Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Is Global Warming Like Eugenics?

Every so often, I run into variations of the following argument: They tell us that anthropocentric climate change (or 'global warming' if one prefers the less fancy terminology) is settled science, but the beliefs of 'settled science' can be horribly wrong. After all, in the 1920s eugenics was settled science.

I think that what's causing confusion here is the distinction between actual scientific theory and policy/moral beliefs relying on that theory which might be popular with scientists and science boosters/funders -- what one might call the "scientific establishment" in some political and cultural sense rather than in the sense of knowledge.

While the scientists involved in Eugenics work (as in, doctors and biologists who were theorizing about or conducting studies on the genetic basis of "undesirable" traits, and then formulating proposals for "racial health" initiatives) doubtless got various things wrong in terms of the exact genetic basis and probability of inheritance of certain traits, the basics of the science involved has not actually been discredited. And indeed, some of the things which population geneticists have to say are rather upsetting to politically correct sensibilities. (Something which a certain type of racist sometimes takes aid and comfort from.)

What did become wholly discredited was the idea that because someone had a higher probability than the general population of having "unfit" children, one was therefore acting morally in forcibly sterilizing that person. And even that realization didn't come so much on the merits as because it became clear how closely those people's ideology was tied in with that of the Nazis.

On climate change the science element (that global average temperatures are rising in a fashion which seems to be explainable primarily through the known greenhouse effects of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere) really is pretty well supported. Yes, there's always room for refinement and change as new information becomes available, and there could be some huge thing we don't know about, but people are overplaying it when they act as if this is much more sketchy than most areas of science that we rely on without much thought.

Once we get beyond the actual science question into what, if anything, we should actually do about it at this point, we're off into policy and moral questions, and that's not necessarily an area in which the scientists involved and their activist hangers-on can provide a whole lot more insight than others. So there's not necessarily any reason to follow the climate change movement in its proposed solutions. Indeed, many proposed solutions actually fail on scientific merits. (For example, some forms of "alternative energy" actually are more costly in terms of environmental destruction than just burning fossil fuels, if one looks at the actual effects of building all the pieces involved in the energy systems.) But attacking the climate science itself is arguably not the right way to go at disagreement.

(Note: Yes, I'm aware of the various data snafus and scandals surrounding climate science organizations. But although these are disturbing and probably point to mistakes that climate scientists have made as a result of being overly defensive, as best as I can tell critics are far overplaying their hands when they then conclude that there is simply nothing to climate change studies or that they are an elaborate fraud to get funding. My goal in this post is modest, to discuss the comparison of climate change theories to eugenics. It's not to try to resolve the entire validity to climate science via recourse to Dr. Google.)

1 comment:

Bernard Brandt said...

I think that the views of Dr. Jerry Pournelle, in addition to being entirely reasonable, are ones that I share (what a remarkable coincidence!). Summed up, Dr. P. believes that it is a reasonable hypothesis that increased levels of CO2 have the result of an increase in world temperature. He remains skeptical, however, of current attempts to quantify the extent of that increase, due to a tendency of those attempting to make the measure to make unavailable the details of the models used, and to adjust the data to obtain the desired results. I would also agree with him that we need to look at all of the factors of the system studied (e.g., the extent to which the energy of the Sun varies over time; the extent to which other aerosols (such as clouds) influence any greenhouse effect, etc.