Some Thoughts on Science

by Don Boudreaux on May 14, 2007

in Environment, Politics, Regulation, Science

I very much like this recent essay by Bob Higgs.  And here’s one of my favorite parts:

Finally, we need to develop a much keener sense of what a scientist
is qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to talk about.
Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the science of
climatology (though subject to all the intrusions upon pure science I
have already mentioned). They are not qualified to say, however, that
“we must act now” by imposing government “solutions” of some imagined
sort. They are not professionally knowledgeable about what degree of
risk is better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who
bear the risk can make that decision, because it’s a matter of personal
preference, not a matter of science. Climatologists know nothing about
cost/benefit cosiderations; indeed, most mainstream economists
themselves are fundamentally misguided about such matters (adopting,
for example, procedures and assumptions about the aggregation of
individual valuations that lack a sound scientific basis). Climate
scientists are the best qualified people to talk about climate science,
but they have no qualifications to talk about public policy, law, or
individual values, rates of time preference, and degrees of risk
aversion. In talking about desirable government action, they give the
impression that they are either fools or charlatans, but they keep
talking―worst of all, talking to doomsday-seeking
journalists―nevertheless.

In this connection, we might well
bear in mind that the United Nations (and its committees and the
bureaus it oversees) is no more a scientifc organization than the U.S.
Congress (and its committees and the bureaus it oversees). When
decisions and pronouncements come forth from these political
organizations, it makes sense to treat them as essentially political in
origin and purpose.

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Lee May 14, 2007 at 12:51 pm

I had an idea for a thought experiment the other day, which we can all play.

First, we accept that global warming is occurring and is manmade, even as far as accepting some of the more apocalyptic predictions. Then we imagine that a budding young inventor/entrepreneur comes along with a simple solution; with one simple stroke can divert us from our catastrophic path, thus saving the world.

Surely, such a man would be hailed a hero, with his flash of inspiration he has saved the world from incredible hardship, we no longer need put quotas on carbon emmissions, lower our quality of life for the environment, or stunt the third world's economic development.

Now, the expriment is to answer this question: how do you feel about that budding young inventor/entrepreneur?

I'd conjecture that an awful lot of people, especially on the left, including many of these scientists, would be very disappointed to discover a nonpolitical solution to global warming.

David White May 14, 2007 at 1:29 pm

Lee,

No doubt you're right, as millions of "watermelons" — green on the outside, red on the inside — are using the environment for purely political reasons.

As for technology, few appreciate the potential of its exponential advance:

"We are awash in energy (10,000 times more than required to meet all our needs falls on Earth), but we are not very good at capturing it. That will change with the full nanotechnology-based assembly of macro objects at the nano scale, controlled by massively parallel information processes, which will be feasible within twenty years. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple within that time, we'll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meet our energy needs with no use of fossil fuels, using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano-engineered solar panels, and we'll store the energy in highly distributed (and therefore safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing 1 part in 1,000 of our needs, but that percentage is doubling every two years, which means multiplying by 1,000 in twenty years. Almost all the discussions I've seen about energy and its consequences, such as global warming, fail to consider the ability of future nanotechnology-based solutions to solve this problem." — http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0692.html

Biomed Tim May 14, 2007 at 1:45 pm

Well put, and philosopher Jamie Whyte makes a similar point about physicians:

The British Medical Association is always calling for unhealthy substances, such as tobacco and fattening foods, to be banned, regulated or taxed. And they do not restrict their regulatory requests to comestibles. In 2000 they called for the regulation of Calista Flockhart on the ground that watching her on TV causes anorexia nervosa.

But why are doctors such unusually enthusiastic prohibitionists? They possess no special knowledge lacked by the rest of us. Everybody knows that smoking increases the chances of heart and lung disease. Why should a doctor MP be keener to ban smoking than a lawyer MP, a banker MP or a gentleman MP?

I suspect their profession inclines them to overestimate the importance of health. They think that when it comes to a trade-off between health and anything else — be it pleasure, wealth or liberty — health should always win. Doctors confound what is good for us with what is good for our health.

Jeremy May 14, 2007 at 2:14 pm

One might argue that scientists are becoming overly political because the funding of science has also become overly political. Yes, most public grants (e.g. NIH grants) are peer-reviewed, but lets consider the political orientation of those peers. A scientist may stand a better chance of getting funded when the research may have policy implications that the reviewing body finds favorable.

