Electile Dysfunction: Bungling Science pt. 1

It’s ironic, really. America has been the science and technology innovation engine of the world since the days of Thomas Edison, being joined in supremacy by Japan by the last decade of the 20th century. And yet, despite an amazingly vibrant tech industry (whose growth remains fairly unhindered despite the dot com crash and the current credit crunch), Americans have a very strange relationship with science. Most Americans like to pretend we’re down with science, but the truth is…well, it’s a little more complicated.

William James hit a lot closer to the truth when he spotted that Americans are a fundamentally religious bunch. We don’t usually like to think of ourselves that way – even most of us who are religious in a traditional sense tend to pride ourselves on being independent, pragmatic thinkers. We like science – we really do – but most of us don’t really know what science is, and this is where we get into trouble. Even our scientists often mistake ideology for science.

Looking at things through a scientific lens (that is, a perspective that is empirically grounded), one would expect political philosophy among scientfically-minded folk to change as the experience of history and the accumulation of knowldege schools us in the ways of the world. That doesn’t mean that all political opnion should converge on a common conclusion: It’s quite possible, through differences in priority order, for clear-thinking people to disagree on what particular actions should follow from a given and agreed-upon body of knowledge (and that kind of disagreement is healthy). However, this isn’t what happens in today’s America.

Douglas Adams nailed the way politically-minded folk tend to think in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, where a main character talks about a computer program that helps people make decisions. It doesn’t work forward from problem to solution, instead it allows the user to chose his desired solution (for example, owning a Porche when he can’t afford the payments) and then work backwards to the present situation, creating a bulletproof logical scenario that nobody can shoot down (not even the financing director at the Porche dealership). This is not goal-oriented thinking and planning, it’s maturbatory self-justification, and it’s pretty much de rigeur politics. Perhaps that’s just human nature – but here’s where it gets tragic and irritating.

The 21st century has seen the cementing of a very strange dynamic in American politics, whereby each side of the political discussion picks its own facts and tries to ignore the rest.

For example, if you don’t like second-hand smoke you’ve got a custom-made political movement already on your side. All you have to do to fight alongside them is pretend that studies showing an actual elevated disease risk through continued exposure over a long period of time actually mean that anyone anywhere who smells second-hand smoke is being poisoned. It’s really easy, all you have to do is ignore the single most basic law of biochemistry: The dosage makes the poison.

The same kind of dynamic goes for nuclear power, or carbon dioxide, or private property rights, or environmental regulation, or evolutionary theory, or lowering the drinking age. You can pick a side, and find a custom made political machine ready to spin reality in the direction you’re already sympathetic to.

This election year is a fun exercise in spotting this kind of thing, because we have one candidate (Obama) who’s deliberately positioning himself as the pro-science guy, in opposition to the Bush administration and the McCain candidacy. He supports NASA. He supports stem cells. He’s on record saying that he doesn’t think blastocysts are human beings. He even (in opposition to major blocks of his own party) supports Nuclear power. He positions himself as a pragmatic man who intends to implement real-world solutions, over/against the fuzzy thinking of his opponent.

On the other hand, we have another candidate (McCain), who has picked a running mate specifically to appeal to the rural romantic consitutency of the country. He talks about freedom and saving the economy, and he’s running with someone who speaks in tongues, thinks humanity begins at conception, and thinks the Earth was created in six days not-too-long-ago.

On the face of it, it seems like a pretty clear choice for anyone who cares about science. On one hand you have a guy who cares about going to Mars – on the other hand you have a guy who thinks a planetarium projector is an “overpriced overhead projector” akin to a futuristic SharpVision.

I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. The curious political alignment of the early 21st century has produced an environment where each party has become very good at spotting pseudoscience and antiscience bullshit in the other party, but can’t smell it in their own even when it’s shoved up their nose. Here are two examples, one from each party’s list of pet issues, to illustrate my point.

Democrats, for example, tend to assume a straight-line cause-and-effect relationship between the scientific fact “CO2 is a greenhouse gas, whose concentrations are rising rapidly, and this drove most of the climate change in the 20th century” and the policy conclusion “we must conserve energy in order to prevent as much damage to the bioshpere as possible.” But no such obvious relationship exists. You can make a case for such a relationship, but in order to do it you have to ignore another whole field of science: economics.

Without getting too technical, economics is the study of the monetary, social, and political systems that result from human interaction in a given set of conditions. As with most social sciences it’s a contingent and contextual field, but the thing that sets it apart from most other “soft” sciences is its quantifiability. Economic phenomena can be measured, and based on the measurements falsifiable predictions can be made, and over time, a more coherent picture of how the economic world works has been built from earlier theories and ideologies that have been subjected to testing in real-world laboratories.

Energy conservation is a fun economic study, because there’s one thing that energy conservation always results in: net energy usage increases. That’s because as demand for energy for a particular application falls, due to more efficient technologies, the money and resources previously devoted to that task get freed up. When that happens, any or all of three things happens: money previously spent on a small number of energy-intensive activities gets spent on a larger number of less energy-intensive activitie. 2) task which used to be too expensive for a segment of the populationn (because they couldn’t afford the energy costs) become accessible, due to increases in efficiency and consequent lower costs of operation. 3) a short-term collective decline in demand results in a short term drop in energy prices, as supply exceeds demand on the market. Any of these three eventualities leads to a net increase in energy usage – all three operating together leads to large net increases in energy usage, even while the per-application energy usage and costs fall through the floor. If you’re an environmentally conscious person who wants to reduce greenhouse emmissions and pollution, you’re not going to achieve your goal through mandating more efficient technologies, or promoting a cap-and-trade carbon scheme, or encouraging energy conservation among the hoi polloi. Those measures will instead reliably lead to higher and higher levels of net energy consumption – both per capita and in aggregate.

Continued in Part 2

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