Armageddon Out of Here


There seems to be a prevailing belief among my friends that environmental disaster is on the horizon. This is also a belief reflected in much environmental writing. We are creating so much environmental damage that our wastes are destroying the ozone, are heating up the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate, and our worldwide toxic wastes threaten widespread illness, suffering and the extinction of thousands of species.

Two of these threats to survival are widely endorsed by science as very serious: CFCs and global warming.

The trouble I have with this Armageddon scenario is that it is brought to us by the same folks, scientists, who have seldom been our friends in the past.

One trouble is the nature of science itself. I personally believe that the scientific method, or whatever we call the process of erecting theses and then testing their survivability, is valid and resonant with my world view. But the two theses under discussion here, CFC's and global warming, were created by science operating on a multi-billion dollar playing field where I cannot play. Both rely on satellite systems ($ billions), satellite collected data ($billions), constant worldwide balloon and high tech monitoring apparatus ($ billions) and large scale computer models run on $40 million machines for years ($ millions).

How can I or anyone like me validate, test or effectively design counter experiments? Personally I can think of a half dozen tests, but they each costs tens of $millions. I also want to take my friends as I drill bore holes in Antarctica and Siberia as part of my research. Moreover I have some nifty equations for 3 dimensional water transfer that I'd like to run on one of the atmospheric models if we can get a few $hundred thousand to run on a Cray for a few weeks.

That is trouble one. Trouble two is my feeling that science is not my friend, especially when it comes to warning me about danger. Or worse, failing to warn me about science created dangers.

Science warned me that marijuana was totally destructive to my health, that most other drugs lead to hopeless addiction (my own little experiments have led me to have doubts about this), science warned me that a nuclear winter could be caused by less than 100 nuclear weapons ( turns out to take at least 30 times that number), that radon in one third of American homes posed a terrible cancer danger ( it's less than 1/30th that number), that asbestos causes lung cancer (after years of tearing out asbestos from 10's of thousands of buildings, turns out only a few kinds of uncommon asbestos fibers are threatening), and in the mid 1970's geologists assured us that world oil resources were approaching the end ( oil reserves have more than tripled since then).

Science failed to warn me that the space shuttle was going to blow up; that Three Mile Island was a potential problem; that nuclear meltdown might happen in the Soviet Union; that the levels of personal radiation exposure considered safe in 1950, 1960 and 1970 weren't; that many scientifically tested pesticides were risky, such as alar, aldacarb and parathion.

I know that there are many kind of scientists and I know that physicists are supposed to be more reliable than MD's or engineers, and that I'm throwing all these different kinds of errors into one pot.

However, these are the short lists that were on the top of my head. The real list is many pages long. My whole point is (1) that we accept environmental Armageddon from the very people and institution (science) that offers information that I could never test or verify and that in turn means somebody with enough money may come along and invalidate all the present models. (2) Scientific estimates of danger to humans have been erratic, erroneous, and grossly wrong on many occasions in my life, from the days when I starred at my feet in shoe X-ray machines to last year, when I learned that the widely feared fetal alcohol syndrome was virtually non-existent outside of Indian reservations.


Michael Phillips, April 1991