Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Yeah yeah, I watched it

It, being of course ABC's "Last Days on Earth." Like yesterday's, I guess this post is obligatory.

First of all, ABC News gets full props for unabashedly presenting a scientific worldview. For the most part, they resisted the compulsion to balance reality with delusion, although for some reason they had to sneak in a preacher to mumble mumbo jumbo about biblical prophecy during the discussion of the Yellowstone supervolcano. This is particularly bizarre since the event will in no way resemble any biblical prophecy.

Other than that, they kept their skirts clean, even staying rock solid on evolution when that big rock hit the Yucutan channel and wiped out the dinosaurs.* They get a big gold star for putting cleanliness above godliness in the punch line segment on global warming. They stomped on global warming deniers like they were cockroaches, sparing not fossil fuel executives, James Inhofe, and even their own former selves. I particularly liked the comparison to tobacco executives, hitting another very ugly bird in passing with one asteroid impact. Then when they brought in President Gore as the hero of the story they truly started down the path of penance for a multitude of sins.

I can hear the wingnuts howling already, from way over here. I'm sure corporate headquarters will force 20/20 to do a special on global warming and evolution starring Inhofe and Anne Coulter.

So, could it have been better? Sure, I have to earn my curmudgeonly stripes or else what am I doing here? So, in some particular order:

There wasn't much science education in there after all. They frog hopped from conclusory treetop to conclusory treetop without much in the way of explanation. What exactly is a gamma ray burst again? For that matter, what's a gamma ray? How does that greenhouse effect work? If you were disinclined to believe any of this, the only real persuasion was provided by authority. Everbody knows Steven Hawking is supposed to be a great genius, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a familiar figure and he seems to know what he's talkng about. . . Maybe pick five apocalyptic scenarios instead of seven and give us a little more background. Which brings us to number 2:

They didn't do a very good job of sorting out the parameters of probability and severity. A nearby gamma ray burst would indeed sterilize the planet, but this is of more philosophical than practical importance. Ditto with a wandering black hole swallowing up the earth. That such events happen from time to time in the universe and have no doubt wiped out fertile planets here and there in the ineffable vastness of time and space tells us something about the fundamental nature of reality, but they aren't worth worrying about as a practical matter. However, more or less conflating such events with supervolcanoes and a global flu pandemic, or even a bioengineered plague, tends to leave an impression that the latter are existential threats, which they are not. Which brings us to number 3:

I think they made a mistake by emphasizing the worst case global warming scenario, which happens to be exactly where the wingnuts have focused much of their attack on President Gore already. That 40 foot sea level rise might happen in a hundred years or maybe 150. There is speculation that the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets could collapse much sooner, but that's all it is. Given that the President is under sustained and vicious attack over this, it's probably best to stand on the firmest ground -- agricultural disasters, monster cyclones, the spread poleward of tropical diseases, water shortages, mass extinctions, etc. That's all plenty bad enough, and impossible to seriously dispute.

Okay. I'm also glad they reminded us that we still have that itty bitty problem of nuclear war to worry about. Good job, folks -- and for the record, Rudy Bednar is the executive producer. Michael Bicks is the senior producer. Maybe, just maybe, some way, somehow, more of the corporate media will start to focus on stuff that actually matters, and our civilization will have a chance. But then I remember that this is the same outfit that employs John Stoessel. Maybe there's no hope after all.

*Although they repeat the commonplace inaccuracy that the dinosaurs were made extinct. Most species of dinosaurs died out, but not all. The dinosaurs' descendants are all around us, among the most numerous and visible large animals on earth. (I say large animals to distinguish the birds from the far more numerous insects and various marine taxa.) This is a very important corrective to what I might call folk conceptions of evolution.