Science, Belief and the Volcano:

March 8th, 2009 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Science, Belief and the Volcano:

In January 2008 there was an article in the National Geographic called the The Gods Must Be Restless. The author, Andrew Marshall, describes Mbah Marijan, who has the job of satisfying the ogre that inhabits the volcano Merapi in Indonesia. The volcano is about to explode, the government has ordered an evacuation and Marijan is not convinced. Quoting the article:

“The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? ‘That’s what the experts say,’ he (Marijan) says, smiling. ‘But an idiot like me can’t see any change from yesterday.’ ”

This past year one of the most interesting books I read was called The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great America Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan. The Dust Bowl was a period in the 1930s in the U.S. when people in the Panhandle of Texas were shoveling away morning dust drifts to get out of their house. They were dying of dust pneumonia and eating tumbleweed and road kill. There was drought. The drought, however, came on top of years of agricultural policy that plowed under the prairie to grow wheat. People had spread all over semi-arid grasslands under the promise that nurturing the Earth would be rewarded with sustaining water – and that rain followed the rails. The rhetoric and the discourse of the mid to late 1930s included the belief that people and their plows, the actions of individuals where too minuscule to cause the scope and the wrath of darkening, suffocating, house-covering dust storms. It was radical science to replant the grassland.

Science is the evidence-based generation of knowledge. Knowledge is not certainty. Science defines a process of observation and testing. Science provides a method for checking; it requires that results be confirmed by independent investigators; it requires anonymous reviews by, often, competitors. This process both confirms results and finds errors. We strive to converge to a coherent body of knowledge.

Like Marijan the ogre master, scientists, the practitioners of science, are a human mixture of their experiences, their beliefs, their religions, their wants, their needs, and their selves. The practitioner of science, however, has a commitment to questioning, testing, and review. This is a humbling experience. Copernicus concludes that we, the people of the Earth, are not the center of the universe, surrounded by objects traveling in divine, perfect circular orbits. Darwin places humans within the nature of all of the beasts of the world. Freud ties our behavior to deep, harsh self-motivation. Einstein shows that our frame of reference, our very point of view, determines our perception of even the definable physics of our universe. (See Outgrowing Self-Deception by Gardner Murphy.)

Humans do have the ability to observe, explore, accumulate, preserve, and pass on a collected body of knowledge. From the beginning, there were those who felt that evidence-based knowledge uncovered by investigation by humans could be a threat – a threat to what we believe or, perhaps, what we want. Evidence raises the potential encumbrances of responsibility. There are those for whom the evidence-based approach to climate change is irrelevant. There are those who accept the evidence, and entwine that evidence into beliefs that are far more important to them, personally, than the tangible impact on the physical and biological world. It is natural for there to be people skeptical of the body of knowledge that the climate has changed and will continue to change because of things that we do. There is little value in an evidence-based argument to convince this skeptical community otherwise; positions are much more deeply rooted than a compendium of observations of the natural world.

Marijan is a man of influence; undoubtedly successful, with an evolved body of knowledge. The government official in Indonesia is, therefore, faced with two bodies of knowledge, Marijan’s and that from observations of the volcano, Merapi. This is always the case, and it should not be the basis of inaction. Those with the belief in the science-based body of knowledge are encumbered with the responsibility of acting based on this knowledge. Problems must be addressed. This moves away from the simplicity of scientific investigation to the complexities of leadership.

Once again quoting the article The Gods Must Be Restless:

“Two days later, the lava dome collapses. Traffic grinds to a halt in downtown Yogyakarta as motorists gape at the scorching avalanche of rocks rushing down Merapi’s western flank – away from Marijan’s village. Thanks to the timely evacuation , nobody is hurt.”


Figure 1: Building in Comanche National Grasslands, August 2008. The National Grasslands came from replanting efforts to stabilize the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl. ( National Grasslands Primer)

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