Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 2, 2009
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Facial Expressions, Lies, and Climate
There's good science, and there's pretty good science, and there's bad science.
And those are the only kinds of science.
Because once you get a little bit worse than pretty good, there's no value left.
You do the cause of science more harm than good.
Let me tell you about good science first, by looking at -- and behind -- the TV
series Lie to Me.
This series is great television by any standard. Great actors in a cast headed
by the ever-brilliant Tim Roth, who plays the complicated, repellent, amazing,
and admirable Dr. Cal Lightman. Great writers, led by series creator Samuel
But I'm not really reviewing this series here. What matters is the science
Roth's character, Cal Lightman, is a scientist who has spent his lifetime
studying people's facial expressions and body language. He has discovered
that there are facial expressions that are universal to every culture -- indeed,
other primates seem already to have them, or the beginnings of them.
He has also learned how to read people's movements, the way they reveal, to
those who know how to see what they're doing, what's going on inside them,
He has taught his techniques to others, though there are also "naturals" --
rare people who are alert to these emotional signals without any training at all.
And Lightman makes a living consulting with people who must know who is
lying and who is telling the truth.
Because the science is new, Lightman can't testify in court about who is lying
-- his findings are not admissible. But he can help exonerate people who are
falsely accused, and there are situations -- a sudden rash of suicides by Indian
women, a disastrous collapse of a building under construction, a series of
terrorist bombings -- where his abilities lead to truth that can save lives.
Every episode is smart. All the ongoing characters are smart. And even
though Lightman's personal life is something of a mess, the series smartly
deals with his relationship with his ex-wife and his daughter, who are
fascinating, likeable, and problematic in their own right.
The problem with the series is, it demands that you accept and believe all the
science that Cal Lightman uses. This is not like The Mentalist, where you
accept the idea that the hero is very perceptive and intuitive and you don't have
to know how he knows what he knows. This is not like the fantasy series
Medium, in which the heroine flat-out sees visions of the dead and desperate.
This is more like The Unit was -- if it isn't real, then it all feels like a cheat. It
would be unwatchable.
So I'm happy to tell you that the science behind the series is real, and makes
fascinating reading whether you watch the series or not.
The scientist behind it is also a very good writer, so that when he wants to, he
can write in a way that is perfectly accessible to non-scientists. Paul Ekman
came into the study of facial expressions and gestures through the back door,
because he was skeptical of the idea (first advanced in a serious way by
Darwin) that there are innate facial expressions that don't have to be taught.
These have evolved and continue to exist in the human race because the ability
to interpret the emotional state of other people, whether we do it consciously or
not, enables us to get along better in communities. It enhances our ability to
survive through cooperation -- or through avoiding people who are so angry
they are dangerous.
Ekman is the real thing -- a scientist who uses the scientific method and
believes in it. He follows the evidence where it leads -- even if the results are
not what he expected or even hoped for.
And he is skeptical of his own results.
When you read his books -- most notably Telling Lies, Emotions Revealed,
and Darwin and Facial Expressions -- it is striking how careful he is. When
he asserts that something is a fact, he backs it up with the experiments that he
and others have performed.
But when only he has achieved those results, he says so, and declares that
until others have verified his findings they cannot be relied on.
What? He claims that his own findings can't be trusted?
Of course -- because he's a scientist. And a real scientist knows that no
matter how carefully you design your experiments, there can be something you
overlooked, some flaw in your design or in your interpretation of your results,
which another scientist may see.
Someone else's experiments might get contradictory results. It may be that
there's a cause for what you observed that's quite different from what you
supposed. Until you have published your results and others have tested them
-- especially those who think you're wrong! -- you can't consider even your
own findings to be reliable.
And then there are the ideas that he believes are true, but has not yet been
able to verify experimentally. He tells you straight out: I don't have any data on
this, but it seems true to me.
