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Climate Disagreement

Climate change agreement in Paris this weekend. I am seeing a lot of celebratory remarks, but that’s mostly politicians trying to put lipstick on a pig. The text was released only recently, so details are still emerging, but two things seem clear. First, the agreement talks about pledges of “nationally determined contributions”, not legally binding emissions commitments. Second, this weakness is deliberately to accommodate the United States, since everyone recognizes that anything stronger would require an impossible Senate ratification.

This problem demands US leadership for practical and ethical reasons. Remember Kyoto? How confident can we be that US commitments will survive presidential election cycles and Senate filibusters? And what will the rest of the world do if and when they see us shirk again our responsibilities? The Paris agreement might be better than people expected a month ago, but those expectations were low indeed.

We cannot even really blame the Republican Party since a lot of moderate Republicans recognize the problem and would be willing to accept regulatory solutions. It is the Tea Party and Christian evangelical wing that bears the blame. Most estimates say that about 10-15% of Americans have Tea Party sympathies or strongly disbelieve that climate change is a real problem – about 30 million people or less than half a percent of the world’s population. On this issue, they have a stranglehold over the Republican Party, therefore US politics, therefore the world. Never was so much harm done to so many by so few.

This might seem harsh, but there is no getting around the colossal selfishness and myopia on display. Willingness to work on climate change requires two things. First, is a modest economic cost, but Americans are amongst the wealthiest people ever to live. It’s mind boggling for us to use economic hardship as an excuse when the damages done by our fossil fuel habits hit poorer nations the hardest.  The second challenge is abandoning ideological purity and admitting that at least this one issue requires government regulation and international cooperation. Neither the free market nor individual action will get the job done.

You could give the Tea Party the benefit of the doubt by saying that they would act if they truly believed the problem were real. At this point, however, their ignorance of the science is willful – definitely on the part of their leadership. If they don’t want to simply accept the verdict of the National Academy of Sciences (or any other authoritative body), they should roll up their sleeves and do the science homework with an open mind. A good start would be to put aside everything published about climate change per se, pro or con, and just learn a few basic physical principles about how the natural climate system operates. Anyone who does this will quickly realize the cause and magnitude of the problem.

Our best hope is that the Tea Partiers and Christian evangelicals will think again and realize that their own ethics demand action. Personal responsibility – our consumption should not create a burden for future generations. Care for the poor – our carbon emissions harm the most vulnerable, developing countries. Care for creation – how much do we want to preserve the wondrous planet we live on? The species that may or may not be able to adapt to the rapid changes we are unleashing? Our best hope is that the far right will be touched by the better angels of their nature.

 

What Scientific Consensus Looks Like

Nearly everyone says they believe in science, but relatively few people have much experience with how the scientific process actually plays out. Interest groups on multiple sides of multiple issues often confuse matters by citing “science” that is on their side. Worse, some people undermine the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise by cherry-picking past statements from individual researchers, sometimes out of context, that seem ridiculous today. So, here is what laypeople should understand about how the scientific process really works, when you can claim that “science says…”, and when you should not. Keep this in mind when you are digesting news about recent findings, reading political arguments, and so on.

Rule #1: One paper is not the truth.
I put this first because it’s the most important. The fact that a group of scientists has gone through the trouble of doing the work and writing the paper should tell you that the science is not settled. Nobody today publishes papers about whether the Earth revolves around the sun or vice versa, although that was once a hot question in astronomy. Publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal is fundamentally an attempt to persuade fellow scientists of something – who else reads these journals? Each paper is part of an ongoing dialogue (or shouting match) within the scientific community. What you cannot tell from a paper is how many of the author’s colleagues agree. Is the paper the majority or minority view? Is the community evenly split? Is the paper the last gasp of the side losing the argument?

Peer review is only the first bar we use to determine whether one of these papers should be taken seriously or not, and peer review is not an ironclad guarantee that a paper is “right” in the larger sense of the word. One challenge is that reviewers are busy people and, almost without exception, peer review is something we do anonymously and for free. There are not a lot of incentives to spend too much time on it, although some research communities are trying out new processes. Moreover, there is no way that a single peer reviewer can check, in hours, what it took an entire team of people months or years to accomplish. When I do peer review, I am mostly trying to determine if the paper seems reasonable enough to merit a place in the dialogue. Do the authors explain their methods in enough detail so that someone else could reproduce the work? Do they present enough data to support their interpretation and findings? If their findings are especially surprising, do they make extra efforts to explain and convince?

The news media frequently does stories on recently published single papers, and laypeople often cite individual papers as if a single, peer-reviewed paper were somehow definitive. Sorry, but you don’t have my attention yet – things are more complicated than that – one paper is not truth.

