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This column is going to sound political, but it isn’t. It’s going to strike many readers as partisan, but it isn’t that either. Maybe it’s defensive. And it’s much longer than I usually allow for a KJR, for which I apologize. Stay with me — it’s about the rise of intellectual relativism, a subject that’s highly relevant to you as an IT leader.

The starting point is last week’s column, in which I mentioned recent climatological research reporting that hurricanes have doubled in total destructive power over the past 30 years, and that global warming is the likely cause. In response, many of you suggested, with varying degrees of emphasis, that I should keep politics out of this column.

I do. I don’t, however, keep scientific research out of this column. That most of my correspondents equated the reporting of scientific consensus with inclusion of political bias reflects the growth of intellectual relativism — an epistemological position that says all explanations are equally valid — and the attendant fog of persuasive disinformation it depends on. Intellectual relativism isn’t restricted to discussions of public policy. It’s alive and well, residing in the halls and boardrooms of many corporations in America, which is why it matters to you.

Global warming got this discussion started in KJR, though, and it makes an excellent case study for the problem of intellectual relativism. So with some misgivings for spending most of a column on a scientific, as opposed to IT-related topic, here goes:

George Will, on ABC’s 9/25 edition of This Week, made some points on the subject, as covered in a story posted on NewsMax:

Environmentalists who claim global warming has caused an increase in U.S. hurricane activity obviously haven’t checked with the National Hurricane Center, which has kept statistics on major storms over the last 150 years.

That’s probably because those statistics yield one inescapable conclusion: If global warming has had any impact at all on hurricane activity, it’s lessened – not increased – the frequency of major hurricanes. From 1901 until 1950 – when the U.S. economy was a fraction of its current size and fossil fuel consumption was next to nil – there were 34 hurricanes rated at Catagory 3, 4 or 5 in size on the Saffir Simpson scale.

In the latter half of the twentieth century – when U.S. manufacturing exploded, automobile use skyrocketed and rampant consumerism was the order of the day, hurricane activity actually decreased by nearly 20 percent, declining to 28 Catagory 3-5 hurricanes from 1951 to 2000.

That’s almost as low as the last five decades of the 19th century – when the overwhelming majority of Americans lived on farms, manual power was generated by watermills and cars had yet to be invented. From 1851 to 1900 there were 27 major hurricanes in the U.S.

The scientific source of the above is The Deadliest, Costliest, And Most Intense United States Hurricanes From 1900 To 2000. As is clear from the title, it tabulated only hurricanes that hit the United States — a fact Will glossed over and NewsMax failed to mention.

A different NHC article, Tropical Cyclone Climatology, provided a graph with complete counts of Category 3 and higher hurricanes. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that if you’re interested in a link between global warming and hurricane activity you should look at the world, not U.S. landfalls. That’s why it’s called “global” warming, not “United States” warming. These numbers tell quite a different tale:

1850 — 1899: 61, or 1.22 per year

1900 — 1949: 79, or 1.58 per year

1950 — 1999: 125, or 2.50 per year

2000 — 2004: 18, or 3.60 per year

(For the 2000 — 2004 data, straight-line extrapolation from just four years has a big error bar, but I decided to save you the time. Also to save statisticians some effort, simple linear regression of the underlying annual data yields a slope of 1.3% and a correlation coefficient of 0.12 with p = 0.93. Eyeballing the data strongly suggests a straight-line trend pushing up on an underlying cyclical phenomenon — a bit like the path your yo-yo might take as you climb a ramp — but I’m not enough of a statistician to perform the necessary analysis.)

Again: The questions surrounding global warming — whether it’s real or a measurement artifact; its magnitude; its causes; and its likely consequences — are matters of scientific research, not political debate. They’re resolvable through careful observation, measurement, experimentation, and mathematical modeling. At this juncture, here’s the state of consensus in the research community, as best I can assess:

  • CO2’s status as a “greenhouse gas” is basic physics, not up for debate.
  • Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased 25% since the industrial revolution began — a conclusion reached through analysis of “fossilized” atmosphere recovered from polar ice cores, which no reputable researcher disputes.
  • Global temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations are strongly correlated in the paleontological record — a generally accepted conclusion.
  • Global average temperatures, while difficult to measure accurately, appear to have risen (by roughly one degree Fahrenheit, distributed unevenly across the earth’s surface). The scientific debate over the amount of warming and how best to measure it is active and ongoing.

That’s the state of scientific consensus. The political consensus has no more value than that of the legendary kindergarten class that decided the gender of a stray cat by voting (the result: “Ben” gave birth to a litter of kittens a few weeks later).

Which, at last, brings us back to the issue behind the issue: Intellectual relativism. It’s on the increase. In corporations its primary manifestation is decision-making driven by politics — by weighing the biases and relative influence of decision-makers, tailoring and shading the evidence to fit. Its impact on you as a working IT manager is immense, if for no other reason than that businesses that allow it to fester won’t last. Rooting it out is a huge challenge.

And this column is already way too long, so techniques for applying the lessons drawn from the global warming controversy to dealing with intellectual relativism in the workplace will have to wait until next week.

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