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

Saturday, September 10, 2016


E. O. Wilson, the coiner of the terms "biodiversity" and "biophilia", has recently said that he sees Mr. Trump as the greatest threat to humanity's future.

He's not alone, My friend Arthur Smith's Facebook feed recently asserted that he has several European friends who see Trump as an existential threat to democracy.

I think so too. It has called me to call into question why I write and for whom.

My writing has always been based in a belief in democracy. That is to say, I believe it is possible for the population, collectively, to navigate the increasingly complex terrain of our tightly coupled and complex future.

I've always had some doubts about this prospect, because it would seem that the burden of democracy gets bigger as the complexity of collective management increases, but the cognitive and effort burden of effective participation increases while the reward does not. Lately the doubts have been winning.



I've written about climate and related matters in the belief that reaching the more involved segment of the public with more sophisticated arguments is crucial. (This belief boils down to what Kahan et al. call "the deficit fallacy, but I'll refrain from revisiting that argument here.)

Let's imagine for example that there is a complex decision - for instance a hydroelectric project is proposed.

In the long run, this project produces carbon-free energy, which has enormous benefits, but there is a one-time clearing of forest to contend with, which leaves the carbon balance not entirely neutral. Also a few remote communities will be disrupted. Some of them have special status under old treaties with indigenous tribal groups. It's a difficult tradeoff. Should this particular project go through? How should we weigh local interests in continuity, regional interests in prosperity, and global interests in sustainability? It's complicated.

Nowadays, people will align on this argument somewhat impulsively, based on some sort of underlying belief "hydro is a good thing" vs "hydro is a bad thing". But what of the position that some projects are good and some are bad? I choose hydro because I actually hold that position - which hydro projects to pursue is a contingent question. Neither "all" nor "none" makes any sense to me.

(If you're a person who objects to all large hydroelectric projects, I don't want to argue about that, and I don't want this point to derail your interest in this essay. So you can consider the question of which projects to remove, and in which order, a problem which has very similar constraints.)

How do we deal with such situations in practice? Local interests will have little difficulty expressing their objections to the project, but regional interests are expressed by jockeying for power among people elected on the basis of how nice their teeth look, how much fun they'd be at a barbecue, and their stance on specific, charged questions which tug at people's emotions.  (Abortion policy, for instance, is a real issue, but it is used politically as a way of short-circuiting people's reasoning capacities.)

Politicians are expected to have networks of self-interest and mutual obligation, which allow them to weigh the risks and benefits of the project. Of course, an immense amount of technical knowledge goes into the design and implementation of a large project like this should it go forward, but the go/no go decision is made by people who attained to power through no particular sophistication about energy matters. But the decision comes down to balancing the influence of stakeholders, specifically the capacity of the stakeholders to affect the re-election prospects of the representative and his or her party by funding or by directly influencing voters. It's true that occasionally politicians rise above this and "vote their conscience", but they can't afford to do so very often. 

In this particular case, "environmental" concerns are not aligned. The stakeholders for sustainability, weak though they are to begin with, are split between local concerns to preserve a specific piece of ground and global concerns to restrain the terrifying trend in the carbon content of the atmosphere and ocean. In practice, the constituency for the global view in local questions is much diluted.

How should we inject global concerns into local decisions, lacking a global power center?



Let's imagine, counterfactually, how we'd like this to work.

In this counterfactual world, the costs and benefits and risks and uncertainties would be weighed rationally against a clear and thoughtful enumeration of values and intentions, both universal ones and idiosyncratic ones of affected subgroups. 

This is, let's be clear, even harder than deciding whether or not to dam the reservoir. It's harder because there is no solution on which everyone can agree; it's harder because a decision must nevertheless be taken; and it's harder because the result is contingent on many of the technically complex (and hence obscure) factors that go into the design itself.

But for the purposes of argument, we're imagining this working. This means that while anyone may disagree with a particular decision, most people feel that for the most part, decisions are being taken that respect both themselves as individuals, their community as a social fabric, their nationality as a cultural whole, and the world as a whole. Further, we would believe that all of these interests are respected both in the present and the very distant future.

A key ideal in this counterfactual is one of deliberation. Ideas are presented and digested; useful syntheses are constructed, risks and uncertainties are weighed against values and objectives, and a rational policy emerges that is coherent not only within itself, but within a larger network of policies.

In theory, this deliberative process must occur with the entire public.

Here's the rub. Think of 100 people you know, outside academic or professional circles. How many of them would you want to discuss the risks and benefits of a particular hydroelectric project with? Not many, I'll wager.

So how could this deliberative process possibly work given that the vast majority of the public lacks the skill or interest to participate effectively in even a single complex decision process, never mind all of them?

Clearly, there has to be delegation. I want someone who knows about dams and about energy and about climate and who understands my own interests and those of my own community at the table. (That's the ideal of democracy, right?) In order for this to work, there has to be such a person whom I trust, and that person has to deserve the trust that I invested. There really is no practical alternative.

