05. June 2012 · 3 comments · Categories: philosophy

There’s been plenty of reaction across the net this week in response to a daft NYT article that begins “Men invented the internet”. At BoingBoing, Xeni is rightly outraged at the way the article is written, and in response comes up with plenty of examples of the contributions women have made to the development of computing. Throughout the resulting thread, many commentators chip in with more examples. Occasionally a (male) commentator shows up and tries to narrow down the definition of “invented the internet” to show that, yes, it was a man who invented some crucial piece of technology that makes it work. These comments are very revealing of a particular (male!) mindset towards technology and invention.

The central problem in the discussion seems to have been missed entirely. The real problem word in that opening sentence isn’t the word “men”, it’s the word “invented”. The internet is an incredibly complex socio-technical system. The notion that any one person (or any small group of people) invented it is ludicrous. Over a period of decades, the various technologies, protocols and conventions that make the internet work gradually evolved, through the efforts of a huge number of people (men and women), through a remarkable open design process. The people engaged in this endeavour had to invent new social processes for sharing and testing design ideas and getting feedback (for example, the RFC). It was these social processes, as much as any piece of technology, that made the internet possible.

But we should go further, because the concept of “invented” is even more problematic. If you study how any modern device came to be, the idea that there is a unique point in space and time that can be called its “invention” is really just a fiction. Henry Petroski does a great job of demonstrating this, through his histories of every day objects such as pencils, cutlery, and so on. The technologies we rely on today all passed though a long history of evolution in the same way. Each new form is a variant of ones that have gone before, created to respond to a perceived flaw in its predecessors. Some of these new variants are barely different from others, others represent larger modifications. Many of these modifications are worse than the original, some are better for specific purposes (and hence may start a new niche), and occasionally a more generally useful improvement is made.

The act of pointing to these occasional, larger modifications, and choosing to label them as “the birth of the modern X”, or the “first X”, or “the invention of X”, is a purely a social construct. We do it because we’re anchored in the present, seeing only the outcomes of these evolutionary processes, and we make the same mistake that creationists make, of being unable to conceive of the huge variety of intermediate forms that came before, and the massive process of trial and error that selected a particular form to survive and prosper. And, through continued operation of that bias, we’ve been conditioned to think in terms of unique moments of “invention” (often accompanied by a caricature of the lonely inventor working late at night in the lab).

And one of the biggest differences between men and women, in terms of social behaviour, is that men tend to boast about their successes and identify winners, while women tend to acknowledge group contributions and downplay their own efforts. So it’s hardly surprising that our history books are more full of male “inventors” than female inventors – the very idea of looking for a unique person to call the “inventor” is largely a male concept. Not only that, but it’s overwhelmingly a rich white guys’ way of looking at the world. The rich and powerful get to make decisions about who gets the credit for stuff. Not surprisingly, rich and powerful white men tend to pick other white men to designate as the “inventor”, and marginalize the contributions of others, no matter who else contributed to the idea during its gestation.

Update: Jan 9, 2014: Thanks to my student, Elizabeth, I now know the term for this: it’s the Matthew Effect. The wikipedia page has lots of examples.

This article in the NYT times, “Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives” about today’s earthquake reminded me of the classic poem by Joseph Malins, entitled “The ambulance down in the valley”. The parallel with climate policy is obvious:

‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, “Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,”
Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became full of pity
For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

“For the cliff is all right, if you’re careful,” they said,
“And, if folks even slip and are dropping,
It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”
So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would those rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
When they’d much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,
“Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley.”

“Oh he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined,
“Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could;
No! No! We’ll support them forever.
Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,
While the ambulance works in the valley?”

But the sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will soon be the stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best
To prevent other people from falling.”
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence ’round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

James Garvey: The Ethics of Climate Change. Continuum, 2008.

One of the pleasures of teaching is that your students challenge your ideas, and push you in directions you might never have gone. In my graduate class on climate change informatics, I thought we would just focus on applications of computer science to addressing climate change. But my students insisted we spend more time understanding the rationale for action on climate change, and in particular, they wanted a seminar on climate change ethics. Which caused me to pick up James Garvey’s 2008 book, “The Ethics of Climate Change”. It’s such an eloquent statement of the moral case, that I will explore it’s contents in great detail, and quote from it at length. I hope to inspire others to pick up the book and read it. But short of that, at least I can summarize the key points.

Garvey’s thesis is that we need a clear understanding of the ethical dimensions of climate change, and that philosophers (especially those who focus on ethics) need to engage with this problem. As he gets going, he points out that existing approaches to ethics are inadequate, because they haven’t previously considered problems where the consequences of action are “smeared out across space and time”: the impacts of climate change will be felt in disproportionately in different parts of the world, often by the people who have contributed least to the problem, and the impacts will span multiple generations, and affecting people not yet born.

A key point is that although science can tell us what is happening and why, it cannot tell us what to do about it. For that, we need an ethical framework for action. He constructs such a framework based on the idea that the world’s natural carbon sinks are the limiting resource, and that over-using this resource results in suffering and death for very large numbers of people over multiple generations. In the past, this resource has been used disproportionately by the developed nations to achieve prosperity. Hence, there is now a moral imperative to design an equitable way of distributing whatever is left of this resource, in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change without denying the developing world the opportunity to achieve their own prosperity.

The book begins with a short chapter on the science, in which Garvey quickly dispatches any notion that there is a debate within the mainstream scientific community about the existence and consequences of climate change. He makes short work of the argument that uncertainties in future projections can be used as an excuse for inaction, and the myth that climate change is a distant future threat. And he doesn’t mince his words:

“We can expect a future with hundreds of millions, even billions of displaced, hungry, thirsty people in it, escaping not just sea-level rises but on the move away from scorched croplands and empty wells. It doesn’t take much to imagine conflicts happening over our planet’s diminishing or shifting resources. It also doesn’t take much to see that the world’s poorest will be the ones most adversely affected, as well as the ones with the least resources for adaptation. […] There is going to be a lot of death in the future, a lot of death which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise. There will also be a lot of extra suffering, disease, thirst, hunger, violence and the like, horrors which wouldn’t have happened had we and those before us acted otherwise.” (p28)

In chapter 2, he then explains the role of philosophers, the importance of an explicit consideration of right and wrong, the values that allow us to separate them, and the basis by which we arrive at those values. Philosophy, he points out, “…is an attempt to answer three very large questions. What exists? How do we know? What are we going to do about it?” (p34). These three questions give rise to three kinds of philosophy, respectively, metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. By way of introduction to the basics of moral philosophy, he explores the basis for our beliefs about questions such as why it is wrong to kill innocent people, and provides a starting point for answering through the notion of justice: “…unless some morally relevant considerations intervene, justice means that burdens and benefits should be distributed among people equally.” (p42).