Rule #2: The real peer review happens after the peer review.
Maybe the most important part of the scientific enterprise is the least visible. Individual scientists read and discuss new papers, weigh the evidence across a body of literature, look for patterns, and start to form more definite opinions. If a single paper tells the story of how its authors came to be persuaded of something (and sometimes the “conclusions” of a paper are quite tentative, even for the authors), the real test is when and if their colleagues become convinced.

There are a lot of reasons why a researcher will weight some papers more than others. Maybe the papers that go against the trends of the literature all have small sample sizes. Maybe some methods or measurements are not well-suited to some questions or have been superseded by newer techniques. Subtle explanations can bring coherence to a body of literature that looks contradictory at first glance. The data in a paper might be good even if the authors overlooked an alternative interpretation. Unfortunately, these judgments really do require expertise, so journalists and laypeople often take individual papers too seriously.

Over time, papers that are judged to be more important and persuasive get cited more frequently. Researchers are obsessed with citation count as one indicator of how good or influential their favorite papers have been.

Some of the highest profile journals, places like Science and Nature, have a mission to disseminate rapidly and widely the really new and surprising findings. These are more likely to get news coverage, but the new surprises are often the papers that are most in need of confirmation.

This is also why the scientific process values reproducibility. If a topic is important, other researchers will look into it using the same or alternative methods. If the original researchers were careless or fraudulent, it is very likely to be discovered in time.

Peer-reviewed papers are the building blocks of scientific consensus, but they are not consensus by themselves. Each is subsequently inspected and weighed. A few, sometimes a lot, are disregarded as spurious, and the rest are used to assemble the building we call “consensus”.

Rule #3: When there is consensus, the scientific community will tell you so.
If the critical process of assessing a conflicting body of literature is mostly invisible, it can be hard for outsiders to understand really what is going on. Fortunately, there are a number of trusted organizations specifically tasked with communicating the overall assessments of the scientific community. One leading example is the US National Academy of Sciences, established by Congress in 1863, with the mission to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.” Other examples would be the Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, and other professional organizations like the American Geophysical Union, etc. Once they issue official statements or reports based on committees convened to assess a question, it can be considered to be the consensus.

Really, the only difficulty is deciding if a particular organization is a reputable authority in a certain area. Sometimes interest groups set up official-sounding organizations to muddy the waters, but it’s usually not hard to weed them out of the conversation.

Some question the integrity of the consensus because aren’t we in it for the research money? Funding is a vital concern of researchers, and it has led to individual instances of bias, but I doubt there has ever been a case where the science establishment declares consensus on a topic simply for the money. There are multiple safeguards. First, university researchers with tenure have the independence and flexibility to change their own research agenda. Only about half of my work is climate change related. If I weren’t sincerely convinced of climate science, I could easily switch to working entirely on traditional air pollution issues. Second, to be honest, in many fields, the sums involved just aren’t that much and go overwhelmingly to pay for the costs of doing research rather than into the pocket of the researcher. Third, besides the transparency and reproducibility checks in the science process, the committee reviews that establish consensus typically include independent scientists, ones that are not getting the research money for a topic but are in a closely related field so they are qualified to review. To get a tainted consensus statement, you would first need a collective failure of ethics by all the researchers receiving money, and then they would need to fool their knowledgeable peers who are not receiving money.

Rule #4: There are always stubborn individuals.
Even after a hard-earned consensus emerges, there will always be some who disagree. These hold outs may be stubbornly holding onto positions they advocated while there was a real scientific debate. Or, more rarely, they may be the eccentric genius that sees what others don’t. Individual scientists are frequently wrong. Official consensus statements of reputable groups of scientists are almost always right. This is especially true for well-studied and controversial topics that have received a lot of scrutiny.

Science is never considered “finished”, and the scientific process allows for dearly held views to be overturned in the face of new evidence. It’s fair for “science” always to remain open to the possibility, however remote, that the consensus is wrong and the stubborn eccentric is right. But it’s foolish for individuals or society as a whole to assume they know better and bet against the consensus. It’s also foolish to put faith in the statements of the lone dissenters or to mistake individual papers for consensus.

Checks and paralysis

Americans tend to see the typical European parliamentary system as fragmented and fragile. We feel smug when we see coalitions fall apart after a few months or witness the tortured negotiations about putting one together in the first place. Twenty political parties? Really?

But, I’m starting to think they are on to something. For us to get something done, we need House, Senate, and President to agree … And the Senate probably needs 60 votes out of 100. The result is paralysis, the impossibility of passing budgets or doing anything substantive for years at a time. For better or worse, this is how the Founders designed things. We call it “checks and balances”. We call it normal.

