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Science, narrative and heresy

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 November 2010

Recent blog discussions have starkly highlighted the different values and priorities for scientists, bloggers and (some parts) of the mainstream media.

For working scientists, the priority in any discussion about science should be accuracy. Methods, results, and interpretations must be clear, logically connected and replicable by others. For people who haven’t experienced a joint editing effort on a scientific paper, it might surprise them to see the strength with which seemingly minor word choices are argued over. This process is particularly stark in short format papers written for Science and Nature, (and increasingly for press releases), where every word is at a premium. For many scientists then, the first thing they look for in a colleagues more ‘popular’ offerings is whether the science is described clearly and correctly. Of course, this is often not the same as judging whether it succeeds in improving popular understanding.

Indeed, the quality of the science is almost always how a popular piece is judged by scientists, regardless of the final conclusion the author comes to. For instance, my review of Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers was very critical, because his conception of how the science worked was poor, regardless of the fact that his conclusions are aligned to my own in many respects. The furor over the Soon and Balinuas paper in 2003, was much less about their conclusions, than about the nonsensical manner in which they had arrived at them (combined with disgust at the way it was publicised and promoted). Our multiple criticisms of Henrik Svensmark have focused far more on the spin and illogic of his claims concerning the impact of cosmic rays on climate than it is on the viability of the basic mechanism (which remains to tested).

The underlying principle is that proposed by Daniel Moynihan, that people might be entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

The media on the other hand is mostly fascinated by the strength of the narrative. The enduring ‘heretic’ meme – the plucky iconoclastic individual whose ideas are being repressed by the establishment – is never very far below the surface in almost all high-impact scientific profiles, for instance, Freeman Dyson’s NY Times magazine piece last year. To be sure this is a powerful archetype even in how scientists see themselves (shades of Galilean hero-worship), and so it is no surprise that scientists play up to this image on a regular basis. Craig Venter is someone who very successfully does this, possibly with some justification (though YMMV). However, this image is portrayed far more widely than it is valid. Svensmark, for instance, has gone out of his way to mention that he works in a basement on a shoestring budget, having to work weekends and holidays (the horror!) to pursue his ideas. For such people any criticism is seen as the establishment reaction to the (supposedly revolutionary) consequences of their ideas. This of course would be the case for true revolutionaries, but it is a very common attitude among the merely mistaken.

It is not difficult to see the attraction in being seen as the iconoclast outside the mainstream in a scientific field that has been so polticized. There is a ready audience of misfits and partisans happy to cheer any supposed defection from the ‘consensus’, and there are journalists and editors who, in their desire to have ‘balance’, relish voices that they can juxtapose against the mainstream without dealing with crackpots. Witness the short-lived excitement a couple of years ago of the so-called ‘non-skeptic heretics‘, such as Roger Pielke Jr., championed in the New York Times. In truth, there is very little that is ‘heretical’ in any of these voices. Only someone with no experience with the way science is actually done — try going to an AGU meeting for example — would think that scientists being upfront about uncertainty and following the data where it leads is any kind of radical notion. The self-declared heretics do get criticised a lot, but not generally because of the revolutionary nature of their ideas, but rather because they often indulge in sloppy thinking or are far too quick to allege misconduct against scientists (or the IPCC) without justification, perhaps in order to bolster their outsider status. That does not go down well, but to conflate ‘mainstream’ expressions of distaste with this sort of behavior with the belief that the actual ideas of ‘heretics’ (about policy or uncertainty) are in some way special or threatening, is to confuse the box with the cereal.

There are a couple of tell-tale signs of this ‘Potemkin heresy’ that mark it out as not quite kosher. First, for the heretic who has a coherent alternative to the orthodoxy, it is very unlikely that this alternative will be in line with the thoughts of all the other outsiders. True heresy is actually very lonely. If alternatively, the ‘heresy’ consists of thinking that every idea that pops up is worthy of serious consideration, they are simply throwing away the concept of science as a filter that can actually take us closer to reality. If every idea must now and forever, be considered anew whenever someone brings it up, no progress is possible at all. Science works because it can use observations from the real world to move on from unsupported or disproven ideas. All ideas are in principle challengeable, but in practice, unless there is new information, old issues get resolved and put aside. The seriousness of a new ‘heresy’ then, can be measured in how much shrift is given to the crackpots. As Sagan said, one should always keep an open mind, but not one that is so open that your brains drop out.

