September 8, 2015

Decoupling Climate Science Acceptance from Political Beliefs

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 6:30 pm

As readers of this blog are very aware, the radicalization of American politics is one of my personal pet issues.  Social scientists and other observers have studied it in greater detail by far than I have, and their findings bear out my own anecdotal observations.  Increasingly, self-identified conservatives and progressives do not only hold diametrical political opinions, but they also identify with diametrically opposite non-political positions and make opposite lifestyle choices because they believe that is what good conservatives/progressives ought to do.  The rural/conservative-urban/liberal association is only becoming stronger, for instance, and part of that is that there is increasing migration to communities for political reasons.  This particular phenomenon is, I think, creating myopia on both sides about how to deal with large-scale problems, because what works for one type of community might not do at all for another.  More on this later.

It goes deeper.  Rigid conservatives and rigid progressives enjoy different types of entertainment:  The progressives want to feel “global” and “multicultural” and so they partake of foreign art films; the conservatives want to feel “patriotic” and seek out military-themed movies; neither side wants to watch what the other side likes.  They make certain dietary choices based on what “their people” are “supposed” to eat.  They engage in different hobbies.  And they do it on purpose, for reasons of political identity, rather than because of natural preferences.  It’s “the personal is political” taken to the nth degree.  If that sounds like cliques and social interaction in junior high (“cool kids don’t like X; they like Y”), well, that’s because it pretty much is the same thing.  It’s incredibly toxic, and it has expanded to many other aspects of life.  What I’m going to discuss here in depth, however, are climate science acceptance/denial and opinions on climate change mitigation policies.

I’m an atmospheric scientist.  I have written on many occasions about how it feels like a personal attack for someone to deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place, because in almost every instance now, the claim is not that something else is causing climate change, but that climatologists are engaging in mass data forgery.  Accusing a scientist of research fraud is character defamation of a very serious degree.  Those few (but loud) skeptical climatologists also like to beat the drum of “advocacy” every time one of their non-skeptical colleagues expresses a political opinion about what should be done.  This is a less overt, non-explicit insinuation of misconduct, because it is empirically irrelevant if a scientist holds a given opinion about their research as long as the methodology of that research is sound.

The skeptics’ shift in recent years from proposing alternate testable hypotheses (the sun’s causing it all, interactions of atmospheric-oceanic teleconnection patterns are doing it, etc.) to accusing 97% of climatologists of research fraud is, I think, yet another manifestation of ideological polarization.  No longer is it okay on the hard right to accept that the climate could be changing, even if one doesn’t accept that we are causing the greatest part of it.  And it is certainly not okay to accept that we are changing it.

Why is that?  I think that for many people, unfortunately, it’s just an emotional reaction to side with their “team” in any circumstances.  But for some, probably especially those who are the most articulate and influential on their side, I think there’s something else going on.  After all, if we accept that the climate is changing, then at a bare minimum that calls for community resilience measures.  If we accept that we are doing it, that calls for us to cut back on what we’re doing.  Hardening and mitigation call for the government to regulate private-sector activity.  The concepts are linked and can’t be taken apart.  Right?

Actually… wrong.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.

It is absolutely possible to believe that the climate is changing due to human activity and also to hold the political opinion that we shouldn’t regulate anything relating to that change.  “Freely choose to adapt or die” is a position I have seen at least one very politically conservative meteorologist advocate.  This is not my own position, of course, but it is one I can at least respect, because it accepts empirical scientific data.  This scientist correctly recognizes that he can hold his chosen political ideology without believing that his colleagues in climatology are engaged in mass scientific misconduct.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.  That does not just go for general policy prescriptions, or (in the above example) the political opinion regarding whether anything at all should be done as a matter of regulation.  It also goes for specific policy prescriptions.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on the purchase of animal products (food or otherwise).

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on home energy consumption.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive emissions penalties for cars.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating “smart fuel pumps” that read one’s odometer, check it against a database, and assess a tax based on miles traveled.

