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Planet Earth

Not Even Wrong

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerAugust 31, 2006 12:53 AM


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From time to time, my Seed magazine hosts throw out a question for bloggers to answer. Today's question is concerns a column by James S. Robbins on global warming in the National Review Online. Robbins claims that global warming will be a great thing if it happens, which he doubts. The question is, does he have a point?

The question of what the full range of effects from global warming will be--both good and bad--is an important one, but Robbins shows little ability to offer an answer. His column overlooks important things, gets various facts wrong, and belies a general ignorance of and indifference towards science. For me, you can sum up everything that's wrong with the article in one word: micobiotic.


Allow me to explain. Robbins uses this word when he is talking about how we don't need to care about extinctions caused by global warming.

Granted, there will be some negative impacts in marginal areas. Some rare plant and animal species, hyper-adapted to highly specific climate conditions or micobiotic zones, are already unable to cope with the change. Many may go extinct; some already have. That's tough, but chalk it up to bad evolutionary choices. When those rigidly specialist species bet everything on a small part of the world in hopes it would never change, they made a very bad bargain. For our part, we have air conditioners, lightweight fabrics, and sunscreen. Why infinitely adaptable humanity has to pay the price for the evolutionary shortsightedness of other life forms is beyond me. [emphasis mine]

Let's ignore for a moment that a number of studies suggest that extinctions will not be marginal, but quite drastic (see my posts here and here for a couple recent ones). Let's also ignore the fact that much of the world's biodiversity have small ranges. Let's ignore the fact that infinitely adaptable as we are, we still depend in various ways on other species. Let's just focus on that word "micobiotic."

There is no such word.

I was pretty sure there wasn't when I read the column, and then looked at a couple dictionaries on my bookshelf. But to be sure, I gave a quick call to my brother Ben, senior lexicographer for American dictionairies at Oxford University Press. He happened to be surrounded by dictionaries when I called, and could find micobiotic in none of them.

Of course, Robbins might well have meant to write "microbiotic." But even then he'd be wrong."Microbiotic" does not refer to a small biological range, as the context in which Robbins uses the word suggests. It's mainly used as a term to describe soil crusts that contain communities of microbes (see here, for example). It may sound fancy, but in Robbins's column it would be utterly meaningless.

Who really knows what Robbins had in mind? All we know for sure is that he tossed a nonsense word into his piece and didn't care enough to check. Nor did any fact-checker or copy editor at the National Review feel the need to flag this gibberish. I'm not saying that one has to be a scientist to join in this debate, but it would be nice if people didn't just make stuff up.

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