In fact, if you ask me what made America great in the first place, in addition to the amazing bit of real estate within its borders, and the amazing creativity of its people, I'd have to put that there actually was, for a large stretch of time, a workable deliberative process which a sufficiently large and stable swath of the public (*) trusted decision makers ("the Establishment") and the decision makers merited that trust.

(* I don't mean to trivialize the extent to which "the public" in this case meant the white majority at the expense of others. It complicates the case I'm making. It shows that there's a key ethical component that implies that deliberative democracy is not enough. The point, though, is that there was enough competence and trust to create the immense engine of wealth and prosperity that America has been for over a century.)



How should this work in practice? Nobody, no matter ho brilliant, can grasp in detail all the factors that go into a single decision, such as adding (or removing) a hydroelectric project. Yet a complex society has a great many such decisions to make to navigate our increasingly fraught and difficult future.

A national leader, in particular, must rely on a "cabinet", a set of about one or two dozen trusted advisers, to drill down and focus on specific areas. These relationships are built on mutual trust. These in turn have their own set of advisors. There's a mutual sense of trust and competence with each of these relations. And each of these people have their own calculus of power and influence.

This isn't different from what we have now.

What's missing from what we have now is a sense of mutuality and a sense of trust that extends to the entire public. If someone has an idea, there is little sense that the political structure will be able to consider it fairly. If someone has an objection or an objective, they have to build up a power platform of their own to be considered. In our functioning democracy this changes. 

Of course, most people are operating on limited expertise and information. So most ideas, no matter how fervently held, are in some way wrong.  But on the other hand, if the deliberative process were about something other than mere powermongering, the germs of the good ideas could be nourished, and collective competence could rise to the level of individual or corporate competence. 

So ideas need to be debated and winnowed not just by an established elite, but by the public at large. This gets harder and harder as matters get more complicated. So in this counterfactual world, we get much better at discourse than we are in the real world we inhabit. 

In this world of sane deliberation, facts and serious argumentation matter a lot. (Staking out positions, lawyer-like, and contesting them with cherry picked facts matter very little.)

The purpose of my writing has always been to contribute to this world of sound and sane and value-driven discourse. I always believed that democracy is possible, even though by the nature of the complex and coupled future, it gets harder. Because it gets harder, we have to get better at it. That is, the fraction of our attention and resources that go toward governing ourselves has to increase.

It's always been my goal to pitch in to creating this world of collective competence. 

Leaving aside my own limitations and also the limitations of the commercial world in which we find ourselves, I am finally questioning that objective itself. It's not that the goal is unworthy, it's that the environment doesn't make the actions practical.

The deck chair analogy comes to mind.



It's not hard to come to the conclusion that I am tilting at windmills.

What we see is a world where, despite the fact that there is less and less realistic work to be done, people are increasingly frantic and stressed. Even experts find themselves in situations where preserving their own position is more important than advancing the general state of understanding. Most people lack the time to develop a connection to the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, the decision-making process itself has become professionalized. This divorces it from the public. Decision-makers have little time for anything but amassing funds, tricking people into voting for them, and jockeying for power. 

(Real deliberation is relegated to the fringes. It's why I've been spending so much time on Twitter lately. If you choose your Twitter population carefully, you can find semblances of fair and reasoned argument, ironically enough, in 140-character snippets.)

I've been worrying about this for a long time, and I have lots of thoughts about why this is happening, and why the USA in particular is leading the world down this disastrous path. This essay is already too long to address them here.

All I'm saying is it's happening. To the extent we are moving away from discourse, providing information for this discourse is futile.

This trend has been building for a while, but it's now obvious. I give you this exchange with Donald Trump in evidence:

Matt Lauer: Let me stay on ISIS. When we’ve met in the past and we’ve talked, you say things like I’m going to bomb the expletive out of them very quickly. And when people like me press you for details like that gentleman just said on what your plan is, you very often say, I’m not going to give you the details because I want to be unpredictable.
Donald Trump: Absolutely. The word is unpredictable.
Matt Lauer: But yesterday, you actually told us a little bit about your plan in your speech. You said this. Quote, “We’re going to convene my top generals and they will have 30 days to submit a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.” So is the plan you’ve been hiding this whole time asking someone else for their plan?
Donald Trump: No. But when I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine, or maybe doesn’t — I may love what the generals come back with. I will convene…
Matt Lauer: But you have your own plan?
Donald Trump: I have a plan. But I want to be — I don’t want to — look. I have a very substantial chance of winning. Make America great again. We’re going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.
Matt Lauer: But you’re going to…
Donald Trump: And let me tell you, if I like maybe a combination of my plan and the generals’ plan, or the generals’ plan, if I like their plan, Matt, I’m not going to call you up and say, “Matt, we have a great plan.” This is what Obama does. “We’re going to leave Iraq on a certain day.”
Matt Lauer: But you’re going to convene a panel of generals, and you’ve already said you know more about ISIS than those generals do.
Donald Trump: Well, they’ll probably be different generals, to be honest with you. I mean, I’m looking at the generals, today, you probably saw, I have a piece of paper here, I could show it, 88 generals and admirals endorsed me today.

