Scott Sumner  

Inconvenient truths

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Arnold Kling has a post pointing out that anti-science attitudes are not confined to the right. He starts by quoting Jonah Goldberg:

Why does the Left get to pick which issues are the benchmarks for "science"? Why can't the measure of being pro-science be the question of heritability of intelligence? Or the existence of fetal pain? Or the distribution of cognitive abilities among the sexes at the extreme right tail of the bell curve? Or if that's too upsetting, how about dividing the line between those who are pro- and anti-science along the lines of support for geoengineering? Or -- coming soon -- the role cosmic rays play in cloud formation? Why not make it about support for nuclear power? Or Yucca Mountain? Why not deride the idiots who oppose genetically modified crops, even when they might prevent blindness in children?
Then Arnold adds these comments:
Actually, he is quoting something he wrote three years ago.

The occasion for recycling it is the litmus test that reporters are applying to Scott Walker, namely whether or not be believes in evolution. Can we imagine a reporter asking Elizabeth Warren whether she believes that people at the extreme right tail of the distribution for math skills are more likely to be male than female, and using that as a litmus test for whether she believes in science?

It's natural for people to be skeptical of scientific claims that conflict with their deeply held beliefs about religion, politics or morality. People on both the left and the right do this, and they do it often. And this is not about which scientific theories are "true," it's about whether people are receptive to scientific evidence. Will they consider the evidence in favor of evolution, cognitive differences between genders, or other hot button issues? Quite often the answer is no, on both sides of the ideological spectrum. I thought of this while reading a piece in The Economist on experiments in geoengineering:

For both the clouds and the stratosphere, the direct effects of the proposed experiments are tiny. Cloud-brightening on the scale imagined requires less than a litre of seawater a second. The amount of sulphur that might be put into the stratosphere would be about 2% of what a passenger jet crossing the Atlantic emits in an hour. These proposals are not distinguished by the scale of what is envisaged, but by the precision with which they would be carried out and the care with which their effects would be monitored.

The worried ones

Another distinction weighs more heavily. Though these experiments would provide insights useful to scientists in other areas--the physics of clouds and the chemistry of the stratosphere are big topics in their own right--they are being proposed as ways to further research into geoengineering. That concerns many people, and a number of environmental campaign groups oppose all such experiments. Academic critics such as Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Australia argue that, though the risks to health or the environment may be minor, such experiments pose "political and social risks" that are much more troubling. Experiments could create "lock-in" around a particular research path, forming a constituency that would downplay subsequently uncovered risks and obstacles. And the mere fact of experiments going ahead might lead people to assume that geoengineering could easily be made feasible, and thus to give up on reducing carbon emissions.

I'd actually prefer we address global warming by reducing carbon emissions, not via geoengineering. But even I could not in good conscience argue that the public should not be given the relevant information about costs and benefits of alternative strategies. And if they were given this information then I'm reasonably confidently that my views would not prevail, as I think most people are poorer, more impatient, and more materialistic than I am. And given that I enjoy snorkeling, I'd guess that most people don't care as much about the deterioration of the ocean's coral reefs, a problem that would be addressed by carbon abatement, but not by geoengineering.

Consider the possibility of geoengineering as just one more scientific "inconvenient truth" that the Al Gores of the world would prefer to pretend didn't exist.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (25 to date)
MikeP writes:
Experiments could create "lock-in" around a particular research path, forming a constituency that would downplay subsequently uncovered risks and obstacles.

If anyone questions this point, just look at climate change research itself: It is far more political than scientific, it simply cannot be falsified in the eyes of its supporters, and if you question whether the economic costs of addressing it are greater than the environmental costs of not addressing it you are labeled unscientific and a denier.

JLV writes:

Its not at all unreasonable to think that rich billionaires who spend lots of money to downplay the risks of carbon emissions so that they can continue emitting lots of carbon, might similar downplay the risks of geo-engineering in an attempt to continue emitting lots of carbon.

Now, we probably should study geo-engineering, precisely because those evil billionaires are more than capable of keeping carbon abatement from being effective.

