I closed the last post with the question “So what might help us to make more sound policy decisions in a context of complexity?” Let us start with a thought experiment.
The year is 1895 and we are in America. As we look at recent trends we see a rapidly growing population and increased urbanization. Intra-urban transportation is largely by horse drawn vehicle. Expanding urban centers means more and more people concentrated together who are not growing their own food. That means more and more food from far flung areas has to be transported into cities and then distributed to ever expanding neighborhoods. Most if this will have to be by horse drawn vehicles. Most personal public transportation will be by horses. That means we are going to need more and more horses. But the increased number of horses also means streets filled with horse manure and the potential spread of disease. We perceive that the transportation system soon will be overwhelmed and our cities will be cesspool on the verge of collapse. What shall we do?
Some would no doubt begin increasing their investments in the buggy industry. Others might have turn to legislation to restrict the growth of cities or at least control them in a way that they do not get out of control. Others would pursue development of innovative technologies to resolve the transportation issues. As we look back, we see that all three of these strategies were employed to some degree. Some folks invested in creating more efficient existing industries, the city planning movement was born, and experimentation with creating a viable automobile was underway. Any one of these strategies pursued alone would have been perilous to the growth and prosperity we see today, but pursued together they brought tremendous benefits.
I recently finished reading The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. Beinhocker takes us back to 1987.
The still nascent PC industry has just gone through a period of explosive growth. No one has ridden that growth harder than Microsoft. But MS-DOS is no coming to the end of its natural life cycle. Customers are beginning to look for a replacement operating of the new generation of machines. (335)
Microsoft was $346 million dollar corporation up against multi-billion dollar giants like IBM who was already doing work on creating its own OS/2 system. Meanwhile, AT&T, Sun Microsystems and Xerox, among others, were teaming up to create a user friendly version of Unix. Apple was plowing ahead with its graphics based interface environment. What should Microsoft do? Improve its MS-DOS systems? Join up with IBM on OS/2? Join up with AT&T and friends on Unix? Throw its money in with the Apple environment? Take the high risk strategy of creating something new on its own? Which strategy should Microsoft choose? Bill Gates and Microsoft did something unconventional. They did all of the above! We might ask how the relatively small Microsoft could afford to do this? Gates concluded they could not afford not to do it. Here is how Beinhocker describes it:
First, Microsoft continued to invest in MS-DOS. Although everyone was predicting the operating system’s demise, it still had an enormous customer base. Many customers were very cautious about switching, and each version of DOS was incrementally more powerful than the last. There was still some chance that DOS would continue to morph and provide what customers wanted for some time.
Second, Microsoft saw IBM as a real threat. Big Blue was still a powerhouse on the hardware side in 1987 and wanted to regain control of the operating-system market. But IBM also knew it would be risky to go it alone. As Michael Corleone said in the The Godfather, Part II, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Gates and IBM agreed to turn IBM’s OS/2 operating-system project into a joint venture.
Third, Microsoft saw Unix as a lesser threat than IBM, but a threat nonetheless. Microsoft held discussions with various companies, including AT&T, about participating in joint efforts on Unix. The discussions kept Microsoft’s options open and the company plugged into what was going on, but also fueled speculation about Microsoft’s Unix strategy. This had the benefit of creating additional uncertainty for the Unix advocates and slowing their progress.
Fourth, in addition to playing the Unix alliance game, Microsoft bought a major stake in the largest seller of Unix systems on PCs, a company called the Santa Cruz Operation. Thus, if Unix did take off, Microsoft would at least have a product of its own in the market.
Fifth, Gates did not pull back on investing in applications, but continued to build that business at the same time, despite the strain on resources. In particular, Microsoft built its position in software for Apple Macinstosh, passing Apple itself, as the leading supplier. This provided a hedge in case Apple capitalized on the discontinuity in the market to push its own operating system ahead.
Sixth, and finally, Gates made major investments in Windows. Windows was intended to be the best of all worlds. It was built on DOS and was backward-compatible with DOS applications, it was multitasking like OS/2 and Unix, and it was easy to use like Macintosh. But most importantly, it would keep control of the PC operating-system market firmly in Microsoft’s hands. Success with Windows was clearly the company’s most preferred outcome.
