Monday, 6 February 2012

An awful lot of hot air. Not much light.

Gas Flaring
Half listening to Start The Week earlier today I heard someone ranting on about how silly people are to 'believe in' Global Warming. I assumed it must be Nigel Lawson but when I checked the website it turned out it was Peter Hitchens. I then went and had a look at what Hitchens has been saying on the blog he writes for the Mail on Sunday and found that - Lord above,  I agree with him. He's raging against the 'cult' of Global Warming and he's irate at being shouted down by 'fanatics' and being called a 'climate change denier' as he should be (irate that is). He lambasts the purveyors of sensationalist stories of polar bears on melting ice flows. He makes a big deal of his 'doubts' about climate change and being a sceptic, faced with so called scientific 'truths'. All of which is fair enough. Fanatical adherence to any belief system, especially if it means shouting down and insulting people who disagree with you is never an acceptable way to conduct a debate. Journalists shouldn't use misleading or distorted material just to sell papers. And he's right - any scientist who claims to have no doubts about 'The Truth', not just on this subject but on any area of research is an idiot. Of course there is doubt. There is always uncertainty. There is always disagreement. There is always more evidence and new ways to analyse it. That's why science, properly carried out, is not a cult, or even I would argue, a belief system.
I expect you can tell where this is going. To me, his disbelief in Global Warming seems to constitute something of a fanaticism in its own right, and if anyone is shouting anyone down here it's Hitchens, albeit in print. It's hard to imagine him treating any kind of uncertainty on anyone else's part as anything other than a contemptible capitulation. And as for complaining that journalists use misleading and overly-emotive pictures and stories to further a cause - he works for The Mail for Christ's sake!
Let's lay my cards on the table - I think he's wrong. There are a few 'facts' he quotes that I think are just plain wrong. For example, if I understand it correctly, the world was not warmer during medieval times than it is now. Europe was warmer, but not the whole world, and it's the global average that matters of course, not the regional variations, which is why our current spell of cold winters don't necessarily mean anything. Still - I claim no particular authority on the subject. I raise this canard simply to get the climate change believers and unbelievers going:
"But what about this study?"
"That study was flawed..."
"But Smith & Jones 1996 said..."
"Their sample size wasn't big enough."
"That was allowed for in a later model"
"which failed to incorporate the Kwrptzki effect"
"the Kwrptzki effect was minimal in the 1990s"
and so on and so forth.
But the fact is - I'm not sure I do understand it correctly. I'm not an expert and I am not in a position to assess the evidence, and without some years of single-minded study I am not ever likely to be. But neither is Hitchens. Neither are most of us. Most of us perhaps have at best a science A level or perhaps a BSc but that doesn't count for much. It's not the sort of thing you can work out from personal experience or 'common sense' or by applying your A level physics . It's a lot more complicated than that. So how are we supposed to form an opinion? Ultimately we have to take someone's word for it - someone who does know what they're talking about, assuming of course that it's possible to identify such people. With that in mind I'd like to take the unlikely step of putting in a word for Climate Scientists.

The thing that probably got me most about Hitchens this morning was his derision of us silly climate change 'believers'. How stupid are we to think that perhaps all these climate scientists might be onto something. Ok, there's not total agreement among them - it's science, as I said above. There's always doubt - as there should be. There are uncertainties, mistakes and even downright lies, but another thing that Hitchens is wrong about is that there is any serious disagreement among the majority of climate scientists about whether the earth will warm as a result of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions (and other pollutants). There are disagreements about all sorts of parts of this idea (not to mention the ramifications) but the basic idea seems pretty much accepted. Truth though is not a matter of democracy. The truth is true even if no one knows it. Its perfectly possible that the majority of scientists is wrong. It is, I suppose, just about conceivable that a few renegade climatologists are being silenced by the scientific establishment. Indeed a conspiracy theorist friend of mine pretty much takes it as read that a scientist being ignored by the majority makes him all the more worth listening to. The idea that he might be being ignored because he's incompetent or nuts is inadmissible (Another unfalsifiable for my list.) The fact is, I hope they are wrong, because the way things are going we're unlikely to get it together to limit carbon emissions in any meaningful way so let's hope they're wrong. But I doubt it.

