Francis Bacon and Environmentalism
Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was the foremost exponent of the Scientific Method of the early modern era. Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive reasoning and careful observation of events in nature. Most importantly, he argued this could be achieved by use of a sceptical and methodical approach whereby scientists aim to avoid misleading themselves. A great legacy of Bacon was the description, in his Novum Organum (1620), of “Idols of the Mind”: widely accepted myths which commonly obstruct the path to correct scientific reasoning.
Four centuries later Bacon’s idols are still with us. Scientists are still kidding themselves about how much they know and how well they know it. There are still many convenient lies with which researchers delude themselves that they are probing reality when all they are doing is advancing a career. In the Halls of Academe this never mattered much; the real advances came from Bell Labs, Big Pharma and the military.
But it matters now. Shoddy science has joined forces with millenarian doomsayers and, as a result, entire nation states are abandoning well established, functional energy policies in favour of pie-in-the-sky renewables in order to save the planet.
The most egregious example is to be found in fluid dynamics, now the exclusive province of mathematicians who have little regard for Bacon’s “careful observation of events in nature”. It is not really a science at all and yet the public sees it as such and accepts without question its divinations about the state of the planet’s atmosphere in coming decades. The fluid continuum is a myth. Global climate predictions are based on this myth; they are not science.
Energy policy self-harm is not the only consequence of the new environmental militancy. Other Baconian Idols are the myths of Natural Balance and the Sanctity of Wilderness which are equally pernicious.
The world is believed to be permanently in a steady-state condition, a condition of Natural Balance. Any observed variation in environmental quantities such as species numbers or global temperature must therefore somehow be Man’s handiwork and evidence of Man’s carelessness and greed. In fact statistical analysis shows that species numbers and climate measurements vary randomly in quasi-cycles which tend to be longer than a typical research program. Signal processing engineers call this “red noise”. Over short time intervals, red noise cycles often look like linear trends. This was first noticed by ecomomists in the 1970s and termed “spurious regression”. Science has still not caught up.
Examples of Bacon’s Idols are legion and proliferate wherever scientists are funded to carry out research for ideological reasons. The Sanctity of Wilderness presumes that unmanaged forest will, of itself, attain a higher plane of existence and to remain in that state indefinitely. In my own state, Tasmania, an island the size of Wales, one third of the land area has been set aside as an oxymoronic “Wilderness Heritage Area”. Wilderness is seen as the highest good even when this view conflicts with the safety and prosperity of the community.
This is particularly true of attitudes to wildfire. In January 2016 wildfire burned through thousands of acres of the Central Highlands. A visitor to the area reported on local media that “We need for people to understand that this is not a natural event”. A local ecology professor was also upset by the loss of local flora: “They’re killed by fire and they don’t come back … It’s a species that would have been around in the Cretaceous period. It’s regarded as one of the main reasons for listing Tasmania as a world heritage area.” Another professor said: “This is bigger than us. This is what climate change looks like, this is what scientists have been telling people, this is system collapse.”
A nearby weather station, Liawenee, has been operating continuously in this area since the 1920s and its records show no evidence whatever of any significant change in either temperature or rainfall in recent times. These statements were hysterical nonsense. Are we really expected to believe that, in the 65 million years since the Cretaceous, after numerous ice-ages, cosmic impacts and major bushfires, conditions were suddenly so bad in 2016 that these species were “gone for good”? Are we to believe that the alpine herbfeld of the Central Highlands had never burned before?
Wildfire is a natural phenomenon in the Tasmanian landscape and this was so for millions of years before the arrival of humans. How is it that these people, who appear to understand so little about the natural world, now presume to own it?
When left to itself, eucalyptus forest burns every 40 to 200 years. The longer the interval between fires, the more intense is the fire when it finally occurs. Indeed one species, the Mountain Ash (E. regnans), the world’s largest flowering plant, requires these less frequent, more intense burns to propagate itself. It is commonly assumed that Tasmania was mostly wilderness prior to European arrival but that is not the case. The indigenous people continually burnt their country in order to maintain grazing lands for game. Early navigators such as du Fresne reported numerous such fires in what are now regarded as wilderness areas (Gammage: The Biggest Estate on Earth).
Bacon’s Idols have consequences. In our misguided worship of Wilderness, we Tasmanians are creating the conditions for a major disaster. A bush fire in 1967 killed over 60 people and burned 600 homes in Hobart. The time is now right for such a disaster to recur and it is likely to be worse than in 1967. Environmental concerns have lead to inadequate fire hazard reduction measures made worse by the spread of suburbia into the bush. Hobart now has over 70 km of city-bush interface.
Those leafy suburbs will become a disaster area once again, thanks to the power of Bacon’s Idols over the minds of policy makers. Their expert advisors, the university ecologists quoted above, will have much to answer for when this holocaust finally does occur.
They will, no doubt, blame climate change.
John Reid is a retired physicist living in Tasmania. More information on Bacon’s Idols, non-physical climate models, red noise and spurious regression can be found in his forthcoming book “The Fluid Catastrophe” (Cambridge Scholars Publishing Limited).