Earth, Venus, and Mass Delusion

Earth and VenusIn the Fall of 1980, PBS broadcast the series Cosmos. After being largely disappointed with the recent remake of the series, I decided to revisit the original. Or at least part of it: the fourth episode, “Heaven and Hell.” It is about Earth and Venus and it was probably the first time I had ever been introduced to the idea of the greenhouse effect. I was interested to see if Sagan discussed global warming at that time. It was, after all, three and a half decades ago. Yet I knew people were actively studying it, and only ten years later, I would be in graduate school studying greenhouse gases in permafrost and their effect as a climate feedback.

I was not disappointed. Not only did Sagan deal with the issue, he dealt with it well. And the episode itself is excellent. But looking at it now, it seems so naive. He said, “The study of the global climate, the suns’ influence, the comparison of earth to other worlds — these are subjects in their earliest stages of development. They are funded poorly and grudgingly. And meanwhile we continue to load the earth’s atmosphere with materials about the long-term influence we are almost entirely ignorant.” I guess a scientist can be forgiven for assuming that more information would change our behavior. I wonder what Sagan would have thought if he had known that almost twenty years after his own death we would still be doing nothing about global warming, even though the science is as clear on this subject as it ever is on any subject.

Last night, a phrase came into my mind, “Too early to tell; too late to do anything.” I was just playing with words: I liked the apparent paradox of it. But this is exactly the argument that we get from the global warming deniers. They tell us that we need more research because there is still disagreement based upon the fact that Fred Singer is still alive and some hermit with a BS in chemistry who lives outside Barrow hasn’t yet been convinced. At the same time, there is nothing we can do about global warming. And thanks to the deniers themselves, they may well be right on this second point.

In the episode, Sagan focuses on Venus. And it does serve as a warning that things do not have to stay the way they are. In fact, atmospheres composed mostly of carbon-dioxide seem to be much more the norm. But we humans are biased to think that the way our world is is somehow normal. In fact, Sagan started the subject with an amusing look at early speculation about what the Venusian environment must be like:

The absence of anything you could see on Venus led some scientists and others to deduce that the surface was a swamp. The argument, if we can dignify it with such a phrase, went something like this, “I can’t see a thing on the surface of Venus. Why not? Because it’s covered with a dense layer of clouds. Well, what are clouds made of? Water, of course. Therefore, Venus must have an awful lot of water on it. Therefore, the surface must be wet. Well, if the surface is wet, it’s probably a swamp. If there’s a swamp, there’s ferns; if there’s ferns, maybe there’s even dinosaurs.” Observation: you couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: dinosaurs.

Instead, we now know that Venus has a surface temperature that is hotter than those commercial pizza ovens and that its clouds are made up of sulfuric acid. It’s interesting that no one goes around saying this is just a hoax designed by greedy scientists who are trying to hold onto their high paying NASA jobs. But we now know that if conditions on Venus implied some kind of policy back here on earth that would cost billionaires a few cents or made Christians question the literal truth of the Bible, there would be a whole infrastructure of think tanks with people arguing for dinosaurs on Venus.

I really am beginning to despair for humanity. The same brilliance that has allowed us to measure the temperature of the surface of Venus from tens of millions of miles away, also allows us to manipulate the emotions of other humans in mass. And so now humans are smart enough to see catastrophe before it comes, but also “smart” enough to stop themselves from doing anything about it.

Brian Beutler Butchers René Magritte

The Treachery of Images

I am not especially fond of the René Magritte painting The Treachery of Images. It was created toward the beginning of his surreal work, and has always struck me as overly didactic. Just the same, if I were going to teach a course on Magritte, I would start with The Treachery of Images. It deals with his obsession: the distinction between image and reality. Even in his last years with paintings like The Son of Man, he was still focused on images and the reality that they obscured. It’s surprising that Magritte never reached the point of “painting” an empty frame, since that is what most of his work was leading to.

The Treachery of Images is just a realistic rendering of a pipe with the phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe.” And Magritte was very clear about it. He said, “How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not?” So he is making what seems today to be the most obvious of statements: paintings are representations of things, not the things themselves. But it seems that it is not so obvious for certain political observers.

Four years ago (!) I discussed an instance where Rachel Maddow seemed to be confused about the painting, This is Not Your Father’s Rene Magritte. She seemed to think that Magritte was being ironic, “Of course it is a pipe! Just look at it!” And I suppose if The Treachery of Images were the only Magritte you had ever seen, you could be forgiven for thinking this. But who has only ever seen that one painting? And the title of the painting makes the artist’s intent clear.

Today, I found another example of this. Brian Beutler wrote, The Latest Challenge to Obamacare Should Embarrass Conservative Judges. It is an excellent article, well worth reading. For the politics! But he used The Treachery of Images to make a point about the lack of ambiguity in Obamacare. I agree with him about Obamacare, but he could not have picked a worse example to make his point. He wrote:

I favor this interpretation in the same way that I interpret Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” to unambiguously depict a pipe. You might favor a murkier interpretation. But you’ll only be misled into thinking that the pipe doesn’t exist at all if you focus on the text below it (“this is not a pipe”) in isolation. That’s more or less what the supporters of the King challenge are asking of you.