What Gates created was not a focused big bet, but a portfolio of strategic options. One way of interpreting what Gates did was that he set a high-level aspiration – to be the leading PC software company – and then he created a portfolio of strategic experiments that the possibility of evolving to toward that aspiration. (335-336)
My interest here is not whether what Microsoft did was best for the computer industry but rather how Microsoft survived and thrived in an uncertain environment. What Microsoft did was to spread risks much like you or I would with a mutual fund. We could try to pick a star stock for our 401K and with the hope of being set for life. However, pick any of a number of dog stocks and we can lose all or most of our investment. By choosing a more balanced portfolio you lose some of the potential upside of picking a star performer because your are investing in a number of companies that don’t give a good return. Not having all your funds invested in the one right company is the price you pay to avoid having all your funds in the wrong company. Of course, if you knew which firms would advance there would be no question where to invest but in the real world there is much uncertainty. We are left with risk management. Just a fund manager moves funds to well performing assets, so did Microsoft begin to focus its investments in the achievers while simultaneously keeping its fingers in other possibilities until they had clearly faded. They added new strategies to their portfolio as they emerged in order to be sure they were not unexpectedly taken by surprise.
This is how I expect we must deal with public policy concerning complex scientific questions. We have to manage risks. We pursue multiple strategies knowing that in a sense, some of the money and effort will be wasted because it will go to strategies that do not pan out. We pay this price to avoid not having invested partially in the right strategies.
Take climate change, for example. Despite some rather vitriolic claims by activists, it is not certain that we are in serious danger from increased temperatures, at least in the near term (and maybe not at all.) Yet if we are persuaded that there is a reasonable potential for significant negative consequences we can’t simply ignore the problem. I could see at least three strategies working at the same time.
First, we make what we are already doing more efficient and take the low cost steps we can to reduce emissions. (Picking the fruit from the low branches.) The downside is that we may have invested our energies into strategies that were needless to start with. On the upside, should the risk picture become more clearly threatening we will have already made some initial steps toward alleviating the problem and be ahead of the curve
Second, we plan and organize ourselves now for negative contingencies that could arise even as we purse more precise information about what is happening. Worst case or bad scenarios could be considered in community planning based for costal areas or regional agriculture. A small downside is that we will have planned and prepared for contingencies that will not happen. However, a larger downside is the possibility that regulation and control becomes so heavy it damages the economy, which would stymie innovation and reduce that rate at which people around the world emerge from poverty and become part of an environmentally concerned community. On the upside, we will once again be ahead of the curve should bad scenarios become more likely
Third, we invest in and encourage the development of new technologies that might replace or radically minimize the impact of existing technology. The upside here is very high. The discovery of new sustainable energy resources could simultaneously reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (the purchase of which goes to help fund some of the most despotic nations on the fact of the planet), it could accelerate the efforts to left billions of people out of poverty, and it could reduce the level of pollution we put into the air (CO2 is technically not pollution.) The downside is very little.
The greatest danger is to pursue one strategy (like going after our star stock for 401K) without pursing all three. Should bad scenarios become more likely, the first strategy alone, would leave us behind the curve on planning and technological innovation. The second strategy alone would leave us in a place with more emissions in the air than we otherwise would have had and it would leave us behind on the technology learning curve. The third strategy alone leaves us with more emissions that would otherwise be necessary and farther behind on the curve and planning for contingencies.
I realize I am being simplistic here. My hope and intention is to give a sense of what I think is needed for public policy in the context of complex scientific issues where uncertainty is always a challenge.
In addition to the above, we also need to create public space where reasonable discussion can be had about these issues. Most of our civic institutions have been severely weakened in recent years. There are few venues where civil conversation can be had to genuinely explore complex issues. Even in the church it is difficult to have a conversation among differing folks without descending into polemic vitriol. It strikes me that providing a space where such conversation can be had might be one small way the Church becomes a beacon of shalom into our communities. As we begin to enter the brave new world of biotechnology and bioethics, these issues are only going to get more complex and more distressing.
