Saturday, July 23, 2011

Extremism - doing God's work?

As the story trickles in, the mass murderer in Norway apparently is a right-wing, christian fundamentalist extremist. It's ironic that this comes soon after my friend R.J. Evans posted here about the distinction between being a militant and being an extremist. Of course, my christian friends and followers of this blog will complain that not all christians are extremists. This is quite true, just as it's true that not all muslims are extremists. I suppose not all nazis or soviet communists were extremists, either - some were forced to join when those extremist political regimes took over whole nations.

Nevertheless, when barbaric acts occur, such as the murders committed by this home-grown Norwegian terrorist or any of his terrorist brethren on behalf of any cause, you can be sure that some form of extremism is behind it. The demagogues who spew forth the hatred and incitement to violence that motivate these terrorists are usually quick to say "I didn't order him to do that!" These "leaders" frequently back-pedal away from accepting any responsibility for the deeds committed by what are probably insane people that happen to believe in the demagogue's cause. Some of these leaders say that we deserved the violence we got, of course. They believe they are carrying out acts of justifiable violence on us, no matter how innocent of wrongdoing the victims might be!

Religion and politics are commonly associated with extremism because the extremists among the religious or political followers take their cause so very seriously. When "holy scriptures" (of any sort) enjoin followers to slay unbelievers and sinners, the extremists are the ones who accept this as a literal commandment to action. They see it as doing "god's work". The moderates amongst the believers deny that these people are "true believers," preferring to presume that their more peaceful interpretation of those scriptures is the correct one - that those scriptures shouldn't be taken literally word-for-word. This is, of course, a convenient way to rationalize the contradictions within those documents, and to avoid the need to take certain actions despite the clear commands within the literal words of these scriptures that, after all, form the foundation for those belief systems.

Radical political groups grow out of the frustration over the inability of moderates to accomplish certain political ends. Barry Goldwater once said "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" I disagree with him. The end never justifies the means!!

Political extremists want political action without having to wait for a consensus in the electorate, and without regard to the possibility of harmful consequences created by that action. In the U.S., where two-party dominance has deeply polarized the electorate, various extremist positions are being encouraged by the rhetoric of the parties. Some of the followers, notably these days on the right wing (but historically also on the left wing), are ready to commit acts of violence. All they await is their moment of rage-triggered insanity. We have seen this already here in the U.S., in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. The right-wing extremists capable of such violence are still out there - like the Norwegian mass murderer, so consumed by anger and hatred that murder and destruction seem to them to be the only acceptable alternative. In the U.S. of today, left-wing extremists may exist, but are pretty impotent and generally quiet. These days, it seems that to be a liberal is to be a left-wing extremist! That sort of polarizing rhetoric is exactly what concerns me.

We only need to look to the islamic theocracies of the Middle East today to see what happens to "moderates" when extremists (be they religious or political) manage to take control: moderates are given the simple choice of "With us? Or against us?" They either go along or suffer the consequences. This is a familiar pattern in history, borrowed by the muslim extremists (and others) from the ruthless ideology-based dictatorships of the past. I don't need to enumerate the violent, extremist examples from the past. We all know them by heart, but ... have we truly learned the lessons that such extremism has inflicted on us all? Will we recognize it for what it is and not allow it to carry the day? Apparently not everyone has learned those lessons, so the boundary between being a militant for some cause and being an extremist is being crossed, and potential terrorists emerge, ready to commit violent acts when the situation arises. No matter how crazy some fringe group of fanatics may seem to be, the lesson of history is clear: ignore them at your peril!

Tribalism is an evolutionary strategy for the success of tribes. We all carry that instinct for tribalism in our genes. Religion and politics tap into that tribalism to benefit their cause - to seek power and control over their members. The members who commit violent acts to further their causes are being manipulated by leaders who stand to gain power from this sort of terrorism. The best way to avoid becoming ensnared in this is to think for oneself and not let mere rhetoric sway your thinking toward extremism. The Mahatma Ghandis and Martin Luther Kings of history have shown that violence is not the only alternative in the face of perceived injustice and persecution. Peaceful change is possible. But it's up to us to decide the path to follow in order to produce change. Militant or extremist? Which do you choose to be?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An announcement ... and one more thing about AGW

First of all, henceforth, I will not publish any anonymous comments. If there is to be discourse here, it must be known who is making the comment.

Now ... back to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). I've become very irritated by the constant harping from AGW deniers that the scientists involved in climate research are advocating the AGW position for reasons of personal gain. This is both absurd and insulting.

Right away, naturally, I have to say that scientists are human, and occasionally a tiny minority of scientists engage in various forms of unethical behavior. Hence, the odd example of someone in science who forfeits their integrity for some perceived personal gain can be found. But this is nothing more than a reflection of the fact that science is a human endeavor, not some sort of broad-brush that can be used to tar and feather the majority of scientists. It says nothing that can be applied to the whole collection of scientists who participated in creating the IPCC reports. At most, it might apply to a handful of individuals, but I have little doubt that the vast majority of those scientists are supporting the notion of AGW because that's what the research shows, not for personal gain. When an individual scientist is shown to have engaged in unethical activities, their career in science is, for all intents and purposes, over. They will pay a huge price for their misdeeds within the scientific community, because honesty is a paramount virtue in science -- without it, the whole endeavor collapses. Losing the opportunity to be a practicing scientist would be very harsh punishment for the typical scientist, very passionate about the subject of their research, to say nothing of civil punishments for criminal forms of ethical transgressions.