The second sign that all is not well is in how well the supposed heretic understands why they are being criticised. Usually this is stated up-front by the critics – for instance, I have criticised Judy Curry for not knowing enough about what she has chosen to talk about, for not thinking clearly about the claims she has made with respect to the IPCC, and for flinging serious accusations at other scientists without just cause. Similarly, we have criticised Roger Pielke Jr. for frequently misrepresenting scientists (including me) and falsely accusing them of plagiarism, theft and totalitarianism. That both interpret these critiques as a disguised attack on their values, policies or scientific ideas would be funny if they were not so earnest. (For reference, we are just not that subtle).

Unfortunately, the narrative of the heretic is self-reinforcing. Once a scientist starts to perceive criticism as an attack on their values/ideas rather than embracing it in order to improve (or abandon) an approach, it is far more likely that they will in fact escalate the personalisation of the debate, leading to still further criticism of their conduct, which will be interpreted as a further attack on their values etc. This generally leads to increasing frustration and marginalisation, combined quite often with increasing media attention, at least temporarily. It very rarely leads to any improvement in public understanding.

The fact remains that science is hugely open to new thinking and new approaches. Indeed, it thrives on novelty. New data from new platforms, new calculations enabled by the increases in computing power and new analyses of the ever-increasing amount of observed data, each have the continual potential to challenge previously held ideas – if that can be demonstrated logically and with evidence to back it up. A recent example of a potentially dramatic new finding was the Haigh et al paper on solar forcing. If true, it would turn almost all work on solar effects on climate on its head, and they had no obvious problem publishing in Nature. This idea of knowledge sitting on a knife edge ready to flip whenever some new observation or insight arrives, is the reason why science is so exciting and fascinating. That is the reason why science deserves to be the story, and why journalists should be continuously searching for the ‘front page’ thought that will allow this story to be told to a wide audience. But all too often the real story is neglected in favour of a familiar well-worn, but inappropriate, trope.

It is clear that scientists’ obsession with clear thinking over narrative handicaps our attempts to communicate the seriousness of the climate change challenge. But since the media will continue to favor compelling narratives over substance, that is the method by which this debate will be fought.

542 Responses to “Science, narrative and heresy”

  1. 201

    Got a new article out, this one reviewing “Keeping Our Cool,” by Dr. Andrew Weaver, of U. Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He’s a multiple AR lead author, and one of the few to sue denialists for lying about his views. (Suit pending in the Canadian courts.) An interesting writer & book. It’s here:

  2. 202
    Snapple says:

    There is an exciting news in the LA Times about a coalition of climate scientists who are going to take on the denialists. John Abraham has even got a “‘Climate Rapid Response Team,’ which so far has more than three dozen leading scientists to defend the consensus on global warming in the scientific community.”

    The article says:

    “On Monday, the American Geophysical Union, the country’s largest association of climate scientists, plans to announce that 700 climate scientists have agreed to speak out as experts on questions about global warming and the role of man-made air pollution.”

    It’s great that our scientists are fighting for scientific truth and the future of our people.
    They remind me of the brave scientists who spoke up for the truth in the USSR.

    Climategate made me see that the politicians and the fossil-fuel companies were lying to me.
    It really opened my eyes.,0,545056.story

  3. 203
    Brian Dodge says:

    “Further, warming due to elevated GHG levels would be expected to strengthen the circulation as more heat is gained in equatorial regions than at the poles. ” Tim Joslin — 4 November 2010 @ 11:18 AM

    ” A very important secondary elevation of the effect will be produced in those places that alter their albedo by the extension or regression of the snow-covering, and this secondary effect will probably remove the maximum effect from lower parallels to the neighbourhood of the poles[12].” Svante Arrhenius “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground”, Philosophical Magazine 41, 237-276 (1896), reprinted at

    “Rises in surface air temperature (SAT) in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are expected to be amplified in northern high latitudes, with warming most pronounced over the Arctic Ocean owing to the loss of sea ice.”
    “Essentially all global climate models predict Arctic amplification, and most agree that SAT changes will be especially large over the Arctic Ocean during autumn and early winter owing to sea ice retreat and thinning.”

    One might want to consider the possibility that Tim’s source, who got polar amplification exactly ass backwards, might not know what they are talking about or are lying, or both.

  4. 204

    Walter #181 — go back and peruse my content. I would give better odds of a slightly confused person looking for assurance that the far right anti-science bunch are fruit loops would take comfort from the content than the opposite. If someone is so confused that after reading my content they are suckered by Heartland et al. I doubt I can make much difference. In any case, thanks for the heads-up. I get to see different ads in my part of the world.

  5. 205
    Snapple says:

    THE LA Times has clarified that Dr. John Abraham’s effort is separate from the Geophysical Association’s.,0,545056.story

    Here is the AGU site:

    I wish some scientists would run for the Senate instead of people who just want handouts from corporations.

