A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Voltaire and Hurricane Katrina.....

Perhaps the finest analysis to date of the misuse and abuse of Hurricane Katrina by commentators, religious zealots, and environmentalists comes from the pen of Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University: 'Katrina rains down calamity...so we, of course, look for a scapegoat' (The Sunday Telegraph, September 4). This is a brilliant piece, which starts by recalling Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 [about which, see my own blog of Tuesday, January 04, 2005 - you will need to scroll down a little].

Here is Ferguson in full flight:
"...The reality is, of course, that natural disasters have no moral significance. They just happen, and we can never exactly predict when or where. In 2003 - to take just a single year - 41,000 people died in Iran when an earthquake struck the city of Bam, more than 2,000 died in a smaller earthquake in Algeria, and just under 1,500 died in India in a freak heatwave. Altogether, at least 100 Americans were killed that year as a result of storms or forest fires.

Natural disasters - please, let's not call them 'Acts of God' - killed many more people than international terrorism that year (according to the State Department, total global casualties due to terrorism in 2003 were 4,271, of whom precisely none were in North America). On the other hand, disasters kill many fewer people each year than heart disease (around seven million), HIV/Aids (around three million) and road traffic accidents (around one million). No doubt if all the heart attacks or car crashes happened in a single day in a single city, we would pay them more attention than we do.

As Voltaire understood, hurricanes, like earthquakes, should serve to remind us of our common vulnerability as human beings in the face of a pitiless Nature. Too bad that today, just as in 1755, we prefer to interpret them in spurious ways, that divide rather than unite us..."

Interestingly, in this context, and following my Friday blog (below), I too have been asked about Enlightenment values and suffering, to which I have replied:
"...the Enlightenment world-view does not have, and does not claim to have, an answer to the problem of human suffering. This is perhaps most cogently expressed in Voltaire's Candide.

Philosophically, science and religion ask different classes of questions. Religion asks 'teleological' (i.e., purpose-driven) and 'transcendent' questions. Teleological questions include: "What is human purpose?" "Why did God create?" and "Why is there suffering?" Transcendent questions include: "Is there a God?" and "Is suffering universal?", questions which, by their essence, transcend our physical universe.

By contrast, Enlightenment science asks quantitative, or 'modelling', questions, and it attempts to build abstract models - theories, or laws - that describe a physical process, and which become the more accepted the more predictive they are, or the better they predict the future behaviour of physical phenomena.

I personally believe we mix these two classes of questions at our intellectual peril, although... each individual will strive to achieve a unified world view to suit their own condition.

But, unquestionably, Enlightenment science does not offer comfort for events like Hurricane Katrina, nor would it claim to do so, unless, of course, a real understanding of a physical phenomenon is itself a form of 'comfort'."

Yet, the eye of the storm is not the issue, and never was. Every forty-to-fifty years, New Orleans will be hit by a Category 4-5 Hurricane, as was so tellingly predicted in the National Geographic (October, 2004). This we know.

The hard questions are not about the science, but about human choices on the ground, in New Orleans itself: "Why were the levées not built to withstand a known-level of risk?"; "Why was a city that is largely within a 'bowl' and beneath sea level so badly planned?"; and, "Why were its large population of the poor and disadvantaged so ignored and left out of the equation?"

These are the questions to challenge the soul of a nation that prides itself on being able to face all adversity and to be at the forefront of world science. A totally natural phenomenon has devastatingly exposed human political and social weakness in the American Deep South, where the 'First' and 'Third' worlds still collide in potential chaos and hell.

And, finally, do visit the blog, Pootergeek, which collates some of the more crass comments relating to Hurricane Katrina: 'Blamestorm' (September 4).

Philip, candide (sic) as ever. Earl Grey in the garden?

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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