Tagged: Politics

Climate Science and Organized Irresponsibility

On 13 February 2015, the journal Science published an article titled “Fund climate intervention research, study says.”  The article reports on the findings of a National Research Council study, which advocates slowing global warming by spraying microscopic particles into the upper atmosphere, thereby reducing the brightness of the sun.

In an apparently rational tone, the Science article discusses not the pros and cons of re-engineering the atmosphere, but reports on obstacles to manufacturing public approval for the approach.  Noting the “albedo modification” proposal “faced skeptics from both right and left — from conservative lawmakers who felt it addressed a nonexistent threat and from environmentalists worried that geoengineering would sap support for [CO2] emissions cuts,” the article ends on an optimistic note, suggesting that hopefully the study “will end such gridlock — and help the United States avoid the controversies that have crippled climate engineering research elsewhere.”  Nevermind people who worry something might go wrong or who like seeing the sun.

Such technological approaches to resolving problems with climate change are not motivated by concern for the environment: they are a way to increase funding opportunities for researchers while divorcing science as a social enterprise from moral questions about what science does.  In terms of the psychology of addiction, this is organized science proposing to act as an enabler.

Simpler Solutions

The straightforward policy solution to the current level of American CO2 emissions is to make energy more expensive.  If energy were more expensive, Americans would use less energy and CO2 emissions would decrease.  No risky, high-tech research subsidy is required.  This is Economics 101.

Policy can’t change what people believe about CO2 emissions, but policy can change how individuals spend their money.  The price system is how society makes collective decisions about the allocation of resources in a market economy.  To save the planet, individuals would determine how to spend the money they aren’t spending on expensive energy.

Making energy more expensive doesn’t just mean increasing the cost of electric light and Internet browsing.  Meat is very energy-intensive to produce.  Since it takes far more energy to produce a pound of meat than it takes to produce a pound of vegetable protein, the price of meat would increase under this scenario.  People would eat less meat as a result.  Eating meat three times a week instead of three times a day is the easiest single thing Americans can do to reduce CO2 emissions.  This would additionally reduce animal cruelty, reduce antibiotic consumption, and reduce agricultural runoff, leading to cleaner water.  Since 80% of antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock as a preventive measure, reducing antibiotic consumption would also help preserve one of the most effective tools available to modern medicine, which is presently under threat from over-use and drug-resistant bacteria.

Social Lunacy

The only sane way to view the National Research Council’s geoengineering report is as a provocation.  It means that the American lifestyle cannot continue.  It does not mean that we need more technology to keep living the way we do.  It means technology has pushed us to the brink of ecological catastrophe.

The belief that more technology will solve the problems created by technology is an irrational article of faith.  Modern technology simply hasn’t been around long enough to demonstrate that it can solve the problems it creates.  The rise of modern technological civilization — which is the proximate cause of climate change — dates to the inventions of the Newcomen and Watt engines around the year 1750. These inventions — which powered the industrial revolution — were inspired by two principle causes: the Renaissance revival of Vitruvius and his three departments of architecture (buildings, machines, timepieces), combined with the need for an energy subsidy in the face of widespread wood shortages caused by deforestation (the steam engine was invented to pump water from coal mines because the English ran out of wood to burn for fuel).

Given that modern technological civilization is only some 250 years old, then if follows that: 1) modern technology has been an unbelievably destructive force globally when viewed across civilizational time scales, and 2) viewed across civilizational time scales, there is an almost complete lack of evidence that modern technology is able to solve the problems it creates.  Geoengineering is a short-sighted solution, and probably insane.

The Connection to Growth

The only demonstrably effective way to reverse course is to slow the rate of technological growth. Today’s rate of growth is not some inherent feature of technology, but a political construct put in place after World War II.  It is a (largely unexamined) policy problem.  I know how repugnant ending growth must sound to a researcher, for whom the search for truth has become a secondary concern, but it’s the most logical solution.  Occam’s Razor agrees.

Growth will end.  We have only to decide whether it ends rationally or in disaster.

Truths Hidden in Plain Sight

In the 18 July 2014 issue of ScienceKendra Smyth reviews the new book “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert.  The book documents past mass extinction events and situates the present loss of biodiversity — due to human activity — within this context.

If it is the case — as Smyth writes — that “with warp speed humans are responsible for transforming the biosphere” and that “humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches,” then this state of affairs would seem to draw attention to certain un-examined assumptions behind statements like “humans have succeeded extravagantly.”

Specifically: perhaps our characteristic intelligence is not at all a survival advantage, but rather a genetic fluke, and the relative youth of our species (behaviorally-modern humans are roughly 50,000 years old) may then simply indicate that natural selection hasn’t yet gotten around to knocking us off the food chain. Perhaps this is a hypothesis better left untested.  Perhaps we’re only “succeeding” insofar as we’re eliminating ourselves faster than natural selection eliminates other species.