    Nobody voted for Koch and we can’t vote them out, but those kinds of people seem to be ruling us because they buy the politicians.

  6. 206
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I’m afraid you won’t see many scientists running for public office any time soon. Frankly, unless you can get the backing of some special interest, trying to run these days is probably pointless. What is more, scientists would have trouble securing support from the crucial idiot vote, which seems to dominate the election cycle more and more.

  7. 207
    Michael K says:

    Scientists… are… after a fashion, the high-priests of rationality, something that’s close to a religion, and became the new orthodoxy in the new, and modern world that was created during the blossoming we call the Enlightenment.

    However, I argue that things are changing now. The “rational concensus” is breaking down, and the “religion of science” is being challenged. There’s a cultural shift in the air.

    This is, of course, a massively complex subject and I’m only attempting to scratch the surface, and I’m intentionally simplifying. Touching on historical and social mega-trends is notoriously difficult and fraught with danger and absurdities, not to mention mistakes, and the chance that one is getting everything completely wrong!

    But I do think there is another “layer” of change that is pushing at the borders of the “rational consensus” and that’s the dire economic situation the advanced, western nations find themselves mired in, especially the Great Motor, the United States.

    I believe the US risks entering a new political and economic paradigm, which actually pushes neo-superstition forward as an alternative to old-school rationality/science, as the grand narative for our civilization. Wow! That sounds pretty, weired. Sorry. I don’t know how else to say it.

    All is not lost, but I believe there is a struggle going on in society which is of real, historic, importance. Not so much a clash of civilizations, but a clash of rationalities, or should that be faiths?

    Put simply we’re appear to be entering a new economic paradigm, a new, different form of “Capitalism” which I call “neo-fuedalism.” And fuedalism was a form of society where, for many and complex reasons, superstition, faith, and a strong belief in the supernatural, and witchcraft, were core beliefs for most people, core explanations about how the world, the visible and invisible… worked.

    So, one can observe two, twin, strands of cultural change moving throughout society, sometimes in parallel, sometimes one in front of the other, one working primarily on the “material” level; the economy and how it’s structured; the other on the “cultural” level; core concepts of who we are and how the world works. Both “levels” interract with one another in myriad ways too complex to address here and now.

    Now, this could all be complete rubbish, and we are not in any kind of cultural flux period, and our civilizaiton is progressing along just fine and our technology is anything but infused with the corrupting influence of “witchcraft.”

    The current crisis, both economic and political, let’s leave the environment aside, is only a temporary hickup, and soon, magically we’ll all be back on the high road towards ever greater wealth, prosperity, full-employment… and hapiness for all.

  8. 208
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Michael K.,
    It is a mistake to call science a “religion” be it of rationality or anything else. Religion has dogma. Science has evidence. Religion has faith. Science has nothing of the sort. Religion promises certainty. Science delivers reliable understanding.

    Not every belief system is a religion.

  9. 209
    Susan Anderson says:

    Bear in mind that whatever argument you make, if it’s any good in a day or three it will be turned upside down and made to sound like its opposite.

    I remember when this happened with “true believers” a few years back, but have since made a study. If, to be egotistical, I make a good point, I can be sure to find its distorted mirror within hours.

    darn it, can’t resist this nonsense: captca: the ruction

  10. 210
    Emily Gertz says:

    Speaking as a journalist, let me clarify something: It’s not merely that we’re “mostly fascinated by the strength of the narrative.” It’s our *job* to find and create strong narratives — that is, to tell a good non-fiction story.

    For most journalists, the main flow — the strongest narrative — of the AGW story lies in the intersections of the scientific facts with conditions on the ground, and with society and politics.

    Now, you can say that journalists and assigning editors are making poor story choices, when they highlight figures like Curry and Dyson. Framing them as hero-scientist “heretics” to some sort of orthodoxy implies that this orthodoxy will eventually be debunked, a la Galileo vs. the Church. These editorial choices mislead the public, and could be called bad journalism however well-reported and written, because they fail to inform the public of what it needs to know most urgently, which might fall more along these lines:

    “Will AGW-driven climate conditions get worse, or will they get a lot worse?”

    “Did walrus pups die in Alaska this year because of the low sea ice, and what does that mean for the species?”

    “Why do politicians who mislead the public on global warming continue to command attention? Who’s backing them, and for how much?”

    “What might be the most effective steps to cut GHG emissions? How much will they cost us and save us, and in what order should we take them?”

    So, please don’t shoot the messenger for looking for strong stories. That’s our job. But the stories we choose to tell, and how well and accurately we tell them? Fire away.

  11. 211
    Alex Katarsis says:

    I’m the founder of a new religion. We worship YAD06. Sun worshipping is so last century.

