23,518 days without Armageddon: what we don't know
Take heart, because we really don’t know what we think we know.
I think the hardest job in the world is the guys who sit 40 to 100 feet beneath the earth for days at a time, waiting for Armageddon. These individuals would be among the first to know that the world is over, since they would be the ones turning the keys, committing a series of extraordinary reliable machines to an unstoppable course of action. A solid rocket motor lights; an enormous gas generator pushes a 150-ton hatch to reveal a hole in the ground; the missile soars into the sky on a pre-programmed path to deliver the most destructive bits of technology humanity has ever devised, anywhere in the world, in 30 minutes or less.
I’ve known one of these people, the ones who work “down in the hole,” who wear the “toilet seat” oak-leaf on their missile badge. They tend to be wound a bit tight in the head, like a watch whose crown was turned one too many times. I would be too if I spent a couple of years rotating through a three-story two-man hotel shared with a giant humming bomb.
These people, and the ones who ride in submarines filled with the beasts, simply know too much. They have been desensitized to the ignorance of scale. They go home and deal with the same stuff the rest of us deal with: kids, wives, girlfriends, car payments, career, etc., then go back to that surreal place where the end of the world is a key turn away. I think it’s almost a gnostic experience, much more so than the controllers at NORAD, the generals at the Pentagon, or even the President of the United States. There must be a real connection with the thing that isn’t there when you’re simply reading from code word card.
Without getting into overused platitudes, in the past 120 years, the sheer number of things and the complex web of knowledge and experts to make them, has exploded exponentially. We colloquially call all this “technology” but it’s really culture-defining, species-changing stuff. Lifespans have increased, while the amount of “work” people have to do—even the poorest in the poorest countries—to feed and clothe themselves is a fraction of what it was at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s comfortable and easy to begin to feel that we’ve got everything covered, and that we only need to change our behavior to fix what’s broken.
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Let me cite an example: global warming. It’s empirically real, or so says NASA, based on NOAA, historical and direct measurements of things like ice cores, and likely human-produced greenhouse gas is a factor, as evidenced by CO2 records.
The effects of CO2 on an atmosphere are documented. We even have an example of what a ruined habitat looks like. You need to look no further than Venus, which both exist in the Sun’s habitable zone, have similar mass, density, and composition. But Venus is a hellscape of sulfuric acid rain, crushing atmospheric pressure, and searing surface temperatures of nearly 900℉ (477℃). If Earth had a similar ratio of CO2, we’d all be long-dead.
A number of scientists, activists and political leaders say to avoid being like Venus, we have to change our behavior in a rather drastic fashion. Much of this preaching is, I think, the result of pure hubris. They believe that because we have data, we can figure out how the thing works. The thing here is the Earth itself, and we’re really close to it, such that small changes tend to have a big effect on our day.
Yet we didn’t create this thing. And we actually know relatively little about how it really works. We live on about a quarter of this planet’s surface, and we have been able to accomplish some wonderful things using nothing but long-chain carbon molecules from fermented dinosaur and plant matter, various gases trapped in the Earth’s crust, seawater, air, and sand from the beach. Our imaginations hail us as some kind of conqueror because we are basically able to live in any environment on our planet (though that’s clearly not true).
Because we can design expensive toys that allow a small number of humans to live 250 miles above the earth’s surface, or beneath the waves; because we can carpet orbital space around our planet with satellites to observe us and collect data on all kinds of things; because we can send robots to Mars, and probes beyond the confines of our solar system, we think that we can predict what our planet will do and how it works.
But we don’t really know a whole lot about how our planet works.
Plus, we have a really bad case of selection bias, coupled with a bout of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Selection bias is when a researcher distorts results by selecting a sample that doesn’t represent the target population. One classic example of this is a call-in or opt-in poll, where the population of respondents themselves represents an initial filter, which of course skews the poll results (like 90% of Republicans at CPAC chose Donald Trump as the 2024 nominee). Baader-Meinhof is a perception issue. When you buy a new car, for instance, then you see that model seemingly everywhere.