There is a reason I have mentioned those four policy ideas, by the way.  It is because I am an atmospheric scientist who accepts anthropogenic climate change and I am against every single one of them.  A couple of them I’m against in any circumstance, and the other two, I’m against as one-size-fits-all national policies.  I generally do not favor using the heavy hand of government on private individuals in this situation, for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s not politically pragmatic.  It is arguably counterproductive, in fact.  People respond much better to the carrot than to the stick, and I do support measures such as tax credits for making the choice to get a green car or to upgrade one’s home.

Second, it is large-scale industrial operations that have a greater effect on the global carbon dioxide balance, and private citizens do not often have much say-so in broad corporate policy.  Not even through their buying choices, at least when we are talking about the power sector or the automobile industry, which are almost impossible for new competitors to enter that are not already very well-funded (and even then face difficulties, such as the determination of some states to lock out Tesla Motors from selling to people because they do not use a dealership model, but sell directly to drivers).

Third, consumers often have limited choices, especially for big expenditures.  Not everyone can afford a new, highly efficient car.  Prior to the new standards requiring 35 mpg, not that many cars even were highly efficient, let alone affordable ones.  Not everyone can afford a home renovation to become greener.  Not everyone has access to public transportation or carpooling options, and not everyone can afford to move closer to work.

And finally, the fourth reason I’m against the broad application of this sort of regulation is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that is utterly inappropriate in some situations.  For instance, on the subject of personal energy consumption, it is not even safe to forego heating or cooling in some regions during winter or summer.  A limited-AC-usage efficiency prescription that isn’t that onerous for San Francisco would be a major public safety hazard in Atlanta in the summer.  (Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the US.)  The same thing is true for car usage:  If a municipality wants to have strict emissions standards for privately owned vehicles, that is defensible when reliable public transportation is available in the area and perhaps they want to discourage driving when other options exist.  It is potentially quite onerous in areas where your options are generally to drive to work or not work at all.  And even in those cities where it is defensible, it makes sense to offer exemptions in cases where people cannot afford new vehicles or vehicle modifications.  We were able to implement mandatory health insurance coverage without imposing a harsh burden on people who can’t afford it, after all.  Even in large cities with good public transit, there are some situations when people need to use a car instead.  Public transit may take you to work, but it generally can’t take you everywhere you need to go unless you happen to live in a place like New York City.

Sustainability must be fine-tuned to localities, in fact, because areas will have different needs.  In fairness to right-wingers who complain that “liberals” always think in terms of how things are in “liberal cities” (San Francisco, Portland, New York, etc.), I’ll even grant that some of these suggestions, when considered for the entire country, do appear that way, since they work so poorly outside of such areas.  But this cuts both ways.  For instance, I will argue down anyone who is against any emissions testing at all in large cities.  I have been in East Coast cities where, even leaving aside carbon dioxide emissions, particle matter and ozone can create truly oppressive—and hazardous—health conditions.  I have felt my chest constricting on “code orange” ozone days.  I’ve coughed up blood on high particle matter days.  If your own experience is limited to medium-sized towns and suburban communities where this does not happen, then you too should remember that other types of environments have different needs, and your community’s situation shouldn’t be the blueprint for policies everywhere any more than the communities that your political adversaries often live in.

I know that it may be difficult for people accustomed to thinking in terms of “us versus them” politics to consider that “mixing it up” is even possible, but it is.  It is possible to accept climate change science without supporting the entire hard-left policy package… or even any of it.  It is possible to think that some things should be done without believing that they should all be done exactly the same way everywhere.  From my own admittedly biased perspective, I think it’s not just possible, but preferable to think that.  This us-versus-them, with-us-or-against-us, no-gray-area form of politicking benefits nobody, not even those who do it, except in the very cynical way of perpetuating their own existence by always having an “enemy” with whom common cause is impossible.  It certainly doesn’t achieve anything concrete for the issues themselves.

August 17, 2015

Online Activism, Framing, and the Guilt-By-Association Fallacy

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 5:51 pm

If you’ve spent any time at all looking over political blogs, political debates on social media, or online comments for political articles, you will have noticed a type of argument that is repeatedly made by both left and right.  It goes something like this:

“You’re arguing for X [relatively mainstream opinion with which I disagree].  The person/group Y argues for X, but they also argue for Z [non-mainstream, politically extreme or fringe issue].  Defend that!”

