Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ignoring Reality

In today's blog entry, I want to bring together two recent subjects.

In "Too Much of a Good Thing" I expressed concern for the future of the human race because of our apparent inability to take long-term threats seriously. Our economy and our culture is a huge machine with a massive amount of inertia that takes a considerable amount of energy to turn. If we do not have the ability to recognize distant threats, then we do not have the ability to avoid them.

Yesterday, In "Richard Dawkins Part I: Raising Consciousness" I expressed the importance of promoting intellectual responsibility as a moral virtue. When it comes to defending actions that are harmful to others, one has an obligation to ensure that those beliefs are firmy anchored.

In a nationally sindicated column, E.J. Dionne quoted Michael Novak's book Belief and Unbelief.

Christianity is not about moral arrogance," Novak insists. "It is about moral realism, and moral humility."

Moral Realism and Moral Arrogance

Actually, this is not the case. A substantial portion of religious fundamentalism is not about moral realism, and it is arrogant to think so. It is about moral fiction. Many of the moral principle drawn from ancient scripture promote death, illness, and ignorance, and decrease quality of life for almost everybody on the planet.

Their moral beliefs are, to put it bluntly, wrong. And, when people get morality wrong, innocent people die or suffer for no good reason.

Yet, as I have constantly argued, the fact that many theists live in moral error does not imply that all theists do so. And the fact that atheists do not believe in God does not make them immune from moral error. The real culprit here is not one's degree of error when it comes to the existence of God. It is one's degree of error when it comes to moral facts.

Rewriting Climate Change Science

In Brussels this week, scientists have gathered to put the finishing touches on the second of three 5-year climate change reports.

This phase of the writing is particularly bizarre. The scientists have put together a document representing the best scientific consensus at the moment.

Now, the politicians can get involved and rewrite the sections they do not like. (Time: "Political Heat over the Planet")

The scientists are complaining that the politicians are changing their conclusions, negotiating as if they had the power to determine the laws of physics.

I would like to be a politician with that type of power. "My voting constiuency would be best served if water evaporated at 35 degrees F rather than 32. Oh, and let's reduce the blackbody radiation formula by 10%, shall we?"

Scientific watch: "Iceberg, dead ahead!"

Political Captain of the HMS Earth. "Are you sure it's an iceberg? You know, it would be really inconvenient to have an iceberg dead ahead at right this minute. I mean, I have a huge paid constuency who has paid for an uninterrupted voyage. Why don't you check again, just to be sure."

Scientific watch: "It's a bleedin' iceberg, captain. Here, I took a picture for you."

Politician: "I don't know, it's kind of fuzzy. It could be anything. It could be a whale. It could be a mirage. It could be . . . well, pass the picture around the crew and see how many ideas they can come up with for thinking that it's not an iceberg."

Scientific watch: "And if they think it's an iceberg?"

Politician: "Then, obviously, their loyalty to the company is suspect and I will begin a campaign to have them terminated and replaced by people who will say that it is not an iceberg. In the mean time, keep your eye on it. In five more minutes, if you still think that it is an iceberg, you let me know."

Science watch: (5 minutes later). "Here are our best estimates of how big the iceberg is, how far away it is, how much it weighs, and a computer simulation showing what happens when a ship travelling at our current speed hits a block of ice that massive. It isn't pretty."

Politician: "What do you mean that you know its size and weight. Did you actually climb on it and weigh it? I happen to know that 90 percent of an iceberg is underwater. You can't see it. You can only estimate its size. It may be orders of magnitude smaller than you are predicting. And, as for those computer simulations, you can't trust them. You believe that it would be a bad thing for the ship to hit an iceberg, so you program the computer to make it look bad. Come back in five more minutes when you have better data."

Science watch: (5 minutes later). Okay, captain. Here, I have a slide show for you. I am going to start here with pictures of the front of the ship crumpling as it comes into contact with the iceberg . . ."

Politician: "Okay, there's an iceberg out there. However, you haven't given me any evidence that human activity is responsible for this conclusion, or that there is anything we could have done to avoid it."

Science and Values

There is said to be a problem with science. Science can give you the facts. However, in order to determine policy, you must add values to the facts to determine what to do.

This is almost true. However, the truth is in the details.

When we act, we seek to fulfill our desires. When we act, we choose the act that will fulfill the more and stronger of our desires, given our beliefs. False or incomplete beliefs prevent our acts from fulfilling our desires.

Science gives us facts. The science of climate change can tell us the relationship between cause and effects. However, it cannot tell us the value of those effects.

This is not entirely accurate. Science can tell us about values. It is true that climate change science alone cannot tell us the value of climate change. However, the science of climate change, combined with the science of desire, can tell us the value of climate change options.

A science of desire can also tell us the value of value - the capacity that desires have to fulfill or thwart other desires. This 'value of value' is moral value.

Still, today, it is the political process that brings scientific fact in contact with value to determine policy.

Still, it is one thing for the politician to bring fact into contact with value. It is quite another for the politician to try to change the facts.

There is no moral justification for this process.

The politicians are effectively saying, "If X is true, given our values, it would recommend doing Y. However, we have reason not to do Y. Therefore, we reserve the right to state that X is not true."

It's a bit like saying, "If my bank account runs out of money, then I will not be able to buy some of the things that I want to buy. Therefore, I deny that my bank account has run out of money."

Some people live this way. No moral person advocates it as a policy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do you mean there's no more money? We still have checks.

We still have oil to burn, we're not running out.

We can still breathe. The weather's great. We have lots of food. What's the problem?

Great post...they always are!