Climate change researchers at times overestimate impacts or imply strong correlations where they don’t exist. Research on the effect of climate change on tree growth in the Southern U.S. suffered from sampling bias, a kind of selection bias. The selected sample overestimated regional forest climate sensitivity by 41-59%, according to an article published in Nature. Various other studies have examined the presence of sampling bias in climate research, so it is a thing worth looking at.
Those of us who consume layperson articles written about scholarly research have no real way to independently verify the research itself. Whether the lay public is a political leader, a famous teenager, a celebrity, or you and me, we are bombarded with “science writer” versions of conclusions and evidence. Many times “science writers,” journalists who cover the academic field, are motivated by factors other than pure research—like who is willing to pay to publish the article. Editors headline articles in ways that attract readers, so even a small supported fact applied to a big leap in logic ends up reading “Is Manhattan sinking?”
When the same research is passed around the journalistic table and the most popular takes filter their way up to the mainstream media, perception ends up being magnified in the public space. It seems like we see doom predictions everywhere, and even more when we’ve thrown our mindset in the “do something about global warming!” bin. People who have bought in to the conclusions tend to see the evidence for their choice everywhere, and that’s textbook Baader-Meinhof.
Now, I’m not implying that global warming isn’t a thing, or that humans have no contribution to it. Nor am I saying that humans don’t have the ability or the responsibility to do something about it. I am saying that what we do know about that topic is not the whole picture or even enough of the puzzle to know what the picture looks like. Also, let me remind you that I’m using climate change as one example, because it’s a fairly easy one for me to use, versus picking, say, epidemiology, or biodiversity in mosquito species.
My point is that our understanding of such things that can greatly affect how our day turns out, and if true in their predictive value, can be akin to Armageddon, is not only imperfect, but also actually miniscule in comparison to what is knowable. We are not all operating “down the hole” with the keys to our own destruction in our hands.
Oh, we have knowledge, but we don’t have understanding of what we don’t know, which is a much bigger set than the things we do know. Like exponentially bigger. The problem is that the people—mostly good-intentioned, honest, and ethical people—who have direct contact with the things they’re expert in: climate scientists, biologists, data modelers, designers of artificial intelligence, Elon Musk, are affected by being close to those things on a daily basis. They live down the hole like the Air Force officers who sit silently waiting for Armageddon, and they feel like they’re the first to know.
Let me give you a few more examples.
As recently as October 2020, CBS News reported that “half the Great Barrier Reef’s corals have been killed by climate change.” The folks who study global warming were easily able to connect their data to the consequences and predict doom. But lo and behold, the Australian Institute of Marine Science—the folks who study the reef for a living and are trusted by just about everyone as the authority on it—say that two-thirds of the reef are showing record levels of coral. The reef is recovering nicely, they say.
Yes, there’s politics involved. A scientist who didn’t believe the doom story was fired for his heterodox views. Now the recovery doesn’t mean that the reef’s ultimate fate is going to be different than the doomsayers predict if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, and ocean chemistry continues to change. It’s a given than if we continue for a thousand years like we’ve been doing, without new knowledge or understanding (if we’re indeed right about our own understanding), this planet will become drastically less habitable for us, and for the Great Barrier Reef’s coral as well.
But we don’t know what the layperson thinks we know, because the science writers don’t focus on that (it would kind of betray the point of reading the article if the lede began “This probably isn’t a big deal…” )
The deepest hole humans have ever dug in the earth’s crust is about 7.6 miles—40,230 feet—deep. The Soviets drilled this hole back during the Cold War, and gave up when they could dig no further due to pressure and heat. That hole is less than 1/3 the thickness of the crust of the Earth, and then there’s 1,800-odd miles of mantle under it. Rotating at the center of our planet is a huge iron core that generates an electric/magnetic field. That field creates a global shield against damaging solar winds, ionizing radiation, and other cosmic dangers. We literally couldn’t live here without it.