Scott Sumner writes:

JLV, We should study geoengineering because we aren't going to stop emitting lots of carbon---so global warming will happen unless we block sunlight. And it has nothing to do with evil billionaires, the public in the US, Europe and Asia does not want to do what would be required to prevent global warming via carbon abatement. So geoengineering seems to be our only hope.

emerich writes:

And it's easy to add to the list of scientific truths vehemently denied by the left. Any medical pathologist can easily distinguish a female from a male brain, but the left denies the possibility of differences in brain structure. And forget about cognitive variability on the right side of the curve--the left denies that cognitive ability is more variable for males period full stop. Look up Larry Summer's actual remarks for which he was hounded out of office--he said male cognitive ability is more variable at both ends, but that was unacceptable because of the implications for the right end. How open is the left to evidence that boys and men are now doing much worse in education and the workplace than girls and women? How much media play did it get when a left-wing Democratic politician publicly voiced worry that the island of Saipan could tip over if too many people gathered at one end? (Look it up on youtube.) What price has the left paid for whipping up bogus scares about toxic waste at Love Canal, famines and resource depletion from overpopulation predicted in the 1970's (Ehrlich, Club of Rome, etc.), global cooling predicted in the around the same time, the bogus Alar-on-apples scare, other carcinogens in this, that, and the other, the three-mile-island apocalypse, and even the Chernobyl apocalypse, predicted to cause orders-of-magnitude more deaths than it in fact did?

wd40 writes:

The examples given of anti-science bias of the left do not at all compare to the anti-science bias of the right. Evolution is an uncontroversial theory accepted by almost all scientists over many decades. It is the basis of all biology. That the distribution of male intelligence has a higher variance than female intelligence has not been established with any degree of certainty that is at all comparable to the degree of certainty regarding evolution. Indeed it might not even be true. We do not know for certain that there are no negative consequences of GMOs that might arise in the future (this fear is possibly similar to the the right's fear of fluoridation). While I personally believe that these fears are unwarranted, It does not rise to the level of idiocy of the anti-evolutionists. And the Chernobyl explosion did cause damage to the surrounding area. The exaggeration by the Left (?) in this regard is an exaggeration, not a complete fabrication. Now the anti-vaccine movement maybe more associated with the left than the right. But here too, some vaccines create negative reactions. Again the fear is exaggerated, but not as bonkers as those who argue against evolution.

Noah Carl writes:

Nice post, Scott. Also, check out this book:

Nick writes:

I don't mind the idea behind this post (that there are 'anti-science' voices all along the political spectrum) but the actual argument in the quotes is a false equivalence.

'evolution' can mean many things. But the idea that a competative environment paired with arbitrarily random changes in the players can, over time, create the appearance of an intelligently designed order is a core concept. Many of Scott Walkers policy recommendations rest on the validity of this type of 'invisible hand' argumentation, but he doesn't want to admit it.

Elizabeth warren has rested very little of her agenda on the idea that innate mathematical ability is normally distributed or gender neutral. while she may be resisting empirical evidence on a single subject, it doesn't present a problem for 'science'.

Scott Walker wants to believe that dynamic systems in biology are sui generis to economics and really any other field. He doesn't have a reason why. That's bad science.

Brian Donohue writes:

I'm a big Scott Walker fan. If he hasn't thought about this and can't figure out how to avoid being derailed by it, he prolly doesn't deserve to be President.

J Mann writes:

If I understand the current consensus on climate change, I don't see how proponents can morally oppose climate engineering research. As I understand it:

- We believe the earth is likely to continue to warm over the next century. We're not sure exactly how much or what the effects are.

- There's a possibility that the warming will be distruptive but net beneficial, or that it will be net harmful but managable. And there's a possibility that it will be catastrophic.

- Unless we hope for underpants gnomes inventing cold fusion, our best guess for feasable reduction in carbon output is that it will reduce the possibility of catastrophe slightly.

Assuming we believe that the risk of catastophe is high enough (1) to reorganize the world economy and kill a number of actual people by reducing economic growth, and given that #1 won't actually substantially reduce that risk, how can we not be researching geoengineering with the same intensity we might apply to responding to a potential world pandemic or an approaching asteroid?

