Apr 9, 2011

Be passionate, but humble

We have a duty to base our judgments on the best available information. This is not only because we owe it to other people to represent the issues fairly, but also because we owe it to ourselves not to squander our lives on fairytales. A great wrong has been done by this movement. We must put it right.

Coming from a prominent enviro-nut, that line is sure to cause a lot of turmoil for greenies and the guy that wrote it is effectively going to be disowned. Without getting into the debate on green issues too much (which, despite my slur earlier in this paragraph, I'm not completely against), I found this conclusion extremely well-stated.

Ignorance is a fact of life. Each of us carries with us accumulated knowledge. Knowledge really is power, for with it we can apply it (in the form of technology) and use it to our advantage. It is knowledge that gives us all of the wonderful life-sustaining and enriching things in our world today. It is the single most important asset we can possess.

When someone dies, the knowledge they have accumulated dies with them. Preservation of knowledge is thus of great import, which is why writing (and its derivatives such as books and the internet) is so useful to societies.

We've learned a lot as humans, but the amount of knowledge we lack is still vastly greater than that we have acquired. And then there is the issue of known unknowns versus unknown unknowns. With so much ignorance still prevalent, being humble about the extent of our knowledge is a good safe first bet. Much as our judicial system should assume innocence, we should assume ignorance until proven otherwise. The burden of proof is always on the one making claims.

All the more reason to advocate "strong opinions weakly held." It's okay (and often desirable) to have strong opinions. Passion is a useful driving force for change and advancement. It is a double-edged sword, though, as it can lead us down the wrong path, too, unwittingly or deliberately. But by recognizing its double-edged nature we can buoy its faults with the second part: a weak hold. This simply means you should always be open to changing your mind. Don't hold so tightly onto opinions that you refuse to listen to reason, evidence, and logic. Recognize the limits of knowledge, the limits of our minds, and the bias that may exist.

Because in the end, we should all strive for the truth so as to further our valid knowledge. You work against that goal by being dogmatic.

In this case, it's okay to want to prevent environmental catastrophes or other bad practices. In that goal, I'm fully behind the environmentalists. But be prepared to change your mind should the evidence say otherwise. I applaud this man, George Monbiot, for being able to question his prior held beliefs and look objectively at the evidence. It's not that he came to the same conclusions I have, because I still admit I could be wrong (I'm not an expert on power, after all), but that he was open to change at all.

I've always said that if you are truly an environmental freak you should love nuclear power. Most sources of power are not useful for providing base load or continuous power due to their innate unpredictability: the wind doesn't always blow, the sun only shines about half the day, and so on. Given this, fuel-based methods must provide the bulk of our energy. Of those, nuclear is by far the safest and cleanest (and cheapest!) even taking into account the occasional meltdown.

Coal is dirty. Modern advances help, but it's still dirty. Even on a good normal day, it spews gobs of particulates and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Nuclear can cause a lot of damage all at once, like a volcano, but 99% of the time it does no more than spew water vapor. Many of the problems with nuclear reactors would also be avoided were they able to use modern methods. Most plants, unfortunately, were built decades ago using 70s and 80s technology (like the Fukushima plant that has been in the news so much lately). We've come a long way since then, but resistance to funding nuclear advances, newer plants, and so on imprisons us with our ancient existing facilities.

But I'm totally okay with being wrong about all that. I'm not married to nuclear power. I don't really care which method we use, only that we try to use the safest, cleanest, and cheapest we can. Power is practically a necessity for us now; it is ubiquitous and heavily utilized. It is only natural that we try to optimize our production of it. So long as you keep that pure goal as your focus, you can avail yourself of investing too much in the method that gets you there.

The quote I used at the start of this really hits home the last point I want to make. If truth and understanding is our goal, and I think it should be, we should strive to find those opinions that we do not hold weakly and remedy that or at the very least be aware of it. Always be searching your opinions and thoughts for the ones that you cannot be dissuaded on. That should be a red flag, always. Know that disagreement is okay. It is how we further debate and explore topics. Don't be afraid of controversial opinions, but do not be dogmatic. Ask yourself is there anything someone could say or tell me (and be able to prove or back it up, of course) that would at least cause me to question my position or change it altogether? Look for that in your friends, family, and others.

This is simply healthy skepticism.

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