The New York Times Columnist Who's Helping To Ruin The Future

Why is John Tierney so skeptical, and yet so gullible? The New York Times' science columnist is one of the most vocal global-warming doubters in the media, but when it comes to Ray Kurzweil's Singularity and geo-hacking, he's suddenly wide-eyed.

People often lump Tierney together with George Will, as global-warming doubters at major newspapers who use somewhat specious arguments to downplay the scientific consensus that we're slow-cooking our planet. But Tierney's position as the Times' science columnist gives him more authority than Will's as a random TV pundit. But also, the thing I find fascinating about Tierney is that even as he goes to great lengths to paint the evidence about global warming as mere hype, he's also eager to buy into the hype whenever there's a claim that new technology will deliver us to a beautiful future, without having to make any hard choices. It's hard not to believe the two things are related.

Reading Tierney's columns and blog posts on global warming, a few things become clear. He's a global warming skeptic, rather than an out-and-out denier. (In one blog post, he says he believes there's "some risk" that global warming will be a danger.) But he's given tons of exposure and legitimacy to outright deniers, including some groups with ties to the oil industry. And he's done a lot to paint the scientific consensus on global warming as pure hype and conformism.

In Tierney's world, the reason the majority of scientists agree that global warming is a worsening crisis is dick-measuring. In a column on Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, Tierney spends most of the column quoting Roger Pielke, a climate researcher who's been one of the most vocal critics of the idea that the polar ice caps are melting. According to Pielke, scientists present conclusions about global warming as definitive not because the data supports them, but just to boost their own "authority in the political debate" and tarnish their opponents.

And Tierney implies that scientists sign on with the global-warming orthodoxy because that's where the money is. (One blog post is provocatively titled, "Global Warming Payola?".) And the idea that we're cooking the planet is sold to the public by taking advantage of natural disasters and tragic images of sad polar bears:

Two studies by NASA and university scientists last year concluded that much of the recent melting of Arctic sea ice was related to a cyclical change in ocean currents and winds, but those studies got relatively little attention - and were certainly no match for the images of struggling polar bears so popular with availability entrepreneurs.

Recently, Tierney has also been pounding on the common conservative meme that the same scientists who now warn about global warming were warning, in the 1970s, that we faced a new human-made ice age. Since they were so wrong back then, and have changed their tune so drastically, the implication is, why should we believe them now? (The meme is massively overplayed, but even if it were true, so what? Smart people adjust their views when they receive new information. And when the data becomes overwhelming, only idiots and tools stay agnostic.)

You should definitely read Andrew Leonard's takedown (at Salon.com) of one of Tierney's columns, in which he basically claims that the more energy we use, the faster we'll solve any environmental problems — because we'll all get richer, and rich people demand clean air. (Shorter version: CO2 is odorless and colorless, so relying on wealthy people's distaste for smog won't do much good.)

I'm not just picking on Tierney because he's the science columnist at one of our biggest newspapers — I'm fascinated with him because while he paints global-warming concerns as pure hype, he's also one of the biggest boosters of the hype around the Singularity, as simplified by Ray Kurzweil and others. Reading Tierney's writing makes me wonder if the two things (skepticism on pressing, real problems, and wide-eyed enthusiasm for fictional, easy solutions) go hand in hand.

In fact, Tierney has explicitly pushed the idea of a technological Singularity, happening by 2030, as the alternative to neo-Malthusian warnings that overpopulation will result in starvation and environmental disasters. In one blog post, "Malthus Vs. The Singularity," Tierney cites a paper by Robin Hanson in the IEEE Spectrum saying that the Singularity could speed up our economic growth so much, our economy would double within a month. (Or even a week.) Says Tierney, this provides an alternative to that downer Malthusian view:

Now, you could argue that his projections of artificial intelligence are as speculative and unprecedented as the Malthusian visions of resource depletion. But I'd bet on him over the Malthusians. Unlike Malthus, we can look around and see that we already have the energy and technology to feed a larger population than exists on Earth today. And we can look at Ray Kurzweil's graphs showing exponential growth in computing power for more than a century, with no apparent end in sight.

Here's a smaller version of the Ray Kurzweil graph he's talking about:

The New York Times Columnist Who's Helping To Ruin The Future

Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, was a frequent touchstone in Tierney's column and blog posts in the summer of 2008, although not so much since then. And the idea that you can extrapolate from existing trends in computing power into the next century is a cornerstone of Kurzweil's prediction that machines smarter than humans are coming in the next few decades. (Actually, the graph maps "calculations per second per $1,000," which seems a tad arbitrary — and how do you measure how many human brains $1,000 will buy you?)

Tierney eagerly seizes on Kurzweil's predictions that rapidly accelerating technological advances will solve all of our problems — he's devoted a column and at least one blog post to Kurzweil's Law Of Accelerating Returns, which says that progress has been speeding up since the beginning of life on Earth. (There are more charts, which show the timeline between multi-cellular organisms and the development of mammals, versus between the Industrial Revolution and the development of the personal computer. Guess which took longer?) According to Kurzweil, the time between Paradigm Shifts has been halving with each decade, and soon our paradigms will be shifting constantly.

Among other things, that means we'll have unlimited clean energy soon, life expectancy will start shooting up every year "faster than you're aging," and all of our problems will be solved. In another blog post, Tierney addresses his commenters who doubt Kurzweil's Law. (Don't they realize it's a Law?):

In response to my Findings column about [Kurzweil] and a post about his graphs, some readers were skeptical. Francis and others insisted it's naive to assume exponential progress can go on - that, just as bacteria proliferating in a petri dish will eventually exhaust the resources, we too will hit a limit.

I think these skeptics are missing the lessons of history, but before explaining why I like Mr. Kurzweil's theory more than theirs, let me grant them a couple of points. First, there is no guarantee that exponential increases in computer power will continue, or that the exponential growth in computer science will be matched in other fields. One of the most common mistakes of technoprophets is to assume that the the technology du jour will shape the future. When radio was invented, futurists envisioned locomotives powered by radio waves; when atomic power was discovered, there were predictions of nuclear-powered car in every garage.

Also, futurists tend to underestimate the social and political obstacles to progress, so they're often too optimistic about how soon people's lives will be transformed. Just because new tools exist doesn't mean they'll be used widely. Donald Norman, a technology expert profiled in my Findings column in December, says the chief problems to overcome in introducing new technologies involve people, not machines.

That said, after watching the impact of computers on so many fields, I share Mr. Kurzweil's belief that these tools are especially transformative and that change is just going to accelerate. Yes, there are physical limits to what can done with computer chips. But for a century now, each time computer engineers ran into previous physical limits - with the original electro-mechanical machines, with vacuum tubes, with transistors - they jumped to a new technology, and they're already working on successors to today's chips. It may seem naive to expect continuing leaps forward, but I think it's naive to ignore the trend of the past century - or the past 10,000 years.

The Cassandras have been warning of limits and resource depletion and population crashes for thousands of years, but as Julian Simon explained, we've kept exceeding limits and finding new resources and extending our life expectancy. The new problems lead to new solutions that leave us better off in the long run. Today's Cassandras are focused on climate change, which could bring real problems, but to think these problems are insurmountable seems to me as short-sighted as the prophecies of the 1960s ("overpopulation" leading to worldwide famines) and 1970s (the exhaustion of energy supplies).

If anything, climate change seems much more manageable than previous "crises" because the chief consequences are so far in the future. We have decades to figure out ways to deal with it: to find carbon-free sources of energy, to develop techniques for removing carbon from the atmosphere or geoengineering the climate, or simply to adapt. These are all formidable challenges, but our tools for dealing with them are going to be improving exponentially, as Mr. Kurzweil argues.

