Entries tagged with “Hmmm…”.


When the maker of some web app or another doesn’t know how to make money out of a popular idea, the go-to concept is of course to somehow shoe-horn advertising into the user experience. Those of you who have a Facebook account will be familiar with the little panel of ads that runs down the side of the page – a little panel that seems to increase in length every time you log on. Personally, I think it’s completely daft way for an advertiser to spend their bucks – I must have ‘seen’ several thousand of those damn things displayed on my Facebook page and I hardly even notice them. Someone has convinced advertisers otherwise, though, or they wouldn’t be paying for them.

If I do notice one, though, it’s usually because it has an overly-high annoying factor. An offering that popped up this morning was a shining example. Ladeez and Gentlemen, I bring to you today…

The AMAZING TINNITUS MIRACLE™

Ah yes. Your flim-flam detectors just went ping, right. If they didn’t, get off my blog!

Now, I must confess that until this morning I didn’t really have a great deal of insight into tinnitus. Well, not of a scientific kind, anyway. I know what it is, of course, being a professional sound person & all, and I’ve even experienced it myself in my youth when I was much less careful of my hearing, but I’ve never known much about it physiologically. After reading the Tinnitus Miracle™ website, though, one thing of which I was entirely certain is that you need absolutely no knowledge of tinnitus to get the feeling that this site is designed to fleece easily-deceived and desperate folks of their money by convincing them that it has the absolute, failure-proof, 100% guaranteed cure for their affliction.

And, as a prospect for a scam – for a scam it surely is – it makes sense. Tinnitus is a medical condition with all the requirements that make it ripe for the pickings of those who would greedily make money from exploiting others: it’s a poorly understood, highly subjective condition with diffuse symptoms, and it can have dozens of causes. It’s distressing, persistent and can even be painful, but it’s not life-threatening. Best of all for the woo merchants, it’s a sad fact that science-based medicine doesn’t offer much in the way of relief for many sufferers of tinnitus.1

Even though I did go on to spend a little time reading about the condition, you really don’t need a lot in the way actual knowledge to get a strong sense that the Tinnitus Miracle™ ‘phenomenon’2 is decidedly fishy.

Skimming down the MASSIVE landing page starts the alarm bells ringing fast.3 The amazing Tinnitus Miracle™ is an eBook that you can buy for the handy dandy price of $39, and which unequivocally offers to ‘give you the secrets to eliminate virtually all types of Tinnitus within 8 weeks.’ It’s the enterprise of one Thomas Coleman,4 who purports to have suffered from tinnitus for 14 years and to ‘have tried every tinnitus treatment known to science and natural health’, including, but not limited to, ‘herbal remedies, Cellfood Oxygen, tonics, habituation, detox diets, vitamin therapy, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, macrobiotics, reflexology, Chinese Medicine, vegetarianism, the Wai diet, magnetic therapy, the mucus-less diet, the blood type diet, psychiatric treatments and whatnot.’

The outcome is that none of these (not even ‘whatnot’) were effective. Even surgery didn’t help the poor chap, nor did ‘dietary’ advice nor white noise CDs. Eventually we learn that the unflappable Mr Coleman was cured after discovering ‘a simple holistic system [that] opened the door to my new and much brighter Tinnitus free life.’ The site spares no effort to attempt to impress upon us exactly what a MIRACLE this discovery was. There’s the familiar liberal use of exclamation marks, copious underscoring, oodles of hyperbolic claims, excitable slashes of yellow highlighter and then… THE SCIENCE. Well, no, I lied. There’s no science. None. Nada. Nuttin’. What we have is that ol’ reliable science substitute though: testimonials! Everyone KNOWS a testimonial is MUCH better than science. Let me show you how it works:

Tetherd Cow Ahead is the best blog in the universe, bar none. I read it once and it completely cured my cancer! ~ Landon from Illinois

I used to have trouble keeping it up, but thanks to Tetherd Cow Ahead I can now go all night! Tetherd Cow rocks! ~ Raymundo

I purchased the Tetherd Cow Virtual Glass of Water and I’ve never had a computer virus since! Awesome work TCA! ~ Kofi Anan

Now brace yourselves, Acowlytes: those are not real endorsements, and they hold no credibility whatsoever! I just made them up! I know it seems shocking that someone should do such a thing, and I know you wouldn’t, dear friends, but the internet is, alas, not completely populated by good honest folks such as yourselves.