  12. 212
    David Griffiths says:

    Michael K (180, 207):

    Absolutely agree that scientific / enlightenment values are under attack.

    An excellent book about this: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (Francis Wheen, 2004).

    Another excellent book which throws some light on the reasons why humans are capable of such irrational behaviour: The Decisive Moment (Jonah Lehrer, 2009).

  13. 213
    Ray Ladbury says:

    The problem is not looking for narrative. The problem is emphasizing a fictional narrative. Why mention paricle theorist Freeman Dyson in a story about climate science at all? Why mention Judy Curry, whose output–even before she “went emeritus”–is at best mediocre?

    And why ignore the epic quest of climate science itself–trying and succeding to understand a complicated system? There is plenty of meat for a story there, and yet we get nothing but manufactured conflicts and at best the discovery du jour.

    So, after the messenger gets the message wrong time and time again, it becomes hard to ignore the possibility the the messenger may have a recto-cranial inversion.

  14. 214

    Re #170, Hank Roberts: Debate isn’t science.

    : a contention by words or arguments: as
    a : the formal discussion of a motion before a deliberative body according to the rules of parliamentary procedure
    b : a regulated discussion of a proposition between two matched sides

    I don’t have a collegiate dictionary here in Basel but the Webster online does seem to hold up the contention.

    Debate revolves around words arguments and procedures whereas science revolves around knowing, knowledge, systematized, general laws, testing, scientific method, systems and methods.

    These seem to be two very different categories. Now of course you can debate the science, which brings us right back to our topic of “Science, narrative and heresy”.

    Economics: Balancing Economies
    The Leading Edge: The Cuccinelli ‘Witch Hunt\

    Fee & Dividend: Learn the IssueSign the Petition
    A Climate Minute: Natural CycleGreenhouse EffectClimate Science HistoryArctic Ice Melt

  15. 215
    Septic Matthew says:

    162, Site Monitor: Your examples are a little bizzare. I’m aware of no claims in mainstream science about any of the others you list, *other* than tobacco.

    All of the examples that I presented included mainstream scientists who published results in peer-reviewed journals and wrote opinion pieces for scientific journals such as Science. There was an outrage of sorts when the Reagan administration permitted the selling of aspartame. EPA ruled on acrilonitrile, then later reversed its ruling. As frequently happens, commercial interests also clashed: sugar and corn syrup interests clashed with other interests over saccharine and aspartame. We see a similar clash nowadays over AGW, with manufacturers (Siemens, GE, Sharp), sellers (SoCal Edison, PG&E, SDG&E) and rent-seekers (CCX, Generation Capital Management) opposing California Prop 23 and oil producers (Valero) supporting it.

    My point is not that advocates for control are never right (or that commercial interests always right), but that they are not always right. Each case has to be judged independently of others. There are some consistent party lines: the Cato Institute always opposes the expansion of government power, even when the claimed motivation is public health; their opposition to tobacco control is of a piece with their opposition to alcohol control. To them, your freedom includes your freedom to harm yourself; and well-motivated government power will eventually be used against the public interest. Their positions do not depend on who funds them, but the other way around.

  16. 216
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Ray Ladbury @ 206
    … the crucial idiot vote, which seems to dominate the election cycle more and more.

    I have read, but certainly not verified, that the young and minorities voted in much lower numbers in the recent midterm than in the latest presidential election, so much so that in the midterm, about 50 percent of the electorate was old and white, compared to about 25 percent in the presidential election.

  17. 217
    Michael K says:

    Another crucial area, which many scientists find themselves entangled in, (let’s stick to climate science,) is conflict between what science is telling us about the “threat to our civilization” that uncontrolled global warming presents; and the view of large sections, apparently the majority, of the “ruling elite” in the United States, that the science is not only a “joke” and totally wrong, but that it’s actually a form of Leninist, leftwing, political conspiracy to undermine the leading role of the United States in the world, by forcing Americans to cut their consumption of energy and thereby lower their standard of living, and non-negotiable way of life.

    This means that the ruling economic dogma of the age, neo-liberalism, trumps science. That science and scientists should serve the economic dogma, or “faith” loyally, or shut up.

    This is why powerful individuals and groups within the US are spending big bucks to trash the science which threatens the foundations of “Liberalism.” Because if the idea that our economic model, let’s call it “Capitalism”, (though some would prefer to use the euphemisms, “freedom ‘n’ democracy” instead) is incompatible with the health of environment, and might be an unsustainable system, well, this idea, (if backed by science,) could prove somewhat awkward to just brush off as the usually leftwing ranting and raving.