No, no, no! Magritte didn’t name his painting, “The treachery of words.” The words are placed on the canvas to help the viewer understand the nature of the image’s treachery. I’m sure that Beutler understands this because he says that the painting depicts a pipe. But Magritte didn’t scrawl on the painting, “Ce ne est pas une représentation d’un pipe” — “This is not a representation of a pipe.” It’s interesting that Beutler’s subject is the ambiguity (or lack thereof) of the law. But in the case of the painting, there really is no ambiguity. And if you ask me, that’s why it is one of Magritte’s weaker pieces.

I think I know what happened to Beutler. He really wanted to use the painting. If he’s like me, his entire article might have come out of his desire to use The Treachery of Images to make that point. And by the time the article was done, he realized that Magritte didn’t actually help him make his case. But he just couldn’t let go of it. He should have! He doesn’t need it. And it just perpetuates the misinterpretation of Magritte’s painting.

Using Science Against Itself

Merchants of DoubtDoubt is crucial to science — in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward — but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved. This was the tobacco industry’s key insight: that you could use normal scientific uncertainty to undermine the status of actual scientific knowledge. As in jujitsu, you could use science against itself. “Doubt is our product,” ran the infamous memo written by one tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.” The industry defended its primary product — tobacco — by manufacturing something else: doubt about its harm. “No proof” became a mantra that they would use again in the 1990s when attention turned to secondhand smoke. It also became the mantra of nearly every campaign in the last quarter of the century to fight facts.

For tobacco is not the end of our story. It is just the beginning. In the years to come various groups and individuals began to challenge scientific evidence that threatened their commercial interests or ideological beliefs. Many of these campaigns involved the strategies developed by the tobacco industry, and some of them involved the same people.

—Naomi Oreskes & Eric M Conway
Merchants of Doubt

Women and the Harlem Globetrotters

Harlem GlobetrottersWhen I was a kid, I loved the Harlem Globetrotters. I think most kids do. Now I don’t especially care what they do on the court, but I find their business model fascinating. They are entertainers and they’ve managed to spice up the act of a basketball game so that it has a much higher entertainment value. Compare that to the NBA, which really provides damned little entertainment value. This is a problem with professional sports generally: all the players are so great that the exposition of talent doesn’t show much.

The problem with the NBA is that the purpose of each team is to win. That means that the teams will be filled with not just the best players but the best players of the specific kind of game that is played in the NBA. So it doesn’t matter how good someone like Luis Da Silva might be at a particular part of the game. The Globetrotters don’t have this problem. So they are able to diversify their roster.

Let me just note something in passing. I remember a roommate telling me that he didn’t see the point of watching a whole basketball game, when you could get everything out of it by watching the last three minutes. That strikes me the same as reading a book to find out what happened. I suppose there is some value in it. But it indicates that for most people, basketball doesn’t provide a whole lot of entertainment value.

The reason I bring this up is that I came upon an article, Female Globetrotters — 9 Women Who Have Worn the Red, White, and Blue. I had no idea that the Globetrotters had ever had women on their team — much less nine of them. At that time, the most recent female player was Fatima “TNT” Maddox. Here she is on The Arsenio Hall Show. See if you don’t notice something:

Arsenio Hall isn’t that tall! Fatima is tiny — Shorter than I am! — just 5"6'. But Fatima isn’t the only woman on the current Harlem Globetrotters. They also have Tammy “T-Time” Brawner, who is only 5"5'. I know that small men do occasionally play in the NBA, but this is still remarkable. There have only been 24 players who were 5"9' or less in the 68 year history of the NBA. And there have been only three that were 5"6' or less. This season, the Globetrotters added Joyce “Sweet J” Ekworomadu, who towers over the others at 5"10'.

I’ve always found professional spots to be awfully homoerotic. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; but for something that obsesses a bunch of ostensibly straight men, it seems weird. Unless women are dressed in bikinis, most men are not too interested in watching them play sports. I’m just saying.

The first female Harlem Globetrotter was Lynette Woodard, who joined the team in 1985 — almost 30 years ago. And I understand: the Globetrotters are in a position to do this in a way that the Lakers are not. But sexism in a culture isn’t just or even primarily about explicit exclusion of women. It is also about extolling those things that men excel at and minimizing things where women excel. I think it is great that the Globetrotters have women on their squad.

Otto Dix

Otto DixOn this day in 1891, the great painter Otto Dix was born. Other than “modernist,” I don’t know quite what you would call him, even though he is considered a German realist. His work is highly idiosyncratic. There is a kind of cartoon aspect to it at the same time that it is shockingly blunt. That’s especially true of his depictions of war. He fought in the infantry for Germany during World War I — first on the western front, then on the eastern front, and then back on western front. He fought in the war for three years before receiving a “career” ending wound on his neck shortly before the end of the war. He seems to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — haunted by nightmares that he rendered in his work.

Here is a picture in four panels, Der Krieg (“The War”), painted from 1929 through 1932. I would not have wanted to live inside his head. The first panel shows men on their way to battle. The second panel shows the battle. And the third panel shows the survivors of the battle. Normally, that would be all in a triptych, which Der Krieg nominally is. But Dix created a fourth panel of the dead and buried. It’s a remarkable, if horrific work:

Der Krieg - Otto Dix

When the Nazis took over Germany, they did not get along with Dix, whose work was considered “degenerate.” He was forced to paint landscapes. But after World War II got going, he was drafted in the German militia. Toward the end of the war, he was captured by French soldiers, which was probably all for the best.

Dix created a lot of other work that is more traditionally beautiful. Here is one of many of his wife Martha from the early 1920s. Notice the cream skin tone everywhere except on the right hand:

Martha Dix - Otto Dix

Happy birthday Otto Dix!