Misrepresenting climate science for personal gain? It's simply nonsense to believe that such a conspiracy could exist among so many scientists. The risks are far too high for any imaginable rewards and only a very rare person or two would ever take such risks, and such rare instances likely would be very much "disturbed" persons.

Of course, any scientist worth his/her salt is a forceful advocate for their research. Is this an indication of moral turpitude? No way!! Anyone not believing in the value of what research they do shouldn't be funded -- if you don't believe in it, why do it? When scientists seek support for their research, it's so that they can do the work, not to become wealthy. In some very twisted minds, of course, this could be interpreting as seeking personal gain (i.e., doing something you want to do, as opposed to, say, something you're forced to do). If anyone wants to do anything, it has this "selfish" aspect, but the IPCC consensus is light years from some vast conspiracy among climate scientists for personal gain.

Of course, public funds are being used to support climate research (as well as most other forms of scientific research). The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a primary supporter of climate and weather research, mostly through universities.

How do NSF research grants work? I can't speak for other disciplines, but in weather and climate science, the contract is not between the scientist and NSF but rather between the university and NSF. The money isn't a check written into a researcher's bank account to dispense as they see fit! Rather, the funding must be used to accomplish the research as developed in the grant's proposed budget, an effort done jointly by the researcher and the university staff. Among the budget items, a university scientist usually seeks salary support for a few months out of each year of the grant. The salary support from NSF is dispensed over the life of the grant by the university (not NSF) to the researcher, at a rate determined by the researcher's status within the university, and fixed by the budget proposal.

The rest of the money in the budget mostly goes to support student research assistants, pay for travel to conferences, pay the page charges for publications coming out of the research, pay for field data collection, pay for office computers and supercomputer services, and pay the university to support the university's infrastructure within which the research operates (buildings, offices, lights, phones, power, etc.). This latter item is called "overhead" and it adds about 50% of the research cost to the grant, such that a $100,000 research project must be funded for $150,000. The overhead rate varies among institutions - 50% is just a representative value.

The only truly personal gain by the researcher is that few months of salary support. Note that most research universities only pay their faculty for 9 months of salary, so the faculty have to obtain grant support for the other 3 months. This is not a formula for the enrichment of the researchers! No Rolls-Royce limousines, no condos in the Mediterranean, no exclusive country club memberships, no Lear jets for personal travel, unless those scientists are independently wealthy to begin with. No university-based climate researcher is getting rich from NSF grants. Publicly-funded money from NSF to the universities is by a large margin supporting the research, not the research scientist!

Government scientists are not allowed to obtain salary support from the NSF grants -- if government researchers participate in an NSF grant, they can receive the benefits associated with the research (data collection, student research assistants, travel support, page charges, etc.) and nothing else. They are paid a regular government full salary according to their status in the agency for which they work. Although government salaries for research scientists are reasonably good (comparable to intermediate-level university faculty), it's not going to make them wealthy unless they can invest some of their income in some high-yield investment opportunity on their own. Government climate researchers also are not getting rich as a result of these grants, or this research.

These researchers are doing this work because, for the most part, they believe passionately in the science to which they are contributing. To question their motives in supporting the AGW consensus is monumentally astounding rubbish!! I know a few of the people involved in this work, and I find it really aggravating to hear ignorant people casting very negative aspersions on the motives of my friends.

Anyone has a right to an opinion, and when it comes to the use of public funds, it's anyone's right to question the merit of that expenditure. NSF was founded after WWII because it was realized by far-seeing people that federal support of research would pay huge dividends to this nation in terms of new technology for the good of everyone, and jobs for those who worked to make those new technologies available to the public. This is the way it has turned out, although it seems that we as a nation are having trouble deciding where to put our priorities and research of all sorts is being questioned.

Now a cruel spotlight has been directed at the climate scientists not because of their misdeeds, but because their findings are not pleasing to certain wealthy, politically-powerful segments of our society. In an effort to negate those research findings for reasons having nothing to do with the science, an absurd conspiracy theory has been hatched to dispute the science by discrediting the scientists! Their collective integrity has been questioned because of political and politically-inspired media pressure, not because of any widespread, validated wrongdoing in their actual research activities. Media accusations, innuendo, personal attacks on blogs, and so forth are fomenting discontent in the public regarding the climate research funded by their taxes. If you want to look for a conspiracy, look to the AGW deniers, not to the scientists doing the climate research. These AGW-denying narcissists are using a familiar tactic -- accuse your opponents of the very misdeeds you yourself are committing.

I, for one, stand ready to defend my climate science colleagues from this unwarranted attack on their personal integrity. Of course, any actual, proven wrongdoing by individuals is unacceptable, but does not automatically validate any conspiracy hypothesis.