If that sounds like a fallacious line of argument to you, you would be correct in thinking so.  It is a named informal fallacy, guilt-by-association.  In this instance, it is used in a twofold way:  to dirty both the debate adversary and the mainstream issue by associating them, respectively, with a radical entity and a fringe cause.

As I said, I’ve seen this done time and time again by both sides.  It is occasionally called out when one party is on the ball and recognizes the fallacy (whether they associate that term with it or not). That doesn’t necessarily mean that the person making the fallacious argument is going to back down, of course.  As social science studies into the topic are increasingly finding out, ideology trumps logic and empirical evidence in, well, pretty much everyone, if allowed to.  It can happen with any kind of ideology—political, social, religious, anti-religious, or intra-disciplinary (such as taking a hardline position on a controversial topic in a science—as a scientist).  Unfortunately, most of the time that this fallacy is called out in an online debate, the person using the fallacy only doubles down on it.  The usual gist of the doubling down is something like, “I don’t care if you don’t agree with view Z.  It’s still your side!”  –Sometimes with the pivot of “Why don’t you agree with view Z?  Not progressive/conservative enough?”  Which is a dodge from the original debate, but one that puts the attacker at a clear advantage if the opponent takes the bait, since doing so requires the opponent to defend himself instead of sticking to the topic.

However, more often than not, the guilt-by-association fallacy is not called out.  The debater confronted with the guilt-by-association fallacy who doesn’t recognize it will feel compelled to defend another member of his own “side.”  Humans are a deeply tribal species, another social science finding that I have long suspected to be true.  We are driven to defend “our own” against “the other.”  I rather suspect, in fact, that the social media use of the guilt-by-association fallacy is a contributing factor to the radicalization of the left and right in American politics.  People who, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, would not have been adherents of fringe views—seeing such views as, indeed, fringe, and feeling no obligation to defend them—are now being put on the spot by aggressive online “activists” who have access to search engines and networks of ideologically oriented websites that sometimes even list pithy, fallacious “talking points” for online political brawls.  They are being compelled to view people as part of their “tribe” whom, in the past, they would not have, and are acting accordingly.  Eventually, some of them do come to agree with the fringe views simply out of a sense of maintaining solidarity with one’s “team.”

That brings me to my final point, and it is, to me, the most disturbing one.  I don’t think that the “masterminds” of such tactics sites care that they are encouraging anti-intellectual forms of debate.  I certainly don’t think they care that they are contributing to political radicalization.  I remember a number of years ago, when this type of online activism was first coming into its own, how the concept of “framing” exploded in the political blogosphere, and they were very open about what they were trying to do.

It was not the smooth marketing of “real” politics (not political campaigning, mind, but rather, deal-making and persuasive lobbying among elected officials and interest groups).  In that environment, people are generally wiser to fallacious arguments.  Half the people there, if not more, have legal education.  In fact, I am pretty sure that this is why horse-trading does exist.  To get something done with a truculent would-be ally, one must promise something tangible or concrete, or make an objective-sounding argument for why they should sign on.  Fallacious appeals to emotion won’t cut it.

No, this “framing” that burst on the online grassroots scene around 2007 or so is something quite different from that.  The point of it, as its originators proudly state, is deliberately to appeal to emotion, including the emotion of revulsion for an opponent because of guilt-by-association with a more extreme opponent.  It is to take advantage of a widespread lack of critical thinking or logical analysis, and to play off the most primitive evolutionary parts of the human brain.

If this were the only way to get things done in politics, then it might be justifiable.  But the fact is that this is not the case.  In reality, this type of politicking is responsible for the rise of polarization and the inability to get anything done now, because it discourages people from stepping out of their reactionary knee-jerk “lizard brain” responses.  I don’t see that it benefits anyone at all, except perhaps the PACs and firms that thrive on the ability to present their political opponents as crazy inhuman aliens who cannot possibly be reasoned with.

I’ve said before that I consider this type of populism to be anti-intellectual in the extreme.  This is, by now, a running theme of this blog.  Here’s yet another bit of evidence for it.

