Up Sucker Creek

Up Sucker Creek
Photo Courtesy of the Lake Oswego Library

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Science and politics

Fatal Comceit: Scientific Theory vs Free Market Capitalism

While still on th subject of junk science producing predetermined outcomes, I ran across this commentary about Michael Crichton's 2004 book, State of Fear. The writer, David Heinrich, makes the point that public policy should not be driven by biased research and used Crichton's views on the environmental movement as an example of how propaganda perverts fact and overstates outcomes that cannot be known.  Activists and planners display a "fatal conceit" that they understand and can control complex systems.  

When I first started reading the book, I had a sinking feeling, as it was initially told from the environmentalists perspective. There was predictable egotistical talk about saving the world from "industry". However, as the reader slowly learns, the author does not agree with the environmentalists he is portraying. Issues the book tackles include: the fatal conceit of believing that we can "manage" complex systems; the politicization of science; the unimpressive "evidence" for global warming; the folly of numerous regulations; and a brief touch on the environment under the care of the free market vs. socialism.

Much of our political life is wrapped around climate change (is the globe still warming?) and  sustainability, and most people accept as fact the cataclysmic predictions of environmentalists if we don't behave as they tell us we should.  
Environmental activist, Naomi Klein, rejects capitalism and sees it as the root of global social and environmental ills.  Klein's dislike of capitalism and profit-seeking convince her that by changing the economic system, a climate disaster can be averted, even though there is no proof that this is so, and plenty of examples to demonstrate the opposite.  The "state of fear" evoked by some environmentalists avoids reality and treats theory as fact.

From Klein's book  "This Changes Everything: Climate vs Capitalism
But as emissions have soared and as tipping points loom, that is changing rapidly.
Even Yvo de Boer, who held the U.N.’s top climate position until 2009, remarked
recently that “the only way” negotiators “can achieve a 2-degree goal is to shut
down the whole global economy.”48
If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based
emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what
Anderson and Bows-Larkin describe as “radical and immediate de-growth
strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations.”*51
.. accept ... the prospect of changing the fundamental,growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism.  
Crichton takes aim at junk science in "State of Fear."  His Author's Statement includes his own thoughts on climate change and environmentalism.  (Emphasis mine.)
  • We know astonishingly little about every aspect of the environment, from its past history, to its present state, to how to conserve and protect it. In every debate, all sides overstate the extent of existing knowledge and its degree of certainty.
  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, and human activity is the probable cause.
  • We are also in the midst of a natural warming trend that began about 1850, as we emerged from a four-hundred-year cold spell known as the “Little Ice Age.”
  • Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be a natural phenomenon.
  • Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made.
  • Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century. The computer models vary by 400 percent, de facto proof that nobody knows. But if I had to guess—the only thing anyone is doing, really—I would guess the increase will be 0.812436 degrees C. There is no evidence that my guess about the state of the world one hundred years from now is any better or worse than anyone else’s. (We can’t “assess” the future, nor can we “predict” it. These are euphemisms. We can only guess. An informed guess is just a guess.)
  • Before making expensive policy decisions on the basis of climate models, I think it is reasonable to require that those models predict future temperatures accurately for a period of ten years. Twenty would be better.
  • I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird. I don’t know whether such a belief today is best ascribed to ignorance of history, sclerotic dogmatism, unhealthy love of Malthus, or simple pigheadedness, but it is evidently a hardy perennial in human calculation.
  • There are many reasons to shift away from fossil fuels, and we will do so in the next century without legislation, financial incentives, carbon-conservation programs, or the interminable yammering of fearmongers. So far as I know, nobody had to ban horse transport in the early twentieth century.
  • I suspect the people of 2100 will be much richer than we are, consume more energy, have a smaller global population, and enjoy more wilderness than we have today. I don’t think we have to worry about them.
  • The current near-hysterical preoccupation with safety is at best a waste of resources and a crimp on the human spirit, and at worst an invitation to totalitarianism. Public education is desperately needed.
  • I believe people are well intentioned. But I have great respect for the corrosive influence of bias, systematic distortions of thought, the power of rationalization, the guises of self-interest, and the inevitability of unintended consequences.
  • I have more respect for people who change their views after acquiring new information than for those who cling to views they held thirty years ago. The world changes. Ideologues and zealots don’t.
  • We haven’t the foggiest notion how to preserve what we term “wilderness,” and we had better study it in the field and learn how to do so. I see no evidence that we are conducting such research in a humble, rational, and systematic way. I therefore hold little hope for wilderness management in the twenty-first century. I blame environmental organizations every bit as much as developers and strip miners. There is no difference in outcomes between greed and incompetence.
  • Nothing is more inherently political than our shared physical environment, and nothing is more ill served by allegiance to a single political party. Precisely because the environment is shared it cannot be managed by one faction according to its own economic or aesthetic preferences. Sooner or later, the opposing faction will take power, and previous policies will be reversed. Stable management of the environment requires recognition that all preferences have their place: snowmobilers and fly fishermen, dirt bikers and hikers, developers and preservationists. These preferences are at odds, and their incompatibility cannot be avoided. But resolving incompatible goals is a true function of politics.
  • We desperately need a nonpartisan, blinded funding mechanism to conduct research to determine appropriate policy. Scientists are only too aware whom they are working for. Those who fund research—whether a drug company, a government agency, or an environmental organization—always have a particular outcome in mind. Research funding is almost never open-ended or open-minded. Scientists know that continued funding depends on delivering the results the funders desire. As a result, environmental organization “studies” are every bit as biased and suspect as industry “studies.” Government “studies” are similarly biased according to who is running the department or administration at the time. No faction should be given a free pass.
  • I am certain there is too much certainty in the world.

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