[failure is not an option]
Steve Jobs considered the circumstances surrounding his ouster at Apple in 1985 to be his “biggest failure”. He used this “biggest failure” to spur him back to life, by establishing his new computer company (called NeXT, get it?) and by buying a computer graphics arm of George Lucas’ empire (called Pixar). Though NeXT ultimately flopped, Pixar did not and that gave Jobs the financial muscle to come back to Apple – well, that and the fact that Apple was down to 90 days operating capital – and the rest, as they say in the hagiographies, is history.
Only it’s not that simple.
Steve Jobs’ actual “biggest failure” was when he accidentally discovered he had pancreatic cancer and then neglected treatment for a critical 9 months. The discovery was fortuitous, he was being checked for kidney stones… and the type of pancreatic cancer found was the least malignant form.
There was good statistical evidence that with a bit of surgery to remove the malignant tumor, the road to a complete recovery could be paved.
Only thing is that Steve Jobs, the genius marketing guy (who has been trumpeted and mislabeled as an engineering genius), decided he didn’t want his body cut open. Instead, he eschewed medical science and tried a lot of ___________ remedies. (Fill in the blank: the words “natural”, “homeopathic”, “faith-based”, “magic” come to mind.) Diets? Yep. Acupuncture? Yep.
And this despite his living within one of the biggest high-tech areas of the world amidst some of the wealthiest individuals who overcame similar medical problems (such as famed Intel CEO, Andy Groves) with standard treatments. Steve Jobs was surrounded by savvy high-tech people offering their best advice for the type of cure required.
And he ignored it all.
The upshot? A 9 month delay which allowed the cancer cells to grow and spread. At that point, the prognosis was much less hopeful.
Steve Jobs told his biographer he “regretted” that decision. No kidding. By not going with the best – but mostly routine – science at the beginning, he needed to pour huge resources after. Like spending $100,000 to sequence the DNA of his tumor.
Too little, too late.
Time is the one thing you cannot buy. Steve Jobs biggest failure was squandering time by turning away from the best science he had available – and it cost him his life.
We see this type of magic thinking today. Last week, Professor Richard Muller from UC Berkeley pre-announced the results of his statistical analysis of global warming data. Actually, the data had already been gone over. Thoroughly. The jury isn’t out on global warming and its acceleration. The jury has already come back, made its verdict, gone home, and even the janitor has finished sweeping the floors. The professional climatologists have, after several decades of research, come to their careful conclusions. There is nothing particularly wrong with going over old data “just to make sure”, but you don’t see verification of Newton’s Laws of Motion in the New York Times.
This is no ordinary report, however. Professor Muller was a darling of the global warming deniers, an actual physicist who was at a major university, and his report has 2 aspects particularly noteworthy:
- The work was funded, in a large part, by the Koch Brothers who are wealthy, well-known global warming deniers.
- It confirms all known conclusions previously reached by others that the deniers were hoping to disprove.
See? This is the problem with getting an actual scientist on your side. He will be beholden to the science and not your side. Muller knew full well the upshot of this work. That’s why he did the unusual step of pre-announcing the results… and putting them in the Wall Street Journal. Except, he didn’t. He put them in the European edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Which is sort of like placing your wedding announcement in the Penny Saver.
Naturally, when you are paid to (wink, wink) come up with a certain set of (wink, wink) results, and you didn’t get the expected results –
…hold on…there’s something in my eye.
…there… took care of it…
– there are bound to be a few upset people.
Like Anthony Watts, who hosts the denier-popular “Watts Up with That” website. Watts loved it when Muller went after Al Gore and applauded loudly when Muller, through his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, went to re-examine the old datasets:
I think, based on what I’ve seen, that BEST has a superior method. Of course that is just my opinion, with all of it’s baggage; it remains to be seen how the rest of the scientific community will react when they publish. ~ Anthony Watts, March 6, 2011
That was then. This is now.
What did “Watts Up with That” post when Muller’s op-ed came out? A piece entitled “A preliminary assessment of BEST’s decline”.
Sour grapes much? I mean, Watts had already said “the BEST result will be closer to the ground truth that anything we’ve seen,” so it had to sting when the official press release of the BEST results mentioned Watts specifically with the science he didn’t want to know about:
[Monitoring] Stations ranked as “poor” in a survey by Anthony Watts and his team of the most important temperature recording stations in the US, (known as the USHCN – the US Historical Climatology Network), showed the same pattern of global warming as stations ranked “OK”.
Of course, Watts’ website now posted all kinds of things directly refuting BEST’s conclusions. My favorite was one blog that actually, after all the “analysis,” included a disclaimer:
I am not a climate scientist and claim no expertise relevant to this subject other than basic arithmetics [sic]. In case I have overlooked equivalent previous work, this is due to my ignorance of the field, is not deliberate and will be amended upon request.
Hey, Bub! Be a real scientist. If you can’t put your opinions in writing and stand by them, you don’t get weasel words to say “ooops, me makey mistake.” A disclaimer?!? Science don’t work that way.
But magic thinking does.
Which brings us back to the central point:
We now have our diagnosis from the best scientific evidence available. Even professional scientists hired by global warming deniers are sold on the interpretation of the data: The Earth is in serious trouble. Or, more precisely, the climate that humans like to have on the Earth to survive as a species is in serious trouble. I supposed we can now spend 9 months, or 9 years, arguing about it, going on the equivalent of diets and acupuncture and wishful thinking… all the while allowing the exponential increase of the cancer. After all, we are “special” creatures. We can wish and hope and try to pray the situation away.
Until we find that praying doesn’t really work in these cases. And that’s when we find religion.
That’s when we spend millions and millions of dollars for after-the-fact high-tech science solutions that will not be effective against the exponentially changing situation. We can go high-tech because we are wealthy. Surely there is something we can do. Surely we can work harder now to make up for missed opportunities earlier.
But no. We will find, just like Steve Jobs did, that despite our wealth, we are still of this physical world, subject to its rules, not ours. And if we continue to deny those rules, we, as a species, will also not have the ability to learn from our biggest failure of judgment: putting magic thinking before scientific solutions.
Time will be squandered. And then we will die… with regret.
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