Scott Sumner writes:

emerich, I'm old enough to remember many of the left's nutty environmentalist views from the 1970s and 1980s. In fairness, I've seen the right deteriorate significantly on the science issues, over the past few decades.

wd40, You missed the point of my post, I specifically said this isn't about which theories are true. Obviously people won't agree as to which theories are true, even scientists don't always agree. The point was that some people are not willing to accept evidence that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs. When Larry Summers offered a view on cognitive differences between the genders, he was not fired because his views were definitely false, but because his views were unacceptable, even if true.

And I don't think many major GOP politicians argue against evolution, I think they'd just as soon avoid the topic to avoid annoying their deeply religious constituents. (Most probably privately believe it's true.) Even that is perhaps deserving of criticism, but it's not as bad as you suggest, they aren't advocating public policy in areas like medical research be based on a denial of evolution.

Nick, I don't have any idea what you are talking about. I find it hard to believe that any of Walker's ideas on economics are based on denial of evolution. The usual complaining I hear from the left is that Republicans believe in Social Darwinism. You are arguing just the opposite?

You said:

"Elizabeth Warren has rested very little of her agenda on the idea that innate mathematical ability is normally distributed or gender neutral."

Are you sure this is true? What's her view on the gender imbalance in hiring at Harvard? What's her view on comparable worth laws and other anti-discrimination measures?

Just to be clear, I'm not arguing there is a gender difference in the standard deviation of intelligence (I'm not even qualified to offer an opinion on that subject), just that views on this issue might well affect a person's public policy positions.

Scott Sumner writes:

Brian, No one is qualified to be President. It's an impossible job. I wish the US had a Prime Minister instead.

Michael Byrnes writes:

"The point was some people are not willing to accept evidence that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs."

Three things:

1. You may be overly optimistic in using the word "some".

2. The other side of the coin is also true: some people are too willing to accept statements uncritically if they are consistent with their deeply held beliefs.

3. There also is a sort of "bait and switch" that goes on in these debates. People who challenge evolution, for example, often argue that it is not proven and that when facts are observed that can't be explained by the theory as it is currently understood, the theory is changed. Of course, that is how science works, but in some settings acknowledging this is seen as admitting that it is a falsehood. It was wrong that Summers was pushed out for saying something that was "unacceptable" but it would have been equally wrong, perhaps worse, to accept his statements uncritically as a guide for policy.

Brian Donohue writes:

@Nick, as far as I know, Adam Smith was unacquainted with Darwinian ideas.

LD Bottorff writes:

Bryan Caplan's post is on the signalling value of education. The reason the left keeps asking Scott Walker about evolution is all about signalling.

Mark Bahner writes:
But the idea that a competitive environment paired with arbitrarily random changes in the players can, over time, create the appearance of an intelligently designed order is a core concept.

Evolution and intelligent design are not incompatible. There's nothing in the science of evolution that reveals or does not reveal that the changes are "arbitrarily random changes."

There's nothing in science that says that coin flips produce random results. There could very well be beings that control every event on earth without our knowledge.

If Scott Walker had been knowledgeable and prepared, he would have said, "I 'believe' (making little air quotes) in evolution, and I believe in intelligent design. But what does either one have to do with trade with Japan?"

Andrew_FL writes:

@Brian Donohue-Indeed, Brian, it was economists who inspired Darwin, not the other way around.

@Nick-I don't see the problem. Scott Walker advocates policies as if he believed in evolution, so the fact the doesn't...what?

I assume we agree evolution is true. Therefore, if evolution implied some policy, and Scott Walker managed to arrive at that policy without believing in what?

Personally I don't think evolution has implications for public policy, at least at the Presidential level. I've always understood the supposed concern to be that a President who didn't believe in evolution, wouldn't want it taught in schools. Uh, education policy is a reserved power of the states. I thought that was the Republican position. A conservative Republican President couldn't make schools not teach evolution if he wanted to.

Can someone tell me, the people who are crazy because they want to abolish the Department of are those people going to stop evolution being taught again?

Joshua Gutman writes:

I think you raise a bunch of fair points, but I don't think the left accuses there of being some kind of conspiracy for any of the claims you make (maybe the need for there to be a conspiracy make the right more pro-science, but I'm skeptical).

