Thursday, February 27, 2014

#58 / Science And Decision

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post, and someone whom I think can rightly be called a trend setting leader among the "nattering nabobs of negativism," to repurpose a phrase from a former era. 

In the September 23, 2014 edition of the San Jose Mercury News, Krauthammer opines that "global warming is a science that is far from being settled." That statement is taken from the title of his column, as it appeared in the print edition.

Krauthammer is consistently anxious in all of his columns to say something negative about almost everything that is said or done by President Obama. Thus, Krauthammer's recent column on global warming is clearly a reaction to the following statement by the President, which Krauthammer quotes: "The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."

Per Krauthammer and his column: "Oh no it's not!" 

I don't think it's worth debating climate science with Krauthammer, or with others who express skepticism about the reality of human-caused climate change. In fact, Krauthammer makes a good point when he says, "there is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge."

Point to Krauthammer. Challenging received scientific truths is always appropriate.

But here's my point: Democracies should never be under the illusion that public policy decisions must be based on "scientific truth." This is a fundamental "Two Worlds" error. 

We do not live, most immediately, in the World of Nature, where the laws that science articulates prevail. We live in a human world of our own creation. Thus, while we must always be cognizant of the ultimate realities of Nature that support our own world, decision making in the human realm cannot be based on certainty. The laws and rules that govern our world must be seen as "prescriptions," not "descriptions." The Laws of Nature describe what we think of as rules that will inevitably describe what will and must happen. And our acceptance of these descriptions of reality are subject to the constant test of "science," as Krauthammer suggests.

But the rules in our human world are based on what we think we ought to do, not on some scientifically provable "fact," which makes the rules in our world something quite different. 

Whether or not the currently prevailing consensus on global warming is "correct" (I think it likely is; Krauthammer expresses great skepticism), what we should do right now cannot be based on any certain "science." We have to decide what we want to do without certainty. 

I suggest that we should stop seeking to discover, produce, and burn ever increasing amounts of hydrocarbon fuel. I think that ought to be the prescription we write for ourselves. 

If we are in fact coming close to the tipping point that may destroy the current natural processes that have supported our human world - our human civilizations - for the last 10,000 years or so,  then we would do well to follow the prescription that I have just articulated. If it turns out that Krauthammer's skepticism is well founded, I don't think we are losing much.

Science should inform our decisions. But science doesn't make decisions for us. We need to do that ourselves. Debating science is a way to avoid the real questions we need to confront. 

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  1. As I respond to this post, I realize that I not only question this particular premise, I also find I question the “Two Worlds” hypothesis, as a result of the conclusions set forth here.

    First, science is never settled, including climate science. This is a truism that is the basis of all scientific discovery and advance. We never rest on our laurels, never accept any results without question, never let the sleeping dogs of past scientific investigation rest without further study. Newton’s law of universal gravitation was first published in 1687, and we’re still studying gravity and not yet understanding it 327 years later! Likewise, the so-called greenhouse effect, first proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824 and still widely misunderstood and misapplied.

    Secondly, there is no “scientific truth.” See above. There is evidence, methodology and conclusions. Therefore, democratic decision making cannot be based on truth, as is well documented by the failure of the religious right to craft meaningful and widely acceptable public policy. Public policy, with regard to natural processes, must be based on the preponderance and verifiability of evidence. This is not “certainty,’ which never exists in the scientific process. It is an on-going process of discovery, verification and… further study.

    Likewise, public policy formation can never be “settled.”

    We may think that we do not live in the World of Nature, but inevitably and inescapably, we do live in the world where the laws that science articulates prevail. A simple example is our present experience with water and drought. Political decisions about providing water for a growing population have been made in the past, based on what we thought should have been done, rather than through an informed understanding of natural resource variability over time. Just as it is “certain” that precipitation and water availability will vary through time, it is equally “certain” that climate will vary naturally over time, with or without human intervention.

    Therefore, we should make political decisions about how we organize ourselves in human societies based on the realities (aka certainties) of resource variability, not on the flawed presumption that the status quo will continue forever.

    Given this realization, it probably is a good idea to not put all of our energy eggs in the fossil fuel basket. Diversity is the path of successful evolution. Burning fossil fuels creates a plentitude of physical and social effects that are detrimental to all life on this planet. We will stop burning them in time, inevitably. Why not begin to craft our societies in directions that do not depend on such a fragile, scarce and destructive resource and avoid the unmanageable rush at the last minute?

    Finally, there is no “tipping point” that will destroy current natural processes. This is a bogeyman designed to scare small children into becoming economists. Natural processes will continue into the future, just as they have overtaken us from the past. Scientists call it “uniformitarianism.” Global climates will continue to change, just as they have in the past. Humans must come to accept and embrace this simple scientific fact and cooperate with the World of Nature as we continue to construct a viable World of Humans within it.

    Debating science is a way to discover the real questions we need to confront.

  2. Public policy decisions ABSOLUTELY must be based on scientific truth! What's the alternative?

    This doesn't mean some straw man comes along and magically transforms scientific theories (descriptions) into social laws (prescriptions).

    It means you form moral opinions and come to policy decisions by a process of reason based on evidence.

    You don't have to base anything on certainty. Just evidence and reason.


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