Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Science denialism

Despite some accusations, global warming theory is not a fad. See the following paper:
Peterson, Thomas & Connolley, William & Fleck, John (September 2008). The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus. American Meteorological Society.

The hypothesis was proposed over 100 years ago, and has been a focus of serious research since the 1950s or so, and has been the consensus opinion of climate researchers for about 20 years now.
The fact that most of the public kept their heads in the sand* through this process is irrelevant. Science does not progress by going back to square one at the request of every ignoramus who decides that he wants to passively investigate some phenomenon as a part time hobby.

This post was inspired by the discussions at Libertarians for Junk Science, and is related to my post at Freedom Democrats The Politicization of Climate Science.

*with the help of plenty of profiteers driven by ulterior motives

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Politicization of Climate Sciences

Written for Freedom Democrats

In the wake of Climategate, climate researcher Mike Hulme has articulated the ideal role of science in public discourse. Basically, he declares that scientific debates should be kept separate from ethical debates (leaving aside bias inherent in hypothesis generation and choice of research directions), while still informing our actions. This is a nice ideal, but ignores the fact that people will enter scientific debates with ulterior motives and it can be hard for the layman to distinguish between the sincere scientist and these charlatans.

In contrast to Mike Hulme's call for the separation of science and politics, we have his colleague James Hansen (head of NASA's Goddard) who is quite happy to transform his scientific prestige into a platform for political moralizing. In reviewing Hansen's new book for DailyKos, DarkSyde introduces him in this manner:

To be a top climate scientist today means being up to speed in graduate level physics, advanced mathematics, planetary astronomy, meteorology, paleontology, oceanography, bio and geo-chemistry, dealing with programmers and constantly shifting computer architectures, and now on top of everything else, you have to be a tireless political activist and media celebrity.(emphasis mine)

No, you don't have to be a political least not in Hulme's model of science and politics. The scientific method strives for consensus, while the political method strives for domination; If Hansen and DarkSyde want to make politicians out of scientists, then they should expect politicized resistance and deal with it as a political dispute.

When Hansen compares carbon emission credits to the Indulgences that sparked the reformation, he just sounds like a moralizing fool (even to someone like me who agrees with his preference for a carbon tax, in this case).

There is no necessary connection between doing research and political advocacy. A scientist does have a responsibility to communicate his findings to the public, and when his findings have urgent implications, there is not time to allow the knowledge to percolate through the formal education system (i.e. inform other researchers, who inform their students at university, who become teachers in the primary and secondary schools). So there is an imperative for some member of the field to directly communicate the field's findings to the general public, which probably means being "a media celebrity". However, this is an issue for all academic disciplines, and it is not a requirement for everyone in the field--certain individuals naturally distinguish themselves within the field as communicators and politicians (often taking jobs such as heading major research institutions), and these individuals are the natural public spokespersons of the field.

But what if the research findings have implications for economic policy? If the spokesperson ignored those implications, they would be neglectful in their communication to the public, but taking a position politicizes the field of study. Following Hulme's model, I suggest that that the scientist make a point of contacting political activists, informing them of the situation, and allowing them to advocate for policy changes. This may even include sitting down with them for a public Q&A, where the scientist acts as a resource on which they draw as they suggest policy responses. This could be either a live discussion, or a book where the first chapter describes the scientific situation and the subsequent chapters are written by activists/politicians who explore the implications.

I'm not saying that scientists should avoid politics all together, just that they shouldn't use their prestige as a practicing scientist to gain exceptional authority in their political advocacy (at least until they have retired).

Thursday, December 03, 2009

"Causes celebre" in the gay marriage culture wars

Written for Freedom Democrats

The culture wars surrounding gay marriage are dragging on, and each side has a new anecdote showing how they are the victim of injustice.

First well take a well known injustice from the gay marriage proponents, the risk of being prohibited from visiting one's partner in the hospital:

...after the 39-year-old was rushed by ambulance to a Florida medical center, she fought for her life alone.

Her partner of 18 years, Janice Langbehn, said she was not allowed to see Pond for eight hours as she lay dying, and their children were never given the chance to say goodbye.

A libertarian radical may want to avoid the issue of state recognition of marriage and look at what gives a hospital the right to turn away visitors, or what gives visitors the right to demand access to a patient...but such investigations would be largely academic and as a practical issue, we need to recognize (as the commentators here do) that the state has no business granting special privileges to people who adhere to a particular lifestyle or ideology. Any two people should be able to enter into a partnership with all of the rights and privileges typically associated with marriage.

The other story supports the contention of gay marriage opponents that the recognition of gay marriage will result in everyone being forced to express approval of gay marriages. This is basically the communitarian position that our lives cannot be coherently partitioned into public and private aspects. In this particular case, we are dealing with the social pressure to acknowledge major events in the lives of our co-workers and sympathize with their feelings regarding these events--our economic lives cannot be separated from our social and family relationships. A Massachusetts man claims that he was fired for refusing to express support for his coworker's same-sex marriage.

Vadala claims the woman...mentioned four times that she had married her partner. He said he then left the store briefly to visit the airport's chapel before returning.

"I found it offensive that she repeatedly brought it up," Vadala said. "By the fourth time she mentioned it, I felt God wanted me to express how I felt about the matter, so I did. But my tone was downright apologetic. I said, 'Regarding your homosexuality, I think that's bad stuff.'"

The woman, according to Vadala, then said, "Human resources, buddy — keep your opinions to yourself," before exiting the store.

Two days later, Vadala, who had been employed for just a matter of weeks, received a termination letter citing the company's zero-tolerance policy regarding "harassment" and "inappropriate and unprofessional" comments.

This story lends some credibility to the assertion that state recognition of gay marriage will essentially force everyone to kowtow to the idea that a gay marriage is just as valuable to a heterosexual marriage. I would normally consider that argument to be pure paranoia, but even with the example before me I have little sympathy for that concern. First, if these people are concerned about employers using their influence to silence their employees, then they shouldn't be fussing over gay marriage, they should be objecting to the fact that employment can typically be terminated without cause. Gays have to live with this reality every day when they hide their romantic lives from their employers out of fear of being fired for being gay. At least this guy got fired because of how he interacted with his coworker. Second, their "solution" is actually a more extreme version of the "problem": for fear of ideological conformity being imposed in the workplace, they want to impose an ideological conformity on the entire society. Funk that.