There’s been a renewed burst of climate change contrarianism going around the interwebs, fuelled by the factoid that arctic sea ice has increased dramatically this year (never mind that it’s only risen relative to last year, by far the worst year on record). The actual factual claims here have been amply debunked by others, but it’s led to a couple interesting discussions over the last week, including one with a friend who posed to me some of the arguments one commonly meets in American Reformed denialist circles. My response grew long enough that I thought it worth sharing as a blog post. Read More
The Modern Sacrament of Freedom
Having recently written on the god-like aspirations of contemporary technological development in relation to the problem of GM food, I was struck by Richard Bauckham’s critique of a far more prosaic manifestation of the same temptation—the car. In chapter 2 of his wonderful God and the Crisis of Freedom, he has this to say about that infernal contraption:
“The modern dream of freeing humanity to be whatever we choose to be by transcending all limits has, of course, produced the ecological crisis. This has exposed the myth as a dangerous fantasy. The attempt to transcend all limits has brought us up against the undeniable finitude of the creation to which we belong. We cannot reject limits without destroying the creation on which we depend. We cannot make ourselves gods, independent of the rest of nature, supreme over it, molding it into whatever future we choose. But the habit of trying is not easy to break. Modern humanity is addicted to the freedom that rejects all limits.
There is no more pervasive symbol of this freedom and its destructive futility than the car. Cars are the modern sacrament of freedom; they symbolize it and promise actually to give it. We can glimpse the kind of freedom they promise in the typical television advertisement: an individual driving through open countryside, mountain ranges, and deserts with the widest possible horizons. Some also navigate through picturesquely narrow streets. Cars offer individuals the freedom to go wherever they wish, whenever they like, as fast as possible. They give independence, freedom to be entirely one’s own master, not dependent on others, not even accompanied by others. They suggest the freedom of escape from any situation and of new opportunities and experiences always to be found along a new road. They give the feeling of control over one’s destiny. This is why most car owners cannot imagine living without one. But, as always, this kind of freedom restricts the freedom of others. The more people have cars, the more difficult life becomes for those who cannot afford them or are too old or too young to drive; public transport decays, and shops and community facilities are no longer within walking distances. But the more people have cars, the less the car owners themselves enjoy the freedom they value. Commuters spend highly stressful hours in bumper-to-bumper, slow moving traffic. Motorways become car parks. Roads destroy the countryside the car owner wants the freedom to enjoy at the weekends. Moreover, since car ownership has become common, cities and most aspects of life in cities have developed in such a way that normal life requires constant long journeys. The freedom to travel has incurred the necessity to travel. Again typically of this kind of freedom, cars increase personal independence at the expense of the community. Many a vast residential area is for many residents no more than a place through which they drive on the way from their houses to other destinations.”
A Harvest Prayer
Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Harvest Sunday (Sept. 23rd), 2012
Lord of all Creation, we give you thanks and praise for the beauty and bounty of this earth, which we reflect on in this season of harvest. As the Psalmist said,
You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell; they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Great gift-giving God, for most of us today in the West, this celebration is perfunctory, a reminder of a quaint and long-ago time when we depended on the rhythm of the seasons, depended on the bounty of summer and autumn to sustain us through the dearth of winter. Today (even in Scotland) we live in a perpetual summer of bounty, well-fed, supplied with wine and oil in abundance. We heartily thank you for these blessings, and ask that you would help make us more grateful day by day, but we pray also for deliverance from the blindness and callousness that such easy prosperity can cause. Help us remember today the billions of our brothers and sisters who do not share in this bounty, many of whom still depend each year on a good harvest to keep any food on their table.