Why is it not clear to the public that this is empty bluster from a dangerous fool?

I would say that the reasons that this and similar trumpian argument from "buhlieve me" is a marketable posture, that Mr Trump has "a substantial chance of winning",  are closely related to the reasons that deliberative democracy has failed.

If it's enough to convince the most gullible 51% of the public that a con man has a "secret plan" or maybe doesn't, who knows, the problem is that the network of trust between the public and the people who are paying attention has practically completely broken down.


In this context, though, does it make any sense to write a commercially unviable book about attribution of extreme events to climate change? 

I think I have something to add to that conversation, but I don't think my addition would penetrate the public discourse.

Also, almost everyone I know of who has staked out a position on this question has a position that is substantially different from mine, so I don't really have a market or a constituency.

More generally, why should I blog? Why should I even engage on Twitter? I enjoy it, but perhaps it is interfering with enjoying other things. There's still time for me to play the piano. Why should I wear out my keyboard muscles on mere typing?

It seems to me that in a world where discourse doesn't matter, adding to the discourse in a way that has no established constituency has no value. To the extent that I am adding value, it's mostly to a world that doesn't exist.

Most people learn to STFU sooner. I guess I'm just slow.


Anna said...

People are going dark, unless it's just malware and theater. Don't go.

VigiliusH said...

MT, you are such a valuable voice, I hate to hear you sound discouraged. You have helped me understand things over the years as I have faithfully lurked. Don't go silent, keep up the good fight!

Anonymous said...

Ignorance and Corruption are rampant. We're going to hit the wall. But what else can good people do other than keep trying? I would like to know what you have to say so I hope you write your book.

Michael Tobis said...

If I could be convinced that I was making even a small difference, or if I could somehow garner enough of an audience to make a modest living, either of those things would encourage me to keep my focus on writing.

It seems to me that neither of these is a realistic prospect. You win some and you lose some.

(Actually I usually lose. I wonder how many people have noticed the name of the song where the lyric "only in it for the gold" appears.)

Michael Tobis said...

This posting was oddly self-defeating. In trying to explain my writers' block (really the first time I've ever had that problem) I wrote 2500 words at a sitting.

It's not everyone who can churn up so much text. And I am not at a loss for things to write about.

I doublt I'll quit, unless I somehow land a paying job.

manuel moe g said...

"Also, almost everyone I know of who has staked out a position on this question has a position that is substantially different from mine, so I don't really have a market or a constituency."

You are a thinker that refuses to participate in any echo chamber, is how I read that sentence.

"What we see is a world where, despite the fact that there is less and less realistic work to be done, people are increasingly frantic and stressed."

The most important sentence in the piece, I think. You write the truth about this, and your solution is not for all humanity to "drop out, man". That is why you are such a valuable writer.

"In trying to explain my writers' block (really the first time I've ever had that problem) I wrote 2500 words at a sitting."

I wish I could perform the alchemy to turn writers' block into an essay of such quality.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Moe.

As for "your solution is not for all humanity to "drop out, man"." I'm not so sure. I think that a universal basic income would decrease employment, and I think that would be good.

This isn't to say we shouldn't spend our time productively. But there's definitely some dropping out that needs to happen.

Walt Garage said...

This is the first article of yours I've ever read. Please keep writing!

I have 2 friends on facebook to whom I feel a little bit of a "fatherly" responsibility, mainly because both lost their fathers relatively young and I knew their fathers. If I did not know them, I would have unconnected long ago because they are both knee-jerk Trump supporters.

I have tried to be patient and non-confrontational with them even though they did not initially respond well to my comments. I have not "converted" either one of them, but calm patient, fact checking and logical argument has at least brought both to the point where they will discuss the issues with me and not just dismiss me.

Unfortunately, it opens me up to all kinds of abuse from others to whom the are connected, but the small pleasure I get from engaging these 2 more than make up for the minor annoyance of the trolls. Also, being calm and patient with my 2 friends helps me to be less dismissive of the trolls.

Perhaps, ,somewhere out there in troll-land, you are reaching someone, so I would recommend going forward and hoping for the best.

Michael Tobis said...

Walt, I've never aimed at convincing trolls, because trolls don't have opinions, they have attitudes, and nasty ones at that.

The fact that an actual troll stands a good chance of becoming President of the USA is a real challenge to my worldview. I had always thought of trolls as an unimportant constituency.

Thanks for your interest! There's lots of my older stuff here and at; I'd be interested in your opinions as to which items are clear and compelling and which aren't.