July 21, 2014

Types of Climate-Change Skepticism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:03 pm

As a meteorologist, I’ve obviously got some thoughts about anthropogenic climate change.  Let’s get those out of the way first, so that it’s clear exactly where I am coming from.  (Also, there is an increasing trend, with political polarization, for people to simply name-call in “response” to a viewpoint with which they disagree.  To the point of view of a typical grassroots activist conservative/tea party type, anyone who disagrees with that ideology in any point whatsoever is a “lib” or some such.  To the viewpoint of a typical grassroots activist progressive, anyone who disagrees with anything in that ideology is a “bagger.”  With us or against us, ally or enemy, no nuance.  It is pathetic and utterly contemptible.  But I digress.)  I do not question the science of anthropogenic climate change.  I take extreme offense to one particular form of skepticism of this hypothesis, in fact… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I accept the science, but I have issues with some of the usual prescriptions for addressing it.  I don’t think that it is even viable to demand that everyone give up their cars, stop eating meat, reduce a first-world standard of living to a less advanced one, and move to “sustainable” urban box apartments, let alone that it would be a horrendous overreach to make such demands.  Keep out of my garage and thermostat!  Furthermore, at this point, even if the developed world dropped emissions to 0, climate change would still continue because of the gas that is already in the atmosphere.  It takes a very long time for it to filter out.  I think the real solution to the problem is a combination of geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and improvement of technologies to limit emissions (without sacrificing quality of life).  Technology caused this problem and I think technology is going to have to solve it.  And in the meantime, we need to have very sound research on what local and regional impacts are to be expected so that areas can prepare and shore themselves up.

Anyway, that’s the viewpoint I’m coming from.  It’s not an exceedingly common one.   There is strong resistance to geoengineering in the environmental community, for some reason.  Maybe one of these days I will go after the hardline activist left, who are largely deeply opposed to geoengineering, for their belief that control-freak government intervention into people’s private lives will even fix anything (climatologists say it won’t anymore), but that’s not the subject of this post.  This post is about the other side of the coin:  the climate-change skeptics.  It is, let us say, a taxonomy of the types of skepticism currently out there, from least anti-scientific to most.

“It’s the sun” and other alternative, but disproven, hypotheses about the cause

You don’t see too many of these people anymore, but they were abundant a number of years ago.  They did not dispute the data indicating that warming was taking place, nor that carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was on the rise, nor—in many cases—that weather events were becoming more extreme as a result of the changes.  They just disputed the primary hypothesis about the root cause, namely, man.  Instead they offered other suggestions, the most common one being the idea that the sun was increasing its radiation output.  The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was proposed as an effect of warming rather than the cause (which is scientifically plausible).

The solar hypothesis was scientific.  It was clear, defined, and testable—other effects, such as warming of all layers of the atmosphere, would have been observed, and the radiative output of the sun can itself be measured quite minutely—and therefore scientifically respectable.  Adherents of the anthropogenic hypothesis owe these types of skeptics gratitude for proposing it, in fact, because it was an idea that needed to be either validated or disproven before the anthropogenic hypothesis could move forward.  It was a rational thing to suggest.

It was just incorrect, as we now know.  The sun’s radiative output isn’t on the rise, and all layers of the atmosphere are not warming.  The warming/cooling pattern of the entire atmosphere follows the prediction of the anthropogenic hypothesis instead.

I have focused on the solar hypothesis, but if some other scientific hypothesis were to come forward that might explain the data, what I have said would apply to it also.  I respect this type of skepticism, and so should every scientist.  It has a fine tradition in the history of science and serves a great purpose even when the skeptical alternate hypotheses turn out to be incorrect.

“It’s a natural cycle,” a pseudo-scientific excuse that sounds scientific to people who don’t know better

You might have noticed a stark difference in tone between that heading and the previous one.  There’s a reason for that.  The second group of climate-change skeptics are more respectable than the third (which I’ll get to) because they don’t deny the climatic data record, but the explanation that they propose for it is not scientifically legitimate.  “It is a natural cycle” is essentially a tautology to science, which is about the predictable—i.e., cyclical with the same circumstances—workings of nature.  Taken literally, it is an acknowledgment that the phenomenon belongs in the domain of natural science, which we already know!  With the context and connotation specific to climate change, this non-explanation amounts to little more than saying, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t believe it’s what they say it is.”

