With the pending climate pajamafest all-nighter at the U.S. Senate, (powered by the Washington DC coal burning power plant) the release of former NASA scientists and engineers Right Climate Stuff message that there is no need to be worried about CAGW, and Bill McKibben’s empty boxes fiasco, these loosely related events coaclesced into a moment of understanding last night after I watched what is probably my favorite episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation titled “Darmok“.
So, with “eyes wide open”, I thought I’d write about it. In case you don’t know how the episode plays out, it goes like this, borrowing from the Memory Alpha Wikia description:
- The USS Enterprise-D is on a mission to attempt to establish communications between the Federation and the Tamarians after several previous attempts had failed. The Enterprise and the Tamarian vessel make a rendezvous in orbit of El-Adrel IV. The two parties try to communicate but, like the occasions before, neither party can comprehend what the other party is saying.
- Captain Picard is captured by the Tamarians, then trapped on a planet with the Tamarian captain who speaks a metaphorical language incompatible even with the universal translator. They must learn to communicate with each other before the “beast of the planet” (Memory Alpha’s label) overwhelms them.
- They are both thrust onto the planet’s surface, and the Tarmarians send out a particle beam that disrupts transporter functions. The idea is to stage a showdown between the captains, with hope that they can communicate to overcome the common enemy; the mostly invisible, hard to detect, and fleeting “beast of the planet” which manifests itself as some sort of electromagnetic disturbance.
- The Tamarian captain, Dathon, keeps repeating what appears to be nonsense phrases such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”, and “Shaka, when the walls fell”. Even when Picard tries to ask factually probing questions. They bed down for the night, eyeing each other warily, and Picard fails to make a fire, but Dathon, taking pity, tosses Picard a burning stick from his own.
- Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, they start analyzing the Tamarian language, and counselor Troi notes: “Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It’s how they communicate and it’s how they think.“
- The next day, repeating the same metaphors, the Tamarian captain, Dathon, looks exasperated that Picard can’t seem to “get it”, especially when Dathon offers Picard a knife, saying “Temba, his arms wide”. Picard takes this as a offer to a knife fight.
- Finally when “the beast of the planet” starts growling and making fleeting appearances, Picard takes Dathon up on the knife offer, and they start fighting the beast of the planet together. Unfortunately, knives don’t seem to matter much.
- Dathon is injured by the beast, and at the campfire that night, while dying, Picard and Dathon try once again to communicate. Dathon sticks with metaphors, Picard still asks factual questions, though some level of understanding ensues when Picard finally realizes that the Tamarian method of communications is emotive, based solely on imagery and metaphors.
- Dathon dies, and the next day while Picard starts to bury him, the beast of the planet attacks again, but by this time the Enterprise crew has disabled the transporter disruptor on the Tamarian ship and beams Picard back aboard in the midst of a fierce phaser battle between the ships.
- Picard enters the bridge, opens a channel, and repeats the series of nonsensical phrases that are metaphors (learned from Dathon) only he and the Tamarians can comphrehend. The Tamarians reply angrily but they quickly calm down when Picard addresses them in metaphor. The Tamarian first officer, hearing these familiar metaphors repeated back to him exclaims: “Sokath, his eyes uncovered!”. Meanwhile, the “beast of the planet” is ignored by both sides.
- The battle ends, the Tarmarian exclaims this understanding represents a new story/metaphor, the story of “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel”, and they depart. Picard tries to make sense of it all, and reflects upon Homeric Hymns in his ready room, explaining to Riker that maybe more familiarity with their own mythology may help them relate to the Tamarians.
This table might be helpful for people whose eyes have already glazed over.
|Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.||Friendship as a result of a fight against a common enemy.|
|Shaka, when the walls fell.||Failure.|
|Sokath, his eyes uncovered (or, his eyes open).||An understanding or realization has been achieved.|
|Kailash, when it rises.||An accident or unavoidable loss (e.g. natural disaster).|
I’m sure readers can see the parallels with climate change debate and its communications problems. One side repeatedly uses metaphors, imagery, and emotional attachments to convey the urgency of fighting the often invisible and fleeting “beast of the planet”, while the other side keeps asking pointed questions, tries to analyze what is being said and the situation, and tries to learn the language of the other side, even though it seems nonsensical. Neither side seems to get much from the other.
The climate change debate has always been mostly about two viewpoints where the players talk past one another without really understanding much of what the other says.
In “Jarmok”, the side using the imagery and metaphor was so desperate to get their story across, they even resorted to kidnapping to force an understanding, and the issue. And, they created new imagery and metaphors in a story to explain the brief moment of understanding. It reminds me of some of the desperate acts we’ve seen from climate advocates, such as Gleick willing to commit a crime, and Bill McKibben making lies in the open to tout the imagery surrounding the delivery of 2 million comments to the State Department just under the deadline, except the boxes were nothing but empty metaphors.
Recently Bob Tisdale wrote on WUWT: It Isn’t How Climate Scientists Communicated their Message; It’s the Message
While he has a point, the “how” still figures into why many people just don’t seem to care much about climate change anymore. Many people simply look at the increasingly wild imagery, metaphors, and claims used by climate change proponents, decide it is nonsensical, and simply stop trying to comprehend it anymore. Climate fatigue sets in.
A good example is John Cook’s “Hiroshima bombs” metaphor, turned into a phone app.
Only the truly faithful pay any attention to this. Anybody with a lick of sense can see the atmosphere today doesn’t look anything like that sort of hellish imagery atomic bombs conjur up, so they chuckle and ignore it. It wasn’t even Cook’s idea, he borrowed it from James Hansen’s TED talk and tried to make it an everyday scare tactic for the science challenged.
Undeterred, Cook and company have moved onto “kitten sneezes“.
“Shaka, when the walls fell.” might very well be an apt metaphor for climate change proponents failure to communicate.
Post Script: I had tried to visualize a similar meeting on a planet, using climate players from today. I gave up when I realized that it was likely none of the proponents would have the skills to build a fire, and even if they did, they probably wouldn’t share the burning stick like Dathon did.
Can you imagine Steve McIntyre and Michael Mann in those roles?