How Science Guess Becomes Science Fact

Hello, ideas. Welcome to the Hunger Games! May the odds be ever in your favor.

Science is under attack. Not breaking news, we can see for ourselves that it is. Right? You have heard, “We don’t have time. The science is settled. We must act now!” yes? If it’s settled, what is it and how does it get ‘settled’?

climate cold road landscape

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

So when we say the “science is settled” what do we mean by ‘science’? Perhaps science is a field of study? After all, we want girls to find careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). It is not, but that may be why science is perceived as a sector, a field, rather than what it partly is: a suite of methods for teasing out how everything around us—and within us—works. So rather than being a field of study, science is a way to study?

Science really is knowledge: How it is obtained and verified. The word ‘Science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge.’ So if we say ‘science is under attack,’ that would mean ‘knowledge‘ is under attack. And it is. Knowledge is constantly under attack, and it’s being attacked for the best of intentions: to protect people from being hurt.

I recently listened to Jonathan Rauch’s book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

His book is an apologia for free—no holds barred—speech, and against those who want to prevent such speech from hurting people.

“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. That means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism (no final say); it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will. But we also are not supposed to claim we have knowledge except where belief is checked by no one in particular (no personal authority).”

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch http://a.co/j7cmF6C

Rauch argues that “liberal science”—his term for the process of “What do we know, and how do we know it?”—is at stake if free speech is curtailed, often by well-meaning people. “No social principle in the world is more foolish and dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence or torture (e.g., “harassment”),” Rauch says, “and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it. The new sensitivity is the old authoritarianism in disguise, and it is just as noxious.” (emphasis is mine)

While free speech is crucial and the threats to it (fundamentalism, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism) are crucial to liberal science, and would not work without the ability to offend, it was Rauch’s discussion of liberal science itself that I found most intriguing.

Knowledge is a product, like the metals we mine and the cars we build. To be more specific, our knowledge is a set of statements which we are satisfied are true—which have been validated, truth tested, in some satisfactory way….

Liberal science is a big and complicated thing. No one could begin to describe it fully. However, with nullius in verba (take no one’s word) and “order without authority” we have the underpinnings of liberal science.

Bertrand Russell once said that “order without authority” might be taken as the motto both of political liberalism and of science. If you had to pick a three-word motto to define the liberal idea, “order without authority” would be pretty good.

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch http://a.co/4BiExtr

Who gets to choose what is knowledge? The answer is literally everyone. The competition to stay alive, though, is between ideas, not people.

Like evolutionary ecologies, liberal systems are centerless and self–regulating and allow no higher appeal than that of each to each in an open-ended, competitive public process (a game)….In biological evolution, no outcome is fixed or final—nor is it in capitalism, democracy, [or] science. There is always another trade, another election, another hypothesis….No matter who you are, you must conduct your business in the currency of dollars, votes, or criticism—no special fiat, no personal authority….

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch http://a.co/6XYJ3ee

No one gets a pass. “Who you are doesn’t count; the rules apply to everybody, regardless of identity….no matter how stupid and grubby-minded the critic.” If you want your ideas to be encoded in the current book of knowledge, you must submit them for review.

[The] name of the game is to make knowledge and score credit for it, and you get credit only when your conclusions are checked out by others. Others must be able to rely on your conclusions, confirm your results, trace your logic, get hold of your data. So the game of science forces you to build bridges. You must persuade.

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch http://a.co/9SJgG3s

So we find that the science never is “settled.” Our knowledge of the world outside and of ourselves shifts, adapts, and evolves as ideas gain or lose credence by how well those ideas perform against all contenders. Welcome to the games, Ideas. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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The Earth’s carrying capacity for human life is not fixed

This article by Ted Nordhaus was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

In a recent Nature Sustainability paper, a team of scientists concluded that the Earth can sustain, at most, only 7 billion people at subsistence levels of consumption (and this June saw us at 7.6 billion). Achieving ‘high life satisfaction’ for everyone, however, would transgress the Earth’s biophysical boundaries, leading to ecological collapse.

Despite its seeming scientific precision, the claim is old, not new – the latest iteration of the longstanding assertion that our population and consumption might soon exceed the Earth’s fixed ‘carrying capacity’. The concept, tellingly, owes its origin to 19th-century shipping, referring to the payload capacities of steam ships. It jumped from the inanimate to the terrestrial at the end of the 19th century, describing the maximum number of livestock or wild game that grassland and rangeland ecosystems could sustain.