Natural cycles in meteorology and climatology obviously exist.  However, in order for a proposed cycle to be accepted in the scientific canon, actual details about it—with supporting observational evidence—must be provided.  Otherwise it is not testable, not defined, and simply not a scientific hypothesis.  It is an excuse for saying “I don’t know and I’ve got nothing.”

Any proposed explanation, or hypothesis, for a set of observed data should be testable.  That means an additional set of observations can be gathered that either confirms or refutes the hypothesis (within a statistical confidence interval).  Granted, within the past few decades, the rise of progressive ideology in academia has caused postmodernist relativistic philosophy to—I’ll say to contaminate discourse about science, because I, along with almost all scientists I know, remain firmly an old-school empiricist.  If the methodology is sound, there’s no relativistic “catch” about the data gathered.  Postmodernist philosophers of science can debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but we empiricists will consider the radius of the pinhead and the Planck length and give an exact number, in the meantime. 😉 In the domain of actual scientific experimentation, especially in the realms of natural science, empiricism still rules the roost.  This means that data rule the roost, and the claim “it’s a natural cycle” with no additional explanation of what the supposed “cycle” consists of is not something for which data can even be tested.  There is no specific claim made, so there is nothing to test.

The deniers and defamers:  “They’re all making up their observations to get grant money!”

This is the type of skepticism that I said I took extreme offense to, and I am not going to be charitable toward these people.  They are attacking the integrity of my entire discipline with no supporting evidence, and I do not owe any politeness to people who are calling my people a bunch of frauds.

It, unfortunately, seems to be on the upswing.  I suspect this is because of the political polarization that I mentioned in the very first paragraph.  The people saying this crap tend to be complete scientific illiterates, most commonly political talking heads/columnists and their legions of trained keyboard warriors.  They have a conspiracy theory mindset in which only their approved sources of “information” can be trusted and everything else is in on the conspiracy to undermine their ideology.  If the trusted people—the columnists and talking heads—say that climate scientists go to the Arctic and make up data because they love living high on the hog with their grant money, well, the keyboard ignorati will believe that without question and repeat it.

There was a scandal in the UK about climate scientists saying suspicious-sounding things in e-mails.  “Climategate,” as it was dubbed, was investigated thoroughly, and no scientific misconduct was found.  The infamous phrase “hide the decline” referred to minimizing the contamination of a climate data set by a poor source of historical data.  Why use poor data?  Well, because when it comes to any period before the Enlightenment in any area of the globe other than the West, there really aren’t human-recorded weather observations to speak of, and we use what we have in nature.  We know that some are better than others.  It is scientifically sound to discount less reliable observations in a data pool.

A character defamation suit by climatologist Michael Mann against a right-wing magazine and a writer for it is (to my knowledge) currently underway.  This rag apparently alleged that Mann falsified his data.  Again, there was a very early (late 1990s) Nature article with Mann as lead author that had some historical climate graphs of dubious statistical quality.  He has done work in the field since then, and in any case, a poor article in a borderline pop-sci magazine (as opposed to a journal of climatology, which would have higher standards) is certainly not the final word in climatology.  To hear these deniers say it, though, it is the underlying foundation of a house of cards that they clearly believe is anthropogenic climate change theory.

In sum, the skeptics who propose alternative, but scientifically testable, hypotheses about the data are respectable.  They are carrying on a long tradition of contributing to the scientific enterprise, and it really isn’t fair for ideological keyboard warriors on the other side of the aisle to bash them.  The skeptics who propose the excuse “theory” of some unspecified “natural cycle” are at least respectful of the data, but they are not operating within a true scientific framework, and they are probably further muddying the understanding of laypeople of just how the scientific profession works.  However, the skeptics who deserve no respect whatsoever, the ones who are actively undermining science by claiming that it is just part of a grand conspiracy to suppress their political ideology, are the ones who make unfounded accusations against the character of researchers.

