Saturday, January 14, 2006

How the War On Science Makes Us Less Safe

Support for the current Republican administration is waning.  The support that remains is persisting primarily because of the misperception that the Republican Party is more likely to keep us safe.   However, one could make a case that the current policies are making us substantially less safe.  

Perhaps the most popular argument used to make this case, is an argument that I do not like.  Some say that the war in Iraq has turned Iraq into a breeding ground for anti-American terrorists.  That is probably true, but I don't like that argument because there is no way of knowing whether any of those terrorists-in-training really present a threat.

But what about the war on science?  How does that make us less safe.  The central tactic used in the war on science is like that used by Microsoft: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  People are not sure what software to buy, so they go with the name that they recognize the most.  Once FUD rears its head, logic goes out the window.  

When buying software, it is most appropriate to do careful testing to see which product does the job the best.  But when faced with a clever FUD attack, it is difficult to trust the results of the test.  Empiricism is replaced by creeping doubt.  The decision-maker no longer focuses on what is most likely to happen; rather, the focus is on trying to prevent some lurking catastrophe, that, while possible, is highly unlikely to happen.  

This tactic is most likely to be successful when the probability of the lurking threat cannot be quantified.  In such cases, people tend to estimate the probability of the catastrophe in proportion to the intensity of their emotional reaction to the thought of the catastrophe.  

Look at the tactics used by the Administration in the battles over climate change policy.  They repeat the mantra that experts do not agree, we can't be sure of the science, the jury is still out, whatever: all variations on the FUD theme.  Likewise, when it comes to security policy, they trumpet claims such as "Iran poses a grave threat," or the most egregious: "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Although there never was any reliable evidence that Iraq had a nuclear weapon, nobody could prove that there were no weapons.  The probability could not be quantified.  So a lot of people substituted the magnitude of their fear (which could not be quantified, but which was known to be large) for the numerical probability (which could not be quantified, but which which was in fact very small).  

This is analogous to the argument used against global warming.  With global warming, there is a lot of evidence to show that the climate is changing, and a lot of evidence that human industrial activity is accelerating those changes. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a lot of evidence that Iraq had disbanded their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that there were no weapons to be found.  

With climate change policy, it is argued that all kinds of terrible things will happen if we follow the Kyoto protocol.  Before the invasion of Iraq, it was argued that all kinds of terrible things would happen if we did not go to war.  

In both cases, the Administration argued against the logical conclusion.  In both cases, the logical conclusion was that we should expect the most likely outcome: the one with the greatest amount of evidence to support it.  But by using the FUD tactic, logic was bypassed, and illogical actions were undertaken.  

The analogy is not exact.  In the case of climate change, the most fearsome outcome was downplayed; in the case of Iraq, the fear was exaggerated.  The fear that was played up was the fear of spending a lot of money needlessly, perhaps ruining the economy and costing people their jobs.  

But in both cases, the "junk logic" of FUD was used to invalidate objective analyses of the situations.  The war on science amount to a systematic invalidation of empiricism, with FUD to replace it.  

Some people think that the point of the war on science is to supplant science with religion.  That is not the case.  Religion has nothing to do with it.   The point of the war on science is to replace objective analysis with executive fiat.   But by abandoning logic, we are damaging our own security.

If security really is the main objective, then it would make sense to take an inventory of all the things that make us less safe.  At the moment, the things leading that list would be things like alcohol and nicotine addiction, lack of exercise, uncontrolled firearms, unsafe driving, pandemic viruses, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the exploding federal deficit, unemployment, pollution, poorly-planned communities, lack of access to health care, and domestic violence.  Once the inventory is completed, we would look at the various interventions available, and the cost of implementing those interventions.  Then, we would decide how to put our resources to their best use, to make us all safer.  

Following this kind of analysis, we would not be building more F-22 fighter jets, we would not be giving cost-plus no-bid contracts to Halliburton, we would not be drawing up plans to invade Iran, and we would not be rebuilding New Orleans.  We would be implementing a universal health system, we would be building resilient, sustainable, rebuildable communities, we would be enforcing tough fuel economy standards, and we would be tweaking the economy to maintain a strong middle class.  We would be developing decentralized power production, with a diverse portfolio of energy sources.  We would be encouraging greater use of locally-grown foods, and charging a premium for foods that have to be transported long distances.  There are many of things we would be doing, and we all would be better off because of it.  After all, the point of national security is to make people safer, and to make social structures more resilient.  The war on science is undermining those goals.