Nacim Bouchtia May 14, 2007 at 4:12 pm

I agree completely with Robert Higgs. However, one must not forget that the exact same applies to economists who speak about climate science.

Python May 14, 2007 at 5:28 pm

Nacim,

I smell a straw man.

Please cite one economist who uses his/her reputation as an economist to take a position on any environmental phenomena. Not the social/economic/political consequences or solutions of an environmental topic, but the actual phenomena.

To clarify, I am not talking about times when an economist says: "Environmental Scientist A believes the world will warm up 3 degrees if X happens, but it is my experience as an economist that X will not happen due to human economic reasons."

On the flip side, it seems that "scientists" are frequently suggesting political cures to environmental problems.

Sanjiv May 14, 2007 at 6:59 pm

Nacim:
Good point. In fact, I would go one step ahead and say that "the exact same applies to X who speak about climate science" where X = set of all people who are not familiar with the science of global warming/climate change.

Python:

"Please cite one economist who uses his/her reputation as an economist to take a position on any environmental phenomena."

There was an earlier post on this blog that linked to a Lindzen podcast. The third or fourth comment on that post was by an economist (his link showed that he was faculty) who said something to the effect that a few issues (about the science of g/w) might be too complicated but most others should be within the reach of a person with a ph.d in economics. There is my first example.

Of course, economists should not be singled out. Think of all the editorials you have read in newspapers (pro or skeptic, doesn't matter) which deal with g/w. How many of those people actually know the science behind what they are writing about?
Holman Jenkins (skeptic) of WSJ comes to mind. He can hold as strong an opinion he wants because there is little at stake for him. Tomorrow, if he is completely wrong on g/w, his professional career will hardly suffer. But a climatologist voicing equally strong opinions has to be doubly careful because his reputation as a scientist is at stake not to mention the risk of becoming the laughing-stock of his field. So, Holman Jenkins would be my second example.
Yes, he is not an economist but when it comes to global warming everybody feels they are experts. Why?
Do newspapers give space to Lindzen asking him to write on the minimum wage issue?
On what grounds then do people like Jenkins get to display their erudition on global warming?

PS: I picked Holman Jenkins in particular only because WSJ is the one paper I read pretty much on a daily basis. It is highly likely there are editorials (that are not skeptic) in other newspapers that will be every bit as inane.

Ray G May 14, 2007 at 7:09 pm

I'm against the general idea that only "qualified" people should be given a voice on matters affecting everyone.

Regardless of where one falls in this debate, I think most rational people would agree that it has become more about politics than anything else. And when politics are the main concern, it is vital that we welcome as many voices as possible.

Sounds noisy, but the alternative is to let only the "experts" opine, and God knows that we have too many "experts" as it is.

Ray G May 14, 2007 at 7:15 pm

San:
"But a climatologist voicing equally strong opinions has to be doubly careful because his reputation as a scientist is at stake not to mention the risk of becoming the laughing-stock of his field."

Actuall there is quite a bit of documented evidence of experts being totally wrong, and them never losing an ounce of professional esteem or public standing.

In fact, many public intellectuals have actually been shown to receive more public and academic notations after they have been shown to be wrong. The problem is that their work or opinions pick up popularity in the mainstream press, and basically never get corrected.

Richard Posner doesn't sound like something you would enjoy reading, but his "Public Intellectuals" lists a number of these kinds of things with ample references.

colson May 14, 2007 at 7:43 pm

Ray G –

funny you should mention that, a certain guy in a wheel chair having to publicly admit he was wrong popped into mind…

Sanjiv May 14, 2007 at 8:02 pm

"Actuall there is quite a bit of documented evidence of experts being totally wrong, and them never losing an ounce of professional esteem or public standing."

And is there quite a bit of documented evidence of eminent nobodies whose stance on a certain issue turned out to be totally wrong?
I guess not but I wonder why.

"The problem is that their work or opinions pick up popularity in the mainstream press, and basically never get corrected."

Exactly! that is my point. The mainstream press is *the* only place they can survive.
If they don't get corrected in the mainstream press, how do you think they get corrected in say, academic journals? That is why the process of peer reviewing (where one expert reviews another expert's work) in journals is so important. Keeps the quacks at bay.