I’ve said before that proven research fraud is a career-ender in science.  The ironic thing about these jerks is that their stream of offensive character defamation might actually make it harder for actual frauds to be rooted out in any area of science.  People have a tendency to protect their own “tribe” when they are under attack, and it is conceivable that the calls of “fraud” from people with a political agenda could harden even empirically minded scientists against the idea of appearing to cede anything to a pack of rabid dogs who are clearly not motivated by a desire for integrity within science.  Why give them fuel, one might reason.  Distrust of the first type of skeptics, the ones who are respectable, might be a casualty as well, and that would be unfortunate.  These are yet more possible outcomes of the vast and destructive reach of political polarization.  Not all climate skeptics are created equal, and it’s important to sort out the ones worth listening to from the ones who deserve the back of your hand.

June 21, 2014

Alleging a Conflict of Interest Does Not Discredit Research

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 12:02 am

A few days ago I wrote that the new populism was an anti-expert phenomenon that discounted, often even disparaged, the skills of negotiation and compromise in politics.  As it turns out, the new populism is also deeply anti-scientific, given that it appears to have just as little comprehension of the logic involved in the scientific research enterprise.  I’m speaking in particular of the practice of attempting to discredit a study by claiming that the researchers had a financial conflict of interest.  This assertion is thrown around whenever a piece of research comes out with a conclusion that a given side doesn’t like.  And the grassroots on both left and right do it.

On the right, this is prominently shown in the climate change denial crowd.  Even on FOX News, hardly a grassroots-based source, climatology studies that show warming and indicate a very high probability of its being due to human activity are dismissed on the grounds that “those scientists get grant money that’s contingent on them coming to that conclusion.”  The tea party foot soldiers (or keyboard warriors, more typically) repeat this claim ad nauseam.  On the left, this behavior is most commonly found among the anti-big-agriculture crowd.  A study comes out that finds that a dietary bogeyman of the left really isn’t bad?  Well, the study must have been influenced by Big Ag, so therefore it can be dismissed among the faithful without a second thought.

The term “conflict of interest” is thrown at scientists by these people, and they fail to realize (or more probably, simply don’t believe) that even if a researcher was receiving funding from a source that has an interest in the research conclusions, that does not discredit the research.  In fact, you can’t find any scientist anywhere who doesn’t have a “conflict of interest” of some variety.  In most sciences, positive findings (in science, this means finding a real effect instead of failing to do so) are a lot more likely to be published than null findings.  Scientists therefore have a personal interest in seeing positive results.  Scientists can also have a personal conflict of interest that is ideological rather than financial.  There is no such thing as a truly detached, objective human being, and the political populist squawking about “conflicts of interest” in science amounts to little more than the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

What matters for assessing the credibility of research are the methodology of the research and whether the study can be replicated.  Does it “look bad” for, say, the corn industry to contribute funding to research indicating that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t harmful in moderation?  Well, yeah, it does.  But “how it looks” means NOTHING in the scientific method.  If there is a problem in the way that the study was done, then call that out.  If there isn’t an obvious problem but the study cannot be replicated by other researchers, then it might be time to question whether the claimed methodology was the actual one.  But in the absence of these other issues with the research, going after the people who paid for the study doesn’t prove a thing about its validity.

As an example, a couple of years ago, a right-wing think tank funded a sociologist to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct a survey into the personal outcomes of adult children who had been raised by various types of families.  The study was, for a little while, used in court cases to support denying marriage to gay couples.  The claim made was that people who grew up in these households had poor life outcomes in the surveyed areas.  Naturally, there was pushback against this study, due to the political nature of its topic.  The type of pushback that ultimately went nowhere (and rightly so) was that which was based on attacking the funding source and asserting “conflict of interest.”  The pushback that was successful was to go after the methodology of the study.  As it turned out, the people that the researcher and his allies were claiming had been “raised by gay couples” were almost entirely from broken homes in which one parent was gay but was originally in a doomed marriage with an opposite-sex person.  The real takeaway from the study was that gay people shouldn’t marry straight people and definitely shouldn’t have kids with them, because—no particular surprise—kids from broken homes tended to have more issues than kids who grew up in happy families.  Making attacks on the source of the funding didn’t discredit the conclusions that were being bandied about; going after the methodology and finding that it did not support the claimed conclusions was what did the trick.  (And, as a footnote, some ideologues among the critics did not at all like that the more scientifically minded critics urged them to knock it off with the irrelevant attacks on the funder and focus on methodological problems.  This is another anecdote in support of my conviction that there is a strongly anti-scientific strain among modern-day grassroots political activists.)