The ability to identify a moral foundation for our actions is vital, because it is often easy to identify relevant facts that argue one way or the other for some action, and hence, such disputes cannot be settled by an appeal to facts: “Sometimes … pointing to the facts is the wrong thing to do, because the disagreement really is a moral one.” (p42) For example, if a neighbouring country has been annexed, going to war to fight the injustice might be expensive. But the cost is irrelevant if the our moral framework compels us to act: “Sometimes morality trumps the facts, and sometimes the facts are just irrelevant. (p45)”

Of course, consistency is important here. Garvey summarizes two major schools of thought as examples:

  • Utilitarianism, which says that the morality of any action should be judged solely on its consequences, and specifically on whether it brings happiness (or reduction of pain) for the greatest number of people;
  • Kantian morality, which says any principle that you apply, to determine what to do, should work as a universal law. For example, making a false promise is morally wrong, because if everyone did it, there would no longer be such a thing as a promise any more, and hence the action, when elevated to a universal law, generates an inconsistency.

Whether you apply either of these two approaches, or some other basis for morality, it’s important to test your moral framework through various thought experiments, to explore its consistency.

Unfortunately, the consistency principle can run into difficulty in environmental ethics. Most traditional approaches to moral reasoning focus on the effect of our actions on (other) humans. But as soon as we argue that animals feel pleasure and pain, it becomes hard to draw a distinct boundary, to argue that value to humans is the only thing that grounds our morality. Indeed, much of environmental ethics has focussed on expanding the boundaries that constrain our thinking about what harm our actions might cause: while in the past, some philosophers have excluded women, slaves, ethnic minorities, so today it seems wrong to exclude animals, and even entire ecosystems. Talbott points out a delicious irony here: we could argue that the human capacity for moral reasoning should not entitle us to a privileged status within the ecosystems in which we exist. But that argument is only possible precisely because of our capacity for moral reasoning. In other words, the very thing that makes humans special is used to argue that we are not special. To overcome this, some environmental ethicists argue that we need a new basis for how we think about ‘value’, one that is not anthropocentric. For example, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis places value in the biosphere as a whole, with humans as just one element.

Having reviewed these approaches to environmental ethics, Garvey concludes that we don’t, in fact, need to re-think our ideas about human values to construct a compelling moral framework for action on climate change, and indeed that climate change already challenges our thinking about morality in so many other ways that perhaps it’s best to stick to a traditional human-centred ethics to reason about what we ought to do about it.

A big part of the challenge is in how we normally think about responsibility. If someone deliberately smashed a valuable vase, it’s not hard to ascribe responsibility for the action, to identify who is harmed by it, and perhaps what compensatory action might be necessary. But each of us contributes to fossil fuel emissions just by turning on lights, having hot showers, making toast for breakfast, driving to work, and taking the occasional well-earned vacation. So who is to blame for climate change, and who should address the harm that it causes?

“Our values grew up in a low-tech, disconnected world, of plenty. Now, cumulative and apparently innocent acts can have consequences undreamt of by our forebears. Further, the effects of actions, as well as the actions themselves, are smeared out in space and time in confusing ways.” (p59)

Worse, the global and inter-generational nature of the problems are entangled:

“There is a sense in which my actions and the actions of my present fellows join with the past actions of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and the effects resulting from our actions will still be felt hundreds, even thousands of years in the future. It is also true that we are, in a way, stuck with the present we have because of our past. The little actions I undertake which keep me warm and dry and fed are what they are partly because of choices made by people long dead. Even if I didn’t want to burn fossil fuels, I’m embedded in a culture set up to do so.” (p60)

Couple this, then with our ineptitude at theoretical reasoning, and the result is a global moral failing, and a global self-deception, akin to the denialism of the alcoholic and drug addict:

“We’re not much good at thinking about our long-term future, non-human animals and nature, the value of persons who might never exist, spatially and temporally smeared actions and so on. We have been able to get about our business without worrying much about any of this, so now that it matters, we lack both the wisdom and the theory to cope with it.” (p61)

So what is the central problem in thinking about climate change? Garvey likens the problems to a tragedy of the commons (where is is each person’s interest individually to over-exploit a common resource, but collectively a disaster), or a prisoner’s dilemma problem (where cooperating with the police by ratting on your accomplice might get you the best individual outcome, but the best joint action is for all members of the gang to stay silent). Nations considering whether to stick to the commitments they made in the Kyoto treaty face this type of dilemma, whereby

“polluting and enjoying the benefits of untrammelled energy use, can seem like the individually rational thing to do – particularly if, so far as you know, that’s what the other guy is going to do. Exploiting a common resource, like the carbon-absorbing properties of the planet, can seem like a good idea too. Everyone shares in the loss of the common resource, but only the polluter enjoys the benefits.” (p64)

Thankfully, Garvey is quick to dismiss the cost-benefit approaches to this problem that are frequently advocated by economists. He does this succinctly by pointing out that

“a few economists have tried to calculate some of the “non-market impacts” of climate change, by assigning a value to human life in proportion to national per capita gross domestic product: You get solid and objective answers to your questions through this assignation, but you also have to think about a Chinese person as worth about one tenth of a European.” (p65)

So while economics matters, it cannot matter if we don’t first work out what we value, and that consideration of value has to happen long before we apply economics to the problem.

The core of Garvey’s approach then is that the world’s carbon sinks are a limited resource, and furthermore they are a necessary resource: for many people, burning fossil fuels is an essential part of getting food. Hence, using up someone else’s share of the carbon sink is as wrong as using up their share of food or clean water. Garvey presents the numbers that show we’re a long way from an equitable distribution of this resource. He also considers, and then dismisses arguments that there might be a moral justification for such an unequal distribution – for example, the argument  that an unequal distribution of a resource can result in benefits for everyone. The origin of this argument is often attributed to Locke, who, in the 17th century, compared the lack of property ownership among Native Americans with the unequal land ownership in England, and concluded that, since the poorest persons in England had more material goods than the Native Americans, that the inequality of ownership in England benefitted everyone. Although this particular comparison is rather dubious, similar arguments are common across many writers since, from Adam Smith who argued that the operation of markets guaranteed an optimal allocation of resources to those who could exploit them (hence benefiting everyone), through to the “trickle down” ideology of Reagan and Thatcher. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that the exploitation of global carbon sinks by developed nations has benefited the poorer nations of the world in any way, as they cannot afford most of the products of our high energy  economy, and those that they can afford, they have paid for many times over in the flow of money and raw materials from the poor to the rich. Furthermore, as we face dwindling supplies of fossil fuel energy (due to peak oil and peak coal), and dwindling agricultural yield due to climate change, this lack of access to the benefits will likely get steadily worse:

