Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Evidence-Based Thinking about Earth's Future

I suppose it makes sense that, if a group of people throw out evidence-based thinking as the Devil’s work, then they are not going to have much need for evidence – or much need for spend time and effort collecting data – on which to base one’s beliefs.

In an article titled “Report Urges Reinvestment in Earth Observation Missions”, Brian Berger discusses a National Academy of Sciences report on the status of earth-monitoring satellite missions.

In that report, the National Academy of Sciences states that a number of Earth-monitoring satellites are already working beyond their design specifications, are due to fail in the next few years, with very few missions under development to replace them. The result will be serious gaps in our ability to monitor the Earth unless steps are taken to reverse this trend.

The Moral Bankruptcy of Current Policy

The situation over the past six years has been as if the Bush Administration believes that collecting data on the Earth is a waste of time.

We can speculate on the possible reasons for this.

(1) President Bush thinks that he already knows and understand that the Earth is far too big for us humans to be having any effect on it, so this data is for entertainment purposes only - and he is not entertained.

(2) This data has no short-term value because there is nothing we can do with it in the short run, and it is of no long-term value because Jesus is on his way and will drastically alter our situation on Earth in ways that will make the data irrelevant.

(3) God will take care of us, so we do not have to worry about these things.

(4) For all practical purposes, President Bush wishes to fulfill the interests of political supporters who do not want us to have this data. Those interests need to cover up one of the most morally horrendous crimes in human history – one in which these interests seek to gain tens of billions of dollars in profit by actions that do tens of trillions of dollars with of harm to others.

We can guess as to Bush’s actual motivation for the decisions he has made. That guess would have to square with the fact that Bush is eager to spend $104 billion as a first step to building a lunar outpost and to bring the rest of the solar system into Earth’s (America’s) economic sphere.

Whatever happens to be the case for Bush himself, each of these four reasons still holds sway over different parts of the population. Each of these reasons has contributed its measure of political force to promote ignorance on issues of earth science, and to suppress data that would be useful to wise decision making. Each of these reasons identifies a group of people who, through foolish intellectual recklessness or personal greed, has decided to act in ways that threaten the lives and well-being of countless other people, and could perhaps put the future of the human race at risk.

Each of these reasons represents a group of people that we have reason to target with moral outrage proportional to that which we would give any person who foolishly or selfishly creates such great risk for others.

Considerations Favoring the National Academy Recommendations

Regardless of the motivation, the fact remains. There are currently 29 Earth-monitoring satellite missions as a part of a buildup supported by the previous (Clinton/Gore) administration. Unless the Administration reverses its course on these types of activities, there will be 7 earth-monitoring missions by 2017.

To counter this, the National Academy of Sciences is urging the development of 17 new missions.

Why should we do this?

Risk and Benefit

I would like to start with some basic risk analysis. What is it worth to do this research?

The standard formula for determining the payoff of an investment – or how much one should contribute to a particular course of action, is:

Value = (Risk * Payoff)

So, if a particular gamble has a 10% chance of paying $100,000, then this gamble is worth $10,000. That is how much a rational person should pay.

We now have good evidence that earth-monitoring satellites have the potential to save us trillions of dollars and hundreds of millions of lives. These are the potential costs of human activity on the environment. If there is a one percent chance that this investment could help us to avoid $10 trillion in costs, then the investment is worth $100 billion.

The National Academy recommendations call for $3 billion per year for 10 years – or $30 billion - an increase of $5 billion over the current budget. (Note: I am excluding complexities such as ‘net present value’ because they cloud the main issue – much like a physicist will assume massless strings and frictionless surfaces in order to focus on the fundamental forces he is trying to explain.)

There is every reason to expect that this data will help us to direct global environmental policy in ways that will avoid tens of trillions of dollars in costs. Thus, it is worth the investment.

There is also a direct payoff to this type of research. We have reason to promote a love of knowledge for its own sake – to cause people to love to learn things simply for the joy of learning. We can compare the person who finds pleasure attending a lecture at a planetarium discussing the findings of a probe, compared to his identical twin brother spending the day watching football. Of the two, we have reason to encourage our neighbors to be more like the first person and less like the second. We have reason to wish to be surrounded by people who love learning for the sake of learning.

