To Be Ruled By Engineers

“Some of the sources of Chinese success and American decay are not entirely mysterious. As it happens, the typical professional background of a member of China’s political elite is engineering; they were taught to build things. Meanwhile, a remarkable fraction of America’s political leadership class attended law school, where they were trained to argue effectively and to manipulate. Thus, we should not be greatly surprised that while China’s leaders tend to build, America’s leaders seem to prefer endless manipulation, whether of words, money, or people.”
~ Ron Unz, China’s Rise, America’s Fall

This made me think of two things.

First, American poitics isn’t just dominated by lawyers and legal experts. It is also dominated by business managers.

The legal types are great at rhetoric and persuasion. They are the sophists of the modern age. They play at being statesmen, but law school doesn’t prepare them for what is needed to be statesmen. They are experts in legalese and so they create more of it, with bills so complex that even they can’t understand it all. Obfuscation is a large part of the game, clever minds trying to outwit other clever minds, and yet none of them as clever as they think they are. They get so lost in words and abstractions that they forget a democracy is supposed to be about the people.

The business types, however, have a different but equally problematic mindset. They see the government and the population as something to be managed. They are the technocrats who see themselves as a meritocratic plutocracy of pragmatic problem-solvers. They will get things done, democracy be damned, but they don’t actually know how to get things done because a democratic government is about as opposite as one can get from a for-profit corporation. The only way for them to succeed according to their skill set is to make government into an extension of business. That is how we ended up with what some call soft fascism, corporatism, or inverted totalitarianism.

These are the twin forces of bureaucracy. Neither type is trained for building things. They aren’t engineers. They don’t even have the training to deal with objective reality, as neither are they scientists. Far fewer have any kind of experience that would connect them to the larger world, especially to the lives and experience of most Americans.

They exist in a bubble. As I recall, in recent history, all presidents, vice presidents, and every major party candidate for those positions have come from one of two Ivy League schools, Harvard and Yale. Many of them belonged to the same fraternities and clubs, socialize among the same people at the same events, live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same churches, send their children to the same private schools, and get the basically same info from the same sources.

I’m not saying the Chinese political elite don’t also live in a bubble. But at least they have real world knowledge about building things. Is it any wonder that the American infrastructure is not being maintained and most definitely not being expanded? Americans once built great things. That is no longer the case.

I don’t see it as a mere coincidence that American mainstream society used to revere engineers and scientists. At one time, there was a great push to get American kids into these fields. The engineers and scientists were highly respected. They were the hereoes during an era when we were competing against first Nazi engineers and scientists and then later against Soviet engineers and scientists. With the ending of the Cold War, Americans have lost their edge and even China’s challenging our power has only been met with apathy and cynicism. Now Americans attack scientists as anti-American and, since the Space Race ended, don’t give much thought at all to engineers.

The Chinese aspire toward power and greatness. Whether or not they will succeed, that is their vision as a society, especially among the ruling elite. They do make major mistakes in thei engineering schemes, as they seek to socially engineer an entire society, but at least they are trying to improve themselves. We Americans, on the other hand, rest on our laurels. Too much success and power has made us lazy and self-satisfied.

The second thing I was reminded of is Rome. Americans inherited the European love of comparing themselves to Rome. The Roman Empire is the touchstone for Western Civilization. In that light, I offer the following:

“Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.”
 ~ Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

That quote touched upon something that come up in a recent conversation. I forget the context, but the point made was about the contrast between the early and late Roman Empire. Romans didn’t start out as a ruling elite operating a bureaucratic empire. What allowed them to become an empire in the first place was that they were great engineers. They built things better than other people did, from roads to aqueducts.

Importantly, Romans weren’t even the most innovative society. The Greeks produced greater thinkers. It was the Romans who were better at building armies and waging war, and hence they defeated the Greeks. But once victorious, Romans were only able to build their great society by borrowing from the great thinkers of other societies, such as the Greeks.

That resonates with today. Many Americans will say admit that the Chinese are smarter and maybe are better at building things. However, we are supposed to believe that America will always come out ahead because we are innovative. Chinese are better taught in terms of the rote memory that is necessary for science and engineering, but Americans have more patents and nobel prizes. Ignoring that much of America’s innovation comes from immigrants, I’m not sure innovation by itself will keep us on top, assuming we want to stay on top.

