Thursday, November 18, 2010

Experts, democracy and public opinion

Consider this a follow-up, of sorts, to my Facts vs Beliefs post...

Going over what I had written there and then partaking in the comments section, I was reminded of a review of Mark Levin's best-selling book, Liberty and Tyranny, by Jim Manzi[*]. It's a great piece of literary criticism in which Manzi - focusing specifically on the the issue of climate change - doesn't pull in punches about Levin's intellectual laziness. I really urge everyone to read the entire article, but here is a sample:
Liberty and Tyranny and Epistemic Closure 
[W]hen I waded into the first couple of chapters, I found that – while I had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points – it seemed to all but ignore the most obvious counter-arguments that could be raised to any of its assertions. This sounds to me like a pretty good plain English meaning of epistemic closure. The problem with this, of course, is that unwillingness to confront the strongest evidence or arguments contrary to our own beliefs normally means we fail to learn quickly, and therefore persist in correctable error.  
I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying – global warming – in order to see how it treated a controversy for which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail. 
It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times – not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided. 
Levin argues that human-caused global warming is nothing to worry about, and merely an excuse for the Enviro-Statist (capitalization in the original) to seize more power. It reads like a bunch of pasted-together quotes and stories based on some quick Google searches by somebody who knows very little about the topic, and can’t be bothered to learn.
After mentioning the fact the Levin fails to mention a single one of the host of scientific organisations that have endorsed the notion of man-made global warming, Manzi goes on to list a good number of them. He then writes:
Of course, this roll call [of scientific bodies] could be arbitrarily long and illustrious, and that does not make them right. Groupthink or corruption is always possible, and maybe the entire global scientific establishment is wrong. Does he think that these various scientists are somehow unaware that Newsweek had an article on global cooling in the 1970s? Or are they aware of the evidence in his book, but are too trapped by their assumptions to be able to incorporate this data rationally? Or does he believe that the whole thing is a con in which thousands of scientists have colluded across decades and continents to fool such gullible naifs as the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, numerous White House science advisors, Margaret Thatcher and so on? Are the Queen of England and the Trilateral Commission in on it too?
But what evidence does Levin present for any of this amazing incompetence or conspiracy beyond that already cited? None. He simply moves on to criticisms of proposed solutions. This is wingnuttery.

By chance, I then scrolled through some of Manzi's more recent posts and came across one that is directly relevant to the topics that Becks, Mars and I have been discussing in the comments section of the Facts vs Beliefs post. Essentially, Manzi is grappling with the question of how we should proceed when public opinion conflicts with that of the relevant experts. He cites some interesting articles that offer food for thought on a number of opposing views. Again, I urge you to read the full article, but here is a snippet:
Our So-called Experts 
Ezra Klein[...] was admirably willing to call a spade a spade:
This isn’t a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That’s why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum. But of late, the elites in the Republican Party are abdicating their roles, preferring to pander to the desire for free tax cuts and the hostility to Al Gore than make tough and potentially unpopular decisions to safeguard our future.
I think this raises the crucial question in this debate: What is the valid scope of expertise?
In the case of climate change, there is actual scientific knowledge about the properties of CO2, but advocates of emissions mitigation schemes constantly attempt to drape the mantle of science, or more broadly expert knowledge, around public policy positions that, as I have argued many times, do not follow even from the core technical reports produced by the asserted experts.
The essential Progressive belief that Klein expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.
This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.
While social interventions certainly don't always work, this of course does not mean we should abdicate our responsibility in thinking seriously about how we might solve the problem at hand. Further, the crucial point with "relevant expertise" in the context of this discussion, is the juncture where we move from science to the spheres of policy and economics. As I've pointed out a number of times before on this blog, these need to be separated. I want scientists to tell what they expect the likely impacts of climate change to be, but they shouldn't be the ones to decide how (or if) we react. Speaking of which...

I deplore misinformation and alarmism on both sides of this argument. I can think of a number of people - Manzi among them - who believe that man-made global warming is occurring, but provide reasonable arguments as to why it makes more (economic) sense to focus on, say, adaptation rather than mitigation measures. For various reasons - uncertainty, the imperfect substitutability of of natural and man-made goods, etc - I respectively disagree with these assertions.

Nevertheless, whatever your stance, the fundamental problem remains that carbon does not carry a price to correct for the negative externality that it entails... People are simply not able to make an economic valuation of how best to respond to climate change if they are missing the cost component. There are many good reasons to oppose regulations and micromanagement of our lives by the state. However, I have yet to hear a single convincing argument of how society would resolve the climate issue without significant government intervention. That, unfortunately, is the very problem at the heart of public goods.

[*] For those of you that haven't heard of Manzi before, I don't think he would object to me summarising his political position as somewhere between a modern-day conservative and libertarian (though closer to the latter). He has provided reasoned criticisms of reactionary emissions-reductions policy while writing for the Cato Institute among others, yet remains strongly critical of those opposing the mainstream scientific view on (i.e. anthropogenic) climate change. He currently contributes regular opinion pieces for The American Scene.


  1. "However, I have yet to hear a single convincing argument of how society would resolve the climate issue without significant government intervention."

