Monday, July 09, 2007

Belief Without Evidence or Faith

I am growing concerned with presidential candidates drawing their positions from what the core party members believe, when those core party members have no reason for that belief and are quite possibly wrong.

Typically, we see this as a fault of the Republican Party, where evidence-based thinking is publicly ridiculed in favor of faith-based thinking. However, we can also find it in the Democratic Party, where beliefs become popular because of a political fad, rather than from an understanding of the available evidence.

These ‘fads’ themselves are often spread by special-interest groups paying money to public relations firms in order to plant a seed in a particular political faction, nurture it, and watch it grow, until the party faithful culturally accept or reject others in the group by whether they accept this particular view.

Lacking Evidence for War; Lacking Evidence for Withdrawal

I have written about one version of this problem previously, the call for a complete withdraw from Iraq. A huge block of Democratic voters have adopted the attitude that the only acceptable Democratic Party candidate is one who insists that we will withdraw all troops from Iraq. They cannot possibly be basing this opinion on an honest evaluation of the available evidence, because the available evidence is substantially classified. Even if it was not, there is so much information that one would have to digest in order to draw an informed opinion that there are very few who have this luxury.

Yet, tens of millions of Democratic Party faithful believe that they are capable – between job, family vacations, and episodes of American Idol and weekend sports – to determine the best policy, and to insist that agreeing with them on this one issue is the most reliable mark of a quality candidate.

There is just as much arrogant certainty of unquestionable truths in the Democratic Party as there is in the Republican Party. The only difference is that faith-based thinking in the Republican Party is more likely to involve beliefs about God.

As far as I have been able to determine, those experts who have the capacity to draw an informed opinion about what Americans should do with respect to Iraq are not advocates of a complete American withdraw. They are in favor of reducing the American presence, but believe that a substantial investment is still required for a couple of reasons. The primary objection is that a withdraw will give the impression that Allah is on the side of the fundamentalists and that this will enable them to attract even more support – in terms of volunteers, financial help, contacts, safe havens, and assistance in communication among members.

Evidence and the Importance of Ethanol

Another example in which the Party faithful seems to be pushing ideas that lack evidence-based support is in the realm of corn-based ethanol. The Iowa Caucus is one of the first formal political contests in the Presidential race. As such, all major candidates are focusing their attentions on this state. Iowa grows corn, and corn growers certainly have reason to want to believe that corn ethanol is a viable alternative energy source.

However, much of what I read suggests that this is not the case. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so cars that burn ethanol will get fewer miles per gallon. A 10% reduction in price is only a part of the story if it means a 20% increase in the volume one has to purchase to cover the same territory. Sugar cane, for example, is a better source of ethanol, but sugar cane does not grow in Iowa.

What somebody who specializes in rhetoric and other forms of mass deception will tell you is that the way to promote a good is to make the most useful comparison. You do not want to choose a comparison that will give people the most accurate understanding of the situation. You want to select a comparison that will engineer a conclusion that is the most useful – even if, on some fundamental level, it is mistaken.

To sell corn-ethanol, the comparison that the master of rhetoric would advise would be to compare it to gasoline. Gasoline is what everybody uses, so it easily comes to mind, and facts can be cherry-picked so as to make corn-ethanol look like a good, clean energy source compared to gasoline.

However, if somebody is actually interested in renewable energy, then corn-ethanol should not be compared to gasoline. It should be compared to cane-ethanol.

When governments subsidize a lower quality product in order to help it to compete against higher-quality products, this actually makes the world a worse place in which to live. Subsidizing the corn-ethanol industry means taking business, profits, and investment capital away from the cane-ethanol industry. It means having more of a lesser quality replacement to gasoline, and less of a higher quality replacement.

One could argue that there is more than enough of a need for ethanol to justify the use of both cane-ethanol and corn-ethanol; that these products do not compete against each other. This is a mistake. As the cane-ethanol industry grows, it would be expected to suffer from diminishing marginal returns. Corn-ethanol kicks in when the marginal benefit of cane-ethanol equals the marginal benefit of corn-ethanol. At that point, corn ethanol becomes a reasonable substitute for cane-ethanol.

