Be not the first by whom the new are tried Nor the last to lay the old aside.
—Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism,1711
Professor’s wife called me last week. She said that Professor has been behaving rather strangely now a days. She had taken him to a psychiatric and the diagnosis was that he was facing “skepteria”. Apparently skepteria is a disease when the person remains skeptical most of the times.
How do you know that he has a skepteria? I asked. I had never heard of such a disease.
“Well, other day I shopped for him a lot of organic food from the Natures Basket. He questioned me on every item that I bought.
He almost yelled saying how can you be sure that what you bought is organic? Where is the proof?
He then elaborated saying that we must check aspects such as climate and environment protection, conservation of soil fertility, preservation of biodiversity, respecting natural cycles and animal welfare, absence of use of chemical and synthetic products, absence of GMO and transparent labelling. Most of these criteria he talked about were beyond my comprehension”.
I reasoned to her that the real reason could be that you paid 20% more than the usual price and that must have upset him. But as an afterthought, I asked her to check whether the product label displayed any certification. She said that some items had a sticker with a logo “assured organic”.
The wife continued.
“He is questioning almost everything –he even questioned the biodegradable face mask that he used to use regularly sporting his commitment to environment and sustainability. He no more believes in bio gradable face masks. He has been put on some sort of steroids for now to calm down.”
What is Skepticism? Skepticism is generally regarded in scientific circles as a necessary element of healthy agnosticism, less adversarial than cynicism but much more demanding than faith. If solid evidence is provided then, the skeptic can be moved toward acceptance and even to become a true believer. The original Greek meaning of skeptikos was “an inquirer,” someone who was unsatisfied and still looking for truth. A healthy skeptic is willing to challenge the status quo with an open-mind, deeply questioning the authority.
A cynic on the other hand distrusts most available information, particularly when it challenges his/her own belief system. Most often, cynics hold views that cannot be changed by contrary evidence. Thus, they often become intolerant of other people’s ideas. It’s not difficult to find cynics everywhere in our society, especially those who sit in the committees on environmental clearance.
In today’s complex world, skeptics and cynics are often hard to differentiate. I was therefore worried whether Professor got “skepteria” or “cyneria”.
So I visited him.
Professor was in his library.
I saw on his desk the famous (or infamous?) book by Lomborg “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World”.
This book was was first published in Danish in 1998, while the English edition was published as a work in environmental economics by Cambridge University Press in 2001.
Lomborg claimed that overpopulation, declining energy resources, deforestation, species loss, water shortages, certain aspects of global warming, and an assortment of other global environmental issues are unsupported by statistical analysis of the relevant data. His main argument was that a majority of environmental problems—such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, and species loss, as well as population growth, hunger, and AIDS—are area-specific and highly correlated with poverty. Therefore, challenges to human prosperity are more important and can be solved largely through economic and social development. Concerning problems that are more pressing at the global level, such as the depletion of fossil fuels and global warming, Lomborg argues that these issues are often overstated and that recommended policies are often inappropriate if assessed against alternatives.
Lomborg concludes his book by once again reviewing the Litany (meaning long and repetitive episodes) and noting that the real state of the world is much better than the Litany claims. According to Lomborg, this discrepancy poses a problem, as it focuses public attention on relatively unimportant issues, while ignoring those that are paramount.
In the worst case, The Skeptical Environmentalist argues, the global community is pressured to adopt inappropriate policies which have adverse effects on humanity, wasting resources that could be put to better use. Lomborg thus urges us to look at what he calls the “true” problems of the world, since solving those will also solve the Litany.
Lombord was bashed internationally for publishing his views. There were even lawsuits filed on him for spreading “unacceptable and unreasonable scientific views”.
I thought that Professor was severely influenced by Lombord and got hit by skepteria.
“How are you Professor?” I asked this question with concern.
Professor was reading the Evoke page of the Times of India. It featured articles on the economic damage in India due to rising air pollution.
“Well, Dr Modak, good you dropped in”. Professor got up to make some coffee from the machine
I could see on his face some irritation. So I kept shut.
“Dr Modak, I get raged when I see such articles published in the newspaper, supposedly to sensitize and educate a common citizen. These articles can be misleading. There are so many assumptions”
I saw that he had put red circles at several places on the page.
He was right. I remembered publications that claimed risks to skin cancer due to some beauty products based on limited studies (may be as a strategy to damage reputation), calculations that reported increase in the national forest cover (may be to justify budgets spent), claims of significant reduction in water pollution in river stretches (by following “convenient” water quality monitoring“ ) etc. I had heard about net zero at the building level and now the claims by the corporates. But now we see announcement made on cities going to net zero by 2030 in the election manifesto. Is this going to be possible? And who will remember the pledge made in 2022 in 2030?
Earlier, Professor used to be taking such statements in good humour and ignore. He even used to argue that many such claims, such as those made by the CSR heads and managers at ESG funds regarding “positive impacts” and “transformation to sustainable finance”, is a good sign that the business is making at least an attempt to speak the sustainability lingo. I used to admire his positive thinking.
I tried to tell Professor that there was no point to be skeptical and he should let such things go as he did before.
I was worried however when he said that he was going to write a book like Lomborg calling as Part II “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World”. He said, “a lot of water has flown under the bridge over last twenty years” and so something must be rewritten.
Professor was certainly in the advanced stage of skepteria.
When his wife came to see me off at the gate, I suggested that she requests the doctor to double his dose of steroids. “We must take this step asap”. I urged
His wife stared at me.
She said “How are you sure that doubling of the dose will work? Do you have any such data?”
I had never seen Mrs Professor in this questioning mode.
I was now convinced that skepteria is a contagious disease. No wonder why most environmentalists are skeptical!
Should they be? Of course We need them if they are positive – it’s the healthy skepticism that we should be looking for.
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