Make Socialism Scientific Again!

Remember the good old days when socialism was “scientific”? Keep in mind that the orthodox Marxism of “dialectical materialism” was understood as a scientific doctrine of history, not advocacy based on the abstract principles of egalitarianism. But then socialism crashed and burned everywhere (except on college campuses), which is why today socialism comes to sight as a religious faith, a trait it always had from the beginning, which is why you often found cleric-scientists among the ranks of its enthusiasts in the 19th century. Today I think socialism is more akin to witchcraft. In fact, hold on to that image for a bit.

Meanwhile, I have been dining out for years on the highly revealing statement made back in 2004 by Harvard’s renowned geneticist Richard Lewontin, who told the New York Review of Books that year:

Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time.

This time? How about any time? It’s one thing for academic scientists to lean left (though many I know emphatically do not), but this is the kind of statement that makes you wonder. Lewontin deserves his scientific reputation; his political judgment is clearly juvenile.

This is preface for noting the release of a new article from PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), which usually publishes serious and sober work. But I think the fumes in the editorial lab must have been strong the day this article was accepted:

Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene

Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Sarah E. Cornell, Michel Crucifix, Jonathan F. Donges, Ingo Fetzer, Steven J. Lade, Marten Scheffer, Ricarda Winkelmann, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber


We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be. If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.

In other words, another typical Malthusian callback to how the world is doomed if we don’t hand over power to an enlightened elite. I’ve highlighted the key part of the last sentence, because those judgments cannot be called “scientific” in any way whatsoever. The complete text of the article is even worse:

We suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies is required. . .

In other words, we have to change everything. Although the authors won’t say so directly, the implication is global governance of some kind, which by definition will have to be undemocratic. (Which for many people on the left is a feature, not a bug.)

Perhaps this is an entirely unremarkable restatement of a common view that is probably published in an academic journal a dozen times every day, but there is one interesting irony of this particular article. If you look at the fine print, you find this acknowledgement: “Edited by William C. Clark, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved July 6, 2018 (received for review June 19, 2018).”

I’ve never met Prof. Clark, and don’t know him at all, but he is the author of one of my very favorite articles about the institutional problems of science and politics way back in 1980: “Witches, Floods, and Wonder Drugs: Historical Perspectives on Risk Management.” It’s a terrific article. It was the late columnist Warren Brookes who first brought it to my attention. Clark’s comparison of the institutional incentives for witch-hunting with contemporary risk assessment (built partially on the terrific work of the late Aaron Wildavsky) has a perfect application to today’s Malthusian environmentalism and especially climate change thermaggeddonism—especially apt for the Inquisition-like treatment of dissent from climate change orthodoxy.

Some samples from the article:

Collective action by the central authority was henceforth required, and any action taken against a particular individual was justified in the name of the common good. In the case of the witch hunts, this “common good” justified the carbonization of five hundred thousand individuals, the infliction of untold suffering, and the generation of a climate of fear and distrust—all in the name of the most elite and educated institution of the day. . .

The institutionalized efforts of the Church to control witches can be seen, in retrospect, to have led to witch proliferation. Early preaching against witchcraft and its evils almost certainly put the idea of witches into many a head which never would have imagined such things if left to its own devices. The harder the Inquisition looked, the bigger its staff, the stronger its motivation, the more witches it discovered. . .

Since the resulting higher discovery rate of witch risks obviously justifies more search effort, the whole process becomes self-contained and self-amplifying, with no prospect of natural limitation based on some externally determined “objective” frequency of witch risks in the environment. . .

In witch hunting, accusation was tantamount to conviction. Acquittal was arbitrary, dependent on the flagging zeal of the prosecutor. It was always reversible if new evidence appeared. You couldn’t win, and you could only leave the game by losing. The Inquisition’s principal tool for identifying witches was torture. The accused was asked if she was a witch. If she said no, what else would you expect of a witch? So she was tortured until she confessed the truth. The Inquisitors justified ever more stringent tortures on the grounds that it would be prohibitively dangerous for a real witch to escape detection. Of course an innocent person would never confess to being a witch (a heretic with no prospects of salvation) under mere physical suffering. The few who lived through such tests were likely to spend the rest of their lives as physical or mental cripples. Most found it easier to give up and burn.

You can see here an early version of the “precautionary principle” (“The Inquisitors justified ever more stringent tortures on the grounds that it would be prohibitively dangerous for a real witch to escape detection”) and many other prominent traits of the climate campaign.

Here is Clark’s killer sentence:

Many of the risk assessment procedures used today are logically indistinguishable from those used by the Inquisition.

And this coda, for which you should swap out “risk assessors” with “climate change advocates”:

Today, anyone querying the zeal of the risk assessors is accused at least of callousness, in words almost identical to those used by the Malleusfive hundred years ago. The accused’s league with the devil against society is taken for granted. Persecution in the press, courts, and hearing rooms is unremitting, and even the weak rules of evidence advanced by the “science” of risk assessment are swept away in the heat of the chase. This is not to say that risks don’t exist, or that assessors are venal. It is to insist that skeptical, open inquiry remains theory rather than practice in the majority of today’s risk debates. That those debates are so often little more than self-deluding recitations of personal faith should not be surprising.

Cue the refrain that “97 percent of scientists believe in climate change.” Believe? It would seem the Inquisition never really went away: it just changed institutions and identified a different class of witches to hunt down.

Clark’s entire paper, with interesting case histories of flood control and drug approval (hence the full title of the paper) is worth reading, even if some of the analysis is now dated and obsolete. But I am begged to ask the question: what happened to that Clark? Or perhaps he cleverly thinks that the best way to chastise politicized scientists is simply to publish their tendentious work?

NB: Scientists are the equal of any other citizens, and are perfectly entitled to their political opinions. But to represent their opinions with the veneer of scientific authority, as is done here, degrades science, and contributes to the decline in public regard for the scientific community. Prof. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a “mainstream” climate scientist, put the matter well a few years back:

Scientists are most effective when they provide sound, impartial advice, but their reputation for impartiality is severely compromised by the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures. Until this profound and well-documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank.

Instead of offering vague political nostrums like this article, scientists who are sincerely convinced of the high probability of doom from climate change ought to be offering the specs for the technical changes that need to be made to energy supply (i.e., what carbon intensities, what kind of pollution mitigation, what kind of “geoengineering” strategies, etc). To their credit, many scientists do just this. This group of authors clearly want to be in a different line of work—or at least ought to be.


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