Friday, October 14, 2011

Arguing with your crazy uncle

Scientist and science fiction author David Brin has an interesting take on climate change denialism:
Forget "left-versus-right." Or even arguments over taxes. The centerpiece of our current Phase Three of the American Civil War is the all-out campaign to discredit science.

Elsewhere I show that the War on Science is part of a much wider effort to destroy public trust in every "smartypants caste" -- from school teachers, journalists, medical doctors and attorneys to professors, civil servants and skilled labor. (Name a center of intellect that's exempt!) But nowhere is it more relentless than by savaging the one group in society that's unarguably among the smartest and best educated.

It's having the intended effects. Chew on this. Thirty years ago, in the era of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, 40% of U.S. scientists were Republicans. Today that fraction has plummeted to around 6%.  Can you blame them?

Why is this happening? I go into it elsewhere -- the underlying motive for a campaign that will leave only one elite standing. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that everybody has this thing backward.  Scientists are not being undermined in order to argue against Human Generated Climate Change (HGCC). Rather, the whole HGCC imbroglio serves as a central rallying point in the campaign against science.

Get that? It's not that Republicans are attacking science in order to discredit global warming. Instead, they're attacking the science of global warming as part of their campaign against science itself.

It's an interesting idea. After all, the Republican Party has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists, and true believers have long warred against the science of evolution. Well, religion has distrusted science at least since Galileo. Religion thinks that it already has the answers, and science doesn't make itself very popular by showing otherwise.

Today's Republican Party has adopted the faith-based mindset of religion and abandoned the evidence-based mindset of science. Note that this isn't just a characteristic of Christianity, either. This is exactly the same mindset as held by Muslims, including those in al-Qaeda.

If you don't want to believe in evolution or global warming, then it pays to attack all of science. And if you're faith-based, you're unlikely to limit that mindset to religious issues. Republicans claimed that tax cuts for the rich - the "job-creators" - would pay for itself and actually decrease the budget deficit. Just the reverse actually happened, but Republicans still have their faith.

Faith means believing without evidence, or even despite the evidence. So if you still want to believe, it definitely pays to discredit evidence-based thinking in general. And what better example of evidence-based thinking is there than science?

Here's how David Brin put it earlier:
As part of a more general assault on the very notion of expertise, the narrative starts with a truism that is actually true:

 "Not every smart person is wise..."

only then extrapolates it, implicitly, to a blatant falsehood

"all smartypants are unwise, all the time; and my uninformed opinion is equal to any expert testimony."

Does that sound like a polemical stretch?  But it is precisely the implied subtext - a perverse kind of populism - at all levels of the War on Science.  In the specific case of GCC, since almost all top atmospheric scientists accept human-propelled climate change, they must be all cretins, corrupt, or cowards.

Here's a telling point. This uniformity of craven venality has to include even the ambitious postdocs and recently-tenured junior professors who, in every other field, sift constantly for some flaw in the current paradigm in order to go gunning after the big boys and thus make a reputation.  What, even the Young Guns are sellouts?  Even the paladins of skeptical enquiry are conspiring together in a grand cabal to... what?  Ah, now the story gets even better.  All the scientists and post-docs are colluding to foist this scam, in order to win a few ten-thousand dollar grants.  This  loose-change-grubbing, paradigm slavery is cited to explain the GCC imbroglio -- while the oilcos and petroprinces, who operate major propaganda outlets and have TRILLIONS staked in the status quo... they have no agenda at all.

Of course, to typify any lawful profession as across-the-board corrupt or cowardly is absurd, but to so besmirch the one professional cohort that is unambiguously the most brave, individualistic, honest, curious and smart of all, well, there has to be an agenda behind such drivel -- and there is one. The good old Boffin Effect.

My late colleague, Michael Crichton, crystallized it when he claimed "there is no such thing as scientific consensus,"  and thus he deemed it reasonable to ignore measures recommended by 99% of the people who actually know stuff about a problem that might damage our nation and world.

This isn't just a war on science, it's a war on expertise. Why? Partly, it's economics. We saw the exact same thing from the tobacco industry years ago, when they tried to discredit medical science about the dangers of smoking. Well, there was a lot of money at stake. And there's even more money at stake these days when it comes to fossil fuels.

And partly, it's political. It used to be, in America, that certain things were bipartisan - environmentalism, the separation of church and state, even civil rights (back then, the Democratic Party was full of "Dixiecrats" who opposed integration). But not anymore. The fact that the Democratic Party supports these things today just gives Republicans a reason to oppose them.

And finally, it's religious. The GOP has been captured by religious fanatics. These people are faith-based. And when you're faith-based in one area, you're likely to be faith-based in others. If you just believe what you want to believe, refusing to admit that you're wrong even when the evidence clearly demonstrates that, then you really need to start discrediting evidence-based thinking.

As Brin notes, it's not just the right that's anti-science. The far left spent years waging their own war on science, and there's still plenty of woo on the left. But the far left has zero political power in America these days. Faith-based thinking on the left is just as wrong as faith-based thinking on the right, but the serious danger to our nation is clearly on the right.

Bottom line: there is a reason why only 6% of U.S. scientists are Republicans!