Imagine that! A scientist who doesn't think he knows everything! Actually,
most scientists are exactly like that -- humble about their own ideas, eager to
test them, and perfectly happy to have their first guesses and even their second
guesses proven wrong.
What matters is the advancement of knowledge.
So when you read Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and
Marriage, he draws lines very, very carefully.
Yes, his techniques allow you to read some very specific things from people's
expressions. Disgust looks like this; anger looks like that; this is fear, this is
happiness, this is puzzlement.
But he constantly reminds the reader: You don't know why the person is
feeling these emotions.
That's why he's so hard on lie detectors. All they can do is detect stress. But
an honest person can feel stress when asked certain questions -- especially
when he doesn't believe that he'll be believed! He's telling the truth, but he
doesn't expect you to believe him -- so he shows the kind of stress that the lie
detector operator will interpret as a sign of lying!
Also, there are people who can lie without feeling any stress at all. It doesn't
mean they're dishonest, necessarily -- it can mean that they feel so perfectly
relaxed about the story they're telling that no stress is identifiable. Because
there is no expression that says, "I'm lying."
When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Lying is so vital to our
survival and prosperity as individuals in society that anyone who could not,
under some circumstances, lie convincingly would not be likely to be able to get
as many opportunities to reproduce or live through angry encounters!
Ekman therefore shows that while it is very useful to be able to read people's
emotions accurately, there is no foolproof way to interpret all these emotional
In other words, you can learn how to read your spouse's emotional state, but
you still have to talk to your spouse in order to learn why that emotion pops up
at a particular time.
Now, let's briefly return to the television show. Lie to Me is entertainment, not
science. Cal Lightman and his employees have a lot more certainty about who
is and is not lying than Ekman has -- but they also give all of Ekman's
warnings about what you can and can't know. They explain their thinking;
they explain why signs of stress often have an explanation other than lying.
So the writers fudge just a little to make the characters a bit more powerful
and accurate than they would be in real life. But the explanations of science
are sound. You actually come out of each episode a little bit smarter about
other people than you were coming in.
And when you read Ekman, you are in the hands of a self-skeptical scientist
who has followed the facts even when his findings flatly contradicted the
received wisdom of behaviorist-dominated psychology and sociology. For a long
time he stood alone -- good scientists on the cutting edge often do.
But as more and more of his findings were verified by others, he has finally
begun to make headway. Even so, he never regards it as "his" victory over "his"
opponents. Rather, he regards it as scientific progress: We know more than we
did before, and more scientists are joining in the research to learn even more
than we do now.
That's good science. Now for the pretty good science.
Brian Fagan's books on climate change through history were recommended to
me by a friend. I even passed along his mini-review. But I have now read The
Great Warming, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, and The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization.
Fagan does a really excellent job of his project, which is history rather than
science. He has gone into the historical record and correlated it with the
scientific record of past climate changes.
What emerges is a series of warm and cold periods. First, there's the macro-climate pattern, which for the past million years or so has primarily consisted
of a long ice age interrupted by warm periods that last ten or twenty thousand
years at a whack.
Within those ice ages, though, there are brief warm spells, and within the
warm periods (like the one we're in now, in which all of known human history
has taken place) there are cold periods.
We are now in a warm phase that began about 1850. Previous to that was the
Little Ice Age, a stormy, miserable period with bitterly cold winters, chilly
summers, and shortened growing seasons. It lasted from about 1300 till 1850.
Prior to the Little Ice Age, though, there was a Medieval Warm Period that was
much like the climate today -- only warmer. They were growing wine grapes in
the south of England (not yet possible today); Greenland looked, amazingly
enough, green; and Newfoundland could be called "Vineland" by Norse
Not surprisingly, when we're in a warm period, weather is better, summers last
longer, crops are less likely to fail, and the world can, on the whole, sustain a
markedly larger population than during the cold periods. All of this Fagan
And yet ... somehow Fagan remains a believer in the alarmist idea that
somehow human activities are causing our current global warming through our
excessive carbon emissions, and the results of this will be a dire problem that
must be stopped.
