Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Rain, Rain, Go Away, Come Again During the Medieval Warming Period.

The BBC has a new article about climate change and the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s based of new work by a team of researchers who published it in the newest issue of Science.

I’m not going to pick apart the article, partially because I don’t know enough to do it accurately and partially because that’s not the point of this blog. I don’t think that the research is faulty as much as I don’t agree with the simplistic correlation equals causation conclusion. Also, at the end of the article the authors suggests that civilizations are not as insulated from environmental variations as we thought they were.

I’m not sure anyone really ever thought that they were. Right Mr. Diamond?

Straw men aside, I was going to use this article as a jumping point to talk about a serious misunderstanding of the history of climate change, but I’ll save that for another time. Instead I want to talk about this article as representative of the political nature of scientific research.

The idea that environmental change and ecological disaster leads to political instability is not new. Read this. Or this.

The number of explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire is probably a reflection of the number of people who study it. They range from environmental, economic, ideological, and demographic. Wikipedia does a descent job of summarizing the major ideas of collapse, just to give you an idea. I’m also not going to talk use this as an opportunity to leacture about what I think is the real cause of civilization collapse- though if you’re interested it’s a combination of this and this.

Book Math is Fun!

What I really want to talk about is how scientific explanations for events are affected by modern political and social climates. Stephen Jay Gould does a really good job of talking about this in the Mismeasure of Man. The big S.J.G. was talking about how the political and social acceptance of racist ideas influenced theories of human evolution, I am instead talking about how this still happens- with everything. Environmental problems are only the latest manifestation. Not that this means we shouldn’t be concerned about climate change, or the environment. Seriously. I like penguins. Lets keep ’em okay?


It does mean we need to accurately and scientifically try to understand the affects of climate change, and that part of that means we should be aware that these explanations are partially based in current fears.

25 years ago, Richard R. Wilk wrote a paper about this very subject. Besides being a very interesting paper it also managed to have a clever and informative title without resorting to the overused Joke title: Actual Title format that irrationally irks me. It’s called The Ancient Maya and the Political Present. You can read it here if you want.

But, because it’s what I do, I’ll summarize it for you.

Basically Wilk’s says that the various explanations of the Mayan Collapse can be mapped against current political and social problems. Basically Wilk is pointing out that perhaps our explanations have more to do with our current fears than they do with the actual cause.

He does this quite well. He even made a graph.


From Wilks 1985 Journal of Anthropological Research


Now, I know I already threatened to talk about the problems between correlation and causation, but hear me out.

Wilk isn’t saying that these models are wrong because they are effected by current fears, and I’m not saying that the researchers who wrote that article way up at the top of this post are wrong. I’m saying that we need to know how our ideas are affected by the political and social climate we exist in.

And that while it is likely that the Roman Empire was effected by changes in their environment, the perceived impact is going to hold more weight in a world concerned with modern climate change.

The research presented in this week’s Science is important, and it furthers our understanding of social change. We just have to be careful not to claim that it is THE cause, and be aware of how much our modern fears and concerns play into our interpretations.

That being said, we seriously need to be concerned with the effects of climate change. Because it’s real people. And I don’t have room in my freezer for a couple of penguins and a polar bear.

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