“Burning fossil fuels, using the planet’s sinks, has partly made developed countries what they are – it has been a large part of securing the standard of life enjoyed by those in wealthy countries. The resource which helped the developed world to do this is now effectively used up. In using the atmosphere as we have, we have not just consumed a little more than the poor. We’ve taken a possible future from them and replaced it with something much worse.” (p73)

This might be enough to provide a compelling case that the developed world bears the responsibility for climate change, and hence ought to take on the bulk of the work of mitigating further damage, and the responsibility to help the rest of the world to cope with the impacts, all while still allowing the developing world access to whatever is left of the world’s carbon sinks, lest they be denied their own chance of development. But Garvey adds one more argument, of compelling simplicity, which he introduces as “You broke it, you bought it”. The developed world has broken our climate system, and therefore bears the responsibility for paying for the damage – a principle that’s enshrined in many countries’ legal systems as “the polluter pays”.

Garvey then considers a number of counter-arguments:

  • The argument that a causal responsibility doesn’t necessarily entail a moral responsibility, if an actor was unaware of the damage, and did not intend to cause it. The problem is with this argument is that in simpler cases, we still ascribe a clear moral responsibility. If, for example, I cause a car accident, even though I did not intend to, it would be immoral to drive away without stopping to check everyone was okay, help anyone who was injured, and pay for at least part of the damage. And there’s a problem with arguing that the developed world was unaware. A clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change dates back at least until 1990, with the publication of the first IPCC report, and yet emissions have grown unabated in the 21 years since then. The developed world certainly cannot claim ignorance for this period.
  • The argument that individuals in the developed world cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents and grandparents. Garvey notes that this argument requires a shift in focus from the responsibility of nations to the responsibility of individuals. But even more importantly, we cannot argue that the activities of our grandparents have nothing to do with us, while enjoying the prosperity that is a direct result of those activities.

And even if we do develop some of these arguments further, and perhaps accept that we must ignore history, we can still construct an argument that the developed world bears the responsibility based just on the following observations:

  • Current per capita emissions. China may have overtaken the US in total annual emissions in the last few of years, but given it has nearly five times the population (and that it been more proactive than any other nation in containing population growth), as soon as you look at per capita emissions, it’s obvious that the developed countries still burn dramatically more than their fair share.
  • Room for reduction. Many of the emissions in the developing world are subsistence emissions – cutting them will remove some of the basic requirements for survival:

“Suppose that 50% of the emissions of the US Virgin Islands are luxury emissions and all of the emissions of Rwanda are subsistence emissions. It’s clear who has room for reduction and who doesn’t. Arguing the point is as good as saying that some Rwandans should die so that some Virgin Islanders can recharge their mobile phones.” (p81)

  • Ability to pay. However you look at it, reducing fossil fuel emissions and adapting to climate change will cost money. Because the developed nations can afford it, they should pay more, not just in absolute terms, but in relative terms as well. Say it costs a few percent of the world’s wealth to pay for a massive switch to clean energy. For poorer nations, a few percent on their meagre resources will have a disproportionately high impact on their wellbeing, while to a rich country, the impact might be negligible.
  • Technological capacity. The argument here is that those who are best placed to do what is right have the greatest obligation to do so. If you fail to act to save a drowning child as you stroll along the riverbank, you might have some explaining to do. If you’re a physically fit and well-trained lifeguard you’ll have even more explaining to do.

A particularly interesting aspect of Garvey’s framework is that it doesn’t rely on being able to come up with an adequate definition of environmental sustainability, nor of any idea of ‘stewardship of the earth’. When he does discuss sustainability, at the end of chapter 3, Garvey points out that most definitions of sustainability rely on us reasoning about a balance of the rights of the current generation with the rights of those yet unborn, and however you look at it, it’s hard to figure out an equitable division of resources with an unknown number of future earthlings. To argue that we must act to reduce avoidable suffering because of the impacts of climate change is one thing. But to argue that future generations must have equal access to resources as us is much harder. By way of example, he questions whether the people of developing nations, where life might only just be becoming tolerable, should pause to consider making sacrifices now for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Garvey spends chapter 4 demolishing the usual arguments put forward for doing nothing, or for delaying action. It’s eloquently argued, and makes a compelling case that those who spend time discussing uncertainties and costs are doing little more than self-interested vacillation. On uncertainty:

“The many things we still don’t understand all that well, the IPCC and others stress in various ways make us unsure of the timing and the magnitude and the regional patterns of climate change. What is not in doubt is the fact of climate change and the human role in it. […] The uncertainty, really, concerns only the timing and extent of the required cuts and preparations. We do not know how swift the changes to our societies need to be or how large they need to be. We don’t know how much longer we can get away with the high energy lives we’ve got. Maybe putting it that way makes our to-ing and fro-ing about action on climate change sound self-interested. Maybe that’s just what it is.”  (p95-6)

On costs:

“If you think a little about the causes and effects of climate change – our easy high-energy lives as compared to the suffering which greenhouse-gas emissions cause and will continue to cause – you can come to the conclusion that avoiding action on climate change just because it might be expensive amounts to harming people for money.” (p98)

On hoping for technological rescue:

“There’s no harm in wishful thinking, unless it stops you doing something effective when something effective needs to be done. When wishful thinking takes the place of recognizing moral responsibilities […] the harm becomes a moral mistake. The damage that might have been avoided becomes the wishful thinker’s fault. […] Opting for wishful thinking instead of action when there is so much at stake is something more like moral recklessness.” (p103)

On waiting for others to act:

“Ethical demands are placed upon the users of a scarce and valuable resource just because the scarce and valuable resource is being used. It does not matter whether a country signs a treaty, whether a country meant to deprive others, or whether other countries are pitching in too. The moral demand is there no matter what others do.” (p109)

And in summary:

“Not one of the reasons for delaying meaningful action on climate change is based on a principle. Certainly there are no moral principles to be found in the arguments. There is not much talk of justice or equity or fairness or the value of human life. This fact might give you pause, might make you suspicious, might make you wonder what the real motivation for delay might be. […] It is hard to escape the conclusion that selfishness is at the bottom of the arguments against action” (p110-111)

Having sketched out the rationale for this moral framework, Garvey then considers what action on climate change is needed. He suggests four moral requirements for judging any proposed international agreement:

  1. Historical responsibilities – any agreement must take account of how much of our shared carbon sinks each country has used up already;
  2. Present capacities – taking into account both inequality in current emissions (e.g. by comparing per capita emissions) and availability in each country of the capital needed to undertake emissions reduction.
  3. Sustainability – however we divide up the remaining shares of the carbon sinks it must be set up in a way that is sustainable over the long term.
  4. Procedural fairness – the process of arriving at and implementing an agreement must be open and transparent, as must be the measurement of compliance.