Lord of life, autumn is not only a time of bounty, a time to celebrate the vibrancy and richness of creation, but also a reminder of its fragility, of mortality. The sun retreats, the warmth and light ebbs, the trees grow brown and wither; even as the fruits fall from laden branches and the fields yield their grain, the plants that give us life shrivel and die, until the cycle of new life begins in Spring. For us today, Lord, who have been greedily harvesting from nature’s bounty without pause for generations, who have reaped where we have not sown, this reminder of fragility and mortality carries an extra uneasiness, a sense of urgency. All around us are signs that the cycles of summer and winter, springtime and harvest as we have known them may not last much longer, that after our long harvest of the earth’s resources, creation as a whole withers under the weight of our demands—as Gerald Manley Hopkins lamented,
“all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
Gracious God, forgive us our heedless ways, and give us the courage and conviction to change them. Teach us how to care for this rich earth rightly, that it may yield its plenteous fruits for future generations, and above all for those in other parts of the world who suffer now in want—want that is magnified by the changing climate, as streams dry up that once were full, grain withers in unprecedented heat, and storms wreak havoc on homes and harvests.
God our Father, you have created not merely earth, sky, and water, plants and animals, but also the human race, and blessed it with innumerable gifts of wisdom and skill. At this harvest time, we can thank you for the rich harvest of another sort, in which our church is reaping the fruits of the many human labors that have gone into building up its worship and ministries over many years. We thank you especially for the harvest of the Connect Groups, years in planning, and finally launched this month. We pray that you would bless them to become places of loving fellowship and empower them to be beacons of light shining in our communities. We thank you also for the harvest of our School of Theology, another ministry long planned that has come to fruition this Fall. We pray that through these classes, your Word would be opened up as never before to those attending, that their faith would be strengthened and enriched. Strengthen Jeremy and Graham as they lead this ministry.
As these two examples suggest, this time of year is not merely a time of endings, but of beginnings, as new seeds are sown to prepare a future harvest. As students return to their studies, and some are beginning university or postgraduate studies for the first time, we pray that you would watch over them and be a light unto their path. Keep the students of this church faithful in your ways, remembering that the study of your Word is of greater value than all other earthly knowledge. Bring new students through the doors of this church, and help us to welcome them and provide a home and community for them here.
Finally, Lord, we thank you for the wine that gladdens man’s heart and the bread that strengthens it, more than any earthly bread and wine—the Eucharistic feast we are about to share with you. We thank you for taking the labor of human hands, the harvest of the old creation, and returning it to us as the firstfruits of the new creation, the eternal life of your Son.
In His all-powerful name we pray. Amen.
Merchants of Doubt: A Review
This immensely important and timely book demands attention from anyone determined to think critically and intelligently about the current interface of politics, economics, and science, which one might describe as the three gods of our time. The book is not flawless, to be sure. As a complete layman in such issues, I can detect certain ideological flaws, which I shall come to in due course, and it is hard not to think that the authors present a somewhat one-sided perspective on a highly contentious issue, and that their opponents would have rather more to say for themselves than Conway and Oreskes imply. Indeed, in such matters, it is always essential to keep Proverbs 18:17 in mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Nonetheless, from what I know of the world, and from the compellingness of the narrative set forth in this book, I am for now provisionally convinced that their basic picture is accurate.
This picture, it turns out, is considerably more complex and interesting than I had expected when I picked up the book. The basic gist I thought I knew: climate change denial is largely funded by Big Oil and industries with a vested interest in staving off any policy shifts in a green direction. The science is being corrupted by greed. And, should you be skeptical of such cynicism, just look at how Big Tobacco did the same thing in the 60s—and the 70s and 80s and 90s, for that matter; doubt is a highly durable product, it seems.
A sordid story, but alas, a somewhat believable one. Yet, such a story has the troubling consequence of making scientists look like they’re for sale to the highest bidder. If Big Tobacco and Big Oil could simply bribe scientists into distorting the facts, then why should the moral of this story be “Trust the scientists,” as it must be for climate change orthodoxy? Thankfully, Conway and Oreskes’s story is, as I said, considerably more complex, and on reflection, more disturbing.
The denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of smoking do not merely share links to big business; they (and the denial of the ozone hole, of acid rain, of nuclear winter fears, of the dangers of DDT, etc., all covered in this book as well) share something more insidious—a blind faith in markets, technology, and progress. In each of the doubt-sowing narratives that Conway and Oreskes survey, they find a very small cast of lead actors, chief among whom are a cadre of high-profile Cold War physicists, Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg. It was Frederick Seitz, at that time aged 84 and retired from active scientific work for 17 years, who penned the damning public slander of Ben Santer and his chapter of the first IPCC report on climate change in 1995, after having spent most of the 1980s supervising contrarian research on behalf of the tobacco industry.
Of course, the very fact that the same few names keep cropping up again and again, in radically different contexts, is enough to raise a few eyebrows as to whether we are dealing with real scientific opposition or some kind of conspiracy. (Admittedly, it may well be that the authors overemphasize somewhat these few main characters so as to make the contrarian community seem smaller than it really is; however, they do not seem to be incorrect in assigning a leading role to these figures.) How many solid-state physicists, after all, can claim to be experts on oncology, the effect of acidity on ecosystems, and the distribution of heat in the earth’s atmosphere? And indeed, part of the burden of the book is to show how just a few well-connected, sufficiently outspoken, and somewhat unscrupulous scientists can create the illusion of a whole community of scientific dissent. They note how a credulous and naive media and public is often willing to credit the testimony of any leading scientist as a relevant expert, even if his expertise is in another field entirely, as if an expert plumber could settle a controversy on the best way to construct the roof, just because he’s involved in the homebuilding industry.
Why is it that these physicists should be so determined to attack environmental concern wherever it should arise? It is here that Conway and Oreskes are at their best, subtly and insightfully introducing us to the Cold War mindset that drove these men. They were all formed within that black-and-white view of the world, capitalism vs. communism, freedom vs. statism. And for them, as for so many hawks of that era, superior technological innovation was the means by which freedom would triumph. Seitz and Nierenberg both got their start working on the Manhattan Project, and were heavily involved in subsequent weapons-development research in the early Cold War, as was Singer. Not only did this early work help set their ideological trajectory in a hard-right direction, but it also catapulted them to positions of remarkable political influence, which they maintained. (Oreskes and Conway wish to leave us in no doubt that when it comes to the charge that our politicians are being manipulated by influential insider climate change alarmists, the shoe is most definitely on the other foot.)
Since most of the rising concerns about the harmful effects of certain industries on health and environment necessarily implied the need for government regulation of those industries, men like Seitz, Singer, and Nierenberg thought they spotted a Red agenda at the heart of the Green movement. Dedicated as they were to the freedom of capitalist industry and to a confidence that technology was our savior, they bitterly resisted the implications that capitalist industrial technology might be harming the planet and might call for government intervention. In the Reagan era, such convictions easily won the day on issues such as acid rain, whatever the vast majority of the scientific community might say, and those who held them gained established footholds of influence.
Conway and Oreskes also draw close attention to the strategy behind all this anti-environmental science. The objective, most of the time, has not been to directly deny the various claims of harm being advanced. The tobacco industry spent little time trying to prove that smoking was fine for you, and Singer and Nierenberg did not try to claim that acid rain was harmless. Rather, their product was doubt. The point was always to persuade the public that, yes, there might be a problem, but there was so much we didn’t know that we couldn’t be quite sure what its origin was, how serious it was, and what the best solution might be. The downsides of our current course, then, were uncertain. Accompanying this was the argument that the upsides of our current course were obvious, or the downsides to changing our present course were quite clear and certain, and certain to be serious. As a delaying tactic, this argument served the tobacco industry astonishingly well. Would-be smokers could be reassured that, although they couldn’t be sure one way or another of the science surrounding the safety of cigarettes, at least they could be sure that they really enjoyed smoking them, and it was probably worth a little risk. Juries could be persuaded, for more than forty years after the extremely carcinogenic effects of smoking had been scientifically demonstrated, that there was still enough uncertainty to render the tobacco companies legally immune.
Again, Conway and Oreskes insightfully show how psychology can lead us astray here. We tend to fall prey to short-term thinking, willing to face future risks for the sake of present enjoyment, and disposed to always prefer the known (what we are already doing) to the unknown (any proposed change), assessing the latter as riskier than the former, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise. (Many of the contrarian scientists described in this book were clearly driven by this kind of thinking, particularly those with a particular interest in economics. The economic costs of environmental protection, they felt, were so high as to outweigh the evidence of future harms.) These psychological tendencies are if anything even more true on the social level than the individual. What this means is that anyone claiming that we must stop the enjoyable things we are doing in order to avert future or unseen calamities, and must start ordering our lives in different ways, has to meet a very high burden of proof indeed to be listened to. Our political leaders, who are supposed to take the future into account and thus make these difficult decisions for us, are unfortunately just as much the slaves of short-term thinking. Economic growth in the present, not environmental protection in the future, is what is likely to win them their next election. The merchants of doubt, then, have a comparatively easy task. All they have to show is that there is enough uncertainty in the science that perhaps we had better sit back and wait for more evidence before committing ourselves to a costly change of direction, or, heaven forbid, sacrificing our freedom to government bureaucrats.
Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily easy to prove uncertainty in the science, because all science is always uncertain. Conway and Oreskes are refreshingly upfront about this, and criticize the outdated positivistic view of science that imagines that science “proves” facts with logical certainty. Even when the basic facts are well-established (though never absolutely proven), there exist all sorts of details that still need to be worked out, and ongoing scientific work will of course be dedicated toward investigating these remaining areas of uncertainty. Anyone with a dedicated agenda of skepticism, then, will have no difficulty in finding evidence of uncertainty and debate in the current scientific literature, even when there is a firmly established consensus about the key points. Moreover, given that the front lines of scientific work are so far beyond the ken of the average citizen, it is easy for him to be duped into treating as equally authoritative the testimony of popularizers and think tanks with some kind of scientific credentials. When we look at this cacophony of voices and see evidence of widespread disagreement, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who are we to believe?”
So what is to be done about this? Conway and Oreskes suggest some answers in their epilogue, pointing out how many areas of our day-to-day in which we recognize the need to trust experts and act on their advice, despite the inevitable uncertainty. They conclude
“So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative. And because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are—by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving. If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter . . . then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. . . . Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information. For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record . . . modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action. . . .
“Don’t get us wrong. Scientists have no special purchase on moral or ethical decisions; a climate scientist is no more qualified to comment on health care reform than a physicist is to judge the causes of bee colony collapse. The very fathers that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. . . . So our trust needs to be circumscribed, and focused. It needs to be very particular. Blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all. But without some degree of trust in our designated experts . . . we are paralyzed, in effect not knowing whether to make ready for the morning commute or not. . . . C.P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth. But so is a foolish cynicism. . . . We close with the comments of S.J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: ‘A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty. The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”
In other words, we need to accept that painful, costly public policy decisions will have to be taken on the basis of uncertainty. In fact, they always are, for economic projections about the future (perhaps the most frequent basis for public policy) are at least as uncertain as scientific ones. If the consequences of inaction appear sufficiently serious and probable, the prudent ruler (and the prudent society) will begin to undertake corrective action even while acknowledging the possibility that subsequent research will reveal such action unnecessary; better safe than sorry.