    What if “capitalism” is incompatible with the health of the biosphere? It’s a complex area, highly controversial, and explosively political. But if “capitalism” was the Big Problem, what could be done about it? Would we really expect the elite that owns the world to just accept that their era had passed its sell-by date, and now it was time to evolve and try something new? Would it, in theory be that easy, rational and calm? The peaceful changeover to another era where GDP and growth, were surplanted by new values based on what was best for the environment and the world’s climate?

    I am not specifically saying that “capitalism” is an “evil” and we are doomed if we continue down the current exponential growth pathway, and isn’t it simply great that Brazil, India, and China have joined the club too, I’m just interested in the thought experiment. Do people really believe that, in practice, we could put the breaks on and alter course, just like that, and in time, and despite the opposition of entrenched and vested interests, sometimes referred to as the “Capitalist Class.”

    I’m sorry this sounds so political, but I often get the impression that many Greens and scientists, who have a great deal of knowledge about climate change and the environmental challenges we face, seem to more-or-less ignore political reality and the logical consequences of their arguments, as they relate to fundamental power relationships in society, which one would be foolish to underestimate.

  18. 218
    Ray Ladbury says:

    That is correct. Young people were down by over a factor of 2 in this election.

  19. 219
    Radge Havers says:

    Emily Gertz @ 210

    Seems to me a strong story might be how journalists get things wrong. There ought to be a way to narrate that without without stopping short of presenting information that might lead the reader strongly in the direction of reality.

    I mean is it just me, or is there a bias in mass media toward pandering to Received Middle Brow Conventional Wisdom which, by the way, is becoming increasingly lunatic by the day?

  20. 220
    Radge Havers says:

    From the LA Times story quoting Scott Mandia:

    “This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists,” said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

    “We are taking the fight to them because we are … tired of taking the hits. The notion that truth will prevail is not working. The truth has been out there for the past two decades, and nothing has changed.”

    “…aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists…”

    “This group feels strongly that science and politics can’t be divorced…”
    Ooops. Narrative malfunction.

  21. 221
    Jim says:

    Speaking of putting captivating “narrative” above accuracy of fact, the AGU today had to issue this statement to correct the misinformation introduced yesterday by Neela Banerjee in major newspapers, then repeated by Andrew Revkin et al.:

  22. 222
    Septic Matthew says:

    162, eric

    I wrote a response to the part of your comment that is in green, but I didn’t notice that you had written the entire post in square brackets. I called you “Site Monitor”. Sorry.

  23. 223
    Snapple says:

    I guess next time I will not rely on what a newspaper claims a scientific organization is going to say tomorrow.

  24. 224
    Patrick 027 says:

    It seems to me that a movie could tell the combined story of the development of the actual science and the political and behind-the-scenes theater. Maybe something in between Ken Burn’s series on the Civil War and “The Smartest Guys in the Room” – though I confess I haven’t ever seen any of the later so I’m not sure…

  25. 225
    adelady says:

    Michael, if you’re really interested in the intersection between how politics, the public and community activity or cohesion degenerates into the trivial individual notions that my opinion is as good as anyone else’s, read John Ralston Saul. Especially The Unconscious Civilisation (though my personal favourite is Voltaire’s Bastards).

    I’m not entirely convinced by his arguments about how democracy ‘should’ work, but his analysis of the stated views of corporate supporters and how they actually work is terrific. It’s a good background for my continuing amazement at the failure of entrepreneurship to seize the opportunities in renewable energy and modern technologies and make megabucks doing it. In his view there is no ‘entrepreneurship’ at the large corporate level.

    And all of this impacts on the (lack of) education and involvement of citizens in considering and deciding the best outcomes for their societies. Anti-intellectualism and mindless entertainments are a natural partner in the process.

  26. 226
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 217 Michael K –

    That’s an interesting thought, but capitalism, at least in general, really is not the enemy. Capitalism can be green, it can provide safe products made by workers who don’t get injured at high rates, etc. Unless perhaps capitalism, when not farther specified, implies a complete laissez faire approach. Capitalism can be publically managed without being extinguished – in fact it (thus far, and perhaps always, as private police forces might just be mafia?) requires some public management, in particular, to protect basic rights – property rights, etc. (Capitalism has a ready way to deal with scarcity – prices increase, economies evolve. Thus, aside from externalities et al, capitalism can in principle be sustainable – it’s just that it may sometimes require change, not necessarily without pain or even death; of course, a shock or stress so severe that it rips society apart could end the system.)