The point is of course that a fistful of internet testimonials is worth about as much as the paper they are printed on. Unfortunately there still exist out there a substantial number of people who seem to think that if something is written down in words, why, it must be true! Or something. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the endorsements could easily be as phoney as the names attached to them.5 What’s more, it seems that such people of limited perspicacity are unable to infer that fifty fake testimonials are no more persuasive than one. I could’ve written dozens above had I been so inclined – it’s not exactly difficult to make that shit up.6

But it’s not until you try to find some more information about Tinnitus Miracle™ that you begin to see the real depth of this racket. Performing a Search™ on the term returns a veritable truckload of spew. Hundreds, maybe thousands of links that duck and dive through the tinnitus world, inevitably making their way back to a site selling Tinnitus Miracle™.

And not even the merest hint of proper science on a single one of them.

Searching for tinnitus+miracle+scam is an even more enlightening experience. Now we see dozens of hits in the vein of this site, returning search abstracts like ‘There is no basis for the tinnitus miracle scam’ and Is Thomas Coleman’s Tinnitus Miracle Book A Scam? My Opinion … – all couched in such a manner as to appear to be a critical appraisal of the product. If you click through, though, they all go on without exception to overwhelmingly promote Tinnitus Miracle™ in some way or another, often with direct links to the main TM™ site. There are pages of these duplicitous offerings – I clicked through a few dozen and I couldn’t find one that wasn’t some kind of endorsement of Tinnitus Miracle.7 In fact, try as I might, I couldn’t find any negative critique of the Tinnitus Miracle at all. Lest you think that might be because the thing actually works, let me add that I also couldn’t find a single site that looked like it was a genuine unsolicited recommendation of the product either. To my eye, these sites all look like part of the Tinnitus Miracle empire – a vast and comprehensive attempt to stake a presence wherever anyone with tinnitus might search for some help. Now, there are two reasons I can think of that negative (or even mildly critical) reviews aren’t returned high-up in the search results. The first is that Coleman’s strategy is simply to super-saturate the SEO so that other links are just pushed way down, and you won’t easily come across adverse criticism, and the second rather more sinister one is that Mr Coleman is actively litigious and has aggressively quashed any unflattering press.8

Another frustration I had was in attempting to find out exactly what might comprise the substance of the Tinnitus Miracle. After reading pages of mind-numbing verbiage, I was concluding that the book offering the wondrous Tinnitus Miracle was probably just a mish-mash of anything and everything that might pertain to tinnitus, with not much ‘miracle’ content at all. This site (another TM™ promotion, despite its efforts to appear to be something else), supposedly penned by one ‘Britni Dorman’ gives some support to that conclusion:

Here are some things you can learn from Tinnitus Miracle:

• Eight food items that are best for you in this condition
• Ten foods you must learn to avoid like the plague since they can worsen your condition
• The name of a powerful herb used in homeopathy that can reverse the condition quickly
• The 100% natural secret vitamin supplement that can impact your condition dramatically in just a few days
• Medications that can worsen the condition
• How you can diagnose your condition with the help of a multi-dimensional approach
• Effective breathing techniques and strategies that allows your body to begin the process of healing

Ah, right. Good foods, bad foods, vitamins, homeopathy and Evil Big Pharma drugs that you can blame. Uh-huh. And some yoga & meditation thrown in for good measure (‘cos it certainly can’t hurt, right?) As miracles go, this is looking about as impressive as producing a coin from behind a kid’s ear.

There’s lots more of the same on this site, which purports to be a tinnitus ‘treatment advice’ hub, but which is revealed by even a cursory exploration to be crammed to the gills with links to the main Tinnitus Miracle site. Perhaps the most hilarious part is the the ‘Pros & Cons’ section. Breathless raving about the pros, but the cons, well:

• Cons – When it comes to the cons, I have to admit that Tinnitus Miracle barely has any.

Mr Coleman may as well have appended his signature to that one.

I did turn up one comment on a tinnitus relief discussion group from someone who seems to know what the book entails. The main thrust of this thread is another tinnitus scam called Quietus,9 but several sufferers ask if anyone has tried the Tinnitus Miracle. Well, someone called MissionCMD has done so, and had this to say:

I have purchased the book and read it twice. I have tried numerous things in it, but there is no ‘miracle’. There are numerous sections in the book that are duplicated (copy and paste) from one chapter to another… not to mention numerous spelling mistakes. Perhaps the ‘e-book only’ option was because the author could not get a publisher to edit? Overall, there were a few good suggestions, but there was no ‘miracle cure’ if that was what you were trying to ask. Essentailly just ways to try to manage the noise. I did a detailed search for almost three hours to try to find a reputable review before I purchased anything, and could find none. I could find many websites that had supposed reviews, however it looked much like the similar advertisement off of the original site. Suprisingly (or not) none of those sites were accepting comments anymore due to spam… hmmm. I did purchase the book anyway. You do have to keep in mind it does state ‘holestic’ in the sub-title. So the book did what it said… mentioned everything under the sun you can try to manage the tinnitus. That means recommendations ranging from therapy sessions, to extreme detoxification, to accupuncture. I personally did not find anything close to a ‘miracle’ though.

