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Looking through the eyes of Janus

Bill Meredith

"What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from." T. S. Eliot, 1942: "Little Gidding."
"In the long run, we’re all dead." John Maynard Keynes, 1923.

(1/2017) In Roman times, the first month of the year was named after Janus, who was the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. Janus had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, so his name was assigned to the first month of the year, when we are most tempted to do just that. It was a good choice; there is something to be said for it at every stage of life. When we’re young, we have little or no past to remember, and we haven’t yet learned the value of knowing history; so we look forward. At middle age, we’re absorbed in keeping up as our careers advance and the future threatens us with new changes; so we begin to look back at simpler times. After we retire, there are still some transitions to be made; but when we get up each morning there is one day less in the future before us, so we tend to spend more time looking back.

What we see when we look forward or back is determined first of all by the mindset we were born with, and second by the experiences, successes and failures that have happened to us since birth. We start as a point on a scale that runs from optimism to pessimism; at one extreme is Pollyanna, and at the other is either Arthur Schopenhauer or W. C. Fields. The points on the scale form a bell curve, so most of us start from somewhere in the middle. From there, each New Year finds us being nudged in one direction or the other by our environment: a loving or dysfunctional family… early training in an ethical system of right and wrong, or its lack… formal education done well or not… good or bad experiences in interpersonal relations… health or disease… intelligent choices or stupid mistakes in careers… and so on through the years, until we find ourselves looking at a calendar labeled 2017 and wondering what to do next.

If you look through a pair of binoculars or a microscope, you see what is there at the moment. You may recognize it or not, depending on whether you’ve seen it before, but you know it is real. But if you look backward through the eyes of Janus, you see what you remember. You may think it is real, but in fact it is colored by how long ago it was, what your emotional state was at that time, and how much you’ve learned since then. Children, teenagers and adults who all experience a specific event will remember it differently… think, for example, of how people of different ages who survive the war in Syria will remember it 20 years from now.

Looking forward is different. Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun, and perhaps that was true 2,500 years ago. But in 2017, the future hasn’t happened yet, and the farther ahead you try to look, the more uncertain it becomes because new things that no one has even thought of today will be invented. And standards are changing faster all the time. In 1960, Jack Paar wanted to tell a joke that involved a bathroom on his late-night TV show. The joke was about an English woman who was planning a vacation in Switzerland and wrote to the landlord to ask if the hotel had a "W. C." (water closet, i.e. bathroom facility) in each room. The NBC censors decided "W.C." was a dirty word, unfit for television audiences to hear, even after 10 p.m. By comparison, in the political campaign just finished we heard language on prime-time television that only a few years ago would have been limited to R-rated movies. No one would have predicted that a year ago.

Janus presents ecologists with a difficult problem because our job requires us to look into both the past and the future. We study the past in order to understand how the environment came to be as it is, and what problems may result from it. As we learn these things, it becomes our social responsibility to inform the public when we see problems on the future’s horizon, and to suggest our best recommendations for avoiding the problems or minimizing their impact on us. In order to do this, we use a pattern of thinking based on the Scientific Method, which is explained in every elementary textbook I can recall. It typically is presented as five steps: Make an observation; ask a question; make a hypothesis (i.e., guess what the answer is); do experiments to test the hypothesis; and draw a conclusion, either that the hypothesis is the correct answer or it is not. Good science teachers guide students through these steps in Science Fair projects, and sometimes the students are stimulated to further studies. But there is a sixth step that many students do not learn until graduate school, and even then, some of them forget it. It is this: Always remember that your conclusion could turn out to be wrong.

This sixth step is not an expression of false humility. Rather, it is a description of reality, and of intellectual honesty. If you study the history of science, you will find that even the greatest discoveries had flaws or errors in the way they were originally stated. Copernicus was correct about the sun being in the center of the solar system, but he thought planetary orbits were circular. Newton corrected the orbits and devised laws of gravity, but he didn’t dream of gravity waves. Darwin explained evolutionary change, but his explanation of how traits are inherited was wrong. Part of Einstein’s theory of relativity was not consistent with later discoveries in quantum mechanics. And so it goes.

Seen in this perspective, the "sixth step" is a self-correcting process, which allows us to weed out errors or misunderstandings as we continually build a more accurate and precise body of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, though, many in the non-scientific public don’t seem to understand this. Too often, science is not taught well in many schools; it is complicated, and new information is coming so fast that even experts find it hard to keep up. But the real problem is that vested interests and unscrupulous politicians use the "sixth step" to their advantage by saying scientific findings are unreliable because the scientists "admit that they are fallible." In the past this kind of misunderstanding mainly affected the members of individual interest groups, but the explosive increase in the use of fake news in the last election seems to have convinced a significant fraction of the public that the entire body of scientific evidence for climate change is wrong.

It seems that most of the opponents of climate change policies are motivated by economic self-interest. I wonder if they misinterpret Keynes’ famous quotation. I think Keynes simply meant that long-range predictions in economics were not very accurate in 1923, so economists should be more concerned with the short term. That is very different from the problem of climate change. Ecologists have been predicting climate change for over a century, and their predictions are accurate descriptions of the changes of world temperature and sea level rise that are being measured now. We cannot afford to stop our efforts to combat climate change for four years; we must continue to increase those efforts now if there is to be any hope for saving a livable world for our grandchildren.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith