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Saturday, December 12, 2009

On science and government

I have just re-read C.P. Snow's Harvard lectures from 1961 titled "Science and Government." Essentially the lectures recall the relationship between science and government in Britain in the run-up and during World War II. Tizard, who favored pursuing radar in the late 1930s, happened to be in favor with the current British administration and arguably helped in securing victory in the Battle of Britain. After Churchill was elected Prime Minister, Tizard was out and in came Lindemann, Churchill's favorite scientist. With Lindemann came a lot of crazy ideas of how to prosecute the ward that had very little scientific/statistical support but had lots of political support from the top - in turn making it difficult, if not impossible, for other scientists to question the suggested policies. Fortunately, Lindemann's power ended at the water's edge and the U.S. scientists were able to pursue other avenues of inquiry.

Snow's lectures seem germane in today's environment. In my field of economic science there are those economists with those pet theories and policy prescriptions that have favor with the administration and the party in control of the Congress. There are other economists who hold favor with the minority party and, upon the minority becoming the majority, would stand to be instrumental in affecting national policy. There are, of course, a lot of economists who are partial to less state intervention in the markets and those economists tend to stay in think tanks or in academia (quietly) and do not generally find favor with either statist party.

It is somewhat of a knock against economics that as a science we have very little settled ground in the area of macroeconomics. Notwithstanding the behavioralist economists, there is relatively little debate about how individuals go about trying to make decisions. However at the macro level there is plenty of debate about how best to handle a financial crisis, how best to "jump start" an economy, how best to allocate resources, and there are many macroeconomists that are partial to, say, Keynesian policies, others who are partial to Friedman policies, and others who might lean toward Hayek and von Mises (Austrian) policies. In the end, the politicians are able to take their favored choices from the buffet of theory and craft their policy in the ways that basically assure themselves re-election without having to deal with the hard empirical facts that what they are trying to do might not have worked in the past and probably aren't working in the present. In the end, the government and the (economic) science corrupt each other in the formulation of national policy with the collateral damage being the average guy/household.

The potential that the global warming debate/science might have also been corrupted by government funding, government influence, and the hopes of securing government favor is even more troubling because, rather than just hoping to influence the policy of one or a few countries, the scientists allegedly involved were/are trying to influence global policy, policy that ultimately would impact the life of every man, woman, child, and goat on the planet and would entail the redistribution of billions if not trillions of dollars over the short term.

Because of this, the concern that the scientists have given the politicians the cover they need to implement their statist agenda should not be glossed over as mere skepticism, conspiracy theory, or "junk science." There is every reason to be concerned that when Bush was termed the "anti-science president" by those who wanted to push an agenda based upon differing opinions, what these people were really hinting at was that their science supported their politics and their politics supported their science and that, once they were the favored camp their activist agenda would be pursued vigorously. And indeed, it seems that they have started down that path.

This rant/buildup leads me to notice a few choice words from C.P. Snow's lectures concerning scientists and government:
It is even clearer, in my mind at least, that there is a kind of scientist to whom we ought not to give any power of choice at all. We have seen some examples of how judgments were distorted, enough to specify some of the people to fight shy of. Various kinds of fear distort scientific judgment, just as they do other judgments; but, most of all, the self-deceiving factor seems to be a set of euphorias. The euphoria of gadgets; the euphoria of secrecy. They are usually, but not invariably, combined. They are the origin of 90 per-cent of ill-judged scientific choices. Any scientist who is prone to these euphorias ought to be kept out of government decisions or choice-making, at almost any cost. It doesn't matter how good he is at his stuff. It doesn't matter if the gadgets are efficacious, like the atomic bomb, or silly, like Lindemann's parachute mines for dropping on airscrews. It doesn't matter how confident he is; in fact, if he is confident because of the euphoria of gadgets, he is doubly dangerous.

The point is anyone who is drunk with gadgets is a menace. Any choice he makes - particularly if it involves comparison with other countries - is much more likely to be wrong than right. The higher he climbs, the more he is going to mislead his own country.


In the context of global warming/climate change science, the gadget is the model and the data (as one unit) that the scientists used to "prove" their story. Their core samples and their tree-ring data, all very clever proxies for what was happening in a world without human measurement, turned out to be gadgets. The secrecy that surrounded the gadget made it all the more alluring for some scientists, politicians, and charlatans. Now it is time for the gadget to be investigated and, to the extent possible, replicated. How that plays out over the next months and years will prove interesting to the academics. What is more important in the short run is whether the politicians who seek more control over individual lives will take the gadget and run regardless of the possible problems associated with the gadget.

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Comments:
Andrew Gelman suggests:
we should start characterizing people by a single number, as follows. What probability do you assign to the following statement: increasing the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration above 800 ppm will change the global average surface temperature by more than 2.5 degrees C (4.5 F)? This would imply a climate sensitivity somewhat below the extreme low end of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is credible.
since that's the extreme low end, I would say there's probably a 90-95 percent chance that climate change is of at least that order of magnitude. But people who say 99 or higher are probably "out there." People who say 99.99 pecent are kooks, and so are people who say 1 percent or less. 10 percent might at least begin tobe a reasonable level of skepticism. What's your number?
 
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