What these subsidies do is to distort the marginal benefit of corn ethanol, making it appear to be higher than it is in fact. This is how subsidies work to promote the industry being subsidized. If subsidies had no effect, if they did not have the power to manipulate market forces, then there would be no sense in using them. When the marginal benefit of corn-ethanol has been raised by subsidies, then resources get transferred from cane-ethanol to corn-ethanol sooner than it would have done so in the free market. The result, as I said, is more inferior ethanol production, at the expense of superior ethanol production.

In the name of protecting the environment and making the world a better place for our children, we make the environment worse than it would have otherwise been and our children’s world worse, rather than better.

Yet, the top Democratic Party presidential contenders ignore these facts. They advocate policies that go right ahead and make the environment worse than it would have otherwise been, because the Party Faithful demand it. Because the Party Faithful base their conclusions, not on a consideration of the evidence, but on a fad, where accepting a particular belief (regardless of its merit) is the ticket one needs in order to be considered a part of the ‘in’ group.

Those who think that religions have a lock on unreasoned belief – that all we need to do is get rid of religion and a world of reason and enlightenment will flourish before us – need to take a closer look at the real world.

Ethanol and Greenhouse Gasses

At the same time, I am aware of the fact that political factions are almost certainly at work to attack the issue with fictions from the other direction. Exxon-Mobile, among others, will contribute significant amounts of money to “engineer false beliefs” in the American public about options that may cut into their profits. They are willing to promote false beliefs about global warming, thereby putting at risk the life, health, and property of billions of people. Such people cannot be expected to have a twinge of conscience arise from promoting fictions regarding ethanol or other potential competition to their industry – regardless of who suffers from these myths.

For example, one of the arguments that I have routinely seen used against ethanol is that it produces just as much greenhouse gas as gasoline.


Ethanol (unlike gasoline) must first pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to create the fuel that, then, returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when it is burned. Gasoline, on the other hand, is using carbon that was pulled out of the atmosphere many millions of years ago. Over the course of 1 year, the direct net effect carbon effect of ethanol is zero – it pulls as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it puts back in.

This deceptive little half-truth is much like the deceptive half-truths Exxon-Mobile and similar companies and organizations have been telling about global warming, in order to engineer false beliefs. Those false beliefs, in turn, are designed to cause people to put money in the pockets of Exxon-Mobile executives by people who are unknowingly making the world a far worse place for their children and grand-children.

And all of this deception and misinformation takes place without anybody even mentioning God or faith – though it remains as blind to reason as anything any priest might suggest.

So, do I have a position on the issue of promoting ethanol as a substitute for fossil fuels? Not really. It will take a lot more information than I have available to me at the moment. However, I do have a position on the use of bad arguments. People do this when they do not care who is made to suffer so that they can make themselves better off. Yet, others do suffer. Mostly, our children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and the children of our friends and neighbors, who will be the victims of this rhetoric.


Dion said...

In reference to the ethanol putting more green house gasses into the air, this happens because of the input-yield problems associated with creating ethanol. It takes more energy to create a litre of ethanol than it gives back.

While the act of burning it may create as much carbon as the growing takes out of the atmosphere, all the processes around growing it (tractors, transport, etc) are not taken into account.

Use of cane ethanol in Brazil has resulted in even more deforestation of the Amazon jungle.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


No, what you mention is an issue that some people bring up, but it is not the issue I was addressing.

Research on the energy return of corn-ethanol range from 1.4 to 0.9 the energy put into it. Or, the way a scientist would write it, "1.15 plus or minus 0.25"

Anything between 1.0 and 0.9 represents a net loss.

The reasonable conclusion is that corn ethanol probably produces energy, but there is an unlikely but real chance that it does not.

Furthermore, this is a number that can be improved through greater efficiency, and that one of the possibilities for greater efficiency comes from economies of scale. We are not stuck at these particular numbers.

Yes, cane ethanol production contributes to deforestation. This is an issue that I did not address. If somebody wants to use it as an argument for preferring to subsidize corn-ethanol, this would be a potential line of reasoning.

The fact that there are good arguments in favor of a particular conclusion does not change the fact that bad arguments also exist. The issues that I discussed are still bad arguments.