Look at Mars. It’s much smaller than Earth, and its magnetic field couldn’t protect it from those dangers, though Mars is also in the “habitable zone” for humans. Elon Musk wants us to go to Mars to live. But Mars lost most of its atmosphere to space long ago. There was once running water on Mars. There’s still lots of ice at the poles, whole oceans of it. Without a global magnetic shield, and an atmosphere, it’s unlikely we’ll see the planet become habitable (possibly we could live deep in caves there, never seeing the sun, not a very happy existence). We know all this about Mars, but we don’t know how Earth works.
Humans have collectively only explored less than 20% of the Earth’s oceans, which make up 70% of our planet’s surface, according to NOAA. We don’t know how the oceans actually function. If we did, the weather forecasts might be a whole lot more accurate. We have catalogued many creatures that live in the oceans, and keep some in captivity (don’t get me started on Beluga Whales in “human care” because you won’t convince me they like it or belong in tanks, never mind Bottlenose Dolphins or Orcas). They know far more about the oceans than we do.
We have recently learned that we don’t know how much water is “subducted” under the tectonic plates we live on and form the floor of our oceans. We previously thought that hydrated rock went down three or four miles. New data shows it could be 20, 60, or more, into the mantle of the planet. This means that there could be three or four times as much ocean volume under the ocean floor as the water we see. It means that the flow rate of water into and out of this rock—which serves as a filter and a chemical reset—could be far greater than believed.
We think we know that the oceans are affected by CO2 levels and that climate change will do this or that, but what if the oceans can adjust by themselves, and therefore we have more time to deal with our atmospheric issues? There are many questions raised by things we don’t know, even though there are plenty of things we know are bad without doing a whole lot of research (medical waste washing up on beaches, and birds dying with six pack rings around their bodies is bad).
In the 1970s and 80s, there was this big panic about the ozone layer being depleted, and a big “hole in the ozone” was in the news. Researchers blamed the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in aerosol cans, and in refrigerants like R22 that many air conditioners use. So we banned CFCs, forced thousands of consumers and businesses to convert to other refrigerants, and made a big deal about it. Well, the changes worked, better than anyone expected. It’s good that we took concrete measures, but nobody predicted the speed with which the atmosphere healed itself.
Now, the same folks who raised giant red flags about CFCs and ozone are saying our carbon emissions will eventually overwhelm the positive change made by the Montréal Protocol, which banned CFCs. We didn’t know everything about atmospheric chemistry that caused—and healed—the ozone hole, and we don’t know nearly as much about ocean subduction, chemistry, temperature regulation, and the natural cycles that govern these things as many lay publications would tell you we know.
This planet has tremendous resources and systems that tend to center themselves around our continued survival, versus trying to kill us. If the earth did “decide” to kill us, there would be little to nothing we could do. Volcanoes, cyclonic storms, ionizing radiation, blocked photosynthesis from ash in the stratosphere, all those things would surely lead to our mass demise just like a nuclear winter following a mass exchange of weapons of mass destruction. The planet holds our lives in its hand, and it’s almost like the place was designed to protect us from our own stupidity (which is a major reason why my faith in God is not scientifically insane).
Before you invest yourself into this or that activist mindset, keep in mind that we don’t know the total population of the set of things that are knowable. The set is finite—there’s no such thing as infinite knowledge—so it could be measured. We know what we do know, in narrow and fractured fields of study that expand exponentially in many directions. But with each exponential expansion of knowledge, we find out a little more of exactly how much we don’t know. And that also grows exponentially.
There remain significant problems to be solved in our research and understanding of how things we see and feel every day actually work. We see the things, and we are affected by them, so they matter to us, and we would love to feel like we can make a difference.
Those Air Force officers “down the hole” know they can make a difference. Every day they don’t launch makes a difference. So far, they’ve had 23,518 consecutive days without a launch since the 576th Strategic Missile Squadron activated using two Atlas “D” rockets at Cooke AFB, California on April 1, 1958. We know all about how nuclear weapons work, but we’ve yet to understand how not to have them.
Take heart, because we really don’t know what we think we know. If ignorance is bliss, we can all do a lot more smiling knowing that there are people whose lives and careers are dedicated to learning more about preventing Armageddon every day. They live with the thing we’re all afraid of, whether it be nuclear war or global warming.
Do what you can, but let’s not get extreme in the need to “do something to make a difference.”