Against science

You’ve probably heard that there was a “march for science” this weekend, and you may have asked yourself what the hell that was supposed to mean. This is one of many things nowadays that is “common sense” and “shouldn’t be a partisan issue” and “it’s so ridiculous that it’s 2017 and we’re still talking about this,” which is exactly how you know that this is not where the real issue is. That is, there’s a notion that certain strains of political thought are “anti-science,” but of course this is absurd. Science is a methodology, not a goal, and for this reason, no one is actually opposed to it as such. Republicans are more than happy to support science when it’s being used to construct giant bombs and mass surveillance tools. Nobody is insisting that these things be done according to Biblical instructions. People who have goals that they want to achieve use the means that are available to them, and science is one of those.

First of all, the specific issue we’re talking about here is global warming, which is something that we should not euphemize, as it is and continues to be the single most important issue in politics. (If we’re particularly unlucky, it will continue to be the most important issue for the remainder of human history.) There’s a lot of talk concerning a “scientific consensus” on this issue and the fact that certain politicians won’t “accept” it, but this does not amount to an explanation. Science is, again, a method that can help you understand what the situation is right now, and potentially help you figure out how to do something about it, but only after you’ve decided what it is that you’re going to do. As explained by the Big D himself, David Hume, in a much-quoted-but-apparently-not-quoted-nearly-enough passage:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

In short, science can, ideally, tell you exactly what the present situation is, but what it can tell you about what you ought to do about it is – again ideally – exactly dick. After all, the group of people who accept the scientific consensus on global warming includes Barack Obama, who, well, I’ll be generous and not say that he did nothing about it during the time that the issue was on his desk, but considering the scale of the problem, it’s difficult to argue against the conclusion that he basically sat on his hands.

Worse, “science” is in fact the thing that caused global warming in the first place. It’s more than a little peculiar to oppose global warming by demanding more science in politics, seeing as what actually happened is that extreme advancements in industrial technology outstripped our ability to monitor and control them via policy. If it weren’t for science, if it were simply a matter of choosing a policy, no one would ever have chosen for global warming to happen. But, you’ll object, that’s not science’s fault. It was the profit motive, or human short-sightedness or whatever. You are entirely correct. To attach the label “science” to the results of a scientific process is a category error. Science is the process and is not the outcome. The first sentence of this paragraph makes the same category error. Science is not the cause of anything; it can only be the means by which a cause produces its effect. For this same reason, science cannot save us. Indeed, treating science as a real thing and not clinging to it as a fetish means respecting it even when it cuts against you – when it demonstrates that getting what you’re after requires sacrifice.

And also for this same reason, “science” cannot be the thing that our recent marchers were in fact marching for. They are making the same error: what they are actually in favor of is the results of science. A common grievance is the fact that the current administration seems to be attempting to neutralize the function of the EPA, if not eliminate it entirely. This is usually framed as an attack on “science.” But “science” and “the environment” are not the same type of thing. “The environment” is what we want; “science” is potentially how we get there (again, it can just as easily be how we don’t get there). Insisting on “more science” does nothing to oppose those who don’t want to preserve the environment in the first place.

More than that, “the environment” is not actually what we want, either. There’s always going to be an environment, no matter what. Even a Mars-like lifeless rock is still “an” environment. What we want is an environment that is good for humans, and it is here that we finally get around to imposing some fucking constraints. The thing that’s really disgusting about global warming is that rich fucks are going to be fine. They have high-tech doomsday colonies in which to while away their decadent lives while the rest of the world burns. The thing that allows them to do this is science. The other thing that allows them to do this is a hell of a lot of money – money that could be used to help the people who are actually going to get fucked to death otherwise. This is the only thing that is intelligible as a political demand. We don’t want rich fucks to jump up and down and shake their pom-poms when they see a pretty picture of a nebula. We want their fucking money. To actually argue this, though, you’d have to argue that rich fucks are not entitled to spend their money however they please – indeed, you might even end up arguing that people in general have a moral obligation to use their resources to make things better for others. And that’s just not how we do things in America.

The reason, then, that one “fucking loves science” is because it is easy to do so. Like, I wouldn’t normally do this stuff. Y’know, everything’s so partisan these days. I don’t like engaging in politics, like some kind of union laborer. It’s just that I love facts, you know? Facts are the best.1 Which, like, yeah. Facts are facts, which is why that is a worthless statement. What matters is what you’re going to do about them. And if what you want to do about them were something that the people in charge of this society were okay with, it would already be happening. If you want something different, then, you should be honest about what it is you’re saying. After all, most of the problems that we aspire to solve using science have already been solved – for some people. As William Gibson famously put it, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. So if you’re going to protest, don’t settle for taking the easiest possible stance out of fear that you won’t get a sympathetic writeup in the New Yorker. Make a real claim. What you are actually in favor of is coercive economic redistribution.

  1. Like, there’s apparently a hat with the word “facts” on it, because wearing that in public will totally show everyone what a functional and intelligent person you are. 

Feel the burn

The AP fact-checked all the presidential candidates on global warming. The results are exactly what you’d expect; the only important thing to note is that this has nothing to do with “scientific literacy” and everything to do with pandering. Clinton got the highest score because she’s currently pandering the hardest to establishment liberals; Cruz got the lowest score because he’s currently pandering the hardest to the know-nothing crowd. None of these people are actually going to do anything about the issue.