The attack on "consensus" science

I've just concluded an "argument" with an enormously ignorant non-scientist who has cited various blogs about science in support of his conclusion that "faith in global warming consensus isn't science, it is anti-science." This person, like a surprising number of others (including those who should know better), has no comprehension of what scientific consensus really means.

Anthropogenic global warming deniers cite such notions as the "consensus in science (and religion) [was once] that the earth was the center of the universe" as "proof" that consensus science is just an argument by authority. That isn't the meaning of consensus science at all! It's not an argument by authority but rather is the core of the ideas that are currently accepted by the majority of those who are actually participating in that science. If we have no core of agreement, we can have no discussion at all!

By the way, these folks also talk glibly about "proof" in science. I've already discussed that here, and it's a clear indicator of ignorance about how science really works to hear someone talk about "scientific proof". Even more pathetic is their understanding of the so-called "scientific method" - as if some simple formulaic approach can constitute the "scientific method". Pitiful, indeed!

For people laboring under these ignorant delusions, I recommend they read my essay about how science works. In that essay, I state:

... it may come as something of a revelation to many that scientific consensus is the sole basis for scientific arguments. Most scientists accept certain principles and consequences of those basic principles as the starting point for their work. This large and pervasive consensus is the core of a science education curriculum - it takes years to be taught the fundamentals for a particular discipline and to know the acceptable rules for drawing deductions using those fundamentals. The "state of the art" in science is always on the margins of this dominant background consensus. Is the consensus always right? No. It's axiomatic that nothing in science is sacred, even elements that are widely accepted as fundamental and basic to all that scientists do. Most scientists understand this principle, but they don't act as if everything needs to be repeatedly validated. They simply accept the consensus - what T.S. Kuhn called the dominant paradigm. There are various levels of consensus on different topics - many scientists bristle at some of the consensus even as they accept the majority of its canons. Hence, on the whole, there's always an undercurrent of attack on the paradigms. Virtually all scientists accept another principle: if you take on something fundamental, you have to be prepared for a spirited response to your claims to have overthrown a paradigm. The saying goes (I know Carl Sagan said it in "Cosmos"), "If you make extraordinary claims, you have to be able to provide extraordinarily convincing evidence!" As already noted herein, someone with a talent for designing revealing experiments can go far in science. Some parts of the consensus understanding are always vulnerable, perhaps owing to their never having been tested sufficiently rigorously. Others may have seemed so obvious that they have hardly been tested at all, so there are always many targets for a young scientist seeking to make a contribution.

The basic notion here is that a consensus emerges when the majority of scientists active in some area of research accept "something", and this "something" is the consensus. No one is making any argument to the effect that the consensus is invariably and inevitably correct. This is simply what most scientists active in some field believe at any given moment. It's a provisional understanding that can be changed, but changing it will require evidence more substantive than just an opinion!

When it comes to the host of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) deniers, they're dominated by those who are not actively engaged in global climate research, including my recent "opponent" in an argument. They have opinions about this topic but those opinions simply can't carry the same weight as those whose work has been consistently in the field of global climate. Anyone is allowed to have any opinion they want, for whatever reasons, but in science, opinions are nothing particularly noteworthy unless they're backed up by serious research that is published in scientific journals. Not everything in journals is "true" in some absolute sense, but it has met some important standards (associated with peer review).

Yes, it's an elitist argument. But whose opinion should mean the most? Those who have been engaged in the field for many years, publishing articles in refereed journals on their scholarly research, or those who have no data of their own to present, no track record of publishing articles in scientific journals, nothing at all that is the result of their own research? Surely the answer to that is obvious.

As I've stated elsewhere, I know a thing or two about how the atmosphere works, and I know several of those whose work is represented in the IPCC "consensus". Although I'm not a climate scientist myself, I trust those people and I trust the consensus simply because I'm not qualified to gainsay their findings. But I understand enough of their arguments to be reasonably convinced about the consensus in which their work is represented. In any case , I daresay I'm a hell of a lot more qualified than those deniers whose background in science is nonexistent. A few of the deniers are, like me, atmospheric scientists but not participants in climate science. They should understand, as I do, that their credentials as a scientist in another subfield don't necessarily qualify them to contravene the work of specialists in another discipline. By far the majority of the deniers have essentially no credentials that would support their ability to dispute the consensus, notably including the person with whom I recently had an "argument" - sort of like debating with a moron, that. His contributions to science are essentially negligible and his credentials as a meteorologist are not such that he can argue credibly against the climate scientists.

Sure, the deniers might be right. That is a logical possibility, of course. Science is not determined by majority vote and the consensus understanding is not inevitably correct, as history has shown repeatedly. Science works because it fits the evidence - there is no other standard. But do I trust these amateurs to be able to marshal a convincing argument by scientific standards for their extraordinary claims to overthrow the IPCC consensus? No. A thousand times NO!

The whole debate is a slur on the integrity of those whom I know to have impeccable integrity. I resent the very notion that the IPCC consensus represents some sort of cabal to defraud the public for the personal gain of those framing that consensus. The very idea of such a conspiracy is ludicrous in the extreme for anyone who knows anything about how science really works, and who knows the people involved in developing that consensus.