The scientist as political guardian

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.


14 Responses to The scientist as political guardian

  1. Luke Warmer says:

    “If we are to safeguard the reputation of science, and to prevent the arrogation of knowledge based on a superficial similarity of procedure with that of the physical sciences, much effort will have to be directed toward debunking such arrogations, some of which have by now become the vested interests of established university departments. We cannot be grateful enough to such modern philosophers of science as Sir Karl Popper for giving us a test by which we can distinguish between what we may accept as scientific and what not – a test which I am sure some doctrines now widely accepted as scientific would not pass. There are some special problems, however, in connection with those essentially complex phenomena of which social structures are so important an instance, which make me wish to restate in conclusion in more general terms the reasons why in these fields not only are there only absolute obstacles to the prediction of specific events, but why to act as if we possessed scientific knowledge enabling us to transcend them may itself become a serious obstacle to the advance of the human intellect.”

  2. Sally says:

    Gosh written one week ago and look at what has happened in that short space of time.

    A very timely well written article. Thank you from New Zealand where our Minister of climate change Nick Smith and Prime Minister John Key are hell bent on their “CRUSADE” that will put NZ families and businesses at great risk. Rushing through a bill which does not have the mandate of the people and the parliament. Only way their bill may be passed is by doing DEALS with the Maori Party that have five MPs. Three of these MPs are personally against the ETS but will go with their joint leaders as Key is stitching up deals that favour SOME Maori.

    • Thanks. This trend has been visible for some time – the Hadley CRU emails just threw a big media spotlight on it. Let’s hope the information is taken for what it is: a symptom of scientists wandering off the reservation, and claiming to know what remains very uncertain.

    • Sally, I’m sure you are aware of the story linked at below, questioning the warming data provided by the NIWA. Do you think this willingness to “adjust” the numbers is driven by the politics mentioned in your comment?

      • Sally says:

        Certainly politics has something to do with the corruptive adjusting. In saying that there is something bigger happening. The politics of nations are being manipulated by some group(s) with a huge agenda which is not in the best interests of the ‘ordinary’ person.

        Climate Change Minister Nick Smith’s reply to a letter I wrote in August. “The government has investigated various sources of evidence on the science of climate change and is satisfied that the most reliable information is that provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC assessments involve a rigorous and open review process, which is audited by both scientists and governments. In its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC states that the evidence for climate change is unequivocal.

        The government considers that climate change is a serious issue and believes that significant and timely action is warranted in order to mitigate its effects. I believe that New Zealand must act now, alongside other nations, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change

        I have read Mr Wishart’s book ‘Air Con’. Although I can appreciate that some people do not accept the reality of anthropogenic global climate change, it is important to realise that many of the claims that are made in ‘Air Con’ have been thoroughly investigated and shown to be scientifically flawed. A good starting point for understanding the errors of some of Mr Wishart’s claims is the Royal Society’s ‘Climate change controversies: a simple guide’, which can be found on their website at The IPCC also publishes a response to frequently asked questions about climate change, which is listed on their website at 1-fags.pdf.

      • “Thoroughly investigated and shown to scientifically flawed.” Well, at least we now know what that means.

        Thanks for the quick response, Sally.

      • Sally says:

        More correspondence to and from the New Zealand Minister N Smith.

        1. Is it the case that CO2 increased by 5 percent since 1998 whilst global temperature cooled over the same period?

        If so, why did the temperature not increase; and how can human emissions be to blame for dangerous levels of warming?

        2, Is it the case that the rate and magnitude of warming between 1979 and 1998 was not unusual in either rate or magnitude as compared with warmings that have occurred earlier in the Earth’s history?

        If so, why is it perceived to have been caused by human CO2 emissions; and, in any event, why is warming a problem if the Earth has experienced similar warmings in the past?

        3, Is it the case that all GCM computer models projected a steady increase in temperature for the period 1990- 2008, whereas in fact there were only 8 years of warming were followed by 10 years of stasis and cooling?