One thing I can speak about with some authority here is scientists. I may not be a climate scientist but I know scientists. I was one for a bit as a Phd student. I lived in the belly of the beast (and did not fare well) and one thing I do know is that it is not possible for all these hundreds of scientists around the world to be corralled into claiming that something is true when they know it's not. It's even less possible for someone to have fooled them all into believing that something is true when it's not. Science doesn't work that way, or at least, non commercial science doesn't. Labs in private industry are a different matter. Who knows what goes on there? And of course, in order to get funding university labs and other independent research institutions are not immune to corruption, but they all have to publish. That's the important thing here - publication.

This is the thing I think a lot of non-scientists don't get. In most industries, publishing an article in a professional journal is something you do alongside your job, if you have time and have something interesting to say, or want the publicity, or whatever. In science, publishing is your job. Every piece of research you undertake as a scientist is about getting an article published in a learned journal. This is not about getting media attention or raising your profile or getting funding (although it's that too) - it's about getting your work out there into the hands of other scientists. Commercial research (into the latest cancer drug, or motor technology or shampoo) has maybe lead us to imagine that it's all about secrecy - intellectual property rights and commercial espionage, but real science is the opposite. Scientists might not want to publish until they are sure they know what they're talking about but then everything has to be published, or everything relevant. Everything that was done as a part of the study has to be laid out in full. Any other information that the study depends upon has to be cited from other equally learned articles in other journals. Anything that is not fully accounted for is not allowable in a scientific article. In other words, you can't just say what you like, or what you'd like to believe. Every claim you make has to be either demonstrated in your study or you have to be able to say where you got it from.
How is this enforced? Lay-people speak laughingly of 'peer review'. It sounds like the old boy network nodding stuff through on a wink and a brown envelope, but it's not. Peer review in any case is just the preliminary checking - to make sure you haven't said anything you can't back up, or made some other stupid mistake. Then there's proof reading and further checking by the publisher of course. Obviously this is a fallible process but those involved take it extremely seriously because of the next part of the process, where the article goes out and is read by every other scientist in the world who has any interest whatsoever in the subject, and they are not your friends. In fact they're up against you. If they can discredit or call into question anything you've said you can be sure they will, and if it's bad enough your career is more or less crippled, and likewise that of the publishers and peer-reviewers, your supervisors and co-workers, and last but not least, your funding.
I'm not saying it's perfect but as systems go it's about as hard to fiddle as is humanly possible. (You can perhaps see now why I'm so sceptical about commercial research*) The idea that all those hundreds of climate scientists, not mention the thousands of associated mathematicians, statisticians, physicists, computer technicians, oceanographers, ecologists, palaeontologists, and all the rest are somehow either being kept quiet or in the dark is just... I have no words. It would take a conspiracy so vast, so powerful...

All I'm saying then, Peter Hitchens (and Nigel Lawson), in an entirely sceptical, non-fanatical way, is that, yes, you might be right. I sincerely hope you are, for all our sakes. I'm not a climate scientist and they might have got something wrong and everything will turn out ok, but it seems unlikely. In the mean time, just in case, wouldn't it make sense to try and be a bit careful? Modify our behaviour? Rein ourselves in a bit? Oh I see - that's the bit you don't like. You just don't like being told what to do, do you. Well none of us do, but sometimes you just have to stop shouting and put up with it.

*But wait - all these climate scientists are in effect doing commercial research for the vastly powerful multi billion dollar renewable energy corporations aren't they? Not like those poor impoverished researchers into fossil fuels, always struggling for funding, always having to bang on about sustainability and sacrifice, being ignored by the US government...
Oh no, hang on...

Friday, 3 February 2012

Good Fortune

full moon - EXPLORED 19/11/2011

A while back, a friend suggested I write something about Fruition - something about clarifying the purpose of the book, or my intentions, or something. Anyway, here goes.