There are a few things I am certain of. Whether we are talking about businesses, government, science, or the media, there are no such people as objective impartial participants to the conversation. The bulveristic “gotcha” game of ignoring issues in favor of defaming and demonizing differing parties is unacceptable. We all come from some context that biases our take on things. People like Ellen Goodman writing "Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future," are more than a little over the top. Climate change science has none of the kind of certainty this kind of inflammatory rhetoric is intended to defend.
Freedom to dissent and question is an essential element of scientific inquiry. A favorite Enlightenment story is of science set free from the totalitarian oppression of the Church that enforced conformity to its absolute unquestioned truth through inquisitions and intimidation. How is the religious fervor with which some demean their opponents, seeking in some cases to deprive them of their livelihoods and ruin their reputations, any different except that they lack the power of the state to make their will prevail?
The number of issues involving complex science and uncertainty are only going to increase in the future. How about we start now in developing the institutions, relationships, and public spaces for this kind of conversation to happen?
I have pointed out in this series that there is an increasing level of complexity involved in making policy decisions. As Anthony Giddens pointed out, authorities operating with incomplete information are always in a tension between being seen as scaremongers if they push an issue too hard, or being accused of cover-up if they fail to push soon enough and hard enough. I have also attempted to show that there are powerful stakeholders on all sides of scientific issues. The idea of scientists as the objective and impartial arbitrators of truth is a myth. I have also sought to demonstrate that the idea of consensus as a guiding force is also illusionary. There are two more concerns I have about how we deal with policy on these complex issues.
First, economist Arnold Kling published an article last month called Two Strategies for Avoiding the Truth. Kling lays out what he calls a low investment strategy and a high investments strategy for avoiding truth. He writes concerning the low investment strategy:
The general public follows what I would call a "low-investment" strategy for avoiding the truth. They do not know the names of their representatives. They do not know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. They do not know the approximate size of the Budget deficit or its outlook. And so on.
Ilya Somin, in his contribution to the Critical Review volume, points out that there is no particular reason for citizens to make a large investment in learning facts or forming coherent beliefs about political issues. The low probability that your vote will make a difference makes for an adverse cost-benefit calculation from obtaining information.
Let us be clear here. Kling is not necessarily faulting the public. It is rational to invest your time and energy in those matters you can influence since you can not be knowledgeable about everything and influence every issue. To some degree, this reality underpins our republican-democratic political system. We theoretically elect representatives to more closely scrutinize public policy issues and represent our interests accordingly.
The high investment strategy for avoiding the truth is a strategy that involves putting “considerable effort into emphasizing facts and arguments that support [an] overall position, while ignoring conflicting evidence.” Kling uses Rush Limbaugh and Paul Krugman as opposing examples of this strategy.
They know the facts about the structure of the American political system and the identities of major office-holders. They understand the connections between various beliefs. They maintain consistent positions, and their opinions are highly predictable, unlike the unstable, random positions that show up in polling of the mass public.
Limbaugh and Krugman may not necessarily be wrong (although it is hard for both of them to be right). However, both follow strategies that are designed to reinforce prior beliefs of conservatives and liberals, respectively. They highlight information and arguments that support their prior beliefs. When they encounter contrary evidence, they engage in "motivated skepticism," seeking to undermine the credibility or minimize the significance of the adverse information.
In fact, one could argue that Limbaugh and Krugman do not have wisdom that exceeds that of the ignorant public. However, while the typical individual's rationalizations of his or her beliefs are illogical and ill-informed, Limbaugh's and Krugman's rationalizations are clever and erudite.
Clearly this strategy can only be effectively executed by a small number of elite folks with the time and resources to devote to it.
We only learn according to what we already know and these elites have identified a core set of beliefs among their followers. They have then built a coherent package of policy positions that allows the common citizen to have a coherent view and "feel" informed. Very often this “package” has not been arrived at by a citizen wrestling with intricacies of the issues. Policy positions are adopted merely because they seem to “hang together” and the elite leader reinforces that perception. As a consequence, positions on some issues that might once have been fungible or more nuanced, are made paramount to keeping the package together. It increases the number of issues upon which politicians and the public become divided. The phenomena of low-investment and high-investment strategies are not unique to complex issues involving scientific data, but it does shape the lens through which people are willing to view and consider data.
