It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Go Ahead, Act Like a Scientist

Being a scientist is not a putdown. How strange, in these years of the revenge of the nerds, this time of huge respect for engineers and programmers, that scientists are urged to be ashamed of ourselves.

Today, Revkin says
The more I talk to social scientists and psychologists about humanity’s growing pains in its current population and appetite surge, the more it’s clear that the “market failures” described by economists examining environmental issues derive from fundamental patterns of behavior rooted deep in the brain.
Right. So, what grownups do, in circumstances like that, is exert cognitive pressure from the frontal lobe to overcome atavistic appetites. This means that the reason to stop emitting carbon is because we have way too much carbon sitting around loose already, not because there will be an economic boom from making windmills.

Speaking as a boomer, the self-indulgence of the boomer generation was curative of a very restrained and fear-driven generation that came before us. We called them "uptight". But we sold the society on emotional fulfillment at the expense of responsibility. We did too good a job of curing what ailed us.

If we don't revisit the notion of collective responsibility and sobriety soon, our descendants will pay a heavy price. The people to lead the way to restoring this balance would be scientists acting very much like scientists do.


King of the Road said...

"If we don't revisit the notion of collective responsibility and sobriety soon, our descendants will pay a heavy price."

Right. And this is true even should the AGW skeptics turn out to be correct.

I am in the process of reconciling this fact with my (small "l") libertarian philosophy, though it meshes well with what I believe true conservatism represents.


Michael Tobis said...

Rob, not to take anything away from your main point, which I appreciate.

But anyone skeptical of these points is wrong:

• The global climate is changing.
• Human activities produce heat-trapping gases.
• Heat-trapping gases are very likely responsible for most of the warming observed over the past half century. No one has been able to propose a credible alternative.
• The higher the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the higher the risk of potentially dangerous consequences for humans and our environment.

There's plenty of stuff left to be skeptical about if you must, but that much is established. I think it might be a good idea for us to repeat these four points like a Hare Krishna devotee at O'Hare.

King of the Road said...


I agree with your bullet points (having been brought to this conclusion in large part through my interaction with your blog and the links therefrom). But it's not necessary to agree with them in order to conclude that BAU will bring severe consequences on our descendants.

guthrie said...

I take KotR comment to refer to the other issues, such as peak oil, ecosystem damage aside from that exacerbated by AGW, increased population, etc etc.
Nothing we can't do things about, but they will require some collective responsibility.

Re the revenge of the nerds - is it not partially to do with the rise to dominance of IT, the problem there being that the role models and suchlike often seem to involve loners, people who can't communicate properly, and others who want to do it all their way. Not people who work together for a common goal.

Michael Tobis said...

Guthrie, I think that's (yet another instance of) a press misrepresentation.

The best software and engineering shops are intensely social places. Engineering groups can usefully be salted with autistic spectrum folks to a point, ("anoraks" as Monbiot would say) but collaboration is key to success.

But the lone Ayn Randish hero is pretty limited to fringe roles in high tech.

guthrie said...

Hehe, well there you go. We've got all these representations and pictures and stuff conditioning the public sphere of discourse.

JohnMashey said...

As fo9r IT nerds...

I about 10-15 years ago, I gave a lecture to a Penn State computer science class, allowing about half the time for students to talk to me and my wife about what the real world was like in computing.

First question, from guy in back of room?

Q: We've learned C++ and Java and some other languages. Which language do you think is most important in business.

Me: Sigh. "You're not going going to like the answer, none of those..."
Q: Huh?

Me: English. You have to know some computer languages, but if you can't communicate with others in speech and writing, you will be a coder in a cubicle, and that's all. Real-world programming and systems work is a *team sport*.

Guy: startled.
Young woman next to him, nudges him, saying "See, I told you so."
Others start saying "We had to document our work, and make presentations, and do teams, in courses xxx. Is that why?"

Me: Yes.

Martin said...

John: LOL. So true, so true...

gravityloss said...

This will easily be spun as Michael Tobis wants to move to an uptight puritan society / is against freedom / yadda yadda....
How could this even be discussed with people who dismiss everything reflexively? How much does one have to even care about that?

Andy S said...

I'm not sure that Randy Olson is telling us to be ashamed of being scientists but, rather, that if we want to communicate with non-scientists effectively we'll have to use their language and their narrative lines. But, then, I've only read some of his interviews and short articles, not his book....

While I think your comments about the boomers and responsibility are bang-on, I'm not sure about having scientists "lead the way"; perhaps a focus on illuminating the way ahead would be more effective, leaving the policy and legislative sausage-making to the specialists.