The final problem with ideologues claiming “conflict of interest = discredited study” is this:  It is an implicit allegation that the scientists involved in the work committed research fraud to please their funders.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to make, the gravity of which these ideologues apparently have not a clue.  Deliberate research fraud is a permanent career-ender in science.  The world of scientific peer review is based on an honor system that what the researchers claimed they did is what they actually did.  (Replication of studies bolsters the system, but again, there is a preference for positive original research, so a lot of replication studies don’t get published.  There is awareness of this problem in the scientific community and steps are being taken to address it.)  If a person wants to claim that a scientist committed research fraud, this claim is so serious that the claimant had better have proof of it.  And yet, political activists with a definite conflict of interest (the desire to see certain results so that they are not disturbed in their ideological convictions) toss it around implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) without the slightest regard for what they are saying.

The net result of this ignorant, slanderous, conspiracy-theorist, and scientifically irrelevant line of attack has been an undermining of the trust in certain areas of science, depending on where a person falls on the political spectrum.  In other words, they’ve touched science and managed to poison it too in the public mind.  So yes, between the bad logic and a destructive mode of skepticism that completely undermines the foundation of the scientific method, I think I am entirely justified in saying that there is an anti-scientific current running through the new populism.

June 19, 2014

Good and Bad Populism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 3:59 pm

Those who know me know that, over the past couple of years, I’ve become profoundly anti-populist.  This has been a result of the antics of the tea party and new progressives—the obstruction, “my way or the highway” purist mentality, a utopian mindset, the use of America’s capital city as a slur, and the putting up of “the people” (or “the grassroots”—because they only approve of their sort of people, you see) on a pedestal, as if the problems in Washington aren’t a direct result of the increase in polarizing ideologues sent by, yes, “the people.”

Recently there have even been calls for these two factions to ally when possible, because they’re not that different.  I would agree that they’re not that different.  Both want to establish some sort of utopian society (“if everyone just followed our rules, we’d have a perfect world”) and have few reservations about how far to go in doing so.  There seems to be general agreement that rights don’t exist unless their exercise serves to advance “the good of society” (according to their utopian definition).  The person must justify a right to the state instead of the state having the burden of proof for restricting that right.  As an example, grassroots progressives seem to have no problem making the argument “because we have quasi-universal health insurance now, and everyone pays for your coverage, I have the right to legislate your lifestyle.”  (Risk pooling is how insurance works.)  Social conservative tea partiers (I specify this because there are still a few tea party-identified libertarians, and while I disagree with some of their views, they are not trying to set up an authoritarian utopia) want to restrict which adults are allowed to marry or become parents (and some want to take away the right to not have children—yes, there are anti-contraception social conservatives, Rick Santorum most prominent) because of their opinion of what household type is “best for society.”  These are far from the only examples of a behavior-controlling agenda, and the use of “we’re all connected, so your private behavior isn’t really private” as a reason to do it is the slippery slope from Hell.  Maybe it isn’t great for obesity and single parenthood to be widespread, but people have the right to be those things, so that’s no reason to apply the stick instead of the carrot.  And it certainly isn’t a reason to apply that stick to, respectively, naturally thin people and committed gay couples because of some belief (unsupported by evidence) that a BMI of 19 or a married straight couple are the only things that directly “benefit society.”  Yes, the new progressives and the social conservative wing of the tea party do have a great deal in common.

