The Uncertainty Paradox
The Primacy of Doubt: From Quantum Physics to Climate Change, How the Science of Uncertainty Can Help Us Understand Our Chaotic World
By Tim Palmer
Basic Books, 2022 ($30)
Certainty has become the currency of politics, social media and the internet. It allows you to boil down complex issues into bite-sized chunks. In his new book, The Primacy of Doubt, climate physicist Tim Palmer argues that the science of uncertainty is woefully underappreciated by the public even though it is central to nearly every field of research. He says that accepting uncertainty and harnessing “the scientific chaos” could unlock new understandings of the world, including the effects of climate change, emerging diseases, and the next economic crash.
The first section is a dense discussion on major concepts and questions in physics. It illustrates how systems can change from a stable state to one that is chaotic with little warning. However, the book picks up speed as Palmer gets more specific with everyday examples. The chapter on weather prediction, which Palmer helped modernize, is the most interesting. He explores the history of the forecast, starting with the first public storm warning in 1861 that used data from telegraphic stations from around the U.K. and taking us to ENIAC, the first programmable electronic computer.
These efforts helped to create probabilistic forecasts that predict the likelihood of rain within a given hour. They also provide the “cone for uncertainty” for hurricane tracks. This background reveals a new way to look at weather apps: If we needed certainty to make decisions, these tools wouldn’t exist.
Palmer is also a major contributor to improving climate models and is among the researchers who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for authoring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. However, his chapter on the subject is mixed. It excels at explaining the evolving areas of research that reduce uncertainty. This is crucial for figuring out how bad things could get. For example, whether clouds will accelerate or slow down warming. Palmer proposes some interesting avenues for making the most of–and in some cases resolving–uncertainty, notably calling for a “CERN for climate change” that would focus on modeling how rising carbon dioxide and natural shifts in the climate will interact regionally over the next couple of decades (rather than globally over the course of the century). This could help to predict droughts in Africa’s Sahel region and give governments and humanitarian agencies an advantage in preventing famine.
But Palmer struggles with balancing the uncertainty of climate change and its severity. Palmer struggles to frame both the uncertainties of climate change and the severity of its effects. He starts the chapter by defaulting to a “Catastrophe? or Just Lukewarm?” approach. He writes that the truth lies somewhere in between. Palmer points out that the planet would be one degree Celsius warmer if it had atmospheric carbon dioxide doubled. Palmer says that doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide would increase the planet’s temperature by one degree Celsius. This is without considering any feedback loops, such as the loss or increase in water vapor in our atmosphere, which could further raise the heat. He says that .”
is not something to be concerned about.
But, if you look at a planet that is already one-degree warmer than it was in preindustrial times, the view is alarming. This incremental shift has caused unprecedented heat waves across every continent, set the American West on fire with ferocious intensity and caused deadly deluges in places that had never seen such extreme back to back rainfall. Palmer encourages his readers to refer to the latest IPCC report. It paints a dire picture that seems to support a more maximalist perspective. Camille Parmesan, an ecologist at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the lead authors on that report, said in February 2022 that “we’re seeing adverse impacts are being much more widespread and being much more negative than expected in prior reports.”The Primacy of Doubt makes a compelling case for either reducing uncertainty or operating with confidence in the “reliability” of the uncertainty that remains. But it can obscure the much bigger picture of climate action. It is easy to imagine how readers might be distracted by such nuances, and why they might not want to act on the urgent need for new climate policies.
Scientific American columnist Naomi Oreskes and historian of science Erik M. Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt, along with exhaustive journalistic and academic investigations, has shown how the fossil-fuel industry, conservative politicians and a tiny cadre of scientists have played up uncertainty with the intent to delay meaningful carbon regulation in the U.S. Palmer acknowledges this with a blithe neutrality, saying “we should be just as wary of inflation of uncertainty as of attempts to make predictions more certain than can be justified.” In doing so, he inadvertently brushes off the reality that uncertainty is too often used against society rather than to its benefit. –Brian Khan
Brian Kahn is an award-winning writer and editor. He is the Protocol’s climate editor.