    In the frame of market efficiency and price signals, pollution is an externality – one could argue we should just accept such externalities – in some cases that could be true, but in others not; in the frame of rights, pollution is/can be an infringement of rights, which might require legal action if beyond the margins of error we allow (it is benificial to have allowable margins of error); however, I think addressing this particular problem from the efficiency standpoint is a better approach, and would itself address the issue of rights as well as anything realistically could. Externalities could be addressed in the courts, or they could be privatized, or they could be taxed or otherwise publically managed. For CO2 emissions, taxation makes the most sense to me. Although I’m curious how a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all future people for the next x centuries would play out. Privatization would somehow require ownership of the climate system or it’s components, which seems impractical, and even if it could be done, I would argue, it would be aesthetically and perhaps scientifically undesirable – which segways into a discussion of why having some public property/space is good (1. nature is often appreciated for it’s quality of being natural; ownership could detract from that in principle if not also in actuality; 2. I think it could be argued that humans pychologically suffocate if every single thing is privately owned; we need public spaces. 2b. The concept of fair use, a sort of safety valve in intellectual property rights, with value to individuals, and also to democracy and society and their benificiaries)…

    Of course, the efficiency-maximizing market is only an approximation of actual behavior, and might fail to capture some interesting things (convoluted PPCs, bubbles (tulips!), negative sum games, issues affecting choice and competition). And even if we tax CO2, it may yet make sense to have some public investment of the R&D (and D and D) sort and some planning, mandates/building codes, targetted incentives, etc. We have urban planning. Even in a free market, somewhere at some time, a human has to actually make a decision about something, and it will often benifit that human to make plans, or to have a plan. If you throw resources together without a larger plan than you might not get the best use out of them (Pizza – yum. French toast – yum. French toast pizza – well to each his/her own). Also, if you can plan on a future, you have more choices that may include making investments for future rewards; expectation of the future affects interest rates; they say live everyday like it’s your last, but that can only be taken so far, or else obesity rates would soar, plus you could only have your favorite meal and thus never have your second favority meal…

    One could say that we sacrifice some liberty and efficiency for the benifits of the public policies we have; one could say that those benifits, folded into the whole, increase the efficiency… (But didn’t Benjamin Franklin say (paraphrasing) that those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither? Well I don’t think he meant that in every possible way it could be taken. We have to sacrifice the right to own another person in order to have the right not to be owned by another person (social contract). Not quite the same thing, but we ‘sacrifice’ some freedom of choice every time we choose – it’s a resource that gets converted into the results of our choices (to some extent that resource gets used up by time if we don’t use it))

  27. 227
    Patrick 027 says:

    One could say that we sacrifice some liberty and efficiency for the benifits of the public policies we have; one could say that those benifits, folded into the whole, increase the efficiency… and maybe also give us new, better choices for use of our liberty

  28. 228
    Harold Pierce Jr says:

    David B. Benson says on November 2010 at 6:50 PM:

    Harold Pierce Jr @77 — That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all day.

    Thanks for the chuckle.

    Why are my observations “funny”? I would really like to know.

    As a reminder, I pay a carbon tax of Can $0.9932 per GJ of nat gas which costs Can $4.976 per GJ in British Columbia. That is a tax rate 19.96%, And that is not funny!

  29. 229
    Radge Havers says:

    The Guardian’s take:
    US researchers fight to reclaim climate science message “Two initiatives will provide information for journalists as elections bring strong sceptic presence to new Congress”


    “We are both scientists and human beings. As scientists, we need to find ways to communicate accurate scientific information to a wider audience in a way that is policy-neutral. As humans, we are concerned not only for ourselves, but also for our children and for people in the world who don’t have the necessary resources to adapt to the coming change. As a human, I have an obligation to speak up for them.
    It is a shame that scientists have to take personal and professional risks in order to be good citizens of the planet. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

    Scientists have a duty to engage with the public on climate change

  30. 230
    Radge Havers says:

    Patrick 027 @ 226

    Although I’m curious how a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all future people for the next x centuries would play out.”

    FWIW, there’s this contract curiosity: Consumers’ right to file class actions is in danger.

  31. 231
    Kevin Norman says:

    I was just looking at Climate Progress. In the comments someone suggested a major demonstration by climate scientists to shut down the senate for 10 days or so. Is this and idea that might find support within the community?

  32. 232
    Rod B says:

    Michael K (217), what economic system would you think might replace capitalism?

  33. 233
    adelady says:

    Rod, I don’t think it’s about replacing capitalism. It’s about how we fit capitalism into the larger society. My view is that we allow corporate interests to have too much say in setting values and priorities in our societies – in exactly parallel ways that some societies allow (if they have a choice) their military forces too much say in the society at large.

    I am absolutely certain that the countries I have in mind would still have armies after their societies reorganise to make the military the servant of the larger polity rather than its master.