In a parliamentary system, when politicians cannot agree on an agenda, they have new coalition negotiations. The sytem highlights the paralysis and then goes into overdrive until a majority agrees on the next steps. The country waits with baited breath to see what the new coalition will be and the new agenda. Here, it’s more like “don’t hold your breath”.

Maybe there is something to be said to giving the winners of the most recent election free rein to implement their policies? At the next election, you vote them out if you don’t like the results. No excuses about “we were going to do all these great things but those other guys wouldn’t let us.”

The Other Kind of Entitlement

“There are 47 percent who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. These are people who pay no income tax.”

-Mitt Romney

Short Facebook posts cannot capture how much this statement bothers me. This will get a bit metaphysical, but I promise it will all come back to politics in the end – whether you like it or not.

I lived two years in Ecuador, where I worked as a Mormon missionary, never once returning to the United States during that time. As missionaries in the city of Guayaquil, we enjoyed reasonable living conditions, but we mostly worked in slum neighborhoods where rural migrants set up house when they arrived looking for work. They were called “invasions” because they were squatter shantytowns. Residents did not own the land they built their houses on. Almost without exception (we lived in the exceptions), these were cane shacks.

When I returned to the US and saw my parent’s very average American suburban house, I was amazed that I lived in so much luxury for 20 years without realizing it. It was well beyond what would be considered upper middle class in Ecuador. It was downright wealthy, although not quite super-rich. A week later, I resumed my engineering studies at Cornell University. As I made the transition to Ivy League life after the slums of the Third World, I was surprised and a bit smug to see my classmates so stressed about their studies. “Don’t sweat it,” I thought, “even if you coast your way to some C grades, you are set for life. Just let me tell you where I was two weeks ago…”

Twenty years later, the memories of Ecuador are dimmer, but there is an abiding sense that life has been good to me. With a PhD from Caltech, I have enviable educational credentials. I’m an engineering professor at an “elite” university. Even if it’s not quite as cushy as everyone thinks, it’s a pretty darn good job. It’s intellectually stimulating, personally satisfying and provides an income that is well above the median, even for the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. My wife, Amy, and I have no financial worries. I appreciate that we have the means to pay others to perform household repairs that we cannot or prefer not to. We eat out at nice restaurants, have travelled extensively, and splurging on a nice bottle of wine is not something to worry about.

To quote David Byrne, “how did I get here”? Did I work for this? Yes, reasonably hard at times, but I am not certain that it has been much more or less than what a lot of people put into their jobs. My mother-in-law has spent most of the past decade putting many hours into holding down two jobs without being rewarded the same way. A lot of people in Ecuador worked much harder, in more physically demanding jobs, for a lot less money. Probably, some of them are as smart or smarter, although there is really no way to know for sure. My science and math aptitude is high, but it’s not off the charts. Since we knocked on a lot of doors as missionaries, I must have met many, many people capable of similar scientific achievements. But they are not university professors at elite institutions.

It turns out that being born into a stable, loving, middle class family in 20th century America is a good deal. I would not have gotten where I am without work, but the opportunities were there for the taking. A natural talent for science didn’t hurt either, especially in modern America. With my physical hardiness, if I had been born into a society of subsistence farmers or a tribe of hunter gatherers, I would be lucky to achieve an average prosperity, even by their modest standards. Seen in a global, historical perspective, I was born with a winning lottery ticket in hand. All I had to do was go and cash it in.

Your lot in life is a combination of the circumstances of birth, natural talent, and effort – not to mention luck along the way. I’m sure that effort is virtuous and deserving of reward. Natural talent is debatable. Many people think so, but I cannot see how being born with the smart advantage is any different than being born rich, born in a technologically advanced society, or so on. I do know that I have taught students, who have studied harder than I did, but graduated with a C average. They are no dummies – they got into Carnegie Mellon’s engineering program – but they won’t go to graduate school and won’t become research scientists. Calculus just didn’t click for them the way it did for me. Some will make more money than I regardless, either by luck or because they learned some valuable life lessons during the rough transition from high school valedictorian to below-average CMU engineer.

In summary, I have a classic case of liberal guilt. But, it’s guilt and not angst. I won’t question too much a system that has been good to me, and anyway the universe is too mysterious to understand why these things happen.