My second concern is with “Bulverism.” Bulverism is a term invented by C. S. Lewis. Lewis claims that Ezekiel Bulver (a fictional character) was the founder of or modern form of dialog and debate. When Ezekiel Bulver was a small boy he overheard and an argument between his father and mother. His father was arguing that the length of two sides of triangle added together would always be longer than the length of the remaining side. Finally his mother exclaimed, “You just say that because you’re a man!” That ended the argument. The young Bulver learned that is was not necessary to refute or address an opponent’s facts or reasons. One merely had to assume your opponent was silly, concoct a plausible explanation for how your opponent became so silly, and then make that the subject of debate. These "plausible explanations of silliness" usually fall into either of two categories: A) The opponent is not quite mentally right or, more typically, B) the opponent has a concealed agenda (frequently malicious) that causes him or her to act so silly.
While it is unavoidable as human beings to make assumptions about the motives of opponents, debating motives rarely leads to productive insights about a policy issue. I suspect that bulverism most often comes into play when those of us employing low-investment strategies find ourselves without sufficient factual data to protect what we believe to be essential positions. It also tends to be a common counter measure when we have personally been "bulverized." In any case, bulverism, as ubiquitous as it is, does not lead us to sound policy considerations.
So what might help us to make more sound policy decisions in a context of complexity?
One of the most frequently debated issues in the climate change debate is the idea of “scientific consensus.” This is not the first time political forces have sought to use this approach to bolster support for their views, nor is it likely to be the last. In the case of climate change, I suspect that there is often an intentional attempt to confuse the debate.
I find very few people who, upon looking at the data, deny that the climate has changed over the past century or more. In fact, what they are saying is that the climate is always changing. The central questions revolve around how the climate changes and what are its likely consequences. For instance:
How much of the change is a result of natural changes like increases in the sun's radiation and how much is the result of human activity?
Are projected temperature levels outside the norms of historic fluctuations?
What is the likely impact of more releases of greenhouse gasses? Will temperatures rise logarithmically higher because of each amount of the gases added? Will it be a proportional increase? Is it possible that the gasses have had a contributory affect up to a certain concentration but beyond that additional gasses have little impact?
Will changes in human activity reduce the gasses and what impact will that have? What is the cost and benefit of such actions?
The most alarming models that get the most media coverage claim a) unprecedented global warming b) precipitated by human activities c) causing cataclysmic problems. Challenges to any of these three, earns the challenger the label of climate change, or global warming, “denier.” It is a misrepresentation. The challenger is not denying change or warming. The challenger is challenging the model used to interpret climatic change and their predicted outcomes. More about this misrepresentation in my next post but first let us take a closer look at the very of idea of scientific consensus.
Al Gore released a movie last year called “The Inconvenient Truth.” Gore referenced a study in Science Magazine that reviewed 928 abstracts of articles about global climate change and found that none of them disputed human caused global warming. You can find that article by Naomi Oreskes, published in 2004, by clicking here. Orsekes claims that 75% of the articles contain explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, or offer mitigation proposals. About 25% deal with paleoclimatology, methods, or other issues where no position is indicated. While this study looked at peer-reviewed articles, Oreskes’ article itself was not peer-reviewed. This article, via Al Gore, is the most frequently cited source concerning unanimous consensus.
Within a month after the publication of the article, Dr. Barry Peiser of John Moores University sought to replicate Oreskes' study. Doing a search on the phrase “climate change” in abstracts for the same time period using the same database, Peiser found more than 12,000 hits. Peiser contacted Oreskes and she explained that she had searched on the phrase “global climate change.” So Peiser again tried to replicate the search. He got 1,247 hits, or one third more than Oreskes. Only 1,117 of these had full abstracts. Questioning Oreskes findings, Peiser conducted his own study. Using eight categories, here is what he found:
13 (1%) Explicitly endorse the 'consensus view'
322 (29%) Implicitly accept the 'consensus view' but mainly focus on impact assessments of envisaged global climate change.
89 (8%) Focus on "mitigation.”
67 (6%) Mainly focus on methodological questions.
87 (8%) Deal exclusively with paleo-climatological research unrelated to recent climate change.
