The science of agricultural biotechnology is a proxy battleground for many people with political or cultural objections to GMOs, much in the way climate science is a proxy for those who associate it with implied political and economic changes they view as a threat to their way of life.
“Why communicating the science risks of GMOs is so challenging”
Genetic Literacy Project.
January 20, 2015
Yep. Sums it up nicely.
72 Percent of Republican Senators Are Climate Deniers
10 January 2015
I respect Mother Jones even when I don’t agree with it, but this article and its headline lurch away from intelligent debate and dangerously close to being little more than radical linkbait.
If the American Left is sincere about seeking to govern wisely – and we at the Bull Moose work from the assumption that it is – its pundits need to be very more careful about slathering the entire GOP senatorial caucus with the same tar brush. A careful, thoughtful read of the MoJo article and those to which it links makes clear that there are important gradients in the way in which different Republican senators approach the climate issue.
Those approaches range from hard-core deniers (“there is no climate change”) on one end, to the nearly 1/3 of Republican senators who do believe that it is happening and that it is caused by human activity. There are many fine gradations in the middle. For example, some of us believe that regardless of whether the science is clear or not, it makes sense for us to address the effects of climate change, and work on the assumption that it is caused at least in part by human activity by doing what we can to attenuate that change.
No doubt there are more than a few GOP senators who for whatever reason unable to accept the any suggestion that either climate change is happening, or that it is caused by humans. At the same time, painting the entire GOP senatorial caucus as hard-core deniers bought and paid for by Big Carbon obscures significant opportunities to build a majority (and perhaps a supermajority) in the Senate around climate policy. It is juvenile, it is inaccurate, and it shuts down debate, negotiation, and discussion before they are allowed to begin.
What we need is a more intelligent, less polarized discussion about these issues. Climate does not have to become as black-and-white as, say, the issue of abortion. But the longer we make the debate about ideology or partisanship rather than the policy issue, we polarize it and foreclose on even incremental progress.
“The Death Of Expertise“
January 17, 2014
The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.
Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.
All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.
And he is so very, very right when he notes:
People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.
All Hail the Expert
If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.
He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?
How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:
But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.
The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.
It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.
Who is an Expert?
The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.
First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.
Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.
So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.
I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.
Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?
Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.
Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.
Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions
But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.
Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:
Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.
These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today. You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.
The Tyranny of Experts
Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.
Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.
Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.
But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.
Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson and several of his fellows have introduced a roadmap that will supposedly allow New York, California, and Washington to make a complete switch to renewable energy by 2050.
That’s an intriguing plan, in part because it opens the door to an economy based entirely on renewable energy, an in part because it gives us 35 years to accomplish it.
I have one friend, on the Left, who has already convinced himself that the Jacobson roadmap is a lost cause.
“Now if only people in those states were smart enough to follow thru. [sic]”
I am a fan of exploring how far we can go with alternative energy, and I applaud Jacobson for his efforts in drawing the roadmap. God, however, is in the details. It is premature to condemn as mentally challenged people who will not adopt a plan until we understand the costs of its implementation as well as its benefits, and until that study has had the benefit of review by a wide range of qualified, unbiased experts.
Here’s what makes me suspicious of the politics of climate denialists.
Whether or not you believe the evidence turned out by that part of the scientific community that is convinced climate change is taking place, there is a compelling logic behind following the precautionary approach.
For our purposes here, I’ll define “the precautionary approach” according to the terms used in Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, i.e., “when there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” [emphasis mine]
Think of it this way. Even if climate change is not taking place, or if whatever change that is taking place is entirely unrelated to human activity, does it not make sense to take better care of the planet, burn fewer dead dinosaurs, and live a more sustainable life, particularly when those measures do not impose an undue burden on individuals or the government?
This approach is neither liberal nor radical. It is rooted in the values that many of us cherish and that we have inherited from the generations that have come before us: frugality, manifested by an aversion to needless waste; an abiding respect for the land rooted in our agrarian heritage; and an aversion to becoming dependent on foreign nations, our government, or big business.
The appropriate Republican approach to climate change is, therefore, neither outright acceptance nor denial, but precautionary wisdom.
As the East Coast continues its painful recovery from the wrath of Sandy, some commentators have used the opportunity to put forth their pet theories about climate change. Along those lines, I found BBC Science Editor David Shukman’s commentary on the link between global warming and Sandy to be a refreshng break from shouting on both sides of the issue.
Shukman, whom I would not put into the “denialist” camp on climate change, says that we are all still learning about the link between changes in surface temperature and tropical storms, and as such we need to keep the discussion fact-based. Responding to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s comments on the storm, he noted:
The question is one of risk, not of certainty – the risk that the continuing rise in greenhouse gases from human activities may exacerbate extreme weather.
To go further, as many environmental campaigners would like to – to suggest that the violence of Hurricane Sandy is the result of global warming – is to strain what scientists themselves are able to conclude.
When we have debates about climate change and man’s relationship to it, the two concepts we have to focus on are a) what are the scientifically provable (or likely) facts; and b) what are the realistic and worst-case risks we face? Based on rational, science-based answers to those questions (as opposed to wishful thinking or science fiction), we can craft the policies most likely to mitigate the risks.
I am not yet ready to buy the most gloomy predictions of impending doom (and I’m still buying coastal property), but I have always believed in using the precautionary principle when it comes to matters of national security: give the guy with the scary story the benefit of the doubt and make reasonable, extendable, cost-effective preparations for the worst case.
If, for example, we decide that there is a risk that our dependency on fossil fuels is causing global warming, do we as a nation lose anything by directing university research at the development of alternatives (which, by the way, need a lot of development? Are there not compelling economic and national security reasons for reducing our dependence on a non-renewable resource?
And are there not sufficient public health benefits to reduced fossil-fuel emissions to provide us an incentive to pursue that policy? What about the economic benefits of raising the energy efficiency of businesses, buildings, and households? Can we honestly say that growing more green plants, even if ostensibly to “lock up” carbon, has no other benefits to mankind?
We need to driven by wisdom in this debate, not by fear, nor by greed, nor by inertia. Shukman injects the debate with some wisdom.
- Climate change taken seriously by insurance industry, study says. (latimes.com)
- Climate change poll: 4 out of 5 Americans see global warming as serious problem (oregonlive.com)
- Extreme weather more persuasive on climate change than scientists (guardian.co.uk)
- Tubb: Superstorm Sandy is not proof of global warming (newsday.com)
- Climate Change Made Sandy Worse. Period. (motherjones.com)