william_h_calvin's picture
Theoretical Neurobiologist; Affiliate Professor Emeritus, University of Washington; Author, Global Fever
Find That Frame

An automatic stage of "Compare and contrast" would improve most cognitive functions, not just the grade on an essay. You set up a comparison — say, that the interwoven melodies of Rock 'n' Roll are like how you must twist when dancing on a boat when the bow is rocking up and down in a different rhythm than the deck is rolling from side to side.

Comparison is an important part of trying ideas on for size, for finding related memories, and exercising constructive skepticism. Without it, you can become trapped in someone else's framing of a problem. You often need to know where someone is coming from — and while Compare 'n' Contrast is your best friend, you may also need to search for the cognitive framing. What has been cropped out of the frame can lead the unwary to an incorrect inference, as when they assume that what is left out is unimportant. For example, "We should reach a 2°C (3.6°F) fever in the year 2049" always makes me want to interject "Unless another abrupt climate shift gets us there next year."

Global warming's ramp up in temperature is the aspect of climate change that climate scientists can currently calculate — that's where they are coming from. And while this can produce really important insights — even big emission reductions only delay the 2°C fever for 19 years — it leaves out all of those abrupt climate shifts observed since 1976, as when the world's drought acreage doubled in 1982 and jumped from double to triple in 1997, then back to double in 2005. That's like stairs, not a ramp.

Even if we thoroughly understood the mechanism for an abrupt climate shift — likely a rearrangement of the winds that produce Deluge 'n' Drought by delivering ocean moisture elsewhere, though burning down the Amazon rain forest should also trigger a big one — chaos theory's "butterfly effect" says we still could not predict when a big shift will occur or what size it would be. That makes a climate surprise like a heart attack. You can't predict when. You can't say whether it will be minor or catastrophic. But you can often prevent it — in the case of climate, by cleaning up the excess CO2.

Drawing down the CO2 is also typically excluded from the current climate framing. Mere emissions reduction now resembles locking the barn door after the horse is gone — worthwhile, but not exactly recovery either. Politicians usually love locking barn doors as it gives the appearance of taking action cheaply. Emissions reduction only slows the rate at which things get worse, as the CO2 accumulation still keeps growing. (People confuse annual emissions with the accumulation that causes the trouble.) On the other hand, cleaning up the CO2 actually cools things, reverses ocean acidification, and even reverses the thermal expansion portion of rising sea level.

Recently I heard a biologist complaining about models for insect social behavior: "All of the difficult stuff is not mentioned. Only the easy stuff is calculated." Scientists first do what they already know how to do. But their quantitative results are no substitute for a full qualitative account. When something is left out because it is computationally intractable (sudden shifts) or would just be a guess (cleanup), they often don't bother to mention it at all. "Everybody [in our field] knows that" just won't do when people outside the field are hanging on your every word.

So find that frame and ask about what was left out. Like abrupt climate shifts or a CO2 cleanup, it may be the most important consideration of all.