Applied to ecology, the concept is problematic. Cargo doesn’t multiply of its own volition. Nor can the capacity of an ecosystem be determined from an engineer’s drawings. Nonetheless, environmental scientists have, for decades, applied the concept to human societies with a claimed precision that belies its nebulous nature.

The ecologist William Vogt was the first to do so in the 1940s, predicting that overuse of agricultural land would lead to soil depletion and then catastrophe. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Paul Ehrlich focused on food production, and the Club of Rome on material resources; while latter-day environmental scientists and activists have focused more on the effects that pollution and habitat destruction will have on the ‘Earth systems’ that human wellbeing depends upon.

But all hold the same neo-Malthusian view of human fertility and consumption. From the 18th-century arguments of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus onwards, prophets of environmental doom have imagined that in response to abundance, humans would respond with more – more children and more consumption. Like protozoa or fruit flies, we keep breeding and keep consuming until the resources that allow continuing growth are exhausted.

In reality, human fertility and consumption work nothing like this. Affluence and modernisation bring falling, not rising fertility rates. As our material circumstances improve, we have fewer children, not more. The explosion of human population over the past 200 years has not been a result of rising fertility rates but rather falling mortality rates. With better public health, nutrition, physical infrastructure and public safety we live much longer.

Today, in the United States, Europe, Japan, much of Latin America, even parts of India, fertility rates are below replacement, ie the average number of children born per woman is below two. Much of the rest of the world will likely follow suit over the next few decades. As a result, most demographers project that the human population will peak, and then begin a slow decline, in some cases before the end of this century.

For this reason, today’s warnings of impending ecological collapse mostly focus on rising consumption, not population growth. As many now acknowledge, our social biology might not function like protozoa, but capitalism does. It cannot survive without endless growth of material consumption.

There is no particularly well-established basis for this claim and plenty of evidence to the contrary. The long-term trend in market economies has been towards slower and less resource-intensive growth. Growth in per-capita consumption rises dramatically as people transition from rural agrarian economies to modern industrial economies. But then it tails off. Today, western Europe and the US struggle to maintain 2 per cent annual growth.

The composition of affluent economies changes as well. Manufacturing once accounted for 20 per cent or more of economic output and employment in most developed economies. Today, it is as low as 10 per cent in some, with the vast majority of economic output coming from knowledge and service sectors with significantly lower material and energy intensities.

For decades, each increment of economic growth in developed economies has brought lower resource and energy use than the last. That’s because demand for material goods and services saturates. Few of us need or want to consume more than 3,000 calories or so a day or live in a 5,000-square-foot house. Many Americans prefer to drive SUVs but there is little interest in hauling the kids to soccer practice in a semi-truck. Our appetites for material goods might be prodigious but there is a limit to them.

Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t exceed the planet’s carrying capacity. Some environmental scientists claim that we have already surpassed the Earth’s carrying capacity. But this view is deeply ahistorical, assuming carrying capacity to be static.

In fact, we have been engineering our environments to more productively serve human needs for tens of millennia. We cleared forests for grasslands and agriculture. We selected and bred plants and animals that were more nutritious, fertile and abundant. It took six times as much farmland to feed a single person 9,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Neolithic revolution, than it does today, even as almost all of us eat much richer diets. What the palaeoarcheological record strongly suggests is that carrying capacity is not fixed. It is many orders of magnitude greater than it was when we began our journey on this planet.

There is no particular reason to think that we won’t be able to continue to raise carrying capacity further. Nuclear and solar energy are both clearly capable of providing large quantities of energy for large numbers of people without producing much carbon emissions. Modern, intensive agricultural systems are similarly capable of meeting the dietary needs of many more people. A planet with a lot more chickens, corn and nuclear power might not be the idyll that many wish for, but it would clearly be one that would be capable of supporting a lot more people consuming a lot more stuff for a very long time.

Such a future, however, is anathema to many proponents of planetary limits, suggesting hubris of the highest order. But if it is, it is at least born of optimism, of the conviction that with wisdom and ingenuity humans can continue to thrive. Demands to restrict human societies to planetary limits, which environmental scientists and advocates claim to know prospectively, suggest something much darker.

