Al Gore was welcomed by a standing ovation from about 4,000 scientists from the AGU convention in the Salon 8 Ballroom at the Marriott San Francisco. He spoke for an hour and was a far more accomplished speaker than one remembers from Presidential debates, glancing only occasionally at notes. It was like a Southern Baptist orator had seamlessly changed texts. His speech was a type of sermon: a few well-practised jokes to start, a commentary on selected verses followed by a call to commit. Gore himself has gotten a little stout over the years (not that I can throw stones on this count) and a little jowly, so his presentation and appearance resulted in a type of secular avatar of Jerry Falwell. Update: the speech is online.
His speech, while fluid and polished, had many strange interludes. At one point, he reflected on how the brain processed signals, ruminating about the neocortex being hard-wired to the amygdala or something like that. Perhaps we were witnessing this phenomenon. Later he quoted Gandhi on the “Truth-force” a word which he said translated poorly. One felt that he wanted to say “my friend and mentor, Mahatma Gandhi”.
The speech began and ended with a call to arms about censorship of American scientists. In between there was a review over the development of Western scientific tradition, commencing with the fall of Rome and ending with the invention of television and the muzzling of Jim Hansen, all events of approximately equal weight – or maybe not. Maybe the earlier events were simply leading to Jim Hansen.
Gore opened with some anecdotes nicely told – polished stories of moving from Air Force Two to driving his own car and eating at a Shorney’s family restaurant in Tennessee, just like an ordinary person. Beverly Hillbillies in reverse, as it were. (Or was that Greenacres?) Then he quoted Albert Lord Whitehead about the two cultures (wasn’t this C.P. Snow?) Then Gore regretted the passing of the Enlightenment, which he described as a time when there was an easy flow from scientists to popular culture, mentioning the Founding Fathers, who, I guess, also made occasional visits to the Shorney’s Restaurant of their day. This began to change with reductionism, a “collision between scientific truths and popular ideologies” e.g. Galileo an inconvenient truth-teller of his day or John Scopes of Al’s home state of Tennessee. All this culminating in today’s efforts by the Bush administration to politicize science.
Then back to Gore’s friend and mentor, Roger Revelle, who introduced Gore to global warmer about 34 years ago. Coincidentally a new paper has shown that the North Polar Ice Cap will be gone in 34 years “this very day seemingly being the halfway benchmark between these two epochal events. In Australia, we were told, there is a drought and fires.
Then the question “how can we communicate more effectively?” If science can be explained to Al, then he can explain it to the masses.
However, the climate change crisis, it seems, is not itself the biggest problem, as it is merely a “symptom” of the “collision between our species and the planet” – a collision marked by population increase, by a scientific and technological revolution under which each person has a bigger footprint on the planet and, worst of all, a new way of thinking in which we are ruled by a short discount rate, overnight polls. Gore quoted
someone Daley Herman Daley, who said that we were running the planet like a business in liquidation.
Then on to the brain. The neocortex is hard-wired to the amygdula or something like that. This seems to be part of the problem. I looked around the audience to see if I could discern symptoms of neocortex-amygdula hardwiring but couldn’t tell. Was this an episode of Invasion?
Then Gore peered soulfully into the sky. He continued, each paragraph in his speech skilfully punctuated by looking first at one end of the auditorium and then the other.
Civilization is marked by “long-wave patterns”. It took 1000 years from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance during which 99% of the people were oppressed under feudalism. (Gore stopped short of accusing people who think that there was a Medieval Warm Period of also supporting a return to feudalism.) Gore continued that people were then helpless from ignorance with knowledge controlled by intermediaries “monks and dead languages” (although I remember Leibniz once praising the translation of a scientific article from English into Latin, as making it more accessible.)
After the monks came Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. Then Columbus discovered America. His account of his voyages had 11 editions and within 2 generations the rest of the world was explored. Then along came Al’s friend and mentor, Galileo.
Then the Reformation which introduced a new form of communicating “a meritocracy of ideas”, sort of like Google Search (of which Al is a senior adviser.) The rule of reason replaced the rule of king, queen and church. Individuals had direct access to knowledge. Then came the Founding Fathers.
The Age of Print ended with the coming of television in the early 1960s. The average American watches 4.5 hours day, with some people watching more (snicker, snicker) to bring up the average from Al and his new friends. 80% of expenditures in the last election were on 30-second TV ads. Television ended the meritocracy of ideas. Instead of a “well-informed citizenry, there was a well -entertained audience”. I wonder if he’s used that line before. 3 minute clip here from CNet
Gore said that the Internet will re-create the meritocracy of ideas (luckily Al was around to
invent create it “take the initiative in supporting the basic research necessary to create the Internet as we know it today” – clarification due to http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_10/wiggins/ )
In the mean time, the meritocracy of ideas has given way to Bush administration attempts to censor scientists. Why just today, we were told, a USGS scientist, Jim Estes, reported that there was oppression within the USGS “that someone was looking over their shoulder at everything that they did”; it was as though they were trying to keep USGS under their thumb. Gore said that this problem ran much deeper than Bush-Cheney, it raised the problem of how we became so vulnerable? And why isn’t there outrage? 3 minute clip of this part of the speech here
Then Al turned his gaze to the closing of EPA libraries, complaining in passing about the closing of the Office of Technological Assessment a decade ago. The purpose of closing the EPA library was supposedly to make it electronic and more efficient, but Gore said that the EPA was purging records from their collection. He could give “hundreds” of similar examples. Gore said that it was up to scientists to protest the “outrageous nature” of the interference and “actively consider active communications” with the public. Then he turned to tobacco companies and their role in delaying knowledge of cancer.
Gore said that politics was a nonlinear system with tipping points. Courage was important. That there was an asymmetry between cognitive and emotional systems. That we have to find a way. As Gore’s friend and mentor, Abraham Lincoln said, we must disenthrall ourselves. As Gore’s friend and mentor, the Scottish mountain climber said, when one commits oneself, the problem changes as well. Then Gore quoted his friend and mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, about the “truth-force”, well, I guess it sounded better in the original Sanskrit.
Then Gore’s friend and mentor, Gore himself said, “Now is the time” before leaving to a standing ovation.
Another account from CNET is here with a partial videoclip.