    I am also certain that my own and other countries could reorganise themselves to make the corporate sector a better fit with the needs and priorities of the society at large, rather than forever threatening to deprive of us of their investment for special privileges in tax or zoning or pollution or employment laws.

    (As my husband insists, Capitalise your profits, social-ise your losses.)

  34. 234

    Just wanted to thank RC crew for a solid performance on Swedish Tv. It turned out really well :)

  35. 235

    Just wanted to thank the RC crew for a solid performance on Swedish TV. It turned out really well :)

  36. 236
    Martin Vermeer says:

    > what economic system would you think might replace capitalism?

    I have no idea what it will look like, but it will also be called ‘capitalism’

  37. 237
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Rod B. asks, “Michael K (217), what economic system would you think might replace capitalism?”

    Right now, it’s looking like a hunter-gatherer subsistence society.

  38. 238
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Kevin Norman,


  39. 239

    Michael K 217,

    Please don’t forget that the USSR thoroughly trashed its environment. They weren’t capitalist.

  40. 240
    Fred Magyar says:

    Rod B @ 232,

    what economic system would you think might replace capitalism?

    Perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. Growth, especially in wealthy nations, is already causing more problems than it solves.

    The steady state economy should be based on biophysical or thermoeconomic principles.….pdf


    My personal take on this issue can be seen here:

  41. 241
    Dan H. says:

    Nice post. I agree that some individual liberty needs to be sacrificed, but that it will provide greater liberty (preventing someone from polluting your land or public land infringes on their right, but enhances yours). Capitalism has worked to remove dangerous or polluting products from the marketplace. However, this generally works when a suitable replacement is available. The internal combustion automobile will only be replaced when a suitable replacement (read economical and reliable) can be obtained. If the vehicle is taxed too highly, then people will look for alternatives.
    In general, people will spend more for products that are safer, less polluting, etc.. The amount that they will pay will differ, depending on their wealth and philosophy. Philosophy can be changed by greater education and experience. Changing wealth may take longer. Worldwide, people turn to the environment only after their basic needs have been met (and a few wants). Increasing world wealth is a necessary step towards protecting the world’s environment. China was not antagonistic at Copenhagen because they were necessarily anti-environment. Rather, they did not want regulations that would impede their progress towards greater wealth (greater meaning closer to Western standards).
    That is my favorite quote from Ben Franklin.

  42. 242
    SecularAnimist says:

    Replacing capitalism is irrelevant, nor is there any realistic possibility that replacing capitalism or making any other sort of fundamental change to human society can be accomplished quickly enough to have an impact on AGW even if it were relevant.

    The companies that are manufacturing wind and solar energy technologies are not social-ist collectivist projects, they are for-profit capitalist enterprises just like ExxonMobil and Koch Industries. They just have a different business model — one that happens to be more compatible with a sustainable human civilization that won’t destroy itself with global warming in the next few decades.

    And there will be “giant energy corporations” in the clean energy future — but they will be technology companies, not extractive industries. They will more closely resemble Intel and GE than ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.

    You don’t eliminate GHG emissions with the socio-political-economic system you wish you had, you do it with the socio-political-economic system you have.

  43. 243
    Fred Magyar says:

    Dan H @240,

    Your view of the world seems to be based the experience of one who has lived a sheltered life in a wealthy OECD country within the business as usual paradigm. There is very little guarantee that past performance will be anything resembling what is coming down the pipeline in the near future. My guess is that we are in for a very rough transitional period into a drastically different paradigm.

  44. 244

    I’m so glad to see the questions of economics, growth and (thanks, Fred Magyar!) the steady state economy come up. True, it’s not the main purpose of RC, and I suppose at some point we’ll need to get back to the main focus. Yet these issues are certainly tightly coupled to the question of mitigation in general. And steady state economics is not something I’m knowledgeable about at all, so I welcome the chance to learn a little more.

    I think that the current state of the “climate debate” is quite revealing. I know a lot of us regularly take time to try to communicate the reality of our predicament to the public at large, by blogging, commenting, writing letters to newspapers and by raising the topic in social settings, by setting examples of conservation in our own lives, or by educational outreach of various sorts. How many times have we encountered what I call “I’m all right, Jack” comments–you know, the “they’ll pry my SUV/mega-burger/large-screen TV from my cold, dead fingers” kind of thing?

    They come in various guises, of course, many of them at least somewhat less crass than that. Often they’re couched at the national, rather than the individual level–a variant I see a fair amount is “Canada’s emissions are less than 2% of total global emissions, what difference does that make?” (That one conflates IAJ with “It’s so small, it can’t matter” innumeracy.) Presumably it’s more socially acceptable to be selfish on behalf of one’s country than one’s individual self–for some reason!

