Nonetheless, when a scientific finding has economic ramifications, ideology kicks in. Logically, ideology should only apply to remedying the identified problem, not to evaluating the science. For example, if you are an absolutist free marketeer, you would look to the markets to solve the problem. If you are a hard-core socialist, you will expect the government to fix the problem. If you are a pragmatist, you will be happy with any mix of private sector and government initiatives – whatever works best.
The problem arises when you have a scientific finding that reveals a problem that cannot be fixed by either the markets or government alone. Then, the ideologue is driven to attacking the science.
As one example, in the Soviet Union and satellite states, the dominant ideology was that all people are fundamentally equal, there are no hereditary differences and that the state was the only agency for ensuring that such an equal society functioned. That some were in Orwell’s words more equal than others, we will leave aside. Outcomes of this ideology dominating science included:
- Trofim Lysenko’s anti-Mendelian pseudo-science whereby biology was perverted to suit the dominant ideology; dissent from his theories was outlawed in 1948, and his dominance of Soviet agricultural research set that country back a long way
- conductive education – a Hungarian theory that disability caused by brain damage can be overcome by training. Again this fitted the Soviet-era ideology that all inequality is induced, but has no basis in evidence; the movement persists to this day, offering false hope to families of the disabled
Aside from this inconsistency, the big flaw in libertarian thinking is a total focus on big government. Generalize this concept:
any organization big enough to overwhelm the individual is a threat to libertyThen we see that we need to be wary of any organization that becomes too big.
Examples of organized opposition to government interventions arising from inconvenient science include tobacco, the ozone hole and climate change. The argument is almost always the same: the science is flawed because it cannot give an exact answer, personal attacks on the scientists, claims that contrarian science is suppressed.
None of these claims stand up to scrutiny.
No science modelling the real world is 100% accurate – once a risk is clear enough to be worth avoiding, you quantify the costs of various avoidance strategies against the risk, and develop a suitable strategy. Yet the argument in these cases is almost always that the science must be 100% right – 90% is not good enough. In fact, even it the science only has a 1% chance of being right, if the catastrophe predicted is big enough, it is prudent to take action.
No one goes into science to get rich – not if they have any sense anyway. Research grants aren’t money in your pocket. They pay for things like graduate students, making more work for you.
In some fields of science, it is true that public alarm at the outcome can fuel more funding. Knowing what cancer is would alarm anyone. In cancer research, funding generated out of that sort of alarm not only fuels research into the cause but into the cure.
In many other fields of science that produce alarming findings, responding to those findings does not aid those making the discovery at all. If the tobacco industry slowed down promotion of its product as harmful effects became known, research on harmful effects would taper off as fewer people smoked. Research on causes of the ozone hole and climate change intensified as a result of industry push-back.
It is particularly obnoxious in ozone hole and climate science research to argue that scientists are producing alarming results just to get more research money. In both cases, had industry accepted early indications of cause for alarm and responded appropriately, the place to prioritize research funding would be to mitigation. In the case of the ozone hole, mitigation required finding alternatives to CFCs. In the case of climate change, rather than pinning predictions down more precisely, the logical place to direct research funding is towards clean energy.
So, what’s to be done?
First, we need to challenge the libertarian presumption that government is the source of all evil. Transnational corporations have a reach that exceeds that of most governments, and are not particularly accountable. If their shareholding is diffuse, there is no single point where pressure can be applied to correct faults.
It is also not true that the market is the single best mechanism to deal with every problem.
First, not all goals are economic.
Second, the market is highly distorted by the influence of very large corporations; not only can they use monopolistic practices to stifle competition, but they can buy off politics and create a regulatory environment that favours them over smaller competitors.
Third, some economic factors fall outside pricing controlled by the market. Negative externalities – costs to parties outside a transaction, like pollution, which is a cost to society as a whole – cannot be regulated purely by the market.
Finally, a purist socialist approach to everything has been tried in various forms, and hasn’t worked – so let us not kid ourselves that we can go back there to deal with an even harder problem.
We can ultimately only solve large-scale societal and muli-societal problems like climate change, universal access to health care and equitable access to basic services if we stop being bound by ideology and judge each issue on its merits.
So, going back to climate change: we need to remove ideological blinkers when considering the evidence. If the evidence says we should act, there is even more reason to remove ideological blinkers, because he best solution to a hard problem requires working on it from all angles.