Garvey applies these criteria to assess the Kyoto protocol, and finds it seriously wanting:

“The individual targets set for countries in Kyoto are based on self-interest, not moral principle, certainly not in the recognition of past injustices or present inequalities.” (p122)

And of course, given the bullying that went on in the Kyoto process by certain powerful countries, it certainly wasn’t procedurally fair:

“A process certainly cannot be called ‘just’ if those landed with large burdens have little say in the process. There is a sense in which the poor and the weak, those least able to adapt to climate change, were landed with the worst of the burdens: rising tides, drought, failing crops, more disease, water shortages, and on and on. That fact should have secured certain countries a much larger role in negotiations. It didn’t.” (p123)

And he makes short work of the argument that we might forgive the moral failings of the Kyoto agreement on the basis that at least it was a first step, on which we can build:

“To buy into this sort of view of Kyoto, […] at the very least you have to think that the desired end is now on the cards. You have to think that future rounds of deeper cuts with more industrialized countries taking part now stands a good chance of being a reality because of Kyoto. Further you have to have good reasons for this thought; it can’t just be wishful thinking. […] It has to be true that Kyoto was the only way to secure the future good end of a meaningful treaty with substantial and binding emissions cuts. There is at least one other way to get such a treaty, and that’s to start with it.”

Which then brings us to the question of what ought to be done. Garvey draws on the paper by Bodansky et. al., which surveys more than 40 different proposals. Using his criteria, he throws out many on the basis that they only tackle part of the problem, and boils the remainder down to two basic approaches:

  • Equal per capita shares, of which the best known example is contraction and convergence. Such proposals satisfy the criteria of moral adequacy, but might not be directly implementable, because, if we take past emissions into account, the developed countries, in effect, have already used up their per capita shares entirely (plus a whole lot more). Pushed to the extreme, this is then an argument that the developed nations aren’t even entitled to subsistence allowances from this point onwards. This could be addressed by some sort of monetary compensation for past emissions, instead of deducting them from future allocations. But then there are other wrinkles to sort out: the problem that people in some parts of the world (e.g. cold climates) could justifiably insist they need a bigger share than some others. And of course, the scheme might be seen to encourage population growth, and if you try and deal with this by pegging the per capita shares to population at some fixed date, you then penalize countries with younger populations who can’t immediately avoid significant population growth.
  • Comparable burdens, in which the countries of the world agree to share out equally the burden of action on climate change. While this is clearly not morally adequate, according to Garvey’s criteria, he considers a number of reasons to take such proposals seriously, the chief of which is that the developed world is far more likely to sign up to an agreement that forgives them for past emissions, and perhaps also a sustainability question: each nation is less likely to defect if it can see that everyone is shouldering an equal burden. As he puts it:

“Suppose, instead, that we say that the right thing to do is to hold on to principle, even if it means that we end up with no agreement for meaningful action on climate change. Maybe this stand is admirable, until you think a little about the people who are going to suffer for it […] You can die for your own principles, if you like, but can you really insist that others die for them, too?” (p133)

In the end, Garvey doesn’t advocate for one or other of these approaches, but he does offer a clear yardstick by which to judge them. I think he’s saying, in effect, that equal per capita shares is what we ought to strive for (on the basis of moral adequacy), but that comparable burdens is the best we’re likely to achieve (in the basis of political acceptability). Of course, right now we have nothing, so there’s a lot of work to do.

Garvey’s final chapter is on individual action. He points out that what we do as individuals (e.g. worrying about how to reduce our own personal carbon footprints) is important, but isn’t going to save the planet. However, he addresses some hard truths about our personal moral failings. For example, he describes the moral outrage many people feel towards America: this is the nation that historically has done the most damage to the climate: with only 5% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 24% of global emissions, and yet America has done so little about climate change. And moral outrage because, as the world’s only superpower, America can most afford to take serious action, but does not. And more moral outrage because it’s a country where the vast majority of emissions are for luxuries rather than necessities. And even more moral outrage because other countries are taking stronger action on climate change, incurring immediate costs, while America acts as a freeloader, pursuing its short-term interests without caring about the consequences to the rest of the world.

And yet, if we’re capable of such moral outrage against America, we should, for moral consistency, also direct it against ourselves as individuals. For we, as the beneficiaries of a high-carbon lifestyle in the rich developed nations, are just as much to blame as any nation or government:

“If you find America’s failings morally outrageous, maybe you should find your own failings in the same connection morally outrageous too.” (p140)

And all the same arguments apply. If America is best placed to take action on climate change (because of its riches), then we as individuals in developed countries are too: we each have vastly more wealth, and vastly more choice than anyone in poorest half of the world. We should each be smart enough to figure out what we should do. We might reason that the effect is tiny when we take long hot showers, when we fail to insulate our houses, when we eat strawberries flown in from abroad, when we fly to exotic locations for vacations. But morally, the only difference between our individual actions and those of America or Exxon is one of scale. It’s still morally wrong.

To explain why so few people take a strong moral stance on individual choices, Garvey points out the psychological tricks we play on ourselves:

“When you hunker down over a drink and actually talk through climate change with real live people, when you follow debates in the media, and elsewhere, what you find are not arguments. What you bump into, again and again, are not reasons advanced for carefully articulated positions, but something closer to psychological defence mechanisms. What you find is denial.” (p143)

Garvey runs through Hillman’s list of ten defence mechanisms that people use for failing to take individual action, and points out that many of them were evident in the study of attitudes conducted by Stoll-Kleeman et al. They are all forms of denial, commonly found in dealing with addiction and anti-social behaviour:

  1. “I don’t believe in climate change”, which is straight denial of the facts;
  2. Technology will be able to halt climate change”, which is a kind of reckless wishful thinking;
  3. “I blame the government, or the Americans, or the Chinese”, which is a kind of psychological projection, used to avoid facing up to personal responsibility;
  4. Various ad hominems directed at people calling for action, which is just an attempt to kill the messenger;
  5. “It’s not my problem”, which might just be straightforward dissociation, given that the evidence is all around us that it is (and will be) everyone’s problem;
  6. “There’s nothing I can do about it”, which is patently false, given that the way we choose to live our lives is the cause of the problem;
  7. “How I run my life is my own business”, except that it isn’t when what we do causes tangible harm to others;
  8. “There are more important and urgent tasks to tackle”, which might be true, but is hard to argue. It’s therefore likely to be another form of misdirection;
  9. “At least I’m doing something”, which again is a form of denial when the “something” consists of easy, cosmetic changes that don’t address the real, substantive changes that are needed;
  10. “We are already making a lot of progress on climate change” which sounds to me like the alcoholic insisting he is cutting down.