And that’s about as succinct a wrap-up as you could ever expect; the Tinnitus Miracle™ eBook appears to be nothing more than a diffuse hodge-podge of vague suggestions and both conventional and speculative treatments offered as options to address an affliction with multiple possible causes and a wide range of diverse symptoms. It seems to me, in fact, that Thomas Coleman is offering the very same solutions in his book that he says he tried in vain to cure his own tinnitus, just re-heated and served with a sprig of parsley.

A miracle, not so much.

I guess some of you are saying at this stage ‘It’s not really selling anything bogus – what’s the harm here?’

Well, this is the kind of scam that irks me for numerous reasons. First and foremost, it’s targeting vulnerable miserable people and offering them a ‘miracle’, when by any reasonable reckoning that’s not what they’re going to get when they fork out their money. ‘Eliminate Your Tinnitus Within 2 Months!’ the site declares, a promise that, as far as my reading indicates, is unlikely to be fulfilled for the majority of tinnitus sufferers. Tinnitus Miracle ‘…gives you the power to Cure Tinnitus permanently’, we hear: weasel language that deftly transfers any failure to deliver a result from the product itself to a responsibility for the sufferer to be capable of harnessing the supposed ‘power’. The site is full of such duplicity.

Another tactic that I find highly questionable is Tinnitus Miracle’s liberal us of scare tactics, another staple of scamdom:

WARNING: TINNITUS CAN BE VERY DANGEROUS IF LEFT UNTREATED

Well, no, for most sufferers that’s unlikely, despite the blood red fright caps. It is completely true that tinnitus can sometimes herald other more serious problems, but one thing is for sure – buying this book is not the way you’d want to handle that particular circumstance. As with most medical problems, if the symptoms persist, the most sensible thing you can do is to promptly see your doctor (and that information I’m providing totally free of charge).

Elsewhere:

One should only consider surgery for tinnitus if you were diagnosed with a tumor, osclerosis, or fistula . Even so the success of the surgery is 50%, with the inevitable consequence of irreversible deafness.

…which is a piece of negligent generalization bordering on criminality. The success of tinnitus surgery depends entirely on the circumstances of any individual, and the reasons for their problem. To scare all people who may be facing tinnitus surgery with the spectre of the ‘inevitable consequence of irreversible deafness’ is highly irresponsible, and demonstrates clearly that Thomas Coleman cares not one whit about your wellbeing – he just wants your $39.

My reading about tinnitus over these last few days has shown me that for an unfortunate few of those afflicted, the condition is utterly debilitating, and for the greater number it is, at the very least, distressing and uncomfortable. What these people really need to be doing is consulting knowledgable health care providers and getting the best help available. What they don’t need is a whole lot of baloney about the ‘wrong’ food and homeopathy. Even if some of what the Tinnitus Miracle book offers might be helpful (there are indications that meditation, for instance, may be of some benefit to some sufferers, depending on the cause of their tinnitus) it looks like it’s wound up with a lot of crap that’s irrelevant, of arguable efficacy or just plain hogwash.

Aside from that, the marketing campaign for Tinnitus Miracle™ is plainly full of misdirection and flimflam. As a ‘Small Sample Of What You’ll Learn When You Download Your Copy Of The Tinnitus Miracle™ System Today’, the site reels off dozens of specious claims, lame observations and tips such as these:

• Discover EVERYTHING you need to know about tinnitus, EXACTLY what causes the noise in your head. [Caps are theirs]

No-one knows EXACTLY what causes tinnitus. It can be the result of several different pathologies – physical hearing damage, biochemical interaction, neurological damage or problems, or the effects of other illness. In some cases it has a psychological component. Thomas Coleman is promising to give sufferers something that no doctor on the planet can. Why on earth should anyone believe him?

• What Personality characteristics do tinnitus sufferers share?

Oh, I dunno? The same star signs? A morbid fear of hummus? This is a stupid and irrelevant question, and is so wide in its scope that you could factor just about anything in here.

• The most powerful homeopathic herb (that can quickly reverse most tinnitus conditions) that the Tinnitus and drug industries hope you will never find out!

Of course!! The ‘drug industries’ WANT you to have tinnitus because they are EVIL. Mwahahahaha!

Please. Even the dimmest of the dim can see that this is complete rubbish. If such a ‘homeopathic herb’ even existed, only one altruistic tinnitus sufferer would need to publish its name on the net and the whole world would know. BAM! Take that Evil Big Pharma Mad Scientists. But guess what? No-one has. They obviously all feel so indebted to Thomas Coleman for revealing it to them that they don’t want to see him lose any of the money he would otherwise make on his eBook!