        If so, why is it assumed that long-term climate projections by the same models are suitable as a basis for public policy making?
        Sally McIntyre

        Reply 22-10-09
        The answer to your first question is that 1998 was a very hot year due to an unusually strong El Nino effect. Since then the temperatures have remained high compared to the long term average. Indeed, the Fourth Assessment Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007, started that ’11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred in the past 12 years’. While there is likely to be year-to-year variation, the long-term trend is for temperatures to continue to increase. This and other evidence of climate change is accepted by the government and we are responding accordingly,

        According to the IPCC, it is very unlikely that the 20th-century warming can be explained by natural causes alone. There is a clear link between human activities and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The evidence for this lies in the isotopic composition of the atmospheric carbon dioxide, which shows that an increasingly large amount of the gas has come from fossil fuels. Only when these gases are considered, alongside natural factors, can the warming of the twentieth century be explained.

        With regard to your second question, the IPCC states that the linear warming trend over the last 50 years is nearly twice that of the last 100 years. On the longer term, current global temperatures are warmer than they have ever been during at least the past five centuries, probably even for more than a millennium. It is also clear that the current rate of global climate change is much more rapid and very unusual in the context of past changes.

        As you point out, the earth has experienced warming in the past. However, climate change will have a variety of impacts on humans. For example, the IPCC states that projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity.

        Finally, the computer-based climate models do not predict a steady increase in temperature. They model the natural variability within the atmosphere-ocean system which leads to some years that are warmer or cooler than others. These models show us that, in the long term, there could be significant changes to our climate.

        Yours sincerely
        n Dr Nick Smith
        Minister for Climate Change Issues

      • Interesting. I wonder how he squares the systematic pouring of resources into what is essentially a war against the weather, with his statement about the impact to people with “low adaptive capacity” – who could be helped to adapt by those same resources.

        This being Thanksgiving in the US, it makes me thankful we don’t have a minister for climate change. Yet.

  3. Bryn Thomas says:

    I was led to your blog via the link you gave WUWT while enjoying the “climategate” show.

    I think you have hit the nail on the head, at the same time highlighting a dilemma. Research scientists want to be noticed. Major names in the global warming game, like Schneider and Hansen showed the way. Relevant to your thesis must be the attitudes of Carson and Erlich who gained such traction in the ’70s environmental movements.

    Let’s face it, we needed the environmentalists in there day. City air is cleaner, many waterways are better managed, etc. But with success comes hubris and few humans exhibit more hubris than scientists. I should know: been there, done that..

    What you have not done is look too closely at history or to the popular cartoon view of the “mad scientist”. What you see and describe is not new. Scientists have always had political connections. Look at Archimedes and his inventions largely to assist his masters in battle. Others like Galileo, Newton and Darwin had to contend with the Church.

    I suggest that only with establishment of the modern universities ways (as in 19th Century onwards) rose the concept of the isolated researcher doing what he/she does for “research’s sake”. Hoi polloi let the “mad scientists” get on with whatever they were doing in their ivory towers. That state did not last long, because the “mad scientists” were soon called upon to continue like Archimedes, assisting the state. Late 19th century advances in explosives (Nobel), gases (WWI), radar, nuclear fission (WWII), for example, elevated the importance of scientists.

    Some perceptive philosphers and writers (Wells, Huxley) saw problems ahead, but by the end of WWI the *professional* scientists reigned supreme.

    Post WWII, science was seen as the way to “save the world”. No wonder scientists think they know it all. We have an entirely different sorts of person who are scientists today. They have to fight for funds, for their prestige on campus among their peers and students, they are out in the open and will only succeed if they “produce answers”. They are expected to “produce answers” in a limited period of time and are sidelined if they don’t. It is all too easy forthem to believe they are capable of producing the answers. I mean they need confidence in themselves, don’t they? To express doubts or to admit “they don’t know” means the researchers’ careers are finished.

    And the way round that? “The topic needs more research”. Hah.

    I pity modern scientists and pressures that society puts on them. Then again, they diminish themselves by bowing to those pressures as evident in the “climategate” affair.