Garvey ends the book with a compelling argument that what we do as individuals matters a great deal, and that reflecting on climate change, and the moral choices it demands of us, should make us more reflective, driving us to a kind of living deliberatively:

“Reflection on climate change, and what to do about it in your on life can feel like something in between a moral problem or question and a crisis – better, it can seem to have some of the properties of both.” (p148)

His final section is on civil disobedience, and the inevitable conclusion that if you take a moral stance on climate change, and bear witness to the failure of governments over the last two decades to do what’s right, it leaves little option but that radical action is in order. Of course, by the logic of his arguments about individual action, if we protest, to some extent we’re protesting against our own lifestyles:

“In more than a token sense, a campaign of civil disobedience undertaken for meaningful action on climate change is nothing other than a campaign by us, against us. Civil disobedience certainly has a history of individuals standing up for their own lives or the improvement of the lives of others, but has anyone anywhere insisted that she be given less? Will we chain ourselves to airplanes and demand more expensive airport taxes?” (p152)

Luckily there is something positive here too:

“Collective action on climate change might be the demand for less stuff, but it is also the demand for more of something else: maybe justice, or goodness or whatever it is about us which is best. There is nothing irrational about insisting on a more humane world” (p153)

One thought I heard repeated several times at the AGU meeting last month (e.g. see Michael Oppenheimer’s talk) is that the scientific evidence on climate change isn’t enough on its own to justify action – we also have to also identify the values that we care about. Even though this has always been clear in the IPCC’s mandate (e.g. see P2 of the TAR Synthesis Report), many people ignore this point, arguing that the scientific evidence on its own compels us to take swift and drastic action to mitigate climate change (and indeed, I’ve made exactly this argument in the past). And some people argue that the science isn’t strong enough (yet), or isn’t certain enough, or even that the science is wrong, and that therefore that the action we should take is to carry on as we have been doing, and worry later (if ever) about impacts on the climate.

The missing piece in such arguments is a clarification of the value judgments we’re making in calling for different types of action. Different value systems lead people to react differently when hearing about the scientific evidence for climate change.

I’ve always considered myself to be an environmentalism. As a student, I was active in campaigning for recycling programs and alternative energy back in the 1980’s. I’ve been a member of the Green Party on and off for most of my adult life. I can’t claim to have been as active since I got married, got a job, had kids, and so on. But I’ve always supported environmentalist groups as an armchair activist. Strangely, somehow or other, I remained largely ignorant about climate change until much more recently. Back in the 1980’s, we were motivated by concerns about pollution, air quality, damage to ecosystems, resource mismanagement, etc. And while the key scientific ideas of climate change date back well over a century, widespread concern about it didn’t really get going until around 1990. This was the year the IPCC produced its first assessment report, and it led, two years later, to the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Somehow, though, despite my environmental leanings, I missed all this at the time. There were other pressing matters, including many local environmental problems, and of course a life to live and a career in computer science research that was beckoning.

But when I first realised the seriousness of climate change, in the mid-2000s, I was easily persuaded that this was a serious environmental problem, and that drastic action was needed to reduce emissions. As I read up more and more of the science, and as I talked to more and more climate scientists, it became obvious to me that climate change wasn’t just another problem that needed solving – it was THE problem. The one that will dominate this century, and define our generation. The scale and urgency of the problem was so clear to me, that it was unthinkable for anyone to argue otherwise.

What I hadn’t noticed was how strongly my pre-existing values prepared the way for this line of reasoning. And not just my environmentalist leanings, but my entire value system. For example, I’m also somewhat of an egalitarian, certainly left-leaning in conventional political terms, and rather libertarian when it comes to the personal and social spheres. To pin it down even more, I’m right down in the left hand corner on the political compass, beyond even Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.

For an egalitarian, it’s quite obvious that it is not right for we in the rich countries of the world to build our economic prosperity by plundering the natural resources of the world, and dumping our pollution on the rest of the world. Equally obviously, it’s wrong to leave the world in a seriously damaged state for future generations. Climate science shows that future generations will most likely have to deal with increased drought, serious shortages of food and water, sea level rise, ocean acidification, etc. But it is our values (of fairness, responsibility, justice, etc) that tell us this is wrong, and that we should take action to prevent it. The stronger we adhere to some of these values, the more adamant we will be that drastic action is needed.

Now consider someone who doesn’t hold with egalitarianism. Someone who believes an unequal distribution of wealth is not only right, but perhaps even that it’s in the best interests of everyone. For example, Adam Smith argued that allowing some people to take what were once shared natural resources (land, mineral rights, etc) and call them personal property actually benefits everyone in the long run. The argument is that some people are able to exploit such resources in a way that leads to a general improvement in the quality of life for everyone. Of course, the people doing the exploiting might get seriously rich. But this is okay (according to this line of reasoning) because the benefits trickle down, so that even the average person gets to live in better housing, have better food, and so on. If you follow this reasoning, then inequality is not only justified, but it’s actually morally right, because avoiding such inequalities will also deny many people access to economic development.

With these values, one could argue that curbing greenhouse gas emissions is wrong. Even though climate change will have serious consequences for people in many regions of the earth, that could be okay, if some people can still get rich by continuing to burn fossil fuels, and then use that wealth to alleviate the suffering for more people, and perhaps to invent better and better technology to cure climate change (rather than prevent it). This is of course, the core of Lomborg’s argument.

And of course, for many libertarians, any intervention by governments (or worse, international agencies) must be resisted. So the idea of governments regulating the use of fossil fuels is itself wrong. This then might lead to the conclusion that whatever ought to be done about greenhouse gases, it must not be via governmental control. Unfortunately, it also often leads to some serious backwards reasoning – if the answer to climate change is more governmental regulation, then the science itself must be wrong. Or if not wrong, then perhaps just not strong enough. Strong libertarians might demand no governmental regulation of greenhouse gases ever. More moderate libertarians might just demand higher and higher standards of evidence from the science before they are convinced. Either way, they do not agree that the science gives us a compelling reason to act now.