• The cardinal sin of every tinnitus treatment almost every tinnitus sufferer is guilty of, which instead of curing your tinnitus, weakens and destroys your body’s natural ability to defend itself, thus putting your health in serious risk and making your Tinnitus worse in the long run (and more than 92% of tinnitus sufferers are doing it!)

And you thought that masturbation just made you blind!

It’s all smoke & mirrors designed to deflect anyone from asking the question: ‘But what, exactly, am I getting for my $39?’

Which is, by all indications, nothing that’s likely to help you much, and certainly nothing that can compare to the advice that you will get from a good medical practitioner. If you have tinnitus, you have my immense sympathy. Having only experienced it as a fleeting annoyance brought on by my own carelessness, I can only imagine how awful it must be as a chronic condition. I hope that this post has helped you avoid spending money on something that would probably offer you little in the way of relief.

  1. Something that people who advocate ‘alternative medicine’ seem not to understand this situation too well, and you’ll often hear it put forward as a criticism. Science-based medicine never pretends that it has all the answers, because sometimes it doesn’t. There are some things science doesn’t understand very well. That doesn’t make science faulty – it just means that a complex world is not easily understood all at once. It’s a process. And the fact that science doesn’t have an answer to a complex problem doesn’t lead logically to the proposition that ‘alternative’ medicine does. Having no solution to a problem sometimes means, quite harshly unfortunately, that we don’t have a solution to the problem. We simply don’t know everything, and there is no imperative says we should. That’s not an easy thing to tell someone who is in pain, or who has a chronic debilitating condition. Unfortunately, as much as we don’t like that reality, reality really doesn’t care what we like. []
  2. Because that’s the way it’s promoted WIDELY across the interwebs. []
  3. Of course, if you have severe tinnitus, maybe the noise in your head might drown out said alarm bells. Perhaps this is what the makers of the Amazing Tinnitus Miracle are counting on… []
  4. Coleman may or may not be a real person. For the purposes of this post, I will accept that he is, although I did discover a number of things that made me suspect that he may be a fictional concoction. []
  5. I’ve long pondered why this should be so. I mean, I totally understand how you might buy a product that was recommended to you by a close friend. I can even stretch to understanding how you might buy a product endorsed by someone who you don’t know personally, but whose opinion you respect for some reason. But I can’t for the life of me even remotely comprehend why you would trust the opinion of some anonymous (and probably fictitious) name from woop-woop! []
  6. It is vaguely possible that the testimonials are written by actual people, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are genuine. Lots of people are willing to lend their name and photo out for a fiver. And, being extremely generous, even if the people are real, and the testimonials unsolicited, it still doesn’t mean that the information in them is necessarily accurate, nor representative of most tinnitus sufferers. Tinnitus does, in many cases, clear itself up spontaneously. If you have a few thousand people reading your book, it is quite likely that a small few will have spontaneous natural remission of the symptoms, and attribute it in some way to your magical cure. You only need a handful of those kinds of ‘miracles’ to make something look impressive… []
  7. This in itself is an intriguing indictment of the Tinnitus Miracle™ It shows clearly that the people behind it are completely aware that what they are promoting has every indicator of being a scam to those searching for tinnitus relief, and have shaped their marketing strategy accordingly. They are, in essence, predicting that they will be called on their scam, and then flooding possible criticism with noise. []
  8. I’d like to think this is not the case, but I guess we will see if that speculation has any substance if he finds this post. []
  9. Another sure marker for scams of this kind is the appearance of other players on the field. You can bet that where there’s an opportunity to bilk vulenerable people, there’ll be more than one opportunist with his finger in the pie. []

Yeah, well, y’know. I’m just not sure I want these people tampering with my wiring.

3D Odorant!

It works really well for anyone wearing the special nose plugs. Otherwise it just makes everyone nauseous and gives them a headache. Personally, I don’t think it’s as effective as the Quantum deodorant I use.

___________________________________________________________________________

Special thanks to Atlas for undergoing the human trials for this one.

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This man is Michael Cohen. Mr Cohen, it seems, has come by an amazing piece of video that ‘might be amongst the best proof we have that we are indeed being visited by aliens coming to us with a message of hope.’ The footage was taken in the Brazilian jungle by British tourists and ‘handed over to US secret agents’, the Brazilian government apparently having some kind of agreement with American spooks to obligingly do that kind of thing. It is unclear who then handed it on to Mr Cohen. We know for certain that the footage is Top Secret because it has a title card that says ‘Top Secret’ on it.