First up - Fruition is all about that classic question –
'If you could live your life over again, knowing what you know now, what would you change?'
I've thought about that a lot. Unlike Piaf I think I can honestly say I regret almost everything. One period in my life especially that I've wished and wished I could go back to and do again is my late teens and early twenties. What a mess!
It’s a period that still haunts me. I could so easily have become one of those sad individuals in his thirties, still living with his parents, with his fish tanks or his model soldiers, unemployable and spurned by women. But I am aware that, under slightly different circumstances, with a less tolerant family, things could have been much worse. I don't think I would ever have killed myself (I didn't have the will and I was always oddly hopeful) but events could have spiralled. I was never into dangerous behaviour, drink or drugs, but I could have just let things fall apart. I could have had an accident, or, without a home to go back to, I could have simply failed to hold down a job, to make friends, to pay the rent. I could imagine that happening to me. In Fruition, this is where Gabriel Fortune’s story starts.
One thing I didn't want the book to be was autobiographical. If I found myself trying to faithfully describe something that actually happened, or a place or person that actually existed, I'd have to chuck in some occurrence or characteristic from somewhere else, just to force myself to create something new. Trying to describe what actually happened to me sounds like an awful chore and what I've written above about it is as far as I want to go with that here. The themes though - of how a person can get into such a mess without resorting to the predictable narrative devices of violence or addiction interests me. It happens all the time - people simply fail to thrive. Without any dramatic gestures they simply fall away and hardly anyone even notices they’re gone. I was very influenced in this by a book called Stuart: A Life Backwards - not so much because of the character (who's life included plenty of violence and addiction) but because its reverse narrative put his earliest experiences (and hence the explanations for what happened) at the end of the book and hence provide a thrilling conclusion. I'm not sure how well I've achieved it, but a question I'd like the reader to be asking almost from the beginning is How on earth does a person end up like this? What has happened to him? The usual suspects - childhood neglect and abuse are hinted at from early on but again I wanted to avoid the usual. Sometimes it is something far less obvious - something that seems ordinary, or at least unexceptional, but which, under certain circumstances can contaminate everything. The full explanation, in as far as there ever is such a thing, is not revealed until book 4.

Books 1 and 2 are basically alternative versions of the same lost life. Books 3 and 4 are about how he changes that. The overall story is not about perfectibility but about the possibility of change. In many ways it is a long meditation on another classic question – ‘What is The Good Life?’ This inevitably (to me) raises all sorts of exciting philosophical and political questions and I give Gabriel plenty of opportunity to debate with the various characters he meets, especially on the boat. On the other hand I’ve (perhaps surprisingly) hardly touched on questions of God and spirituality. The fact that when they die everyone suddenly discovers that the afterlife is nothing like what they expected makes the whole subject somewhat moot and that’s quite subversive enough in my opinion. Ultimately though, Gabriel’s real preoccupations are far less cerebral. Mainly he wants to know how to make a living without selling out (the quaint old 20th Century notion that doing as well as possible and making as much money as possible aren't the same thing), and in particular he wants to find a woman to love. Fruition is very much a love story, although this doesn’t become obvious until book 2 and it is not resolved until the very end. Childhood and parenting are also major themes throughout the book. Remaining anti-autobiographical though, the events in his early life - the descriptions of his family and home, are completely different to mine. I wanted to see what it would be like to have sisters instead of a brother, and to be much younger than everybody else in the family (an unplanned late pregnancy) as my mother was in her family. I couldn't resist using the house we lived in though because it was just such an amazingly ugly old place. Gabriel wants to become a painter where I wanted to be an ecologist. We both like gardening though.

My warped idea of reincarnation is of course just a narrative device, not a belief system of mine (although it seems no less plausible than the alternatives. Who's to tell?) I'm always intrigued by the things people come to believe in and I made this system up partly as a sort of mischievous 'See? I can play that game too'. I also wanted The Afterlife to be a whole huge other world – one that would involve an immense journey overland, alone or with just a few companions. This had two purposes - one was to provide a place where Gabriel could think about and talk about his lives through a sort of quasi-therapeutic conversation. (I like books that use therapy as a device to tell us what our hero thinks is going on.) The other purpose was to give Gabriel an enormous and extraordinary landscape to travel through – and one that doesn't work by the usual rules. Having this apparently limitless new world to play with meant I could set my characters in the landscapes I'd had swimming about in my brain for decades - places I'd been to and stories I'd told myself to stop the 'real world' colonising my mind completely. As Gabriel says in book 1:
“Everybody said I ... was always ‘off in my own little world’, but they were wrong. It wasn’t a little world at all. It was enormous. There were landscapes and characters they wouldn’t even have come across in their weirdest dreams. I spent a lot of time getting it all down on paper – writing about it or drawing and painting. I did some huge scenes – part map, part landscape, with gargantuan shaggy beasts and archaic birds, engaged in incomprehensible behaviours among misshapen trees and alien fungi. Offshore, vast dead-eyed fish and primitive whales turned among forests of coral and kelp. I don’t know where it all came from. Nobody ever asked me about it. Dad and mum just shook their heads and tutted and went away. In my world there were settlements too, some of exquisite architecture and peopled by gentle and tolerant souls. Others bristled with armaments and dripped with pollution. And always there was a woman, and she looked past all the crap and saw me as I really was, and we’d be happy together.”
It’s difficult to pin-point any direct literary influences here but one unlikely source was Peter Jackson’s three films of The Lord of the Rings (I find the books unreadable.) They have just this sense of the tiny figure moving through a huge and ancient landscape. There’s a lot of ecology in Fruition too. The animals and plants we find there are all real or plausible, though they might not appear so to the non-biologist.

At the same time I hope my book doesn’t fall into the standard genres of 'fantasy' or 'science fiction' or 'horror'. I have trouble with these sorts of books because often they don't seem to feel the need to be even a bit rooted in real experiences and emotions, hence they can have anything happen and I’m left not caring. To really feel the otherness of these strange places, I think we need to be regularly reminded of what it’s like to live in normal everyday life. I always liked the wardrobe device in the Narnia books but I felt they should have gone back and forth more, to refresh the feeling of wonder. Doctor Who seems to amaze someone with the Tardis every other episode.
On the other hand, I find the entirely 'realistic' novel - historical or contemporary, just too pedestrian for words. They say that the difference between fact and fiction is that fiction must make sense, but I’m not so sure. Life does not always make sense, and fiction should be able to reflect that. I hope any books I write (I have two more on the way - one almost complete, the other still in my head) will always feel as if they could be partly dreamed or hallucinated but always set alongside everyday life. The novelist should not feel the need to explain every incongruity. Children's books don't seem to feel this need to tie up every loose end. (I sometimes like to think of Fruition as a children’s book for adults. Is it just me or do modern authors seem very reluctant to make stuff up?) ‘Magic realism’ always seemed too self-consciously clever. Something’s missing... Perhaps I don't read as much as writers are supposed to but I so rarely find anything I want to read these days, unless you count non-fiction, which I read a lot. That feels like a terrible thing to have to admit. Mind you, I don't like most of the music I come across either but I can usually find something new to listen to. Perhaps I'm just out of the loop.
I think I'm a very 'visual' person, and very affected by music too - Fruition seems very connected in my mind to the Fauré Requiem (which will definitely be the record I'll be running into the waves to save when they have me on Desert Island Discs. Gabriel Fortune - Gabriel Faure? I hadn't noticed that before. How curious.) TV and film seem more free to invent things without going all post-modern on us (I particularly like the work of Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, and Jos Whedon.) On reflection, I think the books that have had the most (subconscious) influence on Fruition would probably be Cider With Rosie, The Time Traveller's Wife and Moominland Midwinter.

I've also become discouraged from reading other people’s books by the fact that so many seem to have such a knowing, world-weary take on the human condition, where nobody really seems to like anyone very much and there's nothing anyone can do to change anything. (I'd love some recommendations to prove me wrong on all this by the way.) I really wanted to give Gabriel not exactly a happy ending, but something hopeful – something redemptive. I wanted him to find himself among friends in a way he never did in life. Although personally I’ve always found people difficult I do believe in generosity and humanity when I think a lot of writers don’t. Apart from anything I actually don’t think their pessimism is very realistic. It feels lazy and smug – why bother to try when everything will probably go badly anyway? Better to just enjoy the spectacle. So I also wanted to avoid what I suspect would be the normal cynical ending where he would find that no matter how he tries to change, something new inevitably springs up to thwart him. How drab. How very predictable. At the same time of course there can be no simple, clean happy-ever-after, but those aren't the only two options.
In short, what I wanted to write was the book that I’d always wanted to read but could never find.

So there came a time when my embryonic career in ecology was aborted and I was about forty years old and I had all this in my head. I looked at my life and realised that although I wasn't exactly old, I really was at the end of my main attempt at life. I didn't know what I was going to do next - I was single, homeless and unemployed again.  Although I guessed it was some way off I had a very strong sense of the end of my life being out there somewhere. It wasn't a bad feeling. I just knew it was there in a way that I hadn't before. So this book is also about death, but not in a morbid way (or only in the literal sense.) I don't believe in any Afterlife but I'd quite like to think that when death comes I'll find myself in a sleeping bag in a deck chair on a boat heading out into a frozen ocean...