It would also seem that the West’s post-Renaissance preoccupation with technological progress conceals an irrational vestige of our religious heritage: an irrational faith in a technological savior to the eschatological trajectory of technology. That is, we eagerly anticipate a technological solution to the problems created by technology.  Given that modern technology is only 300 years old (beginning with the Newcomen engine in the early 1700’s) there is very little evidence in the history of the human race to support the view that technology will solve the problems of technology, making such beliefs very much an article of faith.

To quantify the aforementioned state of affairs, it may be worth beginning with an honest discussion of the heresy of diminishing returns. If one looks at the productivity of the US healthcare system, for example, we see a straightforward diminishing returns curve:

Productivity of the US healthcare system.  Chart indexes increases in life expectancy to expenditures as a percentage of GNP.  Data depicts a characteristic diminishing returns curve.

The meaning of the above chart is that relatively few medical innovations have made a substantive difference in quality of life and overall health outcomes: sanitation and hygiene (in the mid-1800’s, Ignaz Semmelweis at Vienna General Hospital decided that doctors should wash their hands), anesthetics and analgesics (patients used to die of shock during surgery), antibiotics (developed for around $20,000 of basic science research), and the vaccine. Since then, modern medicine has been largely concerned with addressing the problems of technological civilization, such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and environmental pollution. And medicine has been growing exponentially more expensive.  Unfortunately, there are few patents to be found where a change in cultural values is what is needed: you can’t patent a healthy diet and exercise, so well-funded science turns its attention elsewhere.

Although diminishing returns is a well-documented economic phenomenon, it receives scant discussion in the mass media, which is otherwise filled with breathless accounts of the latest and greatest gadgets.  The phenomenon is by no means limited to the healthcare industry, but appears throughout the economy.  If one looks at, for example, the cost per patent over time, a similar curve emerges:


The above chart illustrates a simple point: patents get more expensive over time because most of the easy and most pressing problems get solved first.  The diminishing marginal utility kicks in as more specialized patents affect fewer numbers of individuals, in contrast to patents with a more broad applicability that affect many people.

Here is what diminishing returns on investments in technology mean in cultural terms:

Fracking is a new energy extraction technology with many harmful consequences, including heavy water use, irregular seismic activity, and environmental pollution.  Fracking is becoming an increasingly popular way of extracting energy for two main reasons: politically, Americans don’t want to depend on foreign energy sources; and, culturally, Americans want to persist in destructive, wasteful habits.  Driving in automobiles is inherently wasteful, as over 2/3 of the energy purchased as gasoline is not converted into motion, but rather lost as waste heat.  Fracking is a harmful technology designed to preserve a wasteful mode of transit for cultural reasons.  Busses (measured in passenger miles per gallon), trains, and urban living are by far more energy efficient and less environmentally costly.

Many Americans delude themselves about their habits by purchasing “green” products like hybrid automobiles.  While hybrids produce fewer emissions while in operation, they are more complex than conventional automobiles, use more energy-intensive materials, and they rely on toxic chemicals for their batteries, so that, on the whole, they may actually produce more pollution than typical internal combustion engines.  If one purchases a hybrid with the goal of reducing carbon emissions, one would do better to adopt a vegetarian diet.  Doing so reduces carbon emissions, reduces antibiotics use, lowers medical costs by improving diet, and reduces animal cruelty, without further concentrating wealth in the hands of the industrial system that profits from marketing “green” products that aren’t actually all that “green.”

Dietary modification, despite its advantages, requires self-control and a change in cultural values.  Unfortunately, scientific and technological “progress” plays the role of an enabler for bad habits.  These bad habits seem poised to wipe our species off the face of the planet.


The New Iron Curtain

In the January 24, 2014 issue of Science (vol. 343, P. 372), Albert-László Barabási reviews Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. The novel concerns a large technology company that “relentlessly innovates to reduce crime, to organize and store all information, and to leave no one behind.” Employees live by the “Orwellian” NewSpeak dicta, “Privacy is theft” and “Secrets are lies.”

Where the novel would depict what Barabási calls “the 21st Century’s version of Orwell’s 1984,” both the novelist and the reviewer seem too eager to latch onto the technological aspects of 1984, as well as today’s growing surveillance state. The review concludes with an observation about the National Security Agency and George Orwell’s novel 1984, by way of likening the NSA’s use of private contractors to the themes in Eggers’ new novel, which “reboots 1984 for the digital age.”

The main problem with this techno-centric approach to looking at Orwell’s novel — or today’s surveillance state, for that matter — is that 1984 doesn’t need to be “rebooted for the digital age.” The key principle in the novel is a psychological one — that of the Panopticon — that applies as well today as it did at the very start of the industrial revolution, when the principle was first formulated.

