Science, People & Politics, issue 1, Volume ii, Volume II, published 9th March, 2009.

Gaia feels the heat

Knowledge in western science exists through sense and feeling, by discovery, through measurement and/or observation, is acquired from others, or it is created by giving meaning to observation on the basis of the application of other knowledge and testable and/or persuasive insight.

Sitting where I am now I know that I feel warm. I do not know what the temperature is. If I could find an accurate thermometer I would know the temperature from measurement. From experience I am guessing it is 19 degrees C.

Imagine you want to put someone highly sensitive to heat into a bath and 0.1 of a degree might for some reason burn them whilst it would not burn you. The sense of feeling only takes you so far. To have utility you need to measure and quantify the feeling of heat so that you do not burn the other person.

Already in the simple act of taking a temperature you are building on another knowledge set. The knowledge of the predictable way that mercury expands as it gets warmer.

But when you think about how you will apply this ability to measure then you need knowledge that another person might be more sensitive than you to the water's heat. That knowledge could be acquired, or passed to you by someone else, or it could be deduced from the observation that it seems the person finds distressing temperatures that do not distress you.

You need the knowledge of sense and of feeling to alert you to the physical reality of hot water and the knowledge of measurement to be certain what its exact temperature is. Next you need the knowledge of different human responses to heat so that you know not to expose the other person to heat.

How good the knowledge is, whether it will stand the test of time, depends on how many set of circumstances the knowledge works in.

Einstein and Newton, emperors in their own world, do not survive and prosper in one another's worlds. The knowledge of one does not negate the other or make the other valueless but they are incompatible. Yet each separately is still of tremendous utility in today's world.

In other situations so-called scientific knowledge is superseded by more effective descriptions that make earlier knowledge invalid or simply not very useful compared with new ways of seeing the world.

All these knowledge related issues are relevant to this issue's interview with Tillmann Mohr, a special advisor to the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation. Gaia -- the Earth -- has grown warmer. That is knowledge akin to me taking the temperature of a warm bath. Gaia is predicted to be growing warmer. That is like saying unless one turns off the heat - in the case of Gaia removes all human beings and sends them en-masse to the stars - Gaia is going to continue to get warmer until the end of the century. What is known to be unknown is by how much Gaia will grow warmer and how. Dr Mohr is one of those tasked globally with doing something about clarifying this situation and he agreed to an exclusive interview with Science, People & Politics.
Helen Gavaghan 9.3.2010.


I corrected typos on this url in line with magazine policy within 24 hours of original publication overnight 8/9 March, 2010.
Date lines should read 2010 not 2009.

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