Sunday, March 7, 2010

Believing mad things.

I nicked this picture from the website Talking Points Memo, who were following up on a press release from the SEC. The man in the remarkable picture is Sean David Morton, professional cat breeder and writer, director and producer of a zero budget film entitled Joe Killionaire, a slasher film/reality TV parody.

Neither of those pursuits is in any way illegal. The SEC has nailed him because he bills himself as "America's Natural Prophet" and claims psychic powers. Unlike Benny Hinn's extremely bad track record as a prophet, Mr. Morton claims that he correctly predicted the dates, times, epicenters and Richter scale measurements of several major earthquakes of the past, including ones in Kobe, Japan, Northridge and San Francisco, though technically he should have called the 1989 earthquake the Loma Prieta.

He also says he predicted the exact dates of the high and low points for the Dow and NASDAQ over the past few decades, and put these claims up as his bona fides for his new job, a foreign currency trader. Since 2006, over 100 people have sent him roughly $6,000,000, which means an average of $60,000 a pop. Morton and his wife have siphoned off $240,000 to their Psychic Research Institute, and this is the act the SEC found objectionable.

I was going to make a small blurb about this on The Other Blog, but this isn't a story the tabloids would follow, as much fun as it is, because Mr. Morton is in no way famous. Instead, the part that I want to write about is the 100 people who believed this nonsense, each to the tune of $60,000 or so, more that the median yearly household income in the country.

Mr. Morton is a minor league grifter, but six million bucks is still a nice amount of walking around money is anybody's book. He's less than nothing compared to Bernie Madoff and his personal fortune is a pittance compared to the amount of money Benny Hinn and his wife will now split up. But about 100 people, a tiny percentage of the American population, sent this guy a substantial amount of money not based on religious teachings like Hinn or a strong but unwarranted personal reputation like Madoff, but instead because they believe in perfect psychics.

I try hard not to believe in mad things. But as I wrote about six months ago in a post about true believers and confirmation bias, people believe what they want to believe and assume that people who believe otherwise are mad.

We won't be having a ridiculous TV news debate about Sean David Morton, with the idea that "some people believe this" and "some people believe that". I expect this guy has next to no defenders right now. But something doesn't have to be as minority a view as belief in psychic currency traders to have its true believers, and the opposite view will also be so blessed, with each side thinking the other is stupid or deluded or evil, or perhaps a combination of all three.

This is obviously the situation dealing with climate change or global warming, whichever phrase you prefer. Over the past century, the average temperature across the world has been rising, there is no argument about that. Deniers note that the rise has not been statistically significant over the past fifteen years, and they extrapolate this to mean the problem is over. Statistical significance is harder to achieve with smaller data samples, but it's too much to ask a public often proud of their mathematical ignorance to know this.

And then there's the separate question of whether human actions have anything to do with the situation. The debate has been oversimplified to CO2 levels, and the deniers correctly point out that CO2 is a naturally occurring compound that is important for living organisms, most especially plants, the organisms responsible for creating oxygen, vital for the animal kingdom. Human sources only add a little more CO2 to the system, but sometimes only a little more can have a dramatic difference. Also, there have been climate changes before the Industrial Revolution, when humans had a much smaller population and their main pollution source was burning wood. These are the numbers that convince the deniers they are right in their view that all these warnings amount to nothing.

Science isn't math. There are no puzzling counterexamples to the Pythagorean Theorem. The data that convinces me that something is happening deals in very big numbers. It's been about 15,000,000 years since CO2 levels have been this high. A "permafrost" in Siberia that covers as much area as Germany and France combined is beginning to melt for the first time in 10,000 years, and that releases more methane into the atmosphere, heightening the CO2 problem without being "man made". I don't trust predictions of the future, either by psychics or by scientists. I have no idea how soon we can expect an ice free Arctic Ocean in the summer or if it will ever happen, or the shifting of the Gulf Stream due to changes in the heat balance in the Atlantic. I don't know what problem caused by a changing climate will be the first to impact a massive number of people, but I do believe it's coming.

Here's why it's coming. We aren't nomads anymore. We have built major cities in places previously completely inhospitable to human life because of the invention of air conditioning, which sucks up massive amounts of energy. We travel to nasty places and set up camp because we can find petroleum there. When the bad things happen, large numbers of people will be stuck like glue to the worst places on earth.

Here's why I believe that humans are helping to cause the problem, a little example of the law of unintended consequences. For a few days after September 11, 2001, air traffic in the United States effectively came to a halt. No planes meant no contrails, those thin visible clouds that appear after a plane in the right conditions. Most contrails just vanish soon enough, but some become seeds for creating actual clouds, some that become rain clouds or heavy cover. Not flying planes for less than a week across the Continental United States changed the weather patterns. That tiny part of what humans do habitually and without thinking made a difference. Humans do so much habitually and without thinking that it seems impossible to me that the totality of our rapidly changing life style has no effect on the largely closed system in which we live.

Some who disagree with me may read this. I promise you I'm not mad.


Zoey and Me said...

1. I don't know what problem caused by a changing climate will be the first to impact a massive number of people, but I do believe it's coming.
My thoughts too and I've often said that almost exactly. 2. You know I'm a cat lover. I've been to cat shows and many or most who dote on the show cats are loaded. I bet that's the base where Morton drew his followers with big bucks. I really enjoyed this post today Matty Boy! Thanks.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks, Z&M. Your comment on Benny Hinn was one of the things that triggered this post, and I was thinking about putting it up at the Other Blog because of that, but instead I turned it into a think piece over here.

There will be very few think pieces at The Other Blog, which I think will be a point in its favor as the days go by.

Karlacita! said...

He is hypmo-tizing me!

And he looks a little bit like my brother!

Matty Boy said...

I have to admit, he does look a little like me, but I would never do that intentionally with a haircut and I'd never do that to a cat.