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The Invisible Present - Luke McGuff

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July 8th, 2013

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09:00 am - The Invisible Present

Science is good at measuring short term events, ranging from a day or so for bacterial growth down to femtoseconds for some physical processes. Science is also good at extrapolating very long term events from observations, such as geologic process shown in rocks or cosmological events in the microwave background.

However, there is a middle ground that is difficult to study, events that take anywhere from several years to a few decades. They’re within the span of a human lifetime, but gradual enough to appear static. This is what Magnuson (1990) calls “the invisible present.” This is the scale of most ecological processes, and why researchers sometimes have to gather data for decades before being able to make an informed hypothesis.

Most scientific research is centered on the “falsifiable hypothesis.” That is, a scientist has a question they want to explore, and tries to construct the experiment in such a way as to disprove their original question. This can work for relatively short term processes of three to five years or less (which, by remarkable coincidence, is about the length of the grant cycle).

I think the scale of “the invisible present” makes climate change such a difficult process to grapple with socially. The evidence has been accumulating for decades and is incontrovertible now. But the change has been so gradual that it’s only noticeable in long-term records, such as the 170+ years of ice-coverage data for Lake Mendota (WI) or the bloom records kept by Thoreau at Walden Pond compared to bloom dates of the same plants today.

When I was young the perceived risks to nuclear war or pollution were immediate. I heard the sirens every week, we did the duck’n'cover exercises under the desk, there were headlines about Mutually Assured Destruction. You could see the sky turn brown with smog and the rivers foam with phosphates. We’ve since cleaned up those problems (even though some were “cleaned up” by exporting the pollution to China).

But because the change caused by climate change has been so gradual, and below the threshold for direct human perception so far, we haven’t begun to make the deep cultural changes needed to make to deal with it.

Magnuson, John J. “Long-Term Ecological Research and the Invisible Present.” BioScience, Vol. 40, No. 7 (Jul. – Aug. 1990), pp. 495-501.

Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.


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