    They need to remember what Shakespeare penned, “This above all: to thine own self be true”. All humans are under pressures and influences, but that is no excuse for scientists (some of the world’s most intelligent individuals), not to recognise their roles in society and to behave responsibly. They do not have the commoner’s excuse of ignorance.

    • Well, my pity for today’s scientists is attenuated by my concern that, for the buzz of media attention and political leverage, they are throwing out the window the traditions of science. As I made clear in my post, scientists from Newton to Oppenheimer have participated in political activity. To my knowledge, though, none of them claimed to foresee Doomsday or to have a formula for the salvation of the world. (I disagree that science was looked on as a savior post-WWII. In fact, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the “experiments” in Auschwitz, science and scientists were looked on with dread and distrust.)

      My son, who is about to apply for college, would love to take biology – but all the courses he can find in all the universities he will be applying to focus narrowly on greenness and environmentalism. This is the root of my concern: we are raising a generation of advocates instead of scientists.

      BTW, a good book on the history of knowledge (not only science) is Reinventing Knowledge by McNeely and Wolverton. I wrote about it here:

  4. […] with their craft. Not really. I find it entirely believable, and in fact, extremely likely. The scientist as political guardian vulgar morality When scientists assume the missionary position vulgar morality Also, a vast majority of scientific […]

  5. Bryn Thomas says:

    As I prefaced my previous remarks, I came to your blog via WUWT and confess I did not look around at your other entries to find the main thrust of your writings. Having done so, please allow me a second effort.

    You write about scientists as a class, evidently different from other forms of human, but I am unsure whether your critical attitude stems from within the class or without. Are you a practicing scientist? I count my self as one, having worked in my time in government employ, for a large industrial concern and in academe in what is broadly classified as the Earth Sciences.

    I have met all sorts of scientists in that time, some friendly, some distant, some obnoxious, some charming, some lazy, some industrious, some brilliant, some dull … I could bore you with a list of all the main human traits and characteristics. Why set scientists apart from the rest of the community?

    If they are throwing out their “standards”, what of other professions, lawyers … Shakespeare again: do you agree with this sentiment, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”?

    I’ll pick up on my previous assertion that post-WWII science was seen as the way to save the world. I was thinking of the 1950s. Your example of the nuclear bomb was a wartime product, not post-war. Auschwitz also and hardly a cause for general condemnation of scientists — just a reinforcement of the concept of the “mad scientist” to be feared. I suggest any feelings of ‘dread and distrust’ were largely among the next generation in the 1960s and 1970s. In that cohort others cheerfully used the products of science (LSD anyone) as does the modern generation (iphones).

    I support wholeheartedly your concern about modern science courses. But here again, I think societal pressures have to take some of the responsibility for this. In my years with a large Australian university, where I was a member of a Faculty of Applied Science (geologists, metallurgists, miners, food technologists — in fact a mix of scientists and engineers), we were regarded as outcasts by members of the Faculty of Science (the chemists, physicists and mathematicians). Yet we had to both assimilate the necessary science and be aware of how those sciences might be applied to the good of society. Our courses were 33% longer than those of the conventional sciences. It was a prestigious faculty to belong to.

    Then came new society attitudes, including environmentalism — promoted in the Faculty of Arts!! Environmentalism aside, few new students were interested in science. The brighter ones wanted the prestige (and potential monetary rewards) of Medicine or Law. The science faculties had to yield funds to the benefit of rising schools of accounting and economics.

    Combine these trends and no wonder the scientists have reshaped themselves to fit what society wants. If it meant dumbing down the courses taught?? What else should they do?

    As I said, pity the scientists for the pressures society has put upon them. Society wants the products and could not survive today without the benefits of science. The Eloi need the Warlocks.

  6. Tired Farmer says:

    One of the most interesting comments I have heard during this debate came from Federated Farmer’s New Zealand president Don Nicolson, who said he preferred to call it ” Climate Variation “.

    One wonders if John Key, Nick Smith, Gareth Morgan,Peter Gluckman etc have ever considered this interpretation?.

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