10 December 2009

Guest Post by Jean Goodwin: What Firm Foundation?

Jean Goodwin is an Associate Professor of English/Speech Communication at Iowa State University, and has provided this interesting guest post:
When Sarah Palin avowed yesterday that she'd "always believed that policy should be based on sound science," she was only echoing the hope of many of those involved in the IPCC process itself--for example, WGI Chair John Houghton, in his preface to the First Assessment Report (1990):

I am confident that the Assessment and its Summary will provide the necessary firm scientific foundation for the forthcoming discussions and negotiations on the appropriate strategy for response and action regarding the issue of climate change.

After twenty years of research and reports, have scientists yet produced the "basis" or "firm scientific foundation" (one way or the other) on which the rest of us can work together to construct a policy response? Check the post counts on the New York Time's Copenhagen-related discussion boards, "Climate Change Conversations":

Clean Energy Technology (123)...

Putting a Price on Carbon (145)

Prospects for a Treaty (121)

Rich and Poor Nations (123)

Science of Global Warming (1153)..

What Individuals Can Do (201)

Science "conversation" is outnumbering solution "conversation" by about 2:1, and values "conversation" by close to 10:1--and that's among readers of the NYT.

So when we look for a "basis" or "foundation"--something that will stop argument--we end up instead with more "conversation"--i.e., more debate. Why? Here's one possibility: To promise to provide a "basis" or "foundation" for policy is to undertake a very, very large commitment to defend your view in the public sphere. But promising to take on all comers only invites your adversaries to come out to play. Maybe those of us who favor doing something about climate change should admit that our policies aren't going to have a "firm foundation" in this, as indeed in most cases--and start arguing about values and solutions instead?


  1. This is embarrassing. [She might as well write -- We're losing the science argument. Let's change the subject and put the cart before the horse.]

    Can we agree on a simple logical framework for approaching policy?

    1. Liberty is preferable (see e.g. Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, et al). According to Jefferson (with help from Franklin and Adams), liberty is an inalienable right which comes from God.

    2. Society should not limit or infringe the liberty interests of the citizenry absent some very compelling reason. To do so would be immoral.

    3. In the policy debate at hand, advocates for liberty infringement have argued that the compelling reason for the infingement can be found in the science. I.e. that scientific research has established that the world is in grave danger and the threat of that danger justifies imposing the most massive constraints on the liberty and property of the citizenry in our national history.

    4. Given that the proponents of the liberty infringement have specifically and repeatedly (and hysterically) grounded the justifcation for their proposed policy on the "science", it would be ridiculous not to focus on the science.

    5. Without a scientific justification, the warnings of doom and gloom have no basis. Any possible moral underpinning for the proposals evaporates.

    This is why we demand that the proponents establish the existence of a firm foundation in the science.

    Finally, her last sentence in the quote is utter nonsense. How can she argue about "values" without providing a moral justification for imposing harm on others? How can she pretend to argue for "solutions" if the science doesn't establish that there are any problems? And without a scientific foundation, how can she even know if the "solutions" actually work?

  2. Here's the foundation of the conversation problem: " . . . doing something about climate change . . . "

    This view is not a basis for discussions about the potential solutions (plural) of the potential problems (plural). It's the same old PP and JDS (just do something) for the (singular) problem.

    A top-down forced 'solution' (singular) attempts to bypass all the really hard work of problems definition, solution candidates, scoping solutions viabilities, prioritizing viable candidates, applied R and D, development, testing, implementations, and lots of other activities.

    And, equally important, it assumes that all outcomes of the (singular) problem can only be bad-to-worst.

    Discussions will become more fruitful when the focus is on individual aspects of individual problem areas.

    Discussions will become very much more fruitful when the real-world achievable rate of fossile-fuel replacement and the true scale of this one aspect is the focus.

    Global-wide peak emissions in 2020 is not going to happen.

  3. Stan has it right.

    Once we acknowledge that climate policy is a subjective matter which can advised but not determined by science, Roger and a great many of his blog's readers must part ways.

    For those who place personal freedom as their highest priority, any climate policy which requires the curtailment of that freedom must be opposed.

  4. While I agree with Roger that figuring out where to draw the line between science and policy is critical, and not being done well, I also find it hard to accept his line.

    Science does indeed provide information that informs policy, and then politics takes over. But I think that in an effort to prevent his perception of politicized science, he unerestimates the role that science needs to play in politics.

    Yes, this is problematic for keeping science above the fray and attempting to keep it depoliticized. But because most people ahve some understanding that science is, when well understood, more about facts than opinions, policy partisans will often prefer to argue what the science says, since if they "win" that debate, then they don't have to argue the politics.

