Sunday, January 4, 2015

America’s ‘Science Problem,’ America’s Ideology Problem

Michael Gerson makes a good point in his Washington Post article: Many Americans lack respect for science to a significant extent. He cites, among other examples, the irrational fears against vaccinations and genetically modified foods, despite massive scientific and experiential evidence debunking those fears.

But Gerson goes off the rails when he turns to climate change, to which he devotes more than half his column. Hard on the heels of a whole list of valid examples of anti-science—and immediately after noting many Americans’ “resistance . . . to evolution,” he writes, “And skepticism about climate change is correlated with libertarian and free-market beliefs.”

Gerson doesn’t state the nature of the skepticism: Is it skepticism about climate change, or the more rational skepticism about the extent and dangers of man-made climate change? Nor does he mention its opposite; that climate change hysteria is correlated with socialist or statist beliefs.

From that statement on, the article is devoted to climate change. It’s almost as if Gerson’s valid observations about irrational anti-science views are a means to smuggle in and validate a Leftist climate change agenda. It strikes me as an argument from intimidation: If you’re skeptical about the climate change agenda, you’re an anti-science free market ideologue (He attributes much anti-science to “ideology”).

Gerson’s very next statement is:

Merely raising climate disruption in this context will cause many to bristle. Skeptics employ this issue as a prime example of motivated reasoning — politicians motivated by the prospect of confiscation, scientists motivated by securing acclaim and government contracts.

In its simplest, cable-television version, this charge, at least against scientists, is outrageous. The assumption that the vast majority in a scientific field is engaged in fraud or corruption is frankly conspiratorial.

In essentially ascribing the label “conspiracy theorist” to those who question the relation between the “climate consensus” and government funding, Gerson is smearing “libertarian and free-market beliefs” by means of erecting a straw man. The issue for those of us concerned about the corrupting effects of government funding of science—especially funding of as politically charged a field as climate science—is not that there is some vast overt conspiracy among politicians and scientists around the world bent on duping the public into a giant climate fraud. The issue is much more subtle and corrupt than that. It has to do with incentives; of scientists seeking funding from politicians, and of politicians catering to their constituent base—in particular, the environmentalist Left, one of the most powerful special interests around.

These incentives, built into the funding structure, are what leads to what Ayn Rand called “the establishing of an Establishment.” But it’s not just a question of “motivated reasoning”. As Rand observed:

How would Washington bureaucrats—or Congressmen, for that matter—know which scientist to encourage [decide who should get funding]. . . ? The safest method is to choose men who have achieved some sort of reputation. Whether their reputation is deserved or not, whether their achievements are valid or not, whether they rose by merit, pull, publicity or accident, are questions which the awarders [of government grants] do not and cannot consider. When personal judgment is inoperative (or forbidden), men’s first concern is not how to choose, but how to justify their choice. This will necessarily prompt committee members, bureaucrats and politicians to gravitate toward “prestigious names.” The result is to help establish those already established—i.e., to entrench the status quo.

The result is an unofficial “official orthodoxy”. As more and more “experts” in a given field are established by government grants—and as government funding gradually squeezes out private funding—those who disagree tend to be marginalized, with government money tending to gravitate toward the “experts”; and toward the official orthodoxy. So the “climate consensus” of catastrophic man-made climate change, having been established by the environmentalist ideologues, becomes an establishment that essentially builds on itself, with a healthy assist from Leftist politicians looking to rationalize statist policies (which, as I noted, Gerson brushes aside).

Gerson doesn’t entirely dismiss this assessment. He acknowledges that:

Some scientists have displayed an artificial certainty on some matters that seems to cross into advocacy. Others assume that the only way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions is a strict, global regulatory regime — an economic and political judgment that has nothing to do with their actual expertise.

But Gerson himself crosses from science into political advocacy. The “scientific consensus” (establishment?) makes it seem “clear that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have produced a modest amount of warming and are likely to produce more.” Even so, how does that fact automatically translate into the need for a “political solution” aimed at curbing carbon emissions [fossil fuel use], which he seems to advocate (he suggests a carbon tax or some other “grand global bargain” [read regulatory regime])? How will making our primary source of reliable, cheap, large-scale energy production more expensive make it easier to deal with weather extremes? What about the only currently feasible alternative to fossil fuels—nuclear power? Wouldn’t it be better to facilitate a major expansion of nuclear power plant construction by relaxing the political/regulatory roadblocks preventing it, rather than institute another redistributionist scheme that will only strangle energy production and affordability?

Gerson concludes: “But perhaps the most difficult question is this: How can you make serious political decisions based on scientific likelihoods when politics thrives on the feeding of ideological certainties?” But the real question is, how can you make serious political decisions without the philosophical compass that instructs on the proper purpose of government? Only an objectively validated political ideology can facilitate that. For example, after noting that “The consequences [of ‘climate disruption’] will vary by region but are likely to be more severe in poorer nations,” Gerson observes that “New York City can adapt to a rising ocean better than Bangladesh.” But why is that the case? Only ideology—i.e., political philosophy—can answer that. What is the difference between Bangladesh and New York City? NYC is in a nation with a large degree of economic and political freedom, while Bangladesh is not. But that is an ideological issue.

Can’t go there—unless. . . . it serves one’s purposes.

Gerson smuggles in a statist, Leftist ideological climate change agenda under cover of science while preemptively shutting out ideological opposition by disparaging “ideology”.

America may have a science problem, that’s not her biggest problem. America has an ideological—i.e., philosophical—problem; to wit, a failure to take ideology seriously. Because of that lack of ideological seriousness, statism is winning by default.

It is only philosophy that can give you the long term, integrated perspective to figure out where you are going, or should go, or should not go—or where your enemies want to take you.

But while the statists seem to have a clear vision, Americans have largely forgotten—or never learned—what makes for a prosperous, free, moral nation; reason and individualism, and their corollaries individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government—i.e., capitalism. And, whether deliberately or innocently, Gerson and his ilk don’t want Americans to discover these truths. Gerson’s slap against “ideology” is designed for, or has the effect of, steering the reader away from “libertarian and free-market beliefs,” thus disarming the only real ideological opposition to the Left’s environmentalist/statist agenda.

Related Reading:

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels—Alex Epstein (Chapter 1, The Secret History of Fossil Fuels, available free.)

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