    What it indicates to me is that there’s a huge job of imagining, thinking through, communicating and educating before there’s any hope of creating a steady-state economy, or challenging the idol of Growth. It’s probably OK in a way, since the technical economic challenges must surely be very sizable indeed. But the implication would be that we’re going to have to mitigate before this task is complete, that there will have to be a messy process of changing economic and technical realities on the ground even as the system is reimagined.

    And of course, there will be very fierce resistance indeed. One think I think I do understand about growth is that it serves as a bandaid to tamp down concern about economic inequity. The young put up with poor economic conditions, often, because they expect a better future. Ditto with developing nations. Yet “haves” don’t want to give up what they have, which in many cases they’ve worked hard and sacrificed to acquire. That’s a circle much easier to square–approximately!–if the overall pie is at least growing.

    So if growth is constrained by ecological limits, we’re forced to confront issues of economic equity and the distribution of wealth much more directly. Issues of justice and fairness. Issues of responsibility–since if no-one’s in charge, it’s no-one’s fault.

    But sometimes somebody has to take charge (adopting President Obama’s metaphor here) or else the car goes into the ditch. Accepting blame is then just part of the job description. But that’s getting off onto yet another (off)-topic.

    [I try not to mention Captcha much, since I regard it as pure coincidence–but this time it’s “leader, basencs.” Whatever “basencs” might be.]

  45. 245

    Oh, and thanks to everyone who took time to check out my article on Dr. Weaver’s book“Keeping Our Cool.” I was really gratified by the positive response, and appreciate it highly!

  46. 246
    Anonymous Coward says:

    The socio-political-economic system we have is not on its way to eliminate GHG emissions. Emissions are still growing. Something’s gotta change for something to change. Get real and lay off the big words. Cutting emissions has nothing to do with arguing about the proper definition of “capitalism”. And this is definitely off-topic.
    I hate to play the moderator but, if you have anything worthwhile to say about how a future society might reduce emissions, take it to the open thread or to another site (and show your numbers).

  47. 247
    SoundOff says:

    Capitalism need not be abandoned. It does what it does well – allocating resources efficiently. But there are different flavours of capitalism – instead of unfettered capitalism, we need fettered capitalism. Capitalism should be fettered by the long term external costs that are a consequence of each business activity so that price signals work properly. If the market then determines that the wealth generated now more than covers the costs of clean up later, then so be it. Though I suspect in nearly all cases a gram of prevention earlier will be worth a kilo of cure later.

  48. 248
    Didactylos says:

    Or put another way: we have to assign a tangible cost to certain things, to avoid a tragedy of the commons. Only then can capitalism be effective.

    The actual mechanism isn’t so important.

  49. 249

    I think Didactylos “cut to the chase” pretty effectively with current #47.

    And SA made good points, IMO, with #241. Such considerations are part of my continued interest in GRT–now Kilimanjaro–and their air-capture scheme, as the original impetus was Klaus Lackner’s concern about AGW and his effort to do something constructive about it, but the model they are working with is a for-profit company. Apparently with some success, too, though there are still many hurdles for them to clear. (Especially if the strategic goal remains scaling up sufficiently to actually impact concentrations–not just to make money selling CO2, which is the current proximal goal. A & E is a cautionary tale about the shifting of goalposts in a commercial environment.)

  50. 250
    Alex Katarsis says:

    A question for the scientists. With commodity prices rising and potentially ready to explode, and according to National Geographic, nearly half of the earth’s surface now related directly or indirectly to agriculture, are there problems on the horizon involving modern “miracle” ferlizer use world-wide? As you all would know, most fertilizers release a large amount of carbon dioxide as well as being rich in Nitrogen emitting chemical processes. The recent studies i’ve read indicated that modern fertilizers have up 250 times greater destructive potential as generators of GHG’s than carbon dioxide alone. As one example, there have already been battles over whether to subsidize (even charitably) increased fertilizer use in Africa. This particular climate “threat” has no easy enemy to blame. It seems to me that these problems are becoming less and less about the science and more about politics and the engineering required to find real world practical solutions. Regardless of the causes of climate change, wouldn’t engineering based on existing technology be best applied directly to human’s adapting to their environment, rather than attempting to reduce the GHG generation upon which a large portion of the modern world depends? (and I’d answer the other questions if they’d get printed). It has to be a valid concern, because the middleground is probably agreeable, even among skeptics. Clean air, abundant food, clean water, reduce dependence on oil. The coming commodity surge will exacerbate the problem.

    Genuinely curious.