Viewing humans in the same way that we view single-celled organisms or insects risks treating them that way. Malthus argued against Poor Laws, in the belief that they only incentivised the poor to reproduce. Ehrlich argued against food aid for poor countries for similar reasons, and inspired population-control measures of enormous cruelty. Today, demands to impose planetary boundaries globally are couched in redistributive and egalitarian rhetoric, so as to avoid any suggestion that doing so might condemn billions to deep agrarian poverty. But they say little, specifically, about how social engineering of such extraordinary scale would be imposed in a democratic or equitable fashion.

Ultimately, one need not advocate the imposition of pseudo-scientific limits on human societies to believe that many of us would be better off consuming less. Nor must one posit the collapse of human societies to worry deeply that growing human consumption might have terrible consequences for the rest of creation.

But threats of societal collapse, claims that carrying capacity is fixed, and demands for sweeping restrictions on human aspiration are neither scientific nor just. We are not fruit flies, programmed to reproduce until our population collapses. Nor are we cattle, whose numbers must be managed. To understand the human experience on the planet is to understand that we have remade the planet again and again to serve our needs and our dreams. Today, the aspirations of billions depend upon continuing to do just that. May it be so.Aeon counter – do not remove

Ted Nordhaus is an author, environmental policy expert, and the co-founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute in California. He is a co-author of An Eco-Modernist Manifesto (2015). He lives in Oakland.

 

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Jerry Brown is a Prophet

Kiss taking showers and doing laundry at home goodbye and say hello to the world of  regulations designed to micromanaging your life. If you own a business, you already know. If you don’t live in California, you should not think it won’t happen to you, especially if you live in a “blue” state.

New Orleans, Louisiana, 1943. Line at Rationing Board during World War II. Location is the 500 block of Gravier Street. Photograph by John Vachon, via Library of Congress website. Public Domain.

The Progressive majority in California’s legislature and Progressive Governor Jerry Brown know what is best for California. They are sure the state is running out of water and they have the sure-fired cure:

(drum roll)

….rationing.

Senate Bill No. 606, Hertzberg, Water management planning requires the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt long-term standards for the efficient use of water and would establish specified standards for per capita daily indoor urban residential water use.

Assembly Bill 1668 establishes a 55-gallon limits on urban area indoor water use for every urban person in California.

The bill, until January 1, 2025, would establish 55 gallons per capita daily as the standard for indoor residential water use, beginning January 1, 2025, would establish the greater of 52.5 gallons per capita daily or a standard recommended by the department and the board as the standard for indoor residential water use, and beginning January 1, 2030, would establish the greater of 50 gallons per capita daily or a standard recommended by the department and the board as the standard for indoor residential water use. The bill would impose civil liability for a violation of an order or regulation issued pursuant to these provisions, as specified.

Keep in mind an average person uses an average of 90 gallons per day. If you are poor and have older water appliances, you will be hit the hardest by this act. For example, older washers will use 40 gallons per load; one load of clothes in the old washing machine and a three-minute shower and you’ve reached your legal limit for water use for the day. Flushing the toilet will have to wait until tomorrow.

So why is Jerry Brown a prophet (or anyone in the majority in the California legislature, for that matter)? I have been reading (off and on) The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann. In the book he talks of two very different men: Norman Borlaug (The Wizard) and Carl Vogt (The Prophet). In the Atlantic magazine Mann writes, “Both men thought of themselves as using new scientific knowledge to face a planetary crisis. But that is where the similarity ends. For Borlaug, human ingenuity was the solution to our problems….Vogt’s views were the opposite: The solution, he said, was to use ecological knowledge to get smaller….we may be able to grow enough food, but at the cost of wrecking the world’s ecosystems.”

Wizards see opportunities for using technology to improve humanity’s lot. Prophets see limits to what the planet can sustain and view technology with suspicion.

Prophet Jerry Brown sees California’s Mediterranean climate as limiting. Perhaps we could supply water for people and agriculture but only at the cost of wrecking California’s ecosystems. So if you disobey the almighty God  state, thou shalt be smote but good…daily.

(1) If the violation occurs in a critically dry year immediately preceded by two or more consecutive below normal, dry, or critically dry years or during a period for which the Governor has issued a proclamation of a state of emergency under the California Emergency Services Act (Chapter 7 (commencing with Section 8550) of Division 1 of Title 2 of the Government Code) based on drought conditions, ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for each day in which the violation occurs.

(2) For all violations other than those described in paragraph (1), one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each day in which the violation occurs.

The poor will be hit hardest by this boondoggle. There are better ways to meet California’s water needs other than punishing people.

But then,I am a Wizard living in the land of Prophets.

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