34 (3%) Reject or doubt the view that human activities are the main drivers of the "the observed warming over the last 50 years.
44 (4%) Focus on natural factors of global climate change.
470 (42%) Abstracts include the keywords "global climate change" but do not include any direct or indirect link or reference to human activities, CO2 or greenhouse gas emissions, let alone anthropogenic forcing of recent climate change.
Using Oreskes criteria, Pesier found only 424 articles (38%) that contained explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, or offered mitigation proposals. This is not insignificant but neither is it unanimous consensus.
Another scientist named Denis Bray sent out a survey in 2003, to climatologists worldwide asking “To what extent do you agree or disagree that climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes?” Respondents could select seven options ranging from “1 = strongly agree” to “7 = strongly disagree.” He got 530 responses. Here are the results:
strongly agree 50 (9.4% of valid responses)
134 (25.3% of valid responses)
112 (21.1% of valid responses)
75 (14.2% of valid responses)
45 (8.5% of valid responses)
60 (10.8% valid responses)
strongly disagree 54 (9.7% of valid responses)
This indicates a slight majority of respondents believe anthropogenic warming is occurring but once again, it is hardly an overwhelming consensus.
Having said all of this, the reality is that science is not done by consensus!
George H. Taylor, past president of the American Association of State Climatologists:
But even if there actually were a consensus on this issue, it may very well be wrong. I often think about the lives of three scientists who found themselves by themselves, on the "wrong side of consensus." There have been many in the history of science, but I singled out Alfred Wegener (Continental Drift), Gilbert Walker (El Niño), and J. Harlan Bretz (Missoula Floods). None is well-known now among members of the public, and all of them were ridiculed, rejected, and marginalized by the "consensus" scientists -- and each of the three was later proven to be correct, and the consensus wrong. As a well-known writer once said, "if it's consensus, it isn't science -- and if it's science, it isn't consensus." (A Consensus About Consensus)
Science is not conducted by consensus. Science is accomplished by assembling a collection of theories into a paradigm. Aspects of that paradigm are then tested for validity. As more aspects of the paradigm fail to be falsified, the paradigm takes on greater validity as a paradigm to explain the issue under investigation. Falsifications lead to revisions and enough falsifications usually lead to a new paradigm.
For science to function in a healthy manner, room has to be made for dissenters to publish research that challenges conventional understanding without fear of retribution. I am a theistic evolutionist who questions whether intelligent design can be labeled science. However, I think many in the science community may have erred in their attempts to shut out ID advocates from publications rather than letting them publish there findings and have them scrutinized by scientists.
The problem with climate change science is that, as yet, there is no one model of climate change, even among those who adamantly insist that the change is anthropogenic. What models do exist are computer simulations that are collections of the programmer’s assumptions combined with real world observable data. For these models to correctly work they most correctly model five extremely complex and interdependent systems: a) atmosphere, b) oceans, c) ice - covered regions (cryosphere), d) land masses (lithosphere), and e) plant and animal life (biosphere). When applying present model assumptions about warming to the world as it existed 100 years ago they overestimate future temperature change by double or more.
Consequently, when we talk about consensus on something like climate change we are not talking about something akin to scientific principles like gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. We are venturing more into the area of educated guesses. We have enough data to suggest we might have a problem but insufficient models to determine the precise nature of the problem (if there is a problem) and what might be done. Going back to Giddens in the first post, what we have is uncertainty about a potential and serious threat.
Yesterday I wrote about the difficulty of making decisions about risk because of increased complexity. Science has come to play an ever larger role in assessing risk and this often takes the conversation into levels of complexity and abstraction that most of us can not grasp. Since we can’t fully appreciate every nuance of the debate, we begin to look for other ways to evaluate the argument. We ask about the credentials and credibility of the experts.
Bob Woodward learned in his Watergate investigations to “follow the money.” Money does affect our perspective on the world. Centuries ago Renee Decartes wrote, “A man is incapable of comprehending any argument that interferes with his revenue.” Thus the lobbyist we will have with us. Almost any public policy change has financial consequences for multiple parties. Some stand to benefit directly, while others will lose. Some will see competitor’s fortunes aided, while some will see competitor’s fortunes reversed. Competing interests are going to pursue courses that maximize their positions.