The ancient Greeks boasted of having had a great society. Without Hellenism, Rome as we know it wouldn’t be possible. Still, I doubt it comforted those defeated Greeks that at least their culture lived on in the Roman Empire. As the US declines, should Americans comfort themselves that American culture has left a permanent mark on the world.

There was something that once made this country unique.

“When Thomas Huxley, a famous British biologist, visited America in 1876, he asked, as the ship approached the New York harbor, what were the tower and the tall building with a cupola – then the city’s most conspicuous structures. When he was told that they were the Tribune newspaper and the Western Union Telegraph buildings, he replied, “Ah, that is interesting; that is American. In the Old World the first thing you see as you approach a great city are [church] steeples; here you see first, centers of intelligence.””
 ~ Andrew Friend, A Bell Curve, Kindle Location 763

Now, as we look at growing US cities, what are the buildings that dominate the skyline?

Here in my local community, the tallest or one of the tallest buildings in the downtown used to be for a tech industry company. However, the most recent tallest buildings built are high-rise apartment buildings for the super wealthy and they are smack dab in the center of town, dominating not just the skyline but also towering over the public space of the pedestrian mall (one part of the pedestrian mall has for all intents and purposes been made into the front yard for one of these high-rises). That symbolically shows who dominates and rules this town.

In other places, the tallest buildings are increasingly finance-oriented. Many have noted the increasing financializatioin of the US economy. It should, of course, be noted that this financialization is propped up by the US dollar which is in turn propped up by debt the US owes China.

The US once could have been compared to the Greek Alexandrian Empire, but now the closer comparison is the late Roman Empire. Signs of decline and decay are everywhere. Yet our military might remains immense. We could hobble along like this for a few more generations. Or we could choose to not repeat history and instead take a different path.

The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson

 

 

Meteorologists: Less Support of Global Warming… why?

Global Warming denialism is a favorite hobby on the right. And a favorite hobby of mine is countering such ignorance. I’ve come to a formulaic response.

I point out that the IPCC is the most respectable international scientific institution that focuses solely on climate change. It’s a very conservative organization. It looks at all the peer-reviewed research and takes years to assess it before putting out a report. It’s conservative because the research is done more quickly than it’s process of assessment and so most of the research it bases its conclusions on is research that has been thoroughly discussed among climatologists. The climatology researchers who submit their work to the IPCC do so without getting any payment and so the climatologists aren’t getting rich off of it.

What conclusion does the IPCC come to? The IPCC concludes that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is supported by the research.

The denialists love ignorantly dismissing the IPCC. So, I sometimes skip even mentioning the IPCC. I often go directly to the data on scientific consensus. Basically, the consensus increases the more that scientists know about climatology research. So, around 80% of all scientists in all fields support anthropogenic global warming, climatologists in general support it even more strongly (I forget the exact percentage), and climatologists who are active researchers who do most of their research directly on global warming have 97% support.

There is, however, new data I came across. Someone mentioned that only 60% of meteorologists support anthropogenic global warming. At first, this seems to cast massive doubt on the scientific consensus. Yes, 60% is still a majority but not a strong majority. This seems like damning evidence. I mean, afterall, shouldn’t meteorologists be some of the scientists who would be most well informed about climatology?

I’m not one to ignore evidence that undermines my own views. I value truth above all else. So, if many meterorologists question anthropogenic global warming, I should take it seriously. But, first, I had to ascertain if this 60% was correct. Yes, it appears to be true as this national survey does show the weak support. Before jumping to conclusions (as a denialist would do), I wanted to understand the possible reasons for this difference between meteorologists and climatologists, this difference between meteorologists and most scientists in general. At the top of the websearch results, I came across the the following article (included below is some excerpts from the article and three helpful comments). To summarize, there are fewer meteorologists supporting anthropogenic global warming because many of them have never studied climatology and many weathermen (and weatherwomen) have no formal scientific education.

Are meteorologists climate experts?
Columbia Journalism Review asks “Why don’t TV weathermen believe in climate change?”