The more alarming projections of climate change, along the business-as-usual path, lead to a world that can only sustain a small fraction of the current human population. Billions of people will die. But no matter how certain the science is on this point, it still requires a value judgment (e.g on the value of human lives), to say that the world (and the developed countries in particular) need to drastically change course to avoid this.

So people with different value systems can listen to the same scientific evidence, and draw dramatically different conclusions about what should be done about it. Some of these value systems will even cause a bias towards ignoring or disbelieving the scientific evidence. All of which puts the question of what to do about climate change out of the hands of science, and squarely into the hands of the political process, where (at least in the ideal case) actions are chosen based on shared values.

Unfortunately, the science now indicates that the scale of the impacts of climate change are likely to be so high that none of our old value systems can be trusted to guide us:

  • Environmentalism might suggest principles such as “the polluter pays”, and that vital ecosystems must be protected. But we are all polluters, and so were our parents, and their parents before them. Climate change implicates everyone across all regions of the world, and across history for at least the last century. Figuring out who is responsible, who should fix the problem, is way beyond normal environmental reasoning. And the damage to all ecosystems will be so significant, that the idea of protecting some of them is futile.
  • Traditional ideas about wealth creation in modern economics also break down, because they are based primarily on the assumption of access to unlimited energy. The capitalist philosophy that everyone will benefit in the long run from economic development is no longer sound, as the misery and suffering caused by climate change will be so widespread and so serious that it will soon vastly outweigh all of the benefits of our wealth. When the the entire world’s food production system falters, and whole societies collapse, no amount of wealth will protect people.

So while our actions on climate change must certainly be driven by an understanding of our common values, it’s also the case that we will need new value systems to understand decisions we now face, as individuals and as societies. The worrying part is that for many people, their existing value systems work to prevent them acknowledging the scale of the problem in the first place.

I’m currently reading James Garvey’s book “The Ethics of Climate Change“. He tackles this failure of existing value systems, and proposes a new ethical framework for motivating the choices we have to make about climate change. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’ll write more about it when I’m further into the book…

I guess headlines like “An error found in one paragraph of a 3000 page IPCC report; climate science unaffected” wouldn’t sell many newspapers. And so instead, the papers spin out the story that a few mistakes undermine the whole IPCC process. As if newspapers never ever make mistakes. Well, of course, scientists are supposed to be much more careful than sloppy journalists, so “shock horror, those clever scientists made a mistake. Now we can’t trust them” plays well to certain audiences.

And yet there are bound to be errors; the key question is whether any of them impact any important results in the field. The error with the Himalayan glaciers in the Working Group II report is interesting because Working Group I got it right. And the erroneous paragraph in WGII quite clearly contradicts itself. Stupid mistake, that should be pretty obvious to anyone reading that paragraph carefully. There’s obviously room for improvement in the editing and review process. But does this tell us anything useful about the overall quality of the review process?

There are errors in just about every book, newspaper, and blog post I’ve ever read. People make mistakes. Editorial processes catch many of them. Some get through. But few of these things have the kind of systematic review that the IPCC reports went through. Indeed, as large, detailed, technical artifacts, with extensive expert review, the IPCC reports are much less like normal books, and much more like large software systems. So, how many errors get through a typical review process for software? Is the IPCC doing better than this?

Even the best software testing and review practices in the world let errors through. Some examples (expressed in number of faults experienced in operation, per thousand lines of code):

  • Worst military systems: 55 faults/KLoC
  • Best military systems: 5 faults/KLoC
  • Agile software development (XP): 1.4 faults/KLoC
  • The Apache web server (open source): 0.5 faults/KLoC
  • NASA Space shuttle:  0.1 faults/KLoC

Because of the extensive review processes, the shuttle flight software is purported to be the most expensive in the world, in terms of dollars per line of code. Yet still about 1 error every ten thousand lines of code gets through the review and testing process. Thankfully none of those errors have ever caused a serious accident. When I worked for NASA on the Shuttle software verification in the 1990’s, they were still getting reports of software anomalies with every shuttle flight, and releasing a software update every 18 months (this, for an operational vehicle that had been flying for two decades, with only 500,000 lines of flight code!).

The IPCC reports consist of around 3000 pages, and approaching 100 lines of text per page. Let’s assume I can equate a line of text with a line of code (which seems reasonable, when you look a the information density of each line in the IPCC reports) – that would make them as complex as a 300,000 line software system. If the IPCC review process is as thorough as NASA’s, then we should still expect around 30 significant errors made it through the review process. We’ve heard of two recently – does this mean we have to endure another 28 stories, spread out over the next few months, as the drone army of denialists toils through trying to find more mistakes? Actually, it’s probably worse than that…

The IPCC writing, editing and review processes are carried out entirely by unpaid volunteers. They don’t have automated testing and static analysis tools to help – human reviewers are the only kind of review available. So they’re bound to do much worse than NASA’s flight software. I would expect there to be 100s of errors in the reports, even with the best possible review processes in the world. Somebody point me to a technical review process anywhere that can do better than this, and I’ll eat my hat. Now, what was the point of all those newspaper stories again? Oh, yes, sensationalism sells.

I’ve been distracted over the last few months with all these attacks on climate science. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. I know enough about climate science to be skeptical of absolutely everything written on the topic in the mainstream media. And yet I still feel compelled to read about each new revelation trumpeted in the press, and I feel compelled to do the necessary digging to find out what’s really going on. Well, I’m done with it. I’ve seen enough. I’m finally looking away. And I’m taking away some lessons about human behaviour, and most of it isn’t pretty. Many of the people attacking the scientists are truly nasty people.

Take climategate, for example (please!). It really was a non-event – a series of trumped up claims with no substance. We already knew the contrarians talk nonsense. At worse, some requests for access to data were mishandled. By scientists who were being hounded by an army of attack drones. What did those FOI requests look like? Well mostly they looked the same, because when Steve McIntyre was told that some of the metereological data was not available to non-academics because of commercial licencing agreements, he threw a hissy fit and told the lunatics that follow his blog to fire off FOI requests at the CRU. Sixty FOI requests in one weekend! Which makes them all vexatious, and probably counts as harrassment. Which is bad enough, but some of McIntyre’s followers did worse, and started firing off death threats. Death threats?!? Sometimes Often I think I’m on the wrong planet.