    A hard policy of keeping scientists out of politics depends on non-scientists being able to make clear to the public and policy-makers what the science is. If that works, it can keep scientists out of the political fray. But I question whether that can work. When there is debate about what the current state of the science is, we will always go to the scientists. So I fear that keeping scientists out of politics will end up handing victory to those who misrepresent science for political ends. But it is a double-edged sword, and either option has its pros and cons.

    As such, I would disagree with what I think Goodwin is saying. We have no choice but to address the science, since everything else flows from it, even if the details of policy are much less-science oriented.

  5. If I read this correctly, the professor is saying:

    Oh, the heck with the scientific basis, we know what we want to do. Let's just impose our tyranny on the basis of "values".

    And, they wonder why they have been correctly described as "Liberal Fascists".

  6. IMHO, this is a serious matter. As Daniel Henninger put it in his recent WSJ article: "If the new ethos is that 'close-enough' science is now sufficient to achieve political goals, serious scientists should be under no illusion that politicians will press-gang them into service for future agendas. Everyone working in science, no matter their politics, has an stake in cleaning up the mess revealed by the East Anglia emails. Science is on the credibility bubble. If it pops, centuries of what we understand to be the role of science go with it."

    Once scientists stop believing the means justify the ends and start believing the ends justify the means, there will be no more scientific method.

  7. This is pretty scary stuff. The more I read this blog, the more I believe that academics should not, under any circumstances, expose themselves to public scrutiny.

    This has drifted into Mike Hulme territory of using global warming as an excuse to do what 'we' think is right. In the academic world of interesting mind games, that may be valid, but not in reality

    This blog does expose the political agenda behind global warming, for the delusional and simple minded, progressive liberal. However, the real forces behind emissions trading have the moral values of starving hyenas. All the arguments about helping the poor and the third world, are a pack of transparent lies.

  8. I've decide to try to think like Professor Goodwin. My values include the belief that physical exercise is good. I also believe that some poor people in the world are hungry. Therefore, I propose that govt pass a law requiring that all Americans engage in daily physical exercise in order to help feed the hungry.

    What? There's no scientific foundation for the argument that our physical exercise would do anything about their hunger? Never mind the scientific foundation. That's irrelevant. Let's just focus on my values and solutions. Besides, everyone knows that physical exercise is good for you. Let's just force everyone to do it.

  9. The US politicians who think this way should remember the 18th admendment to the Constitution. It was pushed by well intentioned do-gooders.

  10. One of the ironies of responses to this post and several previous is that no one has yet made any policy recommendations. These posts are about the role of science in making policy recommendations.

    The responses show that having science as a political battleground is a value held closely on all sides of this debate.

  11. Professor Goodwin said "Maybe those of us who favor doing something about climate change should admit that our policies aren't going to have a "firm foundation" in this, as indeed in most cases--and start arguing about values and solutions instead?"

    The Scottish government could take buses off the road now, in case wildebeest are driven north by global warming sometime in the next 50 years. Better safe than sorry. It's certainly the humanitarian option, and expresses our core Scottish values.

    Only working class people use buses, so what possible harm could it do ? They can take taxis or buy cars, like those of us with well paid jobs.

    Many endangered species are under threat from buses in Africa. Again, what possible harm would it do to make African peasants buy cars like the rest of us ?

  12. Roger Pielke, Jr. said: "One of the ironies of responses to this post and several previous is that no one has yet made any policy recommendations."

    What if there is no role for science in making policy recommendations?

    Politics is a game played around the outside of the scientific method. The two paradigms are incommensurable, and immiscible like oil and water. You can shake them up together, but that just results in drops of oil surrounded by water. Pockets of science surrounded by politics.

    Science is based on the principle that the sole test of knowledge is experiment. So can an experiment ever make a policy recommendation? No. Can and experiment be used as the foundation for a policy recommendation? Yes.

    For example, science can answer the question: is the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere less than 380ppm? Science cannot answer the question: should the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere be less than 380ppm?

  13. Jean said: "To promise to provide a "basis" or "foundation" for policy is to undertake a very, very large commitment to defend your view in the public sphere. But promising to take on all comers only invites your adversaries to come out to play."

    If all you are doing is providing a 'basis' for rational discussion (just the facts), then you will have no 'adversaries'. The facts need no defense (your policy views might, but don't confuse the two).

    It is only when you become a 'stealth advocate' that science becomes a political battleground.

    In keeping with the theme of the responses, I won't make any policy recommendations either...

  14. Roger
    Science Policy- here is what I think the priorities are:

    1. Emphasis on geo-engineering research

    2. limited decarbonizng

    3. adaption research

    4. Greatly scale back on climate research funding.

    Essentially I'm saying we have identified the problem now let's look at engineering solutions. Attempting to Decarbonize on a grand scale is folly. Climate research is unlikely to add significantly to what we need to know.