I mean, how much more persuasive could it be?

‘Stop stalling Reverend!’ I hear you cry. ‘Make with the video that shows us the alien Message of Hope! Well, you need to visit the site of that esteemed Australian news voice The Telegraph to see it, because I can’t embed it. Come back here when you’re done (if you don’t need a bit of a lie down first, that is).

Was that a Message of Hope or what?! Thank Xenu that we now know we are not alo… What’s that you say? You missed the alien? Seriously? Maybe you’d better watch it again. I’ve made you a little diagram so that you know where to look:

Was it better that time? Did you see the ‘mesmerising flashing light’ as well?

Mr Cohen proclaims that ‘This is highly compelling footage that will be hard to discredit’. Or it could be plain old pareidolia. I know that sounds far fetched, but hey. Should the footage turn out to be bona fide, however, what I want to know is what the little alien is actually doing here. He doesn’t seem to be delivering any Message of Hope to me. In fact, he seems… a little preoccupied.

Here’s a better resolution closeup. That’s the ‘mesmerising light’ over on the right – it’s gotta be his spaceship, right? So he’s parked it and has wandered a little way away behind a tree, and… well… it’s a bloody LONG WAY from Zeta Reticuli!

Acowlytes! Tell me I’m wrong!

One of the fundamental foundations of American society is the indelible belief that anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings, nor how lowly their status, can achieve their personal vision of greatness, whatever that may be. A boy with an interest in flight can become an astronaut; a little girl from the Bronx can become a planetary scientist; a black kid from Hawaii can even become President.

But what all American kids really want to do when they grow up, is to be a superhero. Well, why not, eh? Let me introduce you to someone who has made that childhood dream a reality – Phoenix Jones:

Yes, this man, whose identity is a complete mystery1 is a real person who patrols the streets of Seattle in a funny costume protecting law abiding citizens from Evil through the use of his mysterious super powers. Well, OK, if you include under the umbrella of ‘super’ powers the ability to use pepper spray and the dialling aptitude for calling 911. And if your definition of Evil is something like two coked-up hysterically screaming women and their shiftless intellectually-challenged boyfriends.

See Phoenix Jones bringing his awesome justice to bear in this clip, where he is accompanied by his trusty lieutenant, Ghost.2 Sure, he spends most of his time running away, but it’s the thought that counts, right? And the costume.

Apparently, Seattle has a veritable Justice League of these dudes. There’s Phoenix and Ghost as we’ve seen, and the atramentous Pitch Black, the sapphire-bewigged Blue Sparrow, The Red Dragon, The White Baron and the Yellow Custard. Well, actually, I made that last one up, but it’s an obvious omission from the League, and at least he could run away with integrity.

The Real Life Super Hero movement to which all these defenders-of-the-common-good (DON’T call them vigilantes!) belong is supposedly about these people helping out the weak and the vulnerable in the night-time streets of Seattle.3 Even though I only heard about this weird story yesterday, there’s been a shitload of press coverage of Phoenix Jones and his cohorts. Something that doesn’t seem to occur to a single news reporter (or anyone else), though, is the very first thing that entered my mind: if you have an elite clique of superheroes shouldn’t you by absolute necessity have an elite clique of super villains? How can Seattle possibly aspire to be a real-life Gotham City with only drunken hookers and mentally challenged jocks for bad guys?

It seems to me like there’s an opening here, Faithful Acowlytes, and I hereby announce the formation of the Seattle Super Villains League. And the League needs YOUR help. That’s right Cowmrades, it’s a Cow Competition. It is your task to create a Seattle Super Villain – I want a name and appropriate super powers, and a description of his/her costume (extra points for artwork). Let’s give Phoenix Jones some real opposition! The funniest, cleverest, wittiest, meanest member of the SSVL wins an awesome something from the Tetherd Cow Shoppe.

Together everybody: MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

ADDENDUM: My friend Tone recommends James Gunn’s Super, the trailer of which I present below for your enjoyment:

  1. It’s not really, but people, for chrissakes – EVERYONE knows that a super hero’s real identity is secret! That’s Comicbook Tropes 101. []
  2. From the clip it’s a bit hard to tell what Ghost’s super powers are but they appear to be the ability to get in the way and the ability to stand near Phoenix looking confused. []
  3. In the daytime, the weak and the vulnerable are on their own. C’mon – no-one‘s gonna go out in those costumes in broad daylight… []

One of the big topics in the skeptical community at the moment (like everywhere else I guess) is the climate change issue. It’s a subject that is as fraught with debate as that of Evolution vs Creationism, and indeed, has many of the hallmarks of that particular tussle. What makes it particularly volatile in this setting, though, is that many of the people who claim that there is no need to worry about global warming paint themselves as climate change skeptics, and take the position that they offer a rational approach to the debate. What they are in fact doing is voicing opinions that are in contradiction to MOST of the world’s knowledgeable climate scientists. Though they like to think of themselves as skeptics, this stubborn entrenchment in a belief system has earnt them, instead, the badge of climate change deniers.