Within the climate change debate, frequent mention is made of Exxon’s efforts to “muddy the waters” on climate change science as they seek to limit regulation on their industry. Whenever a scientist or policy wonk publicly questions climate change, bloggers and media sources are quick to identify that the contrarian receives grants from firms and institutions that would stand to benefit from a muddied climate change science. These are legitimate issues to investigate insofar as they go but it only answers part of the “follow the money” question. To answer the other part we need to look into the very human enterprise of science.
Forty-seven years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower made a prophetic statement in his presidential farewell address. In it, he talked about the Military-Industrial Complex. He was apprehensive about the corrupting influences of powerful corporations on society. However, if we read Eisenhower’s speech we also find this statement:
“The prospect of the domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal Employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. Yet holding scientific research and discovery in respect as we should, we must always be alert to the equal and opposite danger that the public could itself become captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
The development of the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project of World War II, had been such a successful partnership of government, science and business that President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned Vannevar Bush (no relation to George Bush), one of his White House science staff advisors, to develop a proposal for how this arrangement might be institutionalized to address other scientific problems in the future. Bush’s aggressive proposal made its way to President Harry Truman after Roosevelt’s death and was enthusiastically received. It resulted in the creation of the National Science Foundation working under the president and a host of other research arms in cabinet departments like Defense and later Energy. By 1960, Eisenhower was already having reservations. The problem is that the determination of what is a “problem” becomes less a scientific question than a political one. If you want to get funding you better study what the funders see as “the problem.”
The late 1970s were a time of focused efforts in studying and developing energy alternatives. It was during the 1970s that Energy Secretary James Schlesinger became interested in the possible impacts of fossil fuels on global climate change; or as it was known then, “global cooling.” The global temperature had been declining from the 1940s to the 1970s and it was feared that emissions were blocking the suns heating capabilities, thus putting us into an ice age.
Research funding continued to grow for studies on climate change through the 1980s when nature threw scientists a curve ball. It was determined that since the early to mid 1970s the global temperature had warmed up. Scientists then postulated that instead of blocking the suns heat, a greenhouse effect was trapping heat and creating global warming. James Hansen of NASA indicated in congressional testimony in 1988, that we could expect the temperature to increase nearly 3 degrees C (well over 5 degrees F) in the next fifty years. It was an exaggeration by about a multiple of four. He later justified his extreme scenario because he needed to get the attention of policy-makers who were largely unaware of the “problem” of global warming.
In other words, if you can get the policymakers to perceive a crisis, you have created a “problem” for scientists to “solve.” The coffers open up. Politicians want “scientific evidence” that they are funding efforts to address “problems” for their constituents.
So imagine you are a scientist. You do research and conclude that greenhouse gasses are not the problem. You conclude change is driven by variations in radiation from the Sun. You conclude that the impact of the warming is likely to be minimal. What are you going to say at the next federal funding hearings? “Good news. No significant anthropogenic global warming. My colleagues and I don’t need your money anymore. Thank you very much.” Not only are you de-funding yourself but also undercutting the funding for every other scientist who is studying the topic and you are denying political powers some political ammo about “solving problems” with taxpayer money.
Scientists advance in their fields by publishing in peer reviewed journals. The reviewers are people who have established a track record of publication and are believed to be experts in their fields. They are also people who have been competing for federal funding dollars with everybody else. They review your article that challenges the conventional wisdom about global warming and reject the article as flawed or in some way “unscientific.” The scientific community is a relatively tight knit community and suddenly you find you can’t get any of your research published. No publication eventually means no job; or at least no advancement.