So even though every bit of actual evidence Fagan has found in the historical
record and in the findings of scientists points to our present time as being well
within the normal pattern of climate cycles, he still remains a true believer in
the dogma that humans are doing bad things to the climate and must be
From time to time in his books, he will point out that religious leaders blamed
bad climate events on the wrath of God. The people have sinned; we must
repent. He doesn't actually ridicule these efforts to understand climate change
by blaming it on God's reaction to human sins, but the message is clear.
Weren't these people naive to think that sinning against God's will could have
caused these storms, this shortened growing season, this famine?
They have the mindset that whatever happens must be God's will, and so when
bad things happen, God must be angry.
And yet Fagan does exactly the same thing himself, over and over -- blaming
human activities for climate events that clearly are well within the normal
When he is talking about facts, he carefully demonstrates causality, giving
evidence. But when he blames current human activities for our present
warmer climate, it's as if he switches off his brain and repeats the mantras of
the eco-puritans. Suddenly our good weather is a bad thing. Suddenly a thing
that happened long ago when there were no human carbon emissions worth
mentioning can only be understood as the result of human activity when it
What's going on here?
Well, it's the opposite, really, of Ekman's attitude toward science. Where
Ekman built up consensus slowly, by gathering evidence and by inviting other
people to test his results, the global warming alarm hit the ground running as
a full-fledged explanation. Somehow it made the leap from being a hypothesis
-- what if human carbon emissions are causing a rise in global temperatures?
-- to being a dogma, without any intervening skepticism allowed.
Fagan is not doing bad science. He's a historian, and he faithfully follows the
historical record. You can actually find out true things by reading his books.
But just as the true believers in the wrath of God were able to assign human
sins as the cause of whatever bad weather they had, so also Fagan is able to
look past his facts and blame modern changes on forest-clearing and carbon
emissions, not because he actually has any specific data proving it (if he did,
he'd have produced it), but because that's what good, faithful eco-puritans
have to say.
So Fagan is doing pretty good science.
But he has been utterly taken in by the people who do very bad science.
Global warming was seized upon as an explanation as soon as it was proposed.
We were getting news articles about it as fact back when even its proponents
could only claim it as a guess, backed up only by computer simulations which
were not science at all, but merely visual aids.
In the years since then we have found out what we already knew -- that the
Little Ice Age is over and we're in a warmer cycle now, which has not yet
reached the high temperatures and long summers of the Medieval Warm
But we have found nothing, nada, zilch that proves or even indicates that
human carbon emissions have anything to do with the warmer trends since
First, the industrial revolution was highly localized and serious scientists agree
that what was happening exclusively in Europe could not have had any
noticeable effect on global temperatures. Besides, the industrial revolution
began decades before the Little Ice Age ended in 1850.
Second, if human carbon emissions were causing global warming, we would
expect that there would be some relationship between increases in atmospheric
carbon dioxide and rises in temperature. But the data show the opposite:
There is not a correlation or even an inverse correlation. Global temperatures
rise and fall in patterns similar to those that the weather has always had, and
rises in human carbon emissions have no effect at all.
Sometimes as carbon emissions have shot up, temperature has fallen. Then it
rises again, when no particular change has happened, and falls again even
though carbon emissions have not decreased.
In the world of rational science, this would be taken as a very strong indicator
that if human carbon emissions have any effect at all, it is probably negligible
and not worth worrying about.
But we're talking about religion here, just as we saw during the Little Ice Age.
It is useful to the eco-puritans to keep blaming every bad thing (or even good
things that they claim are bad) on human activities, because they want a good
excuse to stop those activities.
The eco-puritans have been making war on civilization for decades now. We
can't build a dam without lawsuits claiming that we are endangering species.