As for all the genetic differences, I'm hardly an expert in the field, but environmental factors matter a lot in these things, as do potentially epigenetics. It was formerly thought that Finnish people had a heritable advantage to become distance runners, nobody thinks that anymore, but they do about northwest Africa.

Many of the things you mention as examples of the left being anti-science don't fall under the category of being to group a phrase: Strongly held beliefs held by a large majority of the group.

Nobody supposes that a Democratic candidate for president couldn't win a primary for being pro-vaccination, possibly the right skew in male intelligence, but not if made more eloquently (main problem for Summers in my opinion was the easy quote to be taken out of context). Btw, Summers wasn't precluded from being Treasury Secretary after his comments just from working at a university that serves those at the right tail of the intelligence spectrum.

magilson writes:


Coral reefs are more in danger by your desire to view them in person than by the carbon emissions of humanity. It sort of makes it hard to take the rest of your concerns seriously.

J Mann writes:

I would love to see every candidate get asked if Obamacare should cover acupuncture, followed by what the weight of scientific authority is on acupunction. I'm not sure many candidates of any party would have the guts to answer.

Nick writes:

Which field pioneered the dangerous idea is not important. What's important is that certain ideas seems very widely applicable. This is an element of science distinct from empiricism, although supported by it. We like it when our understanding of a system survives transformation and can explain another system. It's not just 'elegant', it's very practical.

Does it matter that walker says what he does? Not much. But in terms of failures of reasoning / cognitive dissonance it is a world away from rejecting a set of empirical findings bc you don't like them.

Prof sumner,
I'm not saying she has no views relevant to the narrow issue raised, only that the issue is narrow. In fact, it is so narrow that she could likely even admit the empirical findings and still support whatever policies she does on those issues for other reasons.
By contrast, if we apply Walkers skepticism of the invisible hand evenly across disciplines literally every one of his economic preferences comes into question.
If I see a well ordered market, does that not imply a brilliant central planner? Cmon!

Brian Donohue writes:

Nick, you are 100% wrong.

The point is, one can understand and approve of free market capitalism without understanding biological Darwinism, as Adam Smith demonstrates.

The left using this as a stick to beat Walker is silly. As President, his views on the subject are not relevant to policy.

Maybe as a governor, with responsibility for education, it is relevant. So let's check the record. What, if anything, has Walker done as governor of Wisconsin to jeopardize the school curriculum as regards evolution?

The 'blank slate' view of human nature and potential, which has been pretty much a staple of the Standard Social Science Model for several decades, is as much an article of faith as creationism, and as wrong.

Anyone who is a parent knows the 'blank slate' model is ridiculous, and it has been blown up in the past couple decades by (non right wing) thinkers like Steven Pinker.

But the message stubbornly refuses to get through, much like with those lunk-headed creationists.

Only in this case, 'blank slate' faith has all kinds of repercussions in terms of prima facie demonstrations of statistical discrimination for example.

Scott Sumner writes:

Nick, Why don't you provide an exact quote of a Walker statement that conflicts with his views on economics. I have no reason to believe Walker supports free markets (he'd be just about the only Republican to do so) and I have no reason to assume he thinks evolution does not occur. Please provide exact quotes.

Please provide a quote saying that Walker opposes Federal subsidies to the dairy industry, for instance.

Scott Sumner writes:

Joshua, You said:

"Summers wasn't precluded from being Treasury Secretary after his comments just from working at a university that serves those at the right tail of the intelligence spectrum."

I assure you that no Republican President would refrain from naming someone Secretary of the Treasury merely because they believed in evolution. Things are not as different as you think, it's just that it's easier to see flaws in the other side.

Magilson, You said:

"Coral reefs are more in danger by your desire to view them in person than by the carbon emissions of humanity."

I doubt that.

magilson writes:

Scott, You said:

"I doubt that."

Of course you do. Why else would you hold the position you do?

Thomas writes:

Nick is absolutely wrong. Warren's entire shtick is based on the idea that statistical discrepancies in demographic representation are proof of discrimination or other unfair policies. Her entire platform depends on blank slate being true. As for the left not believing in right-wing conspiracies, in the spirit of AGW, that is an artifact of the complete liberal domination of academia. A domination which somehow escapes the ire of disparate impact chasers. The left finds its conspiracies in the private market.

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