When we talk about climate change issues we are not talking about purely objective scientific observers. Challenges to scientific paradigms in the late twentieth century are no longer just about science. It is also about politics and potentially destroying the livelihoods of fellow scientists with whom you must have a relationship to advance. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, MIT scientist Richard Lindzen wrote:
To understand the misconceptions perpetuated about climate science and the climate of intimidation, one needs to grasp some of the complex underlying scientific issues. First, let's start where there is agreement. The public, press and policy makers have been repeatedly told that three claims have widespread scientific support: Global temperature has risen about a degree since the late 19th century; levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have increased by about 30% over the same period; and CO2 should contribute to future warming. These claims are true. However, what the public fails to grasp is that the claims neither constitute support for alarm nor establish man's responsibility for the small amount of warming that has occurred. In fact, those who make the most outlandish claims of alarm are actually demonstrating skepticism of the very science they say supports them. It isn't just that the alarmists are trumpeting model results that we know must be wrong. It is that they are trumpeting catastrophes that couldn't happen even if the models were right as justifying costly policies to try to prevent global warming.
If the models are correct, global warming reduces the temperature differences between the poles and the equator. When you have less difference in temperature, you have less excitation of extratropical storms, not more. And, in fact, model runs support this conclusion. Alarmists have drawn some support for increased claims of tropical storminess from a casual claim by Sir John Houghton of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that a warmer world would have more evaporation, with latent heat providing more energy for disturbances. The problem with this is that the ability of evaporation to drive tropical storms relies not only on temperature but humidity as well, and calls for drier, less humid air. Claims for starkly higher temperatures are based upon there being more humidity, not less--hardly a case for more storminess with global warming.
So how is it that we don't have more scientists speaking up about this junk science? It's my belief that many scientists have been cowed not merely by money but by fear.
Alarm rather than genuine scientific curiosity, it appears, is essential to maintaining funding. And only the most senior scientists today can stand up against this alarmist gale, and defy the iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers. (Richard Lindzen, “A Climate of Fear,” Wall Street Journal, April, 2006)
So if we follow the money we see that scientists often have a professional and monetary stake in climate change findings. Indeed, the reason that some scientist go into their respective field is a desire to right wrongs and make the world a better place with their scientific work. These are noble aims but it does mean that we are dealing with human beings who are not entirely objective, dispassionate observers giving us “just the facts.” And it is not that there is massive amount of fraud in scientific experiments but funding priorities and proclivities of the scientists does affect what gets studied and what questions get asked.
In the meantime, politicians benefit by being able to build themselves as protectors of the people against malevolent forces. The sensationalist media benefits financially by being able to feed a steady diet of news stories and “investigative” studies that create anxiety and increase the number of viewers. The UN, the parent institution of the IPCC that periodically publishes the climate science reports, stands to benefit much in terms of prestige and power by becoming a global manager of economies. Some large corporations would benefit from seeing their competitors saddled with heavy regulations.
The bottom line is that the adage of “follow the money” is an important one but it alone can’t answer the question of legitimacy. Science has become such a big industry that almost all research, not just climate change, is funded by someone and these “someones” all have their own interests. In the end, the attempt to discredit opponents by identifying funding sources ends up being a game of mutually assured destruction.
The climate change topic has been “heating up” again in the press so it seems to be a good time to offer a few thoughts I have had regarding science and public policy. Part of what got me thinking about this a few weeks ago was reading Anthony Giddens’ exceptional little book Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping our Lives. It as a collection of five lectures Giddens gave on BBC radio in 1999. The second of the five was on the topic of "risk." It is this lecture that I want to highlight for this discussion.
Giddens points out that risk and risk-management are very recent concepts. The idea of risk began to emerge in the Middle Ages in Europe but did not really take hold until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as world exploration by Europeans began in earnest. Future events understood to be beyond human control up to this time. Fate, luck, and “will of the gods” determined the future and the idea that human planning could somehow “manage” risks was largely a foreign concept. (Giddens does not dwell on why this change occurred but I believe it was directly related the Christian notion of an ordered rational universe over which God was sovereign but not enmeshed or intertwined.) The ideas of risk and risk-management were key foundations for rise for capitalism and the rise of the modern world.
Intellectual and technological advances in recent centuries grounded partly in these ideas have been astonishing. These advances have made comprehending our world ever more complex. As human systems and technology have become ever more complex we have increased our reach in affecting the world around us. We have gained ever greater appreciation for the complexity of nature. All of this makes risk assessment exponentially more difficult. Giddens writes:
…Most scientists well versed in the field believe that global warming is occurring and the measures should be taken against it. Yet only in the mid-1970s, orthodox scientific opinion was that the world was in a phase of global cooling. Much the same evidence that was deployed to support the hypothesis of global cooling is no brought into play to bolster that of global warming – heat waves, cold spells, unusual types of weather. Is global warming occurring, and does it have human origins? Probably – be we won’t, and can’t, be completely sure until it is to late.
