Friday, December 26, 2008

Jumping the tracks

I favor a two party or multiparty political system. The flaws of human beings are such that no single party is going to long persevere in power without flaws emerging.  The greater the power, the more troubling the flaws. As Lord Acton reminds us:
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
The only protection we have against the corruption that power brings is a competitive political system, but an adversarial system brings with it the possibility of using hate as a motivating force in politics. It is easier to demonize an opponent by denigrating him to the electorate rather than to defeat his argument through the use of reasoned arguments. Thus laziness is a major source of fallacious reasoning in politics. Ideology is a system of reasoning that relies on a closed system of related or semi-related propositions to yield answers to all political questions. Again the expediency of ideology is the effort it saves in thinking though issues. In addition, a shared ideology allows for consistency and cooperation among people who share the ideology. Thus ideologies may be very useful to political parties. However, once an ideology is applied to a problem, the ideologue typically stops thinking. If the ideologically correct solution fails to correct the problem, the ideologue who focuses on ideology rather than fact, may fail to notice that the problem is not solved by the ideologically correct solution. Even worse, the ideology may make assumptions that are just plain wrong and lead systematically to political errors.

I take these problems to be both universal and human. The only way a political system can counteract these human tendencies to laziness, viciousness, and thoughtlessness is through a competitive system of leadership. I want to point to two political issues which illustrate the corruptibility of the politically minded and the inability of party and ideology to protect against that corruption. The issues are Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and the use of civilian nuclear generated electrical power. In the former case the ideological sin is committed on the ideological right and is associated with the Republican Party. In the latter, the sin is committed by the political left and is associated with the Democratic party.

There is little doubt that Global Warming skepticism is a conservative/Republican political cause. Global Warming skeptics have control of numerous media organs associated with the Republican Party and global warming skeptics are common among Republicans. A Pew Research Center Survey found that Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats or Independents to be convinced that Global Warming is not caused by human action. The disparity is even more striking among college graduates. 75% of Democrats and 57% of independents with college degrees say that the earth is warming and that this is caused by human activity. In contrast, only 19% of Republican college graduates agree that AGW is a real problem. Both Democrats and Independents who lack a college education are less likely to be convinced by AGW than their college educated peers, while the opposite is the case among Republicans who are not college graduates.

Most of these college educated Republicans believe that there is a real scientific debate on the causes of Global Warming. Yet numerous scientific bodies have adopted statements endorsing the AGW construct. These include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Medical Association, and the American Statistical Association. In contrast, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma has prepared a list of 650 scientists who are alleged to be AGW skeptics. But Inhofe's list is conspicuously unimpressive. Some named on the list are not known to hold advanced degrees in science and have no peer reviewed publications. The list also appears to be padded with the names of TV weather forecasters who are at best Meteorologists rather than climate scientists. Inhofe also has included a number of right wind economists on his list, even though their professional training would not qualify them to make judgements about climate science.

Republican Global Warming Skeptics take their cues from supposed experts like Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit. McIntyre's critics charge that his favorite tactic is to mis-represent his target and then, having set up a straw man, proceeds to demolish it. It is not my intention to debate the quality of Mcintyre's work, but to point out that it has been the subject of controversy, and that outside of Republican circles, Mcintyre is not regarded as a serious voice in mainstream science.

Republicans AGW skeptics seem to explain the lack of credibility of their AGW skeptical position by there being a vast conspiracy through which "liberals" control the views of mainstream science, and that the idea of AGW os part of the "liberal" conspiracy. i regard this is most unfortunate because I disagree with mainstream Liberal thinking about Global Warming Mitigation. My views, which I would characterize as radical, is that the main line "liberal" thinking about AGW is highly distorted by the same sort of ideological cant that has taken hold of Republican discourse on climate.

Democratic discourse on AGW mitigation is full of talk about "efficiency", "sacrifice", "renewable energy", "clean energy". Readers of my blog might appreciate that I have attempted to analyze mainstream Democratic notions on AGW mitigation and to demonstrate that they are overly expensive, as well as unlikely to be effective. In addition, Democrats appear to be assume far to much reliance on government regulation, subsidies and far too little on normal economic mechanisms. Let me hasten to note that as a Liberal Democrat, I by no means reject regulation out of hand, nor am I an uncritical admirer of free markets. I just happen to think that overly intrusive regulations are less likely to work as mitigation approaches than lower cost market based mitigation approaches that are also likely to win broad public acceptance.

Since Republicans are more amenible to the mitigation strategy that I favor, I would like to see them at the table when mitigatioon is discussed. Instead, like a group of defeated Japanese Samurai, Republicans seem to be lining up to commit political Harakiri via global warming denial. Indeed the Republican Party would quickly be demolished due to Republican stupidity were it not for the fact that Democrats are equally stupid about mitigation issues.

So what is going on? Why do Republicans jump the tracks on Global warming and Democrats jump the tracks on mitigation? Are they simply crazy? Blogger Erich Vieth puts his finger on the problem, although being a Democrat Vieth fails to apply the lesson to his own party.
Dogma wears two hats. . . . dogma facilitates bonding.

The assertion of group-approved-nonsense looks and sounds ridiculous to outsiders, but uttering it loudly in the presence of one’s group proves one’s loyalty to those insiders. The more nonsensical the dogma is, the tighter the bond it is capable of generating among those willing to utter it. . . .

Uttering officially-approved nonsense in front of one’s group identifies one as a bona fide member of that group. Uttering absurd things is a display that one desires to be a member of that group so incredibly much that one is willing to utter the sorts of things that will trigger social ridicule from learned outsiders. . . .

