Saturday, June 16, 2007

Market-based science

Yesterday, I ranted about faith-based science. Well, religion and capitalism make for strange bedfellows. The Financial Times is presently carrying an impassioned but thoroughly irrational diatribe by Czech president Vaclav Klaus against global warming and climate change science. In claiming that the scientific consensus on climate change is politically motivated, Klaus demands that
The scientists should help us and take into consideration the political effects of their scientific opinions. They have an obligation to declare their political and value assumptions and how much they have affected their selection and interpretation of scientific evidence.

As a potential solution to global climate change, Klaus proposes that
Instead of organising people from above, let us allow everyone to live as he wants

Instead of speaking about “the environment”, let us be attentive to it in our personal behaviour

First of all, as a scientist, I find the suggestion that scientific conclusions are generally tainted by political considerations gravely insulting. Any scientist worthy of the name is driven to discover underlying reality and firmly constrained by empirical observation, regardless of the political implications. Klaus' call to "resist the politicisation of science and oppose the term 'scientific consensus', which is always achieved only by a loud minority, never by a silent majority" amounts to a dismissal of science itself. The general agreement of the scientific community, achieved through the exchange of ideas in journals, conferences, and personal communications, allows humanity to arrive at the best possible approximation to the truth. Obviously, the true state of the world can never be known with certainty, and individuals will always be subject to personal bias, but the collective discussion of a group of rational, intelligent, informed individuals serves as a filter on inconsistent reasoning and political predisposition alike. Scientific consensus has given us our greatest paradigm shifts, from the heliocentric universe to evolution to quantum mechanics. While the gears of scientific consensus may turn slowly, the juggernaut rarely commits itself to the wrong path.

More frighteningly, though, Klaus completely ignores the inevitable march of unrestricted free-market capitalism to the tragedy of the commons. Indeed, Klaus counsels that "any suppression of freedom and democracy should be avoided." Such suppressions of freedom include antitrust legislation, consumer protection laws, workers' rights, and environmental protections. Klaus would have us believe that, left to their own devices, the global mega-corporations which drive the world economy would naturally become conscientious stewards of the larger world in which they exist. Certainly, no corporation would poison our rivers and oceans with toxic chemicals, because it is cheaper to dump them into public resources than to dispose of them safely. Clearly, no company would market unsafe products and cover up the inevitable accidents or illnesses. Even if human activity is inducing an increase in temperature, as the "scientific consensus" seems to believe, and given that such an increase would almost invariably have catastrophic consequences, it is nevertheless not in the interest of any single corporation to modify its behavior to address the problem. Governments exist precisely to protect the masses from the actions of the few. I don't know what the Czech Republic is doing these days, but if their leader so firmly believes that that government is best which governs not at all, then I don't see how they can avoid a swift descent into anarchy.

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