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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Commentary on the Science Debate Questions

"I've never met a man with so many opinions." --Jedediah Leland, Citizen Kane

"Could you stop being Bart for a minute?" --a friend, several years ago (needless to say, the answer was "no")

I finally got around to reading all of the questions on the Science Debate site, and I found that I could not resist offering commentary on some of the phrasing. This is not to say that I disagree with everything or the need for the debate; I do not. However, some of the questions are phrased in such a way that people on the conservative fence would know going into it that the fix was in. For example...

2. Climate Change. The Earth's climate is changing...

The smarty-butt in my wants to say, "Yeah, the climate is changing all the time--it's called weather." However, on a more rational note, simply repeating that the climate is changing (global warming/global cooling) does not make it so. This is still an assumption. Some among us would like more hard data. Climate models make a lot of assumptions, and still cannot account for everything. Weather forecasts are only good on a local level--at best--five to seven days out. Why should I/we believe that these climate models are serious. We alternate between disappearing ice and the worst cold winter in 30 years. That's weather, not climate. The real concerns are:

  1. Some (not all) scientists are concerned about the future state of the planet's climate.
  2. More reliable data is needed at all levels of the climate to determine the future state.
  3. Climate models need to be made reliable and accurate enough to explain the past, present, and future.
  4. Once the true state of things is known, we can start discussing mitigation.
  5. The recommended solutions in the question (cap-and-trade emissions, carbon taxes, increased fuel efficiency standards) all have economic costs that are very difficult to sell to the American public when people are more concerned about paying for transportation than the effects of said transportation.

In short, this question has an obvious slant and ignores an alternative view of the situation.

Energy...What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economcially and environmentally sustainable future?

The giveaway on the slant of this question is the magic word "sustainable." People seem to think they know what they mean by this, but do they really? Usually, the unspoken assumption when using these words (on the left) is that if one wishes to be sustainable in the long run, one must reduce expediture or consumption over the long run. That means slowing down the economy and setting our sights lower as far as progress or comfort levels are concerned. That is, of course, my interpretation. The people writing these questions would do well to explain what they mean by sustainable.

4. Education...What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

The question assumes that the federal government must take a role. A serious conservative might respond, "I think the best thing the federal government could do is to reduce its role in education, get out of the way, and allow more educational experimentation at the state and local level." I've said this before, but it bears repeating: If we have only one educational system in this country--the government schools--and that system is failing, then ALL of our students are hosed. If there are multiple alternatives, funded by local governments or federal/state vouchers, then experimentation would occur at the local level, successful experiments could be repeated, a smaller percentage of students would be hosed by a bad system, and failing systems would have more incentive to compete and improve their curriculum. There is also the fact that if the education system is controlled from Washington instead of in thousands of local constituencies, it becomes much easier for lobbyists to focus on one place for their efforts and exert influence. Federalism was supposed to prevent the concentration of power in one place.

Stem cells.

I must confess that I don't know nearly enough about this topic. However, what I have read gives me some concern. A "stem cell" is an adaptable cell that can easily change from one cell type to another. These cells are commonly found in embryos, where the cells have yet to differentiate into individual body parts. The practical application would be that if we could obtain more living embryonic stem cells from cast-off (aborted) embryos, those cells could be used to replace damaged cells in adults. Liberals argue that the cells (embryos) weren't going to be used anyway because they were aborted. Conservatives don't like the idea of abortion, period, and really don't like the notion of "harvesting" embryos via abortion in order to suit the convenience/health of adults. There are also concerns that this practice could lead to cloning. However, there have, as yet, been no cures using these cells for anything useful. There are also other ways to obtain stem cells, including adult stem cells, which would not require abortions to obtain.

The argument for embryonic stem cell research is similar to spending money on space research: "You never know what we'll find! We could find the cure for cancer!" Well, space medicine has not resulted in a cure for cancer. However, space-based medicine and medical technologies do have a proven track record, unlike the stem cell business. To which proponents of stem cells would probably say, "Then you need to give us a chance." What they seem to forget is that a lot of space medicine came about because we were trying to monitor astronauts in space and keep them alive first. Then we came up with applications here on Earth. Right now, embryonic stem cell research strikes me as unnecessarily ghoulish. That doesn't mean, however, that I don't think the question should be included in the debate. I would just like to hope that the candidates could engage in serious discussions about the role of morality in science. Again, the word is hope, not expect.