So once again, you see the connection — even as Tierney says that we have decades to figure out what to do about climate change, he's also tremendously excited about a Singularity in which all our troubles will melt away and magic robots will carry us into the cyber-heaven on their shoulders. Rather than viewing the Singularity as a huge disruption, one which we can't possibly understand in advance, as many science fiction writers have done, Tierney buys into the hype that the Singularity will give us unlimited rice pudding.

You'll notice the mention of "geoengineering" in that last paragraph — it's another one of Tierney's favorite pie-in-the-sky themes. If it really does turn out that CO2 in the atmosphere is causing some problems, there's a potential fix that doesn't involve making any sacrifices:

Originally called geoengineering, this approach used to be dismissed as science fiction fantasies: cooling the planet with sun-blocking particles or shades; tinkering with clouds to make them more reflective; removing vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.

Today this approach goes by the slightly less grandiose name of climate engineering, and it is looking more practical. Several recent reviews of these ideas conclude that cooling the planet would be technically feasible and economically affordable.

Possible ideas include lofting aerosol particles into the ionosphere to reflect shortwave radiation back into space, spraying seawater mist into low-lying clouds, to brighten them and reflect sunlight away from the Earth, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Scientists have pooh-poohed the idea of geoengineering because — wait for it! — they don't want to lose the prestige and money they've gotten from warning about carbon emissions. But there are real reasons to think that geo-engineering without reduction in carbon emissions would be worse than doing nothing — and that's if it even succeeds. Futurist Jamais Cascio, author of Hacking The Earth, writes in the Wall Street Journal recently:

To be clear, geoengineering won't solve global warming. It's not a "techno-fix." It would be enormously risky and almost certainly lead to troubling unforeseen consequences. And without a doubt, the deployment of geoengineering would lead to international tension. Who decides what the ideal temperature would be? Russia? India? The U.S.? Who's to blame if Country A's geoengineering efforts cause a drought in Country B?

Also let's be clear about one other thing: We will still have to radically reduce carbon emissions, and do so quickly. We will still have to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, and adopt substantially more sustainable agricultural methods. We will still have to deal with the effects of ecosystems damaged by carbon overload...

[Geoengineering] would simply hold temperatures down temporarily, doing nothing about the causes of climate change, let alone ocean acidification and other symptoms of a carbon overdose. We can't let ourselves slip back into business-as-usual complacency, because we'd simply be setting ourselves up for a far greater disaster down the road.

Cascio explains further here:

I'm an optimistic person — but my optimism comes from a faith that we, as human beings, will figure out a way to change what we're doing before it's too late. I don't believe there are magical "get out of eco-hell free" cards lying around, or that the Singularity is going to solve all of our problems. The Singularity has given us some fantastic science-fiction novels by people like Vernor Vinge, Rudy Rucker and Charles Stross — but it's not going to come true, any more than the novels 1984 or 2001 were accurate descriptions of those years in real life. But even if computers did become smarter than humans in 100 years' time — for some values of "smarter" — I'm not sure that would save us from the results of our own fecklessness. For one thing, who's to say those super-smart computers would care whether the Earth was habitable for humans?

You can certainly look at our history, as a species, and see an unbroken line of progress. But you can also see many eras where we've driven ourselves into a technological hole (the Dark Ages come to mind) or engineered ourselves into mass starvation (China's Great Leap Forward was a purely human-made catastrophe.) There's certainly no guarantee that we get to have an unbroken upward progression going on for ever and ever.

We'll get a beautiful future — but only if we work for it. The idea that a wonderful, shining future will be handed to us, or that the awful dilemmas we're facing as a species will just go away, feels worse than foolish. It feels like sabotaging the future, for the sake of a bit more comfort and a false sense of security today.

If Tierney only used his bully pulpit at the Times to raise doubts about global warming, he'd just be one of many obstacles to saving our planet. But the fact that he's simultaneously guzzling the Kool Aid on things like Ray Kurzweil's Panglossian Law of Perfect Awesomeness and the mad-science easy fix for global warming makes him something much worse. His cheery outlook is actually helping to ruin our future.