They start from the assumption that if humans need it, it must be a bad thing
and should be blocked or delayed as long as possible.
This bias continues. And the eco-puritans use all the tools of fanatical religion
to try to get their way.
If a good scientist dares to speak up and declare that anthropogenic global
warming has not only not been proven, but seems to be contra-indicated by the
data we have, that scientist is punished.
There is no punishing in good science! You don't suddenly deny speaking
engagements to a notable scientist because he dared to say the wrong thing.
You don't attack anyone who questions your findings -- you welcome their
You don't hide your evidence or refuse to share it -- but that's what the
"hockey stick" claimants did, until it became clear they had faked their data
and suddenly the eco-puritans stopped talking about the hockey stick. It was
a lie and it had always been a lie -- but it got swept under the rug because,
after all, it was a pious lie in support of a "good" cause.
Even now, the eco-puritans confess the bankruptcy of their religion in
everything they say. I just heard a spot that made me laugh -- but sadly.
"Just because you don't feel any effects of global warming right now doesn't
mean it's not important," said the message.
Yeah, well, maybe the fact that we don't feel any effects of global warming right
now means that whatever is happening is part of the natural cycles of the
Earth and Sun, and it is not caused by our eco-sins.
Good science: The methodology of a self-skeptic like Paul Ekman.
Pretty good science: The faithful reporting of the correlations between history
and science in the books of Brian Fagan.
Bad science: The attempts by the eco-puritans to squelch or punish any
dissidents and to pretend that an issue is settled when it hasn't even been
examined. They leapt to believe because they wanted to believe it.
This is is the kind of behavior that will lead the public to conclude that
scientists are just a bunch of liars who will say anything to get their way.
Because, unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening with the false claims
of human-caused global warming.
It is going to be used as an excuse to put foolish and onerous burdens on
Western industry (but not on Chinese or Indian or Russian or African industry,
as if they didn't share the same planet!)
It is a political ploy to hurt the West, and it is being backed by people so stupid
that they don't understand that if they actually bring down Western economies,
it will hurt the poorest parts of the world first and worst.
Meanwhile, though, the survivors can read Ekman's books and accurately
interpret what emotions we're feeling about the eco-puritans who lied to us
when they used global warming as an excuse to break the back of the global
economy and bring to an end the ascendancy of the West.
Oh, and while we're talking about the Little Ice Age....
During that period, the Thames River (you know, the big river that flows
through London) froze hard enough to walk on -- forty times. Helen
Humphreys has written a book called The Frozen Thames, which offers a
vignette about every one of those forty times.
Some of them are pure fiction -- well-written but sometimes a little
purposeless. Most, though, are tied to historical events going on at that time.
You can enjoy the book as pure entertainment. But it also creates an overall
impression of the way weather interweaves with history. Because I've studied
English history all my life (as a hobby; I've never taken a class in it), I knew of
all the historical incidents that Humphreys wrote about.
What I hadn't realized was: Oh, and that was an exceptionally cold winter. The
Sometimes that can seem quite irrelevant. But usually it is relevant. It gives
shape to all the decisions people were making at the time. The weather is
really, really bad, so there are things you just can't do -- or can do, because
you can walk on the water!
It's not a coincidence, I think, that the great plagues that swept through
Europe came during the depths of the bad weather caused by cold periods.
Because it happened before. The Medieval Warm Period had a beginning --
and before it, there was another cold phase during the very time when the
Roman Empire was ground down and depopulated by two massive plagues,
which may well have contributed to the fall of the western empire.
And it makes sense. When the growing season is short, and the crops are bad,
and people go hungry, and the winter is cold so people are weakened by their
inability to get warm -- if a plague should strike then, it will kill far more than
it would have during seasons with plenty of food and warm weather.
Of course a virulent enough plague will kill people off very nicely during good
weather, too. But bad weather makes bad things worse.
Anyway, a delightful little book, in which I think global warming is mentioned
only a couple of times....