Or take the hockey stick controversy. Michael Mann was smeared again as a result of the CRU emails, but on investigation his name was cleared. The previous attempts to smear him, through the Wegman Investigation, turns out to be nothing but a political attack, put together by staffers in Senator Inhofe’s office. While any errors in Mann’s initial attempts at dendrochronology reconstructions have been long since been corrected, and and the results confirmed by other studies (that’s how science works, remember?), a group of obsessive denialists just won’t let the issue drop.

David Brin calls it a war on expertise. A bunch untrained armchair climatologists think they know more about the field than geoscientists who have been studying it as a fulltime career for decades. Or, more precisely, they think they can do a little poking and find errors, and that those errors will invalidate the science. Because they really really want the science to be wrong. Actually, I really really want the science to be wrong too, but I’m not so stupid as to think I can poke holes in it without first becoming an expert. If the science is wrong, you’ll read about it first in the peer-reviewed literature.

Having talked with some of our graduate students about how to get a more inter-disciplinary education while they are in grad school, I’ve been collecting links to collaborative grad programs at U of T:

The Dynamics of Global Change Doctoral Program, housed in the Munk Centre. The core course, DGC1000H is very interesting – it starts with Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point book, and then tours through money, religion, pandemics, climate change, the internet and ICTs, and development. What a wonderful journey.

The Centre for the Environment runs a Collaborative Graduate Program (MSc and PhD) in which students take some environmental science courses in addition to satisfying the degree requirements of their home department. The core course for this program is ENV1001, Environmental Decision Making, and it also include an internship to get hands on experience with environmental problem solving.

The Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI) also has a collaborative doctoral program, perfect for those interested in design and evaluation of new knowledge media, with a strong focus on knowledge creation, social change, and community

Finally, the Centre for Global Change Science has a set of graduate student awards, to help fund grad students interested in global change science. Oh, and they have a fascinating seminar series, mainly focussed on climate science (all done for this year, but get on their mailing list for next years seminars).

Are there any more I missed?

Computer Science, as an undergraduate degree, is in trouble. Enrollments have dropped steadily throughout this decade: for example at U of T, our enrollment is about half what it was at the peak. The same is true across the whole of North America. There is some encouraging news: enrollments picked up a little this year (after a serious recruitment drive, ours is up about 20% from it’s nadir, while across the US it’s up 6.2%). But it’s way to early to assume they will climb back up to where they were. Oh, and percentage of women students in CS now averages 12% – the lowest ever.

What happened? One explanation is career expectations. In the 80’s, its was common wisdom that a career in computers was an excellent move, for anyone showing an aptitude for maths. In the 90’s, with the birth of the web, computer science even became cool for a while, and enrollments grew dramatically, with a steady improvement in gender balance too. Then came the dotcom boom and bust, and suddenly a computer science degree was no longer a sure bet. I’m told by our high school liaison team that parents of high school students haven’t got the message that the computer industry is short of graduates to recruit (although with the current recession that’s changing again anyway).

A more likely explanation is perceived relevance. In the 80’s, with the birth of the PC, and in the 90’s with the growth of the web, computer science seemed like the heart of an exciting revolution. But now computers are ubiquitous, they’re no longer particularly interesting. Kids take them for granted, and a only a few über-geeks are truly interested in what’s inside the box. But computer science departments continue to draw boundaries around computer science and its subfields in a way that just encourages the fragmentation of knowledge that is so endemic of modern universities.

Which is why an experiment at Georgia Tech is particularly interesting. The College of Computing at Georgia Tech has managed to buck the enrollment trend, with enrollment numbers holding steady throughout this decade. The explanation appears to be a radical re-design of their undergraduate degree, into a set of eight threads. For a detailed explanation, there’s a white paper, but the basic aim is to get students to take more ownership of their degree programs (as opposed to waiting to be spoonfed), and to re-describe computer science in terms that make sense to the rest of the world (computer scientists often forget the the field is impenetrable to the outsider). The eight threads are: Modeling and simulation; Devices (embedded in the physical world); Theory; Information internetworks; Intelligence; Media (use of computers for more creative expression); People (human-centred design); and Platforms (computer architectures, etc). Students pick any two threads, and the program is designed so that any combination covers most of what you would expect to see in a traditional CS degree.

At first sight, it seems this is just a re-labeling effort, with the traditional subfields of CS (e.g. OS, networks, DB, HCI, AI, etc) mapping on to individual threads. But actually, it’s far more interesting than that. The threads are designed to re-contextualize knowledge. Instead of students picking from a buffet of CS courses, each thread is designed so that students see how the knowledge and skills they are developing can be applied in interesting ways. Most importantly, the threads cross many traditional disciplinary boundaries, weaving a diverse set of courses into a coherent theme, showing the students how their developing CS skills combine in intellectually stimulating ways, and preparing them for the connected thinking needed for inter-disciplinary problem solving.

For example the People thread brings in psychology and sociology, examining the role of computers in the human activity systems that give them purpose. It explore the perceptual and cognitive abilities of people as well as design practices for practical socio-technical systems. The Modeling and Simluation thread explores how computational tools are used in a wide variety of sciences to help understand the world. Following this thread will require consideration of epistemology of scientific knowledge, as well as mastery of the technical machinery by which we create models and simulations, and the underlying mathematics. The thread includes in a big dose of both continuous and discrete math, data mining, and high performance computing. Just imagine what graduates of these two threads would be able to do for our research on SE and the climate crisis! The other thing I hope it will do is to help students to know their own strengths and passions, and be able to communicate effectively with others.

The good news is that our department decided this week to explore our own version of threads. Our aims is to learn from the experience at Georgia Tech and avoid some of the problems they have experienced (for example, by allowing every possible combination of 8 threads, it appears they have created too many constraints on timetabling and provisioning individual courses). I’ll blog this initiative as it unfolds.

At many discussions about the climate crisis that I’ve had with professional colleagues, the conversation inevitably turns to how we (as individuals) can make a difference by reducing our personal carbon emissions. So sure, our personal choices matter. And we shouldn’t stop thinking about them. And there is plenty of advice out there on how to green your home, and how to make good shopping decisions, and so on. Actually, there is way too much advice out there on how to live a greener life. It’s overwhelming. And plenty of it is contradictory. Which leads to two unfortunate messages: (1) we’re supposed to fix global warming through our individual personal choices and (2) this is incredibly hard because there is so much information to process to do it right.

The climate crisis is huge, and systemic. It cannot be solved through voluntary personal lifestyle choices; it needs systemic changes throughout society as a whole. As Bill McKibben says:

“the number one thing is to organize politically; number two, do some political organizing; number three, get together with your neighbors and organize; and then if you have energy left over from all of that, change the light bulb.”