"Richard Posner doesn't sound like something you would enjoy reading"

Huh? never mind.

muirgeo May 14, 2007 at 8:45 pm

I agree completely with Robert Higgs. However, one must not forget that the exact same applies to economists who speak about climate science.

Posted by: Nacim Bouchtia | May 14, 2007 4:12:51 PM

I wanted to second this sentiment. Higgs says that climate scientist do not quailify to speak of the best political response. Likewise economist are qualified to discuss the economy but "they have no qualifications to talk about public policy".

So lets see..who does that leave to speak of the political response to climate change..hummm let's see..not climate scientist..hummm…not economist…not doctors…not zoo keepers or dogcatchers…..well I guess using Higgs logic only politicians are qualified to speak of the political repsonse needed to address climate change.

Careful what you ask for….

Brad May 14, 2007 at 9:06 pm

Well, I think the climate scientists have the right to talk about whatever they want and attach their credentials as climate scientists to their positions. But what they have no right to is an expectation of deference or even respect. Politics is an ugly game, a meat grinder just ripe for pocket protectors and graphing calculators. Policy is a step removed with its veneer of scholarship and seriousness, but is essentially the same. The press is similarly fickle. When it decides that man-made global warming is a hoax (whether it is or not), it will chew these people up and spit them out. Anti-intellectualism is generally seen as a bad thing, but I'm willing to side with that crowd when the self-annointed intellectuals want to take away my SUV. Read Cicerone's and Rowland's account of how they rolled Thatcher and Reagan on CFCs and The Montreal Protocol. These people literally do not think their you know what stinks. Agree with the science or the policy or not… There was a disturbing lack of humility then, an unwillingness to consider the consequences and costs ("Space Shuttle Columbia") of being wrong. So funny how history repeats itself so quickly.

Python May 14, 2007 at 9:06 pm

Sanjiv,

The link that you cite as your example was referring to the blogger's opinion that someone with a Ph.D. in Economics could understand the discussion, not be able to break down the climatological nuances. There is a big difference between understanding something and being able to argue it's position.

Please find a solid example where an economist publicly speaks (in the press, for example) regarding his stance on the science of climate.

Muirgeo,

Economists have a much closer link to public policy than climatologists. A climatologist might be able to tell you that it's going to rain more or get hotter if the inputs are there, but they aren't as qualified to speak about how the rain will affect our lives. And contemplating how things affect our lives is precisely what many economists are trained to do. I really can't see how you lump the 2 together.

The debate here is not so much that people believe the causes of GW. It's what the public policies should be to deal with it. It's clear to anyone that economists have a better handle on the social consequences of cap and trade, for example, than climatologists.

Ray G May 14, 2007 at 10:15 pm

San:
"And is there quite a bit of documented evidence of eminent nobodies whose stance on a certain issue turned out to be totally wrong?"

Yes, but that is irrelevant to the point you were trying to make; that a scientist would be motivated to want to be right for fear of wrecking his professional reputation.

Professional academics and pundits are absolutely not held to their words when they are wrong.

"That is why the process of peer reviewing (where one expert reviews another expert's work) in journals is so important. Keeps the quacks at bay."

Not necessarily. Again, history is replete with examples of professional lemmings following one another over the academic cliff. Who would question an economist who wanted to cite Galbraith in an academic paper? Yet Galbraith is a prime example of a public intellectual who never seemed to lose his academic lustre.

Sorry if you took the comment about Posner wrong, it just didn't sound like you would be a reader of his work. That's all.

Another book you would definitely like and I think it's been talked about around here is "The Black Swan." Taleb is very entertaining when discussing "experts."

Running Dog May 14, 2007 at 10:36 pm

"As for technology, few appreciate the potential of its exponential advance"

Oh you're so right. I would conjecture that once a cap and trade system is implemented, the technologies upon which they are based will become a lot more entrenched. I guess that's a variation of the point made in Lee's excellent post.

Running Dog May 14, 2007 at 10:38 pm

"Likewise economist are qualified to discuss the economy but "they have no qualifications to talk about public policy"."

May I presume that this statement would apply even to Karl Marx?

Sanjiv May 14, 2007 at 10:41 pm

Python:

Ross Mckitrick.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/
16948233/site/newsweek/

He is clearly taking a stance in this article.

