The café of the suburban outdoor pool I swam in when I lived in Melbourne in the 1990’s had a Suggestion Box, and I often spent the time it took to drink my post-laps latte scribbling a submission, and always in the character of a perpetually angry retired army officer. ‘Please install a cover over at least one lane of the pool,’ was one of his early requests, ‘I didn’t fight in two wars for this country to be shat on by magpies.’ To my wife’s dismay I always appended my snail mail address to these rants, and to my amazement Malvern Council always wrote back – usually telling me my grievance had been forwarded to the relevant department, but occasionally explaining why it couldn’t be practicably addressed. I particularly enjoyed their response to my octogenarian alter ego’s demand that instead of a deep end and a shallow end, the pool should have a single uniform depth, to better accommodate more senior patrons who, due to injuries sustained in the defence of their country, have trouble swimming uphill. Malvern Council was sorry to hear I was experiencing difficulties, replied the staffer who’d drawn the short straw of humouring me that week. But it was unlikely they were related to the design of the pool, he or she went on (presumably because it was a very slow day in the office), since variations in the depth of a body of water have no effect on the horizontal profile of its surface. As the science behind this position was considered settled in the 1990’s, my bogus brigadier took the matter no further. But over the subsequent quarter-century the goalposts of hydrodynamics shifted so dramatically that when the United States Geological Survey issued a report recently warning that ‘sea levels in the Western Pacific are now rising 2 to 3 times faster than the global average’, the story was reprised in the headlines of several Australian newspapers. I sincerely doubt they would have given it such prominence twenty-five years ago, when the consensus about sea level amongst the international scientific community was still pretty much what it had been for the previous two centuries: that thanks mainly to the earth’s gravitational field it is a global constant, that the only regional variations are tides caused by the gravitational field of the moon, and that these two complimentary forces, along with relentless ocean currents, ensure that any other aberration – such as might be caused by extreme weather or seismic activity – is dissipated within hours or at most days. And I know what you’re thinking at this point: it’s hard to believe we were ever that complacent. And what a good thing it is that we were shaken out of our complacency by the release, in 2006, of a documentary featuring a failed US presidential candidate, a computer-generated polar bear and a PowerPoint presentation. Millennials weaned on David Attenborough and Pixar and Instagram filters might sneer at the production values of An Inconvenient Truth. But it frightened more people than Jaws, and that fear prompted millions of those people to stop eating meat and start changing lightbulbs. And it is thanks to those peoples’ unwavering faith in the predictions made by that film, and their refusal to acknowledge the discreditation of the methodology used to generate those predictions (even after they started not coming true) that so many of the companies and institutions which now employ them, and so many of the politicians who now want their votes, have come to embrace the same unquestioning faith. And in doing so have consigned to the too-hard basket the tiresomely evidence-based, exhaustively tested and rigorously peer-reviewed kind of science in which our parents’ generation set such store and by which the policies of our parents’ political leaders were informed. Only a society which has been primed so comprehensively to suspend its collective critical faculties so completely would have no problem with the suggestion that ocean water, unlike the water in your bathtub and the water in a suburban Melbourne swimming pool, is not subject to the laws of Newtonian physics.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10