  15. Thanks to all for your useful feedback--even misunderstanding helps me refine my perspectives!

    Here's one suggestion: Instead of thinking about policy making and politics as "construction on a firm foundation," why don't we go back to the old "ship of state" metaphor, a commonplace of political oratory and philosophy for a couple of millenia now?

    We're on a small sailing ship in the middle of a vast, uncharted sea; there's nothing beneath us but the water that holds us up, or kills us. We're going to get to our destination--or drown--together. We can't see over the horizon, but it looks like an enormous storm is coming. Hopefully, our moral compass will point us in the right direction!

    What can science do to help? It's certainly one of our dozen or so sails--maybe it's the mizzen topmast staysail. But in a big storm, it may do more harm than good, and we'll have to take it down--or see it ripped to shreds.

  16. Roger,
    Perhaps no one has addressed policies because without the scientific foundation everything boils down to the usual suspects. Option 1: Do anything that increases the power, scope and influence of government. Option 2: Do nothing and allow society to evolve in a free, if possibly flawed manner.
    We can certainly enact all or none of the policies that have been put forward, and care not a whit for what happens to the climate. Why not pass cap and trade legislation because I like fuzzy slippers? That makes as much sense as passing it because Congress wants to appear to be taking a moral/value-related action on climate change which will actually have no impact on climate.
    Option 2 is actually the null state. As long as we keep debating, Option 2 is in effect. So, to some, abandoning the scientific debate is preferable, because it brings us closer to option 1. Without science, what values do you think should inform our decision to take option 1 on this issue?

  17. Jean. I see no storm on the horizon, I see no state, I see only the manipulation of science, government and the media by corporate interests.

    Let me change my metaphor above, to massively raising bus fares in order to deter usage and that is a pretty good analogy for the global warming transfer of wealth from poor to rich.

    Unbelievably, the Guardian, who's environment pages were (openly) sponsored by Shell Oil until last week (when it was commented on by a rival), has published a (politically) sceptical article about Copenhagen.

    I'm not conned by Copenhagen

    George Monbiot (with the ruling class, extreme right wing family) who has been screaming tabloid abuse at readers of the denier and 'oil shill' kind is actually being paid by the oil industry.

    Apologies to everyone else for repeating this.

    The biggest lobby supporting a global climate deal represents the oil companies and banks

    The International Emissions Trading Association was created to promote carbon trading more than ten years ago.

    Its members include :-

    BP, Conoco Philips, Shell, E.ON AG (coal power stations owner, EDF (one of the largest participants in the global coal market), Gazprom (Russian oil and gas), Goldman Sachs, Barclays, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley..


    Their aim

    The objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and ultimately climate protection; the establishment of effective market-based trading systems for greenhouse gas emissions by businesses that are demonstrably fair, open, efficient, accountable and consistent across national boundaries; and maintaining societal equity and environmental integrity while establishing these systems.


    The oil industry created emissions trading and climategate dupe Mick Kelly of UEA negotiated with Shell to investigate emissions trading on their behalf and to allow them to set his research agenda.

    It isn't a black and white conspiracy, it is the twisting of reality in numerous ways by forces bigger than governments.

  18. -15-Jean (Fri Dec 11, 05:46:00 AM MST ),

    1) Where, in your view, are some “misunderstanding” you?

    2) It is not surprising to see you use a collectivist metaphor. But, this country was made great through a Constitution which favored the creative power of the individual over the destructive tyranny of the collective.

    3) If you see a storm brewing, feel free to make whatever preparations you deem proper. But, if you plan to forcibly impose your misguided vision on me, don’t expect me to take it lying down.

  19. Addendum to my previous comment…

    To play upon Jean’s metaphor of a ship facing a storm…

    Jean -- who has very poor vision -- thinks she sees a deadly storm on the horizon. Her response is to implore her shipmates to drill multiple holes in the hull in hopes that this will appease the storm gods and save us all. More rationale heads with better vision prevail, the hull remains intact, the storm is nothing out of the ordinary and the ship of modern civilization sails on.

  20. Hmmm. Does anyone remember the great Danish (appropriately) comedian/pianist Victor Borge? One of his jokes was (from memory): "My uncle was a famous scientist. He invented a cure for which there was no known disease. Unfortunately, he caught the cure and died..."

    Now, that's a good metaphor...

  21. Jean has done a great deal to articulate the New Dark Ages. I'm convinced that we entered them some time in the past 25-50 years, but she has done more to legitimate them then anyone I have read so far. Congratulation, Jean.

  22. Jean,

    What big storm? What powers are you using to see this storm over the horizon?