In matters where the public is disengaged, the normal scientific process seems healthy enough. A few scientists line up on either side, evidence gets tested, and sooner or later one viewpoint or another wins out.
It is in the cases where science is interesting to the public where something novel and unfortunate tends to happen. Our usual cases in this crowd relate to climate change or to energy supply. Here, the real science tends to skew more in favor of urban, liberal philosophies, and we find great stubborn swaths of pseudoscience on the other side. But those of us already inclined to urban and liberal philosophies should take no great comfort from this: we can see that in the matter of alternative medicine it is people of our political stripe who are coming up with the nonsense.
It’s refreshing, then, to look at an unfamiliar controversy, one where the trappings of science remain all but undisturbed, but which also masks a fundamentally political debate. This is the story of Easter Island.
The story Jared Diamond tells of Easter Island is, depending on who you ask, summarily rejected or broadly supported by a majority of experts in Polynesian history and prehistory. Both sides are claiming the consensus!
Now the story that Diamond tells is shocking and evocative. A key role in the downfall of Easter Island civilization, according to him, is the deforestation of the island, which was largely or predominantly undertaken to create rollers allowing the weighty statues, built atop the hill at the center of the island, to be installed at the beach facing the vast (insofar as the islanders knew, indeed, endless) sea. Easter Island is the single most isolated populated island on earth, and it is likely that a few generations after settlement, the islanders had little confidence in the existence of any other land anywhere!
That is, they succeeded in destroying what to them must have been the entire world!
Mark Lynas (famed for his global warming book Six Degrees) reports on the contrary position taken by Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt. In their book “The Statues that Walked” they argue that Diamond is wrong on several major points:
- The forest was made extinct by rats, not islanders
- The deforestation did not harm the islanders
- The statues were not rolled down the hill but “walked” upright
and so on. Leaving nothing whatever of Diamond’s amazing parable.
But notice, everything they stress is about what didn’t happen. Isn’ t this familiar?
- There’s no hockey stick
- The warming is natural
- The warming has been reversed
- The greenhouse effect does not exist
- The CO2 is accumulating for natural reasons
etc. etc. No coherent story, just contradiction of the main points of the opposition. So who is to be believed?
This sheds quite a lot of light on the phenomenon of postnormal science, if you ask me. Postnormal science happens after science comes up with an inconvenient result. Then a body of anti-science is concocted to oppose it. In general, then, your best bet is to look for the science that was emerging before the controversy started. Also, look for the science that doesn’t look like a lawyer came up with it. Look for the science with an actual narrative, not a scattering of incoherent counternarratives.
But what especially turned me back to Diamond’s side of the story was the “Statues that Walked” hypothesis. Lipo and Hunt propose that rather than rolling the massive stone obelisks down the hill, they were tilted upright at the mine, and shifted down the hill vertically!
Now why the hell would anyone do that?
Let me offer a few of you some scale. It happens that I have a certain personal obsession with wide, obtusely triangular islands, hailing from one myself.
It turns out that Easter Island is comparable in size to Montreal, perhaps a bit under half the size. (Google refused to put these two maps on exactly the same scale for some reason.) So for the benefit of those in the audience familiar with Montreal, we are talking about “walking” a 90 ton obelisk from the cross above the Cartier monument, down the hill, across downtown, the whole way down the canal, to be placed at the beach at the first lock in Lachine! And why?
There is only one possible reason I can think of for such an astonishing travail, and that is to prove Jared Diamond wrong!
Diamond sees it the same way I do.
How could tall 90-ton statues have been dragged over unpaved hilly terrain? The only reasonable solution, to avoid their tipping and breaking during transport, is to transport them horizontally and then lever them into an upright position. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the leading scholar of Easter statues, who has spent decades cataloging the hundreds of statues, carried out an experiment in which Easter Islanders demonstrated for her their horizontal transport and levering-up of a model statue. But Hunt and Lipo claim that statues were transported vertically. This seems an implausible recipe for disaster. Imagine it yourself: if you were told to transport a 90-ton statue 33 feet high over a dirt road, why would you risk tipping and breaking it by transporting it vertically with all its weight concentrated on its small base, rather than avoiding the risk of tipping by laying it flat and distributing its weight over its entire length?
That’s decisive as far as I am concerned. But there’s another small detail that I was startled to notice. In another part of Diamond’s rebuttal, we see
Hunt and Lipo, relying partly on a paper by Peiser (written apparently without first-hand experience of Easter Island), claimed that Easter’s collapse was due to European impact, and that the islanders were coping successfully before European arrival.
