Science! Sci Am Needs a Thought Checker

Today, from the formerly fine publication that was the second magazine I ever subscribed to as a teenager in the 1970s, which I read religiously for decades, and, finally, about 15 years ago, canceled once it became dumbed down political noise, we hear that Mass Deaths in Americas Start New CO2 Epoch. How would that work? Like this:

The atmosphere recorded the mass death, slavery and warfare that followed 1492. The death by smallpox and warfare of an estimated 50 million native Americans—as well as the enslavement of Africans to work in the newly depopulated Americas—allowed forests to grow in former farmland. By 1610, the growth of all those trees had sucked enough carbon dioxide out of the sky to cause a drop of at least seven parts per million in atmospheric concentrations of the most prominent greenhouse gas and start a little ice age. Based on that dramatic shift, 1610 should be considered the start date of a new, proposed geologic epoch—the Anthropocene, or recent age of humanity—according to the authors of a new study.

“Placing the Anthropocene at this time highlights the idea that colonialism, global trade and the desire for wealth and profits began driving Earth towards a new state,” argues ecologist Simon Lewis of Leeds University and the University College of London. “We are a geological force of nature, but that power is unlike any other force of nature in that it is reflexive, and can be used, withdrawn or modified.”

“the most prominent greenhouse gas” is CO2? Really? More prominent than, say, water vapor? Oh well, this is only from Scientific American, we can’t expect them to get the science right or anything.

But I miss the point – we are GUILTY!

“This little rat is GUILTY!”

The horrors inflicted by the ancestors to some of us (1), even though they lead to reforestation, are still, I guess, bad. Let us count the ways. Remember, this is Science! About 500 years ago:

1. Millions of Indians died of smallpox and other diseases once these diseases were introduced or reintroduced into the population by the early European explorers. Some (much smaller) number were killed more directly by the European settlers;

2. Africans were rounded up (by other Africans, but why start quibbling now?) and sold to slavers who sold them to plantation owners in the Americas and elsewhere;

3. Due to the resulting reduction in the number of farmers represented by the fall in the number of Indians and the transfer of entire populations of Africans, forests grew on what used to be farmland;

4. Trees suck CO2 out of the air when they grow. A lot of trees suck a lot of CO2 out of the air;

5. A reduction of at least 7 PPM in atmospheric CO2 resulted by around 1610;

6. A little ice age resulted.

Now, let’s apply a little thought to these points:

A minor quibble: taking African farmers and turning them into slave farmers doesn’t in itself reduce the number of farmers. Maybe they just mean the ones that died? That would reduce the number of farmers. Then again, per capita, perhaps slaves farmed larger areas than did free Africans? That would seem to be the goal – get as much farming as you could out of the slaves. So, it’s not clear what, if any, role slavery played in reforestation. No big deal, except scientists owe it to us to be precise in such claims.

Now for the real issue:

If a change in 7 PPM in the atmosphere – a coupe percent change – is enough to start a little ice age, then the massive change of over 100 PPM (from a tiny, tiny percent to a somewhat less tiny percent, but still)  that’s happened in the last couple hundred years should, if in fact the atmosphere is that sensitive to CO2, caused a complete meltdown of everything – by, like, now. But even by their own numbers, the atmosphere is heating up just a tiny bit, and hasn’t heated up at all in the last couple decades, even as the CO2 keeps piling up.

The reasonable conclusion: temperature just isn’t very sensitive to changes in atmospheric CO2. Almost doubling it has had, at most, a tiny effect. So, if theory says it should have a huge effect, such that a 7 PPM decrease was enough to start a little ice age, then a 100+PPM increase should have remarkable effects.

But it hasn’t. Therefore, the theory is what we call ‘wrong’ and needs to be discarded.

Here’s the inevitable confusing graph:


Note how CO2 is indicated to decrease in 1610, which causes – well, nothing much. The trend revealed by the eyeballs seems to be continuing unchanged from the beginning of the graph.

*** AH! I made a gross error in the post. Goofed in reading the above graph. Must be going blind. Eliminated the wrong picture and comments. Sincere apologies to all, especially the authors at Sci Am. Thanks to TOF for pointing it out***

The essay concludes:

And this new epoch could end quickly or endure through millennia, depending on the choices our species makes now. “Embracing the Anthropocene reverses 500 years of scientific discoveries that have made humans more and more insignificant,” Maslin notes. “We argue that Homo sapiens (2) are central to the future of the only place where life is known to exist.”

(I always love the flexibility with which ideas are used or discarded based on emotional needs. For example, I’m betting these folks would argue all day that free will is an illusion over coffee in the faculty lounge – here, it is an ominous central reality; or that life must be all over the place in the universe due to uniformitarianism, Sagan, the Drake equation and so on, but here we need to think we’re all there is in order for the proper emotional note to be struck. It’s odd, isn’t it?)

So, this little piece, under the guise of an arcane discussion of geological classification, end up trying to get us all nodding together and clucking our tongues at how mean people have been historically, and how we’re going to ruin everything unless we are made to behave better. Who, oh who, will save us from ourselves?


1. Not me, personally, I don’t think – I got Eastern European peasants, low-lifes from Scotland and Ireland, and even a little Cherokee in me. I don’t think any of those guys did much Indian slaughtering or African enslaving. Some of them eventually did farm land in Oklahoma and Texas, which means they benefited indirectly from the deaths of Indians and the slaughter of buffalo (don’t forget the buffalo!) which made land available, as it were. Not to mention that I personally haven’t slaughtered or enslaved anyone, or even killed a buffalo (although a lot of innocent cows, pigs, chicken and fish have realized their personal final causes for my benefit) – that would seem to be part of ‘guilt’ wouldn’t it? Am I missing something here?

2. If we are just mammals, all precedent suggests we’ll not last more than a few million years, tops, and probably shorter than that. Mammals are just not very long-lived as species – hardly any that are around today are more than a few million years old. The earth and the life on it is almost certain to outlast people by hundreds of millions of years. Plus – get real. It is all but unimaginable that humans could do anywhere near as much damage as the event that wiped out the dinosaurs – and, within a couple million years, a visitor from another planet would hardly suspect anything untoward had even happened – the earth was back to crawling with life of every sort. I guess what I’m saying: pick a perspective and stick to it – don’t keep jumping around from various geological to various human scales.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Science! Sci Am Needs a Thought Checker”

  1. If we’re all meat robots anyway, then who really cares if the planet dies? Aren’t we all destined for oblivion regardless? What difference does it even make?

    But I guess that’s Secular Humanism in a nutshell. Don’t believe in objective truths; try to shove objective truths on the world.

  2. If the two red lines are 1900-2000, why are they closer together than 1800-1900? Methinks there is a scaling issue. Besides, if the CO2 line really is hyperbolic and trending straight up, it’s too late anyhow. Armageddon is 4:00 this afternoon.

    1. Damn, that was a stupid mistake on my part, even by my standards. Thanks for the catch. Correction made and apology offered. I should probably take the whole post down, but it’s Lent – I’ll leave it up as a mortification. Sheesh.

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