The Hubble Telescope, for example, has not provided us with much in the way of economic benefit. Yet, there is reason to believe that it has provided us with a great deal of value with what it has shown us of the universe. By comparison, the movie industry does not provide us with products that are very useful, but they do provide us with products that fulfill desires directly, and in this they have value.

Earth-monitoring research can also fulfill desires directly, independent of the economic value that the knowledge provides. Furthermore, those desires can themselves be considered better than the desires fulfilled by most movies.

The Free Rider

Government programs are notoriously wasteful, because there is no incentive to keep the program within parameters that are ‘profitable’ (that generate more benefits than costs). For this reason, there is an argument for doing things in the private sector rather than the public, unless there is reason to believe that the private sector will also be inefficient.

One causes of private sector inefficiency is the Free Rider Problem. This is a problem that prevents the person or company that provides a good from collecting revenue, because others can freely take those goods and use them. The creator has no power to exclude those who do not pay.

For example, there is no market for national defense because there is no way for a private organization to offer this type of defense only to those who pay. So, this becomes a good for the government to provide.

As a quick aside, I would like to take a paragraph to suggest that the government has a number of options in determining ways to provide for these public goods. I would like to repeat an earlier call that NASA get out of the business of running missions, and get into the business of offering to pay any company that can provide it with the data it seeks. This type of activity will result in a “space race” of organizations trying to find ways to give NASA the data it was willing to buy at the lowest price.

The Political Situation

President Bush will be submitting his recommendations to Congress for future NASA spending in February. It is worth hoping, but almost certainly too much to expect, that the Bush Administration will discover the value of evidence-based decision making and fund earth-monitoring research that will allow us to make evidence-based decisions affecting our planet. Because of Bush's failure, it will take an act of Congress, capable of getting past a Presidential veto (or overridden if such a veto I cast) to get the necessary funding.

It means beating back the intellectually reckless or viciously selfish groups who would argue against such spending. However, this is a cloud with a silver lining. This effort could serve to remind people that intellectually reckless pursuits are deadly – that they will cost your sons and your daughters to suffer needlessly in a world made worse off by those who built real-world policy on fantasies and fairy tails.

Of course, no lesson can be taught if people are too timid to teach it. This is a topic for the water-cooler at work, the email to friends, the casual discussion around the dinner table. It is an opportunity to teach others to accept the self-evident doctrine that smart real-world decisions require smart real-world evidence.

Those who shun evidence-based thinking and the collection of data on which intelligent decisions can be made are fools who do far more harm than good.


Anonymous said...


I missed your earlier post suggesting space missions be done by contactors to get the lowest cost. If one way they cut cost is to accept higher risk, and consequently more lives are lost in the process, do we face a moral dilemma when we chose to sacrifice lives to save money?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

No, there is no moral dilemma, because people will be risking their own lives.

Here, I can use my own perspective. If somebody were to give me a ticket into space and say that there is a 1% chance of the craft blowing up, I would take it. The 1% chance to get off this rock is worth the risk.

If they were to tell me that the odds of a catastrophe have increased to 2%, I would ask, "Can you get it back down to 1% by, say, Thursday?"

If they say "No, we have to postpone the whole thing for two years while we study the probem and try to fix it," I would answer, "The hell with that. Let's go."

In fact, I would argue that it is wrong to PREVENT people from taking risks under these types of circumstances. If somebody were to tell me, "The risk is too great, you can't go," I would answer, "I am the one to determine whether the risk is too great. Get out of my way."

So, no. There's no moral problem at all.

Anonymous said...

Is that also the case with allowing fights to the death for money, or selling vital organs to the highest bidder, if the participants agree?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I believe that there are sufficiently many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to killing to object to gladiatorial combat.

As for organ selling, I covered that in an article Buying and Selling Organs

BlackSun said...

Interesting, Alonzo, I take the opposite position with regard to gladiators. Thoughts?