One more excerpt, still from David Brin, but this time from several years ago:
According to Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, we need look no farther than an alliance of two reactionary forces: Big business and religious fundamentalism. This era's burgeoning hostility toward rationality, skepticism, accountability and can-do ambition is little more, and no less than, a deliberate campaign against modernity on the part of "conservatism." A matter of right versus left.
On February 18, 2004, the conservative war on science, which had been gathering momentum for decades, finally jolted the media and American public to attention. All it took was a little star power.... Over sixty leading scientists and former government officials, among them twenty Nobel laureates, had signed a statement denouncing the administration of George W. Bush for misrepresenting and suppressing scientific information and tampering with the process by which scientific advice makes its way to government officials. Examples included distorting the science of climate change, quashing government scientific reports, and stacking scientific advisory panels. "Other administrations, have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front," the statement read.

Mooney presents a long list of cases to support his indictment, portraying a methodical campaign to politicize, ignore, twist or undermine science. His list of topic areas will sound familiar: the effects of smoking and of air pollution, the feasibility and benefits of energy savings through increased fuel efficiency standards, global warming and stem cell research, educational standards and the Drug War, all the way to a campaign aimed at teaching "alternatives to evolution" in the classroom. Some of these matters are still under some legitimate dispute among reputable scientists, implying that we need more research, pursued promptly and professionally. Others have coalesced around deep and profound expert consensus, with clear majorities of qualified experts recommending urgent action.

Mooney shows there are countless tricks, some old and others innovative, that special interests can use when scientific consensus becomes politically inconvenient. One has been to banish science from centers of power -- for example, when the GOP-led Congress dismantled its own, nonpartisan advisory tool, the Office of Technology Assessment, because its counsel kept conflicting with ideological views. Another is for political aides to edit the reports of scientific panels, so that final versions offer conclusions quite different than panel members intended. Threats to job security can squelch whistleblowers. Another method, used more frequently of late, has been to pack advisory groups with "experts" who were selected on a basis of ideology, or industry affiliation, or promises to reach a predetermined outcome.

Mooney disapproves of the mass media's obsession with gladiatorial opposition when covering contentious issues like Creationism and global climate change. Countless news stories seek entertaining "balance" by portraying both sides as evenly matched, equally vehement. This appeals to viewers' sense of fair play, sometimes even cheering underdogs vs. snooty, scientific authority figures. But such "balance" can also empower fringe groups to stay in the fray forever, magnifying uncertainty indefinitely, preventing any conclusion from being reached.

Unlike past dogmas, science claims not to fear uncertainty. Young scientists are taught to nurse some residual doubt toward even the strongest theory. (And yes, even a widely held "consensus" can sometimes be wrong. Graduate students look for rare "faulty paradigms" which, if toppled, can make a reputation.) This healthy skepticism accompanies -- but does not generally undermine -- the collaborative process of building ever-better and increasingly valid models of the world. Models that have risen, like our cities, after centuries of steady improvement. Opponents of science try to turn this strength into a weakness by exaggerating doubts, portraying all theories as equal, or even calling "scientific consensus" a meaningless phrase.

Note that Brin (in that first article I mentioned) gives a good example of this, where some loon in the Wall Street Journal implies that we can't know anything about science because a few scientists have recently questioned part of Einstein's theory of relativity. Heh, heh. How crazy is that?

This goes deeper than Republican vs Democrat or right vs left. This isn't about what we think, but how we think. We need to understand and accept evidence-based thinking. And no, that doesn't mean looking for evidence to back up what you already believe. You need to be looking for ways to challenge that.

Science has clear procedures to combat bias. Scientists are human, too, but there are specific mechanisms in the scientific method designed to overcome natural human tendencies to believe what we want to believe.

As just one example, science offers its highest rewards to successful heretics. In science, as in anywhere else, you can go along to get along. But if you really want to be successful, you'll show that current thinking is wrong in some respect. Scientists dream of upending mainstream thinking. Successful heretics are the heroes of science.

Compare that to religion. Compare that to politics. No one likes to be wrong, not even scientists. But scientists revere their fellows who've successfully demonstrated that. If you could disprove evolution or disprove global warming, you'd win a Nobel Prize and have your pick of prestigious positions. This is a very strong encouragement to look critically at orthodoxy.

Science is the best at this, but evidence-based thinking is prized elsewhere, too. And it's generally prized where education is prized, where learning is prized. People who sneer at the "elites" - all except the financial elite, for some reason - are those who want to believe what they want to believe. People who are faith-based are threatened by evidence-based thinking because they're threatened by the truth.

"Yeah, if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" It's funny how wealth gets respect. Even if you just inherited it, even if you just won it in a lottery, wealth gets a lot of respect among these people. But not education. Education can be useful, but it's also something to be feared. What if your child stops believing what you do, what you just know - despite a complete lack of evidence - is true?

At any rate, David Brin makes a lot of good points. And if you really are arguing with your crazy uncle about climate change, he provides some pretty good arguments there, too - as well as links to some useful websites.

But this war on science is bigger than just global warming. Basically, it's a war between people who believe what they want to believe - or who want you to believe something, at least - and people who really value the truth. The truth may not always be what we want to hear. But some of us are willing to accept that.

For me, fantasy is better left in fiction. When it comes to the real world, I want to know the truth, not some pleasant lie.

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