Tagged: United States

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.

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Theses on Technological Progress

Assuming technology always “evolves” better versions is medieval thinking.  This way of thinking about technology only makes sense if one assumes that Man is on top of Nature’s Great Chain of Being, and that technology, our prosthesis, is made in our image, as a Microcosm of Man.

Technology doesn’t “evolve,” it’s designed.  The modern understanding of “design” originates in the European Renaissance.

Technological “evolution” exhibits some features of reproduction with variation, but these variations are determined by design, not by natural selection.

Markets may resemble natural selection in certain cases, but “competition” — which drives evolution under the model of natural selection — is not a defining feature of today’s organized industries.

Commercially-produced industrial technologies are often released in successive iterations, but to consider each iteration as a sign of “progress” makes a categorical error.

Progress is a teleological concept: it is goal-oriented.  One makes progress along a line from A to B.  “Intelligent design” is also a teleological concept because it involves God having a plan for Man.

The technological iterations commonly deemed “progress” involve complex tradeoffs that are often qualitative in nature.

The modern concept of “progress” originated in the European Enlightenment, which was defined by the cultural rediscovery of Classical wisdom from antiquity.

In action, “progress” does not entail improvement, nor does it implicate “advancement” as the word might be understood in the “pure” sciences.

With respect to technological “progress,” consider a case in point: the mobile phones of today offer inferior voice quality with a more fragile connection than the landlines of yesterday.  The wireless capability of mobile phones may offer one advantage over our natural limitations, and the ability to speak at a distance another, but, as cultural artifacts, telephones neither directly nor by analogy “evolved” the ability to send and receive text messages, in response people tiring of habitually speaking into them.

Pollution is by and large a problem with commercial technology.  Yet with religious fervor, most people unquestioningly believe there is a technological solution to the problems of technology.  This assumption may prove disastrous for anybody reading this, or their children, or their grandchildren, but it will happen that soon.

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.

Is Michael Shermer Really a Skeptic?

In the June, 2013 volume of Scientific American, Michael Shermer’s reply to a reader’s published letter makes a number of remarkable statements.  Shermer was attempting to clarify or otherwise augment the meaning of his February, 2013 column, “The Left’s War on Science.”  In discussing how “the ‘anti’ bias can creep in from the far left,” Mr. Shermer suggests that “Perhaps instead of ‘anti-science’ it is ‘anti-progress’” that is the real issue with the political left.  I would like to address the implicit normative biases inherent in Mr. Shermer’s equating of “anti-science” with “anti-progress,” to which he seems to give ascent un-skeptically.  Granted, he is not identifying the one with the other, but he does equate them, and this reveals a bias.

First, there is the more superficial bias contained in Mr. Shermer’s choice of phraseology, specifically, the use of an oppositional definition employing the prefix “anti” to specify his referent, the sense of which implies a normative value judgement given the popular discourse around such diverse spheres as “technology” or “freedom.”  Who in their right mind is against “progress?”  If automation is replacing our workforce, maybe “anti-progress” is also “pro-labor.”  If cheap integrated circuits are the product of dubiously sourced coltan, maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-human rights.”  If more automobiles make more pollution (because increased fuel economy doesn’t fully offset the increasing carbon costs of extracting energy from less accessible reserves), and if more fuel-efficient automobiles furthermore compound other state-centric financial problems (such as the market consequences of ethanol mandates on subsidized industrial agriculture in the US, or on third-world grain prices for what are otherwise staple food crops on the global market), maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-ecology.”

Or, to phrase the same difficulty in slightly different terms: do we really need more “progress” in the breeding of more productive grains, or is it maybe better to use culture to encourage a more comprehensive ecological view of the individual in the world, and to simply stop throwing out half the food we produce each year, or only eat meat three times a week instead of three times a day?  Is it possible that these “ecological” solutions are not only less complex than new networks of industrial processes, but can also be more resilient and cheaper and more pleasurable to partake in?  Would it be anti-progress, for example, to advocate for reducing unemployment by increasing labor-intensive organic food production for a less meat-centric diet, that is also less wasteful, more full of substantive choices and alternatives, and healthier?

Second, there is the bias conveyed by Progress itself, which Progress invokes in favor of itself, and for its own perpetuation, wherever Progress is invoked.  Progress is a relatively new ideology in Western culture, dating for our purposes to the European Enlightenment.  It says, basically, that things always improve through the mass accumulation of specialized, systematic knowledge and the mass dissemination of its applications. In a commercial sense, it means newer technology is always better and must also replace older technology.  This ideology is relatively new.  The European Renaissance, by contrast, venerated the wisdom of Antiquity; in Medieval Christendom things were better back in Eden; and in Rome, the mythic Golden Age of the remote past offered the ideal model for future aspirations.  Even Francis Bacon, famous advocate of the “advancement of learning,” conjured up the long-lost Atlantis in his utopian manifesto on the future of the mathematical arts.