I pretty much stay out of the climate change argument, just as I stay out of the Creationism debate. It’s not that I don’t have a strong view on global warming. I think the scientific evidence is conclusive that we have a looming disaster on our hands, and that it’s a disaster of our own making. Bothering to argue with the deniers though is the mental equivalent of jabbing a sharp pencil repeatedly into the back of your hand – a sensible person stops doing it pretty quickly.

The main problem is that, as with evolution, climate science deals with concepts that don’t come easily to the natural human way of thinking. With evolution it has to do with vast amounts of time (which we’re not good at comprehending) and the complexity of the vectors that come to bear on natural selection. With climate science, it’s all in the maths. I’m going to attempt in this post to show you why, even if you haven’t kept up with all the marginalia of the climate discussion, you should be afraid of what we’re doing to the planet.

At the outset I will state that my essay takes one idea as a given: that global warming is a human-instigated phenomenon. You should understand that a cornerstone of the denier’s ‘argument’ is that it isn’t, but I will stand behind the overwhelming scientific viewpoint on this matter.1

OK. We’re going to talk about math in this, but you don’t need to understand numbers. And I promise you, it won’t be dull. This is a very scary story. I’m going to divide it into three chapters.

Chapter 1: Boiling the Frog

There is an old fable – it’s probably apocryphal but for our purposes it doesn’t matter – that says that if you take a frog and put it in a bowl of water over a burner and slowly raise the heat, the frog, unable to feel the very slow rise in temperature will make no effort to leave the water and happily sit there until it is boiled to death. In other words, it either doesn’t realise there is a problem, or, by the time it does, it’s too late.

The story illustrates a psychological phenomenon called ‘creeping normalcy’ (or in science, the ‘shifting baseline’ problem). Put simply, it says that if you have changing reference points, you can only judge what is ‘normal’ by what you’re familiar with at any given time. In this way, familiarity changes the baseline of ‘normal’ to whatever you get used to, and if things change slowly enough, ‘normal’ can wander an awfully long way from ‘acceptable’.

The first step towards understanding why the climate issue is so deadly is to understand that humans think like this as a default. Our brains don’t work well on timescales in excess of a few years. Our horizons are small. I’m not the first to mention the Boiling Frog concept in relation to the climate change situation, so its appearance here is no big revelation. But you need to keep it in mind as we head off to chapters 2 & 3:

Chapter 2: The Big Clock

I recently saw a comment on an article in The Conversation from one John Dodds, a ‘retired engineer':

First a philosophical point: Climate Change is claimed to be complex. I claim it is NOT. It is simple physics – add more energy and the world warms up.

Mr Dodds’ opinion typifies the way in which most people believe that the planet’s climate system behaves – something like a Big Clock. A wheel here, a cog there, a spring yonder – all ticking away in a simple predictable manner that can be completely described if you do the right calculations. Most people think, therefore, that if we’ve caused some kind of problem with the climate, then all we need to do is to ‘oil the gears’ on the clock and everything will go back to the way it was. They believe that the problem is proportionate to the actions we take to correct it.

This is a massive and perilous failure of understanding. It’s a mechanical Newtonian notion of the way things work that is fine for pipes and balls and clocks, but breaks down catastrophically when applied to something like climate behaviour. To grasp why, we have to venture into the frightening, mind-bending and completely unintuitive world of complex systems.

clock

First, let’s consider the pendulum in our Big Clock. As physical systems go, this is about as unadorned as you can get. A swinging pendulum exhibits what is known as simple harmonic motion2 and it is a very reliable behaviour that allows us to build a clock that will behave predictably and dependably. A simple pendulum is mathematically very straightforward. Its properties can be described completely in terms of the length of the ‘rod’ of the pendulum, gravity, the mass of the ‘bob’ on the end of the pendulum and the angle of swing. If you know these things, you can predict exactly how this pendulum will behave. This uncomplicated mechanism works great for a clock, and it’s fairly tolerant of perturbations in the system: if you push the pendulum a little hard, it will dampen down to its normal swing pretty quickly. You need to be pretty violent to cause the clock to have problems big enough to effect its function.

This is the kind of path we could expect the bob on the simple pendulum in our clock to trace. Every time:

Unfortunately for us, the climate system isn’t driven by a simple pendulum.