Although 1984 depicts a pervasive system of surveillance, is not about surveillance technology per se, but about the psychology of living under a political system that makes use of such technology. Modern readers tend to focus on the technological aspects of 1984, but this is a modern bias that probably derives from the post-war emphasis on technological growth, and a shift in the science fiction genre away from what Robert Heinlein called “speculative fiction” to what is perhaps might more properly be called “technology fiction.”

In 1984, however, the technology is largely incidental: the protagonist Winston Smith suffers his downfall not because the surveillance proves to be an effective tool for law enforcement, but, rather, because of his own personal indiscretions. Winston Smith — petty bureaucrat and Party member — frequents a resale shop in the forbidden “proletarian quarters.” Winston buys trinkets left over from a world he spends his professional life erasing; he buys a notebook in which he writes his personal heresies; and, when he eventually rents out the spare bedroom above the shop — for the purposes of an illicit love affair — he is entrapped by the shopkeeper, who turns out to be an undercover officer with the “thought police.”

The society in 1984 is modeled on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a prison design that Bentham proposed in 1787, which he felt had applicability to a broad range of social contexts.  The full title of Bentham’s work reads:

“PANOPTICON; Or, The Inspection-House: Containing The Idea Of A New Principle Of Construction Applicable To Any Sort Of Establishment, In Which Persons Of Any Description Are To Be Kept Under Inspection; And In Particular To Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses Of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-Houses, And Schools: With A Plan Of Management.”

The key effect of the pan-optic (“all-seeing”) surveillance system in 1984 is psychological: a constant pressure exerted by the mere possibility of being observed, which coerces individuals into behaving as though there are in actual fact being monitored at all times.  Orwell describes the psychology of the surveillance system in 1984 as follows:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

Orwell’s description of this psychological effect is quite similar to Michel Foucault’s characterization of Bentham’s contrivance.  Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (1975):
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
“To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”

It is, indeed, “Orwellian” that, as we become more aware of this type of surveillance, we come more under its influence — even while lacking a basic understanding of the real effects of the system. It is, to say the least, disconcerting that our modern biases — which we fancy to be so sophisticated — blind us so systematically to those ideas we need now more than ever to properly grasp.

While one may be tempted so suppose that our modern surveillance state represents something new — because of how technologically advanced it is — there is ample evidence that such a system of total surveillance cannot be effective, in terms of detecting all criminal behavior.

In his essay, “Your Face is Not a Barcode,” computer scientist Philip E. Agre reiterates an argument made by noted cryptologist Bruce Schneier.  Using face recognition technology as an example, Agre writes:

“Face recognition is nearly useless for the application that has been most widely discussed since the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington: identifying terrorists in a crowd. As Bruce Schneier points out, the reasons why are statistical. Let us assume, with extreme generosity, that a face recognition system is 99.99 percent accurate. In other words, if a high-quality photograph of your face is not in the ‘terrorist watch list’ database, then it is 99.99 percent likely that the software will not produce a match when it scans your face in real life. Then let us say that one airline passenger in ten million has their face in the database. Now, 99.99 percent probably sounds good. It means one failure in 10,000. In scanning ten million passengers, however, one failure in 10,000 means 1000 failures — and only one correct match of a real terrorist.

“In other words, 999 matches out of 1000 will be false, and each of those false matches will cost time and effort that could have been spent protecting security in other ways. Perhaps one would argue that 1000 false alarms are worth the benefits of one hijacking prevented. Once the initial shock of the recent attacks wears off, however, the enormous percentage of false matches will condition security workers to assume that all positive matches are mistaken. The great cost of implementing and maintaining the face recognition systems will have gone to waste. The fact is, spotting terrorists in a crowd is a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and automatic face recognition is not a needle-in-a-haystack-quality technology. Hijackings can be prevented in many ways, and resources should be invested in the measures that are likely to work.”

Similar arguments can be made for other forms of automatic target detection.  Consider, too, that the NSA doesn’t even attempt to process all the data it gathers — since it’s unnecessary.  In an “Orwellian” twist, it appears that NSA chief General Keith Alexander can tell Congress that the NSA doesn’t “intercept” domestic communications by tapping into the fiber optic lines of telecommunications carriers, making copies of the data, and storing it in a warehouse.  According to how the NSA defines what it does, data is only “intercepted” when it is “put into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.”  Which is to say, in Foucault’s words, “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”

The more fundamental problem with the fixation on the technological aspects of the surveillance state is that it draws attention away from the real issues at play.  Towards the end of 1984, the goal of the totalitarian state depicted in the novel is described as follows:

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

Like the characters in 1984 who, due to NewSpeak whittling down the dictionary, were in the process of losing the ability to express basic facts about their lives and circumstances, we — due to our cultural fixations on growth, and technology, and novelty — effectively live under the same circumstance, and cannot see it.