Overheard, the other day:
Person 1: We didn’t get the hybrid SUV. I’m not even sure I believe all this global warming stuff.
Person 2: You really should, since the consensus in the scientific community supports it.
This made me think: the consumer world is like another planet that orbits earth. We look at earth through our telescopes, observe what They seem to be doing, and then gauge our behavior accordingly.
In this simplistic view, somewhere on earth is a giant academy called Scientific Consensus. People walking into and out of this academy exist for their research, and go home to giant dormitories where they are plugged in for the night.
Back in the reality I’ve observed, both in academia and from following the various scandals in the news, scientists are people who got a university degree or two, and then got a job in the science industry. Those are the qualifications. There is no moral purity test, and they still have to earn a living.
For that reason, when the pharmaceutical representative comes by, or someone from a big magazine shows them that 100,000,000 people want to read a certain “scientific” conclusion in their newspapers, science is up for sale.
I don’t think it’s fair to blame our scientists, either. Most research jobs don’t pay all that much, so when the kids hit 18 and it’s time to send them off to college, it is fairly tempting to look at research and think: it’s just words on paper. And I’m not faking any data, just spinning or skewing the interpretation… just a little bit.
Any sane person will see through it, they justify to themselves. And off it goes, and the payout comes in, and then that scientist learns they’ve made a devil’s bargain: they’re now the face of this issue, and have taken one side, and are going to be forced to compete with others for the public eye.
But they didn’t choose this way of life, in the conscious sense of “yes, I’d like to be on talk shows screaming at opinionated people with an opinion I halfway believe and endorsed for cash.” They ended up there, because that’s the end result of the profit motive.
This isn’t a rant against the profit motive. I like it better than the allegiance motive, as occurs in the purer socialist societies, because that creates a really sick in-group motivated by loyalty to dogma (and consequently, denial of any reality that does not conform to that dogma).
But the profit motive is kind of like penicillin. We love what the molds do for us in killing off bacteria, but we probably don’t want to invite the molds to live in our houses. When we die, the molds will help finish off our corpses. Yet penicillin helps keep us alive.
It may be that someday, our society discovers it is best to go purely Nietzschean: no medicine, no comforts, just us raging against the whirlwind of nature and as a result, through natural selection, becoming an ueber-species that doesn’t get cancers, AIDS, or flus and instinctively resists deception, theft and promiscuity.
In the meantime, we have a society that uses almost a pure profit motive — we don’t have much in the way of dogma, culture, religion or (with the rise of divorce) family to hold us back. We just go for the cash. Just like inviting penicillin-producing molds into our homes to grow, this could be an extreme response.
We have to remember that our pure profit motive society comes about through utilitarianism. In theory, utilitarianism is picking what is best for the most of our citizens; in actuality, it means giving the citizens whatever they think they want, not necessarily what they need. And there’s a huge market for science.
Our scientists are like rock musicians on stage, looking out over the crowd. Well, what will make you happy, Crowd? Maybe some Mozart or Beethoven… but you want to hear “Free Bird” for the ten thousandth time, or hear a ska-zydeco-mathrock fusion because it sounds like something your neighbors would find mindblowing.
As a result, “scientists” are as much infotainment as they are sources of factual data. The populist side to the profit motive has them telling people what they want to hear, which means that each scientist cultivates a particular audience. Instead of flattering wealthy benefactors, we flatter a crowd.
The result is that no one — except the very young and clueless — trusts “science” out of the box. By the time you’re 35, you’ve seen far too many “miracle solutions” turn out to be hype and spin on relatively simple facts, and you’ve seen a stream of crises (bird flu, ebola, nearby comets) evaporate as nothing.
Like good scientists, we the non-hysterical public are skeptical of “science.” We trust no one so we can only trust those results and researchers who agree with our own biases. This explains why every “scientific” issue that comes into the public mind quickly devolves into at least two camps who cannot agree, then implodes.
It’s this way with all “green” concerns. Even as far back as 1798, Thomas Malthus was concentrating the worries of his generation into systematic thought; people back then realized that an exploding population of “equal” citizens, each with demands and needs for the same middle class lifestyle if they could get it, would swamp humanity. Malthus got the idea right, but the timing wrong, in part because he had no inkling of the free energy bonanza awaiting in the oil deposits below our feet.
In the 1950s through 1970s, further voices rang out with the dissent. These were your Garrett Hardins, Arne Naesses and Jacques Cousteaus, telling us that we were expanding too fast without a STOP button anywhere to be found. These got ignored for the same reason “global warming” is getting ignored.
On the left, we have the people who feel bad about life. Their primary motivation is finding a reason for their own lack of contentment in life, and so they rage: against the rich, against the powerful, against the contented. That means they implicitly detest rich and powerful industrialized nations.
For this reason, the left comes up with solutions that if not the stereotypical “return to mud huts,” are equally as impractical. We’ll educate people into using condoms, being neurotic, and not having more kids! And ban those SUVs, and sell green light bulbs. Everybody PANIC!
In contrast, on the right we have elements of the old order who have been fighting a rearguard action for several centuries now. “Not so hasty,” they say, and then point out how global warming is a huge industry, not just for scientists but the sellers of green products.
The right will also point out that our media fans the flames of any hype it can find, and makes tiny nonsense like bird flu seem to be the end of the world. Apocalyptic thoughts sell newspapers; lucid reporting for the 1% of the population who like sane, non-emotional, factual data: that’s a path to bankruptcy.
The left responds with emotion, and the right responds with cynicism. The truth of the matter is probably that while the left is correct to see this issue as important, their methods of solving it are destructive; the right, as the side that is unafraid to deny large groups of people their illogical desires, is closer to that.
Yet all of that is moot because our “green” issues are hopelessly politicized. Half the population takes one side, and the rest the other, as if part of a tacit conspiracy to subvert any plan except “business as normal.” The issue implodes into infighting, confusion, deception and dogma-tribalism.
This reminds me of so many other things in nature that reward those who escape their own confusion. Our environmental problem has its roots in another problem, which is that we as a species cannot act on any problem. Until we can fix that, a green world is just a pleasant impossible dream.