And it is precisely because of what the similarities are that I really hope these two populist utopian movements don’t figure out how to work together.  If this is being set up as “the new populism” versus “the establishment,” well, I know what side of the fence I want to be on:  the side that recognizes that governing and politics, like any other profession, require skills and experience.  Becoming a scientist has given me a new perspective on the value of skills and experience.  For politics, I’m talking about skills like the ability to shake the hand and strike a deal with someone in the opposing party rather than viewing it as treason to an ideology.  The piecemeal approach of tackling issues individually rather than as part of some grand plan to reengineer society into a utopia.  Maybe—thoughtcrime incoming—the willingness to listen to what policy experts, a.k.a. lobbyists, have to say about the policies that they are trying to influence, rather than a group of armchair activists who only “know” the canned ideological talking points promoted by the Facebook page and blogs of the advocacy group that’s using their numbers as muscle.

No, I don’t really like the new populism very much.  It puts amateurism on a pedestal in the political sphere, implying that “outsiders” with no knowledge of how to get things done are somehow “purer” and morally better, when in fact politics is a skilled profession like many others and the skill of an individual is quite distinct from that person’s character.

However, I want to be fair.  Not all populist movements are a bad thing.  In fact, a case can be made that many advances on certain issues throughout American (and any other country with Western-style republican democracy) history ultimately had roots in a populist movement.  The push for universal suffrage was a big one.  The call to eradicate slavery.  The movement to have national parks set aside.  The call for environmental regulations and worker safety regulations.  They haven’t all been on the “left” either; in eastern European countries, the fall of communism was helped along by a capitalistic, libertarian-aligned protest populist movement.

These “good” populist movements, you may notice, were mostly focused on a single issue, and they worked within a democratic-republican system of government.  They achieved their goals through advocacy, voting, and successfully defending their accomplishments as Constitutional in the courts.  They didn’t try to remake the whole system and certainly did not have an “anything goes” mentality for pushing their agenda through.  The anti-communist populist movement did work outside the system, but that was because the system was itself authoritarian.

History is full of examples of populist movements that sought to overthrow or reengineer a whole country, and it rarely judged them well, even if the system that they sought to replace was also repressive.  The French Revolutionaries are a fine example of that; the autocratic French aristocracy was a repressive system, but once the revolutionaries got power, the system they set up was just as bad.  The Bolsheviks are another example of this.  It should be noted that these revolutionary movements that started off sympathetic (because the existing system was repressive and autocratic) and went the way of Animal Farm are often left-wing in nature.  On the right, of course the most prominent example is the Nazi movement.  (I am categorizing it as right-wing because, regardless of how socialistic some of their economic ideas were, you only benefited from it if you were their approved type of human; it was all in service of an extremely nationalistic, racist, sexist, right-wing social agenda.)  They took power by democratic means rather than a coup, but their goals were just as utopian as their analogues on the populist left.  Democratic ascents to power aren’t always the case with right-wing populism, and we need not look any farther than Central and South America for that.

In fact, the revolutionary populist movement that history seems to have judged the most kindly is the American one of the 1770s.  And that is because, when they achieved power, they did not set up a repressive system, nor did they seek to completely remake society.  American law really isn’t all that different from British Common Law.  The beef of the revolutionaries was that Britain wasn’t living up to its own ideals, not that those ideals themselves needed to go (except for the notion of monarchy and a parliamentary system of elections).

This is why single-issue populism in democratic countries generally ends just fine.  It recognizes the value of these ideals and wants to work within that framework.  It is probably why populist movements to overthrow a truly repressive system generally become just as bad as what they threw out; a totalitarian set of ideas is their point of reference.  And it is why populist movements to establish a utopia over a country that is already democratic-republican tend to end worst of all.

I wish that the current populist movements in the U.S. were still the first type, but I do not think they are any longer.  Ideology is rapidly becoming a package deal:  If you believe that there should be some safety and environmental regulations on business practice, you’re probably going to buy the whole progressive “package” with it.  If you believe that welfare is being abused and something needs to be done about it, you’re probably buying the whole social conservative “package.”  And both sides will have long, wordy explanations for why you “logically” must accept the whole package if you accept one piece of it, which they then use to justify the ostracism of moderates, crossovers, and anyone who deals with the other party on respectful terms.  This is not about single-issue advocacy; this is about grand plans for remaking society.  It disturbs and frightens me, and I am not going to support it.

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