Meteorologists are not required to take a course in climate change, this is not part of the NOAA/NWS [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service] certification requirements, so university programs don’t require the course (even if they offer it). So we have been educating generations of meteorologists who know nothing at all about climate change.

[ . . . ] 

And yet weathermen remain trusted by the public in spite of their lack of actual qualifications:

In the fall of 2008, researchers from George Mason and Yale universities conducted the most fine-grained survey to date about what Americans know and think about climate change….

When asked whom they trusted for information about global warming, 66 percent of the respondents named television weather reporters. That was well above what the media as a whole got, and higher than the percentage who trusted Vice-President-turned-climate-activist Al Gore, either of the 2008 presidential nominees, religious leaders, or corporations. Scientists commanded greater credibility, but only 18 percent of Americans actually know one personally; 99 percent, by contrast, own a television. “Meteorology benefits from the fact that we’re just about the only science that has an individual in people’s living rooms every night,” says Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “For many people, it’s the only scientist whose name they know.”

There is one little problem with this: most weathercasters are not really scientists. When Wilson surveyed a broader pool of weathercasters in an earlier study, barely half of them had a college degree in meteorology or another atmospheric science. Only 17 percent had received a graduate degree, effectively a prerequisite for an academic researcher in any scientific field.

This is but one reason — among many — about why the public, especially conservatives, remain uninformed and disinformed about global warming (see “No wonder polling shows more people don’t know the scientific evidence that humans are warming the Earth has grown stronger”).

And yet, for all the misinformation and disinformation they are exposed to, the public still want very much wants government-led action to curtail greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. gmo says:

    It is worth mentioning again that not all “weathermen” are “meteorologists”, as in not everyone who presents the weather in the media has studied the science like in getting a degree in meteorology/atmospheric science. I did not check into the details of the linked studies, but I had thought the numbers were higher for degreed meteorologists and so was a bit surprised. Still many indeed do “get it”, but it is depressing since so many do not, and such people may be the only connection to many in the public with atmospheric science.

    Besides the weatherman (even the one with the solid science background) not necessarily being well-educated on climate in general, I think many meteorologists conflate weather prediction and projections for climate similar to how many in the general public do. Weather prediction has been steadily improving, but there is still plenty of uncertainty, and I believe many meteorologists simply incorrectly sort of assume that there cannot be much certainty in climate projections.

    It may be like if a sailor doubted rising sea levels simply because he spends all his time on oceans with storms, swells, waves, and still water – as those are what he well knows, he simply did not bother to think that there are other ways to know sea level is rising than by looking over the edge of the boat.

    It makes some sense that the public trusts the weatherman on climate (yes, even in spite of all the “only job where you can always be wrong” quips) like was noted more than any politician, even Gore. It would be nice to be able to utilize that trust. That points toward a strategy of highlighting the lack of credibility of the lost like John Coleman and hopefully getting those who understand the science to teach it at least some.

    Meteorologists who think they will lose credibility talking about climate change because it is politicized should consider that if they explained it then it may become less politicized. Also, their not talking about it can lend credence in people’s minds that it is not a relevant issue.

  2. To best understand television, you must know about the consulting services of Frank Magid Associates – just about every TV station will get consulting from them. Until Magid says it is OK to talk climate during the weather segment, it is not going to happen.

    http://www.magid.com/ consulting/ local_television/ index.asp
    TV weather forecasters are professionals that serve a highly competitive broadcasting business model. The TV business pulls in advertising from so many businesses that are connected carbon consumption – every automobile ad, oil company ad, even travel are all vested heavily in the lie. They are required to ignore the science, it is just a business decision.

    That is just the way it is.

  3. 32. Dean: “To paint the majority of meteorologists with a broad brush as buffoons who are incapable of udnerstanding climate science is a bit harsh.”

    It is unclear to me that that is what is happening above. Pointing out the irrefutably obvious point that a meteorologist lacks the expertise to pontificate on the subject of climate science is scarcely the same thing.

    Persons who lack expertise but insist on making declarative announcements that are predicated upon an authority that they do not possess are committing an informal logical fallacy, the argumentum ad vericundiam or “argument from false or misleading authority” http://www.fallacyfiles.org/authorit.html.