Therefore, uttering nonsensical dogma is not primarily about conveying the truth of the matter asserted. Rather, it’s about sending out a sonar signal in order to identify allies and enemies. It is a herding mechanism.This deep need to be accepted by a group is so deeply wired into humans that, in most people, it even overcomes the urge to follow evidence where it leads. Unfortunately, the literal meaning of the dogma doesn’t entirely dissipate. Therefore, we have lots of Republicans who still refuse to act on the threat of global warming. . . .

Raising one’s hand to swear allegiance to scientific nonsense is usually done in full view, but such it actually functions like a secret handshake.

If you want to feel the glow of acceptance by a big group of Republicans, all you’ve got to do is say the magic phrase: “Global Warming has not been proven.” Say it just often enough to piss off Democrats. Don’t say it too often or too loudly, or even the Republicans will think that you’re wierd. With those magic words denying global warming, you’ll get smiles and pats on the back from total strangers who will buy you drinks and regale you with stories about how they outwitted stupid Democrats; they’ll laugh at your jokes and they’ll tell you that you’re smart. . . .

Here’s an experment that demonstrates what I’m claiming. Take a Republican off to the side and talk to him one-on-one. Be cordial and non-threatening. He’ll eventually settle down and you’ll find him somewhat reasonable on many topics. Then allow him to wander back to his group of fellow Republicans and listen to the dogma start to fly again–the same guy who (minutes ago) was starting to make sense (when it was just the two of you) is now spouting nonsense like he’s absolutely sure of himself. . . .
When Democrats start talking about energy efficiency, clean energy, renewables, and dangerous nuclear power, they are being no more rational than Republicans are when they claim that "AGW is hype".

Edward Sapir noted 80 years ago that "the real" is to a large extent a socially constructed linguistic picture:
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language, and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.
One of my most telling formative experiences occurred on the first day of the school year a high school biology class. Several of the students in the class were to go to win National Merit Scholarships, which makes what happened that day so remarkable. The teacher began the class by talking about the study of living things, which is the subject. He mentioned several living organisms. Then he began to point to a potted plant that sat on his desk. He asked a member of the class if the plant was a living organism. The answer was "yes." Several other students were asked the same question, and each answered yes. Then the teacher pointed to a student in the back of the classroom if the glass in the classroom window was a living organism. The student answered "yes". Then the teacher asked the student who was sitting next to the first student, if the window glass was a living organism. The answer again came back yes. The teacher then very calmly began to work his way through the classroom, asking each student in turn if the window was a living organism. The answer was always, "yes". Eventually the teacher reached the front row, where I had taken a seat next to Vanda Brown, the a girl with a truly astonishing anatomy. The teacher finally asked me, "Mr. Barton, is the window glass a living organism?" I withdrew from my teenage revery on Vanda's most astonishing features long enough to say, "No".   I probably lost my chance with Vanda at that moment, but the teacher thanked me for the right answer.  I did not make an "A" in biology, but several of the students who had said the window was a living organism on the first day did. Once they figured out how to give the answers the teacher was looking for in class, they did fine.

Giving the true answer, instead of the answer my peers had adopted, marked me as a socially maladjusted teenager. I probably still am.  Social groups can be corrupting because they have the power to make us deny truth.


Bhuvan Chand said...

i really impress with you blog and plz keep writing for this blog.

Marcel F. Williams said...

I prefer a three party system for the US: One conservative, one liberal, and one moderate. The two party system is just too polarizing, IMO.

Marcel F. Williams

Charles Barton said...

I would prefer "Big Tent" parties.

Anonymous said...

Your posts are reaching a new level of philosophical sophistication and even achieving cosmic truth. Your little high school vignette ring true in my experience whose recollection brings back fond memories of my early life.


Charles Barton said...

Axil, thank you for the kind words, I am trying to understand why bad ideas like the irrational attack on nuclear power find traction in contemporary discourse. People are afraid to stand up for truth, and are willing to tolerate irrational nonsense.

donb said...

With regards to advanced nuclear energy, I think there are other things going on. Much of it comes down to personal comfort zones, dealing with risk, fear of the unknown, and financial interests. The particular objects of these factors vary across party lines, so we see the problem in partisan terms. But the net result is the same - slow progress towards an energy-rich future.

Certainly concepts like the LFTR are new to most people, so they are exiting their comfort zones to analyze such concepts. The fear of the unknown can prevent them from even taking a few steps towards understanding. Since we don't have tons of experence with the LFTR, there are some risks that still need to be worked out. And many have personal financial interests in other energy technologies, from coal and oil to wind, solar, and biofuels, which are all threatened by an abundant and potentially inexpensive energy source.

Educating one's self about nuclear energy is hard work. Many people are too busy to inform themselves. Others simply don't have the aptitude to understand the issues. The various party lines are an easy place to hide to avoid this hard work.

Good technology easily crosses party lines. Personal computers certainly did this with ease. If we had inexpensive, safe reactors in a variety of sizes, suited to a number of jobs, then a future dominated by energy from nuclear sources could be assured.

But the personal computer was brought forward by a bunch of individual enthusiasts before it became mainstream. The contribution of the government initially through Darpanet was also a key factor. I can't see a bunch of enthusiasts with personal reactors in their basements.

We need a way to make enthusiasts out of coal burning electric utilities. If a utility could repower their coal fired electric power plant with a reactor that clearly saves money, there would be a massive switch that would come quickly.

One big comfort-zone issue is safety. Those with science and engineering backgrounds know that there is no such thing as absolutely zero risk, but there are things that are much safer than others. The general public is not so understanding, especially in regards to concentrated risks to specific individuals. I have no easy solution to this problem.

So we come to the crux of the problem. What is needed is a commercially viable reactor, inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to run. It needs to be so safe that a failure is (largely) an economic issue, not a safety issue (someone else said this here before). And the regulatory environment needs to be reasonable and stable, reflecting the safety of the reactor.


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