms, which are associated with particularly extensive physical effects, will more likely than not increase substantially in some basins under projected 21st century warming.” (§14.6.3; cf.

        And § “it is very likely (Knutson et al., 2010) [>90% likelihood] that human induced increase in greenhouse gases has contributed to the increase in SSTs [sea surface temps] in the hurricane formation regions and that over the past 50 years there has been a strong statistical connection between tropical Atlantic SSTs and Atlantic hurricane activity as measured by the PDI [Power Dissipation Index].”

        And there is also medium confidence of an “increase in extreme precipitation near the centres of tropical cyclones making landfall” (Table 14.3).

        2. Sea level rise and storm surge. Yes, it is primarily future and I agree with your assessment of the two sample messages you mention. Nonetheless, if we go back to Sandy (since we have more hindsight there and better data), the extra foot of SLR in NYC over the last 100 years or so very significantly increased the damage bill. From what I’ve read (though I don’t have the references to hand), some of the tunnels likely only flooded due to that extra foot (or that extra foot made the difference between minor and major tunnel flooding), adding many billions to the total cost. Analogously, if it turns out that many of the casualties of Haiyan were due to the storm surge (as seems likely), then an extra foot or so (the rate of SLR in the Philippines has been amongst the highest in the world) probably did make a critical difference for many people. An extra foot can easily mean the difference between being swept away or holding on, or between flood damage to a home happening or not, or between flood pressure crossing and not crossing the threshold of structural integrity for a given building.

        1. Thanks Byron.
          Regarding point 1) I have not read the full IPCC report, but based on the summaries I read, my understanding was that, while continuing to project with moderate confidence that future warming will result in some of these effects, such as more intense tropical cyclones, they actually reduced their judgment of the likelihood that such results had already been observed to any meaningful extent. That is to say, we can say, “There is substantial reason to believe that climate change will lead to more events like Haiyan,” but I’m sure we can say, “There is substantial reason to believe that climate change helped cause Haiyan.”
          This is particularly so, because although increased sea surface temperatures should, all things being equal, lead to an increase in the PDI or ACE, the fact is that these levels have been at historical lows worldwide in recent years; this year has been one of the few during the past decade that Western Pacific activity was close to average. Denialists have been able to make much hay of this fact due to the media’s unwise playing-up of the 2005 hurricane season as an effect of climate change.

          Regarding point 2), fair enough. If I were holding on for dear life in a storm surge, I might not be so quick to downplay the importance of one extra foot of sea level rise.

          All this might seem like splitting hairs, but I think it’s rhetorically important. However, I think the proper rhetorical approach may differ somewhat by one’s context. In settings, such as Europe or Australia (well, Australia until recently!), where climate change is generally accepted as science, but too little has been done in response, then it makes sense rhetorically to fire on all cylinders—some of them stronger than others—to raise awareness and concern and prompt a public response. In settings like North America, where the reality of climate change is heavily debated, I think it’s unwise to give hostages to fortune by leaning too heavily, for PR purposes, on arguments that are more scientifically debatable.

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