    As the article above fairly clearly describes, there is a significant body of persons with a background in meteorology who pose that background as a basis of authority upon which the are authoritatively qualified to pass legitimate judgments upon the scientific findings of climate researchers. Their doing so is a bald-faced argumentum ad vericundiam.

    Now, I’ve taken graduate level courses relating to differential geometry, but that does not make me a researcher in physical cosmology. At best it qualifies me to accurately report what real researchers in the field have come up with. (A qualification which a very few people in the peer-review process agree with, since I’ve actually published on the subject. I’ve some legitimate authority in the areas of logic, critical thinking, and philosophy of science.)

    However, an undergraduate class in physics (of which I’ve had a few) does not make me a physicist. By the same token, an undergraduate class in climate science — WHICH IS MERELY AN OPTION, NOT A REQUIREMENT for students of meteorology — does not qualify said students as experts. It would not qualify them as experts even if said class was a requirement. (And, of course, it is still not, in general, even required.)

    So yes, any thoughtful person with integrity can, with varying degrees of success, accurately report the facts as established by actual researchers — Al Gore is a nice example of this, both for his successes and his failures. But no such person, with no more established expertise than what you describe, is in any position to pass a scientifically legitimate judgment on the subject.

    But such illegitimate judgments are exactly what we are seeing, from persons who will pose as experts on a subject in which they have no legitimate authority what-so-ever. This is not a blanket condemnation of meteorologists; it is a blanket condemnation of poseurs, some of whom use their standing as a “meteorologist” to mask their ignorance with a veil of authority that they do not possess and have done nothing to genuinely earn.

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 12/1/09

The Doctors Were Real, the Patients Undercover

I find this kind of thing fascinating.  I think there should be more research like this.  It’d be cool if scientists acted as undercover agents in all aspects of society.  Oh, what wondrous things we’d learn about human nature!

Palin particularly popular among fans of Limbaugh and Beck

Somewhat interesting article.  I’m not sure if Palin will unite the party or even what that would accomplish, but conservatives are united in their simultaneous criticism of Obama and their own party.  Conservatives are just unhappy right now.  The problem is that they can’t seem to agree on what they want, what they stand for.  They’re united by their dissatisfaction. 

Demographically, US public opinion is moving away from the far right fringe… and there is nothing that can stop this inevitable shift.  It’s just the nature of politics.  When whites were the majority, white values held sway.  Now, when the US is becoming multi-cultural with mixed race marriages and alternative lifestyles increasing dramatically, values of the past no longer apply.  The world is changing and it will never change back to the way it was.  Whether you judge that as good or bad, it’s a basic fact that can’t be denied. 

Also, the political atmosphere switches back and forth between liberal and conservative every few decades.  Conservatives have ruled the past few decades and the next few decades will be ruled by liberals.  It’s nothing to get all hot and bothered about.  Wait a few more decades and the conservatives will get their chance again.

In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap

I suppose it’s good to have articles that continually state the obvious.  But my first response was “Well, duh!”  Racism still exists.  Surprise, surprise!  Oh, wait… tons of other research has already shown that racism still exists.

7 stories Barack Obama doesn’t want told

Why should I care?  Stories?  Sure, presidents want to control their stories… just like reporters such as this one want to control the stories.  Everyone is looking to spin the facts.  Personally, I’d prefer if they just gave me the facts without the spin (and I’m not talking about O’Reilly’s laughable “No Spin Zone”).

The Spock imagery has been especially strong during the extended review Obama has undertaken of Afghanistan policy. He’ll announce the results on Tuesday. The speech’s success will be judged not only on the logic of the presentation but on whether Obama communicates in a more visceral way what progress looks like and why it is worth achieving. No soldier wants to take a bullet in the name of nuance.

The presidnt is intelligent and thoughtful.  God save us all!

So, a soldier would rather die in the name of a blatant lie?  I realize telling a lie with conviction can be very convincing, but is that really what we want from a president.  Shouldn’t we want a president to think carefully about the lives of people?  Do people prefer Bush jr’s brazen bullshit that killed thousands of our soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocents?  I certainly hope not.