In these circumstances, there is a new moral climate of politics, marked by push and pull between accusations of scaremongering on the one hand, and of cover-ups on the other. If anyone – government official, scientific expert or researcher – takes a given risk seriously, he or she must proclaim it. It must be widely publicised because people must be persuaded that the risk is real – a fuss must be made about it. Yet if the fuss is indeed created and the risk turns out to be minimal, those involved will be accused of scaremongering.
…Paradoxically, scaremongering may be necessary to reduce risks we face – yet if it is successful, it appears as just that scaremongering. (29-30)
Just prior to this section, Giddens writes about the UK government’s slow response to the BSE episode (Mad-Cow Disease) that led to accusations of a cover-up. Over sell and you are scaremongering. Under sell and you are covering up something . Giddens goes on to write:
We cannot simply ‘accept’ the findings which scientists produce if, only because scientists so frequently disagree with one another, particularly in situations of manufactured risk. And everyone now recognizes the essentially mobile character of science. Whenever someone decides what to eat, what to have for breakfast, whether to drink decaffeinated or ordinary coffee, that person takes a decision in the context of conflicting changeable scientific and technological information….
Some say that the most effective way to cope with the rise of manufactured risk is to limit responsibility by adopting the so-called ‘precautionary principle’. The notion of the precautionary principle first emerged in Germany in the 1980s, in the context of the ecological debates that were carried on there. At its simplest, it proposes that action on environmental issues (and, by inference, other forms of risk) should be taken even through there is insecure scientific evidence about them. Thus in the 1980s, in several European countries, programmes were initiated to counter acid rain, whereas in Britain lack of conclusive evidence was used to justify inactivity about this and other pollution problems too.
Yet the precautionary principle isn’t always helpful or even applicable as a means of coping with problems of risk and responsibility. The percept of ‘staying close to nature’, or of limiting innovation rather than embracing it, can’t always apply. The reason is that the balance of benefits and dangers from scientific and technological advance, and other forms of social change too, is imponderable. … (31-32)
Wrapping up the chapter Giddens writes:
Let me move towards some conclusions and at the same time try to make sure my arguments are clear. Our age is not more dangerous – not more risky – than those of earlier generations, but the balance of risks and dangers has shifted. We live in a world where hazards created by ourselves are as, or more, threatening that those that come from outside. Some of these are genuinely catastrophic, such as global ecological risk, nuclear proliferation or the meltdown of the world economy. Others affect us as individuals much more directly, for instance those involved in diet, medicine or even marriage.
An era such as ours will inevitably breed religious revivalism and diverse New Age philosophies, which turn against a scientific outlook. Some ecological thinkers have become hostile to science, and even to rational thought more generally, because of ecological risks. This isn’t an attitude that makes much sense. We wouldn’t even know about these risks without scientific analysis. However, our relationship to science, for reasons already given, won’t and can’t be the same as in previous times.
We do not currently posess institutions which allow us to monitor technological change, nationally or globally. The BSE debacle in Britain and elsewhere might have been avoided if public dialogue had been established about technological change and its problematic consequences. More public means of engaging with science and technology wouldn’t do away with the quandary of scaremongering versus cover-ups, but might allow us to reduce some of its more damaging consequences.
Finally, there can be no question of merely taking a negative attitude toward risk. Risk always needs to be disciplined, but active risk-taking is a core element of a dynamic economy and an innovative society. Living in a global age means coping with a diversity of new situations of risk. We may need quite often to be bold rather than cautious in supporting scientific innovation or other forms of change. After all, one root of the term ‘risk’ in the original Portuguese means ‘to dare’. (34-35)
I think Giddens has framed many of the issues quite well. I certainly don’t have an easy solutions to the problem but in my next posts I thought I would take a shot at getting a handle on the socio-political-economic issues that often shape the dialog.