My one major misgiving about the book: despite their attempts to demystify the scientific enterprise, and acknowledge that it is human, all too human, not blessed with some special gift of infallibility, it is hard not to feel that the authors continue to speak of “the halls of science” in somewhat reverential tones. Scientists are repeatedly eulogized as pure uncorrupt seekers after truth, even while a few contrarian scientists are shown to be quite the opposite. But of course, if Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and others could let their ideology and the interests of their benefactors get in the way of doing honest and objective science, who’s to say that most other scientists are immune to this. Conway and Oreskes do enough to suggest, I think, that the accusations that climate alarmists are acting out of self-interest or political ideology are a case of the pot calling the kettle black; however, that doesn’t mean that the kettle may not be black as well. I have no doubt that most climate scientists are conscientious researchers who do their utmost to be objective and avoid unnecessary alarmism. But not all, and not always. The authors always speak of “peer review” the same way that Catholics speak of “Our Holy Father,” and it irks me just the same way. Peer review is certainly better than the lack thereof, but it’s no magic epistemological bullet. Scientists, like anyone else, are subject to the herd instinct, to confirmation bias, and sometimes to something as prosaic as mere laziness. After just a couple years in academia, I have seen enough of the failings of the peer review process in theological studies to be skeptical that it could work as perfectly in scientific studies as many seem to think.
So pardon me for still being something of a skeptic about the reliability of mainstream scientific opinion at any given time. That said, I concede the overall point Conway and Oreskes are trying to make—you can’t refuse to act just because there will always be grounds for skepticism. Mainstream science may be riddled with errors, but when the stakes are high enough, you’ve got to make decisions based on the best resources available to you, and until God deigns to issue an oracle telling us the truth about climate change and the best solution to it, we’d best pay attention to the scientists.
An intriguing passage from the fascinating (and deeply troubling) book Merchants of Doubt, about which much more soon to come:
“Cornucopians hold to a blind faith in technology that isn’t borne out by the historical evidence. We call it ‘technofideism.’
Why do they hold this belief when history shows it to be untrue? Again we turn to Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, where he claimed that “the great advances of civilization, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.” To historians of technology, this would be laughable had it not been written (five years after Sputnik) by one of the most influential economists of the second half of the twentieth century.
The most important technology of the industrial age was the ability to produce parts that were perfectly identical and interchangeable. Blacksmiths and carpenters couldn’t do it; in fact, humans can’t do it routinely in any profession. Only machines can. It was the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department that developed this ability to have machines make parts for other machines, spending nearly fifty years on this effort—an inconceivable period of research for a private corporation in the nineteenth century. Army Ordnance wanted guns that could be repaired easily on or near a battlefield by switching out the parts. Once the basic technology to do this—machine tools, as we know them today—was invented, it spread rapidly through the American economy. Despite efforts to prevent it, it soon spread to Europe and Japan, as well. Markets spread the technology of machine tools throughout the world, but markets did not create it. Centralized government, in the form of the U.S. Army, was the inventor of the modern machine age.
Machine tools are not the exception that proves the rule; there are many other cases of government-financed technology that were commercialized and redounded to the benefit of society. Even while Friedman was writing his soon-to-be-famous book, digital computers were beginning to find uses beyond the U.S. government’s weapons systems, for which they were originally developed. Private enterprise transformed that technology into something that could be used and afforded by the masses, but the U.S. government made it possible in the first place. The U.S. government also played a major role in the development of Silicon Valley. In recent years, something we now all depend on—the Internet, originally ARPANET—was developed as a complex collaboration of universities, government agencies, and industry, funded largely by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was expanded and developed into the Internet by the government support provided by the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, promoted by then-senator Al Gore.
In other cases, new technologies were invented by individual or corporate entrepreneurs, but it was government action or support that transformed them into commercially viable technologies; airplanes and transistors come to mind. (Transistors were explicitly promoted by the U.S. government when they realized that Minutemen missiles needed onboard rather than remote controls, and vacuum tubes would not suffice.) Still other technologies were invented by individuals but were spread through government policy. Electricity was extended beyond the major cities by a federal loan-guarantee program during the Great Depression. The U.S. interstate highway system, which arguably created postwar America as we know it, was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, who recognized the role it could play both in the U.S. economy and in national defense; it became the model for similar highway systems around the globe. And nuclear power, which may help us out of the global warming conundrum, was a by-product of the technology that launched the Cold War: the atomic bomb. The relationship between technology, innovation, and economic and political systems is varied and complex. It cannot be reduced to a simple article of faith about the virtues of a free market.”