Peiser? Surely not our old friend Benny Peiser. But it is! And check the link! See where he got his piece published!
See, there really is a postnormal science industry, and the players in it are indifferent as to what topic they address!
Newcomers to the climate wars should be informed that “Energy and Environment” is a quasi-journal which exists largely for the purpose of publishing weak papers which contradict climate science.
Here’s Wikipedia on Benny:
Benny Josef Peiser, born 1957, is a social anthropologist specializing in the environmental and socio-economic impact of physical activity on health. He was a senior lecturer in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) until July 2010, and is a visiting fellow at the University of Buckingham.
Peiser is director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, was the founder of the Cambridge Conference Network, and is a member of the editorial advisory board of Energy and Environment. He is a regular contributor to Canada’s National Post.
UPDATE: I made the following comment at Kloor’s (with slight amendments here):
Maybe now that I’m trying on a journalist hat rather than a science blogger hat, the people who say I should have read Hunt & Lipo before saying anything have a point. I am obligated to read through accounts that I am very confident are misleading before making a public case that they seem misleading.
It may be the correct way to “act like a journalist”. The idea that this has to do with “acting like a scientist”, though, is in my opinion incorrect, and revealingly so. Being a scientist means, among other things, having the expertise to winnow positions that cannot be correct, and focusing attention on positions that have some chance of being correct. This is not commonly understood; this skill is widely taken as “arrogance”.
Let me illustrate by getting back to the particulars. The Lipo and Hunt hypothesis, as I understand it, has a late arrival of Polynesians, cutting by the number of years available to develop the statue building culture and build the statues from 1100 to 500. Let’s say it takes 200 years to get the idea going. Then the rate of statue building has to triple, since it had to take 300 years rather than 900. Further, the population is fixed at 3000, rather than going up to 15000. This further quintuples the per capita effort, making it 15 times more work per capita. Further, while on the overshoot model most of the time the island was in food (i.e., energy) surplus, on the sustained peak population model the island was in food scarcity through the entire time. Finally, instead of rolling the statues down the hill to the beach, they have to pivot them in a vertical position.
Assume 1/3 of the population is able-bodied and vigorous at any time, which is generous given the food scarcity already postulated. This leaves basically 1000 people who are on subsistence agriculture (and since there are no big trees, there is limited fishing) to carve three statues a year, averaging some 50 tons each, and move them in a vertical position an average of five miles. (Note also that they are much taller than they appear, because a large base is buried.)
In short, however astonishing the achievement of the Easter Islanders in the overshoot model, it is approximately a hundred times more astonishing (or more) in the Lipo/Hunt late-arrival, early-deforestation, walking statue subsistence model.
Is that dispositive? No, perhaps not. But it sure seems like a long shot, and I take it as such.
That all said, my observation in the lead article was not primarily about Lipo and Hunt but that established participants in the obfuscation of climate science were taking up their cause. My resulting proposal is that “postnormal” science is a feature that science accretes by the actions of people driven by extrascientific motives, not by the core participants of science.
I think it is clear that having a perfect model for overshoot/collapse is appealing to some of us, myself included. I am very taken by the apparent confusion of symbol with substance in the latter days of the moai culture as described by Diamond, and I would in fact dislike it if that lesson were imaginary.
I think it is equally clear that the remaining Easter Islanders are looking for a more heroic myth than being an object lesson for modern growth economics gone amok, and that Hunt and Lipo are sympathetic to them. And I think the E&E crowd just wants to deny the possibility of overshoot altogether, which makes them allies of Hunt and Lipo here.
So the ingredients for postnormalcy are all there. The question, as always, is which side has the most compelling story. I have to say that all else equal the story I prefer seems to me dramatically more plausible, but I may be fooling myself.
If I were a real science journalist, if the world really supported those, I’d have the time and resources to chase this story down. As it stands, I am just voicing an opinion.
And one thing I want for Planet3.0 is that people voice their opinions. In some ways I am pleased to see some genuine disagreement over something other than the usual output of the climate-confusion factory. At least people have to think their own way through it rather than having their opinion mass-produced and prepackaged.
UPDATE: I find it silly to be instructed by Keith as to what a scientist does or doesn’t do. That said his implicit point that, as a journalist, I should have read the book before taking on its position, which comes from his own expertise, is taken, and learned. I’ll endeavor to be less timely and more thorough in future.
UPDATE:Anna writes: “MT, IMO to the orig. post you should add Hunt&Lipo’s response to Diamond, at Lynas’s blog. (you say you found it redundant, but IMO it should still be added”