filter good information from bad in all
sources, but especially in our increasingly online world.
In Deep Future, Curt Stager, a climatologist, lays out the consequences of global warming, citing credible
reasons for human contribution to
increased greenhouse gases that
trap heat in the atmosphere. The author’s most interesting observations
takes us 55 million years into the
past when the so-called Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)f
produced a warming period lasting about 200,000 years after which
Earth was returned to its previously
scheduled ice age. Stager uses a significant body of scientific evidence
to show how increased atmospheric
carbon content produced measurable and significant increases in
average temperature and increased
ocean acidity with consequences for
flora and fauna. A surprise for me
was his observation that the warming we have apparently launched
may actually postpone the next ice
age (predicted to come in about
50,000 years based on detectable
cycles) for up to 400,000 years. He
points out that ice ages may be far
more damaging to human society
than global warming despite the
predicted and very negative side effects of the latter.
If you read any of these, let me know
what you think.
Vinton G. Cerf is vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist
at Google. He served as ACM president from 2012–2014.
Copyright held by author.
DEPARTING FROM MY usual stream of consciousness, thiscolumnisaboutthree books I have just read: Bullsh*t,a Future Babbleb
and Deep Future.c The first two get at
the proliferation of wrong but persuasive assertions about the past, present, or future. The last one appeals
to logic and humility. I draw them to
your attention because I found them
usefully thought-provoking and often
In Bullsh*t, John Grant systemati-
cally demolishes a wide range of mis-
taken beliefs and illustrates human
foibles that often lead us to believe
the unbelievable because we want
to, not because the arguments for
somehow outweigh the arguments
against. In a world filled with mis-
information (whether intentional or
out of ignorance), disinformation,
and scientific theories that have
been falsified by new experimental
evidence, we need all the tools we
can muster to put claims to rigorous
test. This takes real work and even
some pain as some favorite notion
is undermined by counterevidence.
Good science demands that we be
prepared to abandon long-held be-
liefs when confronted by new facts.
Once it was thought that neutrinos
had no mass, now we find they have
very small, variable mass and the
various flavors of neutrinos oscillate
from one flavor to another while trav-
eling from their origins. Current evi-
dence makes extremely lightweight
a Bullsh*t, J. Grant (pseudonym of Paul Barnett),
MJF Books, N Y, 2014.
b Future Babble, D. Gardner, Penguin Group, N Y,
c Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years on Earth,
C. Stager, St. Martin’s Press, 2011.
objects even weirder than they were
when they were first predicted to account for conservation of mass/ener-gy in subatomic interactions. While
Grant does not deal with neutrinos,
he does cope with endless examples
of “junk science, bogus claims, wacky
theories, and general human stupidity” to quote the subtitle of his book.
In Future Babble, Dan Gardner goes
to great lengths to explain the dynamics and even fundamental aspects of
human nature that lead us to accept
predictions that prove to be wrong.
He explains Paul Ehrlich’s elevation
and recognition (that is, many prizes
and awards) for his Population Bombd
book and the subsequent failure of
most of his predictions to materialize. Gardner presents examples of the
rationalizations that lead people to
cling to favored theories and beliefs.
He distinguishes “hedgehogs” from
“foxes” in that the hedgehog knows
only one thing and is certain of it
(and conveys this conviction emphatically) and the foxes know they don’t
know everything and are prepared
to cope with discovering error and
adapting to it. We learn what it is the
hedgehogs project that induces some
to believe them and not others who
have humility in the face of unknown
unknowns.e We crave certainty and
predictability and uncertainty makes
us uncomfortable. Even our brains try
hard to find patterns in noise to make
sense of the world around us.
Both of these books should be re-
quired reading for people struggling to
d The Population Bomb, P. Ehrlich, Buccaneer
Books, N Y, 1971.
e Whatever else you may think of Donald Rums-
feld, his explication of “unknown unknowns”
Now for Something
DOI: 10.1145/3154767 Vinton G. Cerf