Now, part of getting politically organized is getting educated. Another part is connecting with people. We computer scientists are generally not very good at political action, but we are remarkably good at inventing tools that allow people to get connected. And we’re good at inventing tools for managing, searching and visualizing information, which helps with the ‘getting educated’ part and the ‘persuading others’ part.

So, I don’t want to have more conversations about reducing our personal carbon footprints. I want to have conversations about how we can apply our expertise as computer scientists and software engineers in new and creative ways. Instead of thinking about your footprint, think about your delta (okay, I might need a better name for it): what expertise and skills do you have that most others don’t, and how can they be applied to good effect to help?

I originally wrote this as a response to a post on RealClimate on hypothesis testing

I think one of the major challenges with public understanding of climate change is that most people have no idea of what climate scientists actually do. In the study I did last summer of the software development practices at the Hadley Centre, my original goal was to look just at the “software engineering” of climate simulation models -i.e. how the code is developed and tested. But the more time I spend with climate scientists, the more I’m fascinated by the kind of science they do, and the role of computational models within it.

The most striking observation I have is that climate scientists have a deep understanding of the fact that climate models are only approximations of earth system processes, and that most of their effort is devoted to improving our understanding of these processes (“All models are wrong, but some are useful” – George Box). They also intuitively understand the core ideas from general systems theory – that you can get good models of system-level processes even when many of the sub-systems are poorly understood, as long as you’re smart about choices of which approximations to use. The computational models have an interesting status in this endeavour: they seem to be used primarily for hypothesis testing, rather than for forecasting. A large part of the time, climate scientists are “tinkering” with the models, probing their weaknesses, measuring uncertainty, identifying which components contribute to errors, looking for ways to improve them, etc. But the public generally only sees the bit where the models are used to make long term IPCC-style predictions.

I never saw a scientist doing a single run of a model and comparing it against observations. The simplest use of models is to construct a “controlled experiment” by making a small change to the model (e.g. a potential improvement to how it implements some piece of the physics), comparing this against a control run (typically the previous run without the latest change), and comparing both runs against the observational data. In other words, there is a 3-way comparison: old model vs. new model vs. observational data, where it is explicitly acknowledged that there may be errors in any of the three. I also see more and more effort put into “ensembles” of various kinds: model intercomparison projects, perturbed physics ensembles, varied initial conditions, and so on. In this respect, the science seems to have changed (matured) a lot in the last few years, but that’s hard for me to verify.

It’s a pretty sophisticated science. I would suggest that the general public might be much better served by good explanations of how this science works, rather than with explanations of the physics and mathematics of climate systems.

I was recently asked (by a skeptic) whether I believed in global warming. It struck me that the very question is wrong-headed. Global warming isn’t a matter for belief. It’s not a religion. The real question is whether you understand the available evidence, and whether that evidence supports the theory. When we start talking about what we believe, we’re not doing science any more – we’re into ideology and pseudo-science.

Here’s the difference. Scientists proceed by analyzing all the available data, weighing it up, investigating its validity, and evaluating which theory best explains the evidence. It is a community endeavour, with checks and balances such as the peer review process. It is imperfect (because even scientists can make mistakes) but it is also self-correcting (although sometimes it takes a long time to discover mistakes).

Ideology starts with a belief, and then selects just that evidence that reinforces the belief. So if a blog post (or newspaper column) provides a few isolated data points to construct an entire argument about climate change, the chances are it’s ideology rather than science. Ideologists cherry-pick bits of evidence to reinforce an argument, rather than weighing up all the evidence. George Will’s recent column in the Washington Post is a classic example. When you look at all the data, his arguments just don’t stand up.

The deniers don’t do science. There is not one peer-reviewed publication in the field of climate science that sheds any doubt whatsoever on the theory of anthropogenic global warming. If the deniers were doing good science, they would be able to publish it. They don’t. They send it to the media. They are most definitely not scientists.

The key distinction between science and ideology is how you engage with the data.

  1. Because their salaries depend on them not understanding. Applies to anyone working for the big oil companies, and apparently to a handful of “scientists” funded by them .
  2. Because they cannot distinguish between pseudo-science and science. Seems to apply to some journalists, unfortunately.
  3. Because the dynamics of complex systems are inherently hard to understand. Shown to be a major factor by the experiments Sterman did on MIT students.
  4. Because all of the proposed solutions are incompatible with their ideology. Applies to most rightwing political parties, unfortunately.
  5. Because scientists are poor communicators. Or, more precisely, few scientists can explain their work well to non-scientists.
  6. Because they believe their god(s) would never let it happen. And there’s also a lunatic subgroup who welcome it as part of god’s plan (see rapture).
  7. Because most of the key ideas are counter-intuitive. After all, a couple of degrees warmer is too small to feel.
  8. Because the truth is just too scary. There seem to be plenty of people who accept that it’s happening, but don’t want to know any more because the whole thing is just too huge to think about.
  9. Because they’ve learned that anyone who claims the end of the world is coming must be a crackpot. Although these days, I suspect this one is just a rhetorical device used by people in groups (1) and (4), rather than a genuine reason.
  10. Because most of the people they talk to, and most of the stuff they read in the media also suffers from some of the above. Selective attention allows people to ignore anything that challenges their worldview.

But I fear the most insidious is because people think that changing their lightbulbs and sorting their recyclables counts as “doing your bit”. This idea allow you to stop thinking about it, and hence ignore just how serious a problem it really is.

Greg reminded me the other day about Jeanette Wing‘s writings about “computational thinking“. Is this what I have in mind when I talk about the contribution software engineers can make in tackling the climate crisis? Well, yes and no. I think that this way of thinking about problems is very important, and corresponds with my intuition that learning how to program changes how you think.

But ultimately, I found Jeanette’ description of computational thinking to be very disappointing, because she concentrates too much on algorithmics and machine metaphors. This reminds me of the model of the mind as a computer, used by cognitive scientists – it’s an interesting perspective that opens up new research directions, but is ultimately limiting because it leads to the problem of disembodied cognition: treating the mind as independent from it’s context. I think software engineering (or at least systems analysis) adds something else, more akin to systems thinking. It’s the ability to analyse the interconnectedness of multiple systems. The ability to reason about multiple stakeholders and their interdependencies (where most of the actors are not computational devices!). And the rich set of abstactions we use to think about structure, behaviour and function of very complex systems-of-systems. Somewhere in the union of computational thinking and systems thinking.

How about “computational systems-of-systems thinking”?