Looking more closely at such normative terms in their popular usage (to wit, “anti-progress”), certain flaws in the ideology’s positive formulation become apparent.  A case study in terminology: if we look at bees, we can see they are a much older species than modern homo sapiens.  They outnumber us, have been more successful at propagating their genes than us, and, in a sense are therefore “more evolved” than us.  Are bees “better” than humans because they are “more evolved” or otherwise “more successful?”  Consider this: if “progress” drives our species to destroy our own habitat, maybe our big brains aren’t really all that great of a survival advantage after all — or maybe, at least, it’s a little lunatic to talk about human intelligence in such superlative terms, as if our absolute superiority were a settled matter.  I think the jury is very much still out on this: the average mammal lasts about a million years, so it’s really not like modern humans are a model of Malthusian-Darwinian longevity.  Maybe Neanderthals really were better, and we out-competed them because we’re a genetic fluke, a virus, that will eventually consume itself by consuming its host — and though we would declare ourselves victors over Neanderthals, perhaps the cosmic hammer of natural selection just hasn’t landed quite yet, for our stupidity in destroying our living past.  Which is not to suggest I am arguing against rationality or engineering, or Enlightenment values: to start building a metaphor from our case study in terminology: bees conduct their affairs with a lot of remarkable, organized, rule-governed social behaviors — and they do so with very little brain.  With just a little more than what a basal ganglia can do, they might make a suitable metaphor for those same Enlightenment social values that produced that grand edifice of civil law our nation so highly esteems.

Third, there is the teleological component to Mr. Shermer’s particular choice of the term “progress” that can easily lead to false inferences about the ideology and its historical consequences.  Specifically, “progress” implies progress towards something: you progress from A to B.  “Progress” broadly understood, however, is more properly analogous to the way a scientist might talk about a body part being “designed” to accomplish a particular purpose, or an electron “liking” to do different things under different circumstances.  Scientists in such cases aren’t really making teleological claims, though they are making a case for a structured set of circumstances.  Perhaps, in empirical terms, human civilization is making progress towards catastrophe — be in environmental ruin or thermonuclear war.

What qualifies as “progress” in one context may be more usefully described as a type of normative bias, when the term’s usage is considered more broadly.  Although it is easy to see that computers have replaced typewriters and wireless phones have replaced landlines in many cases, and we all agree these developments are more convenient in certain ways (though they also facilitate undesirable behaviors, such eavesdropping or distracted driving), these media-centric cultural touchstones are really of limited historical validity where “progress” is concerned.  Computers have not replaced paper, or pens, or books, or the written word, or the value of “movable” or otherwise dynamic type: older technologies aren’t always replaced, though their role changes.

Many electric guitarists today seek out amplifiers driven by vacuum tubes, which are still sold for this purpose, and some musicians prefer to record onto analog tape, or to release new recordings on vinyl.  This is normal.  As of the year 6013 A.L., some 30% of computers are running Windows XP, a 10-year-old operating system.  Outdated technology is the norm: there are six times as many users of the outdated Windows XP as there are Mac users, Apple’s stock price notwithstanding.  Which is to say, equating (or, perhaps more properly, conflating) “technology” with “the newest technology” under the rubric of “progress” reflects a bias.

Lastly, there is the wisdom of the ages, which Progress would amputate from our intellectual heritage: Futurist architect and Italian Fascist Tomasso Marinetti apparently wrote persuasively in 1914 about this devastation of living history, embodied in historical buildings and common urban forms, how it represents “a victory for which we fight without pause against the cowardly worship of the past.”  His vision was realized in many mid-sized American cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when historic downtown areas across the country were razed to make way for Interstates and parking lots and parking garages for suburban commuters.  This same razing provided the match to ignite many of the the urban riots during the late 1960’s, and initiated a decades-long program of planned neglect in inner cities nationwide, while suburbs parasitized both cities and rural areas in the guise of an aggressive modernity.

Proverbs 6:6-8 reads: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: which, having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.”  The organization of ant society is profoundly decentralized, but also profoundly social and cooperative.  The US Constitution is similar: it speaks of the “common defense,” the “general welfare” and “our posterity” but also of “the blessings of liberty” and of “Justice.”  The ant is properly feminized in King James to accord with the Greek Sophia — Wisdom — in the same manner as other Biblical sayings, such as Proverbs 8:1 (“Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?”) or Matthew 11:19 (“The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children”).  The teachings of Freemasonry take this basic appeal and apply it to secular society, in a Neoplatonist fashion, modeled after Plato’s utopian discourse on the ideal State.

Freemason Albert Pike — the only Confederate officer to be honored with an outdoor statue in DC — fashioned a highly inter-textual dialog called The Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.  A compendium of Renaissance wisdom synthesized with the tools of Enlightenment systematic inquiry, the text represents a sort of Machiavelli of morals.  Chapter VIII reads in part: “A Masonic Lodge should resemble a bee-hive, in which all the members work together with ardor for the common good… To comfort misfortunes, to popularize knowledge, to teach whatever is true and pure in religion and philosophy, to accustom men to respect order and the proprieties of life, to point out the way to genuine happiness, to prepare for that fortunate period, when all the factions of the Human Family, united by the bonds of Toleration and Fraternity, shall be but one household,–these are labours that may well excite zeal and even enthusiasm.”

Which is to pick up the Solomonic wisdom from the Proverbs, by adopting an animal that is industrious and well-organized like the ant, though less inclined to warfare, and also an ardent lover of beauty.  Plato had Socrates say it similarly, in urging us to craft the works of a “fine and graceful” social order “so that our young people will live in a healthy place and be benefited on all sides, and so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason.”

So I went and revisited Mr. Shermer’s February 2013 column, as I had that month’s magazine still on the table in my study.  The column’s hook promises to explore “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum.”  I would rather have read someone argue from that starting point something more to the effect that “both ends of the spectrum” accept ideological “progress” so unquestioningly, that alternatives with their repercussions are almost inconceivable, and that this is a far greater problem, because it induces systemic blindness that is threatening the civilization whose values Mr. Shermer purports to defend.