The Future Is Female! Vol. 2: The 1970s: More Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women
by Lisa Yaszek
Library of America, 2022 ($27. 95)
The first volume of Library of America’s “The Future Is Female” series collected science-fiction stories written by women between the era of pulp fiction and the year of the lunar landing. It closed with a knockout 1969 Ursula K. Le Guin story that dared to suggest our Space Age future might be an alienating drag. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives,” which examines the loneliness of astronauts as well as clones, suggests that interplanetary travel and advanced tech could make human connection more rare. It imagined not only what the future might look and feel like, but also how we might feel there.
That framing doubles down in volume two, also edited by Lisa Yaszek, which finds women writing sci-fi in the 1970s blasting off on topics of sex, power, the banal routines of domestic life, and whether civilizations can ever achieve true equality. While “Nine Lives” was a pulpy tale about men, the feminist stories here (including a Le Guin story about an elderly leader of anarchist revolution looking back as she bears fruit) are avowedly feminist. They focus on women whose choices are shaped by societies that are either similar or different to ours.
The results still jolt, 50 years later. Set in a 2021 where humanity is facing a dire overpopulation problem, Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” is narrated by the cleaner of government masturbation stalls. Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed,” a Nebula Award winner, finds a planet where women have thrived without men for 30 generations suddenly reintroduced to what a newly arrived male astronaut calls “sexual equality.” (“Seals are harem animals,” he says, “and so are men.”) In the kickoff story, “Bitching It,” Sonya Dorman imagines the bored rutting of housewives in a world where women behave like alpha dogs in heat and men must passively take it.
Other works within this bold collection explore the put-on hotness that we now know as influencer cultural, such as the prescient “The Girl who Was Plugged In” by pseudonymous James Tiptree, Jr. Joan D. Vinge’s “View from a Height” and Cynthia Felice’s “No One Said Forever” detail the sacrifices a woman must make to be able to embark on old-school adventures. Eleanor Arnason’s book “The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons”, which focuses on the struggle of a sci-fi writer to create a story that is richer as it draws from her personal life, makes clear these authors’ desire to claim the genre for passionate self-expression. The future is not only for women, but also personal. —Alan Scherstuhl
A Traveler’s Guide to the Stars
by Les Johnson.
Princeton University Press, 2022 ($27. 95)
What will it take to explore a distant star within 100 years? NASA scientist Les Johnson helps us understand the enormity (and ethics!) of sending humans light years from home. He explains the distance between stars and the energy required to travel there, as well as the limitations of existing technologies. The advances in interstellar travel will change how we live on Earth, regardless of whether we use solar sails, ion thrusters, or nuclear bombs. After all, we wouldn’t have electricity or cell phones “if our predecessors had not conducted science for the sake of science.” —Fionna M. D. Samuels
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness
St. Martin’s Press, 2022 ($26. 99)
This book does not attempt to explain consciousness, how it arises or why. Patrick House, a neuroscientist, sketches a framework for how we might view who we are from within. He draws on neuroscience, quantum mechanics and other scientific disciplines to make his observations. Recurring examples, such as the case of a teenager laughing during brain surgery, give an idea of the questions that might help to understand how cells collectively conjure us selves. House’s collage, which is a phenomenon that has yet to be unified, creates a picture of our minds far more complex than the sum of its parts. —Sasha Warren
Darwin’s Love of Life: A Singular Case of Biophilia
Kay Harel Columbia University Press, 2022 ($26)
In these touching essays, Kay Harel cheerfully diagnoses Charles Darwin as having “a singular case” of biophilia, or a profound love of life that engenders empathy and creativity, and an intuitive sense for truth. Harel posits biophilia as the root of Darwin’s genius and the influence behind everything from his love of dogs and fascination with the insect-eating Drosera plant to his rejection of mind-body dualism and his sense that estimations of the earth’s age would one day align with the time span of evolution. Harel’s emphasis on the confluences in Darwin’s life, rather than on its conflicts, is a refreshing view on his legacy. —Dana Dunham