Sunday, September 18, 2011

Comment Link Broken

For some reason, blogger isn't letting me post a comment in my last post, so I'm putting it here instead until I figure this out.

Ritmo wrote:
At some point, science should be allowed to inform public policy.
Yes. There's an earlier post here where I praise Nature for publishing dissenting opinion on AGW.

As for Chu-- I have a tag for him.  I have been following DoE politics at least since the 1980's. My negative opinion of him stems from his stewardship of the agency, and not from his capability as a scientist.  I tend to dislike the sort of blind respect he garners, for example from POTUS during the Deepwater Horizon event. I looked for, but could not find, a video link to Chris Matthews when he, fed up with Obama's dithering said (paraphrasing) "If he says one more thing about his Nobel Prize I'm gonna puke."
If Chu were appealing to personal beliefs and feelings as a way to trump a stance on the issues about which politics is allowed to opine and governments obliged to seek empirical evidence, then as with Giaever, Pauling, Mullis and even Einstein (when he famously rejected quantum mechanics on theological[!] grounds), I'd say he's wandering too far afield from the mission asked of him.
The public trust and opinion of DoE at this point speaks for itself. If POTUS wanted to fix one thing with one fell swoop he could replace Chu with someone less adversarial towards the energy industries in America.
Of course we allow/encourage creativity and dissent to inform the scientific spirit in ways that will allow for superstitious cranks as easily as they will for genius. But shouldn't a public service be compelled to rely on the most accurate evidence possible? [Yes!] And when it comes to the projection of limited data on an evolving, real-life scenario decades into the future, is the precautionary principle and reliance on smaller scale models really too much to ask for?
If pharmacologists were allowed to treat animal toxicology the way Americans treat climate science, we'd have generations of flipper babies and other disturbing catastrophes to show for it.
The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene
We rely on smaller preclinical studies to temper our willingness to proclaim an IND absolutely safe, no matter how notoriously difficult it is to extrapolate animal toxicology to safety in humans.
I think this is at it should be and the appropriate model for planetary real-time experiments in tinkering with the composition of the atmosphere, and for public policy generally.

The flip side of that risk does not allow for a favorable cost/benefit trade-off to the population as a whole.
One could call environmentalists overzealous, but their track record on giving us a cleaner and more sustainable planet is better than that of their adversaries. And I have a difficult time understanding why financial conflicts of interest are obvious and acted upon when it comes to petty crimes and personal matters, but not when entire industries and political factions are involved.

My scientific understanding would be greatly enhanced by an adequate explanation of that.

Let's consider the environmental movement and public perceptions.  I'm just old enough to recall the birth of the EPA and also the public sentiment at the time, perhaps best summarized in that brilliant advertisement of the American Indian paddling through the polluted water and shedding a tear.
Is there anyway, today, that such a simple and effective message could be used to promote the dispersion of CFL bulbs? I'm bothered by the dispersion of mercury into the environment which those bulbs foster. Smokestacks emit Hg too, but the emissions are more efficiently captured in a flue trap. Today's "big messages" are clouded with ambiguity.

Another example:  I seem to recall The Economist championing carbon taxes as an acceptable idea apart from any disincentive for CO2 production. The notion was IIRC, just an admission that such taxes would be "most fair."  Please correct me if I'm wrong on that.


  1. Chickenlittle - you're calling it the way you see it. I don't think it's too long.

  2. Yes. Don't apologize for lengthiness. You're entitled to give at least as much as I gave!

    Anyway, you have some good points here worth responding to, as I feel obliged to do given your challenging distillation of all that you had to say, in response, into an entire post of its own. I'll read through and try to respond in a way that helps us cut to the main ideas/points, if that's ok with you.

    Thanks -

  3. The public trust and opinion of DoE at this point speaks for itself.

    I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree. I must have far less faith in how well educated most Americans are on matters of science to endorse public opinion of a science agency, as a whole, as a meaningful mark of its performance.

    If POTUS wanted to fix one thing with one fell swoop he could replace Chu with someone less adversarial towards the energy industries in America.

    See above. Also, I simply don't understand why an industry - especially an industry with a financial stake in how a scientific matter is decided - should be privileged in determining a regulatory agency's decisions. They have the least reason for objectivity of any party.

    The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene.

    I don't agree. Litigation benefits from harms that are very damaging, immediately observable and intensely personal. (Makes for a better narrative in front of a jury, I suppose). If the costs of a small scale harm, pollutant, toxin, etc. are spread out over an entire population, over a very long period of time, the harm is ignored, the harm is conflated with natural, pre-existing risks, the harm is allowed to be seen as normative, and then allowed to be increased based on a higher threshold level of damage now becoming the new norm.

    Public, common resources, are therefore especially prone to degradation - despite our crucial reliance on them. This probably argues for more vigilant oversight over such resources than over private property, given the lack of stakeholders with a solely personal interest. Organizing class action suits is hard enough. Organizing an entire society around these more easily hidden harms, damn near impossible.

    Boiling frog metaphors...

    Let's consider the environmental movement and public perceptions... Today's "big messages" are clouded with ambiguity.

    I don't think I disagree with anything you're saying here. If you're saying that certain proposed solutions could come with their own harms, trade-offs - or could be short-sighted in themselves, I certainly see no reason to disagree with that.

    I'm not sure what you're trying to get at with the last paragraph but the stance from The Economist that you summarize sounds accurate.

    Since it seems we may be getting into a discussion on the best way to regulate the commons, negative externalities, etc., the collapse of fisheries might be a better example. Recent (dare I say "ground-breaking") economic research has been recognized in this field. The basic idea seems to be that important long-term interests and short-term goals may often be at odds with each other, and balancing them out doesn't always fall best under the purview of a single party.