Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Picking And Choosing

I suppose the more things change, the more they remain the same.

I have a sense of both "glee" and "resignation" when I look at the brouhaha surrounding the recent NY Times piece on Freeman Dyson. I'm sure most of you have heard this already and the commotion surrounding that piece with regards to Dyson's view on global warming. The responses came from global warming opponents who are trumpeting the fact that a "prominent physicist" is aligning with their point of view (forgetting the fact that Dyson actually would admit global warming does occur but that it isn't detrimental to our planet), to various claims and accusation made against Dyson himself and the interviewer.

I don't wish to discuss the science involved in global warming, or even if Dyson's analysis is reasonable. There are more knowledgeable people who have already responded in this issue. What I wish to deal with here is, once again, the double standard and the pick-and-choose that is being done with regards to the "prestige" of physics that is being used to support something. Here is the case where a prominent physicists is being "used" simply because he has a view that someone find palatable. It is understandable that his position gives him some credence and weight to what he has to say on this matter. Still, for those who are actually rabidly welcoming his views, what makes this any better than, say, the view of other prominent physicists (and there are MORE of them) that support the view of global warming being caused by human actions? In fact, the American Physical Society has made it clear of such a view, support by many prominent physicists and the National Academy of Sciences. How does one pick and support the view of one physicist over another, or over a large consensus of other physicists?

This debacle is no different than the other recent one when the Forum on Physics and Society decided to publish an article by Monckton questioning global warming scenario. Global warming opponent went "bonkers" with glee by trumpeting that a prominent physics organization is now also questioning the validity of of global warming! All this while ignoring several factors, including the APS's clear stand on this issue.

I see very confusing actions here. On one hand, there are people who hold physics and physicists in such high regards that even a sliver of support being shown by such camp is being heralded with such fanfare. Somehow a support from physics or by a physicist solidify a particular point of view. On the other hand, when it is from the opposite end, such a thing is ignored completely, and made even more glaring when the consensus produced by such major organization such as the NAS and APS support the opposite point of view. One is clearly picking and choosing.

It brings back to the very fundamental observation here which could easily be the origin of many of the issues and problems that we face as a society. The support that the public shows towards science is really NOT based on a solid understanding of science, but rather on the PERCEIVED importance of science. In other words, they really have no clue what science is, how it works, and why it is important. All they know is that it is important (for whatever reason), and thus, they support it. It also means that the support for science can be very fleeting and can in fact shift very easily. They can shift the support from one to another very easily, without evaluating the validity of something. It is why someone can easily support science, but also believe in astrology and not believe in evolution. In this present case, someone can simply pick and choose who to believe, because the science in question isn't understood. It results in why one can choose to buy what Dyson said, while ignoring other prominent physicists or even a majority consensus. The choice was not made based on physics.

This problem will rear its ugly head in other areas, not just global warming, if it hasn't already. The battle of evolution versus creationism is one such example. People made choices not based on understanding of the science, even though this IS a science issue.


1 comment:

Peter Morgan said...

Hi ZZ, I worry about your final "People made choices not based on understanding of the science, even though this IS a science issue", when it's applied to the environment. I think it's more a question of engineering creativity, with continuous feedback needed between scientific data gathering and assessment and new engineering ideas. Do we have to become a technocratic society? It's a problem that people remember quite well how bad the technocratic society (as one might hesitantly call it) of the 19th and early 20th century was at recognizing and fixing the consequences of industry on the environment.

Assessment of the consequences of possible planet-wide courses of action, on time-scales of years, decades, and centuries, is outrageously difficult. Dyson's hesitancy over the accuracy of computer modeling for the assessment of our choices of action is at least marginally justifiable, except that (I think) we have to to jump in and do something, and assess it and make up other stuff to do as we go along, as best we can.

Creativity is part of science, but it's not a programmed part of science, and engineering creativity is somewhat different again. If the science and engineering establishment doesn't give palatable options for politicians to choose between, they will choose something else. Is that their fault, or the fault of the limited imagination of scientists? Perhaps any computer model that doesn't model the behavior of politicians effectively is not worth running?

A lot of resources were spent on hydroelectric power, but now we've discovered some of the downsides, many decades later, we're not so keen on doing more. Now, we're spending on wind power, but it seems clear that we can only get a small part of our energy needs from it, and how bad the downsides are will again only become apparent in a few decades time.

There is a legitimate argument over which ideas will work well enough for us to spend huge resources on. We need, as a society, to be able to recognize and use effectively new ideas from science and from engineering. That is theoretically supposed to be what a market economy does better than any other way of organizing resources, but of course our confidence in the economics and banking type of technocrat is at something of a low right now.

Almost random thoughts, of course, because the economy and politics are not something I've thought about for decades (even if I had, they seem of a different type of complexity to physics, so perhaps forever even more out of reach than physics is). The system is beyond easy rationalization.

The ambivalence about science, engineering, economics, and politics seems to me historically not unjustified. What each discipline does, of course, is point out how much they have learned from their mistakes, but one almost has to be in the discipline to be so generous in the face of mistakes that are in some cases enormous.