I recently posted on the growing tendency of many scientists to abandon their traditional modesty and make bold, prophet-like assertions about the uncertain future. (The success rate of such predictions appears to track with those of political experts – that is to say, lower than flipping a coin.)
There are several manifestations of the prophetic pose. The most consequential involves the scientist in a bid for untrammeled power, by first prophesying horrific catastrophes then demanding “scientific solutions” that require radical political and social change.
This is the scientist as political guardian, on the Platonic model. Because he sees the shape of things to come – and we, his fellow-citizens, don’t – he is entitled to tell us how to live. The democratic process, with its participation by the untutored mob, becomes from this perspective an obstacle to scientific progress.
I have speculated on the motives that drive so many present-day scientists mad with a lust for power. Such motives include ideological zeal, ambitious careerism, the self-love of the narrowly specialized genius – or any combination thereof. That scientists as such aren’t more disinterested than, say, plumbers or insurance salesmen, should be apparent, but – because of the great prestige of modern science – often is not.
We should remember that the scientific establishments of Germany and Russia largely supported the Nazi and Soviet regimes, on behalf of which many pseudo-scientific atrocities were committed, as well as much good science. And we learned, just a few years ago, of the Nazi-like lethal gassing of political prisoners in North Korea, conducted by scientists during toxin research “experiments.”
With this history in mind, I wish to examine the logic behind the scientist’s new demand for guardianship.
A look at the November issue of the Scientific American reveals ten articles – about a third of the publication – dedicated to prophetic utterances and telling us unwashed ones how to change our ways. Most follow a predictable rhetorical path. First, a massively complex sociopolitical circumstance is redefined as an urgent technical problem. Then a technical solution is offered, and readers are warned, directly or implicitly, that it will be their look-out when the End of Days arrive because of their failure to listen to their betters.
The majority of examples suffer from a kind of obsessive disorder about global warming. So let us begin elsewhere: “How Women Can Save the Planet,” by Lawrence Krauss. The problem? People. There are too many of us – an article of faith, an endlessly repeated mantra – and we produce too many hothouse gases, and we’ll be unable to feed ourselves by 2050 anyhow. The technical solution? Educate and liberate women across the world. They will then stop having babies – or so “study after study” predict.
Unusual among our authors, Krauss is a luminary in one of the hard sciences, a theoretical physicist. Yet he’s writing about demographics, in truth prescribing a worldwide moral and political transformation. How will this come about? No word from the author. He’s produced what he clearly believes is an elegant technical solution, which confronts “religious fundamentalism” and endorses “basic human rights.” Why would anyone ask for more?
The logic of the laboratory will reap unpredictable results when applied to human communities. To imagine the resistance to letting women save the planet, we need not look very far: Major Nidal Malik Hassan, the killer of 13 at Fort Hood, refused even to shake hands with women. Farther off, Asian parents use sonograms to abort girl babies. Millions, probably billions, breathe unequal treatment of the sexes in the very air of their cultures. They would find the liberation of women destructive to their way of life, and they would resist violently any attempt to bring it about.
Is Krauss a cultural neocon, advocating the forcible education of women in non-Western countries? Somehow, I doubt it. He has simply wandered too far from the knowledge in which he is grounded. Typical of the scientist-guardian, he’s a rare mix of intellectual arrogance and real-world naivete, and he fails even to acknowledge the terrible trade-offs – in blood and chaos – of foisting “basic human rights” on powerful despots who have not asked for them.
Now we come to the unsightly bog that is global warming. No way to tiptoe around it – those articles are too representative. I’ll focus on a pair which stand as the centerpiece of the November issue. The problem? For both, it’s the global economy, which consumes too much coal and produces too much carbon dioxide. The solution is a universal transformation, by the year 2030, to available renewable technologies.
The first piece, an editorial, calls for strong US leadership in the upcoming climate change conference at Copenhagen. True, this country hasn’t been viewed as a leader in this field – but things have changed. Congress is thinking about global warming. President Obama will attend the conference. “Commitment in Congress and President Barack Obama’s personal attendance in Copenhagen may be enough to prompt nations to seek a meaningful agreement.”
It’s that easy. We don’t have to act, just show up. After all, we are the sole remaining superpower. We are the champions of the world.
The Scientific American editors admit there might be objections based on economic self-interest. But these are merely technical questions, and we are pointed toward the second article, where the technical solutions will be found. “The key,” the editors assert, “is to subsidize renewable sources,” or possibly a “nationally mandated price for renewable power,” or maybe a “national renewable portofolio standard and state-by-state incentives,” or a “direct cash grant to boost installation of renewables” – all the while raising the price of fossil fuels “to account for their environmental damage.”
Where does the money come from to fund this gigantic transfer of the world’s wealth? How are favoritism and corruption avoided in all the recommended mandates and give-aways? Who takes care of low-income people, and countries, whose energy costs will surely skyrocket? What can we say about unintended effects – the Talebian problem of induction and black swan events?
Again, not a word. The guardians have offered their technical solution. Lesser breeds must obey, and not trouble their little heads with a lot of esoteric data. President Obama’s job is simple: just slam down a copy of the Scientific American on the negotiating table. “Now that the world has a plan to transform the global energy system economically,” the editorial rejoices, “leaders in Copenhagen can commit to cutting emissions without diminishing their citizens’ standard of living.”
I won’t dwell long on the second article, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030.” It reads like a Stalinist five-year plan for the world. The authors, both academic researchers, demand that we build, by their target date, 1.7 billion “rooftop photovoltaic systems,” 3.8 million wind turbines, 720,000 “wave converters,” 490,000 tidal turbines, 49,000 “concentrated solar plants,” 40,000 “photovoltaic power plants,” and more. Estimated construction costs: “$100 trillion worldwide, over 20 years, not including transmission” – or, I note, maintenance.
Beyond the cost, there are obvious questions of governance, of human choice. Where will the millions of new wind and tidal turbines and wave converters be located? How will their construction and presence disrupt local economies (think tidal turbines off Miami Beach)? What will my house look like, and sell for, after that rooftop system is installed?
There is a natural intolerance of public works treading on one’s back yard. Either the turbines and plants will be built only near politically weak communities, or governments need to acquire the power to crush even the largest associations of citizens. The authors vote for the second option. The problem, they insist, has nothing to do with money or choice. It’s technical – and they, wise guardians, have just solved it.
All that remains is the “political will” to implement the plan. Politicians must yield to the superior knowledge of the guardian, “or else nations will keep trying technologies promoted by industries rather than vetted by scientists.”
There is the social logic of guardianship in a nutshell. On the dark side, untutored politicians elected by the mob and corrupted by industrialists. On the side of goodness and light, vetting scientists and a triumph of the will.