Let’s consider a physical system only a tiny step away from our Big Clock’s single pendulum: the double pendulum. A double pendulum makes one small alteration to the simple pendulum model – instead of a simple bob at the end of the pendulum, you add another pendulum. This very unassuming variation has sudden and profound effects.

Here’s a computer simulation of the path traced by the tip of a double pendulum:

If that looks weird and science fictiony to you, let me assure you that double pendulums behave exactly like that in reality. There are dozens of YouTube videos that show them in action.

You can see how this one small change to our pendulum quickly throws a simple harmonic oscillation into a volatile and complex motion. The double pendulum system can be very easily described,3 but its ultimate behaviour cannot. Each time you set it swinging its bob will trace a completely different path in space because, crucially, a double pendulum is very sensitive to initial conditions. Unlike our clock’s pendulum, we can’t accidentally give it a bit too much of a shove and have it simply settle back into its predictable ol’ groove.

Imagine, now, that you have a pendulum with n arms, each with a bob with a mass that is a variable coefficient ofn, n points of articulation on each arm, and variable gravity. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to understand how wildly such a device will behave. In fact (and this is where most people fall off the bike), for surprisingly small values of n, no amount of computing power in the universe can ever predict the path of motion it will describe!

Well, the Earth’s climate is exactly such a system.

Unfortunately one thing that tends to be a little confusing with this is that climate scientists often speak of ‘climate modelling’ and to many people this sounds again like they’re talking about some kind of Big Clock: you stick in all the variables into your computer and ‘ping’ – out comes the behaviour that the Big Clock will exhibit. If it were only that easy.

When you look up a weather report on your i-Device of choice, you’re seeing climate modelling at work. One thing I probably don’t have to tell you, is that you shouldn’t rely on the information more than a few days ahead. That’s the state of the art in climate modelling. We’re just not very good at predicting the behaviour of complex systems (like weather) even a few days in advance. Here’s the kicker: it’s not our fault! These systems are inherently unpredictable. Even if we had super-super-super computers, we couldn’t do it. Even if we had a computer that could take ALL the variables – and that’s a HUGE amount of variables – and then run the simulation in real time to see what it did, it would do us no good – we would get a different outcome every time we ran the program. Just like its very simple distant relative, the double pendulum, a complete detailed model of a complex system like the climate is critically dependent on initial conditions. (We actually do have such a computer – it’s called ‘Reality’. The only accurate simulation of what the climate will do is the climate itself).

So, when you hear scientists talk about modelling the climate, you should not understand that to mean they are trying different kinds of wood for the clock case, or a new type of oil to make the gears run smoother. They mean they are making their best educated guess at the Big Picture of what might happen if they picked enough of the right factors to plug into their equations. Just like you understand the weather man to be doing when he tells you that in a week’s time it looks like rain (are you starting to get nervous yet? No? Then you’re not following me).

So what’s the problem, right? We don’t know what the weather will do – why is that different from any other period in our history? Why are we suddenly worrying now? Well, one of the things that modelling can predict pretty confidently is trends. Just as we can say that a double pendulum pushed gently is unlikely to do the crazy loop-the-loops that we see in the same system dropped from a higher angle, models can tell us that when we change something in the climate system too much, we’re likely to see unpredictable behaviour. In recent times (the last few million years or so) the climate has been ticking along like a gently-pushed double pendulum; little flurries here, little irregularities there, but for the most part, predictable enough for life-forms to have evolved strategies to cope. Things do change, but they change slowly. The system keeps itself in check through millions of years of self-modification that has allowed it to reach a relatively stable, though delicately balanced, equilibrium. The evidence is clear, though, that over the last few hundred years (a VERY short period by geological standards) humans are swinging the pendulum’s arc wider and wider by the simple act of burning things. We’re taking carbon that has been for eons locked up in the biosphere and chucking it into the atmosphere where it has started to imprison the Earth’s heat. We can, therefore, state with a high degree of confidence (based on an enormous amount of accumulated data) that the planet is heating up monumentally faster than it ever has before, and that that heating-up is concomitant with the technological period of humans.4

But when climate modelling scientists make a ‘prediction’ that the temperatures will rise 3 or 4 degrees by the end of the century, you should not think of that as a jolly nice warming of the winter months, and the odd extra scorcher in July (or January, depending in which hemisphere you live). You should instead interpret it to mean ‘We figure the whole system is going to heat up, but how it delivers that heat, and to whom, depends on the swing of the double pendulum…’ What you should expect is periods when the weather seems just as it always has, interspersed with occasional outbursts of extreme behaviour. For a while this will seem normal, and you will be as happy as a frog in a warm pond. But this extreme behaviour itself will start to interfere with the system – it’s another phenomenon of mathematics which those in the know approach with respect: feedback. And that feedback will almost certainly affect the system in ways which we can’t even imagine.5

This coupling of complex behaviour and feedback is the thing which frightens the scientists, because it’s something with which the world of science has become very familiar in the last fifty or sixty years. We know that a complex system exhibiting instability and feedback can suddenly and capriciously become chaotic. That is, the system is likely to reach a point where even modelling is completely useless – it just goes completely berserk.

