Sunday, February 26, 2012

Naturalistic Fallacy Redux

I've spoken on the naturalistic fallacy before but I recently came across a slightly more insidious variety, which doesn't have the same red flags as the fallacy in the forms it's usually encountered, such as revering nature because it's old, or pure, in ways which have no scientific basis.  There's simply no good reason to believe that killing a wild turkey is healthier, or more nutritional, than a farm-raised turkey simply because the wild turkey is closer to nature.  Perhaps it is, but the data would be found within the nutritional data for the turkey (less fat, perhaps, or more muscle definition) but not simply because the wild turkey is the natural one; it could also be riddled with parasites for the same reason.  Natural becomes a non-issue, because we need to look at the specific traits belonging to that turkey, or that group of turkeys.
That aside, the fallacy I've been running into basically this: Trait X evolved, therefore it's beneficial.  For instance, gender roles.  I heard a brief argument recently that said that we needed to protect gender roles because they had evolved for a reason.  To which my response was a resounding "Maybe."
The idea that something has evolved, therefore it is good, is patently false.  Violence has evolved.  That something has evolved and stuck around is simply a testament to one thing; it makes the bearers of those traits have more babies.  In a world where tendencies toward violence were adaptive, violence was selected for.  That world may or may not still be around.  Evolution doesn't produce the best product; it produces the best compromise between effective and cheap, which is why men have nipples, we still hiccough, and very few of us are 8 feet tall.
Regarding gender roles, evolution almost certainly wasn't a factor, at least as far as strictly genetic evolution.  A desire to wear dresses is not a chromosomal trait; it's a cultural one.  And cultural norms change much more rapidly than genetic ones.  Irrespective of that, though, the premise of the argument belies a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and is logically incoherent.  Perhaps there are good reasons for gender roles; I doubt it.  I think that as a society we've grown to the point where conformity isn't required, but that's the wrong reason to argue for it.  Just as I mentioned in my blog on Climate Change, the reasons we believe something are important.  It would be false for me to claim that one hot summer is good evidence for Climate Change, even if I'm right and Climate Change is occurring.
Evolution is a pervasive, powerful force, and understanding it is critical to understanding ourselves, biologically and socially.  What it isn't is an excuse for bad behavior.  It may explain an origin (and in the case of gender roles, badly at best), but it doesn't address the concern of whether or not the behavior is something we should encourage, and thus has almost zero weight as evidence for any cultural behavior.  Deifying evolution as a basis for social actions is the naturalistic fallacy pure and simple, only masquerading as enlightened.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Climate Change

Climate change has been coming up in recent weeks, and I figured I'd take a look at it, and just explore a few of the myths/little known facts about it.
Not the climate.
First off, is it Climate Change or Global Warming?  Both, but Climate Change is more accurate.  Global Warming is a concern, but is only one aspect.  Climates can change in a multitude of ways, temperature only being one of them.  Climate Change is a more inclusive, accurate term because it's broader.  Is it real?  Yes.  No serious doubts there (of course, people who still believe, wrongly, that the Big Bang Theory means something came from nothing will probably disagree because evidence will not change a closed mind), and there is some slightly more rational reason to believe that humans may not have caused it.  But, the scientific consensus is Yes, it's real, and yes, humanity is causing it.
OK, so before we begin, what exactly is a climate?  It's the non-biological aspect of the ecosystem.  It thus consists of lots of different variables; amount of precipitation, volatility of weather, moisture in the air, dew point, visibility, wind speed and persistence, in addition to temperature, among other things.  It's extremely broad.  Let's instead be specific about what it is not.  A climate is not the weather.  It's a misconception common enough that meteorologists have weighed in to the debate, not even realizing that they aren't trained for it.  If it's cold and sunny in the morning and snows at noon, and has a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, that's weather.  All these events will contribute slightly to the climate, in the same way that a single driver contributes to traffic averages in a major city.  Even if one guy gets in an accident once, and snarls traffic for the rest of the highway for 45 minutes, he still hasn't done much to slow down the average flow of traffic; not over a year or longer.
It's the same with weather.  Weather is sure to be anomalous, and singular events (even ones that get dubbed ridiculous names by the news media, such as Snowpocalypse) don't influence the climate that much.  And since the climate is naturally cyclical along with the earth's rotation and orbit, looking at the climate over any period less than a decade is bordering on frivolous.
So Climate Science is a very complicated field of study.  Meteorologists are trained to predict future weather based on present movements; climatologists, on the other hand, are in the business of analyzing trends over large periods of time.  It's the difference between an accountant (or sometimes, just a bank teller), describing day to day affairs, and an economist, who studies the monetary system.  Because they have one system in common doesn't mean that they have any business being lumped together.  And it's not that they can't; it's that they haven't necessarily been trained to, and may not even realize it.
Then, what is the degree of Climate Change?  Hard to say, exactly.  Global warming (e.g., the temperature) is about 1 degree Celsius over the past 50 years; that doesn't sound like much, but it can have an alarming and exponential affect on the weather.  Let's think about it; if, on average, the planet is 1 degree warmer, that doesn't mean uniform.  Going back to the traffic analogy, it's like saying that commute times take 1 minute longer due to increased traffic.  Some people (regions) could get to work even faster (be cooler).  Others may take 10-20 minutes longer to get to work (much hotter).  There may be an increase in accidents (severe weather) or higher/lower speeds (more/less rainfall).  All of these statistics would be lumped into a single factor; commute time.
If only Climate Change and Evolution would get along so well...
With Climate Change, to make things worse, is the variability of weather has been increasing.  This phenomenon has been dubbed (by me) Global Increase of Volatility in Weather and Other Climatic Effects Over Large Periods of Time.  Climate Change is much less of a mouthful, and just as descriptive, assuming you know the meaning of climate.  This means patterns are becoming harder to predict, as principles of chaos begin to undermine even well-modeled data.  This is critical; because, while climate scientists can almost unilaterally say bad things will happen, it's virtually impossible to know just how bad.  And at the speed things are changing, slow-and-lumbering evolution may not be able to keep the pace.  As I said above, the climate is the non-biological part of the ecosystem; the biological remainder will have to be able to adapt to the changes, or die trying.
We had a record-hot summer here in Southwestern Oklahoma, but it would be illegitimate for me to say that was caused by Climate Change, or that it was proof of Climate Change; there just isn't enough evidence available! Sometimes, it's just hot outside.  Or cold.  Or dark- but that doesn't mean evidence of Global Dimming.