Sunday, 4 May 2014

Ideology and counter-ideology of climate change

Climate science is not fundamentally about ideology – science stands or falls by evidence.

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
The Soviet Union is at one end of the scale; at the other is extreme market ideologues who attack science whenever fixing a problem it reveals appears to be impossible without state intervention. While some of these ideologues are fundamentalist libertarians who genuinely believe all government interference in the economy is bad, there is a good deal of inconsistency among such campaigners. The big threat is almost always government interference in unbridled profit-seeking. Very few take umbrage at government interventions that favour business – especially big business.

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 liberty
Then 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.


NormanP said...

"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"

You have evidence for this statement?

Philip Machanick said...

Evidence for no evidence?

My wife’s a physio who has seen this stuff close up and it does not work. If you have any evidence it does, happy to take a look.

NormanP said...

Hi Philip. Your wife's individual personal opinion, however professional, doesn't quite do it for me as "evidence". Likewise, I doubt you would accept as 'evidence' my individual personal and professional opinion as a father of a now 31-year old and one who set up a conductive education charity in the UK nearly 20 years ago which runs a CE special school regarded as "Outstanding" by Ofsted inspectors.
Actually, that points up another problem you and I have in discussing the validity of the 'evidence' for your statement. Conductive education is about education and upbringing. As a physio, that is as a health service worker, I am wondering how she is qualified to make a judgement on the long-term outcomes of a system of education and upbringing? (I intend no offence to your wife or yourself.)

Anonymous said...

By equating the "skeptics" of human caused global warming with the dishonest ideologues in the scientific community, the author displays a serious lack of informed critical analysis.

Here are two excellent videos by a geologist on some of what's wrong with climate science today, and how adopting useless and staggeringly wasteful public policy is wrong.

There are plenty of scientists and engineers who know this, but somehow the massive amount of money involved is just too much of a temptation for scam artists, while fascists see an opportunity to bend people to their perverted will.

The facts are that while there are a few extremists on the "skeptic" side, nearly all the warmists are far left extremists who think nothing of lying to enrich themselves and advance their agenda.

Anonymous said...

OK, here's another by Bob Carter exposing clearly exposing why "science" today is not real science, but has become deliberately misleading propaganda...

NOTE-there are fortunately still real scientists like Bob Carter, but they are rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Philip Machanick said...

I've read a lot of Carter in the hope that he had something because it would be great if he did. He doesn't. All he has is bluster.

A couple of minutes into the first video, having dismissed consensus, he rails against lack of balance.

He has this backwards. You establish your hypothesis by consenus: if thousands of measurements back it, your confidence grows. You do not need "balance" to overturn the hypothesis. It just takes one convincing measurement that shows everyone has it wrong. With a complex mulit-faceted theory, you need more contrary measurements to overturn the whole thing, rather than show up some inexactness, but the principle is clear: you need far fewer measurements to overturn an empirical hypothesis than to establish it.

Take Newtonian mechanics, for example, so reliable as to be called "laws of nature". Yet it only took 1 experiment in the 19th century to cast doubt. Despite that, we still use Newton routinely in engineering.

Carter apparently does not undertand this.