Trust me when I say that we really don’t want to see our climate system go chaotic. If we hit that point, it is likely that the great majority of the human race will suffer.6

Chapter 3: Jenga

clock

The kind of critical instability that I’ve just described is a lot like the game of Jenga. The Jenga tower will remain upright as long as the system is stable around its centre of gravity. If you lived on top of the Jenga tower, you would probably be aware of nothing at all as pieces are removed. Maybe the tower might wobble a bit, but, hey, things look pretty normal. Every removal of a Jenga tile is exactly the same kind of small effort, but each one of these small efforts moves the system closer and closer to critical instability. When the Jenga system reaches this point, the collapse into chaos happens rapidly and catastrophically, with little warning.

Well, that’s where we are right now. The tower is wobbling a bit, but everyone is saying ‘Hey, the tower has wobbled before and we were OK – what’s the problem? Worse, we continue to slide out the pieces, because that’s what we’ve been doing for years and it’s been just fine.

Unfortunately, this kind of situation is the very worst sort of thing to try to get resolved by a ‘popular vote’. When you combine the Boiling Frog situation with the Big Clock scenario and stir in a whole lot of poorly educated7 points of view, you just get lots of personal assessments of the problem – or debates about even whether or not there IS a problem – and a bucketload of total inaction. The grim truth is that it’s a state of affairs that seriously needs everyone on the planet to be in complete agreement, or we will, without doubt, plod our way into extinction.

The way it stands at the moment is that the vast majority of people are either uninterested or confused, a small minority is in denial and beset by superstition and petty agendas, and another small minority is informed but frightened, frustrated and powerless. I think that what we are seeing here are the ramifications of a massive failure as a species to improve ourselves by putting emphasis on the capacity to understand our world through observing it properly. That is, through science. It is of no use to put an appropriate course of action to a popular vote in this instance, because the holders of a popular vote aren’t equipped to understand what it is they’re voting on. And frankly, I think we’ve run out of time to get them up to speed. Added to that is the negative influence that whatever we need to do will, most likely, cause great inconvenience to a large number of people, and will include increased poverty, loss of jobs, deprivation of luxuries (and maybe even necessities for many) and a general willingness to just suck it up and take a beating. It doesn’t take much insight to see that we’re never going to get people to volunteer for that, unless they become very afraid indeed (by which time – I emphasize once more – it will be way too late).

If ever there was a time for the leaders of our nations to listen to the science, and act decisively and quickly for the good of human race, this is it.

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Image of the Earth courtesy NASA and the Visible Earth project.

  1. If the deniers are right on this and global warming is an inevitable natural process, then we’re in a handcart to hell anyway, and it doesn’t matter what we do. So we may as well make efforts to ameliorate the situation as not. An argument of financial imperative (‘it will ruin our economy’) is quite irrelevant because in a hundred years there won’t be an economy. []
  2. For small angles of swing. As the angular acceleration increases things become a little more complicated, but for our purposes we can assume true simple harmonic motion. []
  3. We still know the lengths of the rods, the mass of the bobs and the gravity coefficient. []
  4. We’re excluding events that happened in geological times of many hundreds of millions of years ago, where lots of weird climate events happened. They are not relevant to our argument because we weren’t involved. If we had been, we’d be dead, which is of course the issue at hand. []
  5. We don’t really have much of an idea of the way the climate system is held in such delicate check anyway – global atmospheric behaviour is without doubt one of the most complex systems we know. All we can say for certain is that that if it changes much, we are in trouble. []
  6. It should be understood here – because I often think that it’s not – that the planet is indifferent to this problem. You hear climate deniers putting forward ideas like ‘Well there have always been periods of global warming’ or that ‘Sea levels have changed many times though the Earth’s history’. Well, sure. But mostly, there were no, or few, humans around, and other creatures were affected by these events, often in the form of species-wide extinctions. The Earth was once a giant greenhouse, covered with plants. But WE could never have lived in it. The planet would probably survive quite extreme results of our global warming efforts – it’s just that we wouldn’t. []
  7. I say ‘poorly educated’ because I think that even the great majority of people who are literate do not have a good grasp on science, nor on rational ways of thinking. Any of you who have been reading TCA for a significant period of time will understand exactly what I mean here. []