Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gulf Oil DIsaster - we don't know should mean we don't do...

Back to the idea of overcomplexity.  I was listening to a panel of scientists discussing the Gulf oil disaster or “incident” as it is referred to by its government regulators. The panel was stuffed with people picked for their expertise in Oceanography, oil, and the environment. The moderator was asking them a series of questions mostly centered on the economic impact to Florida. The panel was answering those questions with answers all centered on their ignorance. No one of these experts knew anything it seems.

Who can tell us how this will affect the life cycle of the gulf? We have no idea. What will happen to oil that sinks to the bottom? We have no idea. When will we be able to stop the outflow of oil? We have no idea. Where will the deep ocean currents carry the oil? We have no idea. Why does 90 percent of the spilled oil go unaccounted for? We have – you guessed it – no idea.

I do not mean this as a diatribe against science. Although one does wonder where the industry managed to find scientists to claim they actually did know something. During their application process dozens of scientists expounded on the safety and safeguards BP had in place. They filed briefs on how swiftly and completely any spills could be dealt with. They drew charts explain exactly where any slicks would go and where they could be contained. Now all such claims to knowledge of any sort on any level of certainty seem to have vanished. Reminds one of the gulls at the beach – all squawking around when there is bread to be eaten. Then gone the moment a storm is brewing.

The point is, that if we do not have sufficient information we should not be conducting experiments which place our economy, our environment and our very lives at stake. If we do not know how to seal wells deep on the ocean floor – then perhaps we should not drill them. If we do not understand how oil spills affect the worlds primary food chain – perhaps we should not exposed them to that risk. If we do not understand the engineering necessary to undo something – perhaps we had better leave it undone.

It is our cult of progress and the belief in the omniscience of science that allows us to commits such huge acts of hubris. Not that this is limited to oil drilling either. We are joyfully going about altering genes on a wholesale level when our knowledge of the complex interactions that will follow is tragically, pathetically limited. We are pumping scores of pharmaceuticals into our bloodstreams with little to no knowledge of how these complex chemicals react in combination with each other. In fact, rarely is our knowledge fulsome enough to predict the future outcomes of our adventures. Again, not that science is cause behind these issues – as in all things American - money is the mover unmoved. But, at the very least, science with a small s needs to quit acting like Science with a large S.

I grew up in central Florida, I have been to Epcot uncounted times and I remember the speech before you enter the “living seas” exhibit. “We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about our own oceans” Gee,who knew?

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