The boy who denied wolf: climate change and story telling

OK, I’m a few years behind in catching up to this meme

I’m continually fascinated by the way people try to communicate climate science beyond simply “telling the facts”.

Yes, we can talk about rising temperatures, proxy data and tipping points.

But don’t we need to go beyond this?

Home Sapiens are  storey tellers.

The Odyssey began as a collection of oral tales, collected and synthesised by Homer. But it is a story that tells us as much about human nature as it does about bronze age Greece.

W. H. Auden’s poem, “The shield of Achilles” was written 2000 years after Homer. But it reflects the power of words and narrative:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Full text here.

Auden wrote this in 1956, reflecting on the two world wars, the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet states and history’s indifference to the individual.

I have read a great deal about 20th century history, however somehow Auden’s stanzas say so much more than the dry recitation of facts and dates.

Which is why I enjoyed the blog “The boy who denied wolf“. It is the blog of a reader – Richard Pauli – who recently posted a comment here, and I was suitably impressed.

The boy who denied wolf

Like all good stories it begins with “Once upon a time…”

Once there was a village surrounded by farms and a deep forest. The farmers would clear the forest-land to plant crops and tend their sheep – pushing back the edge of the mysterious forest further and further. One day the farmers thought they heard the inhuman and plaintive sound of howling wolves. It was a very faint sound, and they were not sure; then almost all the villagers started to hear them too.

I wont spoil it, so I suggest you go to Richard’s blog and read the story.

I tried a similar exercise with my “Parable of the Sceptical Cancer Patient“.

A doctor tells you have cancer, and that if you don’t act it could kill you.

What do you decide to do with that knowledge?

Take immediate action and seek treatment?

Or perhaps you are a “cancer sceptic”.

You believe the doctor is part of a global conspiracy to “alarm” people and force them into purchasing expensive medical treatments. You argue that cancer “isn’t real” and that there is considerable debate in the medical community about its existence (and have the blogs and web sites to back you up).

Which one is the rational response?

What is the most likely outcome?

I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The denial movement is built around a simple narrative: scientists/elites are wrong (or lying) in order  to further their agenda.

Of course those objectives are the usual grab-bag every conspiracy theorist makes: “they” are seeking world  domination, fame, fortune and groupies.

Always the groupies. What is it with these guys?

Not gettin’ sum?

Obviously  Phil Jones and Michael Mann went into climate science “for the chicks”. Surely being a climate scientist is better way to meet “da ladies” than being a member of Motely Crue?

Symbols and allegory can be more powerful than facts.

How do we combine the two?

Question: does any else have a good  analogy or story they frequently tell?


13 thoughts on “The boy who denied wolf: climate change and story telling

  1. Adam says:

    I ask people if they agree that there are climatic zones within Australia. They always agree. I then ask then if the long term temperature and rainfall defines these zones. They agree. I further ask them if they agree that various creatures such as Cane toads, massive cockroaches and the like essentially inhabit such zones. They agree.
    No Melbournites want to see cane toads in their back yard.
    I explain to them that long term climate change is akin to Melbournes location creeping north maybe 4 km a year. Would they notice any difference in the short term? All say no.

    • fredorth says:

      ^I do the same with wildlife in the Central US Plains. What shocks me is how few urbanites have a connection with their environment. Most individuals that I talk to, that recognize my meaning, are women. A lot of males, even hunters, don’t pay any attention to birds, flying insects, or any non-game species. My Mother always told me that women were smarter and I am learning that she was right, once again.

  2. john byatt says:

    Grew up south of Sydney near “the royal national park” spent most of my childhood there, an incredible abundance of food, a mate and I would go camping there for a week at a time and just live on what we gathered, really tough, we had to live on prawns, yabbies {crayfish}, oysters fish, eels, pippies, lilly pilly, heath berries abalone, spring water , I live in a similar area now but up north, next to the Great sandy national park, great to see the kids heading off down to the sand flats along the bush tracks with little home made canoes and crab/fishing gear..tent, still is happening

  3. rpauli says:

    Thanks Mike for your link recommendation !

    You are doing great work. And right on target about moving beyond “telling the facts”. i.e. – if a computer application was ruling the world, there would be no problem. It is not global warming, it is what humans will do about it.

    As I am over 60 years old, I somehow think that much of our denial is cultivated. I felt that in the early 1960’s we were smarter. For the last 30 years we have experienced training in immediate gratification to the self. We have lost our skills of mindful consideration of the future.

    This is a huge quandary, this is a perfect storm and the most interesting of times. Unlike any other climate age, almost everything that is going to happen to humans in the future has never before happened to civilization.

    What a ride ahead!

  4. JG says:

    As I am over 60 years old, I somehow think that much of our denial is cultivated.

    Hey, rpauli, it’s good to know I’m not the only boring old fart who hangs around here among the kids!

    I agree completely with your conclusion: back in the day it was generally realized that exceptional claims needed exceptional evidence; if you wanted to argue with established science you had to make damn’ sure you knew what you were talking about, not just repeat stuff you’d heard down the pub. Then, okay, along came crap like The New Paradigm, but most people didn’t know what that was anyway, and for the rest the same basic principle held as before: science generally gets things right.

    And now, perhaps in great part because of industry-funded covert campaigns to corrode basic science (starting with the attempt to downplay smoking hazards) and also in great part because of moronic “news” media eager to promote “sexy” pseudoscience ahead of, ya know, actual facts (in the Murdoch media these two motivations dominate over 99% of their science coverage, one feels), we get a populace who wants to lynch Paul Offitt because an ex-Playboy model thinks he’s getting the science wrong.

    I used to worry myself sick about what it was going to be like for my daughter when the climate shit hit the fan. Then she and her geezer had a kid, so the worry quadrupled. More recently, though, I think it’s quite likely that I’m still going to be around when that fan gets hit . . .

    Sorry, Mike, this is ‘way off your topic. But it’s nice to say hello to rpauli, wherever and whoever s/he might be. And I agree with others here: you’re doing a grand job. Proofreading might make it even grander, o’ course, but . . .

  5. rpauli says:

    Frank Zappa said, “When your children find out how lame you are, they’ll murder you in your sleep.”

    That was probably in 1968. Now, when our children find out how badly we screwed up… oh jeekers…

  6. adelady says:

    rpauli. I’m not so sure ‘we’ screwed up. We are of the generation that saw vaccinations remove the fear of polio and ran smallpox right off the planet. We admired the cleverness and dedication of people who put people on the moon. We also saw how science and politics could come together to redress the wrongs we’d done our environment with CFC’s and acid rain.

    I don’t know about you, but I laughed at the foolishness of Reagan saying that trees caused pollution. Carter had already put solar panels on the White House roof, and I along with many others just thought that was the first step on the same path to a technological solution to yet another problem we’d created for ourselves. I really thought that logic and science would take us along the same route to a similar solution to the ozone and acid rain problems.

    And then the wheels fell off.

    • JG says:

      And then the wheels fell off.

      You’re right in so much of this, adelady. The trouble is, the folks who made the wheels fall off are also of our generation.

  7. Watching the Deniers says:

    It was becoming a father that brought the issue home for me.

    I’m 41, and my daughter is two-and-a-half.

    How much change I’ll witness, I cant say for sure.

    How much will she witness?

    More than she should.

  8. Ross Brisbane says:

    Cry wolf! It’s real.

    Seasonal time lapse cameras make deniers look like utter fools………….

    Some deniers of climate change have sighted these same glaciers and are now convinced – the globe is not only warming but CO2 lag is NOW biting at the very heart of 2,000 year static ice.

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