9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world's fisheries are in serious decline...

I have no problem with this question or assertion, per se, I'd just like to know a little more about WHO is making the assertion, how many, and under what circumstances/pretenses?

11. Space...Can we afford all of them?

Oh, for gosh sakes...Most of the questions on the site presume or ask directly for government funding. Yet suddenly, when it comes to space (still less than 1 percent of the total), they ask if we can afford it? There is also a hidden assumption in the next question:

How would you prioritize space in your administration?

What's the unspoken assumption here? That the budget for space is not going to increase. We need new energy sources. We need to expand our potential sources of energy. We need to continue economic growth and technological development. All of the above would or should require increased space spending. This question assumes a static NASA budget and a reallocation of the pie. We can do better than that.

12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job.

NASA has already taken steps to investigate and address any potential censorship. On the whole, this charge was found to be false. However, certain scientists (and I'm thinking here particularly of the very public Dr. James Hansen) need to understand the difference between reporting scientific data/potential conclcusions and advocating positions on government time. I did a study of scientific language in grad school, and the predominant tone of technical writing in scientific reports for at least the last century has been one of caution and qualified conclusion: "If X and Y are true, then Z might be possible under the following conditions..." The vehement stridency of Dr. Hansen and some of his allies has not used the language of science, but advocacy. However, they use their positions as scientists to provide ethos to their conclusions.

Now this is not to say that I completely disagree with the notion that global warming (or, God forbid, global freezing) might be occurring. I just want to read/see the data. I want rationality, calm, hard analysis based on observation. Then I can start thinking about mitigation. That's a completely different set of analyses--"What should we do next?"--and those analyses are political, economic, and technical, not scientific in the purest sense. Dr. Hansen, et al., want to leap directly from tentative conclusion to policy action without any intervening of debate in between. "THIS IS A CRISIS! WE CAN'T AFFORD TO WAIT! WE'RE EXPERTS AND YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO AND OBEY US NOW!!!!" This is exactly the sort of debating behavior that drives me up the wall, partly because I don't like to be yelled at, partly because I don't like to be pushed around, and partly because it's not proper argumentation.

Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views? Obviously not. Data is what it is. It is up to scientists to interpret what they see. And the data on climate is still mixed and selective.

The real danger here is the extreme politicization of science. It is not appropriate for scientists to make policy recommendations unless that's their job. It is not good science to say, "We have observed decreased glacier activities in X, Y, and Z areas; therefore, the entire world is experiencing global warming; therefore we should tax the West on their carbon emissions to make the world economy fair." Even people not trained in argumentation should see the holes in that set of conclusions, and yet that's what Hansen is, in essence, trying to do while on the job as a paid civil servant. His behavior is doubly inappropriate. He is doing advocacy, which should be done off the clock. It's not just a matter of his tone; his argumentation methods are flawed. I would remove this question from the debate.

14. Health...How do you see science, research, and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?

Many advancements in medicine have come from space, making question 11 even more annoying and perplexing to me.

Again, I'm not doubting the need for this debate. It would be darned interesting to watch, if we had a couple of candidates who were up to the challenge. However, I don't think either of these guys is bright enough to carry on a serious conversation about science. They weren't hired for that, quite frankly. They were hired/elected to debate matters of policy (all the more reason to reinstate the Office of Technology Assessment, right?). If we could get a little of the bias out of some of those questions, I'd be 100% behind the effort.

We should have open debates about scientific matters. The science and data collection are going on right now, and serious, scientifically trained professionals are doing that work. However, we should not have those same scientists necessarily dictating policy (technocracy = rule by the experts or technocrats) unless they have been elected to do so. We do need more elected representatives who are educated in the sciences or engineering and fewer lawyers, in my opinion, but that's an argument for another day. And in the meantime, the non-scientists and non-engineers in the Congress and White House (and yes, even in the Supreme Court) should have access to better information about scientific issues and their implications for public policy.

I'll be interested to see if this debate takes place. It couldn't hurt, but it should be done right. I'll give some more thought to what "done right" means later.

1 comment:

Darlene said...

Bart, I hope more people start taking your approach: honest discourse. Good, clear, smart points--all of them.