    Ok, here goes. If climate change is having such disastrous effects on people and communities they should be able to prove it, prove its costs, trace it back to the offender(s), and then prosecute for damages. Currently we think we know, by no means beyond reasonable doubt, that the globe is in an abnormal warming trend. We also think we know, by no means beyond any reasonable doubt, than man is causing it. We also think we know, by no means beyond reasonable doubt, that warming is impacting some parts of the globe quite adversely, in an environmental-economic sense. The facts need to be proven in a proper court of law, with real money on the line. People being affected should foot the legal costs if they lose, raising the financial risk of their claim being found false and therefore limiting the number of cases bought forward. This also provides a great cost-benefit appraisal before cases are bought forward. If a community believes it is being affected by man-made warming and therefore wishes to demand compensation, it would need to ask: does the risk of losing the case and footing the legal costs outweigh the probability of winning and receiving compensation?

    This whole route brings into stark focus what is provable and what is not. The rigours of a court of law will be shown to be far higher than the rigour of 'peer-reviewed' 'science'. The claims of climate scientists simply would struggle to stand up to intense cross-examination by good legal counsel.

    Secondly, local communities are best at dealing with their local environments and their local realities. If sea levels rise (they're not to any meaningful degree by the way), you don't need the state to help you. You just move inland. If weather patterns change and crops start failing, you either a) grow different crops, b) adopt better technologies, c) move, etc.

    Lastly and most importantly, how on earth is the state in a better position than anyone else to appraise the real costs, or externalities as you like to say, of CO2 emissions and therefore “resolve the climate issue”? The best the state can do is make totally arbitrary cost assessments based on weak science and then levy arbitrary taxes. And why is the state necessarily more keen to solve the issue than the private sector or local communities? There seems to be this strange assumption that government has everyone’s best interest at heart, but historically this appears to be more the exception than the rule.

  2. Freeman,

    Thanks for dropping by and giving your thoughts. As I keep repeating, I'm hopelessly busy with exams so will not be able to respond properly to your comment now. However, I do see many problems with with your proposals, which strike me as being impractical in the extreme. Hopefully, I get around to fleshing this assertion out before too long... (You'll probably have to give me the better part of two weeks, which is when I finish.)

    Of course, should anyone else wish to have a go in the meantime, please do. I am sure that Freeman would appreciate some discussion.

  3. I just realised that I never made good on my promise to provide some more in-depth commentary on why I regard Freeman's proposed tort law solution as completely and utterly unworkable. Some points then, for consideration:

    1) The costs of climate change will affect future generations. How do you propose that a litany of unborn peoples is adequately represented in a present day court room?

    2) Both the production and costs of climate change are diffuse geographically. Please let me know how likely you regard the proposition of, say, a rural Indonesian village successfully (i.e. fairly) engaging a US plant in an international court case. Not only that, but how, in the love of all that is sane, would they sue EACH AND EVERY producer of carbon around the world that is collectively influencing the climate and thereby affecting their properties?

    3) For the sake of the argument though, let's say that we do manage to implement a leviathan system of tort law where everyone across the globe is suing everyone else on the basis of their carbon production and consumption. In your comment, you keep making the assertion that the science behind global warming would not stand up to legal cross council. Which experts do you expect will be called in for testimony? Yup, that's correct, the same scientists who currently represent the mainstream view, against the very small minority of contrarian voices. An analogy: When a rape victim is also infected with HIV during sexual assault, how successful do you think contrarian voices on HIV/AIDS debate have been in overturning this particular issue? As I'm sure you can guess, not so much... Similarly, the only outcome I can see here is the exposition of canard science and arguments put forward by much of the denialist fringe. (E.g. Please see some of the links I posted in the comments section here).

    To be sure there are uncertainties in climate science - as any climate scientist worth his salt will keep stressing - but the balance of probabilities at present are undoubtedly sided with the call to action rather than inaction; again, please see some of my previous links.

    Final point. You wrote:
    If sea levels rise (they're not to any meaningful degree by the way), you don't need the state to help you. You just move inland. If weather patterns change and crops start failing, you either a) grow different crops, b) adopt better technologies, c) move, etc.

    But this completely flies in the face of your first point. Why mention tort law at all if we simply expect people to move when their properties are under threat? Clearly this violates the primacy of property rights, which, strangely enough, I know you hold as sacrosanct.

  4. Again I think you miss my fundamental points which I am too tired to explain again here.

    As for the "balance of probabilities". let's do some basic maths.

    For us to act to 'do something' about climate change (whatever that means these days) we need to accept the following propositions.

    1. The climate is changing
    2. The climate is changing in a warming direction.
    3. This warming is of a magnitude never before seen
    4. This warming is man made
    5. This man-made warming costs the planet more than it benefits it and therefore should be reversed
    6. This warming can viably and best be reversed by regulatory policy choices
    7. This reversal will be enough to reinstate the 'before' state of climate
    8. We can stop this reversal process at the 'before' state without it overshooting to an overly cool state and creating other negative costs.

    No let's assume, and this is DEFINITELY NOT the case, but let's assume for the sake of the through experiment that each of these propositions could be asserted with 90% confidence. By my simple reckoning that would mean that the decision to intervene by introducing all manner of policies and regulations would need to satisfy a probably criteria for success of 0.90^8 = 0.43.

    So even if we were totally (90%+) confident on each of these independent propositions, we still only arrive at roughly a 50/50 call AT BEST. Now, call Mr. Stuck in the Mud, but I would prefer to see a bit more debate on this one before talking about the 'balance of probabilities'. Moreover, I'm surprised you even want to talk about balance of probabilities, because on the numbers I've just run that balance looks rather skewed out of your favour...

  5. You're tired? That makes two of us bud ;)

    More seriously, you raise an interesting question and it is something that I have previously considered myself. My response is here.


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