Thursday, December 28, 2006

Science and Political Correctness

One of the reasons why I read blogs such John Quiggin's on one side, Tim Blair's on the other, is that they give me very different perspectives on similar topics.

There has been a lot of debate about the Stern Report on climate change. Initially the report swept all before it, then doubts were raised about the assumptions built into the report. Here John Quiggin who is generally sympathetic but not uncritical of Stern's arguments makes the point that the single most critical assumption in the report is the discount rate used.

Just to explain.

With something like climate change, we are dealing with future affects. If we are to reduce these, we need to spend money now. In doing so, we trade off future reduced costs associated with climate change (the benefits) for costs now (the spend required to reduce future costs). So we have a stream of costs and benefits (reduced costs) spread over time.

Now a dollar in hand today is worth more than a dollar in the future. You can test this quite simply. If I give you a choice between getting, say, $800 now and $1,000 in fifteen year's time you may well opt for the $800 now. The discount rate is the rate required to bring the future and present amount into balance so that you are neutral between the two.

Now what all this means in the case of Stern is that he used a low discount rate, essentially arguing that present generations need to take the needs of future generations into account. As you increase the discount rate, the economic benefits of present actions fall away until ultimately the equation becomes negative. So those who attack Stern focus on the discount rate.

My point in all this is that before you can either attack or defend Stern's report, you have to look at the assumptions used.

On the other side of the ledger, Tim Blair is a climate change sceptic. This means that he will dig up material to support his position. But just because he is a sceptic does not of itself invalidate the material he presents.

Now here Tim presents a story on the concerns of oceanographer and climatologist Kevin Vranes on aspects of the climate change debate. Tim puts his own slant on the Vrane's views, but also provides a link to Vrane's post on a science blog.

The post is worth reading. For the moment I simply note that one of Vrane's concerns is, in my words, the way in which climate change has become so entrenched as a dominant popular view that scientists who want to express or discuss alternative views on issues such as the speed of the process fear to do so.

For what it's worth, my own view on climate change is that the growth in "green house" gases in the atmosphere is causing longer term climatic change and that's a problem that worries me. However, I also feel that the exact scale and direction of the process is still uncertain, that individual events such as the current drought in South East Australia probably have little to do with climate change.

I make this point only so that you know my own opinion on the climate change issue. My interest in this post is broader, the way in which dominant paradigms become so politically correct that they distort discussion.

Many years ago I read Thomas Kuhn's Scientific Revolution.

Kuhn, who brought the word paradigm itself into prominence, argued that major scientific change occurred via a stepped process. Looking at the history of science, he suggested that the dominant scientific view - the dominant paradigm - held the high ground, squeezing alternative views out.

Over time, evidence accumulated that could not be explained by the dominant paradigm. Initially, this was rejected, excluded because it did not fit with the prevailing view. Then at a critical shift point the excluded evidence suddenly reached critical mass. The old paradigm was suddenly swept away, replaced by a new dominant view.

I found Kuhn's arguments persuasive, and indeed if you look at my writing on my blogs you will see his influence in things like my discussion of the 1970s as a critical shift decade, my use of the words a 'a far country' to describe the pre 1970s world, my attempt to trace the fall of previously dominant Australian social, cultural and historical paradigms, my very use of the word paradigm itself.

The problem with revolutions is that in sweeping away the past, they sweep away good with bad, stopping discussion on alternative views. Now here in science today there is a particular problem, one that makes me very cautious sometimes about accepting so called scientific evidence. That problem lies in the nature of the interface between science, industry and government.

Kuhn wrote in and of a world in which science was a unique domain. Even when science itself was emerging from natural philosophy, it was an activity that could be thought of as the domain of those with a particular interest in the subject matter.

There have always been interfaces between science and the broader human world. That world with its changing interests and views has always affected scientific study. Nevertheless, when Kuhn spoke of scientific revolutions his focus was on science and scientists, on the way that the dominant paradigm and its supporters attempted to maintain their position until finally swept away.

Today, the position is a little different.

Technology has risen to rival science. Within science, the focus is on applied science. Modern science requires money, and that comes from government and industry. Patents are replacing papers as a publish or perish measure, itself a new concept. Science is seen as a tool providing results for use by government or industry. All this affects scientific thought.

Take climate change as an example. Whole scientific areas such as climatology or oceanography now depend significantly on climate change related funding. The results from that research are built into public policy and popular debate. Popular opinion, Government policy, the views and interests of individual scientists have come together to establish climate change as a new dominant paradigm.

This is not necessarily wrong, but it becomes very dangerous if, as Vrane suggests, it is squeezing out alternative views and discussions within the scientific community itself.

This problem is not in fact new, but is a feature of the late 19th and twentieth century, the period when government and industry throughout the world became actively involved in science.

We can see the process clearly in Nazi Germany. There the Nazi's conscripted science to the services of State and Party to the detriment of science and scientists.

We can see the same process in Australia, if in a more benign fashion.

I grew up in the 1950s. Dairy products were seen as good for you. Then, suddenly, we were told that dairy products were bad for you in a sustained campaign that ran for years. This campaign and to a degree the associated scientific research were organised by the margarine industry trying to break quota limitations on margarine production protecting the dairy industry. Elements of the campaign were picked up be Governments, doctors and health experts. Finally, sales of diary products went into sharp decline.

The problem with all this is that the case as presented and as finally accepted was flawed. We now know that the margarine produced at the time and sold as a health product had its own health problems. The decline in calcium intake flowing from the decline in the consumption of dairy products created bone problems. Today, dairy is back.

Something similar happened with red meat.

Even where the science as presented may have been right, there were sometimes unexpected side effects.

Goitre, the swelling of the thyroid gland, was a major Australian problem because of iodine deficiency. This was solved through iodised salt. The campaign to reduce salt in the diet was successful but, in combination with fashion changes towards the type of salt used, reduced iodine intake. Goitre, previously the domain of poor countries, is back.

Now, in perhaps the greatest irony of all, the basic diet of the 1950s as promoted by nutritionists since at least the 1930s is itself back. This provided for three meals a day, small portions, a balance between food groups, limited snacks between meals, a piece of fruit a day and so on.

I stand to be corrected, but it seems to me that a family that ignored all the health and diet discussions over the last fifty years and just on kept on eating the diet as recommended in the 1950s would have been better off in health terms.

So what is the ordinary person to do in all this?

To some degree, we all have to accept the advice of specialists. The only thing that I can suggest is to exercise a degree of caution in accepting things presented by technology, science, and especially Government and industry as infallible truths. Far too often they are not.


Lexcen said...

Very good points Jim, I agree with everything you say. To add my 2cents worth, nobody doubts that climate change is happening, and nobody doubts the greenhouse effect is occurring. The question is this, to what extent is the greenhouse effect directly responsible for climate change?

Anonymous said...

I find Tim Blair extraordinarily irritating on this (or should I say I find him insufferable on most things?), but otherwise my position is similar to yours, Jim.

Bruce had rather a good post on this topic early in December.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks Lexcen and Neil.

Neil, I had seen Bruce's post, did not fully understand aome of it. This time I followed the links through, which helped. I found the comments of van Storch especially interesting - in part because they extended some points that I made.