Aside from that, though, there’s something a little disturbing in the perspective of the scientists who performed the review. Sanders lost points for the following statement:

“The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”

This is apparently an “overstatement,” which I guess is technically true. There will probably still be a few places on the planet that are actually livable. Given the situation, though, it’s hard to argue that a little hyperbole isn’t justified.

Here are the scientists’ criticisms of this statement:

Dessler said, “I would not say that the planet will become uninhabitable. Regardless of what we do, some humans will survive.” Harvard’s Jim McCarthy also called the comment an overstatement, as did other scientists when Sanders said it. Recent research on the worst heat projections in the hottest area, the Persian Gulf, finds that toward the end of the century there will be a few days each decade or so when humans cannot survive outside, but can live with air conditioning indoors.

Talk about cold comfort. “Some” humans will still survive, probably! It will only occasionally be impossible for people to go outside! Like, I get it. The planet is not literally going to go up in flames, and it is important to have an accurate understanding of the specific things that are going to happen. But what’s actually disturbing here is the bit about air conditioning.

It’s disturbing because it reflects an assumption that we’ll be able to do an effective job of ameliorating the consequences of global warming, even though right now we aren’t doing shit to actually prevent it. Recall that not everyone has access to air conditioning under current circumstances, even in America. The scientists here are considering the worst-case scenario, but assuming a best-case response to it. This assumption is not justified.

Our collective failure to do anything about global warming has two root causes. The obvious one is that humans are terrible at long-term planning, especially when there short-term benefits to be had by ignoring it. Not much more needs to be said about this. But there’s another problem that gets much less attention, despite how fundamental it is to everything that’s wrong with society: humans care more about their relative status than their absolute status.

This fact explains how we got into this mess in the first place. It wouldn’t really be that hard for rich fucks to create a stable, sustainable society, given the sort of resources they have at hand. It would, of course, cost them a lot of money, but they’d get a lot out of it: there wouldn’t be any railing against the 1%, they wouldn’t have to bother controlling the political process or hiring mercenaries to shut down protesters, etc. Economic activity could be redirected toward more improvements in technology and medicine, which would benefit rich fucks the most even as they also benefited everyone else. Furthermore, this wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice in practical terms, since no one can actually use the amount of money these people have. They could spend like 90% of their wealth on this and still maintain their ridiculous standards of living. They’d just be normally obscenely wealthy instead of obscenely obscenely wealthy.

And that’s the problem. Being unfathomably richer than everyone else is what actually motivates these people. In other words, what they care about is their relative status. It isn’t just rich fucks either; everyone is like this. For example, this is why poor white people can be persuaded to abandon their class interests in favor of white supremacy: it gives them someone to look down on. If they united with poor black people, they could make themselves better off in absolute terms, but then they’d all be together on the bottom; poor white people would be worse off in relative terms.

So this is why pollution happens: people are willing to destroy their environment to gain a competitive advantage over their neighbors, even though they all have to live together in the same destroyed environment (note that “competitive advantage” is the actual term used in business). But that’s not all. This is also why global warming is going to get worse before it gets worse.

Everyone assumes that once really bad things starts happening, we’ll all get serious and start doing something about it. But if we aren’t doing anything now, why would we start once it gets harder to do so? Indeed, the opposite is true: as the overall situation worsens, there will be more to gain from minor competitive advantages; fossil fuels will become more valuable in a situation where fewer people have access to them. Ergo, people will keep burning them, and things will keep getting worse. And that will be humanity’s epitaph: we chose to be rulers of a wasteland rather than citizens of a decent society.

And Sanders isn’t going to do anything about this either. Here he is playing coy in Rolling Stone:

. . . His [Eugene V. Debs’] vision is a vision that I share.

Including an “overthrow of the capitalist system”?
No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative. If you follow my campaign, have you heard me talk about overthrowing the capitalist economic system?

I mean, obviously. The guy is running for President of Capitalism. What else is he going to say?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been consistently impressed by Sanders (excluding his position on gun control). I wouldn’t have thought the Democratic Party was capable of fielding this good of a candidate [update: in the least surprising turn of events ever, it turns out they’re not]. But in this case, “good” isn’t good enough, because “overthrowing the capitalist economic system” is the one and only thing that can stop global warming.

This is old news by now, but the amount of oil that is currently owned is about five times more than enough to push us over the brink. In order to avoid catastrophe, this oil must not be burned. But for the owners, this is equivalent to burning the amount of money that the oil is worth. This will never happen. This is also why “clean energy” isn’t going to do shit: the oil is already owned, so burning it in addition to using clean energy sources will still provide a competitive advantage, so it will still happen even in an ideal situation where there’s enough solar power to provide free energy for everyone. And, as mentioned, as things get worse, the incentives to use these resources will only increase. The only solution is for the government (that is, all the governments) to buy up or otherwise appropriate all of this oil and keep it in the ground.

And of course, this isn’t a one time thing. Even if some miracle invention fixes global warming (n.b. not happening), the incentives that caused the problem will still be in place. There will eventually be some other technology that destabilizes our environment in the same way, and the same thing will happen again.

It’s usually a sort of saving grace that our ruling class is totally incompetent. As Machiavelli pointed out when he wrote The Prince, just because someone happens to meet the current criteria for being a member of the ruling class doesn’t mean they actually know shit about ruling. And this is great, because the fact that there’s no master plan is what allows the rest of us to make our own lives in the cracks of the system. A competent ruling class would have already undermined us all so thoroughly that I wouldn’t even be able to conceive of any of the stuff in this post. In this case, though, it might be worth the tradeoff.