I’m not saying that anyone who holds down a job should get paid the same. About ten years ago, Amy suffered an aneurysm. Modern science, in the form of an excellent neurosurgeon named Dr. Bob Caton, saved her life. During the long hours spent at the hospital, I wondered who could cut open a person’s skull and put a titanium clamp on a blood vessel nestled in sensitive brain tissue? Who would put themselves through that kind of stress just once? What kind of person would make a life and a career out of it? It’s probably a mixture of hubris, icy coolness, confidence in excellent training and willingness to put doubts aside when another’s life is on the line. Whatever it is, I decided they deserve to be compensated very well for their troubles.

As a more prosaic example, most people are surprised to learn that private school teachers make less money than public school teachers. Private schools seem elite, and most people assume teachers there get a premium. We learned this when we got married, Amy moved to Pasadena, and took a position at a private school there. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Compared to the comfortable working environment of a private school, how much more would you have to be paid to put up with the discipline problems, gang violence and all the rest that you get in the LA Unified schools? Can you put a price on it? It turns out you can, and this seems fair to me. Our quality of life was much better with Amy at a private school. She had a short commute, a great work environment, and we lived comfortably.

Entitlement means getting your fair share, getting what you deserve. How much does the market know about fairness? Neurosurgeons make good money, and public school teachers make more than private school, so it gets things part right. But the broader you look, the more it lets you down. In the grand scheme of things, accidents of the birth lottery count for more than hard work.

You don’t have to look across countries or centuries to see the role of luck and circumstances in market outcomes. Over the past 30 years, income inequality has increased in developed nations. There is probably endless economic debate about why, but there are some leading explanations. Information technology has helped educated and highly paid workers become more productive, boosting their incomes yet more. Skilled workers in manufacturing jobs, on the other hand, have suffered as their jobs move overseas, automation makes them redundant, and they get pushed into lower wage service jobs. See, for example,

http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/12/incomes

and related discussion.

Moreover, personal income in the United States has been pretty stagnant for 40 years (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States), so it’s not true that everyone is becoming better off, just at different rates. There is no rising tide lifting all the boats. Working people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are seeing their standard of living eroded through no fault of their own. Adjusted for inflation, their incomes have gone down. Household incomes have increased only because so many households now have two incomes instead of one.

The point is that, 40 years ago, a skilled worker and a highly educated worker had much closer incomes, and this was considered a “fair” market outcome. Nowadays, the same two individuals would end up much further apart on the socioeconomic spectrum than their 1970s counterparts. Even if each individual’s merits (natural talent, level of education, work ethic) didn’t change, their rewards did … and this is still supposed to be a “fair” market outcome.

Evidently, what passes as a “fair” market outcome is not justice in the absolute sense of the word. That would imply an unchanging standard and a reward for virtue and merit that I fail to see in the workings of the market. The invisible hand of the market is surprisingly fickle.

Sometimes, religion has espoused the idea that your good fortune is not entirely your own doing. To quote the Book of Mormon as a not completely random sample text:

“And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”

I won’t argue that the last bit is a Mormon call for a modern welfare state. Let’s leave it for what it was probably meant to be, a call for private and voluntary charity. The important thing is the first part that says you cannot take full credit for the stuff you own. A sense of wonder and gratitude, in moderation, is a healthy thing.

Conservative talk about the value of the free market and the evils of the public sector revolve around the idea that market outcomes are fair and effective, and that public interventions distort them. Free markets have been attributed with almost God-like wisdom as the Arbiter of what is fair, who is deserving and so on. But imponderables like the whims of the birth lottery and prosaic factors like globalization and technological change play roles that are every bit as important as hard work. The idea that people should be rewarded for being born with natural talent is not self-evident.

Technological and economic progress is not bad. Without a doubt, the free market has proven itself to be the most effective system for delivering them. Ultimately, the market delivers progress in the form of a bigger pie. But the free market appears to be incapable of dividing the pie in a way that seems morally just in any meaningful way. It cannot even ensure that the slice going to the majority of working individuals gets bigger over time when it delivers on its promise of progress.

Unfortunately, finding a “fair” way to divide the pie is a task left to us. It will always lead to contentious debates as it is doing now. For better or worse, the only mechanism we have for resolving them is the political process, and the results of that debate will be implemented via the action (or inaction) of the government. To push the metaphor too far, we need to be careful that the slicing of the pie doesn’t interfere too badly with the growing of the pie. We will muddle through.

What will not work is to try and shirk responsibility for making a moral judgment about income distribution and redistribution (because every government action or inaction implies redistribution) by appealing to the Market as the Higher Authority of all that is Good and Fair. An unquestioned belief that you fully deserve your privileged position in society is just another kind of entitlement.

My Anti-Tweet

There are some things that I want to say online, but Facebook just doesn’t do the job. I won’t even consider Twitter. I have no plans to offer a regular lineup of “content”. These are just things I want to have said, and I hope you join the conversation.