Sanjiv May 14, 2007 at 11:16 pm

"Professional academics and pundits are absolutely not held to their words when they are wrong."

But when are they wrong? certainly not when they are publishing their "wrong" paper because they don't know at that instant that they are wrong. If they did, they would correct it themselves. Once the "wrong" stuff is out there, how does it get corrected at all? if it does, it is because other experts spot the errors that the original authors missed. So, future papers cannot cite the original paper as it has been discredited (scientifically). If this is not accountability, what is?
Lack of accountability means I publish nonsense (knowingly or unknowingly) without ever having to worry about being exposed.
Clearly, that is not the case.

muirgeo May 15, 2007 at 2:14 am

The bottom line is what Higgs is talking about is kind of moot. The governing body (the IPCC) for climate change has 4 major volumes to its reports. The Scientific Basis, Impacts, Mitigation and a synthesis report. These involve many experts including engineers, environmental experts, business experts, economist policy experts ect…..

http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg3/452.htm

Tim May 15, 2007 at 5:27 am

The science of climate change is a debate that is yet to be resolved, if it ever is to be resolved. There is a parallel here to the scientific debate as to "what killed the dinosaurs."

The dinosaur debate however has no public policy implications. And the nature of climate change is such that "a wait and see" position on the scientific debate also has costs. If we were to embark on a CO2 abatement program we can always stop it if the GW skeptics are proven correct. If we continue with "business as usual" and if the GW alarmists are proven correct, then the "late start, catch up" costs could be significant. You don't have to accept the ultra-restrictive implications of the "precautionary principle" to be merely prudent.

Public policy is often made over issues where the expert opinion is divided and/or poor. Almost all foreign policy decisions fall into this class.

Higgs is correct to highlight weaknesses in the peer review and scientific processes, flawed science is still better than no science. Decision making based on uncertain or biased information has risks, but this situation is not uncommon in the public policy arena. We can't avoid risks and we still need expert advice.

colson May 15, 2007 at 10:00 am

Sanjiv -

McKitrick does take a stance on the subject because he is one of the economists who have called many climatologists to task on the methods and statistics they are using.

Furthermore McKitrick does teach environmental economics so I would think, to a degree, that he would have some knowledge in the area to make a conlcusion that essentially states – let the opposing view be heard. Does he have some motive? Maybe, he's written a book about the data and statistics used in many of the 'leading' studies (mainly the Mann tree-ring study and hockey stick graphs). But is publishing a book on data and statistics somehow biased? I doubt it. McKintrick is still very much adhering to the scientific process – testing the claims not seeking legislation or public policy.

Sam Grove May 15, 2007 at 2:21 pm

Economists do have a qualification for addressing climate science, which is ability in statistics. Climate trends are all about statistics. I would venture that economists can match climate scientists in this area.

Brad May 15, 2007 at 4:01 pm

Tim, You make a great argument for why agnostics and atheists should go to church. However, to those stakeholders, the argument is completely unconvincing.

The problem with "doing something to hedge our bets" on GW is that everything that is on the table will raise the cost of energy. Energy is what makes continuing increases in productivity possible because it can be converted to automated production. Additionally, it powers the things that make life more interesting, like travel, night life, cooking, etc. Now, if you'd like to put the idea of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere rather than just capping what goes in, you might find skeptics willing to give that a go. But "we can fix it" i against the environmentalist religion, so don't hold your breath…

K May 16, 2007 at 4:53 pm

Fascinating. So many threads re. reputations, reviews, policy, who should speak and about what.

There is an arc to matters such as this AGW situation. And that arc sometimes covers centuries.

The AGW matter is likely to be decided within the next decade – primarily by better measurements* and experience**. There is no reason to panic or issue absolutist manifestos; those insisting we have only five years or five months or five minutes to adopt their solution are simply silly.

An enormous amount of effort is now being made to gather higher quality data. In my opinion the best will come from satellites monitoring both the Earth itself and radiation from and into space. I doubt that past records and reconstructions of past climate can resolve this debate – they just aren't good enough and every single one can be reasonably quarreled about.

**experience is the trump. If the climate does not grow warmer then no theory or skill of scientists will warm it. Conversely, if warming persists, then complete micro regulation of all economic activity cannot be avoided.

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